The hero or the goat?

Posted: Mar 20, 2002 12:00 AM
Remember Charlie Brown? He used to ruminate on the baseball field, as the ball came tumbling in his direction: "Hero or the goat?"

Hero or the goat? I could not help remember that formulation of the alternatives as I contemplate two important recent cultural productions. At movie theaters everywhere you can see "The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring," nominated for an Academy Award as best picture. And in New York the more ventursome can take in Edward Albee's new play, "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?"

"One of the most satisfying productions of the Broadway season," the Associated Press called Albee's play, and I have no doubt it is a work of art, probing the nature of desire and love in extremis, ecstatically smashing one of the few, pathetic, pitiful sexual taboos we have left.

For both art and masculinity, these are two extremes: Tolkein or Albee? Let us take them both seriously, as they deserve. In J.R.R. Tolkein's world, men are heroes, tempted and imperfect but persevering in the fight against evil. When Frodo laments that he was ever faced with the burden of the Ring, Gandalf tells him that nobody chooses such times; all we can choose is what we do with the times that are given us.

The distinguished Sherry Turkle, professor of the sociology of science at MIT, complains in print that this "Lord of the Rings" is a masculine world: "The few females are loved and feared as icons or charms." This world, she snorts, owes its "simple clarities to the fact that it is not real. Tolkein's Middle-earth ... leaves little room for ambuguity, ambivalence or contradiction. But the real world," she insists, "demands that we be comfortable with them."

Sometimes, no doubt.

Ambiguity is Albee's specialty. Albee's tortured protaganist, Martin, is a 50-year-old married architect driven by overwhelming sexual desire for a goat. For Albee's theme of obsessive love, the goat is not gratuitous. These days, it takes a goat to produce the kind of tension between moral obligations and sexual gratification the author seeks to exploit. If Martin had merely fallen in love with another woman -- or man -- we in the audience would have yawned and said, Get a divorce, be happy.

For a hundred years avant-garde artistes have prided themselves on liberating sexual desire from artificial constraints. The avante-garde antihero is the man who rejects any conventional idea of good that restricts or confines his desire. The very purpose of art is to "epater" the poor pathetic bourgeoisie -- the hobbits of the world -- who are too timid to break through to authentic feeling.

"The Lord of the Rings" is a fairy tale, yes, but written (remember Prof. Turkle?) in the shadow of the Second World War, where the fate of freedom and goodness did indeed hang in the balance. A world where, in fact, all that it would take for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing -- to be obsessed with their own personal desires.

Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" represents that terrible fate of a genuine artist of merit trapped in a world where sexual conventions forbid almost nothing. If the artist's job is to break taboo, what can a man of real artistic ambition do but trot out the goat? How else can the artist himself be a hero?

Sad, and sorry, but on its own terms true enough for those who choose to live in that world.

In an interview last June in The American Spectator, George Gilder put the alternatives starkly: "It is really faith that is indispensible to almost all positive human activity. Because you can't know the future, and if you don't have faith, the pursuit of bodily pleasure and preoccupation with obstacles to it become your entire life. And the horizons darken."

Hero or the goat? You all get to decide.