A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN by David Foster Wallace / David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer

An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts.  His métier was, perhaps, mathematics.  David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).

Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed.  I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997).  Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can.  He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38).  Perish the thought!

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television.  Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television.  Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words.  “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase.  Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television.  David Foster Wallace was wrong.  No, writers should NOT trust television.  No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see.  The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste.  That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s.  Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65).  He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time.  They did not, of course.  One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification.  To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television.  But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist.  Let me enlarge an earlier statement.  Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer.  It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32).  Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it.  Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them.  We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.).  Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  That is your false dilemma.  If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY.  Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection.  There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism.  There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance.  The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990).  Did Wallace never see this film?  How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart?  Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence.  No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political.  How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness?  How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets?  And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are.  Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book.  It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.

Joseph Suglia

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An Analysis of THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy / My analysis was cited in the Pennsylvania State University Press journal STYLE

My analysis was cited in Marco Caracciolo’s article “Narrative Space and Readers’ Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account,” Style. Vol. 47, No. 4, Narrative, Social Neuroscience, Plus Essays on Hecht’s Poetry, Hardy’s Fiction, and Kathy Acker (Winter 2013), pp. 425-444. Print.

An Analysis of THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) by Joseph Suglia

“When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it…”

—Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) is something of an undergraduate exercise.  It is a Faulknerian pastiche and, above all, hedonistic.  Hedonism, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of art.  Whereas Blood Meridian is verbally expansive, the language of McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is strictly delimited.

We follow a nameless father and son as they wander through a post-American void, a “blastosphere,” to use J.G. Ballard’s term.  (Blastosphere = Not the blastula, but the “implicit shape of the way matter is perturbed by an explosion” (Will Self)).  They scavenge for food and tools.  They encounter those who seemingly show their seamiest impulses and who behave in an unseemly manner.

And yet I suspect that this is less a novel about a post-apocalyptic future than it is one about our atheological present.  It is a theological allegory about a world from which the gods are manifestly absent.  Eine gottesverlassene und gottesvergessene Welt.

We find grounds for this supposition in those passages in which the grey waste is described as “godless” [4] and “coldly secular” [274] and wastes of human flesh are named “creedless” [28].

“On this road there are no godspoke men” [32].

The worst thing that could be written about The Road is that it is a sappy religious allegory.  Nabokov wrote of Faulkner’s Light in August:

“The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work.”

I would write of McCarthy’s The Road:

The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which does not pervade Faulkner’s work.

This does not mean that the book is unredeemable, however.  What might have been a pedestrian trifle in the hands of a lesser writer has become something genuinely pedestrian with author McCarthy.  The most distinctive feature of The Road is not the story that is told, but the manner in which McCarthy tells it: that is to say, the narrative.  He writes so magically that a grey empty world is summoned forth vividly before our eyes.

It needs to be said and emphasized that McCarthy has almost completely superseded standard English punctuation in the writing of this novel.  He strategically, willfully omits periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes throughout the work in order to equivocate, in order to multiply meanings, in order to enlarge the literary possibilities of language.

The relative absence of punctuation in the novel makes the words appear as if they were the things themselves.  Of course, one could seize upon the conscious, literal meaning of the words.  But does language not slip away from us?  Are its meanings not dependent on the interpretive framework of the listener, of the reader?  And is it not conceivable that the linguistic elisions reflect the consciousness of the central character?

Proper punctuation would disambiguate and thus flatten the sentences–sentences that are, liberated from such restrictions, both benign and lethal.  We have before us a rhetorically complex novel, a work of literature that is rife with ambiguity.

And the non-punctuation makes us feel.  If the “sentences” were punctuated in the traditional manner, we, as readers, would feel nothing.  We would not feel, viscerally and viciously, the nightmarish world into which father and son have precipitated.  We would not be infused with the chill of post-civilization.

The absence of standard punctuation in The Road is a fruitful, productive absence.  It is a writerly, stylistic choice.

I hope I have persuaded my readers that McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation is stylized.  It most certainly is not unnecessary.  One of the lessons that we can derive from the novels of McCarthy is how to apply typography in literary craftsmanship.  Punctuation opens or closes the doors of meaning.  Let me invent my own ambiguously commaless sentence for the purposes of elucidation.  If I write, “I want to eat my parrot William,” this would seem to signify that I want to eat a parrot named William, a parrot that belongs to me.  However, what happens if the comma is explicitly absent?  Three contradictory interpretations are then possible: 1.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her, a parrot named William; 2.) The narrator, apparently, wants to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her and is addressing this remark to someone named William (“I want to eat my parrot, William”); 3.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat in general, and this comment is directed at his or her parrot, the name of which is William (“I want to eat, my parrot William”).  Punctuation, depending on how it is used, can restrict or expand meaning.  Commas articulate, determine meaning.  The absence of a comma, on the other hand, opens up semantic possibilities inherent to language.  Its absence opens the doors of ambiguity.

As I suggested above, McCarthy’s refusal to punctuate in the conventional manner is also intimately connected to the internal struggles of the main character and, perhaps, the psychology of the author.  The narrator eschews commas because he fears death.  I suspect that, similarly, McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation bespeaks a futile desire to escape his mortality–a charmingly fragile and recognizably human desire.

“[E]ver is no time at all” [28].

The ephemerality of the instant.  Hence, the relative commalessness of McCarthy’s statements.  A comma would pause an enunciation, rupture its continuity, the incessant flow of language, the drift of language into the future.  What, after all, is a comma if not the graphic equivalent of a turn in breath, of an exhalation or an inhalation?  Commas do not merely articulate a sentence.  Commas stall, they defer, they postpone, they interrupt without stopping.  A speaking that speaks ceaselessly, without commas, in order to outstrip the nightmare of history.  McCarthy’s language moves forward endlessly, without giving readers a chance to catch their breath.  This is a writing that is unidirectional and decidedly equivocal.

The thrusting momentum of McCarthy’s language fertilizes my suspicion that The Road is also a book about time.  More precisely, a book about time’s three impossibilities: the impossibility of ridding oneself of the past completely, the impossibility of eternalizing the present, and the impossibility of encompassing the future.

The future is essentially unpredictable for the son, and the reader has no idea, at the novel’s close, what will become of him.  Will the son survive?  Will he be bred for cannibal meat, for anthropophagous delicacies?  An infinitude of possibilities…  And here we come to yet another strange intimacy between McCarthy’s singular style of punctuating and not punctuating and one of the leitmotifs of his novel: The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of THE ROAD is no conclusion at all, a conclusion without a period.  And the novel lives on inside of the reader’s head and heart, growing within as if it were a vicious monster fungus.

Joseph Suglia

A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Two: A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again / “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” / “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” / “David Lynch Keeps His Head”

An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts.  His métier was, perhaps, mathematics.  David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).

Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed.  I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997).  Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can.  He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38).  Perish the thought!

