Hamilton

My girlfriend and I went to see “Hamilton” last night at the magnificent Richard Rodgers Theater on West 46th Street.

For me it was a moving, even exalting experience, even though I disagree profoundly with the show’s portrayal of Alexander Hamilton. I was in tears for about half the show’s three-hour running time—not during the love scenes, although these were tenderly scripted and performed (bringing everybody in the house back to Broadway). No, my tears flowed when Hamilton and his posse were announcing their insane ambition, to carve a “mighty empire” out of people like themselves, nobodies from nowhere who made their way to New York.

We had first-row mezzanine seats (her online skills), perfect for watching a musical. Except it wasn’t a musical. The only departure from the rhythmic and lyrical conventions of hip-hop was the moment when George Washington’s “Farewell Address” is recited by what seemed the entire cast, including the outgoing president himself. This show is almost an opera—there’s no exposition or dialogue without music, or at least the rhyming that gives speech rhythm and makes it musical. Or maybe it’s a ballet—you can always see sinuous, sometimes athletic movement that performs and punctuates the words themselves.

Who cares? It’s another great American mash-up of received traditions—transformation by repetition, the essential attitude of hip-hop and before it the blues, is enacted on this stage as a celebration of the American Revolution and the politics it enabled.

But that’s why watching this show moved me to tears. I suppose it’s no surprise that second-generation immigrants are devout believers in the American Dream, and that they locate its source in the Revolution. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics—he also plays Hamilton!—is exactly that, the son of a penurious if not penniless man who fled Puerto Rico for New York City. Miranda says that when he read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, the man who invented this post-colonial itinerary, he was reminded of his father.

Why do they believe? Why do I? And, for that matter, why would African-Americans? These are questions I’ve been grappling with lately as I ‘ve tried to defend Ta-Nehesi Coates—who thinks the American Dream is a joke—against his critics.

All the major roles in this show are played by people of color. This is not the cute kind of change in complexion you expect from a regional theater that’s restaging, say, “Romeo & Juliet,” as a racialized drama. No, we’re on Prospero’s contested terrain now, where Caliban was both chorus and prophet.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison are played by black men, who are, in real life, descendants of the slaves these founding fathers owned as chattel property. Washington is a compact, charismatic DJ in the second act; Jefferson is a dandy and a rapper, equipped with apprpriate cane; Madison is the large but quiet follower. How can this arrangement work, except as a truly “alienating effect” as per Brecht, or a “theater of cruelty” as per Artaud, reminding us either way of the absurdity embedded in the Declaration of Independence?

It works, I think, because, as hip-hop culture itself demonstrates, the possibility of projection and identification across lines of race (or class or gender)—what the arts have always given us, if we were in a position to receive the gift—has become necessary to our survival as a nation and people, and this necessity is a function of new notions of equality.

Rappers and hip-hop artists from New York City reinvented this country in the 1980s and 1990s, as they watched their neighborhoods decay and burn. Their new notions of liberty and equality, stirred by and embodied in identity politics, these are the raw materials of Miranda’s musical revaluation of the Revolution. His ideas about what that moment means are more important than any historian’s, mine included.

So what are those ideas? To begin with, Liberty and Equality can’t exist apart from each other. The freedom to “take my shot,” as Hamilton puts it, requires your freedom to do the same. None of us can become what we want unless all of us are equally equipped with the same rights. Equality is the enabling condition of Liberty. And Liberty is pointless in the absence of Equality, unless you want to be all alone with your crown jewels, like the hilarious King George III on this stage.

Then here’s the crowd-pleasing line: “Immigrants get the job done.” The audience last night was somewhat suburban, mostly middle-class, mostly white, and they roared. Miranda portrays Hamilton as an orphan, an immigrant, a castaway who shouldered his way into the highest circles of power, and everybody identified.   Why not? That’s the miracle of this country, or this city—we all come from somewhere else, but this is where we stand, what we believe in.

Of course we move on, unless we arrive in New York. And of course we know better than to think that hard work will get us what we want. But we remember the promise, and we act on it.

And then there’s the strange idea, which is foreign to left-wing thinking of our time, that the Revolution is not just a great event in the history of freedom, of Liberty and Equality, but an abiding presence in every way we think about ourselves, our neighbors, our enemies, and our futures. It’s not a distant past in the Richard Rodgers Theater on 46th. It’s right there in front of you.

I don’t mean Miranda brings this past alive. As far as he’s concerned, it was never dead.

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NYT Zombie Sighting

Talk about the walking dead. The op-ed in this morning’s Times by David Beckworth and Ramesh Ponnuru on how the Fed caused the Great Recesssion—you read that right—is a hilarious parody of the argument made by Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Scwartz on how the Fed caused the Great Depression. In their execrable book of 1960, these two claimed that by raising real interest rates in the aftermath of the 1929 crash, the Fed destroyed confidence in the assets held by the banks (stock market shares), and thus undermined the banking system as such.

Beckworth and Ponnuru make precisely the same argument about the Great Recession. When the housing market faltered in 2006-07, the Fed could have eased real rates, but no, they kept nominal rates the same and even talked about raising them (citing inflation), destroying confidence in the assets (mortgages) sold by the banks downriver, to fund managers.

See, government is to blame for the mess. Between them, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac inflated the bubble by pouring money into housing, thus lowering mortgage rates, and then the Fed got stupid . . . by not lowering rates as the bubble collapsed! Impeccable reasoning, as long as you know nothing about logic, the place where conclusions are supposed to follow from premises, or about history, the place where real events outside of banks often take place.

This is not the first time persons of dubious political provenance have tried to resuscitate the rotting corpse of monetarist “theory” as the explanation for the Great Recession. Anna Jacobson Schwartz herself told the Wall Street Journal the same story peddled here by Beckwith and Ponnuru. And of course Niall Ferguson, the man who understands nothing except his own ambition, did, too, in a long article for Time magazine.

If you would like to sample their quaint idiocy, and read the best available explanations for both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, see my Against Thrift (2011) and subsequent pieces here at the blog.

But the question for today is, why does the Times put up with shit like this from the likes of Beckwith and Ponnuru? To seem objective? Engaged? Important? Up to date with the zombie fetish of popular culture? Or, in view of Ted Cruz’s candidacy, is the paper of record trying to tell this Republican that his ideas about the Fed’s perfidy and the gold standard aren’t too far-fetched for its pages?

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Coates, Cruse, Du Bois

I support Bernie Sanders, but I think Ta-Nehesi Coates has raised good questions about the candidacy—far better than those raised by Paul Krugman or Charles M. Blow, who both suggest that “idealism” is a constraint on real progress. Coates addresses the shortcomings of a class-based model of politics and political change in history, not in theory, and in this country, not in a world elsewhere.

Remember, Coates isn’t objecting to socialism as such. He’s objecting to the centerpiece of socialists’ thinking, that the working class must be the vanguard of change, progress, revolution. This thinking derives in turn from two sources in the socialist tradition—on the hand, from the Marxist notion that work is the essence of human nature; on the other, from the assumption that economic issues must be given priority because cultural-intellectual improvement (like better social standing for women) is an index of economic progress.

Coates also objects, implicitly and explicitly, to the ways these priorities—of class, of work, of economic issues—tend to devalue or exclude the possibility of race pride and racial solidarity, what we used to call black nationalism or Black Power, what we now call identity politics.

In making these objections, he’s renovating an intellectual lineage that you could say begins with W. E. B. Du Bois, in 1897 with “The Conservation of Races” or in 1903, with The Souls of Black Folk, a lineage that was itself revived by Harold Cruse in 1967 with The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, then given new life by Cedric Robinson and Robin Kelley in the 1980s and 90s. (Of course you could also say that the lineage begins with David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet, before the Civil War, when Africans became African-Americans.)

