Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia: Table of Contents

SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia

My novel TABLE 41

My Guide to English Usage

My YouTube Channel

VIDEO ESSAYS

VIDEO: Lecturing on Nietzsche’s BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL and Reading My WHOLE Translation

VIDEO: Jacques Derrida Is Overrated

VIDEO: My Neighbors Are Bothering Me

VIDEO: Reading My ENTIRE Novel TABLE 41 for You

VIDEO: Why I Hate Shakespeare’s PERICLES

Table of Contents

SQUIBS

I Renounce All My Early Books and Writings

Aphorisms on Art

Aphorisms on Consumerism and Genius

Aphorisms on Racism, Cultural Studies, and Kim Jong-un

Aphorisms on Libertarianism, Criticism, and Psychoanalysis

My Favorite Writers, My Favorite Music, My Favorite Films

Three Aperçus: On DEADPOOL (2016), David Foster Wallace, and Beauty

Three Aperçus: THE NEON DEMON (2016) and Envy

Bob Dylan Is Overrated: On Bob Dylan Being Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016

The Red Pig Asian Kitchen: BANNED by Yelp

Happy Father’s Day: Or, Chopo Chicken: BANNED by Yelp

Analogy Blindness: I Invented a Linguistic Term

Polyptoton: Greg Gutfeld

Two Haiku

David Foster Wallace and Macaulay Culkin: Two Aperçus

On the Distinction between the flâneur and the boulevardier

Ordering a Pizza at the Standard Market Grill in Lincoln Park: BANNED by Yelp

Jimmy Carter

Emo Island

Coronavirus Poem and Cruise Ship Poem

THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES

HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES

DAYBREAK / MORGENRÖTHE: GEDANKEN ÜBER DIE MORALISCHEN VORURTHEILE

THE GAY SCIENCE / DIE FRÖHLICHES WISSENSCHAFT

THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA / ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA

Was Nietzsche an Atheist?  Was Nietzsche a Misogynist?  Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche

What  Does This Mean?: “God is dead”

What Does This Mean?: “What does not kill me makes me stronger”

What Is the Eternal Recurrence of the Same?

What Is the Will-to-Power?

Was Nietzsche a Sexist?

Was Nietzsche a Fascist?

Was Nietzsche a Proto-Nazi?

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche

Jordan Peterson Does Not Understand Nietzsche

A Readable English Translation of Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche: Translated by Joseph Suglia

OVERESTIMATING / UNDERESTIMATING SHAKESPEARE

VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES AND PROBLEM PLAYS

THE TEMPEST

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

AS YOU LIKE IT

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL

THE WINTER’S TALE

VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES

THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE

THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR

THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK

THE UNREADABILITY OF HAMLET

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH

THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

THE MOST LAMENTABLE ROMAN TRAGEDY OF TITUS ANDRONICUS

THE MOST EXCELLENT AND LAMENTABLE TRAGEDY OF ROMEO AND JULIET

TIMON OF ATHENS

CAESAR ANTI-TRUMP

KING LEAR

Racism and Shakespeare: Was Shakespeare a Racist?

What, If Anything, Does Donald Trump Have in Common with Julius Caesar?

Was Shakespeare a Sexist?

Transgenderism in Shakespeare

PHILIPPICS

Jordan Peterson Is Overrated

Mark Z. Danielewski Is a Bad Writer: Part One: When Did Writing Stop Having to Do with Writing?: Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE HOUSE OF LEAVES

Mark Z. Danielewski Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On ONLY REVOLUTIONS by Mark Z. Danielewski

Mark Z. Danielewski Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: On THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD by Mark Z. Danielewski

Quentin Tarantino Is an Anti-Black Racist

California Über Alles: Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Against “Bizarro” Fiction

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On FIGHT CLUB by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On STRANGER THAN FICTION by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: On RANT by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: On SNUFF by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: On TELL-ALL by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Six: On DAMNED by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Seven: Fifty Shades of Error: “Chuck” Palahniuk’s BEAUTIFUL YOU

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Eight: Slap Something Together: “Chuck” Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD

On THE HISTORY OF LOVE by Nicole Krauss

On THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST by Mel Gibson

On THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

On EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer: Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer, Part One

On EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer: Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer, Part Two

On EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer: Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer, Part Three

Writing with Scissors: Jonathan Safran Foer’s TREE OF CODES: Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer, Part Four

On CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem

Malcolm Gladwell Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell

Dave Eggers Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND YOUR PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? by Dave Eggers

Karl Ove Knausgaard Is a Bad Writer: On MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE, Volume One by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard Is a Bad Writer: On MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE, Volume Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part One: OBLIVION

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: BOTH FLESH AND NOT

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: CONSIDER THE LOBSTER

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: INFINITE JEST

Jonathan Franzen Is a Bad Writer: On FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

On WHY YOU SHOULD READ KAFKA BEFORE YOU WASTE YOUR LIFE by James Hawes

On THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

Craig Clevenger Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On DERMAPHORIA by Craig Clevenger

HOW NOT TO WRITE A SENTENCE: Craig Clevenger Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On THE CONTORTIONIST’S HANDBOOK by Craig Clevenger

Girl Gone Rogue: Concerning Sarah Palin

MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM

Corregidora / Corrigenda

I Prefer Not to Misinterpret: Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

So Long, Planet Earth!: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”

Keats and the Power of the Negative: On “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

On “Eveline” by James Joyce

On “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence

Why I Can’t Stand Georges Bataille

On WOMEN by Charles Bukowski

On FAT GIRL / A MA SOEUR by Catherine Breillat

On NOSFERATU by Werner Herzog

On CORREGIDORA by Gayl Jones

On ROBERTE CE SOIR and THE REVOCATION OF THE EDICT OF NANTES by Pierre Klossowski

Escape from Utopia: Bret Easton Ellis

On GILES GOAT-BOY by John Barth

On LIPSTICK JUNGLE by Candace Bushnell

On IRREVERSIBLE by Gaspar Noe

On IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker

On O, DEMOCRACY! by Kathleen Rooney

On STUCK by Steve Balderson

On THE CASSEROLE CLUB by Steve Balderson

On THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Trace of the Father

On VICTOR/VICTORIA by Blake Edwards

On STEPS by Jerzy Kosinski

On EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES by Tom Robbins

On V. by Thomas Pynchon

On A SPY IN THE HOUSE OF LOVE by Anaïs Nin

On MAO II by Don DeLillo

On ROBINSON ALONE by Kathleen Rooney

Dennis Cooper and the Demystification of Love

On THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson

On AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN by Werner Herzog

On CRASH by J.G. Ballard

On A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion

The Impossible Liberty of Macbeth / An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH by Shakespeare

N.B. This is a severely truncated version of a MUCH longer study on Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.  This abbreviated edition is only 4,353 words long.  The original version is over 15,000 words long.  Eventually, I will publish the entire 15,000-word study.  But the time is not yet propitious to do so.–Joseph Suglia

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THE IMPOSSIBLE LIBERTY OF MACBETH

by Joseph Suglia

 

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Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth signifies nothing if it does not signify the absence of the freedom of the will.[i]  Macbeth is not free, and his commitment to evil is not a self-chosen commitment.  And if Macbeth’s commitment to evil is involuntary, and surely it is, could he even be said to be evil?  Macbeth overpowers his reluctance to kill the King of Scotland only with difficulty, much in the way that Brutus only with difficulty overcomes his reluctance to kill Julius Caesar.  Surely, no one would call Brutus “evil.”  Why, then, should anyone characterize Macbeth as “evil”?  Perhaps because one thinks of Macbeth as someone who kills for power, whereas one thinks of Brutus as someone who kills in order to prevent power from growing tyrannical.  After killing Duncan, the King of Scotland, Macbeth finds himself entangled in an ever-enmeshing net.  He is impelled to kill and kill again in order to maintain the role in which he finds himself.  Macbeth does not abrogate himself of any responsibility, as some commentators claim.  Macbeth has no responsibility.  He is blameless from the beginning of this rapidly escalatory play until the end, a play that accelerates toward its terminus without allowing the spectator or reader to catch one’s breath.

 

WHERE IT WAS, THERE I SHALL BE

Macbeth has a moral feeling for his king.  He recognizes Duncan’s decency, acknowledges with gratitude that he owes his newly anointed title of Thane of Cawdor entirely to Duncan.  Duncan lavishes praise on Macbeth, and Macbeth appears grateful for this praise.

After he kills his beloved King, Macbeth is rattled by spasms at night and by paroxysms during the day.  He is nauseated by what he did.  He is aghast at the murder that his hands committed, sickened by the deaths that he suborns.[ii]

It is an “air-drawn dagger” [III:iv] that leads Macbeth to regicide.  Led on by the floating dagger—a phosphorescent dagger in Polanski’s cinematic interpretation—Macbeth is entrained to Duncan’s bedchamber where he will murder the King and his sleepy grooms, the King’s minions, the chamberlains.  The dagger which virtualizes before him spouts blood from itself.  It is as if the metal itself contained blood vessels, blood vessels that are venesected.  The dagger is ascribed human agency and a kind of moral responsibility that is denied to Macbeth.  The handle of the dagger beckons to him: “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?” [II:i].  It is the dagger which commands Macbeth to kill, it is the dagger which seems to marshal Macbeth: “Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going, / And such an instrument I was to use” [Ibid.].  It is not the user who wields the instrument; it is the instrument which wields the user.

The hand that takes precedence over the mind, in this play; the doing takes precedence over the doer.  Practice supersedes the practitioner; usage supersedes the user.  “What hands are here?” [II:ii], Macbeth asks in wonderment.  It is as if his own hands were disembodied, self-sufficient, and self-active:

The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see [I:iv].

“Wink at,” here, means “not to see.”  Translation: “Let the eye not see what the hand does (i.e. murder Duncan), but let the hand do what the eye is afraid of looking at.”  The hands are performing the action, which is disconnected from Macbeth’s consciousness (metonymically represented by the eye).  It is not that Macbeth is exculpating himself, not that he is absolving himself of blame, but that, the play is suggesting, he is blameless to begin with.  His own hands seem to belong to a strange executioner, not to himself.  They are not his hands, but “these hangman’s hands” [II:ii].  “Go, get some water / And wash this filthy witness from your hands” [Ibid.]: When Lady Macbeth, who thinks that guilt can be abluted away with water, utters these words, she is ignoring the stranger thought that Macbeth is fundamentally guiltless.  The dagger is doing the work, the hand is performing the action, not the I.

Hence, the play’s superabundant proliferation of hands and deeds and doings and dids:

“Hand,” “hands,” or “-handed” appears in the text thirty-seven times.

“Deed,” “deeds,” “indeed,” or “undeeded” appears in the text twenty-four times.

“Do,” “doth,” “doing,” “dost,” “done,” or “does” appears in the text 142 times.

“Did” and “didst” appear in the text forty times.

Macbeth vows (to Lady Macbeth) to kill the King: “I go, and it is done” [II:i].  He does not say, “I go to do the deed.”  The “It” supersedes the “I.”  The “It” is acting, not the “I.”[iii]  The subject is not the one who intends to do something; the action is asubjective.  The actions that are performed by Macbeth are done without the intervention of his subjective will.

Shakespeare’s play suggests the opposite: that deeds are done without a doer.  There is only a pure doing without a self.  “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself” [II:ii], Macbeth says after the deed is done.[iv]  This experience of self-estrangement is the reversal of the Delphic injunction to “Know thyself!”  The deed is depersonalized, as if the deed were done by someone else, someone other than Macbeth.  The idea to kill Duncan is someone else’s thought:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man
That function is smothered in surmise,
And nothing is, but what is not [I:iii].

Macbeth is suggesting that it is not he who is thinking of murder; his thought has a life of its own.  He is seized by a thought that is disembodied, by a thought that shakes his individuated humanity, his “single state of man.”  The thought in his brain has supremacy over him; he does not have supremacy over this thought.  He is gripped by the thought and dominated by it.  The paradox that “nothing is, but what is not” means that absence is phenomenalized and presence turns into absence.  Nothing is (reality disappears) but what is not (the hallucinatory nightmarishness, the terrifying hallucination of the dagger).

It is as if Macbeth’s actions were governed by thoughts that have been transplanted into his mind: “Strange things I have in head, that will to hand, / Which must be acted, ere they may be scanned.”  To translate: “Thoughts that are not my own shall be translated into actions (‘will to hand,’ ‘must be acted’) before I will become conscious of them.”

The disembodiment of the deed from the doer: Such is the reason that all of Macbeth’s direct killings are invisible, occurring offstage, before the final act.  We do not see the killing of Duncan, and the killing of Banquo and the killing of Macduff’s wife and children are performed by mercenaries.  The effect upon the spectator or reader, whether “intentional” or “unintentional,” is that s/he will be unlikely to judge the character of Macbeth from a moral point of view.  Shakespeare is subtly exculpating Macbeth, emancipating him from responsibility, liberating him from liberty.

 

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Macbeth encounters on the heath three women who will tell him his future.  In Holinshed, Shakespeare’s sole primary source for the play, the women of the heath are either the weïrd sisters or “nymphs of feiries.”  In Shakespeare, the three women are certainly the weïrd sisters.

Weird is the favorite insult of the unintelligent-insecure and is usually applied to anyone who falls too far outside of the common herd (“You are, like, sooooooooo weiiiiiird…”).  Most English-language users have forgotten that weird originally meant “magical” and “relating to fate or destiny.”  To be “weird” etymologically means to be “fated,” to be drifting away from one’s self-chosen path by the compulsions of fate.  It is derived from the Old English word for “fate,” which is wyrd.  Scottish writers in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries used the phrase werd sisteris to describe the Fates of Ancient Greek mythology, those female divinities who determine our futures.  The phrase werd sisteris can be found in The Asloan Manuscript, an anthology of Scottish prose and verse that was assembled by John Asloan.  “The weird sisters” always means “The Fates.”  Shakespeare’s witches are the forces of fate, of moira.  To translate Holinshed into contemporary English, they are “the goddesses of destiny, imbued with the knowledge of prophecy by their necromantical science because everything came to pass as they had spoken.”[v]  Everything came to pass as they had spoken: By speaking of events in the future, they bring those very things about.  The weïrd sisters generate the events that they foretell.[vi]

Macbeth is deeply impressed by the witches’ soothsaying, by their fortunetelling.  The witches make oracular pronouncements—Macbeth will become the Thane of Cawdor, no longer the Thane of Glamis, and then the King of Scotland.  Macbeth will remain childless, Banquo will be prolific and generate an entire dynasty.  Banquo shall “[b]ring forth men-children only…  Nothing but males” [I:vii].  Banquo’s children “shall be kings” [I:iii].  Banquo will be progenitive, producing a lineage.  He shall be “[l]esser than Macbeth, and greater… Not so happy [as Macbeth], yet much happier” [Ibid.].  In other words: Macbeth will become King, but he will not become a progenitive King.  Macbeth will become King, but he will spawn no Kings.  The witches’ oracular pronouncements impel Macbeth to kill Duncan and, later, Macduff and to suborn the murders of Banquo and Macduff’s wife and children.  Both Banquo and Macduff are generative.  Macbeth and Macduff have similar names because Macduff is the double of Macbeth.[vii]  As if to suggest what?  Macbeth is barren—as Macduff says, “He has no children” [IV:iii]—but he has no problem suborning the murder of Macduff’s children.  He has no problem slaughtering the children of his double for he bears no children of his own.  Macbeth is the sterile double of Macduff, Macduff is the fertile double of Macbeth.  Childless Macbeth kills off his child-producing double Macduff, as childed Macduff will assassinate his infertile double Macbeth.  All of this was set in motion by the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will have no sons and Banquo will be generative of a dynasty (the Roman Catholic, French-sympathizing dynasty of the Stuarts).  The regicide of Duncan—as well as the murders that were designed to cover up that regicide—was propelled by the oraculizations of the weïrd sisters.  The witches do more than read Macbeth’s future; their “great prediction[s]” [I:iii], their “prophetic greeting[s]” [Ibid.], their fatidic pronouncements create his future.  The epicene witches prophesy Macbeth’s coronation—but this prophecy means that the future has already occurred.

Notice that the first thing that Macbeth says in the play, his opening statement, is a resaying, is the mindless repetition of what the weïrd sisters have said already: Macbeth’s observation “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” [I:iii] is an echoing of the witches’ earlier paradoxical statement “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” [I:i].[viii]  Macbeth is will-less—even “his” language ventriloquizes the language of those who marionette him.  This does not mean that there is a hidden sympathism or synchronicity between the witches and Macbeth.  It means that Macbeth’s words are not his own, his desires are not his own.  His mind, as his language, is molded, shaped, formed by the witches.

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The wizardesses are chaos agents.  They form a terrorist cell that projects its gales against Macbeth, who is borne by its winds.

The witches prophesize Macbeth’s downfall by speaking through the Three Apparitions.  I will ascribe the prophetic remarks to the weïrd sisters for the purposes of convenience.

The weïrd sisters issue literal statements, and Macbeth will metaphorize them.  Macbeth metaphorizes literal statements, wrongly believing taking such statements literally would be the literalizing of metaphors.  The witches literally mean that the forest of Birnam will be deforested and reforested.  They are not speaking in hyperbole.  The witches’ statement is ambiguous only because it is straightforward—Macbeth reads the statement as hyperbole, not as a literal assertion, much as he hyperbolizes their other statement that only a man not of woman born could slaughter him (I will return to this point below).  Macbeth believes that he is safe in Dunsinane only because the witches have told him that only the deforestation and reforestation of Birnam Wood would undo him.  The witches through the Third Apparition: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” [IV:i].  Immured in his fortress, Macbeth assumes, falsely, that mobile trees are not things that could ever exist.

When they say through the Second Apparition that “none of woman born / [s]hall harm Macbeth” [IV:i], the witches intend the statement literally.  They mean that Macbeth’s killer will have been birthed by way of a Caesarian operation.  They are saying that Macbeth’s slaughterer will not have come from a birth canal; they are not intending that Macduff’s genesis was without the intervention of a mother.

Because Macduff never was expelled from a birth canal, he is able to send Macbeth down the death canal.

The emphasis, then, should be placed not upon “woman,” but upon “born.”  Macduff did indeed come from a woman; however, he was not born from a woman.  He was “from his mother’s womb / [u]ntimely ripped” [V:viii].  Macduff was from woman born, just not naturally born.  It is likely that the juggling fields know well that Macbeth will accentuate the word “woman” and not the word “born.”  And yet they mean what they say!  The weïrd sisters are not liars—everything that they say is the literal truth.  The point is that the weïrd sisters know that their words will be misinterpreted.  They make plain statements that they know will be interpreted ambiguously.

Fascinating “juggling fields… [t]hat palter with us in a double sense” [V:viii]!  The weïrd sisters make clear, literal statements, which Macbeth then either interprets metaphorically or places the emphasis on the wrong word in the sentence, thus distorting its meaning.[xiii]  Of course, it is likely that the juggling fiends know what they are doing: They know the tendency of human beings to overinterpret or to falsely embellish literal statements.  The trick of language of the weïrd sisters is not that it is opaque—the trick is that their language is limpidly transparent.

The witches have tricked Macbeth with the equivocality of their speech.  Their speech is equivocal because it means precisely what it says.  Such is the diabolism, such is the mummery of the triad of wizardesses.  Language is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing unequivocal.[xiv]

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Lady Macbeth arranges the killing of the King.  She says to her husband:

…you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch,
Which shall to all our nights and days to come,
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom [I:v].

“Dispatch” here means “management.”  Translation: “You shall, my husband, let me govern tonight’s event (the killing of the King)—an event that shall dominate all of our nights and days in the future.”[xvi]

When her husband expresses reservations about killing the man who promoted him, who made him Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth calls her husband, in essence, a sissy: “When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more than the man” [I:vii].  In other words: “You will not become a man unless you kill the King; otherwise, you will remain a boy, perhaps a ladyboy.  And if you do it, then you will be more than just a man.”  Any hesitancy on Macbeth’s part is written off as weakness: Macbeth’s spasms, his paroxysms, his anxieties would “well become / [a] woman’s story at a winter’s fire / [a]uthorized by her grandam” [III:iv].  She is here taunting, assaulting his masculinity, undermining the presumption of his manliness.  “Are you a man?” [Ibid.], she asks him, rhetorically, after the deed is done.  She belittles her husband by questioning his masculinity, infantilizing Macbeth, for he is indeed the child of Lady Macbeth.  Lady Macbeth mothers—produces—her own husband, who would only become a man by doing her bidding.  Lady Macbeth says of her husband’s face:

Your face, my thane, is as a book, where men
May read strange matters… [I:v].

This is an ambiguous statement.  What, precisely, does Lady Macbeth mean by strange?  Lady Macbeth might mean that her husband’s face is expressive—men may read strange matters therein.  “Strange” would mean “unsettling,” “grotesque,” “horrific.”  Men may read eerie, disturbing things in her husband’s face, things that are on Macbeth’s mind, things that should remain hidden.  Or she might mean that Macbeth’s face shows things that are foreign to his cast of mind.  “Strange,” then, would mean “alien,” “foreign,” “incommensurate,” not part of him, outside of his consciousness.  In other words, men may read things in Macbeth’s face that Macbeth is not actually thinking.  Macbeth’s face, then, would be inexpressive.  The fundamental point, for my argument, is that Lady Macbeth acts as the official interpreter of the book of Macbeth’s face.[xvii]

Despite all of her aggressiveness, so guilt-afflicted is Lady Macbeth post-deed that she becomes vegetabilized and then takes her life.  After the suicide of his wife, Macbeth does what any husband would do in the same situation.  He philosophizes.  He philosophizes in a sequence of metaleptic substitutions: “Life” becomes a “brief candle,” which becomes a “walking shadow,” which becomes a “poor player,” which becomes “a tale / [t]old by an idiot, full of sound and fury / [s]ignifying nothing” [V:v].  Metalepsis, in the rhetorical sense, is the substitution of one metonym for another.

Childless Macbeth is as a child to Lady Macbeth.  I see Macbeth’s childlessness as an abdication of the parently role and as the continuation of childlikeness.  Unable to procreate, he is infantilized.  For Macbeth is indeed a child—he is powerless, which in the deepest sense is what a child is.

 

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The play begins with a decapitation (that of Macdonald) and ends with a decapitation (that of Macbeth), suggesting that the actions that we assign to subjects are acephalic actions.  Macdonald’s “head is fixed upon [the Scottish army’s] battlements” [I:ii], and Macduff “enter[s]… with Macbeth’s head” [V:ix].  Not fortuitously, the First Apparition is a disembodied, weaponized head [IV:i], foretelling the coming beheading of Macbeth.  Decapitation is the key to understanding The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Roman Polanski’s 1971 cinematic interpretation of the play culminates in a spectacular decapitation.  I am filled with shuddering admiration for the hallucinatory lugubriousness of Polanski’s film, which is indeed a great Roman Polanski film.  However, it has to be stated: Polanski’s Macbeth is a magnificent work of cinema that has absolutely nothing to do with Shakespeare.

In his magisterial Daybreak: Thoughts on Moral Prejudices, Nietzsche sees in Macbeth a vigorous, daemonically attractive figure who is appealing because of his impassioned commitment to evil.  Nietzsche cosmeticizes Macbeth as a “hero-villain” or a “villain-hero” (without using these terms).

Instead of regarding Macbeth as a villain-hero or an anti-hero, as he often is, I see Macbeth as a process and the recipient of forces that are constantly acting upon him.  If there is no free will, and both the tragedies of Hamlet and Macbeth suggest that there is none, there are neither villains nor even heroes, even in time of plague.  Nor is there such a thing as a Self that would be the changeless center of consciousness, as if the subject were the captain of a ship—in charge of the deeds that the body does.  The play suggests that human beings are not self-conscious agents but fleshly puppets or “walking shadow[s]” [V:v].[xix]  Drivenness is what marks Macbeth—he is not an auto-mobile, not a self-driven vehicle.  He is being driven.

Immediately after the suicide of his wife, Macbeth acknowledges that the life of the human species is temporary.  He acknowledges that the life of the human animal is nothing more than a “poor player” who “struts and frets his hour upon a stage” [V:v].  He acknowledges that human life is a “brief candle” [Ibid.] that flares up only to be extinguished.  Macbeth assumes finitude and refuses finitude at the same time.  He assumes mortality and refuses mortality.  When he says, “At least we’ll die with harness on our back” [Ibid.], Macbeth appears to be suggesting that he does not have a speckle of a scintilla of a modicum of a tincture of a jot of a hope of surviving yet rushes headlong to his death and oblivion.  He appears to be suggesting: Even though we know that we are going to die, even though we know that we are going to be forgotten (we are hurtling toward oblivion, which is forgottenness), “[a]t least we’ll die with harness on our back” [Ibid.].  This great, triumphal statement is an assertion of the human in the face of nothingness.

The play suggests that all actions are involuntary, that everything is necessary.[xx]  Macbeth is provoked to murder involuntarily, by forces beyond his control, in the same way that alcohol involuntarily provokes nose-painting, sleep, and urine [II:iii].  The acceptance of necessity is determinism, as is the short-lived stoical resignation of Lady Macbeth: “What’s done is done” [III:ii], and “What’s done, cannot be undone” [V:i].  Yes, and what will have been done will have been done.

There is no redemption or forgiveness or apology at the end of the play, only an impassioned refusal and assumption of necessity, a fighting-in-vain against necessity unto the end, “with harness on our back.”  The Tragedy of Macbeth is, relevantly, Shakespeare’s briefest tragedy.  As if to remind us of the ephemerality of life, the play itself is ephemeral.  Time is all-annihilating, the life of humankind is a “brief candle,” and Macbeth is an agent of all-annihilating time.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

[i] Date of composition: 1606, terminus post quem.

 

[ii] Macbeth is not equal to the deed that he has committed (the murder of Duncan).

 

[iii] Macbeth is deploying a similar distancing technique when he says, “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly” [I:vii].  Note that he does not say, “If I were to do it.”  The “It” takes the place of the “I.”

 

[iv] It would be unpresumptuous to say that this experience is not one of self-knowledge, but one of self-misknowledge.

 

[v] The original text of Holinshed: “These women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science, bicause euerie thing came to passe as they had spoken.”

 

[vi] Appearances of the supernatural or of aberrant nature protrude and obtrude throughout the text of the play—a mousing owl hawking and killing a towering falcon, two horses cannibalizing each other [II:iv], the banqueting ghost of Banquo [III:iv], the apparitions of an armed head, a bloody child, and a child crowned, with a tree in his hand, the show of eight kings [IV:i].

 

[vii] The names are similar, fortuitously, for these are the names given in the historical record (Holinshed).  Macbeth, Macduff, and Macdonald are the three Big Macs.  There are instances of parechesis throughout the play: “banquet” and “Banquo,” “thane” and “thine,” as well as “Macbeth,” “Macduff,” and “Macdonald.”

 

[viii] The weïrd sisters often speak in paradoxes: “Greater than Macbeth, and lesser”; “When the battle’s lost, and won” [I:i].  Macbeth, whose speech imitates the speech of the witches, also occasionally speaks paradoxically: “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill; cannot be good” [I:iii].  Malcolm, too, is paradoxical when he says: “We have met with foes / That strike beside us” [V:vii].  He might mean: “We have encountered enemies who are on our side,” perhaps alluding to the kerns (Irish guerilla soldiers), against whom the Scots fought at the beginning of the play and who might now be Scottish allies.  The entire play contains a paradoxology.

 

[ix] “I’ll do, I’ll do, I’ll do” gives the illusion of subjectivity.

 

[x] “I’ll do, I’ll do, I’ll do” is what rhetoricians call “epizeuxis”: the repetition of a word in close succession.  Epizeuxis is the least intelligent form of rhetorical repetition, but it would be unfair to blame Shakespeare for this, since the repetition is purposely mindless.  Perhaps the clearest example of epizeuxis: “No, no, no, no.”

 

[xi] Macbeth to the witches: “[Y]ou untie the winds and let them fight / Against the churches…” [IV:i].

 

[xii] “Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-tossed” [I:iii].

 

[xiii] To think that words only have a metaphorical significance is to have a slender understanding of how words work.

 

[xiv] Babbling language, signifying nothing—language is a text in which the signifier supersedes the signified.

 

[xv] The original text of Holinshed: “The woords of the thrée weird sisters… greatlie incouraged him herevunto [to kill Duncan], but speciallie his wife lay sore vpon him to attempt the thing, as she that was verie ambitious, burning in vnquenchable desire to beare the name of a quéene.”

 

[xvi] And she continues: “To alter favour ever is to fear. / Leave all the rest to me” [I:v].

 

[xvii] What Lady Macbeth is saying sounds uncannily resemblant of what King Duncan says in the fourth scene of the first act: “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face.”  He is alluding to the traitorous quondam Thane of Cawdor.  In a masterly feat of Shakespearean cosmic irony, the King then turns to speak to someone he misestimates: Macbeth!

 

[xix] The play subtly weakens the idea that a human being could be autogenously produced; it criticizes the myth of autogeny.  That idea is blown up into flinders.  To use the language of psychology: The play suggests that the formation of the human being could be explained by alloplasticity, not autoplasticity.  Not by the mind’s capacity for dealing with the external world, but by the mind’s capacity for being affected by the external world.

 

[xx] The play humanizes the tyrant Macbeth.  He is impelled, necessitated to kill.

 

 

Coronavirus Poem and Cruise Ship Poem

I am not a lyrical poet, but for some reason, these two lyrical poems surfaced in my mind recently.  If you like them, you will love my novel TABLE 41, the novel which predicted the novel Coronavirus.–Joseph Suglia

 

CORONAVIRUS POEM
by Joseph Suglia

Quiet city
The zoogenic and zoonotic pestilence is encoiling and ensnaring the quiet city
Encoiling and ensnaring
The plan-disruptive plague

Quiet city
There are pigs in the alley
These pigs do not squeal; they screech
There is a screeching outside in the quiet city

 

 

CRUISE SHIP POEM
by Joseph Suglia

A scintilla of space
in a sea of time

A worldship
not fixed to any place

A migratory, nomadic space
with an affinity to the flows of water

 

The Unreadability of Hamlet

 

 

 

THE UNREADABILITY OF HAMLET

by Joseph Suglia

 

“No wavering mind, infected with Hamletism, was ever pernicious: the principle of evil lies in the will’s tension, in the incapacity for quietism, in the Promethean megalomania of a race that bursts with ideals, that explodes with convictions…”

—Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay

 

“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent”

—T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

 

Hamlet is not killed by Laertes, nor is he killed by Claudius; he is killed again and again by consumer culture, which is incrementally becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth.  That is to say: The text entitled The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, which is attributed to a person named William Shakespeare, has been distilled to a compound of popular-cultural clichés.  The text has been zombified.  I do not mean that the language of the text is obsolete or irrelevant.  I mean that the play “lives on” in the deathful form of clichés, for clichés are dead language.

Nearly every line of the play has become a platitude, a slogan, a title of a song or a film, a song lyric.  Most have an at least sedimentary understanding of the play—in the form of the clichés that the play has generated.  You might not have read Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, but Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark has read you.

