Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One: “La Belle Dame sans Merci”: A commentary

 

 

 

Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One

An analysis of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Dedicated to C.S.

Composed on April 21, 1819, in a single afternoon or early evening, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” has haunted the minds of readers for almost two centuries now.  In twelve stanzas, Keats says more than whole worships of writers say in their entire existence.  The poem is so sleekly, treacily, and elegantly composed, without a single false word, that it is imperishable.  Indeed, it is one of the few perfect English poems.

I will analyze the ballad stanza by stanza.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The question is the narrator’s—whoever the narrator might be—to the honey-starved zombie knight.  For the published edition, Keats foolishly substituted the words “wretched wight” for “knight-at-arms.”  “Wight” recalls the Isle of Wight, where Keats would indite lust letters to Fanny Brawne, the lust of his brief consumptive life, which makes the published text of the poem faintly ludicrous.  “Knight-at-arms” is a much better choice of words, since it invokes strength, which contrasts nicely with the knight’s ailment, which is clearly love-psychosis.  It also sounds and reads better, infinitely better, than “wretched wight.”

The narrator is asking an epidemiological question (when one compares the first stanza with the twelfth): What is the source of your illness?  Even though the autumnal landscape is withered and songless, the knight is loitering around like a beggar.  The flora are desiccated, much like the knight; there are no fauna, it seems, in the loveless expanse.  Nature has dried and shriveled up.  The birds that are not there are perhaps nightingales.  Readers of Keats will know that the nightingale is emblematic of the supernatural.  If this is the case, then the supernatural has withdrawn from the deathscape.

A nice instance of parechesis appears in the first stanza—a repetition of the grapheme LON in the words “alone” and “loitering.”

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

The granaries and the harvest have yielded a superabundance of food–food that is suitable for human consumption–but our love-zombie will never eat it. He will never eat the food because he cannot eat the food.  The knight is famished, starving for food that no human mouth can eat: It is the food that only his beloved faery princess can feed him.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

The syntax here is confusing: The lily that is embroidered on the knight’s brow is moist with anguish and moist with fever-dew.  The anguish-moist lily and the fading rose embroidered on the knight’s face-flesh: These are symptoms of his love-starvation.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

This is where the knight’s answer begins—an answer to the question, “What ails thee?”  Already, the reader is getting subliminal cues from the poem that the knight should run like hell away from the faery princess.  For one, she is the daughter of a faery and therefore any romance between the knight and the princess would be an interspecies romance.  Secondly, the wildness of her eyes might very well be the wildness of craziness.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

The number three is important in the poem: The faery princess’s physical attributes come in threes (her long hair, her light foot, her wild eyes), the food that she feeds to the knight comes in threes (relish root, wild honey, manna-dew), and here we have a triumvirate of decorations for the Beautiful Lady to wear (garland, bracelets, perfumed belt).  We might know three of her physical attributes and three things that she is wearing, but who is she, really, on the inside?

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

What kind of a knight is he, to let a woman he does not know ride his pacing steed?  And how can someone set someone else on a steed that is pacing?  Her sidelong look–her askance glance–lets us know that she is unconcerned with him and that his love will be unreturned; sharp readers should question the integrity of her intentions.  That he can see nothing else besides her radiance suggests that the knight has already plunged into total lunacy.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

How, precisely, does the knight know that the faery princess has declared her love for him?  The answer is: He does not. Her words are inaudible to him.  She speaks in a language that he cannot understand, and the suggestion is that the knight has projected his desire-to-be-loved upon her incomprehensible dark words.

The fact that communication between the knight and the faery princess is impossible intimates that contact between the knight and the faery princess is impossible.

“Honey” is sensuous, but the manna-dew is ethereal, heavenly: bread that rains from heaven.  “Manna” is customarily a noun, but here, it is used as an adjective and evokes, of course, The Book of Exodus.

“Manna-dew” was not in Keats’ original draft.  The lines read, in the original version: “She found me roots of relish sweet / And honey wild and honey dew.”  Keats was very wise to modify the wording.  The manna-dew that she feeds the knight reminds us that the faery princess is not a child of nature, but rather an otherworldly entity, one who comes from a transcendental province, much like the Grecian urn and the nightingale.  She exists outside of time and is not bound by the laws of nature.

The food that she feeds the knight is supernatural nutriment, and he will never be able to eat anything else.  All other food has become inesculent to him, even though the granaries are full and the harvest is done.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

She dwells in an elfin grotto, then.  If there is still any question on the subject, at this point, the argument over whether she is human has been settled: She is a chthonic being.  The fact that she dwells in an elfin grotto might imply that she is the Queen of Elphame, the elf queen who transported Thomas the Rhymer into the otherworld.

Why is the elf-girl weeping and sighing?  Is it because she knows that contact between her and her human lover is impossible?  If she is weeping and sighing over the impossibility of interspecies romance, does this not militate against the interpretation that she is wicked?

“Wild wild”: the use of anaphora (repetition) underlines her chaos, her untrammeled nature.  In Stanza Four, her eyes were described as “wild.”  Her eyes appear even wilder now.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

The faery princess anaesthetizes the knight, drugging him with Ketamine.  “The latest dream I ever dreamt”: The knight will never dream again.  Will he ever sleep again?

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

Listen to the chorus of love-hungry kings, love-hospitalized princes, and love-hurt warriors.  They tell you who they think the girl really is: The Beautiful Lady without Pity! They are the ones who call her “The Beautiful Lady without Pity.”  She never identifies herself, nor does the narrator, nor does the love-slaughtered knight at arms.  We don’t know her perspective at all.  Why should you believe the chorus of pallid loverboys?

The word “thrall” connotes enslavement.  To be in thralldom is to be in bondage to a master or a mistress.  In this case, the chorus of once-powerful men, of which the knight is now a member, is enslaved, enthralled, to the Beautiful Lady without Pity.

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

After the love-drug wears off, the knight awakens and finds himself in desolation and a place of natural destitution.  The only things in the dream-men’s mouths are warnings.  Much like the knight, only the food of the faery girl can nourish them; no other food can sate them.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The faery-intoxicated knight is doomed to walk along the withered shore of the lake in a perpetual autumn, sapped of his vitality and potency.  He has been enervated by the psychosis-inflicting Beautiful Lady without Pity.  The poem suggests that she is a witch, but she might as well be a lamia or a succubus.  The women in the Keatsean poetic universe are all Belles Dames sans Merci.  “Misogyny” is a label too easily applied these days, but how can we avoid calling this a misogynistic poem?