Cruse argued against Marxism (as he found it) on the grounds that neither the category of class nor the priority of class struggle could explain or justify what he grasped as the nationalist mainstream of black politics and art (nor, for matter, could it explain the mainsprings of American politics). His favored text was a lecture Du Bois gave in 1926, “The Criteria of Negro Art,” as an argument against the priority of the economic in liberating black folk—it was a powerful cultural critique of A. Philip Randolph’s socialist magazine, The Messenger, which emphasized bread and butter issues facing black workers. Cultural revolution was the key, Cruse insisted, citing C. Wright Mills as well as Du Bois, and he also insisted that the solidarity of the black masses was the evident yet unknown reality that Negro intellectuals had to acknowledge.

In 1940, Du Bois himself steered close to the shore of black nationalism, in Chapter 7 of Dusk of Dawn, and here again, even in the aftermath of Black Reconstruction, the Marxist masterpiece of 1935 where he had treated slaves and freedmen as workers, he emphasized cultural separation of the races as the means to the end of diplomatic recognition, mutual equivalence, between white and black folk—not equality between individuals at the law, and not class struggle as conducted through a labor party. The economic premise of his argument came down to this: “We have lived to see the end of capitalism.”

Of course it is true that Du Bois later joined the Communist Party (he was always at least sympathetic to socialism). But from the 1920s into the 1940s, his position on the relative priorities of the economic and the cultural, or of class and race, was closer to the artists who made the Harlem Renaissance.

Coates is the heir apparent to this intellectual tradition and its political corollaries.  Capitalism in the US, he keeps reminding us, has always been racialized, so a class-based politics doesn’t get us very far in understanding the economic dimensions of our pasts, or our present position. We ought to be able to honor this achievement.

One way to do so would be to listen in on Kenneth Burke as he addresses the American Writers Congress of 1935, an event organized if not officially sponsored by the CP: “There are few people who really want to work, let us say, as a human cog in an automobile factory, or as a gatherer of vegetables on a big truck farm. Such rigorous ways of life enlist our sympathies, but not our ambitions.”

In other words: To give ontological priority to class as an analytical category and as a political strategy is to ignore a simple fact: nobody wants to stay the same, not even heroic minimum wage workers. Not even Donald Trump. If this admonition sounds like an introduction to a straw man, listen now to Jodi Dean, who urges us to follow Lenin’s example. (Her remark at her Facebook page had over 180 “Likes” when I checked at noon today.)

“Bernie is calling for a revolution. Some of our comrades are skeptical about this, criticizing him from the left. This isn’t a crazy or disingenuous criticism (usually). After all, Bernie is not calling for the nationalization of the economy or the abolition of the wage. But what if we see his revolution as the February revolution, and support it, and then be the October revolution we want?”

To which my answer is, who’s “we”? Who still wants to be a Bolshevik and carry out a Great October Revolution over here? Last time I looked, that revolution didn’t work out real well for workers, peasants, intellectuals, and ethnic minorities. Kronstadt, anyone? Stalin, Beria? Call me a liberal, I’ll take Kerensky, thank you very much, also Nabokov.

The proletarian revolution is no longer a usable past. Ta-Nehesi Coates understands this. We ought to be listening more closely to his arguments, because they’re about Bernie’s campaign, not necessarily against the candidate.

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What The Wall Street Journal Killed

You may remember that an editor at the WSJ asked me to write 2000 words for the Weekend edition, which imitates the Financial Times by pretending that the Philistines have ideas of their own.  He also offered to pay me handsomely.  I told him I wanted a hefty kill fee because an editor at his paper had fucked me over in 2011-12, when my Against Thrift was in the news, over the objections of many morons.  He agreed.  Then he killed the piece, on the grounds that the robber barons “emerge here as evil people.”  Also, that it is  “too fancy.”  And, of course, that there is “no detachment here.”  He’s wrong on two of the three counts.  Judge for yourself: here’s what I sent him.

_____________________

I

To be an American is to argue about what it means to be an American. Because we don’t share a national origin, a racial stock, a linguistic affinity, or a religious denomination—and never have—the background that binds us as a people are the stories we tell about our origins and our development. So we’re always rewriting our history, making it malleable, making it new. We’re always looking for a usable past.

Right now we’re engaged in another rewrite, as we wonder what to do about monumental tributes to powerful men who were slaveholders, avowed racists, eager imperialists. So far John C. Calhoun at Yale, Woodrow Wilson at Princeton, and Cecil Rhodes at Oxford have galvanized our critical attention, as students protest their ugly legacies. (The question of the Confederate flag, now settled, is an off-campus preface to this struggle.)

Once upon a time we couldn’t learn from the people these powerful white men silenced. Now we can, and we do, because in this country, unlike any other, the winners don’t get to write the history—the losers do. The Anti-Federalist idea that the Constitutional settlement was a counter-revolution still convinces most historians. For a century after 1865, the South controlled the narrative of Civil War and Reconstruction (first tragedy, then farce): D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915), an early landmark of filmmaking, was festooned with quotations from Woodrow Wilson’s scholarly work as a political scientist. The Populists of the 1890s, who tried to abort the emergence of corporate capitalism by destroying “the trusts”—also, nationalizing the banks, the railroads, and interstate communication—still persuade most historians that they were the last best hope of democracy.

The new losers are the mostly young people who want to rewrite the history of the US—to acknowledge the racist, misogynist, exploitative, imperialist, and violent dimensions of its past. Not to mention its abiding present, when armed white men can shoot black children or seize federal property with no fear of reprisal. In urging their revisions, these mostly young people are relying on what they learned in college, on the very site of their protests.

They’re relying, in other words, on the rewrites we call African-American and gender history, which have taught us that without a formal voice and without the vote, slaves and women played leading roles in the political cataclysm we know as the Civil War and Reconstruction. They’re also relying on post-colonial theory, subaltern studies, and the concept of the Black Atlantic, which taught us to think differently about literary canons and the very idea of nation states, including the United States.

But these radical rewrites, which most of us who study history or literature now take for granted, once made for extreme controversy: they were the core curriculum of what we now call the culture wars. So instead of dismissing the new controversies on campus, we’d better pay close attention.  Change is coming— these symptoms are attempted cures of something. What kind of change do we want?

The question being raised from Fresno State to Yale is not how to avoid or erase the past by pulling down statues and renaming buildings. No, these supposedly coddled students are asking something more troubling: Is this past even ours? As the grandson of poor Irish immigrants, for example, or the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, do you remain responsible for the sin of American slavery, and thus owe its descendants reparations? Or can you divest yourself of this dishonor? What can you learn from people who believed in the “white man’s burden,” except that they were deluded or disgusting? Why would you let monuments to their dubious achievements stand?

Readers of the Wall Street Journal will want to ask a related question about the swashbuckling capitalists of our past. What is to be done about Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, James B. Duke, and Leland Stanford, infamous robber barons who founded great universities?

Must we obliterate all traces of these powerful men—unbound capitalists who cheated competitors, exploited workers, and hired thugs to silence the poor, the weak, the oppressed, as long as they could—so that we can get on with the work of rewriting the past? Or does our search for a usable past require a reckoning with their foundational, fundamental contributions to what we call America? To ask that question is to explore both the guilt and the anger that have always attended the development of capitalism, especially in the United States.

II

The great achievements of American higher education came in the century after 1862, when the land grant colleges were endowed as a dimension of the Homestead Act and the creation of the Department of Agriculture. The great public universities (Michigan, Wisconsin, California, et al.) enabled by this legislation, amplified in 1887, laid the intellectual groundwork for the Progressive Era. The Ivy League colleges, which had specialized in training preachers and teaching the classics, belatedly tried to copy the publics by turning themselves into modern universities—by broadening their curriculum, revising their mission, reconsidering their admissions policies.

Meanwhile John D. Rockefeller, the favorite target of the muckrakers—this was the man who built the Standard Oil Trust into the perfect symbol of rapacious, lawless capitalism—invented the University of Chicago; James B. Duke established a university in Durham, where his cigarette company mass-produced lung cancer; Andrew Carnegie branched out from libraries to found one in Pittsburgh, where he had made a fortune by ruthlessly exploiting immigrant steel workers; and Leland Stanford, the railroad titan who robbed California blind, started yet another university in Palo Alto. These were all private institutions, but they were in the new business of imitating the public universities, not the Ivies.