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television.  Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television.  Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words.  “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase.  Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television.  David Foster Wallace was wrong.  No, writers should NOT trust television.  No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see.  The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste.  That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s.  Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65).  He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time.  They did not, of course.  One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification.  To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television.  But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist.  Let me enlarge an earlier statement.  Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer.  It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32).  Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it.  Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them.  We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.).  Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  That is your false dilemma.  If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY.  Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection.  There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism.  There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance.  The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990).  Did Wallace never see this film?  How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart?  Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence.  No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political.  How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness?  How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets?  And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are.  Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book.  It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk – A Review by Dr. Joseph Suglia / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

 

An Analysis of FIGHT CLUB (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Before discussing the form of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), I would like to reconstruct its political content.

* * * * *

The thirty-year-old narrator of Fight Club feels alive only when surrounded by decrepitude and death.  He attends testicular-cancer support groups in order to enhance his vitality: By distinguishing himself as much as possible from the sick, he attempts to wrest himself away from a consumerist culture that suppresses death; by exposing himself to the mortality of others (which grants him the knowledge that he also is going to die), every moment in his life becomes more valuable.  One of the infinite number of go-betweens in this culture (his job is to determine the expenses of recalling lethally defective automobiles), the narrator yearns to die in an airplane crash in order to free himself from the superficiality of a world that trivializes death and immortalizes the unliving commodity (a “necrophilous” culture, as Erich Fromm would say).  Only what he imagines to be a direct experience of death grants him a real and intense sense of life, and, as the novel proceeds, violence will come to be his salvation.

[Let me remark parenthetically: the word “violence,” etymologically, means “life.”]

And yet Western culture manufactures not merely inclinations and proclivities, but also aversions and forms of disgust: Particularly relevant to a discussion of Palahniuk’s novel is the aversion toward violence and mortality that the narrator attempts to unlearn.

The narrator’s desires are prefabricated.  As countless others in a consumerist society, his selfhood is defined by the merchandise that he purchases: His “perfect life” is constituted by “his” Swedish furniture, “his” quilt cover set, “his” Hemlig hatboxes, and the IKEA catalogues that serve as the foundation of his “identity.”  He is the member of a generation of men who identify themselves with commodities (“Everything, the lamp, the chairs, the rugs were me” [111]), commodities that, according to the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, serve as extensions of one’s personality in the capitalist world.

Enter Tyler Durden (a man who is, apparently, the same age as the narrator).  Aggressive, virile, and charming, Durden represents alternative possibilities that the narrator could assume.  Tyler is radically opposed to the progressive “improvement” of the self that has been so valorized by capitalist societies; he claims that the drive toward “perfection” has led to the loss of manhood and has transformed men into feminized purchasers and consumers who slave away in life-draining jobs.

By randomly destroying property (with which members of consumerist society identify), Tyler intends to explode the foundations of capitalist “identity.”  Since Rousseau and Hegel, it has been assumed that the bourgeois self is divided into civil and private dimensions: the citizen and the “true” individual.  Here we encounter two analogous versions of a single self: Whenever the narrator (who subserves capitalist society) falls asleep, Tyler Durden (who represents the “authentic” self) inhabits his body.

Tyler and the narrator form a masculine unit that exists apart from the feminized support groups that are populated by man-women such as Bob, an estrogen-saturated former weight-lifter who sprouts what appear to be mammary glands, as well as Marla Singer (associated, at one point, with the narrator’s mother), who appropriates the narrator’s support groups and eventually unsettles the homoerotic / homosocial bond between the two men.

Tyler founds “fight club,” an underground boxing organization and a perverse version of the support group attended by the narrator.  The split between the bourgeois and authentic selves is replicated in the difference between one’s work existence and fight club: “Who guys are in fight club is not who they are in the real world” [49].  Fight club thus opens up a separate space, one that is divorced from the dependency and servility of the world of exchange; it posits a self-sufficient universe in which control and mastery, sovereignty and force are achieved, paradoxically, through self-destruction.  The fights are not based on personal acrimony but on the exercise of power.  It is the fight that is pure; it is through the fight that one’s human implications are drawn out.  Norms learned from television (that mass accumulation is life’s goal, that success is equatable with financial success, that violence must be shunned)—all of these values are reversed in fight club, the sole objective of which is the reclamation of one’s manhood, which has been diminished in the feminizing world of capitalism (hence the phallic imagery that crystallizes throughout the novel).

The constituents of fight club (copy-center clerks, box boys, etc.) are members of the Lumpenproletariat, those who labor without a productive or positive relation to work, who are estranged from their own slavery, and who are excluded from every social totality.  Even those on the higher levels of the bourgeoisie, it seems, conform to the same model.  Their strength is vitiated; they, too, function as the refuse of a society that refuses to acknowledge them.  Dying in offices where their lives are never challenged (and therefore lacking anything with which to contrast with life), they are the mere shadows of the proletariat, deprived of access not merely to the fortunes of the capitalist world, but also to consciousness of their own oppression: They are “[g]enerations [that] have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need” [49].

Eventually, fight club transcends and operates independently of the individuals who produced it (following Tyler’s anti-individualist creed) and becomes wholly acephalic: “The new rule is that nobody should be the center of fight club” [142].  Fight club thus transmutes into Project Mayhem, a revolutionary group that begins with acts of vandalism and food contamination and eventually expands into full-blown guerilla terrorism.  Its aim is regression: to reduce all of history to ground zero.  Project Mayhem wants to blow the capitalist world to smithereens in order to give birth to a new form of humanity.  What fight club did for selfhood and individuality (the formation of a new “identity” apart from the one mandated by capitalist society), Project Mayhem would do for capitalist society itself.  In the same manner that fight club destroys capitalist “identity,” Project Mayhem aims to destroy Western civilization in order to “make something better of the world” [125]—a world in which manhood would intensify through a non-moral relation to violence.

Here we are in territory already elaborated—much more richly—by J.G. Ballard.  And John Zerzan, Portland anarchist.

Washing oneself clean, returning to one’s hidden origin, primitivism, regressionism, cleansing, and sacrifice…  Soap, which Freud named “the yardstick of civilization,” is here emblematic of a reduction to primal manhood.  The meaning of soap is not, in this context, propriety (as Freud would have it), nor, unfortunately, the ebullitions of language (Francis Ponge), nor, following Roland Barthes, the luxury of foaminess.  Soap is indissociable from sacrifice.

[Fight Club does not merely imply, but states in the most obvious manner that bare-knuckled fist-fighting makes one more virile, more masculine.  Palahniuk’s jock-fascism is jockalicious.]

If Western culture, as Freud claims in Unbehagen in der Kultur, is a culture of soap (sanitizing one from the awareness of death), the accustomed meaning of saponification is here transformed into its opposite.  Western culture represses the sacrifices that were its origins through a process of cleansing: Soap here would indicate a return to those repressed sources.  Violence must be re-vived in order to reclaim the self, now unclean.

