By Brenda Yang
Suffering proves to be a ubiquitous presence in both Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (Rebellion). Both pieces—one a play, the other a novel—demonstrate the futility of using grand systems and theories as a means to supplant or justify instances of profound individual suffering. In denying the details of suffering by turning to sweeping abstractions, Angels in America characters Louis and Joe ultimately propagate their pain rather than reduce it. Kushner’s social vision reaches beyond that of Dostoevsky in that his work also encompasses how progress can be made in the face of overwhelming pain. Kushner shows us that the acceptance of pain for what it is, rather than blurring its crucial particulars with abstractions, is how man can begin to make some meaningful change—a certain “painful progress.”
Louis Ironson abandons his lover, Prior Walter, in the midst of Prior’s immense physical pain stemming from AIDS. Instead of staying by Prior’s side, he buries his head in the sand of his innumerable theories and philosophies, the “Big Ideas” in which he is so self-righteously immersed. Louis cannot incorporate the details of Prior’s illness, so terrifying and invasively physical, into his understanding of how the universe is supposed to function. Belize, insightful as ever, indicts Louis as they confront each other by the Bethesda fountain:
Up in the air, just like that angel, too far off the earth to pick out the details. Louis and his Big ideas. Big Ideas are all you love. ‘America’ is what Louis loves… Well I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. It’s just big ideas, and stories, and people dying, and people like you” (Kushner 228).
Abruptly confronted with the reality of Prior’s suffering, complete with growing lesions, vomiting, fevered rushes to the hospital and blood in the toilet, Louis retreats from Prior. Distancing himself from the physicality that is “Earth,” he tries to blur the ugly details from afar, struggling to sublimate the individual with sweeping theories of life and the vague abstraction that is “America.” Belize’s comparison of Louis to the fatally static agents becomes increasingly appropriate, as it is Prior, the denied, who later confronts the angels to speak of progress and change. Everything about Louis is theory, rather than practice, ideas rather than details, abstractions rather than physicalities. Prior accuses Louis that when he cries, it is as if it is the “idea of crying, or the idea of love,” that he performs (Kushner 217). Later, Prior says that Louis “can’t handle bodies,” (Kushner 231) and when Louis speaks of lofty “limits” and “reason,” Prior furiously retorts, “Tell it to my lungs, stupid, tell it to my lesions, tell it to the cotton-wooly patches in my eyes!” (Kushner 217). Louis is unable to accept the reality of suffering in the individual to whom he is closest; he cannot reconcile Prior’s increasingly halting steps, his weakness and fragility, with his own “Big Ideas.” And so Louis, in denying the specifics of suffering by any means necessary to save himself, goes as far as to abandon Prior entirely when he is needed most.
Also seeking to deny suffering through grand ideas is Joe Pitt, a Mormon and closeted homosexual who becomes Louis’s counterpart. But for Joe, it is his own torment, the product of a fatal conflict between his faith and homosexuality, that he struggles to repress. Joe’s conservative politics, in marked contrast to Louis’s uncompromisingly liberal philosophies, are the “Big Ideas” that he tries to use to distance himself from the wreckage of his personal life. Of becoming more involved in the Reagan revolution, Joe insists, “I need to be a part of that, I need something big to lift me up” (Kushner 32). So preoccupied with his systems and theories, so out of touch with the details of life on Earth, Joe also denies the suffering of his wife, Harper, who is constantly plagued by a paranoia that takes over her entire being. Harper’s pseudo-delusional worries about the ozone layer and schizophrenic cops are exactly what Joe and Louis refuse to incorporate into their world view: the concrete details of pain and suffering. Rather, Joe and Louis turn to systems and theories, a method which Ivan Karamazov categorically rejects.
The conflict between the specificity of the individual and “Big Ideas” is articulated well by Dostoevsky through Ivan in Rebellion:
…but another man will never be able to know the degree of my suffering, because he is another and not me…Beggars, especially noble beggars, should never show themselves in the street; they should ask for alms through the newspapers. It’s still possible to love one’s neighbor abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close (Dostoevsky 237).
