Playing False: Representations of Betrayal (Oxford, September 16 - 17, 2011)

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Dr. Betiel Wasihun and Kristina Mendicino, Lincoln College, Oxford University

Lincoln College, Oxford University, September 16 - 17, 2011

"Verrat und Argwohn lauschen in allen Ecken"
(Friedrich Schiller, "Wilhelm Tell" 1, 4)

To hand over (tradere), to give over (paradidômi): these words sum the dynamics of betrayal in the languages of antiquity. But there is nothing simple and summary about the crossings and double-crossings they name. There have been several attempts to define "betrayal" (e.g. Jaeggi, "Versuch über den Verrat," 1991). Across disciplines, it seems that betrayal presupposes an unstable triadic structure, in which the traitor, isolated, is caught in a double bind. X gives Y over to some opposition; or, perhaps, X gives himself away. But where does X come from, and what is it that leads X to betray? The most basic structure of betrayal, in fact, involves everyone: for to speak, to give words over, gives oneself away. And yet, betrayal is never the same from moment to moment. One must ask rather than assume to what extent the moments of betrayal that emerge on a mythic scale in Aeschylus' "Seven Against Thebes" (467 BC) share with the political strategies of Thucydides' historical protagonists. And one must ask how such scenes of betrayal differ from those of the modern world, as they are thematized in the Germanic epic "The Song of the Nibelungen" (ca. 1200), in Shakespeare's dramas, or in Fellini's films. In itself graspable, the very ubiquity of betrayal quickly renders it elusive. And in a world where trade connects all to all, the tradition of "tradere" – betrayal and treason – becomes all the more urgent to pursue. In order to approach the phenomenon of betrayal, we will investigate these topics in three panels:


The concept of betrayal is commonly understood to be situated in the spheres of politics and theology. Margret Boveri's case studies of Knut Hamsun and Ezra Pound in "Der Verrat im XX. Jahrhundert" (1956 -1960) underscore both the pervasiveness and complexity of betrayal in modern politics. The Christian religion, on the other hand, is nothing without Judas' foundational treason. Still, the singularity of cases and representations becomes crucial to approaching betrayal. Moving beyond the questions of loyalty, orthodoxy and law, we pose in this panel anew the questions: what emerges from a critical look at representations of political and religious betrayal in their singular dynamics and, above all, language? How is political and religious betrayal dependent upon articulation, be it literary (e.g. Brecht's "Die Maßnahme," 1930; Werfel's "Der veruntreute Himmel," 1939), filmic (e.g. Pasolini's "Il vangolo secondo Matteo," 1964), or visual (e.g. Magritte's "La trahison des images," 1929)? How does reading carefully open ways to discuss a phenomenon that all too often involves taking sides and betraying a more sober, critical view? After all, the German word "Ver-rat" bespeaks language gone awry, a miscarried (ver-) piece of advice (Rat); religious or political, betrayal unfolds within its language.


In his essay, "From Betrayal to Violence: Dante's Inferno and the Social Construction of Crime" (2001) Paul G. Chevigny, an American human rights scholar, elucidates that for Dante "fraud and betrayal were the most serious crimes because they were the most deliberate, the most calculated." Thus, betrayal: a merely rational act? Of course not. Even the most calculated act cannot be thought apart from emotion. In this panel, we would like to explore how the calculated crime of betrayal is affected by emotions in literary texts or in other artistic representations. Curiously enough, the etymology of the English word "betrayal" traces back to the emotion of "grief" (OED). We would like to pursue the culturally specific parameters that motivate betrayal. What variables affect betrayal (grief, love, angst, ambition, greed, envy, vengeance, rage, conspiracy, intrigue, shame, guilt)? Only the conditions of betrayal make it what it is from case to case – and variations among even the most familiar types of betrayal seem to be endless, as Peter von Matt shows in his monograph on betrayal affected by love, "Liebesverrat: Die Treulosen in der Literatur" (1991). And what about conspiracy? Based on deception and bound to betrayal, conspiracy forms a special case in works such as Friedrich Schiller's dramas (e.g. "Die Verschwörung des Fiesco zu Genua," 1783)? Or how does Jorge Luis Borges deal with the figure of the transgressor in his anthology "Ficciones" (e.g. "Tres versiones de Judas," 1944)?


Playing false often involves the assumption of another role, appearance – or word. Whether one considers the epic mask of the Trojan Horse, where destruction penetrated Troy in the guise of a gift (Vergil, "Aeneid," 30 -19 BC), or the maskings that blur the distinctions between the role and the real in works such as "Die Ehe der Maria Braun" (Fassbinder, 1979), the mask seems the traitor's greatest accomplice. From dramas to picaresque novels, masks of betrayal insist themselves. We solicit speakers to consider the relation between masking and betrayal, both in its serious and more playful forms. Contributors may consider dramatic texts, from Sophocles "Philoctetes" (409 BC) to Heiner Müller's "Philoktet" (1964) to Mozart's comic opera "Cosi fan tutte" (1790). Or, they may pursue the ways in which maskings and betrayal more subtly interact in texts that implicitly betray this dynamic, as when the picaro figure of the masked, anonymously-published "Lazarillo de Tormes" (1554) plays his way through the world of sixteenth-century Spain.

Please send abstracts of 300-500 words by Friday, May 27, 2011 to either Dr. Betiel Wasihun ( or Kristina Mendicino (