Dr. Joseph Suglia

Postscript

There is an alternative interpretation that is possible: The figure of the woman would be the vessel into which the misogynistic delusions of the knight are projected, into the vacuum which stands for that which cannot be symbolized.  This evacuates the pallid, forlorn night.  The figure of the female has now become an agglomeration of split-off parts that represents him.  The figure is then a void to which the male is inexorably drawn and from which he is driven in horror.  Keats’s pallid, forlorn knight has an experience of horror vacui.

The knight-at-arms would then have projected all of his disjecta membra into the figure of the female, thus rendering himself as servile and exhausted.

In other words, the Beautiful Lady without Pity is a construction.  What we are left with is only the imaginary.  This is, sadly, psychosis.  It is all too common.  The poem might then be a descriptive instantiation of delusional misogyny.

My only reservation with this alternative interpretation is that it is ahistorical.

 

 

 

 

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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 was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder.

*****

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

 

 

 

 

Corregidora / Corrigenda – by Joseph Suglia

 

 

Corregidora / Corrigenda

by Joseph Suglia

A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember.  All of us have heard the words “Never forget!” in reference to the Shoah.  Most are familiar with Kristallnacht, with the Names Project, also known as “the AIDS Quilt.”  The March for Humanity memorializes the mass-murder of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.  Every year, at this time in April, the Rwandan government urges its citizens to kwibuka—the Rwandan word for “to remember.” To kwibuka, to remember the countless Tutsis who were slaughtered in the massacre of 1994.

But how should one respond when genocide is misremembered?  Is the misremembrance of genocide superior to the forgetting of genocide?

Which is worse, distortion or oblivion?

Is it worse to minimize, for example, the number of Armenians who were killed at the beginning of the twentieth century, or to forget that the genocide of Armenians ever occurred?

The most dominant medium of the twentieth century was the cinema, and the cinema still has the power to shape, and to misshape, collective memory.

Over the past seven years, a talentless hack filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino has manufactured films that I would not hesitate to describe as “genocide pornography.”  That is to say, these are films that would turn genocide into an object of consumption, an object of enjoyment.  These are also films that disfigure historical consciousness.

Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the succeeding generation might believe that the Jews defeated the Nazis.  Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, they might believe that Hitler was assassinated.  They might believe that, in general, African slaves rose up and overcame their enslavers.  They might believe that every African slave in antebellum America was a free agent.  Not an insurrectionist like Nat Turner, but an action figure like Django.

But what if misremembrance were not a disfiguration or a distortion of memory?  What if misremembrance plays a constitutive and formative role in memory itself?

Freudian psychoanalysis has something to say about the interpenetration of remembrance and misremembrance.

At the earliest stage of his career, between the years 1895 and 1897, Freud formulated what is called “seduction theory.”  Seduction theory is based on the idea that sexual trauma is pathogenic—that is, that sexual abuse produces neuroses.

Freud rejected seduction theory in 1897, but this does not mean that he silenced the voices of abused children.  From the beginning of his career until its end, Freud never ceased to emphasize that sexual trauma has pathological effects.

Why did Freud reject seduction theory?  Because it was too linear, too simple, because it did not take into consideration the supremacy of the unconscious.

The memory of sexual trauma, Freud recognized, might be repressed, sublimated, externalized, transferred, reintrojected, reimagined, or fictionalized.

This does not mean that when children claim that they have been sexually abused, they are lying.  It means, rather, that experiences of abuse pass through the imagination and the imagination passes through the unconscious.  Seduction theory did not take the imagination—die Phantasie—into account and therefore had to be abandoned.

The unconscious, as Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fleiss, does not distinguish between fact and fantasy.

It is difficult for a victim of abuse to acknowledge his or her trauma directly, and Freud knew this.  Sexual trauma, after it occurs, does not manifest itself directly or immediately, but epiphenomenally—that is to say, symptomatically.  It shows itself in disguise.  It dramatizes itself.  It retraumatizes.  It might be phantasmatically reconstituted.

From the Freudian standpoint, remembrance and misremembrance are not mutually exclusive.

There is a third form of misremembrance that I would like to pause over.  It is the kind of anamnesis or déjà vu when an individual recollects not her own individual history, but the history of past generations, the history of her ancestors.  Cultural memory, seen from this perspective, would be a form of misremembrance.

Such misremembrance could only be figured in art.

The literature of Gayl Jones reminds us that the remembrance of personal trauma always contains a cultural dimension, that all memory is misremembrance.

The past that you have experienced is not the past that you remember.

When I first heard the title of Jones’s first novel — Corregidora  (published in 1975) — I thought it was “corrigenda.”

Corrigenda: a list of errors in a published manuscript.

* * * * *

At the novel’s opening, lounge singer Ursa Corregidora is shoved down a staircase by her husband, Mutt — a catastrophic blow that results in her infertility. After she renounces her husband, Ursa enters into a relationship with Tadpole, the owner of the Happy Café, the bar at which she performs. Like all of her significant relationships with men, this second relationship proves disastrous and is doomed to failure.

Every man in the novel, without exception, sees Ursa as a “hole” — that is, as a beguiling and visually appealing receptacle to be penetrated. The narrative suggests this on the figural level. A talented novelist, Jones weaves images of orifices throughout her text — tunnels that swallow and tighten around trains, lamellae such as nostrils, mouths, wounds, etc. Although one of Ursa’s “holes” is barren, another “hole” is bountifully “prosperous”  — her mouth, from which the “blues” issue. A movement of sonic exteriorization corresponds to a counter-movement of physiological interiorization.

It is easy to be trapped by these more immediate, socio-sexual dimensions of the narrative. Corregidora might seem, prima facie, to be nothing more than another novel about a woman imprisoned in abusive and sadistic relationships with appropriative men. But the meanings of Corregidora are far more profound than this.  A “transcendental” framework envelops the immediate narrative and casts it in relief, thereby enhancing its significance.  We learn that Ursa is the great-granddaughter of Portuguese slave-trader and procurer Corregidora, who sired both Ursa’s mother and grandmother.  Throughout the course of the novel, the men in Ursa’s life take on a resemblance to Corregidora — and this resemblance sheds light on both the sexual basis of racism and the tendency of some oppressed cultures to take on the traits of imperialist hegemonies.  According to the logic of the novel, the children of slaves resemble either slaves or slave drivers.  Even within communities born of slavery, the novel suggests, there persist relationships of enslavement.  “How many generations had to bow to his genital fantasies?” Ursa asks at one point, referring to Corregidora the Enslaver.  As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, Jones’s novel suggests, there will never be an end to this period of acquiescence; Corregidora will continue to achieve posthumous victories.

