<i>Whoosh!</i> Issue 76 - March/April 2003


By Carlos Eduardo Rebello
Content © 2003 held by author
Whoosh! edition © 2003 held by Whoosh!
8149 words

I offer this article in memory of Breno Cruz Mascarenhas (1911-2001), medical officer in the Brazilian Expeditionary Corps in Italy, 1944-45, and to Edward P. Rich.

An Explanation by Means of an Announcement (01-09)
The Relevant Issue (10-40)
The Art of War According To Gabrielle (41-51)
Conclusion (52-55)


An Explanation by Means of an Announcement


These fans have a lot of favorite episodes.

[01] First, I would like to explain why I sent this belated response to a call for "favorite episode" papers. I am in the midst of writing a work about the formation, structures, and societal role of postmodern Mass Culture ideology as seen through a comprehensive analysis of Xena: Warrior Princess. I hope it will be finished not too late in 2003. Therefore, at the time the editors of Whoosh! issued their call for papers in 2002, I had to devote attention to writing the first chapters of my work and could not dedicate myself to what, in logical terms, would come later: the analysis of a particular episode. Now that the writing of my book is nearly complete, I can safely begin to write on a more advanced topic that can be afterwards tucked into the corpus.

[02] Choosing THE PRICE (44/220) as my favorite episode is less a question of personal taste than of a general outlook about what the Xena corpus of episodes actually was. I am fully aware that for much of the Xena: Warrior Princess viewership, A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215), with its portrayal of the Xena-Gabrielle relationship as a type of private seamless Utopia, is considered the quintessential Xena episode. The fact that I have chosen THE PRICE as my personal quintessential has therefore, all to do with my personal "partisan" stance on the subject.

[03] Speaking from the start in avowedly personal terms, for me an exceptional Xena episode is one that has Xena and Gabrielle at loggerheads. Why? In my view, Xena: Warrior Princess should be regarded above all as high tragedy, a tragedy that conforms to the view offered by Aristotle. In his Poetics, Aristotle stated that tragedy should rouse fear and pity from an audience. To do that, it was necessary not to show wicked people being chastised (which would generate relief, but not pity or fear), or the very good being punished (which would be only repulsive), or the wicked being rewarded (which would be only unfair), or the good being rewarded (which would hardly be a plot at all).

[04] What was necessary to arouse interest, according to Aristotle, was to show

"A person … not preeminent in virtue and justice, and one who falls into adversity not through evil and depravity, but through some kind of error" [Note 01]
As only this kind of outcome would make us question our common sense morals, what is shown on the tragic stage is exactly an individual who falls prey, not to his/her wicked ways, but, to an actual desire of doing good that turns to the opposite result.

[05] In Xena: Warrior Princess, the tragic element, when it appears, is always first-rate in that it comes from the fact that the main characters, Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, and even Callisto, do not appear as "evil" in themselves. On the contrary, they strive sincerely to be "good". They mend past errors (Xena), show themselves deserving of the expectations put upon them (Gabrielle), raise themselves to heroic status and achieve true love (Joxer), and even to seek rightful revenge (Callisto).

[06] Precisely because of this deeply felt desire to do good, they fall prey to adversity. An action purported to be good, say Xena's desire to help Boadicea or Gabrielle's refusal to accept the killing of Hope, becomes its very opposite as far as actual consequences are concerned. Examples of this are Xena's British expedition leading to Gabrielle's impregnation by Dahak and Gabrielle's hiding of Hope leading to Solan's death.

[07] Even when there is a comedic "reprieve", such as when the deadliest of foes become the best of friends, like the reconciliation between Xena and Callisto in FALLEN ANGEL (91/501), there always remains a truly tragic tension, as when Xena's pregnancy, intended as an act of reconciliation, has as its actual consequence the coming unto the world of the wicked Livia. In a world fed-up with an ideology of multicultural "reconciliation", it is always good to see something that stresses the actual necessity of sharp divides.

[08] As far as comedy goes, A DAY IN THE LIFE could be, and actually is, the quintessential Xena episode, in that it shows minor, idiosyncratic, and domestic differences between the two main characters being laughed away. However, once the episode ends, we feel that we have been offered something pleasurable, but not challenging. We have been cajoled, but not taught anything. Therefore, if we were to admit, as I believe to be the case, that the TV set were to be our pedagogue for grown-ups, as Aristophanes (and Aristotle) considered to be the case with the tragic stage in Classical Athens, it is the tragic episodes that blaze the trail to a better future.