Rockefeller’s university—the only of these that didn’t bear the name of the founder—is perhaps the most interesting, politically speaking. Of course it became a fuddy-duddy in the 1930s, after the appointment of Robert Maynard Hutchins as its president, but from the 1890s into the 1920s it was the avant garde of higher education and intellectual life. In the department of political economy, for example, J. Laurence Laughlin wrote about banking reform, founded a new journal (still in print), and recruited Thorstein Veblen and Wesley C. Mitchell as graduate students. Veblen would go on to write savage critiques of consumerism, corporations, and economy theory which are still read, to this day (see, to begin with, The Theory of the Leisure Class [1899] and The Theory of Business Enterprise [1904]). Mitchell would go on to found The American Economic Review (1912) and the National Bureau of Economic Research (1919), all the while conducting path-breaking research into the nature of business cycles—from the Left.

Things were even more interesting in the philosophy and psychology department, where John Dewey, a founding father of pragmatism, became the presiding spirit in 1894 on the recommendation of a former colleague, George Herbert Mead. He left Michigan because Chicago offered him the opportunity to build graduate programs. But he didn’t leave his radical politics behind, and nobody expected him to. Everybody knew that Dewey spent his last years at Michigan working with an anarcho-syndicalist, Franklin Ford, on a project called “Thought News,” a magazine that would put the people and the professors together on behalf of the Commonwealth. As soon as he arrived in Chicago, he followed Mead’s example and started working with Jane Addams and Rockefeller’s fiercest critic, Henry Demarest Lloyd—the author of Wealth Against Commonwealth (1894), the best-selling indictment of the Standard Oil Corporation. By 1900, there were 354 graduate students in programs Dewey had helped organize and direct. More than half were women, 75 years before the Ivies admitted females.

The University of Chicago wasn’t a refuge for radical intellectuals in the 1890s. Like the publics, it merely acknowledged that faculty members would be discussing the pressing social issues of the day. These included Lloyd’s vernacular way of expressing the opposition between capitalism and socialism, the growing “woman movement,” and the troubling “labor question.” Political controversy has never been foreign to higher education in the US (or anywhere else).   You might even say that absent such controversy, higher education has no purpose. That is why recent conflicts are so refreshing—they remind us of a past that may be useful.

III

I’m not writing an amicus brief for the robber barons. Nor a defense of capitalism or capitalists in the present. Nor an endorsement of philanthropy, the idle playground of the guilty rich.

No, the story of higher education I tell is my way of quoting Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt School theorist whose enigmatic “Theses on the Philosophy of History” inspired Tony Kushner to write “Angels in America” (Prior Walter is named after Benjamin). The key moment of Thesis VII goes like this: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

That big word, “civilization,” used to have the connotations of origins and antiquity. Who built the pyramids? Whose labor subsidized Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic? But now we ask, who pays the price of modernity, the civilized world created by markets, money, credit, and globalized investment—in a word, capitalism? That’s the real question animating both recent political controversies on campus and the new, cross-disciplinary field called the “history of capitalism.” How do we acknowledge the barbarism of capitalism even as we accept its benefits? Very few of us want to rid ourselves of markets—and none of us can. What, then?

Then we acknowledge that capitalism has been a progressive force in the history of humanity. Marx himself insisted that the theory and practice of equality was inconceivable until the creation of a market in labor, the founding gesture (“primitive accumulation”) of capitalism. Meanwhile we acknowledge that the development of capitalism required the reinvention of slavery in the Western Hemisphere and of serfdom in Eastern Europe. Capitalists were agents of both progress—new thinking about the practical possibility of linking liberty and equality—and regress—new thinking about the practical possibility of perpetuating slavery. They still are. [Capital vol 1, Kerr ed., pp. 69, 189n.1]

Most important, we acknowledge that every one of us is implicated in the crimes that provide the comforts of commodities produced in a world so far elsewhere that it seems a foreign planet. In 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson, our very own Nietzsche, explained to his myriad audience that the “trail of the serpent”—the moral taint of slavery—was legible in the sugar they consumed and in the cotton clothes they wore, yet he praised the commodity form, the merchant, and the market as indispensable to the future of thinking as such. He rejected the unearned innocence of the American Adam, who would escape the nightmare of the past rather than face his own complicity in its reproduction—the manchild who grew up to be Huck Finn, lightin’ out for the Territory. [“Man the Reformer”]

If we can follow the examples of Marx and Emerson, we’ll find a way beyond the either/or choice that dictates we must choose between the past and the future, as if the present is the finder and the keeper of an immutable truth. We’ll be able to rewrite our history but not obliterate the past as it’s inscribed on buildings, preserved in archives, embodied in ritual celebrations, and written in the books. We’ll be able acknowledge the sins of our fathers—Carnegie, Duke, Stanford, Rockefeller, among others—without indulging the urge to erase our memory of them. We’ll know that capitalism is the pressing social issue of our time, and proceed accordingly.

At any rate we’ll avoid the fate of Benjamin’s Angel of History, the devil himself. His face is turned always toward the past because the storm of progress blowing in from Paradise won’t let him close his wings. We will face both ways, and so we will learn that the wreckage of the past—the slaughter-bench of history, as Hegel called it—is not just a catastrophe to be forgotten in the name of the future. It’s the workbench we need to repair the present.

 

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Worlds Collide, Complete

The last three “stanzas” of this play are borrowed from King Lear, Act III, Scene 7.  Augustine and Shakespeare share a sensibility that I will clumsily summarize as Protestant: the Kingdom of God is here and now, not in some distant afterlife.  I must say that writing in this format has been educational.  Some friends will recognize that the play is a gloss on Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis–my way of teaching myself what this great, great book might mean to us.  The rest of youse will see the movie that Laura, Bruce, Mel, Mike, and I make of it.

________

Worlds Collide: A Play in Four Acts

James Livingston

Dramatis Personae:

Marcellinus Ammianus, a former commander of a Roman legion in Gaul, now sixteen volumes into a history of the Empire; he looks something like an Oxford don, very fussy, always lugubrious; he hunches his shoulders, but he towers over the others as he paces.

Jerome, a zealous Christian polemicist, author of commentaries on and translations of both Old and New Testaments, now mostly an adviser to wealthy women who want to take vows of chastity and to wealthy men who want to become monks or hermits; he’s tall, skinny, nervous, anxious, not of this world because his eyes are on the next.

Augustine of Hippo, a former libertine, now a bishop in the new, barely articulate Christian Church, author of “The Confessions,” the first memoir ever; he’s short, wiry, he looks vaguely African; his gestural repertoire is modern.

Servants, who come and go, often mumbling, sometimes speaking.

 

ACT I

[It is 399 A.D., Rome, at the palatial home of Ammianus. The three men have come together at his invitation. He wants to know what fuels this new social movement called Christianity—or rather, what rhetorical resources it has marshaled, how it has succeeded.

We open with Ammianus, pacing thoughtfully, not fretfully, stage front, as servants come and go in the background. He turns toward the motion, than back to the audience.]

 

MA: I wonder why I care about this. It can’t last, this cult, these Christians. They’re deluded. They might as well be pigs, rooting about in the [he waves]. . . . They might as well be slaves. They are slaves. But this Jerome, he writes as much as I do, and now he advises women? The wives of my friends, who take vows of chastity, give away their jewelry. And their husbands become monks! And Augustine, these confessions of his, they’re cheap, they’re disgusting, but he writes in Latin, what is going on here? He’s an officer of this ecclesia, this church. And I read the confessions, I think, I know this man. But I don’t want to.

ENTER stage left, Jerome, accompanied by MA’s Second Servant [Peter, we will meet him later] and Jerome’s own assistant.

SERVANT: Master, I bring you Jerome, as per your invitation. Jerome, just that, sir, am I correct?

J: Yes, that is sufficient, that is my name, thank you. And you are Marcellinus Ammianus. I have read your histories, sir. All of them. You can go, my son. [Assistant leaves]

MA: There are 16 volumes.

J: I know, I have read them.

MA: May I ask you why?

J: This world is a temptation, a whirl of desire where the intoxication of cruelty becomes the reason to live—but it’s not real. When I read your histories, I am transported. I am delivered to another place.

