SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia
Table of Contents
THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES
THE SHAKESPEARE ESSAYS
VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES AND PROBLEM PLAYS
VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES
MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM
SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia
Table of Contents
THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES
THE SHAKESPEARE ESSAYS
VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES AND PROBLEM PLAYS
VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES
MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM
Three Aperçus: On DEADPOOL (2016), David Foster Wallace, and Beauty
by Joseph Suglia
Deadpool (2016) is capitalism with a smirking face.
David Foster Wallace was not even a bad writer.
Beauty is the one sin that the Average American of today cannot forgive.
The Neon Demon (2016) is a snuff film in which art is murdered.
Descent (2007) is superior to The Neon Demon because the former has an Aristotelian structure — which works.
If you only have three fingers on your right hand, why should I lop off two of my own?
Dr. Joseph Suglia
Corregidora / Corrigenda
by Joseph Suglia
A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. All of us have heard the words “Never forget!” in reference to the Shoah. Most are familiar with Kristallnacht, with the Names Project, also known as “the AIDS Quilt.” The March for Humanity memorializes the mass-murder of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Every year, at this time in April, the Rwandan government urges its citizens to kwibuka—the Rwandan word for “to remember.” To kwibuka, to remember the countless Tutsis who were slaughtered in the massacre of 1994.
But how should one respond when genocide is misremembered? Is the misremembrance of genocide superior to the forgetting of genocide?
Which is worse, distortion or oblivion?
Is it worse to minimize, for example, the number of Armenians who were killed at the beginning of the twentieth century, or to forget that the genocide of Armenians ever occurred?
The most dominant medium of the twentieth century was the cinema, and the cinema still has the power to shape, and to misshape, collective memory.
Over the past seven years, a talentless hack filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino has manufactured films that I would not hesitate to describe as “genocide pornography.” That is to say, these are films that would turn genocide into an object of consumption, an object of enjoyment. These are also films that disfigure historical consciousness.
Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the succeeding generation might believe that the Jews defeated the Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, they might believe that Hitler was assassinated. They might believe that, in general, African slaves rose up and overcame their enslavers. They might believe that every African slave in antebellum America was a free agent. Not an insurrectionist like Nat Turner, but an action figure like Django.
But what if misremembrance were not a disfiguration or a distortion of memory? What if misremembrance plays a constitutive and formative role in memory itself?
Freudian psychoanalysis has something to say about the interpenetration of remembrance and misremembrance.
At the earliest stage of his career, between the years 1895 and 1897, Freud formulated what is called “seduction theory.” Seduction theory is based on the idea that sexual trauma is pathogenic—that is, that sexual abuse produces neuroses.
Freud rejected seduction theory in 1897, but this does not mean that he silenced the voices of abused children. From the beginning of his career until its end, Freud never ceased to emphasize that sexual trauma has pathological effects.
Why did Freud reject seduction theory? Because it was too linear, too simple, because it did not take into consideration the supremacy of the unconscious.
The memory of sexual trauma, Freud recognized, might be repressed, sublimated, externalized, transferred, reintrojected, reimagined, or fictionalized.
This does not mean that when children claim that they have been sexually abused, they are lying. It means, rather, that experiences of abuse pass through the imagination and the imagination passes through the unconscious. Seduction theory did not take the imagination—die Phantasie—into account and therefore had to be abandoned.
The unconscious, as Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fleiss, does not distinguish between fact and fantasy.
It is difficult for a victim of abuse to acknowledge his or her trauma directly, and Freud knew this. Sexual trauma, after it occurs, does not manifest itself directly or immediately, but epiphenomenally—that is to say, symptomatically. It shows itself in disguise. It dramatizes itself. It retraumatizes. It might be phantasmatically reconstituted.
From the Freudian standpoint, remembrance and misremembrance are not mutually exclusive.
