Monday, 23 April 2018

It's about alcoholism

Nietzsche said:

I am afraid that we are not rid of God because we have faith in grammar.

I am not interested in what Nietzsche had to say about God's ontological qualities, but I am interested in the way that he relates the death of belief in something to a failure to stop believing in its consequences. 


In Long Day's Journey into Night, Eugene O'Neill reveals, in realistic detail, the attempts of a family to discover the 'original sin' that has corrupted them. They talk and argue, they debate and confess, until the mother remembers her long abandoned vocation to become a nun. In the last words of the play, the loss of religious belief is exposed as the moment of 'The Fall'. The characters have all abandoned God, but not for the philosophical ideals of Dawkins. Alcohol, selfishness, egotism and short-term pleasure made good enough temptations for this family. And without God - or the Blessed Mother, since they might have been Catholics, once - there is no meaning. So the conversations, the torrent of words, have no meaning. There is nothing to guarantee the meaning. All they are merely sounds aimed at disguising the void. 

Long Day is the articulation of Nietzsche's concern with grammar across three hours of tragedy. The ultimate tragedy is not the death of God, but the inability of language to forge meaning. The connection between humans, the understanding and appreciation that makes compassion possible - that makes meaning possible - cannot be reached by words. Every single line of the script is marked by its failure to say anything, except perhaps the sharp confession that 'stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people'. 

It is easy to believe that atheism is the great redemption of humankind, that it is a matter of intellectual ascent to a scientific world view. O'Neill says something else: it is a tragedy, a bad thing happening to a good person. In celebrating the technological achievements of the past centuries, the emotional cost is forgotten and, as Men's Rights Activists are wont to insist, who cares about the feels?

Refusing the emotional price of atheism is a typically capitalistic trick. It privileges progress and materialism above the human feeling. Might is right, knowledge is power and facts matter more than feels. The spreadsheet shows the rise in standards of living, the computer says no and the void is just the truth, isn't it?

Long Day isn't an apologetic for Catholicism: the sons are determined atheists, rejecting a church that preaches poverty but praises wealth. One son even says that Nietzsche is right and that God is dead and the family end not in redemption but tragedy. O'Neill himself rejected Catholicism as a teenager, after his prayers failed to cure his mother of her morphine addiction. The famously autobiographical elements point to Long Day as the description of O'Neill's crisis of faith. The universe depicted on the stage and in the script is godless. There is no divine intrusion. The poetic fallacy of the fog might suggest a universe which reflects the consciousness of the humans, but there is no light that can break through it and reveal the truth. 

The final scene confronts the audience with a bitter truth: what is represented on stage is a reflection of their lives. It is empty, desolate, loveless, individuals competing for their own space, their own freedom, at the cost of others. One brother feels that his only possible victory is to bring the other down to his level. The father is more concerned with his own comfort than his son's illness and possible death. The mother hides in addiction - although that has the biological force of compulsion that avarice and envy lack. Long Day's Journey into Night is the image of the family without religion. 

But of course, it's all just entertainment, isn't it?

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