MA: What place is that?

J: Heaven, where we can rest, where I rest, where I’m free of your cruelties, where my people rest.

MA: How can you believe that? This world is all we have, and it is made from cruelty. It is what we do best. We are, in our own way, mere beasts.

J: No, you are wrong, I have hope, we have hope, my fellow Christians . . .

MA: Hope? Tell me what that means.

J: It means that we believe in a better world, another world. It comes after us, after life. Heaven. Where nobody works, nobody sweats, nobody even thinks because there’s no reason to.

M: You hope for that?

ENTER, stage right, Augustine of Hippo, looking lost, no servant to deliver him, but he bounds into the room, his affect is that of a dancer who has wandered into a place with no music.

A: Am I in the right place? I’m supposed to be meeting with Marcellinus and Jerome. I got lost, it’s a big house. I let myself in.

MA: Welcome, Augustine. Did I pronounce that right? This is Jerome. You share a church.

A: I know Jerome. [They nod at each other, clearly at odds]

[INT. The three men stand stupidly facing each other, wondering what to do. Finally MA gestures to the couches, and they arrange themselves at a distance from each other, wondering what comes next.]

A: If I may, I want to know why I am here—why you invited me. And him.

MA: I want to know something about your belief, this church you call Christianity.

A [leaping off the couch, turning away from both], Why? Why would you want to know?

MA: My world is dying. I look around and I see decay. I can smell it. Perhaps your world will replace mine.

J: It already has, my lord, because we live in the end times, when the fires of hell will consume you, your flesh shall burn, and—

A: Oh, for God’s sake, Jerome, calm the fuck down, the man is asking a good question, and the world isn’t ending. Get a fucking grip on yourself.

J: You take the Lord’s name in vain.

A: We’re guests here, Jerome. And you’re the guy who writes the advice column for rich ladies who want to get to heaven. Lighten up.

MA: He does what?

A: He tells noble women how to abstain from sex, and give their shit away, so they feel safe when they die.

MA: I thought you were the theologian, the man who explains this God of yours.

J: I am, my lord, part of my task is to tell women still freighted with their jewels and their luxuries and their voluptuous bodies—my mission is to tell them how to leave these things behind.

MA: But why would they want to?

A: Good question.

J: You are still a libertine, Augustine, you have fucked every man and woman in Rome by now, you are not a legitimate party to this conversation. I am a man of God, and I will persuade this pagan.

MA: Pagan? I’ve lived here all my life, except for the years in Gaul. I’m not a peasant.

A: You won’t persuade him, Jerome, and now that I think about it, there are plenty of people in this town I haven’t fucked.

J: I will persuade him—

MA: No, you will not, that is not why you are here. You are here because I want to know how you believe, why you believe. This Jesus, this man, he’s the peasant. How can you worship a fool, a carpenter, a man who would not fight, a man who turns his cheek to be struck again?

J: He waits for us, in another world, the next life, the place he has prepared for us. We will join him there.

MA: I don’t understand. How do you believe in that?

A: I don’t understand, either, Jerome. And I gotta say, I don’t believe in this place, this heaven, the next life, whatever you call it. Where do you get that shit?

J: From the Gospels, Augustine, from the book, surely you know it, you are a bishop of this church—

A: That’s pending. I want to listen to Marcellinus now, he’s got us pegged as believers in something, I want to know what he thinks it is.

MA: Well. I will tell you what I believe. What I know. It’s not—it’s not easy, to say these things, what you believe, what you know. When did we start thinking we could speak our minds this way?

A: Just now. Nobody thought we had minds until now. Not until Jesus said so.

MA: Your minds, you mean? I suppose that is true. [He pauses] Jesus said so? But you are well born, Augustine, I knew your father. [He looks confused] All right, I will confess, like you did. I will tell you what I believe, as a former commander of a legion, as a writer of histories, as a citizen of Rome.

[SCRIM rises on back wall, depicting epic battles, phalanxes, MA becomes quiet voiceover. As he speaks, A and J become still, they pay attention to the man, and then they realize his words are enacted on the screen behind them, and so, with the rest of the audience, they turn to the back wall, they walk to STAGE left and right.]

MA: I was twelve years old when I joined. “Joined,” not really. I was conscripted. From the provinces. Calabria. I loved all of it—I was thrilled to be taken from my parents, they were stupid peasants. They got paid, for me. I did, too. I got paid, for my services.

What I learned in the legions is very simple. This world is unspeakably cruel, and ugly. Violent. You get used to it, or you die. You’re strong, or you’re weak. Like I said, you live or you die.

But you can be noble, even if you weren’t born that way. I tried. And I write the histories that way. “Noble.” What does that mean? It means you know the world for what it is, you accept it, it’s unspeakably cruel, and ugly, but you don’t let that change your mind, you do your duty, you carry on, and you know that nothing you do will change anything—except the way the next man dies. You can be merciful or not, but he’s just one man, and the rest of them, the people as you call them, your people, these masses who seethe, like snakes, you treat them like animals because that’s what they are. You kill them, you crush them, they’re insects.

A: They’re not animals. We’re not animals.

MA: You say ‘we.’

A: Yes, because I’m one of them, I’m equipped with a soul and God knows me as your equal and the equal of all others. I’m not any better than them, but I’m not an animal unless you are.

J: Augustine, please, Marcellinus is right, you are well born.

A: Fuck you, Jerome, and now that I think of it, I haven’t fucked you.

J: Marcellinus has a point, he’s trying to tell his story.

MA: I’m done. I’ve told my story. I’ll say this. Why do you believe in these, these “people”? They’re slaves, they’re whores. Like I said, they’re pigs, they act, they don’t think. You read, and you write. You’re not like them. Why do you believe in them?

J: I believe in God. I have no faith in these people. How could I? They have souls, but they’re buried in bodies trapped by sin, lust, desire, it is the next life that matters.

MA: Their next life? Yours?

A: Fuck you both. That’s not a proposition, you’re both assholes.

MA: I haven’t told the whole story. I became a commander of a legion in Gaul. I was a peasant from Calabria, a stupid boy, no manners, no languages. There I was, in charge of thousands of men who would do anything I told them to.   One day, it was a normal day’s march, we came upon a tribe, a family, there were maybe fifteen or twenty of them, crossing a river, and I gave the order, I said, slaughter these barbarians, make the river red with their blood. And they did, it didn’t take very long.

Now I’m asking you, why do I feel regret? That is why you are here, in my home.

A: Maybe you have the soul God gave you. I wouldn’t count on it, though. You really are an asshole. This guy Jerome, too.

 

ACT II

[Lights come up, dawn is breaking, the three men are in various stages of sleep on their respective couches, obviously inebriated—platters of food, bottles of wine are everywhere. Two SERVANTS are standing, STAGE left and right, holding plates, towels over their shoulders, wondering what to do. They look back and forth, from one to another, and toward these drunken men.]

[STAGE left, First Servant, a woman of roughly 20 years old, she is shapely, attractive, but short of beautiful; she carries curiosity as both a burden and a gift. STAGE right, Second Servant, a man of the same age, but fewer ideas.]

FS: I say we leave them alone. They can fight some more when they wake up.

SS: They are your masters, Mary. You owe them your life. Let’s just clean up here.

Mary: They are your masters, Peter, they are not mine. My master is Jesus, I own no other.

Peter: Oh for God’s sake, would you stop with that shit, your faith will kill you. Or me. It’s not even faith, what is it, it’s a cult, you worship a dead man, a man who died on a fucking cross—they crucified him, Mary, he’s dead, that’s it, why pretend he lives?

Mary: It’s not pretend, he lives. He’s not dead. He’s here, he’s with us. He tells me that I am saved, I’ll get to heaven.

Peter: Really? Where is that? Why do you think there’s anything but this?

Mary: A man I met, it was in Corinth I think, when I was first bound, his name was Saul of Tarsus, from Damascus, all he carried was a book. He had no baggage, no servants, nothing. He was really ugly.   He said something like what you did, over and over, we’re stuck with this life, gotta make the best of it. Love and hope, he said. He tried to fuck me. But heaven, it’s real to me. I’ll get there.

