Death by Elephant

Guards at the TajBy, Leanne Ogasawara

It is one of my life regrets that when in Delhi, I did not take the time to go down and see the Taj Mahal. This is not even the worst travel regret I have either. But it is the second worst. There was so much to see and do in Delhi back then. And I guess I tend toward a pathological dislike for the popular and fashionable. So, I missed seeing the building with my own eyes.

Filled with regret, I sat down at LA's Geffen Playhouse last week to watch Rajiv Joseph's Guards at the Taj.

The play opens as two friends are standing guard in front of the almost completed Taj Mahal. Childhood friends, they cannot keep to the strict rule of silence that their job demands. Surreptitiously, they talk of the stars and their dream of “moving up” to become guards in the emperor's harem… the ultimate job, they decide. Birds are singing. The beauty of their friendship and funny dialog, however, belies the extreme violence that follows in Act 2.

It is an old legend that after having the Taj built as a monument to his beloved dead wife, the emperor Jahan decreed that the architect and all the workers who had built the building would all have their hands cut off. When I was in India, I had actually heard that it was only the architect who was put to death. In any case, it is just a dark legend. Anyway, as the two friends stand guard happily dreaming of the emperor's harem, one tells the other about a rumor that is going around. The emperor, it seems, in his desire to ensure that nothing more beautiful than his glorious Taj ever be built again, will amputate all 20,000 workers' hands.

One friend says, “What a horrible job that would be to cut off the hands of 20,000 men.”

“Yeah” says the other, “that's 40,000 hands.”

In that moment, it then dawns on them that of course this is a job that will fall to themselves–as the lowliest grunts in the army.

And sure enough in Act 2, the stage is awash in blood and severed hands. (My friend Guita called it an early Halloween).


Despite the contemporary language and jokes, there is an element of classical Greek tragedy to the story–for neither character evolves or transcends anything. Rather, they both do what the situation leads them to do with their “characters becoming their destiny.”

Two friends, Babur and Humayun. They do what the emperor orders, because if they don't, they will be trampled by elephants. And so they remove 40,000 hands that day.

Shahjahan_on_globe,_mid_17th_centuryThe dreadful act complete, they each unravel. Humayun takes refuge in the fact that he was “doing his duty.” He wants a better life and if he had not done it, he would have been put to death. For everyone knows that in order for those in power to live lives of luxury, the common people must suffer in poverty and chains. This is just the way the cookie crumbles. Babur, though, cannot get past the idea that the emperor is such a megalomaniac that he seeks to kill Beauty itself. Babur then becomes almost obsessed by what it means to kill beauty and seeing that for the monstrosity it is, he decides to kill the emperor, which, of course, would save beauty.

To kill beauty. Is it even possible?

Well, we know that the more power is held in fewer hands the more despotic things become–even to the seemingly impossible notion of controlling beauty. Think of the lengths that Hitler and Stalin and Mao took to control aesthetic sensibilities and to steal and destroy art. Think of the Looty wallahs. Or think of how the consumer market today is turning art into a product and how “art became irrelevant?” My friend Hakha said that Ivan the Terrible was alleged to have done the same thing to the artisans who built St Basil's Cathedral.

One of my favorite novels, Rushdie's Enchantress of Florence sees a similar exploration of beauty versus power in the court of the emperor Akbar (from Babur to Humayun; from Hamayun to Akbar… then on to Shah Jahan, did it not go from bad to worse?)

But then again has there (or has there ever been) a system that does not chew people up and spit them out?

The subjugated subject is not even aware of its subjugation

German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, in an absolutely brilliant short essay, Why Revolution is No Longer Possible, might suggest we are no better off today along these lines than we were in the Mughal courts of Hindustan. Only that today, rather than employing covert and violent means, domination proceeds from market seduction and the disciplining state of Foucault. He says:

'The neoliberal system of domination has a wholly different structure. Now, system-preserving power no longer works through repression, but through seduction — that is, it leads us astray. It is no longer visible, as was the case under the regime of discipline. Now, there is no longer a concrete opponent, no enemy suppressing freedom that one might resist.

