The Politics of Harold Pinter

By Naomi Garner
2012, Vol. 4 No. 02 | pg. 3/4 |

“Civil servants of Truth,” after words and the bombs: beyond the individual[129]

A language becomes inhuman, generic and systematised when the power of the identity that wields that language becomes inordinate to the identity itself. As such, “the more power an identity carries, the less likely its carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all.”130 The dissolution of identity and, by extension, of the individual, is explored in Pinter’s later plays through the shift in the uses and execution of language to achieve tangible acts of suppression through violence and murder.

The semantics of language change as the use for language changes. In these later plays Pinter demonstrates how language shifts from being used as a means for individual expression, to a weapon for the control and suppression of the individual. This language is epitomised in what Pinter terms the “language of politicians,” which is characterised by “meaningless, hypocritical expressions,”131 that perpetuate the noble lie that ensures a continuation of their own power and control through instigating fear and horror.

The problem of official language for Pinter, is semantics, which is the need to definitively control terms and meanings in order to ensure an appearance of competency and consistency. The intent of official language does not change from the intent of the naked aggressive outbursts of A Slight Ache’s Edward, but rather the expression of the intent changes. Thus, “I’ll ram this stinking battering ram…all the way through her lousy lefty body,”132 becomes “we’re keeping the world clean for democracy.”133 Not only does the desire of a potentially singular individual “I” become the intent of a collective “we,” but the emphasis shifts from attack to protection. This is explained by No Man’s Land’s (1975) 134Foster who insists that he and Briggs are occupying Spooner’s house in order “to protect this gentleman from corruption, against men of craft, against men of evil.”135 This exclusionary statement is not in essence difference to the social philosophy of Davies, however, the deliberate rhetoric here transforms the intention into an official strategy of defence. Consequently, the qualities of ‘us’ are exalted over the faults of ‘them.’ The necessity to promote a sense of the collectivism of ‘us’ persists in One for the Road (1984) as a method of exclusion.136 Nicolas, an agent of the unidentified state, promotes a sense of jingoistic belonging, “we are all patriots, we are as one, we all share a common heritage,”137 which makes identifying and excluding the targets of his torture easier since they are those who do not belong.

The premise of these politics has not changed, but rather the scale and the accompanying aggrandising language most certainly has. Pinter contextual inspiration is the rhetoric at the centre of American political administrations, in speeches that emphasise the collectivism of “we the American people.”138 The need to belong has not changed;- Nicolas insists, “I am not alone,” since he shares a “commonwealth of interest”139 with others of the state, however, the desire to belong becomes a necessity to belong since the means of ensuring conformity and the penalty for non-conformity have increased in proportion to the scale from local setting to global context. As with The Room, One for the Road can be located within a specific historical locale, namely Pinter’s experiences of the Turkish persecution of the Kurds.140 However, the fundamental shift is from the specifically political to the broadly human. The mood of the time is located within the context of humanity.

Though Nicolas functions as a state torturer, an agent of state power, Pinter insists on an essential necessity to preserve his individual identity and self-importance in order to ensure that he functions better in his role as a state agent. Nicolas, instilled with pride by- “the man who runs this country,”141 believes he has been singled out as an important element in the execution of state decisions. The logic here is to preserve the individual so as to ensure a strong atomistic collective composed of trusting elements, which is achieved through prescribing Nicolas with a Hobbesian contract between himself and the state. Nicolas, and others such as Des and Lionel, is equipped with the official state language which ensures control and uniformity in the execution of procedure. The definition of terms through the use of language is paramount to establishing the “full spectrum dominance”142 and façade of capability and control. As such, Lionel is reprimanded by Des for first calling the Blindfolded Man a “cunt” and then calling him a “prick.” Des recognises the necessity “to learn to define terms and stick to them,”143 in order to maintain and execute perfect control of one uniform and consistent discourse. Irregularities of diction, phrasing and style of language are eradicated since they are not consistent with the official discourse of the state.

Pinter demonstrates how this precision in the use of language is essential to maintaining the clean, ordered and bureaucratic torture that is executed by Nicolas. The extent of this bureaucratic and systematised torture is explored in Precisely, (1983) where two businessmen, Stephen and Roger, meet for drinks to discuss the precise number of people that are to be killed.144 The business-like transaction of lives is achieved through a fusion of meaningless political jargon, “the citizens of this country are behind us,”145 with parodic middle-class inflections such as “old boy,”146 that render the characters of city-bankers appropriate for a 1980’s context of the Thatcherite importance of trade and business.147 However, this clean, detached approach to mass murder is appropriately evocative of the Cold War era, with mass extermination achieved through the push of a button. Though Pinter may have expressed a particular, contextually specific catalyst for the composition of these plays and “responds to the political temper of his time,”148 as with his earlier work, the content is relevant to the general context of humanity.

