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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Suglia



by Dr. Joseph Suglia

When did writing stop having to do with writing?  Of the many attempts to communalize literature, none is more dangerous than the sway of the current ideology: the consensus, and consciousness, that writing has nothing to do with writing.  You will hear readers talk about “plot” (in other words, life).  You will hear them talk about the “author.”  But writing?  Writing has nothing to do with writing.  No one cares whether a book is well-written anymore.

* * * * *

Mark Z. Danielewski is not very much interested in language.  He cares more about graphics than he does about glyphs.  No words live in his House of Leaves.  It is a house of pictures, not of words.  It is a house in which words only exist as blocks of physical imagery.

Allow me to cite a few not unrepresentative sentences/fragments from House of Leaves:

1.) “A hooker in silver slippers quickened by me” [296].  Danielewski, scholar, thinks that “to quicken” means “to move quickly.”

2.) “Regrettably, Tom fails to stop at a sip” [320].  I convulse in agony as I read this sentence.

3.) “Pretentious,” too often, is American for “intelligent.”  It is a word that is often misapplied.  However, in the case of House of Leaves, it must be said that Danielewski uses German pretentiously.  In a book that is littered with scraps of the German language, shouldn’t that language be used properly?  “der absoluten Zerissenheit” [sic; 404 and elsewhere — a Heideggerean citation] should read “die absolute Zerissenheit“–the genitive is never earned.  “unheimliche vorklaenger” [sic; 387] should read “unheimliche Vorklänge” and does not mean “ghostly anticipation.”  Whenever Danielewski quotes the German, he is being pretentious–that is, he is pretending to know things of which he knows nothing.

It is impossible to escape the impression that Mark Z. Danielewski does not want to be read.  Noli me legere = “Do not read me.”  The House of Leaves is a book at which to be looked, not one that is to be read.  Its sprawling typographies and fonts distract the reader from the impoverished prose.

Words are reduced to images, to pictures.

* * * * *

When did writing stop having to do with writing?  When novels became precursors to screenplays.  With the rise of mainstream cinema came the denigration of literature.  The visual overthrew the verbal.  Around the same time, imaginative prose began to be dumbed well down.  There are two infantile reductions at work, both of which are visible in House of Leaves: a dumbing-down of language and an accent on the optical (as opposed to the verbal).

Such infantile reductions are everywhere in evidence whenever one picks up a contemporary American novel.  We can thank America for the coronation of the idiot and for an all-embracing literary conformism.  Even stronger writers, these days, morosely submit to the prevailing consolidation of a single “literary style.”  A style that, of course, is no style at all.  And these same writers, listlessly and lifelessly, affirm in reciprocal agreement that the construction of a well-wrought sentence isn’t something worth spending time on.  Or blood.

How self-complacent American writers have become!  The same country that produced Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow has given birth to Mark Z. Danielewski.  Nothing is more hostile to art than a culture of complacency.

There was, I’m sure, something very refreshing about Charles Bukowski in the 1970s, when the vestiges of a literary academism still existed.  Mr. Bukowski, I am assuming, would be dismayed to uncover the kindergarten of illiterate “literati” to which he has illegitimately given birth.  His dauphin, Mark Z. Danielewski.

Weaker students of literature might feel invigorated by the Church of Literary Infantilism, yet even they know that the clergy engenders nothing sacred or profane.  This explains their virulent defensiveness when anyone, such as myself, dares to write well or explore another writer’s engagement with language.  “Writing doesn’t matter,” you see.  They have never luxuriated in the waters of language; they have never inhabited a world of words.  Words don’t interest them; people do.  And literary discussions have degenerated to the level of a bluestockinged Tupperware party.  If you like the main character, the book is “good.”  If a book is warm and friendly, that book is “good.”  If a book reassures you that you are not a slavering imbecile–that is to say, if you can write better than the book’s “author”–that book is “good.”  If a book disquiets you or provokes any kind of thought whatsoever, that book is “bad.”  If a book has an unsympathetic main character, that book is “bad.”  If a book is difficult to understand, that book is “bad,” and so forth and so on.  Whatever exceeds the low, low, low standards of the average readership, in a word, is blithely dismissed as “bad.”

Things grow even more frightening when we consider the following: These unlettered readers are quickly transforming into writers.  That would be fine if they knew how to write.  And if the movements of language were valued, culturally and humanly, their noxious spewings would find no foothold.  The literature of challenge has been supplanted by the litter of the mob, with all of its mumbling solecisms and false enchantments.  The problem with mobs, let us remind ourselves, is that they efface distinctions.  They do everything in their power to make the distinguished undistinguished.  And so instead of James Joyce, we have bar-brawling beefheads (e.g. Chuck Palahniuk), simian troglodytes (e.g. Henry Rollins), and graphic designers / typographists (e.g. Mark Z. Danielewski).

Instead of poeticisms, we have grunts.  We have pictures.  We have graphic design and cinema.

* * * * *

Someone said to me: “I am a good writer, but I don’t know how to spell.”

Someone said to me: “No writer is better than any other.”

* * * * *

America is responsible for the production of more linguistic pig **** than any other country in the world.  There is absolutely nothing surprising about this statement.  After all, America is the only country that celebrates stupidity as a virtue.  How could things be otherwise?

At the poisonous end of the democratization process, which is indistinguishable from the process of vulgarization, every jackass on the street sees himself as an “author.”  His brother, his grandmother, and his step-uncle: they, too, regard themselves as “authors.”  After all, they think–inasmuch as they are capable of thinking–“Writing has nothing to do with writing.  If Mark Z. Danielewski can be published, so can I!”  (Yes, their desire is “to be published,” as if their lives would be inscribed on the page, disseminated, filmed, and thus rendered meaningful.)  We live in an age of all-englobing and infinitely multiplying cyber-technologies, where stammering imbeciles mass-replicate their infantile scribbles, but let us not deceive ourselves: If a “writer” is simply one who writes, then they are writers; however, one should reserve the word “author” only for those who are profoundly committed to the craft of verbal composition.

* * * * *

Judging from a purely technical point of view, House of Leaves is consistently faulty, fraught with excruciating Hallmark banalities and galling linguistic errors.  Hipster Mark Z. Danielewski is seemingly incapable of composing a single striking or insightful sentence.  It astonishes me that anyone ever considered his tinker-toy bromides to be publishable.  The House of Leaves is a house that is neither well-appointed nor ill-appointed.  It is simply not appointed at all.

* * * * *

Who cares about language anymore?  No one in America even questions the assumption that good writing does not matter.  And this assumption is no longer limited to America–a horrific logophobia is spreading throughout the globe.  The impetuses that motivate this tsunami of “literary” vomit are the following ideological assumptions: The fallacy that 1.) everyone is entitled to be an author (this is a particularly nasty perversion of the democratic principle) and that 2.) the visible improves on the verbal.  American letters have been reduced to the gibbering and jabbering of semiliterate simpletons, driveling half-wits, and slack-jawed middlebrows.  It’s only a matter of time before the English stop caring about language, as well.

When you live in a culture of complacency, a culture of appeasement, a hypocritical culture that assures you that you write well even if you don’t, there is only one way out.  There is nothing for the strong and serious student of literature to do but to write for himself, to write for herself, for his or her own sake.

Joseph Suglia


The Horse Dealer’s Daughter (D.H. Lawrence): An Analysis

N.B. This is a severely truncated version of a much longer study of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence.  The complete edition is about 10,000 words long.

* * * * *

THE HORSE DEALER’S DAUGHTER (D.H. Lawrence): An Analysis

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

from England, My England (1922)

“My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is!  Nothing but ************ cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest…  what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all new!”

—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce

“James Joyce bores me stiff—too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.”

—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce

“What a stupid olla podrida of the Bible and so forth James Joyce is: just stewed-up fragments of quotation in the sauce of a would-be dirty mind.  Such effort!  Such exertion!  sforzato davvero!”

—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce

“[D.H. Lawrence] is a propagandist and a very bad writer.”

—James Joyce on D.H. Lawrence

From the third paragraph of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence is the following sentence:

There was a strange air of ineffectuality about the three men, as they sprawled at table, smoking and reflecting vaguely on their own condition.

The word sprawl is used for the first time here (it will be used twice more in the text).  To sprawl is to spread oneself out irregularly and unevenly.  The three Pervin brothers—Joe, Fred Henry, and Malcolm—are positioned perversely around the table, positioned in a way that suggests their collective stupidity; they are asprawlSprawled makes them appear insensate, callous, obtuse, stolid.  They are doing what rather careless people carelessly call “manspreading”—a fuzz word that has to do with sitting on a New York subway with one’s legs splayed frog-like.  Sprawling denotes a mindless subhuman inactivity (I will return to the motif of subhumanity below).

Stupidity is the inability to grasp even basic concepts, and in that sense, all three brothers are stupid.  They are not even individual entities (they are not “alone” in the sense that Mabel is “alone”); they form an undifferentiated “ineffectual conclave.”  They cannot apprehend that their sister is geared toward the absence of all relations which is death–self-imposed death.

Safe in their stupidity, the brothers are sprawlingly looking forward to their eviction from their father’s house, whereas the youngest (?) daughter in the family, Mabel Pervin, is conscious of, and sensitively sensitive to the loss of her dignity, to the loss of her status, and to the curtailing of her possibilities.  The men in the story propose that she might become a nurse, she might become a skivvy, or, worst of all, she might become someone’s wife.  It is important to stress that she wants to become none of these things.

Mabel is not sprawling around the table: Unlike her brothers, who are only able to reflect “vaguely,” her external “impassive fixity” masquerades a hive of conscious activity (I will return to the “impassiveness” of Mabel’s exterior below).

The great draught-horses swung past.

The word swing comes into play for the first time here (it will be deployed four times altogether in the text).  Swung: This connotes a mechanical back-and-forth movement.  Motion without any consciousness.  The idiocy of the boys’ sprawling is correlated with the idiocy of the horses’ swinging.  The horses are swinging their great rounded haunches sumptuously (in a manner that pleases the senses, but not the intellect).  Their movement shows a massive, slumbrous strength (the intellect is asleep).  They rock behind the hedges in a motionlike sleep (they only seem to be kinetic; they are mindlessly static).