As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the enslavers will continue to achieve posthumous victorious.

As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the segregationists and the white supremacists will continue to achieve posthumous victories.

To return to the opening statement of this essay: A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. Although her infertility robs Ursa of the ability to “make generations” — something that, she is taught, is the essence of being-woman — she can still “leave evidence,” can still attest to the historical memory of slavery.  All documents that detailed Corregidora’s treatment of his slaves were seemingly destroyed, as if the abolition of slavery abolished memory itself.  According to the injunction of the Corregidora women (Ursa’s ancestors), one must testify, one must re-member, one must “leave evidence.”  And yet memory is precisely Ursa’s problem.  Memory cripples her.  Throughout the novel, Ursa struggles to overcome the trauma of her personal past.  And this past — in particular, the survival in memory of her relationship with Mutt — belongs to the larger, communal past that is her filial legacy.  Her consciousness is rigidified, frozen in the immemorial past of the Corregidora women.  This “communal” past is doomed to repeat itself infinitely, thus suspending the presence of the present — and, in particular, Ursa’s individual experience of the present.  Her individual experience of the present is indissociably married to her personal past, and her most intimate past is, at the same time, also the past of her community.  The words that Ursa uses to describe her mother could also apply to Ursa herself: “It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong within her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.”

At the shocking and unforgettable close of the novel, the past and present coincide almost absolutely.  When, after twenty-two years of estrangement, Ursa is reunited with her first husband, the historical memory of slavery is superimposed and mapped onto their relationship. Both Ursa and Mutt become allegorical figures, each representing slave and slaveholder, respectively.  The present-past and the past-present reflect each other in an infinite mirror-play until they both become almost indistinguishable from each other.

At the juncture of both temporalities is an inversion of power relations that comes by way of a sex act.  Ursa performs fellatio on her first husband.  Oral sex replaces oral transmission.  Here we have the perpetuation of a traumatic past, and yet it is a repetition with a difference.  Fellatio is disempowering for the man upon whom it is performed; dangerously close to emasculation, it is experienced as “a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness.”  For the woman, by contrast, it might be an act vacant of all sensuality, one that is abstracted of all emotional cargo.  Fellatio might infuse the performer with a feeling of power’s intensification; its objective might not be the enhancement of erotic pleasure, but of the pleasure that comes with the enhancement of one’s feeling of power.

By playing the role of the guardian of memory, Ursa dramatizes the intersection of her individual past with a communal past.  The paralysis of historical consciousness sets in: “My veins are centuries meeting.”

End of quotation, and the end of the essay.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer / RANT by “Chuck” Palahniuk

 

 

RANT (“Chuck” Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Even “Chuck” Palahniuk’s most devoted followers will have a hard time getting through Rant (2007), a book about thrill-seeking that is devoid of a single thrill.  As insipid as they are, at least Palahniuk’s other books are EZ-2-Read.  Rant, however, is not merely stupid–it is also deadeningly, mind-numbingly tedious.  While trudging through its pages, the essence of boredom was revealed to me.

RANT is compacted of endlessly babbling voices.  Each voice narrates a piece of Buster Casey’s life, a Typhoid Mary who has spread rabies across the United States.  But there is nothing new to be learned about Casey after the sixth page (Pages One through Six are titled, imaginatively, “An Introduction”) and what we do know is never vividly or convincingly described.  To be absolutely explicit: The plot doesn’t move. It stagnates. There is no progression.  No motor drives the narrative.  Nothing is narrated between Pages Seven through 319 that hasn’t been narrated in the first six pages.

Anything that seems to be remotely original comes from somewhere else.  The book’s epigraph was pilfered from Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994), the oral-biographical structure was pillaged from Stephen King (Carrie), the “Party Crashers” narrative was fobbed wholesale from J.G. Ballard’s Crash, a narrative that dominates the book to such an extent that it would have been better titled Ballard for Kindergarteners or Ballard Made EZ.  (Casey is Vaughan from Crash.  Yes, there is repetition in Crash, but it is repetition with purpose, repetition with nuance, repetition with difference.  Here, there is only the infinite repetition of the Same.)  The Tarzanesque pseudo-sentence “How the future you have tomorrow won’t be the same future you had yesterday” (Pages Four and 253) was pocketed from French poet and thinker Paul Valery (“The problem with the present is that the future is no longer what it used to be”).  The illiterately worded statement “History is, it’s just a nightmare” (p. 60) was lifted directly from Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.  (Not that Palahniuk has read Valery or Marx, mind you. He has admitted that his information largely comes from talking to those he meets at parties and from his followers.)  Even the rabies motif was thieved.  David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1976), anyone?

Rant is littered with pop-nihilistic syllogisms, statements of the obvious that are presented as “deep truths”: “Rant meant that no one is happy, anywhere” (p. 12).  Who doesn’t know that car-salesmen mimic the body language of potential clients?

The subhuman prose is even more galling than the book’s content.  Nearly every other sentence contains a double subject.  For instance: “The flight attendant, she asks this hillbilly what’s it he wants to drink” (p. 2).  A slightly less awkward, slightly less annoying, grammatical way of writing the “sentence” would be: “The flight attendant asks a hillbilly what he would like to drink.”  Palahniuk, however, insists on multiplying the subjects in his sentences ad nauseam, with unbearably irritating results.  Palahniuk’s defendants claim that he isn’t really as dimwitted as he seems to be, that his narrators are merely functionally illiterate.  If that is the case, they must explain why Palahniuk interviews in a functionally illiterate manner, why he writes “essays” in a functionally illiterate manner, and why every character in his universe is functionally illiterate, including those who hold doctorates.  If Palahniuk is merely impersonating a lobotomized orangutan on heroin, why would he write essays and speak in exactly the same simian language?

And so we have the grating misusage of the word “liminal”–over and over and over and over again…  We have Phoebe Truffeau, Ph.D., who uses phrases such as “prohibitions to [sic] bestiality” (p. 82).  We have teachers who say things such as “That Elliot girl, she told me the Tooth Fairy left [the coin] in exchange for a tooth she’d lost” (p. 52) and “Money you don’t work to earn, you spend very quickly” (p. 54).  We have Lowell Richards, teacher, who uses the phrase “indirectly and obliquely” (p. 99).  Whenever Palahniuk tries to write as “the smart people” do, he reveals himself as a half-wit.