The dream of capitalism complements the dream of fascism: “We wanted to blast the world free of history” [124].  Their common project is dehistoricization.  By attempting to destroy history, Project Mayhem pretends to break with the capitalist world but ends up mirroring it.  Capitalist culture homogenizes all of its inhabitants until individuality is lost—its alternative, communism, would lead, theoretically, to the redistribution of wealth and the elimination of rank.  Neither is accepted by Fight Club.  Nor, for that matter, are the utopian primitivism and fascistic terrorism represented by Project Mayhem.  The refusal of the capitalist / communist / fascist alternatives does not imply nihilism, either.  Fight Club posits nothing other than the impossibility of a way out.  This is evident in the text.  When the narrator attempts to demolish the fascist version of his self, his phantom double remerges.  Neither capitalism nor its double is overcome.  Tragedy is not death, the liberation from all forms of the political; it is, rather, the impossibility of dying.

* * * * *

A few words on the form of Fight Club (the only section of this review that will be read).

This could have been an excellent novel.

Any strong writer knows that a dead page–a dead paragraph, a dead sentence, a dead word–is unacceptable.  Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be electric, vibrant, vivacious.  Fight Club moves in the exact opposite direction: Its prose is soul-deadening, life-negating, dull.  It is a prose that neither confronts nor challenges.

Chuck Palahniuk does not have an easy way with words.  The language of this book is metallic, anti-poetic, and illiterate.

The writer claims to write in the way that “people talk.”

This would be good advice if we lived in an age in which people knew how to talk.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

Caesar Anti-Trump / Shakespeare’s THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR / JULIUS CAESAR and Donald Trump

 

Caesar Anti-Trump

by Joseph Suglia

 

“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17

 

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters.  It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency.  It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him.  It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992).  It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015).  It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007).  Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities.  All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living beings themselves.  They are not human beings; they are human seemings.

Since the accession of Trump to the presidency, there have been multiple stagings, visualizations, stylings, dramatizations of the decapitation and even of the assassination of the forty-fifth President of the United States.  Such simulated deaths must be understood not as calls to actually decapitate or to assassinate the living human leader–indeed, the leader of the world’s sole superpower–but rather as simulations of the death of a holographic projection, stylizations of the death of a clownish figure no more real than Donald Duck.  Trump belongs to Nineteen Eighties trash culture alongside other two-dimensional caricatures of human beings such as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Joe Piscopo, and Morton Downey, Jr.  If any of these characters had been assassinated, their deaths would seem as unreal as these figures themselves are.  One thinks of Hegel’s meditation on the derealization of death in the time of the French Revolution and wonders if Hegel’s remarks aren’t still as fresh as the paint on our computer screens: Death in the time of the French Revolution, Hegel writes, was the “coldest, shallowest of deaths, with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head or swallowing a gulp of water.”

In J.G. Ballard’s great novel The Atrocity Exhibition, public figures such as Ronald Reagan and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy are subjected to the morbid and sordid fantasies of the main character.  Since human beings are often dark creatures, their fantasies are often dark fantasies.  Why should Trump be immune from the processes of dark-fantasization and fetishization?  The imaginary assassinations of Donald Trump are simulated assassinations of a character who is already a simulation.  The simulated deaths of Donald Trump are nothing more than the deaths of a simulation.  Donald Trump does not exist.  You cannot kill something that does not exist.  Just as money is the abstract representation of desire, Donald Trump is the abstract representation of a gatherer of abstract representations.  To become sentient of this simulation is to become something else: to become aware that what we are witnessing is a holographic image.

I will now turn to discuss the simulated assassinations of Donald Trump.  I am excluding from this discussion the real attempt on Trump’s life on 18 June 2016 by a young Briton, as well as the subornation of Trump’s murder by celebrities such as Johnny Depp (a Kentucky-born actor with an affected European accent) and Madonna, who are themselves also unrealities.

In a 2016 promotional video for his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down (a much better title than Say10, the original name of the album), Marilyn Manson chimerized the decapitation of Donald Trump.  This is the first and most artful chimerical execution of the president.  The other representations of the assassination of Trump could safely be classified as agitprop or as artless publicity stunts.

In a video for the song “Lavender” by the Toronto-based electronic jazz band BadBadNotGood, Snoop Dogg (also known as “Snoop Lion” and “Snoopzilla”) can be seen mock-executing a clown who resembles Donald Trump.  Incredibly, Snoop once had a congenial relationship with Trump, who sang dithyrambs in his honor: “You know Snoop Dogg?  He’s the greatest.  One of the nation’s best-selling hip-hop artists.  And I’ll tell you what: He’s a great guy.  And he’s a lot different than you think.  You know, you think he’s a wild man?  He’s a very, very smart, tough businessman, in addition to being a great musician.”  The director of the video, professional YouTube videographer Jesse Wellens, was wise not to directly represent the execution of the president.

The most sanguinary simulation of the assassination of Donald Trump was performed by comedienne Kathy Griffin, who arranged a photograph of herself in which she raised a severed wax head that resembled the head of the Commander-in-Chief.  Her hair the same shade of red as the hair on the blood-bespattered head she holds aloft, her facial expression joyless, and her skin alabaster, she seems like a French revolutionary a few moments after the guillotine chops off the head of the monarch.  At the press conference which she must have anticipated, Griffin said tristfully, as if in explanation, “I’ve dealt with older white guys trying to keep me down my whole life, my whole career.”  One cannot suppress the question: Was she thinking of her father when she said this?  Did the disembodied wax head perhaps summon memories of her father?  Does she have a conscious or unconscious hatred for her father?  Her real father, John Patrick Griffin, died in 2007 of a heart failure at the age of ninety-one.  In any event, the performance piece was condemned by almost everyone on the Right and on the Left.  CNN announced that Griffin would not be invited back to host its annual New Year’s Eve program.  She was unwise to do worse what Marilyn Manson and Snoop Dogg did better.

Right-wing activists pretended to be scandalized by the 2017 open-air dramatization of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by New York’s Public Theater.  During the performances, which took place in Central Park, Julius Caesar is dressed up as Donald Trump.  The fictionalized murder of this Caesar-Trump is nowhere near as bloody as it is alleged to have been by Plutarch in his Lives, where, it is written, the body of Caesar was mutilated, mangled, and hacked to pieces.  Plutarch even records that Caesar’s genitalia were stabbed.  On 17 June 2017, Laura Loomer—one of the video personalities of Rebel Media, the Canadian rightist video company—jumped on stage during a performance of the play while live-recording herself.  She screeched: “Stop the normalization of political violence against the Right!  This is unacceptable.  You cannot promote this kind of violence against Donald Trump.”  She was joined by Jack Posobiec, former Washington correspondent for Rebel Media, who bellowed: “You are all Goebbels!  You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels!  You are inciting terrorists!”  Goebbels, then, is equated to each spectator in the audience, in the same way that Trump is equated to Caesar.  One imagines a grid of 1,000 cultural references: An invisible line connects one point on the grid to another point on the grid.  The historical context of each point of reference is ignored.  History is neutralized, reduced to space.