Draught-horse: a large horse that is used for bearing heavy loads.

Joe watched with glazed hopeless eyes.  The horses were almost like his own body to him…  He would marry and go into harness.  His life was over, he would be a subject animal now.

D.H. Lawrence gets himself into some trouble here.  He tells too much (which is unlike him) and shows too little (which is unlike him).  I can write without fear of repudiation or of exaggeration that this is the weakest passage in the story.  The writing of this passage is didactic / propagandistic (to refer to the Joycean epigraph above).  It is far too explicit and spells out what should have been left to the reader to decode: Joe is looking forward to an engagement to a woman as old as himself and therefore to financial safety, and this “safety” is the safety of a kept animal.  A domesticated animal.  Marriage will reduce him to subjection.  He will lose his vitality.  He will lose his human spontaneity.

[W]ith foolish restlessness, [Joe] reached for the scraps of bacon-rind from the plates, and making a faint whistling sound, flung them to the terrier that lay against the fender.  He watched the dog swallow them, and waited till the creature looked into his eyes.

And what is in those doggy eyes other than the nullity of animal stupidity, a stupidity that reflects his own stupidity?  What is in those eyes other than the likeness of his own animal insensibility?

The flinging of the bacon corresponds to the swinging of the horses.  The word swing, etymologically, means “to fling”—the Old High German word swingan means “to rush” or “to fling.”  The idiocy of the mechanical movement of swinging corresponds the idiocy of the mechanical movement of flinging.  The etymology of swing further establishes a metaphorical connection between Joe and the animals of the story (the dog, the horses).

The equine and canine metaphors bestialize all of the brothers.  (Joe, in particular, is described as straddling his knees “in real horsy fashion”; he seems “to have his tail between his legs,” etc.)  They are all dull, dim beasts, animals that will soon be subjected to the yoke of marriage and of other forms of servitude (labor, etc.).  As all domestic beasts, they will become subject to human authority.  To be an animal, according to the metaphorics of the text, means to be subjected to human power.  As mentioned above, Joe will soon be subordinated to the bestial subjection of marriage.  To draw out one the implications of the text: A married couple resembles two animals yoked together.

The face of the young woman darkened, but she sat on immutable.

Mabel, on the other hand, is described as seeming immutable (once) and impassive (four times): not incapable of emotion or without affectability, but inscrutable, as withholding herself from expression, from saying and speaking.  Impassivity, here, means not the absence of emotion, but rather, inexpressivenessExpression will become important in the third and final act of the story.

‘I’ll be seeing you tonight, shall I?’ he said to his friend.

‘Ay—where’s it to be?  Are we going over to Jessdale?’

‘I don’t know.  I’ve got such a cold on me.  I’ll come round to the Moon and Stars, anyway.’

‘Let Lizzie and May miss their night for once, eh?’

‘That’s it—if I feel as I do now.’

No one appears to know what “Jessdale” refers to—whether it is the name of a fabricated city or the name of an inn or a bar–-but I suspect that it is the name of a bordello and that Lizzie and May are prostitutes therein.  If I am correct about this (and I am), Jack Fergusson is (initially) a rogue and a roué, someone who isn’t the least interested in marriage.  What, then, draws Mabel to him in the first place?  Could it be his relative freedom from convention and from the constraints of bourgeois society?

But so long as there was money, the girl felt herself established, and brutally proud, reserved.

Her father was once a well-off horse dealer.  No more.  Now comes the shame that is killing her.

She would follow her own way just the same.  She would always hold the keys of her own situation.  Mindless and persistent, she endured from day to day.  Why should she think?  Why should she answer anybody?  It was enough that this was the end, and there was no way out.  She need not pass any more darkly along the main street of the small town, avoiding every eye.  She need not demean herself any more, going into the shops and buying the cheapest food.  This was at an end.  She thought of nobody, not even of herself.  Mindless and persistent, she seemed in a sort of ecstasy to be coming nearer to her fulfilment, her own glorification, approaching her dead mother, who was glorified.

* * * * *

* * * * *

* * * * *

* * * * *

Unhappily, Jack Fergusson will (try to) take away her godlike freedom and subjugate her to the conjugal yoke.

It was a grey, wintry day, with saddened, dark-green fields and an atmosphere blackened by the smoke of foundries not far off.

As Martin Amis reminds us, D.H. Lawrence never took a breath without pain.  Lawrence died of emphysema at the age of forty-four.  He knew too well the colliers of Northampton, near where this story takes place.  Could it be that the smoke from the foundries that are blackening the sky also blackened Lawrence’s lungs?  Are the black billows that Mabel sees the same black billows that killed her creator?

It gave [Mabel] sincere satisfaction to [tidy her mother’s grave].  She felt in immediate contact with the world of her mother.  She took minute pains, went through the park in a state bordering on pure happiness, as if in performing this task she came into a subtle, intimate connexion with her mother.  For the life she followed here in the world was far less real than the world of death she inherited from her mother.

Here, I would like to make the rather obvious point that suicide, not merely the tiding of her mother’s grave, would bring Mabel into a subtle and intimate connection with her mother.

[Fergusson] slowly ventured into the pond.  The bottom was deep, soft clay, he sank in, and the water clasped dead cold round his legs.  As he stirred he could smell the cold, rotten clay that fouled up into the water.  It was objectionable in his lungs.  Still, repelled and yet not heeding, he moved deeper into the pond.  The cold water rose over his thighs, over his loins, upon his abdomen.  The lower part of his body was all sunk in the hideous cold element.  And the bottom was so deeply soft and uncertain, he was afraid of pitching with his mouth underneath.  He could not swim, and was afraid.

It is as if Jack Fergusson’s body were being liquefied, as if his body were being fluidified in the aqueous deeps of the pond.  Or is his body being softened into clay?  The clay suggests, perhaps, the amorphous clay of the golem.  In Jewish mysticism, the golem is a clay figure that comes alive once a magical combination of letters is inscribed on its forehead: emeth (“truth” in Hebrew).  If you erase the aleph from the word emeth, the golem will collapse into dust (meth means “dead”).  (See Gershom Scholem’s seminal book On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Chapter Five.)

And so doing he lost his balance and went under, horribly, suffocating in the foul earthy water, struggling madly for a few moments.  At last, after what seemed an eternity, he got his footing, rose again into the air and looked around.  He gasped, and knew he was in the world.  Then he looked at the water.  She had risen near him.  He grasped her clothing, and drawing her nearer, turned to take his way to land again.

He went very slowly, carefully, absorbed in the slow progress.  He rose higher, climbing out of the pond.  The water was now only about his legs; he was thankful, full of relief to be out of the clutches of the pond.  He lifted her and staggered on to the bank, out of the horror of wet, grey clay.

He laid her down on the bank.  She was quite unconscious and running with water.  He made the water come from her mouth, he worked to restore her.  He did not have to work very long before he could feel the breathing begin again in her; she was breathing naturally.  He worked a little longer.  He could feel her live beneath his hands; she was coming back.

The pond is the uterine vessel through which Mabel undergoes her palingenesis, her renaissance, her second birth.  It is as if some tellurian current were transferred within her.  She dies in the pond and is brought back to the life upon the bank.  Her body has been revived, and yet her consciousness is still slumbering.  Her total revivification will take place in the house, now desolate, upon the hearthrug, by the fireplace.

Who dwells within the house?  Consider the following: Mabel’s father has died.  Her three brothers have evacuated the house.  Her sister is long gone.  The dog and the horses are gone.

No one is alive in the house except for the spirit of her dead mother.

‘Do you love me then?’ she asked.

He only stood and stared at her, fascinated.  His soul seemed to melt.

She shuffled forward on her knees, and put her arms round him, round his legs, as he stood there, pressing her breasts against his knees and thighs, clutching him with strange, convulsive certainty, pressing his thighs against her, drawing him to her face, her throat, as she looked up at him with flaring, humble eyes, of transfiguration, triumphant in first possession.

Emerging from the pond an amorphous mass of clay, Jack will now be resculpted by Mabel into her own creature.  He will be completely reconstructed.  His body was already likened to clay when it was immersed in the pond.  Now his soul, too, is melting into the shapeless stuff of the pond-clay.  Note that Mabel’s eyes are “of transfiguration”: It is she who is transfiguring Jack into her own effigy.  She is the creator; he is the golem.

He had never thought of loving her.  He had never wanted to love her.  When he rescued her and restored her, he was a doctor, and she was a patient.  He had had no single personal thought of her.  Nay, this introduction of the personal element was very distasteful to him, a violation of his professional honour.  It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees.  It was horrible.  He revolted from it, violently.  And yet—and yet—he had not the power to break away.

There is indeed something horrible going on in this passage, given that Jack is powerlessly being shaped, rounded, molded into something that is not of his own making.

‘You love me,’ she repeated, in a murmur of deep, rhapsodic assurance.  ‘You love me.’

Her hands were drawing him, drawing him down to her.  He was afraid, even a little horrified.  For he had, really, no intention of loving her.  Yet her hands were drawing him towards her.

I only want to underline something in the text: She is drawing him toward her.  Repeatedly, it is emphasized that Jack is being reconstructed against his own will into something that is not of his own creation.

The assertion “You love me” is a performative speech act.  But is it an illocutionary or perlocutionary speech act?  If it were an illocutionary speech act, “You love me” would be a description of what is being done, such as, “I now pronounce you man and wife” or “I move that we adjourn the meeting.”  And yet Mabel is not saying, “I seduce you” or “I make you love me.”

It is, rather, a perlocutionary speech act: that is, a speech act that is designed to have an effect on someone’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.

Every human being you meet will want to impress one’s fingerprints upon you, as if you were a ball of clay.  A perlocutionary speech act is the attempt to mold someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or actions through words.

‘You love me?’ she said, rather faltering.

‘Yes.’  The word cost him a painful effort.  Not because it wasn’t true.  But because it was too newly true, the saying seemed to tear open again his newly-torn heart.  And he hardly wanted it to be true, even now.