[09] Therefore, my choice for a best episode is in essence a tragedy. I consider the Third Season "Rift" to be the highest point in the history of the show, with its powerful and well-built tragic and cathartic elements. Nonetheless, the "Rift" is part of a cluster of episodes that does not confine itself to the portrayal of the deadly quarrel between Xena and Gabrielle. True, the quarrel forms its basic subject matter, but it also is dependent on much of what came before, such as the reasons for Xena's wanting to take revenge upon Caesar or the role played by Callisto. It also casts a shadow upon much of what was to follow. A "best" episode should be one that could offer, single-handedly, the same tragic elements that would be developed during the Rift-cluster. That episode exists and is THE PRICE.

The Relevant Issue

[10] THE PRICE is "classical" in that it conforms to Aristotle's rules. It is circumscribed in range of major characters (only Xena and Gabrielle appear, and even Argo is left outside) and in spatial range. Most of the action is limited to the Athenian fortress surrounded by the Horde. Therefore, the unity of both space and action is achieved. Xena and Gabrielle are confined in the fortress and must somehow find a way to break the siege and avert certain death at the hands of the Horde.

[11] The fact that the main action needs no development to make sense (Xena and Gabrielle are in a life-or-death situation and must somehow conquer or die) allows for unity of time, as all the action can be compressed to only forty-eight hours. If we assume that it is early morning when Xena and Gabrielle go fishing, one can suppose they reach the Athenian fortress around noon, that Xena makes the Horde soldier prisoner in late afternoon, and that she discovers the Horde's honor code in the early night of the second day, with the final duel with the Horde chief taking place at the morning of the third day. Such extreme compression of place and time stands for the proper character of the episode as a unity, above all, of action. One could even say a unity of danger. What we have is not a presentation of the characters per se (as in A DAY IN THE LIFE, where the famous bathtub scene does not advance action, but functions in that it allows for a pleasurable, intimate glimpse of the two characters) but the development of the same characters when faced with a particular goal, to which they react faithfully to the qualities we already know them to possess.

[12] There is no need to explain the situation or the impending danger. There is the image of the Athenian members of the relief force hung on crosses by the river that Xena and Gabrielle paddle past seeking refuge, under a hail of battle-axes. There is Xena's telling of past experiences with the Horde. These things tell us that everything hangs on a thread. In itself, the situation is clearly enough. Only there develops a difference, in that both Xena and Gabrielle will try each to find a way out according to each one's strengths.

[13] In the episode, there is no doubt about the end in view: to repel the Horde or else to die a slow and tortured death. The entire plot revolves on a sharp difference of opinions between Xena and Gabrielle about the means needed to attain that end-in-view. Therefore, the deepness of the episode, as it epitomizes a sharp and clearly political issue that has hassled Western political thinkers at least since the Renaissance to today. The issue? Can one work for the Greater Good through evil means?

[14] Xena takes command of a thoroughly demoralized Athenian force by her liberal use of the most "severe", actually cruel, means, to the dismay of a shocked Gabrielle. But then, as I have seen while playing this episode on VCR tape during a seminar for graduate students, Gabrielle's behavior appeared to us as simply silly, as a wishy-washy, self-righteous attempt at keeping one's face when circumstances are demanding the exactly opposite. As one of my students remarked, during the scene where Xena interrupts the torture of the Horde prisoner over Gabrielle's objections and pleas for mercy, by ordering the prisoner to be chained up, "In her place I would have chained Gabrielle up. She is a complete nuisance". An opinion I tended to share.

[15] But then, I do not think that Xena: Warrior Princess was developed with that kind of viewership in mind, that is to say a Marxist teacher in his forties and his thirty-something graduate students in a Third World country. Both, therefore, with a far greater familiarity with Marxist political culture than the average North American Xena: Warrior Princess fan, of course.