This bureaucracy of death is epitomised by the poem ‘Death,’ which consists of a number of questions concerning a dead body which accumulatively strip the body of any sense of individuality and personal identity. The questions asked are those of official forms and documentation, “where was the dead body found?”149 that seek answers which ignore any personal detail concerning the identity of the individual. The body is accounted for in factual terms, consisting of location, state and position, with the most pertinent question, “who was the dead body?”150 singled out, to resonate, without being answered. Pinter then seeks to restore the identity and humanity of the dead body in statements that do not seek answers, but simply reinstate the personal dignity of the body through acts of washing, closing the eyes, burying and kissing. This personal corporeal contact contrasts with the cold administrative processing of death of Precisely, which devalues the identity of an individual life.

This bureaucracy of death however is preceded by the sanitization of murder, which is first explored by Pinter in the 1957 play The Dumb Waiter.151 Here, two contracted killers discuss their next assassination, which they refer to as a “job.” This establishment of terms serves to sanitize their actions and validate them as part of an occupation. The process that leads up to the assassination follows a routine, “I like to have [a cup of tea] first,”152 and as such becomes both normalised and ritualised. The ritual element is echoed in One for the Road, with Nicolas’ sustained and routine drinking during his interrogations. A correlation is drawn between the two plays when the “organisation” of The Dumb Waiter becomes “this country” of One for the Road;- with the business of murder becoming the policy of murder. Ben’s etiquette in procedure, his “instructions and movement,” which are “precise and scripted,”153 further contributes to sense of his actions being official and valid.

The importance of establishing the validity of actions is emphasised in The Hothouse, (1964) 154 where the sexual abuse of patients is condoned and justified “if a member of staff decides that for the good of the patient, some degree of copulation is necessary.”155 An act of rape becomes legitimized as medical treatment if it follows a rigorous code of regulation, “never ride barebacked…always send in a report,”156 and is executed by sanctioned professionals. This sense of sanitization is expressed in the notion of “keeping the world clean,” whether for “generations to come,”157 for “democracy”158 or “God.”159 Though the diction changes slightly, in each case “keeping the world clean” ironically amounts to the eradication and murder of someone for an abstracted someone else. The word “democracy” becomes so abstracted, as with previous notions such as “love” and “rights,” that is has no real applied relevance other than being a desirable and recognisable objective.160 This sense of abstraction, of withholding the identity of a specified intended recipient of this clean world, increases in gravity, from the faceless “generations to come,” to a “god” which simply comes to designate an ultimate and overwhelming power. Consistently, as the gravity increases to the pinnacle of “god,” the sense of validity becomes a sense of righteousness.

This sense of the official and valid nature of Nicolas and Ben and Gus’ activities has to be maintained and upheld in the use of language and procedure. Given that the regularisation of language has such a huge impact on the way power is disseminated and utilised “one has to be so scrupulous about language,”161 in order to control what it comes to signify. This civilised and articulate policy is revealed as a façade when the mask of “keeping the world clean” falls to reveal “piss on a few rugs.”162 The reality behind the mandate is thus a reality of “excrement, vomit, urine, blood, mutilation, horror, deprivation, poverty,”163 made palatable and justified by a language of jargon and rhetoric.

The masquerading of the offensive in the garb of civility is emphasised in No Man’s Land where the sexually deviant activities of Hirst and Spooner are presented in eloquent and elaborate language in order to conceal the grubbiness of their behaviour. The inclination to “peep on sex” is presented as “when my twigs happen to shall I say rest their peep on sexual conjugations, however periphrastic, I see only white of eyes,”164 in order to civilise their vulgar and disreputable behaviour. Spooner’s admission, that “all we have left is the English language,”165 articulates a front of civility and refinement that dignifies vulgar truths. The language is the language of spin, the same language that Pinter finds in contemporary American foreign policy, a language that presents causing death and destruction as striving for peace. It is this same simulation of civility in the midst of rape, torture and murder that Pinter presents in ‘After Lunch,’ where the “well-dressed creatures come/To sniff among the dead/And have their lunch.”166 Images of fine dining are stirred with stark motifs of death that tinge the civility of lunch with the inconvenient reminder of murder. The necessity to dress well and behave in conventionally civilised ways has developed from Albert’s donning of his party clothes to abuse young women, to the requirement of “the odour of order to sweeten their murders.” It is this scenario that Pinter revisits in Party Time (1991) 167 where the event of a party upstairs hides the reality of “soldiers,” “round-ups” and “roadblocks,” downstairs, which is guarded by a “society of beautifully dressed people.”168 This society is the select few who “don’t do vulgar and offensive things,” yet are prepared to deal with those to do not adhere to this procedure of civility by “kick[ing] them in the balls and chuck[ing] them down the stairs.”169 Controlled violence is therefore prescribed as a means to control unchecked violence, the cure being a more menacing and malignant form of the disease.