Peter: Oh for God’s sake. Look at these drunken, stupid shits. Two of them are Christians, they believe like you, there’s an afterlife, heaven—also hell, right? The host of this party is a Roman, a citizen, he’s just as drunk and just as stupid, but he doesn’t believe in any of that crap.

Mary: You’re wrong, he invited them to witness. To see what he believes. I think he wants to be a Christian, like me.

Peter: No, you’re wrong, they’re here because he wants to know what they believe. Why they believe. But he’s no fool. His world is dead, he’s looking for a way out. How can you be so blind?

Mary: They’re waking up.

[Augustine stirs first, then Jerome. Marcellinus is still. A is confused. He looks quizzically at the SERVANTS, as if he belongs with them, then realizes he’s the guest of the great Marcellinus Ammianus. He rises, sits back down, shakes his head. He grabs a bottle of wine, takes a slug. He rests his forearms on his knees, looks at the floor. He addresses Jerome.]

A: You look like shit. What you’re peddling is a lie. Why do you tell slaves they’re free, and tell rich ladies they’re slaves to their possessions? You’re the whore, not them.

J: [He’s barely awake, doesn’t want this conversation, but he hates everything Augustine stands for, so he rises to the occasion] I have read your “Confessions,” Augustine, you are the whore. I hope to see you die—not on the cross, but in pain, tortured, writhing, begging for death.

A: I am a Christian, you fucking pig. [He pauses, he’s also barely awake, he looks at the SERVANTS] Don’t you know what Jesus did, what he said, what he wrought, don’t you understand why he came here, to this world, and stayed long enough to suffer, to die? How did you say it, “tortured, writhing, begging for death”?

That’s your fucking savior, Jerome, a fool, a carpenter, a man who would not fight, he turned his other cheek, but listen to me now, [he rises from the couch[ I am a bishop of your church and I will fight you, I will break your body in half, I will split you, I swear, because I don’t give a fuck about your church and your rules. Your heaven is a lullaby.

J: You are a barbarian, I always knew this about you, even before I read your “Confessions.” Christians are civilized, and we are the future.

A: We are the future, but not because we’re civilized. [He pauses, he gestures toward Marcellinus]. Do you think this man is civilized? Are they? [He turns toward the SERVANTS, and now he addresses them, not Jerome]. We changed the moral climate, and now the weather’s bad. We changed the rules—the winds are blowing differently these days because we decided slaves are just as important as this man. [Again he gestures toward the sleeping Marcelinus.]

Their stories, their lives, here and now. [Still facing the SERVANTS]. You say, the next life, that’s what matters, that’s when we inherit the earth. I say, this life is all we got. There’s no tomorrow, Jerome.

J: I suppose your friend Alypius would agree with you.

A: My friend Alypius is dead.

J: You wrote about him, his bloodlust, at the Coliseum, he lived by your rules, remember—no tomorrow. An educated man, a Stoic, a scholar, and he became a mere beast because he believed in nothing.

[A walks toward J, he reaches for a weapon that isn’t there. The SERVANTS move toward the middle, wondering if they can prevent this confrontation]

A: I’ll kill you for that, you—

[SCRIM rises on the back wall, we are witness to the gladiatorial games, we see gruesome, clumsy clashes, blood spattered, men dying, and we reverse shot to the friends Augustine and Alypius in the stands, Augustine watching his friend more than the games, Alypius enthralled by the violence. A stops, watches, droops.]

A: I couldn’t save him, nobody could.

J: He is not in heaven.

A: No, he’s not in heaven, you miserable prig. He didn’t believe in your Jesus. Nor mine. He believed like this man does [he gestures toward the sleeping MA], he believed in Fortune or Fate, or whatever they call it these days, he believed . . . I don’t know what he believed. I know what he said. He said, “This world is impossibly cruel, look at these creatures, but I am not like them. I can abstain, I can stand apart, and I will.” But he couldn’t.

J: [Now amazed] You loved him.

A: Yes, I loved him. He was my friend.

J: You didn’t save him.

A: No, I didn’t, you fucking pedant. Nobody could have. That’s the thing, Jerome, that’s the difference between me and you, you think the church can do that. Me, I know nothing can. So, I don’t care. I won’t judge you. I don’t care enough about you. But this world is better than you know.

J: You are the fool, Augustine.

 

ACT III

 

[Lights come up, same scene, but now Marcellinus stirs. Augustine is looking out the window, arms folded. Jerome is reading from a book he found on the table before him, amidst the bottles of wine and the platters of food. SERVANTS converge, cleaning, wiping, bowing, scraping.]

MA [waking, he raises his hand, he speaks to no one in particular, he’s used to the diction of command]: Bring me water. A hot towel. These men are no doubt hungry. Feed them something.

[The SERVANTS gradually remove the remains of the night before as MA slowly wakes up, and as he takes in the scene: Augustine seems angry, Jerome is reading carefully . . . MA looks weary, puzzled, as he watches his guests, turning his head from side to side as if at a tennis match . . . SERVANTS return with food, water, wine, hot towels.]

MA: Where were we? I seem to remember that you two were disagreeing about something. And yet you share this church, this faith. This world as well, Rome itself, the center of the universe.

[Nobody moves or speaks. Jerome keeps reading, Augustine stares out the window]

MA: We are not here to ignore each other. Come, gentlemen, at least face each other. Face me if you cannot do that.

All right. Let me tell you again why you are here. Why do I feel this regret? I have killed many men, I was trained to do it—that was my job. But listen now, I have killed women and children, too, I have disemboweled them, do you know what that means? I split them with my sword and watched them die slowly, as they begged for mercy while they stared at their own organs wriggling in the dirt. Their intestines kept moving.

[SCRIM rises again, but the images are blurred, and modern, too fast for comprehension: Serbia, Ghana, Nigeria, and last but not least, the American Civil War]

I don’t regret these acts. I was a warrior. But that family crossing the river . . . And our own time, I begin to think that Jerome is right, these are the end times. My world is disappearing. The question is, how does yours get born? Is it the next world, Jerome? Or is it this one, Augustine, the one you are so attached to?

I have read your books.

[Augustine relaxes, unfolds his arms, turns toward the others, as Jerome rises from the couch holding the book]

J: You have read this one, his “Confessions”?

MA: Yes, of course, that is why he is here.

J: Listen to me, my lord, I will read from Book 10 of these “Confessions.” He thinks he is a god, he forgives our Lord, he writes this:

“Like you, my Lord, but also my fellow men and women, I will renounce my powers and submit my own body to the judgments of this profane world, where I am sure to suffer unto death. I will forgive your transgressions, O my God, by relinquishing this greatest power, of memory, and forgetting your trespasses against us.”

There is more, all blasphemy. Listen now, please my lord, these are Augustine’s own words.

“But what is nearer to me than myself? And lo, the force of mine own memory is not understood by me, though I cannot so much as name myself without it. For what shall I say, when it is clear to me that I remember forgetfulness?”

A: “Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifold”—I can quote myself, I can convict myself, you sniveling shit—“and this thing is the mind, and this I am myself.” That’s also from Book 10.

MA: I agree with Augustine.

J: I know you do, and this is what worries me, that is why I am here. He is not a Christian. You misunderstand us. Your world is gone.

MA: But he believes in it. He loves the world you despise. How can you both be Christians?

A: I love this world, he loves the next. I can’t explain it. Ask him, for fuck’s sake.

MA: No, I will ask you.

[SCRIM rises again, now we see late medieval images, of the Christ, and of the Crusades, as the lights go down]

 

ACT IV

 

[INT. The three men are again seated as the lights come up, but now they’re closer together, they sit on their respective couches but their bodies are turned toward each other, as if they need to address one another. SERVANTS (Mary and Peter) hover, moving slowly, hesitantly, they know they’re witnesses to a dangerous scene, but they also know they somehow preside—they will inherit the earth, not these men. It looks, too, like all five of these people might be coming together: they’re converging on some truth they can hear but can’t yet say.]