[16] Above all, what does this scene actually mean? Is it an indictment of violence and torture as a means to wage war to the end? Or, on the contrary, a covertly admittance of the truth of the famous dictum by General Sherman that "War is all hell" and therefore there is no possible means of waging it mildly? Are we supposed to side with Xena or with Gabrielle? Lucy Lawless, who offered a comment on the episode in the authorized guide of the show, seems to back the actions of her character:

"Because Xena had this view, when you go to war, that's what it's really like" [Note 02]

[17] But since Lawless seems to speak somewhat ironically, we are left still in the dark about the actual effect intended, were it not the case that what was intended was actually to leave viewers the ultimate decision. Be as it may, one does not have to belong to the political Right to tend to jeer at Gabrielle's supposedly naivetι, witness my students' reaction. It is not one of the least merits of this episode that the scene throws viewers headfirst into an atmosphere of overall brutalization where an "everything goes" attitude seems to hold at least a plausible point.

[18] One need not be reminded that, historically, in each and every circumstance of extreme political and/or military loggerheads, amounting to the use of open violence between the contending parties, such "everything goes" attitude seems to be the preference of all hard-liners. Hard-liners, by the way, who could also be portrayed, quite simply, as the people entrusted with the task of simply making things work. One could view the scene in the lens, say, of a Trotsky justifying the holding of the Social-revolutionaries as hostages in a Soviet prison:

The question of reprisals on individuals in time of revolution assumes a quite specific character from which humanitarian generalities rebound in impotence … From the point of view of the absolute value of the human personality revolution must be 'condemned' as well as war - as must also the history of mankind taken in the large … For me, the question is not one of philosophical justification but rather of political explanation. Revolution is revolution because it reduces all contradictions to the alternative of life and death. [Note 03]
Put somewhat differently:
"This is war! What did you expect, glamour? There are no good choices, only lesser degrees of evil!" [Note 04]

[19] Put into a nutshell, war, as a part of politics [Note 05], is nothing but a difference between interests that historical circumstance has decreed should be solved by way of organized violence. [Note 06] Since violence is in itself "immoral", the only way to make war less immoral is by giving it an end sooner than later. That means winning in the speediest fashion, by any means necessary: deceit, murder, or even torture, if need be!

[20] Let us however, dot the "i"s. As the Greek tragic poets had already discovered, a tragic situation is where an individual, whose behavior is prompted by the best of intentions, suddenly discovers his or her self undone by the force of prevailing circumstances. Gabrielle's plea for common decency amid a give-no-quarter struggle seems to fall into this category of tragic mistake. However, there is another sort of tragic mistake, when one acting out of character, lets one's prevailing passions to impose on one's judgment and discovers oneself struck by "Fate". Xena's mistake is of this order.

[21] In arguing for the dictates of dire necessity, Xena puts herself into a blind alley created by her own harshness of character. If she were to stoop so low as to torture the Horde soldier, she would have rendered any kind of further dialogue with the enemy impossible. That would have led her and her associates towards certain death, as will be seen below. The fact that this basic situation is rendered by the episode in an entirely abstract fashion, as it is NOT an allegory of any historical event -- Modern or Ancient -- whatsoever, allows us to rationally realize the particular tragic mistake made by each of our two heroes.

[22] In the first half of the episode, however, Gabrielle appears as being entirely in the wrong. As we know, Gabrielle's main trait of character is her essential maidenhood, her purity of views, and her ability to love people unconditionally. Later in the series, this purity will become almost Puritan self-righteousness. However, this is not the case here. Up to this point, Gabrielle would rather be dead than to harm people irrecoverably. Now, in most of circumstances, such likeable traits of character are to be viewed as supposedly "good" things in themselves. The problem is that, in this particular episode, we are in an entirely exceptional set of circumstances. Our Bard's main traits of character, the same traits that rendered her so lovable most of the time, appear as singularly ill-fitted. Uncommon circumstances, in which warfare abounds, require uncommon means, no matter how disgusting they may appear. Gabrielle's supposedly "common decency" set of values tends to remind one of another great line by Trotsky:

Common sense's basic capital consists of the elementary conclusions of universal experience: not to put one's fingers in fire, whenever possible to proceed along a straight line, not to tease vicious dogs … and so forth and so on. Under a stable social milieu common sense is adequate for bargaining, healing, writing articles, leading trade unions, voting in parliament, marrying, and reproducing the race … A simple capitalist crisis is enough to bring common sense to an impasse; and before such catastrophes as revolution … and war, common sense proves a perfect fool. [Note 07]