By disturbing the performance of the play, both of these people resembled those who the Right hates—those who commove performances and presentations.  How are they any different?  Even worse, they shattered the dramaturgical illusion that the architects and the performers of the play were struggling to create.  Loomer twittered about the incident breathlessly: “The moment I rushed the stage of Julius Caesar.  Listen to the violence and stabbing of ‘Trump’ that occurred right before.  It is revolting.”

Before I consider the question as to whether Shakespeare’s Caesar has anything in common with Donald Trump, I will turn my attention to the text of the play itself.

 

* * * * *

 

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) is Shakespeare’s attempt to explain the motives behind the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. and to show the baleful consequences that emerged from this assassination.  (The Ides of March: the fifteenth of March on the Roman calendar, the day of settling debts.  The day on which Caesar is forced to pay his debt to the conspirators.)  The play also passes judgment, I believe, on the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman leader.  In doing so, it passes judgment on all such plots to overthrow monarchies, dictatorships, and tyrannies.  It is the antithesis of Measure for Measure (circa 1603), Shakespeare’s most politically liberal play, and one almost as politically conservative as The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1605-1608), one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite works of literature.

When we hear of him in the first scene of the play, Caesar is fresh from destroying the sons of the previous emperor, Pompey, in the Battle of Munda, the last battle against the optimates of the old Roman Republic.  Caesar has been anointed the “perpetual dictator” of Rome, a dictator with no term limit.  He is slated to become king.  But there have been no kings in Rome, not since Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and that was in 495 B.C.E., over four centuries ago, and most of the Roman senators and tribunes worry that Caesar will become overweeningly arrogant and sodden with his own godlike authority.  Above all, most of them envy Caesar.

The assassination of Caesar leads to self-assassinations, lynchings, pogroms, purges, and civil war.  The play culminates in a Jonestown-like mass suicide.  The same blade that Cassius stuck into the emperor is plunged into Cassius’s own torso.  He does so on his birthday.  The anniversary of the day of his nativity coincides with the day of his self-imposed death.  I cannot think of a clearer example of cosmic irony in Western literature than that of Cassius’s suicide—the fact that Cassius murders himself with the same blade that he sunk into the body of the Dear Leader.  Titinius follows him.  Brutus expires while exhaling Caesar’s name: “Caesar, now be still” [V:v].  Portia “swallows fire” [IV:iii], literally—a ghastly death that mirrors her husband’s inward bursting, his imploding.  She is burning up on the inside literally; her husband is disintegrating on the inside metaphorically.

The crowd turns mobbish, and mobbishness takes over Rome.  The mob tears an innocent man to pieces in the street (the Poet Cinna).  This scene (Act Three, Scene Three), which quickly moves from the comic to the hideous, recalls the opening moment of the play, in which a crowd of plebeians jeers at Flavius and Murellus, sneering tribunes of the people.  The point seems to be that democracy, when it uses antimonarchical means, is indistinguishable from ochlocracy.  The city descends into mob violence as the result of the antimonarchical violence of the conspirators.

Until tyranny takes hold once more.  Octavius, the new tyrant, and Antony are motivated not so much by revanchism, by the desire for righteous vengeance and for the restoration of the ancient regime, as by political ambition, or, what amounts to the same thing, the hatred of subjection.  Their “love of Caesar” is really a lust for power or is coterminous with the lust for power.  The senators fail at establishing a constitutional monarchy (assuming that this is what they desired to begin with).  Such the cosmic irony of the play: One tyrant replaces the other.

The reconstitution of tyranny is brought about by rhetoric—by swaying the crowd with words.  Rhetoric is the art of persuading people to do what you want them to do—not to do what you would do yourself.  Rhetoric is the art is the art of persuading people to believe what you want them to believe—not to believe what you believe yourself.

When Antony says that his heart is in the coffin with Caesar, this triggers an emotional response in the audience.  Brutus’s introductory speech is weak (it is logocentric).  Shakespeare intentionally writes it weakly.  Antony’s speech soars on the wings of pathopoeia (it is pathocentric) and thus throws the crowd into a frenzy.  A classic exercise in rhetoric, pathopoeia is an emotionally provocative speech or piece of writing, the content of which is insignificant.  It is not a speech in which the speaker cries, but a speech that makes the audience cry.  As such, it is pure manipulation: Notice that Brutus says things that he could not possibly know—for instance, where on the body each conspirator stabbed Julius.

The point seems to be that democracy fails.  Human beings are political animals, and the lust for power supersedes the humanistic and demotic impulses.  Only Brutus has a genuine love of humanity, and his role in the assassination of Caesar was motivated by a sincere desire to better the lives of the Roman people.  But he is presented as politically naïve.  The naïve, incautious idealist, he naïvely allows Mark Antony to speak to the crowd, which ends in Brutus, Cassius, and company being driven out of Rome.  Cassius, who is much shrewder politically (he is a Realpolitiker) and politically more mature, cautions Brutus against doing so.  Indeed, Cassius recommends that Antony be slaughtered along with Caesar, and Cassius knows well that slicing Antony’s throat open would have saved him and his brother-in-law from their fates.  “This tongue had not offended so today,” Cassius says sneeringly to Antony, “[i]f Cassius might have ruled” [V:i].  And yet Cassius is willing to give Antony political power after the assassination is done: “Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s / In the disposing of new dignities” [III:i].

Misinterpretations surround the execution of Caesar: Not only does Brutus catastrophically underestimate Antony; Antony underestimates Cassius [I:ii].  Cassius, in turn, misapprehends Titinius, which leads to Cassius’s self-murder, and Caesar, of course, underestimates those he calls his friends.  He ignores the warnings of Calphurnia, the Soothsayer, and Artemidorus.

This leads one to wonder if Brutus did not overestimate the tyrannical nature of Caesar.  The entire argument for Caesar’s assassination is based on a surmise, a conjecture, a speculation: “So Caesar may. / Then lest he may, prevent” [II:i].  Epexegesis: In other words, Caesar might become an unbearable tyrant; therefore, he will become an unbearable tyrant.  The justification after the deed: Caesar would have become an intolerable tyrant, if he were allowed to live.  One is reminded of the question asked in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?”  Many would answer, “Yes.”  Yet the argument that Caesar would have become a brutal tyrant and the Romans would have become slaves is a specious one.

It is the Iago-like Cassius who seduces Brutus into murdering Caesar in a way that is similar to the way in which Iago inveigled Othello into committing uxoricide.  Cassius presents himself as Brutus’s own “glass” [I:ii], as both the mirror and the image that appears within the mirror, as the speculum and his specular image, as his replica, as his double, as his simulation, as the reflective surface by which Brutus is able to see himself—as the only means by which Brutus is able to see himself—and as his own reflection.  Cassius imposes upon Brutus’s mind the plan to commit tyrannicide.  He insinuates his own thoughts into the mind of Brutus.

