A review of BOTH FLESH AND NOT (David Foster Wallace)
By Dr. Joseph Suglia
Published four years after David Foster Wallace’s career-advancing suicide (a despicable suicide that was an assaultive act against his widow Karen Green), Both Flesh and Not (2012) reprints essays and squibs that were originally written for various newspapers, magazines, and journals; one of the texts appeared as the introduction to an anthology of essays, another was appended to a thesaurus. Both online and print sources are represented. Through the collection threads a list of words and definitions that Wallace kept on his desktop computer.
The vocabulary list troubles me more than anything else assembled in this volume. Someone who professed to care very much about Standard Written American Usage, Wallace abuses many words himself.
Wallace thinks that “art nouveau” refers to a “decorative style of early 20th c. using leaves and flowers in flowing sinuous lines, like on vases, columns, etc.” . This is innocence and nonsense. Jugendstil was much different than that. Beardsley didn’t always use “leaves” and “flowers”!
Wallace thinks that “birl” means to “cause to spin rapidly with feet (as with logrolling)” . But “birl” also means, intransitively, to “whirl”; for instance, you may say that hot dogs or sausages birl on spits.
Yes, Wallace is right to think that “distemper” might denote “a kind of paint-job using watered paint” , but it can also mean “to throw out of order” or “bad mood” and could denote a viral disease that affects dogs and cats.
Wallace thinks that an “ecdysiast” is a “striptease artist” , but this has only been the case since Gypsy. An “ecdysiast,” etymologically speaking, refers to something that molts or sheds its skin, such as certain birds, insects, and crustaceans.
Wallace doesn’t know that Grand Guignol was horror theatre before ever it was “cinema” .
Throughout, there are many such compositional errors.
Wallace had abysmal taste in literature. It is good to see Steps on a list of “five direly underappreciated U.S. novels” since 1960, but it ought to be stated that this novel, which is attributed to Jerzy Kosinski, was collaboratively written. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West has interesting content—the sort of content that one might expect to discover in an early- or middle-period film directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky—but its prose style is a mere pastiche of Faulkner. I don’t know what to say about a person who thinks that Denis Johnson is a serious writer.
Both Flesh and Not is a disastrous humiliation. Republishing these essays and squibs was not a good idea and besmirches the reputation of Wallace even more than D.T. Max’s horripilative biography does. Though he had many virtues, the ability to form strong sentences was not one of them. David Foster Wallace could not write a decent sentence to save his life.
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?
An Analysis of My Struggle (Min Kamp): Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s only aim.”
–Oscar Wilde, Preface, The Picture of Dorian Gray
“Woo. I don’t know how to sum it up / ’cause words ain’t good enough, ow.”
–One Direction, “Better Than Words”
If I could accomplish one thing in my life, it would be to prevent people from comparing the Scandinavian hack Karl Ove Knausgaard with Marcel Proust. Knausgaard does not have a fingernail of Proust’s genius. Comparing Knausgaard to Proust is like comparing John Green to Proust. Those who have actually read À la recherche du temps perdu know that Proust’s great novel is not the direct presentation of its author, a self-disclosure without literary artifice. Those who compare Knausgaard to Proust have never read Proust and have no knowledge of Proust beyond the keyword “madeleine.”
Knausgaard calls his logorrheic autobiography, My Struggle (Min Kamp), a “novel,” but in what sense is it a novel? It is completely devoid of novelistic properties. There is not a single metaphor in the text, as far as I can tell, and the extended metaphor (perhaps even the pataphor?) is one of Proust’s most salient literary characteristics.
The first volume dealt with Knausgaard’s unimportant childhood; Volume Two concerns the middle of the author’s life, his present. He is now in his forties and has a wife and three children. He spends his time, and wastes our own, recounting trivialities, stupidities, and banalities. All of the pomposities are trivialities. All of the profundities are stupidities. All of the epiphanies are banalities.
For most of this review, I will refer to Karl Ove Knausgaard as “Jesus,” since he resembles a cigarette-smoking Jesus on the cover of the English translation of the second volume.
We learn that Jesus dislikes holidays. We learn that raising children is difficult. Jesus takes his children to a McDonald’s and then to the Liseberg Amusement Park. In the evening, Jesus, his wife, and his daughter attend a party. Jesus thanks the hostess, Stella, for inviting them to her party. His daughter forgets her shoes. Jesus gets the shoes. He sees an old woman staring through the window of a Subway.
Jesus smokes a cigarette on the east-facing balcony of his home and is fascinated by the “orangey red”  of the brick houses below: “The orangey red of the bricks!” He drinks a Coke Light: “The cap was off and the Coke was flat, so the taste of the somewhat bitter sweetener, which was generally lost in the effervescence of the carbonic acid, was all too evident” . He reads better books than the one that we are reading (The Brothers Karamazov and Demons by Dostoevsky) and tells us that he never thinks while he reads. For some reason, this does not surprise me.
Jesus attends a Rhythm Time class (I have no idea what this is) and meets a woman for whom he has an erection.