[23] In short, if one wanted to keep on practicing common sense, one should better remain safely as the beloved daughter of a small proprietor in Poteidaia, marry a loving and caring man like the regretted Perdicas, practice the bard skills only for the amusement of guests, and never ever even think of following a warrior princess. Then, to all those who have seen REMEMBER NOTHING (26/202) and THE RETURN OF CALLISTO (29/205), Gabrielle's "common decency" set of values, left to itself, would have meant eventual enslavement in the hands of a warlord. Neither did Perdicas' "common decency" save him from death in Callisto's hands.

[24] Such then, is the (tragic) problem posed: we tend to think of common sense as being the natural ally of common decency, in that whatever we do guided by common sense appears as naturally meant to attain decent results. However, in particular circumstances, one can think in terms of common sense and arrive at particularly nasty results such as the wretchedly death of one's next-of-kin, dearest friend, or political associates.

[25] Depending on prevailing circumstances, the same means can lead to entirely different results. Therefore Gabrielle's tragic predicament: granted, she wants to save her life, Xena's, and the Athenians'. However, in order to do so, she must accept means that she cannot possibly stomach, while her usual set of means, good as they are, appears as of no avail. In THE RETURN OF CALLISTO, Joxer saved the day with an unorthodox approach; here, the strictures of the plot preclude this deus ex machina. The situation reduces to the simplest terms: Do this or else be undone and all your friends with you.

[26] Then, why keep on quoting Marxist works? One of the greatest merits of Xena: Warrior Princess resides in its avoidance of the shallow Naturalism that has rendered most of Mass Culture a frozen bloc of ideology, something the series has allowed by creating a make-believe world where all questions can be posed in purely abstract terms, therefore allowing the viewer to form oneself an answer as a thinking being. Let us then avoid open partisanship, at least for the moment, and put the issue in more general terms by means of a leap backwards. Since Machiavelli, political thinking has found its starting-stone on the fact that political ethics (including the ethics of warfare) and transcendental morals do not necessarily coincide. On the contrary, they are mostly at variance. According to the great Florentine,

He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. [Note 08]

[27] In the beginning of THE PRICE, Xena appears as "spontaneously" Machiavellian. Following also, unwittingly, the precepts of the Florentine politologue, she restores morale in the Athenian ranks by thrashing two soldiers for their slackness. She was following the example set by the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who, in Machiavelli's view, kept discipline in a losing army only by virtue of his inhuman cruelty. This, "with his boundless valor, made him revered and feared in the sight of his soldiers, but without that cruelty his others virtues were not sufficient to produce that effect." [Note 09] A technique obviously followed by the Warrior Princess.

[28] Trotsky, speaking of his time as Commissar of War, agrees wholeheartedly:

"An army cannot be built without reprisals … the command will always be obliged to place soldiers between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear." [Note 10]

[29] War means ruthlessness, therefore Xena orders all the able-bodied to the walls and instructs Gabrielle to deny food and water to the dying. War means also deceit. Therefore, Xena orders the corpses to be hung to the walls. One of the greatest merits of the episode is exactly to broach upon essentials by means of hints, of mere sketches, that, nevertheless, take the place of the whole picture.

[30]Granted, as the editors of this site have aptly reminded me, the "raw materials" used by Steven L. Sears to compose THE PRICE were simply two Great White Hunter 1960's movies: THE NAKED PREY (1966) and ZULU (1964), both generally found as going together, to the point of having their VHS sold jointly by Amazon.com as a bargain.[Note 11] Both could not be more implicitly racist: the former is a tale about a Great White Hunter being hunted by Africans and the latter a glorification of a British colonial war episode. Then even this is perhaps, again, another tour de force of the series. In the same way, that Greek Tragedy adapted the aristocratic Homeric epic to the intellectual needs of a democratic community of free male citizens, THE PRICE turned its raw materials upside down. Firstly, by moving the story from historical colonial Africa to a mythological "elsewhere", and, in the process, de-ethnicizing the Horde (many, but not all, of the Horde's extras are Europeans). Secondly, by turning what was more or less covertly racist gloating into a more general tale about fear of the Other and the relationship between means and ends.

