An Analysis of MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
No play in the Shakespearean canon is as politically radical as Measure for Measure, suggesting, as it does, that all political authority is corrupt at its core. It is the antithesis of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s most reactionary play.
The title, Measure for Measure, is richly ambiguous. It refers directly to the Hebraic and Christian Bibles–in particular, to the Sermon on the Mount: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” [Matthew 7:2]. This is Jesus’ endorsement of divine justice. While Jesus repudiates the endless cycle of human eye-for-an-eye violence, he has no problem endorsing a divine lex talionis.
In Shakespeare’s play, the character Angelo, who is no angel, makes of himself a figure of divine justice. He is invested with secular authority, as well. Before Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, withdraws from the city, he deputizes Angelo, delegating to him all of the powers of the state:
Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue, and heart [I:i].
Well, mortality does, at least. But no mercy lives in Angelo’s reptilian heart.
The Duke only pretends to withdraw from Vienna and to migrate to Poland (others say to Russia or Rome); all the while, he remains in the city, disguised as a friar.
In the Duke’s (apparent) absence, Angelo sentences to death a young man named Claudio for lechery. Claudio is betrothed to his beloved Juliet, but their marriage has not yet been consecrated:
[S]he is fast my wife, / Save that we do the denunciation lack / Of outward order [I:ii].
“Outward order” is indeed the problem of the play. She has been impregnated out of wedlock. For this, the sin of fornication, Claudio is to be beheaded.
Angelo is a theocrat who does not distinguish between secular and religious authority. He recognizes no nuance, no degree between offenses. Every crime is equal to him. In accordance with his absolutist morality, all of the bordellos in Vienna are ordered to be plucked down [I:ii]. When the demi-god Authority [I:ii] hammers down on the city of Vienna, it knows no distinction between murder and fornication. Prostitution is a secular and a spiritual offense in Angelo’s eyes. Unlicensed sex is the same as murder and deserves the same penalty as murder:
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen / A man already made, as to remit / Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image / In stamps that are forbid. ’Tis all as easy / Falsely to take away a life true made, / As to put mettle in restrained means / To make a false one [II:iv].
Angelo’s moralism is anti-sexual, and what is anti-sexual is anti-life. It is also, of course, an unreachable ideal. As Lucio puts it, it is impossible to extirpate human sexuality. You might as well condemn the sparrows for lechery. Pompey’s question (to Escalus) is a propos: “Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?” [II:i]. Indeed, Angelo’s New Vienna is much like Giuliani’s Times Square in the 1990s. Like Giuliani, Angelo would desexualize the city, eunuchizing its populace.
A more measured justice, against the moralistic extremism of Angelo, is represented by Vincentio. And this is the second connotation of the title: As opposed to the absolutism of measure-for-measure religious violence, a more moderate, more measured secular justice is desirable.
There is a third connotation in the play’s title that I would like to illuminate. The entire play is a web of substitutions. Measure for Measure means, in this context, taking one thing for another. Angelo replaces Vincentio—when the surrogate takes the place of the original, disaster results. Ragozine’s head replaces Claudio’s head. The violation of Isabella’s virginity would substitute for Claudio’s death. There are linguistic transpositions, as well: Pompey says, “benefactor” instead of “malefactor,” “varlets” instead of “honourable men,” “Hannibal” instead of “cannibal,” etc. [II:i].
* * * * *
Claudio asks his sister Isabella (by way of Lucio, friend to Claudio) to prostrate herself before the deputy and plead for his life. He knows the erotic power that she radiates:
For in her youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect / Such as move men [I:ii]
In the city of *************************, brother prostitutes sister. Claudio would be his sister’s procurer. One should recall that “prone” connotes “lying down.” It is unclear what the denotative meaning is supposed to be. “Move” suggests the contagion of sexual desire. Her words would not be a logical appeal, an appeal by reason to reason, but an erotic appeal, an appeal by reason to the libido.
Isabella isn’t a very strong advocate for her brother’s life. “I’ll see what I can do” [I:iv], she tells Lucio. And she gives up far too easily when her petition is rejected. During the first interview with Angelo, she says, weakly, “O just but severe law! I had a brother, then: heaven keep your honour” [II:ii]. After her appeal seems to be rejected during the second interview, she says, unimpressively, “Even so. Heaven keep your honour” [II:iv].
Isabella’s argument for her brother’s life is a biblical one: Hate the sin, but not the sinner. Angelo sees himself as a vehicle for divine law. It is the law, not he, who is responsible for condemning her brother to death. Both Isabella and Angelo depersonalize in their arguments for and against the death penalty as punishment for “illegitimate” sexual intercourse. Here is what Isabella says at the beginning of her argument:
There is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice; / For which I would not plead, but that I must; / For which I must not plead, but that I am / At war ’twixt will and will not [I:ii].
Who would consider this a strong appeal for someone’s life? If your brother were sentenced to death, I would hope that you would plead more forcefully. She speaks of her brother’s death with such flippancy that one must question whether or not she even cares if he will die:
Dar’st thou die? / The sense of death is most in apprehension; / And the poor beetle that we tread upon / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great / As when a giant dies [III:i].
The Duke, disguised as Friar Lodowick, says nearly the same thing to Claudio: Be absolute for death, since it is better to die than to live fearing death. The argument is specious.
Like all moralists, Angelo is a sanctimonious hypocrite. When Isabella pleads with the corrupt deputy for mercy, he makes a bargain: Only if Isabella surrenders her body to Angelo’s sexual desires will her brother be released from the death sentence. As commentators have suggested before me, Isabella is more concerned with her own vanity, her narcissistic self-regard, than with her brother’s mortality:
Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame? [III:i].
Harold Bloom might have been correct when he asserted that Isabella is unable to distinguish sexuality from incest. Notice that Isabella not only accuses her brother of incest for attempting to recruit his sister as an advocate, but claims that he cohabitated with her cousin [I:iv].
Though her basic position might be an anti-sexual one, others have noticed before me that Isabella uses an erotic language to persuade the corrupt magistrate Angelo:
Go to your bosom, / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know / That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess / A natural guiltiness, such as is his, / Let it sound a thought upon your tongue / Against my brother’s life [II:ii].
She speaks, and ’tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it [II:ii].
William Empson pointed out, cogently, that the first “sense” connotes reason, while the second “sense” connotes sensuality. Angelo is clearly turned on by Isabella’s coldness (and rationality). The colder (and more rational) she appears, the more he desires her (of course). Isabella wishes “a more strict restraint” than her nun colleagues enjoy [I:iv]. She plays on Angelo’s masochism AND sadism:
[W]ere I under the terms of death, / Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame [II:iv].
There is no question that Isabella is trying to turn Angelo on by talking about “stripping herself.” Nor is there any question that she is succeeding. There is no question, either, that Isabella is exciting Angelo’s masochism by her refusal to submit to his sexual will. She is quite revealing when she says to Angelo: “I had rather give my body than my soul” [II:iv]. And yet she never gives her body to the reprobate deputy. When Angelo, in one of Shakespeare’s wondrous soliloquies, listens to himself speak, we get a glimpse into the character’s inner experience:
Dost thou desire her foully for those things / That make her good? [II:ii].
The question is rhetorical. Angelo is thrilled by the idea of violating her celibacy. Polluting what is holy and dragging it down into the mud–that is what excites him. He is corrupt. Why shouldn’t everyone else in the world be? I hear in Angelo’s “We are all frail” [II:iv] a failed attempt at identification with Isabella: He can never be as pure as she, so she must become as impure as he.
As I stated at the beginning of this analysis, Measure for Measure suggests that corruption is inherent to the structure of all political authority. The Duke has the same designs as his substitute. After all, both Angelo and Vincentio desire and pursue the same person: the celibate Isabella.
When the Duke visits Friar Thomas, the former quickly waves away the idea that he could ever have a sexual thought:
No. Holy father, throw away that thought; / Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom [I:iii].
This is trickery. The Duke might not seem as aggressively amorous as Angelo or as libertine as Lucio, but he does desire women or, at least, a particular woman: Isabella.
Is Duke Vincentio indeed a “gentleman of all temperance” [III:ii]? According to Lucio, “He’s a better woodman than thou tak’st him for” [IV:iii]. A “woodman” is a hunter of women. What if Lucio is telling the truth? And why does the thin-skinned Duke castigate and punish Lucio for having insinuated that the latter has a pulse?
Is the Duke’s self-withdrawal and self-disguising a cunning stratagem to seduce Isabella? This cannot be exactly the case, for the Duke never, in fact, seduces Isabella. He commands her to marry him. And then the Duke compels others to be married, whether they want to be married or not: Lucio is forced to marry the punk Kate Keep-down and Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, whom he abandoned once the dowry was lost. As they enter into compulsory matrimony, the Duke must say goodbye to the “life remov’d” [I:iii] as the novice nun Isabella must say goodbye to her celibacy and dedication to things atemporal.
Isabella never says a word after the Duke compels her to marry him. Her silence is ear-splitting. How are we to understand Isabella’s silence? Is it the silence of shock? The silence of assent? And who is Varrius, and why does he have nothing to say?
Reading the play is like looking into an abyss. Every depth leads to a deeper profundity. It would be impossible to exhaust the meanings that this magnificent play generates.
THE TRACE OF THE FATHER
by Joseph Suglia
One of the most enduring myths in the history of literature is that the traces of a writer’s paternity can be erased, that the literary artist is parthenogenetically or autogenetically created. One witnesses this myth not merely in the work of authors who have taken it explicitly as their subject, such as Joyce or Artaud; as Peter Schuenemann suggests in Spur des Vaters, the reader may also discover the lineaments of this myth in less likely places. Each of the five authors Schuenemann analyzes–Lessing, Goethe, Freud, Thomas Mann, and Benn, all giants of the German literary canon–self-deceptively struggles to wipe out the traces of fatherhood in his writing, only to discover, despairingly and belatedly, that these traces are, in fact, ineffaceable.
Schuenemann examines the points at which each author’s psychological history collides with the trajectory of his writing. Lessing’s desire to detach himself from the sway of the father corresponds to his desire to detach himself from all forms of heteronomy and religious orthodoxy. According to Schuenemann, “Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts” is, at once, a history of humanity’s progress from intellectual obscurity to enlightenment and also Lessing’s self-interpretive attempt to document his movement from slavish dependence on the father to the attainment of total self-sufficiency. When, in the “Duplik,” Lessing voluntarily loosens his grip on “the truth itself,” this renunciation corresponds to Lessing’s own disillusionment with his father, who, like a mendacious and deceptive god, reserves the truth “for himself alone.” The Patheismusstreit and the quarrel with the apoplectic pastor of Hamburg are interpreted through the speculum of Lessing’s conflict with his father’s dogmatism. Lessing’s transcendental interpretation of Goethe’s “Prometheus,” for instance, is derived from a personal desire for self-sovereignty that, in its extremism, anticipates Stirnerian egoism. Nonetheless, there is no absolute break with the father, no clear point at which Lessing moved toward self-sufficiency. One of the central contradictions in Lessing’s work–and, by extension, in the Aufklaerung as such–consists in its uncanny resemblance to the conventional theologies that it professes to despise.
Schuenemann discovers analogous traces of fatherhood in the writing of Goethe. In the years following his return from Italy (1797), Goethe takes on his father’s resemblance, in spite of his repeated attempts to dissolve all ties to his biological provenance. For his entire life, Freud is deeply preoccupied with parricide (Die Traumdeutung, Totem und Tabu, Dostojewski und die Vatertoetung, and Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion all contain this motif). Nonetheless, Freud is unable to kill off the father, and his seeming atheism (Die Zukunft einer Illusion, Unbehagen in der Kultur) does nothing to change this fact. Classical psychoanalysis is inextricably entwined with Talmudic religiosity. Soldiers sacrifice their lives to satisfy their fathers’ bloodlust in the danse macabre that concludes Mann’s Der Zauberberg. Though his Nietzschean anti-humanism explicitly distances Benn from involvement in the forms of religiosity, there persists in his lyric a “Fanatismus zur Transcendenz.” In every context, the author in question confronts the paradox of sublation.
Since Hegel, it has been assumed that what is annihilated is absorbed and brought to a higher level. One of the meanings to be derived from Schuenemann’s account is that the dialectic of paternity is merciless in its omnipresence. Try to destroy the father. Try to erase every trace of his existence. The more you try to negate the father, the more you shall resemble him.
A review of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
We fall in love with our own hallucinations, according to the most rigorous of the “comedies” (if it is one), Love’s Labour’s Lost (circa 1595-1597). As the title itself announces, this will not be a typical Shakespearean comedy in which everyone gets married, whether they want to or not. From the final scene:
Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Jill [V:ii].
Courtship does not result in conjugality, but rather in the weak promise of deferred gratification: King Ferdinand “falls in love” with the Princess of France, who forces the Navarrean ruler to wait for her for an entire year. Berowne “falls in love” with the mysterious Rosaline, who forces the Navarrean lord to wait for her for an entire year (all while doing charity work at a hospital). There is absolutely no reason to believe that the Princess of France will give herself to King Ferdinand, nor is there any reason to believe that any of the French ladies will give themselves to the Navarrean lords, Berowne, Dumain, and Longaville. The play ends, without ever ending, with the indefinite postponement of erotic fulfillment.
The King demands payment for the province of Aquitaine from the Princess of France. In vain. Just as his desire to be paid for Aquitaine is disappointed, the King’s lust for the Princess is disappointed. Not merely is it the case that the male desire to conquer the female fades into libidinal nonfulfillment (or “erotic defeat,” to use Harold Bloom’s term); the male desire to accumulate wealth fades into financial nonfulfillment. Women outwit their male suitors in this puckish farce, a sophisticated problematical comedy that ridicules all of its male characters and extols the brilliance of its ladies, who emerge looking far from foolish. To quote the Princess of France:
[P]raise we may afford
To any lady that subdues a lord [IV:i].
A feast of language in which the characters dine on scraps, the play mocks the speech of the hypereducated and of the undereducated alike. The speech of the pedants Holofernes and Nathaniel is all but unintelligible, since they speak Latin as often as they speak English and obsessively employ synonymia. (Synonymia: a long sequence of successive synonyms.) The magnificent Don Adriano de Armado, who avoids common expressions as if they were strains of the Ebola virus, is admirable and ridiculous at the same time. He obsessively employs synonymia and tatutologia. (Tautologia: a tiresome repetition of the same idea in different words.) The rustic Costard only talks in malapropisms, mistaking “reprehend” for “represent,” “adversity” for “prosperity,” “manner” for “manor,” “desolation” for “consolation,” “collusion” for “allusion,” and so forth. Somewhat implausibly, Costard is also the bearer of a word that seems above him, one of the longest words in the English language: honorificabilitudinitatibus (“to be gifted with honors”). Berowne is perhaps Shakespeare’s linguistic ideal, since he neither utters malapropisms nor translates his every word into Latin. He is mocked in other ways.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is probably Shakespeare’s filthiest play, as well, with at least two lines that sound like they belong to a hit song by Ke$ha:
Thou canst not hit it, hit it, hit it,
Thou canst not hit it, my good man [IV:i].
Two metaphorical strands are woven throughout the play. The first series of metaphors concerns the opposition between the spring and the winter. This one leaves me cold. The second metaphorical filament is immeasurably more interesting than the first: Ocular and optical metaphors proliferate throughout the play, which concerns the act of seeing and the relationship between seeing and desiring.
The men of this imaginary world have a purely visual interest in their female “beloveds.” For example, the entire sensorium of Navarre, according to Boyet, attending lord to the Princess of France, is housed in his eyesight:
All senses to that sense [eyesight] did make their repair,
To feel only looking on fairest of fair.
Methought all his senses were lock’d in his eye,
As jewels in crystal for some prince to buy [II:i].
Berowne’s fear, or so he says, is the loss of his eyesight from reading too much. He would much rather study a woman’s physiognomy:
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed,
By fixing it upon a fairer eye [I:i].
The meaning of the first verse quoted seems to be: “Eyes that seek intellectual enlightenment are distracted from the light of truth, which comes from the eyes of a woman.” In the late sixteenth century, it was still believed that the human eye produced light beams. This idea, known as the “emission theory,” is at least as old as Plato.
All the eyes disclose are illusions. Moth, Armado’s page, makes this point in rhyme:
If she be made of white and red,
Her faults will ne’er be known;
For blushing cheeks by faults are bred,
And fears by pale white shown.
Then if she fear, or be to blame,
By this you shall not know;
For still her cheeks possess the same
Which native she doth owe [I:ii].
What the peasant woman Jaquenetta is thinking and feeling Armado will never know. (Here we have the charming mixing of social classes that is so common in Shakespeare.) What the even more enigmatic Rosaline is thinking and feeling Berowne will never know. Again, the desire to master the totality of Woman is frustrated.
The unknowability of the object of desire is perfectly dramatized in the second scene of the fifth act. At the beginning of the scene (the scene itself is 1,003 lines long), the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting are in the park, ridiculing the gifts, letters, and attentions that they have received from their gentlemen callers. Boyet informs the Princess that he eavesdropped upon the king and his lords, who are planning to accost the ladies while disguised as Russians. The Princess orders the ladies to wear masks and swap the gifts that they received from the lords so that Katherine will be mistaken for Maria, and the Princess will be confused with Rosaline. When the men arrive, disguised, the ladies have their backs turned to them. As Moth remarks:
A holy parcel of the fairest dames / That ever turn’d their—backs—to mortal views!
Each man is disguised and therefore exchangeable with another; each woman’s face is veiled and is therefore exchangeable with another. Bodies are clothed; faces are inscrutable. All that is visible is the eyes. If you would like to find the authentic precursors of Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), look no further.
The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost are unknowable to the male characters, for the men only know the figures that they have created. In scene after scene of Shakespeare’s great play, we encounter men who love themselves more than the women they profess to adore. For instance, Boyet loves not his mistress, but his own language. As the Princess says of his overblown encomium to her beauty:
I am less proud to hear you tell my worth
Than you much willing to be counted wise
In spending your wit in the praise of mine [II:i].
Ingenuously or disingenuously (which will never be discovered), Berowne asks Rosaline (some versions, erroneously, say ‘Katherine’):
Did I not dance with you in Brabant once? [II:i].
Berowne does not even seem to recognize the woman whom he “loves.” She mockingly repeats his leading question:
Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?
Repeating his question, she neither confirms nor denies its suggestion that such a dance had ever taken place. Whereas Bloom proposed Did I Not Dance with You in Brabant Once? as an alternative title to the play, I would suggest Last Year at Brabant, echoing, of course, the cinematic masterwork of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad (1962). We know nothing of the prehistory of these lovers, if lovers they be. It is indeed entirely possible that their prehistory is wholly imaginary, that Rosaline is playfully assuming the fictitious role that Berowne has imposed on her. For Berowne loves only his own reflection, the mirror image that is reflected in her eyes. As he says (in prose):
By this light, but for her eye, I would not love her—yes, for her two eyes [IV:iii].
Berowne loves Rosaline, then, because she is a reflective surface. “What do you see when you look at me?”: This is Berowne’s implicit question. And Berowne is not the only autoeroticist in the play. From the King of Navarre himself, in a letter to the Princess of France:
But do not love thyself; then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep [IV:iii].
Translation: “Don’t love yourself! Love me!”
With these words Berowne describes the beauty of Rosaline:
A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the deed,
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard [III:i].
Argus, the monster with one hundred eyes, is the castrated guard who protects the woman with sightless eyes. And into those null eyes Berowne looks and sees what he wants to see. He introjects his own images into the blackness. What does he see in Rosaline’s eyeless eyes? Nothing but himself. Her pitch balls are as black as the eyes of a chicken, and there is nothing but his own Self to be seen within their unfathomable, fathomless blackness.
All interpretation is projection, since interpretation is drawn not to objects, but to the absence of objects. We desire to interpret not when there is something to interpret, but when there is nothing to interpret.
N.B. This is a severely truncated version of a much longer study of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence. The complete edition is about 10,000 words long.
* * * * *
THE HORSE DEALER’S DAUGHTER (D.H. Lawrence): An Analysis
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
from England, My England (1922)
“My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but ************ cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest… what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all new!”
—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce
“James Joyce bores me stiff—too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.”
—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce
“What a stupid olla podrida of the Bible and so forth James Joyce is: just stewed-up fragments of quotation in the sauce of a would-be dirty mind. Such effort! Such exertion! sforzato davvero!”
—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce
“[D.H. Lawrence] is a propagandist and a very bad writer.”
—James Joyce on D.H. Lawrence
From the third paragraph of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence is the following sentence:
There was a strange air of ineffectuality about the three men, as they sprawled at table, smoking and reflecting vaguely on their own condition.
The word sprawl is used for the first time here (it will be used twice more in the text). To sprawl is to spread oneself out irregularly and unevenly. The three Pervin brothers—Joe, Fred Henry, and Malcolm—are positioned perversely around the table, positioned in a way that suggests their collective stupidity; they are asprawl. Sprawled makes them appear insensate, callous, obtuse, stolid. They are doing what rather careless people carelessly call “manspreading”—a fuzz word that has to do with sitting on a New York subway with one’s legs splayed frog-like. Sprawling denotes a mindless subhuman inactivity (I will return to the motif of subhumanity below).
Stupidity is the inability to grasp even basic concepts, and in that sense, all three brothers are stupid. They are not even individual entities (they are not “alone” in the sense that Mabel is “alone”); they form an undifferentiated “ineffectual conclave.” They cannot apprehend that their sister is geared toward the absence of all relations which is death–self-imposed death.
Safe in their stupidity, the brothers are sprawlingly looking forward to their eviction from their father’s house, whereas the youngest (?) daughter in the family, Mabel Pervin, is conscious of, and sensitively sensitive to the loss of her dignity, to the loss of her status, and to the curtailing of her possibilities. The men in the story propose that she might become a nurse, she might become a skivvy, or, worst of all, she might become someone’s wife. It is important to stress that she wants to become none of these things.
Mabel is not sprawling around the table: Unlike her brothers, who are only able to reflect “vaguely,” her external “impassive fixity” masquerades a hive of conscious activity (I will return to the “impassiveness” of Mabel’s exterior below).
The great draught-horses swung past.
The word swing comes into play for the first time here (it will be deployed four times altogether in the text). Swung: This connotes a mechanical back-and-forth movement. Motion without any consciousness. The idiocy of the boys’ sprawling is correlated with the idiocy of the horses’ swinging. The horses are swinging their great rounded haunches sumptuously (in a manner that pleases the senses, but not the intellect). Their movement shows a massive, slumbrous strength (the intellect is asleep). They rock behind the hedges in a motionlike sleep (they only seem to be kinetic; they are mindlessly static).
Draught-horse: a large horse that is used for bearing heavy loads.
Joe watched with glazed hopeless eyes. The horses were almost like his own body to him… He would marry and go into harness. His life was over, he would be a subject animal now.
D.H. Lawrence gets himself into some trouble here. He tells too much (which is unlike him) and shows too little (which is unlike him). I can write without fear of repudiation or of exaggeration that this is the weakest passage in the story. The writing of this passage is didactic / propagandistic (to refer to the Joycean epigraph above). It is far too explicit and spells out what should have been left to the reader to decode: Joe is looking forward to an engagement to a woman as old as himself and therefore to financial safety, and this “safety” is the safety of a kept animal. A domesticated animal. Marriage will reduce him to subjection. He will lose his vitality. He will lose his human spontaneity.
[W]ith foolish restlessness, [Joe] reached for the scraps of bacon-rind from the plates, and making a faint whistling sound, flung them to the terrier that lay against the fender. He watched the dog swallow them, and waited till the creature looked into his eyes.
And what is in those doggy eyes other than the nullity of animal stupidity, a stupidity that reflects his own stupidity? What is in those eyes other than the likeness of his own animal insensibility?
The flinging of the bacon corresponds to the swinging of the horses. The word swing, etymologically, means “to fling”—the Old High German word swingan means “to rush” or “to fling.” The idiocy of the mechanical movement of swinging corresponds the idiocy of the mechanical movement of flinging. The etymology of swing further establishes a metaphorical connection between Joe and the animals of the story (the dog, the horses).
The equine and canine metaphors bestialize all of the brothers. (Joe, in particular, is described as straddling his knees “in real horsy fashion”; he seems “to have his tail between his legs,” etc.) They are all dull, dim beasts, animals that will soon be subjected to the yoke of marriage and of other forms of servitude (labor, etc.). As all domestic beasts, they will become subject to human authority. To be an animal, according to the metaphorics of the text, means to be subjected to human power. As mentioned above, Joe will soon be subordinated to the bestial subjection of marriage. To draw out one the implications of the text: A married couple resembles two animals yoked together.
The face of the young woman darkened, but she sat on immutable.
Mabel, on the other hand, is described as seeming immutable (once) and impassive (four times): not incapable of emotion or without affectability, but inscrutable, as withholding herself from expression, from saying and speaking. Impassivity, here, means not the absence of emotion, but rather, inexpressiveness. Expression will become important in the third and final act of the story.
‘I’ll be seeing you tonight, shall I?’ he said to his friend.
‘Ay—where’s it to be? Are we going over to Jessdale?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve got such a cold on me. I’ll come round to the Moon and Stars, anyway.’
‘Let Lizzie and May miss their night for once, eh?’
‘That’s it—if I feel as I do now.’
No one appears to know what “Jessdale” refers to—whether it is the name of a fabricated city or the name of an inn or a bar–but I suspect that it is the name of a bordello and that Lizzie and May are prostitutes therein. If I am correct about this (and I am), Jack Fergusson is (initially) a rogue and a roué, someone who isn’t the least interested in marriage. What, then, draws Mabel to him in the first place? Could it be his relative freedom from convention and from the constraints of bourgeois society?
But so long as there was money, the girl felt herself established, and brutally proud, reserved.
Her father was once a well-off horse dealer. No more. Now comes the shame that is killing her.
She would follow her own way just the same. She would always hold the keys of her own situation. Mindless and persistent, she endured from day to day. Why should she think? Why should she answer anybody? It was enough that this was the end, and there was no way out. She need not pass any more darkly along the main street of the small town, avoiding every eye. She need not demean herself any more, going into the shops and buying the cheapest food. This was at an end. She thought of nobody, not even of herself. Mindless and persistent, she seemed in a sort of ecstasy to be coming nearer to her fulfilment, her own glorification, approaching her dead mother, who was glorified.
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
* * * * *
Unhappily, Jack Fergusson will (try to) take away her godlike freedom and subjugate her to the conjugal yoke.
It was a grey, wintry day, with saddened, dark-green fields and an atmosphere blackened by the smoke of foundries not far off.
As Martin Amis reminds us, D.H. Lawrence never took a breath without pain. Lawrence died of emphysema at the age of forty-four. He knew too well the colliers of Northampton, near where this story takes place. Could it be that the smoke from the foundries that are blackening the sky also blackened Lawrence’s lungs? Are the black billows that Mabel sees the same black billows that killed her creator?
It gave [Mabel] sincere satisfaction to [tidy her mother’s grave]. She felt in immediate contact with the world of her mother. She took minute pains, went through the park in a state bordering on pure happiness, as if in performing this task she came into a subtle, intimate connexion with her mother. For the life she followed here in the world was far less real than the world of death she inherited from her mother.
Here, I would like to make the rather obvious point that suicide, not merely the tiding of her mother’s grave, would bring Mabel into a subtle and intimate connection with her mother.
[Fergusson] slowly ventured into the pond. The bottom was deep, soft clay, he sank in, and the water clasped dead cold round his legs. As he stirred he could smell the cold, rotten clay that fouled up into the water. It was objectionable in his lungs. Still, repelled and yet not heeding, he moved deeper into the pond. The cold water rose over his thighs, over his loins, upon his abdomen. The lower part of his body was all sunk in the hideous cold element. And the bottom was so deeply soft and uncertain, he was afraid of pitching with his mouth underneath. He could not swim, and was afraid.
It is as if Jack Fergusson’s body were being liquefied, as if his body were being fluidified in the aqueous deeps of the pond. Or is his body being softened into clay? The clay suggests, perhaps, the amorphous clay of the golem. In Jewish mysticism, the golem is a clay figure that comes alive once a magical combination of letters is inscribed on its forehead: emeth (“truth” in Hebrew). If you erase the aleph from the word emeth, the golem will collapse into dust (meth means “dead”). (See Gershom Scholem’s seminal book On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Chapter Five.)
And so doing he lost his balance and went under, horribly, suffocating in the foul earthy water, struggling madly for a few moments. At last, after what seemed an eternity, he got his footing, rose again into the air and looked around. He gasped, and knew he was in the world. Then he looked at the water. She had risen near him. He grasped her clothing, and drawing her nearer, turned to take his way to land again.
He went very slowly, carefully, absorbed in the slow progress. He rose higher, climbing out of the pond. The water was now only about his legs; he was thankful, full of relief to be out of the clutches of the pond. He lifted her and staggered on to the bank, out of the horror of wet, grey clay.
He laid her down on the bank. She was quite unconscious and running with water. He made the water come from her mouth, he worked to restore her. He did not have to work very long before he could feel the breathing begin again in her; she was breathing naturally. He worked a little longer. He could feel her live beneath his hands; she was coming back.
The pond is the uterine vessel through which Mabel undergoes her palingenesis, her renaissance, her second birth. It is as if some tellurian current were transferred within her. She dies in the pond and is brought back to the life upon the bank. Her body has been revived, and yet her consciousness is still slumbering. Her total revivification will take place in the house, now desolate, upon the hearthrug, by the fireplace.
Who dwells within the house? Consider the following: Mabel’s father has died. Her three brothers have evacuated the house. Her sister is long gone. The dog and the horses are gone.
No one is alive in the house except for the spirit of her dead mother.
‘Do you love me then?’ she asked.
He only stood and stared at her, fascinated. His soul seemed to melt.
She shuffled forward on her knees, and put her arms round him, round his legs, as he stood there, pressing her breasts against his knees and thighs, clutching him with strange, convulsive certainty, pressing his thighs against her, drawing him to her face, her throat, as she looked up at him with flaring, humble eyes, of transfiguration, triumphant in first possession.
Emerging from the pond an amorphous mass of clay, Jack will now be resculpted by Mabel into her own creature. He will be completely reconstructed. His body was already likened to clay when it was immersed in the pond. Now his soul, too, is melting into the shapeless stuff of the pond-clay. Note that Mabel’s eyes are “of transfiguration”: It is she who is transfiguring Jack into her own effigy. She is the creator; he is the golem.
He had never thought of loving her. He had never wanted to love her. When he rescued her and restored her, he was a doctor, and she was a patient. He had had no single personal thought of her. Nay, this introduction of the personal element was very distasteful to him, a violation of his professional honour. It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees. It was horrible. He revolted from it, violently. And yet—and yet—he had not the power to break away.
There is indeed something horrible going on in this passage, given that Jack is powerlessly being shaped, rounded, molded into something that is not of his own making.
‘You love me,’ she repeated, in a murmur of deep, rhapsodic assurance. ‘You love me.’
Her hands were drawing him, drawing him down to her. He was afraid, even a little horrified. For he had, really, no intention of loving her. Yet her hands were drawing him towards her.
I only want to underline something in the text: She is drawing him toward her. Repeatedly, it is emphasized that Jack is being reconstructed against his own will into something that is not of his own creation.
The assertion “You love me” is a performative speech act. But is it an illocutionary or perlocutionary speech act? If it were an illocutionary speech act, “You love me” would be a description of what is being done, such as, “I now pronounce you man and wife” or “I move that we adjourn the meeting.” And yet Mabel is not saying, “I seduce you” or “I make you love me.”
It is, rather, a perlocutionary speech act: that is, a speech act that is designed to have an effect on someone’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.
Every human being you meet will want to impress one’s fingerprints upon you, as if you were a ball of clay. A perlocutionary speech act is the attempt to mold someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or actions through words.
‘You love me?’ she said, rather faltering.
‘Yes.’ The word cost him a painful effort. Not because it wasn’t true. But because it was too newly true, the saying seemed to tear open again his newly-torn heart. And he hardly wanted it to be true, even now.
Much in the way that letters inscribed on the forehead of the statue bring to life the golem, the words “You love me” form a perlocutionary performative speech act that gives Jack Fergusson a second birth. Mabel Pervin has destroyed and recreated him.
‘And my hair smells so horrible,’ she murmured in distraction. ‘And I’m so awful, I’m so awful! Oh, no, I’m too awful.’ And she broke into bitter, heart-broken sobbing. ‘You can’t want to love me, I’m horrible.’
‘Don’t be silly, don’t be silly,’ he said, trying to comfort her, kissing her, holding her in his arms. ‘I want you, I want to marry you, we’re going to be married, quickly, quickly—to-morrow if I can.’
But she only sobbed terribly, and cried:
‘I feel awful. I feel awful. I feel I’m horrible to you.’
‘No, I want you, I want you,’ was all he answered, blindly, with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.
There are two “horrors” intimated in these words, the final words of the story. The first horror is the horrified apprehension that Mabel will become her mother. That is to say, Mabel is horrified that she will be mired in the same soul-deadening stupidity in which her mother was steeped and in which her brothers are steeped. We return, then, to the opening moments of the text: to the image of the yoked horses (which figures marriage as subordination and subjection to the will of another). The second horror is that she will be undesired or no longer desired.
Consider this: Mabel has created a golem that will desire her, a male Pygmalion, a Frankensteinian monster. And now, her creation desires her too much. Golem-making is dangerous, as Scholem reminds us, but the source of danger is not the golem itself, or the forces emanating from the golem, but rather the conflict that arises within the golem-maker herself. It is a conflict between the horror of being desired by one’s creature and the horror of not being desired enough by one’s creature or the horror of not being desired at all, the horror of undesirability. It is a conflict between the horror of being-desired and the horror of the absence of being-desired.
An Analysis of THE WINTER’S TALE (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
J’énonce que le discours analytique ne se soutient que de l’énoncé qu’il n’y a pas, qu’il est impossible de poser le rapport sexuel.
Shakespeare’s time believed in the Great Chain of Being: the idea that the cosmos is linked together by a natural order. Human beings ascend above non-human animals; vegetation descends below both. Inanimate matter has its place at the bottom of the hierarchy. All entities are connected in relations of interdependence; every thing has its own place, and every thing is dependent upon every other thing. There are hidden agreements between all things in the world.
Social classes, too, are organized by the Great Chain of Being. Monarchies have their proper place and were preordained by the cosmos. Shakespeare’s early and middle comedies shore up the idea that social order is a manifestation of the natural order. As I have stated repeatedly, the comedies are works of conjugal propaganda in which the principals are coerced into marriage. Marriage was seen as the threshold to total socialization, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. No matter what disturbances destabilize the relations between the characters in the first four acts of each comedy, all of these relations will be restored in the fifth act with the compulsion of marriage.
This is not quite always the case in the problematical plays. Love’s Labour’s Lost ends without ever really ending; it fizzles out with the vague promise of erotic fulfillment. All’s Well That Ends Well only ends well from a purely formal and external point of view. I have written that Shakespeare is both the most underestimated and the most overestimated of writers in the English canon, and this is absolutely evident when one considers that the order-restoring comedies (such as The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are overrated and the order-destabilizing comedies (if this is the right word) are underrated (though there has been a surge of interest in the latter in recent years).
The problematical plays show the unlinking of the Great Chain of Being. The Winter’s Tale, which is one of Shakespeare’s late plays (composed circa 1610), does not allow the young boy Mamillius to be revived, even though both Perdita and Hermione are resurrected. Though there is a reconciliation of what has been ruptured at the close of the play, it is a queasy and uneasy reconciliation. These are discordances in the harmonizations of the Great Chain of Being.
Not only that: The Winter’s Tale is paradoxically heterogeneous and heterogeneously paradoxical. One cannot, without simplification, say that the play is a comedy, nor can one say, with justification, that it is simply a tragedy or even a romance. It is a gallimaufry of tragedy, comedy, and romance. Boundaries are crossed within the play itself. In Act Three: Scene Three, the Clown points out that the rain along the shore of Bohemia is so intense that he cannot tell what is sea and what is sky (though Bohemia does not have a shore, and this was generally recognized in the early sixteenth century!); the boundary between sea and sky has been traversed and has become indistinguishable: “I have seen two such sights, by sea and by land! but I am not to say it is a sea, for it is now the sky: betwixt the firmament and it you cannot thrust a bodkin’s point.” While this might seem a throwaway line, there are no throwaway lines in Shakespeare.
Even the matter of the Bear is non-arbitrary, no matter how much its appearance elicits laughter in audiences. Without the becoming-comedic of the action, the seriousness of the play would have become laughable. The comedy of the third and fourth acts enhances the seriousness that precedes it. With the intrusion of the Bear, which devours Antigonus, the play transforms from a tragedy to a comedy. We get a prescient sense of this transformation when, at one of the darkest moments of the play, Antigonus says that the wrongful accusation of the queen will bring everyone to “laughter” [I:ii]. It is as if, when he says this, he is predestinating his own ursinely induced death, which will bring about a change in genre.
The Bear is at the center of the play. By this, I do not merely mean that the intrusion of the Bear changes the play from a tragedy to a comedy (for what could be more laughter-provoking than an old man being eaten by a bear?). I mean that the word bear, and variants thereof, proliferates throughout the text.
The overbearing King of Sicilia, Leontes, is convinced that his wife, Queen Hermione, has cheated upon him. I shall return to his conviction that she is a barefaced adulteress below; it is most likely a bugbear of his imagination (please bear this in mind). Leontes makes the bearish suggestion to Camillo, his lord, that the latter poison the man who allegedly cuckolded him: Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Camillo is embarrassed by the idea and forbears from poisoning Polixenes. He cannot bear the thought of killing the Bohemian king. Leontes accuses all of his lords of treason and declares the bearing of his children, Mamillius and Perdita, to have issued from Polixenes. The beardless boy that Hermione has borne, Mamillius, who is likely barely five years old, dies when he hears the unbearable news that his mother has been sentenced for adultery and treason. Hermione cannot bear the strain and collapses. The pallbearers bear their bodies away to be buried in the same grave. Antigonus leaves the barne Perdita in the barren wilderness of Bohemia, where Antigonus is devoured by the Bear.
Is Hermione an adulteress? There is no scriptorial evidence to support the assertion that she is; there is no scriptorial evidence to support the assertion that she is not. One of the many ambiguities of the play, Hermione’s putative adultery can neither be definitively affirmed nor definitively rejected. Leontes is persuaded of her faithlessness when he sees her clasping hands with Polixenes. On the surface, this appears to be a faulty inference from inductive logic. In fact, it is a faulty inference from deductive logic.
Students of logic will recognize the distinction between inductive and deductive logic. “Induction” comes from the Latin inducere, means “to lead into.” It is logic that journeys into an assertion from evidence. “Deduction” comes from the Latin deducere, which means “to move away from.” It is logic that moves away from an assertion to evidence.
Leontes has decided in advance that Hermione is an adulteress, and this implies that he is practicing deductive logic, though fallaciously. He begins with his fixed idea and then seeks evidence to support his idea. He is engaging in confirmation bias: that is, he seeks out evidence to corroborate the hypothesis to which he is emotionally pre-attached. All of the “evidence” that he uncovers is faulty; it does not prove what he wants it to prove. However, the opposite is also the case: Anyone who says that Hermione is innocent is being suppositious; such an idea is purely notional in the absence of proof. She might be innocent; she might be guilty. The question of her innocence remains unanswerable.
Unlike Othello, who, at least, does not believe in his wife’s infidelity until he uncovers articles of ocular proof (which hardly prove anything at all), Leontes automatically (for once, the adjective is justified) believes in his wife’s infidelity. Polixenes stays at his wife’s behest, not at his own. Polixenes and Hermione clasp hands. This is all of the “evidence” of his wife’s infidelity that Leontes requires. The flimsiness of such “evidence”—or of such non-evidence—should nourish our suspicion that Leontes is finding what he is seeking.
Leontes is desperate to find a reason to condemn Hermione of faithlessness. Hermione herself comments on Leontes’ insistent passionate desperateness to find evidence of treachery where there is none, to find a spider in the wine that he drinks when there is no such spider: “I’ll be sworn you would believe my saying, / Howe’er you lean to the nayward” [II:i]. Like all of the jealous, Leontes leans to the nayward: He is inclined to believe in infidelity of his wife, not to disbelieve in it. When he is challenged by his retinue to give reasons for his suspicion, Leontes asks, rhetorically, “Why, what need we / Commune with you of this, but rather follow / Our forceful instigation?” [II:i]. Instigation: The word suggests impulsiveness without reason.
Jealousy makes projective interpreters of us all. When we are jealous, we find what we project. As La Rochefoucauld puts it, jealousy has much more to do with self-love than it has to do with love.
Leontes is married to his own opinion that his wife, Polixenes, and Camillo are treacherous, and this marriage-to-his-own-opinion throws him into transports: “How I blest am I / In my just censure, in my true opinion!” [II:i]. He delights when his fantasies of jealousy are imaginarily confirmed. Why is this?
I would posit the following: It does not matter whether Hermione has cheated upon Leontes. Leontes wants Hermione to cheat upon him.
The question now is not: Is Hermione unfaithful? The question is rather: Why does Leontes need to believe that Hermione is unfaithful? Why does he have the emotional and psychological need to believe that his wife is cheating upon him?
Leontes wants Hermione to cheat upon him because he wants her to be an impossibility. He wants her to be inaccessible. He wants her to be desirable yet without desire for him. She can only remain desirable by having no desire for him.
Leontes is a masochistic narcissist. Even if the husband were correct and Hermione were unfaithful, Leontes’ jealousy would still be pathological (to again channel Lacan). He must sustain the fantasy of infidelity in order to maintain his status as the desirer of the impossible. To be loved by a faithful wife would collapse the distance between the masochistic Leontes and the woman he desires.
When Lacan wrote that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship, “Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant,” one of the things that he might have meant was that the desirer does not have a relationship with the one whom he desires. The man who desires a woman is self-related; even if there is physical contact with the woman he desires, this is only the culmination of his self-relatedness. If he experiences any pleasure, it is his own pleasure that he is experiencing. He is only interested in the woman as a medium for his own pleasure (the masculine pronoun seems justified, since I am alluding to Leontes). Sexuality forecloses a relation, a rapport, with the other human being. All eroticism is autoeroticism. At this point, Professor Alain Badiou, former Chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, would interject that only through love could one gain access to the totality of the other human being, but this implication is not contained in Lacan’s statement. And how could one ever gain access to the totality of another human being?
“Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant”: This means (among other things) that it is impossible to find love through eroticism, since eroticism is without relation to any human beings other than to the self.
At the conclusion of the play, a magnificent statue is unveiled before Leontes and his entourage. It is the statue of Hermione. This has led four centuries of readers and spectators to wonder: “Did she die and then come back to life? Or was she alive all along, ensconced by Paulina?” Even more strangely: “Is this really a statue that we are seeing, and, if it is, how could the statue have been reanimated?”
To turn to the first question: Did Hermione die, and was she then revived from the dead? At the end of Act Two, we are told that both mother and son will be inhumed in the same grave—but were they? This remains a supposition. If Hermione does not die, why does she appear to Antigonus as a floaty revenant “in pure white robes” [III:iii]? Or is this a dream? Antigonus tells us that he does “believe / Hermione hath suffer’d death” [III:iii], but why should we believe what he believes? In a play that is fraught with disguises and self-disguisings (Polixenes, Camillo, and Autolycus all dissimulate themselves), is it not thinkable that Hermione has been concealed for fifteen years until the mourning of the King has transmuted into full-blown melancholia? What does Paulina mean when she says that she will “choose [for Leontes] a queen: she shall not be so young / As was [his] former; but she shall be such / As, walk’d [his] first queen’s ghost” [V:i]? Such lines might fertilize our supposition that Hermione has never died and has been kidnapped by Paulina or that, still more incredibly, that Paulina has intentionally fashioned, Pygmalion-like, a statue that will come to life. Is Paulina a thaumaturge who has fashioned a replica of Leontes’ dead wife and animated that replica? Has Paulina orchestrated a tableau vivant? Perhaps Paulina is practicing an art that does not perfect or supplement nature, but rather, is practicing “an art / [t]hat nature makes” [IV:iv], to cite Polixenes. Is the new “Hermione” a verisimilar impostor—a work of art that is wholly natural? Are we looking at the real living-and-speaking Hermione, or are we looking at her duplicate? Is the Hermione at which we are looking a zombie?
None of these questions is answerable. She might or might not be an Alcestis coming back to the overworld. Whether Hermione is a zombie or not matters as little as whether she was unfaithful or not: This is one of the many ambiguities and paradoxes of late Shakespeare. She crosses the distinction between livingness and unlivingness, between lifefulness and deathfulness. She is dead yet alive. Is this not implied in Leontes’ seemingly necrophiliac remark that he would “again possess her corpse” on “stage” [V:i]? In the previous act, Perdita denies that her beloved Florizel is “like a corpse” [IV:iii] (wonderful foreshadowing!), for she apprehends his living-and-speaking reality. This is not the case for Leontes’ non-relation to Hermione, however. The manifestation of the statue at the end of the play only proves that she is like a mechanical object: She speaks, but only in a mechanical way. She appears to be artificial and without vitality.
What does matter, I propose, is that Hermione was always a stony image to Leontes. She always was a lifeless-yet-living effigy to him; she was always a reanimated corpse-image, or perhaps an android or automaton, to him. Leontes has long since, from the moment that he first saw her, sacrificed her living existence for an unloving-unalive replica. Leontes’ narcissistic masochism demands that there be an infinite separation, an irrelative void, between him and the woman through whom he loves himself. Let us not forget Lacan’s remarks on courtly love: The courtly-lover establishes obstacles / impedimenta between him and the object of his desire in order to perpetuate his desire. He sets up artificial barriers to keep her at a distance. She must remain remote, deathlike—an apparition of the courtly-lover’s desire for her impassivity. This is precisely what Leontes does in The Winter’s Tale. He idealizes and idolizes Hermione in order to compensate for the absence of a relation between them. She is an idol and has always been an idol to Leontes, an idealized imago. From the beginning of the play unto its deus-ex-machina ending, she has been a lithic Lilith.