Much in the way that letters inscribed on the forehead of the statue bring to life the golem, the words “You love me” form a perlocutionary performative speech act that gives Jack Fergusson a second birth.  Mabel Pervin has destroyed and recreated him.

‘And my hair smells so horrible,’ she murmured in distraction.  ‘And I’m so awful, I’m so awful!  Oh, no, I’m too awful.’  And she broke into bitter, heart-broken sobbing.  ‘You can’t want to love me, I’m horrible.’

‘Don’t be silly, don’t be silly,’ he said, trying to comfort her, kissing her, holding her in his arms. ‘I want you, I want to marry you, we’re going to be married, quickly, quickly—to-morrow if I can.’

But she only sobbed terribly, and cried:

‘I feel awful. I feel awful. I feel I’m horrible to you.’

‘No, I want you, I want you,’ was all he answered, blindly, with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.

There are two “horrors” intimated in these words, the final words of the story.  The first horror is the horrified apprehension that Mabel will become her mother.  That is to say, Mabel is horrified that she will be mired in the same soul-deadening stupidity in which her mother was steeped and in which her brothers are steeped.  We return, then, to the opening moments of the text: to the image of the yoked horses (which figures marriage as subordination and subjection to the will of another).  The second horror is that she will be undesired or no longer desired.

Consider this: Mabel has created a golem that will desire her, a male Pygmalion, a Frankensteinian monster.  And now, her creation desires her too much.  Golem-making is dangerous, as Scholem reminds us, but the source of danger is not the golem itself, or the forces emanating from the golem, but rather the conflict that arises within the golem-maker herself.  It is a conflict between the horror of being desired by one’s creature and the horror of not being desired enough by one’s creature or the horror of not being desired at all, the horror of undesirability.  It is a conflict between the horror of being-desired and the horror of the absence of being-desired.

Joseph Suglia


ROBINSON ALONE by Kathleen Rooney / Kathleen Rooney, ROBINSON ALONE

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An Analysis of Robinson Alone (2012) by Kathleen Rooney
by Joseph Suglia

“Robinson” was a mask that poet Weldon Kees wore.  He knew, as all poets and poetesses do, that literature begins where autobiography ends.  He knew, as all poets and poetesses do, that literature is not confession, but impersonation.

Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, but auto-thanoto-graphy.  Literature is not the writing of the self that lives, but the writing of the self that dies.

Weldon Kees wore the mask, the persona, of “Robinson” in all of four poems.

And then he disappeared–literally.

I encourage you to read, if you have not yet done so, Kees’ poem “Robinson.”  It begins thus: “The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone. / His act is over.”

The poet disappears, and no one cares.  Did anyone ever really care?

These are the final verses of the poem:

“Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun. / Outside, the birds circle continuously. / Where trees are actual and take no holiday.”

The poet dematerializes, but reality?  Reality always stays the same.  As Lacan said of the real: “The real is what always stays in place.”

It might be tempting to say–and this has been said–that Kees disappeared much like his predecessor, Rimbaud.  But Kees’s silence is not Rimbaud’s (alleged) silence.  Because Rimbaud was never really silent.  Rimbaud never stopped writing.  Even when he trafficked in ivory, Rimbaud was a writer.  Rimbaud stopped writing “poetry” (as one would ordinarily understand this term) and started writing inventories.  Only Rimbaud’s job title changed.  He stopped calling himself a “poet” and starting calling himself an “ivory trader.”  But even in Rimbaud’s inventories, one can hear the insistent, susurrant, violent rhythms of poetic language.

Kees’s self-vanishing was absolute.

* * * * *

Kathleen Rooney’s 2012 lyrical novel, Robinson Alone, derives its title from the Robinson poems of Weldon Kees.

It would be a mistake to say that these are poems about Weldon Kees.  Nor are they merely poems about solitude, even about poetic solitude.

They are poems of solitude, poetologies of solitude, and phenomenologies of solitude, written in verse of lapidary smoothness.  They display a total mastery of the English language.  One must have mastered the English language to create assonances between “potroast” and “topcoat,” between “crisp” and “perspicuous.”

Though it would be impossible for me to do justice to all of the tropes and flows of this heartbreaking book, let me pause over a few verses.

Robinson is dragged to a Western-themed honky-tonk, though he moved from Nebraska to Missouri in order to escape the West (and to enter a writing program).  At the close of the poem:

“Something’s being learned here, but not a lesson” (22).

Robinson walks down Fifth Avenue.  Perhaps he passes a museum advertisement that uses the words “camera obscura”:

“Robinson’s not sure what a camera obscura / is for, but he thinks he should have / his portrait done with one…  Something used to photograph the obscure” (27-28).

Of course, that isn’t what a “camera obscura” (“dark room”) is.  But his musings raise the questions: How does one phenomenalize darkness?  Can there be a “negative phenomenology,” as Gerald Bruns once unfortunately phrased it?  Is poetry ever a phenomenon?

“Consider consider consider the oyster” (37).

Consider the oyster, not the lobster.  The oyster is a solitary creature.  An auto-inseminating, auto-sexual, solipsistic creature.  The oyster is a hermaphrodite, both female and male at the same time, and requires no sexual partner.

Robinson is staring down from the Brooklyn Bridge.  He considers hurtling himself into the abyss.  He catches a stranger’s glance and changes his mind:

“There’s something sexy about desolation” (42).

The interesting thing about this thought is that it could be everted and still be accurate: “There’s nothing sexy about desolation.”  The word “desolation” co mes from the Latin, de- (“thoroughly”) and solus (“alone”).  To be desolate is to be thoroughly alone.

“Sexiness” refers to the possibility of being-with-others (Mitsein, to use Heidegger’s term).  Desolation, then, is receptivity to the possibility of being-with-others.  Aloneness affords the possibility of a relation to another human being.

* * * * *

Kathleen Rooney’s “Robinson” is a castaway marooned in a debased modernity.  Much as the marooning of the main character of J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, her Robinson’s marooning is self-imposed.  Why is this?  Why must this be?

It must be because Robinson is a poet.  To poeticize is to withdraw from all significant relations.  Every poet must vanish, must withdraw from the world in order for poetry to be possible.

Joseph Suglia

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On Nietzsche’s MORGENRÖTHE: GEDANKEN ÜBER DIE MORALISCHEN VORURTHEILE / On Nietzsche’s THE DAWN OF DAY / DAYBREAK by Friedrich Nietzsche / THE DAWN OF DAY by Friedrich Nietzsche / THE DAWN OF DAY by Friedrich Nietzsche / DAYBREAK by Friedrich Nietzsche / DAYBREAK: THOUGHTS ON THE PREJUDICES OF MORALITY by Friedrich Nietzsche / DAWN OF THE DAY by Friedrich Nietzsche / THE DAWN / Friedrich Nietzsche DAYBREAK / Nietzsche, THE DAWN OF DAY / Friedrich Nietzsche’s



by Joseph Suglia


“I advise you to cultivate that form of contempt which is called pity.”

—Joseph Conrad, Victory


M = Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile (1881; second edition: 1887).  The numbers refer to the numbers of the paragraphs that are cited.

D = Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, ed. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter. Cambridge University Press, 1997.  The numbers refer to the pages of the text.


Those who read Nietzsche in English translation have been lied to, deceived, seduced, hoodwinked by dishonest translators and commentators.  My intention here will be twofold.  First, to correct some of the horrifying misinterpretations in the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation of Nietzsche’s Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile (1881; 1887), entitled Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (first published in 1997).  I will hose off the slime with which Nietzsche’s great book has been slathered and amplify what Nietzsche actually writes.  This will not have been, then, an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Daybreak but an attempt to illuminate and magnify his writing so that it becomes more legible.

* * * * *

Daybreak is Nietzsche’s inaugural attack on morality.  The argument is not that human beings should be immoral but that they should be moral for different reasons than have been traditionally presented.  His attack on morality is based on the critique of voluntarism (the theory of the free will) and the critique of altruism that was launched in Human, All-Too-Human (1878; 1880).  The goal of Daybreak, as Nietzsche writes in the Preface to the 1887 edition, is to “undermine trust in morality” (Vetrauen zur Moral zu untergraben).  Nietzsche does take pains to acknowledge that his own stance is self-contradictory, inasmuch as his critique of morality is itself “moral,” in a sense, coming, as it does, from an uncritical trust in rationality.  The fact that Nietzsche cites Hegel approvingly in this regard shows us that Nietzsche exists in closer proximity to Hegel than is customarily acknowledged.  Nietzsche uses the figure of the scorpion to describe this movement of turning-morality-against-itself ([der kritische Wille] gleich dem Skorpione, den Stachel in den eigenen Leib sticht [M Preface]), though I think a more felicitous figure would be that of the amphisbaena, a serpentine creature in Greek mythology that has two heads, one of which dangles at the tip of its tail and which can sometimes be seen biting the other head.  Why?  Free spirits are forever shedding their opinions, much in the way that the snake sloughs off its skin.  All of Nietzsche’s writing is intentionally self-contradictory.

Morality is based on two false presuppositions: that human beings are self-conscious subjects who make their own choices, the sources of which are transparent to them, and that human beings are capable of selfless compassion for others, of other-directedness, of caring for other people without any reference to themselves.

The first false presupposition of morality: Human beings are self-conscious subjects who make their own choices, the sources of which are transparent to them.

We are not in control of what we think or what we feel.  We are not in control of our minds because we are part of our minds.  Our minds are more powerful than we are.  Every conscious thought issues from the unconscious mind: “All of our so-called consciousness,” Nietzsche writes, is “a more or less fantastical commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, yet felt text” (all unser sogenanntes Bewusstsein [ist] ein mehr oder weniger phantastischer Commentar über einen ungewussten, vielleicht unwissbaren, aber gefühlten Text) [M 119].  And all unconscious data is formed by our history, by our environment, by tradition, by mood, by our physiology, by our heredity (though Nietzsche did not live to see the discovery of genetics), not by some nonexistent “free will.”  There can be no moral thinking or immoral thinking insofar as we are unconsciously compelled to think whatever we consciously think and are therefore not responsible for our thoughts.  Morality implies responsibility—and if we are not responsible for what we think, consciously or unconsciously, how could we be held responsible for the alleged “morality” or the alleged “immorality” of our thoughts?