There is a third form of misremembrance that I would like to pause over. It is the kind of anamnesis or déjà vu when an individual recollects not her own individual history, but the history of past generations, the history of her ancestors. Cultural memory, seen from this perspective, would be a form of misremembrance.
Such misremembrance could only be figured in art.
The literature of Gayl Jones reminds us that the remembrance of personal trauma always contains a cultural dimension, that all memory is misremembrance.
The past that you have experienced is not the past that you remember.
When I first heard the title of Jones’s first novel — Corregidora (published in 1975) — I thought it was “corrigenda.”
Corrigenda: a list of errors in a published manuscript.
* * * * *
At the novel’s opening, lounge singer Ursa Corregidora is shoved down a staircase by her husband, Mutt — a catastrophic blow that results in her infertility. After she renounces her husband, Ursa enters into a relationship with Tadpole, the owner of the Happy Café, the bar at which she performs. Like all of her significant relationships with men, this second relationship proves disastrous and is doomed to failure.
Every man in the novel, without exception, sees Ursa as a “hole” — that is, as a beguiling and visually appealing receptacle to be penetrated. The narrative suggests this on the figural level. A talented novelist, Jones weaves images of orifices throughout her text — tunnels that swallow and tighten around trains, lamellae such as nostrils, mouths, wounds, etc. Although one of Ursa’s “holes” is barren, another “hole” is bountifully “prosperous” — her mouth, from which the “blues” issue. A movement of sonic exteriorization corresponds to a counter-movement of physiological interiorization.
It is easy to be trapped by these more immediate, socio-sexual dimensions of the narrative. Corregidora might seem, prima facie, to be nothing more than another novel about a woman imprisoned in abusive and sadistic relationships with appropriative men. But the meanings of Corregidora are far more profound than this. A “transcendental” framework envelops the immediate narrative and casts it in relief, thereby enhancing its significance. We learn that Ursa is the great-granddaughter of Portuguese slave-trader and procurer Corregidora, who sired both Ursa’s mother and grandmother. Throughout the course of the novel, the men in Ursa’s life take on a resemblance to Corregidora — and this resemblance sheds light on both the sexual basis of racism and the tendency of some oppressed cultures to take on the traits of imperialist hegemonies. According to the logic of the novel, the children of slaves resemble either slaves or slave drivers. Even within communities born of slavery, the novel suggests, there persist relationships of enslavement. “How many generations had to bow to his genital fantasies?” Ursa asks at one point, referring to Corregidora the Enslaver. As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, Jones’s novel suggests, there will never be an end to this period of acquiescence; Corregidora will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the enslavers will continue to achieve posthumous victorious.
As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the segregationists and the white supremacists will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
To return to the opening statement of this essay: A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. Although her infertility robs Ursa of the ability to “make generations” — something that, she is taught, is the essence of being-woman — she can still “leave evidence,” can still attest to the historical memory of slavery. All documents that detailed Corregidora’s treatment of his slaves were seemingly destroyed, as if the abolition of slavery abolished memory itself. According to the injunction of the Corregidora women (Ursa’s ancestors), one must testify, one must re-member, one must “leave evidence.” And yet memory is precisely Ursa’s problem. Memory cripples her. Throughout the novel, Ursa struggles to overcome the trauma of her personal past. And this past — in particular, the survival in memory of her relationship with Mutt — belongs to the larger, communal past that is her filial legacy. Her consciousness is rigidified, frozen in the immemorial past of the Corregidora women. This “communal” past is doomed to repeat itself infinitely, thus suspending the presence of the present — and, in particular, Ursa’s individual experience of the present. Her individual experience of the present is indissociably married to her personal past, and her most intimate past is, at the same time, also the past of her community. The words that Ursa uses to describe her mother could also apply to Ursa herself: “It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong within her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.”
At the shocking and unforgettable close of the novel, the past and present coincide almost absolutely. When, after twenty-two years of estrangement, Ursa is reunited with her first husband, the historical memory of slavery is superimposed and mapped onto their relationship. Both Ursa and Mutt become allegorical figures, each representing slave and slaveholder, respectively. The present-past and the past-present reflect each other in an infinite mirror-play until they both become almost indistinguishable from each other.