An Analysis of The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Does man kill or torture because he has come to the conclusion that he has the right to do so? He kills because others kill. He tortures because others torture… I kill because you kill. You and he and all of you torture; therefore, I torture. I killed him because you would have killed me if I had not. Such is the grammar of our time.”
—Witold Gombrowicz, Diary, Volume One, 1953
In his 1927 essay “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation,” T.S. Eliot called The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all.” Whether Shakespeare had any hand in the play is unknown, though I suspect that the insert Act Three: Scene Two, which concerns muscicide, was not inked by the Bard. However, we do know something about the hands of the play’s characters. One of the characters of the play, Lavinia, ends up with no hands at all, and her father, Titus, ends up with only one hand. Moreover, Lavinia is reduced to tongueless inarticulacy, and the flesh of two teenage boys is baked into a pie that is fed to their mother. All of this is to suggest that The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s goriest, grisliest, ghastliest play, a work that telegraphs and anticipates Jacobean Tragedy, Grand Guignol, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and splatter cinema.
REVENGE IS EXCHANGE
Fresh from a ten-year battle against the Goths, Titus Andronicus is implored by his son Lucius to sacrifice “the proudest prisoner” of the enemy [I:i]. At the opening of the text, the Goths, the immigrants of the play, are the enemy; at the end of the play, the immigrants will become the friends of the Andronici and will overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Saturninus. We are reminded that the incursion, the influx, of the Goths will lead to the breakdown of imperial Rome on 24 August 410 C.E.
Titus orders Tamora’s son Alarbus to be killed. The son is brutally sacrificed—his limbs abscised, his intestines fed to the flames: “Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d, / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky” [I:i]. The ritualistic disembowelment and dismemberment at the beginning of the play initiate a revenge series. The Queen of the Goths, Tamora, will exact her revenge against Titus. Her reckoning is a form of exchange. In exchange for the death and mutilation of Alarbus, the tongue of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, is excised and her hands are severed off; Titus’s sons Quintus and Martius are decapitated. The maimed bodies of Lavinia, Quintus, and Martius correspond to the maimed body of Alarbus—anatomical parts of three children are torn off in exchange for the lopping off of the limbs of the child of the rival family.
A bloody pattern unfolds—one revenge leads to another revenge. The decapitation of Titus’s sons will, in turn, lead to the decapitation of Demetrius and Chiron. One plate of heads replaces another plate of heads. Such is the logic of revenge: Revenge is exchange. And yet the acts of reckoning do not equalize one another.
The attacks on Titus’s children take place in the forest. “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf and dull,” says Aaron to the future rapists and mutilators Chiron and Demetrius [I:i]. The forest is a place of uncivilized desires, of desires far from the ritualized boundedness of civilization. The forest is not a locus amoenus. (A locus amoenus is an innocently pleasant site in a work of literature.) As we know from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, the forest in Shakespeare is a place of deception, of dissimulation, of lying, of self-masking, of delusion, of chimera.
Titus dramatizes insanity, which allows Tamora and her sons to underestimate him. Disguised as Revenge, Rape, and Murder, respectively, Tamora and her sons are incompetent dramatists, whereas Titus is an inspired dramatist. In the 1999 cinematic interpretation of the play, directed by Julie Taymor, Titus hatchets off his hand with a meat cleaver in the kitchen—presaging his final self-staging as a cook in the hyper-stylized, meta-theatrical vengeance against Tamora and Saturninus. He dramatizes revenge at the end of the play, in a space that is a theatre, a banquet hall, and a kangaroo court all at once. The play-within-the-play is an ambush dinner, a prandial revenge. Choreographed revenge leads to imperial succession—at the beginning of the play, Titus Andronicus declines the emperorship. At the end of the play, his son Lucius assumes the emperorship.
Why should Titus be more sympathetic than Tamora? Why does Titus have the right to vengeance—and not Tamora? Does she not have equal cause?
Titus doesn’t seem to care about his son Mutius, whom he summarily slays out of duty to the emperor, who, in turn, has no problem betraying his own people by marrying the queen of the enemy, but Titus does care about his only daughter, Lavinia, after he learns that she has been mutilated and (later) learns that she has been violated. Only after Lavinia is raped and mutilated does Titus becomes a full, empathic human being. Paternal filicide is supposed to be accepted by the audience with relative equanimity; the violation and mutilation of one’s daughter by strangers is supposed to outrage that same audience.
Consider that the slaying of Mutius takes place onstage, whereas the violation and mutilation of Lavinia take place offstage: The visibility of Mutius has the effect of making Titus appear more sympathetic to us than Tamora, I would argue, since what is seen is more manageable, more tolerable, than what is unseen. What is unseen is always more horrifying than what is seen—our imagination exaggerates the unseen to obscenely grotesque proportions. The one truly horrific mutilation—that of Lavinia—takes place offstage and is nothing to laugh at. The fact that Lavinia’s violation and mutilation take place offstage make these acts unspeakable—as she is rendered an unspeakable presence.
It is not Aaron the Moor who initiates the sequence of retaliations. One of the Romans says that Aaron incited the series of vengeances, the blood-saturated revenge series, but this is not so: “Give sentence on this execrable wretch / That hath been breeder of these dire events” [V:iii]. It is not Aaron who breeds the dire events of the play—it is Titus Andronicus himself! It is Titus, again, who orders the killing of Alarbus, the dismembering of his arms and legs, the engulfing of his viscera in flame. Why, then, should we spectators and readers care more about Titus than we do about Tamora? Both Titus and Tamora say to their children, to paraphrase: If you love me, you will kill my enemies.
SHE CANNOT SPEAK, BUT SHE CAN WRITE
Lavinia endures a terrible glossectomy and a terrible dismemberment: Again, her tongue is cut out, and her hands are cut off. What remains of her power of speech? Only tormented and inarticulate groanings. She cannot phonate, but she can communicate in other ways. That is to suggest: She is afflicted with aphonia (the inability to vocalize), not with agraphia (the inability to write) or with aphasia (the inability to communicate).
Marcus teaches his niece how to write. He takes his staff and writes his name in the dirt. He then encourages his daughter to imitate his scrawl: “Heaven guide thy pen to print thy sorrows plain” [IV:i]. She then takes the staff in her mouth and guides it with her stumps and writes out the name of the heinous crime that was committed against her and the names of the heinous criminals.
Lavinia’s body becomes a book that is readable by her father. The word is made mutilated flesh. Titus is able to read her tears. Titus the Father knows that his daughter is a “[s]peechless complainer” [Ibid.]. Her body becomes a “map of woe, that thus doth talk in signs” [Ibid.]—her body has a language, even though that language is silent. “I understand her signs,” Titus says of Lavinia’s soundless weeping [III:i]—Marcus’s napkin can never dry her tears. When she kisses the decapitated heads of her brothers Quintus and Martius in Act Three: Scene One, this is a sign—if this is not a sign, then what is a sign?
By becoming her interpreter, Titus has become a strong parent for the first time in his life, both father and mother at the same time. He vocalizes what his only daughter cannot. He is the interpreter of her spastic mutism, of her mute language. “I can interpret all her martyred signs,” he says [III:ii]. The father will “wrest” from his daughter an “alphabet” and “learn to know [her] meaning” [Ibid.]—and Lavinia’s body is a sign of martyrdom. For to be a martyr means to give testimony, to write. Self-sacrifice is absolute loss; martyrdom is self-loss that enhances a cause or a program. In the case of Lavinia, her rape, mutilation, and eventual killing lead to a revolution—much in the way that the rape and suicide of Lucretia did (I will return to this point below).
With her father’s hand in her mouth, Lavinia still has the power of language—the power of silent language, of writing, which is always silent. The hand in the mouth—is this not the perfect symbol for writing? The vocalization of her written language is under the guidance of her father, her interpreter, who still has the power of speech.
Wittgenstein writes, “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” Though I am not a Derridean, this line of Derrida against Wittgenstein seems a propos to the context: “What cannot be said above all must not be silenced but written.” Lavinia writes when she does not speak—this might mean that writing is something other than a substitute for speech. When she inscribes words on the dirty ground with a stick that is guided by her tongueless mouth and her handless arms, Lavinia makes the names of the crime and the criminals readable, even though her mouth is silenced and even though she is deprived of the ability to write with her hands: “Stuprum. Chiron. Demetrius” [IV:i]. Her tongue and her hands are erased, and yet she still produces language—again, with the guidance of the father.
There is one moment in the play, however, in which the father’s temporary inability to speak mirrors the daughter’s inability to speak. What does Titus do when he learns that his daughter has been hideously mutilated, to the point at which she can no longer speak, when he learns that his son Lucius has been exiled from the city of his birth to the otherlands, the shadowlands of the Goths, when he learns that his sons Quintus and Martius have been falsely accused of a crime and then executed, when he learns that he has been tricked into chopping off his own hand to save their lives, in vain? He laughs. Indeed, he erupts in maniacal laughter: “Ha, ha, ha!” [III:i]. Titus gives up all pretensions of comfort and enters wordless despair, an abyss of non-verbality. From that abyss comes vengeance; his laughter issues in the spawning of the plot of revenge. Non-verbal expression—wordless laughter—corresponds to Lavinia’s wordlessness. Her silence corresponds to her father’s non-verbal-yet-signifying language: “Ha, ha, ha!”
It is not the case that laughter is an inappropriate response to the irremediable. Laughter might be the only appropriate response to the irremediable.
This raises the question of the status of humor in the play. Some audiences find it funny to watch Titus, Lucius, and Marcus squabble over whose hand should be severed (in Act Three: Scene One). What makes this scene so morbidly hilarious and hilariously morbid to them is the contrast, the incongruity, between the hyper-seriousness of the context and the silliness of the conversation. Some audiences find it funny to watch Lavinia clutch her father’s severed hand in her teeth (Titus: “Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth” [III:i]). The humorousness of such scenes highlights and intensifies the play’s seriousness; the humor does not erode the seriousness. Shakespeare knows well that his jocoserious play would become ludicrous if it were humorless, if it were uninterruptedly serious. Without humor, there can be no seriousness. Why is this? Because humorlessness is laughable.
Is it inappropriate when Marcus rhapsodizes and poeticizes upon discovering his niece hideously disfigured in the wood? Strangely, there are literary critics who think that it is. I don’t think that his soliloquy, the longest in the play (it is forty-six lines, longer than Titus’s soliloquy as he slices the throats of Chiron and Demetrius, which is thirty-nine lines long), is inappropriate (as some other critics do); I do think of it as a coping mechanism, as a means of coming to terms with trauma, as a means of coping with the violation and mutilation of his niece. Still, it must be written: Marcus speaks on his niece’s behalf, whereas Titus speaks in her behalf.
To return to the main argument: Lavinia is hyper-literate, even after her disfigurement. One should contrast Lavinia’s superior reading skills with the illiteracy of the children of Tamora. The dull-witted Chiron and Demetrius cannot interpret the meaning of Titus’s citation of Horace, though Aaron can. When the voices of Chiron and Demetrius are silenced (they are gagged by Publius; this is their metamorphosis, their becoming-bestial), this answers to the silencing of Lavinia. Lavinia, says her father, is “deeper read and better skilled” [IV:i] than those who waste their time on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These days, only graduate students read the Metamorphoses of Ovid.
Shakespeare is reminding us of the ineluctableness of language. Language is not reducible to the organ that we normally associate with language: the tongue (speech, phonē). Shakespeare is suggesting that language is not phonocentric; he might even be suggesting that language is graphocentric, which is to suggest that written language is more fundamental than speech.
Even though she is tongueless and handless, Lavinia still has the power of language—in the form of writing, of graphē, of hypergraphia, of graphomania.
Lavinia inscribes words upon the Earth. She is metaphorized as a storm cloud—a cloud that gives forth rain. She writes with her tears upon the Earth. Her tears are the ink, and the Earth is the paper upon which she is writing. Lavinia writes upon the Earth with her tears and thus revivifies, rejuvenates, refreshes, renews, revitalizes the Earth. Her tears—her sufferings and the accusations against her attackers, her assailants, her assaulters—will bring about a transformation of the City of Rome. She will transform the Holy Roman Empire—it will be reconfigured into a Gothic-Roman state, a republic that welcomes and integrates outsiders.
Lavinia is a figure of democracy and of democratization.
THE ORIGIN OF THE LAVINIA STORY
There are at least three literary and historical references that frame the rape of Lavinia:
a.) We are reminded of the rape of Lucretia. Shakespeare, after all, would write his poem “The Rape of Lucrece” in 1594, almost exactly the same time as he wrote this play. The rape of Lucretia led to the driving-away from Rome of the last of the kings of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, whose slobbering, sinister, psychopathic son Sextus raped the poor girl. She killed herself out of shame. The plebeian Lavinia is here placed in the position of a figure of republicanism and anti-tyrannousness. Just as the tyranny of the Tarquins is expelled from Rome, so will the tyranny of Saturninus be.
b.) To accuse her attackers of the crime of rape, Lavinia opens a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and turns over the pages with her stumps until she arrives at the Rape of Philomela. Now, there is no mystery of what happened to her. Every tragedy contains anagnorisis, and this is the moment of recognition: “Lavinia,” her father asks her, “[W]ert thou thus surprised, sweet girl, / Ravished and wronged as Philomela was…?” [IV:i]. This recognition comes by way of reading. Tereus was married to Progne yet burned with mortal lust for her sister Philomela, whom he raped in the forest; then, he plucked out her tongue and left her for dead in a cabin in the woods. Philomela, however, survived and wove a tapestry that both identified the crime that was committed against her and revealed the identity of her rapist. Both sisters exacted a dreadful revenge against Tereus by killing his son Itys and feeding the offspring to the father in the form of a pie. Swallowing one’s own offspring, of course, will inspire Titus’s prandial revenge against Tamora, in which he forces Tamora to cannibalize, to engorge her sons Chiron and Demetrius. Tamora is conned into consuming her issue, conned into ingesting her offspring, conned into digesting her discharge, much as Tereus was. What is interesting about Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Philomela myth is that his Lavinia points to a passage in Ovid—making her a reader and a teacher of reading. She, after all, is the Young Lucius’s reading teacher. Marcus says of the boy’s aunt: “[S]he hath read to thee sweet poetry and Tully’s Orator” [IV:i]. Tully’s Orator is a book of rhetoric. The point here, I think, is that Lavinia is not merely a writer; she is one who teaches how to write well.
c.) The myth of Diana and Actaeon appears and reappears throughout the play. Bassianus mock-wonders of Tamora, whom he accosts with Lavinia in the forest, if he is looking at the Goddess Diana herself: “Or is it Dian, habited like her, / Who hath abandoned her holy groves / To see the general hunting in this forest?” [II:ii]. Tamora will become Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, quick-transforming the interloper Bassianus into a metaphorical stag that is torn to pieces by her metaphorical bloodhounds. Bassianus is the cuckold. He spies on the naked bathing goddess, exposing her in her divine nudity. Of course, in the myth, the goddess does not assume any particular female shape—she is mutable, transformative—which means that Actaeon is spying upon not the goddess herself, but rather upon a hollow image, before being rent to pieces by her bloodhounds. The bloodhounds, in Shakespeare’s play, are Tamora’s sons, who murder Bassianus and make of him a cuckold (they be-horn him, fastening metaphorical antlers upon his head). After she catches Actaeon spying on her divine nudity, Diana screeches: “Tell that you saw me here bathing naked—if you can tell at all!” Lavinia, voyeuse, will be robbed of the power of speech. Female voyeurism is a rare subject—but it is presented in Shakespeare. Actaeon thus figures both Bassianus and Lavinia.
DID HEIDEGGER HAVE SMALL HANDS?
Why the removal of hands? Heidegger gives us a possible answer in What Is Called Thinking? / Was Heißt Denken?:
The hand is a peculiar thing. In the common view, the hand is part of our bodily organism. But the hand’s essence can never be determined, or explained, by its being an organ which can grasp. Apes, too, have organs that can grasp, but they do not have hands. The hand is infinitely different from all grasping organs—paws, claws, or fangs—different by an abyss of essence. Only a being who can speak, that is, think, can have hands and can be handy in achieving works of handicraft.
We now know that some of Heidegger’s comparative anatomy is false. Chimpanzees do have hands—they even have opposable thumbs—and some animal biologists tell us that chimpanzee hands are more complex than human hands. The next passage is more interesting. Heidegger goes on:
But the craft of the hand is richer than we commonly imagine. The hand does not only grasp and catch, or push and pull. The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes—and not just things: the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hands of others. The hand holds. The hand carries. The hand signs, presumably because the human being is a sign.
The English translation is wrong at this point, and I have corrected it. In the German, the text reads: “Die Hand zeichnet, vermutlich weil der Mensch ein Zeichen ist.” Heidegger continues:
Two hands fold into one, a gesture meant to carry the human being into the great oneness. The hand is all this, and this is the true handicraft. Everything is rooted here that is commonly known as handicraft, and commonly we go no further. But the hand’s gestures run everywhere through language, in their most perfect purity precisely when human beings speak by being silent. And only when human beings speak, do they think—not the other way around, as metaphysics believes.
So: Humankind is practiced through the hand. The hand is not an implement of the human; the hand holds within itself the essence of the human. The hand is the distinguishing trait of human essence. The hand is not a form of property, something that belongs to us; the hand has us. Only that being which has language is handed. Language is not language without the hand. Only with the hand does the human come about; the hand is the essential ground of humankind.
Is there a relation to the word without the hand? It seems not. There is, for Heidegger, a co-belongingness between word and hand. There must be a hand in order for human language to be. This means that writing is more fundamental than speech, than phonē.
When hands are removed, the intention is dehumanization.
HOLORHYMING WITH THE BIEBMASTER
So many have declaimed that The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a bad play that people believe that it is a bad play. It is, I would argue, one of Shakespeare’s ten greatest plays, but it does contain some weaknesses.
There are some rather weak puns: “Deer” is rhymed with its homophone “dear” in Act Three: Scene One. And yet even this pun is defensible. Marcus calls Lavinia a “deer,” whereas Titus calls his daughter a “dear.” For Marcus, Lavinia is a wounded sylvan beast; for Titus, she is a darling. For Marcus, Lavinia is a premature corpse (“This was thy daughter”), whereas for Titus, she is a living human presence (“so she is“) [emphases mine]. The parechesis of “throats” and “threat” in the same scene is not very strong. (Parechesis is the repetition of the same sound in quick succession.)
Titus offers to chop off his hands before he is prompted to do so, even before Aaron comes by: “Give me a sword, I’ll chop off my hands too” [III:i] and “[S]hall we cut away our hands like thine [Lavinia’s]?” [Ibid.]. Titus offers to hack off his hand before he is given the fake opportunity to redeem his sons by hacking off his hands. But his sons are unrehabilitatable in the eyes of the emperor. The overplay of “I-will-cut-off-my hand” derogates from the power of the moment in which Titus is actually tricked into hacking off his own hand.
Worst of all are the final two lines of the play (in the Arden edition, not in the MIT online edition):
[Tamora’s] life was beastly and devoid of pity, / And being dead, let birds on her take pity [V:iii].
This is bad writing. One thing that I tell my students is never end two successive sentences with the same word. When writing verse, never rhyme the endings of the lines of a couplet with the same word.
Rhyming a sound with itself (holorhyming) is never a good idea. Consider the closest thing that our time has to Shakespeare, the great poet Justin Bieber. In his otherwise masterly ballad “Yellow Raincoat,” from the 2012 album Believe, Bieber intones these lines:
Well never do I ever do I ever want this to phase me
Well never do I ever do I want this thing to make me
Rhyming homophones is an infelicity; rhyming a word with itself is an even more infelicitous writerly fault. Shakespeare is a slightly greater poet than Justin Bieber, and there might be justification for his rhyming of the word pity with itself. What if Shakespeare wants to evoke Lucius’s lack of pity for Tamora by repeating the word pity? The repetition of the word might drain the concept of its significance. Lucius’s coldness, his glaciality, might mean that he is no more compassionate than Tamora.
EVERY ACT OF REVENGE PRODUCES A REMAINDER
The desire for revenge is the desire for superiority over another human being. By inflicting pain on the revengee, the revenger demonstrates his or her superiority over the revengee. This explains why the most selfish, the vainest, the most egoic human beings also tend to be the most vengeful. However, as Schopenhauer reminds us in Parerga and Paralipomena, “[J]ust as every fulfilled wish is more or less unveiled as a delusion, so too the desire for revenge.” The word delusion is in English in the original text, which is mostly written in German.
Why is the desire for revenge a delusion? I would submit the following: The avenger is dependent on the avengee. Doesn’t revenge make the avenger dependent on the consciousness of the avengee? If you seek revenge on someone, are you not dependent on the person on whom you wish to avenge yourself?
Try not to place yourself in a position in which vengeance is necessary. What if my “revenge” were one day ineffective? What if my acts of “vengeance” were in vain? What if the objects of my “vengeance” were indifferent to my actions and inactions?
If the object of “revenge” is indifferent to the avenger, the avengee has won and the avenger has lost. This means that the avenger is emotionally enchained to the emotional state of the avengee. Revenge means that one is dependent on the object of vengeance, “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” as the Buddha says. Or holding on to hot coal and expecting the other person to be burned, as Confucius says.
The desire for revenge is an obsession with the other human being who, imaginarily or not, has wounded us. But revenge only enlarges that wound.
In the third scene of the fourth act, there is a great deal of talk of justice, which, like revenge, is often conceived as a form of exchange. As his kinsmen are drawing their bows, Titus says that there is as little justice in the sea as there is on Earth. And he also says, in Latin, “Terras Astraea reliquit,” which means: “Justice has left the Earth.” A just world would be one in which the Romans join forces with the Goths and create a democratic republic in Rome, a republic that would welcome and integrate immigrants. But currently, in Act Four, there is no justice under the moon, there is no fairness, there is no one-to-one exchange.
Consider this: For the death of Alarbus, Quintus, Martius, and Bassianus are killed (three for the price of one), Lucius is banished, Titus is conned into hacking off one of his hands, and Lavinia is ravished and mangled. There is no equitableness, and justice would mean fair exchange of one thing for a thing of equal value. The counter-revenge of Titus and his tribe does not posit equivalence between the losses that they have suffered and the violence that they have inflicted on Saturninus and Tamora. In The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, the desire for revenge results in the almost total self-destruction of the revengers and their families.
In revenge, there is always a remainder.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
 Lucius is banished to the otherlands of the Goths, but unlike Coriolanus (who is explicitly referred to in the play, in Act Four: Scene Four), he is not scuppered by one of his parents. Lucius, unlike Coriolanus, wages a war against Rome, the city of his birth, and crashes its gates—with the approval of one of his parents, his father Titus. I am revising this essay in 2019, at a time of seismic immigration crises throughout Europe. Since the Goths assist Lucius in overthrowing a corrupt dictatorship, we can safely infer that Shakespeare’s great play is friendlier to immigration than his own later Tragedy of Coriolanus will be.
 Tamora: “Revenge it as you love your mother’s life, / Or be ye not henceforth called my children” [II:ii]. Titus: “And if ye love me, as I think you do, / Let’s kiss and part, for we have much to do” [III:i].
 Chiron: “Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so, / And if thy stumps will let thee, play the scribe” [II:iii]. / Demetrius: “See how with signs and tokens she can scrawl.” But she can write, even though her hands are now stumps.
 In Act Two: Scene One, Aaron says: “Lucrece was not more chaste / Than this Lavinia, Bassianus’ love.” In Act Four: Scene One, Titus asks: “What Roman lord it was durst do the deed: / Or slunk not Saturnine, as Tarquin erst, / That left the camp to sin in Lucrece’s bed?”
 Marcus, upon finding his niece in the wood, already identified her with Philomel: “A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met, / And he hath cut those pretty fingers off, / That could have better sewed than Philomel” [II:iii].
 And later: “Far worse than Philomel you used my daughter, / And worse than Progne I will be revenged” [V:ii].
 Tamora’s response: “Had I the power that some say Dian had, / Thy temples should be planted presently / With horns, as was Actaeon’s, and the hounds / Should drive upon thy new-transformed limbs. / Unmannerly intruder as thou art” [II:ii].
 In the shelter of the wood, Aaron says to his forbidden lover Tamora: “[Bassianus’s] Philomel must lose her tongue today” [II:ii]. Bassianus’s Philomel is Lavinia, of course.
An Analysis of VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982) by Joseph Suglia
Victor/Victoria (1982) is clearly Blake Edward’s most significant and most pleasant film. It has very little of the garishness, decadence, and sordidness that mar some of his other work, though I admire all of his cinematic projects.
I believe it would be fair to say that Victor/Victoria is about the moment at which art stops resembling life and becomes life. The hilarious cockroach scene is a beautiful instance of the traversal of the seeming / being distinction: The restaurant IS, in fact, infested with cockroaches if the patrons believe that it is. The James Gardner character feels duped at first–he is attracted to a man impersonating a woman, but that figure is, in fact, a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman. Later on, Gardner’s character recognizes that it doesn’t matter, ultimately, if Victor is naturally male or female. “Her” project is to contrive appearances of appearances–not to persuade spectators that her appearance is natural, but to persuade them that her appearance is merely a persuasive appearance, that her “truth” is purely phenomenal. How clever that the film alludes to Madame Butterfly! At times, the phenomenon is more “real” than any reality. “People believe what they see”–they want to be taken in by appearances and are inescapably disappointed by nuda veritas.
I think, in this regard, of Bernstein and Toddy: Both characters are gay and yet also persuasively, almost natively heterosexualized. When they are wearing their “straight” masks, are they lying? Are they pretending? The film conjures up the ancient paradox of Megara: When liars say, “I am lying,” are they telling the truth? A lie is not a lie if everyone believes it, including the liar him- or herself. I think of the wonderful bedside conversation between the Julie Andrews and ultra-masculine James Gardner characters: “I find it all fascinating. There are things available to me as a man that I could never have as a woman. I am emancipated… I’m my own man, so to speak.”
The point, I think, is not that one appearance is a false and the other is “the truth,” but that two mutually contradictory appearances can coexist simultaneously. Julie Andrews’ character can switch from “Victor” to “Victoria” in the same way that some bilingual students switch from Spanish to English and then back to Spanish again. And why not? We live in, to cite one of the songs, a “crazy world / full of crazy contradictions,” a world of shifting, ambiguous appearances that give life its thrill. Philosophically speaking, the film exhibits neither a pious, life-negating Platonism nor a Nietzschean celebration and aestheticization of hollow appearances. It suggests, rather, that you can shift from one phenomenal identity to another without either identity being “true” or emptily fraudulent. And why not? Humans are enormously complex creatures, and life is overwhelmingly ambiguous and complex.
HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES (Friedrich Nietzsche)
A commentary by Joseph Suglia
MAM = Menschliches, Allzumenschliches. Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878); second edition: 1886
VMS = Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche (1879)
WS = Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (1880)
The following will not have been an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Human, All-Too-Human. It will have been a commentary: Comment taire? as the French say. “How to silence?” In other words: How should the commentator silence his or her own voice and invisibilize his or her own presence in order to amplify the sound of the text and magnify the text’s image?
An interpretation replaces one meaning with another, or, as Heidegger would say, regards one thing as another. A commentary adds almost nothing to the text under consideration.
Nietzsche’s Psychological Reductionism and Perspectivalism
Human, All-Too-Human is almost unremittingly destructive. For the most part, it only has a negative purpose: to demolish structures and systems of thought. However, there is also a positive doctrine within these pages, and that is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity (to which I will return below) and the promise of a future humanity that will be unencumbered by religion, morality, and metaphysics.
In the preface of the second edition (1886), Nietzsche makes this thrust and tenor of his book clear with the following words: The purpose of the book is “the inversion of customary valuations and valued customs” (die Umkehrung gewohnter Wertschätzungen und geschätzter Gewohnheiten). The highest ideals are reduced to the basest human-all-too-humanness of human beings. This is a form of psychological reductionism: Once-good values (love, fidelity, patriotism, motherliness) are deposed. The man who mourns his dead child is an actor on an imaginary stage who performs the act of mourning in order to stir up the emotions of his spectators—he is vain, not selflessly moral. The faithful girl wants to be cheated upon in order to prove her fidelity—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral. The soldier wants to die on the battlefield in order to prove his patriotism—he is egoistic, not selflessly moral. The mother gives up sleep to prove her virtuous motherliness—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral [MAM: 57].
The inversion of valuations leads to an advocacy of the worst values: vanity and egoism (but never the vaingloriousness of arrogance, against which Nietzsche warns us for purely tactical reasons). As well as lying. Nietzsche praises lying at the expense of the truth to the point at which lying becomes the truth, and the truth becomes a lie that pretends that it is true. This, of course, is a paradox, for anyone who says, “There is no truth, only interpretations of truth” is assuming that one’s own statement is true.
Again and again, Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world. Appearance (Schein) becomes being (Sein): The hypocrite is seduced by his own voice into believing the things that he says. The priest who begins his priesthood as a hypocrite, more or less, will eventually turn into a pious man, without any affectation [MAM: 52]. The thing in itself is a phenomenon. Everything is appearance. There is no beyond-the-world; there is nothing outside of the world, no beyond on the other side of the world, no επέκεινα.
As far as egoism is concerned: Nietzsche tells us again and again: All human beings are self-directed. I could have just as easily written, All human beings are selfish, but one must be careful. Nietzsche does not believe in a hypostatized self. Every individual, Nietzsche instructs us, is a dividual (divided against himself or herself), and the Nietzsche of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885) utterly repudiates the idea of a substantialized self. To put it another way: No one acts purely for the benefit of another human being, for how could the first human being do anything without reference to himself or herself?: Nie hat ein Mensch Etwas gethan, das allein für Andere und ohne jeden persönlichen Begweggrund gethan wäre; ja wie sollte er Etwas thun können, das ohne Bezug zu ihm wäre…? [MAM: 133]. Only a god would be purely other-directed. Lichtenberg and La Rochefoucauld are Nietzsche’s constant points of reference in this regard. Nietzsche never quotes this Rochefoucauldian apothegm, but he might as well have:
“True love is like a ghost which many have talked about, but few have seen.”
“Jealousy contains much more self-love than love.”
Whatever is considered “good” is relativized. We are taught that the Good is continuous with the Evil, that both Good and Evil belong to the same continuum. Indeed, there are no opposites, only degrees, gradations, shades, differentiations. Opposites exist only in metaphysics, not in life, which means that every opposition is a false opposition. When the free spirit recognizes the artificiality of all oppositions, s/he undergoes the “great liberation” (grosse Loslösung)—a tearing-away from all that is traditionally revered—and “perhaps turns [his or her] favor toward what previously had a bad reputation” (vielleicht nun seine Gunst dem zugewendet, was bisher in schlechtem Rufe stand) [Preface to the second edition]. The awareness that life cannot be divided into oppositions leads to an unhappy aloneness and a lone unhappiness, which can only be alleviated by the invention of other free spirits.
What is a “free spirit”? A free spirit is someone who does not think in the categories of Either/Or, someone who does not think in the categories of Pro and Contra, but sees more than one side to every argument. A free spirit does not merely see two sides to an argument, but rather as many sides as possible, an ever-multiplying multiplicity of sides. As a result, free spirits no longer languish in the manacles of love and hatred; they live without Yes, without No. They no longer trouble themselves over things that have nothing to do with them; they have to do with things that no longer trouble them. They are mistresses and masters of every Pro and every Contra, every For and every Against.
All over the internet, you will find opposing camps: feminists and anti-feminists, those who defend religious faith and those who revile religious faith, liberals and conservatives. Nietzsche would claim that each one of these camps is founded upon the presupposition of an error. And here Nietzsche is unexpectedly close to Hegel: I am thinking of Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, which is, surprisingly, closer to the Hegelian dialectic than most Nietzscheans and Hegelians would admit, since they themselves tend to be one-sided. In all disputes, the free spirit sees each perspective as unjust because one-sided. Instead of choosing a single hand, the free spirit considers both what is on the one hand and what is on the other (einerseits—andererseits) [MAM: 292]. The free spirit hovers over all perspectives, valuations, evaluations, morals, customs, and laws: ihm muss als der wünschenswertheste Zustand jenes freie, furchtlose Schweben über Menschen, Sitten, Gesetzen und den herkömmlichen Schätzungen der Dinge genügen [MAM: 34]. It is invidiously simplistic and simplistically invidious to freeze any particular perspective. Worse, it is anti-life, for life is conditioned by perspective and its injustices: das Leben selbst [ist] bedingt durch das Perspektivische und seine Ungerechtigkeit [Preface to the second edition]. A free spirit never takes one side or another, for that would reduce the problem in question to the simplicity of a fixed opposition, but instead does justice to the many-sidedness of every problem and thus does honor to the multifariousness of life.
There Is No Free Will. Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche.
Let me pause over three revolutions in the history of Western thought.
The cosmological revolution known as the “Copernican Revolution” marked a shift from the conception of a cosmos in which the Earth is the center to the conception of a system in which the Sun is the center. A movement from geocentrism (and anthropocentrism) to heliocentrism.
The biological revolution took the shape of the theory of evolution (“It’s only a theory!” exclaim the unintelligent designers), which describes the adaptation of organisms to their environments through the process of non-random natural selection.
There is a third revolution, and it occurred in psychology. I am not alluding to psychoanalysis, but rather to the revolution that predated psychoanalysis and made it possible (Freud was an admirer of Nietzsche). Without the Nietzschean revolution, psychoanalysis would be unthinkable, and Twitter philosopher Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) would never have existed.
I am alluding to the revolution that Nietzsche effected in 1878. It was a silent revolution. Almost no one seems aware that this revolution ever took place.
It is a revolution that describes the turning-away from voluntarism (the theory of free will) and the turning-toward determinism, and Nietzsche’s determinism will condition his critique of morality. Nietzschean determinism is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity.
[Let it be clear that I know that Spinoza, Hume, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, et al., wrote against the concept of the free will before Nietzsche.]
The free will is the idea that we have control over our own thoughts, moods, feelings, and actions. It conceives of the mind as transparent to itself: We are aware in advance of why we do-say-write-think the things that we do-say-write-think. This idea is false: You no more know what your next thought will be than you know what the next sentence of this commentary will be (if this is your first time reading this text). It is only after the fact that we assign free will to the sources of actions, words, and thoughts. Our thoughts, moods, and feelings—e.g. anger, desire, affection, envy—appear to us as isolated mental states, without reference to previous or subsequent thoughts, moods, and feelings: This is the origin of the misinterpretation of the human mind known as “the free will” (the definite article the even suggests that there is only one). The free will is an illusion of which we would do well to disabuse ourselves.
We do not think our thoughts. Our thoughts appear to us. They come to the surfaces of our consciousness from the abysms of the unconscious mind. Close your eyes, and focus on the surfacings and submersions of your own thoughts, and you will see what I mean.
This simple exercise of self-observation suffices to disprove the illusion of voluntarism. If your mind is babbling, this very fact of consciousness refutes the idea of free will. Mental babble invalidates the voluntarist hypothesis. Does anyone truly believe that s/he wills babble into existence? Does anyone deliberately choose the wrong word to say or the wrong action to perform? If free will existed, infelicity would not exist at all or would exist less. After all, what would free will be if not the thinking that maps out what one will have thought-done-said-written—before actually having thought one’s thought / done one’s deed / said one’s words / written one’s words?
Belief in free will provokes hatred, malice, guilt, regret, and the desire for vengeance. After all, if someone chooses to behave in a hateful way, that person deserves to be hated. Anyone who dispenses with the theory of the free will hates less and loves less. No more desire for revenge, no more enmity. No more guilt, no more regret. No more rewards for impressive people who perform impressive acts, for rewarding implies that the rewarded could have acted differently than s/he did. In a culture that accepted the doctrine of total irresponsibility, there would be neither heroes nor villains. There would be no reason to heroize taxi drivers who return forgotten wallets and purses to their clients, nor would there be any reason to heroize oneself, since what a person does is not his choice / is not her choice. No one would be praised, nor would anyone praise oneself. No one would condemn others, nor would anyone condemn oneself. Researchers would investigate the origins of human behavior, but would not punish, for the sources of all human thought and therefore the sources of all human behavior are beyond one’s conscious control / beyond the reach of consciousness. It makes no sense to say / write that someone is “good” or “evil,” if goodness and evilness are not the products of a free will. There is no absolute goodness or absolute evilness; nothing is good as such or evil as such. There is neither voluntary goodness nor voluntary evilness.
If there is no free will, there is no human responsibility, either. The second presupposes the first. Do you call a monster “evil”? A monster cannot be evil if it is not responsible for what it does. Do we call earthquakes “evil”? Do we call global warming “evil”? Natural phenomena are exempt from morality, as are non-human animals. We do not call natural phenomena “immoral”; we consider human beings “immoral” because we falsely assume the existence of a free will. We feel guilt / regret for our “immoral” actions / thoughts, not because we are free, but because we falsely believe ourselves to be free: [W]eil sich der Mensch für frei halt, nicht aber weil er frei ist, empfindet er Reue und Gewissensbisse [MAM 39]. No one chooses to have Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder. Why, then, should someone who is afflicted with Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder be termed “evil”? No one chooses one’s genetic constitution. You are no more responsible for the emergence of your thoughts and your actions than you are responsible for your circulatory system or for the sensation of hunger.
Those who would like to adumbrate Nietzsche’s “mature” thought should begin with Human, All-Too-Human (1878), not with Daybreak (1801). Nietzsche’s critique of morality makes no sense whatsoever without an understanding of his deeper critique of voluntarism (the doctrine of free will): Again, the ideas of Good and Evil only make sense on the assumption of the existence of free will.
Anyone who dispenses with the idea of free will endorses a shift from a system of punishment to a system of deterrence (Abschreckung). A system of deterrence would restrain and contain criminals so that someone would not behave badly, not because someone has behaved badly. As Nietzsche reminds us, every human act is a concrescence of forces from the past: one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s environment, one’s genetic constitution. It makes no sense, then, to believe that any individual is responsible for what he or she does. All human activity is motivated by physiology and the unconscious mind, not by Good or Evil. Everything is necessary, and it might even be possible to precalculate all human activity, through the mechanics of artificial intelligence, to steal a march on every advance: Alles ist notwendig, jede Bewegung mathematisch auszurechnen… Die Täuschung des Handelnden über sich, die Annahme des freien Willens, gehört mit hinein in diesen auszurechnenden Mechanismus [MAM: 106].
If you accept the cruelty of necessity (and is life not cruel, if we have no say in what we think and what we do?), the nobility of humanity falls away (the letter of nobility, the Adelsbrief) [MAM: 107]. All human distinction is devalued, since it is predetermined—since it is necessary. Human beings would finally recognize themselves within nature, not outside of nature, as animals among other animals. I must cite this passage in English translation, one which is not irrelevant to this context and one which belongs to the most powerful writing I have ever read, alongside Macbeth’s soliloquy upon learning of his wife’s death: “The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest as we do, when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the Earth: Indeed, we are still modest if we stop there and do not arrange a general twilight of the world and of the gods (eine allgemeine Welt- and Götterdämmerung) for the funeral rites of the final human (zur Leichenfeier des letzten Menschen). The most dispassionate astronomer can oneself scarcely feel the lifeless Earth in any other way than as the gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity” [WS: 14].
The demystification of the theory of free will has been re-presented by Sam Harris, who might seem like the Prophet of the Doctrine of Necessity. Those who have never read Nietzsche might believe that Dr. Harris is the first person to say these things, since Dr. Harris never credits Nietzsche’s theory of total human irresponsibility. If you visit Dr. Harris’s Web site, you will discover a few English translations of Nietzsche on his Recommended Reading List. We know that Dr. Harris’s first book (unpublished) was a novel in which Nietzsche is a character. We also know that Dr. Harris was a student of Philosophy at Stanford University. He would therefore not have been unaware of the Nietzschean resonances in his own text Free Will. Why, then, has Dr. Harris never publically acknowledged his indebtedness to Nietzschean determinism?
Nietzsche Is / Is Not (Always) a Misogynist.
In 1882, Nietzsche was sexually rejected by Lou Andreas-Salome, a Russian intellectual, writer, and eventual psychoanalyst who was found spellbinding by seemingly every cerebral man she met, including Rilke and Paul Ree. Since the first edition of Human, All-Too-Human was published four years before, Salome’s rejection of Nietzsche cannot be said to have had an impact on his reflections on women at that stage in the evolution of his thinking.
Nietzsche is sometimes a misogynist. But I must emphasize: He is not always a misogynist.
At times, Nietzsche praises women / is a philogynist. To give evidence of Nietzsche’s philogyny, all one needs to do is cite Paragraph 377 of the first volume: “The perfect woman is a higher type of human being than the perfect man” (Das volkommene Weib ist ein höherer Typus des Menschen, als der volkommene Mann). Elsewhere, Nietzsche extols the intelligence of women: Women have the faculty of understanding (Verstand), he writes, whereas men have mind (Gemüth) and passion (Leidenschaft) [MAM: 411]. The loftier term Verstand points to the superiority of women over men. Here, Nietzsche is far from misogynistic—indeed, he almost seems gynocratic.
Nor is Nietzsche a misogynist, despite appearances, in the following passage—one in which he claims that women tolerate thought-directions that are logically in contradiction with one another: Widersprüche in weiblichen Köpfen.—Weil die Weiber so viel mehr persönlich als sachlich sind, vertragen sich in ihrem Gedankenkreise Richtungen, die logisch mit einander in Widerspruch sind: sie pflegen sich eben für die Vertreter dieser Richtungen der Reihe nach zu begeistern und nehmen deren Systeme in Bausch und Bogen an; doch so, dass überall dort eine todte Stelle entsteht, wo eine neue Persönlichkeit später das Übergewicht bekommt [MAM: 419].
To paraphrase: Nietzsche is saying that the minds of women are fluxuous and not in any pejorative sense. He means that multiple positions coexist simultaneously in the consciousnesses of women. Personalities are formed and then evacuate themselves, leaving dead spots (todte Stellen), where new personalities are activated. This does not mean that the minds of women contain “dead spots”—it means that they are able to form and reform new personalities, which is a strength, not a weakness. And yet does he not say the same thing about his invisible friends, the free spirits? Free spirits are also in a state of constant flux, and their fluxuousness, while necessarily unjust to their own opinions, allows them to move from opinion to opinion with alacrity and to hold in their heads multiple opinions at the same time. Free spirits have opinions and arguments, but no convictions, for convictions are petrific. Free spirits are guiltless betrayers of their own opinions [MAM: 637] and goalless wanderers from opinion to opinion [MAM: 638].
Why would the substitution-of-one-position-for-another, intellectual inconstancy, be considered as something negative? Is it not a trait of the free spirit the ability to substitute a new position for an older one with alacrity? And is the free spirit not Nietzsche’s ideal human being—at least before the overhuman takes the stage? Such is my main argument: Free-spiritedness is womanliness, and free spirits are womanly, if we accept Nietzsche’s definitions of “free-spiritedness” and of “womanliness.”
This is not to deny the strain of misogyny that runs throughout Nietzsche’s collected writings. Yes, Nietzsche does write unkind and unjustifiable things about women—some of his statements about women are downright horrible and indefensible. My objective here is to highlight the polysemy and polyvocality of his writing, its ambiguity. For a further discussion of Nietzsche’s ambiguous representations of the feminine, consult Derrida’s Spurs, wherein he analyzes the figure of the veil in Beyond Good and Evil.
To say or write that Nietzsche is always a misogynist would be to disambiguate his work—if by “Nietzsche” one is referring to the paper Nietzsche. (For a series of accounts of Nietzsche as a human being, see Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries, published by Oxford University Press.) Nonetheless, let us pause over the historical, living human being Friedrich Nietzsche, who was male, and his relation to one historical, living human being, who was female: Marie Baumgartner, the mother of one of Nietzsche’s students and his sometime French translator. In the original manuscript of Mixed Opinions and Maxims, the first appendix to Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche wrote: “Whether we have a serpent’s tooth or not is something that we do not know until someone has put his heel upon us. Our character is determined even more by the lack of certain experiences than by what we have experienced” [VMS: 36]. In a letter to Nietzsche dated 13 November 1878, Marie Baumgartner wrote: “I would gladly have added to your very striking maxim: ‘a woman or mother would say, until someone puts his heel upon her darling or her child.’ For a woman will not silently allow something to happen to them that in most cases she patiently accepts for herself.” Nietzsche was so affected by Baumgartner’s rather delicately worded suggestion that he modulated the text to reflect her proposal. If Nietzsche regarded women as inferior (and he never did), why would he take seriously something that a female reader wrote about his manuscript—so seriously that he modified his manuscript to incorporate her words? The fact that Nietzsche reflected Marie Baumgartner’s suggestion in the revision of his manuscript is evidence enough that he respected the intelligence of this particular woman—the grain of his own writing confirms that he respected the intelligence of women in general and even considered women in general to be more intelligent than men in general.
Nietzsche Was Not an Atheist, if by “Atheist” One Means “Someone Who Does Not Believe in God.”
Nietzsche tells us, in Paragraph Nine of the first volume, “Even if a metaphysical world did exist, it would be nothing other than an otherness [Anderssein] that would be unavailable and incomprehensible to us; it would be a thing with [purely] negative characteristics.”