And we have unspeakably hideous sentence fragments such as: “The ice melt and disappear” (p. 2).  Whenever Palahniuk tries to revise a cliche, such as Andy Warhol’s overly cited declaration “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” he comes up with a monstrosity: “In the future, everyone will sit next to someone famous for at least fifteen minutes” (p. 5).  Palahniuk’s revision makes no sense: I’m assuming that “everyone” includes “the famous,” which implies, of course, that in the future, the famous will also sit next to the famous.

Perhaps most offensively, Rant croaks out, in a particularly infantile passage, that AIDS is a “disease” that has been “spread” by a single carrier–that it is a “disease” like any other disease–when, in fact, AIDS is a syndrome of diseases, a pandemic, for which no single individual is accountable.

Allegedly, “Rant” refers to the sound that babies make when they vomit.  Now, I’ve never actually heard a baby make such a noise, but perhaps one should take the “author” at his word.  The title seems perfectly appropriate.  Simplistic, stupid, superficial, tedious, and derivative, Rant is the verbal equivalent to chunks of infantile regurgitate.

The same could be said of all of Palahniuk’s “works,” which are not based on the imagination (the “author” seemingly has no imagination whatsoever), but rather on whatever he is leafing through at the present moment.  As I stated above: Palahniuk has admitted that his books are collages of interviews he has had with random people in bars and at parties, as well as the four or five non-fiction books he leases from his local public library every time he sits down to write a “novel.”  The rest of the information is “Googled.”

Regrettably, Palahniuk is an incompetent “borrower.”  There is often the question, in his books, of relevancy. In Survivor, there is a longish passage on lobster-eating that was apparently lifted word for word from a book on dining etiquette.  What, precisely, does this passage have to do with Survivor‘s narrative?  Answer: Absolutely nothing.

Palahniuk wrote Lullaby in three weeks. I’m not entirely certain how much time it took him to disgorge Rant.  My guess would be two weekends.  I don’t say this to praise Palahniuk, as if he were capable of fashioning a well-crafted novel in two weekends with the dexterity of a Picasso, who could toss off a painting in an afternoon.  Rant is writing-workshop trash.  It reads as if it were a live-journal or Web log written by a subnormal high-school stoner, retched out and fraught with galling errors.

Palahniuk’s followers worship their leader as if he were a god.  But God is not an artist.

Neither is Chuck Palahniuk.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

 

Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE / An Analysis of Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE / Die fröhliche Wissenschaft / THE GAY SCIENCE by Friedrich Nietzsche / What does Nietzsche mean by “God is dead”? / What does this mean?: “What does not kill me makes me stronger” / Nietzsche and Schopenhauer / Was Nietzsche a proto-Nazi? / Was Nietzsche a fascist? / Was Nietzsche a misogynist? / Was Nietzsche a feminist? / Was Nietzsche a sexist? / What is the “Eternal Recurrence of the Same”? / What is the “will-to-power”? / Nietzsche and “The Will to Power” / Nietzsche and “The Eternal Recurrence of the Same” / Nietzsche and Buddhism / Nietzsche and Hinduism

 

 

On Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE

by Joseph Suglia

 

“At the beach and in the sand, small mussels are splashed about, into them we wriggle and see only wrigglers but never the waves and upsurge of beings!”

—Martin Heidegger, Black Notebooks, October 1931

 

FROM THE EARLY PERIOD TO THE MIDDLE PERIOD

The middle period of Nietzschean thought begins with The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) (1882; 1887).  Its invigorated and invigorating philosophy was made possible by the largely destructive Human, All-Too-Human (1878; 1886) and Daybreak (1881; 1887), the two books that immediately preceded The Gay Science.  In Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche explodes the concept of the free will and reveals the obscene selfishness, the crass self-interestedness, that underlies all human conduct.  In Daybreak, Nietzsche argues that all morality is false—indeed, impossible—if we conceive of moral behavior as being voluntary or other-directed.

The foundation of Nietzschean thought could be represented by one word: ananke (the Greek word for necessity).

We do not control what we think; we do not control what we do.  The sources of thought and action never exist within the horizons of consciousness.  All human thought and activity are uncontrollable / involuntary—that is to say, necessary—and therefore there is no reason to celebrate anyone for his or her “heroism” or condemn anyone for his or her “immoral” behavior.  It makes no sense, therefore, to regret what one has said or done, as it makes no sense to regret what one has not said or not done.  We are free to choose only what necessity has chosen for us.  Persephone rolls the dice of fate in Hades; we are free to play along.

The Gay Science—and the gay science—is the passionate assumption of necessity, amor fati (“the love of fate”).  The gay science is gaiety at the meaningless mechanism which is the world.  Everything is necessary yet purposeless.

 

DIVORCING SCHOPENHAUER: WHAT IS THE “WILL-TO-POWER”?

The Gay Science marks a swerving-away from Nietzsche’s unofficial teacher Schopenhauer.  There were already indications of Nietzsche’s growing dissatisfaction with Schopenhauer in Human, All-Too-Human [cf. especially Paragraph Thirty-Nine], in which Nietzsche ridicules his master for believing that some “metaphysical need” is innate to human beings.  The “metaphysical need” comes after religion; religion is not responsive to a preexisting “metaphysical need.”  Nor, Nietzsche argues, does the human conscience imply human moral responsibility—this is a false inference on Schopenhauer’s part.  The human conscience is a hive of error.

The total break with Schopenhauer, again, is announced in the pages of The Gay Science.  I would direct the reader to Paragraph Ninety-Nine, where Nietzsche makes explicit statements against Schopenhauerian philosophy, as well as to the poem “Pessimisten-Arznei” and the 1887 Preface, where he describes pessimism in physiological terms as a sickness.  What Nietzsche writes is pellucid; little commentary from me is required.  Briefly: Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the One Will is indemonstrable (that all causes are manifestations of the One Will at one time and at one place); the idea that a genius is a timeless, subjectless, desubjectified subject of knowledge is ridiculous; there is no such thing as animal magnetism; pity is not separate from the selfishness of individualism, etc.

What I would like to focus on here is something that is less obvious: the way that Nietzsche subtilizes Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the Will.

As the title of Schopenhauer’s masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, suggests, the world has two valences.  The innermost core of the world is the Will: the throbbing, palpitating, blind, stupid vital force, the will-to-live, the impulse to perpetuate and to preserve life.  The Will is the impelling force of Nature.  The Will is what makes one want to live, what keeps one alive, but more importantly, what makes us, usually inadvertently, continue the human species.  All that we do, whether we think we are doing so or not, is in the service of the life-will, of the enhancement and enlargement of life.