 

A: All right, then, I will answer you, Marcellinus Ammianus. [He gulps some wine, turns toward Jerome] Jerome, you cite these Gospels when you call me a blasphemer. Matthew, Mark, blah, blah, who are these men? It’s now centuries later, they never saw the man, your Jesus. Nor mine. Neither did Saul of Tarsus.

[Mary and Peter exchange looks; Augustine turns his head toward Mary as if he overheard that conversation]

But they are all of what you call your new testament. What’s new about it?

MA: That’s not even a question, these are thieves, fishmongers, whores, they’re not worth the words you use, they—

A: I’m not asking you, Marcellinus, I’m asking him, and I’m asking them [he gestures toward the hovering servants], what is it?

J: It’s the kingdom of God, you fool, how can you be so blind? It’s not heaven on earth, it’s the kingdom to come, when Jesus returns. If this world is all there is, we’re slaves, like them [he also gestures toward the servants, and they each take a step closer, as if being invited into this conversation, and again they exchange looks].

A: You officious ass, we are slaves, like them. No matter when that kingdom comes. Can you not see this, what Jesus taught us?

MA and J, at once: We are not slaves.

A: Fine, you’re free men. Choose, then. This world or the next, Jerome? These people or your own kind, Marcellinus, the well-born and the well-educated? That’s where you are. It’s not where I am—it’s not my world. I will leave you now.

MA: You cannot leave.

A: I am not your slave. [He looks at Mary, then back at MA]

MA: I beseech you: please do not leave. [Now he looks at Mary, too, as if he needs the guidance of his servant, whose name he doesn’t even know]

I invited you here to see—to understand this thing, this Christianity. And now it is even more . . . confusing, it sounds insane. It makes no sense. Jerome says his God waits for us on the other side of this life, you say No, mine is here and now or he’s nowhere at all.

J: My lord, this man is a fool, an imposter. He is not a Christian, he is a barbarian. He writes, forgive me, he writes shit that makes me wince, he pretends to be a man of the people but he is not, and nobody can be because you are right, they are animals, mere beasts [he looks over his shoulder at Peter, who takes another step closer].

He is learned, but he is like them, he’s an animal.

MA: Augustine, what say you?

A: I say, fuck you. This “thing,” this Christianity, makes sense, but only if you grant these people [he gestures toward the servants, who step closer, exchanging glances] their lives, or, I don’t know how to say this to you, control of their own souls, how’s that? They’re slaves. They get to speak for themselves, anyway.

MA: No. That is simply impossible. It is ridiculous. [Jerome nods]

Mary: My lord, if I may, I have never done you better service than now to bid you hold. I can speak for myself.

MA: A peasant stand up thus? What have you to say? [She’s within reach, he shakes his head and casually slaps her, backhanded]

Peter: My lord, I am not a Christian, but come now, and take the chance of anger, I swear I will split you if you ever touch her again. Or me. I am a slave, I am your slave, but I will speak these words . . . I will say this . . . [He doesn’t know what to say to MA] . . . Mary, are you, are you all right?

Mary: Yes.

A: I will leave you now.

 

END

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Worlds Collide, ACTS III-IV

Worlds Collide: A Play in Many Acts

James Livingston

Dramatis Personae:

Marcellinus Ammianus, a former commander of a Roman legion in Gaul, now sixteen volumes into a history of the Empire; he looks something like an Oxford don, very fussy, always lugubrious; he hunches his shoulders, but he towers over the others as he paces.

Jerome, a zealous Christian polemicist, author of commentaries on and translations of both Old and New Testaments, now mostly an adviser to wealthy women who want to take vows of chastity and to wealthy men who want to become monks or hermits; he’s tall, skinny, nervous, anxious, not of this world because his eyes are on the next.

Augustine of Hippo, a former libertine, now a bishop in the new, barely articulate Christian Church, author of “The Confessions,” the first memoir ever; he’s short, wiry, he looks vaguely African; his gestural repertoire is modern.

Servants, who come and go. often mumbling, sometimes speaking

ACT I

It is 399 A.D., Rome, at the palatial home of Ammianus. The three men have come together at his invitation. He wants to know what fuels this new social movement called Christianity—or rather, what rhetorical resources it has marshaled, how it has succeeded.

INT. We open with Ammianus, pacing thoughtfully, not fretfully, stage front, as servants come and go in the background. He turns toward the motion, than back to the audience.

MA: I wonder why I care about this. It can’t last, this cult, these Christians. They’re deluded. They might as well be pigs, rooting about in the [he waves]. . . . They might as well be slaves. They are slaves. But this Jerome, he writes as much as I do, and now he advises women? The wives of my friends, who take vows of chastity, give away their jewelry. And their husbands become monks! And Augustine, these confessions of his, they’re cheap, they’re disgusting, but he writes in Latin, what is going on here? He’s an officer of this ecclesia, this church. And I read the confessions, I think, I know this man. But I don’t want to.

ENTER stage left, Jerome, accompanied by MA’s Second Servant [Peter, we will meet him later] and Jerome’s own assistant.

SERVANT: Master, I bring you Jerome, as per your invitation. Jerome, just that, sir, am I correct?

J: Yes, that is sufficient, that is my name, thank you. And you are Marcellinus Ammianus. I have read your histories, sir. All of them. You can go, my son. [Assistant leaves]

MA: There are 16 volumes.

J: I know, I have read them.

MA: May I ask you why?

J: This world is a temptation, a whirl of desire where the intoxication of cruelty becomes the reason to live—but it’s not real. When I read your histories, I am transported. I am delivered to another place.

MA: What place is that?

J: Heaven, where we can rest, where I rest, where I’m free of your cruelties, where my people rest.

MA: How can you believe that? This world is all we have, and it is made from cruelty. It is what we do best. We are, in our own way, mere beasts.

J: No, you are wrong, I have hope, we have hope, my fellow Christians . . .

MA: Hope? Tell me what that means.

J: It means that we believe in a better world, another world. It comes after us, after life. Heaven. Where nobody works, nobody sweats, nobody even thinks because there’s no reason to.

M: You hope for that?

ENTER, stage right, Augustine of Hippo, looking lost, no servant to deliver him, but he bounds into the room, his affect is that of a dancer who has wandered into a place with no music.

A: Am I in the right place? I’m supposed to be meeting with Marcellinus and Jerome. I got lost, it’s a big house. I let myself in.

MA: Welcome, Augustine. Did I pronounce that right? This is Jerome. You share a church.

A: I know Jerome. [They nod at each other, clearly at odds]

INT. The three men stand stupidly facing each other, wondering what to do. Finally MA gestures to the couches, and they arrange themselves at a distance from each other, wondering what comes next.

A: If I may, I want to know why I am here—why you invited me. And him.

MA: I want to know something about your belief, this church you call Christianity.

A [leaping off the couch, turning away from both], Why? Why would you want to know?

MA: My world is dying. I look around and I see decay. I can smell it. Perhaps your world will replace mine.

J: It already has, my lord, because we live in the end times, when the fires of hell will consume you, your flesh shall burn, and—

A: Oh, for God’s sake, Jerome, calm the fuck down, the man is asking a good question, and the world isn’t ending. Get a fucking grip on yourself.

J: You take the Lord’s name in vain.

A: We’re guests here, Jerome. And you’re the guy who writes the advice column for rich ladies who want to get to heaven. Lighten up.

MA: He does what?

A: He tells noble women how to abstain from sex, and give their shit away, so they feel safe when they die.

MA: I thought you were the theologian, the man who explains this God of yours.

J: I am, my lord, part of my task is to tell women still freighted with their jewels and their luxuries and their voluptuous bodies—my mission is to tell them how to leave these things behind.

MA: But why would they want to?

A: Good question.

J: You are still a libertine, Augustine, you have fucked every man and woman in Rome by now, you are not a legitimate party to this conversation. I am a man of God, and I will persuade this pagan.

MA: Pagan? I’ve lived here all my life, except for the years in Gaul. I’m not a peasant.

A: You won’t persuade him, Jerome, and now that I think about it, there are plenty of people in this town I haven’t fucked.

J: I will persuade him—

MA: No, you will not, that is not why you are here. You are here because I want to know how you believe, why you believe. This Jesus, this man, he’s the peasant. How can you worship a fool, a carpenter, a man who would not fight, a man who turns his cheek to be struck again?