At the juncture of both temporalities is an inversion of power relations that comes by way of a sex act. Ursa performs fellatio on her first husband. Oral sex replaces oral transmission. Here we have the perpetuation of a traumatic past, and yet it is a repetition with a difference. Fellatio is disempowering for the man upon whom it is performed; dangerously close to emasculation, it is experienced as “a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness.” For the woman, by contrast, it might be an act vacant of all sensuality, one that is abstracted of all emotional cargo. Fellatio might infuse the performer with a feeling of power’s intensification; its objective might not be the enhancement of erotic pleasure, but of the pleasure that comes with the enhancement of one’s feeling of power.
By playing the role of the guardian of memory, Ursa dramatizes the intersection of her individual past with a communal past. The paralysis of historical consciousness sets in: “My veins are centuries meeting.”
End of quotation, and the end of the essay.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An analysis of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (William Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“Happy Birthday, Mr. President! / Happy Birthday to you!” — Marilyn Monroe, 19 May 1962
With all of the graciousness of a Wall Street businessman offering a homeless man a wine bottle bubbling with urine, a noble lord orchestrates a play for the amusement of drunkard and wastrel Christopher Sly, who is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord himself. This meta-narrative, called the “Induction,” does not exactly frame the play that we are watching or reading, since the meta-narrative only reappears briefly in the first scene of the first act and does not resurface after the play is over. (It should be remarked parenthetically that Christopher Sly is pushed above his social station, in the same way the servant Traino will be pushed above his social station when he impersonates his master Lucentio.)
The play in question is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592), if Shakespeare did indeed compose the text (I have my doubts), and critics have wondered about the relation (or non-relation) between the Induction and the play itself. The word induction comes from the Latin inducere, which means “to lead into,” and indeed the Induction does feed through the play. A close reading would bear this out.
Petruchio, Veronese drifter, travels to Padua to find a wife and a dowry. A disgustingly selfish person, he courts acid-tongued bachelorette Katherine Minola when he learns how much money he can get from her father, the wealthy Baptista. Much in the same way that Christopher Sly is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord, Petruchio will be deceived into believing that he is a master and shrew-tamer. Like Christopher Sly, Petruchio is trapped in his own illusions.
Like a triad of lascivious lizards, the suitors Lucentio, Gremio, and Hortensio encircle Katherine’s younger sister, the vacuous narcissist Bianca. The courters seem genuinely attracted to Bianca and genuinely repelled by Katherine. No man will have access to Bianca until or unless Katherine is sold to a suitor. This, however, cannot be said to be the challenge of the play, since Baptista easily gives his eldest daughter to Petruchio. The courtship of Katherine, such as it is, is insultingly brief. Katherine feels the insult deeply, and we know this when she says that she was “woo’d in haste” [III:ii]. The challenge of the play is rather: How will Petruchio tame the shrewish Katherine? How will Petruchio subdue her tongue and force her to submit to his husbandly will?
Let there be no mistake: Katherine is a shrewd shrew. She is abrasive and hurtful. In a clear sense, she is the precursor of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, who also uses verbal aggressiveness to camouflage her erotic desires. Verbal aggressiveness, for both women, is a defensive mechanism. Both the divine Beatrice and her predecessor Katherine reserve their sharpest rebukes and barbs for the men they love. It is not fortuitous that Katherine’s opening salvo terminates with the provocative reference to a taboo sex act [see Act Two: Scene One]. Katherine is hardly indifferent to Petruchio. Her verbal violence is a symptom of her desire for the man.
Whereas Katherine’s desire for Petruchio is passionately real, Petruchio appears to have, at least initially, a purely financial interest in the shrew. Like the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Petruchio seems to have a purely financial interest in women in general. Petruchio makes his intentions plain when he asks Hortensio if he knows of an eligible bachelorette with a rich dowry:
[I]f thou know / One rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife, / As wealth is burden of my wooing dance… / I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua [I:ii].