(Let me remark parenthetically that Cassius even sounds like Iago.  His “If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius, / He should not humour me” [I:ii] proleptically anticipates Iago’s “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.”  The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will be written five years later.)

Brutus has a divided self.  A fractured self.  On the one hand, he has genuine affection for Caesar; on the other, a ghostly, anonymous, impersonal voice has colonized his mind and is commanding him to kill a man toward whom he bears no ill will: “[F]or my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn at him / But for the general” [II:i].  From an external perspective, he is a freedom fighter who believes that a constitutional monarchy would be better for the Roman people than a tyranny—but this idea is not his own and does not correspond to his feelings.  This self-division would explain why Brutus, with a guilty conscience, proposes to carve up Caesar’s body as if it were a feast for the gods rather than hew his body as if it were a meal for the hounds [II:i].  But what is the difference, ultimately?  Killing is killing, knifing is knifing, hacking is hacking, shanking is shanking.

Shakespeare teaches us, around the same time that he begins work on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that there is no such thing as a unified personality—that every subjectivity is fractured and complexly self-contradictory and self-contradictorily complex.  Indeed, Brutus’s soliloquy is the precursor to Hamlet’s more famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy.  Whether or not to kill himself is not yet the question; the question is whether or not to kill Caesar.  Rather than ask “To be or not to be,” Brutus asks, in effect, “Should Caesar be, or should Caesar no longer be?”  Brutus’s “[T]here’s the question” [II:i] forecasts Hamlet’s “That is the question.”  Brutus, as the proto-Hamlet, is speaker and listener at the same time.  He affects himself.

No wonder that Portia, Brutus’s wife, gives herself a “voluntary wound” in the thigh [II:i].  She is mutilating herself literally, whereas Brutus is mutilating himself metaphorically.  She is a cutter, but so is Brutus.  Her self-cutting mirrors his self-cutting.  It is disappointing that this scene was cut from the 1953 and 1970 film versions of the play.

No wonder that Brutus will suppress his feelings for his wife after she kills herself: “Speak no more of her” [IV:iii], he says with mock coldness to Cassius.  He suppresses his feelings for the emperor, after all.  But this does not mean that Brutus is cold-blooded; far from it.  I believe Brutus when he says to Portia that she is as “dear to [him] as are the ruddy drops / [t]hat visit [his] sad heart” [II:i].  He is a Roman Stoic (with Platonist leanings), and Stoics do not betray their feelings—another sign that Brutus is divided against himself.

Not merely is Brutus divided into warring factions; Rome is divided into warring factions.  When Brutus says in Act Two, Scene One that “the state of man” is suffering “the nature of an insurrection,” he is referring both to himself and to Rome.  Two acts later: As the conspirators run for their lives and fight from the outside, Octavius, the adopted son of Caesar, comes to Rome, and Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus form an unholy triumvirate and will divide the spoils among them after the defeat of their enemies.  “Happy day,” indeed [V:v]!  It is clear that Antony is planning to kill Lepidus once Lepidus has stopped being useful to him.  He expends more words on his horse and on asinine and equine similes than he does on the serviceable Lepidus himself:

Octavius, I have seen more days than you; / And though we lay these honours on this man / To ease ourselves of diverse slanderous loads, / He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold, / To groan and sweat under the business, / Either led or driven, as we point the way: / And having brought our treasure where we will, / Then take we down his load and turn him off, / Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears / And graze in commons…  Do not talk of him / But as a property [IV:i].

Not only that: Antony threatens to curtail the benefits to the Roman people that were promised in Caesar’s will (a stimulus package for every Roman, access to Caesar’s once-private gardens and orchards)—the promise of these benefits ferments and foments the crowd, turning the crowd into a mob.  (The word mob comes from the Latin mobilis, which means “movable,” and is etymologically connected to the words mobile and mobilize.  A mob is a crowd in action.)  Antony says to Octavius and Lepidus: “[W]e shall determine / How to cut off some charge in legacies” [IV:i].  In other words, we will reduce the number of drachmas that every Roman was promised and perhaps repossess the gardens and orchards that we promised them, as well.

Within the factions, there are factions: Cassius and Brutus squabble as if they were fractious luchadores in the third scene of the fourth act.  Mark Antony and Octavius disagree on who should move to the left in the first scene of the fifth act:

ANTONY: Octavius, lead your battle softly on, / Upon the left hand of the even field.

OCTAVIUS: Upon the right hand I.  Keep thou the left.

ANTONY: Why do you cross me in this exigent?

OCTAVIUS: I do not cross you: but I will do so.

Let us not forget the intrusions of the supernatural / the intimations of the supernatural: The lioness that whelps in the street [II:ii].  The graves that yawn and yield up their dead [II:ii].  The nightbird that hoots and shrieks at noon in the marketplace [I:iii].  (Why no filmmaker, as far as I know, has represented these oneiric images is a mystery to me.)  The lightning storms that frame the conspiracy to dispatch Caesar—in the third scene of the first act and in the second scene of the second act.  Calphurnia listens to the thunder and studies the lightning and interprets these as fatidic signs, as if she were a ceraunomancer (someone who divines supernatural or transcendent meaning from the heavens) [II:ii].  Cassius is a ceraunologist (someone who poetically or pseudoscientifically compares the movements of the heavens with worldly events): He sees the “dreadful night / [t]hat thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars” [I:iii] as the celestial complement to Caesar’s unnamed worldly violence.  The ghosts, the supernaturalized beasts, the signs of the heavens that are interpreted as wonders or metaphors: The point of the supernatural is to call into question the tyrannicide.

The self-murder, the military violence, the mobbishness, the madness, the pandemonium, the infantile squabbling, the familial betrayals, the portents, the interference of the supernatural—all of this issues from the killing of Caesar or from the conspiracy to kill Caesar.  All of these are symptoms of a disease brought on by the pathogenic act of violence against the emperor.  Shakespeare would seem to agree with Goethe, who claimed that the murder of Caesar is “the most absurd act that ever was committed”; for Goethe, this act proved that even the best of the Romans did not understand what government is for (Nachgelassene Werke, xiii, p. 68).  Seen from this perspective, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a politically reactionary play, one that justifies authoritarian dictatorship, if not outright tyranny.  Again, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most politically conservative plays, second only to The Tragedy of Coriolanus, one of the most reactionary plays ever written.

If the play is politically ambiguous (neither endorsing statism nor rejecting it), then why do we see so little evidence of Caesar’s unbearable tyranny?  The play shows us more instances of Caesar’s feebleness than of his tyrannousness (all in the second scene of the first act): Caesar’s epileptic fit in the marketplace, his poor hearing, his feverishness in Spain, his near-drowning in the Tiber.  Save for the sole instance of the banishment of Publius Cimber, there is no evidence that Caesar is oppressive.  There is much more evidence that the play condemns the assassination of Caesar than there is evidence that the play takes a neutral stance on the assassination.  Indeed, one could write, without fear of repudiation, that the play takes a stand against the assassination of Julius Caesar—and thus, a stand against the overthrow of authoritarian dictatorships.

