Among the many tributes tweeted in the wake of Robin Williams’ death on Sunday night was one by actress Evan Rachel Wood, featuring an image of the Genie (voiced by Williams) embracing Aladdin in the 1992 Disney animated film, accompanied by the caption “Genie. You’re free”. The tweet was retweeted over 100,000 times and an unattributed copy of it an hour later tweeted from the official Academy of Arts and Motion Picture Sciences account outdid that, with over 320,000 retweets. For most people, these were touching tributes, remembering the late actor in a manner that connected with most of his fans, particularly those who first came to know him in the early 1990s. There were others though, especially suicide awareness activists, who criticised it for a supposedly dangerous romanticisation of suicide. I too was a bit put out by this blithe summation, however well-intentioned, of a life tragically ended, something that Williams’ friends and family – who are, we ought to remember, the ones actually bereaved – may not subscribe to. It also seemed that suicide was being recast, in an oddly crass manner, as a quintessentially Hollywood act of self-realisation. The butterfly emerging from its pupa, as it were.
It might seem a little harsh to criticise Wood or The Academy’s social media button-presser for their fatuousness – maybe it just came natural for them to conceive of a tragic event with the vocabulary and tropes they were most familiar with. After all, the lexicon of condolence and sympathy shared by most people and repeated every time a friend or acquaintance is bereaved is one that is as universal as it is limited. There may also be a tendency of people who are involved in the production of art and entertainment to see forms and hear echoes of those works in every life and sometimes in world events. Occasionally the tendency can give rise to insensitive formulations, such as Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s rambling opinion, delivered soon after 9/11, that the attacks on the World Trade Center “the biggest work of art there has ever been”. No amount of protesting and clarification about context was ever going to later undo those words in the minds of the general public.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s assertion that the first Gulf War “did not take place” on account of its existence for westerners as a media event was taken by many in the English-speaking world as proof of a decadent Left Bank philosophe bringing an abstract epistemological template to bear on an actual war. Few of those commentators were aware though that Baudrillard’s essay used as an anchor reference Jean Giraudoux’s 1935 stage play La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place). Giradoux’s historical allegory is relatively unknown in English-speaking countries, where it was, in any case, staged under the title Tiger at the Gates. While Baudrillard’s thesis was one of a notional “virtual” modern war, rather than the failed inter-war diplomacy that Giraudoux skewered, the post-structuralist instinctively reached for the cultural vocabulary to mount his argument. It was not really his fault that the connotations were obscure to most outside of France.
I have to myself admit to having a predilection for “narrativising” contemporary events in a way that makes them appear to be lifted from fiction or drama, though, in some cases, the coincidences make it easy to do. Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Booker in 2010. The titular slap is one given by an adult to someone else’s brattish five-year-old at a suburban barbecue in Melbourne.
And so follows a contentious tale of disputes and fallings-out among a group of friends each steadily advancing, at different stages, into parenthood. The Slap is a disappointing novel, its vivid portrayal of working-class and immigrant life marred by some woefully leaden prose and the seismic promise of the title’s action never materialises. A real-life slap however in late 2010 would have far-reaching consequences worthy of a great novel.
In December of that year in Sidi Bouzid, a dusty, economically stagnant town deep in Tunisia’s interior, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young unemployed university graduate was trying to eke out a living illegally selling fruit and veg on the town’s main square. One afternoon he was accosted by a policewoman and told to pack up his wares and go. It was Bouazizi’s third arrest for illegal hawking but this one was the most humiliating, because, according to his family, a female municipal office slapped him on the face.
The youngster returned to the square, doused himself in petrol outside the governor’s office and set himself alight. Bouazizi died of his injuries eighteen days later, by which time he had been visited in his hospital bed by an increasingly nervous Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, and anti-government protests had spread across the country. In the week that followed Bouazizi’s death, Ben Ali addressed the nation twice but was eventually pushed to step down by the military; he and his notoriously corrupt family then fled to Saudi Arabia.
We all know what happened next – Egypt rose up in arms and overthrew Hosni Mubarak after almost three decades of authoritarian rule. Then there were protests in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and finally, Syria, each of which western and Arab powers took differing attitudes towards. It was the most momentous world-historical chain of events since the fall of the Berlin Wall in over two decades earlier. Like the events of 1989, it was actually the result of a cumulated process of historical facts and events (protests over food prices and the police murder of another youngster, Khaled Mohamed Saeed, could as easily have tipped the balance in Egypt in mid-2010) but it also had a similar air of narrative concision about it. As events unfolded, with many of the protagonists active in real time on Twitter and Facebook, you felt you were witnessing something epic. One of those protagonists, the young Emirati journalist Sultan al-Qassemi, tweeted upon his first post-revolution visit to Cairo that he felt like he was meeting characters from a favourite novel.
Events since then, of course, took a more sinister twist in Egypt, with the SCAF’s bloody crackdowns on protests, rising sectarian violence, a military coup that dares not speak its name and we are now left with a situation where the country’s foremost novelist Alaa al-Aswany is a vocal supporter of the current repressive government. As Syria spiralled into an increasingly horrendous civil war, which has in turn overspilled into Lebanon and Iraq, the exhilaration at being at such a close vantage point to unfolding history has sharply receded.
This is not to say that the uprisings against sclerotic totalitarian rule were a bad thing or that the sour turn so many of them took was inevitable, rather than the result of specific political actions or choices. What is true though is that there is a clear limit to the amount of narrative jouissance to be had from observing “interesting times”, least of all from a safe distance. Ironically, the only one of the Arab countries that rose up in rebellion that looks to be still in reasonable shape is Tunisia itself; the north African country has not been spared civil strife, with economic crisis, political assassinations, stand-offs with Salafists and encroaching Islamisation in universities, but it has largely managed to address those crises peacefully, by consensual rather than conflictual means.
This tendency to see narrative or artistic forms in real life, just as Fibonacci sequences are revealed in natural life-forms, is understandable enough. Even the way we experience and remember our dreams is quite probably beholden to our cultivated sense of narration. The power and genius of great (and even sometimes minor) art lies in its ability to map, mimic and project everyday and historic reality, sometimes unwittingly so, long after its creator’s death. Consequently, art and literature provide us with the tools and the vocabulary to interpret and understand reality. It is not for nothing that words such as “Dickensian”, “Kafkaesque” or “Orwellian” have passed into general usage and their resonance is understood even by people who have never read the works of the writers in question.
Even minor literary characters such as Svengali, Nicolas Chauvin, or the supporting players from Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (which coined the word “robot”) serve as linguistic functions for interpreting the real world that lies beyond the page. It is worth remembering though that that real world is mostly messy and inchoate and can rarely be shoehorned into the confines of what are the arbitrary conventions of narrative and artistic form. It might be tempting to sense in tragic images or events culled from news headlines echoes of Shakespeare, of Michelangelo or even of horror films and disaster movies. Maybe it is best though not to lose the run of yourself when you do so.
Originally published by The New Statesman.