It is nearly impossible to read the words of the text in their original context, since the text now appears porous to any culturally literate person.  It is not an open-source text; it is an open-sore text.  It is leachy, pervious, permeable to the outside.  That is to say, the text constantly refers to popular-cultural detritus, to bastardized commercializations of the play that Shakespeare was fortunate enough never to have seen or to have heard.  Or, proleptically, to other works of literature; I have read about half of these lines in other works of literature.  When I read “sweets to the sweet,” “ay, very like a whale,” or “beetles over his base into the sea,” I think not of Hamlet (or of the play of which he is the eponym), but of Joyce’s Ulysses, wherein these same phrases reappear.  I am forcibly extricated from the initial text and redirected to another, much later work of literature.

It is not that my mobile telephone is pulling me out of the text.  Staying alone with the text, without the buzzing and shrilling of our telephones, without the compulsive need to check one’s e-mail is a persistent challenge for most, it is true.  Yet this argument is not so much incorrect as it is banal.  It is an argument has been too easily and too often made before (most notably, by Nicolas Carr in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”).  My argument is not that the webware of our minds has been redesigned and redrawn—something that I have accepted as an immovable fact long ago.  Yes, I know that most are distractible.  I have known this for years.  My argument is different.

What is pulling me out of the text is a set of exophoric references that has come long after the fact of the text’s composition.

I am arguing that the play is unreadable independently of its multiple references to consumerist culture.  I do not mean that the text cannot be read (it is as compulsively readable as any text in the Shakespearean canon).  Again, this is not my argument.  I am suggesting something else.  I mean that the text cannot be read as a text, so englutted is it with post-date media clichés and references to other works of literature.  The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a multiply linked polytext.

In an age in which Google is the New God, it is even less probable that one could read a text in its nudity.  We have reached the point at which many of us cannot read a text as text, assuming that such a thing were even ever possible.  As Nietzsche writes in the late notebooks, “To able to read off a text as text, without interposing an interpretation between the lines, is the latest form of ‘inner experience’—perhaps one that is scarcely possible,” einen Text als Text ablesen können, ohne eine Interpretation dazwischen zu mengen, ist die späteste Form der “inneren Erfahrung,”— vielleicht eine kaum mögliche…  One would require an innocent mind to be able to read a text that is unalloyed.

And yet there are no innocent minds any longer—if there ever were!  So supersaturated is the play with after-the-fact media clichés, so embedded is the play with alluvial deposits, so thoroughly is the play encrusted with post-date media messages that it is pre-contaminated.  It is pre-inscribed, paradoxically, by cultural references that were superimposed on the text 400 years after the fact.  Cultural references that have been superimposed to the extent that they are have become part of the text “itself.”  The clichés are not extricable from the text “itself.”

The play cannot be ensiled, protected from the intrusion of clichés.  To ensile means to prepare and store fodder (such as hay or corn) so that it is conduced into silage (succulent feed for livestock).

The lines of the play have taken on lives of their own outside of the play.  Many of them have fallen into the flabbiness of ordinary language.  Popular culture has engulfed the text and debased it.

 

* * * * *

 

Here is a partial list of popular-cultural vandalizations and vulgarizations of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  I will be citing the Second Quarto (1604-1605) exclusively, for it is the most expansive version of the play:

“’Tis bitter cold / And I am sick at heart” [I:i] is now the language of the weather report.  Squalls and flurries are routinely described by meteorologists as “bitter cold.”  Supporters of politicians are said to wait for their candidates in the “bitter cold.”  “Bitter cold” is said to be the climate of beautiful Rochester, New York.  Poeticism has been deflated, fallen into the stupidity of ordinary language.

“Not a mouse stirring” is now a verse in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore.  Moore defamiliarized and rescrambled the cliché: It has now become “Not a creature was stirring / not even a mouse.”  And yet that itself has become a cliché.  Readers and spectators of the play will call the Christmas favorite to mind—and digress from the text of the play into yuletide musings.

The stage direction Exit Ghost is now the title of a 2007 novel by Philip Roth.

“Stay, Illusion” is now the title of the book of poetry by Lucie Brock-Broido.

“A little more than kin, and less than kind” [I:ii]: Hamlet’s reproving words to his adulterous, fratricidal stepfather is now a Canadian television series called Less Than Kind (2008-2013).

“I shall not look upon his like again”: Whenever someone dies and the eulogist at the obsequy wants to sound literate, s/he will say, “We’ll not see his/her like again.”  In their eulogies to David Bowie and John McCain, Will Self and Joe Biden, respectively, change the “I” to “we”—a common misremembrance, a common misrecollection of the line.  It is originally Hamlet’s manner of saying that his father—his only father, his real father, his bio-dad—is irreplaceable and certainly may never be replaced by an incestuous, fratricidal drunkard and idiot.

“This above all, to thine own self be true” [I:iii]: These words no longer are counsel given by the unbrilliant Polonius to his son Laertes before the latter is dispatched to France to study at university.  They now form an inscription tattooed on the faceless arms of hundreds of thousands of “social-media” mystics and cybernetic insta-priests (the words before the colon are usually deleted).

I place “social media” in quotation marks because there is nothing social about “social media.”

I suspect that the tattoo exists in order to be photographed and “shared” for the benefit of “Likes.”  I wonder how many carve, chisel, these words into their flesh in order to display the insignia / imprint to their shadowy internet “friends” and “followers.”  This is a good example of denaturing the body in order to receive approval from hollow cybernetic effigies.

In the twenty-first century: We do not experience and then represent; we represent and then experience.

But to my mind, though I am native here / And to the manner born, it is a custom / More honoured in the breach than the observance” [I:iv]: As Philip B. Corbett illuminates in his The New York Times article “Mangled Shakespeare,” “to the manner born” is often misheard and misremembered as “to the manor born.”

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” [I:iv]: Once Marcellus’s baleful diagnosis of his country upon seeing the ghost of the dead king, the statement is now a cliché that can be found almost everywhere.

No longer the admonition of Claudius to his son to leave the boy’s mother unpunished by worldly vengeance, “leave her to heaven” [I:v] is now a 1945 film noir directed by John M. Stahl.

Once Horatio’s words of astonishment upon seeing the ghost of his friend’s father, “wondrous strange” is now the title of a young-adult fantasy novel by Lesley Livingston.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”: This was originally Hamlet’s gentle rebuke to Horatio for his Epicureanism (Epicurus denied the supernatural) after both characters see the ghost of Hamlet’s father.  The “your” is often changed to “our,” Horatio’s name is almost always deleted, and this is now the favorite weasel sentence of agnostics who condescendingly allow the probabilism of the supreme deity.

“The time is out of joint”: This is now the resaying of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who uses the quotation to explain what Kant means by the universal form of sensibility, which is time.  Deleuze is unaware that “[t]he time” refers to the unspecified age in which the play is set, not to temporality itself.  Though he is no marketer, Deleuze belongs on this list.

“Doubt thou the stars are fire” [II:ii] has been curdled into a line that can be heard in the films Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Letters to Juliet (2010).

“Thou this be madness yet there is method in’t”: The original context (Polonius’s interlude of lucidity) has been forgotten, since it is now a thought-annihilating platitude, with neither method nor madness therein.  It is also the 2019 cinematic comedy Madness in the Method, directed by Jason Mewes.

“What a piece of work is man!” is no longer Hamlet’s ejaculatory paean to the intricate elegance and elegant intricacy of humanity.  It is now “You’re a real piece of work!” which is a favorite insult of the insecure, one which is sometimes applied to a person who steps too far outside of the herd.  Urban Dictionary makes the interesting point that a “piece of work” is someone who is needlessly difficult.

“The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”  One of the most stupid lines in the whole of Shakespeare has become an episode of the seventh season of SpongeBob SquarePants, “The Play’s the Thing.”

“To be, or not to be—that is the question” [III:i] has been transmuted into a 1983 film by Mel Brooks entitled To Be or Not to Be (superseding an earlier film with the same title which has been largely forgotten).  It is also a 1965 song by the Bee Gees.

“Slings and arrows” is now a Canadian television series (2003-2006).

“Outrageous fortune” has been transformed into a 1987 film comedy starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long.

“Perchance to dream” is the twenty-sixth episode of the animated series Batman (1992).

“What dreams may come” has become a 1998 film drama starring Robin Williams.  Few seem to remember that the film is based on a novel by the great Richard Matheson that was published two decades earlier.

“The undiscovered country” is no longer Hamlet’s metaphor for death.  It is now the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

“Get thee to a nunnery”: Hamlet’s vicious insult to Ophelia, after he declares his non-love for her (and perhaps his lovelessness in general, his possible inability to love anyone), has been reduced to a meme, to an ironic, internet cliché.  “Nunnery” might signify “brothel,” but it more probably signifies “convent,” since, in tandem with his To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be soliloquy, Hamlet seems to be pursuing the antinatalist argument that it is better for humankind to stop breeding, that it is better never to have been born (following Sophocles and anticipating the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Cioran).  What thwarts Hamlet’s suicide is his fear of the afterworld, of afterwordliness—this fear is the “conscience [that] does make cowards of us all.”  There is no reason to breed, then.  It is better never to give birth, for suicide is too dicey.

“[T]he mirror [held] up to Nature to show Virtue her feature” [III:ii] is now an infantile short story by David Foster Wallace called “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” (which, in turn, was based on a work of philosophy by Richard Rorty).

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”: Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, the Queen of Denmark, means that the Player Queen is affirming too much, she is over-emphatic in her declarations of love for her second husband.  Protesting does not mean, here, negating.  It is not an instance of Freudian Verneinung, as if a husband were to say to his wife, unprompted, “I am not saying that I’m attracted to the waitress.”  Nor does it mean “to disagree with someone vehemently, in a suspiciously egregious manner.”  In Shakespeare’s England, “to protest” meant to give repeated affirmations, “to over-assert,” “to pronounce a statement vigorously and forcefully.”  In an interesting example of the Mandela Effect, there has been a collective misremembrance of the line as “Methinks you protest too much.”

“I must be cruel only to be kind” [III:iv] are no longer the self-exculpatory words of Hamlet, defending the very cruel words that he says to his mother, Queen Gertrude.  It is now the advice of Nick Lowe, given in his 1979 hit song “Cruel to Be Kind,” a song that is sometimes cited by cruel people who claim to be honest.

“Hoist with his own petard” doesn’t mean lifting oneself by one’s own crane, despite what a number of political cartoons and political commentators suggest.  “To hoist with one’s own petard” means “to blow oneself up with one’s own bomb.”

“This man shall set me packing” means “This man will provoke me into action.”  It has nothing to do with eviction, with kicking someone out of an apartment, with expulsion, which is what it has come to mean colloquially or when Joe Biden says, “We will send Trump packing and keep Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.”  Or when current Prime Minister of Great Britain Boris Johnson says that he is “absolutely confident that [the Britons] can send the Coronavirus packing in this country.”

“Goodnight, ladies, goodnight.  Sweet ladies, goodnight, goodnight” [IV:v] has been demoted to the final song on Transformer (1972), Lou Reed’s worst album, which is really a bad David Bowie album (Bowie was its producer).  The line does also reappear in intentionally, floridly bastardized form in “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot—a poem that concerns the cheapening, the coarsening, of literary values in the mass culture of the European twentieth century.

“A fellow of infinite jest” [V:i] is no longer a phrase that Hamlet uses to praise his father’s jester Yorick, who is now dead and whose skull Hamlet is holding.  It is now the title of one of the most execrably written books ever published, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

“[T]he quick and dead” is now the 1995 film The Quick and the Dead, directed by Sam Raimi.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” [V:ii] is now the title of Tom Stoppard’s not-always-bracing postmodernist, auto-reflexive play.  It has also been resurrected as the 2009 American independent film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead.

 

* * * * *

 

As the snapshots of popular culture above demonstrate, popular culture has vulgarized and continues to vulgarize the play, for popular culture vulgarizes all art, degrading it until it becomes something other than art, something baser than art.

Each popular-cultural citation leaves a residue.  Of course, there would be no “pure” text beneath the accrual of sedimentation.  However, I am arguing something else: The text is even less pure than it would be otherwise, so buried is it under a mountain of kitsch, a garbage mountain of clichés in an ever-compounding media landfill.

We deviate from the text at hand.  We are force-fed bowls of fuzz-word salad.

If I were able to approach the text in its “nudity”: My own approach to the text would be to examine it through the speculum of the question of the free will.  Multiple essays have already discussed the question of free will in Hamlet, but none, as far as I know, have argued that the play is suggesting that free will is a delusion from which we would do well to disabuse ourselves.  If the play is about anything at all, it is about the impossibility of anything like a free will.

The crux of the play, its pivotal question, is why does Hamlet delay?  Why is Laertes a swift avenger whereas Hamlet is a sluggardly avenger?  Whereas Laertes is undiscouraged and rushes headlong toward vengeance—Laertes, who all but breaks down the door to slaughter Hamlet, whom he blames for his father Polonius’ death—Hamlet is unnimble and delays the exaction of revenge for the murder of his father.  Hamlet’s hesitancy, his hesitantism, has nothing to do with will, for Hamlet is consciously committed to exacting revenge for his father’s death “with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love” [I:v].

The answer is that Hamlet’s will is not his own, as Laertes himself says in the third scene of the first act to Laertes’ sister Ophelia.  He has no free will for no one has freedom of will.  Our decisions emerge from the abysses of the unconscious mind.  The source of decisions is not consciousness; we are only free to choose what our unconscious minds have chosen for us.

We see that Hamlet believes in the mirage of the free will when he commands, “About, my brains!” in the all-important soliloquy of Act Two: Scene Two, a soliloquy that is far more significant than the To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be soliloquy.  “About, my brains!” means “Get to work, my mind!”  Or: “Activate, my mind!  Impel me into action!”  Hamlet (his consciousness and the Ego which is the nucleus of his consciousness) is commanding his brain (his unconscious mind, the hinterbrain) to prompt him to action.  And yet Hamlet’s “I” (the Ego, the idealized and self-preserving representation of the Self) remains unprovokable.  The “I” commands the brain to act—Hamlet apostrophizes his brains.  It is a dialogue or a duologue between consciousness and the unconscious mind.  Hamlet is both talking-to-himself and listening-to-himself-speak.  The play is suggesting that action does not issue directly from the “I” but from the unconscious sources of human cognition and activity.  Hence, it is a critique, in dramatic form, of the misbegotten concept of the free will.

It is only within the final scene of the play that Hamlet learns that all human thinking and acting is necessary, involuntary, inadvertent, unwitting: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” [V:ii].  He learns to leave things as they are, in a manner similar to stoicism or Heideggerean Gelassenheit: “Let be,” Hamlet says.  “Let be”: Let things be in their being.  Accept things as they are, instead of tyrannizing nature and expecting life to follow according to one’s subjective volition.  Adjust to the swirl of experience, which is beyond anyone’s conscious control.

None of this will appear to readers and spectators of the play, so dumbed down has the text become by ordinary language and the stupiditarians of the entertainment industry.  Language does change over time, as the descriptivists repeatedly claim to justify their unreflective assertion that language speakers do not need to be told what the rules of that language are.  It is as if the descriptivists were calling out: “Let chaos reign!” and “All hail disorder!”  I would say, in rejoinder: Language becomes more and more stupid over time.

Ultimately, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has become a cliché-manufacturing factory—generative of clichés that are more enduring than the Prince of Denmark’s sweaty vacillations and testy temporizations.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

On KING LEAR (Shakespeare)

I DON’T THINK YOU’RE READY FOR THIS VILE JELLY: ON KING LEAR (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

 

“One has not observed life very carefully if one has failed to see the hand that gently—kills.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Paragraph 69

 

“Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits.  If this were not so, each performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown.”

—Martin Amis, “Philip Larkin: His Work and Life”

 

Any writer who has received a Letter of Rejection knows the sting of malignancy behind that letter’s boilerplate politeness: “Every month, we are sent thousands of manuscripts for review.  Unfortunately, your manuscript was not among the few that reached our editorial board.  We will keep your query on file should another opportunity arise.”  Any suitor whose desires have been refused knows the malicious assertion of power that surges and throbs behind the superficially gentle refusal, so unkind in its apparent kindness: “Thank you.  I am very flattered; unfortunately, I am not available for dating.”  When American corporatists say, “I am sorry that you feel that way,” this means: “I don’t care how you feel.”  When Disney employees cheep and chirp, “Have a Disney Day!” to tourists, this is another way of saying, “Kill yourself!”

Such is what Slavoj Žižek calls the “unmistakable dimension of humiliating brutality” inherent to polite responses (In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 17).  Politeness is ambiguous because it seems to be a form of gallantry and respect for the other person’s feelings; just as often, it conceals a radical disregard for a person’s sensitivity.  Open expressions of dislike must be avoided in polite society; therefore, one’s contempt for others maintains itself as disguised contempt.  Respectfulness and tact are, often enough, screens behind which disrespectfulness and insensitivity lurk.  There is, in a word, such a thing as aggressive politeness; there is such a thing as being aggressively polite.

I believe that the ambiguity of politeness is evident in Shakespeare’s traumatizing King Lear (1605-1606).  Let me be blunt: The play concerns a king who is thrown down to the level of a homeless beggar, and he is subjected to a series of brutal humiliations throughout the play, as are Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear’s rough yet loyal-to-the-death servant Kent.  The abjections begin long before the King’s exposure to the cold gusts of the open heath.  Lear is humiliated long before he experiences undisguised elder abuse, long before he is pushed out of doors, long before he is diminished to an undignified poverty.  The degradations begin with the manifest politeness of his two eldest offspring, Goneril and Regan.  Lear is mapping out and parceling out his kingly estate—prematurely, I would add—to his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, before his “[u]nburdened crawl toward death” [I:i].  His crawl toward death turns out to be a severely burdened one, despite his expectations.  His decision to give away his land, property, and revenue is an undiscerning one—hence the ocular imagery that spreads throughout the play.  The gruesome enucleation of Gloucester in Act Three: Scene Seven, for instance, mirrors Lear’s own blindness, his inability to leer.  The play’s twin metaphors are blindness and nothingness.[i]

When Lear asks his youngest daughter, his favorite, to declare her love for him, Cordelia’s response is monstrously inappropriate: “Nothing, my lord” [I:i].  (Inappropriate yet not as cruel as the pointed flatteries of Goneril and Regan, which I will turn to below.)  Inexpressive Cordelia says this to herself, and so we know that it is genuine: “I am sure my love’s / More ponderous than my tongue” [Ibid.].  She knows that language always lies, she knows that any word that she could possibly say would belie the love that she has for her father, transmuting her feelings to their converse,[ii] so she chooses to say nothing: “Nothing, my lord.”  She utters the following to explain her mutism: “I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” [Ibid.]—“to heave” means “to lift.”  She cannot raise the profundity of her feeling to language, with all of its manifold evasions, pomposities, and solecisms.  Undiscerning Lear misses Cordelia’s meaning: All Cordelia is suggesting is that she loves her father according to a wordless obligation.  She is “[s]o young” and “true” [Ibid.]—and Lear, dotard that he is, mistakes his youngest daughter’s brazenness and refusal to dote on him for disloyalty.[iii]

Again, Lear’s successive humiliations begin not with Cordelia’s inadvertent insult, but with the politeness of Goneril and Regan.  Cordelia, the malapert minx, with her saucy bluntness, is kinder than Goneril and Regan, who are empty flatterers and who are cruel in their flattery.  Politeness and manners are cruelty.  Goneril and Regan are followers of the conventions of the court; their intimacy is a kind of formalized intimacy or a kind of intimate formality.  One of Goneril’s inflated flatteries goes thus: “Sir, I do love you more than word can wield the matter…” [Ibid.].[iv]  Undiscerning Lear, who “jointly” “invests” his eldest daughters with his “power” [I:i][v] trusts their statements—statements that are no more meaningful than the proposition “Banana trees eat cheese.”

Cordelia’s resistance is nothing in comparison with Goneril and Regan’s insubordination, for they undermine their father’s standing and resources before pushing him out into the cold of the storm.[vi]  The point that I am trying to make is that Cordelia’s resistance, however inapposite it might be, is far less destabilizing than the savage overthrows of her older sisters, who wear the mask of politeness.

Lear is a literalist.  He literalizes Cordelia’s impoliteness, as if it represented disloyalty, when it does not.  He literalizes Kent’s bluntness, his “unmannerliness,” his “plainness” [I:i], as if it represented rebelliousness, which it does not.  Instead, he prizes Goneril and Regan’s “oily” and “glib” [I:i] flatteries, which conceal a deep and deadly disobedience.  To repurpose something once said by George Carlin, their version of politeness is contempt pretending to be manners.

The King’s demand is for the expression of love, as if the expression of love were love itself.[vii]  Lear prefers expressions of politeness to genuine loyalty.  He believes that Goneril and Regan love him because they say that they do.  When he finally grasps the venom with which their polite formulae is saturated, Lear makes the logical error of associating the inhuman behavior of Goneril and Regan with the behavior of all women.  Lear becomes a full-blown misogynist on account of this logical error (the Fallacy of Composition), which is similar to the unfortunate mistake of some critics who think that the play is misogynistic because the character Lear blindly becomes a misogynist.[viii]

Lear’s absolute authority at the beginning of the play is gradually triturated.  Contemptuously, Oswald refers to the King as “My lady’s father” [I:iv].  “My lady’s father” places the emphasis on the “lady” (Goneril) and thus suggests the unmanning of Lear.  Everyone in the hall knows this nasty bit of pseudo-politeness for what it is: an insult to the King.  Kent accordingly gives Oswald a good drubbing—Kent, who is blunt and painful in his honesty yet far, far kinder than those flatterers, those sycophants, those sophists, whose loyalties lie in their mouths and not in their deeds.

The eldest daughters are the cuckoos that bite the head off the hedge-sparrow, their father.  The Fool to Lear: “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it’s had it head bit off by it young” [I:iv].  The most shocking thing about the second line is the intentional absence of proper grammar.  The grammatical way of composing the lines would be: “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it had its head bit off by its young.”  The intentionally bad grammar intensifies the shocking character of the image.  Since the cuckoo and the hedge-sparrow belong to different species within the avian kingdom, the Fool might even be suggesting that Lear’s daughters belong to a different species than the King—though, to be historically precise, Linnaeus established the separate classification of dunnock and cuckoos slightly over 150 years after this play was composed (in 1758).  If the Fool intends that they belong to the same family, this is an image of the daughters cannibalizing their father.

Soon after his eldest daughters drive him down, inverting the traditional father-daughter relationship,[ix] Lear becomes estranged from himself; he becomes unrecognizably other.  Alienated from himself, alienated from his estate, which he has imprudently given to his eldest daughters, Lear can no longer recognize himself: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” [I:iv].  His previous self is foreign to him: “Does any here know me?  Why, this is not Lear” [Ibid.].  He is the father who is father no more; he is the king who is king in title only.  For much of his life, he thought of himself as father and as king.  Now that the roles of father and king have been robbed of their substance, he does not recognize who he is.  This non-self-recognition is madness.[x]

Lear tries to strip off his royal habiliments in the storm, which would be a kind of stripping-away of the symbols of royal authority, but is restrained by the Fool.  The Fool is introduced in Act One: Scene Four, three scenes after the befooling of Lear has been initiated.  The Fool disappears in Act Three: Scene Six, right after Lear says, “We’ll go to supper in’the morning” [III:vi], which means that Lear is now completely demented.  Now, it is the King who has become the Fool.  What use is the Fool when the King is foolish?  It is only when the Fool is hanged that we hear of the Fool again.

Even though, on the surface, Cordelia has “scanted” her “obedience” [I:i] by avoiding an explicit declaration of love for her father, she shows signs of real devotion to him toward the end of the play, when she leads a charge into England to restore him to the throne.  After the first scene of the first act, we do not see Cordelia again until the fourth scene of Act Four, wherein she reemerges as the Queen of France.  At least, this is the case in the Quarto of 1608.  There are significant discontinuities between the Quarto of 1608 and the First Folio of 1623.  In the First Folio, Cordelia reappears in the third scene of “Actus Quartus,” surrounded by pendants, drums, and her entourage: “Enter with Drum and Colours, Cordelia, Gentlemen, and Souldiours.”

One of Cordelia’s roles, after she accedes to the queenship of France, is to re-man, to re-virilize Lear, to undo the unmanning to which he has been subjected: “How does my royal lord?  How fares your majesty?” Cordelia asks her father in the seventh scene of the fourth act—without ever addressing him as her father!  No, she gives Lear a higher status than that of a father, than that of a biological progenitor.  He is the King, her royal lord, his majesty once more, and he is addressed with respect—and yet, for once, one senses that there is no malice beneath a shifty veneer of respectfulness.

The play does end in a certain restoration—the King reunites with his disowned daughter—and it is a beautiful resipiscence, a beautiful reconciliation between father and daughter, which makes the play almost endurable.  At the risk of sounding facile, this is a very dreary, very abjective, and quite nauseating play, but it does contain one positive value, and that is the value of covert loyalty.  Whereas Harold Bloom inflates the role of Edgar, I would emphasize the magnificent Kent.  Even when he disguises himself and escapes banishment, Kent does so in order to better serve his master.  Kent’s dishonesty masks a deeper honesty, his deceptions mask a deeper loyalty, as Cordelia’s phenomenal coldness masks a profounder warmth.  Kent shows a deeper obedience to Lear by standing up to the King and telling him, in essence, that the King is acting against his own best interests.  Kent is the very model of disloyal loyalty, of traitorous piety, of the fidelity of treason, which is something that Nietzsche knew well.

Joseph Suglia

[i] These are not matters that I am able to pursue in this essay directly, so I will place the relevant citations within an endnote.  Concerning the ocular metaphors: Goneril claims, phonily, that her father is “[d]earer than eyesight” to her [I:i].  Lear exclaims to Kent: “Out of my sight!”  Kent’s response: “See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye” [Ibid.].  Lear says to his own eyes: “Old fond eyes, / Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck yet out…” [I:iv].  Concerning the metaphors of nullity, within which Harold Bloom would see a creative gnostic vacuity: There are Cordelia and Lear’s “Nothings” in the first scene.  Edmund says to his father, “Nothing, my lord” in the second scene of the play.  In the fourth scene of the first act, Lear tells the Fool that “nothing can be made out of nothing.”  The Fool says to Lear: “I am a fool, thou art nothing” [Ibid.].

[ii] Cordelia knows the deceptiveness of language, as does her male double, Edgar.  Edgar says, to himself, that “the worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’” [IV:i].  The verbal articulation of one’s condition nullifies that very condition.  One is not fully lonely, as long as one can say, “I am lonely,” to follow Blanchot.  One is not fully sad, as long as one can say, “I am sad.”  One at least has energy enough to say that one is sad; one still opens the possibility of an addressee or an auditor when one says that one is lonely.

[iii] So scandalized is Lear that he (ostensibly) delights in the company of his youngest daughter no more than he delights in the company of cannibals: “[H]e that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom / Be as well neighboured, pitied and relieved, / As thou my sometime daughter” [I:i], Lear intones to Cordelia.

[iv] Cordelia, by contrast, is reticent: “To speak and purpose not—since what I well intend, / I’ll do’t before I speak” [I:i].

[v] By way of an illocutionary performative speech act.

[vi] Regan and Goneril’s insubordination of their father is mirrored by the bastard Edmund’s insubordination of his father.  Edmund betrays his father, the Earl of Gloucester, as Goneril and Regan betray their father, Lear.  Edmund, at least, becomes sympathetic in his dying.  In his final moments, he has a coda of self-acknowledgement.  Not so Goneril and Regan.  Edmund is an obvious sociopath but is less dislikable than Goneril and Regan.

[vii] Lear is King James I perceived through the speculum of a funhouse mirror.  Much as James I, who patronized Shakespeare and whom Shakespeare served when this play was first performed, King Lear demands absolute obedience.  James I asserted his absolute authority in writing, in The True Law of Free Monarchies; or, The Reciprocal and Mutual Duty Betwixt a Free King and His Natural Subjects (originally published in 1598).  Anyone who reads this text will see that James I considered obedience to the King to be identical to obedience to God.  Intriguingly, Shakespeare seems to be subtly criticizing his patron.  Both James I and Lear make the mistake of believing that an outward show of submission is true obedience.  Moreover, James I similarly divided his estate, giving it to his sons, renouncing the ownership of moieties of his land and money.  Instead of burbling about Shakespeare’s “universalism” or “infinity,” it is important to place the plays within their proper historical contexts.  “Universalism” and “infinity”: Such are a few of the pomposities and vaporizings of Harold Bloom, who is otherwise often admirable.

[viii] Lear is nothing if not the Father.  If he is not patriarchal, then no one is.

[ix] Lear is infantilized, becoming son to Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia.  In this play, daughters are mothers to their father.  “Old fools are babes again,” Goneril says of her father to Oswald [I:iii].  The Fool tells Lear, “[T]hou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers” [I:iv].  Similarly, Edmund says of his brother Edgar that the latter claimed: “[T]he father should be as ward to the son and the son manage his revenue” [I:ii].  Likewise, Edgar says of his father, “He childed as I father’d” [III:vi], implying an inversion of relation between father and son.  It is an inverted world in which the characters are dwelling, one in which the home-space is outside of the kingdom and the outside is within: “Freedom lives hence and banishment is here” [I:i], as Kent phrases it.

[x] There is a great deal of self-estrangement in the play.  Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, peasant and bedlamite, before becoming the next King of England, and Kent disguises himself as Caius before being recognized for who he is by the dying Lear in the final act.  In the guise of Poor Tom, Edgar dispatches the vermin Oswald and Edmund, who have verminated England.  Interestingly, there is a legend that the historical King Edgar committed lupicide, dispatching and expelling wolves from Albion immediately after he became king.

 

A Fragmentary Analysis of TIMON OF ATHENS (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

 

A Fragmentary Analysis of TIMON OF ATHENS (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

 

“Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible, be daily before your eyes, but death chiefly, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.”

—Epictetus, The Enchiridion

 

“A friend asks only for your time and not money.”

—From a fortune cookie.  Chinatown, Chicago, 2019

 

Athenian lord Timon has an embarrassment of wealth, and he doesn’t seem in the least embarrassed about it.  He is generous—absurdly, promiscuously generous, prodigal to the point of profligacy.  His Lucullan feasts are well-attended.  Of course, he is parasitized by the mob—by the mob of disgusting parasites who call themselves his “friends.”  As if they were a pack of baphometic daemons, his “friends” eat up his money until he has nothing left.  When the creditors demand repayment, Timon has nothing to give them.  None of his “friends” helps Timon in his time of need; the pseudo-friends to whom he appeals for money—Lucullus, Lucius, and Sempronius—refuse his entreaties, even while they are wearing the jewelry that Timon gifted them.  Timon is soon on course for self-immolation.  He is so aggrieved that he spends the rest of his life in a wasteland, where he execrates the whole of humanity.

So goes the epitasis of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens (circa 1605-1608), largely based on Plutarch’s life of Antony and Lucian’s dialogue on Timon.  It is an allegory of language (this is not something that I will pursue in depth here) and an allegory of misanthropy and sounds particularly allegorical when Timon declares dismally to Alcibiades: “I am Misanthropos and hate mankind” [IV:iii].  It is clear that Timon is allegorizing misanthropy in the general and in the abstract.  However, Shakespeare’s great play, one of the most underestimated in the Western literary canon, is not a misanthropic play, despite appearances, but a subtle critique of Timonian misanthropy.

 

TIMON IS NOT APART FROM HUMANITY; HE IS A PART OF HUMANITY

Timon retreats to the wasteland in order to avoid human contact and to correct the errors of his personal past, to correct the mistakes that he made when he was rich (profligate liberality, exploitability).  And what does he do while in the wasteland?  He socializes still!

