One of my favorite essays is Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. In it, she rather ironically dissects the modern obsession with dissection, saying that we have lost touch with the power and pleasure that comes from experiencing art; of actually seeing, hearing, and feeling. Instead, she argues, we prefer to excavate a meaning in everything, thereby destroying art’s mystery, sensuality, and delight. Her point is that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” It is astounding to me that Sontag so accurately put her finger on this pulse back in 1964.
There have been several moments when I think I approximated Sontag’s art of experiencing. One such occasion was seeing Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep at the Broadway Cinematheque in Hong Kong in 2006. I have since seen the film numerous times and have joined and connected its various strands, but on first viewing my only sense was of being a little boy in a state of magical, wide-eyed wonder. I didn’t have an interpretation, but it didn’t matter.
This past Easter, I was fortunate enough to travel to Istanbul, my favorite city in the world so far. One afternoon, I traveled from Beşiktaş to Bebek on a bus which meandered along a road with regal trees on its sides. The journey gives you insight into the grandeur of the Ottoman period’s exquisite palatial structures, some of which are now the sites of luxury hotels like the Four Seasons and the Kempinski. Bebek is a quaint town along the shores of the Bosphorous and truth be told, I wanted to visit primarily because my Turkish friend raved about its legendary nutella and fruit-filled waffles. They didn’t disappoint. Afterward, I found myself a seat on the top floor of Caffe Nero, overlooking a collection of yachts and boats which ebbed and flowed in the water below.
I read Equus in one sitting and it is without a doubt the most incredible play I have ever read in my life.
Peter Shaffer wrote Equus after hearing a story about a boy who committed a horrific act at a horse stable in England. Though the details of the story are ambiguous by Shaffer’s own admission, he claims he wrote Equus to unearth the conditions which in one way or another would precipitate and explain such behavior. We enter the play as court magistrate Hester Salomon beseeches the psychiatrist Martin Dysart to meet with a boy named Alan Strang (who has committed a horrific act at a horse stable) to somehow heal him. From this point on, the play takes on aspects of a delicious whodunnit, with Dysart and the reader curious to unravel what actually happened, and why.
It is this question – why? – the obsessive compulsion of Dysart, the psychiatric profession, and the modern mindset in general – which Shaffer so masterfully scrutinizes. Dysart’s trade is dissection and his therapy (which includes hypnosis, suggestion, and truth pills) aims to get Alan to recount what happened in order to arrive at an explanation. However, through the course of the play, this drive recedes. Dysart realizes that the edifice of his life, built entirely on a foundation of explanation, has left the rooms cold and devoid of vitality; he envies Alan’s ability to experience. As a result, he (much like the reader) becomes almost perversely fascinated with living vicariously through Alan.
To be sure, there is a trajectory of events which shed light on why Alan does what he does. Shaffer provides snapshots of Alan’s early interaction with his parents and religion, for example. However, though Dysart can play psychiatric connect-the-dots with these moments, he cannot understand why they are so emotionally charged in the first place. This inexplicable-ness leaves him to confront the mystery and potency of sheer, undomesticated experience.
Upon finishing the play in Caffe Nero, a strange sensation crept over me. I closed the book and felt as if I had beheld something powerful and agonizing. Something truly human. Something which I cannot explain.
Over the last months, I have been relinquishing the need to know why. I struggle against the tribal urge to dance before the idol of explanation, if only she would be so kind to avert her gaze. Unbridled experience can be terrifying. Perhaps this is why Freud claimed that man personified nature (the seas and the like) and endowed it with spirituality: to tame it, to be able to negotiate, and ultimately to make things reasonable.
Equus made me appreciate the fullness of Susan Sontag’s erotics of art, whereby yielding to art’s real power may allow for agony as well as ecstasy. Even more the play reminds me that, as with Alan, perhaps one of the pleasures of life is being able to fully embrace and experience both, without having to explain why. After all, who wants to tame the seas?