Nothing I know matters more
Than what never happened.
John Burnside, ‘Hearsay’
Tragedies are stories about people not getting what they want, but not all stories about people not getting what they want seem tragic. In comedies people get something of what they want, but in tragedies people often discover that their wanting doesn’t work, and as the story unfolds they get less and less of what they thought they wanted. Indeed, both what they want and how they go about wanting it wreaks havoc and ultimately destroys the so-called tragic hero and, of course, his enemies and accomplices. Whether it is called ambition, the quest for love, or the search for truth, tragedies expose, to put it as simply as possible, what the unhappy ending of wanting something looks like – of wanting to displace a king, of wanting vengeance for one’s father, of wanting a special daughter’s love announced. Tragic heroes are failed pragmatists. Their ends are unrealistic and their means are impractical.
Given that we live in a state of permanent need; are, as the psychoanalyst John Rickman said, ‘instinct-ridden’, always found wanting, what is it that makes desiring tragic, dire rather than amusing, full of dread rather than full of life? Isaiah Berlin, in a famous pronouncement in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, offered the liberal position: ‘If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict – and of tragedy – can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social.’ We always have competing wants, they are often incompatible, so in making choices essentials are sacrificed. Lives are tragic not merely when people can’t have everything they want but when their wanting mutilates them; when what they want entails an unbearable loss. What can be described as tragic about the Oedipus complex, named after a tragedy, is that the child, in the Freudian account, in desiring one parent turns the other into a rival, and ultimately has to relinquish his need for his parents in order to be a wholeheartedly desiring adult. You have to give up being a child, for sex; and that, of course, may not be all you have to give up. The quest, one might say, is the finding out whether it is worth it (it is a variant of ‘you must lose your life in order to find it’). Because, in Berlin’s terms, our ends are many, and often enough incompatible, devastating losses are sometimes entailed. Shakespeare’s King Lear wants to divide his kingdom into three, but he wants one third, Cordelia’s, to be more ‘opulent’ than the other two; he wants to relinquish his crown but sustain something of his power; he wants his daughters and sons-in-law to collaborate with him in being his accomplices; he wants to live as he wants, in other people’s houses. He loses everything he wants, and everything he needs.
The pragmatist would say that the art of life is in rendering incompatible wants compatible; redescribing them such that they are no longer mutually exclusive (Lear might say to Cordelia, ‘OK, put it in a way that works for you’). The liberal realist would say that this is to misrecognize the nature of human needs. The pragmatist believes that we make our lives impossible by making up impossible choices. In reality we can have, say, justice and mercy, be children and have adult relationships. The liberal realist would say that, often – and particularly in the hard cases, such as, Should we let ex-Nazis lead pleasurable lives? – mercy and justice are compatible only when they lose definition. Both these positions, we can see, are, whatever else they are, different solutions to the same problem: the problem of frustration. The trials and tribulations of wanting are born of frustration; to choose one thing may involve frustrating ourselves of something else. So a lot depends on whether we can bear frustration and whether we want to. If we were creatures less convinced and convincing about our so-called needs we would suffer in quite different ways. Tragedies begin with a person in an emerging state of frustration, beginning to feel the need of something; and at the beginning, for the protagonists, they are not yet tragedies.
Tragedies begin with a dramatic scene in which an urgent frustration unfolds, seeking first definition and then solution. At the very beginning of a tragedy everyone is a pragmatist; people have answers and believe that solutions probably exist. They behave as if they know what frustration is, and that it can be met. But the first English dictionary, Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall of 1604, has, for the word ‘frustrate’, ‘make voyde, deceive’. ‘Make voyde’, in seventeenth-century usage, also meant ‘to avoid’ (as in Coriolanus: ‘for if / I had fear’d death, of all the men i’ the world / I would have ’voided thee’ (IV.5), as well as the more familiar meaning of ‘to get rid of’, ‘to empty out’; and ‘deceive’ in this period meant not only ‘to trick’ but ‘to disappoint’. Avoidance, of course, is a getting rid of, but coupled with the word ‘deceive’, ‘to frustrate’ seems to have more to do with lying and cheating than with simply depriving someone of something they need; more to do with guile and cunning and calculation than with meanness. To frustrate someone in this seventeenth-century meaning is to knowingly mislead them. There is something underhand about it, something illicit.