In applying these ideas to Angels in America, both Louis and Joe attempt to distance themselves from suffering and love “abstractly” because they find that they cannot cope “up close” with the overwhelming details of individual suffering. Louis, for instance, would surely be able to consider a plea for alms through paper, but the reality of such a beggar’s rags, haggard face, and stench would send him reeling. The two characters’ failure to cope with details is manifested in their inability to empathize, a philosophy epitomized by “another and not me.” Because of his fear, Louis cannot fully understand or relate to the extent of Prior’s suffering, and Joe’s distant perspective of events prevents him from relating to Harper as she fixates on the endless instances of suffering she hears about on the radio.
Ivan, in contrast to Louis and Joe and in the spirit of Prior and Harper, rages against sweeping systems and theories, particularly religion, which trivializes and justifies cases of individual suffering. In his argument, Ivan focuses on children as blameless individuals, and describes in heart-wrenching detail instances of intense, arbitrary suffering, everything from parents flogging their children in an outhouse to a General’s dog tearing another to pieces, questioning how any justification for this suffering could exist. In great contrast to Louis and Joe, Ivan dives into the heart of suffering and rejects not the existence of a god, but rather renounces such a god altogether: “It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to ‘dear God’ in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tear!… the whole of truth is not worth such a price” (Dostoevsky 245). He asks his brother (and thus the reader) to choose whether one would accept the construction of a perfect world that was built on the perpetual suffering of a single child, a proposal which he himself rejects. In his rebellion, Ivan brings forth the powerful details that Louis cannot seem to face—details of a child’s “little fist” and a “stinking outhouse”—confronting and acknowledging the suffering of the individual, refusing to rely on the abstractions that Joe and Louis use as a refuge. It is in facing suffering and all it entails, rather than cheapening the pain of the individual by justifying it with some religious or political theory, that Ivan succeeds and Joe and Louis meet their downfall.
Ivan’s point is illustrated by Joe and Louis’ failure to save themselves with distance from suffering, ultimately creating more pain both for themselves and others. Louis, by leaving Prior, constructs his own personal hell and exacerbates Prior’s suffering. Despite his insistence that he cannot incorporate sickness into his “neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress,” that leaving Prior is best for him, Louis’ guilt overwhelms him. Louis is reduced to a lost, conflicted, profoundly troubled individual struggling to understand and confront his own decisions. His confusion and betrayal are epitomized by the realization that his relationship with Joe is also a relationship with Roy Cohn’s “buttboy.” And so in trying to preserve his own theories and ideas, Louis betrays the most fundamental of his beliefs by sleeping with a man who personifies everything that disgusts him about the political arena, effectively betraying himself. Louis’ own suffering, as well as the pain of the abandoned, AIDS-ridden Prior, is far from reduced by this action; it is instead radically increased. Similarly, Joe’s attempts to suppress his own suffering fail fantastically, erupting in the loss of everything to which he was attached. Years of repression finally erupt as Harper realizes his homosexuality, as Joe confesses to his mother, and ultimately bares himself, body and soul, to Louis. The theories which seemed so useful before prove inadequate to combat the backlash against him, and he is ultimately abandoned by Harper, Louis, and even the guiding force of Roy Cohn.
But Kushner goes further than Dostoevsky in addressing how man can deal with the inevitable presence of suffering, if not by denying or sublimating it through systems and theories. As Kushner writes in his notes before Perestroika, the play grapples with the most difficult problems of all: “how to change and lose with grace” and “how to keep going in the face of overwhelming suffering” (Kushner 142). In the failure of Joe and Louis to resolve suffering by resorting to sweeping ideologies that downplay the significance of individual details, we see Kushner echoing the words of Virginia Woolf decades earlier when she said, “Let a man get up and say, Behold, this is the truth, and instantly I perceive a sandy cat filching a piece of fish in the background. Look, you have forgotten the cat, I say.” Louis attempts to piece together an ideology defined by a “historical progress towards happiness or perfection or something” and yet he cannot fit the damnable “cat” into that ideal—the lesions and illness of the man he loves. Joe writes decisions in a federal court that espouse the core of a conservative ideology and he clings to a religion that denies the very existence of homosexuality, but the “cat” of his own homosexual struggles does not fit either. And Ivan describes a God who allows for and justifies an endless litany of horrors, an entire existence based on the backs of the unwarranted suffering of children—such “cats” for him cannot be justified by any means. If not through systems and theories, how then can these inevitably present cats—details of individual suffering—be accounted for?
