Monday, January 07, 2008

Perpetuating Cruelty

Last Saturday I saw a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamerlane (aka Timur the Lame).

Tamerlane is one of those names that Americans may think they recall but cannot tell you the context – dates, occupation, where she or he became famous and precisely why – or (briefly) what was going on elsewhere that impelled the protagonist to initiate action, the consequences of which unfold (or are recalled and retold) from the present into the future.

To set the stage: - Tamerlane’s milieu is what today’s world calls Uzbekistan. His was one of the fearsome Mongol tribes that swept across parts of Asia and Europe in the 13th century CE,

- He lived (1336-1405) some 100 years after the exploits of the great Mongol warrior, Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde. By the time Tamerlane was old enough to fight, the old Mongol empire had fractured from the strains of ambition or the incompetence of Genghis Khan’s sons and generals.

- At its greatest expanse, Tamerlane’s empire was no slouch. From its center in Samarqand, it stretched north into Russia, where the remnants of the Golden Horde held sway; south into India, east to the borders with China, and west to the Mediterranean Sea via Anatolia and Constantinople (Istanbul).

The underlying theme of Marlowe’s tale, the first of seven plays he penned in his short life (he was stabbed to death at age 29), is said to be transformation. Now in principle, transformation – or its equivalent, change, whose “agent” each of the 2008 Democratic party presidential candidates claims to be – as process is neutral. Whether the transformation is “good” or “bad” depends on what, how, and to what end the process moves.

Marlowe’s title character begins his “career” modestly as a ruthless thief and sometime shepherd who aspires to “royalty.” He allies his followers with the troops of an invading warlord. At the latter’s demise, he plays two rivals against each other and sequentially annihilates both, thereby gaining complete control of the old warlord’s domains.

Turks, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks – no rival can defeat him on the battlefield, and those kingdoms and empires that lie beyond his domains live in fear of the day when Tamerlane will strike, wiping out entire cities simply to demonstrate his power.

Despite the passage of 600 years, this mindset is still evident in the wars of the late 20th and early 21st century. This is not warfare for critical resources, not for revenge, not to preempt, not for defense; it is mayhem and genocide simply for the sake of mayhem and genocide.

One other theme running just under the play’s consciousness is the futileness of empire building – futile because empires never endure no matter how many thousands or even millions of people die in the creation of the empire.

In the western world, Alexander the Great’s empire was divided among his generals. Charlemagne’s was carved into thirds to be ruled by his three sons. Today in the Middle East, secular “dynasties” are emerging in Syria and Egypt. Even Tamerlane, most “un-royal” as he was, failed to bequeath permanently his empire to his bloodline through a son.

While cruelty seems endemic to the human condition, it is learned. As such, like the drive for hereditary rule, it is not inevitably passed from one generation to the next. That is to say, transformation of the human condition is possible through the transformation of the human psyche.

Marlowe’s Tamerlane failed to realize the latter transformation, even in his own family (he killed one of his sons).

One wonders, had he lived, whether Marlowe could have been transformed.

More to the point, can the United States in today's world learn how to replace the cruelty of empire with the humility of democracy?


Blogger rasphila said...

Our politicians so often seem to learn the wrong things from history. The fragility of empires is among the lessons that many officials haven't quite learned yet. The Iraq invasion was supposed to inaugurate the American Century; it led to the fiasco we now see.

I agree that cruelty is learned. I would add that flawed institutions help create the context in which cruelty becomes "natural" and violence for its own sake seems inevitable. It's sad that Marlowe did not live to revisit these themes from a more experienced perspective. He might have had much to tell us that was worth hearing.

6:25 PM  

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