My question (which has been inspired by Nietzsche) is the following: Why do we even care about the beyond? Should questions such as “Is there life after death?” not be greeted with apathy? Why are we engaged with such questions to begin with? Do not such questions merit indifference rather than seriousness?
Questions such as “Does God exist?” and “Is there life after death?” cannot be answered scientifically or logically. We do not require their answers in order to live. All of us live out our lives without knowing the answers to such questions. Not merely that: It is entirely possible to live out our lives without ever ASKING or PURSUING such questions—and would we not be better off for not having done so?
Let me put it another way: Do the questions “Why does the world exist?” and “Why is there being rather than nothing?” not presuppose a reason for existing and a reason for being? I am looking at you, Heidegger.
The Nietzsche of 1878 is not an atheist, if by “atheist” one means “someone who does not believe in God.” Those who contest the existence of a deity or deities are practicing a form of skiamachy. Nietzsche, on the other hand, is someone who considers questions about the existence of God, or of any extra-worldly transcendence, to be superfluous. Otherworldliness is not something that can be discussed, since it is purely negative.
Moreover, the Nietzsche of Human, All-Too-Human is not merely not an atheist. He is also not a philosopher, if by “philosopher,” we mean someone who speculates about imaginary worlds / is an imaginary world-builder. Nietzsche will not become a philosopher, speculative or otherwise, until the very end of his period of lucidity, with the doctrines of the Eternal Recurrence of the Always-Same and the Will to Power.
Nietzsche Contradicts Himself. Often. But This Is Not a Flaw in His Thinking.
Nietzsche contradicts himself—often—but this is not a flaw in this thinking. He tells us to stop using the word “optimism” [MAM: 28] and then uses the word himself, without any perceptible irony, in other sections of the book. After scolding us for believing in heroes, he warmly sponsors the “refined heroism” (verfeinerten Heroismus) of the free spirit who works in a small office and passes quietly into and out of life [MAM: 291]. In Paragraph 148 of the first volume, Nietzsche claims that the poet alleviates (erleichtert) life—this seems to contradict his claim, five paragraphs later, that “art aggravates the heart of the poet” (Die Kunst macht dem Denker das Herz schwer), that listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony infuses the listener with the heavy feeling of immortality, with religious and metaphysical conceptions. If Nietzsche contradicts himself, and he does, this is because free-spiritedness is multitudinous, multi-perspectival, self-contradictory thinking. Free-spiritedness is multi-spiritedness.
Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche
On Religion and Politics
What is religious is political, and what is political is religious.
Morality depends on opportunity.
A word means something different to you than it does to me, which means that communication is impossible: Nothing is communicable save the power to communicate the impossibility of communication. (Nietzsche suggests that the worst alienation is when two people fail to understand each other’s irony.) Consciousness of this fact would liberate us from the bitterness and intensity of every sensation.
The mind is geared not toward what has been interpreted, but toward that which has not been interpreted and might not even be interpretable. Nietzsche: “We take something that is unexplained and obscure to be more important than something that has been explained and made clear” [MAM: 532].
On the Voice
We often disagree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice. We often agree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice.
In a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, Heidegger claimed: “Only a god can save us.” This statement must be revised: Not even a god could save us now.
On Censorial America
In contemporary America, you may be prosecuted and persecuted for what you think, insofar as what you think is available in language.
My analysis was cited in Marco Caracciolo’s article “Narrative Space and Readers’ Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account,” Style. Vol. 47, No. 4, Narrative, Social Neuroscience, Plus Essays on Hecht’s Poetry, Hardy’s Fiction, and Kathy Acker (Winter 2013), pp. 425-444. Print.
An Analysis of THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) by Joseph Suglia
“When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it…”
—Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) is something of an undergraduate exercise. It is a Faulknerian pastiche and, above all, hedonistic. Hedonism, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of art. Whereas Blood Meridian is verbally expansive, the language of McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is strictly delimited.
We follow a nameless father and son as they wander through a post-American void, a “blastosphere,” to use J.G. Ballard’s term. (Blastosphere = Not the blastula, but the “implicit shape of the way matter is perturbed by an explosion” (Will Self)). They scavenge for food and tools. They encounter those who seemingly show their seamiest impulses and who behave in an unseemly manner.
And yet I suspect that this is less a novel about a post-apocalyptic future than it is one about our atheological present. It is a theological allegory about a world from which the gods are manifestly absent. Eine gottesverlassene und gottesvergessene Welt.
We find grounds for this supposition in those passages in which the grey waste is described as “godless”  and “coldly secular”  and wastes of human flesh are named “creedless” .
“On this road there are no godspoke men” .
The worst thing that could be written about The Road is that it is a sappy religious allegory. Nabokov wrote of Faulkner’s Light in August:
“The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work.”
I would write of McCarthy’s The Road:
The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which does not pervade Faulkner’s work.
This does not mean that the book is unredeemable, however. What might have been a pedestrian trifle in the hands of a lesser writer has become something genuinely pedestrian with author McCarthy. The most distinctive feature of The Road is not the story that is told, but the manner in which McCarthy tells it: that is to say, the narrative. He writes so magically that a grey empty world is summoned forth vividly before our eyes.
It needs to be said and emphasized that McCarthy has almost completely superseded standard English punctuation in the writing of this novel. He strategically, willfully omits periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes throughout the work in order to equivocate, in order to multiply meanings, in order to enlarge the literary possibilities of language.
The relative absence of punctuation in the novel makes the words appear as if they were the things themselves. Of course, one could seize upon the conscious, literal meaning of the words. But does language not slip away from us? Are its meanings not dependent on the interpretive framework of the listener, of the reader? And is it not conceivable that the linguistic elisions reflect the consciousness of the central character?
Proper punctuation would disambiguate and thus flatten the sentences–sentences that are, liberated from such restrictions, both benign and lethal. We have before us a rhetorically complex novel, a work of literature that is rife with ambiguity.
And the non-punctuation makes us feel. If the “sentences” were punctuated in the traditional manner, we, as readers, would feel nothing. We would not feel, viscerally and viciously, the nightmarish world into which father and son have precipitated. We would not be infused with the chill of post-civilization.
The absence of standard punctuation in The Road is a fruitful, productive absence. It is a writerly, stylistic choice.
I hope I have persuaded my readers that McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation is stylized. It most certainly is not unnecessary. One of the lessons that we can derive from the novels of McCarthy is how to apply typography in literary craftsmanship. Punctuation opens or closes the doors of meaning. Let me invent my own ambiguously commaless sentence for the purposes of elucidation. If I write, “I want to eat my parrot William,” this would seem to signify that I want to eat a parrot named William, a parrot that belongs to me. However, what happens if the comma is explicitly absent? Three contradictory interpretations are then possible: 1.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her, a parrot named William; 2.) The narrator, apparently, wants to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her and is addressing this remark to someone named William (“I want to eat my parrot, William”); 3.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat in general, and this comment is directed at his or her parrot, the name of which is William (“I want to eat, my parrot William”). Punctuation, depending on how it is used, can restrict or expand meaning. Commas articulate, determine meaning. The absence of a comma, on the other hand, opens up semantic possibilities inherent to language. Its absence opens the doors of ambiguity.
As I suggested above, McCarthy’s refusal to punctuate in the conventional manner is also intimately connected to the internal struggles of the main character and, perhaps, the psychology of the author. The narrator eschews commas because he fears death. I suspect that, similarly, McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation bespeaks a futile desire to escape his mortality–a charmingly fragile and recognizably human desire.
“[E]ver is no time at all” .
The ephemerality of the instant. Hence, the relative commalessness of McCarthy’s statements. A comma would pause an enunciation, rupture its continuity, the incessant flow of language, the drift of language into the future. What, after all, is a comma if not the graphic equivalent of a turn in breath, of an exhalation or an inhalation? Commas do not merely articulate a sentence. Commas stall, they defer, they postpone, they interrupt without stopping. A speaking that speaks ceaselessly, without commas, in order to outstrip the nightmare of history. McCarthy’s language moves forward endlessly, without giving readers a chance to catch their breath. This is a writing that is unidirectional and decidedly equivocal.
The thrusting momentum of McCarthy’s language fertilizes my suspicion that The Road is also a book about time. More precisely, a book about time’s three impossibilities: the impossibility of ridding oneself of the past completely, the impossibility of eternalizing the present, and the impossibility of encompassing the future.
The future is essentially unpredictable for the son, and the reader has no idea, at the novel’s close, what will become of him. Will the son survive? Will he be bred for cannibal meat, for anthropophagous delicacies? An infinitude of possibilities… And here we come to yet another strange intimacy between McCarthy’s singular style of punctuating and not punctuating and one of the leitmotifs of his novel: The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of THE ROAD is no conclusion at all, a conclusion without a period. And the novel lives on inside of the reader’s head and heart, growing within as if it were a vicious monster fungus.
Quentin Tarantino Is an Anti-Black Racist
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Quentin Tarantino is a slobbering anti-black racist who makes Blaxploitation films for hipsters. These hipsters grow aggressively defensive whenever African-Americans stand up and denounce these very films. (Roxane Gay, Spike Lee, Katt Williams, and Armond White are only a few of the African-Americans who have spoken out against Tarantino’s racism.) Tarantino wishes to prove to his hipster fan base that he knows African-American culture better than African-Americans know their own culture. And his hipster fanboys also desire that feeling–the feeling that they understand African-Americans better than African-Americans understand themselves. (For an analysis of the mind of the hipster, consult Norman Mailer’s essay on this topic.)
Tarantino’s latest abomination is Django Unchained (2012), a film about a murderer-for-hire named Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) who enlists an African slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to assist him in his mass-murdering spree. Their journey ends at Candyland, a plantation owned by the oleaginous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in an amusing and impressive performance that elevates above the film and never quite descends into camp). There is much to demur to, but I will restrict myself to three demurrals: 1.) The film is an agglomeration of plagiarisms. 2.) The film is crypto-racist garbage. 3.) The screen violence is without passion or meaning.
DJANGO UNCHAINED IS AN AGGLOMERATION OF PLAGIARISMS
Django Unchained is a pastiche of Spaghetti Westerns. The opening song was lifted directly from the English-language version of Django (1966). On the soundtrack is a well-known composition from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)–an American Spaghetti Western, if there ever was one. There is also an appearance by Franco Nero, star of the original Django, which is a pointless, meaningless cinematic reference that adds nothing whatsoever to the film, which is itself a pointless, meaningless accumulation of cinematic references.
The references are smarmily, unctuously obvious. One thinks of the scene in which Schultz recounts to Django the basics of Das Nibelungenlied. If Tarantino were an artist, he wouldn’t have spelled out the legend of Siegfried and Brunhilda for the benefit of his illiterate spectatorship.
Not merely does the film contain a cluster of plagiarisms; it itself is a plagiarism. The film is an unacknowledged remake of the Mandingo films of the 1970s–in particular, Mandingo (1975) and its sequel, Drum (1976). Tarantino steals from these sources to such a degree that his film would have been better entitled Mandingo Unchained.
Calvin Candie is clearly modeled on two characters in Drum: DeMarigny (John Colicos), connoisseur of Mandingo fights, and Warren Oates’ character Hammond, slave-owner and breeder of Mandingos. Both characters were spliced together to create the hybrid Calvin Candie, lover of intra-racial violence.
The Mandingo-fight scene [1:05] owes everything to the original Mandingo film, although different body parts are excised. In Django Unchained, an eye is enucleated. In Mandingo, a jugular vein is torn out.
Quentin Tarantino isn’t very much different from Calvin Candie. After all, they both enjoy watching Mandingo fighting.
DJANGO UNCHAINED IS CRYPTO-RACIST TRASH
On the surface, Django Unchained seems to be directed against white anti-black racism. But it is itself a work of white anti-black racism.
Now, I like revenge fantasies as much as the next person, but there is something more sordid, more sinister going on here than what goes on in most revenge fantasies (“You got me! Now I’m gonna get you, sucka!”). Like its predecessor, Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained is a work of genocide pornography, the cruelest, most unconscionably vicious form of pornography in existence. The crude plot of Inglourious Basterds trivializes the Holocaust; the crude plot of Django Unchained trivializes the enslavement of Africans in antebellum America.
But Django Unchained does more than merely trivialize the enslavement of Africans in nineteenth-century America. It turns the enslavement of Africans into an object of consumption, an object of enjoyment.
To call this film “ahistorical” would be a gross understatement. The film approximates history as closely as Spongebob Squarepants approximates marine biology. With one important qualification: The creator of Spongebob Squarepants actually knows a great deal about marine biology, even if he chooses not to exhibit this knowledge in the television program that he spawned. This film bears no relation to history whatsoever. It is a bombinating vacuum in which references from exploitation films resonate.
No one in the nineteenth century ever said, “Adult supervision is required.” Nor did anyone ever use the term “***********************************.”
Slaves could not read, but Django does a pretty good job of reading aloud the text of a Wanted poster [0:57]. He doesn’t know the words “bounty,” “valet,” or “positive,” but he does know the words “antagonize” and “intrigue.” As Katt Williams pointed out, it is odd that Django can spell his own name.
The late populist film critic Roger Ebert used the term deus ex machina (“God-out-of-the-machine”) to describe the entry of Schultz in the opening of the film. That moment isn’t quite a deus ex machina–such a device is commonly used at the end of a work, such as when Helios transports Medea on a golden chariot at the end of Euripides’ tragedy.
However, Ebert was correct to call Schultz a “god.” He just didn’t know the extent to which he was correct.
Schultz is a god, all right. He is the white god who creates the black Django. “I feel vaguely responsible for you,” he says to Django. “I gave you your freedom.”
Yes, it is Schultz who grants Django his liberty. The first time we see Django’s face is when Schultz shines light on him. It is Schultz who transforms Django into a murderer-for-hire. It is Schultz who sculpts Django into a full human being.
Django is not allowed to kill Calvin Candie. Only the Good White Master is allowed to kill the Evil White Master. Django is allowed to kill Candie’s minions–both black and white — but not their Evil White Master. Django has a master, all right, and his name is Dr. King Schultz.
It is for this reason that Will Smith declined to assume the role of Django: “Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead. The other character was the lead! I was like, ‘No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!'”
Will Smith’s objection to the film gets to the heart of the problem: Django is a secondary character, the Good White Master’s marionette.
Much has been made of the use of the “N-word” in the film. That is because Tarantino enjoys saying the “N-word.” The “N-word,” evidently, is his favorite word in the English language, a language that he does not know very well. He expresses the “N-word” with brio, emitting it with gusto, as if this word were a shibboleth.
One recalls the infamous (I am using this word in its proper sense) scene in Pulp Fiction (1994) in which Tarantino-playing-Tarantino utters the “N-word” in Tourette’s-like staccato beats. There is no point in arguing that Tarantino is playing a character and that his character is racist, not Tarantino, when Tarantino is obviously playing himself in the scene. The delight that he feels whenever he bleats the “N-word” is palpable.
Django Unchained is backwater garbage, racist filth, intended for ugly-souled racist hipster fanboy cretins. The film is regressive because it imagines that White (the presence of all color) and Black (the absence of all color) are “colors” and that races and have really existent correspondents. The film erodes and erases so many of the steps that America has taken over the past four years. I wrote the words above on 13 July 2013, the day on which George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin.
What is a racist? A racist is someone who has nothing of which to be proud other than his or her epidermal pigmentation. We are, all of us, out of Africa. Anthropologists have established that Africa is the cradle of humanity and that there are only epidermal subdivisions between us. It makes no sense to speak of “race,” since each individual “race” encompasses so many of these subdivisions.
Quentin Tarantino hypostatizes race.
THE VIOLENCE IN THE FILM IS PASSIONLESS
I don’t mind screen violence. Screen violence can be bracing. The problem with the representational violence in Django Unchained is that it is mechanical, spiritless, passionless. It is difficult to understand how or why anyone would be offended by the violence in the films of Tarantino. The violence in all of his films is automatized, transactional, emotionless.
I would like to call your attention to the moment [0:57] in which Schultz murders the alleged stagecoach robber Smitty Bacall. Schultz snipes at his victim from a distance of about 200 feet. Tarantino shoots the man from a distance of 200 feet, as well. There is a complete emotional disengagement between the murderer and the murderee. There is also a complete emotional disengagement between the film and the murderee. We see the man’s son running to his father and hear the boy screaming, “Pa! Pa!” But the boy and his father are no more than flecks of dust on the screen. The father and son are hardly represented as human beings, at all.
And what about the scene that immediately follows the one that I just described? The scene in which Django and Schultz use a band of cowboys for target practice [0:58]? What, precisely, did these cowboys do to deserve to be gunned down?
All of the murders are filmed with the detached eye of a psychopath.
By contrast, the death scenes in the films of Nicolas Roeg are historically intense. “A young man is cut down in the prime of his life,” Roeg said, referring to his directorial debut, Performance (1970). “[Death] is an important thing.”
The murder of Lara Lee Candie (Laura Cayouette), Calvin’s sister [2:39], is as passionate as the deletion of a Microsoft Word document.
In Django Unchained, human characters (and horses) are eliminated with the same passion with which you would close pop-up advertisements on your computer screen.
* * * * *
The antistrophe to my arguments is quite predictable. “It’s only a movie” comes the bleating response. You can hear the booing, the cooing, and the mooing: “It’s only a mooooooooooooooooooovie.” Keep on telling yourselves that: “It’s only a moooooooooooovie… It’s only a moooooooooovie…”
Despite such zoo noise, it can be said, without fear of exaggeration or absurdity, that Django Unchained is one of the vilest motion pictures ever made. Not because of its violence (again, screen violence can be bracing), but because it delights in the exploitation and dehumanization of African-Americans. Quentin Tarantino is a hate criminal, and Django Unchained is a hate crime.
Dr. Joseph Suglia, table41thenovel.com
An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought!
Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):
1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.
Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).
“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.
There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?
It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.
Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.
Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).
To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). Did Wallace never see this film? How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?
Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.
An Analysis of In Memoriam to Identity (Kathy Acker) by Joseph Suglia
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL
Resonating with the title of Kathy Acker’s most mature work, In Memoriam to Identity (1990), is the notion that the self is inseparable from its own becoming-other, from the forms that it assumes and the masks that it dons. The book serves as a series of largely disconnected epitaphs to a discarded concept of identity—that is, to “identity” conceived as transcendental and substantialized subjectivity that would endure unchanged through time and exist a priori independently of all relations to the other. What Acker’s book suggests, in a manner that seems disjointed and even at times haphazard, is that personal identity is based on the exposure to the other person that is revealed by sexuality (the final and perhaps most significant word of the book).
Three cycles of narrative intersect with each other: 1.) A willfully anachronistic and reconstructive transcription of Rimbaud’s biography (broken off arbitrarily when Acker grew disgusted with the poet’s imperialist conversion) interspersed with references to AIDS and postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard (here decried as a cynic), deliberate mistranslations of Rimbaud’s verse, and intentionally unacknowledged citations from Büchner, Lautréamont, and Artaud—members of the counter-tradition of subversive literature within which Acker would like to insert herself. Of foremost importance to her is Rimbaud’s impassioned relationship to Verlaine, who is compelled to choose between a socially unacceptable liaison with the boy and his responsibilities as a father, husband, and member of the bourgeoisie. The narrative is set against the background of the Franco-German War of 1870. According to the logic of Acker’s repoliticization, the Germans appear as yuppies who wage a ceaseless battle against the unemployed and arrogate to themselves services that only they can afford.
2.) A narrative oriented around Airplane, a young girl who exists in a relationship of absolute dependency to her rapist (later nominated as her “boyfriend”)—a relationship that mirrors, despite Acker’s own self-interpretive claims, Rimbaud’s relationship to Verlaine. She is inexorably driven to dance at a strip club.
3.) A transformative replication of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury that concerns the sexually voracious Capitol, who is erotically obsessed with her brother Quentin. Her goal, to couple with every man in the world, is the indirect endeavor to achieve sexual congress with her brother, the only man who matters to her. Capitol is the pure desire to consume men, the will to conquer through copulation; she generalizes her male sexual partners to the point at which they are reduced to nothing. Because Capitol can never remember any of the men with whom she couples (and does not exercise any discrimination in her choices), she not only erases these men as individual human beings: By eliding all memory, she effectively destroys her Self as an identity that would persist through time. She “herself,” a female Don Giovanni (and this is the joint that links her narrative to the Rimbaud section), is “No One”: non-identical with herself; “she” is a multiple series of drives to overcome men through sexuality.
4.) “The Wild Palms” alternates successively between the narrative of Airplane and that of Capitol; both narratives are sutured together in counterpoint (this is a Faulknerian practice).
To love, in each context, is to demolish and shape one’s personal history. The work is an extended, productive commentary on Rimbaud’s dictum, “Je suis un autre,” “I am an other.” The most productive point of departure for an analysis of this work would be the first narrative, which concerns this dictum most directly. Rimbaud longs to free himself not merely from the self that he is and has been, but from the stability of identity in general: “I want to die” . He desires “to wake inside someone else’s skin”  (a direct translation from Rimbaud’s correspondence), and this self-transformation is only possible by way of a relation to the other human being: “Human flesh needs human flesh. Because only flesh is value” . And later: “I’m waiting! I’m waiting for what I want! A certain type of life which I call LIFE. So far I haven’t been able to get there because I need another person, V, and what’s happened and is still happening between me and V is nothing, ****… I want blood” . Rimbaud prefers “the vulnerability of real identity” to the bourgeois self (a pre-existing self that would be identical to itself). R’s identity is, strictly speaking, a non-identity: He is a multiple series of selves rather than the self-sameness of the unique self that would come before all others. His desire to become other-than-himself, to be exteriorized as his own double, is inextricably bound to his relation to V. Identity is both constituted and destroyed by the sexual relation.
It is a relation that gives rise to the most intense experience of pain. Sexuality is not absolute communion, the fusion of the self and the Other, but rather absolute loneliness: What is most distinctive about the sexual relation is the absence of all bonds between the persons involved. Whereas R’s relationship to V is one of submission, fragility, and addiction, the latter’s relationship to the former is something that could be reduced to a moral decision (Verlaine is able to choose between Rimbaud and his responsibilities as a husband, father, and member of civil society). One witnesses a certain dissymmetry in the relation between R. and V. in scene after scene of this work. What marks their rapport is the fact that this relation is unequal and without a future. The hopelessness of the relation belongs to it essentially and defines both of its members. Love becomes, as well, synonymous with coercion, the penetration of rape, and the agony of torture: “R’s consciousness of his love for V was a torture rack” . R hates to desire V. He desires V because he hates V, because V is killing him. As Rimbaud says to his mentor African Pain: “I need what you’re doing to me because it’s only pain and being controlled which’re going to cut through my autism. Because it’s pain you give me I love you” . Acker’s “Rimbaud” is inescapably drawn to Verlaine because of the pain that the latter inflicts upon him. He discovers love through pain and this is the only experience that would allow him to “demolish” “identity”  altogether: “There’s no way out but death or consciousness… Break the heart’s dead ice. He knew that the habitual self had to be broken” .
When V. withdraws from R’s life altogether in order not to be named a “homosexual,” R accedes to another relation. It is at this point that R renounces poetry and pronounces poetry’s end—though one cannot assign a precise date, August 1873, for instance, to this renunciation and pronouncement—and is transformed utterly: “Each person has the possibility of being simultaneously several beings, having several lives” . It is not as if Rimbaud discarded his past self as if it were an old shell and entered into a new one (that of an arms dealer and ivory trader). What is affirmed is the essential instability and uncertainty of all identity: that the “I” is already the “Non-I.”
The renunciation of poetry corresponds precisely to the renunciation of Verlaine and what he represents: the self-sameness of subjectivity conceived as substance. Such is Acker’s implicit explanation of R’s alleged “silence”—which was not a form of silence at all, but the accession to another order of writing. It is not merely the case that R has broken with his past self and is transmuted into an imperialist (such is a conclusion that Acker has rejected). He enters into an experience in which the self is continually annihilated and reformed, an experience in which the self proliferates into a series of duplicable selves or non-selves. R’s narrative ends with the affirmation of an other consciousness: not a new consciousness that would supersede one that would come before it, but a consciousness that is always entirely other-than-itself. R’s apparent renunciation of poetry, mistyped as his “silence,” was, in fact, a phenomenological turn toward the experience of the self as an other.
All of Acker’s work is severely flawed and In Memoriam to Identity is no exception. But these flaws are tied to the success of her densely individuated style. Acker’s bad writing (and carelessness is in evidence here—I have seldom read a book with more typographical and syntactical errors) might be read, charitably, as a mark of her biblioclasm, of her refusal to fashion a well-crafted masterpiece that would be accepted within the canon of traditional literary history. Unfortunately, the stylization of the narrative is not immune to this practice. The description of the relationship between R and V is, I’m afraid, only intermittently compelling and tends to veer toward mere compilation and summary of biographical data. The deadpan repetition of “facts” from R’s life denies any pathetic identification on the part of the reader. This, in itself, would not be disturbing if pathos were not what In Memoriam to Identity were all about. The work is most impressive when Acker gives herself over to the desire, however juvenile, to shock her audience and approximates the punk sensibility of her vastly inferior early novel Blood and Guts in High School (1980), while bringing to the work a far greater intelligence. And yet the work lacks the critical naivete that made Acker’s early writing (relatively) powerful. Most troubling in this regard are the frequent intrusions of Acker the Professor and Literary Theorist into the space of the narrative. Everything proceeds as if the author had surfeited herself with postmodern theory to the point at which she could only write narratives fraught with savvy, self-interpretive statements. She anticipates the interpretation of her work in the hands of her informed readership. In Memoriam to Identity thus takes on the strange appearance of a book that reads itself.
An Analysis of Fat Girl / À ma sœur! (2001) by Joseph Suglia
À ma sœur! (2001) concerns, perhaps, the fertilizing intervention of the stranger, the intrusion of strangeness into the familiar. Anais sees her violation–and the destabilization of her life–as necessary: This is the most subversive thought in Breillat’s film. Why else would she protect the werewolf who rapes her and murders her mother and sister? Throughout the film, Anais prays for a rapist werewolf, a loup-garou, to take away her virginity–and thus prevent her from getting her heart broken. Her sister Roxane is the real tragic figure: She is spiritually wounded by the Italian gigolo who absconds with her virginity. This does not happen to Anais. Her first sexual engagement is with one impossible to love. Much of the film is oriented around the sister–even the title in French bears this out (“To my sister”). Anais is merely the voyeuse, the watcher, the observer–she only becomes sexualized with the intrusion of the stranger. (One recalls the excruciatingly long scene in which she watches her sister coupling with the lothario.) The film is shocking not merely in what it shows, but in what it implies. It concerns, I believe, the making-foreign of the proper–the intervention of foreignness which allows the Anais to connect to her burgeoning sexuality and to liberate herself from her slavish dependency on the sister, previously her life’s focus.
This film should be watched together with its magisterial counterpart, Brève traversée (2002), also directed by Breillat. Brève traversée is equally controlled, but even more subtle and more acute.
An Analysis of MAO II (Don DeLillo) by Joseph Suglia
Exactly ten years before the terrorist assaults on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991) compared the act of writing with the act of terrorism. As terrorists, writers once had the power to destabilize perceptions of the world. They unsettled one’s customary responses to things and opened up the possibility of new thoughts and impressions. By giving ordinary things extraordinary names, literary language had the power to radically transform one’s relationship to the world. Today, however, what could be more harmless than a novel? A novel is insignificant in comparison with the explosive force of terrorist initiatives. Literature is dead, and the news is the new means of perceptual disorganization.
The only way that literature can be effective in a culture of terror is by absorbing the gestures of terror. In DeLillo’s novel, literature, quite literally, terrorizes. Legendary novelist Bill Gray is blackmailed by a Maoist Lebanese political organization to act as its spokesperson. Although literature has lost its power to alter human perception, the image of the author exerts a certain authority. For this reason, Gray’s simulacrum will be used to promote the causes of Lebanese nationalism. The writer becomes a reporter, a mediator of images that stimulate fear.
As if to acknowledge that literature is absorbed by the culture of the image, Mao II takes the form of a “picture-book.” On the one hand, its various scenes have the “feel” of a documentary and resemble the news in printed form; there is, for example, an extraordinary “documentary”-like moment in which Brita and Karen watch Khomeini’s funeral on television and witness endless crowds simulating paroxysms of grief. On the other hand, each section of the book is segmented by actual photographs: masses of Chinese citizens gathered before Mao Zedong; a preordained marriage ceremony at Yankee stadium; a crowd of people crushed against a steel fence by the rampaging stampede at the 15 April 1989 soccer game in Sheffield, England; Khomeini’s portrait; children in the trenches of war-torn Beirut. All of this serves to reinforce the book’s thesis that the book is dead. Dead or swallowed by an infinite swarm of technically reproducible images.
The author of a novel about terrorism, Martin Amis incorrectly categorized Mao II as a “postmodernist” work. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the book traces the limits of postmodernism by opposing the transformation of words into images. The novel links the tyranny of images with the tyranny of terror–hence the title, which is taken from one of Andy Warhol’s mass-reproductions of Mao Zedong’s portrait. By aligning the order of images with the order of terror, the book condemns both. Of course, one of the characters, George Haddad, representative of the Lebanese terrorist group and Gray’s interlocutor, claims that terrorism has not been incorporated and subsumed by the culture of the image: “Only the terrorist stands outside” . By saying this, Hadded attempts to identify the terrorist with those who are outside of mainstream culture. But the exact opposite is the case–just because Haddad makes this claim does not mean that “DeLillo” agrees with him. Terrorists need technically reproducible images in order to terrorize. Without television and the massive circulation of sound-bytes and images that it empowers, the efforts of terrorism would be ineffective. By contrast, literature is, strictly speaking, invisible: it is constituted by hints, clues, gestures, and ambiguities. In a culture in which terror is spread through images, literature is doomed to failure: “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous” . American culture is a culture that valorizes the obvious–and for this reason, terrorism, which exploits the obvious, has a firm hold on the American sensibility. Everything must be visualized, everything must be known, everything must be self-evident, everything must be confessed. There is no place for literary opacity in a culture that values transparency above all else: “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated” .
And yet terrorists are also incorporated. One must no longer imagine that terrorists are “Others” who infiltrate a domestic territory. Terrorists do not attack “us” by way of an intervention or an incursion from the outside. Terrorism, according to the logic of Mao II, inhabits the very culture that it pretends to assail. All writers are terrorists and “half murderers” –and Gray is no exception. As the other “dictators” mentioned in the novel–Khomeini, Mao, and Moon–Bill recedes into an exile that would precede his accession to power and intensify his influence. He disguises his past and changes his name (from “Willard Skansey, Jr.”) in order to de-expose himself. His openness–the media exposure to which he “submits”–is the most devious form of concealment.
How else can an author survive in a culture of terror except by immersing him-/herself in an ever-proliferating sea of images? Even before his “proselytization,” Gray allows himself to be photographed by the enigmatic Brita. As the subject of a photograph, he yearns to obtain power through inaccessibility: “The deeper I pass into death, the more powerful my picture becomes” . By retreating into the illuminated darkness of the image (like Pynchon, like Blanchot, like Salinger), the writer occupies a sacred space once reserved solely for godhood. Only when the subject is dead can his or her image have any meaning. Authors kill themselves by permitting themselves to be visualized. The photograph is the death mask of the author.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An Analysis of Robinson Alone (2012) by Kathleen Rooney
by Joseph Suglia
“Robinson” was a mask that poet Weldon Kees wore. He knew, as all poets and poetesses do, that literature begins where autobiography ends. He knew, as all poets and poetesses do, that literature is not confession, but impersonation.
Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, but auto-thanoto-graphy. Literature is not the writing of the self that lives, but the writing of the self that dies.
Weldon Kees wore the mask, the persona, of “Robinson” in all of four poems.
And then he disappeared–literally.
I encourage you to read, if you have not yet done so, Kees’ poem “Robinson.” It begins thus: “The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone. / His act is over.”
The poet disappears, and no one cares. Did anyone ever really care?
These are the final verses of the poem:
“Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun. / Outside, the birds circle continuously. / Where trees are actual and take no holiday.”
The poet dematerializes, but reality? Reality always stays the same. As Lacan said of the real: “The real is what always stays in place.”
It might be tempting to say–and this has been said–that Kees disappeared much like his predecessor, Rimbaud. But Kees’s silence is not Rimbaud’s (alleged) silence. Because Rimbaud was never really silent. Rimbaud never stopped writing. Even when he trafficked in ivory, Rimbaud was a writer. Rimbaud stopped writing “poetry” (as one would ordinarily understand this term) and started writing inventories. Only Rimbaud’s job title changed. He stopped calling himself a “poet” and starting calling himself an “ivory trader.” But even in Rimbaud’s inventories, one can hear the insistent, susurrant, violent rhythms of poetic language.
Kees’s self-vanishing was absolute.
* * * * *
Kathleen Rooney’s 2012 lyrical novel, Robinson Alone, derives its title from the Robinson poems of Weldon Kees.
It would be a mistake to say that these are poems about Weldon Kees. Nor are they merely poems about solitude, even about poetic solitude.
They are poems of solitude, poetologies of solitude, and phenomenologies of solitude, written in verse of lapidary smoothness. They display a total mastery of the English language. One must have mastered the English language to create assonances between “potroast” and “topcoat,” between “crisp” and “perspicuous.”
Though it would be impossible for me to do justice to all of the tropes and flows of this heartbreaking book, let me pause over a few verses.
Robinson is dragged to a Western-themed honky-tonk, though he moved from Nebraska to Missouri in order to escape the West (and to enter a writing program). At the close of the poem:
“Something’s being learned here, but not a lesson” (22).
Robinson walks down Fifth Avenue. Perhaps he passes a museum advertisement that uses the words “camera obscura”:
“Robinson’s not sure what a camera obscura / is for, but he thinks he should have / his portrait done with one… Something used to photograph the obscure” (27-28).
Of course, that isn’t what a “camera obscura” (“dark room”) is. But his musings raise the questions: How does one phenomenalize darkness? Can there be a “negative phenomenology,” as Gerald Bruns once unfortunately phrased it? Is poetry ever a phenomenon?
“Consider consider consider the oyster” (37).
Consider the oyster, not the lobster. The oyster is a solitary creature. An auto-inseminating, auto-sexual, solipsistic creature. The oyster is a hermaphrodite, both female and male at the same time, and requires no sexual partner.
Robinson is staring down from the Brooklyn Bridge. He considers hurtling himself into the abyss. He catches a stranger’s glance and changes his mind:
“There’s something sexy about desolation” (42).
The interesting thing about this thought is that it could be everted and still be accurate: “There’s nothing sexy about desolation.” The word “desolation” co mes from the Latin, de- (“thoroughly”) and solus (“alone”). To be desolate is to be thoroughly alone.
“Sexiness” refers to the possibility of being-with-others (Mitsein, to use Heidegger’s term). Desolation, then, is receptivity to the possibility of being-with-others. Aloneness affords the possibility of a relation to another human being.
* * * * *
Kathleen Rooney’s “Robinson” is a castaway marooned in a debased modernity. Much as the marooning of the main character of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, her Robinson’s marooning is self-imposed. Why is this? Why must this be?
It must be because Robinson is a poet. To poeticize is to withdraw from all significant relations. Every poet must vanish, must withdraw from the world in order for poetry to be possible.
An Analysis of FIGHT CLUB (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia
Before discussing the form of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), I would like to reconstruct its political content.
* * * * *
The thirty-year-old narrator of Fight Club feels alive only when surrounded by decrepitude and death. He attends testicular-cancer support groups in order to enhance his vitality: By distinguishing himself as much as possible from the sick, he attempts to wrest himself away from a consumerist culture that suppresses death; by exposing himself to the mortality of others (which grants him the knowledge that he also is going to die), every moment in his life becomes more valuable. One of the infinite number of go-betweens in this culture (his job is to determine the expenses of recalling lethally defective automobiles), the narrator yearns to die in an airplane crash in order to free himself from the superficiality of a world that trivializes death and immortalizes the unliving commodity (a “necrophilous” culture, as Erich Fromm would say). Only what he imagines to be a direct experience of death grants him a real and intense sense of life, and, as the novel proceeds, violence will come to be his salvation.
[Let me remark parenthetically: the word “violence,” etymologically, means “life.”]
And yet Western culture manufactures not merely inclinations and proclivities, but also aversions and forms of disgust: Particularly relevant to a discussion of Palahniuk’s novel is the aversion toward violence and mortality that the narrator attempts to unlearn.
The narrator’s desires are prefabricated. As countless others in a consumerist society, his selfhood is defined by the merchandise that he purchases: His “perfect life” is constituted by “his” Swedish furniture, “his” quilt cover set, “his” Hemlig hatboxes, and the IKEA catalogues that serve as the foundation of his “identity.” He is the member of a generation of men who identify themselves with commodities (“Everything, the lamp, the chairs, the rugs were me” ), commodities that, according to the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, serve as extensions of one’s personality in the capitalist world.
Enter Tyler Durden (a man who is, apparently, the same age as the narrator). Aggressive, virile, and charming, Durden represents alternative possibilities that the narrator could assume. Tyler is radically opposed to the progressive “improvement” of the self that has been so valorized by capitalist societies; he claims that the drive toward “perfection” has led to the loss of manhood and has transformed men into feminized purchasers and consumers who slave away in life-draining jobs.
By randomly destroying property (with which members of consumerist society identify), Tyler intends to explode the foundations of capitalist “identity.” Since Rousseau and Hegel, it has been assumed that the bourgeois self is divided into civil and private dimensions: the citizen and the “true” individual. Here we encounter two analogous versions of a single self: Whenever the narrator (who subserves capitalist society) falls asleep, Tyler Durden (who represents the “authentic” self) inhabits his body.
Tyler and the narrator form a masculine unit that exists apart from the feminized support groups that are populated by man-women such as Bob, an estrogen-saturated former weight-lifter who sprouts what appear to be mammary glands, as well as Marla Singer (associated, at one point, with the narrator’s mother), who appropriates the narrator’s support groups and eventually unsettles the homoerotic / homosocial bond between the two men.
Tyler founds “fight club,” an underground boxing organization and a perverse version of the support group attended by the narrator. The split between the bourgeois and authentic selves is replicated in the difference between one’s work existence and fight club: “Who guys are in fight club is not who they are in the real world” . Fight club thus opens up a separate space, one that is divorced from the dependency and servility of the world of exchange; it posits a self-sufficient universe in which control and mastery, sovereignty and force are achieved, paradoxically, through self-destruction. The fights are not based on personal acrimony but on the exercise of power. It is the fight that is pure; it is through the fight that one’s human implications are drawn out. Norms learned from television (that mass accumulation is life’s goal, that success is equatable with financial success, that violence must be shunned)—all of these values are reversed in fight club, the sole objective of which is the reclamation of one’s manhood, which has been diminished in the feminizing world of capitalism (hence the phallic imagery that crystallizes throughout the novel).
The constituents of fight club (copy-center clerks, box boys, etc.) are members of the Lumpenproletariat, those who labor without a productive or positive relation to work, who are estranged from their own slavery, and who are excluded from every social totality. Even those on the higher levels of the bourgeoisie, it seems, conform to the same model. Their strength is vitiated; they, too, function as the refuse of a society that refuses to acknowledge them. Dying in offices where their lives are never challenged (and therefore lacking anything with which to contrast with life), they are the mere shadows of the proletariat, deprived of access not merely to the fortunes of the capitalist world, but also to consciousness of their own oppression: They are “[g]enerations [that] have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need” .
Eventually, fight club transcends and operates independently of the individuals who produced it (following Tyler’s anti-individualist creed) and becomes wholly acephalic: “The new rule is that nobody should be the center of fight club” . Fight club thus transmutes into Project Mayhem, a revolutionary group that begins with acts of vandalism and food contamination and eventually expands into full-blown guerilla terrorism. Its aim is regression: to reduce all of history to ground zero. Project Mayhem wants to blow the capitalist world to smithereens in order to give birth to a new form of humanity. What fight club did for selfhood and individuality (the formation of a new “identity” apart from the one mandated by capitalist society), Project Mayhem would do for capitalist society itself. In the same manner that fight club destroys capitalist “identity,” Project Mayhem aims to destroy Western civilization in order to “make something better of the world” —a world in which manhood would intensify through a non-moral relation to violence.
Here we are in territory already elaborated—much more richly—by J.G. Ballard. And John Zerzan, Portland anarchist.
Washing oneself clean, returning to one’s hidden origin, primitivism, regressionism, cleansing, and sacrifice… Soap, which Freud named “the yardstick of civilization,” is here emblematic of a reduction to primal manhood. The meaning of soap is not, in this context, propriety (as Freud would have it), nor, unfortunately, the ebullitions of language (Francis Ponge), nor, following Roland Barthes, the luxury of foaminess. Soap is indissociable from sacrifice.
[Fight Club does not merely imply, but states in the most obvious manner that bare-knuckled fist-fighting makes one more virile, more masculine. Palahniuk’s jock-fascism is jockalicious.]
If Western culture, as Freud claims in Unbehagen in der Kultur, is a culture of soap (sanitizing one from the awareness of death), the accustomed meaning of saponification is here transformed into its opposite. Western culture represses the sacrifices that were its origins through a process of cleansing: Soap here would indicate a return to those repressed sources. Violence must be re-vived in order to reclaim the self, now unclean.
The dream of capitalism complements the dream of fascism: “We wanted to blast the world free of history” . Their common project is dehistoricization. By attempting to destroy history, Project Mayhem pretends to break with the capitalist world but ends up mirroring it. Capitalist culture homogenizes all of its inhabitants until individuality is lost—its alternative, communism, would lead, theoretically, to the redistribution of wealth and the elimination of rank. Neither is accepted by Fight Club. Nor, for that matter, are the utopian primitivism and fascistic terrorism represented by Project Mayhem. The refusal of the capitalist / communist / fascist alternatives does not imply nihilism, either. Fight Club posits nothing other than the impossibility of a way out. This is evident in the text. When the narrator attempts to demolish the fascist version of his self, his phantom double remerges. Neither capitalism nor its double is overcome. Tragedy is not death, the liberation from all forms of the political; it is, rather, the impossibility of dying.
* * * * *
A few words on the form of Fight Club (the only section of this review that will be read).
This could have been an excellent novel.
Any strong writer knows that a dead page–a dead paragraph, a dead sentence, a dead word–is unacceptable. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be electric, vibrant, vivacious. Fight Club moves in the exact opposite direction: Its prose is soul-deadening, life-negating, dull. It is a prose that neither confronts nor challenges.
Chuck Palahniuk does not have an easy way with words. The language of this book is metallic, anti-poetic, and illiterate.
The writer claims to write in the way that “people talk.”
This would be good advice if we lived in an age in which people knew how to talk.
On Nietzsche’s MORGENRÖTHE: GEDANKEN ÜBER DIE MORALISCHEN VORURTHEILE / DAYBREAK / DAYBREAK: THOUGHTS ON THE PREJUDICES OF MORALITY / DAWN OF THE DAY / THE DAWN / Friedrich Nietzsche DAYBREAK
by Joseph Suglia
“I advise you to cultivate that form of contempt which is called pity.”
—Joseph Conrad, Victory
M = Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile (1881; second edition: 1887). The numbers refer to the numbers of the paragraphs that are cited.
D = Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, ed. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter. Cambridge University Press, 1997. The numbers refer to the pages of the text.
Those who read Nietzsche in English translation have been lied to, deceived, seduced, hoodwinked by dishonest translators and commentators. My intention here will be twofold. First, to correct some of the horrifying misinterpretations in the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation of Nietzsche’s Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile (1881; 1887), entitled Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (first published in 1997). I will hose off the slime with which Nietzsche’s great book has been slathered and amplify what Nietzsche actually writes. This will not have been, then, an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Daybreak but an attempt to illuminate and magnify his writing so that it becomes more legible.
* * * * *
Daybreak is Nietzsche’s inaugural attack on morality. The argument is not that human beings should be immoral but that they should be moral for different reasons than have been traditionally presented. His attack on morality is based on the critique of voluntarism (the theory of the free will) and the critique of altruism that was launched in Human, All-Too-Human (1878; 1880). The goal of Daybreak, as Nietzsche writes in the Preface to the 1887 edition, is to “undermine trust in morality” (Vetrauen zur Moral zu untergraben). Nietzsche does take pains to acknowledge that his own stance is self-contradictory, inasmuch as his critique of morality is itself “moral,” in a sense, coming, as it does, from an uncritical trust in rationality. The fact that Nietzsche cites Hegel approvingly in this regard shows us that Nietzsche exists in closer proximity to Hegel than is customarily acknowledged. Nietzsche uses the figure of the scorpion to describe this movement of turning-morality-against-itself ([der kritische Wille] gleich dem Skorpione, den Stachel in den eigenen Leib sticht [M Preface]), though I think a more felicitous figure would be that of the amphisbaena, a serpentine creature in Greek mythology that has two heads, one of which dangles at the tip of its tail and which can sometimes be seen biting the other head. Why? Free spirits are forever shedding their opinions, much in the way that the snake sloughs off its skin. All of Nietzsche’s writing is intentionally self-contradictory.
Morality is based on two false presuppositions: that human beings are self-conscious subjects who make their own choices, the sources of which are transparent to them, and that human beings are capable of selfless compassion for others, of other-directedness, of caring for other people without any reference to themselves.
The first false presupposition of morality: Human beings are self-conscious subjects who make their own choices, the sources of which are transparent to them.