[31] In a relatively recent book, the French historians J.P. Vernant and Marcel Detienne consider that our modern search for generalized morals comes straight from the Platonic tradition that opposes the one Truth, episteme, with a range of fleeting opinions, doxa. Contrariwise, in the Archaic, pre-Socratic Greek tradition, there is the idea of intelligence, not as knowledge of the pure Truth, but as cunning (metis). Essentially, it is the ability to hit the head of the nail at a particular moment. In other words, it is the ability to achieve a given end, not by means of a sustained line of thinking, but by seizing the moment by sudden intuition that grasps at the circumstances. Such as what the historian Thucydides said about the Athenian statesman Themistocles,

[T]o offer sound advice thanks to the most speedy reflection, and at the same time, to figure himself the best ideas about the most extended future. [Note 12]

[32] The "cunning" applying, above all, to the activities of the hunter, fishermen, seaman, warrior, and politician, who must seize circumstances in view of a given and eminently practical goal. As it is, the morality of politics, as that of warfare, would consist of this striving after a momentary "truth." An "old hunter's trick," as the Xenaverse's Iolaus is fond of saying.

[33] The above helps explain the appearance of this type of cunning in THE PRICE, found in one of the best scenes of the episode. Xena prepares a trap and lures the men of the Horde into the fortress by means of their engaging a party of skirmishers. When the attackers are well into the compound, she orders a party of hidden archers to begin shooting in earnest. The Bulgarian theme song begins while the Horde-men are being slaughtered. Xena hits one of the attackers with a bow at close range, slits the throat of another, and realizes that there is a sole survivor fleeing away. She then actually seizes the fleeting opportunity, in the concrete form of catching an incoming battle-ax, running to the battlements, and sending the ax right into the back of the fugitive.[Note 13] Superbly staged and acted in all its gory brutality, the scene displays what Machiavelli would call Xena's Virtϊ: the manly ability to grasp, in the heat of the moment, the most effective mode of action; to seize the "effective truth of things", as in the famous lines by Petrarch:

Virtu contro al Furore
Prendera l'arme, e fia il combatter corto...

Virtue against fury shall advance the fight
And it i' th' combat soon shall put to flight. [Note 14]

[34] That Xena afterwards "struts" when hailed by the Athenian soldiers,[Note 15] cannot be regarded as a fault, since one of the ends in view was precisely to raise the morale of a dispirited force. A display of joy at a well-done job was quite becoming the situation. What was attempted was a dangerous gamble, of the type quite common in warfare. It is only natural to give oneself an opportunity to cheer at a successful throw of the dice, in order to build the self-confidence that makes so much of a successful commander. In the words of the early nineteenth-century Prussian military theoretician von Clausewitz,

daring reliance on good fortune, boldness, rashness, are only expressions of courage, and all these propensities of the mind look for the fortuitous … because it is their element. [Note 16]

[35] From Machiavelli to Trotsky, practically all of modern Western thinking about warfare seems to be of a mind with our Warrior Princess, in that it seems to offer nothing but a sustained intellectual justification for the utmost brutality. Then, thinking on warfare is "Marxist" from its very beginning, in that it sees war as the most concentrated expression of the alienation of the human individual in class society. It is a situation where individuals must face a reality not of their own making which they must somehow conquer by actual violence or else die. To win means regaining mastery over the opposing objective reality, by destroying the opponent. In such a situation, as Xena irritably remarks to Gabrielle, "there's nothing we can or should understand" about our foes, except the necessity of wreaking havoc upon them.

[36] One of the many merits of THE PRICE is its well-balanced structure in terms of timing and argument presentation. In the first half of the episode, we are firmly led to side with Xena, as Gabrielle's increasing pleas for humanity are made to appear simply pathetic. Our twosome is trapped in the fortress with the Athenian force. The Horde is surrounding them outside. There is no way out except by trying to break free, at all costs. Therefore, Gabrielle's pleas for humanity appear not only unjustified, but also wasteful, indulging in a luxury one could not afford in such dire straits.

