Knatz.com / Teaching / Society / Social Order / Legitimacy /
@ K. 1998 05
In Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, the soldier Aguirre instigates a rebellion against the Spanish king. The rebellion takes place safely (at least politically) in absentia: these conquistadors have gotten isolated from others in Amazonian jungle. Aguirre note manipulates the terrified minor aristocrat Guzman into becoming their new emperor. The first thing he makes Guzman do is write a bunch of laws saying that the rebellion is legitimate.
Klaus Kinski as Aguirre
Fiction? Of course: it’s a movie. Truth? Absolutely.
How can rebellion be legitimate except by writing new laws?
How was the government rebelled against legitimate? By having written old laws. “Government” and “legitimate” are redundant.
Could anthropologists find a culture past or present that didn’t have a mythology, core and fore, about its own legitimacy? How many of these cultures would prove legitimate if investigated? What standard would you use?
If they have enough hydrogen bombs (and the pollsters want to live), they’ll all be found legitimate. If the examining culture wants to trade with them, they’ll also pass. What if the examining were done by an outsider immune to our weapons? One who didn’t care what skeletons we claimed for their closet?
European feudalism had a mythology which claimed kings to be God’s representatives. Rebellion against the king was rebellion against God. When the English started beheading their kings, indigenous geniuses like Milton had to come up with a new mythology. When we Americans told the III George of Hanover to take a hike, we didn’t have to scrounge far before we found Payne and Jefferson for our new mythology.
(Now communists as well as Americans claim The People as their source of legitimacy. From where did the people ever get any authority?)
The Orientals are hardly different. When the Chinese had had enough of Chin Shih Huang Ti, they broke some pots, brought in some priests, and the priests said that the pot shards proved that Chin had lost heaven’s mandate.
But the best illustrations remain fictional. So too where the rebellion fails. (Or is covered up. Same difference to those still living.) This jade’s favorite example of the latter may be found in the movie Hara Kiri. A ronin samurai requests that a great house assist him in his ritual of seppuku. Tradition forbade them to refuse. They consent with irritated impatience. They remove to the garden, passing the altar to the household gods. Properly seated and ready to undergo abdominal revelation, the ronin reminds the lords that he has the right to select his second: he names their top kendo man.
(Ronin means a samurai without sponsorship. A samurai is a member of the warrior class, by birth or ascension. Kendo is the art of swordsmanship. Seppuku is the ritual of self-destruction. It is performed by the devotee’s cutting open his own belly till his guts spill out. A second is standard in the public version of the ritual, beheading the candidate the moment his hand falters.)
Irritation merges with befuddlement when the lords learn that their top kendo man is absent that day. The ronin names their second man. He too is absent. Likewise their third.
While runners vainly importune the absent three to attend, our ronin tells his story. He is a veteran of many wars. (The samurai about him have held their stations only in times of peace.)
Impoverished for reasons having as much to do with virtue as luck, our ronin’s daughter had been dying. The son, her brother, has sold his swords to buy medicine. To get more, he has gone to the great house to offer to commit seppuku. Everyone knew that the great houses had picked up the habit of buying off the suicides. This house has decided to staunch the leakage of pittances. Discovering that this samurai’s swords are bamboo fakes, they make him proceed. The second’s orders are to drive the lesson home by not beheading him until his bamboo botch is total. The ronin identifies that great house as this great house.
He’s a faker, they said. Get rid of him.
I assure you I came here to die, the ronin says. And I have a right to a second. Perhaps I can explain their absence.
After three hours of sitting around and talking, the moral blood bath that Japanese films are famous for finally begins its first chapter. The ronin has met with the top three samurai of the house. Dueling with each, successfully defending himself while avoiding killing or wounding, he has, in turn, castrated the sacred top knot of samurai hair from each. In turn, he throws the labeled ruins of their bushido, their warriorhood, onto the raked sand.
Kill him, says the house.
Now we have the climactic blood bath. Wave after wave of samurai fall to the ronin’s masterful katana.
The ronin moves the fighting to the house itself. It’s a shambles and they still can’t fell him. The household gods, old helmets and armor on pedestals, are knocked askew. The house calls for their artillery. With a battery of Spanish rifles aimed at him, the ronin uses his katana, the long sword, to accomplish his seppuku. Unseconded.
Tatsuya Nakadai’s first international hit in which he was the star.
But that’s not the end. And it’s for the end that I recount this fable.
The great house cleans up the mess, conceals the dead, and
remounts their household gods!
It’s only in fable that our real number can be found.
Contrast the above story to that of Oedipus, already referred to elsewhere. Oedipus’ duty was to identify and prosecute the murder of his predecessor. Once this royal detective discovers that he himself is the perpetrator, he mutilates himself. He humiliates himself. He abdicates. He dedicates his blindness to pursuing his relationship to fate and to the gods. It is only then that the gods truly receive him.
We, are of course, like the great house in Hara Kiri. If we were worthy, we would be like Oedipus. note
Today 2003 11 19 I make a first entry into a
2012 07 18 I just notice a new movie version (2012)! playing locally!
Aguirre: actors of pathology
To this fan’s mind, there is a trinity of actors supremely capable of embodying pathology and letting it show: broadcasting it. Aguirre is played by Germany’s Klaus Kinski. Hollywood has Christopher Walken. Chief of the trio is Japan’s Tatsuya Nakadai.
They look nothing alike. Each broke the mold he was made from.
Lots of actors can do crazy. Who’s greater than Jack Nicholson? But quintessential psychotic is something else again.
I don’t base the attribution above on Hara Kiri
Nakadai, Hara Kiri
Consider instead his role as Nuskei in Yojimbo; his role as Muroto in Sanjuro; his implacable sociopath in Sword of Doom (Daibosatsutoge) … Then add the seppuku bound ronin described here.
When I posted the above to Knatz.com in 1998 the web was not rife with movie images. Now you can search this stuff yourself using Google image search. Still, I’ll add another: Nakadai as Nuske, in Yojimbo:
The K. version had then shown a pic of Nadadai in Ran.
Oedipus: Nixon Agonistes
In one of my favorite letters to President Nixon, I took advantage of the circumstances of Watergate to recommend that Nixon volunteer to clear everything up by undergoing the old Teutonic Ordeal by Water. In that ritual, the accused is bound like a sausage and thrown into the icy river. His society watches the river for the next three days. If the body of the accused never reappears, the river accepted him: he was innocent. If the corpse bobs up, the river rejected him as filth: guilty.
I compared Nixon’s situation to that of King Oedipus. Of course if he wanted simply to admit that he was the mother-fucker all were looking for, then he could blind himself and seek his salvation hoboing along Route 66. Oedipus’ daughters followed the blind king, helping him to find scraps and such: I painted a rosy picture of the Nixon flowers getting part time jobs in MacDonalds while their illuminated-while-blind papa poked through the dumpster.
Nearly all my letters to the Nixon White House ended with my asking for money. Certified check, please. This one proposed that I handle the closed-circuit TV rights in a 50/50 deal.
Alas, this is one letter I failed to make a carbon of.