Jesus’s daughter points her finger at a dog. “Yes, look, a dog,” Jesus says .
Jesus assembles a diaper-changing table that he bought at IKEA. The noise irritates his Russian neighbor. He cleans his apartment, goes shopping, irons a big white tablecloth, polishes silverware and candlesticks, folds napkins, and places bowls of fruit on the dining-room table.
In the café of an art gallery, Jesus orders lamb meatballs and chicken salad. He informs us that he is unqualified to judge the work of Andy Warhol. I agree with the author’s self-assessment. He cuts up the meatballs and places the portions in front of his daughter. She tries to brush them away with a sweep of her arm.
Almost ninety pages later, Jesus is in a restaurant eating a dark heap of meatballs beside bright green mushy peas and red lingonberry sauce, all of which are drowning in a swamp of thick cream sauce. “The potatoes,” Jesus notifies us, “were served in a separate dish” .
(Parenthetical remark: “[A] swamp of thick cream sauce” is my phrasing, not Knausgaard’s. Again, Knausgaard avoids metaphorics.)
Upstairs in the kitchen of his apartment, Jesus makes chicken salad, slices some bread, and sets the dinner table while his daughter bangs small wooden balls with a mallet. And so forth and so on for 592 pages of squalid prose.
Never before has a writer written so much and said so little. The music of ABBA is richer in meaning.
Interspersed throughout the text are muddleheaded reflections on What It Means To Be Human. We learn (quelle surprise!) that Knausgaard is a logophobe, “one who fears language”:
Misology, the distrust of words, as was the case with Pyrrho, pyrrhomania; was that a way to go for a writer? Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature? Or put another way: whatever we say is true we can also always say is untrue. It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread [here, Knausgaard seems to be channeling Ronald Barthes]. However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe. Paul Celan’s mysterious, cipher-like language has nothing to do with inaccessibility or closedness, quite the contrary, it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover. Paul Celan’s words cannot be contradicted with words. What they possess cannot be transformed either, the word only exists there, and in each and every single person who absorbs it.
The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this. They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also nonconceptual. There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do [129-130].
The only value of literature, then, according to Knausgaard, resides not in words, but in the transcendence from words. Literature is not composed of letters, for Knausgaard; literature is the feelings and the impressions summoned forth within the reader. After all, any idiot can have feelings. Very few people can write well.
It is clear that Knausgaard, then, does not think very much of literature. He is much more interested in LIFE. Everyone alive has life. Yes, palpitant life–throbbing, living life. Life is the most general of generalities, but talent is much rarer, to channel Martin Amis.
This might be the reason that Knausgaard dislikes Rimbaud’s verse, but is interested in Rimbaud’s life.
“Fictional writing has no value”  for Knausgaard. After all, fiction is distant from life, isn’t it? This Thought is at least as old as Plato. Knausgaard is unaware that fiction is, paradoxically, more honest than autobiographical writing. Autobiographical writing is fiction that cannot speak its own name, fiction that pretends to be something more “real” than fiction.
(Parenthetically: Despite what Knausgaard tells you, Pyrrho did not practice misology. He affirmed the uncertainty of things. Following Pyrrho: One can never say, “It happened” with certainty; one can only say, with certainty, that “it might have happened.”)
Hater of words, enemy of literature: Such is Knausgaard. He despises language, presumably because he does not know how to write. What is one to say of a writer who hates writing so much? One thing ought to be said about him: He is alarmingly typical.
Knausgaard is at home in a culture of transparency, in a culture in which almost everyone seems to lack embarrassability. Almost no one seems embarrassed anymore. People go out of their way to reveal everything about themselves on social-networking sites. Average people reveal every detail of their lives to strangers. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is violated, and almost no one seems to care. We live in a culture in which our privacy is infringed upon countless times every day, and where is the outrage? Those who are private–or who believe in the right to privacy–are regarded with malicious suspicion. Seen from this cultural perspective, the success of My Struggle should come as no surprise. An autobiography in which the writer reveals everything about himself will be celebrated by a culture in which nearly everyone reveals everything to everyone.
Art is not autobiography. As Oscar Wilde declared in the preface to his only novel, the purpose of art is to conceal the artist. Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, the presentation of the self that lives, the “writing of the living self.” It is, rather, auto-thanato-graphy, the writing of the self that dies in order for art to be born.
MY FAVORITE BOOKS, MY FAVORITE FILMS, MY FAVORITE MUSIC: Joseph Suglia
My favorite music is German, African, and English Progressive Rock from 1969 until 1987.
My favorite film is First Reformed (2018), directed by Paul Schrader.
My favorite writings include those of Gayl Jones, Roland Topor, D.H. Lawrence, J.G. Ballard, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Shakespeare, Martin Amis, Paul Valéry, Daphne du Maurier, Will Self, Herman Melville, Marcel Proust, Gore Vidal, John Wyndham, Richard Matheson, John Milton, Ambrose Bierce, Georg Trakl, Witold Gombrowicz, Henrik Ibsen, Georges Perec, Roald Dahl, Elias Canetti, Frank Wedekind, Epictetus, H.L. Mencken, Arthur Schnitzler, Michel Leiris, et al.