[37] When Xena asks, rhetorically: "What did you expect, glamour?" ("Glamour" being, by the way, ad-libbed by Lucy Lawless [Note 17]), she stresses Gabrielle's self-righteous reluctance in part company with her polished, idealized self-image (or, better, with her innate goodness) and urges her to wake up to the surrounding reality.[Note 18] In addition, Lucy Lawless comments, again, upon the lesson intended:

"Because Xena had the view, when you go to war, that is what it's really like. And you bleeding-heart liberals! You know, you tree-huggers, if you went to Bosnia, what did you think it would be like?" [Note 19]
A very good comment that stresses precisely the fact that what was shown in the episode was exactly the contrast between the consciousness of the middle-class postmodern individual and the harsh surrounding socio-political reality.

[38] It does not matter if the starting point that triggered this reflection was from the Left or from the Right. Both the Extreme Left and the Extreme Right have always been very keen on pointing out the hopeless position of the utilitarian liberals, who think that thinking individuals can always somehow manage to strike a deal between contending interests, before the reality of an all-out struggle between said contending interests. Writing his tract, Their Morals and Ours, during the Spanish Civil War, when both democratic liberals and communists sided for the Republicans against Franco's "nationalists," Trotsky remarks:

"If, we shall say, a revolutionist bombed General Franco and his staff into the air, it would hardly evoke moral indignation even from the democratic eunuchs. Under the conditions of civil war a similar act would be politically complete effective. Thus, even in the sharpest question - murder of man by man - moral absolutes prove futile. Moral evaluations … flow from the inner needs of struggle." [Note 20]

[39] That is what a right-winger could say to a liberal multicultural relativist of our own day. If one, in order to blow away an entire fundamentalist terrorist General Staff, had to explode an entire mountain, amid much "collateral damage", would you dare to present any moral objections? Or even bother to do so? Would you feel safer to board a commercial plane afterwards? But then there is no need of having resource to recent events in order to prove this point, as one can use historical perspective of more remote happenings: if, for instance, Von Stauffemberg had succeeded in his July the 20, 1944 attempt at killing Hitler and had survived World War II, he would undoubtedly be treated as a living hero.

[40] One could stop here without caring for subsequent developments. For if in Classical Tragedy the common Athenian citizen began to feel himself a thinking being when being invited to reflect upon the choices made on stage by the heroes from the mythological past, the greatest merit of Xena: Warrior Princess is not the answers supplied, but the fact that it allows the postmodern individual to begin feeling oneself as a problem, and to begin thinking about it. The actual answers supplied do not matter. In matters of fiction, one can appreciate the views of a political opponent easier than in a non-fiction work. In fiction, what matters is the intensity of the questions posed, not the quality of the answers. THE PRICE could have ended on a rightist note and still be viewable. However, it is not so. The second half of the episode, the "de-construction" of Xena's position from Gabrielle's viewpoint, is remarkable in that it avoids easy pitfalls and offer food for thought.

The Art of War According To Gabrielle

[41] It seems, therefore, that before warfare proper, as well as before its cognate, class strife, it is possible only to have an "everything goes" attitude. However, before such a view, Trotsky had a more qualified stance:

"Permissible and obligatory are only those means, we answer, which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression … imbue them with consciousness of their historical mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice … Precisely from this, it follows that not all means are permissible … The great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class as against other … or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation, to lower the faith of the masses in themselves … replacing it with worship for the 'leaders' [Stalin and his thugs, of course-CR] … Those criteria do not, of course, give a ready answer to the question as to what is permissible and what is not permissible in each separate case. There can be no such automatic answers … The living experience of the movement under the clarification of theory provides the correct answer …" [Note 21]

[42] Before the situation shown in THE PRICE, the only question concerning Xena's methods, in such a view, would be the simplest one: is it working? The ultimate answer, one made in view of the foreseeable future, as it should be, would be a decided no. Xena knows she has only given the Horde "a bloody nose." [Note 22] She has not enough men to break the siege on her own. When she sends Mercer as an emissary to search for reinforcements under cover of a smokescreen, and he fails to even reach the river nearby, then all hope is eventually lost. As far as sheer force is concerned, the Horde might sit and watch Xena, Gabrielle, and the Athenians starve in the fortress. [Note 23]