Consider the hypnagogic state—what the Italians call dormiveglia, that twilight between alertness and slumber.  You are neither awake nor asleep.  Your thoughts rush and gush.  How could one be responsible for the rushing and gushing of thoughts when the mind is in this semi-conscious state?  And if one is not responsible for such thoughts, for which thoughts is one responsible, and why?

If there is no freedom of thought (and there is none), there are no free actions, either.  No actions are good or evil—for surely, goodness is voluntary goodness and evilness is voluntary evilness.  People are neither voluntarily good nor voluntarily evil, which means that they are neither good nor evil.  As a result, we should perhaps stop pouring people into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL and develop richer and more complex ways of evaluating human behavior.

If people are constrained to perform good deeds, then praise is never earned.  The Australian taxi driver who returns $500,000 to the Japanese businessman who left the money in his cab does not deserve to be heroized.  If people are constrained to perform bad deeds, then neither is punishment ever deserved.  Criminals should be pathologized, for criminality is a pathology [M 202], not the result of sinfulness [M 208].  And why should anyone feel guilt or regret for something that one did?  It makes as little sense to feel guilt or regret for something that you did not choose to do as it does for someone else to blame you or to praise you for what you did not choose to do.

The second false presupposition: Human beings are capable of selfless compassion for others, of other-directedness, of caring for other people without any reference to themselves.

Why does anyone behave morally to begin with?  People are moral out of laziness, out of cowardice, out of convenience, out of submissiveness to tradition.  Above all, they are moral out of the desire for self-satisfaction.

(Parenthetical remarks: All morality is arbitrary: Every age has a different sense of what is “good” or “evil,” what is blameworthy or praiseworthy [M 2].  The ancient Jews believed that wrath was a virtue (as evidenced by the Hebraic Bible); the ancient Greeks believed in the virtuousness of envy (as evidenced by Hellenic mythology) and of revenge (as evidenced by the Oresteia).  Dissembling once counted as a virtue (as evidenced by Homer).  The ancient Greeks despised pity (as evidenced by Aristotle) and hope (as evidenced by Hesiod) and praised shame (as evidenced by Plato).



Every human being is self-directed (though, as I have stated elsewhere, Nietzsche did not believe in a hypostatized or substantialized human self).  Everything that you do, you do for your own benefit or pleasure, even if that pleasure is a dark pleasure or a negative pleasure or the pleasure that comes from denying oneself a pleasure.  Compassion is selfish because life is selfish.

Despite what the editors of the Cambridge University Press translation write about him, Nietzsche never claims that there is such a thing as a “moral motive” or a “morally motivated action” (xxv).

The introduction to the Cambridge Daybreak is nameless.  Who typed this text?  It is impossible to say with conviction, though it was likely put together by Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter, the editors of the volume.  If I had written such an atrocity, I would not have put my name on it, either.

The agenda of Clark and Leiter (I will assume that they are the writers of the introduction) is to turn Nietzsche into someone who believes that the human animal is a self-sacrificing animal that can be dedicated absolutely to “the Other.”  As I will argue, Nietzsche is not suggesting that there are other-centered impulses, and he is hardly repudiating the necessary existence of egoistic instincts.

The passage that the editors make hash browns out of is Paragraph 103 (“Es giebt zwei Arten von Leugnern der Sittlichkeit”; “There Are Two Kinds of People who Deny Morality”).  The passage is worth citing in its entirety in German:

Es giebt zwei Arten von Leugnern der Sittlichkeit.—“Die Sittlichkeit leugnen”—das kann einmal heissen: leugnen, dass die sittlichen Motive, welche die Menschen angeben, wirklich sie zu ihren Handlungen getrieben haben,—es ist also die Behauptung, dass die Sittlichkeit in Worten bestehe und zur groben und feinen Betrügerei (namentlich Selbstbetrügerei) der Menschen gehöre, und vielleicht gerade bei den durch Tugend Berühmtesten am meisten. Sodann kann es heissen: leugnen, dass die sittlichen Urtheile auf Wahrheiten beruhen. Hier wird zugegeben, dass sie Motive des Handelns wirklich sind, dass aber auf diese Weise Irrthümer, als Grund alles sittlichen Urtheilens, die Menschen zu ihren moralischen Handlungen treiben. Diess ist mein Gesichtspunct: doch möchte ich am wenigsten verkennen, dass in sehr vielen Fällen ein feines Misstrauen nach Art des ersten Gesichtspunctes, also im Geiste des La Rochefoucauld, auch im Rechte und jedenfalls vom höchsten allgemeinen Nutzen ist.—Ich leugne also die Sittlichkeit wie ich die Alchymie leugne, das heisst, ich leugne ihre Voraussetzungen: nicht aber, dass es Alchymisten gegeben hat, welche an diese Voraussetzungen glaubten und auf sie hin handelten.—Ich leugne auch die Unsittlichkeit: nicht, dass zahllose Menschen sich unsittlich fühlen, sondern dass es einen Grund in der Wahrheit giebt, sich so zu fühlen. Ich leugne nicht, wie sich von selber versteht—vorausgesetzt, dass ich kein Narr bin—, dass viele Handlungen, welche unsittlich heissen, zu vermeiden und zu bekämpfen sind; ebenfalls, dass viele, die sittlich heissen, zu thun und zu fördern sind, — aber ich meine: das Eine wie das Andere aus anderen Gründen, als bisher. Wir haben umzulernen, —um endlich, vielleicht sehr spät, noch mehr zu erreichen: umzufühlen.

There are those, Nietzsche tells us, who deny that anyone is capable of a moral motive. This first kind of philosopher (Lichtenberg, La Rochefoucauld, et al.) is opposed to those Pharisees whose morality lies in their words, not in their hands: the sanctimonious, the sophists, the takers, the verbalizers, the hypocrites.  The second denier of morality denies that morality is based on objectively true presuppositions.  This second category of philosopher understands that all morality is misbegotten.  Nietzsche belongs to the second camp.

The editors are fond of the following sentence (rendered into English): “Here it will be conceded that the motives of action are real, but that it is errors which, as the basis of all moral judgment, drive them to their moral actions.”  The editors assume that this sentence implies that Nietzsche believed that people can have good, moral intentions: In this passage, they write, Nietzsche “admits the existence of moral motivation” (xxvi).  They think that Nietzsche is the precursor of Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas, that he is someone who has the greatest piety for the Thou or for the Other.  When he wrote Human, All-Too-Human, then, Nietzsche was a sinner who thought that people were self-interested.  Now, he undergoes an epiphany as he travels on the road to Damascus: “In Daybreak, by contrast, we can begin to see the shift in Nietzsche’s strategy: he explicitly raises the question about the value of unegoistic actions, at the same time that he begins to move away from the psychological egoism of Human All Too Human” [xxiv-xxv].

According to this (mis)interpretation, the Nietzsche of Daybreak has rejected Human, All-Too-Human, with its reduction of all altruism to human selfishness, in favor of an interpretation of morality that allows for moral impulsion.  The editors call attention to “Daybreak’s [alleged] repudiation of the thoroughgoing psychological egoism of Human, All Too Human” [xxv].  In Daybreak, Nietzsche has seen the Light of Day: “The passage [cited above] thus functions to separate Nietzsche’s new position from his earlier one: he no longer denies the existence of morally motivated actions, but claims instead that these actions, when they occur, are based on erroneous presuppositions” (xxv).

This is nonsense.  Even worse, it goes against the thrust and tenor of Nietzschean thought.  It violates the grain of the text.  Nietzsche wants us to undeceive ourselves of the false assumption of “moral motives.”  He wants us to think in luculent manner.  He wants a world that is unalloyed by the false presupposition that moral intentions are possible.

The correct interpretation of the passage cited above is as follows: Human beings might believe that they have moral impulses that entrain them to perform moral actions, but nowhere in Daybreak does Nietzsche write that their moral motives are anything other than modes of self-deception.

Nietzsche writes (to translate): “I also deny morality: [I do not deny] that innumerable human beings feel themselves to be immoral, but [I do deny] that there is any ground in truth for them to feel this way.”

The most important word in this regard is fühlen (“to feel”).  Human beings feel themselves to be immoral or moral, but this does not mean that they are immoral or moral.  To turn to the alchemy metaphor: There are those who identify themselves as alchemists, but this does not mean that alchemy is anything other than a quack pseudo-science or that alchemists are anything other than quackpots.  Many human beings feel that they are performing moral actions, but do I really need to write that the feeling that one is performing a moral action is not the same thing as a genuinely moral intention?  Human beings might feel that they are self-responsible moral agents who are morally impelled to perform moral actions, but they are being self-deceptive in having such feelings.  They might explain to themselves that they are moral beings, but this does not mean that they are moral!  The unconscious impulse behind their “moral intentions” is always, for Nietzsche, selfishness.

The writers of the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation do not separate consciousness from the unconscious mind, even though Nietzsche consistently does precisely this, especially in the passage in which he affirms the “non-knowledge of the self” (Das, was den Menchen so schwer zu begreifen fällt, ist ihre Unwissenheit über sich selbst) [M 116].  The idea of “moral intentions” becomes questionable when we consider the unreadability of the self to itself.  Sadly, the editors seem to have forgotten the sentence of Nietzsche in which he declares that moral actions are never what they appear to be to the subject who performs them: Die Handlungen sind niemals Das, als was sie uns erscheinen! [Ibid.].  We are not what we appear to be to ourselves, never mind how we appear to other human beings.  “We are strangers to ourselves”: This is the premise of Toward the Genealogy of Morals.  The core of the human animal is unknown and unknowable to that same animal.  What distinguishes us from all of the other animals is that our essence is unknown and unknowable to us—this insight made Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis possible.  If one does not understand these points, one does not understand Nietzsche.