An Analysis of MAO II (Don DeLillo) by Joseph Suglia
Exactly ten years before the terrorist assaults on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991) compared the act of writing with the act of terrorism. As terrorists, writers once had the power to destabilize perceptions of the world. They unsettled one’s customary responses to things and opened up the possibility of new thoughts and impressions. By giving ordinary things extraordinary names, literary language had the power to radically transform one’s relationship to the world. Today, however, what could be more harmless than a novel? A novel is insignificant in comparison with the explosive force of terrorist initiatives. Literature is dead, and the news is the new means of perceptual disorganization.
The only way that literature can be effective in a culture of terror is by absorbing the gestures of terror. In DeLillo’s novel, literature, quite literally, terrorizes. Legendary novelist Bill Gray is blackmailed by a Maoist Lebanese political organization to act as its spokesperson. Although literature has lost its power to alter human perception, the image of the author exerts a certain authority. For this reason, Gray’s simulacrum will be used to promote the causes of Lebanese nationalism. The writer becomes a reporter, a mediator of images that stimulate fear.
As if to acknowledge that literature is absorbed by the culture of the image, Mao II takes the form of a “picture-book.” On the one hand, its various scenes have the “feel” of a documentary and resemble the news in printed form; there is, for example, an extraordinary “documentary”-like moment in which Brita and Karen watch Khomeini’s funeral on television and witness endless crowds simulating paroxysms of grief. On the other hand, each section of the book is segmented by actual photographs: masses of Chinese citizens gathered before Mao Zedong; a preordained marriage ceremony at Yankee stadium; a crowd of people crushed against a steel fence by the rampaging stampede at the 15 April 1989 soccer game in Sheffield, England; Khomeini’s portrait; children in the trenches of war-torn Beirut. All of this serves to reinforce the book’s thesis that the book is dead. Dead or swallowed by an infinite swarm of technically reproducible images.
The author of a novel about terrorism, Martin Amis incorrectly categorized Mao II as a “postmodernist” work. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the book traces the limits of postmodernism by opposing the transformation of words into images. The novel links the tyranny of images with the tyranny of terror–hence the title, which is taken from one of Andy Warhol’s mass-reproductions of Mao Zedong’s portrait. By aligning the order of images with the order of terror, the book condemns both. Of course, one of the characters, George Haddad, representative of the Lebanese terrorist group and Gray’s interlocutor, claims that terrorism has not been incorporated and subsumed by the culture of the image: “Only the terrorist stands outside” . By saying this, Hadded attempts to identify the terrorist with those who are outside of mainstream culture. But the exact opposite is the case–just because Haddad makes this claim does not mean that “DeLillo” agrees with him. Terrorists need technically reproducible images in order to terrorize. Without television and the massive circulation of sound-bytes and images that it empowers, the efforts of terrorism would be ineffective. By contrast, literature is, strictly speaking, invisible: it is constituted by hints, clues, gestures, and ambiguities. In a culture in which terror is spread through images, literature is doomed to failure: “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous” . American culture is a culture that valorizes the obvious–and for this reason, terrorism, which exploits the obvious, has a firm hold on the American sensibility. Everything must be visualized, everything must be known, everything must be self-evident, everything must be confessed. There is no place for literary opacity in a culture that values transparency above all else: “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated” .
And yet terrorists are also incorporated. One must no longer imagine that terrorists are “Others” who infiltrate a domestic territory. Terrorists do not attack “us” by way of an intervention or an incursion from the outside. Terrorism, according to the logic of Mao II, inhabits the very culture that it pretends to assail. All writers are terrorists and “half murderers” –and Gray is no exception. As the other “dictators” mentioned in the novel–Khomeini, Mao, and Moon–Bill recedes into an exile that would precede his accession to power and intensify his influence. He disguises his past and changes his name (from “Willard Skansey, Jr.”) in order to de-expose himself. His openness–the media exposure to which he “submits”–is the most devious form of concealment.
How else can an author survive in a culture of terror except by immersing him-/herself in an ever-proliferating sea of images? Even before his “proselytization,” Gray allows himself to be photographed by the enigmatic Brita. As the subject of a photograph, he yearns to obtain power through inaccessibility: “The deeper I pass into death, the more powerful my picture becomes” . By retreating into the illuminated darkness of the image (like Pynchon, like Blanchot, like Salinger), the writer occupies a sacred space once reserved solely for godhood. Only when the subject is dead can his or her image have any meaning. Authors kill themselves by permitting themselves to be visualized. The photograph is the death mask of the author.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An Analysis of 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) are tamed by marriage. As the second prodiorthosis reminds us, the entire plot might have been a dream, an erogenous dream that is cancelled out by a mass-wedding. The wildness of an erotic dream fizzles out into the crushing boredom of marriage.
From all of the above I draw the principle: Plot is a literary artifice that creates the illusion that the world is organized. But there is no prestabilized harmony that holds together the world.
Dr. Joseph Suglia