It is all about the dowry for Petruchio. Not about love, not even about sex. Katherine, understandably, sees herself as more than merchandise and resents Petruchio’s attempts to erase her human spontaneity and transform her into a thing of ownership among other things of ownership.
There are differences between the iterations of the Hebraic tablets known as “The Ten Commandments” in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but in all versions, the Tenth Commandment is the same. In the tenth of the divinely chiseled commandments, women are leveled to the status of real estate, of servants, of livestock: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” The Tenth Commandment resonates through Petruchio’s description of Katherine:
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing [III:ii].
Even the language is the same as the language in Exodus and Deuteronomy: the “house,” the “ox,” the “ass,” the “any thing.”
And how does Petruchio get poor Katherine to bow to his will? The disgusting brute jilts her on their wedding day, famishes her, and disturbs her sleep. Emotional abuse, starvation, sleep deprivation: The brute denies his wife her basic emotional and psychological needs. Instead of indulging in uxorious excesses, Petruchio treats his bride disgracefully. Even a threat of physical violence against Katherine emerges from the mouth of his servant Gremio: “Will [Petruchio] woo her? Ay, or I’ll hang her” [I:ii].
Whereas Petruchio uses force to get his way, Katherine is a mistress of seduction and subtle manipulation. Katherine’s revenge is to materialize Petruchio’s power-mirages. She will become everything that Petruchio wants her to be: pliable, docile, servile. Katherine remains the shrew—such is her essence—while assuming the disguise of the docile housewife. She is separable from the disguises that she assumes and ironically dramatizes the role of the submissive bride. Shakespearean philosophy—that life is dramaturgy, that the world is a stage and we are all performers—would corroborate this suspicion. From the beginning of the play until its end, Katherine remains the malevolent termagant. In a play in which characters impersonate one another (Traino impersonates Lucentio, Lucentio impersonates the Reading Tutor Cambio, Hortensio impersonates the Music Tutor Licio), Katherine plays the part of a repentant shrew and plays her part well. Let us overhear the strength and the irony in her closing address to the big-minded female guests at Lucentio’s dinner party:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience [V:ii].
In these words, Katherine subtly rejects the role that Petruchio tries to impose and superimpose upon her. If I am mistaken about this (and I am not), how does one explain the fact that we have never seen Petruchio do anything that Katherine says that husbands do? She is the perfect parody of servility and docility. Her becoming-parody is absolutely evident in the following conversation:
Come on, i’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.
I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!
Say as he says, or we shall never go.
Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
I say it is the moon.
I know it is the moon.
Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.
Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katherina [IV:v].
In other words: If I say that the Moon is the Sun, then the Moon is the Sun. If I say that the Sun is the Moon, then the Sun is the Moon. If I say that two plus two equals five, then two plus two equals five. The fact that Katherine assents to Petruchio’s capriciousness and silliness only highlights the absurdity of what he is saying. By simulating Petruchio’s fantasy of mastery, she plays out the undoing of his presumptions of mastery.
Who IS Katherine, precisely? Is she a reluctant conformist? Is she an inconsiderate conformist? Is she a vigorous conformist? To Petruchio, she is the replica of his desires for supremacy, but this is not Katherine’s essence: She presents a ceaselessly multiplying play of masks. Her self-multiplications enlarge infinitely. Purely mutative, purely transformative—who is she, really, in herself? The shrew has multiple names, and this means that she wears multiple guises. The plurality of her personae is absolutely evident in this passage:
They call me Katherine that do talk of me.
You lie, in faith, for you are call’d plain Kate, / And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; / Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, / Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate, / For dainties are all Kates… [II:i].