The other person is unknowable to us, moreover, except insofar as he or she leaves an impression on us: Wir begreifen Nichts von [dem Nächsten], als die Veränderungen an uns, deren Ursache er ist [M 118].  Other people will attempt to leave imprints upon you, as if you were a ball of wax—and yet you will know nothing of them other than the psychic impressions that they leave upon you.  We can neither say that the other human being is “good” or “evil” in himself or in herself.  “Good” or “evil” are names, labels, deictic markers that we attach to the other human being.  A person is nominated as “good” inasmuch as s/he pleases us; a person is nominated as “evil” inasmuch as s/he displeases us.  And yet this person is neither good nor evil in him- or herself.  In this fashion, Nietzsche moves away from Stirner, who some think of as Nietzsche’s predecessor.  The Stirnerian moral-ego system is one in which what pleases me is right and what displeases me is wrong.  We know from Iva Overbeck that Nietzsche read Stirner (cf. Conversations with Nietzsche, ed. Sander L. Gilman, pages 113-114): Here he is moving beyond the naivety of Stirner and not defining “good” as that which is good to me, nor is he defining “evil” as that which is evil to me.  Both “good” and “evil” are mystifications, abstractions, and misinterpretations of the human mind.

Clark and Leiter do not seem to be conscious of Paragraph 148, wherein Nietzsche asserts that there are no moral actions, if morality means “other-centeredness.”  The moral intentions behind such actions would be other-centered, as well.  We never do anything purely for the other person or without self-interest, and our will is constrained by mood, by the unconscious, by degrees of sickness, by degrees of health and the feeling of well-being, by our memory of the past, by hunger, and/or by the need to urinate.

In an unpublished fragment from the summer of 1880—which, as far as I know, has never before been rendered into English—Nietzsche writes:

“Will to urinate,” that means: There is, first of all, a pressure and a compulsion; secondly, a medium through which to release oneself; thirdly, a habit to be exercised, after it has been given from the intellect to the hand.  In itself, the pressure or compulsion has nothing to do with the alleviation of the bladder: It does not say, “I want.”  It says, rather, “I suffer” [translation mine].

Let me make a simple remark that every child could understand: Although one might choose when to urinate, no one chooses whether to urinate.  And the discomfiting and discomforting need to urinate can shape one’s decision-making process, perturb one’s attention, and determine one’s words and actions.  The insistent and persistent existence of the need to urinate in itself invalidates the hypothesis of the free will, for who has absolute power over urination?  One has no more control over one’s thoughts as one has control over whether or not one has the need to urinate.  If the need to urinate were subject to some “free will,” wouldn’t most people have willed away or scheduled their micturition sessions?

Furthermore: If he admits “the existence of moral motivation” [xxvi] in Daybreak, why are all of Nietzsche’s examples of moral actions examples of egoic, self-interested behavior, of extreme vaingloriousness, of vanity?  There is the nun who flaunts her chastity in order to punish fleshlier women with the image of her stern and proud virginity, her freedom from the desire for a man’s touch, her austere holiness: Die Keuschheit der Nonne: mit welchen strafenden Augen sieht sie in das Gesicht anderslebender Frauen!  wie viel Lust der Rache ist in diesen Augen! [M 30].  There is the artist who declares his greatness and champions his excellence in order to excite envy in his contemporaries: Dort steht ein grosser Künstler: die vorempfundene Wollust am Neide bezwungener Nebenbuhler hat seine Kraft nicht schlafen lassen, bis dass er gross geworden ist, —wie viele bittere Augenblicke anderer Seelen hat er sich für das Grosswerden zahlen lassen! [Ibid.].  If I may submit an example that Nietzsche does not give: The man who gives money to a beggar does so not out the desire to help the beggar, but out of the desire to feel superior to the beggar and out of the desire to advertise his superiority over the beggar—though, as Nietzsche points out in this very book, he will become irritated afterward for having done so, as he would have been irritated for not having done so.  In each case, the striving for distinction (Streben nach Auszeichnung) [M 113] is at the same time the striving to dominate another person—it is not an isolating experience, though it ends in a self-relation.  The moralist attempts to annihilate the other human being by the assertion one’s superiority and then attempts to recuperate oneself through this annihilation.  One injures the other in order to injure oneself—and then triumphs over both pity for the person one injured and over self-pity in order to exuberate and luxuriate in the feeling of one’s own power.  Such is the magnetic glory of the martyr.

Not only is absolute other-directed agape love for the other human being impossible; it would not even desirable if it were to be universalized [M 143]: It would create a nightmare world in which everyone fervently loved everyone else, a frenzy of mass-love that would inexorably lead the beloved to languish for lovelessness [M 147].

(Parenthetical remarks: What good is a virtue if it cannot be displayed?  Why be virtuous at all if one cannot delight in dramatizing virtues in front of an audience for the sake of their approbation?  Today, people call this (too often, for my taste) “virtue signaling”: Was nützte eine Tugend, die man nicht zeigen konnte oder die sich nicht zeigen verstand! [M 29].  And yet there is a darker side to the performance of one’s moral uprightness.  Morality is cruelty.  It is an attempt to inflict misery and the perception of one’s own superiority on another: Man will machen, dass unser Anblick dem Anderen wehe thun und seinen Neid, das Gefühl der Ohnmacht und seines Herabsinkens wecke [M 30]. Moralistic language is the perfect license for a mean-spirited person to release his or her pent-up aggressions upon another—consider the Rote Armee Fraktion or the Baader-Meinhof Group or the Antifa protesters for relatively recent and recent examples of this.)

The reflection on pity (Mitleid) is inarguably the center of Daybreak.  If this is true (and it is), then how could one claim, as the writers of the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation do, that Nietzsche believes in selfless motives?

Pity is the affect of morality, not respect (Achtung), as it is for Kant.  This allows Nietzsche to show the sadism and the lust for power that lies at the foundation of all morality.  Pity implies a relation to transcendence—not the transcendence of God or of a supersensible morality but the surpassing power and dominance of the one who pities.  It is always possible to withhold pity.  If it is always possible to withhold pity, then we are exercising power over the piteous.  If we want to feel our power, we can either withhold our pity or threaten to withhold our pity.  One pities dogs, one pities cats, one pities university professors—creatures to which one feels oneself superior.  If we see someone drowning and have the power to save his life, we might save him out of pity—but this is selfishness and a counterstrike against one’s own feeling of fragility and powerlessness [M 133].  Pity potentiates the one who feels pity.

There can be no rivalry where there is pity—Nietzsche almost writes this.  An enemy is an equal—one does not pity one’s enemies.  If you want a rivalry to end, pity your enemy.  This does not imply that pity equalizes or levels the distinction between the one who is piteous and the one who is pitiable but rather that it introduces an unsurpassable distance between the one who pities and the one who is pitied, between the one who has the power to dispense pity and the pitiable.

Nietzsche enjoins us to “Wake up!” (Wachen wir auf!) [M 464].  We should awaken from our intellectual benightedness into intellectual enlightenment—Daybreak is a text that belongs to the European Aufklärung.  We should move from the dreamfulness of morality, religion, and metaphysics to the wakefulness, to the awakeness, of rationality.

The title, Daybreak, alludes to the dawning of a world in which humanity will be undarkened by morality, religion, and metaphysics.  Nietzsche enjoins us to disencumber ourselves of all of these things, to pierce the encrustation of moral, religious, and metaphysical prejudices.  It will be a world in which no one believes in any beyond, in any otherworldly transcendence.  Human life will become at long last meaningful when our successors recognize that there is no reason for them to judge one another or themselves, that they are fundamentally innocent.  (There is no reason to judge what is involuntary.  The free spirit believes in the innocence of all opinions, as s/he believes in the innocence of all actions [M 56].)  It will be a world in which polyamory will replace monogamy, a world in which suicide will not be criminalized or moralistically condemned, a world in which criminals will be permitted to choose their own forms of containment [M 187], a world in which the criminal-justice system will be founded on the idea of deterrence and rehabilitation, not punishment, a world in which no one will be considered guilty of anything, a world in which no one will be considered responsible for anything that one does, a world in which it will be generally recognized that all human thought and action is necessary and beyond one’s conscious control.  It will also be a place of regular gymnastic exercise, if we believe the Nietzsche of Human, All-Too-Human.  Much like the future that is evoked within the pages of the greatest of all Nietzschean novels, The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, the future in which all of this would take place is heralded yet never directly shown.  Its promise is described purely negatively.  What will this world look like?  Nietzsche never tells us.  Nietzsche (and Lawrence) criticizes the conditions of the modern world and opens the doors to an extra-moral, extra-religious, and extra-metaphysical future without ever being explicit in his vaticinations.

To return to the second paragraph of this commentary: Nietzsche does not advise us to be immoral; rather, he advises us to be moral out of different reasons than out of deference to a convention or belief in the supernatural.  We should become the self-legislators of morality—and if this means endorsing polyamory, suicide, and revenge, so be it.  Let us no longer be camels (moral agents), to forecast the language of Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Let us become lions (critics of morality), and thereafter we shall transform into children (inventors of a morality of irresponsibility and a morality of innocence).  It is time, and high time indeed, to rethink, to accept, to refuse to condemn impulses that are unavoidably human (envy, covetousness, disobedience).  Then, perhaps we would do what comes naturally without a bad conscience, as Nietzsche writes: Wenn der Mensch hört auf, sich für böse zu halten, hört er auf, böse zu sein [M 148].  He exhorts us to praise egoic actions and to devalue the so-called “selfless actions” until things balance out.

Nietzsche replaces good and evil with gradations of power.  All is power.  (This is a flaw in Nietzschean thought: If everything is power, then nothing is power.  Nietzsche’s power-absolutism leads him to tautologous formulations.)  Everything can be understood in terms of relativities of power (this is a point that Nietzsche will enlarge upon in the Nachlass): Every human being has the desire for dominance over all other human beings.  And what better way of dominating another human being than by flaunting one’s moral superiority?  Every human being has the desire to become God.

“Love always occurs beyond good and evil,” Nietzsche will write in Beyond Good and Evil: He means self-love, which eradicates Christian guilt.  Remember that pride is the deadliest sin.  Self-love exists outside of the categories of sin and redemption.  Another way of saying this: The one who loves himself or herself has no need of Christianity.