The fundamental trait of the Will is striving.  The exertions of the Will as objectivated in the human body are geared toward one thing (not a “purpose” or “goal”): the reduplication of humanity.  While this might sound “heteronormative” or “heterosexist” (to use two fuzz words), it is not.  Schopenhauer is not implying that the Will is a libido that is geared toward sexual reproduction; the Will is not the Will-to-sexually-reproduce.  Childless farmers, non-procreative artists, the celibate, gays, lesbians, the transgender—all of these, too, dance the regimented, compulsory dance of life, creating conditions for future humanity.  Homosexuality, for example, is a necessary counteraction / has a necessary counteractive effect which serves the drive to revitalize the human species.

Life, then, has no “purpose” other than its own perpetuation and promotion.  Human beings are playthings of the will-to-live.  The will-to-live continues, despite the endless deaths of individuals (in a sense, there are no individuals, for Schopenhauer)—which is why suicide is both foolish and repulsive.  You can kill yourself, but you can’t kill life.  Individuality is subordinate to the push-to-keep-humanity-alive.  The gay science is consciousness of the thrustings, the wellings, and the swellings of the Will and of the purposelessness of existence (Nietzsche, in this regard, likens the Will to the Wave, der Wille to die Welle).

Human beings think that they are their own masters, when behind every gesture, action, and word is the ascendant urge to renew the human species.  As I explained above, in Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche destroyed the philosophical foundations of altruism and the free will; in Daybreak, he destroyed morality on the basis of the destructions of Human, All-Too-Human.  In The Gay Science, we learn what human acts and thoughts subserve.  We are marking time, marching in place, when we believe that we matter.

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are one at this stage: Individuals who believe that they are masters of themselves are self-deceptive.  They are puppeteered by the Will (which Schopenhauer believes is the will-to-preservation; Nietzsche believes the Will is something else, as we shall see).  Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, however, differ in their attitudes toward the Will.  For Schopenhauer, life is tragedy (life is a business that cannot cover its own expenses; human beings arise only to be extinguished; the character of life is suffering).  Nietzsche does not deny any of this—far from it—but for him, life is a comedy, a comedy because it has no goal, and consciousness of the pointlessness of life is the gay science.  Why else would Nietzsche invite the Grillen to dance the dance of life?  Grillen: this interesting word means both “crickets” and “whimsical (often, bad) moods.”  We are invited to confront and absorb the negative in the dream-dance of life: hence, the frequent terpsichorean and oneiric figures that proliferate throughout the text.  Nietzsche rejects Schopenhauer’s gloominess, his dourness, though he agrees that the maintenance, sustenance, and perpetuation of the human species is the result of a more fundamental human impulse than that of the principle of individuality (the principium indivuationis).

Nietzsche advances another step beyond his ex officio teacher and mentor, Schopenhauer, when he calls attention to how vices and how (later) squandering contribute to the will-to-live: Hatred, malice, envy, aggression, the desire to steal—all of these forms of so-called “wickedness” belong to “the astounding economy of the conservation of the species” ([die] erstaunliche[-] Oekonomie der Arterhaltung) [Paragraph One].  Much later, Nietzsche informs us that “Evil” is nothing more than another name for those who are vigorous, for those who are passionate (leidenschaftlich) [Paragraph 326], for those who enhance life, for those who stimulate opposition, with their passionate individualism and unconventional ideas.

Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, good nor evil in itself; we make it so.  That is to say: Neither Good nor Evil exists.  “Good” and “Evil” are mystifications, simplifications (and hence falsifications), abstractions.  The dichotomy of Good and Evil is replaced, by Nietzsche, with the terms strong / fertile / healthy and the feeble / sterile / sick.  Nietzsche seems to be using dualisms / dichotomies / binary oppositions himself.  One must be careful not to think that Nietzsche is substituting one dualism for another, however.

The strong and the weak do not form a dualism, but a continuum or an “axis” (to use Brian Eno’s term).  There are no opposites, only continua / axes.  Sickness and health are not opposites—there are subdivisions, gradations, degrees, nuances, levels between the antipodes of “strength” and “feebleness,” between “sickness” and “health.”  Health cannot do without sickness, as we learn from Paragraph 120 of The Gay Science and the 1886 Preface of Human, All-Too-Human.  All values are derived from disvalues.  Logic comes from illogic [cf. Paragraph 111].  Altruism is the chick that is hatched from the egg of selfishness.  In Human, All-Too-Human, we learn that generosity is drawn from a selfish lust for power.  In Paragraph 118 of The Gay Science and Daybreak, passim, we learn that benevolence (and pity, the affect that motivates benevolence) is the effort of the strong to appropriate the weak.  Opposites interpenetrate.

The most fundamental human impulse is not the will-to-reproduce-life, as Schopenhauer believes.  In the following words, Nietzsche definitively breaks with Schopenhauer: “In nature, it is not distress which rules, but rather abundance, squandering, even to the point of absurdity.  The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the life-will; the great and small struggle revolves everywhere around preponderance, around growth and expansion, around power, in accordance with the will-to-power, which is simply the will-to-live” ([I]n der Natur herrscht nicht die Nothlage, sondern der Ueberfluss, der Verschwendung, sogar bis in’s Unsinnige.  Der Kampf um’s Dasein ist nur eine Ausnahme, eine zeitweilige Restriktion des Lebenswillens; der grosse und kleine Kampf dreht sich allenthalben um’s Uebergewicht, um Wachsthum und Ausbreitung, um Macht, gemäss dem Willen zur Macht, der eben der Wille des Lebens ist) [Paragraph 349].

The will-to-live is only the restriction of a much greater will.  For Schopenhauer, the Will is the will-to-live; in Nietzsche, the Schopenhauerian Will is transformed into the will-to-power.

What is the will-to-power?  The “will-to-power” means the following: All of life is composed of relativities of power.  One creature is the dominant; the other is the subordinate.  One creature is the master; the other is the slave.  Not the desire for power, but desire as power is the fundamental characteristic of the will.  Exertion, struggling, striving for the preservation of the human species is a secondary characteristic.  The essential trait of the Will is the drive toward supremacy, toward ascendancy, over other organisms and entities.