Even while wasting away in the wasteland, Timon is thronged by other human beings.  In the same way that the Forest of Arden in As You Like It is an overpopulated desert, there are too many people in the wasteland, and Timon can’t escape contact with them.  Timon curses Alcibiades for approaching him: “The canker gnaw thy heart / For showing me again the eyes of man!” [IV:iii].  He withdraws from humanity and yet draws humanity to him at the same time.

The obvious question floating in my mind: If Timon wishes to be left alone, why does he ask Apemantus[1] to report to Athens that Timon has money: “Tell them there I have gold” [IV:iii].  He knows well, and Apemenatus tells him as much, that he will soon be thronged with Athenians.  Apemantus even affirms that the rogues of Athens will come for him, seeking money: “I’ll say thou’st gold: / Thou wilt be thronged to shortly” [IV:iii].  This is a strange paradox or a koan: If he wants to be left alone, why does Timon send Apemantus as a messenger to Athens?  And why is the message that Apemantus carries, in effect, “I have money.  Come to see me!”?

Apemantus and Timon are paradoxes: both misanthropes and social animals at the same time.  If Apemantus dislikes humanity so much, why does he attend Timon’s well-attended dinners?  He doesn’t eat the food that is prepared; he instead show-offily eats roots and drinks water.  Why even go to one of Timon’s parties if he is not there for the food?  Apemantus does relish piercing the revelers with caustic insults.  Everyone appears to know who he is, and he interacts with the partygoers.

The most interesting thing about Shakespeare’s punk-rock play is that it is a condemnation of the whole of humanity—and of Timon along with it!  This condemnation extends to misanthropy.  Timon’s misanthropy does not go far enough; it leaves Timon immune.  Timon is not apart from humanity; he is a part of humanity, even after he renounces it.  The play suggests the impossibility of liberating oneself from humanity, the impossibility of ever being alone while being alive, something that brings the work—the strangest, darkest, most nihilistic, most heterodox work in the Shakespearean canon—in close proximity to the shocking literature of Roland Topor.  Timon the Misanthrope thinks that he is soaring over the unhuman crowd, but he is one of them; he is a member of the crowd.[2]

 

WHEN HIS LANGUAGE ENDS, ALL LANGUAGE SHALL END

Timon of Athens is an allegory of language.[3]  It suggests that language is empty.  Timon’s parasitical “friends” make empty promises and justify the non-performance of their promises with empty words.  Timon spends more money than he has and thus defaults on his loans.  The Poet promises to craft a poem in honor of Timon that he will never present, the Painter promises to paint a likeness of Timon that he has no intention of completing, etc.  Flavius claims that “the world is but a word” [II:ii], the world only extends as far as language does, and that the “breath is gone whereof this praise is made” [II:ii].

It is no wonder that Timon looks forward to the apocalyptic death of language, the reduction of human words to muteness, to silence.  Ultimately, all we have are words.  When human language dies, humanity dies—and this is something that Timon welcomes in his final words, as if the language of humanity will die when his language dies: “Lips, let sour words go by, and language end” [V:ii].  When his language ends, Timon suggests, all language shall end.

 

HE IS EITHER GENEROUS TO EVERYONE OR GENEROUS TO NO ONE

Timon moves from indiscriminate generosity to indiscriminate human-hatred.  Life is a zero-sum contest, for Timon.  He knows only absolutes.  Much as Coriolanus, another one of Shakespeare’s simpletons, either loves his motherland Rome or hates Mother Rome, Timon either loves Athens or hates Athens.

Timon is either a profligate prodigal or a human-hater.  There is no middle ground for him.  He is a quasi-borderline, as if he were afflicted with a version of Borderline Personality Disorder.  He absolutely loves or absolutely hates—not one individual, but the totality of humanity.

Note Timon’s use of the word “therefore,” as if he were drawing a logical conclusion:

There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,
But direct villainy.  Therefore, be abhorr’d
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!
[IV:iii][4]

He proclaims that he holds no brief for human beings and their communities and rituals, holds no brief for those who compose the human species because they are unequal (it is as if he were attempting to refute Hobbes, whom Shakespeare certainly read, and read with great admiration, according to Ben Johnson).  Allow me to paraphrase further: “Human beings are unequal except that they are equal in villainy; therefore, all of human society should be hated!”

Again, Timon is either generous to everyone or generous to no one.  As we have known at least since Hegel, opposites interpenetrate.  Opposites are inwardly connected; they belong to the same system.

Leftism is nothing more than the inversion of rightism, and Satanism is nothing more than the obverse of Christianity.  An opposite is not completely different from the original term.  The opposite of something is related to that thing.

Timon, a man whose fortune suddenly changes to misfortune, is not a genuine misanthrope at all.  For he only hates humanity after he has been exploited.  Had he not been exploited, as Apemantus suggests, he would never have converted to misanthropy.  As Apemantus phrases it, Timon’s misanthropy is forced: “This is in thee a nature but affected” [IV:iii].  Timon’s human-hatred is a pre-reflexive, ungenuine, affected misanthropy.  It is an immature misanthropy.

Apemantus, who, in many respects, is the raisonneur of the play, is suggesting, quite rightly, that Timon’s rejection of sociality is the mere opposite of promiscuous sociality.  Apemantus says, in prose: “The middle of humanity thou never knewst, but the extremity of both ends” [IV:iii].  Apemantus has a more nuanced view of humankind than Timon does.

Jonathan Swift knew that Timon’s misanthropy is naïve and simplistic.  This is likely why Swift refuses to identify as a Timonian human-hater.  Swift acknowledges that he is a misanthrope, but not a misanthrope in Timon’s manner (see Swift’s letter to Alexander Pope, 29 September 1725).  Timon’s misanthropy is not intelligent enough for Swift.

Similarly, in Paragraph 379 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche distances himself from Timonian misanthropy.  Nietzsche knew not the love of hatred, but contempt.  Contempt is hatred’s icy cousin, and Nietzsche knew well the aristocratic pleasures of contempt, as he knew well that hatred is an all-enmeshing obsession.

 

HE MOCKINGLY IMITATES THE MOCKING IMITATORS

Timon’s attitude toward art undergoes a change.  First, he believes that art is almost the direct representation of human nature: “The painting is almost the natural man” [I:i].  Art is like reality itself; it shows things as they are: “[T]hese penciled figures are / Even such as they give out” [I:i].  He is naïve, again, and has a naïve, pre-reflexive attitude toward art.  At the beginning of the play, he actually believes that art is honest!

In the fifth act of the play, Timon considers art to a sham, a kind of fakery, a confidence trick, a lie.  The Painter is said to draw “counterfeit” and the Poet is said to compose “fiction” [V:i].  Timon mockingly imitates the mocking imitators.

What Nietzsche writes about Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar may also be written about Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: Shakespeare slyly ridicules poetry and all other forms of art.  There is in Timon of Athens the playful disparagement of poetry as a kind of frivolity (see Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Paragraph Ninety-Eight).

 

HE IS A MISANTHROPE, IT IS TRUE, BUT IT IS ALSO TRUE THAT HE MISANTHROPIZES HIMSELF

Timon is a misanthrope, it is true, but it is also true that he misanthropizes himself.  His misanthropy comes from his autolatry, his self-worship, his narcissism, and his inability to forgive himself for his prodigal liberality.  It is for this reason that Flavius says of Timon: “[H]e is set so only to himself” [V:ii]

Timon, or Timonian misanthropy, presages the cultural movement in this century known as the “incel” movement.  “Incel” is a portmanteau abbreviation of “involuntary celibate.”  “Incels” are sexually disappointed young men, men who cannot find sexual release with women and who despise these same women for rejecting them.  Often, “incels” are “black-pilled,” which seems to mean that they are anticipating a dreary, hopeless future for themselves and, often, for everyone else.

I see the similarity in that “black-pilling” involuntary celibates transfer their self-hatred onto a world that does not bend to them, much in the way that Timon transfers his self-hatred onto a world that is indifferent to him.

Misanthropy is founded on narcissism and on narcissistic self-hatred.  Misanthropes project their hatred of themselves onto the numberless faces that they will never see.

Misanthropy is an immature response to the venality of humanity.  Rather than inventing more nuanced, cleverer ways of dealing with people, the misanthrope thinks: “Because a small group of people mistreated me, all of humanity should be condemned.”  It is as if the misanthrope were saying: “Because I was exploited and because no one helped me when I was abject, die, everyone, die!”

It is important to highlight that this play is critical of Timon’s liberality and his misanthropy.

 

HE REINTERPRETS HIS PERSONAL EXPLOITATION AS INFECTION BY PESTILENTIAL HUMANITY

In his final words, Timon says, dismally: “My long sickness / Of health and living now begins to mend” [V:ii].  Dying is the healing, the “mending,” of the sickness of life, the remedying of that disease which is life.  Timon reinterprets his personal exploitation as infection by pestilential humanity.

Timon is someone who seems endlessly fascinated by Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), to the extent that I would describe him as a syphillographer, a syphillologist, and a syphillophile.  This makes perfect sense when we consider that Timon associates venereal disease with human life, since, after all, human life is a Sexually Transmitted Disease.

 

ONE IS THE CANNIBAL AND THE OTHER IS THE CANNIBALIZED

Timon of Athens sets forth the dreariest vision of humankind of any Shakespearean play.  In the fourth line of the text, the Painter says that the world “wears… as it grows” [I:i]: that is, the world is progressively wearing itself down, depleting itself, exhausting itself, decomposing, rotting, putrefying, in the same way that Timon’s fortunes are shrinking and shriveling.

Human relations are anthropophagous relations, the play is suggesting: In every relationship between any given two human beings, one is the cannibal and the other is the cannibalized, one is dominant and the other submissive.  Alcibiades looks forward ghoulishly to a “breakfast of enemies” that would be “bleeding new” [II:i].  Apemantus knows that wherever two human beings meet, one is the predator and the other is the prey, one is more active and the other is more passive: “What beast couldst thou be that were not subject to a beast?  And what a beast art thou already that seest not thy loss in transformation!” [IV:iii].  In other words, humanity has devolved into the purely bestial: “The strain of man’s bred out into baboon and monkey” [I:i].  Apemantus asks, rhetorically “Who lives that’s not depraved or depraves?” [I:ii], and it is the clear that Apemantus knows well that Timon’s friends are devouring him: “It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood” [I:ii].

The distinction between eater and eaten runs throughout the play.  Timon’s friend-enemies are feeding upon him, eating his flesh, slicing him up: “Cut my heart in sums—” [III:iv], Thomas cries out as the creditors come for him.  Flavius declares that the creditors ate of his “lord’s meat”; “they could smile and fawn upon his debts, / And take down th’interest into their gluttonous maws” [III:iv].  This is an interesting use of antiprosopopoeia (the representation of human beings as objects): Timon is represented as the meat on which his “friends” feast.  The creditors come, demanding payment and charging interest—they are metaphorically ingesting Timon.

Timon is preyed upon by creditors who wear the jewels that Timon has given them.  The “strange event,” Titus says of his master, is that “he wears jewels now of Timon’s gift / For which I wait for money” [III:iv].  Here is the sickening cosmic irony: Timon has given gifts to recipients who now demand payment for those same gifts.  In the very diagesis in which he claims to have warned Timon about keeping a tighter purse, Lucullus says that he ate Timon’s food!: “Many a time and often I ha’ dined with him, and told him on’t, and come again to supper to him of purpose to have him spend less…” [III:i].  The “friends” who are wearing Timon’s gifts refuse to lend him any money and charge Timon for the gifts that he has given them.

It is as if Shakespeare were canalizing Machiavelli, whom Shakespeare might have read and who claimed, in The Prince, that human beings are, in general, “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous.”  One might add, according to the metaphorics of Shakespeare’s underestimated play: self-interested, swinish, gruesome, callous, lazy, unreliable.

 

THE REAVING THIEVES AND THE WATERY NOTHINGNESS OF THEIR WORDS

At the end of the third act, Timon feeds the parasites lukewarm water.  He tosses the water at the false friends and tosses them out of his house.  “Smoke and lukewarm / water / Is your perfection” [III:vii], he declares.  As Jesus evicts the money changers and the dove hawkers from the temple, Timon evicts the false friends from his house, baptizing them with tepid water, a kind of reverse christening.

Why water?  Why smoke?  The smoke is the vapor emanating, paradoxically, from the lukewarm water—and the vaporous, lukewarm water is the perfect metaphor for the reaving thieves and the watery nothingness of their words.  Water literalizes the metaphor of friendship as liquid—that is to say, as not solid, not trustworthy, not constant.  As Flaminius asks, rhetorically, “Has friendship such a faint and milky heart / It turns in less than two nights?” [III:i].

Liquid metaphors drench the text.  Apemantus is a root-eater and water-drinker, and water, as I will explain below, symbols the reversion to nature and the desertion of fortune.

 

HE DIGS IN THE EARTH

Fortune overtakes nature, as it always does in Shakespeare.  Timon tells us, recalling As You Like It (written around ten years earlier), that brothers who are twins by nature will fight against each other as soon as one brother grows more fortunate than the other: “Twinned brothers of one womb / Whose procreation, residence and birth / Scarce is dividant, touch them with several fortunes, / The greater scorns the lesser” [IV:iii].

It is no wonder that Timon favors nature to fortune.  It is no wonder that Timon reverts to nature, to eating roots and drinking water: “Earth, yield me roots” [Ibid.].

The stage direction makes it plain: Timon digs in the earth [Ibid.], excavating for roots, much in the way that his model Apemantus does—Apemantus, the ape man whom Timon is aping.  Timon, then, turns against fortune and turns toward nature, for he knows well that fortune quickly converts into misfortune.

 

HE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS DESTRUCTION

Only a coarse and lazy reading of the play would suggest that Timon is innocent of his exploitation and eventual destruction.  Sharper, more careful readers will not think of Timon as an innocent victim.  Both meanings are supportable: His friends are parasitical, and Timon is complicit in his demolition.

 

HE GIVES MORE THAN IS ASKED FOR AND THEN GROWS SPITEFUL WHEN HIS LARGESSE IS NOT RETURNED

Timon refuses to allow the recipients of his gifts to give him anything of equal value.  It might be tempting to describe his gifts as a kind of potlatch, but let us remember that (according to Mauss and Bataille) potlatch places the recipient of the gift in the uncomfortable position of having to out-give the original giver.  This is not the case here.  Timon does not accept the repayment of debts—in that sense, Timon does not loan money; he gives it.  He refuses Ventidius’ offer to repay the money that Timon has given him.  Timon’s response is that gifts should be given freehandedly: “[T]here’s none / Can truly say he gives if he receives” [I:ii].  He gives promiscuously, but not entirely without the reciprocity of interest (I will discuss this matter later on).

Not only that: Timon cannot accept a gift without giving something to the giver in exchange.  When Lucullus gives Timon two brace of greyhounds, Timon’s response is that they should not be received “without fair reward” [I:ii].  As the Second Lord phrases it: There is “no meed but [Timon] repays / Sevenfold above itself, no gift to him / But breeds the giver a return exceeding / All use of quittance” [I:i].  In other words, Timon has the tendency of giving beyond compensation, beyond remuneration.

More so: Timon gives excessively.  He gives more than is asked for and then grows spiteful when his largesse is not returned.  He ransoms Ventidius from debtor’s prison—and even offers to support him financially after he is freed: “’Tis not enough to help the feeble up, / But to support him after” [I:i].  Timon is too trusting, too naïve, too credulous, and gives too readily, too quickly to the firstcomer; he guarantees more than is requested.  (When Timon is down in a financial hole, incidentally, Ventidius does not come to his aid.)

Worst of all, Timon is financially illiterate; indeed, his knowledge of money is at best lineamental.  He is not financially hyperopic enough to see that his lavish expenditures exceed his income.  When Timon complains that Flavius never warned him about the rapid decrease in his funds, the servant says: “You would not hear me: / At many leisures I proposed—” [II:ii].  Timon interrupts Flavius before Flavius can conclude his sentence of explanation, inadvertently proving Flavius’ point: Timon is a terrible listener and hence a terrible learner.  When, in his previous life, Timon is overly generous to those around him, he speaks of a “bond in men” to “build [the] fortune” of others [I:i; emphasis mine].  He uses this word—bond—as if it were a divine commandment to give his servant Lucilius a massive raise.

 

HE IS AS MUCH OF AN EXPLOITER AS THE FLATTERING PARASITES WHO FAWN OVER HIM

Timon seems to be a selfless giver—“more welcome are you to my fortunes / Than my fortunes to me” [I:ii], he says to Ventidius—and yet Timon does expect compensation.  He just doesn’t expect monetary compensation.  As Nietzsche reminds us, no one gives without expecting a reward.

Timon is every bit as parasitical as his so-called “friends.”  Timon says: “[W]hat need we have any friends, if we should ne’er have need of ’em?” [I:ii].  He is saying, in effect: “Because I give to you, you will give to me, if I ever need you!”  But this does not follow logically; it is an argument that contains false inference.  Timon discovers his non sequitur too late.

He is an exploiter in a culture of exploitation—he is as much of an exploiter as the flattering parasites who fawn over him.

 

EVEN WHILE WASTING AWAY IN THE WASTELAND, TIMON GIVES MONEY TO THE UNWORTHY

Unfortunately, there is one thing about Timon that only changes very late in the play: Even while in self-imposed exile, even after renouncing and repudiating humanity, Timon gives away his money!

He gives money to Alcibiades (“There’s gold to pay thy soldiers—” [IV:iii]), he throws gold at the prostitutes without getting or asking for anything in return (“There’s more gold” [Ibid.]), he squanders money on thieves.  His gives money to everyone besides the Poet, the Painter, and the Senators.  What, then, has changed about Timon—if anything?

(Interestingly, one of the prostitutes is named Phrynia, a name which almost certainly is an allusion to Phryne, the high-end batrachian call girl of Ancient Greece.  And as deep readers of Greek history will know, the historical Alcibiades was a kind of prostitute himself.)

Has he changed at all?  He gives now out of spite, not out of love—but the ridiculous excessive liberality has not changed.  He gives out of different motives than he gave before, but he still gives—indeed, squanders—what he has.  “More whore, more mischief first—” [IV:iii], he says to the prostitutes, whom he pays to sow discord, and pays Alcibiades to wage war against the Athenians.  But he is still Timon the Spendthrift.  As far as the thieves are concerned: Timon might curse them, but the thieves might as well say, in contemporary American English slang, “I still got your money, dude.”

Has Timon truly changed?  Even while wasting away in the wasteland, Timon still gives money to the unworthy.  If I were to be even more curmudgeonly, I would like to suggest that Timon hasn’t learned his lesson: He is still giving to the parasites who are feeding upon him.

 

THEOREM

Timon of Athens is the complex character study of a misanthrope who never succeeds in hating humanity as much as humanity deserves to be hated.

Joseph Suglia

 

[1] Much like Thersites in Shakespeare’s earlier Troilus and Cressida, Apemantus is a cynical philosopher.  In the fourth act, Timon has transformed himself into the likeness, into a grotesque burlesque of Apemantus, the ascetic who eats nothing but roots and who drinks nothing but water (perhaps in denial of the opulent pleasures of affluence).  A defensible reading of Apemantus’ name would be Ape-mantus: the Ape Man, as well as the Man Who Is Aped.  He is an ape man, and he recognizes that other human beings are apes.  And he is aped by Timon, who takes on Apemantus’ misanthropy.  There is a flaw in Timon’s imitation of Apemantus, however.  Though Timon takes on the human-hating position of Apemantus, there is something forced, something affected in Timon’s misanthropy.  Apemantus is not a hater of the whole of humankind.  It would be accurate to say that Apemantus has contempt for humanity, but there is no evidence that he is gripped and entangled by that obsession which is called “hatred.”  Apemantus seems to approach Timon in the desert only in order to torment him further and to prevent him from copying his mannerisms: “Do not assume my likeness” [IV:iii].  Timon and Apemantus are not pleased to see their doubles.  It would not be relevant for me to pursue a sustained comparison between Thersites and Apemantus here.

 

[2] Here is another of the play’s cosmic ironies: In the sixth scene of the third act, Alcibiades pleads to the senators for the life of one of his rogue soldiers.  They banish him for his alleged impudence.  At the end of the play, these same senators will plead for their lives with the grinning submission of passive chimpanzees when confronted by a dominant chimpanzee.  The Third Senator proposes “decimation and a tithed death” [V:v] for the Athenian people.  “Decimation” does not mean “destruction.”  It means “the killing of every tenth being.”

 

[3] The thrust and the tenor of this essay is not to explore the ways in which the play is an allegory of language (I am more concerned here with the ways in which it is an allegory of misanthropy), but let me give some indications of how such an analysis would proceed.  There are apostrophes, in the rhetorical sense, throughout the text.  A (rhetorical) apostrophe is an address to someone or something that is absent.  Here is a partial list of apostrophizing in the text: The Poet addresses an absent Timon as “Magic of bounty” [I:i].  Both the Poet and the Painter frequently speak of Timon in absentia.  Flavius apostrophizes Timon in his lord’s absence: “My dearest lord…” [IV:ii].  Timon apostrophizes money: “O thou sweet king-killer…” [IV:iii].  In the third scene of the fourth act, Flavius apostrophizes the gods (“O you gods!”).

 

[4] This statement is every bit as insane as when Timon says to Apemantus: “[T]hou’rt an Athenian, therefore welcome” [I:i; emphasis mine].

 

Jordan Peterson Is Overrated / Jordan Peterson Does Not Understand Nietzsche / Entrain the Nietzschean Time Machine / An Analysis of ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA by Friedrich Nietzsche / An Analysis of THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA by Friedrich Nietzsche

Entrain the Nietzschean Time Machine

by Joseph Suglia

 

“It’s a love/hate relationship I have with the human race.  I am an elitist, and I feel that my responsibility is to drag the human race along with me—that I will never pander to, or speak down to, or play the safe game.  Because my immortal soul will be lost.”

—Harlan Ellison

“When belief in a god dies, the god dies.”

—Harlan Ellison

 

NIETZSCHEAN RETROACTIVE CONTINUITY

Nietzsche is like a peaceful hurricane—not a hurricane that has been pacified but a hurricane that peacefully sweeps aside villages.

I am convinced that Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885) is work of retrodictive speculative fiction.  By “retrodictive speculative fiction,” I mean a work of a fiction, such as a novel, that imagines what the world today would look like if the world of yesterday were different than it was.

The thesis makes perfect sense if we consider the following: The historical Zarathustra was an ancient Iranian prophet (circa 1500 B.C.E.) who founded one of the first monotheisms—some religious historians even say the first monotheism—Zoroastrianism.  It is a religion that vastly predated Platonism and Christianity and is one of the first religions to postulate a divine order, a world beyond the world of the senses.  It clearly inspired Christianity, which also posits a dichotomy between the world-in-which-we-live and the beyond.

Nietzsche considers every religion to be a hive of intellectual errors.  If one were to go back in time and correct one of the first and most influential religions, Zoroastrianism, in what kind of world would we be living today?  This, I believe, was Nietzsche’s question as he was writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche is asking us: What if this book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, were a book written by the historical Zarathustra?  What if Nietzsche’s Zarathustra were the real Zarathustra?  If Nietzsche’s Zarathustra were the historical Zarathustra, the book is suggesting, we would be living in a much better, saner, healthier, more robust, more living world.  What effects would it have on the history of Christianity, if Nietzsche’s Zarathustra were the historical Zarathustra?   Christianity would have been entirely different—indeed, Christianity would never have existed.  There would be no Christianity without the historical Zarathustra.  We must remember that Nietzsche considered Christianity to be anti-life and anti-human.  One can find ballast for my supposition in Nietzsche’s opusculum Ecce Homo: “Zarathustra created this fateful error of morality [the division between benevolence and self-interest]: This means he has to be the first to recognize it.”  And to correct it.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra will go back in time and will correct the ancient Zarathustra’s errors—errors that gave birth to Christianity and to Christian-inspired moralisms.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra will reverse the errors that the ancient Iranian prophet Zarathustra made and thus obviate the supervenient Christianity.  Nietzsche’s target is clearly Christianity, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a counter-Bible.  It is a speculative-fictional retrodiction of the Christian Bible.  Its title could have been What Would Nietzsche Do?

The historical Zarathustra never said anything that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra even acknowledges that he is not his Iranian namesake at one stage (in “Von Tausend und einem Ziele”).[1]  This is why I maintain that Thus Spoke Zarathustra is an ex-post-facto speculative novel.  The novel establishes retroactive continuity, what we might call “Nietzschean retcon.”  We, as readers, are enjoined to travel in the Zarathustran Time Machine and to alter the past, which will, of course, alter the future.  This is not quite utopian fiction, since it does not present a paradisaical utopia, but it is not far away from utopian fiction, either (along the lines of Bellamy’s chiliastic-utopian Looking Backward).  It is a shame that Nietzsche did not live to write a science-fiction novel that would have been about the future—one that would have been written in the future perfect about a perfect future.

The narrative takes place in the hyper-past—not in the Before as it was lived, but in the Before as it might have been lived from the perspective of the After.  I am well aware that Thus Spoke Zarathustra makes allusions to nineteenth-century Europe and that the book is a modern book.  But its modernity resides in the fact that it bends the past to the will of the future.  A citation from T.S. Eliot (in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) is a propos to this context: “Whoever has approved this idea of order [the idea that the order of the English literary canon must be adjusted when a new work is canonized], of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.  And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.”  (Zizek, in his debate with Jordan Peterson on 19 April 2019, slightly miscited this passage from T.S. Eliot.)  One must modulate the T.S. Eliot quotation somewhat: The past should be altered not by the present, in the case of Nietzsche, but by the future.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is an irreligious prophet who lives alone in a mountain cave with his pet eagle and his pet snake.  (The eagle represents pride; the snake symbols cunning.)  After living in solitude for ten years, Zarathustra is now forty years old—only one year older than Nietzsche was when he began writing this book, in 1883.  Bored with his self-imposed exile, he returns to humanity and showers his wisdom on the people.  He is like the sun and wishes to radiate, for a sun needs an object against which to refract its rays in order to show its brilliance—we remember that Zarathustra’s Greek name, Zoroaster, means “Golden Star.”

An overflowing cup, Zarathustra wants nothing more than to teach and so he teaches the lesson of the overhuman, the Übermensch, to the residents of the Motley Cow, the bunte Kuh, a city that is as bovine and as disorderly as its name suggests.  He sermonizes the crowd non-messianically, lecturing them on “the sense of the Earth,” der Sinn der Erde, the overhuman (which I will discuss in greater depth below).  In doing so, Zarathustra gives what could be best described as an Anti-Sermon on the Mount.  Implicit in this sermon is a perversely subversive reinterpretation of Jesus.  Zarathustra blesses the meek, as Jesus does—but Zarathustra blesses the meek not because the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs, but because they will soon go under, because they will soon decline.  To go under (untergehen) is the necessity prerequisite for going across (übergehen) to overhumanization.  Unlike Jesus, Zarathustra is not a prophet who praises meekness, weakness, self-renunciation.  Unlike Jesus, Zarathustra is a prophet who praises strength, pride, vitality, creativity, fecundity.  Zarathustra favors the noble and the dignified, those who are vornehm, to the weakly meek and the meekly weak.  Zarathustra Contra Jesus.

Unlike Jesus, Zarathustra is no populist and would rather be alone than mingle with the mob.  Love of the crowd quick-transforms into disgust and contempt for the crowd, into a thick admixture of nausea and contempt, for the crowd is distractible and manifestly unworthy of his love and his lesson.  This is likely why Nietzsche subtitles the book A Book for Everyone and No One, Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen—he does not write for the herd, for the ironically anointed “higher humans” of today, or for the “last humans” of tomorrow.  He writes for his imaginary friends who will come about the day after tomorrow, the supra-futural free spirits who alone will understand his writings, his message, his lessons (the All), not for the human beings of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries who will constantly misinterpret his messages and lessons (the No One).  As all great authors, he writes not for readers of today, but for readers who have not yet been born.

Zarathustra witnesses a display of funambulism in the city square.  A tightrope walker, a Seiltānzer, is balanced above the crowd.  Suddenly, a buffoon, a Possenreisser, appears and leaps over the funambulist, who topples from the line and plummets to his slow death.  Much like the tightrope walker, modern humanity, Zarathustra reminds us, is positioned between the ape and the overhuman.  Who could the jester represent other than those nihilists who would overthrow humankind as it exists in modernity in a simple and hasty fashion?  The mistake of the buffoon is to believe that humanity could ever be merely “jumped over.”  Humankind must go down before it can ever go across, before it transforms into the overhuman, it is true—but it must go across.  The Prologue suggests that humanity cannot be “jumped over” in a simple way—great longing and self-disgust precede the lurch into the overhuman.  Epigenesis, then, not autogeny or spontaneous birth.

 

DEVALUATING THE VIRTUES

After the Prologue, very little happens.  Zarathustra just gives speeches most of the time.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra becomes, formally, a novel of sermons—a microscopic subgenre of literature to which novels of Hölderlin, Gibran, and Hesse also belong.  Zarathustra sets to work dispraising and disprizing virtues—exposing them as genetically vicious—and praising and prizing vices.  He will do so throughout Part One, Part Two, and Part Three (this is a book in four parts).  Until Part Four, wherein Thus Spoke Zarathustra again becomes a narrative, the book will not be especially literary.  Part Four did not appear until 1885; forty copies were published privately and gifted to friends.

In a book that is heavy in metaphor,[2] Nietzsche compares his language, his writing, to the snout of a boar which digs up acorns and insects from the dirt.[3]  As the boar, as the wild pig, Nietzsche will uncover, reveal, disclose our hidden motives whenever we do something that seems to be moral.  So, Nietzsche the boar digs up our hidden motives—and what does he find?  He finds that all of our motives are unclean and selfish and rotten.[4]  Human beings are grasping and designing creatures.

According to Nietzsche, no one ever does anything without the promise of a reward.  Behind every virtue is the desire for an advantage.  The virtuous want to be paid, Nietzsche tells us: ‘[S]ie wollen noch—bezahlt sein!’ (“Von den Tugendhaften”).  I have coined the adjective virtuous-Machiavellian to describe this disposition.  Think of those who perform good acts because they want transcendence: They want compensation, in the beyond.  After death, I will receive repayment for all that I have suffered in the name of virtue.  I will receive my compensation for being a good person.  But this is only a religious framework.  Nietzsche is not writing about a religious framework, really; he’s writing about those who are virtuous for the sake of the approbation of an audience.

For Nietzsche, virtues are not inner properties, inner qualities (here, Nietzsche partly agrees with Aristotle).  They are not signs of a good character.  A virtue is a performance.  What is a virtue if you can’t perform it in front of spectators?  Virtues exist for one reason—to be displayed.  We have virtues in order to show them off, according to Nietzsche.  We have virtues in order to assert our moral superiority.  Someone who speaks in a very loud voice about his or her moral outrage over some event or over some sequence of syllables—does that person not want to be regarded as morally superior?  And isn’t such a megaphonic blast of phony moral outrage a kind of strike or attack against other people to whom one wants to be superior?  All virtuousness is sanctimony.

