Author's note: Observing the theatrics of the GOP Congress-critters as well as those of the venal and craven right-wing media over the last few days recalled for me a diary I wrote a little more than three years ago. With only a few minor edits, I find that the thoughts I struggled to express then are as relevant this morning.Writing in the early second century CE, the Roman historian Suetonius described the Emperor Nero’s response to the fire that began on 19 June 64 CE, burned for nine days and devastated the city of Rome:
Nero witnessed the conflagration from the Tower of Maecenas, enraptured by what he termed "the beauty of the flames." He then donned the tragedian’s costume and intoned The Sack of Ilium from beginning to end. (Suetonius, Life of Nero 38)Although Suetonius’ representation of Nero’s behavior during the Great Fire is almost certainly moralizing hyperbole, I find that this tale—even without the anachronistic fiddle—provides an instructive framework for understanding the nature of reactionary right-wing politics and punditry and the zealous reception of such spectacles among segments of modern American society.
The Tower of Maecenas
Whether Nero actually stationed himself in the Tower of Maecenas (Turris Maecenatiana) atop the Esquiline Hill to observe the progress of the fire through the neighborhoods of Rome is a fact lost to history. Yet the veracity of this historical detail is not particularly important, for the educated reader of Suetonius’ day will have immediately recognized that the Tower was an element of the Horti Maecenatiana, once the private property of Gaius Maecenas who, having accumulated enormous wealth through confiscation of the property of condemned political rivals, was notorious for his decadent lifestyle. The rhetorical intent of Suetonius’ reference to the Tower is clear: while Nero may have been interested in observing the destruction caused by the fire, he did so from a location which was at once physically distant from the flames and also morally distant from the profound human suffering being witnessed. Nero’s view of the fire was that of a voyeur, at ease in his sumptuous surroundings, dislocated from the untold personal tragedies unfolding before his eyes.
The Beauty of the Flames
Suetonius describes Nero as having been enraptured by "the beauty of the flames" and, significantly, the author attributes the phrase to Nero himself. With this attribution Suetonius represents Nero as a philosopher and critic whose valuation of beauty is superficial and transitory, his gaze dancing upon the colors and erratic movement of the fire itself, blissfully ignorant of the human misery disguised by the kaleidoscopic flames. At such safe remove from the chaos below—the heat of the fire, the crush of the building debris, the sounds and smells of the dying and dead—Nero has the luxury to wax philosophical about the nature of beauty. "The beauty of the flames" is a powerful aesthetic statement, a voyeur’s exultation in catastrophe.
The Tragedian’s Costume
Suetonius further describes Nero as having "donned the tragedian’s costume," the tall and heavy boots (kothornoi) and padded garment (chitōn) which lent to the actor’s movement a certain gravitas, as well as the oversized mask (prosōpon) upon which the emotion appropriate to the narration of tragedy was permanently fixed in exaggerated display. In lieu of genuine empathy is thus the narcissist’s conscious performance of empathy. Nero’s voyeuristic appreciation of the flames and his indifference to the human suffering within the flames are effectively shrouded by the costume required for the performance. As for the audience, they will be deceived by the performance, by the trappings of what is perceived to be an appropriately serious emotional response.
The Sack of Ilium
It is no coincidence that Suetonius represents Nero as acting a part in The Sack of Ilium (Iliou Persis), one of the epics in the cycle of literature related to the mythology of the Trojan War. The destruction of Rome by fire is obviously likened to the destruction of Troy. Yet, paradoxically, without the fall of Troy and the departure of Aeneas from Troy, there would have been no Rome. The cold calculus is that political advantages arise from life-shattering and life-ending events.
Right-Wing, Reactionary Politics and Punditry
The politicians and pundits of the rabidly zealous right in America today have gleefully occupied the rôle of Nero in Suetonius’ account of the Great Fire in Rome in 64 CE. They are owned by interests—ideological, corporate, theological—which delight in exploiting human tragedy, which indeed require widespread human suffering in order to legitimate their worldviews.
Fox News and kindred media have institutionalized the aesthetic and (im)moral principle of "the beauty of the flames," conditioning their audiences to assume the rôle of the voyeur, physically and emotionally distant from the human tragedies hidden just behind the imagery and rhetoric. The further these pundits and infotainers can dislocate their audiences from the real human content of news and information, the easier it is to manipulate an "appropriate" response.
The blurring of boundaries between news-reporting and entertainment is an essential weapon in their arsenal, for it is the feigned performance of news—the costume, the script, the props and other trappings—that elicits the desired response, the ecstatic moment in which ideology triumphs over morality. The audience, having experienced such ecstasy, will return time and time again, not for information but out of a desire to replicate that moment, to partake of "the beauty of the flames."
The process is Wagnerian in scope, an opera of self-denial and self-destruction. The aim is apocalyptic, is eschatological, and yet... and yet... those devotees will march as an army willingly and happily toward catastrophe. As Walter Benjamin observed in the epilogue to his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936):
Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.