We are not in control of what we think or what we feel. We are not in control of our minds because we are part of our minds. Our minds are more powerful than we are. Every conscious thought issues from the unconscious mind: “All of our so-called consciousness,” Nietzsche writes, is “a more or less fantastical commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, yet felt text” (all unser sogenanntes Bewusstsein [ist] ein mehr oder weniger phantastischer Commentar über einen ungewussten, vielleicht unwissbaren, aber gefühlten Text) [M 119]. And all unconscious data is formed by our history, by our environment, by tradition, by mood, by our physiology, by our heredity (though Nietzsche did not live to see the discovery of genetics), not by some nonexistent “free will.” There can be no moral thinking or immoral thinking insofar as we are unconsciously compelled to think whatever we consciously think and are therefore not responsible for our thoughts. Morality implies responsibility—and if we are not responsible for what we think, consciously or unconsciously, how could we be held responsible for the alleged “morality” or the alleged “immorality” of our thoughts?
Consider the hypnagogic state—what the Italians call dormiveglia, that twilight between alertness and slumber. You are neither awake nor asleep. Your thoughts rush and gush. How could one be responsible for the rushing and gushing of thoughts when the mind is in this semi-conscious state? And if one is not responsible for such thoughts, for which thoughts is one responsible, and why?
If there is no freedom of thought (and there is none), there are no free actions, either. No actions are good or evil—for surely, goodness is voluntary goodness and evilness is voluntary evilness. People are neither voluntarily good nor voluntarily evil, which means that they are neither good nor evil. As a result, we should perhaps stop pouring people into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL and develop richer and more complex ways of evaluating human behavior.
If people are constrained to perform good deeds, then praise is never earned. The Australian taxi driver who returns $500,000 to the Japanese businessman who left the money in his cab does not deserve to be heroized. If people are constrained to perform bad deeds, then neither is punishment ever deserved. Criminals should be pathologized, for criminality is a pathology [M 202], not the result of sinfulness [M 208]. And why should anyone feel guilt or regret for something that one did? It makes as little sense to feel guilt or regret for something that you did not choose to do as it does for someone else to blame you or to praise you for what you did not choose to do.
The second false presupposition: Human beings are capable of selfless compassion for others, of other-directedness, of caring for other people without any reference to themselves.
Why does anyone behave morally to begin with? People are moral out of laziness, out of cowardice, out of convenience, out of submissiveness to tradition. Above all, they are moral out of the desire for self-satisfaction.
(Parenthetical remarks: All morality is arbitrary: Every age has a different sense of what is “good” or “evil,” what is blameworthy or praiseworthy [M 2]. The ancient Jews believed that wrath was a virtue (as evidenced by the Hebraic Bible); the ancient Greeks believed in the virtuousness of envy (as evidenced by Hellenic mythology) and of revenge (as evidenced by the Oresteia). Dissembling once counted as a virtue (as evidenced by Homer). The ancient Greeks despised pity (as evidenced by Aristotle) and hope (as evidenced by Hesiod) and praised shame (as evidenced by Plato).
Every human being is self-directed (though, as I have stated elsewhere, Nietzsche did not believe in a hypostatized or substantialized human self). Everything that you do, you do for your own benefit or pleasure, even if that pleasure is a dark pleasure or a negative pleasure or the pleasure that comes from denying oneself a pleasure. Compassion is selfish because life is selfish.
Despite what the editors of the Cambridge University Press translation write about him, Nietzsche never claims that there is such a thing as a “moral motive” or a “morally motivated action” (xxv).
The introduction to the Cambridge Daybreak is nameless. Who typed this text? It is impossible to say with conviction, though it was likely put together by Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter, the editors of the volume. If I had written such an atrocity, I would not have put my name on it, either.
The agenda of Clark and Leiter (I will assume that they are the writers of the introduction) is to turn Nietzsche into someone who believes that the human animal is a self-sacrificing animal that can be dedicated absolutely to “the Other.” As I will argue, Nietzsche is not suggesting that there are other-centered impulses, and he is hardly repudiating the necessary existence of egoistic instincts.
The passage that the editors make hash browns out of is Paragraph 103 (“Es giebt zwei Arten von Leugnern der Sittlichkeit”; “There Are Two Kinds of People who Deny Morality”). The passage is worth citing in its entirety in German:
Es giebt zwei Arten von Leugnern der Sittlichkeit.—“Die Sittlichkeit leugnen”—das kann einmal heissen: leugnen, dass die sittlichen Motive, welche die Menschen angeben, wirklich sie zu ihren Handlungen getrieben haben,—es ist also die Behauptung, dass die Sittlichkeit in Worten bestehe und zur groben und feinen Betrügerei (namentlich Selbstbetrügerei) der Menschen gehöre, und vielleicht gerade bei den durch Tugend Berühmtesten am meisten. Sodann kann es heissen: leugnen, dass die sittlichen Urtheile auf Wahrheiten beruhen. Hier wird zugegeben, dass sie Motive des Handelns wirklich sind, dass aber auf diese Weise Irrthümer, als Grund alles sittlichen Urtheilens, die Menschen zu ihren moralischen Handlungen treiben. Diess ist mein Gesichtspunct: doch möchte ich am wenigsten verkennen, dass in sehr vielen Fällen ein feines Misstrauen nach Art des ersten Gesichtspunctes, also im Geiste des La Rochefoucauld, auch im Rechte und jedenfalls vom höchsten allgemeinen Nutzen ist.—Ich leugne also die Sittlichkeit wie ich die Alchymie leugne, das heisst, ich leugne ihre Voraussetzungen: nicht aber, dass es Alchymisten gegeben hat, welche an diese Voraussetzungen glaubten und auf sie hin handelten.—Ich leugne auch die Unsittlichkeit: nicht, dass zahllose Menschen sich unsittlich fühlen, sondern dass es einen Grund in der Wahrheit giebt, sich so zu fühlen. Ich leugne nicht, wie sich von selber versteht—vorausgesetzt, dass ich kein Narr bin—, dass viele Handlungen, welche unsittlich heissen, zu vermeiden und zu bekämpfen sind; ebenfalls, dass viele, die sittlich heissen, zu thun und zu fördern sind, — aber ich meine: das Eine wie das Andere aus anderen Gründen, als bisher. Wir haben umzulernen, —um endlich, vielleicht sehr spät, noch mehr zu erreichen: umzufühlen.
There are those, Nietzsche tells us, who deny that anyone is capable of a moral motive. This first kind of philosopher (Lichtenberg, La Rochefoucauld, et al.) is opposed to those Pharisees whose morality lies in their words, not in their hands: the sanctimonious, the sophists, the takers, the verbalizers, the hypocrites. The second denier of morality denies that morality is based on objectively true presuppositions. This second category of philosopher understands that all morality is misbegotten. Nietzsche belongs to the second camp.
The editors are fond of the following sentence (rendered into English): “Here it will be conceded that the motives of action are real, but that it is errors which, as the basis of all moral judgment, drive them to their moral actions.” The editors assume that this sentence implies that Nietzsche believed that people can have good, moral intentions: In this passage, they write, Nietzsche “admits the existence of moral motivation” (xxvi). They think that Nietzsche is the precursor of Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas, that he is someone who has the greatest piety for the Thou or for the Other. When he wrote Human, All-Too-Human, then, Nietzsche was a sinner who thought that people were self-interested. Now, he undergoes an epiphany as he travels on the road to Damascus: “In Daybreak, by contrast, we can begin to see the shift in Nietzsche’s strategy: he explicitly raises the question about the value of unegoistic actions, at the same time that he begins to move away from the psychological egoism of Human All Too Human” [xxiv-xxv].
According to this (mis)interpretation, the Nietzsche of Daybreak has rejected Human, All-Too-Human, with its reduction of all altruism to human selfishness, in favor of an interpretation of morality that allows for moral impulsion. The editors call attention to “Daybreak’s [alleged] repudiation of the thoroughgoing psychological egoism of Human, All Too Human” [xxv]. In Daybreak, Nietzsche has seen the Light of Day: “The passage [cited above] thus functions to separate Nietzsche’s new position from his earlier one: he no longer denies the existence of morally motivated actions, but claims instead that these actions, when they occur, are based on erroneous presuppositions” (xxv).
This is nonsense. Even worse, it goes against the thrust and tenor of Nietzschean thought. It violates the grain of the text. Nietzsche wants us to undeceive ourselves of the false assumption of “moral motives.” He wants us to think in luculent manner. He wants a world that is unalloyed by the false presupposition that moral intentions are possible.
The correct interpretation of the passage cited above is as follows: Human beings might believe that they have moral impulses that entrain them to perform moral actions, but nowhere in Daybreak does Nietzsche write that their moral motives are anything other than modes of self-deception.
Nietzsche writes (to translate): “I also deny morality: [I do not deny] that innumerable human beings feel themselves to be immoral, but [I do deny] that there is any ground in truth for them to feel this way.”
The most important word in this regard is fühlen (“to feel”). Human beings feel themselves to be immoral or moral, but this does not mean that they are immoral or moral. To turn to the alchemy metaphor: There are those who identify themselves as alchemists, but this does not mean that alchemy is anything other than a quack pseudo-science or that alchemists are anything other than quackpots. Many human beings feel that they are performing moral actions, but do I really need to write that the feeling that one is performing a moral action is not the same thing as a genuinely moral intention? Human beings might feel that they are self-responsible moral agents who are morally impelled to perform moral actions, but they are being self-deceptive in having such feelings. They might explain to themselves that they are moral beings, but this does not mean that they are moral! The unconscious impulse behind their “moral intentions” is always, for Nietzsche, selfishness.
The writers of the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation do not separate consciousness from the unconscious mind, even though Nietzsche consistently does precisely this, especially in the passage in which he affirms the “non-knowledge of the self” (Das, was den Menchen so schwer zu begreifen fällt, ist ihre Unwissenheit über sich selbst) [M 116]. The idea of “moral intentions” becomes questionable when we consider the unreadability of the self to itself. Sadly, the editors seem to have forgotten the sentence of Nietzsche in which he declares that moral actions are never what they appear to be to the subject who performs them: Die Handlungen sind niemals Das, als was sie uns erscheinen! [Ibid.]. We are not what we appear to be to ourselves, never mind how we appear to other human beings. “We are strangers to ourselves”: This is the premise of Toward the Genealogy of Morals. The core of the human animal is unknown and unknowable to that same animal. What distinguishes us from all of the other animals is that our essence is unknown and unknowable to us—this insight made Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis possible. If one does not understand these points, one does not understand Nietzsche.
The other person is unknowable to us, moreover, except insofar as he or she leaves an impression on us: Wir begreifen Nichts von [dem Nächsten], als die Veränderungen an uns, deren Ursache er ist [M 118]. Other people will attempt to leave imprints upon you, as if you were a ball of wax—and yet you will know nothing of them other than the psychic impressions that they leave upon you. We can neither say that the other human being is “good” or “evil” in himself or in herself. “Good” or “evil” are names, labels, deictic markers that we attach to the other human being. A person is nominated as “good” inasmuch as s/he pleases us; a person is nominated as “evil” inasmuch as s/he displeases us. And yet this person is neither good nor evil in him- or herself. In this fashion, Nietzsche moves away from Stirner, who some think of as Nietzsche’s predecessor. The Stirnerian moral-ego system is one in which what pleases me is right and what displeases me is wrong. We know from Iva Overbeck that Nietzsche read Stirner (cf. Conversations with Nietzsche, ed. Sander L. Gilman, pages 113-114): Here he is moving beyond the naivety of Stirner and not defining “good” as that which is good to me, nor is he defining “evil” as that which is evil to me. Both “good” and “evil” are mystifications, abstractions, and misinterpretations of the human mind.
Clark and Leiter do not seem to be conscious of Paragraph 148, wherein Nietzsche asserts that there are no moral actions, if morality means “other-centeredness.” The moral intentions behind such actions would be other-centered, as well. We never do anything purely for the other person or without self-interest, and our will is constrained by mood, by the unconscious, by degrees of sickness, by degrees of health and the feeling of well-being, by our memory of the past, by hunger, and/or by the need to urinate.
In an unpublished fragment from the summer of 1880—which, as far as I know, has never before been rendered into English—Nietzsche writes:
“Will to urinate,” that means: There is, first of all, a pressure and a compulsion; secondly, a medium through which to release oneself; thirdly, a habit to be exercised, after it has been given from the intellect to the hand. In itself, the pressure or compulsion has nothing to do with the alleviation of the bladder: It does not say, “I want.” It says, rather, “I suffer” [translation mine].
Let me make a simple remark that every child could understand: Although one might choose when to urinate, no one chooses whether to urinate. And the discomfiting and discomforting need to urinate can shape one’s decision-making process, perturb one’s attention, and determine one’s words and actions. The insistent and persistent existence of the need to urinate in itself invalidates the hypothesis of the free will, for who has absolute power over urination? One has no more control over one’s thoughts as one has control over whether or not one has the need to urinate. If the need to urinate were subject to some “free will,” wouldn’t most people have willed away or scheduled their micturition sessions?
Furthermore: If he admits “the existence of moral motivation” [xxvi] in Daybreak, why are all of Nietzsche’s examples of moral actions examples of egoic, self-interested behavior, of extreme vaingloriousness, of vanity? There is the nun who flaunts her chastity in order to punish fleshlier women with the image of her stern and proud virginity, her freedom from the desire for a man’s touch, her austere holiness: Die Keuschheit der Nonne: mit welchen strafenden Augen sieht sie in das Gesicht anderslebender Frauen! wie viel Lust der Rache ist in diesen Augen! [M 30]. There is the artist who declares his greatness and champions his excellence in order to excite envy in his contemporaries: Dort steht ein grosser Künstler: die vorempfundene Wollust am Neide bezwungener Nebenbuhler hat seine Kraft nicht schlafen lassen, bis dass er gross geworden ist, —wie viele bittere Augenblicke anderer Seelen hat er sich für das Grosswerden zahlen lassen! [Ibid.]. If I may submit an example that Nietzsche does not give: The man who gives money to a beggar does so not out the desire to help the beggar, but out of the desire to feel superior to the beggar and out of the desire to advertise his superiority over the beggar—though, as Nietzsche points out in this very book, he will become irritated afterward for having done so, as he would have been irritated for not having done so. In each case, the striving for distinction (Streben nach Auszeichnung) [M 113] is at the same time the striving to dominate another person—it is not an isolating experience, though it ends in a self-relation. The moralist attempts to annihilate the other human being by the assertion one’s superiority and then attempts to recuperate oneself through this annihilation. One injures the other in order to injure oneself—and then triumphs over both pity for the person one injured and over self-pity in order to exuberate and luxuriate in the feeling of one’s own power. Such is the magnetic glory of the martyr.
Not only is absolute other-directed agape love for the other human being impossible; it would not even desirable if it were to be universalized [M 143]: It would create a nightmare world in which everyone fervently loved everyone else, a frenzy of mass-love that would inexorably lead the beloved to languish for lovelessness [M 147].
(Parenthetical remarks: What good is a virtue if it cannot be displayed? Why be virtuous at all if one cannot delight in dramatizing virtues in front of an audience for the sake of their approbation? Today, people call this (too often, for my taste) “virtue signaling”: Was nützte eine Tugend, die man nicht zeigen konnte oder die sich nicht zeigen verstand! [M 29]. And yet there is a darker side to the performance of one’s moral uprightness. Morality is cruelty. It is an attempt to inflict misery and the perception of one’s own superiority on another: Man will machen, dass unser Anblick dem Anderen wehe thun und seinen Neid, das Gefühl der Ohnmacht und seines Herabsinkens wecke [M 30]. Moralistic language is the perfect license for a mean-spirited person to release his or her pent-up aggressions upon another—consider the Rote Armee Fraktion or the Baader-Meinhof Group ************************************* for relatively recent and recent examples of this.)
The reflection on pity (Mitleid) is inarguably the center of Daybreak. If this is true (and it is), then how could one claim, as the writers of the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation do, that Nietzsche believes in selfless motives?
Pity is the affect of morality, not respect (Achtung), as it is for Kant. This allows Nietzsche to show the sadism and the lust for power that lies at the foundation of all morality. Pity implies a relation to transcendence—not the transcendence of God or of a supersensible morality but the surpassing power and dominance of the one who pities. It is always possible to withhold pity. If it is always possible to withhold pity, then we are exercising power over the piteous. If we want to feel our power, we can either withhold our pity or threaten to withhold our pity. One pities dogs, one pities cats, one pities university professors—creatures to which one feels oneself superior. If we see someone drowning and have the power to save his life, we might save him out of pity—but this is selfishness and a counterstrike against one’s own feeling of fragility and powerlessness [M 133]. Pity potentiates the one who feels pity.
There can be no rivalry where there is pity—Nietzsche almost writes this. An enemy is an equal—one does not pity one’s enemies. If you want a rivalry to end, pity your enemy. This does not imply that pity equalizes or levels the distinction between the one who is piteous and the one who is pitiable but rather that it introduces an unsurpassable distance between the one who pities and the one who is pitied, between the one who has the power to dispense pity and the pitiable.
Nietzsche enjoins us to “Wake up!” (Wachen wir auf!) [M 464]. We should awaken from our intellectual benightedness into intellectual enlightenment—Daybreak is a text that belongs to the European Aufklärung. We should move from the dreamfulness of morality, religion, and metaphysics to the wakefulness, to the awakeness, of rationality.
The title, Daybreak, alludes to the dawning of a world in which humanity will be undarkened by morality, religion, and metaphysics. Nietzsche enjoins us to disencumber ourselves of all of these things, to pierce the encrustation of moral, religious, and metaphysical prejudices. It will be a world in which no one believes in any beyond, in any otherworldly transcendence. Human life will become at long last meaningful when our successors recognize that there is no reason for them to judge one another or themselves, that they are fundamentally innocent. (There is no reason to judge what is involuntary. The free spirit believes in the innocence of all opinions, as s/he believes in the innocence of all actions [M 56].) It will be a world in which polyamory will replace monogamy, a world in which suicide will not be criminalized or moralistically condemned, a world in which criminals will be permitted to choose their own forms of containment [M 187], a world in which the criminal-justice system will be founded on the idea of deterrence and rehabilitation, not punishment, a world in which no one will be considered guilty of anything, a world in which no one will be considered responsible for anything that one does, a world in which it will be generally recognized that all human thought and action is necessary and beyond one’s conscious control. It will also be a place of regular gymnastic exercise, if we believe the Nietzsche of Human, All-Too-Human. Much like the future that is evoked within the pages of the greatest of all Nietzschean novels, The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, the future in which all of this would take place is heralded yet never directly shown. Its promise is described purely negatively. What will this world look like? Nietzsche never tells us. Nietzsche (and Lawrence) criticizes the conditions of the modern world and opens the doors to an extra-moral, extra-religious, and extra-metaphysical future without ever being explicit in his vaticinations.
To return to the second paragraph of this commentary: Nietzsche does not advise us to be immoral; rather, he advises us to be moral out of different reasons than out of deference to a convention or belief in the supernatural. We should become the self-legislators of morality—and if this means endorsing polyamory, suicide, and revenge, so be it. Let us no longer be camels (moral agents), to forecast the language of Also Sprach Zarathustra. Let us become lions (critics of morality), and thereafter we shall transform into children (inventors of a morality of irresponsibility and a morality of innocence). It is time, and high time indeed, to rethink, to accept, to refuse to condemn impulses that are unavoidably human (envy, covetousness, disobedience). Then, perhaps we would do what comes naturally without a bad conscience, as Nietzsche writes: Wenn der Mensch hört auf, sich für böse zu halten, hört er auf, böse zu sein [M 148]. He exhorts us to praise egoic actions and to devalue the so-called “selfless actions” until things balance out.
Nietzsche replaces good and evil with gradations of power. All is power. (This is a flaw in Nietzschean thought: If everything is power, then nothing is power. Nietzsche’s power-absolutism leads him to tautologous formulations.) Everything can be understood in terms of relativities of power (this is a point that Nietzsche will enlarge upon in the Nachlass): Every human being has the desire for dominance over all other human beings. And what better way of dominating another human being than by flaunting one’s moral superiority? Every human being has the desire to become God.
“Love always occurs beyond good and evil,” Nietzsche will write in Beyond Good and Evil: He means self-love, which eradicates Christian guilt. Remember that pride is the deadliest sin. Self-love exists outside of the categories of sin and redemption. Another way of saying this: The one who loves himself or herself has no need of Christianity.
One of Nietzsche’s Mistakes
Nietzsche appears to believe that credo quia absurdum est (“I believe it because it is absurd”) is the motto of the Catholic Church. And yet this statement was never made by Tertullian or by any of the Church Fathers. Tertullian writes, rather, credibile est, quia ineptum est (“It is credible because it is inept”). As always, when Nietzsche makes an error, it is a productive error.
Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche’s Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile
Prospective suicides will not commit the act, if they think that no one will care.
Words are not solutions; they are problems.
If you want your rivalry with someone else to end, pity your rival.
There can be no rivalry where there is pity for the rival.
Steve Harvey and Dennis Prager believe in the existence of objective morality because they have the emotional need to believe this—as if their self-preservation were something essential.
Saving a drowning man presents one with an advantageable situation: It allows the rescuer to be worshipped as a hero.
by Joseph Suglia
“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters. It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency. It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him. It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015). It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007). Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities. All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living beings themselves. They are not human beings; they are human seemings.
Since the accession of Trump to the presidency, there have been multiple stagings, visualizations, stylings, dramatizations of the decapitation and even of the assassination of the forty-fifth President of the United States. Such simulated deaths must be understood not as calls to actually decapitate or to assassinate the living human leader–indeed, the leader of the world’s sole superpower–but rather as simulations of the death of a holographic projection, stylizations of the death of a clownish figure no more real than Donald Duck. Trump belongs to Nineteen Eighties trash culture alongside other two-dimensional caricatures of human beings such as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Joe Piscopo, and Morton Downey, Jr. If any of these characters had been assassinated, their deaths would seem as unreal as these figures themselves are. One thinks of Hegel’s meditation on the derealization of death in the time of the French Revolution and wonders if Hegel’s remarks aren’t still as fresh as the paint on our computer screens: Death in the time of the French Revolution, Hegel writes, was the “coldest, shallowest of deaths, with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head or swallowing a gulp of water.”
In J.G. Ballard’s great novel The Atrocity Exhibition, public figures such as Ronald Reagan and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy are subjected to the morbid and sordid fantasies of the main character. Since human beings are often dark creatures, their fantasies are often dark fantasies. Why should Trump be immune from the processes of dark-fantasization and fetishization? The imaginary assassinations of Donald Trump are simulated assassinations of a character who is already a simulation. The simulated deaths of Donald Trump are nothing more than the deaths of a simulation. Donald Trump does not exist. You cannot kill something that does not exist. Just as money is the abstract representation of desire, Donald Trump is the abstract representation of a gatherer of abstract representations. To become sentient of this simulation is to become something else: to become aware that what we are witnessing is a holographic image.
I will now turn to discuss the simulated assassinations of Donald Trump. I am excluding from this discussion the real attempt on Trump’s life on 18 June 2016 by a young Briton, as well as the subornation of Trump’s murder by celebrities such as Johnny Depp (a Kentucky-born actor with an affected European accent) and Madonna, who are themselves also unrealities.
In a 2016 promotional video for his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down (a much better title than Say10, the original name of the album), Marilyn Manson chimerized the decapitation of Donald Trump. This is the first and most artful chimerical execution of the president. The other representations of the assassination of Trump could safely be classified as agitprop or as artless publicity stunts.
In a video for the song “Lavender” by the Toronto-based electronic jazz band BadBadNotGood, Snoop Dogg (also known as “Snoop Lion” and “Snoopzilla”) can be seen mock-executing a clown who resembles Donald Trump. Incredibly, Snoop once had a congenial relationship with Trump, who sang dithyrambs in his honor: “You know Snoop Dogg? He’s the greatest. One of the nation’s best-selling hip-hop artists. And I’ll tell you what: He’s a great guy. And he’s a lot different than you think. You know, you think he’s a wild man? He’s a very, very smart, tough businessman, in addition to being a great musician.” The director of the video, professional YouTube videographer Jesse Wellens, was wise not to directly represent the execution of the president.
The most sanguinary simulation of the assassination of Donald Trump was performed by comedienne Kathy Griffin, who arranged a photograph of herself in which she raised a severed wax head that resembled the head of the Commander-in-Chief. Her hair the same shade of red as the hair on the blood-bespattered head she holds aloft, her facial expression joyless, and her skin alabaster, she seems like a French revolutionary a few moments after the guillotine chops off the head of the monarch. At the press conference which she must have anticipated, Griffin said tristfully, as if in explanation, “I’ve dealt with older white guys trying to keep me down my whole life, my whole career.” One cannot suppress the question: Was she thinking of her father when she said this? Did the disembodied wax head perhaps summon memories of her father? Does she have a conscious or unconscious hatred for her father? Her real father, John Patrick Griffin, died in 2007 of a heart failure at the age of ninety-one. In any event, the performance piece was condemned by almost everyone on the Right and on the Left. CNN announced that Griffin would not be invited back to host its annual New Year’s Eve program. She was unwise to do worse what Marilyn Manson and Snoop Dogg did better.
Right-wing activists pretended to be scandalized by the 2017 open-air dramatization of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by New York’s Public Theater. During the performances, which took place in Central Park, Julius Caesar is dressed up as Donald Trump. The fictionalized murder of this Caesar-Trump is nowhere near as bloody as it is alleged to have been by Plutarch in his Lives, where, it is written, the body of Caesar was mutilated, mangled, and hacked to pieces. Plutarch even records that Caesar’s genitalia were stabbed. On 17 June 2017, Laura Loomer—one of the video personalities of Rebel Media, the Canadian rightist video company—jumped on stage during a performance of the play while live-recording herself. She screeched: “Stop the normalization of political violence against the Right! This is unacceptable. You cannot promote this kind of violence against Donald Trump.” She was joined by Jack Posobiec, former Washington correspondent for Rebel Media, who bellowed: “You are all Goebbels! You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels! You are inciting terrorists!” Goebbels, then, is equated to each spectator in the audience, in the same way that Trump is equated to Caesar. One imagines a grid of 1,000 cultural references: An invisible line connects one point on the grid to another point on the grid. The historical context of each point of reference is ignored. History is neutralized, reduced to space.
By disturbing the performance of the play, both of these people resembled those whom the Right hates—those who commove performances and presentations. How are they any different? Even worse, they shattered the dramaturgical illusion that the architects and the performers of the play were struggling to create. Loomer twittered about the incident breathlessly: “The moment I rushed the stage of Julius Caesar. Listen to the violence and stabbing of ‘Trump’ that occurred right before. It is revolting.”
Before I consider the question as to whether Shakespeare’s Caesar has anything in common with Donald Trump, I will turn my attention to the text of the play itself.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) is Shakespeare’s attempt to explain the motives behind the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. and to show the baleful consequences that emerged from this assassination. (The Ides of March: the fifteenth of March on the Roman calendar, the day of settling debts. The day on which Caesar is forced to pay his debt to the conspirators.) The play also passes judgment, I believe, on the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman leader. In doing so, it passes judgment on all such plots to overthrow monarchies, dictatorships, and tyrannies. It is the antithesis of Measure for Measure (circa 1603), Shakespeare’s most politically liberal play, and one almost as politically conservative as The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1605-1608), one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite works of literature.
When we hear of him in the first scene of the play, Caesar is fresh from destroying the sons of the previous emperor, Pompey, in the Battle of Munda, the last battle against the optimates of the old Roman Republic. Caesar has been anointed the “perpetual dictator” of Rome, a dictator with no term limit. He is slated to become king. But there have been no kings in Rome, not since Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and that was in 495 B.C.E., over four centuries ago, and most of the Roman senators and tribunes worry that Caesar will become overweeningly arrogant and sodden with his own godlike authority. Above all, most of them envy Caesar.
The assassination of Caesar leads to self-assassinations, lynchings, pogroms, purges, and civil war. The play culminates in a Jonestown-like mass suicide. The same blade that Cassius stuck into the emperor is plunged into Cassius’s own torso. He does so on his birthday. The anniversary of the day of his nativity coincides with the day of his self-imposed death. I cannot think of a clearer example of cosmic irony in Western literature than that of Cassius’s suicide—the fact that Cassius murders himself with the same blade that he sunk into the body of the Dear Leader. Titinius follows him. Brutus expires while exhaling Caesar’s name: “Caesar, now be still” [V:v]. Portia “swallows fire” [IV:iii], literally—a ghastly death that mirrors her husband’s inward bursting, his imploding. She is burning up on the inside literally; her husband is disintegrating on the inside metaphorically.
The crowd turns mobbish, and mobbishness takes over Rome. The mob tears an innocent man to pieces in the street (the Poet Cinna). This scene (Act Three, Scene Three), which quickly moves from the comic to the hideous, recalls the opening moment of the play, in which a crowd of plebeians jeers at Flavius and Murellus, sneering tribunes of the people. The point seems to be that democracy, when it uses antimonarchical means, is indistinguishable from ochlocracy. The city descends into mob violence as the result of the antimonarchical violence of the conspirators.
Until tyranny takes hold once more. Octavius, the new tyrant, and Antony are motivated not so much by revanchism, by the desire for righteous vengeance and for the restoration of the ancient regime, as by political ambition, or, what amounts to the same thing, the hatred of subjection. Their “love of Caesar” is really a lust for power or is coterminous with the lust for power. The senators fail at establishing a constitutional monarchy (assuming that this is what they desired to begin with). Such the cosmic irony of the play: One tyrant replaces the other.
The reconstitution of tyranny is brought about by rhetoric—by swaying the crowd with words. Rhetoric is the art of persuading people to do what you want them to do—not to do what you would do yourself. Rhetoric is the art is the art of persuading people to believe what you want them to believe—not to believe what you believe yourself.
When Antony says that his heart is in the coffin with Caesar, this triggers an emotional response in the audience. Brutus’s introductory speech is weak (it is logocentric). Shakespeare intentionally writes it weakly. Antony’s speech soars on the wings of pathopoeia (it is pathocentric) and thus throws the crowd into a frenzy. A classic exercise in rhetoric, pathopoeia is an emotionally provocative speech or piece of writing, the content of which is insignificant. It is not a speech in which the speaker cries, but a speech that makes the audience cry. As such, it is pure manipulation: Notice that Brutus says things that he could not possibly know—for instance, where on the body each conspirator stabbed Julius.
The point seems to be that democracy fails. Human beings are political animals, and the lust for power supersedes the humanistic and demotic impulses. Only Brutus has a genuine love of humanity, and his role in the assassination of Caesar was motivated by a sincere desire to better the lives of the Roman people. But he is presented as politically naïve. The naïve, incautious idealist, he naïvely allows Mark Antony to speak to the crowd, which ends in Brutus, Cassius, and company being driven out of Rome. Cassius, who is much shrewder politically (he is a Realpolitiker) and politically more mature, cautions Brutus against doing so. Indeed, Cassius recommends that Antony be slaughtered along with Caesar, and Cassius knows well that slicing Antony’s throat open would have saved him and his brother-in-law from their fates. “This tongue had not offended so today,” Cassius says sneeringly to Antony, “[i]f Cassius might have ruled” [V:i]. And yet Cassius is willing to give Antony political power after the assassination is done: “Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s / In the disposing of new dignities” [III:i].
Misinterpretations surround the execution of Caesar: Not only does Brutus catastrophically underestimate Antony; Antony underestimates Cassius [I:ii]. Cassius, in turn, misapprehends Titinius, which leads to Cassius’s self-murder, and Caesar, of course, underestimates those he calls his friends. He ignores the warnings of Calphurnia, the Soothsayer, and Artemidorus.
This leads one to wonder if Brutus did not overestimate the tyrannical nature of Caesar. The entire argument for Caesar’s assassination is based on a surmise, a conjecture, a speculation: “So Caesar may. / Then lest he may, prevent” [II:i]. Epexegesis: In other words, Caesar might become an unbearable tyrant; therefore, he will become an unbearable tyrant. The justification after the deed: Caesar would have become an intolerable tyrant, if he were allowed to live. One is reminded of the question asked in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?” Many would answer, “Yes.” Yet the argument that Caesar would have become a brutal tyrant and the Romans would have become slaves is a specious one.
It is the Iago-like Cassius who seduces Brutus into murdering Caesar in a way that is similar to the way in which Iago inveigled Othello into committing uxoricide. Cassius presents himself as Brutus’s own “glass” [I:ii], as both the mirror and the image that appears within the mirror, as the speculum and his specular image, as his replica, as his double, as his simulation, as the reflective surface by which Brutus is able to see himself—as the only means by which Brutus is able to see himself—and as his own reflection. Cassius imposes upon Brutus’s mind the plan to commit tyrannicide. He insinuates his own thoughts into the mind of Brutus.
(Let me remark parenthetically that Cassius even sounds like Iago. His “If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius, / He should not humour me” [I:ii] proleptically anticipates Iago’s “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.” The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will be written five years later.)
Brutus has a divided self. A fractured self. On the one hand, he has genuine affection for Caesar; on the other, a ghostly, anonymous, impersonal voice has colonized his mind and is commanding him to kill a man toward whom he bears no ill will: “[F]or my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn at him / But for the general” [II:i]. From an external perspective, he is a freedom fighter who believes that a constitutional monarchy would be better for the Roman people than a tyranny—but this idea is not his own and does not correspond to his feelings. This self-division would explain why Brutus, with a guilty conscience, proposes to carve up Caesar’s body as if it were a feast for the gods rather than hew his body as if it were a meal for the hounds [II:i]. But what is the difference, ultimately? Killing is killing, knifing is knifing, hacking is hacking, shanking is shanking.
Shakespeare teaches us, around the same time that he begins work on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that there is no such thing as a unified personality—that every subjectivity is fractured and complexly self-contradictory and self-contradictorily complex. Indeed, Brutus’s soliloquy is the precursor to Hamlet’s more famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Whether or not to kill himself is not yet the question; the question is whether or not to kill Caesar. Rather than ask “To be or not to be,” Brutus asks, in effect, “Should Caesar be, or should Caesar no longer be?” Brutus’s “[T]here’s the question” [II:i] forecasts Hamlet’s “That is the question.” Brutus, as the proto-Hamlet, is speaker and listener at the same time. He affects himself.
No wonder that Portia, Brutus’s wife, gives herself a “voluntary wound” in the thigh [II:i]. She is mutilating herself literally, whereas Brutus is mutilating himself metaphorically. She is a cutter, but so is Brutus. Her self-cutting mirrors his self-cutting. It is disappointing that this scene was cut from the 1953 and 1970 film versions of the play.
No wonder that Brutus will suppress his feelings for his wife after she kills herself: “Speak no more of her” [IV:iii], he says with mock coldness to Cassius. He suppresses his feelings for the emperor, after all. But this does not mean that Brutus is cold-blooded; far from it. I believe Brutus when he says to Portia that she is as “dear to [him] as are the ruddy drops / [t]hat visit [his] sad heart” [II:i]. He is a Roman Stoic (with Platonist leanings), and Stoics do not betray their feelings—another sign that Brutus is divided against himself.
Not merely is Brutus divided into warring factions; Rome is divided into warring factions. When Brutus says in Act Two, Scene One that “the state of man” is suffering “the nature of an insurrection,” he is referring both to himself and to Rome. Two acts later: As the conspirators run for their lives and fight from the outside, Octavius, the adopted son of Caesar, comes to Rome, and Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus form an unholy triumvirate and will divide the spoils among them after the defeat of their enemies. “Happy day,” indeed [V:v]! It is clear that Antony is planning to kill Lepidus once Lepidus has stopped being useful to him. He expends more words on his horse and on asinine and equine similes than he does on the serviceable Lepidus himself:
Octavius, I have seen more days than you; / And though we lay these honours on this man / To ease ourselves of diverse slanderous loads, / He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold, / To groan and sweat under the business, / Either led or driven, as we point the way: / And having brought our treasure where we will, / Then take we down his load and turn him off, / Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears / And graze in commons… Do not talk of him / But as a property [IV:i].
Not only that: Antony threatens to curtail the benefits to the Roman people that were promised in Caesar’s will (a stimulus package for every Roman, access to Caesar’s once-private gardens and orchards)—the promise of these benefits ferments and foments the crowd, turning the crowd into a mob. (The word mob comes from the Latin mobilis, which means “movable,” and is etymologically connected to the words mobile and mobilize. A mob is a crowd in action.) Antony says to Octavius and Lepidus: “[W]e shall determine / How to cut off some charge in legacies” [IV:i]. In other words, we will reduce the number of drachmas that every Roman was promised and perhaps repossess the gardens and orchards that we promised them, as well.
Within the factions, there are factions: Cassius and Brutus squabble as if they were fractious luchadores in the third scene of the fourth act. Mark Antony and Octavius disagree on who should move to the left in the first scene of the fifth act:
ANTONY: Octavius, lead your battle softly on, / Upon the left hand of the even field.
OCTAVIUS: Upon the right hand I. Keep thou the left.
ANTONY: Why do you cross me in this exigent?
OCTAVIUS: I do not cross you: but I will do so.
Let us not forget the intrusions of the supernatural / the intimations of the supernatural: The lioness that whelps in the street [II:ii]. The graves that yawn and yield up their dead [II:ii]. The nightbird that hoots and shrieks at noon in the marketplace [I:iii]. (Why no filmmaker, as far as I know, has represented these oneiric images is a mystery to me.) The lightning storms that frame the conspiracy to dispatch Caesar—in the third scene of the first act and in the second scene of the second act. Calphurnia listens to the thunder and studies the lightning and interprets these as fatidic signs, as if she were a ceraunomancer (someone who divines supernatural or transcendent meaning from the heavens) [II:ii]. Cassius is a ceraunologist (someone who poetically or pseudoscientifically compares the movements of the heavens with worldly events): He sees the “dreadful night / [t]hat thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars” [I:iii] as the celestial complement to Caesar’s unnamed worldly violence. The ghosts, the supernaturalized beasts, the signs of the heavens that are interpreted as wonders or metaphors: The point of the supernatural is to call into question the tyrannicide.
The self-murder, the military violence, the mobbishness, the madness, the pandemonium, the infantile squabbling, the familial betrayals, the portents, the interference of the supernatural—all of this issues from the killing of Caesar or from the conspiracy to kill Caesar. All of these are symptoms of a disease brought on by the pathogenic act of violence against the emperor. Shakespeare would seem to agree with Goethe, who claimed that the murder of Caesar is “the most absurd act that ever was committed”; for Goethe, this act proved that even the best of the Romans did not understand what government is for (Nachgelassene Werke, xiii, p. 68). Seen from this perspective, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a politically reactionary play, one that justifies authoritarian dictatorship, if not outright tyranny. Again, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most politically conservative plays, second only to The Tragedy of Coriolanus, one of the most reactionary plays ever written.
If the play is politically ambiguous (neither endorsing statism nor rejecting it), then why do we see so little evidence of Caesar’s unbearable tyranny? The play shows us more instances of Caesar’s feebleness than of his tyrannousness (all in the second scene of the first act): Caesar’s epileptic fit in the marketplace, his poor hearing, his feverishness in Spain, his near-drowning in the Tiber. Save for the sole instance of the banishment of Publius Cimber, there is no evidence that Caesar is oppressive. There is much more evidence that the play condemns the assassination of Caesar than there is evidence that the play takes a neutral stance on the assassination. Indeed, one could write, without fear of repudiation, that the play takes a stand against the assassination of Julius Caesar—and thus, a stand against the overthrow of authoritarian dictatorships.
Despite its title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not the tragedy of Julius Caesar. (Nietzsche knew well that the play was given the wrong title. See The Gay Science, Paragraph 98.) Caesar only has 130 lines and, in spite of what Whoopi Goldberg claims, does not die at the end of the play, but in the middle. The execution of Caesar divides the text into two parts: the first deals with the motives behind the deed; the second deals with its consequences. It is the tragedy not of Caesar, but of Brutus, whose desires are not his own and who is not his own.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar anticipates its reception by future audiences. Like the atrociously underrated Troilus and Cressida (1602), characters are conscious that they are the unreal representations of real historical human beings. In Troilus and Cressida, Achilles spreads the fake news that “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain,” and the reader / the spectator gets the impression that Achilles is aware that the legend will be printed and become historical. In Julius Caesar, characters (Cassius and Brutus) are conscious that the play will be performed for centuries after the death of their author in countless different languages. Cassius: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?” [III:i]. And why else would Julius’s final words be retained, untranslated, in the original Latin? The characters look backward into the dizzying abyss of history.
Did Shakespeare ever anticipate that Caesar would be costumed as a buffoon?
To return to the Central Park staging of Julius Caesar: There are at least three reasons why Caesar has nothing in common with Trump.
Reason One: Trump panders, but does not debase himself
Caesar debases himself at Lupercalia, the Festival of the Wolf, by refusing a crown that is offered to him three times and—after swooning, foaming at the mouth, and falling in the public square—by begging “wenches” in the street for forgiveness [I:ii]. (Lupercalia took place on 15 February on the Roman calendar and celebrated Lupa, the lactating Wolf Goddess who suckled Romulus and Remus in the cave of Lupercal, and the Goat God Lupercus, the God of Shepherds.) But his self-debasement is staged. It is the staged inversion of relations between the powerful and the powerless. It is not genuine, sincere self-mortification. His repeated refusal of the crown, in particular, is what rhetoricians call accismus: the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.
Caesar is beloved of the people (we see this in the first scene of the play). There is no question that Caesar was friendlier to the people than his predecessor, Pompey. According to Suetonius, Caesar supported the plebeians and the tribunes, who represented the interests of the people. Caesar endorsed the redistribution of land and opposed the optimates, who wanted to limit the power of the plebeians. He was called a popularis for a reason. Pompey, on the other hand, favored a much stricter authoritarian rule.
Trump styled himself as a populist political candidate, and this no doubt contributed to his triumph over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment Democratic candidate, in November 2016. Is Trump, then, a man of the people in the way that Caesar was a man of the people?
Trump’s language is the language of the people—of inarticulate, slow-witted people. His grammatical skills are those of an unremarkable eleven-year-old boy, according to a 2016 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. He used a relatively sophisticated language in the 1980s and 1990s, however. Many of his sentences had an admirable rotundity—for instance, “It could have been a contentious route” and “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated” (qtd. in Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?” STAT, 23 May 2017). While campaigning for the presidency, his verbal skills appeared to decompose. On 30 December 2015, Trump peacocked to a South Carolinian crowd: “I’m very highly educated. I know words. I know the best words.” He might have dumbed down his language for purely political reasons, for purely demotic purposes. This has the effect of flattering those with low linguistic skills.
Dumbing down, however, is not self-abasement. Trump never speaks in a self-deprecating manner. He never displays the false humility of Caesar. Trump reflects the vulgarity, the vaingloriousness, the cupidity, and the rapacity of the crowd. He is endlessly trumpeting his own excellence. He does not debase himself. He represents himself as someone who demands that his glistening manliness be acknowledged and respected.
Reason Two: Trump is not constant
Caesar is nothing if not pertinacious. Trump is nothing if not inconstant.
Caesar holds on to his decision to banish Publius Cimber, despite the senators’ entreaties to rescind his banishment. He is as “constant as the northern star” [III:i]. Suetonius praised Caesar for his steadfastness.
Trump, on the other hand, is a syrupy waffle. He has waffled on the travel ban and on the unbuilt Mexico-American Wall. Incidentally, Trump loves waffles “when they’re done properly with butter and syrup.” He rhapsodized: “There’s nothing better than properly done waffles with butter and syrup all over them.”
Reason Three: Trump is the betrayer, not the betrayed
Julius Caesar was betrayed by his intimates, even by his favorite, Brutus. Though I cannot find the source of this citation, I remember reading a saying attributed to Caesar: “Against my enemies my guards can protect me; against my friends, they can do nothing.” This saying has been repeated, without acknowledgement, by Voltaire (“Let God defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies”) and Charlotte Brontë: “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”
Trump, on the other hand, has betrayed members of his inner circle—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, James Comey, Sally Yates, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon—in a series of Night of the Long Knives-style purges. One thinks of The Apprentice’s slogan and mantra: “You’re fired.” I am revising this essay on 12 May 2019. Who else in his administration will Trump have fired, what other faux-resignations will be announced, by the time you read my words?
Trump shares nothing with the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare. There is nothing wrong with contemporizing art—I myself have done this with Hedda Gabler—but there must be reasons for specific contemporizations. Those who believe that Julius Caesar can be reasonably dressed up as Donald Trump are the same people who think that a text-message Hamlet or a dubstep Macbeth is a good idea. I have descanted at length on the play’s political stance: If the staging equates Trump to Caesar, then Trump is exonerated by the production. The Central Park performance of the play unintentionally defends Trump.
Consumer culture idolizes the ordinary. To use Adorno and Horkheimer’s language in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the trumpery of the culture industry “heroizes the average.” In this culture, which is gradually becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth, untalented filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino are hailed as geniuses, whereas visionaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni are written off as boring. Incompetent writers such as David Foster Wallace are lionized, while truly great writers such as D.H. Lawrence are blithely dismissed as “pretentious.” Along the same lines: Trump is screened through Shakespeare not because Trump, who represents the lowest values, is elevated to the heights of Shakespeare, who represents the highest values, but because the lowest values trump those that are the highest. In the Central Park staging of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Trump is not vaunted to the heights of Shakespeare; Shakespeare is dumbed down to the status of Trump. Why is this? Consumer culture debases the high, the lofty, the elegant, the dignified, the noble. American mainstream culture vulgarizes everything, it is true, but so is the opposite. In consumer culture, what is low is elevated and what is high is degraded.
Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One
An analysis of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Dedicated to C.S.
Composed on April 21, 1819, in a single afternoon or early evening, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” has haunted the minds of readers for almost two centuries now. In twelve stanzas, Keats says more than whole worships of writers say in their entire existence. The poem is so sleekly, treacily, and elegantly composed, without a single false word, that it is imperishable. Indeed, it is one of the few perfect English poems.