To adduce three examples of sanctimonious virtuousness (from Human, All-Too-Human and Daybreak, slightly paraphrased):

a.) The man who rescues an anile old woman from an immolating building wants everyone around him, including himself, to think that he is heroic.  He is performing a counterstrike against his own feeling of powerlessness—as he is suggesting that who do not intervene are powerless.

b.) The soldier who dies on the battlefield wants to be memorialized as a superhero—in opposition to the Most, who, he implies by his self-chosen death, are cowardly and not as strong as he.  He really has the vain desire for immortality.

c.) The girl who is faithful to the boy she loves wants her beloved to cheat on her so that she can display her virtuous faithfulness.  She can then boast of her virtuous chastity and loyalty.

The point is, to paraphrase Nietzsche, that these self-anointed saints of virtue want to elevate themselves by degrading others.  In Daybreak, Nietzsche writes of the nun who wants married women to hate her because she is celibate and piously devoted to God.  The nun flaunts her holiness; the nun flaunts her virginity.  She degrades all other women in order to elevate herself.

This is why Nietzsche suggests that virtue is vengeance.

We learn that the virtues are actually vices, that Good is actually Evil.  After all, all virtues have degenerate, corrupt, filthy, unspeakable origins.  At the bottom of our virtues are malice, the desire for revenge, envy, gluttony, hatred, vanity—our darkest impulses lie at the bottom of every virtue.  Nietzsche lets no one off the hook and certainly not the meek, the charitable, the volunteers, and the saints.

Chastity is disguised vulgarity, for instance.  Chastity is nothing more than lust misspelled.  The chaste are vulgarians who would revirginize themselves—but one cannot revirginize oneself.  Chastity places extraordinarily unhuman restrictions on our somatic constitutions—but it does not eliminate lust.  Chastity intensifies lust.  As Nietzsche reminds us, chastity is originally filthiness, and the chaste tend to be filth-obsessed.  Chastity, and all of the other conventional virtues, are already rooted in the body—and yet the virtues pretend to be transcendences, idealizations, sublimities.  They pretend to be away-from-the-body etherealities.  The point is that the virtues are not so virtuous and the vices are not so vicious and we should invent new values that would celebrate and affirm the bodiliness of the body and that would celebrate and affirm the worldliness of the world.  The elaboration of new, life-affirming values could only happen once we accept that all of us are selfish and that we can never erase our petty envies and trivial vanities.

Nietzsche’s chapter on the virtuous, the Tugendhaften, is clearly a riposte to Kantian ethics.

Kant criticizes what Nietzsche acknowledges, the impurity of motives, but Kant believes in a higher morality—in a morality that is enacted for the sake of morality, for the sake of pure practical reason.

There are no pure incentives or pure motives, according to Nietzsche.  Here is a difference from Kant.  Kant believes in the pure, insensate feeling of respect (Achtung) as the affective basis of all moral action.

For Kant, morality is autonomy (reason talking to itself, reason telling itself what to do, the human reason giving the law to itself).

For Nietzsche, all morality is heteronomy (reason is told what to do by external forces—social forces, the sensorium, the emotions).

For Kant, to be moral, we must be rational: We must perform moral acts and make moral choices without expecting anything in return.

For Nietzsche, whenever we perform moral actions and make moral choices, we always expect something in return.

Human beings are not autonomous, despite what the Kantians and the libertarians tell us.  Human beings are automatic; they are automata.

Nietzsche’s “On the Despisers of the Body” (“Von den Verächtern des Leibes”) is a rejoinder to Plato’s theory (in the Timaeus) that the soul is immaterial and the body is an obstruction to the intuitions and perceptions of the soul.

In the Prologue, Zarathustra exclaims to the residents of the Motley Cow: “Whoever [-] is the wisest among you, he is nothing but a conflict and a hybrid between plant and ghost,”  Wer [-] der Weiseste von euch ist, der ist auch nur rein Zwiespalt und Zwitter von Plfanze und von Gespenst.  If we see the vegetative “part” as the body (matter without consciousness) and the ghostly “part” as the mind (consciousness without matter), we are artificially dividing the human being into two antagonistic components.  This is a false interpretation of the human animal.  This is the OLD way of looking at human beings, not the NEW way that Zarathustra teaches.

As is well-known, Aristotle asserted that the human being is a rational animal—an animal with reason superadded to what is animal, that is to say, the human being is an animal with reason superadded to what is body.  Rationality, thinking, the mind, the soul, the spirit, the ectoplasm, the anima, according to this conventional path of thinking, is somehow transcendent to the physical—as if these ideals were immiscible with physical reality.

But it is precisely the other way around: The body is not a function of the soul; the soul is a function of the body.  Nietzsche suggests, as well, that the mind is an appendage of the body, thinking is a physiological process, the cognitive supervenes upon the somatic.  Sense is a figure of the body, Zarathustra tells us, so ist [der Sinn] ein Gleichnis unsres Leibes (“Von der schenkenden Tugend”).  The mind, and the consciousness that is dependent upon the mind, could not exist outside of the body and is subordinate to the body.  Every cognitive scientist today knows this already.

And yet Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says more than this.  Nietzsche despiritualizes and animalizes / bestializes the human being.  The animal “part” is, according to Nietzsche, the whole of the human animal.  He places the body above the spirit and then supersedes the distinction between body and spirit altogether.  The Cartesian distinction between mind and body is a false distinction.

Since at least the time of Plato, human beings have thought of themselves as divided organisms (as composites of body and mind or as composites of body and soul), whereas, for Nietzsche, they are unified bodies that misinterpret themselves.  Contempt for the body is itself a manifestation of the body, of the body that despairs of the body, Der Leib war’s, der am Leibe verzweifelte (“Von den Hinterweltlern”).  We learn that the body is a great reason, Der Leib ist eine grosse Vernunft (“Von den Verächtern des Leibes”).  We are taught that “soul” is only a word for a Something on the body, Seele ist nur ein Wort für ein Etwas am Leibe (Ibid.).  The human reason is corporeal, the “soul” is corporeal, the “I” is corporeal, the mind (or spirit) is corporeal.  Everything that is considered “spiritual” is corporealized.  Everything is the body; the body is everything.

There is no evidence that the mind does anything apart from the body—quite the contrary.  The idea that the mind is separate or separable from the body is an anti-physiological wish—the wish for human self-mastery and human freedom.

The soul is a part of the human anatomy.  There is no pneuma outside of soma.  The spirit does not come before the flesh.  For Nietzsche, the flesh comes before the spirit.  What Nietzsche is suggesting is far more radical (than suggesting merely that the mind is a part of the body): He is telling us that the ideal is rooted in the real.  The real makes possible the ideal, not the other way around.  The overhumans will not think of themselves as half-bodies and as half-souls but as all bodies—and each body of each human being contains a thinking organ.

The world, as the body, is empty of sin.  Zarathustra, accordingly, terrestrializes the world: “Stay true to the Earth,” bleibt der Erde treu, Zarathustra says in the Prologue.  “To blaspheme the Earth is now the most terrible thing…”  An der Erde zu freveln ist jetzt das Furchtbarste…  We should no longer believe that the world is infused with sin or that the body is infused with sin.

After deposing the body and the world, Nietzsche deposes pity as a virtue.  Nietzsche unmasks pity as the desire to inflict shame (Scham) on the object of pity.  Pity is formative of a power-relation: The pitier has dominance, preponderance, superiority over the pitiful.  The one who is capable of pity has a greater degree of power than the one who is incapable of pity.  The one who pities makes the pitied dependent on the pitier—the pitied forms a “great dependency” ([g]rosse Verbindlichkeit) as a result of being pitied by the one who is capable of pity.  This dependency creates within the pitied, in turn, the impulse toward revenge against the pitier (“Von den Mitleidigen”).

Generosity is unmasked as a form of revenge, for Nietzsche: When we are generous, we are trying to show how noble we are—which means that we are suggesting that we are better than most people, especially the benefactors of our generosity.  We give with an aggressive freehandedness, which is why the one who refuses our gifts is regarded by us as an insulting person.  The overnice are not very nice.  The overmellow are not very mellow.

Gratitude is likewise unveiled as the sign that one is overflowing with power—one has the power to be grateful to someone who has done one a favor.  Here we must remember: Life itself is the will-to-power.  That is to say: Every living thing desires mastery, preponderance, superiority over all other living things.  The two forms of will-to-power are obeying and commanding, and even obeisance is the desire for mastery: “Even in the will of the serving I found the will to be master,” noch im Willen des Dienstenden fand ich den Willen, Herr zu sein (“Von der Selbst-Überwindung”).  Even in servants, especially in servants, there is the will to become master.  Every secretary desires to become the boss; every nurse desires to become the doctor.

Nietzsche-Zarathustra reduces benevolence to vengeance.  Reclining under a Bodhi Tree—much like the Buddha did, except the Buddha squatted under a Bodhi Tree—Zarathustra is bitten in the neck by an adder.  And what does Zarathustra do in response?  He does not forgive the adder, nor does he offer the snake his neck for a second bite.  He thanks the serpent for awakening him, for he has a long journey ahead of him.

Zarathustra, then, doesn’t offer his neck to his enemy.  To do so would be to dishonor the snake.  “Turning the other cheek” is not a morally pure action.  There is nothing good about “turning the other cheek”—it is a passive-act of aggressive generosity.  As Nietzsche reminds us, not avenging oneself can be a subtle and elegant form of vengeance.

Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek—to exchange an evil with a good.  Zarathustra teaches us not to exchange an evil with a good—but to show our enemy that by doing us evil, he has actually done us some good, beweist, dass er euch etwas Gutes angetan hat (“Vom Biss der Natter”).  At this point, I cannot resist paraphrasing the greatest of all Nietzschean novelists, D.H. Lawrence, who warned us never to forgive our enemies prematurely, lest we breed murderers in our hearts.  In the same way that benevolence is vengeance, vengeance can be a form of benevolence.  This is what I would call salutary revenge.

Even the desire for justice, for equality and equitableness, is distilled to the hunger for revenge against the powerful—and decocted to the enviousness of the powerful.  The contempt for tyrants is itself the “tyrannical lunacy of impotence” (Tyrannen-Wahnsinn der Ohnmacht) (“Von den Taranteln”), for within every socialist revolutionary pulses the heart of a micro-tyrant or a failed tyrant, a tyrant manqué.  The tarantulas (Nietzsche’s name for justice advocates) and the firehounds (his name for revolutionaries) practice the sadism of unearned victimhood.  Justice advocates and revolutionaries are driven by emotional-political and political-emotional impulses.

Zarathustra scrapes off the coating of gold from the Golden Rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself!”  One might rightly ask oneself these questions: Why should I love my neighbor?  What has s/he done to earn my love—and can love ever be earned?  Is love a matter of choice?  What if I hate myself?  How could I then love my neighbor?  Love of the neighbor means not loving oneself, eure Nächstenliebe ist eure schlechte Liebe zu euch selber (“Von der Nächstenliebe”).  Neighborly love, Nächstenliebe, is really the abrading of self-love, the failure to love oneself properly, or a kind of cowardice, the fear of being hit or otherwise hurt by one’s neighbor.  Other-centeredness benefits the neighbor, and yet neighborly love is selfish, paradoxically (I will return to the concept of self-love below).

Nietzsche distills love to envy.  By loving someone, one often wants to jump over the envy that one has for the person whom one loves, oft will man mit der Liebe nur den Neid überspringen (“Vom Freunde”).  Yes, love is a form of envy.  To love someone is to want to become that person.  In the eyes of lovers, in their Liebesblicke, there is the desire to become those whom they love—and then to become better than those whom they love.  What is attractive to the lover are certain qualities that the lover lacks.  Love is a form of cannibalism, and cannibalism is the urge to ingest desired traits of the cannibalized.

The indiscriminate love of humanity makes no sense, either, for Zarathustra/Nietzsche (there is no essential difference, is there?).  Nietzsche has a name for average human beings.  He calls them flies.  And Nietzsche’s flies are venomous—though, as far I know, there are no venomous flies in nature, though biting flies, such as the female Horse Fly or the Yellow Fly, do exist.

Why flies, precisely?  In the eighth chapter of Exodus of the Hebraic Bible, God sends swarms of flies to attack the Pharaoh of Egypt and his retinue.  Nietzsche’s imaginary friends, the suprahuman readers of tomorrow, are pharaonic disbelievers, of course; accordingly, his Zarathustra advises us to flee into our solitude—away from the divinely propelled flies, away from the rabble, away from the mob, away from the crowd, away from the commonal.

Here, Nietzsche is passing close to the teachings of stoicism, the philosophy of the corridor.  Stoicism teaches us that we can control the way that we feel (I actually don’t believe this) but that we cannot control what we cannot control: the uncontrollable, ananke.  Do your best in everything, and don’t worry about what you cannot change!  Such is the watchword of stoicism.  One of the things that is within our control is the number of friends we permit through the narrow aperture of our lives.  Zarathustra has no time for the venomous flies.  As Darius Foroux writes, “[Y]ou don’t control others.  That’s why who you spend your time with is a matter of life and death.”  Epexegesis: You cannot control other human beings, but you can control who you spend time with.

What I gather from this lesson in Nietzschean stoicism: The crowd is not the enemy of the free spirit; average people are flies, not enemies.  Flies are not enemies, for the concept of enmity implies parity.  An enemy is your equal; to call someone an “enemy” is to imply that such a creature is your equal.  To avenge oneself on a fly is to grant that subhuman organism a dignity that is not its own.  Do not swat them!  Dismiss them from your life, that is all.  A fly is unworthy of becoming the object of your vengeance.  One does not avenge oneself on flies.  One does not swat flies.  As Nietzsche writes, it is not Zarathustra’s lot to be a flyswatter, a Fliegenwendel (“Von den Fliegen des Marktes”).

Zarathustra drags everything ideal down to the Earth.  He pollutes every form of purity.  There is no such thing as pure perception, as immaculate perception (die unbefleckte Wahrnehmung), we are told.  Here he is in total concordance with his unofficial Philosophy teacher Schopenhauer, with one important distinction—Nietzsche believes that perception is contamination, which is something that Schopenhauer nowhere suggests.  We never perceive anything like an objective world—our perceptions are sullied with our desires, with our anthropomorphisms, with prejudices that we impose on the world.  We screen the world through our own speculum.  I do not perceive the moon as it actually is; I perceive an image on my retina.  My mind is a hegemonikon, a sun that illuminates all of the things that surround me and gives them meaning.  My hand does not touch the branch of the tree; my hand touches itself, my hand only touches its own touching.  I do not see the waves as they rush to the shore; I only see my own seeing.  As Schopenhauer argues, the hand can let go of anything other than itself; Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are concordant on this point.  The world has to reach to my height, zur meiner Höhe (“Von der unbefleckten Wahrnehmung”).  An honest perception is one that embraces the veil—and this embracement-of-the-veil is art.  An honest percipient is one who perceives that we only perceive our own perceptions, that any possibility of “purity” is contaminated by our valuations, our prejudices, our background, our desires, our feelings—and the highest form of perception is formative, aesthetic perception.  Art expresses the desire for a perception to become more than mere perception while acknowledging that all perception is mere perception.  How does art do this?  By creating the image of a perception.  Art is the image of an image.

In contradistinction to the teachings of the Iranian Zarathustra and to the lessons of Jesus, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra tells us that there is no otherworldliness, that there is no mind apart from the body, that soma is spirit.  There is no reason, we learn, for tormenting the body for its necessary cravings and impulsions; there is no reason for tormenting ourselves for feelings that are inborn within us, feelings that are innate, our congenital affections and desires.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra anticipates, welcomes, promises, celebrates a self-affirmative, spontaneous, productive, fruitful humanity that will not condemn itself for what it is and for what it cannot but be.

It is as if Nietzsche were presenting to us a Zarathustra, one of the first religious prophets we know of, who is anti-metaphysical, who believes in sanctifying the Earth, who celebrates the body and who does not see the mind as separate from, or superior to, the body, and who even tells us that benevolence is selfishness, that there is no giving without selfishness.  A healthier, more vigorous, more lifeful overhumanity will accept these things.

 

THE OVERHUMANITIES

The overhuman is a new species of humanity that will be disencumbered from the intellectual lies of religion, metaphysics, and morality.  The overhuman is the one who will exceed, surpass, transcend the religions, the moralities, the metaphysics that have hitherto encumbered humankind.  It will be the end of the Anthropocene and the beginning of the Meta-Anthropocene.

But what are the virtues of the overhuman?  We know the Official Theories that are subjected to critique by Zarathustra: pity, generosity, gratitude, benevolence, the sense for justice, romantic love, love of the neighbor, the love of humanity or philanthropy, immaculate perception, etc.  Zarathustra de-ballasts the traditional concepts of morality, as well as those of metaphysics and of religion.  But what does Zarathustra stand for?  Zarathustra heralds the overhuman.  What does the overhuman stand for?  What are the virtues of the overhuman?  What are the overhumanities?

It is too early to say with precision—the overhuman has yet to be born, the overhuman will come after the last human—but there are three overhumanities that we know of, and they are presented in the chapter entitled “On the Three Evils.”  We learn a great deal about what the overhuman will not be.  What the overhuman is, what the overhuman believes and thinks, in a positive sense, will be explained in “On the Three Evils.”  What, then, are Zarathustra’s values?  The answer is: Zarathustra’s values are what have hitherto been called “vices.”  Nietzsche soberly and dispassionately evaluates three so-called “vices” or “evils”: voluptuous carnal pleasure, the desire to rule, and selfishness, Wollust, Herrschsucht, and Selbstsucht (“Von den drei Bösen”).

“Selfishness” is healthy self-love, not the sickly “own-love” (Eigenliebe) of pathological narcissism, the self-obsession of sadistically abusive, exploitive narcissists who do not genuinely love themselves and who are forever unhappy—and forever heavy.  Self-loving is a kind of delicious selfishness.  Self-love cannot be the basis of a moral action, according to Kant.  Against Kant, Nietzsche is urging us to love ourselves.  Nietzsche teaches us to love ourselves, against Christianity, as well, which teaches that self-love is the deadliest of all sins.

Voluptuous carnal pleasure, the desire to rule, and selfishness are all life-affirming and signs of human strength.  Are they really so bad?  Virtuousness, which hides the demand for moral superiority, and which praises weakness and meekness, is far worse.  Virtuousness is a life-hating position; vice is enhancing of life.

Nietzsche, then, elevates “Evil” and “vices” and derogates “Good” and “virtue.”  Again, what is traditionally called “good” isn’t very good, and what is traditionally called “evil” isn’t so bad.

The first stage, then, is the dispraise of conventional virtues.

The second stage is the praise of conventional vices.  Nietzsche/Zarathustra prizes, in particular, voluptuous pleasure, the lust for power, and selfishness.  None of these deserves to be goblinized; none of these deserves to be monsterized.  Here it is imperative to clarify: Thus Spoke Zarathustra is not some Satanic Anti-Bible; this is not inverted Christianity.  Nietzsche wears the devil’s horns, prankish Nietzsche, but it is only a mask.  Marilyn Manson, who is conscious of Nietzsche, similarly plays the role of the bogeyman.  Nietzsche is not an endorser of Evil; he is not Mephistopheles who pops up from the abysses of Hell and proclaims, “Let Evil be my Good!”  He wants to rethink the dichotomy between Good and Evil altogether, which leads us to the third stage.

The third stage is the displacement, the overcoming of the distinction between “virtue” and “vice” altogether and the making-way for a set of new values.  The final stage is the abrogation of common Good and common Evil.  There is no reason to have virtues or vices in an overhuman world in which the Earth and the body are valued.  Invent new values!  Invent your own values!  Actively forget the virtues and the vices!  Values, yes.  Virtues and vices, no.

So: In the first stage, the virtues are diabolized, and in the second stage, the vices are angelized.  In the third stage, there are neither devils, nor are there angels.  Derrida does not appear terribly original anymore when we see the supersession of dichotomies in Nietzsche.

After praising vices and dispraising so-called “virtues,” we accede to a new order in which there will be no vices and there will be no virtues.  A world in which nothing will be considered “moral” or “immoral,” a world in which nothing will be considered “good” or “evil.”  Create your own morality, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is suggesting to us.  And to create, Zarathustra reminds us, one must be a lover—and one, perhaps paradoxically, must be solitary.  “With your love go into your solitude and with your creating, my brother,” Mit deiner Liebe gehe in deine Vereinsamung und mit deinem Schaffen, mein Bruder… (“Vom Weg des Schaffenden”).  Then comes the euphoria of aesthetic productivity.  Overhuman values will be generated.  And this is what Nietzsche means by “self-overcoming” (Selbst-Überwindung): the devaluation and destruction of conventional values and the creation of overhumanly affirmative values.

Here Nietzsche is not far from the anti-ethical philosophy of Max Stirner, whose work Nietzsche certainly read and admired.[5]  Stirner thinks that the Good is whatever is good for me and that the Evil is whatever is evil for me.  Such are the contours of the Stirnerian ego-system.  However, Nietzsche goes beyond the egosphere, beyond the egoic.  Nietzsche, by contrast, asks: What is good for humanity?  And what is good for humanity will be a banquet of delights for overhumanity.

The point is not to humanize humanity, but to overhumanize humanity.  Nietzsche welcomes not the superhuman, but the suprahuman.  Zarathustra is not the overhuman but the one who heralds the overhuman.  Accordingly, Zarathustra’s new animal friends will be a lion and a flight of doves that encircles the beast—the sign of the overhuman (“Das Zeichen”).

* * * * *

If the world seemed like a desert to Nietzsche, the Europe of the nineteenth century, the modern world, it was because there were so many camels about, so many human beings who loaded themselves up with toxic, noxious inherited concepts, concepts that were extrinsic to humanity—and that stultified humanity.  Good and Evil, the concept of original sin, led to the desertification of the world and the becoming-camel of cameline humanity.  Of camelinity.

Nietzsche sees humanity as weighed down by the so-called virtues and vices, as weighed down by fictitious Good and fictitious Evil, a humanity burdened by the self-hatred that comes with guilt and the presumption of selflessness, which does not exist.  Nietzsche’s diagnosis is that modern humanity is still freighted by the “Spirit of Gravity,” der Geist der Schwere—but this spirit is losing its gravitas.  Nineteenth-century Europe is drifting toward nihilism.

The Spirit of Gravity is the misbegotten idea that the world is aggravated by some inherent meaning.  The Spirit of Gravity freights the world with theological lies such as Good and Evil, as if human beings were simple and undifferentiated and pourable and fillable into Tupperware containers marked ‘Good’ and ‘Evil.’  Specifically, Nietzsche is concerned with original sin.  The concept of original sin blocks self-love—after all, if we are born evil, if sinfulness is inborn within us, what is lovable about you or me?

Nietzsche’s goal is to liberate humanity from the concept that existence is sinfulness (as promulgated by Christianity and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche’s former ex officio mentor).

For Schopenhauer, existence is hatable for three essential reasons: 1.) When the human will can’t get what it wants, it suffers.  2.) When the human will seizes upon what it wants, it doesn’t want that object anymore.  3.) The fundamental character of the will is striving.  There will thus inevitably be a conflict of wills.  Two people want the same piece of land—because the other person wants the same piece of land.  Two men desire the same woman—because the other man desires the same woman.  Two women desire the same man—because the other woman desires the same man (one does not need to limit oneself to heterosexual desires; here, Schopenhauer is close to Hobbes).

Nietzsche has a different, more interesting characterization.  Life appears terrible because the past is irrecoverable, irreversible, immutable.  We grow bitter, resentful, because we wish that the past were otherwise than what it was.  The past seems immovable, like a stone.  We hate existence because we hate who we were in the past.  The Spirit of Revenge (der Geist der Rache) avenges itself on existence by regarding existence as punishment, as sinfulness.  Christianity holds that human beings are essentially mired in sinfulness—which means, of course, that they are sinful even before they are born.

Zarathustra would liberate—redeem—human existence from the imputation of sinfulness.  He would emancipate humanity from its self-inculpation.  How?  By regarding the irretrievable, irrecoverable, undeletable, unerasable, hatable past into something that is fervently desired—the “It was” becomes the “So I want it,” the Es war becomes the So wollte ich es (“Von der Erlösung”).

Against Schopenhauer, against Christianity, Nietzsche reverses resentment toward the “It was.”  Both the Christian and Schopenhauerian positions are concordant: “I can’t do anything about the ‘It was,’” they both suggest.  Yes, you can do something about the “It was”—you can impassionedly affirm it.  You can desire the “It was.”

Regarding existence as sinful or as a punishment (Schopenhauer agrees with Christian theology that existence is fallenness and a punishment) stops being meaningful as soon as you desire the “It was.”  More than that: You desire that the “It was” will repeat itself infinitely.

Not only is the past vigorously affirmed—the infinite repetition of the past is vigorously affirmed.  The thought experiment is as follows: Act as though everything that you do will have been repeated infinitely.  This suspends the category of the past; the “It was” becomes the “It will always be” and “It will always have been.”  Living one’s life for the sake of its own infinite repetition—the past is now subject to its own infinite repetition—means that the category of the past is suspended.  It also means that the category of the present is abolished, as I will argue when I finally get to Nietzsche’s posthumous papers.

(Briefly: There is no present moment, since the present moment will repeat itself infinitely.  The infinite repetition of the same suspends the category of the present.  There is no such thing as the present, only the future perfect.  Nothing happens now—things only will have happened.  The future has already occurred; the future will have already occurred.)

The embracement of the eternal recurrence of the same, the affirmation of infinite repetition, eliminates all human regret and all human guilt.

In “Vom Gesicht und Rätsel,” Zarathustra experiences a vision of the eternal recurrence of the same.  Two roads lead from and to a gate upon which is emblazoned a sign that reads “MOMENT.”  One eternity leads to the past, the other to the future (assuming that the word “MOMENT” actually means that the intersection of the two eternities is the “MOMENT”).

Zarathustra envisions a spider in the moonlight and a talpine dwarf.  (Talpine = “mole-like.)  Zarathustra hears the baying of a dog.  The spider in the moonlight, the baying dog, the dwarf-mole—all of these creatures will recur again and again, forever.  They will play their parts in an infinitely restaged spectacle.

Zarathustra dreams of a shepherd who is lying supine on the ground in the moonlight with a snake down his throat, choking on the snake that is tunneling down his throat.  Why is he a “shepherd”?  How is he a “shepherd”?  Isn’t a shepherd someone who tends sheep?  But this “shepherd” doesn’t tend sheep—he is writhing on the ground with a snake in his mouth.  Perhaps the shepherd represents Zarathustra himself—the shepherd without sheep, the leader without followers (I will return to this matter below).

Nietzsche is also slyly suggesting to us that the one who gazes at his or her life with an eternal eye will be free from every role, will not be reducible to any social role or to any social function.  S/he will be liberated, fully transformed, fully human for the first time.

Why “choking”?  In the same way that God chokes on His pity for humankind, the shepherd is choking on his pity for humankind, on a thick admixture of disgust, contempt, and pity.

Biting the snake, the shepherd who tends no sheep transcends his nausea.  It is nauseating, at first, to think of all of time repeating itself eternally.  A future humanity will embrace and affirm the eternal repetition of all things without nausea.

The point is to think eternally, in the way that Zarathustra does, and to surmount one’s nausea in the face of life’s abyssal eternal self-repetition.  Nietzsche is not suggesting that our lives will actually repeat themselves endlessly; Nietzsche does not believe in reincarnation, in samsāra, in the perpetual recycling of rebirth and redeath.  The eternal recurrence of the same is a thought experiment.  It is a Nietzschean imperative.  The Nietzschean imperative is: Act as if your life will repeat itself eternally.  Once you act as if your life will endlessly reinitiate itself, concepts such as Good and Evil seem as if they were only wispy clouds, drifting ephemerae against the backdrop of the infinite blue sky (“Vor Sonnen-Aufgang”).[6]

The theory of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same lightens the world.  It alleviates the world of its anti-human cargo.  The lightness that suffuses one is not unbearable at all, especially since Nietzsche stresses that the levity of self-love exists “so that one [can] bear oneself,” dass man es bei sich selber aushalte (“Vom Geist der Schwere”).  The consequence of believing in the Eternal Recurrence of the Same is not the unbearable lightness of being, but the floaty legerity of existence.

 

THE ETERNAL RECURRENCE OF A JOKE

In order to properly understand the chapter entitled “On the Poets” (“Von den Dichtern”), the reader must know something about Goethe.

Goethe writes at the end of Faust: Part Two (1832): “All that is perishable is just a parable,” Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.  He meant that the idea that anything is decaying, decomposing, dying, temporary, ephemeral, evanescent, vanishing is an illusion.

Zarathustra says to his disciples: “‘Imperishable’—that is just a parable,” ‘Unvergängliche’—das ist auch nur ein Gleichnis (“Von den Dichtern”).  In other words, the idea that anything is immortal, permanent, eternal, everlasting is an illusion.  Zarathustra’s disciples are rather upset by this announcement, but they are even more upset when their leader tells his followers not to believe anything that he says.  The leader disfollows his followers; he tells his own followers not to follow him.

Zarathustra says more than this.  He even calls his own erstwhile beloved overhuman one of the “colorful brats” (bunte[-] Bälge) that we place into the heavens—in other words, the overhuman is nothing more than a bombastic fiction, nothing more than an ethereality, nothing more than a fabrication, nothing more than a mystification, nothing more than an abstraction, nothing more than one form of unreality among other forms of unreality.

One should draw a contrast between the Goethe of Faust II and the Goethe of the second edition of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1775).  In the second version of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe revised the poem at the beginning of the book to end thusly: “Be a man, and do not follow me,” Sei ein Mann, und folge mir nicht nach [in italics].  It is as if Goethe were admonishing young men not to follow Werther’s example.  It is as if Goethe were admonishing young men not to kill themselves, as Werther did, and not to imitate Werther’s atrocious fashion choices.  Goethe didn’t want his young male readers to kill themselves; he probably didn’t want them to dress the way that his Werther did, either.

Nietzsche is turning toward the Goethe of 1775 and turning away from the Goethe of 1832.  It is as if Zarathustra were saying to his followers, and Nietzsche were saying to his readers, “Do not believe in me!  Believe in yourselves!  Do not follow me!  Follow yourselves!”

In The Gospel according to Luke, Jesus commands his disciples to follow him blindly: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and his sisters—yes, even his own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” [14:26].  Unlike Jesus, who demanded obeisance from his disciples, Zarathustra wants traitors, not followers.  By being faithful to Zarathustra, his disciples are betraying themselves.  Zarathustra thus implores his disciples to follow him with a kind of treacherous piety and to believe in themselves, not in him: “Now I summon you to lose me and to find yourselves; for only after you have all denied me will I turn back to you.”  Nun heisse euch, mich verlieren und euch finden; und erst, wenn ihr mich alle verleugnet habt, will ich euch wiederkehren (“Von der schenkenden Tugend”).  In other words: Think for yourselves!  And thinking for yourselves means to contradict yourselves, to overthrow your own convictions and credulities, again and again and again.  Jesus never says, “Betray me!” or “Deny me!”  He says (to Peter), “You will deny me three times” (Matthew 26:34).