J: He waits for us, in another world, the next life, the place he has prepared for us. We will join him there.

MA: I don’t understand. How do you believe in that?

A: I don’t understand, either, Jerome. And I gotta say, I don’t believe in this place, this heaven, the next life, whatever you call it. Where do you get that shit?

J: From the Gospels, Augustine, from the book, surely you know it, you are a bishop of this church—

A: That’s pending. I want to listen to Marcellinus now, he’s got us pegged as believers in something, I want to know what he thinks it is.

MA: Well. I will tell you what I believe. What I know. It’s not—it’s not easy, to say these things, what you believe, what you know. When did we start thinking we could speak our minds this way?

A: Just now. Nobody thought we had minds until now. Not until Jesus said so.

MA: Your minds, you mean? I suppose that is true. [He pauses] Jesus said so? But you are well born, Augustine, I knew your father. [He looks confused] All right, I will confess, like you did. I will tell you what I believe, as a former commander of a legion, as a writer of histories, as a citizen of Rome.

SCRIM rises on back wall, depicting epic battles, phalanxes, MA becomes quiet voiceover. As he speaks, A and J become still, they pay attention to the man, and then they realize his words are enacted on the screen behind them, and so, with the rest of the audience, they turn to the back wall, they walk to STAGE left and right.

MA: I was twelve years old when I joined. “Joined,” not really. I was conscripted. From the provinces. Calabria. I loved all of it—I was thrilled to be taken from my parents, they were stupid peasants. They got paid, for me. I did, too. I got paid, for my services.

What I learned in the legions is very simple. This world is unspeakably cruel, and ugly. Violent. You get used to it, or you die. You’re strong, or you’re weak. Like I said, you live or you die.

But you can be noble, even if you weren’t born that way. I tried. And I write the histories that way. “Noble.” What does that mean? It means you know the world for what it is, you accept it, it’s unspeakably cruel, and ugly, but you don’t let that change your mind, you do your duty, you carry on, and you know that nothing you do will change anything—except the way the next man dies. You can be merciful or not, but he’s just one man, and the rest of them, the people as you call them, your people, these masses who seethe, like snakes, you treat them like animals because that’s what they are. You kill them, you crush them, they’re insects.

A: They’re not animals. We’re not animals.

MA: You say ‘we.’

A: Yes, because I’m one of them, I’m equipped with a soul and God knows me as your equal and the equal of all others. I’m not any better than them, but I’m not an animal unless you are.

J: Augustine, please, Marcellinus is right, you are well born.

A: Fuck you, Jerome, and now that I think of it, I haven’t fucked yu.

J: Marcellinus has a point, he’s trying to tell his story.

MA: I’m done. I’ve told my story. I’ll say this. Why do you believe in these, these “people”? They’re slaves, they’re whores. Like I said, they’re pigs, they act, they don’t think. You read, and you write. You’re not like them. Why do you believe in them?

J: I believe in God. I have no faith in these people. How could I? They have souls, but they’re buried in bodies trapped by sin, lust, desire, it is the next life that matters.

MA: Their next life? Yours?

A: Fuck you both. That’s not a proposition, you’re both assholes.

MA: I haven’t told the whole story. I became a commander of a legion in Gaul. I was a peasant from Calabria, a stupid boy, no manners, no languages. There I was, in charge of thousands of men who would do anything I told them to.   One day, it was a normal day’s march, we came upon a tribe, a family, there were maybe fifteen or twenty of them, crossing a river, and I gave the order, I said, slaughter these barbarians, make the river red with their blood. And they did, it didn’t take very long.

Now I’m asking you, why do I feel regret? That is why you are here, in my home.

A: Maybe you have the soul God gave you. I wouldn’t count on it, though. You really are an asshole. This guy Jerome, too.

 

ACT II

 

[Lights come up, dawn is breaking, the three men are in various stages of sleep on their respective couches, obviously inebriated—platters of food, bottles of wine are everywhere. Two SERVANTS are standing, STAGE left and right, holding plates, towels over their shoulders, wondering what to do. They look back and forth, from one to another, and toward these drunken men.

STAGE left, First Servant, a woman of roughly 20 years old, she is shapely, attractive, but short of beautiful; she carries curiosity as both a burden and a gift. STAGE right, Second Servant, a man of the same age, but fewer ideas.]

FS: I say we leave them alone. They can fight some more when they wake up.

SS: They are your masters, Mary. You owe them your life. Let’s just clean up here.

Mary: They are your masters, Peter, they are not mine. My master is Jesus, I own no other.

Peter: Oh for God’s sake, would you stop with that shit, your faith will kill you. Or me. It’s not even faith, what is it, it’s a cult, you worship a dead man, a man who died on a fucking cross—they crucified him, Mary, he’s dead, that’s it, why pretend he lives?

Mary: It’s not pretend, he lives. He’s not dead. He’s here, he’s with us. He tells me that I am saved, I’ll get to heaven.

Peter: Really? Where is that? Why do you think there’s anything but this?

Mary: A man I met, it was in Corinth I think, when I was first bound, his name was Saul of Tarsus, from Damascus, all he carried was a book. He had no baggage, no servants, nothing. He was really ugly.   He said something like what you did, over and over, we’re stuck with this life, gotta make the best of it. Love and hope, he said. He tried to fuck me. But heaven, it’s real to me. I’m a get there.

Peter: Oh for God’s sake. Look at these drunken, stupid shits. Two of them are Christians, they believe like you, there’s an afterlife, heaven—also hell, right? The host of this party is a Roman, a citizen, he’s just as drunk and just as stupid, but he doesn’t believe in any of that crap.

Mary: You’re wrong, he invited them to witness. To see what he believes. I think he wants to be a Christian, like me.

Peter: No, you’re wrong, they’re here because he wants to know what they believe. Why they believe. But he’s no fool. His world is dead, he’s looking for a way out. How can you be so blind?

Mary: They’re waking up.

[Augustine stirs first, then Jerome. Marcellinus is still. A is confused. He looks quizzically at the SERVANTS, as if he belongs with them, then realizes he’s the guest of the great Marcellinus Ammianus. He rises, sits back down, shakes his head. He grabs a bottle of wine, takes a slug. He rests his forearms on his knees, looks at the floor. He addresses Jerome.]

A: You look like shit. What you’re peddling is a lie. Why do you tell slaves they’re free, and tell rich ladies they’re slaves to their possessions? You’re the whore, not them.

J: [He’s barely awake, doesn’t want this conversation, but he hates everything Augustine stands for, so he rises to the occasion] I have read your “Confessions,” Augustine, you are the whore. I hope to see you die—not on the cross, but in pain, tortured, writhing, begging for death.

A: I am a Christian, you fucking pig. [He pauses, he’s also barely awake, he looks at the SERVANTS] Don’t you know what Jesus did, what he said, what he wrought, don’t you understand why he came here, to this world, and stayed long enough to suffer, to die? How did you say it, “tortured, writhing, begging for death”?

That’s your fucking savior, Jerome, a fool, a carpenter, a man who would not fight, he turned his other cheek, but listen to me now, [he rises from the couch[ I am a bishop of your church and I will fight you, I will break your body in half, I will split you, I swear, because I don’t give a fuck about your church and your rules. Your heaven is a lullaby.

J: You are a barbarian, I always knew this about you, even before I read your “Confessions.” Christians are civilized, and we are the future.

A: We are the future, but not because we’re civilized. [He pauses, he gestures toward Marcellinus]. Do you think this man is civilized? Are they? [He turns toward the SERVANTS, and now he addresses them, not Jerome]. We changed the moral climate, and now the weather’s bad. We changed the rules—the winds are blowing differently these days because we decided slaves are just as important as this man. [Again he gestures toward the sleeping Marcelinus.]

Their stories, their lives, here and now. [Still facing the SERVANTS]. You say, the next life, that’s what matters, that’s when we inherit the earth. I say, this life is all we got. There’s no tomorrow, Jerome.

J: I suppose your friend Alypius would agree with you.