All live organisms strive for dominance over other live organisms—but they also strive for dominance over the world.  Such is the will-to-power.  Power is not an object that is separate from the will; it is inherent to the will itself.  The will-to-power is the will of power, the power-will.

 

NIETZSCHE LOVES WOMEN / NIETZSCHE LOVES MOUNTAINS / NIETZSCHE DOES NOT LOVE WOMEN / NIETZSCHE DOES NOT LOVE MOUNTAINS

Nietzsche, sadly, writes a number of disobliging things about women in The Gay Science.

Am I the first reader to notice that Nietzsche writes about women in almost the same way in which he writes about mountains?  In Paragraph Fifteen, he tells us that mountains are only beautiful at a distance.  A mountain is beautiful to look at, but it is not beautiful to be a mountain.  The man who gazes at the mountain from the comfort of the Swiss boarding house is charmed; the mountaineer is not so enchanted.

In Paragraph Sixty, Nietzsche writes almost exactly the same thing about women.  Women, we are told, produce magical effects on the spectator only at a distance.  Fascination / bewitchment / enchantment implies distance.  The comparison between women and mountains could easily be interpreted as a misogynistic comparison (for what is a mountain but a large rock?).  However, as I have written elsewhere (in my commentary on Human, All-Too-Human), Nietzsche is not always merely a misogynist.

At other times, Nietzsche praises women to the sky.  Consult Paragraph Sixty-Four: Old women—Nietzsche slyly utters while twisting his Vercingetorix moustache—know that the superficiality of existence is its essence.  In other words, experienced women are more philosophically minded than experienced men.  A philosopher (I will return to this point below) is not someone who sees the Platonic idea (eidos) through the masquerade of appearances.  A philosopher is one who knows that there is no idea behind the curtain.

Anyone who still thinks that all of Nietzsche’s thoughts on women are reducible to misogyny should read on.  In the poignant paragraph that follows, we learn that Nietzsche has sympathy (perhaps even empathy) for women who offer their bodies—and their shame—to men who neither appreciate them nor return their love.  At another point, he even equates life itself to women / women to life itself: “Yes, life is a female!” (Ja, das Leben ist ein Weib!) [Paragraph 339].  This is the highest encomium that could ever be accorded to anyone.  What is this if not philogyny (the love of women)?  What is this if not crypto-feminism?

 

NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A FASCIST.  NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A PROTO-NAZI

Of all the tabloid lies that have been told about him, none is as blatantly untrue as the rumor that Nietzsche was a fascist or a proto-Nazi.  Such slanderous gossip could be refuted in a few words.  Nietzsche renounced his German (Prussian) citizenship in 1869.  He vilified the authoritarian state in Thus Spoke Zarathustra—and there has never been a fascist who did not revere the authoritarianism of the state.  He believed in a rule of intellectuals [cf. Paragraph 283], or, to invent words, a cognocracy or a philosophocracy—surely, fascism is nothing if not anti-intellectualist (see my brief article “Fascism”).  He inveighed against nationalism, racial hatred (Rassenhass), and the fetishistic piety of epidermal worship or “mendacious racial self-admiration” (verlogne[-] Rassen-Selbstbewunderung) [Paragraph 377].  Not only does Nietzsche suggest that “racial purity” (whatever this means) is undesirable—he even seems to suggest that it is impossible.  He never ceased to ridicule and condemn Anti-Judaism (for one example of this, consult the final pages of Toward the Genealogy of Morals).  He constantly expresses his admiration for the Jewish people [read Paragraph 475 of Human, All-Too-Human and Paragraph 205 of Daybreak].  On 29 March 1887, Nietzsche inked and mailed a letter to Theodor Fritsch, self-anointed Anti-Semite and one of the vilest ideological precursors of National Socialism, that contained these words as its closing paragraph: “Finally, how do you think I feel when the name Zarathustra is mouthed by an Anti-Semite?”  Nietzsche was demanding that Fritsch stop sending him copies of the rag that Fritsch edited: the Antisemitische Correspondenz und Sprechsaal für innere Partei-Angelegenheiten.

This is scarcely the profile of a fascist or a proto-Nazi.  The ethnic purifiers, the racial homogenizers, the phenotype idolaters, the ideological Aryans, the alt-rightists, the Neo-Nazis should find another “fave” philosopher (might I suggest Hegel?).  Nietzsche revolted against everything these thugs, mugs, and lugs stand for.

 

OUT-KANTING KANT: ONTOLOGY IS PHENOMENOLOGY

The title Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (“the gay science”) has at least four meanings:

  • At the most literal level, the gay science is poetry. The term gaya scienza was used by twelfth-century troubadours from Provence as another name for poetic art.  The book itself is fringed by two series of poems: “Joke, Cunning, and Revenge” and “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei.”  The most significant of these is “To Goethe” (from “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei”), to which I will turn, briefly, below.

 

  • The title carries a personal meaning. In the 1887 Preface, Nietzsche attributes the provenance of the book to a personal convulsion, the “saturnalia of a mind” (Saturnalien eines Geistes), an overturning, an overthrow of the romantic pessimism of Schopenhauer and of Schopenhauer’s disciple Wagner.  The rejection of romantic pessimism does not lead Nietzsche into optimism (thank goodness).  “The gay science” is the impassioned affirmation of the world-as-such in all of its ugliness, not the naïve hyperbole of Leibnizian optimism, which sees the world as the best of all possible worlds.  To see the world as the best of all possible worlds is to see the world as better than it is, since there is only one world.  This is the world, and there is no other.  Optimism and pessimism are surpassed in favor of the life-affirming repudiation of all religion, of all morality, and of all metaphysics (which serves as the foundation of religion and morality).  Metaphysics, by definition, posits a supraworld, a world-beyond-the-world, an Apart-from-the-world, an επέκεινα.  This explains the book’s frequent references to Epicurus, who believed: If there are gods, they do not concern themselves with us.  The Gay Science is not a Leibnizian book (far from it); it is an Epicurean book.

 

  • The gay science, as I suggested above, is the consciousness of the purposelessness of existence—unless the promotion of life is itself a purpose. But how could the impulse to continue, to perpetuate, to reproduce the human species be a “purpose”?  If the concept of purpose implies free will (and surely it does), then the impulse to propagate the human species is no purpose at all.  The gay science is the joyous assumption of necessity.  It is the cheerful knowledge that a supercomputer would be able to preprogram all of human behavior centuries before any of that behavior was enacted.

 

  • The gay science is Nietzsche’s phenomenological ontology.