I will analyze the ballad stanza by stanza.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The question is the narrator’s—whoever the narrator might be—to the honey-starved zombie knight. For the published edition, Keats foolishly substituted the words “wretched wight” for “knight-at-arms.” “Wight” recalls the Isle of Wight, where Keats would indite lust letters to Fanny Brawne, the lust of his brief consumptive life, which makes the published text of the poem faintly ludicrous. “Knight-at-arms” is a much better choice of words, since it invokes strength, which contrasts nicely with the knight’s ailment, which is clearly love-psychosis. It also sounds and reads better, infinitely better, than “wretched wight.”
The narrator is asking an epidemiological question (when one compares the first stanza with the twelfth): What is the source of your illness? Even though the autumnal landscape is withered and songless, the knight is loitering around as if he were a beggar. The flora are desiccated, much like the knight; there are no fauna, it seems, in the loveless expanse. Nature has dried and shriveled up. The birds that are not there are perhaps nightingales. Readers of Keats will know that the nightingale is emblematic of the supernatural. If this is the case, then the supernatural has withdrawn from the deathscape.
A nice instance of parechesis appears in the first stanza—a repetition of the grapheme LON in the words “alone” and “loitering.”
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
The granaries and the harvest have yielded a superabundance of food–food that is suitable for human consumption–but our love-zombie will never eat it. He will never eat the food because he cannot eat the food. The knight is famished, starving for food that no human mouth can eat: It is the food that only his beloved faery princess can feed him.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
The syntax here is confusing: The lily that is embroidered on the knight’s brow is moist with anguish and moist with fever-dew. The anguish-moist lily and the fading rose embroidered on the knight’s face-flesh: These are symptoms of his love-starvation.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
This is where the knight’s answer begins—an answer to the question, “What ails thee?” Already, the reader is getting subliminal cues from the poem that the knight should run like hell away from the faery princess. For one, she is the daughter of a faery and therefore any romance between the knight and the princess would be an interspecies romance. Secondly, the wildness of her eyes might very well be the wildness of craziness.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
The number three is important in the poem: The faery princess’s physical attributes come in threes (her long hair, her light foot, her wild eyes), the food that she feeds to the knight comes in threes (relish root, wild honey, manna-dew), and here we have a triumvirate of decorations for the Beautiful Lady to wear (garland, bracelets, perfumed belt). We might know three of her physical attributes and three things that she is wearing, but who is she, really, on the inside?
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
What kind of a knight is he, to let a woman he does not know ride his pacing steed? And how can someone set someone else on a steed that is pacing? Her sidelong look–her askance glance–lets us know that she is unconcerned with him and that his love will be unreturned; sharp readers should question the integrity of her intentions. That he can see nothing else besides her radiance suggests that the knight has already plunged into total lunacy.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
How, precisely, does the knight know that the faery princess has declared her love for him? The answer is: He does not. Her words are inaudible to him. She speaks in a language that he cannot understand, and the suggestion is that the knight has projected his desire-to-be-loved upon her incomprehensible dark words.
The fact that communication between the knight and the faery princess is impossible intimates that contact between the knight and the faery princess is impossible.
“Honey” is sensuous, but the manna-dew is ethereal, heavenly: bread that rains from heaven. “Manna” is customarily a noun, but here, it is used as an adjective and evokes, of course, The Book of Exodus.
“Manna-dew” was not in Keats’ original draft. The lines read, in the original version: “She found me roots of relish sweet / And honey wild and honey dew.” Keats was very wise to modify the wording. The manna-dew that she feeds the knight reminds us that the faery princess is not a child of nature, but rather an otherworldly entity, one who comes from a transcendental province, much like the Grecian urn and the nightingale. She exists outside of time and is not bound by the laws of nature.
The food that she feeds the knight is supernatural nutriment, and he will never be able to eat anything else. All other food has become inesculent to him, even though the granaries are full and the harvest is done.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
She dwells in an elfin grotto, then. If there is still any question on the subject, at this point, the argument over whether she is human has been settled: She is a chthonic being. The fact that she dwells in an elfin grotto might imply that she is the Queen of Elphame, the elf queen who transported Thomas the Rhymer into the otherworld.
Why is the elf-girl weeping and sighing? Is it because she knows that contact between her and her human lover is impossible? If she is weeping and sighing over the impossibility of interspecies romance, does this not militate against the interpretation that she is wicked?
“Wild wild”: the use of anaphora (repetition) underlines her chaos, her untrammeled nature. In Stanza Four, her eyes were described as “wild.” Her eyes appear even wilder now.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
The faery princess anaesthetizes the knight, drugging him with Ketamine. “The latest dream I ever dreamt”: The knight will never dream again. Will he ever sleep again?
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’
Listen to the chorus of love-hungry kings, love-hospitalized princes, and love-hurt warriors. They tell you who they think the girl really is: The Beautiful Lady without Pity! They are the ones who call her “The Beautiful Lady without Pity.” She never identifies herself, nor does the narrator, nor does the love-slaughtered knight at arms. We don’t know her perspective at all. Why should you believe the chorus of pallid loverboys?
The word “thrall” connotes enslavement. To be in thralldom is to be in bondage to a master or a mistress. In this case, the chorus of once-powerful men, of which the knight is now a member, is enslaved, enthralled, to the Beautiful Lady without Pity.
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
After the love-drug wears off, the knight awakens and finds himself in desolation and a place of natural destitution. The only things in the dream-men’s mouths are warnings. Much like the knight, only the food of the faery girl can nourish them; no other food can sate them.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The faery-intoxicated knight is doomed to walk along the withered shore of the lake in a perpetual autumn, sapped of his vitality and potency. He has been enervated by the psychosis-inflicting Beautiful Lady without Pity. The poem suggests that she is a witch, but she might as well be a lamia or a succubus. The women in the Keatsean poetic universe are all Belles Dames sans Merci. “Misogyny” is a label too easily applied these days, but how can we avoid calling this a misogynistic poem?
Dr. Joseph Suglia
There is an alternative interpretation that is possible: The figure of the woman would be the vessel into which the misogynistic delusions of the knight are projected, into the vacuum which stands for that which cannot be symbolized. This evacuates the pallid, forlorn night. The figure of the female has now become an agglomeration of split-off parts that represents him. The figure is then a void to which the knight is inexorably drawn and from which he is driven in horror. Keats’s pallid, forlorn knight has an experience of horror vacui.
The knight-at-arms would then have projected all of his disjecta membra into the figure of the female, thus rendering himself as servile and exhausted.
In other words, the Beautiful Lady without Pity is a construction. What we are left with is only the imaginary. This is, sadly, psychosis. It is all too common. The poem might then be a descriptive instantiation of delusional misogyny.
My only reservation with this alternative interpretation is that it is ahistorical.
I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
One of the most common misinterpretations of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is that it is a story about writing. (See Leo Marx’s unjustly influential 1953 essay “Melville’s Parable of the Walls.”) Bartleby, according to this falsification, is a figure for the Writer. Whatever Bartleby experiences, then, would be whatever the Writer experiences.
Those who set forth this erroneous interpretation must answer the following: If Bartleby is a figure for the Writer, why does he never actually write? Only a watery understanding of the word writing would encompass what Bartleby does. He copies; he does not write. He does not produce anything original; he is a replicator. He is no more a genuine writer than a Subway sandwich artist is a genuine artist.
Not only does Bartleby never write. He does not even seem to read. The lawyer says of Bartleby: “I had never seen him read—no, not even a newspaper.”
And why would Bartleby be a figure for the Writer and not the other copyists in the office? Why would Turkey not be the symbolic expression of the Writer in the story? Why not Nippers? Turkey and Nippers do the same thing that Bartleby does: They copy contracts and deeds for pay.
One might rejoin that Bartleby represents all poetic writers. There are indeed references to poeticism in the text. John Jacob Astor, the lawyer’s symbolic father, is said to be “a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm”; Byron is called “mettlesome” by the anti-poetic lawyer; the view from within the artless lawyer’s office is described as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life,'” and so forth. To say that Bartleby represents all poetic writers—and not every writer in the world—would be to engage in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but we can put that aside for the moment.
There is a more urgent problem with this argument: If Bartleby represents all poetic writers and the ostracism and martyrdom of all poetic writers, why does he stop copying in the third act of the story? Surely, a poetic writer is someone who never ceases to write poetically, someone who turns every experience into a writable experience.
“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” then, is not a parable about the Writer or about Writing. What is the story about?
“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in the first place, is the story of a copyist at a lawyer’s office who reproduces documents, but resists, with gentle dignity, doing anything other than reproducing documents.
Too many readers have overlooked the fact that Bartleby is the ideal employee. He does exactly what he is paid to do. Indeed, he does his work with excessive dedication and never seems to step outside of the office (before his forcible eviction): “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere… he was always there.” He works to the limit: “He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.” He does not do anything, however, that he is not paid to do. This is why Bartleby is disinclined–prefers not–to examine his own copies, why he is disinclined to bring letters to the post office, why he is disinclined to fetch Nippers, etc. Whenever the lawyer asks him to do anything other than copy contracts and deeds, the response is always the same: “I prefer not to” or “I would prefer not to.” Whenever impressed upon to perform even the simplest of errands, Bartleby states his non-preference—passively, reactively—from a place of hidden privilege and gentle condescension. The literalization of his job description, Bartleby resists performing duties outside of his job description with a painful politeness.
One must be careful not to read the slogan “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to” as a refusal or declination. Bartleby’s slogan is not a “No”-saying. It is a form of “passive resistance.” It is a slippery slogan. It is a way of hovering over the categories of “Yes” and “No”–a linguistic trapeze act.
The “Sunday episode” is the crux of the story. One Sunday morning, the lawyer goes to Trinity Church to hear a “celebrated preacher.” Arriving rather early, he decides to kill time before the sermon starts by walking to his office. Unable to open the door, he struggles with the lock. The door opens, and Bartleby appears, his lean visage thrusting at the lawyer. The lawyer slinks away, servilely accepting the apparition of Bartleby (the term “apparition” is used, evoking the spectral character of Bartleby). One of the effects of this episode is evidence that there is absolutely no division between the private and the professional for Bartleby. This point—the erasure of the distinction between the private and the professional—is reinforced later in the text, when the lawyer invites Bartleby to stay with him at the former’s home.
Bartleby destabilizes the office by being the perfect employee. He super-agrees with the terms of the office. He over-adheres to the policies of the office. Soon, his keyword prefer spreads throughout the office as if it were a vicious linguistic virus. Every adult in the office—the lawyer, Nippers, Turkey—soon finds himself using the word prefer.
Bartleby is the perfect copyist—and this is what unsettles the lawyer’s once-imperturbable placidity and is what robs the lawyer of his virility (the lawyer is “unmanned” by Bartleby, de-manified by Bartleby). Bartleby perfectly identifies with his professional role as a duplicator—and thus subverts the profession with which he perfectly identifies. He copies the office and thus undermines the office.
The point to be made is that Bartleby over-agrees with his job description. He exaggerates and affirms his position to the point of absurdity, throwing the office into chaos and driving his employer to madness. The logic of super-agreement is why Kierkegaard is an enemy of Christianity. Kierkegaard was such a super-Christian, endorsing Christianity with such fervidness, that he made being a Christian a nearly impossible state of being. Kierkegaard’s super-agreement with Christianity, his fervid endorsement of Christianity, means the undoing of Christianity for many readers. Nietzsche, on the other hand, who ferociously hammered Christianity, is, paradoxically, Christianity’s friend.
This is not to say that Bartleby endorses the ideology of the office. Bartleby is a rebel, to be sure, but he is a quiet rebel. If he were a raging lunatic (think of “The Lightning-Rod Man”), Bartleby would be dismissible. His commanding calmness is the reason that the lawyer is overthrown by his employee: “Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me as it were.” Bartleby is a quiet rebel whose quiet rebellion takes the form of relentless passivity. At the core of his passivity is an active dimension. He is actively passive, pushing the terms active and passive beyond their usual significations. His weakness is an unconquerable strength, to channel Duras. He is emblematic of “passive resistance”–and in these words, one should hear resonating the words of that other great American, Henry David Thoreau: “civil disobedience.”
What, then, is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” actually about?
The work is a critique of Evil America in the nineteenth century–an America in which too much of everything is dehumanizing Business. Bartleby is a Christ within the world of nineteenth-century American capitalism, but he is not a self-negating Christ. [Note: Much in the way that Peter denies Jesus, the lawyer denies Bartleby.] The “I” is the most important word in the slogan, “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to.” (Deleuze’s word is “formula.”) “I prefer not to” is the assertion of subjectivity against the impersonal and anonymous space of the office, the imposition of subjectivity on the desubjectified world of exchange.
Reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in twenty-first-century America is a defamiliarizing experience. These days, any employee who asserted, “I prefer not to” would be sent to Human Resources for immediate termination. We live in a culture of compliance and submission, of obeisance to managerial authority (compliance is a word that is used in the text: “natural expectancy of immediate compliance”). Now, Bartleby does, in fact, participate in the capitalist world of nineteenth-century America, yet his compliance is a kind of conditional compliance, his submission to authority is submission on his own terms, his acceptance of the world of exchange is a conditional acceptance. His patrician passive-aggressive preferences-not-to are ways of saying, “I will do whatever I please, but nothing other than what I please.” This is Americanism, to be sure, but the Americanism of Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers, not the Americanism of the bureaucrats.
Bartleby exists on the boundary of capitalism. A Christ in Evil America, he is deathly, from the other side of life, former and current employee of the Dead Letter Office in Washington. This is why Bartleby is iteratively described as “cadaverous” in this text (three times), an “apparition” (twice), and a “ghost” (twice). He is dead and yet present; he is in the capitalist world and yet not of the capitalist world.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An analysis of AS YOU LIKE IT (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“Aimer grandement quelqu’un c’est le render inépuisable.”
—Paul Valéry, Cahiers (1944. Sans titre, XXVIII, 524)
In the wrestling match between Nature and Fortune, it is Fortune that chokeholds her opponent and flattens her on the mat. “Nature” refers to the qualities with which one is born; “Fortune” signifies all that comes post-natal. “Nature” is another word for “necessity”; Fortune is accident, preference, education, style. In Elizabethan England: That which God makes is Nature; that which you like belongs to Fortune. What you are born with is overthrown by what you like in Shakespeare’s most audience-accommodating comedy, As You Like It (circa 1599).
We see the clash between Nature and Fortune in the very first scene, one in which Orlando grieves that he, a natural gentleman, is reduced by Fortune to the status of a stalled ox. This, the work of his brother Oliver, who mars what God made. Orlando moans: “My father charged you [Oliver] in his will to give me good education. You have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities” [I:i]. Fortune will ever have her revenge.
Orlando is pursued by his fratricide-minded brother and banished by the skinless Duke Frederick. After the first act, we are no longer in the duchy of Frederick, with the exception of the space-flash of Act Three: Scene One. We are fleeting time with the exiled Duke Ferdinand and his fellows in the Forest of Arden.
The Forest of Arden is described as a “desert,” as a deserted, unpopulated place. The Duke Senior calls the forest “this desert city” [II:i]. Rosalind calls the forest “this desert place” [II:iv]. Orlando says to Adam: “[T]hou shalt not die for lack of a dinner, if there live anything in this desert” [II:vi]. Later, Orlando: “this desert inaccessible” [II:vii].
Here we discover the first of the many paradoxes that will come to meet us in the Forest of Arden. How could the forest be a “desert” if it is populated by more people than there were in the duchy of Frederick?
Disguise abounds in the Forest of Arden, as well. Duke Ferdinand expresses the desire to hunt “venison” [II:i]. Who hunts venison? Instead of using the words “deer flesh,” which would be Anglo-Saxon German, the Duke uses the French-Latin term (“venison”). Nothing is more common than the use of linguistic camouflage to disguise the reality of the animals that we ingurgitate. Instead of saying, “swine flesh” (Anglo-Saxon German), we say, “pork” (French Latin). Instead of saying, “cow flesh” (Anglo-Saxon German), we say “beef” (French Latin). And yet people seem to have no problem saying that they want to eat chicken, doubtless because they can imagine, without disgust, swallowing our squawking and bawking relatives. Chickens (and fish) are seen as being remoter from human beings than deer, pigs, and cows. Many would be afraid of nominating a Pulled Pork Sandwich a “Pulled Swine-Flesh Sandwich” for the visceral reason that pigs are perceived as being genetically close to human beings (which they certainly are). Food-applied French Latin is the articulation of anthrophagophobia, which is a word that I have invented that means “the fear of cannibalism.”
Another paradox emerges when Duke Ferdinand praises the forest as a place where everyone is oneself. Extolling the virtues of sylvatic life (as opposed to courtly life), Duke Ferdinand claims that the feeling of seasonal difference feelingly persuades him of what he is:
“The seasons’ difference—as the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind, / Which even when it bites and blows upon my body / Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say: ‘This is no flattery. These are counsellors / That feelingly persuade me what I am’” [II:i].
Far from being unlike “the envious court” [Ibid.], the Forest of Arden is the Forest of Envy. How can everyone be himself or herself in the Forest of Envy? Rosalind is herself AND himself. She envies, and identifies with, the male figure of Ganymede. The Forest of Envy is a forest in which Jacques the Melancholy envies Touchstone the clown: “O that I were a fool. / I am ambitious for a motley coat” [II:vii]. It is a forest in which one is one-who-is-other-than-what-one-is. Oliver transforms into a New Self. Celia alienates herself from herself when she becomes Aliena; she is other-than-what-she-appears-to-be (“Aliena” means “stranger”). Everyone is a stranger to oneself in the Forest of Envy.
Much like the internet, the Forest of Arden is a transformative, metamorphic space in which anyone can become anything that one wishes to become. It is an indifferent space that comes before masculinity and femininity. It is an indifferent space that comes before gender. In the forest, men behave in the way that women are expected to behave and women behave in the way that men are expected to behave. Jacques the Melancholy weeps when he considers a fallen deer–surely, this is an instance of a man acting in a way that would be considered feminine. When the lioness tore flesh away from his body, Oliver reports to Rosalind-as-Ganymede and Celia-as-Aliena, Orlando fainted: “The lioness had torn some flesh away, / Which all this while had bled; and now he fainted / And cried, in fainting, upon Rosalind” [III:iv]. Surely, fainting is generally, and falsely, regarded as a symptom of female psychology. And yet in the very same scene, exactly fifteen lines later, Oliver taxes Rosalind-as-Ganymede for swooning: “Be of good cheer, youth; you a man! you lack a man’s heart.”
At another moment, Rosalind does indeed act in the way that a man is expected to act. The unwept tears of Rosalind tell us everything that we need to know about Rosalind’s “performance” as a man. It is a performance that ceases to be a performance, that erases itself as a performance, and becomes the reality of what is being performed. Rosalind:
“I could find in my heart to disgrace any man’s apparel and to cry like a woman, but I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat. Therefore courage, good Aliena” [II:iv].
Let us remember that these words are spoken to an audience that is conscious of the comedic irony that is being enacted: Touchstone, Celia, and everyone in the Globe Theatre. We are not unaware of Rosalind’s biological sex.
Other Shakespearean comedies contain female characters who dress as men (cf. The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice, the latter which contains no fewer than two female characters who dissimulate themselves as men). Not to psychologize matters, this transformation of women into men almost certainly says something about Shakespeare’s paraphilia.
Note the attraction that Orlando has for Rosalind-as-Ganymede. It might not be invidious to suggest that Orlando finds Rosalind more attractive as Ganymede than he finds Rosalind attractive as Rosalind. David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly (1993), anyone? If I am incorrect about this (and I am not), why would Orlando agree to court Ganymede in his hovel? And why would he agree to marry Ganymede—even if we allow that the marriage is presented as fictitious? Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, which means, as I have written elsewhere, that all of the principals marry in the fifth act, whether they want to or not. A comedy in the Shakespearean sense is one that ends in forced marriage, forced dancing, and forced mirth-making. Jacques the Melancholy is among the few who escape the coerced marriage, the coerced dancing, and the coerced merriment: “I am for other than for dancing measures” [V:iv], he wisely intones as he wisely steals from the stage.
The resonances produced by the name “Ganymede” would not have escaped Shakespeare’s audience. “Ganymede” connoted homoeroticism in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, as Ganymede, famously, is the young boy who was given a first-class flight to the Olympian Lounge, where he worked part-time as a bartender to the gods and where he was romanced by Jove. It is probable that the attraction that Orlando has for Ganymede is not homoerotic in the usual sense, but an instance of andromimetophilia. The late Dr. John Money and Dr. Malgorzata Lamacz coined the term “andromimetophilia” to denote the sexual attraction to women who dress as men.
Each line in Shakespeare has become a cliché, which means, as Harold Bloom suggests, that everyone has read Shakespeare even without having read Shakespeare. Who has not heard the verbal fossil that crawls from the downturned mouth of Jacques the Melancholy?: “All the world’s a stage.” And yet most people stop quoting there. The soliloquy continues: “And all the men and women merely players. / They have their exits and their entrances” [II:vii]. If nothing else, these lines mean that life is itself performance, that the dramatizations of Fortune supersede the nature of Nature. This is surely why Shakespeare reminds his spectatorship that the play that he is writing is nothing more than a play, both in the Epilogue in which Rosalind expresses the desire to kiss every man in the audience, and in the words of Jacques the Melancholy, who calls attention to text’s shift from lyricism to blank verse: “Nay, then, God be wi’ you, an you talk in blank verse” [IV:i]. The reference to blank verse reminds us that the play that we are reading / watching is nothing more than a play in the literal sense. Life is a play in the metaphorical sense.
All of the players in the Globe Theatre were male, which means the following: On the stage, there is a man (the male actor) who dramatizes a woman (Rosalind) who dramatizes a man (Ganymede) who dramatizes a woman (Rosalind again, the Second Rosalind). The gender metamorphoses in Shakespearean comedy suggest that gender is not a natural category. Calling it a “choice” might imply that gender is a matter of free will, for Shakespeare, and this concept is something that might be disputed. Nonetheless, if you follow the metaphors of the play, the theorems are implied: If you decide to become more feminine, you might become more feminine. If you decide to become more masculine, you might become more masculine. But this has absolutely nothing to do with maleness or femaleness. Gender does not exist below or beyond the expressions of gender. Sex is Nature. Gender is Fortune. “Sex” signifies the secondary physiological characteristics with which one is born. Gender is as you like it.
An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
I normally avoid discussing the plots of works of literature. I prefer to dwell upon the words as they are written on the page, to interrogate and interpret the language of the text. If I have hesitated to talk and write about plot, it is because conversations about plot generally ignore the language in which the text is written. The plot seems to exist somewhere outside of the language of the text. After all, a plot could have been invented before the actual text was composed, and when literary critics discuss plot, they must be abstract. It is rare to cite the text when describing a plot, for the obvious reason that plot is structure, not literary language.
Since the world is essentially plotless, why should a literary work have a plot at all? From the late nineteenth century onward, much of Western literature has discarded the mandate of the plot (Lautreamont, Flaubert, Nerval, and Proust were vanguards in this respect). Even earlier, to refer to a single example: Shakespeare’s The Tempest does not have much of a plot. This is not to suggest that plots vanished since the late nineteenth century; millions of books have been written and published since that time that do, in fact, have plots. They are summoned into existence by writers and readers who come to books to experience the imposition of order upon a world that is bewilderingly and overwhelmingly chaotic. There is nothing wrong with the desire to experience a closed, self-contained representation. But closed, self-contained representations belong to the province of art before the late nineteenth century and to the province of entertainment. Modern art poses questions that it does not itself answer (this is the job of the interpreter); works of modern art have open-ended structures.
Despite my reservations about plot, I would like to adumbrate the design of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the first edition of which was published in 1600). By doing so, I think that we can learn something about the configuration of this massively complex play and, perhaps, about how plot in general works and perhaps even why so many people have the desire for a plot. I will fix my gaze upon the structure of the play. Again, this will have the necessary but unfortunate consequence that I will have to disregard much of the play’s filigreed, aureate verse.
The initiating conflict takes place in the first scene of the play: Egeus sentences his daughter to death or a loveless marriage. He forbids his daughter Hermia from marrying Lysander, the man she loves. She must choose between death and marriage to Demetrius, a man whom she definitely does not love. The Athenian duke Theseus alleviates Hermia’s dilemma somewhat by allowing her to choose between a marriage to Demetrius and a life of celibacy, but still reinforces the father’s judgment with all the power of Athenian law. It is the sentencing of the father, and the legitimation of the sentence by the law, that drives both lovers, Hermia and Lysander, into the moon-bathed forest. The law impels the lovers into the forest, and the law will bring them out of the forest. Theseus revokes his judgment when Demetrius has a change of heart, but let us not ignore the fact that the play begins with the law and ends with the law. The man who sets into motion the inaugural conflict of the play, Theseus, will also resolve all the conflicts at the close of the play. He promulgates that Hermia must make her decision by the day of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, and, indeed, all the conflicts will be reconciled in a triple marriage: the marriage of Lysander and Hermia, the marriage of Demetrius and Helena, and the hierogamy of Theseus and Hippolyta. (A hierogamy is the sacred marriage between a god and a goddess.)
The conflict between Father and Daughter will be enlarged and mapped onto a second conflict between Oberon and Titiana, the Fairy King and the Fairy Queen. Just as Theseus represents the Law of Athens, Oberon will represent the Law of the Fairy World. Oberon’s most serious task is to suppress the insurrection of his fairy queen.
There is a further conflict between the world of the fairies and the world of the human beings. Puck (also known as “Robin Goodfellow”) is the Interferer. He is the agent of the supernatural that will intervene in the affairs of the morals (as will his lord Oberon). The intrusion of the supernatural into human affairs will be one of the motors that pushes the plot forward; this conflict, in turn, will be applied to conflicts between Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena, which tangle the plot further. The eavesdropping Oberon intervenes in the relationship between Helena and Demetrius. Oberon delegates to his jester the responsibility of intoxicating a man wearing Athenian garb with an aphrodisiac in the shape of a purple flower. The romance between Lysander and Hermia is interrupted and complicated by a mistake: Puck drugs Lysander instead of Demetrius with the juice of the purple love-narcotic.
We, then, have three pairs of lovers who are in conflictual relations with one another: Oberon and Titiana, Helena and Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia. Theseus and Hippolyta are now in a harmonious relationship, but were once at variance with each other.
As I wrote above, the judgment of the father leads to the elopement of Hermia and Lysander. When both lovers rush into the moon-bathed forest, they turn their backs on the Law of the Father; they enter a metamorphic, transformational space (compare with the Forest of Arden in As You Like It): Within the wood, the craftsman Bottom will be translated into an assheaded man. Within the wood, Lysander will cease to love Hermia.
The forest is also a place of erogenous desire; the erotomania with which the characters are seized is mostly synthetic. Only Hermia’s desire for Lysander and Helena’s desire for Demetrius are natural, but, it should be remembered, their desire predates the exodus from the Father and entry into the forest. While in the forest, almost everyone else’s desire is artificially induced: Demetrius and Lysander only fall in lust with Helena because their eyes have been infected with flower juice. Titiana lusts after Ass Head because she has likewise been intoxicated. Under the influence of the flower, Helena and Ass Head become objects of lust.
The perversity does not end there: First, Titiana is obsessed with a child and then, she is obsessed with Ass Head. After having her eyelids squirted with flower juice, Titiana’s unholy obsession with Ass Head replaces her obsession with the stolen Indian boy. Both of these obsessions are perverse: Titiana’s strange, quasi-maternal obsession with the stolen Indian child causes a scission between her and Oberon and his bride, and Titiana’s obsession with Ass Head is both drug-induced and interspecies.
Titiana’s obsession with the stolen Indian boy parallels Helena’s obsession with Demetrius. Shakespeare’s play suggests that all the love in the forest is unnatural love (with the exception of Hermia’s constant love for Lysander). Again, Lysander’s obsession with Helena, as well as Demetrius’s obsession with Helena, are both brought on by the Ketamine-like purple flower love-toxin.
The forest is a place of disunification. Within the wood, the human characters are separated from the agents of the supernatural: While in the forest, the fairies are hidden from the craftsmen and from the lovers. The fairies are concealed from the lovers, but the lovers are not concealed from the fairies. Furthermore, the craftsmen are not aware of the existence of the fairies or the existence of the lovers in the forest. This concealment allows the fairies–in particular, Puck–to complicate the plot further by drugging Lysander and, later, Demetrius. (Again, Puck confuses Lysander for Demetrius, and this mistake creates pandemonium in the forest: Hermia is abandoned, and now Helena becomes the object of lust of the two male lovers.) And yet the audience will find this amusing, since we know that their lust is not genuine. This is what I would call “comedic irony”–the counterpart of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony surfaces when the audience knows an uncomfortable truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: Romeo thinks that Julia is dead, but the spectators know better. Comedic irony is when the audience does know an amusing truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: that Lysander and Demetrius only “love” Helena because they have been infected by the juice of the purple flower, Love-in-idleness. Laughter comes about through the contradiction with human reason, as Kant wrote in the Third Critique: “Es muss in allem, was ein lebhaftes, erschütterndes Lachen erregen soll, etwas Widersinniges sein (woran also der Verstand an sich kein Wohlgefallen finden kann).”
The characters, then, are balkanized into three mutually exclusive communities: the lovers, the fairies, and the craftsmen. The exception to this is Bottom, who, when transformed into Ass Head, belongs both to the human and the fairy communities.
The forest is also the place of another form of sexuality that would have been considered perverse in the Age of Elizabeth. The play is adorned with two female characters–one earthly, one ethereal–who are enormously aggressive: Titiana and Helena.
Both Helena and Titiana hunt the men they desire. Much like her namesake in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena is a woman who has unreciprocated love for a man and who refuses to take “Yes” or “No” for an answer. Helena herself acknowledges that this is an inversion in gender roles. Helena to Demetrius:
“Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex. / We cannot fight for love, as men may do; / We should be woo’d, and were not made to woo” [II:ii].
Titiana is even more sexually aggressive than Helena. She imprisons Ass Head in the forest:
“Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” [III:i].
I would like to emphasize how remarkable this is: A female character is restraining a male character against his consent. This doubtless would have provoked laughter in the Elizabethan audiences for which it was performed because it would have been considered absurd, uncanny, and unnatural. Consider, further, that the entire plot is set in motion by Helena’s furious jealousy and talionic rage. I don’t think that this is a matter of comedy, however. Without Helena being thrown into a rage, Demetrius would never have pursued Hermia into the forest, nor would Helena’s father and the Duke of Athens and his minions chased them. Were Helena not in the forest, she would not have been eavesdropped upon by Oberon, and Oberon would not have delegated Puck to drug the killjoy Demetrius with the flower-shaped aphrodisiac. When Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, this creates chaos in the forest.
All of this, the totality of the plot, was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder. Am I the first literary critic to notice that Helena is a borderliner? Those with Borderline Personality Disorder shift from absolute love to absolute hatred with the velocity of a single beat of a hummingbird’s wing. They angelize the object of their desires prematurely and rapidly and then diabolize the object of their desires with equal prematurity and with equal rapidity. A borderliner dismisses all flaws in the beloved in the ‘love’ phase and dismisses all positive traits in the beloved in the ‘hatred’ phrase. This movement from absolute love to absolute hatred is often typed “splitting,” which is an unfortunate term. It is more of a switching than it is a splitting. Though we do not witness her diabolization of Demetrius, Helena pursues Demetrius with such voracity that she does resemble a borderline-disordered person.
The play’s raison d’etre is to amuse the spectatorship with a spectacle of deformations and denaturations and then reassure that same spectatorship that the Great Chain of Being is still intact or has been restored. The crises of the play are, in sum, as follows: The Fairy Queen, Lysander, and Demetrius are intoxicated with love-sap. Within the forest, the characters belong to mutually exclusive societies. The play-within-the-play is interrupted. Titiana and Helena go against their traditional feminine roles and pursue male characters. The Fairy Queen and the Fairy King hate each other. There is the animalization of the human (the becoming-ass of Bottom). Characters are mistaken for one another (to repeat, Lysander is confused with Demetrius). The four lovers are single, as are the Duke and the Duchess-to-be.
In the final act, the power of the floral aphrodisiac has (in most cases) dissolved, the character-tribes that were once separated from one another are now integrated and interleaved (the craftsmen, the duke and duchess, the fairies, the lovers), the harlequinade is performed, Titiana and Helena are no longer playing the role of the huntress, the Fairy Queen and the Fairy King are no longer at variance with each other, Bottom has returned to his human shape, everyone knows who everyone else is, and six of the principal characters are getting married. I would like to highlight what the culmination of the plot means:
- No more drugs.
- No more separateness.
- No more interruption.
- No more perverse sexuality.
- No more conflict.
- No more bestialization.
- No more confusion of identity.
- No more bachelorhood.
Love does not triumph over marriage in the play; marriage triumphs over love. At the beginning of the play, to state it again, Theseus mandates marriage between Hermia and Demetrius; the only thing that changes is that now, there is a mandatory marriage between Hermia and Lysander. The play begins with the compulsion of marriage, and it ends with three compulsory marriages. It is not the case that Hermia frees herself from a marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state; she subjects herself to a different marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state.
Marriage is the Imprint of the Father and the Imprint of the Law. As Theseus says to Hermia:
“Be advis’d, fair maid. / To you your father should be as a god: / One that compos’d your beauties, yea, and one / To whom you are but as a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it” [I:i].
Let us not forget that marriage is the effect of the Law of the Father and the Law of the State. As he explains himself to the Duke of Athens, Lysander’s speech is broken off by what rhetoricians call aposiopesis, and Egeus summons the law:
“Enough, enough, my lord; you have enough! / I beg the law, the law upon his head!” [IV:i].
Another ambiguity in the plot that has never been sufficiently clarified: Does Demetrius genuinely desire Helena at the close of the play, and has the spell of the flower worn off? His desire for her was a fabricated desire, brought about by the magical flower. Is his desire for Helena now authentic? On what basis could we say that it is? In Shakespearean comedy, as I have written many times before, all of the principals shall be married, whether they want to be or not. Demetrius’s marriage to Helena might very well be a mandatory marriage, a marriage that is contrary to love, impelled by the unreciprocated love of a woman, the dictates of the Athenian state, and the constraints of the plot. Again, this same pattern will become integral to All’s Well That Ends Well: Even the name of the pursuing female character (Helena) will be the same. Demetrius:
“I wot not by what power—/ But by some power it is—my love to Hermia, / Melted as the snow, seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon; / And all the faith, the virtue of my heart, / The object and the pleasure of mine eye, / Is only Helena” [IV:i].
He knows not by what power he has fallen out of love with Hermia and fallen into love with Helena. Notice that Demetrius separates the source of his new love for Helena from his own mind and his own body. The power that compels him to desire Helena, then, is something exterior to his self. Could the power of which he speaks come from the lingering effects of the flower-drug?
There are two instances of prodiorthosis in the play, or what are called today “TRIGGER WARNINGS.” Prodiorthosis = a warning to the audience that something offensive or shocking is about to be said or displayed. The second is a TRIGGER WARNING after the fact (if such a thing be possible):
Quince: “If we offend, it is with our good will. / That you should think, we come not to be offend, / But with good will” [V:i].
Puck: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear” [V:i].
The “shadows” are the characters themselves, since the work of art is itself a dream, and Puck reminds us that the adventure in the oneiric forest is a dream within the dream. As I have written elsewhere, Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, and the contours of the plot are shaped by a wedding. A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself was most likely written on the occasion of a wedding and first staged at a wedding. This is worth remarking upon because conjugality is the transcendent value of the play. The sexual tension that is stimulated and aggravated throughout the play ends in the moderation of marriage, the institutionalization of sexuality. The perversity and the savagery of the huntresses in the play (Titiana, Helena) are tamed by marriage. As the second prodiorthosis reminds us, the entire plot might have been a dream, an erogenous dream that is cancelled out by a mass-wedding. The wildness of an erotic dream fizzles out into the crushing boredom of marriage.
From all of the above I draw the principle: Plot is a literary artifice that creates the illusion that the world is organized. But there is no prestabilized harmony that holds together the world.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An analysis of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (William Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“Happy Birthday, Mr. President! / Happy Birthday to you!”
–Marilyn Monroe, 19 May 1962
With all of the graciousness of a Wall Street businessman offering a homeless man a wine bottle bubbling with urine, a noble lord orchestrates a play for the amusement of drunkard and wastrel Christopher Sly, who is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord himself. This meta-narrative, called the “Induction,” does not exactly frame the play that we are watching or reading, since the meta-narrative only reappears briefly in the first scene of the first act and does not resurface after the play is over. (It should be remarked parenthetically that Christopher Sly is pushed above his social station, in the same way the servant Traino will be pushed above his social station when he impersonates his master Lucentio.)
The play in question is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592), if Shakespeare did indeed compose the text (I have my doubts), and critics have wondered about the relation (or non-relation) between the Induction and the play itself. The word induction comes from the Latin inducere, which means “to lead into,” and indeed the Induction does feed through the play. A close reading would bear this out.
Petruchio, Veronese drifter, travels to Padua to find a dowry and a wife (in that order). A disgustingly selfish person, he courts acid-tongued bachelorette Katherine Minola when he learns how much money he can get from her father, the wealthy Baptista. Much in the same way that Christopher Sly is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord, Petruchio will be deceived into believing that he is a master and shrew-tamer. As Christopher Sly, Petruchio is trapped in his own illusions.
Like a triad of lascivious lizards, the suitors Lucentio, Gremio, and Hortensio encircle Katherine’s younger sister, the vacuous narcissist Bianca. The courters seem genuinely attracted to Bianca and genuinely repelled by Katherine. No man will have access to Bianca until or unless Katherine is sold to a suitor. This, however, cannot be said to be the challenge of the play, since Baptista easily gives his eldest daughter to Petruchio. The courtship of Katherine, such as it is, is insultingly brief. Katherine feels the insult deeply, and we know this when she says that she was “woo’d in haste” [III:ii]. The challenge of the play is rather: How will Petruchio tame the shrewish Katherine? How will Petruchio subdue her tongue and force her to submit to his husbandly will?
Let there be no mistake: Katherine is a shrewd shrew. She is abrasive and hurtful. In a clear sense, she is the precursor of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, who also uses verbal aggressiveness to camouflage her erotic desires. Verbal aggressiveness, for both women, is a defensive mechanism. Both the divine Beatrice and her predecessor Katherine reserve their sharpest rebukes and barbs for the men they love. It is not fortuitous that Katherine’s opening salvo terminates with the provocative reference to a taboo sex act [see Act Two: Scene One]. Katherine is hardly indifferent to Petruchio. Her verbal violence is a symptom of her desire for the man.
Whereas Katherine’s desire for Petruchio is passionately real, Petruchio appears to have, at least initially, a purely financial interest in the shrew. As the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Petruchio seems to have a purely financial interest in women in general. Petruchio makes his intentions plain when he asks Hortensio if he knows of an eligible bachelorette with a rich dowry:
[I]f thou know / One rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife, / As wealth is burden of my wooing dance… / I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua [I:ii].
It is all about the dowry for Petruchio. Not about love, not even about sex. Katherine, understandably, sees herself as more than merchandise and resents Petruchio’s attempts to erase her human spontaneity and transform her into a thing of ownership among other things of ownership.
There are differences between the iterations of the Hebraic tablets known as “The Ten Commandments” in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but in all versions, the Tenth Commandment is the same. In the tenth of the divinely chiseled commandments, women are leveled to the status of real estate, of servants, of livestock: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” The Tenth Commandment resonates through Petruchio’s description of Katherine:
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing [III:ii].
Even the language is the same as the language in Exodus and Deuteronomy: the “house,” the “ox,” the “ass,” the “any thing.”
And how does Petruchio get poor Katherine to bow to his will? The disgusting brute jilts her on their wedding day, famishes her, and disturbs her sleep. Emotional abuse, starvation, sleep deprivation: The brute denies his wife her basic emotional and psychological needs. Instead of indulging in uxorious excesses, Petruchio treats his bride disgracefully. Even a threat of physical violence against Katherine emerges from the mouth of his servant Gremio: “Will [Petruchio] woo her? Ay, or I’ll hang her” [I:ii].
Whereas Petruchio uses force to get his way, Katherine is a mistress of seduction and subtle manipulation. Katherine’s revenge is to carnify Petruchio’s power-mirages. She will become everything that Petruchio wants her to be: pliable, docile, servile. Katherine remains the shrew—such is her essence—while assuming the disguise of the docile housewife. She is separable from the disguises that she assumes and ironically dramatizes the role of the submissive bride. Shakespearean philosophy—that life is dramaturgy, that the world is a stage and we are all performers—would corroborate this suspicion. From the beginning of the play until its end, Katherine remains the malevolent termagant. In a play in which characters impersonate one another (Traino impersonates Lucentio, Lucentio impersonates the Reading Tutor Cambio, Hortensio impersonates the Music Tutor Licio), Katherine plays the part of a repentant shrew and plays her part well. Let us overhear the strength and the irony in her closing address to the big-minded female guests at Lucentio’s dinner party:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience [V:ii].
In these words, Katherine subtly rejects the role that Petruchio tries to impose and superimpose upon her. If I am mistaken about this (and I am not), how does one explain the fact that we have never seen Petruchio do anything that Katherine says that husbands do? She is the perfect parody of servility and docility. Her becoming-parody is absolutely evident in the following conversation:
Come on, i’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.
I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!
Say as he says, or we shall never go.
Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
I say it is the moon.
I know it is the moon.
Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.
Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katherina [IV:v].
In other words: If I [Petruchio] say that the Moon is the Sun, then the Moon is the Sun. If I say that the Sun is the Moon, then the Sun is the Moon. If I say that two plus two equals five, then two plus two equals five. The fact that Katherine assents to Petruchio’s capriciousness and silliness only highlights the absurdity of what he is saying. By simulating Petruchio’s fantasy of mastery, she plays out the undoing of his presumptions of mastery.
Who IS Katherine, precisely? Is she a reluctant conformist? Is she an inconsiderate conformist? Is she a vigorous conformist? To Petruchio, she is the replica of his desires for supremacy, but this is not Katherine’s essence: She presents a ceaselessly multiplying play of masks. Her self-multiplications enlarge infinitely. Purely mutative, purely transformative—who is she, really, in herself? The shrew has multiple names, and this means that she wears multiple guises. The plurality of her personae is absolutely evident in this passage:
They call me Katherine that do talk of me.
You lie, in faith, for you are call’d plain Kate, / And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; / Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, / Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate, / For dainties are all Kates… [II:i].
The plurality of personae is what provokes Petruchio’s desire; the impossibility of ever mastering her totality is what makes Katherine so bewitchingly shrewish. If she were vapidly selfsame, as Bianca is, Petruchio would likely not want her. No matter how old she becomes, even when her luminosity dims, it is probable that she will be desirable to Petruchio. Because she is never reducible to One Thing. Which leaves us with these questions: Is it truly the case that Kate has been domesticated? Has Petruchio not been Kated? Has the shrew indeed been tamed, or has not Petruchio been beshrewed?
An Analysis of STEPS (Jerzy Kosinksi)
by Joseph Suglia
Jerzy Kosinski did not write his books alone. His authorship has long since been discredited as fraudulent; all of the writings to which he gave his signature have been dismissed as the trickery of a confidence trickster. Indeed, this very signature preempts any of “Kosinski’s books” from being taken seriously. What Kosinski once fobbed off as his own creation is now surrounded by an embarrassed silence. One smirks bemusedly at these works as the artifacts of an interesting life.
What is one to make of the fact, then, that Steps, a novel that bears Kosinski’s name and yet was not composed in his language, is one of the most intensely powerful novels of the twentieth century?
The subject of Steps undergoes a continual metamorphosis throughout its pages. At the beginning of each of the forty-six episodes into which this fissiparous book is sharded, an “older” self is negated (not cancelled out entirely, but absorbed and preserved in the memory of the work) and a “new” one forms and takes its place. Each self belongs to a “present” instant that is disconnected from the series of instants that precede it, each of which is itself displaced from history. If a unified authorial consciousness embraces each transformation, holding together the death and reformation of the subject in each instance, this can only be discerned in the articulation of the individual episodes. And if a continuous link binds the episodes together (the “steps” of the title), it is the guiding thread of submission and domination, the only two forms of relationship of which the subject is capable. The putative author, Jerzy Kosinski, was surely mistaken (or was otherwise disingenuous and willfully misleading) when he claimed in an interview that the book progresses from “the formed mind of the protagonist (in the beginning of the novel) when he sees himself as a unique manipulator of others, to the stage (at the novel’s end) when he realizes that he is nothing but a composite of various steps of culture.” To speak of a “progression” in any strict sense would be inaccurate. It is the case that the narrator manipulates a young girl who is dazzled by the narrator’s credit cards at the very beginning, but there are no traces of a gradual progression from the mind of a sovereign subject who deploys a dominant culture for his own purposes to one who recognizes his subjection to that culture. On many occasions throughout the work, long before its denouement, he is a plaything given over to powers that infinitely surpass his own, exposed to the vagaries of the uncontrollable, without a barrier to shield him from the forces that invade him.