The Jesus of the Johannine Gospel says, “Whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (11:26).  Zarathustra, by contrast, affirms the “consummative death,” [der] vollbringende[-] Tod (“Vom freien Tode”)—the death that is undergone by the complete free spirit who chooses his or her own death, who chooses to die at the right time, at the time of his or her fullness and ripeness, who completes his or her life in the active passivity of dying.  And life can only complete itself through the voluntary assumption of mortality.  More relevant to this section of my essay: Zarathustra is saying, in essence: Whoever lives by believing in me is deceiving oneself.  This is not a didactic or pedantic book.[7]

Nietzsche is telling us, in effect, that everything that we have been reading is a lie!  Zarathustra brooks no fans, no fanatics, no followers.  He wants to missionarize no one.  Zarathustra is a sermonizer who urges his disciples to betray him and to contradict his lessons.  A prophet who renounces his or her own followers renounces himself, renounces herself.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a book that cancels itself out; it takes on the strange appearance of a book that annihilates itself and leaves the reader alone to think for himself, for herself.

 

DETHRONING THE HIGHER HUMANS

In Part Four, Zarathustra encounters the ironically typed “higher humans.”  Each one of them lets out a cry of distress (Notschrei) in the forest, and Zarathustra, out of pity, rushes to soothe their lachrymose lachrymations.  A cry of distress leads Zarathustra from one higher human to the next, from one station to the next.

The higher humans are invited to a feast at Zarathustra’s cave.  They are the following: the Soothsayer, the Two Kings, the Conscientious of Spirit, the Wizard, the Last Pope, the Ugliest Man, the Wanderer, and the Voluntary Beggar.  Each personage misinterprets Zarathustra’s lesson (I will return to this matter below).

1.) The Soothsayer (der Wahrsager) predicts the coming emptying-out of all values—the epoch of nihilism, the historical moment at which human beings will no longer have the desire to value anything at all.  This will be the time of the last humans, those who blankly blink, those who are passionless, those who are self-complacent, those who don’t even understand the concept of striving.  The absence of all values will be the moment when values will devaluate themselves, which is the final stage before the coming of the overhuman (see Deleuze’s remarks on the Soothsayer in Pure Immanence).  The Soothsayer holds that all life is suffering; he, perhaps, reflects Schopenhauer.

2.) The Two Kings might be best described as “anthropotheists”: those humanists who worship the Human as if it were a god.  They allegorize those who seek the higher humans; they are also, paradoxically, called “higher humans” themselves.  The Two Kings replace the dead gods with the living human being.  It is they who bring the donkey.  They misinterpret what Zarathustra aphorizes: that a “good war hallows any cause” and that a “short peace is better than a long one,” der gute Krieg ist es, der jede Sache heiligt and [Ihr sollt] den kurzen Frieden [lieben] mehr als den langen. (“Vom Krieg und Kriegsvolke”).  Nietzsche knew that some of his hastier and lazier readers who misinterpret him as an endorser of bellicosity.  Zarathustra (and Nietzsche) does not endorse war in the literal sense—he endorses an intellectual war against the complacencies of faith.  The Two Kings literalize Zarathustra as a militarist.

3.) The Conscientious of Spirit (Gewissenhafte des Geistes) allegorizes scholarship and scholarliness.  He is the Man of Knowledge; he is the one who holds knowledge above all else.  He fetishizes knowledge in lieu of thinking.  Thinking is superior to knowledge—and those who privilege knowledge over thinking are paving the way for religiosity, for political ideology, for morality, for all forms of dogmatism.  He misinterprets Zarathustra’s language: When he said that “spirit is that life which cuts into life,” Geist ist das Leben, das selber ins Leben schneidet, Zarathustra never meant that life should turn against life (“Von den berühmten Weisen”).  The Conscientious One wants security (Sicherheit) and comes to Zarathustra for security.  But Zarathustra is a great destabilizer and destabilizes all certainties, all complacencies, all assurances.  The Conscientious of Spirit is parasitized by a leech, the leech of knowledge.

4.) The Wizard is a comic figure, a self-deceptive figure, who deceives himself into mourning the death of the gods.  The best contemporary instantiation of the Wizard is Professor Jordan Peterson (I will return to this matter below).

5.) The Last Pope claims that the gods died for their pity of humankind (in “Ausser Dienst”).  Having lost the dead gods, the sad hierophant now worships the godless one, Zarathustra.  Nietzsche appears to be proleptically making fun of the vulgar Nietzscheanists who will distort him into resembling a religious thinker.

6.) The Ugliest Man has assassinated the gods.  Why did he assassinate the gods?  He assassinated the gods because the gods witnessed the Ugly Man’s ugliness and the Ugly Man could not stand the idea of the all-seeing gods witnessing his ugliness.  He kills the gods so that the gods can no longer see the Ugliest Man’s ugly hideousness and hideous ugliness.  When he writes of the Ugliest Man’s “ugliness,” Nietzsche means the Ugliest Man’s perception of sinfulness, his sinful self-perception, the perception of his mortality, his thanatoception.  But what madness is this?  Omnificent gods create sinful human creatures, and then the gods punish human creatures for their sinfulness.  This means that the gods punish their own creatures for what the gods have put into their creatures—the gods create human beings and then punish their own creations for being imperfect.  The gods punish themselves.  The Ugliest Man is ashamed of his sinfulness, and this leads to self-contempt, Verachtung.  The cure of self-contempt is self-love—something that the Ugliest Man certainly does not have.

7.) The Wanderer is entranced by dancing girls from the East, by their shapely choreomania.  Nietzsche is probably metaphorizing those who are allured by Eastern mysticism.  There is also mention of the Shadow, but the Shadow is tenebrous to me.

8.) The Voluntary Beggar (der freiwillige Bettler) gives up all of his wealth so that he might live among sheep, among the ovinely faithful.  He figures the ascetic, the self-denying religionist.  He misinterprets Zarathustra’s great disgust, grosser Ekel, as disgust over one’s own affluence, as nausea over riches and self-accumulation, which is something that Zarathustra has never actually expressed (“Der freiwillige Bettler”).

* * * * *

Zarathustra returns to the cave where the higher men were feasting, a cave that was until now full of joy and laughter.  No one is laughing anymore.

And what are the higher men doing, these visitors, these guests?

Zarathustra is shocked to see the higher men in the cave worshipping the donkey as if the beast were a god.  They are godifying the donkey, the donkey is to them a god, an asinine divinity or a divine asininity.  It is like a Satanic mass, but the problem, for Nietzsche, is not its unholiness, but its holiness!  Zarathustra, and Nietzsche, are alarmed by the pointlessness of it all, the pointlessness of muttering prayers to oneself that no one else can hear.  After all, it makes as much sense to worship a donkey as it does to worship a wafer, a cracker, a goblet of wine, or a piece of wood.

Why a donkey?  Why does Nietzsche use this metaphor, and what is being metaphorized?

The donkey metaphorizes the gods—all deities, all idols.  The donkey is the Ass God.  The nimbus of mystery that shrouds the gods has been dispelled.  The god is revealed as an animal.  An enigma that is revealed is an enigma no longer; a mystery that is revealed is no longer a mystery.  What we are left with is not the mysticism of mystery, but the animalism of an animal.

The donkey has long ears—it is incapable of subtle, critical listening, incapable of listening with discernment, incapable of distinguishing lovely sounds from harsh sounds.  It likes everything and everyone, without discrimination.  The donkey’s long ears are figurative of the indiscriminate listening of the inscrutable gods.

Donkeys never answer questions; the gods never answer questions.  The donkey spews inhuman, unintelligible gibberish.  Hence, its mindless cry: “I-A.”  Pronounced: “Eeeh-Ahh!”  Donkeys laugh inanely at everything and at nothing.  Much as the deity who is forever silent or, what amounts to the same, utters indecipherable mishmash, the donkey never discloses itself; no one knows what its message is.  No matter what the gods say, the believers will find something meaningful in it.  No matter what happens, it is always the will of the gods.  When a child dies, “the gods work in mysterious ways,” we are told; if a child’s life is saved, that, too, is the work of the gods.  This is a game that is rigged in advance, a game that is impossible to lose, an infinitely inflatable air bag.  No matter what one says about the will of the gods, it will be correct—because the gods do not disclose themselves.  No matter what the donkey says, it is regarded as meaningful—even though it is braying senselessly.

The donkey accepts everything and nothing with a kind of blank stupidity, with an empty stupidity.  The donkey emptily affirms everything.  It bawls its affirmation, its I-A, to everything and nothing.  The yee-hawing of the donkey, its empty affirmation of everything and nothing with equal vacuity and acuity, is not the affirmation, the Yes-saying, of Zarathustra.

Zarathustra denounces the higher humans and their false idol—for all idols are false, according to Nietzsche.  Zarathustra denounces the higher humans with the same rage, with the same asperity, with which Jesus denounced the money changers and the animal hawkers in the temple.  It is thrilling to read Zarathustra’s denunciation of the ass-drunk hypocrites.

The higher humans are not high enough.  The higher humans are still deists; they are still godly men.  They are still god-obsessed, god-addicted, god-infected, god-infested, god-injected lunatics.

The entire point is that the humanists are religionists and humanism is a form of religiosity.  The higher humans are not yet overhuman; humanity has not yet superseded itself and acceded to the overhuman.

The humanists talk about the “transcendent,” as Jordan Peterson does.  They talk of the religiosity of art, how “art and poetry are not possible without religion,” as Peterson said.  They are hucksters, quacksters, fraudsters.  They are the resurrectors of the gods.

The higher humans are not irreligious enough for Nietzsche.  They pretend to be irreligious, but they are all covert god-believers—they are all infected, infested, injected with religiosity.

Humanism fills the abyss left by the absence of the gods.

After the gods die, humanism takes over.

Why did the gods die?  The gods died because they pitied humankind.  The Christian God “died” when He became Christ—even Karl Barth acknowledged that the finitization of God-as-Christ is the mortalization of God.  God “died,” even before Christ was mounted on the cross.

Such is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modernity: Modernity is the slow convalescing from a sickness—belief in the gods is a sickness, and since the gods died, we have been convalescing from this sickness.

On guidance counselors’ office doors throughout the United States of America is emblazoned the overcited declaration: “Whoever would give birth to a dancing star must have chaos within,” man muss noch Chaos in sich haben, um einen tanzenden Stern gebären zu können (Prologue).  Nietzsche means that the higher men will give birth to the overhuman, once the agonies of self-contempt and nausea have subsided.

Nietzsche’s genealogy of the future runs like this: First comes self-contempt on the part of humanity.  Humanity will become contemptuous of itself.  Then comes the death of the gods.  Then, nihilism, or the self-evacuation of all values.  Then, the last human, who cares about nothing, who has no longing, no yearning, no striving.  Then, self-overcoming or the invention of new, life-affirmative and world-affirmative values, which leads to the overhuman—a humanity that finally keeps pace with its fullest promise.

Part Four is especially brilliant in the way that it folds back on Parts One, Two, and Three.  Part Four contains ways in which the first three parts of the book will have been misinterpreted by Nietzsche’s careless readership long after he will have been gone.  To give one example of this: The Ugliest Man quotes Zarathustra: “One kills not by wrath, but by laughter,” Nicht durch Zorn, sondern durch Lachen tötet man.  (These words were originally written in “Vom Lesen und Schreiben” and are now quoted in “Das Eselsfest.”)  However, the Ugliest Man misinterprets these words to mean: “It doesn’t matter whether or not one excises God from one’s life.”  He mistakes Zarathustra’s laughter as silliness, as giggling nonchalance.

Part Four is a meta-literary device—it affords a meta-perspective that anticipates the book’s future reception.  Nietzsche installed in his book its inevitable misinterpretation in the hands of a lazy, glazy, dazy, hasty readership.  (Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a fissile book—it opens to the future.)  Indeed, this is exactly what happened: Nietzsche has been misinterpreted as a proto-Nazi and as a crypto-Christian, among other things that he was not.

No one has misinterpreted Nietzsche more perniciously and more fatefully than Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Dr. Jordan Peterson.

 

NIETZSCHE CONTRA PETERSON: JORDAN PETERSON DOES NOT UNDERSTAND NIETZSCHE

The most visible and effective public intellectual on the Planet Earth, at the time that I am composing this essay, is almost certainly Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson.  He is far more effective and visible than competing public intellectuals Dr. Slavoj Zizek and Twitter philosopher Dr. Sam Harris, both of whom he has debated publicly.  The fact that Dr. Peterson is so visible and so effective says more about the current state of the Planet Earth than it does about Dr. Peterson.

Dr. Jordan Peterson—who is a homarine brophilosopher (or, as my friend Andy Ball puts it, a “brosopher”)—makes sense 88.8% of the time.  Unlike other critics of Dr. Peterson, I actually believe that some of his prescriptions, such as “Stand up straight!” and “Clean your room!” are only apparently simple, are indeed profound, and have great utility, both as literal and as metaphorical prescriptions for the young and for the old (here is not the place to pursue this argument).  And then he says things such as “There can be no art or poetry without religion” to a cackling audience of atheists (see his debate with Matt Dillahunty; April 2018).  Even worse are his remarks on Nietzsche.  His pseudo-reading of Nietzsche is that of a Christian existentialist (a contradictio in terminus, if there ever was one).

On the 18 April 2019 episode of his podcast, Dr. Peterson had this to say about the Nietzschean Death of God: “When Nietzsche announced the Death of God—which, by the way, as you may know from listening to my lectures [!!!]—was not precisely a triumphal… wasn’t an announcement of triumph.  It was a warning and the tolling of bells of sorrow.  That’s a good way of thinking about it.  Even though Nietzsche styled himself as a vicious [!]… an intellectually vicious critic of institutionalized Christianity, which he certainly was, he was also a strange friend to the faith.  I think, in the most fundamental sense, that’s the truth…  So, when Nietzsche announced the Death of God, he did it sorrowfully…”

These are not adventitious remarks.  These remarks are at the core of Dr. Peterson’s thinking.  Whenever he lectures or interviews, Dr. Peterson refers to Nietzsche, almost without exception, and whenever he speaks of Nietzsche, he invariably speaks of the Death of God.

On the 8 June 2018 episode of a video series entitled, fittingly, The Big Conversation, Dr. Peterson had this to say:

“You know, Nietzsche announced, of course, in the 1880s, in the late 1880s [sic!!!], that God was dead.  Typical rationalist atheists regard that as a triumphal, a triumphalist proclamation.  But that wasn’t that for Nietzsche.  Nietzsche knew perfectly well and said immediately afterward that the consequences of that was going to be a bloody catastrophe because everything was going to fall…  Nietzsche knew perfectly well that when you remove the cornerstone from underneath the building that even though it may stay aloft in mid-air like a cartoon character that’s wandered off a cliff, that it will inevitably come to crumble.”

Dr. Peterson makes the claim that Nietzsche was really very sad about the Death of God almost everywhere he goes.  On 16 May 2018, Dr. Peterson participated in a structured Question-and-Answer session at the Oxford Union.  When an exceedingly bright student asked him if meaning is artificially imposed on the world by human beings, Dr. Peterson uttered this non-response in response:

“When Nietzsche announced the Death of God, which is something that he announced in sorrow and trembling [!!!!!!], I would say, rather than triumphantly, which is often how that’s read because people don’t actually read Nietzsche; they just read one half of a quote from Nietzsche.”

But have you truly read Nietzsche, Dr. Peterson?  If anything, Dr. Peterson is the illiteratus and his followers, the illiterati.  “Nietzsche was sad about the Death of God” is a false axiom.  To refute Dr. Peterson’s erroneous claim that Nietzsche mourned the Death of God, one only has to consult the following passage from “On the Apostates”:

“It has been over for the gods for a long time now: —and indeed they had a fine, joyful gods’ end! / They did not ‘twilight’ themselves to death—that is a real lie!  Rather: They laughed themselves—to death!”

Mit den alten Göttern ging es ja lange schon zu Ende: —und wahrlich, ein gutes fröhliches Götter-Ende hatten sie! / Sie “dämmerten” sich nicht zu Tode—das lügt man wohl! Vielmehr: sie haben sich selber einmal zu Tode—gelacht! (“Von den Abtrünnigen”).

Dr. Peterson believes that Nietzsche is one of those who think they want the destruction of God but who “creep at midnight around God’s tomb,” mitternachts um das Grab seines Gottes schleicht (“Von den Hinterweltlern”).  And Jordan Peterson is the mournful mourner, not Nietzsche, who never mourns the death of the Old Gods.

Nietzsche did suggest that belief in the gods, which constitutes the absolute virtue, is an obstruction to aesthetic creativity.

Nietzsche/Zarathustra proclaims: “[I]f there were no gods, how could I stand not being a god!  Therefore, there are no gods.”  [W]enn es Götter gäbe, wie hielte ich’s aus, kein Gott zu sein!  Also gibt es keine Götter (“Auf den glückseligen Inseln”).

This is both a false inference and an argument from pleasure, an argumentum ad consequentiam.  Nietzsche actually appears to be suggesting: “Because I can’t stand the idea of not being a god, there are no gods!”  As if the existence of gods were dependent on my emotional needs!  Right after the fake syllogism that I cited above, there is the sly suggestion that Nietzsche is being ironic, that he knows that he is being illogical.[8]

All healthy virtues will be rooted in the body and in the world—and the unhealthiest of all virtues, according to Nietzsche, is faith in the Old Gods, which leads Nietzsche into a logical contradiction.

In contradistinction to Jordan B. Peterson, who believes that there can be no art or poetry without religion, and who said as much to an amphitheater of giggling atheists, Nietzsche writes the exact opposite: There can be no art or poetry with religion!

There would be no reason for art if gods existed.  “What would there be to create if gods—were there!” [W]as wäre denn zu schaffen, wenn Götter—da wären!  (“Auf den glückseligen Inseln”).  Art is a fundamentally human activity—it only makes sense in the absence of gods.  I create because no gods exist, for the gods and goddesses would be the superior craftsmen and craftswomen.  To believe in a god that you have not created is to negate yourself.  Nietzsche is suggesting: Don’t believe in any god that you haven’t invented yourself.  The absence of gods makes possible artistic creativity.[9]

Nietzsche affirms the gaiety of creation in the absence of deities.  The only person who is mournful about the absence of the deities is—Dr. Jordan Peterson, who is no Zarathustra!

The one who feels as if one were a human god has no need of gods.  I acknowledge that this is a dangerous position, but it is Nietzsche’s position, regardless of whether one agrees with it.  Nietzsche wants all of us—each free spirit who reads his words—to feel as gods ourselves.

Above all, Nietzsche wants to inspirit the broken-spirited.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

[1]Wahrheit reden und gut mit Bogen und Pfeil verkehren”—so dünkte es jenem Volke zugleich lieb und schwer, aus dem mein Name kommt—der Name, welcher mir zugleich lieb und schwer ist.”

[2] A book that is heavy in metaphor will not be understood by professional philosophers who do not know how to retranslate its metaphors into concepts, who will be puzzled by, for instance, Zarathustra’s claim that he speaks too crassly and openly for Angora rabbits (Seidenhasen).

[3] Metaphor conceals the harsh nascency of the concept.

[4] Style is a means of concealing one’s motives.  Having style—finesse, trickery, chicanery—means not showing everything.  Style is the corrective of nature.

[5] We know that Nietzsche read Stirner with admiration (see Conversations with Nietzsche, edited by Sander L. Gilman, pages 113-114).

[6] The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is the forever-supervenient and the non-obviatable.

[7] Compare the following passages: In “On the Spirit of Gravity,” Zarathustra tells us, “The way precisely—that does not exist!”  Den Weg nämlich—den gibt es nicht! (“Vom Geist der Schwere”).  In “On the Old and New Tablets,” Zarathustra claims that he is a “prelude to better players,” Ein Vorspiel bin ich besserer Spieler (“Von alten und neuen Tafeln”).

[8] “Wohl zog ich den Schluss; nun aber zieht er mich” (Ibid.).

[9] Much like Archimedes, Zarathustra demands that the stars orient themselves around him: Kannst du auch Sterne zwingen, dass sie um dich drehen? (“Vom Wege des Schaffenden”).

Ordering a Pizza at the Standard Market Grill in Lincoln Park

“Ordering a Pizza at the Standard Market Grill in Lincoln Park” by Joseph Suglia

On Friday, 21 November 2014 at 5:05 p.m., I ordered a cheese pizza at the Lincoln Park location of the Standard Market Grill.  The clerk who took my order is named Nicolette.  This pizza was “to-go.”

When I arrived home, I opened the cardboard box in which the pizza was contained and discovered to my horror that there was not a single fleck of red on the entire pizza.  I looked more closely at the pizza.  No, there was not a single lineament of tomato puree on the gobbets of cheese that bedecked the pizza disc.  Nor was there any tomato puree on the bready background.  I called the restaurant at 5:27 p.m.; Nicolette answered the telephone.  I explained to her that tomato purée was absent from the pizza that I ordered, and Nicolette insisted that there was tomato sauce on the pizza, “even if there wasn’t enough for [my] liking.”  I insisted, in turn, that there was no tomato sauce on the pizza.

I extracted the web of cheese from the pizza disc.  Not a single trace of tomato purée was uncovered.  There was no red on the underside of the cheese web, either.  I ate a slice–which was all that I could stand, since the pizza was flavorless–and, no, I did not sense the unmistakable taste-datum that had been inscribed into my consciousness, the tangy tomato puree with which the Standard Market Grill has slathered all of the many pizzas that I have ordered in the past.  The sponginess of the bread did not compensate for the untastiness of the pizza-complex.

If Nicolette was correct, and she wasn’t, and there WAS tomato sauce on the pizza, then why was the pizza sauce both invisible and untasteable?  Again, I have ordered many pizzas from the Lincoln Park location in the past, and all of them were blessed with a tomatoey tang.

I wrote the management on this matter and never received a response.  This is the level of customer service that I have come to expect from the Lincoln Park branch of the Standard Market Grill.

444 West Fullerton Parkway is a challenging space for any business to occupy.  In my ten years of living in Lincoln Park, I have seen four businesses at 444 West Fullerton Parkway flounder and founder, fail and flail.  The Standard Market Grill is struggling, and it will not stand.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE – by Joseph Suglia

 

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

PART ONE

A question that arises in the minds of readers of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is inescapably the following: “Why does Iago have a pathological hatred for Othello?”  Well, why does anyone hate anyone?  Why does anyone love anyone?  The sources of hatred, as of love, are largely unconscious.  Hatred and love are not the products of conscious agency.  They are feelings that appear inexplicably in the mind.  The unconscious sources of human behavior can be marked in literature, however.  We are dealing here with a literary fabrication, a figure made of paper and ink, not a human being, and there might be textual clues that would explain Iago’s seething hatred for Othello.

There seem to be four hypotheses for the grounds of Iago’s vehement antipathy toward Othello:

  • Iago resents Othello for choosing Michael Cassio as his lieutenant.

Othello passes over Iago for promotion to lieutenant and instead selects him as his ensign or “ancient.”  He becomes someone who delivers Othello’s letters and carries his luggage.  Iago inveighs against the election of Cassio, whom he considers someone who has a merely theoretical knowledge of the science of death, a “great arithmetician… [t]hat never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster” [I:i].  And yet Othello does raise Iago to the lieutenancy in Act Three, Scene Three.  Why, then, would Iago continue to hold a grudge?

  • Iago abominates Othello because he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia.

This is mere rumor, and Iago knows that the rumor is probably a canard: “I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true, / But I for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety” [I:iii].  Iago admits that he has no evidence to support this hypothesis, and it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other whether Othello has cuckolded him.  Iago seizes upon the rumor as a pretext for his boundless negativity.

  • Iago is sexually jealous of Othello.  He is desirous of Desdemona, Othello’s wife.

This interpretation is not altogether without evidence, but it is not a comprehensive interpretation.  If Iago is sexually possessive of Desdemona, why, then, would he offer her to Roderigo?: “[T]hou shalt enjoy her—therefore make money” [I:iii].

Iago makes his lust for Desdemona plain in the following lines: “Now I do love her too, / Not out of absolute lust—though peradventure / I stand accountant for as great a sin— / But partly led to diet my revenge, / For that I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…” [II:i].  This passage makes it clear that “love,” for the immoralist Iago, is the mere scion of lust and that his desire for Desdemona is really the desire to screw Othello over.  He cannot bear the thought that Othello has “leaped into his seat”—which is to say that Iago’s rivalrous-emulous identification with Othello takes precedence over his carnal interest in Desdemona.

  • Iago despises Othello for his race.

It is true that Iago repeatedly calls Othello “the Moor.”  Depriving someone of a proper name, and replacing that person’s proper name with a common noun, is a common way of depersonalizing someone.  George W. Bush engaged in this linguistic practice quite often, renaming Vladimir Putin “Ostrich Legs,” Tony Blair “Landslide,” Silvio Berlusconi “Shoes,” and John Boehner “Boner.”

There is no question that Iago uses ugly racist language: Othello is nominated “an old black ram [that is] tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” [I:i]; he is “a Barbary horse” that covers his daughter; “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have courses for cousins and jennets for germans” [Ibid.].  Consider the audience to whom this language is addressed.  Iago’s invective might be used for purely rhetorical purposes, in order to produce specific effects within Brabantio, Desdemona’s father.  Brabantio is clearly a hardcore racist idiot who thinks that all North Africans are witches and warlocks and that Othello, therefore, could only win his daughter through ensorcellment: “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her” [I:ii].  He makes this point with deadening repetitiousness.  He cannot conceive of his daughter “fall[-ing] in love with what she feared to look on” and cannot comprehend why she would reject the wealthy “curled darlings” [I:iii] of the state in favor of the Moor.

Iago, the reptilian-Machiavellian manipulator, might be playing on the racist sympathies of Brabantio in the way that a clever lawyer might stir up the racist antipathies of a jury without being a racist him- or herself.  While it is possible that there is a racial element in Iago’s hatred for Othello, his hatred is not reducible to racism or racialized nationalism.

Iago’s hatred for Othello is an absolute hatred—a hatred absolved from qualification, from relation.  A textual clue for the unconscious sources of his hatred is contained in the following lines: “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago… I am not what I am” [I:i].

Were Iago the Moor, Iago would not be Iago: Am I alone in hearing in this line an unforgiving self-contempt and the desire to become Othello?  Whenever a human being encounters a stranger, the question is always the same: “Who are you?”  In other words: Who are you in relation to me?  Are you similar to me?  Are you different from me?  To what degree are you different from me?  How do I measure myself against you?  In the case of the stalker Iago, there is, I suspect, the painful consciousness of his own inferiority vis-à-vis Othello and the painful desire to become Othello, which is an absolute impossibility.  This is the meaning of the last line quoted: “I am not what I am.”  Iago is not identical to himself because he identifies himself intimately and yet impossibly with Othello.  If you are obsessed with someone, you desire to become the person with whom you are obsessed.  This will never happen, but what will happen is that you will no longer be your own, you will no longer be yourself, for the object of your obsession will engulf you.

Iago’s rivalry with Othello embodies the dialectic of the self in relation to the other human being.  There is, on the one hand, the self-assumption of the self–which is based on the differentiation of the self from the other human being–and, on the other hand, the becoming-other (Anderswerden) that Hegel describes in The Phenomenology of Spirit.  In the lines cited above, Iago articulates how he imagines himself as other-than-himself–how he exteriorizes himself as Othello–and recuperates himself from this self-exteriorization.

PART TWO

Would Othello have murdered Desdemona even without Iago’s deceptions and interferences?  This, of course, is a silly question from a philological point of view, since we only have the text and any speculation about “what would have happened” outside of the text is absurd.  However, it is important to think through the necessity or the non-necessity of Iago in relation to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs.

Let me rephrase the question, then: How integral is Iago to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs?

My interpretation is that Iago plays a non-essential role in the murder of Desdemona.  He externalizes a jealous rage that is already within Othello.  Iago echoes prejudices and suspicions that are already seething inside of him.  From the third scene of the third act:

OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO: Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like / Seeing you coming.

Notice that Iago is merely reflecting Othello’s suspicions.  Iago is reactive, not active.  It is Othello, not Iago, who questions Cassio’s honesty:

OTHELLO: Is [Cassio] not honest?

IAGO: Honest, my lord?

OTHELLO: Honest? Ay, honest.

IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.

OTHELLO: What does thou think?

IAGO: Think, my lord?

OTHELLO: Think, my lord! By heaven, thou echo’st me / As if there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown.  Thou dost mean something, / I heard thee say even now thou lik’st not that / When Cassio left my wife: what didst not like?

The monster does not dwell in Iago’s thought, but in Othello’s.  Iago draws out the monstrous thoughts that have been devouring Othello for some time.  It is Othello who does not like the way in which Cassio slinks away from Desdemona when her husband approaches.  It is Othello who finds Cassio’s behavior suspect, not Iago.  Iago eschews direct accusation and instead employs innuendo.

It is often said, as I discussed above, that Othello is a victim of racism and nationalism.  One should not also forget that Othello has nationalist prejudices of his own, absorbing, as he does, the idea that all Venetian women are whores—hence, his rush to judge Desdemona as licentiously “liberal” as he inspects her hand: “This hand is moist, my lady…  This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: / Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires / A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer, / Much castigation, exercise devout, / For here’s a young and sweating devil, here, / That commonly rebels.  ’Tis a good hand, / A frank one” [III:iv].

The inspection of Desdemona’s hand was Othello’s idea, not Iago’s.  Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, for Othello has already condemned Desdemona in his mind.  Just as Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, and denies Emilia’s every word defending her, Desdemona impulsively takes the side of Cassio, pledging to be his mediator until the end.  Both Othello and Desdemona are impulsive, acting without evidence.

Nor is Desdemona entirely innocent in her own annihilation.  When she falls in love with Othello, Desdemona falls in love with what she once and always has feared to look upon.  She loves Othello because of his violence, not despite his violence.  Desdemona is what psychologists call a “hybristophiliac”: someone who, like Rhianna or Bonnie Parker, is sexually attracted to violent criminals.  She is originally drawn to Othello for his adventurous exoticism and his proximity to death.  As Othello puts it in the first act of the play: “[Desdemona] loved me for the dangers I had passed” [I:iii].  Iago suggests to Roderigo that Desdemona will grow tired of Othello’s differentness and seek out another lover: “[Desdemona] must change for youth; when she is sated with [Othello’s] body she will find the error of her choice; she must have change, she must” [I:iii].  Is Iago wrong?  As Rene Girard suggests in A Theatre of Envy, Othello could eventually be replaced by a younger version of himself, for, in marriage, what husband could escape the crushing banalizations of the everyday?  The “extravagant and wheeling stranger” [I:i] would become a boring and bored husband like any other.  Othello, if he does not solidify his role as the death-giving general, is doomed to disintegrate into a cuckold.

In a sense, Othello is never other than who he appears to be.  By contrast, following Harold Bloom, Iago is engaged in a war against being.  Iago is anti-being or nothingness: He is not what he is.  When Iago says, “For I am nothing, if not critical” [II:i], this may be taken literally: He is divided against himself.  Othello, on the other hand, is always only what he is.  From the beginning of the play until its terrifying end, Othello is the violent warrior who loves death more than he loves love.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

 

TELL-ALL by Chuck Palahniuk / Negative Review / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

A review of Tell-All (chuckpalahniuk) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

INTRODUCTION

chuckpalahniuk’s followers have grown older and are now turning against the one they once adulated as their master.  How could they not be insulted?  They have been treated with contempt by a writer who dumbs everything down for them.  They read more widely now and have come to recognize that the idealism that they once saw in their leader is false, and they despise him for his blatant opportunism.  This is a man who has no interest in knowledge or language, but who merely wants to make as much money as possible.  (chuckpalahniuk said: “I don’t care what they do with my book, as long as the f****** check clears.”)  They resent him for simplifying ideas that he has stolen from more sophisticated writers–and from his own fan base.  chuckpalahniuk writes under the heads of his sixteen-year-old target audience.  Sadly for him, those sixteen-year-old sheep are now twenty-four.  chuckpalahniuk is irrelevant, and the responses to his most recent work demonstrate this.

