Ethics and melodrama

Then last night, actually, it was our twentieth wedding anniversary. And I took Chiquita to see the show about Billie Holiday, and I looked at these show-business people, who know nothing about Billie Holiday, nothing, so they’re really kind of in a way intellectual creeps. And I suddenly had this feeling, I mean, you know, I was just sitting there crying through most of the show. And I suddenly had this feeling, I was just as creepy as they were! And that my whole life had been a sham, and I didn’t have the guts to be Billie Holiday either.
-André Gregory, My Dinner With Andre

I’ve been reading Irrelevant Narcissism on Marie Antoinette, and The Oh Zone on some sort of English assignment designed to teach her about making arguments. Apparently, in Marie Antoinette, young Kirsten Dunst suffers through a variety of coming-of-queenly-age ordeals, settles down into a life of bizarre regal scenesterism, and then suffers again at the hands of the Revolution. She is initially pitiable, because history is having its way with her. Then she becomes shallow and boring when she gets her own life to live. Then she goes back to being pitiable when the peasants burn her chambers and, well, cut off her head.

Meanwhile, over at the Oh Zone, miso is asking us about an assignment prompt that involves a woman (Beth) being separated from her lover, then having to prostitute herself to reunite with her lover, then being rejected by her lover for being a prostitute, and then shooting her lover in the head. The story is propped up by details like this: the reason that Beth has to prostitute herself is that she has to cross a river, and there is only one boat, and the boat is owned by a lonely evildoer.

What does all this signify? I risk being Marie Antoinette. I risk waiting to be made sympathetic, for that moment when the circumstances around me reach such operatic proportions that I can, for example, throw myself off a bridge to save 1,000 people. In short, we perhaps have ethical reserves ready to be deployed, and that feeling is only intensified by artworks like Battlestar Galactica, where every character is provided an occasion to rise to when the robots suddenly attack.

But what if we have no occasions? What if, as it does to Marie, the camera keeps its gaze trained on us even when there is no particular injustice being done? The risk is that it will find, in the absence of melodrama, an absence too of purpose, aside from the dull imperatives of getting work accomplished — but perhaps here too this is merely work undertaken without self-consciousness, without knowing whither it leads.

So often the ethical dilemmas presented in things like The Book of Questions involve rarified situations, like Spider-Man being forced to choose between saving a trainload of people, and saving his girlfriend (who is, of course, Marie Antoinette). If anyone asks you whether you would die to save a thousand people, I recommend answering, “Well, nothing is certain in the real world. I’d certainly be willing to risk dying.”

A better ethical question is this one: “You wake up. It’s November 13, 2006. Highs will be in the low seventies with a slight chance of rain. What do you do?”