The seductiveness of Steps resides in its power to lead the reader astray, away from the world to which s/he has grown accustomed and into a fictional space from which there is no easy escape. However oppressive its horror becomes, it is difficult to tear one’s eyes from this book. Literary analysis might engage with the book’s meaning, but will necessarily fail to adequate the spell that it casts over the reader. Each “step” is macabre and unsettling in its violence. In one episode, the subject is a farm hand at the mercy of peasants who spit on him for their amusement [II, 2]. He seeks revenge by inserting discarded fishhooks into morsels of bread, which he feeds to the children of those who torture him. The only way to invert the existing hierarchy, he seems to feel, is to become an oppressor oneself: oppression generates oppression in the way that fire generates fire. A group of peasants, in another “step,” gapes at a performance in which a young girl is violated by an animal [I, 4]. It is uncertain, the narrator tells us dryly, whether her screams indicate that she is actually suffering or whether she is merely playing to the audience. The extent to which the girl is a victim or a manipulator remains undetermined. In another episode, a nurse endures the amorous advances of the narrator, now a photographer, who longs for sexual contact with her in order to distinguish himself as much as possible from the seemingly non-human inmates of a senior citizen’s home whom he has been photographing [III, 1]. When the narrator enters uninvited into the nurse’s apartment, he finds her coupling with a simian creature who, ambiguously, is later described as “human.” The narrator, in another episode, is an office worker whose lover is unaware that she is his lover [V, 5]. The narrator plots with a friend to take possession of her. The woman submits entirely to the friend’s will and agrees to allow herself to be possessed by a stranger while blindfolded. Now the narrator can dispose of her sightless body as he wishes: a relationship that is emblematic of all of the relationships portrayed in Steps. Despite her complete availability, his desire remains frustrated. Nothing about her is concealed, but her nudity is itself a form of concealment. At another moment, narrator is on a jury [V 3]. The defendant explains his deed in the most ordinary terms without ever attempting to justify his behavior. A fictive identification is afforded between the members of the jury and the “executioner”: They visualize themselves in the act of killing, but cannot project themselves into the mind of the victim who is in the act of being killed. The agony of the victim is lost to vision altogether. The narrator, in another episode, becomes the powerless spectator of his girlfriend’s rape [III, 3]. Afterward, their relationship changes. He can now only represent her to himself as one who has been violated and who is worthy of violation: (In his eyes,) her rape comes to define her. He visualizes her as a kind of crustacean or mollusk emerging from her shell. The conclusion of the episode follows an implacable logic: Under false pretenses, the narrator offers his girlfriend to the rowdy guests at a party, who proceed to have their way with her. Her pearl necklace, a gift from the narrator, scatters to the floor like so many iridescent seeds (a somberly beautiful passage that gives the lie to Kosinski’s own self-interpretive remark that Steps eschews figurative language). The architect of an orchestrated violation, the narrator departs without witnessing the inescapable result of his designs. Such a summary can only imperfectly approximate the grotesque horror of this book.
One might wonder whether there is a point to such an uninterrupted current of phantasmagoric images. The reader might be invited to take delight in the extremity of its descriptions: Such would nurture one’s suspicion that Steps is a purely nihilistic work. What we find in each instance is a relationship between one who terrorizes and oppresses or who sympathizes with terror and oppression (this is often, but not always, the narrator) and one who surrenders, voluntarily or otherwise, to the will of the oppressor. By describing such scenes of exploitation and persecution in a neutral manner, the book seems to offer no ethical transcendence. Such an interpretation, however, would ignore the book’s ethical center.
The book’s ethical dimension first becomes apparent in an italicized transitional episode in which the protagonist tells his lover of an architect who designed plans for a concentration camp, the main purpose of which, the narrator explains, was “hygiene” [IV, 1]. Genocide was, for those responsible, indistinguishable from the extermination of vermin: “Rats have to be removed. We exterminate them, but this has nothing to do with our attitudes toward cats, dogs, or any other animal. Rats aren’t murdered–we get rid of them; or, to use a better word, they are eliminated; this act of elimination is empty of all meaning.” This passage in particular casts light on the motif of dehumanization that runs pervasively throughout the book. In Steps, the other person is reduced to the status of a thing. To make of the other human being a thing: Such is sadism. Only by representing those to be murdered as vermin (as things to be exterminated) is mass murder possible. It is no accident, from this perspective, that the narrator imagines himself felling trees when he obeys an order to slit his victim’s throat toward the end of the book: It is the only way that he can suppress the nausea that wells up within him [VIII, 3]. Each human being is irreplaceable, and the death of a person is, therefore, an irrecoverable loss. By forgetting this, by turning the other human being into a mere object, one is able to dutifully “obey orders” to kill without the intrusion of moral consciousness. Steps aims at disgusting the reader by showing him/her the obscene consequences of dehumanization. From this perspective, Steps is a profoundly ethical book.
The center of Steps might serve as a counter-balance to the parade of scenes of horror and degradation that constitute it. However, this center does not govern the totality of its operations. A tonality of evil informs these poisonous pages; in terms of its sheer cruelty, the work could only be compared to the writings of Lautréamont and Sade. Although one can point to its ethical character from the passages cited above, the book could also be determined as a willfully perverse affirmation of simulation, falsehood, and metamorphosis that suspends the dimension of the ethical altogether. The subject ceaselessly yearns to exteriorize himself, to become part of an exterior space in which he would become entirely other-than-himself. It is a space in which he would be unencumbered by all forms of ethical responsibility: “If I could become one of them, if I could only part with my language, my manner, my belongings” [VII, 1].
Dr. Joseph Suglia
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY: OR, CHOPO CHICKEN
by Joseph Suglia
Chopo Chicken in Chicago, Illinois: the most insulting eatery I have yet attended.
The dwellers of Lincoln Park were entranced by the parti-colored mural on the residential-street side of this chowtrough for three months before its vernissage. This makes the experience that I had all the more disheartening.
The place is grungy. The Styrofoam containers are flecked with filth, even before being loaded with the swill that is hawked here. Were they taken from the trash and reused? There are clean Styrofoam containers beneath the counter, if you ask for them.
The Yucca fries are cold and old. They taste like week-old French fries and are smothered in a bilious goo.
A man in a grime-sodden gown takes out a cleaver and hatchets a whole chicken into quarters. The chicken is encrusted with an anthracitic substance. The chicken is, strangely, almost meatless.
It is roadkill chicken. It looks like a chicken that was killed on the road. It looks as if the chicken, with Schopenhauerian exertion, strove to cross the road only to end up as faux-Peruvian cuisine at Chopo Chicken.
The portions are cafeteria-size. I understand well the fundamental principle of business: buy cheap and sell dear. It is clear that the gangsterish restaurateurs want to spend as little money as possible and charge as much money as possible. But if they want their restaurant to survive–and nine out ten restaurants go extinct–they have to offer something that people would want to eat or would want to eat again.
A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
You can accuse an idiot of being an idiot, but this accusation will only dimly register in his primitive consciousness. He will shrug his shoulders and continue being an idiot.
This raises the question, “Why criticize idiotic books at all?” It is unlikely that a sharp-minded critic will improve a dimwitted writer. And who will do the criticizing? There are very few intelligent people left in the world, and in the country in which I reside, the United States of America, intelligence is condemned as a vice. Nevertheless, we the intelligent must band together and identify idiocy whenever we come across it, especially when idiotic books such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty-Year Sword (2012) are praised by The Washington Post as works of literature, if for no other reason than to secure the concept of “literature” and to protect it from abuse.
The Fifty-Year Sword is undistilled swill, and it is impossible to understand how any serious person could defend such a book. I am using the word “book” somewhat glibly, since what Danielewski and Co. have given us is a collection of blank pages, drawings (stitchings, really), and limp doggerel, all stitched together.
It might be useful to taxonomize the text into four categories.
Pages 2, 11, 13, 15, 17, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, 39, 41, 43, 45, 47, 49, 51, 53, 55, 57, 59, 65, 69, 71, 73, 75, 77, 79, 81, 83, 85, 87, 99, 107, 117, 119, 121, 125, 127, 139, 143, 147, 149, 151, 155, 159, 169, 171, 175, 177, 181, 183, 185, 189, 193, 195, 199, 201, 205, 207, 209, 211, 233, 234, 235, 237, 243, 245, 247, 249, 255, 257, 259, 261, 263, 265, 269, 273, 281, 283, and 285 are entirely blank.
On pages 7, 8, 9, 19, 35, 37, 61, 63, 67, 89, 91, 93, 95, 97, 101, 103, 104, 105, 106, 109, 111, 112, 113, 115, 123, 129, 131, 133, 135, 137, 141, 144, 145, 153, 157, 160, 161, 163, 165, 167, 173, 179, 187, 191, 197, 203, 213, 215, 217, 219, 221, 223, 225, 227, 229, 231, 238, 239, 241, 251, 253, 267, 271, 275, 277, 278, and 279 are unaesthetic stitchings that look like food stains. No words to speak of.
Pages 18, 66, 88, 92, 94, 96, 98, 100, 108, 114, 116, 122, 124, 126, 128, 130, 132, 134, 136, 138, 140, 142, 152, 154, 158, 162, 164, 166, 168, 172, 174, 176, 178, 184, 186, 188, 190, 192, 196, 212, 214, 216, 218, 220, 222, 224, 226, 228, 230, 232, 242, 244, 246, 254, 266, 270, 274, 276, and 284: Printed on each one of these pages is a single ill-formed sentence or phrase and nothing else besides. On some of the more generous pages, there are two ill-formed sentences. On some of the more meager pages, there is a single word or two words.
Pages 12, 14, 16, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44, 46, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, 64, 68, 70, 72, 74, 76, 78, 80, 82, 84, 86, 90, 102, 110, 118, 120, 146, 148, 150, 156, 170, 180, 182, 194, 198, 200, 202, 204, 206, 208, 210, 236, 240, 248, 250, 252, 256, 258, 260, 262, 264, 268, 272, 280, and 282: Erratically indented, badly written verse, approximately fifty-sixty words per page. Multicolored quotation marks, single and double. The orange quotation marks seem to refer to the character Tarff. The mauve (?) quotation marks seem to refer to the character Ezade. The red quotation marks to Inieda, the brown to Sithis, and the yellow (?) to something called “ittle Micit.” Often, it is difficult to distinguish one color from the other, one character from the other.
Let’s tally up the numbers.
83 out of the book’s 285 pages are entirely blank.
67 of these pages are polluted with “illustrations” (for lack of a worse word).
This means that approximately 52% of the “book” is wordless: There are more blank pages and pages of imagery than pages with words on them.
And what of the words that Brother Poe stitches together? What is it like to actually read this book (such as it is)?
Reading this “book” is as pleasant as eating sand. The lines are atrociously stupid, abnormally boring, and excruciatingly illiterate. Let me pause over some of the language, since it is the most offensive thing about this intolerably mushy mishmash of bad verse, blank pages, and ugly pictures. Here are three examples:
1.) “A few times a year Mose would generously serve up booze / and sweet / to fortipify the many strangers against the expected strangeness of her minglings…” .
A “sentence” that was clearly “inspired” by Joyce without any of Joyce’s elegance or genius. When Joyce invented neologisms, he did so with a purpose. The awful coinage “fortipify” neither enhances nor enlivens the text.
2.) “It was even in the falling apart of the breeze (though is there a breeze / if I can still feel it on my face?)…” .
Here, we have a non sequitur that does not even rise to the level of a simple paradox.
3.) “Where / upon / he began to swing the handle in a wide but deliberately / slow / arc as if to pass a long blade through the wicks of those five / candles nearly six / feet away where indeed a yellow panic there, / perhaps by extraordidinary coincidence, momentarily cowered / into small rounds of blue and drowning smoke” .
This is the sort of verse that only a bananahead would like and respect.
And if I were a bananahead, I would find The Fifty-Year Sword impressive. In truth, Mark Z. Danielewski is not a careful writer, and he does not have a feeling for words. Blame should be also given to the seamstresses at the Atelier Z, who did a terrible job of stitching the stupid thing together.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
A Review of EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (Jonathan Safran Foer)
The literature of September 11, 2001 is never attacked. When a book speaks of September 11, 2001 (or of terrorism in general), it is more or less guaranteed immunity from criticism; it will, almost inescapably, be greeted with sympathy.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close banks on such sympathy, on such reverence. The narrative, which concerns a nine-year-old boy named Oskar Schell in search of a key that would unshell the enigma of his dead father (a narrative stolen, in its basic outline, from Günter Wilhelm Grass’s Die Blechtrommel), could have been written entirely without its scattered references to the terrorist interventions. Nor is this trauma the only one presented in the novel: the others include Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Staten Island Ferry crash, and the Dresden bombings. Each disaster is generalized to the point at which what is addressed is not a traumatizing event in its specificity, but historical “trauma” itself and the overcoming of trauma through bereavement-inspired creation.
Oskar, the insufferable brat, attempts to complete the work of mourning for his father, Thomas Schell, Jr., a victim of September 11, by compiling an almanac of self-inflicted wounds, the collage of images and letters which is the book we are “reading”–an almanac which, most likely, is assembled sometime in the indefinite future. (Thomas Shell, Sr.’s manuscript of 4/12/78 is heavily edited (208-216). Who has done the editing? Almost certainly an older version of his grandson Oskar.) If the term “reading” even applies. Whenever a “pregnant” image is described, Foer literally re-presents it in the form of a pictorial image. When a flock of birds rises into the sky, it is not enough that we read of these birds — we must SEE them as well. Words may not be left in their invisibility; we are presented with supplementary photographs, illustrations, since mere verbality is not enough. Indeed, the entire novel oozes with misologos — the mistrust or hatred of language / reason — in relation to both its content and its form. Photographs, yes, and also a superabundance of blank pages and nearly-blank pages. Space is not used in the manner it is in the works of Edmond Jabès, for instance.
Typography does not substitute for a well-wrought sentence. Foer abrogates himself of all responsibilities–most specifically, the responsibility to write well. Why bother when the pyrotechnics of typography is at his disposal?
As far as the writing is concerned, it is composed of nothing other than mind-numbingly, soul-deadeningly repetitive phrases (“heavy boots,” “raison d’etre,” etc.) and Sunday school platitudes: “Sometimes one simply wants to disappear” (184); “There’s nothing wrong with not understanding yourself” (184); “Everything that’s born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers” (245); “How can you say I love you to someone you love? … It’s always necessary” (314). Whenever the author writes something that he finds “beautiful” and “true” (165), he congratulates himself on his beauty and truth and tells us that that thing is “beautiful” and “true.” The entire book reeks of such unearned profundity. We also learn that most dust is made up of human detritus–a very deep truth indeed, one that Foer also communicates in his essay “Emptiness” (originally published in Playboy) with all of the sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness of the faux naif who serves as the center of the novel, a Sunday-School lecture in which we learn that famous musicians (Ringo Star) and scientists (Stephen Hawking) are unthreateningly approachable: Everything is familiarized.
Perhaps it is wrong to criticize Foer for including so many blank pages in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, since the entire book is a vacuum: null space into which readers may project their own meanings.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
A review of EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES (Tom Robbins) by Joseph Suglia
Literature has always had a hard time justifying itself. And how could it justify itself? Literature does no work. Nor does it ground itself in any socially productive activity or engagement. Not only does literature not serve the interests of society, often, in fact, it seems to playfully subvert these interests, though only in a powerless and purely “theatrical” way. Departments of Literary Studies seem to have been designed to disguise the “fact” of literature’s essential frivolity.
Literary artists often have bad consciences. Consider the fact that Don Quixote seems to be a novel that is directed against novels–against the chimeras of literature and of literary language.
No novel seems more flamboyantly frivolous than Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976). The work is often breathtakingly, magically, and intoxicatingly eloquent–and also, at times, bombastically written, ostentatious, empty, and light as air. It is easy to be seduced and enchanted by the playful language of this work. But one must nonetheless ask oneself: “What is the point of it all? Where is this book going? Why was it written?” Perhaps these are questions that go against literature’s essence. Perhaps the purpose of this book–and the purpose of literature–is purposelessness.
Sissy Hankshaw is all thumbs. In Richmond, Virginia, where she was born and raised, the gigantic-thumbed girl is ostracized because of her so-called “deformity.” When she reads in a dictionary that the thumb affords the hand a greater “freedom of movement,” she decides to use her strangeness to her advantage by becoming the very “spirit and heart of hitchhiking” . As she traverses the United States and beyond, she meets and marries a Native American and asthmatic watercolorist from Manhattan named Julian who, unlike Sissy, has renounced his difference from the dominant collective. Since she is perpetually in a state of motion, Sissy departs from her husband and takes up a modeling assignment given to her by “the Countess,” the misogynistic magnate of a feminine deodorant firm, on the Rubber Rose Ranch, an exclusively female-staffed, Western-themed beauty salon for older women who want to juvenilize their appearances. Under the leadership of neo-cowgirl revivalist Bonanza Jellybean, the cowgirls take possession of the ranch and claim ownership of the whooping cranes that populate it–a species that is imperiled by a technologized, male-dominated society that offsets the balance of nature.
If this narrative sounds silly, that is because it is. This is not to suggest that the work is meaningless or without “theme” (to mention a meaningless word). Of course, it is possible to “thematize” any work. One can always pretend to have “excavated” its “themes” (whatever this word is supposed to mean), to enumerate them, and to present them to the reader. There is in the book an unapologetic environmentalism, the “allegory” of burgeoning feminism, and the championing of social misfits, freaks, deviants, lunatics, outcasts, and other “endangered species”–in particular, the novel celebrates hitchhikeresses and cowgirls, both of whom represent women who affirm their differences from male-defined normality. According to the logic of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the sick are normal, and those who attempt to normalize themselves are the sick; by denying their singularity, the latter mutilate themselves. And yet all of these “themes,” as serious as they might seem, are tossed off with such gleefulness that their seriousness as “themes” is eroded.
The book’s frivolous style of writing casts light on what one might call its “politics of playfulness.” Even Cowgirls Get the Blues joyfully affirms the irruption of the frivolous and the extraordinary in everyday life and the rupturing of our sedimented responses “in a rational world where even disasters are familiar and damn near routine” . An earthquake, to use one of the book’s many of metaphors for strangeness, interrupts the rhythms of ordinary life and thereby opens up new spheres of possibilities, breaking open the fabric of the normal and powering a more vital experience of the world–this is a “concept” that is clearly inspired by the philosophy of surrealism. Sissy Hankshaw, with her massive thumbs, has a destabilizing effect on one’s rigidified perceptions. Through her difference from others, she reminds the more “normal” characters in the book that the world is multiple, that stability is not rigidity, that the most “authentic” experience of life is one that is afforded by ceaseless movement. As she explains to Julian, “I’ve proven that people aren’t trees, so it is false when they speak of roots” . Hitchhiking is here a figure of endless motility–perpetual movement without origin or goal, motion for motion’s sake. Systems, the book suggests, that do not incorporate the instability of motion–that is to say, that do not include chaos–are doomed to destruction. Systems that are air-tight and shatterproof not fortuitously resemble fascist dictatorships; they attempt to impose order on disorder, they prefer homogeneity to heterogeneity. As a result, they unravel, for the extraordinary can never be contained or managed. Every system has “chinks” and leaks. In order for systems to endure, they must bear disorder within themselves. Stability and instability are–paradoxically–conjoined. As Sissy remarks to her psychiatrist, Dr. Robbins, “Disorder is inherent in stability” .
And yet, even beyond this cluster of meanings, the work’s most essential “theme” (to mention this empty word one last time) is simply the joyous dance of language; its eloquence is absolutely overpowering. When confronting the eloquence of someone like Tom Robbins, the literary critic should step aside, bow out, walk off the stage, and let the author take the floor. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is replete with surrealist disanalogies more striking than the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table. So exuberant is his writing that the author throws a party for the hundredth chapter of his book. What Friedrich Schlegel once said of Diderot could also be said of Tom Robbins: Whenever he does something truly brilliant, he congratulates himself on his brilliance.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL
An Analysis of V. (Thomas Pynchon) by Joseph Suglia
“Suppose truth were a woman…”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
All readers undergo a voyage to discover hidden meanings–a voyage which is also a passage of self-discovery. Like most meta-fictional narratives, Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V. (1963) is about the act of reading itself and the possibility or impossibility of self-reading.
Never has reading seemed so lugubrious. The plot concerns Stencil, the son of a now-deceased British foreign officer, who, accompanied by eponymous “schlemihl” Benny Profane, half-heartedly searches for the elusive “V.”–who might be a woman, a thing, a concept, a sewer rat, or nothing at all. Stencil is a reader, broadly understood: He attempts to interpret the meaning of an initial. Reading is here a process without progress and without terminus: Stencil never succeeds in identifying the initial’s referent. As his name implies, Stencil can only trace the outlines of that which he seeks; his search is, to a certain extent, a fruitless yearning for truth.
To put an end to the process of reading would be to lose one’s human spontaneity. For this reason, “V.” must never be found. If “V.” were found, Stencil would become indistinguishable from an inanimate object. The search for “V.” is the only thing that distinguishes him from a thing: “His random movements before the war had given way to a great single movement from inertness to–if not vitality, then at least activity” . Both Profane and Stencil are terrified of the world of objects. They fear their stasis, their contagious inanimateness. The inanimate objects that populate Pynchon’s narrative often resemble human beings, such as the beer tap that is shaped in the form of a “foam rubber breast” . Human beings, conversely, are themselves often functional and machinelike: e.g., Benny Profane’s jaunts resemble the idiotic up-and-down movements of a yo-yo; Rachel’s words are described as “inanimate-words [Profane] couldn’t really talk back at” , etc. All of the “characters” in the novel are threatened by the lifeless world of things. Stencil needs to search for the inaccessible in order to separate himself from the inanimateness of objecthood, in order to avoid freezing into a thingly state: “He tried not to think, therefore, about any end to the search. Approach and avoid” . If “V” were found, it would be necessary to lose it again and to reinitiate the search.
Readers are implicated in this impossible quest, involuntarily placed in the position of code-breakers. Like Stencil, they obsessively ask themselves, “Who, then, is V.?” Because the identity of “V.” is never completely given, the solution to the code seems to withdraw abyssally into darkness. Without an answerable meaning, the “alien hieroglyphic[-]”  seems to exist on its own terms. The book’s center, it would seem, is not some intentional content that would lie behind or beyond the code, but, rather, the code itself. The cipher itself is illuminated, not its meaning. The point of interpretation is no longer to identify a transcendental meaning or theme, but rather to sift through the fragments and details of the narrative, the ill-fitting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The unanswerable question “Who, then, is V.?” incites us to return to the forgotten or neglected world of appearances. Bluntly stated, the disconnected pieces of Pynchon’s narrative are what is essential, not the “whole” to which they would belong.
Pynchon’s novel is an anti-adventure story about the plight of reading. It challenges us to interpret something–the initial “V.”–without thinking in the categories of totality or universality. The particular clues in the story do not relate to the universal. Any interpretation that thinks in the language of totality or universality, in this context, is doomed to failure.
V. concerns the failure of reading and self-reading. Stencil’s obsessive yet ultimately grim and joyless quest is to discover his own provenance (the search for “V.” is, to a certain extent, the search for his own father, der Vater in German) and therefore to discover his own identity. And yet there is no definitive conclusion to the process of self-reading; therefore, there is no definite self-understanding. Stencil’s identity is determined by the impossible which he seeks: “[H]e was quite purely He Who Looks for V.” . If this process had any finality, he would be nothing at all–that is to say, nothing more than a thing, one thing among others.
The task of reading, then, must remain an infinitely provisional task. Brenda remarks to Profane in Malta: “‘You’ve had all these fabulous experiences. I wish mine would show me something.’ /’Why.’/ ‘The experience, the experience. Haven’t you learned?’ / Profane didn’t have to think long. ‘No,’ he said, ‘offhand I’d say I haven’t learned a goddamn thing'” . Stencil and Profane are led on an issueless quest–as are those of us who follow them. The absence of anything like a decipherable meaning forces us to think about why we read: The book reveals our desire to discover order in chaos, to impose structure and coherence on entropy (disorder and stasis), to implement systems where there is none.
According to the metaphorics of V., the search for meaning is more imperative than the meaning that is sought. Such is the significance of the non-questions that populate the book–questions that are unshelled of the interrogative form: “What are you afraid of” ; “Do you like it here” , etc. These questions without questions remind us that, when approaching this book, we must pose questions without hankering after results. The question is its own answer. The answer is the question’s misfortune.
P.S. The novel has a sterile, lifeless prose style.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
A review of Irreversible (2003) by Joseph Suglia
Irreversible (2003): The traces of other films are indeed perceptible on its canvas. And yet it is absolutely singular, absolutely unlike anything else in the history of cinema.
People go on and on about how “disturbing” this film is. On a surficial level, the film is “disturbing,” of course. But I personally found the film just, morally unambiguous, and even beautiful.
It is simultaneously the ugliest and most beautiful of all films.
The film’s message is not, as most people claim, that “time destroys all things.” This is a painfully banal cliche, and, yes, it is plastered onto the surface of the film as if it were a wheatpaste poster. The film’s reverse order gives the lie to this stupid cliche. We are discussing a film that contradicts its own title: Irreversible reverses everything. The film says: Yes, time destroys all things, but time itself can be destroyed.
Because the camera swirls around in a disorienting way at the beginning of the film (and at other points, as well, suggesting the reversibility of time), the spectator is initially unaware that the film starts with a scene of brutal vengeance. Nor does one understand, at this point, why this vengeance takes place. This effect of disorientation prevents the spectator from forming a moral judgment and either condemning or endorsing the bloody act of revenge.
The final scene of bliss (the “end” of the film is its chronological beginning) contains such pathos that it is absolutely overpowering: Now the spectator finally recognizes (a recognition that comes by way of a feeling) that rape destroys human life. The woman who is raped, Alex (Monica Bellucci) is mourned at the close of the film (against Beethoven’s seventh symphony); her assailant, whose violation mirrors her violation, is not.
Marcus is Alex’s current lover. Pierre is Alex’s former lover, an older man. Pierre shows infinitely more devotion toward Alex than her boyfriend: He is the true spirit of revenge in the film. Marcus, by contrast, is self-absorbed, stupid, and morally weak: Out of fear, he is reluctant to avenge the crime committed against his girlfriend.
Does Pierre resent Alex for having chosen another man over him? There is evidence of this in the film.
If you are a man, this film will make you feel ashamed that you are.
In the bedroom scene, Marcus reveals that he is the rapist’s double. Watch this scene carefully, and you will see what I mean.
Likewise, Marcus is quite similar to the anonymous passer-by who witnesses the rape in the tunnel (the tunnel is a figure that is used throughout the film and is evocative of the rectum) and yet does nothing to prevent it.
Those who run from the theater in horror are just as cowardly as that passer-by.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
THE HISTORY OF LOVE by Nicole Krauss
Krauss’s The History of Love (2005) would have been better titled The History of Stupidity. Much as her contemporaries and congeners, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, and Jonathan Safran Foer, Krauss approaches her readership with contempt (i.e. a set of low expectations). Most Americans, after all, are gum-chewing television-watchers who have never picked up a book in their lives. I certainly do not believe this tiresome cliche, but the American publishing industry does. And so does Nicole Krauss.
Krauss panders. She explains everything to the reader. In the end, the reader feels insulted for being treated with such contempt. I am not fooled by the novel’s pretensions at experimentalism (this is NOT a formally challenging novel). Yes, we are presented with three interlocking narratives: one written by an old man, another written by the woman he loves, and the other by a fourteen-year-old girl. But the plot is hideously simplistic: An old man writes a book inspired by his inamorata, Alma. The book gets away from him. Alma reads the book. Fin.
Krauss has mastered the marketing strategies of her erstwhile husband, Foer, who also uses the interlocking narrative structure, a superabundance of nearly-blank pages, and narrators who are functionally illiterate. In the end, The History of Stupidity feels as if it were a self-advertisement–not so much an advertisement for the author as an advertisement for itself. Much like the object of SUV commercials, the target audience here is painfully clear: Typical Dumb Americans who find sweet old men and little girls stupidly charming. Again, it is not I who believe this tiresome cliche. It is Nicole Krauss.
Not merely is the novel infantile in terms of its form; the content is also similarly stunted.
Particularly stunning are Krauss’s scatological obsessions. I am not suggesting that should authors not take scatology as their subject (Roland Topor created a masterly play on coprophilia entitled Leonardo Was Right), nor am I attacking the book on some pseudo-moralistic, Medvedian ground. H.G. Wells assailed James Joyce (whose name is showcased, pointlessly, twice in this novel) for his so-called “cloacal obsession.” But if there is scatology in Joyce, it serves a “transcendent” purpose. In Krauss, however, the references to the excremental point to nothing other than themselves. Nothing is more infantile than gastrointestinal humor.
And so we have Leo Gursky struggling with a bowel movement on Page Fifteen, “Zvi Litnivoff” defecating on Page Sixty-Nine, and a tzaddik in an outhouse engaging in one of the “coarse miracles of life” on page 127. I could go on, but I don’t want to. Nicole Krauss seems fascinated by excrementality, which seems appropriate since her book is a steaming mound of yellow horse dung.
One last thing: If Leo Gursky has written such an important book, why are all of the passages cited halting and puerile?
What we are witnessing is the “dumbing-down” of literary fiction. We need a new constructivism (I do not use this word in its traditional sense), after three decades of infantilism in American letters.
On SNUFF (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia
If it sustained itself over countless eternities, a roomful of typing monkeys would eventually recreate every library in the world, reproducing every word in every volume. This theorem, known as the “infinite-monkey hypothesis,” could also be applied to Snuff (2008) by chuckpalahniuk. After vomiting eight completely worthless books, each a static repetition of the one before, chuckpalahniuk has finally generated something worthy of being read, much in the same way that an eternal scriptorium of monkeys would also generate at least some books that are worthy of being read.
While I am not an admirer of his previous fiction, Snuff does something that chuckpalahniuk’s earlier efforts failed to do: It addresses the conditions of its possibility and reception. Here we have a hive of drones waiting to consume the body of their pornographic priestess. They are very much like those who consume Snuff–an unintelligent, slovenly, shallow, hastily written, messily constructed McFiction sandwich larded with an impasto of moldy tartar sauce.
The words “dude” and “kid” are used more than any others, the font is so large that your grandmother could read it through her cataracts, and the “research,” such as it is, extends no further than Google. Not merely is chuckpalahniuk’s language impoverished in relation to that of other published writers; he is not even able to write on the level of a sentient adult. Indeed, the “author,” a forty-six-year-old man at the time he disgorged this vomitous book, writes as if he were any unremarkable twelve-year-old American boy. Here are some representative examples of chuckpalahniuk’s prose:
“Those tests that Shelia had dudes take, the clinic reports most dudes had to bring, none of that’s foolproof” (128).
“The locker-room smell of some dude’s bare feet, we breathe that smell like [sic] those cheeses [sic] from France that smell like your sneakers in high school that you’d wear in gym class all year without washing them” (52).
“High school,” indeed.
It is depressing that chuckpalahniuk has yet to craft a style. One might claim that his infantile, ungrammatical manner of expression IS a style, that he is only miming the illiterate stupidity of his characters. If that is the case, why does every one of chuckpalahniuk’s characters sound exactly like the next, giving the form and body of his work the disturbing appearance of an unsynchronized Christmas carol sung by a chorus of stuttering lobotomy patients? chuckpalahniuk’s syntax is irritating, tedious, inane, and torturous to read: SUBJECT + PRONOUN + VERB + OBJECT.
If read as a work of art, one will fail to do justice to this book. Snuff is by no means art; it is a cultural production, and like all cultural productions, resonates with the time and place in which it was written. Despite his intellectual and rhetorical shortcomings, chuckpalahniuk has succeeded in producing something that perfectly captures the cultural moment.
WHY I CAN’T STAND GEORGES BATAILLE
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
I first discovered Bataille at the age of eighteen. Here was a French Nietzschean who wrote strident essays and excessively explicit novels. What was there not to like? Throughout my eighteenth and nineteenth years, I read the oeuvres of Bataille, alongside the works of Heidegger, Derrida, and many others.
Around the age of twenty, my relationship with Bataille underwent a change. I could no longer stand to read his writings.
La Littérature et le Mal (1957) destroyed my love for Bataille. The book is almost unreadably silly. Bataille argues, with the most incredible casuistry, that literature and evil are the same. Literature evades collective necessity. Evil evades collective necessity. Both literature and evil evade collective necessity. Therefore, literature IS evil. However, this does not seem to imply, according to Bataille, that evil is literature.
This is a bit like saying: A duck is not a zebra. A chicken is not a zebra. Therefore, a duck is a chicken. However, a chicken is not a duck. This is the logical fallacy known as affirmative conclusion from a negative premise or illicit negative.
“Hegel, la Mort et le Sacrifice” (1955) troubled me, as well. I had read enough of Hegel to know that Bataille was making intellectual errors, was misinterpreting Hegel.
Bataille’s misinterpretation of Hegel may be summarized thus: Human beings sacrifice the animal parts of themselves in order to become fully human. Nowhere does this statement appear in the Gesammelte Werke of Hegel. Hegel writes instead: “[Der Geist] gewinnt seine Wahrheit nur, indem er in der absoluten Zerrissenheit sich selbst findet.” When he writes that the Spirit finds itself in a state of absolute shreddedness, Hegel means that the human mind exteriorizes itself as an object and restores itself from its self-exteriorization. The human mind is both itself and outside-of-itself at the same time. There is no sacrifice of the animal for the sake of the human.
In L’Érotisme (1957), Bataille’s thesis is that death and eroticism issue from the same source, and many of his arguments are unforgettably convincing. But his opening argument is both banal and irrelevant: Bataille contends that the relation between sex and death is apprehensible at the microbiological level: When the ovum is fertilized, it is demolished. The ovum “dies” in order to form the zygote.
This has absolutely nothing to do with the phenomenology of eroticism, nor does it have anything to do with the phenomenology of mortality.
Last month, I read as much as I could endure of the fragments collected in The Unfinished System of Non-Knowledge. These are the incoherent screechings of a lunatic.
* * * * *
THE BLUE OF NOON: A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia
According to Georges Bataille’s autobiographical note, Le Bleu du ciel (“The Blue of the Sky”) was composed in the twilight before the occupation of Vichy France.
The descending night darkens these pages.
Dissolute journalist Henri Troppmann (“Too-Much-Man”) and his lover, Dirty give way to every impulse, to every surfacing urge, no matter how vulgar. Careening from one sex-and-death spasm to the next, they deliver themselves over to infinite possibilities of debauchery. A fly drowning in a puddle of whitish fluid (or is it the thought of his mother, a woman he must not desire?) prompts Troppmann to plunge a fork into a woman’s supple white thigh. The threat of Nazi terror incites a coupling in a boneyard.
Their only desire is to begrime whatever is elevated, to vulgarize the holy, to pollute it, to corrupt it, to bring it down into the mud.
By muddying whatever is “sacred,” they maintain the force of “the sacred.”
As a historical document, Le Bleu du ciel is eminently interesting. It offers unforgettably vivid portraits of Colette Peignot (as Dirty) and the “red nun” Simone Weil (as Lazare).
It is also the story of a man who is fascinated with fascism and the phallus, of someone who loves war, though not for teleological reasons. It is the story of a man who celebrates war on its own terms, who nihilistically affirms its limitless power of destruction.
As the night spreads, the blue of the sky disappears.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
A review of DERMAPHORIA (Craig Clevenger)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Did you know that most “Alpha Males” are, in fact, Beta Males? And that most “Beta Males” are, in fact, Omega Males? Craig Clevenger is an Omega Male who thinks that he is a Beta Male. Chuck Palahniuk is a Beta Male who thinks that he is an Alpha Male. As all Omega Males do, Craig Clevenger slavishly imitates the Beta Male. Craig Clevenger apes Chuck Palahniuk’s this-is-how-pre-teens-talk writing “style,” which is no style at all.
Clevenger’s Dermaphoria (2005) will excruciate you with its illiteracy. Consider the following sentences:
1.) “Clumps of hair had melted together around one of his ears, which had swollen into a knot of blistered cartilage” .
How could clumps of hair melt together?
2.) “He was sobbing as he spoke, trying to snow me with some cheap excuse like some eight-year-old while spitting out a stream of expletives with ‘hospital’ thrown in every three or four words” [Ibid.].
What? This sentence is scarcely intelligible. How could someone “snow” someone else with a single “excuse”? “Eight year old” does not require hyphenation. “Like” should never be used conjunctionally. Taken literally, the phrase “some cheap excuse like some eight-year-old” means that the “cheap excuse” is like an eight year old. Will MacAdam/Cage publish anything that comes over the transom, and did they copy-edit this book, or was the effort too herculean for them?
3.) “I slip my fingers beneath your shirt to the slice of flesh above your hips that feels so good in the dark but you hate so much” .
Read literally, the final clause means that “you” “hate so much” in general, that “you” hate everyone and everything. The context suggests, however, that “you” hate “the slice of flesh above your hips.” A slightly less illiterate, slightly less irritating way of writing the sentence would be: “I slip my fingers beneath your shirt to the slice of flesh above your hips that you hate so much but that feels so good in the dark.”
4.) “Some kid approached me with no finesse whatsoever, and asked me for ecstacy [sic]” .
Now, this is a sentence that only a beefhead would write. Could Clevenger have come up with a more exciting verb than “to approach”? Evidently not. The comma is superfluous, and do I really need to point out that “ecstacy” should be spelled “ecstasy”?
5.) “He was wearing tan work pants and dark brown work boots, and with the combination of colors, dark grey and tan, sitting in the sharp daytime shadows of the dilapidated desert house, he’s invisible” .
“He’s” is not the contraction of “he was.” There is no contraction for “he was.” When Clevenger writes, “dark grey,” doesn’t he mean “dark brown”? The chuckies don’t care about such errors; after all, they aren’t very detail-oriented, are they? Page after page, Clevenger is foundering and floundering, flailing and failing. He cannot write.
Mencken once pointed out that most bad writers have congenital deficiencies–to write clearly, after all, one must think clearly. But I would say that the converse holds, as well: To think clearly, one must write clearly. Clevenger does not know how to write because he does not know how to think, and he does not know how to think because he does not know how to write. He is inarticulate and slow-witted.
Clevenger is an experienced writer of literature in the same way and to the same degree that a eunuch is an experienced lover. He has no relationship to literature other than a negative relationship or the relation of a non-relation. His sentences sound like Metallica lyrics. It is not fortuitous that Clevenger’s Work in Progress is called Saint Heretic: One can hear in the title resonances of Saint Anger, an album by Metallica. As most chuckies have done, Clevenger has spent more time listening to heavy metal than he has reading books.
Craig Clevenger is a chuckling chucklehead. He is nothing more than a soldier in Chuck Palahniuk’s army of mentally disenfranchised Everymen.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
A review of YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? (Dave Eggers)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
One of the most important claims of anti-foundationalism–what is usually called “postmodernism,” the making-fashionable of anti-foundationalism–is that nothing has a single, unified meaning and that systems that pronounce single, unified meanings are fascistic. Anti-foundationalist writing / film opens and multiplies meanings. No matter what you say about an anti-foundationalist work of art, you will be wrong: Another interpretation is always possible. We are all familiar with the rapid occlusions of commercial writing / film–once an alternative meaning appears, it is just as quickly shut out.
Dave Eggers is sometimes referred to, erroneously, as a “postmodern” writer. It is important to correct this misinterpretation. Dave Eggers is not a “postmodern” (read: anti-foundationalist) writer. He is a lazy, slovenly commercial writer who has an unattractive prose style.
Eggers’ most recent catastrophe, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (2014), could have been written in two hours. It is entirely composed of dialogue–an easy move for a lazy writer such as Eggers.
The dialogic novel is certainly nothing new. The dialogic form can be found in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930), Henry Green’s Nothing (1950), Charles Webb’s 1963 novel The Graduate, and Natalie Sarraute’s satirical novel Les Fruits d’or (1964). John Fowles’ A Maggot (1985) qualifies, though is not entirely told in dialogic form. There has never been a stronger novel in this subgenre than the great Roland Topor’s Joko’s Anniversary (1969) (in French: Joko fête son anniversaire), one of the most underrated novels ever published. And of course, there is Chapter Fifteen of Joyce’s Ulysses (the so-called “Circe” or “Nighttown” episode). Sadly, most dialogue-driven novels these days are proto-screenplays. Since the 1960s, most commercial novels have been proto-screenplays, and this, I would argue, has led to the death of literature. (For reasons of economy, I cannot pursue this argument here.)
The title is taken from The Book of Zechariah (1:5). The book’s learnedness ends there. In a style that owes nothing to Zechariah, Eggers will condemn American Society for not giving Young American Men what they are owed.
Eggers’s prophet is Thomas, a thirty-four-year-old American. His maleness, his age, and his Americanness are all important to understanding this novel as a cultural document. Why the name “Thomas”? We’re supposed to think of Thomas Paine (use contractions, or Eggers will get angry at you).
I write that Thomas is “Eggers’s prophet” because he has the same political convictions as Eggers: The money that the U.S. borrows from China should not be used to subsidize foreign wars, but instead should be used to finance space exploration, education, health care, and public television. Thomas whimpers:
“You guys fight over pennies for Sesame Street, and then someone’s backing up a truck to dump a trillion dollars in the desert” . This is only one of the many jewels with which Eggers’ novel is bejeweled.
Eggers would like to persuade us that his prophet is a normal, likable young man, but his attempts at making Thomas seem likable and normal are nauseatingly hamfisted. Thomas is “polite,” “nice,” and “friendly” and says repeatedly that he has no intention of killing anyone. Because Thomas tells us that he is a “principled” person (on page 7 and then again on page 84, in case we missed it), we are supposed to believe that Thomas is a principled person. There is very little logos in the novel, but there definitely is a great deal of ethos.
And a great deal of pathos. Unhappily, all of the pathos is artificial, particularly the pathos that is communicated when Thomas “falls in love” with a woman he sees strolling on a beach. The emotions in this book have the same relationship to real emotions that the fruit flavors of chewing gum have to real fruit.
Eggers would like to persuade us, then, that Thomas is a principled young man who kidnaps an Astronaut, a Congressman, an Overeducated Pederast Teacher, his own Mother, a Police Officer, a “Director of Patient Access,” and a Hot Woman; each of these characters is a lifeless stereotype. Such a rhetorical strategy would be difficult for even a serious and careful writer and because Eggers is neither (don’t say it with a long “I,” or Eggers will get angry at you), the outcome resembles a railway accident.
Thomas is an Angry Young Man of the same pedigree as Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, James Holmes, and Jared Lee Loughner. And why is he angry? Because his “friend” Kev never got on the Space Shuttle. Because Thomas’s life didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to. Don’t we live in America? Aren’t Young American Men promised success and happiness? Thomas rails against the Congressman:
“You should have found some kind of purpose for me” .
And: “Why didn’t you tell me what to do?” [Ibid.].
Why, Daddy, why didn’t you tell me what to do? Why didn’t you “find a place” for me ? Isn’t there a safe and secure place in the world reserved specially for me? Why doesn’t the world need ME?
It is so sad that Thomas was promised success and happiness (by whom?) and that he never received either (say it with a long “E”) of these things. It is so sad that Kev never got on the Space Shuttle. Thomas unburdens himself to the Congressman: “That just seems like the worst kind of thing, to tell a generation or two that the finish line, that the requirements to get there are this and this and this, but then, just as we get there, you move the finish line” .
The world owes us success and happiness, doesn’t it? And when we don’t get it, we get real angry! Much of the novel is based on the mistaken idea that Young American Men are entitled to success and happiness. And Thomas represents all disenfranchised Young American Men. As Thomas says to the Congressman–his substitute “father”–at the close of the novel:
“There are millions more like me, too. Everyone I know is like me… [I]f there were some sort of plan for men like me, I think we could do a lot of good” [210; emphasis mine].
This is the worldview of a stunted, self-pitying, lachrymose adolescent. It is the worldview of Dave Eggers.
To return to the opening paragraphs of this review: Eggers, hardly an anti-foundationalist writer, thinks that life is essentially simple and that everything should have an unequivocal meaning: “You and I read the same books and hear the same sermons and we come away with different messages,” Thomas laments. “That has to be evidence of some serious problem, right?” .
It has to be!
Perhaps the novel would be endurable if it were well-written, but Dave Eggers is a mushhead with all of the style of a diseased hippopotamus. He draws from a stock of words that is available to most English-speaking humans. He writes familiar things in a familiar way. He has a problem with people who say “either” with a long “I,” but misuses the word “parameter” (twice, by my count).
The spiritlessness with which he writes is dispiriting. The prose is lenient. Serpentine sentences are superseded in favor of a simple syntax. Apparently, I am one of the few people alive who enjoys reading sentences that spread across the page as flourishing trees.
Despite its many flaws, the book will be praised for the same reason that audiences laugh while watching Saturday Night Live: Most human beings are followers and do what they think they are expected to do.
Fifty Shades of Error: chuckpalahniuk’s BEAUTIFUL YOU
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
1.) “Even as Penny was attacked, the judge merely stared” . Never begin a novel with a sentence written in the passive voice. This sentence, in particular, sounds as if it were transliterated from Estonian or spoken by Grimace. It contains a clumsy adverb (“merely”). It is fatiguing to read.
2.) “The court reporter continued to dutifully keyboard, transcribing Penny’s words” . Careful novelists avoid verbs such as “to continue,” “to start,” “to try,” “to remain,” and “to begin.” Such verbs weaken sentences.
3.) “It would’ve been different if there had been other women in the courtroom, but there were none” . “None” is a singular indefinite pronoun; therefore, the second independent clause should read: “there was none.”
4.) “The public sphere was devoid of women” . If I wrote this sentence, I would die inside.
5.) “Otherwise, only Penny moved” . Otherwise, what? chuckpalahniuk means: “Only Penny moved.”
6.) “Their professional faces slipped for a moment and became delighted smiles” . To which profession do the faces belong? How could a face “become” a “delighted smile”?
7.) “The first one pointed a finger at Penny, bound and helpless, watched by every masculine eye” . What makes an eye “masculine,” precisely? chuckpalahniuk confuses gender with sex.