Despite its title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not the tragedy of Julius Caesar.  (Nietzsche knew well that the play was given the wrong title.  See The Gay Science, Paragraph 98.)  Caesar only has 130 lines and, in spite of what Whoopi Goldberg claims, does not die at the end of the play, but in the middle.  The execution of Caesar divides the text into two parts: the first deals with the motives behind the deed; the second deals with its consequences.  It is the tragedy not of Caesar, but of Brutus, whose desires are not his own and who is not his own.

 

* * * * *

 

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar anticipates its reception by future audiences.  Like the atrociously underrated Troilus and Cressida (1602), characters are conscious that they are the unreal representations of real historical human beings.  In Troilus and Cressida, Achilles spreads the fake news that “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain,” and the reader / the spectator gets the impression that Achilles is aware that the legend will be printed and become historical.  In Julius Caesar, characters (Cassius and Brutus) are conscious that the play will be performed for centuries after the death of their author in countless different languages.  Cassius: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?” [III:i].  And why else would Julius’s final words be retained, untranslated, in the original Latin?  The characters look backward into the dizzying abyss of history.

Did Shakespeare ever anticipate that Caesar would be costumed as a buffoon?

To return to the Central Park staging of Julius Caesar: There are at least three reasons why Caesar has nothing in common with Trump.

 

Reason One: Trump panders, but does not debase himself

Caesar debases himself at Lupercalia, the Festival of the Wolf, by refusing a crown that is offered to him three times and—after swooning, foaming at the mouth, and falling in the public square—by begging “wenches” in the street for forgiveness [I:ii].  (Lupercalia took place on 15 February on the Roman calendar and celebrated Lupa, the lactating Wolf Goddess who suckled Romulus and Remus in the cave of Lupercal, and the Goat God Lupercus, the God of Shepherds.)  But his self-debasement is staged.  It is the staged inversion of relations between the powerful and the powerless.  It is not genuine, sincere self-mortification.  His repeated refusal of the crown, in particular, is what rhetoricians call accismus: the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.

Caesar is beloved of the people (we see this in the first scene of the play).  There is no question that Caesar was friendlier to the people than his predecessor, Pompey.  According to Suetonius, Caesar supported the plebeians and the tribunes, who represented the interests of the people.  Caesar endorsed the redistribution of land and opposed the optimates, who wanted to limit the power of the plebeians.  He was called a popularis for a reason.  Pompey, on the other hand, favored a much stricter authoritarian rule.

Trump styled himself as a populist political candidate, and this no doubt contributed to his triumph over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment Democratic candidate, in November 2016.  Is Trump, then, a man of the people in the way that Caesar was a man of the people?

Trump’s language is the language of the people—of inarticulate, slow-witted people.  His grammatical skills are those of an unremarkable eleven-year-old boy, according to a 2016 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University.  He used a relatively sophisticated language in the 1980s and 1990s, however.  Many of his sentences had an admirable rotundity—for instance, “It could have been a contentious route” and “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated” (qtd. in Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?” STAT, 23 May 2017).  While campaigning for the presidency, his verbal skills appeared to decompose.  On 30 December 2015, Trump peacocked to a South Carolinian crowd: “I’m very highly educated.  I know words.  I know the best words.”  He might have dumbed down his language for purely political reasons, for purely demotic purposes.  This has the effect of flattering those with low linguistic skills.

Dumbing down, however, is not self-abasement.  Trump never speaks in a self-deprecating manner.  He never displays the false humility of Caesar.  Trump reflects the vulgarity, the vaingloriousness, the cupidity, and the rapacity of the crowd.  He is endlessly trumpeting his own excellence.  He does not debase himself.  He represents himself as someone who demands that his glistening manliness be acknowledged and respected.

 

Reason Two: Trump is not constant

Caesar is nothing if not pertinacious.  Trump is nothing if not inconstant.

Caesar holds on to his decision to banish Publius Cimber, despite the senators’ entreaties to rescind his banishment.  He is as “constant as the northern star” [III:i].  Suetonius praised Caesar for his steadfastness.

Trump, on the other hand, is a syrupy waffle.  He has waffled on the travel ban and on the unbuilt Mexico-American Wall.  Incidentally, Trump loves waffles “when they’re done properly with butter and syrup.”  He rhapsodized: “There’s nothing better than properly done waffles with butter and syrup all over them.”

 

Reason Three: Trump is the betrayer, not the betrayed

Julius Caesar was betrayed by his intimates, even by his favorite, Brutus.  Though I cannot find the source of this citation, I remember reading a saying attributed to Caesar: “Against my enemies my guards can protect me; against my friends, they can do nothing.”  This saying has been repeated, without acknowledgement, by Voltaire (“Let God defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies”) and Charlotte Brontë: “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”

Trump, on the other hand, has betrayed members of his inner circle—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, James Comey, Sally Yates, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon—in a series of Night of the Long Knives-style purges.  One thinks of The Apprentice’s slogan and mantra: “You’re fired.”  I am revising this essay on 12 May 2019.  Who else in his administration will Trump have fired, what other faux-resignations will be announced, by the time you read my words?

Trump shares nothing with the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare.  There is nothing wrong with contemporizing art—I myself have done this with Hedda Gabler—but there must be reasons for specific contemporizations.  Those who believe that Julius Caesar can be reasonably dressed up as Donald Trump are the same people who think that a text-message Hamlet or a dubstep Macbeth is a good idea.  I have descanted at length on the play’s political stance: If the staging equates Trump to Caesar, then Trump is exonerated by the production.  The Central Park performance of the play unintentionally defends Trump.

Consumer culture idolizes the ordinary.  To use Adorno and Horkheimer’s language in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the trumpery of the culture industry “heroizes the average.”  In this culture, which is gradually becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth, untalented filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino are hailed as geniuses, whereas visionaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni are written off as boring.  Incompetent writers such as David Foster Wallace are lionized, while truly great writers such as James Joyce are blithely dismissed as “pretentious.”  Along the same lines: Trump is screened through Shakespeare not because Shakespeare represents the highest values and Trump represents the lowest values, but because the highest values have no meaning in a culture in which the low trumps the high.  In the Central Park staging of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Trump is vaunted to the heights of Shakespeare; Shakespeare is dumbed down to the status of Trump.  Why is this?  In consumer culture, what is low is elevated and what is high is degraded.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)

An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

I normally avoid discussing the plots of works of literature.  I prefer to dwell upon the words as they are written on the page, to interrogate and interpret the language of the text.  If I have hesitated to talk and write about plot, it is because conversations about plot generally ignore the language in which the text is written.  The plot seems to exist somewhere outside of the language of the text.  After all, a plot could have been invented before the actual text was composed, and when literary critics discuss plot, they must be abstract.  It is rare to cite the text when describing a plot, for the obvious reason that plot is structure, not literary language.

