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It’s probably worth remembering that Rupert Murdoch nearly went down a very different path. He didn’t start out carrying water for the hard right. He descended towards it in a spiral of cynicism and self-interest. In 1972 Australia was coming out of two decades of conservative rule and Murdoch was beginning to amass his media empire. It’s hard to overstate how stale, how stultified, Australia’s political life had become. A political class of conservative mediocrities worked hard to ensure nothing ever happened, and a split in the Labor Party between the communists and the socially conservatives more or less ensured it. Like most ambitious Australians his age, Rupert Murdoch wanted change.
So he threw his national newspaper, The Australian, behind Labor leader Gough Whitlam, who went on to transform the country in his first year and become Australia’s most left wing Prime Minister. It was Murdoch’s first taste of playing kingmaker, and the king he made made university free, established universal healthcare, and pulled Australia out of Vietnam.
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Jenny Hocking, Whitlam’s biographer, puts it like so:
Murdoch’s thrill was in being close to political power, a proximity he was yet to establish in America and denied him in England – an outsider, a colonial with tabloid tastes – and he was hooked. ‘I got emotionally involved. I allowed, with my eyes wide open, some of the journalists to go beyond being sort of partisans into almost being principals. They became foot soldiers in Whitlam’s campaign to some extent.’
These days there’s nothing shocking about the idea that Murdoch uses his journalists, such as they are, as foot soldiers in political campaigns, even if this particular admission is especially explicit. What’s surprising is that he was once willing to do it for the left. We’re so used to the end-of-life Rupert Murdoch (that is, à la Logan Roy) that we assume he was always like he is now.
Well, the story goes on. Despite all Murdoch had done for him, Whitlam had no desire to become indebted to the young media magnate. In opposition, Whitlam had upbraided other politicians for their closeness to the media. And to make matters worse, Whitlam just didn’t like him.
It wasn’t without trying. Advisors had urged Whitlam to be friendly to Murdoch, but Whitlam was too stubborn. Murdoch craved Whitlam’s approval: Whitlam thought Murdoch a mediocrity. It started with a dinner in 1971 that Whitlam called ‘one of the most excruciatingly boring nights of my life.’ A year later, once Whitlam came to power, Murdoch was meeting with Whitlam’s men ‘to make plans for the future.’ Murdoch asked that Whitlam make him Australia’s high commissioner to the UK. Whitlam’s answer: ‘No way.’
Two years later, Whitlam found himself in New York, where Murdoch was growing his empire, and finally agreed to meet with him. A year earlier, on a visit to London, Whitlam had peremptorily cancelled several meetings with the man. In Hocking’s words, ‘Whitlam had found the clumsy ingratiations of Rupert Murdoch irksome… It was not just that Whitlam found Murdoch’s expectations distasteful, he found his company dull and made no attempt to hide his displeasure if made to endure it – he was too busy to spend precious time with him.’
But this morning in September 1974 did not go as Murdoch had hoped. The pair had plans for dinner, but as Whitlam was walking across New York’s Plaza Hotel, he happened to cross paths with the British television interviewer David Frost (of Frost/Nixon fame). The two got on well – Frost first interviewed Whitlam in 1972 – and Frost immediately asked what Whitlam was doing that night. Whitlam, fully aware he had plans with Rupert Murdoch, responded ‘Why, nothing at all. Let’s have dinner.’
Murdoch was furious. He had been snubbed. (To make matters worse, David Frost had torn him apart in an interview a few years before.) When Whitlam’s press secretary tried to patch things up with a hastily arranged breakfast a few days after, Whitlam, according to Hocking, ‘maintained his posture of disdain.’ He simply couldn’t bring himself to suck up to the guy. The relationship was destroyed, and in the years that followed Murdoch went from backing Australia’s most left wing Prime Minister to turning The Australian into the flagship of the conservative right. In the US, Fox News was founded and soon made into a propaganda outlet for modern fascism. Had Whitlam not bumped into David Frost that day in September 1974, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say, the world might look very different.
Characters as people
Logan Roy may be inspired by Rupert Murdoch but he is not Rupert Murdoch. He’s a different person. It might sound weird that I’m calling them both people but I’m going to insist on it. I’m working really hard to avoiding calling one of them a “character” and the other a “real person.” And the reason is that, for our intents and purposes as consumers of narrative art, Logan Roy is, or perhaps should be, as much a person as Rupert Murdoch.
I’d even hazard that for most of us, Logan Roy is a more real person. Have you ever seen Rupert Murdoch in real life? Just how much footage of Rupert Murdoch have you sat through? How familiar are you with his anxieties and neuroses? His tics and habits? The way his face pulls across his face when he laughs? I can tell you how Brian Cox’s Logan Roy raises his eyebrows high on his face when trying to communicate subtext to his subordinates. I can speak at length about his theory of mind. I don’t know anything close to that about Rupert Murdoch. He simply is not a particularly real for us, except as a lightly-sketched character – as a person depicted by other people in the real world.1
The point of flattening out the distinction between characters and “real people” is to try to take seriously what narrative art is and hopes to do. In short, it succeeds when it creates characters who in fact are, in important senses, taken to be real by the reader. And the best, most instructive reading of literature happens, I think, when the reader does the author the credit of acting as if her characters are real.