8.) “The pair of men lifted the gurney to waist height” . The word “height” is superfluous.
9.) “Her world had been perfect, more or less” . “Perfection” is an absolute concept. There are no degrees of perfection. Something is either perfect, or it is not.
10.) “With apologies to Simone de Beauvoir, Penny didn’t want to be a third-wave anything” . Simone de Beauvoir did not live to read or hear the term “third-wave feminism,” nor did she invent the terms “first-wave” or “second-wave feminism,” nor did she even identify herself as a “first-wave” or “second-wave feminist.”
11.) “Open bottles of Evian had been left behind so quickly that they still fizzed” . Evian is mineral water, not effervescent, aerated, “sparkling” water. Therefore, Evian water does not “fizz.”
12.) “Dire as this situation seemed, Penny remained a lucky girl” . It is never a good idea to use the verb “to remain” in a novel (cf. Number Two). Avoid words that are too often coupled, such as “dire” and “situation,” “copious” and “notes,” “heated” and “debate,” “stark” and “contrast,” “devastating” and “loss,” “firm” and “believer,” “pregnant” and “pause,” etc. A few days after this book was published, I went to Google and typed “dire situation” in the search window, and 1,700,000 results virtualized.
13.) “She knew she sounded pathetic” . “Pathetic” is derived from the Greek pathos, which means “suffering.” Here, it is used in the stale colloquial sense: “She knew she sounded like a loser.” Generally speaking, novelists should write familiar things in an unfamiliar way, not familiar things in a familiar way.
14.) “Even to her own ears she sounded crazy ambitious” . That ought to read “crazily,” of course, but who cares? No one cares about writing these days. Writing has nothing to do with writing.
15.) “The night air was warm, but Penny felt a chill down her spine, exposed by the plunging back of her Vera Wang gown” . “To feel a chill down one’s spine” is, of course, a fossilized expression. In 2014, if you typed “chill down spine” into Google, 3,830,000 results appeared. The chuckies will claim, in advance, that every platitude is intentionally platitudinous. But an intentional platitude is still a platitude.
16.) “The crowd was visibly disappointed as the film star turned away” . “Visibly disappointed” is yet another dreary cliché. In 2014, it registered 2,020,000 results on Google.
17.) “Like a doctor or a scientist, his fingertips gripped her as if he was testing her blood pressure” . What kind of scientist would test a woman’s blood pressure? Why are there two similes that mean exactly the same thing in one sentence? And that should read: “as if he were.”
18.) “He poured in a smidgen more champagne and set the bottle aside” . The word “smidgen” is properly used to describe solid objects, not liquid. Have you ever heard someone ask for a smidgen of milk?
19.) “Under his gaze, Penny felt less like a woman than like a science experiment. A guinea pig or a laboratory rat” . I’ve never heard that one before.
20.) “Penny giggled, limp as a rag doll” . Strong writers rescramble and defamiliarize clichés. Weak writers, such as chuckpalahniuk, repeat them brainlessly.
21.) “A torrent of animal gibberish and profanities threatened to boil out of her mouth, and the digital recorder was running” . “Profanity” is a non-count noun, if one is above the age of five.
22.) “The packaging would be pink, but not obnoxiously” . That ought to read: “not obnoxiously pink,” “not obnoxious,” or “not obnoxiously so.” And “obnoxious,” etymologically, means “exposing to danger,” not “irritating” or “annoying.”
23.) “She slept like a baby” . A cliché is dead language, and this sentence is lifeless.
24.) “Savoring her reaction, the gloating genius waved to flag a waiter” . “Savoring her reaction” is a cliché, “gloating genius” is a clunker, and “waved to flag” is a tautology.
25.) “It didn’t help that people expected her to be ecstatic. No one wanted to hear the problems of a disappointed Cinderella; she was supposed to live happily ever after” . “Ecstatic” does not mean “happy”; it means “outside-of-oneself.”
26.) “He only wanted to test his tantric thingamajigs on her” . When words fail chuckpalahniuk, and they always do, he spews garbled baby talk. On the next page, chuckpalahniuk uses the clever term “doohickey.”
27.) “Penny wanted to believe that making love was more than just fiddling with nerve endings until harum-scarum chemicals squirted around limbic systems” . chuckpalahniuk really shows his age here: “harum-scarum.” Even his slang is out of date. If he keeps using superannuated slang, mentally defective fourteen-year-old boys will no longer read him (or his books).
28.) “Penny tried to steer the conversation” . In 2014, “steer the conversation” resulted in 8,080,000 hits on Google. Into what or toward what did Penny try to steer the conversation? Does chuckpalahniuk even care?
29.) “A voice near the back of the crowd called out, ‘Will it work on eggplants?'” . “Near the back of the crowd” is hideously awkward, and experienced speakers and writers of English know that “eggplant” is a non-count noun.
30.) “To cut her from the pack of other mothers, he complimented her appearance” . “Complimented her appearance” is a clanging bromide. To conjoin “cut” and “pack” is the to mix metaphors. And isn’t this a bit too much telling and not enough showing?
31.) “Despite his icy demeanor she sensed Max’s little-boy heart was breaking” . How many times in one’s life must one hear and read the phrase “icy demeanor”? There was a time when writers were admired by readers for writing sentences that readers could not write themselves. The chuckies admire the Ignoble Barnyard Yokel of Barnes and Noble for writing sentences that they COULD write themselves. Any talentless, increative imbecile could write a sentence such as the one that I cited above.
32.) “Penny followed his gaze to a girl cooling her heels on the sidewalk, her arms folded across her chest” . In the year in which this book was published, “to cool one’s heels” appeared 4,730,000 times on Google.
33.) “The majority of her coworkers listened, spellbound” . “The majority of” enfeebles the sentence. And “spellbound”! A few pages earlier, someone is described as “dumbfounded.” One comes to a work of literature to escape from verbal garbage, not to submerge oneself in it.
34.) “Weighing her words carefully, the Nebraska housewife said, ‘I bought you some of those Beautiful You doohickeys'” . And if chuckpalahniuk had weighed his words carefully, he would have known that “to weigh one’s words carefully” is a brain-deadening cliché.
35.) “The stench was appalling” . A talented writer knows how to conjure the stench of something, of anything, without flatly describing that stench as “appalling.”
36.) “The foolish lecher was already discarding his overcoat, his shirt, his pants” . Genuine literary artists eschew evaluative remarks (“foolish lecher”) and let the reader do the interpreting.
37.) “Voices shouted in the hallway outside” . Not inside, then?
38.) “In the stance of a sumo wrestler, she lackadaisically stroked herself with a short, knurled length of what looked like damp wood” . “Lackadaisically” kills the sentence. And that should read: “the short, knurled length,” if one insists on putting the words “short,” “knurled,” and “length” together.
39.) “Leaving the fireside, she waddled across the cave’s littered floor in search of something” [217-218]. “Littered” with what? As a stand-alone adjective, “littered” is fatuous.
40.) “Making quick work, she prompted the nanobots in her brain and bloodstream to create the overwhelming pleasure of Tom Berenger and Richard Thomas kissing her wetly on the lips and breasts” . “Making quick work” of what? To write, “making quick work” without specifying an object is idiotic. The novel takes place a few years in the future (circa 2018), and the “she” was born sometime in the 1990s. Why would a twenty-something American woman lust after superannuated actors such as Tom Berenger and Richard Thomas?
41.) Or Ron Howard?
42.) We are living in a culture in which there are more writers than there are readers.
43.) We are living in a culture in which even the slightest sign of intelligence is enough to throw a crowd into a rage, is enough to mobilize a mob. In such a culture, bacteria grow.
44.) Beautiful You resembles an ill-drawn cartoon.
45.) chuckpalahniuk and his drooling, foolish followers have murdered literature.
46.) Literature is dead.
47.) chuckpalahniuk is the least intelligent writer in America.
48.) He is a writer who does not know how to write who writes books for readers who do not know how to read.
49.) He is a contemptible, vile, low writer who pollutes bookstores, libraries, and bookshelves with his nauseating idiocy.
50.) Beautiful You is the twittering of a dimwitted twit.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATISM: An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS (William Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Poverty and underdevelopment are not God-given but are man-made, and can be unmade by man.”
—“The Move Forward,” Christopher Hitchens, 21 June 1971
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATIVISM
If you would like to know where your friends stand politically, you could do no better than give them The Tragedy of Coriolanus (circa 1605-1608) to read, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy but also his most politically reactionary play. If your friends side with Caius Martius Coriolanus, they are likely more conservative. If your friends side with the Roman crowd, they are likely more liberal.
The play is perhaps the prototypical poem of conservativism and even more politically conservative than The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which explains why the work is T.S. Eliot’s favorite play, why Hazlitt dislikes it so much, and why Brecht, the radical Marxist dramatist, turned Coriolanus into a fascist dictator in his 1951 reinterpretation of the tragedy. It does not explain, however, why Beethoven (a republican in the old sense of the word, someone who we would today call a liberal) wrote an overture in the general’s honor.
The most intelligent architects of modern political conservativism (including Hegel) are Machiavelli and Hobbes. One of the premises of modern political conservatism is an intuition that can be found in the writings of both Machiavelli and Hobbes: Do not trust the crowd, for the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious. If you trust in the crowd, you are likely a liberal. If you think that the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious, you are likely a conservative.
The rightist politics of The Tragedy of Coriolanus are evident from the very first scene on. It is a politics that is contemptuous of democracy.
STARVING THE POOR
When we first see him, Coriolanus is astride a horse, condemning the poor of Rome for demanding food to eat. He chastises the famishing wretches for having the temerity to beg for corn, for the criminal impertinence of demanding corn from the aristocracy. The crowd claims that the Roman nobility has more food than it could ever eat (“If they [the patricians] would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us [the poor] humanely” [I:i]); when he became consul, the real-world Coriolanus pledged to withhold food from the poor unless the rights of the poor were revoked. The most salient of these rights was the right to appeal to the tribunes, the representatives of the people—a right that was given to appease the people after the plebeian secession. The real-world Coriolanus loathed, more than anything, the system of tribunes, of the vocalizers (and influencers) of the popular will. Not only did the real-life Coriolanus deny the poor corn after he became consul, demanding the rescission of the rights of the poor—he demanded that their spokesmen be divested of power, as well.
The Tragedy of Coriolanus was composed at a time of grain shortage, when hunger in England reached near-famine levels. The insurrection of the Roman people does not recall Ancient Roman history at all; it recalls the Midlands Revolt of 1607, as well as the insurgencies and rebellions in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire, which were fomented in response to insufficient harvests and the food-hoarding of the English aristocracy. There is even the appearance of English mills in the grain of the text (“’Tis south the city mills” [I:x])—as the 1878 Clarendon edition glosses, this refers to the mills of London, not those of Rome. As is always the case in Shakespeare, though the subject matter is historical, the play is presentist, not antiquarian: It is a work that concerns not Roman antiquity, properly, but the Elizabethan present in which Shakespeare is writing.
We are supposed to believe that the macerating poor have no right to ask for food, that they should starve to death rather than importune Coriolanus, who alone has the right to the things of necessity (food, shelter, clothing), to comfort, and to pleasure. He even makes fun of the words that they use (“an-hungry” is the demotic style, a low-class colloquialism): “[The poor] said they were an-hungry” [I:i]. The poor “sighed forth proverbs— / That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat, / That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only” [I:i]. These all might be platitudes, as Coriolanus points out (some of which were emblazoned on placards held aloft by the unruly crowd in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 cinematic interpretation), but who has the right to tell the hungry that they are not hungry? And what arrogance it is to mock the hungry for articulating their hunger and for clamoring to satisfy their hunger! Coriolanus repudiates the poor for the need to put food in their stomachs. The brutality and factuality of hunger are undeniable. Coriolanus is saying, in essence, “I don’t want to hear about your hunger” with the same incensed dismissiveness and lofty indifference with which Chris Christie said that he doesn’t want to hear the New Jersey poor talk about raising the minimum wage (it has been raised twenty-five cents to a grudging $8.85 in the year in which I am revising this essay, 2019).
How dare the poor beg for bread! How dare they insist that their stomachs be filled! For their irreducibly human need to eat, the poor are called “dissentious rogues” [I:i]—rascally wretches and wretched beggars. The a priori assumption is as follows: The more the poor have, the less the nobility has. The less the poor have, the more the nobility has. The hungrier the poor are, the more prosperous the nobility. The humiliation and immiseration of the poor lead to the dignity and luxury of the rich: “The leanness that afflicts us [the poor, the miserable], the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them” [I:i]. The starvation of the poor equals the elevation of the nobility, and the fetid, contaminating sewer water of the poor should never flow into a conflux with the pure waters of the nobility. Thus, Martius espouses an Ancient-Roman precursor of trickle-down economics: Feed the rich, and perhaps, someday, scraps shall fall from their table, scraps on which the poor may snack.
Martius has a granular understanding of the poor. He sees the poor as if they were so many grains of corn, so many motes, so many “fragments” [I:i]; he sees them not as individual totalities, but as disjointed pieces broken from the whole of the Roman commonality. He even welcomes crushing them in the war against the Volscians: “Then we shall ha’ means to vent / Our musty superfluity” [I:i]. They are either grains of corn or vermin verminizing England. For the crime of hunger, Martius expresses the wish that the poor be mass-exterminated in the Roman-Volscian war, as if they were rats: “The Volsces have much corn. Take these rats thither / To gnaw their garners” [I:i]. (Garners = granaries.) Send them to the wars! Coriolanus echoes exactly what the Roman poor say about the patricians—to the wealthy, the poor are either fodder for the war or starvelings: “If the wars eat us not up, they will” [I:i].
The play itself is on the side of Coriolanus, not on the side of the poor. Already, in the first scene, this is evident. To be clear to the point of bluntness: The play’s glorification of Coriolanus makes the tragedy a reactionary, rightist, ultraconservative work of dramatic literature. If I am wrong about this (and I am not), why are the poor not presented in a poetical manner? Only Coriolanus is enshrined with poetical loftiness and lyrical magnificence. The poor are not given a poetical voice. Only Coriolanus is given a poetical voice. The reason for this might be, as Hazlitt writes, that the principle of poetry is “everything by excess” and is therefore married with the language of power. Poetry is not about equality; it is about the contrast (the dissymmetry) between the low and the high. Poverty is not an easy subject for poetry, which is nothing without elevated moods and elevated language. It is, of course, possible to write a poem about food stamps, but it is not possible to write a good poem about food stamps without some poetical sublimation or fantastication. Hazlitt’s idea is that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is fascistic (though he does not use this word, writing, as he did, in 1816) because poetry is fascistic by its very essence. This would be to view the politics of the play through the speculum of poetry rather than to explain the poetry of the play through the speculum of politics.
THE INFANTICIDAL MOTHER
Coriolanus’s war-loving and war-mongering mother is living vicariously through her soldier-son. Volumnia, the bellicose mater, only becomes peace-loving when her son wages a war against her country, Rome [I will return to this point below].
The real mother of Coriolanus was named Veturia, and the real-world wife was named Volumnia. It is extraordinary to notice that Shakespeare gives the fictional mother the name of Coriolanus’s real-world wife.
Indeed, there is a disturbing sexuality between mother and son in the play. The mother says to Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife, in prose, “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed, where he would show most love” [I:iii]. The mother is projecting herself, through the medium of the imagination, into the mind of Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife. But this is trifling chitchat when set against the epiphany: The mother is imagining what it would be like to have sex with her own son. Even more arrestingly shocking and shockingly arresting is the recognition: The mother would rather her son die in war than have sex with anyone (else?), as her succeeding remark makes clear. Asked the sensible question of what she would think if her son died in combat, the mother responds that “his good report” (the report of his war death) should have been her son: “I therein would have found issue” [I:iii]. “Issue” here is meant in the original sense of “offspring,” and the flabbergasting implication is that her son will only fulfill his human promise when pierced by the sharp end of the enemy’s sword. She continues: “Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” [I:iii]. Not only is the mother introjecting herself, imaginarily, into the role of her son’s wife; she is declaring to this same wife that the mother would rather her son put his life at stake on the slaughterfield than enjoy the pleasures of the bed (“voluptuously surfeit out of action”). This implies, again, that she has imagined having sexual intercourse with her own son and that she is gleefully anticipating her son’s lethal besmearing. She would have him become a “thing of blood” [II:ii].
The mother’s dark romance with her son takes the form of violence and death. Volumnia salivatingly counts the scars that had been inflicted and inscribed on her son’s body at the expulsion of the Tarquins, cataloguing his wounds with malicious lust (“malicious,” “maliciously,” or “malice,” used eleven times in the text, is one of the most signifying words in the play): “There will be large cicatrices to show the people when he shall stand for his place. He received in the repulse of Tarquin seven hurts i’th’ body” [II:i]. She proudly numbers the sum of her son’s wounds at twenty-five—“He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him” [II:i]—and is gushingly elated to learn that the number has increased to twenty-seven. Menenius, the substitute father, is overjoyed to learn that his substitute son Coriolanus has been wounded in the Battle of Corioli. He is delighted to report that the surrogate son has been wounded “[i]’th’ shoulder and i’th’ left arm” [II:i].
Lawrence Olivier would giggle uncontrollably as he read the line in which Volumnia declares her willingness to perform six of Hercules’ labors (“If you had been the wife of Hercules, / Six of his labours you’d have done and saved / Your husband so much sweat” [IV:i]), but is it so difficult to conceive the woman hacking away with a sword at the Hydra? She is a militaristic machine, and, as I have argued, one who would rather see her only son killed on the slaughterfield than catch him in bed with a woman. War, or the vicarious experience of war, is motherly pleasure for Volumnia.
Ralph Fiennes was very wise to put Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) in a military uniform that vaguely resembles a uniform of the Yorkshire Regiment of the British Army in his film interpretation of the play. Her role as military commandant (for what else is she?) supersedes her role as a mother. She cares more about Martius’s military victories than about his well-being. No, worse than that: She is seized with a kind of bloodlust, and this is absolutely evident in the following lines: “[Blood] more becomes a man / Than gilt his trophy / The breasts of Hecuba / When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier / Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword contemning” [I:iii].
Martius fights for the mother, in the name of the mother. No wonder he is psychologically stultified—never developing into an adult with the consciousness of an adult, never loosening or severing dependency on the mother. No wonder he doesn’t know how to talk to the common people, no wonder he cares only for himself and for his mother (for the mother is the origin of his selfhood), no wonder he hoards the grain for himself and for his peers. His loyalty to his motherland is loyalty to his mother Volumnia.
Consider that Coriolanus is a mother-obsessed fascist, and this consideration gives one insight into the psychology of fascist consciousness: Overmothered mammothrepts become fascists (Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), anyone?). Martius was a fascist long before the word existed. For the word fascism comes from the Latin fascis, which means “bundle,” and under fascism, an entire society is bundled around a single authoritarian leader. Martius is bundled by the mother.
War is an industry. Beyond the psychodynamic dimensions of her relation to her son, does Volumnia not also have a financial interest in her son’s military victories? When Martius defeats the Volscians, the defeat of the Volscians benefits Rome. If Martius, now “Coriolanus,” as the Volscian general, were to defeat Rome, this would obviously erode the mother’s position of authority. We see, in the play, that familial relationships are also financial relationships. Volumnia has a relation to her son that reminds one of the financial and erotic interest that Donald Trump takes in his daughter Ivanka Trump. What benefits Rome benefits Volumnia. His victories against Volsci are her political and financial victories. Though she says that she would rather have the entire city perish than lose her son, could this be because Volumnia believes that the city will perish without her son?
KILLING MACHINE (NEARLY) BECOMES CONSUL
To say that Martius is a great soldier would be a gross understatement. He is an army-annihilating zombie, an anthropomorphic mega-drone, a super-tank in human form. He hospitalizes the best fighters and slaughters everyone else. His worthiest enemy, Aufidius, flees for his life, is driven away breathless by Martius five times [I:x]. Martius is pure lethality and neither Volsci nor Rome can win a war without him when he is on the other side.
Martius surges into Volsci and besieges the city of Corioli. The Roman senate and the Roman people are so impressed with the besiegement and with his military performance that they nominate Martius consul and rename him with the cognomen “Coriolanus,” named after the toponym “Corioli.” Thus begins the becoming-Volscian of Martius. The mother seems dismayed by the renaming of her Caius Martius: “‘Coriolanus’ must I call thee?” [II:i]. The re-nomination of Martius as “Coriolanus” marks the beginning of the veering-away from the mother, which will be short-lived.
The soldier soon proves to be an inept statesman—he shows such contempt for the plebeians that they reject him as consul, as his appointment is not confirmed, and expel him from the city of Rome.
The brutishness and arrogance of Coriolanus are fitting for a soldier, but less than fitting for a statesman. As I suggested above, he does not know how to speak to the commoners; he has no feeling for the commonal. He is the skillful military general who cannot function as a politician. He is reluctant to speak to the people after being nominated consul [II:ii], as he is reluctant to canvass them for votes [II:iii]; when he does address the people directly, it is almost always with disgust. Coriolanus’s language defeats him.
When Coriolanus declares, “I banish you” [III:iii] to the mob, it is as if he were a disgruntled ex-employee who, seconds after being fired, shouts at his employer: “You can’t fire me; I fire you!” A woman breaks up with her boyfriend. The erstwhile boyfriend shoots back: “You want to break up with me? I am breaking up with you!” Coriolanus is every bit as childish as the ex-employee and the rejectee—he is a child-adult or an adult-infant.
The Romans estrange Coriolanus, literally: They turn him into a stranger, a transformation which was presaged by his name change. When he is re-nominated “Coriolanus,” it is not long thereafter until the people of Rome see him as a foreigner, as though he were a resident of Corioli. The Romans see Coriolanus now as a foreigner, but are the Romans not foreigners to Coriolanus? Along the same lines: The Romans see the Volscians as foreigners, but are the Volscians not foreigners to the Romans? The Volscians have vanished into the abysses of history, but they were a formicine tribe that gathered south of Rome—“formicine” (ant-like) only because they dwelled upon the hills of what is now Southern Italy. When Coriolanus is repatriated to Volsci, why do we see this as a betrayal? Why are so many of us pious toward the country in which we were born? Why is Rome the home-space—especially considering that Coriolanus was a stranger in “his” own motherland? Why are the marshland people of Volsci the strangers? Why do the swamps and hills of Volsci form a shadowzone?
THE PRIVATE AND THE PUBLIC
Coriolanus is incapable of separating his public and private selves. (For a discussion of the separation of public and private selves in bourgeois society, see Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche.) As far as I can tell, he only gives one soliloquy, in the fourth scene of the first act (“You souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men…”)—this is the only time in the play when he is alone. Otherwise, he is forever enrounded by other people.
If Coriolanus does not understand the difference between the public and the private, this is likely because his mother never taught him the difference between the public and the private. Indeed, his mother nurtured him to become a soldier, thus confusing his familial and public roles. We see this confusion of roles clearly in the moving scene of reconciliation between mother and son. Martius’s tearful discourse with his own mother would have been more appropriate in private, not held before an audience of Volscian thugs. His exhibition gives Aufidius free hand to taunt him for being a mamma’s boy.
Coriolanus has the tendency to say whatever comes to his mind without filter. A particularly illustrative example of Coriolanus’s tendency to blurt things that should not be said in public: He asks the Roman senate to forgo the custom of requiring the nominee to the consulship to speak to the people. This is a custom, he says, that “might well / Be taken from the people” [II:ii]. Now, as the editors of the Arden edition point out, the outrageousness and inflammatoriness of this remark could be soothed somewhat if we imagine that he is addressing his remarks to Menenius. In Ralph Fiennes’ contemporization, a live microphone picks up Coriolanus’s careless remark—which should not have been heard by the people and certainly not by the tribunes. In the film, at least, he didn’t intend for anyone but Menenius to hear what he said.
The one exception to his ignorance of the distinction between the private and public spheres is when Coriolanus tells a citizen, from whom he would solicit votes, that he has “wounds to show [the citizen] which shall be [his] in private” [II:iii]. The crowd unjustly resents him for not displaying his stigmata in the agora (yes, I know this is a Greek and not a Latin term).
His public and private languages are mixed together, as Menenius acknowledges: Coriolanus is “ill-schooled / In bolted language. Meal and bran together / He knows without distinction” [III:i]. Coriolanus cannot disengage crass language (bran) from diplomatic language (meal); he cannot distinguish the crude from the pure. He speaks insultingly when the language of diplomacy would be more appropriate.
HIS LEAST FAVORITE WORDS
There are four words that “trigger” Coriolanus, and they are kindly, shall, traitor, and boy. When these words are said to him, in certain contexts, he loses his mind.
Lucius Sicinius Vellutus dispenses with personal pronouns when he gives Coriolanus a command: “It is a mind that shall remain a poison / Where it is, not poison any further” [III:i; emphasis mine].
Coriolanus’s response: “Mark you his absolute ‘shall’?” [III:i]. The shall is described by Coriolanus as coming from the “horn and noise o’th’ monster’s” [III:i], one of the vocalizers / influencers of the will-to-power of the people.
What incenses Coriolanus is the absolute, peremptory command of the people—the relativization of the desired absoluteness of his will-to-power. The nobility no longer has absolute authority if it shall submit to the will-to-power of the people. The shall announces the conflux of the plebeians and the patricians, or indeed the subordination of the patricians to the plebeians, which is exemplified by Coriolanus’s metaphor of the crows pecking the eagles: “Thus we debase / The nature of our seats… and bring in / The crows to peck the eagles” [III:i]. The crows raiding the eagles’ aeries are the poor and their tribunes; the eagles are the patricians.
When Sicinius calls Coriolanus a “traitor,” this incites from Coriolanus a torrent of insults, a full-throated denunciation of the people: “The fires i’th’ lowest hell fold in the people!” [III:iii]. One Word instigates the total denunciation of the people—and this means that One Word is what drives Coriolanus into / brings on the sentence of banishment, causes his expulsion from the city of Rome.
The third word, boy, spoken as a taunt by Aufidius, prompts a recognition of what Coriolanus is: an adult-infant. Insults only hurt us when we recognize them as truthful. Is it not thinkable, then, that Coriolanus is a boy?
HE LEAVES ROME
Coriolanus sallies forth from Rome and resituates himself in Antium, the capital of Volsci and home to Aufidius, leader of the Volscians. (Antium is present-day Anzio, a coastal city in the South of Italy.) He then does what anyone in his state would do: He joins the opposite side and fights against the civilization that nurtured him. Of course, this is a non sequitur: It doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to defection. It certainly doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to war against the country that banishes you.
I imagine that others might say that Coriolanus, chewing off the umbilicus, is developing into a full-blown individual. This, however, is doubtful, given that he becomes no one at all [I shall return to this point below].
Coriolanus seeks a “world elsewhere” [III:iii]: the other-world of Volsci, the very city against which he sallied as a general. In the introduction to the Arden edition of the play, Peter Holland makes the brilliant point that liminal spaces (such as the sea) are not enough for Coriolanus. The warrior must either have his way or defect to the other side—there is no medium, no middle ground for him. He wages a war against Rome after he doesn’t get what he wants, leading the Volscian army against Rome and its territories in a strike of vengeance. The Muttersohn becomes dragon: Initially, he goes alone to Antium, “[l]ike to a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes feared and talked of more than seen” [IV:i]. He approaches the dragon (Aufidius) and then becomes the dragon of the Volscians, “fight[ing] dragon-like” [IV:vii] against the land of his birth. Notice the draconic metaphor used by Menenius: “This Marcius is grown / from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a / creeping thing” [V:iv].
THE RECONCILIATION WITH MOTHER ROME
Incubated by the mother, Caius Martius crawls out of the womb a super-soldier who single-handedly massacres entire populations, armies and civilians alike. Now, the mother-obsessed soldier turns against the motherland. This leads one to wonder: Is Coriolanus’s hatred for Rome not powered by an unconscious hatred for his mother? Is Coriolanus’s draconic attack on Rome not also a tacit attack on his mother? When disclaims Rome, is he not also disclaiming his mother?
Menenius, the substitute father, appeals to Coriolanus in vain. Only Coriolanus’s mother moves her son to give up his campaign of vengeance against Rome; he gives up his antipathy for Rome after the mother arrives and pleads with her son to stop fighting against the Roman people. She smothers the blaze of his hatred with her tears. Martius only knows two extremes, two antipodes: He is either mother’s infant, or he is a repatriated zombie who fights against his motherland.
Turning against the mother, Coriolanus was reduced to a “kind of nothing” [V:i], as Cominius identified him. When his mother (accompanied by his wife and his son) creeps into the enemy camp, there is an emotional spectacle in front of the dead-hearted army thugs; only then does he show human feeling. I consider this to be the most emotionally powerful scene in the whole of Shakespeare—someone who is a cipher, a zero, becomes human, even though he never becomes completely human. It is as if the mother is giving birth to him a second time—it is a palingenesis rather than a genesis.
In the real world, the mother’s intercession was an act for which the statue of Fortuna was established; the act was blessed by the memorial. The mother and the wife are memorialized for ending the siege on Rome: “The ladies have prevailed” [V:iv]; “Behold your patroness, the life of Rome!” [V:v]. And yet the reconciliation between Rome and Volsci was merely a surface reconciliation: The Volscians did later launch unsuccessful sallies against the Romans, all of which were squelched.
I hold that The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens are among Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishments as a playwright. While these plays are by no means unknown, they are certainly much less known and celebrated than the overrated The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Particularly, I second T.S. Eliot’s opinion that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is immeasurably superior to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Of course, Hamlet will kill Claudius, usurper and parricide; there is no surprise in that. His vacillations are a mere plot contrivance to temporize until the inescapable killing of the stepfather; as I will argue in my essay on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the play is about the problem of free will, but this is not the right place to pursue this argument. Whereas the conflict in Hamlet is simple, the conflict within Coriolanus is much more complex. Coriolanus’s decisions to finesse a conciliation of the Volscians and a reconciliation of Volsci and Rome must be understood in psychodynamic terms as reconciliation with the mother and as the return to the uterus.
All seems well until Aufidius defames Coriolanus to the Volscians and takes away his “stolen name” [V:vi], stripping him of his cognomen. He instead refers to him by his birth name—Martius—thus symbolically reverting his opponent to his infant status. Martius is then hacked to death by Aufidius’s conspirators, a move which is itself a form of infantile regression.
The terrifying mob assault at the end of the play recalls the dismemberment of Pentheus beneath the talons of the crazed Maenads at the end of Euripedes’ Bacchae. Coriolanus is torn to pieces, ripped to shreds, by the blades of Aufidius’s assassins, while they chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” [V:vi]. The mob cheers them on; the mob has not forgotten that Coriolanus has widowed and orphaned so many of them.
The climax is suggesting: If you try to eat the mob, then the mob will eat you. The mob wants to eat Coriolanus. And Coriolanus wants to eat the mob. That is to say: The rich are eating up the poor at the beginning of the play: “If the wars eat us [the poor] not up, they [the rich] will” [I:i]. Coriolanus is feasting upon the poor, consuming the poor, ingurgitating the poor, who will then be ejected from Coriolanus’s anus.
Two figures run throughout the play: the figure of eating-the-poor and the figure of being-eaten-by-the-poor. The second appears at the close of the play, wherein Martius is devoured by the mob. At the climax, it is indeed the poor who are devouring the rich. Both figures nourish my suspicion that politics is largely about food. Those who are more conservative want to hoard all the food for themselves; those who are more liberal want to distribute the food evenly. Coriolanus is keeping pace with his promise. Knifed as the mob shouts for his blood, Coriolanus is realizing the supreme desires of his mother which have always been his own.
A review of A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (Dave Eggers)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
All novels may be taxonomized into three categories: There are novels of plot, novels of character, and novels of language. A novel of plot is driven by a story that could be synopsized without damaging the novel itself. Simply read an outline of the plot, and there is no reason for you to read the novel. A novel of character creates–or should create–living-seeming, recognizably human figures. But these figures, of course, are nothing more than fabrications, nothing more than chimeras that seem to breathe and talk. A novel of language makes worlds out of words.
Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King (2012) is a novel of character, I suppose, but it doesn’t really work as a novel of character. Nor does it work on any other level. It must be said of this miserable little drip of a book that it fails as a plot-driven narrative, that it fails as the portrait of a character, and that it fails as a work of language.
Eggers has the tendency to write novels that are based on American high-school standards. You Shall Know Our Velocity–a novel that is as sincere as those fraternity boys who raise money for the homeless–is based on On the Road. The Circle is based on Nineteen Eighty-Four. A Hologram for the King is based on Death of a Salesman and En attendant Godot (the epigraph is from Beckett’s play: “It is not every day that we are needed”). En attendant Godot is about the stupidities of faith, the stupidities of eschatology, and the infinitely postponed arrival (or non-arrival) of the Messiah. And yet Egger’s Messiah arrives! If Eggers wanted a classic about the degradations of growing old on which to model his tale, he should have turned to Bellow. Henderson the Rain King, anyone?
Alan Clay is a semi-employed fifty-four-year-old former bicycle manufacturer who is contracted by Reliant, a major IT company, to introduce King Abdullah to a holographic projection system. The inaction takes place in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), Saudi Arabia. Every day, Alan and his enviably young colleagues wait in the desert for the arrival of King Abdullah.
Novels do not need to be realistic, but they ought to be convincing, and the question of probability comes up more than a few times. If Alan is indeed “superfluous to the forward progress of the world” , why is he employed by the largest IT company of that same world and promised $500,000 if he succeeds in persuading King Abdullah to purchase the holographic projection system?
The novel is a novel about late arrivals, and Alan and his “Other” are forever arriving late to the party: Alan is too late to save his neighbor Charlie Fallon from self-drowning, Alan wakes up late on the day of his scheduled meeting with King Abdullah, Alan is “too late” (read: “too old”) to be sexually potent, King Abdullah himself arrives late, etc. I would advise prospective readers to never arrive.
As synaesthetes know, everything has a color. Eggers’s washout is not exactly an iridescent character. He is relentlessly grey.
A character should be, to paraphrase the Hegel of Die Phänomenologie des Geistes, an assemblage of Alsos. That is: A character should not be one thing. A character should not be simple. A character should not be one-sided. A character should be this AND ALSO that AND ALSO that. Each of these traits should contradict one another. Since human beings are complexly self-contradictory, why should characters not be, as well?
Regrettably, Eggers’s main character is flatter than a Fruit Roll-Up. Alan is a never-was and has never been anything besides a never-was.
While waiting for King Abdullah, Alan meets (guess who!) two sexually prepossessing young women: a gorgeous blonde Dutch consultant named Henne and a Saudi physician named Zahra Hakem who is intrigued by the knob-like excrescence on the back of his neck. At one stage, Alan imagines that his cyst has sexual powers. I could imagine the entire novel centering on the sexuality of Alan’s cyst, but no, that would have been too daring. This is a Dave Eggers novel, after all.
Each appointment leads to a sexual disappointment. Henne offers Alan sexual release in the bathtub of her hotel room, but Alan prefers the “purity” and “simplicity”  of the bath water instead. Dr. Zahra swims topless with Alan (this, apparently, is done all of the time in Islamic countries), but her toplessness does not lead to a toplessness-inspired act of sexual release.
Eggers simply cannot let his ageing protagonist be sexually uninteresting to women. Even though the novel pretends to be an allegory about the downfall of America in an age of globalism, it is really an all-American wish-fulfillment fantasy. Are we credulous enough to believe that the generously breasted blonde Dutch consultant is sexually desperate? And that Dr. Zahra lusts after Alan’s knobby cyst? Apparently, Eggers thinks that we are.
Eggers is more of a summarizer than he is a dramatizer. He tells more than he shows. An example (from the novel’s opening salvo):
[Alan] had not planned well. He had not had courage when he needed it. / His decisions had been short sighted [sic]. / The decisions of his peers had been short sighted [sic]. / These decisions had been foolish and expedient. / But he hadn’t known at the time that his decisions were short sighted [sic], foolish or expedient. He and his peers did not know that they were making decisions that would leave them, leave Alan, as he now was–virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office .
Now, a hard-working writer would do the grueling work of showing us Alan’s failures and shortcomings rather than telling us about Alan’s failures and shortcomings. Eggers is less of a writer than a publicist. The passage quoted above reads as if it came from a query letter addressed to a literary agent.
Wading through the brackish waters and the fetid marshlands of Eggers’s prose is not much fun. I never once got the impression that the writer was groping for the right word. To say that Eggers’s prose style wants elegance and richness would be a gross understatement. His word choices are banal and obvious, his vocabulary is restricted, his writing style is plain, his paragraphs are dull. To describe Alan’s dispute with Banana Republic over a one-time purchase that has killed his credit score, Eggers writes, doltishly, “Alan tried to reason with them” . This sentence could not have been written any more unpoetically and is yet another instance of the lazy “telling” of an unqualified writer rather than of the laborious “showing” which is incumbent on every responsible writer of fiction.
Eggers’s writing is so bad that it is almost ghoulish.
I have heard it said of Eggers that he is a man who is “easy on the eyes,” and I have no doubt that this is true. (His lecteurial admirers have a purely phenomenal interest in the writer. That is to say, they don’t care about the writing; they are only interested in the writer qua man.) Though I am not an adroit evaluator of male beauty, I suspect that Eggers-the-Man is indeed “easy on the eyes.” It is a pity that the same could not be said of the books that he types.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
A review of O, DEMOCRACY! by Kathleen Rooney
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Books are like lovers. Some are easy; others are hard to get.
If books are like lovers, and surely they are, most American novels are like ************. They spread their pages for the firstcomer. They lay their mysteries bare. They are accessible to all. And they, and the experiences they afford, tend to be forgettable.
O, Democracy! (2014) might be easy to read, but its mysteries are not easily exhausted.
D.H. Lawrence, in Fantasia of the Unconscious, writes:
“I count it as a misfortune that serious books are exposed in the public market, like slaves exposed naked for sale. But there we are, since we live in an age of mistaken democracy, we must go through with it.”
O, Democracy! which concerns mistaken democracy, has received a great deal of media attention because of its autobiographical sources. The book, after all, centers on a twenty-eight-year old intern who works for the Senior Senator of Illinois circa 2008. The authoress, Professor Kathleen Rooney, worked as a United States Senate Aide between the years of 2007 and 2010. One should avoid making simple equations between the novel and Professor Rooney’s life, however. Her main character is named Colleen Dugan, not Colleen Mooney. And the Senator is named “the Senator,” not Nick Nurbin, Rick Rurbin, or Mick Murbin.
Colleen discovers a videotape. It is a videotape that could annihilate the Senator’s rival, a Republican Congressman named Ron Reese Ryder who is likely a composite of the many Republican Congressmen who bash gays in the name of Christianity and yet suppurate in Super-8s and fake love in Taco Bell restrooms. Will Colleen choose the mountain road of morality? Or will she choose the underpass of politics? You will have to read the book to find out.
As I was deciphering this book–which is very funny, by the way, and blissfully free of clichés–I played a game which one might call “Let’s Find the Referents!” “What is the writer alluding to?” I asked myself again and again as I read.
To what is Professor Rooney alluding when she writes of a film that “feature[s] two actors from a late-night sketch comedy program as the hosts of an improbably successful cable access show broadcast from the basement of a suburban home” ?
This could only be Wayne’s World (1992), a film that I have never had the desire to see.
Is the “Rapacious British Oil Company” British Petroleum? It must be.
The “Alabama woman” who refused to “move to the back of the bus”  is obviously Rosa Parks.
The “Alaskan hockey mom [who] pays lipsticked lip service to feminism without actually saying the F-word”  is certainly Sarah Palin.
Most of the allusions, as you can tell, are not difficult to figure out, but every now and then there is an obscure allusion. Consider, for instance, the “book-length essay” given to Colleen by her husband Walter. It contains this description of Chicago:
“Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch… you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real” [qtd. in 227].
To my ear, the prose cited sounds precisely like the prose of H.L. Mencken. I was dismayed to find out that I was wrong! No, it is not the great Mencken. The passage comes from Nelson Algren. Thank Google for Google.
All of the allusions–absolutely all of them, as far as I can tell–are exophoric. Exophora is a term that linguists use to describe a reference that points to something outside of a given field of language. It is a bit like trying to solve an equation with a variable: A=X. We know what ‘A’ is. But what is ‘X’? The reader’s experiences in the world will shape the answers to these questions.
* * * * *
One of the most enduring writing-teacher clichés is: “Show, don’t tell!”
What, precisely, does this mean?
Narrative is the way in which the storyteller–not the author, but the figure who is telling the story–makes things known. (Narrative is derived from the Latin adjective gnarus, which means “knowing,” and which, in turn, may be traced back to the Greek gnosis, “knowledge.”)
There are two ways of making things known: by showing the reader things and by telling the reader things.
When a narrator shows us things, s/he describes them, illuminates them, makes them visible, audible, etc.
The writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet are perhaps the clearest examples of this tendency.
When a narrator tells us things, s/he informs us what something means.
The writings of Thomas Mann are perhaps the clearest examples of this tendency.
O, Democracy! shows and tells in equal measure. Professor Rooney writes essayistically, at times. We are notified that Gina Moretti, Press Secretary, is “terrifying and a miser with praise” . We are informed that Colleen “feels f***ing horrible”  after she discovers the videotape. Anti-abortion protesters are “[v]ituperative” and “sanctimonious” . And so forth and so on.
And yet, and yet. There is vivid description, as well. As Colleen walks through the Federal Plaza, the “red-orange stabile of a giant flamingo reveals itself to her right” . For those of you unfamiliar with Chicago, that is a fifty-ton steel sculpture sculpted by Alexander Calder. Pure description without metaphor or simile. Anti-abortionist protesters storm the thirty-eighth floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building at 230 South Dearborn Street. One of them has a poster with this image: “The smeared roadkill mess of the twig-limbed fetus on an anonymous white sheet” . Good use of metaphors. One of my favorite characters, and one of Colleen’s least favorite characters, is a vapid-but-fun former cheerleader named Jennifer Whitlock or “J-Lock.” Here is how her phenomenality is described: “She has a baked-on tan and breasts that sit on her chest like snowglobes” . Good use of a simile, there. Here is another simile well-used: “[The Senator’s] fleshy cheeks frame his face like plump steaks.” That is a simile equal to the best of John Cheever. And these are the sentences I prize the most: “As it is, the air is dead and still. It feels emulsified, almost colloidal–the individual water particles floating suspended” .
Now, those are sentences worthy of Suglia, which is the highest praise that I could accord to another living author. And not only are these sentences wonderful. The entire book is crackling with wonderful sentences. Kathleen Rooney, poetess and essayist, offers us the perfect synthesis of illumination and information.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
Corregidora / Corrigenda
by Joseph Suglia
A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. All of us have heard the words “Never forget!” in reference to the Shoah. Most are familiar with Kristallnacht, with the Names Project, also known as “the AIDS Quilt.” The March for Humanity memorializes the mass-murder of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Every year, at this time in April, the Rwandan government urges its citizens to kwibuka—the Rwandan word for “to remember.” To kwibuka, to remember the countless Tutsis who were slaughtered in the massacre of 1994.
But how should one respond when genocide is misremembered? Is the misremembrance of genocide superior to the forgetting of genocide?
Which is worse, distortion or oblivion?
Is it worse to minimize, for example, the number of Armenians who were killed at the beginning of the twentieth century, or to forget that the genocide of Armenians ever occurred?
The most dominant medium of the twentieth century was the cinema, and the cinema still has the power to shape, and to misshape, collective memory.
Over the past seven years, a talentless hack filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino has manufactured films that I would not hesitate to describe as “genocide pornography.” That is to say, these are films that would turn genocide into an object of consumption, an object of enjoyment. These are also films that disfigure historical consciousness.
Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the succeeding generation might believe that the Jews defeated the Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, they might believe that Hitler was assassinated. They might believe that, in general, African slaves rose up and overcame their enslavers. They might believe that every African slave in antebellum America was a free agent. Not an insurrectionist like Nat Turner, but an action figure like Django.
But what if misremembrance were not a disfiguration or a distortion of memory? What if misremembrance plays a constitutive and formative role in memory itself?
Freudian psychoanalysis has something to say about the interpenetration of remembrance and misremembrance.
At the earliest stage of his career, between the years 1895 and 1897, Freud formulated what is called “seduction theory.” Seduction theory is based on the idea that sexual trauma is pathogenic—that is, that sexual abuse produces neuroses.
Freud rejected seduction theory in 1897, but this does not mean that he silenced the voices of abused children. From the beginning of his career until its end, Freud never ceased to emphasize that sexual trauma has pathological effects.
Why did Freud reject seduction theory? Because it was too linear, too simple, because it did not take into consideration the supremacy of the unconscious.
The memory of sexual trauma, Freud recognized, might be repressed, sublimated, externalized, transferred, reintrojected, reimagined, or fictionalized.
This does not mean that when children claim that they have been sexually abused, they are lying. It means, rather, that experiences of abuse pass through the imagination and the imagination passes through the unconscious. Seduction theory did not take the imagination—die Phantasie—into account and therefore had to be abandoned.
The unconscious, as Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fleiss, does not distinguish between fact and fantasy.
It is difficult for a victim of abuse to acknowledge his or her trauma directly, and Freud knew this. Sexual trauma, after it occurs, does not manifest itself directly or immediately, but epiphenomenally—that is to say, symptomatically. It shows itself in disguise. It dramatizes itself. It retraumatizes. It might be phantasmatically reconstituted.
From the Freudian standpoint, remembrance and misremembrance are not mutually exclusive.
There is a third form of misremembrance that I would like to pause over. It is the kind of anamnesis or déjà vu when an individual recollects not her own individual history, but the history of past generations, the history of her ancestors. Cultural memory, seen from this perspective, would be a form of misremembrance.
