Follow me on Twitter

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Ibsen’s Master Builder: A narcissist?

A visit to Chichester’s Minerva Theatre to watch an excellent production of Ibsen’s ‘The Master Builder’.

Master Builder Solness is a narcissist who in the end is outmanoeuvred by the only other character in the world capable of weaving a comparable web of manipulative deceit: another narcissist.

Hilde - played with acerbic energy by Naomi Frederick - is the burgeoning of youth come to displace the older Master Builder Solness; a man obsessed and quite sick with the unending game of self-love and domination. Now, the only effective narcissist is a person equipped to live without ever bowing to the nagging, imploring criticisms of ethical life. All other people – at least the ones that try to avoid using their fellows - are fools, instruments or ‘creatures’ who are either of use or not.

But, there is no point in a narcissist who has ceased suppressing his or her guilt. Such a surrender is at the root of the Master Builder’s demise.

Perhaps this is all a little unfair on the character of Solness. The Master Builder is a play said to be rich in symbolism, and the role of Solness, in keeping with the Master Builder’s own difficult character, is demanding. Michael Pennington, a well respected actor with a distinguished portfolio which includes the RSC, adds to the complexity of Solness’s character in conveying his sophisticated and vulnerable sides. But as ever with this type of maladjusted character, Solness’s vulnerability is not as it seems. His fear and vulnerability is of a different nature to that of the 'well-adjusted' member of civic society.

No, his is a vulnerability born of a lifetime spent repressing guilt: the guilt of building a reputation on the ashes of his wife’s inheritance; the guilt of serial philandery; the guilt of oppressing the people around him. It is the absence of this guilt, the type of guilt that is said to eat away inside, that separates the narcissist from the fully reflective member of the human race. Once the Master Builder can no longer resist this guilt, once he succumbs to it, he becomes human. But it is a phryyic triumph, with the price of now being prey to the narcissistic spirits who were once his bedfellows. It is ultimately this that the narcissist fears, the fear that the golden rule, the rule which enjoins us to treat others as we would have them treat ourselves, that rule which the narcissist is uniquely gifted to exploit, can be turned upon its head.

It is not long before Hilde’s well honed sense for the vulnerable deploys itself – by way of quite subtle manipulation; of Holness’s wife Aline; his underlings; and of the Master Builder himself…

It was the first time I’d seen a play by Ibsen, so I am unsure whether it is to his, or to David Edgar’s, skill in adapting the tale that amidst the play’s symbolic references to guilt, betrayal and domination, the audience is not forced to take a moral stance. For me it seemed to be a reconstruction of the subtle and, often seemingly inoffensive, interplay of domination and manipulation that can occur in real life.

It ends the only way it can – no twist - to the sound of the screaming, hysterical narcissism of Hilde now become master of the Master Builder himself.

- The Master Builder, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until 9 October.

Friday, 17 September 2010

‘If it weren’t an enhancement it wouldn’t be a good’

Last weekend I buggered my knee (again) playing cricket. I say ‘again’ because it’s two years since I had an operation to clear up an original injury.

Back then, playing football, I tore my anterior cruciate ligament (AKA, by me at any rate, ‘the Gazza injury’) ending any lingering pretentions I had of playing professional football (ok and the fact I was 33-years-old, ok and the fact that I probably, just maybe, wasn’t good enough)

So back then I had an op to graft a new ligament to replace the torn one. And now I fear I’ve re-torn it. Anyway, it dawned on me, really for the first time, that you only get one pair of legs in life. A depressing thought, if an odd one.

You see I think there was part of me, deep down, that thought one day I’d be able to sort the leg out, get it repaired, ‘fix’ it. You only get one set of legs in life, but I could sort that dodgy leg, you know, when the technology was in place and all that. And it would be a good thing.

It was in this context that I read a piece by Professor John Harris on human enhancement technologies.

There are some interesting discussions out there amongst trans-humanist thinkers who emphasise the emancipatory potential of technologies aimed at enhancing our bodies. . There is also a separate movement of ‘liberal eugenic’ thinkers who seek to justify the idea of ‘parental choice’ in the deployment of such technologies, for example, to inscribe desirable traits in their offspring.

Professor Harris writes, I think, from something like the trans-humanist perspective. He’s interested in how technologies can be used to augment our bodies and make them more – dare I say? – bionic. He argues that such enhancements are obviously goods because well, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be enhancements would they?

But in my opinion there is something problematic in the “if it weren’t good for you it wouldn’t be an enhancement” line of thought. The problem is with the basic ‘good’ that is assumed from the outset.

Advocates of ‘liberal eugenics’ seek to justify interventions in the human genome on the basis of parental choice. One of the arguments they present to justify parental choice (for example over the size, eye or skin colour of children) is that there is no difference, from the moral point of view, between genetic enhancements aimed at influencing an embryo’s future life plans, and parental influence over a child’s education or career.

Parents want the best for their children, e.g. – a good career; parents want the best education for their children in order to enhance their career prospects; therefore, what’s wrong with a genetic enhancement that would do the same job? For example, by inscribing the mathematic competence requisite to a job as a hedge fund manager or accountant?

A problem arises here when this type of ‘parental choice’ is uncritically assumed to be a good. And I’m not talking about the good of hedge fund managers. One of the worries presented by thinkers who take a more conservative view of enhancing technologies concerns the capacity of future subjects to take up critical positions in relation to the decisions of their parents and their attendant genetic programmers.

Consider this: I ought to be able to decide whether to say ‘no’ to my parents and opt against being an accountant or hedge fund manager. But a child whose genetic inheritance is inscribed with a propensity to develop the characteristics necessary to play basketball, or play the stock markets, has no say in the matter.

In this account it is the capacity to partake of ethical life itself that is feared by conservative minded thinkers (for example Habermas) on this issue. The worry is that relationships of mutual recognition and the symmetries built into our ethical-moral dealings as members of the species might be jeopardized by the unequal terms implied by a relationship between a genetic programmer/parent disposing over an embryo in such a way that a particular essence is inscribed into that life.

The worry is magnified by the knowledge that tastes in such liberal eugenic enhancements, and the capacity to service them, would be generated and delivered by ‘the market’ in accordance with so-called ‘parental choice’. The danger in this is that we risk sacrificing the ethical self-understanding of future generations in pursuit of a particular essence, image or social status that we as parents prefer.

I’ve decided not to go back to the doctor about my leg. Nor am I contemplating further surgery aimed at ‘rebuilding’ that failing ligament. I’ve made my legs work hard for me for the last 36 years, perhaps there are some things I no longer need to impose upon them.

There is a difference between having a body and merely being a body.

Friday, 3 September 2010