Since the world is essentially plotless, why should a literary work have a plot at all?  From the late nineteenth century onward, much of Western literature has discarded the mandate of the plot (Lautreamont, Flaubert, Nerval, and Proust were vanguards in this respect).  Even earlier, to refer to a single example: Shakespeare’s The Tempest does not have much of a plot.  This is not to suggest that plots vanished since the late nineteenth century; millions of books have been written and published since that time that do, in fact, have plots.  They are summoned into existence by writers and readers who come to books to experience the imposition of order upon a world that is bewilderingly and overwhelmingly chaotic.  There is nothing wrong with the desire to experience a closed, self-contained representation.  But closed, self-contained representations belong to the province of art before the late nineteenth century and to the province of entertainment.  Modern art poses questions that it does not itself answer (this is the job of the interpreter); works of modern art have open-ended structures.

Despite my reservations about plot, I would like to adumbrate the design of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the first edition of which was published in 1600).  By doing so, I think that we can learn something about the configuration of this massively complex play and, perhaps, about how plot in general works and perhaps even why so many people have the desire for a plot.  I will fix my gaze upon the structure of the play.  Again, this will have the necessary but unfortunate consequence that I will have to disregard much of the play’s filigreed, aureate verse.

The initiating conflict takes place in the first scene of the play: Egeus sentences his daughter to death or a loveless marriage.  He forbids his daughter Hermia from marrying Lysander, the man she loves.  She must choose between death and marriage to Demetrius, a man whom she definitely does not love.  The Athenian duke Theseus alleviates Hermia’s dilemma somewhat by allowing her to choose between a marriage to Demetrius and a life of celibacy, but still reinforces the father’s judgment with all the power of Athenian law.  It is the sentencing of the father, and the legitimation of the sentence by the law, that drives both lovers, Hermia and Lysander, into the moon-bathed forest.  The law impels the lovers into the forest, and the law will bring them out of the forest.  Theseus revokes his judgment when Demetrius has a change of heart, but let us not ignore the fact that the play begins with the law and ends with the law.  The man who sets into motion the inaugural conflict of the play, Theseus, will also resolve all the conflicts at the close of the play.  He promulgates that Hermia must make her decision by the day of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, and, indeed, all the conflicts will be reconciled in a triple marriage: the marriage of Lysander and Hermia, the marriage of Demetrius and Helena, and the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.

The conflict between Father and Daughter will be enlarged and mapped onto a second conflict between Oberon and Titiana, the Fairy King and the Fairy Queen.  Just as Theseus represents the Law of Athens, Oberon will represent the Law of the Fairy World.  Oberon’s most serious task is to suppress the insurrection of his fairy queen.

There is a further conflict between the world of the fairies and the world of the human beings.  Puck (also known as “Robin Goodfellow”) is the Interferer.  He is the agent of the supernatural that will intervene in the affairs of the morals (as will his lord Oberon).  The intrusion of the supernatural into human affairs will be one of the motors that pushes the plot forward; this conflict, in turn, will be applied to conflicts between Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena, which tangle the plot further.  The eavesdropping Oberon intervenes in the relationship between Helena and Demetrius.  Oberon delegates to his jester the responsibility of intoxicating a man wearing Athenian garb with an aphrodisiac in the shape of a purple flower.  The romance between Lysander and Hermia is interrupted and complicated by a mistake: Puck drugs Lysander instead of Demetrius with the juice of the purple love-narcotic.

We, then, have three pairs of lovers who are in conflictual relations with one another: Oberon and Titiana, Helena and Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia.  Theseus and Hippolyta are now in a harmonious relationship, but were once at variance with each other.

As I wrote above, the judgment of the father leads to the elopement of Hermia and Lysander.  When both lovers rush into the moon-bathed forest, they turn their backs on the Law of the Father; they enter a metamorphic, transformational space (compare with the Forest of Arden in As You Like It): Within the wood, the craftsman Bottom will be translated into an assheaded man.  Within the wood, Lysander will cease to love Hermia.

The forest is also a place of erogenous desire; the erotomania with which the characters are seized is mostly synthetic.  Only Hermia’s desire for Lysander and Helena’s desire for Demetrius are natural, but, it should be remembered, their desire predates the exodus from the Father and entry into the forest.  While in the forest, almost everyone else’s desire is artificially induced: Demetrius and Lysander only fall in lust with Helena because their eyes have been infected with flower juice.  Titiana lusts after Ass Head because she has likewise been intoxicated.  Under the influence of the flower, Helena and Ass Head become objects of lust.

The perversity does not end there: First, Titiana is obsessed with a child and then, she is obsessed with Ass Head.  After having her eyelids squirted with flower juice, Titiana’s unholy obsession with Ass Head replaces her obsession with the stolen Indian boy.  Both of these obsessions are perverse: Titiana’s strange, quasi-maternal obsession with the stolen Indian child causes a scission between her and Oberon and his bride, and Titiana’s obsession with Ass Head is both drug-induced and interspecies.

Titiana’s obsession with the stolen Indian boy parallels Helena’s obsession with Demetrius.  Shakespeare’s play suggests that all the love in the forest is unnatural love (with the exception of Hermia’s constant love for Lysander).  Again, Lysander’s obsession with Helena, as well as Demetrius’s obsession with Helena, are both brought on by the Ketamine-like purple flower love-toxin.

The forest is a place of disunification.  Within the wood, the human characters are separated from the agents of the supernatural: While in the forest, the fairies are hidden from the craftsmen and from the lovers.  The fairies are concealed from the lovers, but the lovers are not concealed from the fairies.  Furthermore, the craftsmen are not aware of the existence of the fairies or the existence of the lovers in the forest.  This concealment allows the fairies–in particular, Puck–to complicate the plot further by drugging Lysander and, later, Demetrius.  (Again, Puck confuses Lysander for Demetrius, and this mistake creates pandemonium in the forest: Hermia is abandoned, and now Helena becomes the object of lust of the two male lovers.)  And yet the audience will find this amusing, since we know that their lust is not genuine.  This is what I would call “comedic irony”–the counterpart of dramatic irony.  Dramatic irony surfaces when the audience knows an uncomfortable truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: Romeo thinks that Julia is dead, but the spectators know better.  Comedic irony is when the audience does know an amusing truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: that Lysander and Demetrius only “love” Helena because they have been infected by the juice of the purple flower, Love-in-idleness.  Laughter comes about through the contradiction with human reason, as Kant wrote in the Third Critique: “Es muss in allem, was ein lebhaftes, erschütterndes Lachen erregen soll, etwas Widersinniges sein (woran also der Verstand an sich kein Wohlgefallen finden kann).”

The characters, then, are balkanized into three mutually exclusive communities: the lovers, the fairies, and the craftsmen.  The exception to this is Bottom, who, when transformed into Ass Head, belongs both to the human and the fairy communities.

The forest is also the place of another form of sexuality that would have been considered perverse in the Age of Elizabeth.  The play is adorned with two female characters–one earthly, one ethereal–who are enormously aggressive: Titiana and Helena.