One of Nietzsche’s Mistakes

Nietzsche appears to believe that credo quia absurdum est (“I believe it because it is absurd”) is the motto of the Catholic Church.  And yet this statement was never made by Tertullian or by any of the Church Fathers.  Tertullian writes, rather, credibile est, quia ineptum est (“It is credible because it is inept”).  As always, when Nietzsche makes an error, it is a productive error.


Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche’s Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile

Prospective suicides will not commit the act, if they think that no one will care.

Words are not solutions; they are problems.

If you want your rivalry with someone else to end, pity your rival.

There can be no rivalry where there is pity for the rival.

Steve Harvey and Dennis Prager believe in the existence of objective morality because they have the emotional need to believe this—as if their self-preservation were something essential.

Saving a drowning man presents one with an advantageable situation: It allows the rescuer to be worshipped as a hero.

Joseph Suglia


Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS / An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS by Shakespeare / Shakespeare’s THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS: An Interpretation / Commentary on CORIOLANUS (Shakespeare) / Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS: An Analysis




by Joseph Suglia


“Poverty and underdevelopment are not God-given but are man-made, and can be unmade by man.”

—“The Move Forward,” Christopher Hitchens, 21 June 1971



If you would like to know where your friends stand politically, you could do no better than give them The Tragedy of Coriolanus (circa 1605-1608) to read, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy but also his most politically reactionary play.  If your friends side with Caius Martius Coriolanus, they are likely more conservative.  If your friends side with the Roman crowd, they are likely more liberal.

The play is perhaps the prototypical poem of conservativism and even more politically conservative than The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which explains why the work is T.S. Eliot’s favorite play, why Hazlitt dislikes it so much, and why Brecht, the radical Marxist dramatist, turned Coriolanus into a fascist dictator in his 1951 reinterpretation of the tragedy.  It does not explain, however, why Beethoven (a republican in the old sense of the word, someone who we would today call a liberal) wrote an overture in the general’s honor.

The most intelligent architects of modern political conservativism (including Hegel) are Machiavelli and Hobbes.  One of the premises of modern political conservatism is an intuition that can be found in the writings of both Machiavelli and Hobbes: Do not trust the crowd, for the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious.  If you trust in the crowd, you are likely a liberal.  If you think that the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious, you are likely a conservative.

The rightist politics of The Tragedy of Coriolanus are evident from the very first scene on.  It is a politics that is contemptuous of democracy.



When we first see him, Coriolanus is astride a horse, condemning the poor of Rome for demanding food to eat.  He chastises the famishing wretches for having the temerity to beg for corn, for the criminal impertinence of demanding corn from the aristocracy.  The crowd claims that the Roman nobility has more food than it could ever eat (“If they [the patricians] would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us [the poor] humanely” [I:i]); when he became consul, the real-world Coriolanus pledged to withhold food from the poor unless the rights of the poor were revoked.  The most salient of these rights was the right to appeal to the tribunes, the representatives of the people—a right that was given to appease the people after the plebeian secession.  The real-world Coriolanus loathed, more than anything, the system of tribunes, of the vocalizers (and influencers) of the popular will.  Not only did the real-life Coriolanus deny the poor corn after he became consul, demanding the rescission of the rights of the poor—he demanded that their spokesmen be divested of power, as well.

The Tragedy of Coriolanus was composed at a time of grain shortage, when hunger in England reached near-famine levels.  The insurrection of the Roman people does not recall Ancient Roman history at all; it recalls the Midlands Revolt of 1607, as well as the insurgencies and rebellions in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire, which were fomented in response to insufficient harvests and the food-hoarding of the English aristocracy.  There is even the appearance of English mills in the grain of the text (“’Tis south the city mills” [I:x])—as the 1878 Clarendon edition glosses, this refers to the mills of London, not those of Rome.  As is always the case in Shakespeare, though the subject matter is historical, the play is presentist, not antiquarian: It is a work that concerns not Roman antiquity, properly, but the Elizabethan present in which Shakespeare is writing.

We are supposed to believe that the macerating poor have no right to ask for food, that they should starve to death rather than importune Coriolanus, who alone has the right to the things of necessity (food, shelter, clothing), to comfort, and to pleasure.  He even makes fun of the words that they use (“an-hungry” is the demotic style, a low-class colloquialism): “[The poor] said they were an-hungry” [I:i].  The poor “sighed forth proverbs— / That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat, / That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only” [I:i].  These all might be platitudes, as Coriolanus points out (some of which were emblazoned on placards held aloft by the unruly crowd in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 cinematic interpretation), but who has the right to tell the hungry that they are not hungry?  And what arrogance it is to mock the hungry for articulating their hunger and for clamoring to satisfy their hunger!  Coriolanus repudiates the poor for the need to put food in their stomachs.  The brutality and factuality of hunger are undeniable.  Coriolanus is saying, in essence, “I don’t want to hear about your hunger” with the same incensed dismissiveness and lofty indifference with which Chris Christie said that he doesn’t want to hear the New Jersey poor talk about raising the minimum wage (it has been raised twenty-five cents to a grudging $8.85 in the year in which I am revising this essay, 2019).

How dare the poor beg for bread!  How dare they insist that their stomachs be filled!  For their irreducibly human need to eat, the poor are called “dissentious rogues” [I:i]—rascally wretches and wretched beggars.  The a priori assumption is as follows: The more the poor have, the less the nobility has.  The less the poor have, the more the nobility has.  The hungrier the poor are, the more prosperous the nobility.  The humiliation and immiseration of the poor lead to the dignity and luxury of the rich: “The leanness that afflicts us [the poor, the miserable], the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them” [I:i].  The starvation of the poor equals the elevation of the nobility, and the fetid, contaminating sewer water of the poor should never flow into a conflux with the pure waters of the nobility.  Thus, Martius espouses an Ancient-Roman precursor of trickle-down economics: Feed the rich, and perhaps, someday, scraps shall fall from their table, scraps on which the poor may snack.

Martius has a granular understanding of the poor.  He sees the poor as if they were so many grains of corn, so many motes, so many “fragments” [I:i]; he sees them not as individual totalities, but as disjointed pieces broken from the whole of the Roman commonality.  He even welcomes crushing them in the war against the Volscians: “Then we shall ha’ means to vent / Our musty superfluity” [I:i].  They are either grains of corn or vermin verminizing England.  For the crime of hunger, Martius expresses the wish that the poor be mass-exterminated in the Roman-Volscian war, as if they were rats: “The Volsces have much corn.  Take these rats thither / To gnaw their garners” [I:i].  (Garners = granaries.)  Send them to the wars!  Coriolanus echoes exactly what the Roman poor say about the patricians—to the wealthy, the poor are either fodder for the war or starvelings: “If the wars eat us not up, they will” [I:i].

The play itself is on the side of Coriolanus, not on the side of the poor.  Already, in the first scene, this is evident.  To be clear to the point of bluntness: The play’s glorification of Coriolanus makes the tragedy a reactionary, rightist, ultraconservative work of dramatic literature.  If I am wrong about this (and I am not), why are the poor not presented in a poetical manner?  Only Coriolanus is enshrined with poetical loftiness and lyrical magnificence.  The poor are not given a poetical voice.  Only Coriolanus is given a poetical voice.  The reason for this might be, as Hazlitt writes, that the principle of poetry is “everything by excess” and is therefore married with the language of power.  Poetry is not about equality; it is about the contrast (the dissymmetry) between the low and the high.  Poverty is not an easy subject for poetry, which is nothing without elevated moods and elevated language.  It is, of course, possible to write a poem about food stamps, but it is not possible to write a good poem about food stamps without some poetical sublimation or fantastication.  Hazlitt’s idea is that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is fascistic (though he does not use this word, writing, as he did, in 1816) because poetry is fascistic by its very essence.  This would be to view the politics of the play through the speculum of poetry rather than to explain the poetry of the play through the speculum of politics.



Coriolanus’s war-loving and war-mongering mother is living vicariously through her soldier-son.  Volumnia, the bellicose mater, only becomes peace-loving when her son wages a war against her country, Rome [I will return to this point below].

The real mother of Coriolanus was named Veturia, and the real-world wife was named Volumnia.  It is extraordinary to notice that Shakespeare gives the fictional mother the name of Coriolanus’s real-world wife.

Indeed, there is a disturbing sexuality between mother and son in the play.  The mother says to Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife, in prose, “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed, where he would show most love” [I:iii].  The mother is projecting herself, through the medium of the imagination, into the mind of Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife.  But this is trifling chitchat when set against the epiphany: The mother is imagining what it would be like to have sex with her own son.  Even more arrestingly shocking and shockingly arresting is the recognition: The mother would rather her son die in war than have sex with anyone (else?), as her succeeding remark makes clear.  Asked the sensible question of what she would think if her son died in combat, the mother responds that “his good report” (the report of his war death) should have been her son: “I therein would have found issue” [I:iii].  “Issue” here is meant in the original sense of “offspring,” and the flabbergasting implication is that her son will only fulfill his human promise when pierced by the sharp end of the enemy’s sword.  She continues: “Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” [I:iii].  Not only is the mother introjecting herself, imaginarily, into the role of her son’s wife; she is declaring to this same wife that the mother would rather her son put his life at stake on the slaughterfield than enjoy the pleasures of the bed (“voluptuously surfeit out of action”).  This implies, again, that she has imagined having sexual intercourse with her own son and that she is gleefully anticipating her son’s lethal besmearing.  She would have him become a “thing of blood” [II:ii].

The mother’s dark romance with her son takes the form of violence and death.  Volumnia salivatingly counts the scars that had been inflicted and inscribed on her son’s body at the expulsion of the Tarquins, cataloguing his wounds with malicious lust (“malicious,” “maliciously,” or “malice,” used eleven times in the text, is one of the most signifying words in the play): “There will be large cicatrices to show the people when he shall stand for his place.  He received in the repulse of Tarquin seven hurts i’th’ body” [II:i].  She proudly numbers the sum of her son’s wounds at twenty-five—“He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him” [II:i]—and is gushingly elated to learn that the number has increased to twenty-seven.  Menenius, the substitute father, is overjoyed to learn that his substitute son Coriolanus has been wounded in the Battle of Corioli.  He is delighted to report that the surrogate son has been wounded “[i]’th’ shoulder and i’th’ left arm” [II:i].