This approach to criticism comes to me via Stanley Cavell, who I’m always appropriating for this blog, and whose essay The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear, is one of my favourite pieces of writing. Characters, Cavell insists, are people, or at least best understood and best read as people. He writes:
I think that one reason a critic may shun direct contact with characters is that he has been made to believe or assume, by some philosophy or other, that characters are not people, that what can be known about people cannot be known about characters, and in particular that psychology is either not appropriate to the study of these fictional beings or that psychology is the province of psychologists and not to be ventured from the armchairs of literary studies. But is any of this more than the merest assumption; unexamined principles which are part of current academic fashion?
Another reason we became reluctant to treat characters as people: for us to do so, the text has to be really, really good. Succession is such a text.
When I was at uni there were a lot of finance-broey types around who were really into The Wolf of Wall Street. To this day it remains unclear to me on what level they were engaging with the text. Did they have enough self-awareness to read it as a critique of mindless accumulation and the fraudulence encouraged by capitalism? It never seemed like they did. Everything about them indicated that they took the film to be a celebration of Jordan Belfort and his life. And that reading didn’t seem to trouble them at all.
I bring this up in the context of a bête noire of mine, a probably-obnoxious claim I’ve been making lately around here that many people don’t know how to read. Watching Succession’s penultimate episode last week, an extraordinary dramatic turn which featured something like 20 captivating minutes of back to back funeral eulogies, I was reminded of the tension at the heart of the show, and at the heart of what has been called prestige TV – i.e. the feelings of conflict produced in the viewer, the profound and productive sense of moral complexity, the fact that the show forces us to at once sympathise with and detest despicable people.
The instructive moment is Kendall’s funeral speech for his father. Logan’s brother, Ewan, the moral voice of the show, has forced his way on stage despite the protests of the Roy children. He gives what is by any standard an extraordinary speech. It is unflinching and true. It manages to include both the base fact that Ewan loved his brother and also that his brother ‘wrought the most terrible things...’
‘…He was a man who has here and there drawn in the edges of the world. Now and then darkened the skies a little. Closed men's hearts. Fed that dark flame in men, the hard, mean, hard relenting flame that keeps their hearths warm, while another grows cold, their grain stashed, while another goes hungry. And even has the temerity to tell that hard, funny, yes, funny, but hard, joke about the man in the cold. You can get a little high, a little mighty, when you’re warm.’
Kendall is forced to follow this act. Roman fails at the pulpit, consumed by grief, and it becomes Kendall’s mess to pick up. This is a classic trope in narrative fiction – the hero is thrown, unprepared, into the ring, and using his wit and ingenuity he saves the day. So when Kendall finds his voice and gives a rousing defence of is father, the viewer is invited by convention, by the narrative form itself, to side with him against his uncle. Convention dictates that is a moment of triumph.
To anyone who actually listened to the words of the speech, Kendall has no answer to Ewan. His voice is raised and he speaks with momentum, but the content itself is captured within the first few sentences and amounts to little: ‘what my uncle said is true. My father was a brute. He was. He was tough. But also – he built. And he acted.’ This self-serving moral logic, that action and vigour and vitality are ends in themselves that supersede all other values, has a long history. In the 20th century it was a theme closely associated with fascism. It is a cynical, nihilist, animalian logic that returns human conceptions of value to a bully ethos, a sort of Darwinian, masculinist mentality that places physicality over thought, action over principle.
So while the speech performs the form of victory, it provides the content of failure. Still, in the audience at the funeral, we see heads nodding along. They need a justificatory story, no matter how flimsy, to keep the gravy flowing. But in their head-nodding we see, too, just how alluring these might-is-right stories can be. Deep down in each of us is a part that loves the bully. Fascism is the logic that rewards and grows that piece of the soul.
Which is why the show is able to make you, the viewer, complicit, too. I barely think you needed to be an illiterate finance bro of the type I caricatured earlier to find yourself, despite yourself, nodding along. Despite ourselves, despite the show performing and validating Ewan as its moral centre, some part of us is compelled by the masculinist strength of Kendall’s rebuttal.
And what about Kendall himself? It’s no accident that he reaches for fascistic tropes in his moment of desperation. Ultimately, fascism is cynicism’s justificatory logic, and there are simply no other grounds on which to defend his father. Most of all, Kendall is obliged to defend his father. He is obliged by self-interest, yes. But he is also obliged by love.
Succession is a show about love. If that claim is surprising it is only because we have been taught ‘by some philosophy or other’, as Cavell says, that characters are not people. But as soon as we treat them as such, and I think the show more or less demands we do, we see that every one of its primary characters if motivated or at least conflicted by love’s demands. Love is each character’s final bulwark against cynicism, and also the cause of his, her, madness.
On this reading Kendall becomes a two-bit Hamlet, a fumbling failson driven by his craving for love and his inability to give it, a man always in his own way, a man blind to himself, a man willing to allow his remaining principles to slip away in the defence of that love. He loves his father and cannot bear it, wants to kill him. He loves his children and cannot bear it, hides from them.