[43] Xena's actions so far, even if successful in raising morale, were, on the other side, just gambling diversions. Such a gambling stance before warfare is, as we have seen, encouraged by all theoreticians since Ancient Greece and actually praised by von Clausewitz. [Note 24] Of course, such an approach applies readily in the uncontrollable circumstances of the battlefield proper. However, it does not acknowledge the fact that the battlefield is only the visible tip of a whole chain of events. Precisely because of that, one must attempt to control events, as far as possible, by striking at their causes, not just at their effects. One must take account of the existing totality. In the view of the classical Third BCE Century military Chinese treatise on warfare, far more superior in that respect to Clausewitz's, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, war is only one means to achieve a given political goal, and, therefore

"Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellency; supreme excellency consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." [Note 25]

[44] This means understanding the enemy's motives and goals in order to take preemptive action whenever possible, without having to resort to warfare proper, which always contains an element of pure chance. Again, in the words of Sun Tzu, "if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." [Note 26] Regrettably, it seems that Xena did not profit from her stay in Ch'in to become acquainted with Sun Tzu's work, something that casts a severe doubt about the extent of Lao Ma's knowledge as a political leader. Well, perhaps that is just the contrary. Lao Ma knew enough of Xena not to offer her a knowledge that would have made her even deadlier in the battlefield, forerunning in this that Brazilian president who said that "one should trust one's friends with suspicion."

[45] The Western tradition of writings on warfare tends to work on a definite line: that war is a zero-sum game, aiming ultimately at the complete annihilation of the enemy. If war is, indeed, "the continuation of politics by other means," and then politics also means eventually annihilating one's political opponents. That war is the supreme form of a contradiction, granted, no one could possibly deny. However, there is one more way to overcome a contradiction, other than the annihilation of one of the opposing parties, namely, the superseding of contradictions -- in the sense of the Hegelian aufheben (one of those nice German verbs meaning a thousand different things, among then the mutual balancing of opposing forces) that is to say, the acknowledgement and incorporation of one's foe into a new context.

[46] In THE PRICE, one way to achieve that effect would be to make Gabrielle "discover" that the men of Horde, despite their crude exteriors, were in fact good people with hearts of gold. It was the solution given in the next Horde episode, THE DAUGHTER OF POMIRA (79/411) and the reason why this episode stinks, as it is ideological in the worst possible sense: portrayal of the Other as the cuddly bon sauvage is always the first step towards paternalistic (and colonialist) infantilization, of the kind practiced by Walt Disney in the good old days. For "there are two forms of killing: by machine guns and saccharine." [Note 27] Contrariwise, in THE PRICE, the men of the Horde are simply brutes intent on looting. This, and the fact that Xena is unmistakably afraid of them,[Note 28] is what makes the dramatic reversal far more interesting.

[47] Of course the Horde "represents," from the point of view of the capitalist "Center" that is culturally that of Xena: Warrior Princess, the Third World "periphery." In other words, it is that great mass of ragged, dark-skinned and unwashed people, speaking strange languages and having strange mores. To clearly represent fear of them, means, therefore, at least portraying them as an actual problem. Infantilizing them would have meant evading it. Of course, the episode, as remarked by Carolyn Skelton, threatens repeatedly to fall into the playful mode, as later in the episode the Horde's war paint becomes more bright and carnivalesque. The Horde prisoner has his face smeared with French (or American) bleu-blanc-rouge and his dying partner asking for "kaltaka" is painted with Brazilian green-yellow. [Note 29] Yet, overall, the temptation to make the Horde men appear as Carmen Miranda is successfully resisted. The Horde is an alien force that resists integration into a familiar mind frame, therefore the general climate of imminent catastrophe, creeping menace, and luridness of the episode. The Horde are not so many primitives bound towards peaceful integration in a postmodern bazaar, they are the Aliens par excellence.

[48] When Gabrielle takes water from a barrel for the Horde prisoner and discovers that what seemed to be the Horde's war mantra, an invocation to a war-god, "kaltaka" simply meant "water," what she does is more than find the meaning of a particular word, but to discover language in general as the common cement of the social construction of reality. Were it to be a war yell, "kaltaka" would not be able to enter the realm of language proper, as it would be only the outward manifestation of an inarticulate state of mind, something more akin to the roar of a lion than to human speech proper.

