Modern Jesus – Christopher Neels and Hegel’s destructive reason. (Theatre Review)

Modern Jesus

Fledging Theatre Company and The Depot Theatre

23 August – 2 September 2017

You can grab your tickets through Depot Theatre here or Tickets Tonight here.

Imagery: Liam O’Keefe

The correlational dichotomy between words and deeds is an ancient theoretical problem as old as history itself. It was thought that Alexander the Great decided to conquer the world after reading The Iliad. Closer to home, a certain way of reading Nietzsche has been said to feed Hitler’s fantasies. This is why Leo Strauss, in his work ‘Introduction to Political Philosophy’ claims every political writer bears some responsibility for political actions just as the political actor – as an individual – bears responsibility for his deeds, “In a sense, all political use of Nietzsche is a perversion of his teaching. Nevertheless, what he said was read by political men and inspired them. He is as little responsible for fascism as Rousseau is responsible for Jacobinism. This means, however, that he is as much responsible for fascism as Rousseau was for Jacobinism.”

With the production of Modern Jesus, currently showing at The Depot Theatre, writer Christopher Neels takes the Hegelian position stating a logical and natural link between and idea and its expression by violent means. And who can blame him? Modern Jesus opens in Marrickville the very week we saw Nazis marching in down town Virginia directly causing the death of a woman standing in the streets protesting Nazis. We must search no further than the comments section on any main stream e-news or vaguely feminist Facebook feed to see legions acting in the name of a distorted narrative. Heidegger, Hegel, Nietzsche and even Rousseau have been weaponized against those ‘dastards’ Adorno and Horkheimer who stand as the (anti)reason for the creation of Breitbart News. Only a distillation, a ‘dumbing-down’ of any of these philosophies feeds the zealotry necessary to incite violence, but as Christopher Neels wants us to see, the left (think what we did to Rousseau, Existentialism, Camus and Deconstruction for one) are as guilty of this as the right. White middle class ‘can-do’ is as much a product of watered down existentialism as it is of individualist philosophers like Ayn Rand, John Locke or Adam Smith.

Think of this passage from Hegel’s Introduction to the science of wisdom: “The only work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death, and indeed a death which has no inner range and fullness, for what is negated is the unfulfilled point of the absolute free self. It is thus the coldest, flattest death, without any more significance than slicing through a head of cabbage or than a gulp of water.” In other (superficial) words it is all necessary in the warring of societies embodying the conflict of ideas; and war, rather than being an argument for atheism is actually all part of god’s plan. According to John Dwyer, this track of reason Hegel refers to is the calculation of ‘reason’ as the cumulative result of all the individuations of interpretations acted out over time. Hegel argues that ‘reason’ moves virus like, comfortably allowing its host to die, because it knows it can live without its host. Is not this the very power Steve Bannon pretended to wield and has been revealed to be a victim of? He imagined he could channel the white-hot rage of the Gamer-Gate community in the election of a President which Bannon preached could cure the communities ‘ills.’ His departure from the White House was meant to signal a rupture between that community and its president. However, in the last few days we have seen Donald Trump go head to head with Bannon in wielding this community by threatening to ‘close down’ government over The Wall and pardoning Arpaio. Trump is claiming his position as the new host for this virus and Bannon has overestimated his personal influence and strategic capacity yet again. Hegel never advocates death as ‘without any more significance than slicing through a head of cabbage or than a gulp of water’ but the real question Christopher Neels wants us to ponder is, how responsible is Hegel for all interpretations of his work? How responsible is Nietzsche? How responsible is Ayn Rand? How responsible is Bannon himself? For all philosophy can be reduced through the filter of society to reach a point of sublime death as its natural manifestation.

For Hegel, reason has a mind of its own, a cleverness or cunning that gets its way at all cost. Hegel also argues that recognising reason’s cunning is an insight only afforded the astute observer at the end of history. It is this cunning that demands a realisation in action. It was luck that prevented Edgar Maddison Welch’s attack on the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria escalating into a Anders Behring Breivik style attack. However today, Welch still claims he was right and it was three days after his violent storming of the pizza parlor that Besta Pizza received its threatening phone call from Yusif Lee Jones who is equally convinced the pedophile ring relocated before Welch arrived. Welch intended to recruit others before he stormed and was unsuccessful in his attempts. Christopher Neels forces us to consider what might have happened had he been successful in forming a larger group as was his intention?

In Modern Jesus, Neels successfully brings these concepts together. He groups an enigmatic leader in Charlie (Michelle McCowage) with an interpreter of reason in Matt (Ryan Madden) together with other idle members of their loose demographic and we sit and watch the philosophy act as a lit match on the brushwood of skewed reason. It’s all here in this wonderfully ambitious show, including foot soldiers, lovers, impotent policemen, the homeless and the dangerous combination of information, youth, ego and naivete all swirling in the heated mix of a desire for the unification zealotry permits. There may be deaths, but surely the joy of that solidarity is worth it. Christopher Neels very successfully conveys the sense of belonging and purpose zealotry provides such that we are envious of Charlie and her followers at several points in this clever show.

Chris Huntly-Turner does a fine job keeping the pace strong and movement swift on an exciting and disturbingly familiar set. Christopher Neels writing is broad in scope and has some small problems (it’s a tad overwritten in the first half) but the sheer breadth is worth a serious presentation and he finds the right interpreter for his work in Huntly-Turner. This director has assembled a fine cast, starting with the charismatic McCowage (who gives a completely convincing performance) working all the way through to the hapless and suffering Tom Nauta as Jude. A stand out is the imagery by Tory Brustolin and Whet Paint which is evocative and striking, but never outweighs the production that fully lives up to the promises the imagery evokes. Modern Jesus by Fledgling Theatre Company is the assemblage of a large cast and large creative team who work together to successfully convey this timely and important work at its very best.

Depot Theatre is shaping up to be a thrilling space, where the borderline between bud and bloom is curated and birthed. There have been many great new and existing voices expressed on its stage in the last two years, but the space is really finding its feet in 2017. It is gaining a reputation as a place where a very select new is called forth and previous unsaid conversations take place. Find your way to Marrickville to experience Modern Jesus. You will be glad you did.