My sense is that this moral complexity can be foreign for some readers – especially those raised on a diet of Marvel films. They have been trained to expect narrative art to resemble a morality play – not an arena for human persons. The more complex the moral lives of the characters, the more complex the moral experience of the audience, the more human the characters on screen become. Which is what the show, ultimately, pulls off. Succession is good enough to ask us to see its characters as people. One feels that Kendall is a real person, and by virtue of him being a person one feels sympathy, even love, for him.
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The Avoidance of Love
Here I am yet again using Cavell. The Avoidance of Love is a reading of King Lear that uses Wittgenstein and psychoanalysis to explain the play in wonderful new ways. I love it so much. In the play, Lear asks his three daughters to declare their love for him. Whoever loves him most, he says, will be given his kingdom. The first two daughters are effusive and glowing. The third, his youngest, Cordelia, refuses to say anything. ‘What shall Cordelia speak?’ she says. ‘Love, and be silent.’ Cordelia loves her father, that much is clear, but she refuses to give him the speech he craves. She speaks her love by being silent.
So the tragedy is set in motion. Lear, made so upset by this response, goes insane. There’s a storm and a fool, etc. etc. The point here is that Cavell reads the play as depicting real, normal people doing what real, normal people do, by which I mean this: they love each other and they hide from each other. ‘There are no lengths to which we may not go’, writes Cavell, ‘in order to avoid being revealed, even to those we love and are loved by. Or rather, especially to those we love and are loved by: to other people it is easy not to be known.’ Why does Lear even bring out his three daughters and demand they perform their love for him? ‘My hypothesis will be that Lear's behavior in this scene is explained by….the same motivation which manipulates the tragedy throughout its course….by the attempt to avoid recognition, the shame of exposure, the threat of self-revelation.’
That is – Shakespeare’s King Lear is just another guy. He wants love and he fears being seen. He is filled with the urge we are all filled by, to hide, deflect, defend, and dodge. Cordelia refuses to play his game, gives him the love he is owed pure and honest, and this act of authenticity fills Lear with such shame – shame for asking for false love – that he hides in insanity. The Avoidance of Love is an extraordinary piece of criticism – the type that changes entirely how you see a piece of art, and art generally. To write it, Cavell first had to see the characters of King Lear as people.
As you know by now, Succession is a sort of modern Lear. Logan asks his three children to perform their love for him in exchange for his kingdom. But there is no Cordelia – no pure soul who refuses to play the game – which means Succession cannot be about the same things, have the same structure or goals or direction, as Lear. In Succession they all play Logan’s game, all go to war, all go mad.
Succession is a story about three siblings, crushed by a father whose love they crave, who find their own moral sensibilities denatured by their proximity to power. Cynicism, they each realise in time, is the only means of achieving and holding on to that power. Commitment to any moral code beyond brutish self interest is a commitment to weakness, weakness that can be exploited, and one achievement of the show is its slow insistence that capitalism beat almost all remaining principles out of them. That is the poison pill of power – and the dominant modality of power is capital.
That is why, in this season’s election episode, we watch Shiv watch Kendall in horror as he slowly succumbs to the pressures of cynicism. Roman is pushing hard for calling the election result before the votes are counted; Shiv is holding the line for democracy, but has no power in the situation; Kendall, who has already slipped far from the principles of season one, falters. The narrative wants to say: capitalism creates its evil overlords. They start out people and are made monsters. Murdoch once supported Whitlam.
But Succession would be a much less interesting show if the dominant message were merely capitalism denatures the human soul. The show does say that, very clearly. But it also says: in an unprincipled capitalistic society human people often are in fact restrained from cynicism, from fascism, and that restraint comes from human bonds – from love. In the election episode, the only remaining restraint on Kendall’s action is love for his daughter.
That long-standing internal logic is what makes the show’s finale fully plausible. The dismount – a collapse of the Roy children coalition that facilitates the loss of their company and the rise of Shiv’s husband Tom to CEO – is only sensible to the viewer in light of the countervailing forces of love. Shiv betrays her brother in spite of her love for him and because of her love for Tom.
I see that I am 3000 words in, so let me quickly bring this back to Cavell. People ‘do not just naturally not love’, he writes. ‘They learn not to.’ They learn not to because love presents to each of us as a demand – to love, and be loved, is to be obliged. It is to be burdened. And it is no accident that the antithesis of love I have presented here, cynicism, is exactly a flight from obligation, from burden. People avoid love because they cannot bear, are afraid of, what love asks of them.
‘And our lives begin’, writes Cavell:
by having to accept under the name of love whatever closeness is offered, and by then having to forgo its object. And the avoidance of a particular love, or the acceptance of it, will spread to every other; every love, in acceptance or rejection, is mirrored in every other. It is part of the miracle of the vision in King Lear to bring this before us… We wonder whether we may always go mad between the equal efforts and terrors at once of rejecting and of accepting love.
‘We wonder whether we may always go mad between the equal efforts and terrors at once of rejecting and of accepting love.’ Indeed.
That is how I read Succession, a show depicting people.
If you’ve read a bunch of Murdoch biographies your mileage may vary.