* * * * *

Those who write according to deadlines inevitably generate dead lines.  It should surprise no one, then, that chuckpalahniuk’s tired, labored contractual offering, Tell-All (2010), is a concatenation of lifeless sentences.  I’ve always felt–and clearly I’m in the minority these days–that words should bleed from the page, that one should write with one’s blood, as Nietzsche would say.  Well, Palahniuk’s pages don’t bleed; they suppurate.  A genuine writer composes electric prose, nothing but electric prose.  There is no electricity here, no artfulness.  But to claim that chuckpalahniuk writes artlessly would be to say too little.  Every sentence, every phrase, every word in this book is spoken by a voice from the grave.  Consumerist fiction is never vivacious.  You don’t believe that Palahniuk is a “literary” entrepreneur?  Here is his advice to a young poet: “Don’t expect to make any money off [poetry].”

The “plot,” such as it is, regurgitates All About Eve (1950), with Hazie Coogan reassuming the role of Eve and Katherine Kenton reincarnating Margo.  Every name is embossed in bold type, which makes the book as appealing to read as a telephone directory.  The weakest elements in Bret Easton Ellis’s fiction are his lists.  One needn’t know how to write in order to compile lists of indiscriminate items.  Here, the entire novel is a list–a list of proper nouns.  Reading this drivel is exactly like being jabbed incessantly in the ribs by an idiot savant who recites name after name in a narcotizing monotone, giggling after each jab.

The prose is irritatingly incompetent.  Should we forget that all German nouns are capitalized?  Are we supposed to think that “bile-ography” [32], “fossilidealized” [46], “laud mouthing” [58], and a “jury of sneers” [147] are clever neologisms?  Should we forget that hipster Dave Eggers popularized self-reflexivity (though he did not invent it–such a practice can be found in Ludwig Tieck and Shakespeare, to cite but two names) and that the use of it is no longer particularly “experimental”?  Should we ignore the fact that the phrase “name-dropping Tourette’s syndrome” is used no fewer than four times in this novel [on pages 3, 79, 129, and 177] and that such mindless repetitions are excessively fatiguing?

[After writing this review, I learned that the terms “bile-ography,” “to fossilidealize,” “to laud-mouth,” a “jury of sneers,” and “name-dropping Tourette’s syndrome” (not capitalized?) are not of chuckpalahniuk’s contrivance.]

chuckpalahniuk’s knowledge of his subject is as limited as his vocabulary.  “That vast wealth of 50’s [sic] film info comes from my editor, Gerry Howard,” chuckpalahniuk announced to Amazon.  Silliness abounds.  Are we to allow that Samuel Beckett was a “celebrity” [2] who attended opulent parties at Hollywood mansions?  Beckett recoiled from the entertainment industry as if it were a cancerous polyp (though he was not entirely indifferent to fame: See Stephen Dilks, Samuel Beckett in the Literary Marketplace).  Are we credulous enough to believe that folk singer Woody Guthrie composed music and lyrics for Broadway shows when he never did–and would have probably found the very idea of doing so repellent?  Should we be persuaded that the great French filmmaker Alain Resnais “saddled humanity” [109] (with what, precisely?), when he has given us so many strikingly beautiful, provocative, and groundbreaking works of art–something that chuckpalahniuk has never been able to do?  Though Resnais opened up a new way of seeing, most of humanity has ignored his oeuvre.  Muriel (1962), his masterpiece, is almost completely obscure.

chuckpalahniuk’s opera minora belong to a genre we might term “moron fiction,” fiction intended for readers who hate books.  One suspects that chuckpalahniuk hates books himself, given how little effort he invests in reading and creating them.  Tell-All is a nonliving entity, a throwaway, a trifle, a triviality, a little slice of nothing.

CONCLUSION

Being taught how to write fictionally by chuckpalahniuk is exactly like being taught how to play football by a one-legged man.

Joseph Suglia

 

THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson / An Analysis of THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (Erik Larson)

An Analysis of The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson) by Joseph Suglia

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003) is an unclassifiable book.  It seems to tolerate no generic distinction.  Yes, it is a work of history–there are copious end notes and a substantive bibliography; its research seems historiographically sound (though it is not; read Adam Seltzer’s book H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil); every direct quotation is taken from an imposing armature of sources.  And yet it reads as if it were a novel.

The book is concerned with two figures who are said to be diametrically opposed to each other: Daniel Burnham, one of the chief architects of Chicago’s World Fair, and H.H. Holmes, murderer of young women (despite Larson’s claims, Holmes was a serial failure; he even failed at being a serial killer).  Both are said to be emblematical of the Gilded Age, that is, late nineteenth-century industrial America.  And both are said to have converged at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

The book’s premise seems to be that, in America’s Gilded Age, two polar energies were at work: that of technological construction and that of destabilization, the grandeur of architecture and what erodes stability and what reverses progress.  Larson further qualifies this opposition in his introductory “Note”: “[I]t is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”

But are architecture and destructuring, “good” and “evil” parallel oppositions?  Where can “good” and “evil” be seen in the Gilded Age outside of these two isolated figures?  Are architecture and destructuring indeed opposed to each other?  Where else was this vague disassembling at work in the Gilded Age?  Outside of a description of what Holmes and Burnham did and said, Larson does not provide answers to these questions.

The “voice” of the work is that of the grandfatherly storyteller.  Nearly every sentence is bloated with hoary bombast.  Patiently, bombastically, the author recounts the stories of the murderer and the architect.  And yet what is the meaning of it all?  Does this book have a clear and defensible thesis?

The Devil in the White City never affords its readers access to the killer’s mind.  In the section of book entitled “Notes and Sources,” Larson concedes, “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known.”  He defers to “what forensic psychiatrists have come to understand about psychopathic serial killers.”  But should forensic psychiatry be given the last word?  Is the dossier then closed after they have spoken?

What, exactly, is the relationship, for Larson, between the architect and the murderer?  Is Larson suggesting that Holmes’s desire for “dominance and possession” was also the desire of Burnham?  Does Burnham merely wear a more socially acceptable mask?  Do they represent two variations of the same impulse?  Regrettably, Larson never pursues any of these questions.

Joseph Suglia

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR by William Shakespeare

A review of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

You know the rumor already: Queen Elizabeth commanded Shakespeare to write The Merry Wives of Windsor (circa 1596) in two weeks.  Well, not The Merry Wives of Windsor specifically, but a play in which the fat old knight Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most developed creations, falls in love.  This rumor was first set down by John Dennis (1702), over one hundred years after the play was composed.  For three centuries, Shakespeare scholars have debated the question: “Did Queen Elizabeth ever issue such an edict?  Did she command the poet to write his play in two weeks, for Her pleasure?”

The answer is, who cares?  You may either buy the royal-command hypothesis or reject the royal-command hypothesis.  Either way, the play seems to have been written for money, and it seems to have been written in two weeks.  As every conscientious writer does, Shakespeare reserved his genius lines and genius staves for his stronger plays.  The wordplay here is less than dazzling; there is not a single memorable line in the entire play (though the play does have the virtue of having contributed to Orson Welles’ masterly Chimes at Midnight (1965)).

Whenever he wants to make fun of one of his characters, Shakespeare has that character make fritters of the English language.  Clearly, Shakespeare valued English more highly than he did anything else.  It is a pity that his love for English isn’t particularly legible in this work.  There are some amusing countrified insults: “cony-catching rascals” [I:i]; “Banbury cheese” [ibid.]; “Let vultures gripe thy guts!” [I:iii]; “jack-a-nape” [I:iv]; “his guts are made of puddings” [II;i]; “mechanical salt-butter rogue” [II:ii]; “your cat-a-mountain looks” [II:ii]; “jack-an-ape” [II:iii]; “Jack dog” and “John ape” [III:i]; “Jack-a-Lent” [III:iii]; “polecat” [IV:ii].  Characters liken one another to animals and food products.  Contemporary readers of the play might begin insulting their irritating neighbors by calling them “Banbury cheese.”

Shakespeare seems to have disobeyed the queenly command (if one was ever given).  Falstaff doesn’t actually “fall in love” with anyone.  He has a purely financial interest in the merrily sadistic wives of the title, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford.  He attempts to seduce and exploit both of the women for money–unsuccessfully, of course.  I write “seduce” but should qualify that Falstaff appears to have no erotic desire for the wives, nor for anyone else.  Mistress Page and Mistress Ford quickly disclose Falstaff’s scheme and dispatch the fat old knight.

In the Arden edition, the editor makes the incisive claim that The Merry Wives of Windsor is not a humorous comedy at all.  I partially concur with this assertion.  Approaching the text as a black comedy is probably the best way of going about it.  A “black comedy” in the sense that Andre Breton defined the term (in relation to Jonathan Swift): a comedy that provokes the audience to laugh, even though the author is never laughing.

The play has the shape and the style of an erotic nightmare.  If you know the early films of Peter Greenaway–particularly, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and Drowning by Numbers (1988)–you have some idea of what to expect.  The resemblance between these two excellent films and The Merry Wives of Windsor is uncanny.  To truly appreciate what Shakespeare is doing, I would recommend viewing both of these films before reading the play.

Mistress Page and Mistress Ford gang up on poor Falstaff.  He is thrown into a laundry basket and tossed into a river.  He nearly suffocates in the laundry basket and nearly drowns in the river.  He is dressed up as a woman–feminization is a classic form of humiliation in the vocabulary of sadism and perhaps also in the vocabulary of masochism, though not in the writings of Sacher-Masoch–and beaten with a cudgel.  Antlers are mounted on his head.  He is pinched and burned.  He becomes a sacrificial figure.

This last form of torture and humiliation does fascinate me, I must confess.  The antlers give to the play an even darker valence.  In at least three ways: 1.) We learn that Falstaff is a deer-stealer in the first act–the antlers thus create a cosmic irony.  2.) What Falstaff said he would do to Mr. Ford (literal cuckoldry) is done to Falstaff instead (metaphorical cuckoldry).  3.) Falstaff is an Actaeonian figure.

The myth of Actaeon is alluded to implicitly and explicitly throughout the play.  The name ‘Actaeon,’ in fact, appears twice in the text: “Like Sir Actaeon he, with Ringwood at thy heels” [II:i]; “divulge Page himself for a secure and wilful Actaeon…” [III:iii].

The myth is simple and powerful.  Actaeon spies on the naked bathing goddess, Diana.  Since the goddess is not containable in any human form, Actaeon stares at an empty appearance, a simulation.  A rustling in the bushes reveals all.  Diana raises herself in her divine nudity and screams at the voyeur: “Tell that you saw me bathing here naked–if you can tell at all!”  The hunter is transformed into a stag and ripped into pieces by his own hounds.

What we are given here is a sadistic fantasy, a masochistic fantasy, or a sadomasochistic fantasy.  The play culminates in a ritual persecution in which a human being is sacrificed.

Of all the many attempts to ideologize Shakespeare and to press him into the service of a sexual-political cause, this might be the best play to use as a vehicle.  And yet the play has been strangely ignored both by specialists in Gender Studies and Shakespearean scholars in general.  An Emeritus Professor of Renaissance Literature wrote a book entitled Shakespeare on Masculinity without ever so much as mentioning The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The play does have a great deal to say about disgraced masculinity.  Every full-grown man in this play is a puddinghead–even Mr. Ford, who is cuckolded without being cuckolded and who commits adultery with his own wife (prefiguring All’s Well that Ends Well).  The women are the crafty ones.  Whether this vision of hell is making an ontological claim about the differences between men and women is ambiguous; whether this vision of hell is misogynistic, misandristic, or both is non-obvious.  Reading the play is rather like watching two cackling little girls flinging apples at an old lion in the zoo.

Reading over what I have written so far, I see that I am making the play appear more interesting than it actually is.

Joseph Suglia

INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace – A Review by Dr. Joseph Suglia / A Negative Review of INFINITE JEST

A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Five: INFINITE JEST

by Joseph Suglia

The writings of Lessing and Kant are the magna opera of German Enlightenment.  The works of Novalis and Schelling are the magna opera of German romanticism.  Joyce’s Ulysses is the magnum opus of European modernism.  The poems of Trakl, the paintings of Kirchner, and the dramas of Wedekind are the magna opera of German expressionism.  The films Un Chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930) are the magna opera of French surrealism.

Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace is the magnum opus of American hipsterism.

What is a “hipster,” you ask?  A hipster is one who has what Hegel described as an “unhappy consciousness”: He is a self that is at variance with itself.

* * * * *

Anyone who has spent any time in academia will instantly recognize Wallace’s pedigree upon opening this book.  Wallace was an academic writer.  Unhappily, all connotations of “academic” are intentional.  That is to say, the book is both fantastically banal and seems to have been composed, disconsolately and mechanistically, in a registrar’s office.  It is not arbitrary that the narrative begins in the Department of Admissions of a tennis college.  The language here recalls the world of registration and withdrawal forms and the world of classrooms where works such as this are spawned, dissected, and pickled—the world of the academic industry.

Wallace: “Matriculations, gender quotas, recruiting, financial aid, room-assignments, mealtimes, rankings, class v. drill schedules, prorector-hiring… It’s all the sort of thing that’s uninteresting unless you’re the one responsible…” [451].

I wonder if anyone besides Wallace has ever found these things interesting.

Since no one else has taken the trouble to encapsulate the narrative, permit me to attempt to do so here.  The novel seems to have two diegetic threads and a meta-narrative.  The first thread concerns the incandescent descent of Hal Incandenza, teenager and tennis student, into drug addiction.  (Well, no, it isn’t quite incandescent, not quite luciferous, at all, but I liked the way that sounded.)  The second outlines the shaky recovery of Don Gately, criminal, from Demerol.  The “woof,” I imagine, details the efforts of a cabal of Quebecois terrorists to inject a death-inducing motion picture of the same title as this book into the American bloodstream.  All of this takes place in a soupy, fuzzy future in which Mexico and Canada have been relegated to satellites of the onanistic “Organization of North American Nations.”  Predictably, and much like NAFTA, America is at the epicenter of this reconfiguration.

It is hard to care about any of this.  If Wallace had written fluidly, things would have been otherwise.  It is not that the book is complex, nor that its prose is burnished (if only it were!).  The problem is much different: The sentences are so awkwardly articulated and turgid that the language is nearly unreadable.  You wish that someone would fluidify the congested prose while struggling with the irritation and boredom that weave their way through you.

There is literary litter everywhere.  No, “nauseous” does not mean “nauseated.”  No, “presently” does not mean “at present.”  Such faults are mere peccadilloes, however, especially when one considers the clunkiness of Wallace’s language.  A few examples:

1.) “The unAmerican guys chase Lenz and then stop across the car facing him for a second and then get furious again and chase him” [610].  I am having a hard time visualizing this scene.

2.) “Avril Incandenza is the sort of tall beautiful woman who wasn’t ever quite world-class, shiny-magazine beautiful, but who early on hit a certain pretty high point on the beauty scale and has stayed right at that point as she ages and lots of other beautiful women age too and get less beautiful” [766].  It would take more effort to edit this see-Spot-run sentence than it did, I suspect, to write it.

3.) “The puppet-film is reminiscent enough of the late Himself that just about the only more depressing thing to pay attention to or think about would be advertising and the repercussions of O.N.A.N.ite Reconfiguration for the U.S. advertising industry” [411].  This is a particularly representative example of Wallace’s heavy, cluttered style—a sentence larded with substantives.

4.) “So after the incident with the flaming cat from hell and before Halloween Lenz had moved on and up to the Browning X444 Serrated he even had a shoulder-holster for, from his previous life Out There” [545].  So… Lenz moves “on and up” to a knife… “from” his previous life?  If this is a sentence, it is the ugliest I’ve yet read.

To say such a thing would be to say too little.  Nearly every sentence is overpoweringly ugly and repellently clumsy.  Not a single sentence–not one–is beautiful, defamiliarizing, or engaging.  I am sorry to write this, but Infinite Jest is a joylessly, zestlessly, toxically written book and the poisonous fruit of academic bureaucracy.

* * * * *

A few valedictory words: It would be tasteless–raffish, even–to malign the literary estate of a recent suicide.  Wallace was nothing if not intelligent, and his death is a real loss.  Had he lived longer, he might have left us books that impress and delight.  Let me advise the reader to avoid this plasticized piece of academic flotsam and pick up and at instead Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, his true gift to the afterlife and the afterdeath.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

On the distinction between the flâneur and the boulevardier

On the Distinction between the flâneur and the boulevardier

1.) A boulevardier drinks in the fashionable atmospheres; a flâneur drifts like a ghost through fashionable spaces, which are less remarkable to him than emptied factories.

2.) A flâneur takes pictures in the mind of landfills; a boulevardier takes pictures of tourist attractions.

3.) A flâneur is a seer; a boulevardier is a sightseer.

4.) A boulevardier strolls down prescribed paths; a flâneur is a mapless wanderer.

5.) A boulevardier walks to be seen; a flâneur walks to see.

Joseph Suglia

 

A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part One: OBLIVION / David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer / OBLIVION by David Foster Wallace

 

A review of Oblivion (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

When I was in graduate school, I was (mis)taught Literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and who had absolutely no interest in eloquence.  I learned that he held an undergraduate degree in Physics and wondered, as he chattered on loudly and incessantly, why this strange man chose to study and teach Literature, a subject that obviously did not appeal to him very much.  I think the same thing of David Foster Wallace, a writer who probably would have been happier as a mathematician (Mathematics is a subject that Wallace studied at Amherst College).

A collection of fictions published in 2004, Oblivion reads very much as if a mathematician were trying his hand at literature after having surfeited himself with Thomas Pynchon and John Barth–-not the best models to imitate or simulate, if you ask me.

The first fiction, “Mr. Squishy,” is by far the strongest.  A consulting firm evaluates the responses of a focus group to a Ho-Hoesque chocolate confection.  Wallace comes up with some delightful phraseologies: The product is a “domed cylinder of flourless maltilol-flavored sponge cake covered entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting,” the center of which is “packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped lard” [6].  The external frosting’s “exposure to the air caused it to assume traditional icing’s hard-yet-deliquescent marzipan character” [Ibid.].  Written in a bureaucratized, mechanical language–this language, after all, is the dehumanized, anti-poetic language of corporate marketing firms, the object of Wallace’s satire–the text is a comparatively happy marriage of content and form.

Wallace gets himself into difficulty when he uses this same bureaucratic language in the next fiction, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” which concerns a homicidal substitute teacher.  I could see how a sterile, impersonal narrative could, by way of counterpoint, humanize the teacher, but the writing just left me cold.  The title of the fiction simply reverses Stephen Dedalus’s statement in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Wallace never composed a sentence as beautiful as Joyce’s.  Indeed, Wallace never composed a beautiful sentence.

“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” simply duplicates the title (!) of Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the misconceived idea that language is capable of mirroring the essence of things).  It concerns a son who accompanies his mother to a cosmetic-surgery procedure.  The son, who is also the narrator, says: “[A]nyone observing the reality of life together since the second procedure would agree the reality is the other way around…” [183].  The narrator might or might not be one of the deluded representationalists against whom Rorty polemicized.  For Rorty, “the reality of life” is not something that we are capable of talking about with any degree of insight.  Unfortunately, this is the only point in the text at which the philosophical problem of representation arises.

The eponymous fiction “Oblivion” and the self-reflexive “The Suffering Channel” (which concerns a man whose excreta are considered works of art) are inelegantly and ineloquently written.

After laboring through such verbal dross, I can only conclude that David Foster Wallace was afraid of being read and thus attempted to bore his readers to a teary death.  His noli me legere also applies to himself.  It is impossible to escape the impression that he was afraid of reading and revising any of the festering sentences that he churned out.  Because he likely never read his own sentences, he likely never knew how awkward they sounded.  Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision, it appears.  It is merely because of the boggling bigness of Infinite Jest that the book has surfaced in the consciousness of mainstream America at all (hipsterism is a vicissitude of mainstream America).  We, the Americanized, are fascinated by bigness.  To quote Erich Fromm: “The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers…”

Speech is irreversible; writing is reversible.  If you accept this premise of my argument (and any intelligent person would), must it not be said that responsible writers ought ALWAYS to recite and revise their own sentences?  And does it EVER seem that Wallace did so?

The prose of Oblivion is blearily, drearily, eye-wateringly tedious.  The hipsters will, of course, claim in advance that the grueling, hellish tedium of Wallace’s prose was carefully choreographed, that every infelicity was intentional, and thus obviate any possible criticism of their deity, a deity who, like all deities, has grown more powerful in death.  That is, after all, precisely what they say of the Three Jonathans, the sacred triptych of hipsterdom: Foer, Franzen, and Lethem, the most lethal of them all.

One thing that even the hipsters cannot contest: David Foster Wallace did not write fictionally for his own pleasure.  Unlike Kafka, he certainly did not write books that he ever wanted to read.

A valediction: The early death of David Foster Wallace is terrible and should be mourned.  He was a coruscatingly intelligent man.  My intention here is not to defame the dead. I recommend that the reader spend time with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and leave his other writings alone.  As I suggested above, he probably didn’t want his prose to be read, anyway.

Joseph Suglia

 

THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold / A Negative Review of THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

An Analysis of The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold) by Joseph Suglia

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) is the type of book that effortlessly mounts American bestseller lists.  It is impossible to deny that the book serves as a symbolic reaffirmation of the traditional values of the now-vanished American middle class.  Any sober analysis of the book must take this into account.

Much like other smash-hit novels, the book fetishizes children / younger teens and their alleged innocence.  When readers first encounter the novel’s protagonist, fourteen-year-old girl Susie Salmon, she has already been raped and murdered and is gazing down on the earth from the Bel-Air comfort of her personal Heaven.  During the recreation of Susie’s murder, the narrative oscillates between Susie’s violation and killing and a description of charming details from Susie’s life.  While this tactic might seem emotionally manipulative, there is no question that Ms. Sebold is shrewd.  Only the toughest eyes will be able to hold back their tears.

Ms. Sebold recreates the voice of a fourteen-year-old girl exceptionally well at the beginning of the novel.  Her character’s syntax and diction become more sophisticated as the novel spins along.  The voice is emotionally manipulative perhaps, but not everyone can psychologically maneuver little lambs via the written word.

Not merely is the book’s milieu white, American suburbia.  Its norms are also very suburban, very white, and very American.  Unsurprisingly, the book’s Heaven (a place where every little girl’s dreams come true) resembles an upper-middle-class country club, with “soccer goalposts in the distance and lumbering women throwing shot put and javelin.”

The slobbering enemy of the work–Susie’s butcher, Mr. Harvey–is what critical theory used to call (and sometimes still does) “the Other.”  He is an outsider to the world that Susie and her family inhabit, the kind of man who “never married and ate frozen meals every night and [was] so afraid of rejection that [he] didn’t even own pets.  The kind of man you read about in health class.”  Such is the novel’s attitude toward anyone who falls too far outside of its particular status quo.

Those of foreign descent are welcome in the novel’s world, on the proviso that they support its middle-class values.  Susie’s former boyfriend, Ray Singh, for instance, is Indian and yet gives a guest lecture at the University of Pennsylvania on “Suburbia: The American Experience.”  It does seem rather odd that an Indian teenager would care very much about this topic.  And since when are teenage boys arbitrarily invited to give lectures at major American universities?

The novel also displays an uncharitable attitude toward other-sexual male desire.  Looking down from Heaven on her former friend Clarissa, Susie is disgusted by what she sees: a young boy palming the girl, groping for “a little mound of love.”  The book presents the sexuality of men as if all male lust were despicable or homicidal.

How did Mr. Harvey become Mr. Harvey?  Was Mr. Harvey violated as a young boy?  If Susie Salmon survived, would she have transformed into someone like Mr. Harvey?  Victims of abuse too often become abusers themselves.  The Lovely Bones does not explore these seamy depths.  If it did, it would not be an Alice Sebold novel.

Joseph Suglia

California über Alles: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS by Quentin Tarantino

CALIFORNIA ÜBER ALLES: An Analysis of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) by Joseph Suglia

“The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but THE PAST.  If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’–well, it never happened.  If he says that two and two are five–well, two and two are five.”

–George Orwell, “Looking Back on the Spanish War”

Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the succeeding generation might believe that Hitler was assassinated.  Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, they might believe that the Jews overcame the Nazis.  They will not know that around six million Jews–not to mention the elderly, the disabled, homosexuals, the chronically unemployed, gypsies, political dissidents, intellectuals (there were other categories, as well)–were funneled into factories of death, where they were stripped, shorn of their hair, and gassed.  Killed en masse as if they were vermin or swine.

No Jews are murdered, no corpses are incinerated in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Tarantino’s most malevolent travesty and perhaps the most ethically reprehensible motion picture ever made.  Nazis are incinerated.  Machine-gunned and set aflame.  In a cinema.  In Vichy France.  In 1944.  By a band of Jewish-American soldiers and French resistance fighters.

What, precisely, was Tarantino hoping to accomplish by this fusillade of historical revisionism?  By this erasure of history?  Is this nothing more than a puerile time-machine fantasy?  To deprive Hitler of the right to be killed by his own hand?

Tarantino’s own remarks belie this interpretation: “The power of the cinema is going to bring down the Third Reich.  I get a kick out of that!”

When the Nazis are cremated in the cinema, then, Tarantino is cinematically cremating the memory of their dominion.  The burning cinema is the central metaphor of the film.  It is a self-reflexive metaphor.

Predictably, few Americans seem to have a problem with this dehistoricization and rehistoricization of the Holocaust.  After all, America is a country without much of a history of its own.  Most of us are afflicted with historical amnesia.  To demonstrate my point, let me adduce a personal example.  I posted the first sentence of this review on facebook years ago: “Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the succeeding generation might believe that Hitler was assassinated.”

I received this in response (the mistakes have been retained for the sake of authenticity): “Aint it grand though!”

If this is what most Americans believe, then we are lost.  The entire culture is lost.

What no one seems to recognize is that the film is an insult both to those who survived the Holocaust and to those who died in it.

The destruction of history is politically dangerous.  It is also a form of ethical rape, especially when that history is fraught with so much hideousness, so much carnage, so much death, so much sorrow.  To the supporters of the film, let me ask:

Do you honestly think that survivors of the Shoah would approve of this film?

Though Tarantino might claim that his film revolts against the Third Reich, it does nothing of the sort.  Inglorious Basterds does not combat fascism.  By liquidating history, it allies itself with fascism.  It is a film that uses the same totalitarian methods as the Nazi propagandists, despite Tarantino’s misguided intentions.

Holocaust revisionists such as David Irving and Ingrid Rimland (and so many others) would applaud what Tarantino has done in this film.  After all, he has created a film in which the Nazis lose, the Jews win, and the Holocaust never takes place.  Is that not what the fascist “historians” have been saying all along?

Permit me to make a few remarks about Tarantino’s method of presentation.

No one has described Tarantino better than the brilliant English novelist and critic Will Self.  The filmmaker is a “pasticheur and an artistic fraud,” Self writes.  Indeed, he is all of that and much worse.  Nearly every image in Tarantino’s cinema is derivative or evocative of something else.  The climax of Death Proof (2007)–in which a misogynist is surrounded by a ring of femmes fatales and pummeled into unconsciousness–blatantly and uninventively reconstitutes a formally identical moment in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965).  Another scene in Death Proof–in which the female leads are surreptitiously photographed–repeats one of Dario Argento’s lavish set-pieces in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969).  Even the same Ennio Morricone music is deployed.

Throughout Inglorious Basterds, there are references to other films.  Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943) is playing at the theatre before it is razed to the ground.  Most of the film’s musical compositions were taken from the soundtracks to other films, such as Revolver (1973) and Allonsanfan (1974), both which were scored by Morricone.  Curiously, none of these allusions adds to the film. Tarantino merely showcases the cultural references.  He seems incapable of communicating himself cinematically except by way of derivations from other works of cinema.  He does not create.  He does not originate.  He does not imagine.  He does not conceive.  He ventriloquizes.

I could not help but feel a certain depression after viewing this abominable film.  I recalled that in the 1990s Tarantino was given carte blanche–the whitest of white cards–from critics for his use of racist language.  Here we have a work not of anti-Semitism, but of anti-Judaism.

Consider this injustice: Michael Haneke’s elegantly chilling The White Ribbon (2009), a film that casts a dark light on some of the conditions that led to National Socialism, is largely unseen and this atrocity is surrounded by a cavalcade of approval.  Genocide pornography is the worst form of pornography in existence, for it transforms the ultimate horror–the mass manufacture of corpses–into an object of consumption and enjoyment.  For this reason, I condemn Quentin Tarantino and his unforgivable film.  Quentin Tarantino is vile, and Inglourious Basterds is slime.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

BRET EASTON ELLIS: ESCAPE FROM UTOPIA / Analyses of LESS THAN ZERO, THE INFORMERS, AMERICAN PSYCHO, GLAMORAMA by Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis: Escape from Utopia

by Joseph Suglia

America is a utopia.  A placeless “place” in which all desires are answered even before they are articulated.  A non-place without a history and without horizons.

The “America” to which I refer is less the nation that bears this name than that nation’s ideal, one that posits a world which is seemingly disconnected from the contingencies of time and space.  One could object, of course, that America is hardly “utopian” or paradisaical: There is, after all, misery everywhere.  And yet utopianism does not exclude the possibility of misery.  Like all ideological constructions, the image of America contradicts the existing conditions of its societies.  America interprets itself as a locus of absolute plentitude, overflowing with whatever one may need/desire; it presents itself as a space that is anti-spatial, anti-temporal and anti-historical, a non-place in which desires are quickly converted into needs and in which “new” desires proliferate infinitely.

It is America’s utopianism that Bret Easton Ellis addresses in his fiction.  His novels are populated by those who, theoretically, have everything–except “something to lose” (Less Than Zero).  They are the illiterate glitterati–ridiculously stupid and narcissistic people who say ridiculously stupid and stupidly ridiculous and narcissistic things (e.g., “She wasn’t looking at my abs, but she wanted to,” from The Rules of Attraction; “You’re tan, but you don’t look happy,” from The Informers).  Members of the “beautiful elite,” each of his “characters” (if this word even applies–the personages have no identity) is vapid and vacant precisely because their desires are produced by mainstream consumer culture–a culture that is fundamentally shallow.  Although they numb themselves with drugs and sex, they cannot even be called “hedonistic” because they don’t enjoy themselves.  The majority of Americans would say that Ellis’s “characters” are without problems: After all, most are rich, gorgeous, and young.  But the absence of problems is, in itself, a problem.

In Ellis’s first truly “political” literary work, his aptly titled third novel, American Psycho (1991), the white, rich, and impossibly handsome Wall Street yuppie Patrick Bateman is, strictly speaking, the “perfect” American–and the “perfect” representative of a “perfect” world.  He has no flaws.  He’s a trust-fund baby with an immensely well-paying job that seemingly requires no effort; women fall for him wherever he goes; he is young and beautiful.  He lives at the center of American culture and, for this reason, wants for nothing.  And yet the tragedy of his (and of all) “perfection” is that it must constantly reestablish itself: No one who is “perfect” can afford not to be vigilant.