 

Let me address this final theorem here.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche gives us a philosophy of superficiality.  Nietzsche tells us, “We cannot see around our corner” (Wir können nicht um unsre Ecke sehn); the human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself, things in the world, and other selves under its own perspectival forms [Paragraph 374].  All we have are surfaces and surfaces of surfaces.  The world is a glittering, glistening, trembling, quivering play of surfaces without depth—a scintillating mosaic with nothing behind it.

But if there is no depth, can there be a surface?  For Nietzsche, there can be depthless surfaces—there is nothing beneath the surface; there are only grooves, filigrees, fissures, grooves incised on the surface of the world.  There are nothing but veils and veils that veil veils.  As he writes in the 1887 Preface: “We no longer believe that the truth still remains the truth when the veil is pulled off” (Wir glauben nicht mehr daran, dass Wahrheit noch Wahrheit bleibt, wenn man ihr die Schleier abzieht).

The disciple of the Temple of Sais pulls off the veil that veils the statue of Isis—there is nothing there beneath the veil.  No revealed mystery, no depth.  The unveiling is a forced striptease that does not lead to nudity, that does not lead to the truth, that never reaches an essence, that never comes to an ultimate profundity, but one that leads to another set of impermeable veils.  What this means is that depth is superficiality, as superficiality is depth.  A frog is a frog, a log is a log, a bog is a bog.

It takes a deep person to recognize that the world is superficial, which is why Nietzsche writes that mystics are not even superficial / surficial: “Mystical explanations are estimated as deep; the truth is, they are not even superficial” (Die mystischen Erklärungen gelten für tief; die Wahrheit ist, dass sie noch nicht einmal oberflächlich sind) [Paragraph 126].  My interpretation of this statement: A mystic / mystagogue is someone who ignores the surfaces of life in favor of a deeper world that does not even exist.

The all-important Paragraph Fifty-Four—the centrifugal force of the book—liberates appearances from essences.  We learn here that a phenomenon is not the appearance of a thing; a phenomenon has its own integrity.  Appearance is not the opposite of some essence (Gegensatz irgend eines Wesens).  Appearance is not a death mask (eine todte Maske), an unknown X (ein[-] unbekannt[es] X), the crust or shell of a thing.  “Semblance,” Nietzsche writes, is “the acting and living themselves” (Schein ist für mich das Wirkende und Lebende selber).  Though Nietzsche does not write the following explicitly, he appears to imply: Appearance is essence.

In this extraordinary paragraph, Nietzsche emancipates himself from his unofficial teacher Schopenhauer and from Schopenhauer’s unofficial teacher Kant.  It is not merely the case that we only know appearances and never things in themselves, Nietzsche suggests to us.  Nietzsche celebrates and affirms—with the giddiness of gaiety—phenomenality without Dinge an sich (“things in themselves”).  Here, Nietzsche is moving away from Schopenhauer (and from Schopenhauer’s predecessor, Kant), who still believed that there is a supersensible truth beyond the world of appearances.  Whereas Kant believed that things in themselves underlie appearances, Nietzsche here affirms that there are only appearances and no things in themselves.

Further, Nietzsche is against all ethics of prudence.  Reason does not have a pure employment—all ethics are ethics of prudence, of convenience, of self-interest.

Kant does assert repeatedly that the forms of knowledge (particularly, the forms of sensibility, space and time) cannot be applied to things as they are in themselves.  Neither are they applicable to three “Ideas of Reason” that entranced the originators of Christianity (and, to an extent, Christian Wolff): God, the free will, and immortality.  On this, Nietzsche and Kant are in agreement.  The “Ideas of Reason” have no correlative in experience.  Where is God?  Where is the free will?  Where is immortality?

However, Nietzsche goes much further than Kant.  Nietzsche utterly denies the reality of God.  He utterly denies the reality of the free will.  He utterly denies the reality of immortality.  We must admit that Nietzsche was far more enlightened than Kant.  In comparison with Nietzsche, Kant appears to be clouded by intellectual benightedness.  Nietzsche thinks that God, the free will, and immortality are intellectual errors and that human reason is by no means bound to accept them even as noumenal realities.

Nietzsche, then, is out-Kanting Kant: There is no noumenal self, no supersensible morality, no noumenal world.  There is no separation between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds.  Although Nietzsche never actually writes this, we can aver with confidence that Kant was not enlightened enough.  Kant is not the representative of the Enlightenment that most think him to be.  Nietzsche, who was born forty years after Kant died, takes the Enlightenment to its logical conclusion.  He certainly took the Enlightenment much further than Kant ever did.

Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world.  That is to say: Nietzsche superficializes the world.

Heidegger is wrong when he claims that Nietzsche inverts Platonism.  To “invert” Platonism would be to place the phenomenon above the essence (eidos).  Nietzsche does not invert Platonism.  He displaces Platonism.

Does this imply that life is a lie?  Nietzsche will write in the Nachlass that “[t]ruth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.”  This, regrettably, is one of the most unfortunate things that Nietzsche ever wrote.  For does not this interpretation of truth presuppose truth?  Is Nietzsche not assuming that his own statement is true?  Is he not hoping that we, the readers, will accept his statement as a true statement?  Or is he suggesting that his own statement is erroneous?  This is one of the Megarian paradoxes: A man comes from a city where everyone lies.  He says, “I am lying.”  Is he telling the truth?  Nietzsche writes that truth is a lie.  Is he telling the truth?

Nietzsche’s argument might be saved if we rewrite his statement as follows: “There is no truth (no absolute reality, no reality absolved of perception and perceptibility); there are only things that we take as the truth.”  To cite a popular-culture example: The film I, Tonya (2017) seems to proceed from this understanding—all the while discounting any perspective other than that of Team Tonya.  In the film, Tonya Harding is the victim, not Nancy Kerrigan.

Most of the poems in The Gay Science are nothing more than silly fun (and Nietzsche admits this), but there is one that stands out: “To Goethe.”

World-Play, the masterful, / Blends being and semblance:—

Welt-Spiel, das herrische, / Mischt Sein und Schein:—

To paraphrase: There is no “deeper life.”  Being is appearance, Sein is Schein, ontology is phenomenology.  Life is a scintillating mosaic, a play of surfaces.  Again, this is not an inversion, but a displacement of Platonism.