Lawrence Olivier would giggle uncontrollably as he read the line in which Volumnia declares her willingness to perform six of Hercules’ labors (“If you had been the wife of Hercules, / Six of his labours you’d have done and saved / Your husband so much sweat” [IV:i]), but is it so difficult to conceive the woman hacking away with a sword at the Hydra?  She is a militaristic machine, and, as I have argued, one who would rather see her only son killed on the slaughterfield than catch him in bed with a woman.  War, or the vicarious experience of war, is motherly pleasure for Volumnia.

Ralph Fiennes was very wise to put Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) in a military uniform that vaguely resembles a uniform of the Yorkshire Regiment of the British Army in his film interpretation of the play.  Her role as military commandant (for what else is she?) supersedes her role as a mother.  She cares more about Martius’s military victories than about his well-being.  No, worse than that: She is seized with a kind of bloodlust, and this is absolutely evident in the following lines: “[Blood] more becomes a man / Than gilt his trophy / The breasts of Hecuba / When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier / Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword contemning” [I:iii].

Martius fights for the mother, in the name of the mother.  No wonder he is psychologically stultified—never developing into an adult with the consciousness of an adult, never loosening or severing dependency on the mother.  No wonder he doesn’t know how to talk to the common people, no wonder he cares only for himself and for his mother (for the mother is the origin of his selfhood), no wonder he hoards the grain for himself and for his peers.  His loyalty to his motherland is loyalty to his mother Volumnia.

Consider that Coriolanus is a mother-obsessed fascist, and this consideration gives one insight into the psychology of fascist consciousness: Overmothered mammothrepts become fascists (Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), anyone?).  Martius was a fascist long before the word existed.  For the word fascism comes from the Latin fascis, which means “bundle,” and under fascism, an entire society is bundled around a single authoritarian leader.  Martius is bundled by the mother.

War is an industry.  Beyond the psychodynamic dimensions of her relation to her son, does Volumnia not also have a financial interest in her son’s military victories?  When Martius defeats the Volscians, the defeat of the Volscians benefits Rome.  If Martius, now “Coriolanus,” as the Volscian general, were to defeat Rome, this would obviously erode the mother’s position of authority.  We see, in the play, that familial relationships are also financial relationships.  Volumnia has a relation to her son that reminds one of the financial and erotic interest that Donald Trump takes in his daughter Ivanka Trump.  What benefits Rome benefits Volumnia.  His victories against Volsci are her political and financial victories.  Though she says that she would rather have the entire city perish than lose her son, could this be because Volumnia believes that the city will perish without her son?



To say that Martius is a great soldier would be a gross understatement.  He is an army-annihilating zombie, an anthropomorphic mega-drone, a super-tank in human form.  He hospitalizes the best fighters and slaughters everyone else.  His worthiest enemy, Aufidius, flees for his life, is driven away breathless by Martius five times [I:x].  Martius is pure lethality and neither Volsci nor Rome can win a war without him when he is on the other side.

Martius surges into Volsci and besieges the city of Corioli.  The Roman senate and the Roman people are so impressed with the besiegement and with his military performance that they nominate Martius consul and rename him with the cognomen “Coriolanus,” named after the toponym “Corioli.”  Thus begins the becoming-Volscian of Martius.  The mother seems dismayed by the renaming of her Caius Martius: “‘Coriolanus’ must I call thee?” [II:i].  The re-nomination of Martius as “Coriolanus” marks the beginning of the veering-away from the mother, which will be short-lived.

The soldier soon proves to be an inept statesman—he shows such contempt for the plebeians that they reject him as consul, as his appointment is not confirmed, and expel him from the city of Rome.

The brutishness and arrogance of Coriolanus are fitting for a soldier, but less than fitting for a statesman.  As I suggested above, he does not know how to speak to the commoners; he has no feeling for the commonal.  He is the skillful military general who cannot function as a politician.  He is reluctant to speak to the people after being nominated consul [II:ii], as he is reluctant to canvass them for votes [II:iii]; when he does address the people directly, it is almost always with disgust.  Coriolanus’s language defeats him.

When Coriolanus declares, “I banish you” [III:iii] to the mob, it is as if he were a disgruntled ex-employee who, seconds after being fired, shouts at his employer: “You can’t fire me; I fire you!”  A woman breaks up with her boyfriend.  The erstwhile boyfriend shoots back: “You want to break up with me?  I am breaking up with you!”  Coriolanus is every bit as childish as the ex-employee and the rejectee—he is a child-adult or an adult-infant.

The Romans estrange Coriolanus, literally: They turn him into a stranger, a transformation which was presaged by his name change.  When he is re-nominated “Coriolanus,” it is not long thereafter until the people of Rome see him as a foreigner, as though he were a resident of Corioli.  The Romans see Coriolanus now as a foreigner, but are the Romans not foreigners to Coriolanus?  Along the same lines: The Romans see the Volscians as foreigners, but are the Volscians not foreigners to the Romans?  The Volscians have vanished into the abysses of history, but they were a formicine tribe that gathered south of Rome—“formicine” (ant-like) only because they dwelled upon the hills of what is now Southern Italy.  When Coriolanus is repatriated to Volsci, why do we see this as a betrayal?  Why are so many of us pious toward the country in which we were born?  Why is Rome the home-space—especially considering that Coriolanus was a stranger in “his” own motherland?  Why are the marshland people of Volsci the strangers?  Why do the swamps and hills of Volsci form a shadowzone?



Coriolanus is incapable of separating his public and private selves.  (For a discussion of the separation of public and private selves in bourgeois society, see Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche.)  As far as I can tell, he only gives one soliloquy, in the fourth scene of the first act (“You souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men…”)—this is the only time in the play when he is alone.  Otherwise, he is forever enrounded by other people.

If Coriolanus does not understand the difference between the public and the private, this is likely because his mother never taught him the difference between the public and the private.  Indeed, his mother nurtured him to become a soldier, thus confusing his familial and public roles.  We see this confusion of roles clearly in the moving scene of reconciliation between mother and son.  Martius’s tearful discourse with his own mother would have been more appropriate in private, not held before an audience of Volscian thugs.  His exhibition gives Aufidius free hand to taunt him for being a mamma’s boy.

Coriolanus has the tendency to say whatever comes to his mind without filter.  A particularly illustrative example of Coriolanus’s tendency to blurt things that should not be said in public: He asks the Roman senate to forgo the custom of requiring the nominee to the consulship to speak to the people.  This is a custom, he says, that “might well / Be taken from the people” [II:ii].  Now, as the editors of the Arden edition point out, the outrageousness and inflammatoriness of this remark could be soothed somewhat if we imagine that he is addressing his remarks to Menenius.  In Ralph Fiennes’ contemporization, a live microphone picks up Coriolanus’s careless remark—which should not have been heard by the people and certainly not by the tribunes.  In the film, at least, he didn’t intend for anyone but Menenius to hear what he said.

The one exception to his ignorance of the distinction between the private and public spheres is when Coriolanus tells a citizen, from whom he would solicit votes, that he has “wounds to show [the citizen] which shall be [his] in private” [II:iii].  The crowd unjustly resents him for not displaying his stigmata in the agora (yes, I know this is a Greek and not a Latin term).

His public and private languages are mixed together, as Menenius acknowledges: Coriolanus is “ill-schooled / In bolted language. Meal and bran together / He knows without distinction” [III:i].  Coriolanus cannot disengage crass language (bran) from diplomatic language (meal); he cannot distinguish the crude from the pure.  He speaks insultingly when the language of diplomacy would be more appropriate.



There are four words that “trigger” Coriolanus, and they are kindly, shall, traitor, and boy.  When these words are said to him, in certain contexts, he loses his mind.

Lucius Sicinius Vellutus dispenses with personal pronouns when he gives Coriolanus a command: “It is a mind that shall remain a poison / Where it is, not poison any further” [III:i; emphasis mine].

Coriolanus’s response: “Mark you his absolute ‘shall’?” [III:i].  The shall is described by Coriolanus as coming from the “horn and noise o’th’ monster’s” [III:i], one of the vocalizers / influencers of the will-to-power of the people.

What incenses Coriolanus is the absolute, peremptory command of the people—the relativization of the desired absoluteness of his will-to-power.  The nobility no longer has absolute authority if it shall submit to the will-to-power of the people.  The shall announces the conflux of the plebeians and the patricians, or indeed the subordination of the patricians to the plebeians, which is exemplified by Coriolanus’s metaphor of the crows pecking the eagles: “Thus we debase / The nature of our seats… and bring in / The crows to peck the eagles” [III:i].  The crows raiding the eagles’ aeries are the poor and their tribunes; the eagles are the patricians.

When Sicinius calls Coriolanus a “traitor,” this incites from Coriolanus a torrent of insults, a full-throated denunciation of the people: “The fires i’th’ lowest hell fold in the people!” [III:iii].  One Word instigates the total denunciation of the people—and this means that One Word is what drives Coriolanus into / brings on the sentence of banishment, causes his expulsion from the city of Rome.

The third word, boy, spoken as a taunt by Aufidius, prompts a recognition of what Coriolanus is: an adult-infant.  Insults only hurt us when we recognize them as truthful.  Is it not thinkable, then, that Coriolanus is a boy?



Coriolanus sallies forth from Rome and resituates himself in Antium, the capital of Volsci and home to Aufidius, leader of the Volscians.  (Antium is present-day Anzio, a coastal city in the South of Italy.)  He then does what anyone in his state would do: He joins the opposite side and fights against the civilization that nurtured him.  Of course, this is a non sequitur: It doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to defection.  It certainly doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to war against the country that banishes you.

I imagine that others might say that Coriolanus, chewing off the umbilicus, is developing into a full-blown individual.  This, however, is doubtful, given that he becomes no one at all [I shall return to this point below].