A: My friend Alypius is dead.

J: You wrote about him, his bloodlust, at the Coliseum, he lived by your rules, remember—no tomorrow. An educated man, a Stoic, a scholar, and he became a mere beast because he believed in nothing.

[A walks toward J, he reaches for a weapon that isn’t there. The SERVANTS move toward the middle, wondering if they can prevent this confrontation]

A: I’ll kill you for that, you—

[SCRIM rises on the back wall, we are witness to the gladiatorial games, we see gruesome, clumsy clashes, blood spattered, men dying, and we reverse shot to the friends Augustine and Alypius in the stands, Augustine watching his friend more than the games, Alypius enthralled by the violence. A stops, watches, droops.]

A: I couldn’t save him, nobody could.

J: He is not in heaven.

A: No, he’s not in heaven, you miserable prig. He didn’t believe in your Jesus. Nor mine. He believed like this man does [he gestures toward the sleeping MA], he believed in Fortune or Fate, or whatever they call it these days, he believed . . . I don’t know what he believed. I know what he said. He said, “This world is impossibly cruel, look at these creatures, but I am not like them. I can abstain, I can stand apart, and I will.” But he couldn’t.

J: [Now amazed] You loved him.

A: Yes, I loved him. He was my friend.

J: You didn’t save him.

A: No, I didn’t, you fucking pedant. Nobody could have. That’s the thing, Jerome, that’s the difference between me and you, you think the church can do that. Me, I know nothing can. So, I don’t care. I won’t judge you. I don’t care enough about you. But this world is better than you know.

J: You are the fool, Augustine.

 

ACT III

 

[Lights come up, same scene, but now Marcellinus stirs. Augustine is looking out the window, arms folded. Jerome is reading from a book he found on the table before him, amidst the bottles of wine and the platters of food. SERVANTS converge, cleaning, wiping, bowing, scraping.]

MA [waking, he raises his hand, he speaks to no one in particular, he’s used to the diction of command]: Bring me water. A hot towel. These men are no doubt hungry. Feed them something.

[The SERVANTS gradually remove the remains of the night before as MA slowly wakes up, and as he takes in the scene: Augustine seems angry, Jerome is reading carefully . . . MA looks weary, puzzled, as he watches his guests, turning his head from side to side as if at a tennis match . . . SERVANTS return with food, water, wine, hot towels.]

MA: Where were we? I seem to remember that you two were disagreeing about something. And yet you share this church, this faith. This world as well, Rome itself, the center of the universe.

[Nobody moves or speaks. Jerome keeps reading, Augustine stares out the window]

MA: We are not here to ignore each other. Come, gentlemen, at least face each other. Face me if you cannot do that.

All right. Let me tell you again why you are here. Why do I feel this regret? I have killed many men, I was trained to do it—that was my job. But listen now, I have killed women and children, too, I have disemboweled them, do you know what that means? I split them with my sword and watched them die slowly, as they begged for mercy while they stared at their own organs wriggling in the dirt. Their intestines kept moving.

[SCRIM rises again, but the images are blurred, and modern, too fast for comprehension: Serbia, Ghana, Nigeria, and last but not least, the American Civil War]

I don’t regret these acts. I was a warrior. But that family crossing the river . . . And our own time, I begin to think that Jerome is right, these are the end times. My world is disappearing. The question is, how does yours get born? Is it the next world, Jerome? Or is it this one, Augustine, the one you are so attached to?

I have read your books.

[Augustine relaxes, unfolds his arms, turns toward the others, as Jerome rises from the couch holding the book]

J: You have read this one, his “Confessions”?

MA: Yes, of course, that is why he is here.

J: Listen to me, my lord, I will read from Book 10 of these “Confessions.” He thinks he is a god, he forgives our Lord, he writes this:

“Like you, my Lord, but also my fellow men and women, I will renounce my powers and submit my own body to the judgments of this profane world, where I am sure to suffer unto death. I will forgive your transgressions, O my God, by relinquishing this greatest power, of memory, and forgetting your trespasses against us.”

There is more, all blasphemy. Listen now, please my lord, these are Augustine’s own words.

“But what is nearer to me than myself? And lo, the force of mine own memory is not understood by me, though I cannot so much as name myself without it. For what shall I say, when it is clear to me that I remember forgetfulness?”

A: “Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifold”—I can quote myself, I can convict myself, you sniveling shit—“and this thing is the mind, and this I am myself.” That’s also from Book 10.

MA: I agree with Augustine.

J: I know you do, and this is what worries me, that is why I am here. He is not a Christian. You misunderstand us. Your world is gone.

MA: But he believes in it. He loves the world you despise. How can you both be Christians?

A: I love this world, he loves the next. I can’t explain it. Ask him, for fuck’s sake.

MA: No, I will ask you.

[SCRIM rises again, now we see late medieval images, of the Christ, of Jerome, and of the Crusades, as the lights go down]

 

ACT IV

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Krugman and Keynes

In his column this morning, Paul Krugman, my former colleague at CUNY—how could I make that up?—had this to say about issues that have mattered a lot to me over many years now. I admire Krugman, of course, but this is bullshit, pure and simple. Not the Harry Frankfurt kind, which requires willful ignorance of the facts, but the everyday kind, which requires mere ignorance of the historical record.

“Don’t say that redistribution is inherently wrong. Even if high incomes perfectly reflected productivity, market outcomes aren’t the same as moral justification. And given the reality that wealth often reflects either luck or power, there’s a strong case to be made for collecting some of that wealth in taxes and using it to make society as a whole stronger, as long as it doesn’t destroy the incentive to keep creating more wealth.”

The “incentive to keep creating more wealth”? Fuck me, we used to call that the profit motive. Marx called it the formula for capital, whereby the ownership of goods is only a means to the expansion of wealth in the abstract, money itself.

Keynes, bless his heart, called it “a somewhat disgusting morbidity.”

He was right. Why don’t we read him for that line? Everybody wants to say, well, in “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” an essay of 1930, he really got it wrong, we’re working harder and longer than ever. Yeah, yeah, he made some predictions, based on empirical premises, which didn’t materialize—he figured we’d be working fewer hours and making more money per hour by now.

But his purpose in writing that signature essay was to detach us from our affection for the entrepreneurs among us, those go-getters with great ambition organized by their desire to get rich. Enough already with these people, Keynes said, they’re sick. Let’s get over their affliction.   Here’s how he put it.

“When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be a great change in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession . . . will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialist in mental disease.”

18 months later, Keynes wrote a piece for The New Republic, “The Dilemma of Modern Socialism.” Here he claimed that the “ideal society”—socialism—was already legible in the historical circumstances of the Great Depression. Again he was right, and again, we’ve ignored this dimension of his thinking. Listen closely now, this is the Keynes who has just finished The Treatise on Money (1930) and is preparing to write The General Theory (1936). The supposed opposites of “ought” and “is” come together on this site.

“It happens that the most pressing reforms which are economically sound do not, as perhaps they did in earlier days, point away from the ideal [of socialism]. On the contrary, they point toward it. [Ought=Is] I am convinced that those things which are urgently called for on practical grounds, such as the central control of investment and the distribution of income in such a way as to provide purchasing power for the enormous potential output of modern productive technique, will also tend to produce a better kind of society on ideal grounds.”

Now, why was Keynes thinking this way in 1932, when everything had hit bottom? How had “ought” and “is” finally converged—that is, how had the ethical principle of socialism and the historical circumstance of capitalism intersected? Look at The Treatise on Money, volume 2, pp. 190-194. That’s where Keynes, using data from the US in the 1920s, noted the huge discrepancy between rising corporate profits, zero net investment, and soaring labor productivity.

That’s when he realized the profit motive was an anachronism.   He understood, in 1930, that the “incentive to create wealth” was morbid, because it was unnecessary. Expanded goods production no longer required saving, investment, deferral of consumption, delay of gratification, whatever you want to call abstention from this life in the name of the next.

Paul Krugman is a hero to many of us because he fights the good fight against the idiocies of economic theory and practice in our time. But he is now behind the times because he hasn’t yet caught up with Keynes.

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