[49] In the ears of the Athenian defenders, it was only logical that "kaltaka" was to be a battle cry, given the context in which it was uttered. As a word for "water," it sounds a bit arbitrary, something that explains Gabrielle's surprise at her discovery (kudos to Renee O'Connor). Then, only Gabrielle the Bard, who works with words by trade and knows the arbitrary character of language signs, could have had the ability at this juncture to make this connection. The humanity of the Horde comes from the fact that their social reality is, as much as anyone's, a symbolic one. Once you know the key to the code-system, you can reach an understanding. For, as Marx and Engels once wrote,

Language is practical, real consciousness, that exists for other men as well, and only therefore does it also exist for me; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of intercourse with other men. Where there is a relationship, it exists for me. The animal does not "relate" itself to anything … its relation to others does not exist as a relation." [Note 30]

[50] The existence of language, in itself, coming from the necessity of practical intercourse, means that whenever there is language, there is the possibility of an exchange, even amid war. If Xena and Gabrielle may communicate with the Horde, that means the possibility of reaching some kind of an understanding, even if on a war footing. We are not here speaking about language as a pure means of unlimited understanding, as in Habermas' "Communicative Action". Xena is herself no Habermas fan and her intercourse with the Horde settles down to a life-or-death duel. However, it avoids much useless bloodletting.

[51] Having discovered that the Horde has a language, Gabrielle does some field experimenting by going out of the walls and giving water to the Horde wounded, until a truce is called. After having Gabrielle and Mercer, found near dead in the battlefield, rescued, Xena engages in a field experiment of her own. She orders the Horde prisoner to be cut loose. Noticing he does not accept a duel with her, but readily accepts to fight anyone else, she discovers that the Horde has an honor-code, according to which mano-a-mano fighting between chiefs can take the place of a pitched battle between entire armies. Therefore, she can settle for a duel with the Horde's chief, which she wins, therefore granting the Horde's retreat. The fictional solution is acceptable in terms of the epic. Already in Homer we found a similar, however undecided, duel between Hector and Ajax. In addition, it has a good point in modern terms.


[52] The idea of deciding a war by means of a proxy, a single duel in place of a battle, could be acceptable only in an archaic class society, where the separation between intellectual and manual labor had not yet been achieved. It is a condition where the generals therefore could still do common soldiers' work. The fact that modern war is "total", throwing at the scales the totality of the resources of warring societies, is an effect of the existence of an achieved social division of labor. Yet, modern thinking on warfare proceeds as a conflation between the actual "total" character of war as far as means of warfare are concerned, and the supposedly "total" character of warfare regarding its ultimate ends. This approach tends to view warfare, not as a means of striking a balance between contending parties, but as a means to the eventual annihilation of the enemy.

[53] Since the Renaissance, the chivalrous way of waging warfare has appeared to us as unpractical. It seems to end not at the utter destruction of the antagonist, but largely at receiving him into the winning community as a worthy foe, by all kinds of symbolic marks of honor. For us, it is common sense that "there is no safe way to retain [conquests] than by ruining them." [Note 31] A successful military leader must be something like the evil Xena, a "Destroyer of Nations."

[54] Even the supposedly multicultural character of our postmodern bourgeois society rested on much of a convenient fiction. We could somehow exist alongside each other, each with one's particular Weltsanschauung (in the sense of systemic, totalizing view of things founded on one's particular culture) but until now, we could do so largely by ignoring each other. Today, such happy mutual ignorance is no longer possible, be it in the field of foreign relations or of internal politics. The loss of political relevance of orthodox Marxism in our age, even amid all actual social injustice, is due largely to the abhorrence felt towards people who see in anyone who does not embrace wholeheartedly a proletarian view-point, only an alien to be chastised by force,[Note 32] even when opposed to an all-out bourgeois viewpoint.

[55] Now that fiction is over, and not because we have entered the realm of total dialogism, as Gabrielle wanted before the big duel ("maybe we can talk to them"[Note 33]), we are now living in a world where we must, of necessity, somehow struggle and unite. Otherwise, we shall be enmeshed in an everlasting vise of foreign wars and erosions of rights at home. We must, somehow, find a balance, a balance that, for a long time to come, shall be as the relations of our two heroes: a tension, a perpetual loggerhead, that is, at the same time, companionship and union. That is why THE PRICE is, above all, a good fictional metaphor for our troubled times.

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