Patrick Bateman is “perfect”–and also perfectly vicious.  He is a murderer–and also at the center of American culture.  These statements are not contradictory.

The following question plagues the readers of American Psycho: How is it that others are seemingly unaware of, or indifferent to the murders that Bateman commits?  The answer is obvious.  There is nothing extraordinary about homicide; indeed, homicide has become completely normalized.  Whether one has committed homicide is less significant than whether one wears Armani.  Throughout the novel, descriptions of dismemberment occur in the same paragraph as discussions of insipid, 1980s pop-music kitsch.  In fact, much of the book is a recitation of such trivia interspersed with gruesome descriptions of the mutilation of women.  What is one to make of this?  Is Ellis a violent misogynist, as many have claimed?

On the contrary, American Psycho is the perhaps most radical critique of American culture in general–and of American misogyny, in particular–in novelistic form.  American culture is “evil,” the novel suggests, because “evil” no longer matters.  One’s moral value is insignificant in relation to one’s physical appearance and the size of one’s bank account.  The smug, self-preening Bateman is able to commit the most ghastly and monstrous acts imaginable with impunity, precisely because he looks good and has a hierarchical position in society.  When Bateman dissects his victims–who, for the most part, are homeless people, prostitutes, and ethnic minorities–the reader should remember that such acts are “business as usual” in the United States.  There is nothing unusual about anything that Bateman does; his murderous behavior is representative of the mainstream.  If he gives a disquisition on the greatness of post-Peter Gabriel Genesis, Huey Lewis and the News, or Whitney Houston before slicing up a prostitute, this is because there is no essential difference, the book suggests, between the stupidity of American pop culture and the monstrosity of evil.  “Evil,” the book suggests, is not some Mephistophelean figure that springs up from the depths of Hell.  Nor may be it explained by the Kantian concept of “radical evil,” in which the senses are maximized and elevated to the basis of moral decisions.  No, for Ellis, “evil” is the money-sucking, racist, homophobic, and misogynistic yuppie businessman: the axis and apotheosis of American culture.

Bateman, the “American psycho,” is perfect, and perfection is the American psychosis.  More specifically, the American psychosis is the drive to be perfect, to have an apartment more expensive and better situated than Paul Owen’s.  Anyone outside of the sphere of perfection is regarded as trash.  “You are not … important to me,” Bateman says to his equally superficial and vacuous fiancée: Such is the ethos of the Reaganite 1980s.  And it is precisely this maxim of conduct that Ellis represents in American Psycho.

The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of American Psycho ominously hints at the impending apocalypse of heterosexual white upper-class male domination.  A Middle-Eastern taxi cab driver and a homeless woman–evocative of the disenfranchised minorities killed off by the hard-hearted yuppie earlier in the novel–take their symbolic revenge on the majoritarian Bateman.  As he enters his twenty-eighth birthday, he faces the inexorable demise of his regime and his self-deceptions.

* * *

Ellis’s next experiment, The Informers (1994), seems, at first glance, to be nothing more than a collection of short stories and drafts for Ellis’s more ambitious novelistic projects (“The Secrets of the Summer,” for instance, reads as if it were an early version of American Psycho).  It is far more than that, however.  Each story connects with all of the others; the book has an inner continuity that is strikingly intricate.  There are complicated interchanges between the “characters”; each one of them is absolutely interchangeable with everyone else.

The Informers is set in Los Angeles in the 1980s.  No one in the book has an individuated personality, if by “personality” we mean a distinguishable set of preferences, disinclinations, and verbal expressions.  All of the characters take Valium and drink Tab.  All of them say the same things and have the same desires and aversions.  Indeed, all of Ellis’s “characterologies” are the same.  This is not a flaw in his novelistic practice.  It is, rather, a sign of his writerly strength.  In “The Up-Escalator,” a middle-aged woman cannot distinguish her son, Graham, from any of the other tall, blond boys that populate the novel.  In “In the Islands,” William cannot distinguish his son, Tim, from Graham.  One stoned pool boy is identical to another stoned pool boy.

“Perfection,” it would seem, may be bought and sold in mass quantities.  According to the metaphorics of the work, one’s identity is founded upon the products that one buys.  Because products are available in mass quantities, identity is also available in mass quantities.  If commodities are equivalent to one another (through the medium of money), there is no reason that identities should not be posited as equivalent, as well.  It is the logical consequence of living in a culture that valorizes consumerist equivalence that its citizens should also be indistinguishable from each other.  The most dominant figure of The Informers is the destruction of individuality by the exchange of equivalents.

Another of the novel’s obsessions is the effect of a highly technologized media culture on social relationships.  Rather than bringing the “characters” together, audio-visual technology drives them further apart.  One person can only relate to another by relating him/her to a media image.  While on a plane to Hawaii, William and Tim both listen to headsets, each playing a different kind of music; they can only endure each other through the magic of technological “communication.”  In “Another Grey Area,” Graham identifies his father’s corpse by likening it to Darth Vader.  His “friend” Randy drapes his own face with a copy of GQ and effectively becomes John Travolta, whose image is featured on the cover.  One character, Ricky, is murdered on the night of a Duran Duran lookalike contest, which is a propos because everyone in The Informers participates, whether intentionally or not, in a celebrity-lookalike contest.  In “Sitting Still,” Susan dislikes her father’s fiancée (partly, at least) because the latter likes the film Flashdance (1982).  Most pitifully, in “Letters from L.A.,” Anne is slowly swallowed up in the media culture of Los Angeles–a culture that she once disdained.

* * *

Ellis’s most recent novel, Glamorama (1998), is a departure for the author, insofar as it does not merely concern the hollowness and superficiality of American culture, but also the way in which the whole of reality is structured within the context of this culture.  In Glamorama, the entire structure of reality is choreographed.  It is impossible to tell, throughout the work, whether a character is in a “real” scenario or whether that scenario has been rehearsed, scripted, and staged.  In Glamorama, the surface of things overtakes all depth.  We have reached, Ellis seems to suggest, a hyper-Kantian moment in which appearances are finally liberated from the things that they would represent.  Indeed, the novel “itself”–a panorama of hollow, glitzy appearances–is an endless play of surfaces without profundity.

The “star” of Glamorama, semi-model Victor Ward, is photographed at film premieres and fashion shows that he never attended; these photographs take on the status of the “truth.”  Only that which is mediated by the media, the novel seems to imply, is regarded as “real” in American culture.  The “characters” of Glamorama–models and celebrities and those who serve them–can only recognize something as “true” to the extent that it is simulated.  In particular, for the lovable idiot Victor, the “living” instant exists only for the sake of its media duplication: That is to say, he can only recognize something as significant insofar as it recalls a popular song lyric, television show, or film.  A human being has value for him except inasmuch as s/he resembles an actor/actress such as Uma Thurman or Christian Bale (“You’re looking very Uma-ish, baby” is a typical remark).  Like all of Ellis’s mannequin figures, Victor is vacant, a media sponge, a mediator of transitory sound-bytes.  In the first and second sections of the novel, for instance, Victor is nothing more than a vehicle for the words of others (a running joke throughout Glamorama is Victor’s tendency to respond to questions, inanely, with decontextualized popular song lyrics).  It is his emptiness of meaningful content that allows him to become the scapegoat of various political factions, who exploit his naïveté for their own programs.  Victor becomes entangled with fashion-model terrorists who are even more surface-fascinated than him and who “teach” him that a world of pure surfaces is a world without ethical limits.

A Bildungsroman for the early twenty-first century, Glamorama charts Victor’s gradual transformation into a person of substance.  At the end of his metamorphosis, Victor fastens his mind on the image of a mountain that he must “ascend” in order to escape from the world of self-referring resemblances.  An agent of “the real,” Victor yearns to break free from the network of appearances that constitutes American culture.  He yearns to break free from his culture (“Have you ever wished that you could disappear from all this?” an MTV journalist asks Victor in an interview) precisely because it is utopian.  Only after the traumas of the latter sections of the novel does Victor become aware of the drawbacks of America’s utopianism.  He is “[o]n the verge of tears–because [he is] dealing with the fact that we lived in a world in which beauty was considered an accomplishment.”  A world in which “supermodels” are automatically qualified to be actors, filmmakers, artists, writers, representatives of the United Nations–and terrorists.  A world in which physical appearance and money are the only significant power-categories.

Ellis’s equation of beauty with terror might strike one as capricious.  It is not.  In America, it is not surprising to see the televised image of a “supermodel” such as Claudia Schiffer wearing a T-shirt that reads “EVIL” or to learn that a popular fashion-designer (Von Dutch) was a Nazi.  Fascism intersects with fashion at multiple points.  Fashion makes raids on human consciousness no less damaging than terrorist initiatives.  Both assault memory and self-perception.  Both destabilize one’s sense of security and well-being.  Ellis demonstrated the conjunction of terrorism and performance before the attacks of September 11, 2001.  In its conflation of fashion with fascism, Glamorama recalls Stockhausen’s callous but nonetheless accurate remark that the terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center constituted a work of performance art.  An accurate statement, insofar as the terrorist interventions of September 11, 2001 would not have existed were it not for the spectacle of television.

There is nothing new about any of this.  Indeed, fascism has traditionally used aesthetic means to take hold of the human imagination and exert its dominion over human life (Italian futurism is one example of this).  Such is the meaning of the Nazi swastika on the ceiling of Victor’s New York nightclub and the Hitler epigraph at the beginning of the novel: “You make a mistake if you see what we do as merely political.”  By way of the epigraph and the figure of the swastika, Ellis suggests that fascism is not merely a political, but also an aesthetic movement.  But the reverse is also true, according to the logic of Glamorama: What once appeared as merely aesthetic reveals itself as a political movement.

Victor, then, wants to escape from utopia.  It is this swerve away from shallow phenomenality that leads one to believe that Ellis is not a “postmodern” novelist–that is to say, one who has resigned himself to the omnipresence of empty images.  Far from it.  Indeed, as a novelist, Ellis traces the limits of postmodernism.  There is, Glamorama suggests, a space beyond postmodern culture–a culture in which image ceaselessly passes into image, in which signs have no order except for that constituted by their own formal arrangements.  Ellis beckons away from the image sphere toward the space-time of consumption.  In terms of the “society of the spectacle” (following Guy Debord, a philosopher to whom Ellis alludes at least once in Glamorama), reality exists only insofar as it is converted into an image.  Ellis’s Glamorama suggests that it is still possible to engage with “the real” outside of the sphere of simulation.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said of America: “This country is without hope.”  In a typically American fashion, Ellis refuses to resign himself to hopelessness.  He is a writer who relates to his own culture (a culture with which he also, to a certain extent, identifies) by ridiculing it mercilessly.

A satirist with a laser-sharp wit, Ellis opens up the imaginary possibility of liberating ourselves from the space in which each of us is imprisoned.  But Ellis is not a politician, only a writer.  He seems to have no program for radical social change, and that is refreshing.  Ellis relinquishes utopian alternatives to America’s utopianism.  He merely presents American culture through the distorted speculum of his own fun-house mirror.  By doing so, he ventures further than any of his contemporaries have dared.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

A Critique of BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell / A Negative Review of BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell

An Analysis of BLINK (Malcolm Gladwell) by Joseph Suglia

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (2005) is not a meticulously researched book.  Nearly all of its ‘research’ was derived from studies in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  In the book’s Notes (a mere seven pages in length), you will count fifteen references to that journal and a few references to other sources.

It seems appropriate that Gladwell’s research is so slipshod.  After all, Blink is like a war machine pitted against research in all forms.  There simply isn’t time to investigate and deliberate, after all. And the more you research, the less you will know.

The more you think, the less you will know.

Blink celebrates and affirms pre-knowledge, the uncritical reflex, the snap judgment, the spur-of-the-moment decision.

Our initial perception of things is always correct, according to Gladwell, unless our minds are led astray by some extraneous matter.  All of us would come to the same conclusions, as long as we were to refine our “thin-slicing” skills. “To thin-slice,” in this context, means to extract the salient meaning from an initial impression.  All of us are afforded an immediate and direct insight into the atemporal essences of things.

All of this is ‘argued’ anecdotally.  As I mentioned in the opening of the review, nearly all of the anecdotes were stolen from a single source.  And in many cases, misappropriated.  Gladwell tells us that students can instantly judge a teacher’s effectiveness as soon as s/he walks into the classroom.  What Gladwell doesn’t tell us is that the article from which he derived this ‘truth’ concerns the impact of a teacher’s perceived sex appeal on course evaluations.

How the ‘glimpse’ actually works is never explained; we are told, in several places, that instantaneous intuition “bubbles up” unbidden from the recesses of the “adaptive unconscious.”  “The” adaptive unconscious, mind you, as if there could only be one.  This is, of course, monism, and Gladwell believes in absolutes.

Of course, one’s initial impressions might yield profitable results.  But to say that one’s immediate intuition of the world is inherently superior to slow and careful thinking is madness.  One should beware of any form of mysticism, and Gladwell’s blank intuitionism could easily be put in the service of a fascistic Wille zur Macht.

Blink’s target audience is composed of Hollywood producers, literary agents, advertisers, and military strategists.  You will learn in this book that films that exhibit Tom Hanks are superior to those that do not, that margarine tastes better when packaged in foil, that music sounds better when marketed the right way to the right people, that military strikes should be carried out without discipline or forethought.  The surface impression is everything.  Submit to your impulses!

Blink is American pop-culture’s defense of its own stupidity.

Joseph Suglia

TELL-ALL by Chuck Palahniuk / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer / A Negative Review of TELL-ALL by Chuck Palahniuk

GO HERE to watch and listen to my YouTube videos on literature and philosophy: GO HERE!

A review of Tell-All (chuckpalahniuk) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

INTRODUCTION

chuckpalahniuk’s followers have grown older and are now turning against the one they once adulated as their master.  How could they not be insulted?  They have been treated with contempt by a writer who dumbs everything down for them.  They read more widely now and have come to recognize that the idealism that they once saw in their leader is false, and they despise him for his blatant opportunism.  This is a man who has no interest in knowledge or language, but who merely wants to make as much money as possible.  (chuckpalahniuk said: “I don’t care what they do with my book, as long as the f****** check clears.”)  They resent him for simplifying ideas that he has stolen from more sophisticated writers–and from his own fan base.  chuckpalahniuk writes under the heads of his sixteen-year-old target audience.  Sadly for him, those sixteen-year-old sheep are now twenty-four.  chuckpalahniuk is irrelevant, and the responses to his most recent work demonstrate this.

* * * * *

Those who write according to deadlines inevitably generate dead lines.  It should surprise no one, then, that chuckpalahniuk’s tired, labored contractual offering, Tell-All (2010), is a concatenation of lifeless sentences.  I’ve always felt–and clearly I’m in the minority these days–that words should bleed from the page, that one should write with one’s blood, as Nietzsche would say.  Well, Palahniuk’s pages don’t bleed; they suppurate.  A genuine writer composes electric prose, nothing but electric prose.  There is no electricity here, no artfulness.  But to claim that chuckpalahniuk writes artlessly would be to say too little.  Every sentence, every phrase, every word in this book is spoken by a voice from the grave.  Consumerist fiction is never vivacious.  You don’t believe that Palahniuk is a “literary” entrepreneur?  Here is his advice to a young poet: “Don’t expect to make any money off [poetry].”

The “plot,” such as it is, regurgitates All About Eve (1950), with Hazie Coogan reassuming the role of Eve and Katherine Kenton reincarnating Margo.  Every name is embossed in bold type, which makes the book as appealing to read as a telephone directory.  The weakest elements in Bret Easton Ellis’s fiction are his lists.  One needn’t know how to write in order to compile lists of indiscriminate items.  Here, the entire novel is a list–a list of proper nouns.  Reading this drivel is exactly like being jabbed incessantly in the ribs by an idiot savant who recites name after name in a narcotizing monotone, giggling after each jab.

The prose is irritatingly incompetent.  Should we forget that all German nouns are capitalized?  Are we supposed to think that “bile-ography” [32], “fossilidealized” [46], “laud mouthing” [58], and a “jury of sneers” [147] are clever neologisms?  Should we forget that hipster Dave Eggers popularized self-reflexivity (though he did not invent it–such a practice can be found in Ludwig Tieck and Shakespeare, to cite but two names) and that the use of it is no longer particularly “experimental”?  Should we ignore the fact that the phrase “name-dropping Tourette’s syndrome” is used no fewer than four times in this novel [on pages 3, 79, 129, and 177] and that such mindless repetitions are excessively fatiguing?

[After writing this review, I learned that the terms “bile-ography,” “to fossilidealize,” “to laud-mouth,” a “jury of sneers,” and “name-dropping Tourette’s syndrome” (not capitalized?) are not of chuckpalahniuk’s contrivance.]

chuckpalahniuk’s knowledge of his subject is as limited as his vocabulary.  “That vast wealth of 50’s [sic] film info comes from my editor, Gerry Howard,” chuckpalahniuk announced to Amazon.  Silliness abounds.  Are we to allow that Samuel Beckett was a “celebrity” [2] who attended opulent parties at Hollywood mansions?  Beckett recoiled from the entertainment industry as if it were a cancerous polyp (though he was not entirely indifferent to fame: See Stephen Dilks, Samuel Beckett in the Literary Marketplace).  Are we credulous enough to believe that folk singer Woody Guthrie composed music and lyrics for Broadway shows when he never did–and would have probably found the very idea of doing so repellent?  Should we be persuaded that the great French filmmaker Alain Resnais “saddled humanity” [109] (with what, precisely?), when he has given us so many strikingly beautiful, provocative, and groundbreaking works of art–something that chuckpalahniuk has never been able to do?  Though Resnais opened up a new way of seeing, most of humanity has ignored his oeuvre.  Muriel (1962), his masterpiece, is almost completely obscure.

chuckpalahniuk’s opera minora belong to a genre we might term “moron fiction,” fiction intended for readers who hate books.  One suspects that chuckpalahniuk hates books himself, given how little effort he invests in reading and creating them.  Tell-All is a nonliving entity, a throwaway, a trifle, a triviality, a little slice of nothing.

CONCLUSION

Being taught how to write fictionally by chuckpalahniuk is exactly like being taught how to play football by a one-legged man.

Joseph Suglia

GO HERE to watch and listen to my YouTube videos on literature and philosophy: GO HERE!

“Eveline” by James Joyce (from Dubliners): A Commentary / An Analysis of “Eveline” by James Joyce / DUBLINERS, “Eveline” by James Joyce

A commentary on “Eveline” (James Joyce)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

The opening of “Eveline” (1904-1907; published in 1914), from Dubliners, by James Joyce:

She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.

Notice that Eveline is not named at the beginning of the story.  Her name is given in the title, it is true, but not in the first sentence of the text.  She is a nameless, passive percipient, rather than an agent (an actor).  She does not act; she observes.  It is the evening that is performing an action; it is the evening that is acting.  The evening is invading—Eveline is already paralyzed, immobile, static at the very opening of the story, as she will be at the story’s close.

Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne.  She was tired.

Joyce does not write, “She leaned her head against the window curtains…”  He writes that her head was leaned.  The head is described as an object, as the object of an action.  The head was leaned—this means that Eveline was not leaning her own head; someone or something was leaning her head against the window curtains.  The use of the passive voice illuminates Eveline’s own passivity and immobility.

In her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne: The odour of the heavy fabric enveloping the furniture was invading Eveline’s nostrils.  Again, an image of invasion, of infiltration, of violation.  She was tired: This was Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite of all sentences, presumably because the simplicity of the language is a red herring, distracting the reader from the complexities of the text-web.

Few people passed.  The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.

The last house where?  Where is the cinder path?  Where are the new red houses?  It is difficult to locate any of these things.  Joyce is generally very good with space and with describing the placement of objects within spaces, but here, he leaves it to the reader to imagine where the last house is, where the cinder path is, and where the new red houses are.

One time there used to be a field there in which they used to play every evening with other people’s children.  Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses in it—not like their little brown houses but bright brick houses with shining roofs.  The children of the avenue used to play together in that field—the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple, she and her brothers and sisters.

Notice that Eveline places herself after the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, and little Keogh the cripple.  Eveline puts herself at the end of the line.  Already we have a sense that this girl has abysmal self-esteem.

Ernest, however, never played: he was too grown up.  Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick; but usually little Keogh used to keep nix and call out when he saw her father coming.

“In” and “out” are a strange coupling of prepositions. What does it mean to hunt children in out of the field?  Shouldn’t the independent clause read: Her father used often to hunt them out of the field?  Incidentally: “To keep nix” means “to be on the lookout.”

Still they seemed to have been rather happy then.  Her father was not so bad then; and besides, her mother was alive.  That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up her mother was dead.  Tizzie Dunn was dead, too, and the Waters had gone back to England.  Everything changes.  Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.

If Eveline’s father was not so bad then, just imagine how bad he is when the story takes place.

Home!  She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from.

Eveline identifies herself as a duster-of-inanimate-objects.

Perhaps she would never see again those familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided.

She does not distinguish herself from the static objects that surround her.  At the end of the story, when she has the opportunity to realize her human freedom and spontaneity, she imitates the inertia of inactive objects.

And yet during all those years she had never found out the name of the priest whose yellowing photograph hung on the wall above the broken harmonium beside the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque.

Beloved of Irish Catholics, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was a French Catholic nun who was the embodiment to pious devotion to tradition—much in the same way that Eveline is piously devoted to her family and her homeland.

He had been a school friend of her father.  Whenever he showed the photograph to a visitor her father used to pass it with a casual word:

“He is in Melbourne now.”

She had consented to go away, to leave her home.

The fact that she describes her decision to escape Dublin as one of consent implies that she does not see that decision as her own, but rather as one that has been made for her and one to which she has assented.

Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question.

Apparently, she assented reluctantly.  Her mind has not yet been made up.  The reader also is invited to weigh each side of the question: Should she leave?  Should she have left?  No answer is given.  A literary work of art, “Eveline” provokes questions that it never answers; it never gives readers the means of answering these questions.

In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her.  Of course she had to work hard, both in the house and at business.  What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow?  Say she was a fool, perhaps; and her place would be filled up by advertisement.  Miss Gavan would be glad.  She had always had an edge on her, especially whenever there were people listening.

“Miss Hill, don’t you see these ladies are waiting?”

“Look lively, Miss Hill, please.”

She would not cry many tears at leaving the Stores.

But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that.  Then she would be married—she, Eveline.  People would treat her with respect then.  She would not be treated as her mother had been.  Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence.  She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations.

At this point, one has to wonder why any person of sense would want to stay in the Hill household.  Her father is abusive; this much is clear.  She is treated derogatorily by her employer, Miss Gavan.  Her brother Ernest and her mother are dead.  She is suffering from violent paroxysms, tremors brought on by her father’s abuse.  What is there to keep her in Dublin?  And trying her luck in the open air of Buenos Ayres would afford her a new possibility.  Though not everything that is possible is positive, at least she would have the possibility of something positive being brought into her life.

[Frank] told [Eveline] the names of the ships he had been on and the names of the different services. He had sailed through the Straits of Magellan and he told her stories of the terrible Patagonians.

Now, the bit about the Patagonians makes me wonder if Frank is a liar.  A chronicler of Magellan’s expeditions wrote that the Patagonians were a race of giants.  Is Frank repeating the same myth of the “terrible Patagonians”?  If Frank is telling Eveline such nonsense, this should lead us to question the integrity of his intentions.

He had fallen on his feet in Buenos Ayres, he said, and had come over to the old country just for a holiday.  Of course, her father had found out the affair and had forbidden her to have anything to say to him.

“I know these sailor chaps,” he said.

Is the father necessarily incorrect?  As dour as Eveline’s life is in Dublin, is it not preferable to being seduced and abandoned in South America?  There is no way to know with authority whether or not Frank is a reptilian seducer.  He very well might be a boa constrictor in human form.  Not even Frank might know if he is a seducer, if we consider the unconscious sources of human cognition and activity.  Frank is inscrutable to us, and perhaps Frank is even inscrutable to himself.  The inscrutability of Frank summons forth the indeterminacy of life itself.

Sometimes [Eveline’s father] could be very nice.  Not long before, when [Eveline] had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire.  Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone for a picnic to the Hill of Howth.  She remembered her father putting on her mother’s bonnet to make the children laugh.

The atypical tenderness of the father only serves to underline his general abusiveness.

Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne.

The grammar changes here: Now, Eveline is playing a more active role: She was leaning her head, she was inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne.

Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing.  She knew the air.  Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could.  She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy.

The song of the Italian organ player conjures the most dominant figure in Eveline’s life.  Neither her father, her surviving brother Harry, nor Frank, her lover, but rather her dead-yet-deathless mother.  The mother is resurrected, invoked by the organ-player’s song, and reminds Eveline of the latter’s death-bed oath to glue together the unglueable pieces of their shattered family.  As if to hook and draw Eveline into the tomb.  To save her from life.

The organ-player had been ordered to go away and given sixpence. She remembered her father strutting back into the sickroom saying:

“Damned Italians! coming over here!”

The father’s hatred of itinerant foreigners stands in contrast to the Wanderlust of Frank, an émigré from Ireland who travels to the “good air” of Buenos Ayres.

As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being—that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.

Notice the use of the verb to close.  Three sentences before, Joyce used close as an adjective.  Here, he is using close as a verb.  This is paronomasia (punning).  An adjective in one sentence is used as a verb in another.  The fact that Joyce is using close twice in proximity means something: Close evokes the sepulchral narrowness of the life that Eveline will choose.

She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence:

“Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!”

This is, apparently, corrupt Gaelic for: “The end of pleasure is pain! The end of pleasure is pain!”  It is as if the mother were admonishing her daughter from beyond the grave to avoid pleasure—to live in a narrow life of nunnish self-renunciation, to stay mired in the misery in Dublin, to languish in Dublin, to duplicate the self-negations of her mother and the insanities of her mother’s dying.  These are irenic words, sibylline utterances.  They are necrotic commandments, words spoken from the tomb, words spoken from deathness.

She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror.  Escape!  She must escape!  Frank would save her.  He would give her life, perhaps love, too.  But she wanted to live.  Why should she be unhappy?  She had a right to happiness.  Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms.  He would save her.

And she would not, then, save herself?  This passage highlights, more than any other, why Eveline is immobilized.  Rather than will to escape, she wills not to have a will.  She wills to let someone else make the decisions for her.  Her absence of self-determination is the reason that she is likely condemned to the self-negating boredom and insanity that marked her mother’s life.

Through the wide doors of the sheds [Eveline] caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes.

Joyce, again, is very good at describing place—particularly, at describing blockages.  A less talented writer would have merely pointed to the existence of the boat.  A less talented writer would have merely described the boat.  Joyce describes the visual impediments, the obstructions that impede the view of the ocean liner.  The black mass of the boat is seen through the wide doors of the sheds—an image of blockage, of separation.  The sheds are emblematic of the self-imposed barriers that divide Eveline from freedom.

Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.

It is difficult to believe, but Joyce—one of the greatest literary artists who ever lived—makes a usage error in this passage.  Amid, which means “in the midst of,” should only be placed before singular nouns.  Seas is a plural noun and should take among.

[Eveline] set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.

Nothing has changed within Eveline since the opening of the story.  She is immobile from the beginning of the story unto its end.  The blankness of her eyes—their illegibility, their incomprehensible nothingness—can be interpreted to signify anything.  Readers may introject their own meanings into those null eyes.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of CONSIDER THE LOBSTER (David Foster Wallace) by Dr. Joseph Suglia / David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer

A review of BOTH FLESH AND NOT (David Foster Wallace)
By Dr. Joseph Suglia

Published four years after David Foster Wallace’s career-advancing suicide (a despicable suicide that was an assaultive act against his widow Karen Green), Both Flesh and Not (2012) reprints essays and squibs that were originally written for various newspapers, magazines, and journals; one of the texts appeared as the introduction to an anthology of essays, another was appended to a thesaurus.  Both online and print sources are represented.  Through the collection threads a list of words and definitions that Wallace kept on his desktop computer.

The vocabulary list troubles me more than anything else assembled in this volume.  Someone who professed to care very much about Standard Written American Usage, Wallace abuses many words himself.

Wallace thinks that “art nouveau” refers to a “decorative style of early 20th c. using leaves and flowers in flowing sinuous lines, like on vases, columns, etc.” [34].  This is innocence and nonsense.  Jugendstil was much different than that.  Beardsley didn’t always use “leaves” and “flowers”!

Wallace thinks that “birl” means to “cause to spin rapidly with feet (as with logrolling)” [35].  But “birl” also means, intransitively, to “whirl”; for instance, you may say that hot dogs or sausages birl on spits.

Yes, Wallace is right to think that “distemper” might denote “a kind of paint-job using watered paint” [165], but it can also mean “to throw out of order” or “bad mood” and could denote a viral disease that affects dogs and cats.

Wallace thinks that an “ecdysiast” is a “striptease artist” [165], but this has only been the case since Gypsy.  An “ecdysiast,” etymologically speaking, refers to something that molts or sheds its skin, such as certain birds, insects, and crustaceans.

Wallace doesn’t know that Grand Guignol was horror theatre before ever it was “cinema” [190].

Throughout, there are many such compositional errors.

Wallace had abysmal taste in literature.  It is good to see Steps on a list of “five direly underappreciated U.S. novels” since 1960, but it ought to be stated that this novel, which is attributed to Jerzy Kosinski, was collaboratively written.  Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West has interesting content—the sort of content that one might expect to discover in an early- or middle-period film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky—but its prose style is a mere pastiche of Faulkner.  I don’t know what to say about a person who thinks that Denis Johnson is a serious writer.

Both Flesh and Not is a disastrous humiliation.  Republishing these essays and squibs was not a good idea and besmirches the reputation of Wallace even more than D.T. Max’s horripilative biography does.  Though he had many virtues, the ability to form strong sentences was not one of them.  David Foster Wallace could not write a decent sentence to save his life.

Joseph Suglia

 

Aphorisms on Art

Aphorisms on Art

by Joseph Suglia

Art is not art the moment that it ceases to be a fabrication.  I support anything in art, on the basis that it is choreographed / fabricated.  The moment that a human being wounds, mutilates, kills an animal, the boundary that separates art from life has been crossed.  The moment that an artist kills an animal in the name of art, she or he has ceased being an artist in my eyes.

Art is a way of making life seem more interesting than it actually is.

Art transforms the spectator’s relation to the world, to others, and to oneself.  It is a human activity, not a natural or divine activity.

I have become an aesthetic nihilist: The word “art” is applied to whatever a person or a community believes is art.  I can only speak or write with authority on what I think art is.

Art is the perception of a perception.

Joseph Suglia

 

A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion / An Analysis of A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion

An Analysis of A Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Dedicated to Lux Interior (1948-2009)

What is one to say when the beloved dies?  There is nothing to say.  None of the platitudes of bereavement, none of the polite formulae seems adequate.  My husband was sitting on that chair, alive, and now he is dead.  “John was talking, then he wasn’t” (10).  What else is there to say?  There are no words that could properly express the banality of mortality.

A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is Joan Didion’s attempt to craft a language that would make meaningful the death of her husband, John Greg Dunne.  It is a language that, at times, seems almost glaciated.  After all, she doesn’t offer any of the customary symptoms of bereavement (simulated tears, screaming, protests of denial, etc.).  The social worker who ministers to Didion says of the author: “She’s a pretty cool customer” (15).