Such misremembrance could only be figured in art.
The literature of Gayl Jones reminds us that the remembrance of personal trauma always contains a cultural dimension, that all memory is misremembrance.
The past that you have experienced is not the past that you remember.
When I first heard the title of Jones’s first novel — Corregidora (published in 1975) — I thought it was “corrigenda.”
Corrigenda: a list of errors in a published manuscript.
* * * * *
At the novel’s opening, lounge singer Ursa Corregidora is shoved down a staircase by her husband, Mutt — a catastrophic blow that results in her infertility. After she renounces her husband, Ursa enters into a relationship with Tadpole, the owner of the Happy Café, the bar at which she performs. Like all of her significant relationships with men, this second relationship proves disastrous and is doomed to failure.
Every man in the novel, without exception, sees Ursa as a “hole” — that is, as a beguiling and visually appealing receptacle to be penetrated. The narrative suggests this on the figural level. A talented novelist, Jones weaves images of orifices throughout her text — tunnels that swallow and tighten around trains, lamellae such as nostrils, mouths, wounds, etc. Although one of Ursa’s “holes” is barren, another “hole” is bountifully “prosperous” — her mouth, from which the “blues” issue. A movement of sonic exteriorization corresponds to a counter-movement of physiological interiorization.
It is easy to be trapped by these more immediate, socio-sexual dimensions of the narrative. Corregidora might seem, prima facie, to be nothing more than another novel about a woman imprisoned in abusive and sadistic relationships with appropriative men. But the meanings of Corregidora are far more profound than this. A “transcendental” framework envelops the immediate narrative and casts it in relief, thereby enhancing its significance. We learn that Ursa is the great-granddaughter of Portuguese slave-trader and procurer Corregidora, who sired both Ursa’s mother and grandmother. Throughout the course of the novel, the men in Ursa’s life take on a resemblance to Corregidora — and this resemblance sheds light on both the sexual basis of racism and the tendency of some oppressed cultures to take on the traits of imperialist hegemonies. According to the logic of the novel, the children of slaves resemble either slaves or slave drivers. Even within communities born of slavery, the novel suggests, there persist relationships of enslavement. “How many generations had to bow to his genital fantasies?” Ursa asks at one point, referring to Corregidora the Enslaver. As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, Jones’s novel suggests, there will never be an end to this period of acquiescence; Corregidora will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the enslavers will continue to achieve posthumous victorious.
As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the segregationists and the white supremacists will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
To return to the opening statement of this essay: A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. Although her infertility robs Ursa of the ability to “make generations” — something that, she is taught, is the essence of being-woman — she can still “leave evidence,” can still attest to the historical memory of slavery. All documents that detailed Corregidora’s treatment of his slaves were seemingly destroyed, as if the abolition of slavery abolished memory itself. According to the injunction of the Corregidora women (Ursa’s ancestors), one must testify, one must re-member, one must “leave evidence.” And yet memory is precisely Ursa’s problem. Memory cripples her. Throughout the novel, Ursa struggles to overcome the trauma of her personal past. And this past — in particular, the survival in memory of her relationship with Mutt — belongs to the larger, communal past that is her filial legacy. Her consciousness is rigidified, frozen in the immemorial past of the Corregidora women. This “communal” past is doomed to repeat itself infinitely, thus suspending the presence of the present — and, in particular, Ursa’s individual experience of the present. Her individual experience of the present is indissociably married to her personal past, and her most intimate past is, at the same time, also the past of her community. The words that Ursa uses to describe her mother could also apply to Ursa herself: “It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong within her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.”
At the shocking and unforgettable close of the novel, the past and present coincide almost absolutely. When, after twenty-two years of estrangement, Ursa is reunited with her first husband, the historical memory of slavery is superimposed and mapped onto their relationship. Both Ursa and Mutt become allegorical figures, each representing slave and slaveholder, respectively. The present-past and the past-present reflect each other in an infinite mirror-play until they both become almost indistinguishable from each other.
At the juncture of both temporalities is an inversion of power relations that comes by way of a sex act. Ursa performs fellatio on her first husband. Oral sex replaces oral transmission. Here we have the perpetuation of a traumatic past, and yet it is a repetition with a difference. Fellatio is disempowering for the man upon whom it is performed; dangerously close to emasculation, it is experienced as “a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness.” For the woman, by contrast, it might be an act vacant of all sensuality, one that is abstracted of all emotional cargo. Fellatio might infuse the performer with a feeling of power’s intensification; its objective might not be the enhancement of erotic pleasure, but of the pleasure that comes with the enhancement of one’s feeling of power.
By playing the role of the guardian of memory, Ursa dramatizes the intersection of her individual past with a communal past. The paralysis of historical consciousness sets in: “My veins are centuries meeting.”
End of quotation, and the end of the essay.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
EVERYONE IS SO LITERAL THESE DAYS: A review of MIN KAMP: Volume One (Karl Ove Knausgaard) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“If you are unhappy, you must not tell the reader. Keep it to yourself.”–Isidore Ducasse
“Why is everyone so literal these days? I was speaking metaphorically.”–Mahler (1974)
“Every mind needs a mask.”–Maurice Blanchot, La Part du feu
“Every profound mind needs a mask.”–Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse
Min Kamp (2009-2011) is the 3,600-page autobiography of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard. Though the title has Hitlerian resonances, it ought to be stated that the first volume has no perceptible anti-Judaic content. There is no evidence that Knausgaard is a fascist purifier or an ethnic homogenizer. One could say, charitably, that by calling his book Min Kamp (the exact same title of Hitler’s memoir in Norwegian translation), Knausgaard has de-Hitlerized the title.
Knausgaard told the BBC: “I tried to write a novel for four or five years. I wrote every day. This is what I do, you know? It’s kind of hard to fail every day. But I was looking for something, and at the end, I was so frustrated, I told myself, I just write it as it was, you know, no tricks, no nothing.”
Knausgaard has indeed written a book that is almost completely devoid of irony, of figure, of metaphor, of simile, of literary language. Min Kamp seems a transparent book. In it, the author appears to disclose himself as he is. He seems to present his life immediately.
On page 18 of the English translation, the author describes an early experience with sardines:
“This evening, the plates with the four prepared slices awaited us as we entered the kitchen. One with brown goat’s cheese, one with ordinary cheese, one with sardines in tomato sauce, one with clove cheese. I didn’t like sardines and ate that slice first. I couldn’t stand fish; boiled cod, which we had at least once a week, made me feel nauseous [sic], as did the steam from the pan in which it was cooked, its taste and consistency. I felt the same about boiled pollock, boiled coley, boiled haddock, boiled flounder, boiled mackerel, and boiled rose fish. With sardines it wasn’t the taste that was the worst part–I could swallow the tomato sauce by imagining that it was ketchup–it was the consistency, and above all the small, slippery tails. They were disgusting. To minimize contact with them I generally bit them off, put them to the side of my plate, nudged some sauce toward the crust and buried the tails in the middle [???], then folded the bread over [????]. In this way, I was able to chew a couple of times without ever coming in contact with the tails, and then wash the whole thing down with milk.”
Upon reading this passage, I had a number of questions: Were the sardines grilled or pickled? Were the sardines salty, and does Knausgaard have an antipathy for salty food in general? What does Knausgaard think of whitefish? Surely, he has eaten lutefisk before–this is a fairly well-known Scandinavian dish. On page 377, we are given an answer:
“Lutefisk lunches with friends, well, that wasn’t a world I inhabited. Not because I couldn’t force down lutefisk but because I wasn’t invited to that type of gathering.”
What of clams? What of crustaceans? Does he favor crab? Does he enjoy shrimp?
The author answers this last question on page 150:
“Shrimp is what I loved most.”
He also favors American cuisine:
“Hamburger, fries, hot dog. Lots of Coke. That’s what I needed. And I needed it now” .
We learn more than anyone would ever want to know about Knausgaard’s non-mainstream, avant-garde musical proclivities:
“The year before, when I moved, I had been listening to groups like The Clash, The Police, The Specials, Teardrop Explodes, The Cure, Joy Division, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Chameleons, Simple Minds, Ultravox, The Aller Vaerste, Talking Heads, The B52s, PiL, David Bowie, The Psychedelic Furs, Iggy Pop, and Velvet Underground…” [88-89].
The point of this passage is to show readers that Knausgaard is cool. He is nothing like the unhip residents of Tveit (“In Tveit there was no one who had even heard of all these groups” ). Yes, it is true that this passage resembles a rather typical response to a social-networking inquiry (“What Are YOUR Favorite Bands?”). Yes, it is true that any dolt could write such a list, but Knausgaard’s past is more important than your past, and despite appearances, he is not a literary fraud.
His brother Yngve is not quite as cool as Karl Ove. Flicking through his brother’s CD collection, Karl Ove discovers a number of Queen CDs:
“When Freddie Mercury died, the revelation that shocked was not the fact that he was gay but that he was an Indian. / Who could have imagined that?” .
Again, don’t expect any irony here. What you will discover instead is acres and acres of dumbed-down self-pity; the morose self-pity almost never ends. Dumbed-down self-pity was never Proust’s deal, yo. The result is gruelingly gruesome over-hyped tripe.
The hype surrounding this book is to be expected. Min Kamp is exactly the sort of commodity that would hystericize consumers in Europe and America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. And not merely because of the author’s manifest good looks. Yes, it is true: If Knausgaard were unattractive, no one would know of him or his autobiography. Yet there is another, deeper reason for the predetermined hype.
We live in a culture of unconditional literalism. It is hard to decide what is the worst feature of this culture: its illiteracy or its literal-mindedness. Originally, media theorists theorized that the internet had metamorphic powers, that you could be anything or anyone you wanted to be on the internet. If you are old, you can become young; if you are a woman, you can become a man, etc. However, the precise opposite has happened: On social-media sites, people expose themselves in all of their banality and triviality.
When one reads a genuine work of literature, one is able to inhabit the selves of the characters within that work. One assumes their personae. One translates one’s essence into someone who is entirely different from the reader. For a number of hours, you can become King Macbeth or Emma Bovary. Fiction is adultery by other means.
In the culture in which we live, there are no disguises or masks. Everyone is precisely what one appears to be. Our digital selves tend to be identical to our real selves. This is the most painful joke of the twenty-first century: If you want honesty, go to the internet.
Why translate your essence into another human life? The impulse to project oneself into another self has decayed. The unconditional literalism of the internet has led to the erosion of empathy, of fellow-feeling, of the love for one’s brother and sister.
The internet has killed the human soul.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
On Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE
by Joseph Suglia
“At the beach and in the sand, small mussels are splashed about, into them we wriggle and see only wrigglers but never the waves and upsurge of beings!”
—Martin Heidegger, Black Notebooks, October 1931
FROM THE EARLY PERIOD TO THE MIDDLE PERIOD
The middle period of Nietzschean thought begins with The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) (1882; 1887). Its invigorated and invigorating philosophy was made possible by the largely destructive Human, All-Too-Human (1878; 1886) and Daybreak (1881; 1887), the two books that immediately preceded The Gay Science. In Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche explodes the concept of the free will and reveals the obscene selfishness, the crass self-interestedness, that underlies all human conduct. In Daybreak, Nietzsche argues that all morality is false—indeed, impossible—if we conceive of moral behavior as being voluntary or other-directed.
The foundation of Nietzschean thought could be represented by one word: anankē (the Greek word for necessity).
We do not control what we think; we do not control what we do. The sources of thought and action never exist within the horizons of consciousness. All human thought and activity are uncontrollable / involuntary—that is to say, necessary—and therefore there is no reason to celebrate anyone for his or her “heroism” or condemn anyone for his or her “immoral” behavior. It makes no sense, therefore, to regret what one has said or done, as it makes no sense to regret what one has not said or not done. We are free to choose only what necessity has chosen for us. Persephone rolls the dice of fate in Hades; we are free to play along.
The Gay Science—and the gay science—is the passionate assumption of necessity, amor fati (“the love of fate”). The gay science is gaiety at the meaningless mechanism which is the world. Everything is necessary yet purposeless.
DIVORCING SCHOPENHAUER: WHAT IS THE “WILL-TO-POWER”?
The Gay Science marks a swerving-away from Nietzsche’s unofficial teacher Schopenhauer. There were already indications of Nietzsche’s growing dissatisfaction with Schopenhauer in Human, All-Too-Human [cf. especially Paragraph Thirty-Nine], in which Nietzsche ridicules his master for believing that some “metaphysical need” is innate to human beings. The “metaphysical need” comes after religion; religion is not responsive to a preexisting “metaphysical need.” Nor, Nietzsche argues, does the human conscience imply human moral responsibility—this is a false inference on Schopenhauer’s part. The human conscience is a hive of error.
The total break with Schopenhauer, again, is announced in the pages of The Gay Science. I would direct the reader to Paragraph Ninety-Nine, where Nietzsche makes explicit statements against Schopenhauerian philosophy, as well as to the poem “Pessimisten-Arznei” and the 1887 Preface, wherein he describes pessimism in physiological terms as a sickness. What Nietzsche writes is pellucid; little commentary from me is required. Briefly: Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the One Will is indemonstrable (that all causes are manifestations of the One Will); the idea that a genius is a timeless, subjectless, desubjectified subject of knowledge is ridiculous; there is no such thing as animal magnetism; pity is not separate from the selfishness of individualism, etc.
What I would like to focus on here is something that is less obvious: the way that Nietzsche subtilizes Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the Will.
As the title of Schopenhauer’s masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, suggests, the world has two valences. The innermost core of the world is the Will: the throbbing, palpitating, blind, stupid vital force, the will-to-live, the impulse to perpetuate and to preserve life. The Will is the impelling force of Nature. The Will is what makes one want to live, what keeps one alive, but more importantly, what makes us, usually inadvertently, continue the human species. All that we do, whether we think we are doing so or not, is in the service of the life-will, of the impulse toward the enhancement and enlargement of life.
The fundamental trait of the Will is striving. The exertions of the Will as objectivated in the human body are geared toward one thing (not a “purpose” or “goal”): the reduplication of humanity. While this might sound “heteronormative” or “heterosexist” (to use two fuzz words), it is not. Schopenhauer is not implying that the Will is a libido that is geared toward sexual reproduction; the Will is not the Will-to-sexually-reproduce. Childless farmers, non-procreative artists, the celibate, gays, lesbians, the transgender—all of these, too, dance the regimented, compulsory dance of life, creating conditions for future humanity. Homosexuality, for example, is a necessary counteraction / has a necessary counteractive effect which serves the drive to revitalize the human species.
Life, then, has no “purpose” other than its own perpetuation and promotion. Human beings are playthings of the will-to-live. The will-to-live continues, despite the endless deaths of individuals (there are no individuals, for Schopenhauer)—which is why suicide is both foolish and repulsive. You can kill yourself, but you can’t kill life. “Individuality” is subordinate to the push-to-keep-humanity-alive. The gay science is consciousness of the thrustings, the wellings, and the swellings of the Will and of the purposelessness of existence (Nietzsche, in this regard, likens the Will to the Wave, der Wille to die Welle).
Human beings think that they are their own masters, when behind every gesture, action, and word is the ascendant urge to renew the human species. As I explained above, in Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche destroyed the philosophical foundations of altruism and the free will; in Daybreak, he destroyed morality on the basis of the destructions of Human, All-Too-Human. In The Gay Science, we learn what human acts and thoughts subserve. We are marking time, marching in place, when we believe that we matter.
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are one at this stage: Individuals who believe that they are masters of themselves are self-deceptive. They are puppeteered by the Will (which Schopenhauer believes is the will-to-preservation; Nietzsche believes the Will is something else, as we shall see). Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, however, differ in their positions toward life. For Schopenhauer, life is tragedy (life is a business that cannot cover its own expenses; human beings arise only to be extinguished; the character of life is suffering). Nietzsche does not deny any of this—far from it—but for him, life is a comedy, a comedy because it has no goal, and consciousness of the pointlessness of life is the gay science. Why else would Nietzsche invite the Grillen to dance the dance of life? Grillen: this interesting word means both “crickets” and “whimsical (often, bad) moods.” We are invited to confront and absorb the negative in the dream-dance of life: hence, the frequent terpsichorean and oneiric figures that proliferate throughout the text. Nietzsche rejects Schopenhauer’s gloominess, his dourness, though he agrees that the maintenance, sustenance, and perpetuation of the human species is the result of a more fundamental human impulse than that of the principle of individuality (the principium indivuationis).
Nietzsche advances another step beyond his ex officio teacher and mentor, Schopenhauer, when he calls attention to how vices and how (later) squandering contribute to the will-to-live: Hatred, malice, envy, aggression, the desire to steal—all of these forms of so-called “wickedness” belong to “the astounding economy of the conservation of the species” ([die] erstaunliche[-] Oekonomie der Arterhaltung) [Paragraph One]. Much later, Nietzsche informs us that “Evil” is nothing more than another name for those who are vigorous, for those who are passionate (leidenschaftlich) [Paragraph 326], for those who enhance life, for those who stimulate opposition, with their passionate individualism and unconventional ideas.
Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, good nor evil in itself; we make it so. That is to say: Neither Good nor Evil exists. “Good” and “Evil” are mystifications, simplifications (and hence falsifications), abstractions. The dichotomy of Good and Evil is replaced, by Nietzsche, with the terms strong / fertile / healthy and the feeble / sterile / sick. Nietzsche seems to be using dualisms / dichotomies / binary oppositions himself. One must be careful not to think that Nietzsche is substituting one dualism for another, however.
The strong and the weak do not form a dualism, but a continuum or an “axis” (to use Brian Eno’s term). There are no opposites, only continua / axes. Sickness and health are not opposites—there are subdivisions, gradations, degrees, nuances, levels between the antipodes of “strength” and “feebleness,” between “sickness” and “health.” Health cannot do without sickness, as we learn from Paragraph 120 of The Gay Science and the 1886 Preface of Human, All-Too-Human. All values are derived from disvalues. Logic comes from illogic [cf. Paragraph 111]. Altruism is the chick that is hatched from the egg of selfishness. In Human, All-Too-Human, we learn that generosity is drawn from a selfish lust for power. In Paragraph 118 of The Gay Science and Daybreak, passim, we learn that benevolence (and pity, the affect that motivates benevolence) is the effort of the strong to appropriate the weak. Opposites interpenetrate.
The most fundamental human impulse is not the will-to-reproduce-life, as Schopenhauer believes. In the following words, Nietzsche definitively breaks with Schopenhauer: “In nature, it is not distress which rules, but rather abundance, squandering, even to the point of absurdity. The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the life-will; the great and small struggle revolves everywhere around preponderance, around growth and expansion, around power, in accordance with the will-to-power, which is simply the will-to-live” ([I]n der Natur herrscht nicht die Nothlage, sondern der Überfluss, der Verschwendung, sogar bis in’s Unsinnige. Der Kampf um’s Dasein ist nur eine Ausnahme, eine zeitweilige Restriktion des Lebenswillens; der grosse und kleine Kampf dreht sich allenthalben um’s Übergewicht, um Wachsthum und Ausbreitung, um Macht, gemäss dem Willen zur Macht, der eben der Wille des Lebens ist) [Paragraph 349].
The will-to-live is only the restriction of a much greater will. For Schopenhauer, the Will is the will-to-live; in Nietzsche, the Schopenhauerian Will is transformed into the will-to-power.
What is the will-to-power? The “will-to-power” means the following: All of life is composed of relativities of power. One creature is the dominant; the other is the subordinate. One creature is the master; the other is the slave. Not the desire for power, but desire as power is the fundamental characteristic of the will. Exertion, struggling, striving for the preservation of the human species is a secondary characteristic. The essential trait of the Will is the drive toward supremacy, toward ascendancy, over other organisms and entities.
All live organisms strive for dominance over other live organisms—but they also strive for dominance over the world. Such is the will-to-power. Power is not an object that is separate from the will; it is inherent to the will itself. The will-to-power is the will of power, the power-will.
NIETZSCHE LOVES WOMEN / NIETZSCHE LOVES MOUNTAINS / NIETZSCHE DOES NOT LOVE WOMEN / NIETZSCHE DOES NOT LOVE MOUNTAINS
Nietzsche, sadly, writes a number of disobliging things about women in The Gay Science.
Am I the first reader to notice that Nietzsche writes about women in almost the same way in which he writes about mountains? In Paragraph Fifteen, he tells us that mountains are only beautiful at a distance. A mountain is beautiful to look at, but it is not beautiful to be a mountain. The man who gazes at the mountain from the comfort of the Swiss boarding house is charmed; the mountaineer is not so enchanted. (Schopenhauer gave exactly the same example to illustrate the ephemerality of beauty, before Nietzsche did.)
In Paragraph Sixty, Nietzsche writes almost exactly the same thing about women. Women, we are told, produce magical effects on the spectator only at a distance. Fascination / bewitchment / enchantment implies distance. The comparison between women and mountains could easily be interpreted as a misogynistic comparison (for what is a mountain but a large rock?). However, as I have written elsewhere (in my commentary on Human, All-Too-Human), Nietzsche is not always merely a misogynist.
At other times, Nietzsche praises women to the sky. Consult Paragraph Sixty-Four: Old women—Nietzsche slyly utters while twisting his Vercingetorix moustache—know that the superficiality of existence is its essence. In other words, experienced women are more philosophically minded than experienced men. A philosopher (I will return to this point below) is not someone who sees the Platonic idea (eidos) through the masquerade of appearances. A philosopher is one who knows that there is no idea behind the curtain.
Anyone who still thinks that all of Nietzsche’s thoughts on women are reducible to misogyny should read on. In the poignant paragraph that follows, we learn that Nietzsche has sympathy (perhaps even empathy) for women who offer their bodies—and their shame—to men who neither appreciate them nor return their love. At another point, he even equates life itself to women / women to life itself: “Yes, life is a female!” (Ja, das Leben ist ein Weib!) [Paragraph 339]. This is the highest encomium that could ever be accorded to anyone. What is this if not philogyny (the love of women)? What is this if not crypto-feminism?
NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A FASCIST. NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A PROTO-NAZI
Of all the tabloid lies that have been told about him, none is as blatantly untrue as the rumor that Nietzsche was a fascist or a proto-Nazi. Such slanderous gossip could be refuted in a few words. Nietzsche renounced his German (Prussian) citizenship in 1869. He vilified the authoritarian state in Thus Spoke Zarathustra—and there has never been a fascist who did not revere the authoritarianism of the state. He believed in a rule of intellectuals [cf. Paragraph 283], or, to invent words, a cognocracy or a philosophocracy—surely, fascism is nothing if not anti-intellectualist (see my brief article “Fascism”). He inveighed against nationalism, racial hatred (Rassenhass), and the fetishistic piety of epidermal worship or “mendacious racial self-admiration” (verlogne[-] Rassen-Selbstbewunderung) [Paragraph 377]. Not only does Nietzsche suggest that “racial purity” (whatever this means) is undesirable—he even seems to suggest that it is impossible. He never ceased to ridicule and condemn Anti-Judaism (for one example of this, consult the final pages of Toward the Genealogy of Morals). He constantly expresses his admiration for the Jewish people [read Paragraph 475 of Human, All-Too-Human and Paragraph 205 of Daybreak]. On 29 March 1887, Nietzsche inked and mailed a letter to Theodor Fritsch, self-anointed Anti-Semite and one of the vilest ideological precursors of National Socialism, that contained these words as its closing paragraph: “Finally, how do you think I feel when the name Zarathustra is mouthed by an Anti-Semite?” Nietzsche was demanding that Fritsch stop sending him copies of the rag that Fritsch edited: the Antisemitische Correspondenz und Sprechsaal für innere Partei-Angelegenheiten.
This is scarcely the profile of a fascist or a proto-Nazi. The ethnic purifiers, the racial homogenizers, the phenotype idolaters, the ideological Aryans, the alt-rightists, the Neo-Nazis should find another “fave” philosopher (might I suggest Hegel?). Nietzsche revolted against everything these thugs, mugs, and lugs stand for.
OUT-KANTING KANT: ONTOLOGY IS PHENOMENOLOGY
The title Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (“the gay science”) has at least four meanings:
1.) At the most literal level, the gay science is poetry. The term gaya scienza was used by twelfth-century troubadours from Provence as another name for poetic art. The book itself is fringed by two series of poems: “Joke, Cunning, and Revenge” and “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei.” The most significant of these is “To Goethe” (from “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei”), to which I will turn, briefly, below.
2.) The title carries a personal meaning. In the 1887 Preface, Nietzsche attributes the provenance of the book to a personal convulsion, the “saturnalia of a mind” (Saturnalien eines Geistes), an overturning, an overthrow of the romantic pessimism of Schopenhauer and of Schopenhauer’s disciple Wagner. The rejection of romantic pessimism does not lead Nietzsche into optimism (thank goodness). “The gay science” is the impassioned affirmation of the world-as-such in all of its ugliness, not the naïve hyperbole of Leibnizian optimism, which sees the world as the best of all possible worlds. To see the world as the best of all possible worlds is to see the world as better than it is, since there is only one world. This is the world, and there is no other. Optimism and pessimism are surpassed in favor of the life-affirming repudiation of all religion, of all morality, and of all metaphysics (which serves as the foundation of religion and morality). Metaphysics, by definition, posits a supraworld, a world-beyond-the-world, an Apart-from-the-world, an επέκεινα. This explains the book’s frequent references to Epicurus, who believed that if there are gods, they do not concern themselves with us. The Gay Science is not a Leibnizian book (far from it); it is an Epicurean book.
3.) The gay science, as I suggested above, is the consciousness of the purposelessness of existence—unless the promotion of life is itself a purpose. But how could the impulse to continue, to perpetuate, to reproduce the human species be a “purpose”? If the concept of purpose implies free will (and surely it does), then the impulse to propagate the human species is no purpose at all. The gay science is the joyous assumption of necessity. It is the cheerful knowledge that a supercomputer would be able to preprogram all of human behavior centuries before any of that behavior was enacted.
4.) The gay science is Nietzsche’s phenomenological ontology.
Let me address this final theorem here.
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche gives us a philosophy of superficiality. Nietzsche tells us, “We cannot see around our corner” (Wir können nicht um unsre Ecke sehn); the human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself, things in the world, and other selves under its own perspectival forms [Paragraph 374]. All we have are surfaces and surfaces of surfaces. The world is a glittering, glistening, trembling, quivering play of surfaces without depth—a scintillating mosaic with nothing behind it.
But if there is no depth, can there be a surface? For Nietzsche, there can be depthless surfaces—there is nothing beneath the surface; there are only grooves, filigrees, fissures, grooves incised on the surface of the world. There are nothing but veils and veils that veil veils. As he writes in the 1887 Preface: “We no longer believe that the truth still remains the truth when the veil is pulled off” (Wir glauben nicht mehr daran, dass Wahrheit noch Wahrheit bleibt, wenn man ihr die Schleier abzieht).
The disciple of the Temple of Sais pulls off the veil that veils the statue of Isis—there is nothing there beneath the veil. No revealed mystery, no depth. The unveiling is a forced striptease that does not lead to nudity, that does not lead to the truth, that never reaches an essence, that never comes to an ultimate profundity, but one that leads to another set of impermeable veils. What this means is that depth is superficiality, as superficiality is depth. A frog is a frog, a log is a log, a bog is a bog.
It takes a deep person to recognize that the world is superficial, which is why Nietzsche writes that mystics are not even superficial / surficial: “Mystical explanations are estimated as deep; the truth is, they are not even superficial” (Die mystischen Erklärungen gelten für tief; die Wahrheit ist, dass sie noch nicht einmal oberflächlich sind) [Paragraph 126]. My interpretation of this statement: A mystic / mystagogue is someone who ignores the surfaces of life in favor of a deeper world that does not even exist.
The all-important Paragraph Fifty-Four—the centrifugal force of the book—liberates appearances from essences. We learn here that a phenomenon is not the appearance of a thing; a phenomenon has its own integrity. Appearance is not the opposite of some essence (Gegensatz irgend eines Wesens). Appearance is not a death mask (eine todte Maske), an unknown X (ein[-] unbekannt[es] X), the crust or shell of a thing. “Semblance,” Nietzsche writes, is “the acting and living themselves” (Schein ist für mich das Wirkende und Lebende selber). Though Nietzsche does not write the following explicitly, he implies: Appearance is essence.
In this extraordinary paragraph, Nietzsche emancipates himself from his unofficial teacher Schopenhauer and from Schopenhauer’s unofficial teacher Kant. It is not merely the case that we only know appearances and never things in themselves, Nietzsche suggests to us. Nietzsche celebrates and affirms—with the giddiness of gaiety—phenomenality without Dinge an sich (“things in themselves”). Here, Nietzsche is moving away from Schopenhauer (and from Schopenhauer’s predecessor, Kant), who still believed that there is a supersensible truth beyond the world of appearances. Whereas Kant believed that things in themselves underlie appearances, Nietzsche here affirms that there are only appearances and no things in themselves.
Further, Nietzsche positions himself against all ethics of prudence. Reason does not have a pure employment—all ethics are ethics of prudence, of convenience, of self-interest.
Kant does assert repeatedly that the forms of knowledge (particularly, the forms of sensibility, space and time) cannot be applied to things as they are in themselves. Neither are they applicable to three “Ideas of Reason” that entranced the originators of Christianity (and, to an extent, Christian Wolff): God, the free will, and immortality. On this, Nietzsche and Kant are in agreement. The “Ideas of Reason” have no correlative in experience. Where is God? Where is the free will? Where is immortality?
However, Nietzsche goes much further than Kant. Nietzsche utterly denies the reality of God. He utterly denies the reality of the free will. He utterly denies the reality of immortality. We must admit that Nietzsche was far more enlightened than Kant. In comparison with Nietzsche, Kant appears to be clouded by intellectual benightedness. Nietzsche thinks that God, the free will, and immortality are intellectual errors and that human reason is by no means bound to accept them even as noumenal realities.
Nietzsche, then, is out-Kanting Kant: There is no noumenal self, no supersensible morality, no noumenal world. There is no separation between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds. Although Nietzsche never actually writes this, we can aver with confidence that Kant was not enlightened enough. Kant is not the representative of the Enlightenment that most think him to be. Nietzsche, who was born forty years after Kant died, takes the Enlightenment to its logical conclusion. He certainly took the Enlightenment much further than Kant ever did.
Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world. That is to say: Nietzsche superficializes the world.
Heidegger is wrong when he claims that Nietzsche inverts Platonism. To “invert” Platonism would be to place the phenomenon above the essence (eidos). Nietzsche does not invert Platonism. He displaces Platonism.
Does this imply that life is a lie? Nietzsche will write in the Nachlass that “[t]ruth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.” This, regrettably, is one of the most unfortunate things that Nietzsche ever wrote. For does not this interpretation of truth presuppose truth? Is Nietzsche not assuming that his own statement is true? Is he not hoping that we, the readers, will accept his statement as a true statement? Or is he suggesting that his own statement is erroneous? This is one of the Megarian paradoxes: A man comes from a city where everyone lies. He says, “I am lying.” Is he telling the truth? Nietzsche writes that truth is a lie. Is he telling the truth?
Nietzsche’s argument might be saved if we rewrite his statement as follows: “There is no truth (no absolute reality, no reality absolved of perception and perceptibility); there are only things that we take as the truth.” To cite a popular-cultural example: The film I, Tonya (2017) seems to proceed from this understanding—all the while discounting any perspective other than that of Team Tonya. In the film, Tonya Harding is the victim, not Nancy Kerrigan.
Most of the poems in The Gay Science are nothing more than silly fun (and Nietzsche admits this), but there is one that stands out: “To Goethe.”
World-Play, the masterful, / Blends being and semblance:—
Welt-Spiel, das herrische, / Mischt Sein und Schein:—
To paraphrase: There is no “deeper life.” Being is appearance, Sein is Schein, ontology is phenomenology. Life is a scintillating mosaic, a play of surfaces. Again, this is not an inversion, but a displacement of Platonism.
This is why Nietzsche praises artists, creators of illusions of profundity. This is why artists are compared to lovers, and lovers are compared to artists; both conceal naturalness [Paragraph Fifty-Nine]. Art is the “good will to semblance” (gute[r] Wille[-] zum Scheine) (Paragraph 107)—that is, art is illusion without the pretext of being true (unlike, say, religion). Art resembles existence, which is already aesthetic. This does not mean that art represents things in the world, as Aristotle believes. It means that art repeats the phenomenal character of existence. We are drawn to works of art because they remind us that life is already art—that is, they remind us that life is already a shallow play of appearances. Art reminds us that life is already a constellation / a clutch / a cluster of illusions.
This is why what flying fish love most about life is its skinnishness / skinness / skinnedness / epidermality (Hautlichkeit) [Paragraph 256]. For life is a vast skin without fat or muscle—a skin of many pigmentations.
This is why the name of a thing (its reputation) is more important than the thing itself. A name describes the human relation to a thing; it does not describe the thing itself. The name of a thing is the skin that becomes its very body [cf. Paragraph Fifty-Eight]. Indeed, without a name, a thing is not accessible at all. Language gives birth to reality—Nietzsche almost writes this [cf. Paragraph 261].
Language is not reducible to some meaning behind letters and punctuation marks. Language inheres in letters and punctuation marks. This point is reflected by Nietzschean novelist Hermann Hesse, a writer who has long been adored by public and reviled by Germanists, in the fourth chapter (“Awakening”) of his novel Siddhartha. In this chapter, the eponymous protagonist throws off religion and affirms his self, the surfaceness of life, and the signifierness of language (sit venia verbo):
“Meaning and essence were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them” (Sinn und Wesen waren nicht irgendwo hinter den Dingen, sie waren in ihnen, in allem).
The affirmation of the empirical is not scientific reductionism, for science destroys mystery / ambiguity [cf. Paragraph 373]. It is not scientific reductionism; it is the gay science. The gay science: to be unfavorably disposed toward meta-phenomenal ideas and toward absolute unbudgeable, unrustable convictions. The gay science is the joyous, impassioned affirmation of empty phenomena.
The lightness of being is not unbearable—to write against the worst of the pseudo-Nietzschean novelists, Milan Kundera (Hesse is his superior). Not only is the lightness of being bearable, it is joy-inspiring. Nietzsche celebrates the joyous weightlessness of existence. The gay science—and The Gay Science—is a gay phenomenology.
“GOD IS DEAD”: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
How could God die, if God never existed to begin with?: Both Foucault and Christopher Hitchens have posed this question. The answer, of course, is that Nietzsche never intended the literal death of God when he wrote, “God is dead.” He meant the implausibility of believing in the otherworld, the unbelievability of belief in the otherworld. One should recall the story of the lunatic in the marketplace that Nietzsche tells us in The Gay Science: The people of the marketplace do not even believe in God and are indifferent to the lunatic’s rantings. The point is not that God does not exist but that the idea of God is unbelievable.
If God is dead, this is because God is depth. Any belief in metaphysical depth becomes incredible.
God is dead because God is depth.
WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME KILLS ME: WHAT DID NIETZSCHE MEAN WHEN HE WROTE, “WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME MAKES ME STRONGER”?
Nietzsche is a thinker who many talk about, but few have read—thoroughly, at least. One of his statements that is repeated everywhere throughout American popular culture, a statement that permeates everything from the now-moldering and –smoldering Web site MySpace to the sounds of Kayne West, is “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker) [from Götzendämmerung].
The 1887 Preface to The Gay Science helps one understand this statement, probably the most oft-quoted statement that Nietzsche ever made (eclipsing perhaps even the death of God and the abyss-that-is-looking-into-you): “I doubt that [the great] pain ‘improves’ us—; but I know that it deepens us” (Ich zweifle, ob [der grosse] Schmerz ‘verbessert’—; aber ich Weiss, dass er uns vertieft).
The 1887 Preface clarifies in advance what Nietzsche meant by “What does not kill me makes me stronger”: What Nietzsche means by “what does not kill me” is “the great pain,” the most excruciating pain of one’s life. The great pain makes me deeper.
But what or who is this “me”? The “me” is the free spirit. What does not kill the free spirit makes the free spirit deeper. Pain makes the free spirit become another person—the free spirit is always becoming another person. A way of retranslating this famous formulation, then, might be: “The great pain annihilates and recreates the free spirit.”
What does not kill me kills me.
The new person is a questioner—one who poses questions as to the questionableness of existence. After an experience of pain, the free thinker—the survivor of the trauma—delights in the experience, for s/he knows that pain is necessary and produces meaning. Pain problematizes existence, highlighting its ambiguity / equivocality.
What does not kill me makes me more profound—and (to retranslate this remark into the terms of The Gay Science) my profundity makes the world appear superficial.
WHAT IS THE ETERNAL RECURRENCE OF THE SAME?
The Gay Science contains the first published reference to the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same (an unpublished reference occurs earlier, in the notebooks—see the notebook of August 1881): In order to attain your highest humanity, “you desire the eternal recurrence of war and peace” (du willst die ewige Wiederkunft von Krieg und Frieden) [Paragraph 285]. By the “eternal recurrence of war and peace,” Nietzsche does not intend that our lives will repeat themselves infinitely. He intends that we ought to live our lives as if our lives will repeat themselves infinitely. The infinite repetition of our lives is a thought-experiment, not a metaphysical claim. The infinite repetition of our lives is a philosophical imperative, an “Ought.” (I will pursue this topic in much greater depth when I discuss Beyond Good and Evil and the Nachlass.) The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is the philosophical imperative: Live your life for nothing other than its own infinite repetition.
Schopenhauer constantly refers to Hinduism (or as he calls it “Brahmanism” or “the Vedanta philosophy”) throughout The World as Will and Representation. The extent to which Nietzsche is indebted to Hinduism has yet to be sufficiently explored. One should not ignore the epigraph to Morgenröthe, which comes from the Rig Veda: “There are many days that have yet to be dawned.”
Is it possible that Nietzsche was inspired by Hinduism when he came up with the Eternal Recurrence of the Same? I am thinking of the Hindu concept of samsāra. Samsāra is the endless recycling of rebirth and redeath. The only way out is nirvāna, the extinction of the self (the word nirvāna originally referred to the extinguishing, the snuffing-out, of a candle flame). For the Hindu, the point of life is not to reenter the cycle of samsāra. The point of life is to suspend samsāra—not to perpetuate it.
The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is not a matter of hopefulness, even though the future is perfect.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An Analysis of TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
Bedre godt haengt end slet gift.
Better well-hanged than ill-wed.
—Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Crumbs
Better well-hanged than ill-read.
The wildness of this frantically antic and antically frantic play extends to its title: Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will. The Twelfth Night is the Feast of the Epiphany, which, in various forms of Christianity, commemorates the visitation of the Magi to the Baby Jesus. It commonly takes place on the sixth of January, twelve nights after Christmas. The Feast of the Epiphany has its roots in the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Feast of Saturn, which celebrated the Winter Solstice. Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will is a yuletide play, but it is also a saturnalian play. In Roman Antiquity, on Saturnalia, hierarchy was inverted. The King was deposed, and the mob took over the city. And yet this rising ochlocracy was purely theatrical; it was nothing more than a sham, nothing more than a show. The inversion of ordinary relations was temporary and staged.
Disorder is likewise invoked in the subtitle of the comedy: What You Will. The subtitle is evoked in the text, twice. “[T]ake it how you will” is said by Andrew Aguecheek in the third scene of the second act. “Take it how you will”: Interpret my words in any sense you please, for words very quickly become “rascals” and easily grow “wanton,” as the Clown puts it later in the text [III:i]. The intended meaning of a word speedily slips into its opposite or into a meaning other than what the speaker or writer intended. Take my words how you will, Augecheek seems to be implying, for it won’t matter, one way or the other. Language slides; it flows where it pleases. In the first scene of the third act, the Clown compares a sentence to a chev’ril glove that may be turned inside out—the wrong side is easily turned outward, and the intended wittiness of a sentence easily devolves into witlessness. Witticisms swiftly become witlessisms. Though he is praised by Uncle Toby for his linguistic skills, Augecheek is hardly a wordsmith. He lacks facility in basic English (he doesn’t know the word accost), in basic French (he doesn’t know the word pourquoi), and in Latin (he is ignorant of the phrase diluculo surgere).
“What you will” is spoken by Olivia in the fifth scene of the first act. “What you will” could be translated as: “Anything you say.” Or: “Anything you want.” Or even: “Who cares?” Or (and this is not too much of a stretch): “Whatever.” Quodlibet. All hail disorder! Let chaos reign!
And chaos does indeed reign. The customary order of things is turned upside down—hence, the chaos of the play. It might be worth pausing over a few of the characters and their lunacy, their fettered reason. As Olivia says to Cesario-Viola, “[R]eason thus with reason fetter” [III:i].
Count Orsino is a proto-Romantic personage and anticipates the Knight-in-arms of Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” as well as Goethe’s Werther. A dandified dreamer, he is neither young nor old, both unyoung and unold. As Malvolio phrases it, he is
[n]ot yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for
a boy; as a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a
cooling when ’tis almost an apple: ’tis with him
in standing water, between boy and man [I:v].
As Romantic protagonists will do, Orsino is forever sighing over a love that he doesn’t even want reciprocated—the love of Olivia, which, if we take his advice to Cesario-Viola seriously, he appears to think will be short-lived:
[B]oy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women’s are [II:iv].
Orsino’s mind displays various colors; it is “a very opal,” as the Clown poeticizes it [II:iv]. He changes his mind in the first lines of the play—first, he wants music to play; then, suddenly, he wants it to stop. It is not merely Orsino’s mind that is Protean—the entire play is a play of shifting surfaces.
The crepuscular Uncle Toby seems to do most of his socializing after sundown. He is a fanatical nyctophiliac: Instead of preferring to be active during the day, he prefers to be active at night—and justifies his noctambulations by saying that by staying up late, he goes to bed early: “To be up after midnight and to go to bed then, is early: so that to go to bed after midnight is to go to bed betimes” [II:iii]. The customary order of things is again reversed.
Sebastian and Viola, twin brother and sister, board a ship together, and both end up separately in Illyria. For reasons that escape me, Sebastian disguises himself as a character named Roderigo; he befriends a fellow traveler named Antonio during the voyage. The ship capsizes and wrecks. Sebastian loses his twin sister in the storm. The homoerotic passion that Antonio has for Sebastian is plangent: Antonio declares himself servant to Sebastian after Antonio saves Sebastian’s life. In the fourth scene of the third act, Antonio mistakes Cesario-Viola for her twin brother and is baffled when s/he does not recognize him. It is as if we were reading or watching an immeasurably more sophisticated version of The Comedy of Errors.
Viola’s gender is shifted: She becomes Cesario, the myrmidon of Orsino; Olivia falls in love with Viola while the latter is dressed as Cesario. The play does not hint at lesbianism as much as it hints at andromimetophilia, and andromimetophilia—the fetishization of women who dress as men—is one of Shakespeare’s most insistent fetishes. Viola becomes other-than-what-she-is, and Olivia wishes that Cesario were the same as what he appears to be:
OLIVIA: Stay. I prithee tell me what thou think’st of me.
VIOLA: That you do think you are not what you are.
OLIVIA: If I think so, I think the same of you.
VIOLA: Then think you right. I am not what I am.
OLIVIA: I would you were as I would have you be [III:i].
Viola transmutes herself into Cesario and is then beloved by Olivia. Sebastian transmutes himself into Cesario and is then beloved by Olivia. The Clown transmutes himself into Sir Topas and torments Malvolio. One character after the other metamorphoses into another.
Amid the maelstrom of all of these transformations and inversions, there is one Aspergeroid character who is boringly moralistic and selfsame, until he, too, is drawn into the maelstrom: Malvolio.
Malvolio is a natural-born killjoy. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to name him the one anti-saturnalian character of the play. He refuses to let anyone have any fun. He is an enemy of drunkenness, and drunkenness, as everyone over the age of twelve knows, is transformative. He looks down upon the poor, even though he is poor himself. Rightly is he called a “Puritan” [II:iii] by Maria—to paraphrase something that Mencken once wrote, a Puritan is someone who suspects that someone, somewhere, is having a good time. The imaginary betrothal of Olivia and Malvolio will result in an interdiction against Uncle Toby’s dipsomania.
Maria writes a counterfeit love letter in handwriting that resembles that of her mistress, Olivia. Malvolio, who is such a narcissist that he believes that every word of praise must be directed at him and that every word of praise that is said about him must be genuine, is taken in by the forged letter. Malvolio must be the scapegoat of the play, since he is the only character who is anti-fun and anti-revelry. He is the sacrificial victim, for he refuses to dance to its swinging and swaying motions, all of its manic undulations. He is catfished, and as any conscious victim of catfishing would do, swears his revenge and does so in the unforgettable line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” [V:i], thus opening the portal for a sequel to the play that might be entitled Thirteenth Night, Or, The Revenge of Malvolio.
Even more humiliatingly, Malvolio is gulled into wearing ridiculous yellow stockings—yellow is a color that Olivia detests, since it reminds her of melancholy, something from which she has been suffering since the death of her brother—and smiling inanely in Olivia’s presence. His smiling will be seen as inappropriate by Olivia, who, again, is still undergoing the work of mourning.
Though this might be a superficial remark about a play that is only superficially superficial, let me set down that Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will has the virtue of being the most theatrical of Shakespeare’s comedies and problematical plays. Most of the utterances are short; one character speaks after the other in machine-gun succession. There are few lengthy and lapidary soliloquies. This kind of staginess is unusual for Shakespeare. The fact that Shakespeare was ever a dramatist is one of life’s greatest mysteries.
The value of this insane play resides in its bouleversement of all relations. Bouleversement: This was one of Georges Bataille’s favorite words and indicates the woozy overthrow of propriety, decency, and stability. The world is turned on its head. Never has topsy-turviness been presented with such elegance.
Dr. Joseph Suglia