from “Spectacle and Aporia in Ted Kooser and John Ashbery” published in Reconfigurations: A Journal of Poetry, Poetics
In his book Mythologies, Roland Barthes’ first chapter “The World of Wrestling” analyzes the “grandiloquence” of the spectacle of the so-called sport and finds in it that of the ancient theatre and Greek drama. Barthes celebrates wrestling because he sees that in its grandiloquence is the morality passion play of ancient Greece. In the chapter, he tells us that the sport is “the spectacle of excess” (15). He finds in its grandiloquence the same “as that of the ancient theatre, whose principle, language and props (masks and buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity” (16). Later he continues,
There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. The emptying out of the interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art. (18)
In finding the structure of wrestling to be that of ancient theatre in general and ancient Greek drama in particular, Barthes is recognizing what James Joyce recognized when he wrote Ulysses. Joyce noticed that recognizable patterns and harmonies in literature satisfy the audience and make legitimate the symbols of the day, suggesting that they indeed do hold something. However, where Joyce seems to be making critical commentary on his day with his anti-hero de-legitimizing his society’s behavior and re-legitimizing ancient Greek drama, Barthes is legitimizing contemporary activities as dramatic, religious rituals as worthy as Greek literature. He is finding the beauty that lies in the spectacle of excess in popular culture. Joyce holds the present up to the mythological past for comparison in order to make it new. Barthes suggests spectacle can’t be made new. In fact, he sees that beauty is a meta-narrative for the spectacle of excess.
The reader comes away with the idea that using the “spectacle of excess” as a lens he/she may examine other events in our society and find the beauty of Greek drama. The reader also comes away with the notion that spectacle of excess may be modernity’s beauty. One can observe it most easily in staged events that are meant to attract the masses to witness “Suffering, Defeat, and Justice” played out (19). Examples of it can be found on reality television and staged programming such as sitcoms as well. Barthes suggests that beauty is the emptying out of symbolic form inherent in the spectacle of excess to the satisfaction of the audience. If one looks closely at poetic works in modernism, one can see that the poets are performing that function. Just as we find in popular culture’s staged events, we find the spectacle of excess possesses beauty in poetry. Poetry that resolves irony with the justice of closure is using beauty to articulate its experience. Beauty might be said to be the intelligible representation of moral situations that are often private and that are emptied out of their interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs and the audience (18).
It is the satisfaction of justice witnessed that one finds in the spectacle and in the legitimating power of its performance of morality that is also known as beauty. The satisfaction of harmony, symmetry, and the promise and performance of oneness to audiences / “spectators” builds society and culture with its shared experience. This same satisfaction found in recognizing ourselves in a storyline or a scene in a play or an image in a poem is the joy of recognizing the language game as familiar and safe. We know the game and if that isn’t enough we are witnesses of the situation in the literature after all. We are present metaphorically.