Both Helena and Titiana hunt the men they desire.  Much like her namesake in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena is a woman who has unreciprocated love for a man and who refuses to take “Yes” or “No” for an answer.  Helena herself acknowledges that this is an inversion in gender roles.  Helena to Demetrius:

“Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex. / We cannot fight for love, as men may do; / We should be woo’d, and were not made to woo” [II:ii].

Titiana is even more sexually aggressive than Helena.  She imprisons Ass Head in the forest:

“Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” [III:i].

I would like to emphasize how remarkable this is: A female character is restraining a male character against his consent.  This doubtless would have provoked laughter in the Elizabethan audiences for which it was performed because it would have been considered absurd, uncanny, and unnatural.  Consider, further, that the entire plot is set in motion by Helena’s furious jealousy and talionic rage.  I don’t think that this is a matter of comedy, however.  Without Helena being thrown into a rage, Demetrius would never have pursued Hermia into the forest, nor would Helena’s father and the Duke of Athens and his minions chased them.  Were Helena not in the forest, she would not have been eavesdropped upon by Oberon, and Oberon would not have delegated Puck to drug the killjoy Demetrius with the flower-shaped aphrodisiac.  When Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, this creates chaos in the forest.

All of this, the totality of the plot, was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder.  Am I the first literary critic to notice that Helena is a borderliner?  Those with Borderline Personality Disorder shift from absolute love to absolute hatred with the velocity of a single beat of a hummingbird’s wing.  They angelize the object of their desires prematurely and rapidly and then diabolize the object of their desires with equal prematurity and with equal rapidity.  A borderliner dismisses all flaws in the beloved in the ‘love’ phase and dismisses all positive traits in the beloved in the ‘hatred’ phrase.  This movement from absolute love to absolute hatred is often typed “splitting,” which is an unfortunate term.  It is more of a switching than it is a splitting.  Though we do not witness her diabolization of Demetrius, Helena pursues Demetrius with such voracity that she does resemble a borderline-disordered person.

*****

The play’s raison d’etre is to amuse the spectatorship with a spectacle of deformations and denaturations and then reassure that same spectatorship that the Great Chain of Being is still intact or has been restored.  The crises of the play are, in sum, as follows: The Fairy Queen, Lysander, and Demetrius are intoxicated with love-sap.  Within the forest, the characters belong to mutually exclusive societies.  The play-within-the-play is interrupted.  Titiana and Helena go against their traditional feminine roles and pursue male characters.  The Fairy Queen and the Fairy King hate each other.  There is the animalization of the human (the becoming-ass of Bottom).  Characters are mistaken for one another (to repeat, Lysander is confused with Demetrius).  The four lovers are single, as are the Duke and the Duchess-to-be.

In the final act, the power of the floral aphrodisiac has (in most cases) dissolved, the character-tribes that were once separated from one another are now integrated and interleaved (the craftsmen, the duke and duchess, the fairies, the lovers), the harlequinade is performed, Titiana and Helena are no longer playing the role of the huntress, the Fairy Queen and the Fairy King are no longer at variance with each other, Bottom has returned to his human shape, everyone knows who everyone else is, and six of the principal characters are getting married.  I would like to highlight what the culmination of the plot means:

  • No more drugs.
  • No more separateness.
  • No more interruption.
  • No more perverse sexuality.
  • No more conflict.
  • No more bestialization.
  • No more confusion of identity.
  • No more bachelorhood.

Love does not triumph over marriage in the play; marriage triumphs over love.  At the beginning of the play, to state it again, Theseus mandates marriage between Hermia and Demetrius; the only thing that changes is that now, there is a mandatory marriage between Hermia and Lysander.  The play begins with the compulsion of marriage, and it ends with three compulsory marriages.  It is not the case that Hermia frees herself from a marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state; she subjects herself to a different marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state.

Marriage is the Imprint of the Father and the Imprint of the Law.  As Theseus says to Hermia:

“Be advis’d, fair maid. / To you your father should be as a god: / One that compos’d your beauties, yea, and one / To whom you are but as a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it” [I:i].

Let us not forget that marriage is the effect of the Law of the Father and the Law of the State.  As he explains himself to the Duke of Athens, Lysander’s speech is broken off by what rhetoricians call aposiopesis, and Egeus summons the law:

“Enough, enough, my lord; you have enough! / I beg the law, the law upon his head!” [IV:i].

Another ambiguity in the plot that has never been sufficiently clarified: Does Demetrius genuinely desire Helena at the close of the play, and has the spell of the flower worn off?  His desire for her was a fabricated desire, brought about by the magical flower.  Is his desire for Helena now authentic?  On what basis could we say that it is?  In Shakespearean comedy, as I have written many times before, all of the principals shall be married, whether they want to be or not.  Demetrius’s marriage to Helena might very well be a mandatory marriage, a marriage that is contrary to love, impelled by the unreciprocated love of a woman, the dictates of the Athenian state, and the constraints of the plot.  Again, this same pattern will become integral to All’s Well That Ends Well: Even the name of the pursuing female character (Helena) will be the same.  Demetrius:

“I wot not by what power—/ But by some power it is—my love to Hermia, / Melted as the snow, seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon; / And all the faith, the virtue of my heart, / The object and the pleasure of mine eye, / Is only Helena” [IV:i].

He knows not by what power he has fallen out of love with Hermia and fallen into love with Helena.  Notice that Demetrius separates the source of his new love for Helena from his own mind and his own body.  The power that compels him to desire Helena, then, is something exterior to his self.  Could the power of which he speaks come from the lingering effects of the flower-drug?

*****

There are two instances of prodiorthosis in the play, or what are called today “TRIGGER WARNINGS.”  Prodiorthosis = a warning to the audience that something offensive or shocking is about to be said or displayed.  The second is a TRIGGER WARNING after the fact (if such a thing be possible):

Quince: “If we offend, it is with our good will. / That you should think, we come not to be offend, / But with good will” [V:i].

Puck: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear” [V:i].

The “shadows” are the characters themselves, since the work of art is itself a dream, and Puck reminds us that the adventure in the oneiric forest is a dream within the dream.  As I have written elsewhere, Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, and the contours of the plot are shaped by a wedding.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself was most likely written on the occasion of a wedding and first staged at a wedding.  This is worth remarking upon because conjugality is the transcendent value of the play.  The sexual tension that is stimulated and aggravated throughout the play ends in the moderation of marriage, the institutionalization of sexuality.  The perversity and the savagery of the huntresses in the play (Titiana, Helena) is tamed by marriage.  As the second prodiorthosis reminds us, the entire plot might have been a dream, an erogenous dream that is cancelled out by a mass-wedding.  The wildness of an erotic dream fizzles out into the crushing boredom of marriage.

*****

From all of the above I draw the principle: Plot is a literary artifice that creates the illusion that the world is organized.  But there is no prestabilized harmony that holds together the world.

Dr. Joseph Suglia