The plurality of personae is what provokes Petruchio’s desire; the impossibility of ever mastering her totality is what makes Katherine so bewitchingly shrewish. If she were as vapidly selfsame as Bianca, Petruchio would likely not want her. No matter how old she becomes, even when her luminosity dims, it is probable that she will be desirable to Petruchio. Because she is never reducible to One Thing. Which leaves us with these questions: Is it truly the case that Kate has been domesticated? Has Petruchio not been Kated? Has the shrew indeed been tamed, or has not Petruchio been beshrewed?
Dr. Joseph Suglia
My analysis was cited in Marco Caracciolo’s article “Narrative Space and Readers’ Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account,” Style. Vol. 47, No. 4, Narrative, Social Neuroscience, Plus Essays on Hecht’s Poetry, Hardy’s Fiction, and Kathy Acker (Winter 2013), pp. 425-444. Print.
THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy
by Joseph Suglia, Ph.D.
“When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it…”
—Gertrude Stein, LECTURES IN AMERICA
Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN is something of an undergraduate exercise. It is a Faulknerian pastiche and, above all, hedonistic. Hedonism, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of art.
We follow a nameless father and son as they wander through a post-American void, a “blastosphere,” to use J.G. Ballard’s term. (Blastosphere = Not the blastula, but the “implicit shape of the way matter is perturbed by an explosion” (Will Self)). They scavenge for food and tools. They encounter those who seemingly show their seamiest impulses and who behave in an unseemly manner.
And yet I suspect that this is less a novel about a post-apocalyptic future than it is one about our atheological present. It is a theological allegory about a world from which god is manifestly absent. Eine gottesverlassene und gottesvergessene Welt.
We find grounds for this supposition in those passages in which the grey waste is described as “godless”  and “coldly secular”  and wastes of human flesh are named “creedless” .
“On this road there are no godspoke men” .
What might have been a pedestrian trifle in the hands of a lesser writer has become a rich and compelling novel with author McCarthy. The most distinctive feature of THE ROAD is not the story that is told, but the manner in which McCarthy tells it: that is to say, the narrative. He writes so magically that a grey empty world is summoned forth vividly before our eyes.
It needs to be said and emphasized that McCarthy has almost completely superseded standard English punctuation in the writing of this novel. He strategically, willfully omits periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes throughout the work in order to equivocate, in order to multiply meanings, in order to enlarge the literary possibilities of language.
Of course, one could seize upon the conscious, literal meaning of the words. But does language not slip away from us? Are its meanings not dependent on the interpretive framework of the listener, of the reader? And is it not conceivable that the linguistic elisions reflect the consciousness of the central character?
Proper punctuation would disambiguate and thus flatten the sentences — sentences that are, liberated from such restrictions, both benign and lethal. We have before us a rhetorically complex novel, a work of literature that is rife with ambiguity.
And the non-punctuation makes us feel. If the “sentences” were punctuated in the traditional manner, we, as readers, would feel nothing. We would not feel, viscerally and viciously, the nightmarish world into which father and son have precipitated. We would not be infused with the chill of post-civilization.
The absence of standard punctuation in THE ROAD is a fruitful, productive absence. It is a writerly, stylistic choice.
I hope I have convinced my readers that McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation is stylized. It most certainly is not unnecessary. One of the lessons that we can derive from the novels of McCarthy is how to apply typography in literary craftsmanship. If we adhere slavishly to the conventions of punctuation, our writing will resemble our speech. Our writing will no longer be writing in the strictest sense of the word. Let me invent my own ambiguously commaless sentence for the purposes of elucidation. If I write, “I want to eat my parrot William,” this would seem to signify that I want to eat a parrot named William, a parrot that belongs to me. However, what happens if the comma is explicitly absent? Three contradictory interpretations are then possible: 1.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her, a parrot named William; 2.) The narrator, apparently, wants to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her and is addressing this remark to someone named William (“I want to eat my parrot, William”); 3.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat in general, and this comment is directed at his or her parrot, the name of which is William (“I want to eat, my parrot William”). Punctuation, depending on how it is used, can restrict or expand meaning. Commas articulate, determine meaning. The absence of a comma, on the other hand, opens up semantic possibilities inherent to language. Its absence opens the doors of language.