As it happens, Cawdrey was a man, as far as we know, not given to evasive behaviour, but to plain speaking, a man in trouble with the authorities. He suffered what was for him the tyranny of Elizabeth’s established Church (for ‘tyrannize’ he has in his dictionary ‘use crueltie’); he was a Puritan Nonconformist priest who was known for ‘speaking divers words in the pulpit, tending to the depraving of the Book of Common Prayer’, and ‘not conforming himself in the celebration of the divine service and administration of the Sacraments, but refusing to do so’ (The First English Dictionary) (for ‘conform’ Cawdrey has ‘to make like unto, to consent’). We might now think it entirely appropriate that a future lexicographer would be ‘speaking divers words in the pulpit’ before losing his living as a priest. ‘To frustrate’ in Cawdrey’s sense is not straightforwardly to refuse someone something; it is, in that strange phrase, to ‘make voyde’ – literally to make something into nothing, to deceive – literally to cause someone to believe something that is false. It is, one might say, a form of magic, a conjuring trick; something there is not there, something false is true.
* * *
In a famous scene in King Lear (IV.6) – probably written a year or two after Cawdrey’s dictionary – in which Edgar is supposedly helping his blind father, Gloucester, to jump over the cliff, we find again these twinned meanings of a now all-too-familiar word. Unable to deliver himself from torment by suicide, Gloucester invokes the common theme of the play – the loss of props, of cultural forms to contain conflict, the present impossibility of conciliating rival claims; that there are things that can neither be avoided nor banished:
Alack, I have no eyes.
Is wretchedness depriv’d that benefit
To end itself by death? ’Twas yet some comfort,
When misery could beguile the tyrant’s rage,
And frustrate his proud will.
What you do with proud wills, in both senses, is the play’s issue. In the first act Lear, in his tyrant’s rage at Cordelia’s apparent refusal – and one of the questions the play asks is, in what way is Cordelia frustrating her father? – accuses his daughter of deception: ‘Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.’ Her pride, he says, will have to be her dowry, and get her a husband. Pride means knowing, intractably, what you want. There are many enraged tyrants in this play, and the play keeps working out what we should do with them, and what it is that makes them tyrannical. Gloucester here adds death to the troop of tyrants, but strangely he looks back almost with nostalgia to a time when suicide was an option – even, perhaps alluding to Cleopatra, a noble option – but acknowledging at the same time that the only thing you can do with tyrants is deceive them: ‘’Twas yet some comfort, / When misery could beguile the tyrant’s rage, / And frustrate his proud will.’ The point is reiterated; beguiling the tyrant’s rage means cheating it, as does frustrating his proud will. Someone is seemingly omnipotent and then, as if by magic, they are not. Their power is void (as is Lear’s). It is evidently a paradoxical point that you can cheat the tyrant Death by killing yourself – you win by losing – or by identifying the enemy. Gloucester could deprive Death by dying. In what sense has the tyrant been frustrated?
A tyrant is someone who wants something from us that we don’t want to give. And in this sense Death could be described as a tyrant. So we can say, by way of an initial proposal, that a tyrant can be someone we want to frustrate, or even need to frustrate. Our lives (and, indeed, the best lives of others), as Cordelia shows, might depend upon our being able to do this. And given the nature of tyranny, the omnipotence it aspires to, this is going to require some trickery, some invention, some deception. Or, rather, something that can feel like deception only to the one who is being refused. Cordelia is speaking plainly, but to Lear she is speaking with pride; from the tyrant’s point of view, not to be given what one wants is indeed to be deceived. And it is a deception because Lear assumes, rightly or wrongly, that it is within Cordelia’s power to give him what he wants. A tyrant is someone who believes that what he demands is available and can be given (to be entitled is, by definition, not to question the reality of what it is one is entitled to). So, a familiar situation arises: Cordelia is not deceiving Lear, but Lear feels deceived by her. Cordelia is not giving Lear what he wants, but she is not deceiving him (in her view she would be tricking him if she complied, as her sisters do). In Cawdrey’s terms she ‘makes voyde’ his claim, his demand; Lear feels he is being tricked. What is it to frustrate someone? To make void what they want, but not necessarily to deceive them. What is it to be frustrated? To feel deceived because, it is assumed, the person has whatever it is that you want from them (it is in their gift). This assumption is sometimes true and sometimes not; it would seem more hopeful to assume that they are withholding something that they could give you, but if this turns out not to be true, then your hopefulness is under suspicion (frustration is optimistic in the sense that it believes that what is wanted is available, so we might talk about frustration as a form of faith). When you feel frustrated you are, like Lear, the authority on what you want. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be a tyrant and you wouldn’t be in a rage.
If you are the frustrator, like Cordelia – the one who in this instance refuses to be complicit with the demand being made, the demand for exorbitant love – you are a different kind of authority; you are the authority on what you are realistically able to give (‘I love your Majesty/ According to my bond; no more nor less’ (I.1). Or rather, perhaps, the authority on what you want to give. Giving Lear the other thing that Goneril and Regan give him would, we might say, turn her into something she doesn’t want to be; would be a way of making a world for herself that she couldn’t bear to live in. And put in this way, of course, the frustrator sounds more morally interesting, in a more complex predicament, than the one who is frustrated. Lear is an old man having a tantrum and Cordelia, who will not abide by her father’s injunction – ‘Mend your speech a little, / Lest you may mar your Fortunes’ (I.1) – loses her family in speaking her truth.