Pinter’s retention of the individuality of the agent of the state is achieved through punctuating the official jargon of dignified menace with idiosyncratic outbursts of “fuckpig” and “shithouses.”170 Pinter’s “anti-torture tracts”171 are consequently not “straightforward documentary” since characters do not simply perform perfunctory roles, but rather retain depth and independence outside of their official function. These idiosyncrasies in language also serve to highlight the discord between the official discourse of procedure and the barbarity of “we blew the shit right back up their own ass/And out their fucking ears.”172 This discrepancy between the presentation of procedure and the intent of the procedure is not simply a feature of overt political policy but also Aston’s electroshock therapy in Pinter’s earlier social play, The Caretaker. This procedure, determined by an “examination” and the presentation of “a pile of papers,”173 and carried out by a doctor is validated since the doctor is an official person of qualifications. The reality of “electric current on your genitals,”174 or in this case, “the pincers…on either side of the man’s skull,”175 is presented as medical treatment. The intent of the treatment is not to cure some medical condition, but to cure Aston since he has “talked too much.”176 As a result, Aston has been straightened out in every way and cannot “look to the right or to the left,” but has to “look straight in front of me.”177 There are obvious implications of looking straight ahead and not to the left or to the right, however the essential intention of the treatment is to silence Aston’s talking. His particular political view, whether “left or right,” or whatever in particular he has been saying, is not divulged since it is not strictly important. The fundamental reason for his treatment is to silence him, to ensure that “I don’t talk to anyone…like that.”178 It is his individual voice, a voice that made others “listen” and “understand” that is problematic and as such must be classified and represented as a deviance, or in this case, illness, in order for it to be discredited.

A direct correlation is drawn between the systematisation of Aston’s voice and the interrogation of Victor and Gila, since the intent is the same but the particular circumstances and scale of the situation have changed. The overt political content of these plays, which differs to the content of plays such as The Birthday Party or The Caretaker, that has caused them to be classified as political plays is clear.179 However, Pinter presents the intent and execution of both Aston’s electroshock therapy and the state torture of political prisoners as the same. Both are validated and made justified, both are designed to silence, however global political sympathies, ratified by various declarations, such as the ‘Declaration of Human Rights’- “the major article of faith of a secular culture,”180 automatically designates torture as bad, but electroshock therapy and the death penalty as compassionate treatment, “compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection.”181

Pinter’s parodic use of “compassionate lethal injection” highlights that the language used to describe an act and an act itself do not correspond. What “the language does is debase itself:”182 the act of injecting poison into a vein to cause death has nothing to do with compassion, any more than Roger and Stephen’s decision to order “twenty million dead” has to do with preventing “these bastards [from] a deliberate attempt to subvert and undermine their security.”183

This debasement of language is achieved through manipulating a language beyond recognition. Political discourse, which is the product of this sustained debasement of language, creates a Baudrillardan hyperreality alongside physical events. By this token, “I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people”184 is consistent with “we blew the shit right back up their own ass/And out their fucking ears.”185 This postmodernist consequence whereby, “there are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal,”186 is rejected by Pinter the citizen, who feels a social imperative to ask and seek answers to “what is true? What is false?” Pinter’s later work makes a claim for this search for truth, which he believes is the obligation of the citizen. As a playwright, Pinter believes he can stand by the dichotomy that something can be both true and false but cannot accept this stance as a citizen. Though Pinter’s earlier plays are the product of Pinter the playwright, his imperative as a citizen is fulfilled by characters within his plays. Party Time’s Dusty is upheld as Pinter’s ideal citizen- an individual who asks questions, who, like Gila of One for the Road, or the Blindfolded Man of New World Order, (1991) 187 or Petey, in his monumental protest “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do,”188 has not “stopped questioning received ideas.”189 Dusty’s continual questions, “did you hear what’s happened to Jimmy? What’s happened to Jimmy?”190 are the markers of individuality in a group that chooses not to question or discuss.191

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