As I suggested above, McCarthy’s refusal to punctuate in the conventional manner is also intimately connected to the internal struggles of the main character and, perhaps, the psychology of the author. The narrator eschews commas because he fears the past. I suspect that, similarly, McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation bespeaks a futile desire to escape history (a desire that he shares with Joyce, Artaud, and innumerable other writers) — a charmingly fragile and recognizably human desire.
“[E]ver is no time at all” .
The ephemerality of the instant. Hence, the relative commalessness of McCarthy’s statements. A comma would pause an enunciation, rupture its continuity, the incessant flow of language, the drift of language into the future. What, after all, is a comma if not the graphic equivalent of a turn in breath, of an exhalation or an inhalation? Commas do not merely articulate a sentence. Commas stall, they defer, they postpone, they interrupt without stopping. A speaking that speaks ceaselessly, without commas, in order to awaken from the nightmare of history. McCarthy’s language moves forward endlessly, without giving readers a chance to catch their breath. This is a writing that is unidirectional and decidedly equivocal.
The thrusting momentum of McCarthy’s language fertilizes my suspicion that THE ROAD is also a book about time. More precisely, a book about time’s three impossibilities: the impossibility of ridding oneself of the past, the impossibility of eternalizing the present, and the impossibility of encompassing the future.
The future is essentially unpredictable for the son, and the reader has no idea, at the novel’s close, what will become of him. Will the son survive? Will he be bred for cannibal meat? An infinitude of possibilities… And here we come to yet another strange intimacy between McCarthy’s singular style of punctuating and not punctuating and one of the leitmotifs of his extraordinary novel: The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of THE ROAD is no conclusion at all, a conclusion without a period. And the novel lives on inside of the reader’s head and heart, growing within like a vicious monster fungus.
Postscript: Re-reading the novel in 2013, I am less inclined to recommend it. With THE ROAD, Cormac McCarthy has given us a sappy religious allegory. Nabokov wrote of Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST:
“The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand – a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work.”
I would say of McCarthy’s THE ROAD:
The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand – a phoney gloom which does NOT pervade Faulkner’s work.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
A review of Django Unchained by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Quentin Tarantino is a slobbering anti-black racist who makes Blaxploitation films for hipsters. These hipsters grow aggressively defensive whenever African-Americans stand up and denounce these very films. (Roxane Gay, Spike Lee, Katt Williams, and Armond White are only a few of the African-Americans who have spoken out against Tarantino’s racism.) Tarantino wishes to prove to his hipster fan base that he knows African-American culture better than African-Americans know their own culture. And his hipster fanboys also desire that feeling — the feeling that they understand African-Americans better than African-Americans understand themselves. (For an analysis of the mind of the hipster, consult Norman Mailer’s essay on this topic.)
Tarantino’s latest abomination is Django Unchained (2012), a film about a murderer-for-hire named Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) who enlists an African slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) to assist him in his mass-murdering spree. Their journey ends at Candyland, a plantation owned by the oleaginous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, in an amusing and impressive performance that elevates above the film and never quite descends into camp). There is much to demur to, but I will restrict myself to three demurrals: 1.) The film is an agglomeration of plagiarisms. 2.) The film is crypto-racist garbage. 3.) The screen violence is without passion or meaning.
DJANGO UNCHAINED IS AN AGGLOMERATION OF PLAGIARISMS
Django Unchained is a pastiche of Spaghetti Westerns. The opening song was lifted directly from the English-language version of Django (1966). On the soundtrack is a well-known composition from Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) – an American Spaghetti Western, if there ever was one. There is also an appearance by Franco Nero, star of the original Django, which is a pointless, meaningless cinematic reference that adds nothing whatsoever to the film, which is itself a pointless, meaningless accumulation of cinematic references.
