Hegel, or, why you need to be on your toes in the checkout line

In The Philosophy of Fine Art, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote:

"Dramatic action... is not confined to the simple and undisturbed execution of a definite purpose, but depends throughout on conditions of collision, human passion, and characters, and leads therefore to actions and reactions, which in their turn call for some further resolution of conflict and disruption."

If you've ever been my student in a theory or structures course, you've heard what I'm about to say. Hegel is the fellow who wrote down the notion that theater depends on conflict. Aristotle's favorite play was Oedipus (essentially a one-person play), and the Poetics reflects that. But Hegel's favorite play was Antigone (essentially a two-person play) and his theory reflects that. Creon embodies one set of values; Antigone embodies another. That idea of conflicting moral orders is lurking in Hegel's writings. The conflict isn't just personal--it's about how different people think the world is supposed to work.

This brings me, oddly enough, to a basic German interaction. The script for this drama is woefully formulaic. The protagonist expresses his or her displeasure with the antagonist's behavior. Then the antagonist says something biting, dismissive, or sarcastic, and goes on about his or her business.

Example #1: To understand the following exchange, you must first understand that Germans take their pedestrian stop lights very seriously. Crossing on a red just isn't done. E. and I were running late, and saw our bus coming. Getting from where we were to the bus stop wasn't looking good, and we ran across the street even though we had a red light. And old dame nearby chides us: "The light is red!" "Das wissen wir" ("We know"), I snap back with my Austrian pronunciation ("dus" not "das") and a weary way about me.

Example #2: I was standing in line in a grocery store. The man in front of me was simultaneously trying to put his items on the conveyor belt, pay, bag (you always bag for yourself here), and maintain control of his maybe two-year old son, who was a bundle of trouble. Specifically, the boy was taking packages off the shelf, putting them in his mouth, and so forth. The stuff little kids do in a world of enticements. I was behind the man in line, and behind me was the woman who's the protagonist of this drama. She starts complaining to the man about his son. Why aren't you watching your child. I don't want to buy food that's been in his mouth. Blah, blah. (I had ample sympathy for the man, none for the woman.) I regret to say that I did not catch everything he said, but it was sarcastic, snappy, and involved lawmaking. Something like: Perhaps you should run for a seat in the Bundesrat and you can pass a law against parenthood so this never happens again.

Example #3: I was standing in line at another grocery. I had just a few items, and I set them not even on the conveyor belt, but on the metal end, and then put my basket in the stack of baskets. The guy ahead of me had a minor fit, somehow thinking that I was trying to get ahead of him. This, by the way, is completely crazy, as I would have had to work my way past him and his girlfriend in a narrow space to do so. "Um Gottes willen" ("for God's sake"), I snapped, "do you really think that's what I'm trying to do?" It's important to have a quick reaction time. That's the only way you can hope to win the exchange.

Example #4: This is a bit more complicated, it didn't happen to me, and I'm not getting this from the horse's mouth, so a few details may be off. Two American women are talking in the hallway of their apartment building. (Cultural context: Making noise that your neighbors can hear is a very big no-no.) A neighbor takes this in, and isn't pleased. Later, one of the women, as she is leaving the building, sees the neighbor but does not wait to hold the door for her because she really isn't that close. Subsequently, the neighbor stops the woman on the street and objects both to the noise and to slamming the door in her face. As I gather, this poor soul did not have a suitably biting or quick response, and surely lost the exchange. Also, as a cultural newcomer, I gather she felt a bit sheepish about the whole thing, not realizing that she was in a drama, or how to play her part.

Let's reprise Example #4 as it should have happened with more skillful actors.

Protagonist: Next time, you don't have to slam the door in my face!
Antagonist: What exactly is your problem? Is it that you're menopausal and still a virgin? That would explain everything.

You'll notice that the protagonist exposes the conflict, but that the antagonist is usually a better role.

Example #5: Writing this, I'm reminded of a scene in Buechner's Woyzeck: Margaret says to Marie: "You are unmarried! I am an upstanding person, but you, your eyes go straight through seven pair of leather pants." Marie replies: "Bitch!"

To say that moral codes are what's at issue is overstating facts, but it is fair to say that these exchanges are about how each actor feels things should work. For one person, not violating the red don't-walk light is an inviolable virtue. For another, the right to race to try to catch a bus is similarly desirable.

Dramaturgically, these Hegelian vignettes lack suitable resolution. The protagonist would like to expel the antagonist from society for his crimes (viz. Oedipus). Occasionally the protagonist may win the moral argument, but the antagonist (especially an experienced one) is likely to take the protagonist as a crackpot and go on about life. Proper tragedy is never achieved. Proper comedy could at best be achieved if the antagonist saw the error of her ways ("My goodness, it certainly was rude of me to be talking in the hallway, and could I perhaps buy you a small present to make up for it") and were thus reintegrated into society, but that's certainly not going to happen.

Nope. The only thing that can possibly happen is that the actors will sharpen their knives for another quarrel on another day.

All of this leaves me wondering if Hegel wasn't really responding to his trip to the market to buy produce for his wife, and not to Antigone and all that.

I have resolved, by the way, to say the following the next time I find myself cast as the antagonist: "Please take a moment to think about what you just said, and then tell me if it makes any sense at all." I think that should work in most instances, and it amounts to talking down to the other person without being outwardly hostile. There's nothing worse than being an actor with no lines.

Queen Elizabeth: How dare you put your vegetables on the conveyor belt before I have placed a plastic divider indicating that I have completed placing my items for purchase.

Maria Stuart: I am your queen. Bite me.


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