The main reason why the book Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory is being often referred to as such that represents a high literary value, is that there are strongly defined philosophical overtones to the book’s themes and motifs. One of these overtones is being concerned with the fact that Le Morte Darthur does provide readers with the in-depth insight into what legitimizes one’s entitlement to exercise a political authority over the others. Therefore, it would be fully appropriate to suggest that there are indeed a number of discursive commonalities between Malory’s masterpiece, on the one hand, and the book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life by Giorgio Agamben (specifically, the Chapter Politicizing Death), on the other. After all, there can only be a few doubts that it is namely the discussion of what accounts for the significance of how one’s ‘sovereign power’ extrapolates itself socially, which provides this book with the philosophical depth. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length, while exposing what I consider the main of the earlier mentioned commonalities.
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Probably the most easily identifiable idea, promoted throughout the entirety of Agabmen’s book, is that there is a qualitative dichotomy between the notions of ‘good life’ and ‘bare life’. Whereas, people who lead a ‘good life’ are able to subjectify themselves within the surrounding social/natural environment, their ‘bare living’ counterparts do not have such an ability by definition, as there is indeed very little difference between this kind of people and the organic life’s lower forms. In respect of the latter, we can well mention those primeval savages that never evolved beyond the Stone Age.
While formally belonging to the species of Homo Sapiens, these people are de facto nothing short of their closest relatives apes – all due to the fact that being essentially sub-human, they are not capable of operating mentally with even slightly abstract subject matters. This explains these people’s inability to draw a separation-line between themselves and the natural environment in which they live. The same suggestion also provides us with the clue, as to why primitive societies are essentially egalitarian – the members of these societies never cease trying to attain the state of being ‘blended’ with the nature, so that carnivorous predators would be less likely to notice their existence (Bernasconi 235).
This brings us to discuss the actual significance of the author’s statement that: “Life and death are not properly scientific concepts but rather political concepts, which as such acquire a political meaning precisely only through a decision” (164). As this statement implies, in order to be in the position to provide definitions to the notions of life and death, and consequently be able to take a practical advantage of these definitions (by the mean of incorporating them in the currently dominant socio-cultural discourse), one must necessarily be perceived as an authority figure.
What legitimizes a particular individual’s claim that he or she indeed has what it takes to be seen as a leader (an authority figure), capable of providing the undisputed definitions to the surrounding reality’s emanations? To answer this question, we will have to refer to the scene in Le Morte Darthur, where dying King Arthur asks for his sword Excalibur to be thrown in the lake, “Therefore, said Arthur unto Sir Bedivere, take thou Excalibur, my good sword, and go with it to yonder water side, and when thou comest there I charge thee throw my sword in that water” (401). Because this Arthur’s commandment did not make any sense in the eyes of Sir Bedivere, he never bothered doing what was asked to by his king, while preferring to simply lie to Arthur that his request was indeed taken care of.
Yet, after having been told that Excalibur is at the lake’s bottom, Arthur immediately knew that this was not the case: “That is untruly said of thee, said the king, therefore go thou lightly again, and do my commandment” (401). Given the fact that King Arthur has traditionally been deemed the embodiment of the notion of ‘sovereign rulership’, we can well assume that it was due to the king’s semi-divinity (extrapolated by his ability to anticipate the turns of events before they actually occur) that he represented an unquestioned authority to his subjects. In its turn, such king’s ability can be discussed as having been reflective of Arthur’s aptitude in not allowing its atavistic urges to affect the integrity of his existential agenda. That is, while remaining thoroughly biological, king Arthur nevertheless has never been a slave to his own deep-seated perceptual and behavioral bestiality.
In light of the earlier suggestion, it appears that, in order for one to be able to properly identify the essence of a particular phenomenon in question, he or she must be rather ‘wise’ than merely ‘knowledgeable’. However, because people cannot be trained to be ‘wise’ (such people’s quality comes as a result of their genetically predetermined tendency to provide abstract definitions to the works of nature), it means that one’s claim to authority must be consistent with the concerned person’s ability to radiate a semi-divine transcendence. What it means is that, when it comes to providing definitions to the discursively complex issues, such as what accounts for the meaning of one’s life/death, the self-appointed ‘experts’ would be less likely to address the task adequately, as compared to those individuals, who despite lacking a formal education, are nevertheless endowed with the ‘Faustian’ (domination-seeking) mentality.
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This is exactly the reason why, as Agamben pointed out: “The redefinition of borders (between life and death) indicates that the exercise of sovereign power now passes through them more than ever and, once again, cuts across the medical and biological sciences” (94). Apparently, it could not be otherwise, because the empirical sciences themselves originate out of the ‘Faustian’ individuals’ taste for objectifying the nature, in order to subject it to their will-powered desires. Therefore, it is fully explainable why pretentiously sophisticate terms (such as the politically-correct ones), invented by people who are afraid to admit that the workings of their unconscious psyche are in essence animalistic, could never attain the status of popular memes. The reason for this is simple – in order for the definition of a particular phenomenon to be considered valid, it must reflect an ‘existential sovereignty’ of those who provide it. In its turn, this ‘sovereignty’ can be thought of as being representative of the measure of one’s belief in its own superiority, which is politically incorrect, by definition.
Thus, it will be fully appropriate, on our part, to suggest that, as it was implied earlier, Le Morte Darthur and Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life do interrelate in more ways than just one. Apparently, both of these literary pieces promote the implicit idea that the act of providing abstract definitions to the surrounding reality’s extrapolations presupposes the concerned person’s semi-divinity, which in turn ensures these definitions’ soundness more than anything does. This is exactly the reason that is specifically the definitions produced by the so-called ‘charismatic’ individuals, which ordinary people find especially appealing. It is understood, of course, that this suggestion is rather speculative.
However, it does adhere to what is being considered the classical indications of one’s endowment with the ‘sovereign power’ to be able to alter the physical reality around us – in both, the allegorical and literal senses of this word. Moreover, it also correlates with the fact that it is primarly the namely strong-willed individuals that happened to realize themselves in the position of a political authority, who have what it takes to be able to ‘bend’ the course of history. Even though this statement does not quite correlate the discourse of political-correctness, it does not make it less valid.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in regards to the subject matter in question, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a certain rationale in considering the Western civilization’s ongoing ‘desacralization’, as such that will only last for so long. This cannot be otherwise, because the mentioned process does not connect with the subliminal anxiety, on the part of Westerners, to continue ‘owning’ the planet, by mean of imposing their highly voluntaristic and yet simultaneously valid definitions of life and death upon the rest of the world’s people.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. Print.
Bernasconi, Robert. “Lévy-Bruhl among the Phenomenologists: Exoticisation and the Logic of ‘the Primitive’.” Social Identities 11.3 (2005): 229-245. Print.
Malory, Thomas 1999 (1485), Le Morte Darthur. Web.