The references are smarmily, unctuously obvious. One thinks of the scene in which Schultz recounts to Django the basics of Das Nibelungenlied. If Tarantino were an artist, he wouldn’t have spelled out the legend of Siegfried and Brunhilda for the benefit of his illiterate spectatorship.
Not merely does the film contain a cluster of plagiarisms; it itself is a plagiarism. The film is an unacknowledged remake of the Mandingo films of the 1970s — in particular, Mandingo (1975) and its sequel, Drum (1976). Tarantino steals from these sources to such a degree that his film would have been better entitled Mandingo Unchained.
Calvin Candie is clearly modeled on two characters in Drum: DeMarigny (John Colicos), connoisseur of Mandingo fights, and Warren Oates’ character Hammond, slave-owner and breeder of Mandingos. Both characters were spliced together to create the hybrid Calvin Candie, lover of intra-racial violence.
The Mandingo-fight scene [1:05] owes everything to the original Mandingo film, although different body parts are excised. In Django Unchained, an eye is enucleated. In Mandingo, a jugular vein is torn out.
Quentin Tarantino isn’t very much different from Calvin Candie. After all, they both enjoy watching Mandingo fighting.
DJANGO UNCHAINED IS CRYPTO-RACIST TRASH
On the surface, Django Unchained seems to be directed against white anti-black racism. But it is itself a work of white anti-black racism.
Now, I like revenge fantasies as much as the next person, but there is something more sordid, more sinister going on here than what goes on in most revenge fantasies (“You got me! Now I gonna get you, sucka!”). Like its predecessor, Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained is a work of genocide pornography, the cruelest, most unconscionably vicious form of pornography in existence. The crude plot of Inglourious Basterds trivializes the Holocaust; the crude plot of Django Unchained trivializes the enslavement of Africans in antebellum America.
But Django Unchained does more than merely trivialize the enslavement of Africans in nineteenth-century America. It turns the enslavement of Africans into an object of consumption, an object of enjoyment.
To call this film “ahistorical” would be a gross understatement. The film approximates history as closely as Spongebob Squarepants approximates marine biology. With one important qualification: The creator of Spongebob Squarepants actually knows a great deal about marine biology, even if he chooses not to exhibit this knowledge in the television program that he spawned. This film bears no relation to history whatsoever. It is a bombinating vacuum in which references from exploitation films resonate.
No one in the nineteenth century ever said, “Adult supervision is required.” Nor did anyone ever use the term “***********************************.”
Slaves could not read, but Django does a pretty good job of reading aloud the text of a Wanted poster [0:57]. He doesn’t know the words “bounty,” “valet,” or “positive,” but he does know the words “antagonize” and “intrigue.” As Katt Williams pointed out, it is odd that Django can spell his own name.
The late populist film critic Roger Ebert used the term deus ex machina (“God-out-of-the-machine”) to describe the entry of Schultz in the opening of the film. That moment isn’t quite a deus ex machina — such a device is commonly used at the end of a work, such as when Helios transports Medea on a golden chariot at the end of Euripides’ tragedy.
However, Ebert was correct to call Schultz a “god.” He just didn’t know the extent to which he was correct.
Schultz is a god, all right. He is the white god who creates the black Django. “I feel vaguely responsible for you,” he says to Django. “I gave you your freedom.”
Yes, it is Schultz who grants Django his liberty. The first time we see Django’s face is when Schultz shines light on him. It is Schultz who transforms Django into a murderer-for-hire. It is Schultz who sculpts Django into a full human being.
Django is not allowed to kill Calvin Candie. Only the Good White Master is allowed to kill the Evil White Master. Django is allowed to kill Candie’s minions — both black and white — but not their Evil White Master. Django has a master, all right, and his name is Dr. King Schultz.
It is for this reason that Will Smith declined to assume the role of Django: “Django wasn’t the lead, so it was like, I need to be the lead. The other character was the lead! I was like, ‘No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!'”