Angels in America is, in part, a play of suffering. But more importantly, it is a story of how to recover from the “disarray and debris” that result from it. The answer that many of the characters arrive at is to accept, not deny, suffering for what it is and what it can do—provoke change and stimulate progress. Man must learn how to reconcile life with the terrible lesions of suffering rather than attempt to disguise it under the façade of a “Big Idea”—that is, after all, how progress is made. Kushner provides the following description of how people change through the mouthpiece of a Mormon mother dummy:
God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching…That’s how people change” (Kushner 211).
Just as the details of Dostoevsky’s novel provide the impact and immediacy of individual suffering, the details here define the excerpt, its power deriving from its poignant imagery. The diction communicates how suffering demands change: pain “insists,” “squeezes hard,” and “pulls” until the core of one’s body is “yanked out.” And the innards are returned “dirty, tangled and torn,” irreparably damaged so that someone as profoundly damaged as Prior or Harper can do nothing but make the difficult decision to walk away from familiarity and move forward. To truly live does not mean finding some larger justification for the split down your body, the dirtiness of your intestines, the anguish; but rather, it means being able to stitch yourself back up and then “get up and walk around,” to move forward and make some “painful progress” (Kushner 211, 275).
The characters who stand tallest at the conclusion of the play, Prior and Harper, are those who suffer most profoundly from the abandonment of their lovers, managing to recover and change in the face of overwhelming suffering. Kushner makes a remarkable statement when he uses Harold Bloom’s translation of the Hebrew word for “blessing” as “more life” (Kushner 144). Prior takes this leap of faith when he says to the angels, “Bless me anyway. I want more life” (Kushner 267). It is the profundity of this addiction to life—not because one has denied the reality of suffering, but because one has thoroughly accepted all of its gory details and still wants more—that is Prior’s triumph in his refusal to acquiesce to the angel’s request. Prior’s acceptance of his own pain, what has been and what is to come, is expressed as he says to Louis, “This is my life, from now on, Louis. I’m not getting ‘better’” (Kushner 271). Prior’s suffering exemplifies how man can change: by accepting suffering and continuing with life, even if one is “more spirit than body, more sores than skin” (Kushner 267). Suffering is inevitable, impossible to avoid—suffering is living.
Harper, while not affected by the physical calamity of AIDS, suffers tremendously from Joe’s abandonment. Her suffering is profound and shatters her very ability to maintain a normal lifestyle as she spends days in a Mormon diorama room eating junk food, conversing with her hallucinations. She, like Prior, ultimately realizes what suffering means:
I feel like shit but I’ve never felt more alive. I’ve finally found the secret of all that Mormon energy. Devastation. That’s what makes people migrate, build things. Heartbroken people do it, people who have lost love (Kushner 253).
Suffering sparks motion, energy, migration, change—to accept suffering is to understand the possibility of progress. Harper is able to move forward with her life as she flies to San Francisco, and in the final words of the play, she says, “In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think so” (Kushner 275). Instead of denying her pain or attributing it to some grand idea, she takes it, “tangled and torn,” and uses it to reach something greater.
Both Dostoevsky’s Rebellion and Kushner’s Angels in America powerfully illustrate the futility of turning to abstractions as a means of distancing and dehumanizing the wrenching details of individual suffering. But we see in Kushner’s work not only a powerful illustration of this fatal mistake, but also a possible means of redemption. It is the bitter suffering of Prior and Harper during the aftermath of abandonment that proves pivotal in provoking change. It is perhaps the most devastating of events that ultimately prove instrumental in shaping our world’s future, planting the seeds of meaningful and profound progress. Through overwhelming pain comes change, proven as the characters in the play limp on, triumphing in their insistence on the blessing of “more life.”