This is why Nietzsche praises artists, creators of illusions of profundity.  This is why artists are compared to lovers, and lovers are compared to artists; both conceal naturalness [Paragraph Fifty-Nine].  Art is the “good will to semblance” (gute[r] Wille[-] zum Scheine) (Paragraph 107)—that is, art is illusion without the pretext of being true (unlike, say, religion).  Art resembles existence, which is already aesthetic.  This does not mean that art represents things in the world, as Aristotle believes.  It means that art repeats the phenomenal character of existence.  We are drawn to works of art because they remind us that life is already art—that is, they remind us that life is already a shallow play of appearances.  Art reminds us that life is already a constellation / a clutch / a cluster of illusions.

This is why what flying fish love most about life is its skinnishness / skinness / skinnedness / epidermality (Hautlichkeit) [Paragraph 256].  For life is a vast skin without fat or muscle—a skin of many pigmentations.

This is why the name of a thing (its reputation) is more important than the thing itself.  A name describes the human relation to a thing; it does not describe the thing itself.  The name of a thing is the skin that becomes its very body [cf. Paragraph Fifty-Eight].  Indeed, without a name, a thing is not accessible at all.  Language gives birth to reality—Nietzsche almost writes this [cf. Paragraph 261].

Language is not reducible to some meaning behind letters and punctuation marks.  Language inheres in letters and punctuation marks.  This point is reflected by Nietzschean novelist Hermann Hesse, a writer who has long been adored by public and reviled by Germanists, in the fourth chapter (“Awakening”) of his novel Siddhartha.  In this chapter, the eponymous protagonist throws off religion and affirms his self, the surfaceness of life, and the signifierness of language (sit venia verbo):

“Meaning and essence were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them” (Sinn und Wesen waren nicht irgendwo hinter den Dingen, sie waren in ihnen, in allem).

The affirmation of the empirical is not scientific reductionism, for science destroys mystery / ambiguity [cf. Paragraph 373].  It is not scientific reductionism; it is the gay science.  The gay science: to be unfavorably disposed toward meta-phenomenal ideas and toward absolute unbudgeable convictions.  The gay science is the joyous, impassioned affirmation of empty phenomena.

The lightness of being is not unbearable—to write against the worst of the pseudo-Nietzschean novelists, Milan Kundera (Hesse is his superior).  Not only is the lightness of being bearable, it is joy-inspiring.  Nietzsche celebrates the joyous weightlessness of existence.  The gay science—and The Gay Science—is a gay phenomenology.

 

“GOD IS DEAD”: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

How could God die, if God never existed to begin with?: Both Foucault and Christopher Hitchens have posed this question.  The answer, of course, is that Nietzsche never intended the literal death of God when he wrote, “God is dead.”  He meant the implausibility of believing in the otherworld, the unbelievability of belief in the otherworld.  One should recall the story of the lunatic in the marketplace that Nietzsche tells us in The Gay Science: The people of the marketplace do not even believe in God and are indifferent to the lunatic’s rantings.  The point is not that God does not exist but that the idea of God is unbelievable.

If God is dead, this is because God is depth.  Any belief in metaphysical depth becomes incredible.

God is dead because God is depth.

 

WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME KILLS ME: WHAT DID NIETZSCHE MEAN WHEN HE WROTE, “WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME MAKES ME STRONGER”?

Nietzsche is a thinker who many talk about, but few have read—thoroughly, at least.  One of his statements that is repeated everywhere throughout American popular culture, a statement that permeates everything from the now-moldering and –smoldering Web site MySpace to the sounds of Kayne West, is “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker) [from Götzendämmerung].

The 1887 Preface helps one understand this, probably most oft-quoted statement that Nietzsche ever made (eclipsing perhaps even the death of God and the abyss-that-is-looking-into-you): “I doubt that [the great] pain ‘improves’ us—; but I know that it deepens us” (Ich zweifle, ob [der grosse] Schmerz ‘verbessert’—; aber ich Weiss, dass er uns vertieft).

The 1887 Preface clarifies in advance what Nietzsche meant by “What does not kill me makes me stronger”: What Nietzsche means by “what does not kill me” is “the great pain,” the most excruciating pain of one’s life.  The great pain makes me deeper.

But what or who is this “me”?  The “me” is the free spirit.  What does not kill the free spirit makes the free spirit deeper.  Pain makes the free spirit become another person—the free spirit is always becoming another person.  A way of retranslating this famous formulation, then, might be: “The great pain annihilates and recreates the free spirit.”

What does not kill me kills me.

The new person is a questioner—one who poses questions as to the questionableness of existence.  After an experience of pain, the free thinker—the survivor of the trauma—delights in the experience, for s/he knows that pain is necessary and produces meaning.  Pain problematizes existence, highlighting its ambiguity / equivocality.

What does not kill me makes me more profound—and (to retranslate this remark into the terms of The Gay Science) my profundity makes the world appear superficial.

 

WHAT IS THE ETERNAL RECURRENCE OF THE SAME?

The Gay Science contains the first published reference to the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same (an unpublished reference occurs earlier, in the notebooks—see the notebook of August 1881): In order to attain your highest humanity, “you desire the eternal recurrence of war and peace” (du willst die ewige Wiederkunft von Krieg und Frieden) [Paragraph 285].  By the “eternal recurrence of war and peace,” Nietzsche does not intend that our lives will repeat themselves infinitely.  He intends that we ought to live our lives as if our lives will repeat themselves infinitely.  The infinite repetition of our lives is a thought-experiment, not a metaphysical claim.  The infinite repetition of our lives is a philosophical imperative, an “Ought.”  (I will pursue this topic in much greater depth when I discuss Beyond Good and Evil and the Nachlass.)  The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is the philosophical imperative: Live your life for nothing other than its own infinite repetition.

Schopenhauer constantly refers to Hinduism (or as he calls it “Brahmanism” or “the Vedanta philosophy”) throughout The World as Will and Representation.  The extent to which Nietzsche is indebted to Hinduism has yet to be sufficiently explored.  One should not ignore the epigraph to Morgenröthe, which comes from the Rig Veda: “There are many days that have yet to be dawned.”

Is it possible that Nietzsche was inspired by Hinduism when he came up with the Eternal Recurrence of the Same?  I am thinking of the Hindu concept of samsāraSamsāra is the endless recycling of rebirth and redeath.  The only way out is nirvāna, the extinction of the self (the word nirvāna originally referred to the extinguishing, the snuffing-out, of a candle flame).  For the Hindu, the point of life is not to reenter the cycle of samsāra.  The point of life is to suspend samsāra—not to perpetuate it.

The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is not a matter of hopefulness, even though the future is perfect.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

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.

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