Will Smith’s objection to the film gets to the heart of the problem: Django is a secondary character, the Good White Master’s marionette.
Much has been made of the use of the “N-word” in the film. That is because Tarantino enjoys saying the “N-word.” The “N-word,” evidently, is his favorite word in the English language, a language that he does not know very well. He expresses the “N-word” with brio, emitting it with gusto, as if this word were a shibboleth.
One recalls the infamous (I am using this word in its proper sense) scene in Pulp Fiction (1994) in which Tarantino-playing-Tarantino utters the “N-word” in Tourette’s-like staccato beats. There is no point in arguing that Tarantino is playing a character and that his character is racist, not Tarantino, when Tarantino is obviously playing himself in the scene. The delight that he feels whenever he bleats the “N-word” is palpable.
Django Unchained is backwater garbage, racist filth, intended for ugly-souled racist hipster fanboy cretins. The film is regressive because it imagines that White (the presence of all color) and Black (the absence of all color) are “colors” and that races and have really existent correspondents. The film erodes and erases so many of the steps that America has taken over the past four years. I am writing these words on 13 July 2013, the day on which George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin.
What is a racist? A racist is someone who has nothing of which to be proud other than his or her epidermal pigmentation. We are, all of us, out of Africa. Anthropologists have established that Africa is the cradle of humanity and that there are only epidermal subdivisions between us. It makes no sense to speak of “race,” since each individual “race” encompasses so many of these subdivisions.
Quentin Tarantino hypostatizes race.
THE VIOLENCE IN THE FILM IS PASSIONLESS
I don’t mind screen violence. Screen violence can be bracing. The problem with the representational violence in Django Unchained is that it is mechanical, spiritless, passionless. It is difficult to understand how or why anyone would be offended by the violence in the films of Tarantino. The violence in all of his films is automatized, transactional, emotionless.
I would like to call your attention to the moment [0:57] in which Schultz murders the alleged stagecoach robber Smitty Bacall. Schultz snipes at his victim from a distance of about 200 feet. Tarantino shoots the man from a distance of 200 feet, as well. There is a complete emotional disengagement between the murderer and the murderee. There is also a complete emotional disengagement between the film and the murderee. We see the man’s son running to his father and hear the boy screaming, “Pa! Pa!” But the boy and his father are no more than flecks of dust on the screen. The father and son are hardly represented as human beings, at all.
And what about the scene that immediately follows the one that I just described? The scene in which Django and Schultz use a band of cowboys for target practice [0:58]? What, precisely, did these cowboys do to deserve to be gunned down?
I wonder, as well, if Lara Lee Candie (Laura Cayouette), Calvin’s sister, deserved to be murdered [2:39]. Yes, she did sell Django into the mining trade. But she could just as easily have had him gelded, which seems to have been the original plan.
All of the murders are filmed with the detached eye of a psychopath.
By contrast, the death scenes in the films of Nicolas Roeg are historically intense. “A young man is cut down in the prime of his life,” Roeg said, referring to his directorial debut, Performance (1970). “[Death] is an important thing.”
In Django Unchained, human characters (and horses) are eliminated with the same passion with which you would close pop-up advertisements on your computer screen.
* * * * *
The antistrophe to my arguments is quite predictable. “It’s only a movie” comes the bleating response. You can hear the booing, the cooing, and the mooing: “It’s only a mooooooooooooooooooovie.” Keep on telling yourselves that: “It’s only a moooooooooooovie… It’s only a moooooooooovie…”
Despite such zoo noise, it can be said, without fear of exaggeration or absurdity, that Django Unchained is one of the vilest motion pictures ever made. Not because of its violence (again, screen violence can be bracing), but because it delights in the exploitation and dehumanization of African-Americans. Quentin Tarantino is a hate-criminal, and Django Unchained is a hate crime.
Dr. Joseph Suglia, table41thenovel.com