Features Guest Column Published 29 May 2014

Performance and Paranoia

Phoebe von Held on adapting Baltasar Gracián’s The Manual Oracle.

Phoebe von Held

The Manual Oracle is a theatre adaptation of a seventeenth-century book of survival strategies, exploring the cross-overs between paranoia, performance and self-consciousness. It is inspired by The Manual Oracle, or the Art of Prudence, a manual of worldly wisdom written by the Spanish Jesuit monk and philosopher, Baltasar Gracián.

People are often perplexed by how I came across this obscure text of maxims and what inspired me to re-envisage it as a work for the stage. I discovered Gracián’s “Oráculo manual” through my research on Bertolt Brecht. When Brecht was forced into exile by the Nazis in 1933, his friend and fellow political refugee Walter Benjamin gave him a copy of the Manual Oracle as a guidebook for prudent acting in times of dangerous uncertainty. Brecht was fascinated by Gracián’s maxims, which provide advice not only for situations of political crisis, but also teach the skill of turning social situations to one’s own favour.

I then realised that the book appealed also to prominent figures such as Churchill and Nietzsche; it attracted intellectuals on the left as much as on the extreme right. Curiously, in the 1990s the American business elite rediscovered the book, and it featured on the Washington Post’s 1992 list of Nonfiction Bestsellers. This guide for the intrigue-riddled Spanish court had been absorbed into the genre of self-help-book literature for the US corporate world.

What I found fascinating when first reading The Manual Oracle was that this guidebook for what we might call today “social intelligence” and self-promotion hid an undeniably paranoid subtext. Gracián teaches awareness and caution in all matters of social interaction, but this social interaction is of a distinctly aggressive, exploitative and competitive nature. One is always surrounded by adversaries; society is perceived as a dangerous and hostile environment, populated by enemies and competitors who are only waiting to stab you in the back: “Man’s life is the struggle of man against the malice of men”. This negative view of society was coupled with a heightened sense of vigilance and surveillance.

One of the prime lessons of Gracián is that one must always be aware of one’s self-image, not only as a means of self-promotion, but also in order to conceal oneself from an all too intrusive malevolent gaze. Any kind of natural spontaneous self-presentation is considered naïve and must be suppressed. Exposing one’s true desires and vulnerabilities ultimately opens up the risk of others gaining insights into one’s weak spots. The Manual Oracle thus cultivates an astute sense of self-consciousness as to one’s own self-representation. Social interaction is always a mode of performance; theatre a constant mode of being in the world. This obsession with surveillance (as much as self-surveillance) seemed an extremely timely concern, resonating strongly with sensibilities determined by forms of communication and social interaction relating to our collective existence on the internet, especially social media.

But Gracian’s intensified self-consciousness comes at a price. A painful paradox emerges: being aware of other people’s ever-present gaze helps us to perfect our self-image, but it may also create an overpowering sense of paranoia. While stage actors delight in the attention of an audience, others may be crushed by this sense of constant visibility. This paranoid sensibility of persecution is most explicitly expressed in the following of Gracián’s maxims:

“Always act as if you were being watched. He is a prudent man who sees that he is being seen or will be seen. He knows that walls can hear, and that bad deeds are bursting to come out into the light of day. Even when alone he behaves as though the eyes of the whole world are upon him, for he realizes that eventually everything will be known.”

Intrigued by the paranoid undertones of The Manual Oracle, I embarked on a Leverhulme Artist’s Residency at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London, to support the development of a theatre adaptation of Gracián’s handbook with research on paranoia. I collaborated with a group of mental health service users suffering from paranoia, researchers and specialists on paranoia, PhD students and therapists, reading Gracián together, discussing case studies, finding out more about the personal experience of paranoia and psychosis, and about the social contexts which contribute to the development of paranoid schizophrenia.

From these discussions I developed a number of “scenarios” that were eventually rewritten into the scenes of the new play, creating a collective survey into key moments of social interaction where Gracian’s paranoid/self-conscious thinking crystallises. Acting as a dramaturgical mediator, I also commissioned several new pieces of writing from novelists Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams. Ideas for these pieces were developed in discussion with collaborators based at the Institute of Psychiatry.

But my play does not focus on paranoia as a mental illness alone. Rather, The Manual Oracle aims to show paranoia in continuity with more “rational” forms of suspicious thinking. With the advent of CCTV, virtual surveillance and fears of states and corporations invading our lives, we are all familiar with the anxieties of being watched. The completion of my play coincided with Edward Snowden’s revelations of unparalleled levels of state surveillance, encompassing all aspects of our online existence. We all know now that our quest to interact, to expand our social world, and to promote ourselves in an increasingly competitive world, also expose us to the dangers of being spied upon. The piece thus creates a sliding scale between the calculated voices of reason and the persecutory voices of paranoia. “Normality” and “psychosis” are not black and white binaries, but are shown to exist on a continuum.

The play follows these uncertainties through a kaleidoscope of moments and scenarios, blurring the boundaries between self-consciousness, paranoia and strategic thinking. With scenes ranging between the comical to the disconcerting, it features Wall Street traders speculating the 2007 financial crash; immigrants interrogated by suspicious border control; Mrs. Thatcher’s promoting the cult of the individual, while her spin doctors carefully orchestrate her public image; survivalists preparing for the end of the world; and many others. All are connected through the ever-cautious yet megalomaniac voice of Gracián’s Manual Oracle, instructing us on how to navigate through a world in which “malice is on the watch”.

Bringing together the harrowing soundscapes of paranoia, ambitious design and hallucinatory animations, this multi-media production will not only inspire through intriguing intellectual concepts and exciting new writing, but with its highly stimulating visual and sonic textures will leave a lasting impression on its audiences, reminiscent of Kafka, Brecht and Artaud all at once.

The Manual Oracle runs at The Yard Theatre until 14th June.

There will be a post-show talk on 5th June with Anxiety 2014 Curator, Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz; Director, Phoebe von Held; Professor Michael Newman, Professor of Art Writing at Goldsmiths College; and Dr. Emmanuelle Peters Reader in Clinical Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London.

Photo: Patrick Green.


Phoebe von Held is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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