Didion: “I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” (16).

Superficial readers, predictably, mistake her seeming sangfroid for indifference.  Yet Didion is hardly apathetic.  She takes words too seriously to lapse into maudlin kitsch.  If she refuses sentimentalism, it is because she knows that the language of sentimentalism isn’t precise enough.  If she refuses to be emotionally effusive, it is because she knows how easily an access of emotion–however genuine–can deteriorate into cliché.  If she avoids hysteria, it is because she knows that abreaction is incommunicative.  Her sentences are blissfully free of fossilized phrases, vapid slogans that could never do justice to the workings of grief.

Of course, the opposite reaction would bring about censure, as well.  Had Didion expressed her grief in histrionic terms, American readers would have asked, rhetorically, “Why can’t she just get over it.”  (I deliberately omitted the question mark.)  The appropriate response to the death of the beloved is temperate mourning and cool-headedness: “Grieve for a month and then forget about the man with whom you spent nearly forty years of your life!  Don’t talk about it anymore after that fixed period; we don’t want to hear about it.”

Philippe Aries in Western Attitudes Toward Death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.”

In place of a tragedy, Didion gives us a sober account of bereavement.  What is it like to be bereaved?  You will never know until it happens to you.  Didion discovers vortices everywhere–centers of gravitation that pull her toward the abyss left by her husband’s death.  A new Alcestis, willing to die in the place of her husband, she calls forth his presence, and yet each of these pleas for his presence reinforces the perpetual silence that separates her from him.  Self-pity, of course, is inescapable.  She becomes “she-whose-husband-has-died.”  She defines herself in relation to the absent beloved.  When John was alive, she was a younger woman, since she saw herself exclusively through her husband’s eyes.  Now that John is dead, she sees herself, for the first time since she was very young, through the eyes of others.  Now that John is dead, she no longer knows who she is.

Every one of us is irreplaceable, which is why death is an irretrievable, irreversible, irrecoverable, infinite loss.  When the beloved dies, an impassible divide is placed between the survivor and the absent beloved.  Didion hears her husband’s voice, and yet this voice is really her own voice resonating within her–a voice that nonetheless makes her own voice possible.  Nothing remains for the survivor to do but to turn the dead beloved into dead meat, to substitute for his living presence a tangible object (whether it is a photograph or any form of funerary architecture), to resign oneself to the dead beloved’s non-being.  She must accept the transformation of being into nothingness, the movement from everything to nothing, the withering of fullness into boundless emptiness.  Writing is one way to fashion an image of the dead man and thus bring to completion the work of mourning.  The failure of objectification, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, will lead to melancholia, the infinitization of the Trauerarbeit.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name in the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water (226).

This is minimalism, of course, but Joan Didion’s minimalism is minimalism in the genuine sense of the word, not the kind of infantilism that most other American writers practice today and which goes by the name of “minimalism.”  They confuse scaled-down writing with simplicity; they externalize everything.  They write their intentions explicitly on the surface of the page.  Didion, on the other hand, attends to the cadences and pregnant silences inherent to the rhythms of speech.  She is attuned to the interstices that punctuate articulated speech, that articulate speech, that make speech communicable.  What is unsaid is weightier, for Didion, than what is said.  She does not express matters directly; she indicates, she points.  There is a kind of veering-away from naked being here, a swerving-away from the nullity of death.  Joan Didion is far too dignified, far too noble to pretend to bring death to language.

Joseph Suglia

Dennis Cooper and the Demystification of Love

Dennis Cooper and the Demystification of Love

by Joseph Suglia

The definitive psychopathology of love has yet to be written.  Perhaps it never will be.  Love has been praised as a virtue, as the affirmative emotion par excellence at least since Petrarch; indeed, it is quite possibly, along with the concept of freedom, the most dominant ideal in Western culture.  (Is it even logical to make of an emotion an “ideal”?).  Nonetheless, we have yet to understand (or at least to conceptualize) all of the valences that comprise this strange emotion.  It could be argued that love throws us into our more profound dimensions, that love, far from being merely the affirmation of the in-amorata, impinges upon much darker affects.  When Christianity orders us to “love one another,” “love” seems to be conceived as a form of harmonization.  But doesn’t love also call forth division, antagonism—even violence?

Dennis Cooper’s fiction offers a discomforting interpretation of the phenomenon of love (particularly, erotic love and filial love).  Let us say a “punk” interpretation, precisely in the sense that he gives to this word in his breakthrough collection of short stories, Closer (1989): “Punk orders us to demystify everything in the world or we’ll be doomed to a future so decadent, [sic] atomic bombs will seem just one more aftershave lotion and so on.”  Dispensing with all literary artifice, his savage fiction desublimates one of the West’s most influential values.  There is in his work a demythologization of love, a kind of “punk” reductionism of an affect that is relentlessly praised in most arenas of Western culture.  “Love” is portrayed, rather, as a form of submission and of domination, of cruelty and of brutality.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Cooper’s most challenging work of fiction, Frisk (1991).  The crux of the narrative is as follows: As a young boy, the book’s protagonist, Dennis rifled through hardcore pornographic magazines at Gypsy Pete’s, a storefront run by an aged, unshaven alcoholic.  Gypsy Pete introduces Dennis to even more subterranean publications, some of which contain what appear to be images of necrophilic sex.  From this moment on, Dennis links desire with destruction, love with assassination; sexuality appears intimately bound to murder.  As he grows older, Dennis finds himself attracted to the same type of boy that he saw in the magazine, with the same hairstyle, the same bedazzled expression in his eyes, the same “look.”  He careens from one impersonal tryst to another, seemingly in order to master his original experience.  He “loves” his conquests “according to [his] loose, personal definition of the word”—which seems to be, to quote Dennis’ counterpart, Julian, “what you feel for someone you don’t know very well, if at all”:

‘Christ,’ Julian groaned.  ‘Are you one of those guys who think love’s … whatever, sacred?’  Henry shook his head.  ‘Good, because as far as I’m concerned, love’s what you feel for someone you don’t know very well, if at all.  Maybe I was ‘in love’ with your body when you were over there studying Jennifer and me.  Now I’m just, uh … hungry, you could call it.  You being my… meal …’

No, love is not “sacred”; one may say that it is, rather, a mode of desecration.  A form of cannibalism, if you will.

The narrative takes an even darker turn when an older version of Dennis teams up with two Germans.  They move from one scene of human destruction to the next, murdering young boys and having sex with their dead bodies.  In one especially disgusting scene, the narrator inserts **************** into the mouth of a corpse.

What is particularly striking is the way in which these necrophilic encounters mirror all other forms of sexual relation.  Desire for the beloved, in this body of work, is indistinguishable from the desire to kill that person.  Take the following scene as an example.  While traveling on a train through Holland, Dennis stares at a young Dutch boy lying across from him and fantasizes about the things that he would like to do to the latter’s body: “I’ve filled the Dutch boy’s lips with the words, ‘Kill me, Dennis.’”  Whether or not one should kill the person one desires or loves is never a question in Cooper’s fiction: Indeed, the ultimate, poisonous destination of all love is here the slaughter of the one whom one loves.  The novel (if it is one) suggests that love brings us to such extremes.  His main character precipitates down the descending scale of desire until he reaches the end point, which is death.

It is not merely the case, however, that the lover is violent.  What most readers find troubling about Cooper’s books is their suggestion that the victims are complicit in their own destruction, that they willingly lower themselves to the status of dead meat in order to complete the desires of their tormentors.  Such is indeed the intense fascination that exists at the heart of all of Cooper’s work: a fascination with young boys who allow themselves to be exploited and violated—sometimes even killed—in order to recognize the desires of their tormentors as belonging to the sphere of love.  A fascination with young boys who permit themselves to be, to use an over-used word, objectified.  Objectification (the reduction of a human being to the level of an object), Cooper seems to suggest, is essential to the erotic process.

Let me refer to another representative text to make my point clearer.  Ziggy, the dazed protagonist of Cooper’s most formally sophisticated work, Try (1994), is sexually manipulated by both of his male parents to the point at which he can no longer distinguish love from erotic exploitation.  While his stepfather obsessively roots around ************* as if he were a hound in rut, Ziggy, stoned and stupid to all sensation, submits to his protector’s will, as if the invasion of his body were the parental prerogative, as if the impossible completion of the love process were an act of *************** performed by the man responsible for the cultivation of his person.  A transformation, again, of consciousness into object.  A sexuality that ends in the “death”—the making-object—of the loved one.

It would perhaps not be superfluous to pause over the philosophic import of relationship of sexuality to death.

The end of all desire, it may be said, again, is destruction.  Why else would thoughts of suicide and even murder be seldom absent from the mind of a lover?  The Oscar Wilde cliché “All men kill the thing they love” is a propos to this context.  What drives us crazy is that in the object of desire which is free from our desire, that part of the other human being which escapes us infinitely; the absolute self-sufficiency of the other person brings us into a frenzy.  No one can control, absolutely, what the other person thinks, says or does; s/he can always respond negatively to any possible affirmation on our part, or vice versa.  Insofar as s/he is infinitely and absolutely free, the other person forces us to experience the limits of our own presumptions.  This inevitably converts the desire that we have for the other person into the desire for his/her destruction—that is to say, the desire to reduce that person to ourselves, to nullify that person’s “otherness,” the desire to turn that person into nothing.

It is perhaps the case that what is called “love,” the most intense form that desire may take, draws out the deeper dimensions of human selfhood.  It exposes, perhaps, our most profound valences; it makes apparent our drive toward aggression, our desire for domination, our wish (whether conscious or unconscious) for the annihilation of the beloved.

Baudelaire wrote in his journal: “Even though a pair of lovers may be deeply devoted, full of mutual desires, one of them will always be calmer, or less obsessed, than the other. He or she must be the surgeon or torturer; the other the patient or victim.”  That is, in love, one partner is absolutely passive; the other is absolutely aggressive.  This same zero-sum relation is apparent everywhere in Dennis Cooper’s fiction.  The rapists and murderers that populate his work are needed by their younger victims; these same victims are needed by their older predators.  The interdependence of victim and victimizer is what is most uncomfortable in this reading experience–a relationship which is not reducible to the psychological categories of perversion or depravity; its all-pervading status incites one to believe that it is, in fact, absolutely normalized.  Cooper’s world is one in which the pebble is substituted for the clod (to refer to Blake), a world in which the consciousness of the beloved is reduced to mute matter.  Love, then, is not equated with affection in this oeuvre.  The perfect expression of love, in this body of work, is the ***********.

One could, of course, dismiss such an equation as the agitprop of a “transgressive” novelist.  Soberer minds will recognize that the same thought is pronounced throughout the history of classical literature–most precisely, perhaps, in the later verse of William Butler Yeats: “Love has pitched his mansion/In the place of excrement.”

Unfortunately, I must add that Dennis Cooper has a thudding, awkward prose style.  I find his writing nearly unreadable and sloughing my way through his novels was a burden and a chore.

Joseph Suglia

 

Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen / Werner Herzog

Theses on AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN (1969), a film directed by Werner Herzog

1.) No film is more subversive, more revolutionary.

2.) A film that goes wild, a world without a head.  Midgets run amuck, perform an insurrection, razing buildings and trees to the ground.  A Lilliputian assault: The dwarves take revenge on the tall people who once dominated them.

3.) Not so much a film about violence as a cinematic act of violence against society.

4.) A paedophobic nightmare: The children of the world revolt against the world of adults.

5.) Reason’s nightmare.  Typewriters are smashed, telephone lines ripped down, flowers set ablaze.  The revolt of the dwarfs is a symbolic one: Everything that is pure, everything that is sacred, everything that is dignified is brought down into the mud.  Absolute de-rationalization, de-intellectualization, de-idealization.  A camel–a symbol of piety, nobility, and grace–is repeatedly forced to kneel.  A dwarf’s psychotic laughter fills our ears.  The revolt against reason.  Social anarchy.  The smashing of plates, the throwing of food.  The end of all propriety.  The absence of limits.

6.) The viewer loses all sense of perspective, proportionality, and distance.  Spectators are forced to identify with the dwarfs.  It is the world that has lost its balance; the dwarfs are normal.

7.) And yet the dwarfs are nonetheless grotesque.  The dwarfs who massacre the pig are completely unsympathetic.  Unsympathetic, and yet we are forced to identify with them.  A reconceptualization of what it means to be human.

8.) A corruption of the sacred, a besmirching of all that is holy.  Ridiculing all that is pious.  The inversion of all relations.  The crucifixion of a monkey.  One chicken cannibalizes another.  A dead sow is fed upon by her piglets.

9.) Meaninglessness, absolute infantilism, irrationality, chaos.  But like the student rioters of May 1968, are the dwarfs searching for a new master?  One must take into account where the revolt takes place: an educational institution that resembles a penal colony.  Public institutions demand their own infringement, their own violation.

10.) A remake of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).  We lock away the freaks, rejects, mutants of the world; they are the strangers, the foreigners, “the Others.”  But in this film, we the spectators have no sense of what we would usually consider “the norm.”  Are we not like the dwarves?  Only a few steps away from being freaks ourselves.  “We will make her one of us, one of us, one of us…”  The nightmare of the normal people.

11.) In a profound sense, the film is anti-humanist; the human animal appears as absolutely grotesque.  The viewer loses his bearings: “Am I large? Are they truly small?”  The world moves out of whack.

12.) The subversion of logos, narrative, language.

13.) Midget sexuality.  The dwarfs lust after tall women.

14.) A real live homunculus gangbang, smashing a century of Hollywood cinema to pieces.

Joseph Suglia

STRANGER THAN FICTION by Chuck Palahniuk / Negative Review / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

 

A Review of STRANGER THAN FICTION (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Is one permitted to write a less-than-obsequious review of a chuckpalahniukbook?  Because chuckpalahniukbooks make so much money, to say something unflattering about them is seen as a sin against consumerism and capitalism, an offence as grave as blasphemy.  We must conform, it is suggested, and worship chuckpalahniuk as a god.

If chuckpalahniukbooks have gained a huge audience among unintelligent teenagers, that is precisely because chuckpalahniuk writes on the level of an unintelligent teenager.

Nonetheless, his book of “essays,” the tritely titled Stranger Than Fiction, risks alienating his Hitler-Jugend-sized fan base.

The clichés begin with the title and get worse from there.  Stranger Than Fiction is essentially a haphazard collection of hastily written notes.  Some of them concern chuckpalahniuk’s fame and the good things about it.  Others concern celebrities chuckpalahniuk knows personally and who know him (it?).

chuckpalahniuk celebrates himself (itself?) with all of the enthusiasm of an out-of-work D-list actor.  He tells us that he “SO writes” in order to meet people who look like Uma Thurman and J.F.K., Jr.: “This is SO why I write.”  How noble!  Unfortunately or fortunately, Uma Thurman, who would not consider herself a writer, is infinitely more eloquent and thoughtful than the writer chuckpalahniuk.

There are “essays” on Marilyn Manson and Juliette Lewis that contain nothing but quotations from Marilyn Manson and Juliette Lewis.

In the “essay” “Brinksmanship,” chuckpalahniuk laughs at his readers, telling them that what he is writing is “rushed and desperate.”  But, he also seems to say, “You’ll read it anyway. After all, I’m a big name now.”  In other words, the writer spits out garbage on the page, and we have to spend our valuable time reading his drivel, while he laughs and laughs and laughs…

There is an entire “essay” on Brad Pitt and his super-gorgeous lips.  Oh, no, don’t be fooled, Gentle Reader!  chuckpalahniuk assures us that this isn’t mere tabloid celebrity gossip.  No.  Don’t be deceived!  As chuckpalahniuk remarks, “This wasn’t really about Brad Pitt. It’s about everybody.”  Really?  You don’t say!

When chuckpalahniuk makes cursory references to serious writers (i.e. those who are not merely celebrities), such as Heidegger, Venturi, or Derrida, it seems unlikely that he spent more than fifteen minutes reading them.

The prose is not simple; it is simplistic.  Minimalism is a powerful literary device, but this is not minimalism.  It is infantilism.  Minimalism only seems simple; there is profundity in its pregnant cadences and silences.  There is no depth beneath this book’s middle-school-level prose.

I am not exaggerating when I say that chuckpalahniuk writes like a subnormal, unintelligent teenager.  Here is what he writes in his correspondence with Ira Levin (whose Rosemary’s Baby he pilfered in Diary): “That’s very, very creepy, Mr. Levin!”

chuckpalahniuk seems to believe that his life is interesting and that we will find his life interesting, as well.  A writer’s life, however, is not a source of significance.  Language and the imagination are the sole springs of literary value.

Witheringly boring, agonizingly self-glamorizing, and virtually unreadable – unless you are Mick, Chick, or Chimp, of course.

Joseph Suglia

 

THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare / THE TEMPEST Shakespeare / THE TEMPEST analysis / THE TEMPEST analysis Shakespeare / Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST analysis / THE TEMPEST commentary / Shakespeare commentary THE TEMPEST / THE TEMPEST interpretation Shakespeare / An Interpretation of Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST / THE TEMPEST Shakespeare interpretation

THE TEMPEST (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

George Bernard Shaw inked the following (in 1913, “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”):

“Reflective people are not more interested in the Chamber of Horrors than in their own homes, nor in murderers, victims, and villains than in themselves; and the moment a man has acquired sufficient reflective power to cease gaping at waxworks, he is on his way to losing interest in Othello, Desdemona, and Iago exactly to the extent to which they become interesting to the police.”

George Bernard Shaw is making the excellent point that Shakespeare’s plays keep the spectator in the jury box.  I endorse this thesis 100%.  Shakespeare never inflicts guilt on the spectator.  I feel guilty, at times, while reading Strindberg.  I sometimes feel guilty while reading Ibsen.  There are passages in Shaw that fill me with guilt.  There are guilt-inflicting and -afflicting scenes in the films of Ingmar Bergman.  But Shakespeare?  Shakespeare is incapable of infusing anyone with guilt.  There are enchantments, entertainments, and enticements in Shakespeare, but there is never a guilt-inspiring moment.  Guilty characters (think of Alonso in The Tempest or of Lady Macbeth).  But no guilty spectators, ever.  At least, the probability of a guilty spectator seems an improbability to me.

* * * * *

The plot of The Tempest, such as it is, should already be familiar to most.  It is centered on Prospero, thaumaturge and erstwhile Duke of Milan, who is marooned on an island–more than likely, one of the Bermudas, which were explored by the English in the early seventeenth century, the time of the play’s composition.  A shipwreck brings phantoms from Prospero’s past, the promise of revenge and reinstatement to Prospero, the promise of freedom to Prospero’s slaves, Ariel and Caliban, and the promise of marriage to his daughter Miranda.  Revenge comes swiftly and easily, Prospero’s dukedom is restored, freedom is won, and marriage is inevitable.  Since all of the protagonist’s desires are fulfilled, The Tempest is a comedy in the Shakespearean sense.  There is very little struggle and thus very little worry over the outcomes.  I will return to this point below.

It might be useful to survey some of the dramatis personae.

Caliban is a cheetah-speckled fish-beast and the Earth-Spirit of the play.  His name is anagrammatical of “can(n)ibal.”  Shakespeare read of South Seas cannibals in Montaigne, and the English of the early seventeenth century did believe that the South Seas islanders were cannibals, devils, evil spirits, fantastic creatures.  Caliban is the whelp of the North African witch Sycorax; his god is Setebos.  “Setebos” is the name given to a Patagonian “devil” by one of Magellan’s companions.  One can see that this is indeed a text that reflects the age of the European seafaring expeditions, the Age of Exploration.

Caliban is not merely uneducated–he is not educable, not civilizable, not humanizable.  His naturalness, his earthiness, his childish stupidity are what make him dangerous.  It does seem that he is the one character who escapes, if only for a moment, Prospero’s power; thus, Prospero’s power is not absolute.  The ex-Duke is so unsettled by the breach in his power that he takes a walk to clear his head.  Then again, Prospero’s dazedness is nothing more than an interlude of impotence, an interruption of senescence or senility.  As Miranda says of her father: “Never till this day / Saw I him touch’d with anger so distemper’d” [IV:i].

No one has ever seemed to notice before that Caliban’s desires mirror Prospero’s own desires.  Caliban expresses his desire to burn Prospero’s books [III:ii]; Prospero drowns his own books (or “book”) toward the close of the play.  Caliban expresses the desire to violate Miranda.  Does Prospero have the same desire?  Am I alone in believing that Prospero has incestuous feelings for his own daughter?  Here is what the magus says about Miranda:

“…I visit / Young Ferdinand, whom [his fellows] suppose is drown’d, / And his and mine lov’d darling” [III:iii].

In the lines quoted above, Prospero does not separate his fatherly feelings from Ferdinand’s erotic feelings for Miranda.

Ariel is the air sprite who does nothing without Prospero’s directive, but it also might be said that Prospero does nothing without Ariel’s assistance.  Ariel’s name means “The Lion of God” in Hebrew.  Despite what Harold Bloom says, the etymology is neither accidental nor irrelevant to the pith of the play.  Ariel releases a leonine roar in the second act and is the serf of Prospero, who is indeed the deific figure of the island.  Ariel is endlessly promised a freedom that seems to be forever denied to him.

Miranda means “She Who is Admired.”  Before she meets Ferdinand, her soon-to-be-husband, the only man she knows is Prospero, unless we consider Caliban to be a “man” (he is, again, a hybrid of man and fish, a fish-man or a man-fish.  As Trinculo says, Caliban is “[l]egg’d like a man, and his fins [are] like arms” [II:ii]).  Prospero is more than mother and father to Miranda–he is the very model of manhood.  And of womanhood.

Miranda is a gift–perhaps a potlatch–from the former Milanese duke to the presumptive King of Naples, Ferdinand.  It is the gift of his daughter that will lead to the restoration of Prospero’s lost dukedom.  Marriage is always a political transaction, in Shakespeare:

[T]hou shalt find she will outstrip all praise,
And make it halt behind her…
[A]s my gift, and thine own acquisition
Worthily purchas’d, take my daughter [IV:i].

Note the nastiness that Prospero showers on his daughter in absentia, discussing her as if she were a horse.

Ferdinand is a big beefy beefhead.  He is a Joe Rogan type.  In fact, Joe Rogan was most likely born to play the role of Ferdinand.  This is how he describes himself (to his fiancee):

“[F]or your sake / Am I this patient log-man” [III:i].

He Log Man lift logs good.

* * * * *

The play was first performed for the amusement and bemusement of James I in November 1611.  This explains why usurpation is one of the play’s leitmotifs and why it contains a wedding masque in the style of Ben Jonson.  The presence of the wedding masque is not accidental: The Tempest is itself a masque and has nothing in its pretty little head other than the desire to beguile, to enchant, to entertain, and to reassure the King, his minions, and the groundlings of the Globe that the King shall always prevail.  The usurping of Prospero’s power by Antonio is the antimasque; the fifth act represents the restoration of the Duke’s (and the King’s) power.  In Ulysses, usurpation takes on a world-historical AND a personal significance–here, it is nothing more than a regal anxiety to be pacified.

There is beautiful poetry to be found in the play, but also some very lenient and lazy writing.  Take, for instance, the following.  Gonzalo, the court lawyer, intones at the close of the first scene of the first act:

“Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground–long heath, brown furze, any thing. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death.”

Well, that is a wasted bit of dialogue, isn’t it?  Who wouldn’t want to die on dry ground rather than in a shipwreck, as the ship one is in is wrecking?

And here is one of Ariel’s excruciatingly stupid songs:

Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go,’
And breathe twice, and cry ‘so, so,’
Each one, tripping on his toe
Will be here with mop and mow.
Do you love me, master? No? [IV:i].

I could quote more senile singsong, but my tolerance is limited.  There are those who could read such lines and still consider all of Shakespeare, the paper Shakespeare, to be perfect.  I am not one of them.

There is too much tawdry bawdry in the play, too much of what we would call today “comic relief.”  With the exception of a botched assassination attempt, the entire second act is wasted on laughless comedy.  The comedy is the poetic nadir of the play.  It is not that the raillery is dated, nor that it has long since been drained of any humor it might have had.  The problem is that it is fluff, filler–empty pages and too much empty time, time wasted idly and emptily on the stage.

* * * * *

Why, exactly, should we believe that Prospero ought to be reinstated as the Milanese duke?  Prospero was disgracefully inept as a duke.  He explains to Miranda how his brother, Antonio, usurped control of the Milanese dukedom:

The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies…

I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retir’d,
O’er-priz’d all popular rate, in my false brother
Awak’d an evil nature… [I:ii].

The neglectful and inadvertent duke, absorbed in the dark arts, loses his material power. We won’t have to wait very long before he wins it back again. Despite all of his flaws, and of these there are many, Prospero emerges as “The Favored One,” as his name implies.  He does this so effortlessly and smoothly that there is no space to wonder about the outcome.  Prospero wins, without even trying to win, a game that is rigged in advance, and this (as I stated earlier) is what makes The Tempest a Shakespearean “comedy.”

A Shakespearean comedy is not a play that makes us laugh, but a play in which the (sometimes unlikable) main character is easily victorious and the principals are married off, even if they don’t want to be married off.

All Shakespearean comedies project utopias.  They are not frictionless utopias, to be fair.  There are discordances in every one of Shakespeare’s utopias.  Antonio, the usurping brother, and Caliban, the rebel slave, provide the discordances in The Tempest.  And yet these disharmonies, these frictions, only exist in order to make the triumph of favored Prospero all the sweeter.  The Duke is deposed, then reinstated.  The Duke is dethroned, long live the Duke!

Some commentators have mused: Why are Prospero’s adversaries so threatened by the thaumaturge after he abjures his art?  Why don’t they rise up and slit his throat (which Caliban intended to do earlier)?  That they do not do this is nonplussing.  On the contrary, they stand in fear of the demystified mage.  Even after the abjurement of his magic, Sebastian says that the “devil speaks” in Prospero and Caliban worries that his master will “chastise” him [V:i].

It is difficult to say why Prospero’s enemies are meekened and weakened at the close of the play.  Perhaps, as Harold Bloom proposed, the magus does not need any of the external signs of magic.  Perhaps he has interiorized all of his powers.  He can break his staff, drown his book, and shed his mantle, for his power now comes from within.  Or is it merely the case that Prospero’s enemies–Sebastian, Antonio, Caliban, Stefano, Trinculo–are unaware that the magus has abjured his art?

While reading the play, there will be pleasantly unpleasant thought that more mischievous readers will not be able to suppress: They will wish that Caliban would rise up and devour all of the inhabitants of the isle.  This is more or less what happens in Peter Brook’s dramatization.  But no, instead, Prospero wins and forgives every one of his adversaries in the proto-Nietzschean affirmation of his power.

Indeed, forgiveness is the final phase of Prospero’s revenge plot.  Prospero calls his perfidious brother “wicked” and “unnatural” in the very sentences through which he forgives him:

“I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art” [V:i].

The “rarer action” [Ibid.] is to forgive rather than to avenge.  But my question is thus: Can forgiveness not be a form of vengeance?

* * * * *

In the Epilogue, the actor who plays Prospero steps onto the stage one last time to beg for applause: “[R]elease me from my bands / With the help of your good hands.”  He asks for the spectator’s “indulgence.”  He says that his project was to “please.”  Only applause can free the actor from the isle of mirages over which the mage presides.

Here we have a pitiful plea for approbation from an attention-hungry actor-dramatist.  It is a Pathetic Appeal in two senses of the term: On the one hand, it is the attempt to stimulate the pity of the spectators and to provoke within them the pity-driven need to clap.  On the other hand, it is an appeal that is, well, pathetic, in the colloquial-American sense of the word.  But then, the Actor himself is yet another mask.  One mask conceals another mask conceals another mask conceals another mask, and so forth ad infinitum.

Here we have the Shakespearean conceit that life is theatre and theatre, life.  The island is an island of illusions where no man is his own [V:i].  The characters on the stage, of course, are nothing more than dramatic illusions–and are themselves illusioned.  We–the audience, the spectators, we human beings–we ourselves are illusions, according to Shakespeare: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” [IV:i].  Each character is seduced by simulations or seduces by simulation: The shipwreck is described as a “spectacle”; Ariel assumes the shape of a water-nymph and then a harpy; Prospero camouflages himself throughout the play in various disguises; Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano are seduced by garments hanging from the bough of a tree, etc., etc.

To please the audience, to appease the audience, to entertain the audience is also Shakespeare’s only goal in The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s most overestimated plays.  I should here make the point that Shakespeare was, in the non-problematic comedies, a panderer, a jongleur of the court.  His non-problematic comedies always pander.  They seek to assuage their audiences’ fears.  They never provoke their audiences.  To return to my opening point: No one has ever been made to feel guilty by a Shakespeare play.

At the end of the day, The Tempest does bear one redeeming facet: The play sparked some of the most exciting works of literature of the twentieth century.  The hallucinatory wonderlands of J.G. Ballard, for instance (by way of Joseph Conrad) would have been unthinkable without the tempestuous bluster of The Tempest, a play that never shakes the pear tree of the audience’s expectations.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

ROBERTE CE SOIR and THE REVOCATION OF THE EDICT OF NANTES by Pierre Klossowski

 

An Analysis of ROBERTE CE SOIR and THE REVOCATION OF THE EDICT OF NANTES (Pierre Klossowski) by Joseph Suglia

Roberte ce soir and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: two religious-erotic/erotic-religious novels from one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Pierre Klossowski.

Roberte ce soir: Who is Roberte?  To her nephew, Antoine, she is an austere and prepossessing older sister.  To her husband, Octave, she is an infuriatingly beguiling hostess.  To any guest who traverses the threshold of their home, she is an open receptacle for virility–strangely inaccessible and accessible at once.  But Roberte is nothing, strictly speaking, in herself: She is a ceaselessly multiplying play of masks.  Her self-multiplications enlarge infinitely.  Purely mutative, purely transformative—who is she, really, in herself, if not a series of duplicates?  To every man she encounters, she is the replica of his desires.

Her sin, according to Octave (and the narrative!), is to have separated the spirit from the body.  She is both atheist (exclusive of the spirit) and a censor (exclusive of physicality).  Quite appropriately, the prose is, at times, erotically informed (emblematical of the body); at others, theologically informed (emblematical of the spirit).

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: In this second novel, Roberte speaks in her own language.  We see her free from the one-sided interpretations that men have imposed upon her.  No, she never separates the word from the flesh.  She is word and flesh at once; like Klossowski’s God, she is eminently communicable, absolutely self-transformative, the hypostatical union of three-in-one.  And she never denied God, only the idol that men have made of God (God as an immutable and incommunicable substance).

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes revokes every hypothesis that might be imposed on Roberte, Klossowski’s muse and God.  Like a tableau vivant (a living painting, a human sculpture), she dangles silently in space.

In both of these absolutely remarkable books, theological digressions and eroticism dovetail into a seamless flow of language.  Together, they form a metaphysics of the flesh.

Klossowski, my neighbor.

Joseph Suglia

 

Aphorisms on Racism, Cultural Studies, and Kim Jong-un

APHORISMS ON RACISM, CULTURAL STUDIES, AND KIM JONG-UN

by Joseph Suglia

Race is nothing more than an abstraction; only individuals actually exist.

Cultural Studies explains philosophy through the speculum of trash culture.  This is very appealing to people who are bored by philosophy and who are attracted to trash culture.

Kim Jong-un might be able to read minds.  But can he read books?

Joseph Suglia