Neoliberalism turns the oppressed worker into a free contractor, an entrepreneur of the self. Today, everyone is a self-exploiting worker in their own enterprise. Every individual is master and slave in one. This also means that class struggle has become an internal struggle with oneself. Today, anyone who fails to succeed blames themselves and feels ashamed. People see themselves, not society, as the problem.'

As Heidegger predicted, everything is being commoditized– even beauty and art. Even one's own self.

Han is correct, I think, that –as in South Korea– a vast consensus prevails in the US (and this is accompanied by epidemic anxiety and depression). When I try to imagine what places I have been to that somehow resist (even if just a little) the globalized neoliberal system of domination, in the way Han describes, I think I found it a bit in both Japan and France. Yes, even in Japan Inc. I think it is still possible in both this countries to not have to “get with the program.” For example, in both places, agriculture still is not corporatized and one doesn't have to join the system for health care or education. Efficiency and short term quarterly financial performance are not the highest goods there either. As another friend points out, “it ain't all bad; there's Etsy and Kickstarter.”

To be sure, but I guess the bottom line is to ask whether Han is correct or not: is it true that revolution is no longer possible? That is, is it death by elephant for us all?

I adore Salmon Rushdie. In my opinion, no other living author is more deserving of a Nobel Price for literature than the great Rushdie. Right now, I am in the middle of his latest, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights. It is absolutely wonderful–and one of the themes in the book is the philosophical battle between the medieval philosophers, Ghazali and Ibn Rushd. In fact, such was Rushdie's father's great admiration for the latter that he took a surname which paid homage to Ibn Rushd.

In this fantastic interview here, Rushdie describes his interest in the philosopher:

I’ve always been fascinated by him (as I was by Machiavelli, who became a character in my novel “The Enchantress of Florence”), both because of my father’s interest in him, which led him to derive our family name from his—my father wanted a modern, permanent surname, unlike the name-and-patronymic format, which was traditional—and because of Ibn Rushd’s rationalism. My father admired Ibn Rushd for his attempt to reconcile reason with religion, though he himself was not religious; and he bequeathed that admiration to me.

Known in the West as Averroes, Ibn Rushd was the great Medieval defender of Aristotelian rationality and argued for its synthesis with religion.When I was young, by the way, I was similarly intrigued by the tension between Averroes and Avicenna (as presented by Henry Corbin)– and I think this is a far better juxtaposition to examine. But either way, this urge to unify and synthesize opposites was one of the great hallmarks of the Middle Ages–both East and West. And as Rushdie sees it, this is on one level continuing on in our modern struggles between reason, logic and science on the one hand (Averroes greatest goods) and fundamentalism and spirituality on the other (Ghazali and Avicenna).

Sadly, the will to harmonize and unify ideas (this truly medieval enterprise) has been replaced by a modern tendency for polarization and dichotemy.

Rushdie is interesting; for instead of being decidedly on one side or the other (and obviously if he was made to choose, he would side with that of reason),his story rather illuminates the need for both sides. I loved in his book, Enchantress of Florence, when he had the Shah Jahan has imagining paradise as a place where people were allowed to argue without consequences. Worship as debate, he said elsewhere. Or “Paradise is a place whee religion and agument mean the same thing.” In the above interview, he explains this thus:

The story’s other battle is between the world of imagination (dreams, fantasy) and that of reason and science, and that the two should fall in love seemed, well, beautiful. I was also thinking of Goya’s marvellous etching “The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters,” to which he attached the caption “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

I love that. For in the same way that fantasy and the marvels turn into monsters without reason, so too does pure reason become a monster of sorts as well. In the play, both Humayan and Babur appreciate beauty; both lose themselves in dreams. But while Babar overreaches for the beautiful stars losing everything, Humayan cannot imagine a new heirarchy that defies reason and loses everything as well. The two men cannot reconcile. The logic of their fate is only as tragic as our own….