And yet there is something symmetrical about Lear and Cordelia; they both, at the beginning of the play, know exactly what they want. And I don’t think we solve this problem by saying, in one way or another, that what Cordelia wants is better than what Lear wants. It certainly isn’t worse, but it is no less intractable (John Berryman, in Berryman’s Shakespeare, writes of ‘the exquisite matching of a slight excess in Cordelia – an excess of contempt for her sister’s extravagant replies over her filial emotion – against a decided prematurity in Lear’s ungovernable rage against her’). Lear, we might say, even if it is on the basis of it-takes-one-to-know-one, is not completely wrong in implying that there is something tyrannical – though not enraged – about Cordelia’s position. Neither, in the opening scene, can change the other’s mind. ‘The cause of tragedy,’ Stanley Cavell writes in his great essay on King Lear, ‘The Avoidance of Love’, ‘is that we would rather murder the world than permit it to expose us to change’ (Disowning Knowledge). We would rather destroy everything than let other people change us, so strong is our memory of how changed we were at the very beginning of our lives by certain other people; people who could change our misery into bliss, as if by magic, and which we were unable to do for ourselves (all we could do was signal our distress and hope someone got the point). In the first scene of the first act it is Lear, not Cordelia, who would rather murder the world than expose himself to change. Cavell intimates that we are always looking for an alternative to changing, to being, as he puts it, exposed to change. The frustration scene – which goes back a long way – is the scene of transformation. Everything depends on what we would rather do than change.
To frustrate, then, is to, in one way or another, make void a demand made on oneself; to avoid it or to make it as nothing; and it is to deceive the other person either if you have what they want and won’t give it, or if you can create the illusion that you have what they want but are merely refusing to give it. And to be or feel frustrated is to be maddened by having one’s demand negated or avoided or tantalized. In this picture it is as though a contract has been broken; as if one person always has what the other person demands of them and the only question is how to get it (God, of course, can be this other person, or the state). In the optimistic version of this story the only question is a pragmatic one: I want to get from A to B, I just have to find out how to get there, and how to get the wherewithal to get there. I want my favourite daughter’s love for me declared, so I ask her to speak. This assumes, of course, a preconstituted subject, a person without an unconscious; a person who, because he knows what he wants and needs, knows what he is doing, and so only has to work out how to get his satisfaction; and, if need be, as the Lear story shows, how to bear not getting what is supposedly wanted (it is frustration that makes us inventive, resourceful, at our best and at our worst). Clearly the demand for love, the demand that love be articulated, is something of a special case. As is what can be asked for between parents and children, who are continually having to work out what is possible between them. So the issue of entitlement between parents and children, or between lovers, or between friends, can never be straightforward. The entitled are always too knowing.
Knowing too exactly what we want is what we do when we know what we want, or when we don’t know what we want (are, so to speak, unconscious of our wanting, and made anxious by our lack of direction), or when we are so fearful of what we want we displace it on to a known object in a state of militant certainty (if we say that at the beginning of the play Lear is in a terrified state of not knowing what he wants at this stage of his life, or is testing what kingship entails, his reaction to Cordelia’s response can be seen in a different light). Knowing what one wants is a way of not exposing oneself to change (or of taking change too much into one’s own hands, subjecting it to one’s will); and, by the same token, taking up Cavell’s point, is prone to make us murderous. So it is tempting to say that we can be at our most self-deceiving in states of frustration; as though frustration were an unbearable form of self-doubt, a state in which we can so little tolerate not knowing what we want, not knowing whether it is available, and not having it that we fabricate certainties to fill the void (we fill in the gaps with states of conviction). The frustration is itself a temptation scene, one in which we must invent something to be tempted by. Satisfaction is no more the solution to frustration than certainty is the solution to scepticism. Indeed, it may be misleading to think of frustration as a question; or it may be a question with no answer; or with only approximate answers, like Lear’s ‘Tell me, my daughters … / Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ (I.1), which reminds us that it is all in the saying, and that the saying is as close as we can get. The play asks us to wonder, in other words, about what we do with our frustration and what our frustration does with us; it being one of the starker facts about the experience of frustration that it raises the question of agency, of whether, quite literally, frustration is something we can do something with, or can ever avoid doing something with. Or whether what we think of as our agency – or our will, or our capacity to make choices – is something invented, called up, by this primal experience of frustration (the idea of the self as a self-cure for our first helplessness in the face of our need, like bravado in a storm). As the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion writes in Second Thoughts, as we shall see, everything ‘depends on whether the decision is to evade frustration or to modify it’.
Copyright © 2012 by Adam Phillips