Coriolanus seeks a “world elsewhere” [III:iii]: the other-world of Volsci, the very city against which he sallied as a general.  In the introduction to the Arden edition of the play, Peter Holland makes the brilliant point that liminal spaces (such as the sea) are not enough for Coriolanus.  The warrior must either have his way or defect to the other side—there is no medium, no middle ground for him.  He wages a war against Rome after he doesn’t get what he wants, leading the Volscian army against Rome and its territories in a strike of vengeance.  The Muttersohn becomes dragon: Initially, he goes alone to Antium, “[l]ike to a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes feared and talked of more than seen” [IV:i].  He approaches the dragon (Aufidius) and then becomes the dragon of the Volscians, “fight[ing] dragon-like” [IV:vii] against the land of his birth.  Notice the draconic metaphor used by Menenius: “This Marcius is grown / from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a / creeping thing” [V:iv].



Incubated by the mother, Caius Martius crawls out of the womb a super-soldier who single-handedly massacres entire populations, armies and civilians alike.  Now, the mother-obsessed soldier turns against the motherland.  This leads one to wonder: Is Coriolanus’s hatred for Rome not powered by an unconscious hatred for his mother?  Is Coriolanus’s draconic attack on Rome not also a tacit attack on his mother?  When disclaims Rome, is he not also disclaiming his mother?

Menenius, the substitute father, appeals to Coriolanus in vain.  Only Coriolanus’s mother moves her son to give up his campaign of vengeance against Rome; he gives up his antipathy for Rome after the mother arrives and pleads with her son to stop fighting against the Roman people.  She smothers the blaze of his hatred with her tears.  Martius only knows two extremes, two antipodes: He is either mother’s infant, or he is a repatriated zombie who fights against his motherland.

Turning against the mother, Coriolanus was reduced to a “kind of nothing” [V:i], as Cominius identified him.  When his mother (accompanied by his wife and his son) creeps into the enemy camp, there is an emotional spectacle in front of the dead-hearted army thugs; only then does he show human feeling.  I consider this to be the most emotionally powerful scene in the whole of Shakespeare—someone who is a cipher, a zero, becomes human, even though he never becomes completely human.  It is as if the mother is giving birth to him a second time—it is a palingenesis rather than a genesis.

In the real world, the mother’s intercession was an act for which the statue of Fortuna was established; the act was blessed by the memorial.  The mother and the wife are memorialized for ending the siege on Rome: “The ladies have prevailed” [V:iv]; “Behold your patroness, the life of Rome!” [V:v].  And yet the reconciliation between Rome and Volsci was merely a surface reconciliation: The Volscians did later launch unsuccessful sallies against the Romans, all of which were squelched.

I hold that The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens are among Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishments as a playwright.  While these plays are by no means unknown, they are certainly much less known and celebrated than the overrated The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  Particularly, I second T.S. Eliot’s opinion that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is immeasurably superior to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  Of course, Hamlet will kill Claudius, usurper and parricide; there is no surprise in that.  His vacillations are a mere plot contrivance to temporize until the inescapable killing of the stepfather; as I will argue in my essay on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the play is about the problem of free will, but this is not the right place to pursue this argument.  Whereas the conflict in Hamlet is simple, the conflict within Coriolanus is much more complex.  Coriolanus’s decisions to finesse a conciliation of the Volscians and a reconciliation of Volsci and Rome must be understood in psychodynamic terms as reconciliation with the mother and as the return to the uterus.



All seems well until Aufidius defames Coriolanus to the Volscians and takes away his “stolen name” [V:vi], stripping him of his cognomen.  He instead refers to him by his birth name—Martius—thus symbolically reverting his opponent to his infant status.  Martius is then hacked to death by Aufidius’s conspirators, a move which is itself a form of infantile regression.

The terrifying mob assault at the end of the play recalls the dismemberment of Pentheus beneath the talons of the crazed Maenads at the end of Euripedes’ Bacchae.  Coriolanus is torn to pieces, ripped to shreds, by the blades of Aufidius’s assassins, while they chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” [V:vi].  The mob cheers them on; the mob has not forgotten that Coriolanus has widowed and orphaned so many of them.

The climax is suggesting: If you try to eat the mob, then the mob will eat you.  The mob wants to eat Coriolanus.  And Coriolanus wants to eat the mob.  That is to say: The rich are eating up the poor at the beginning of the play: “If the wars eat us [the poor] not up, they [the rich] will” [I:i].  Coriolanus is feasting upon the poor, consuming the poor, ingurgitating the poor, who will then be ejected from Coriolanus’s anus.

Two figures run throughout the play: the figure of eating-the-poor and the figure of being-eaten-by-the-poor.  The second appears at the close of the play, wherein Martius is devoured by the mob.  At the climax, it is indeed the poor who are devouring the rich.  Both figures nourish my suspicion that politics is largely about food.  Those who are more conservative want to hoard all the food for themselves; those who are more liberal want to distribute the food evenly.  Coriolanus is keeping pace with his promise.  Knifed as the mob shouts for his blood, Coriolanus is realizing the supreme desires of his mother which have always been his own.

Joseph Suglia




DAMNED by Chuck Palahniuk. Critique. Analysis. Chuck Palahniuk: DAMNED. Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

DAMNED by Chuck Palahniuk

The English language contains approximately 600,000 words, if you believe that words are things that are housed in dictionaries.  What of neologisms?  What of inartfulMicrosoft Word underlines inartful in red, and you won’t find it in any dictionary that I’ve ever come across, but President Obama used that word (if it is one) and used it well, and it seems right.  What about sacrality?  Jean-Francois Lyotard used that “word.”  Is it a word?  What of words that are no longer in currency?  What of paleonyms?  What of sireniform and egrote?  What of names?  Are names words?  Is elbow one word or two (a noun and a verb)?  What of plurals and possessives?  Are head, head’s, heads’, and heads four separate words?  Or are they variations of a single word?  On what basis could we say one or the other?  When does a word become a word?  If a linguistic sign is spoken or written, does it then become a word?  Let us say, as a hypothesis, that a word is a word if it is articulated and employed.  If meaning is predicated on usage, as Wittgenstein believed, shouldn’t all words be used?  The English language is rich and various, full of nuance and synonymy.  Why, then, do so many English speakers limit themselves to the most common Anglo-Saxon vocabulary?  When someone employs “too many” words of French-Latin origin, that person will usually be accused of using “big words.”  There is no such thing as a “big word,” however, unless we are talking about morphology.  There are familiar words, and there are unfamiliar words.  The familiar words in English are of Anglo-Saxon origin; the less familiar ones are mostly Latinate.  You will hear simple-minded English speakers tell you that Latinate words should be avoided, as if William the Conquerer’s French Latin were somehow a corrosion of a pure and original idiom.  English, however, would not be English were it not the happy marriage of Germanic Anglo-Saxon and French Latin.

“Chuck” Palahniuk dwells within a micro-subdivision of the ever-expanding multiverse which is the English language.  He “knows” approximately as many English words as a subnormal ten-year-old American boy.  This explains why he writes on the level of a subnormal ten-year-old American boy and why he is beloved by so many subnormal ten-year-old American boys, his dwindling Hitler-Jugend.  His ovine followers are entranced, as was I, by David Fincher’s visually captivating film Fight Club (1999) and mistakenly equate Fincher’s brilliant vision to that of “Chuck” (they refer to the writer by his given name, projecting an imaginary familiarity with the Leader who has bilked them out of their allowance money).  Many of them are failed or failing elementary or high-school students, white, crypto-Christian, reactionary, American, and male.  (Yes, there are chuckettes.  But the chuckettes outgrow Palahniuk more quickly than the boychicks and the boychucks do.)  And many of them, too many of them, think of themselves as writers: “If Chuck can be a famous writer, so can I…”

And this is the most nauseating thing about “Chuck” Palahniuk: He engendered a band of adolescents who think they have facility in literature because they read Choke.  He is a slovenly, lazy writer who has given birth to a band of slovenly, lazy “aspiring writers” who think that fiction is EZ-2-write.

D.H. Lawrence once said of Herman Melville that his weakness as an author was that he felt his audience in front of him.  “Chuck,” non-artist, writes juvenilia to appease a juvenile audience that, as I suggested above, still misidentifies “Chuck” with filmmaker David Fincher.  If he thinks that horror fiction is selling, “Chuck” will read one book by Shirley Jackson and another by Ira Levin and upchuck what he believes to be horror fiction.  If he thinks that young-adult novels are selling, he will read one book by Dale Basye and upchuck a very bad, very inept Dale Basye pastiche.  Damned is such a pastiche, yet another atrociously written, publicly edited novel by the Tarzan of American letters.

* * * * *

Damned, it’s about a girl called Madison Spencer.  Madison Spencer’s a real bad girl.  She, like, uses big words so that people think she’s smart and stuff.  But she’s not really smart.  She just uses big words which is real dumb.  Hell is a place for people who are deluded, pretentious poseurs and use fancy words and stuff:

“Yes, I know the word excrement” [19].

“I comprehend the term passive-aggressive” [17].

“Yeah, I know the word construct” [Ibid.].

“Yes, I know the word absentia [sic]” [3].

At the end of the book, this girl, her name’s Madison, she knows that, like, she’s just like the simple people.  A simple person just like you and me.  And she learns to talk simple just like the simple people later on in the book.  A simple person.  Just like you.  Just like me.  Just like Chuck.  She’s in Hell ’cause she uses big words but at the end of the book she becomes good when she uses simple words like the simple people do:

“Even now, I hesitate to use words such as eschew and convey and weltschmerz [sic], so thoroughly is my faith shaken.  The actual nature of my death reveals me to be an idiot, no longer a Bright Young Thing, but instead a deluded, pretentious poseur.  Not brilliant, but an impostor who would craft my own illusory reality out of a handful of impressive words.  Such vocabulary props served as my eye shadow, my breast implants, my physical coordination, my confidence.  These words: erudite and insidious and obfuscate, served as my crutches” [177].

She just an idiot like us simple people too.  So, like, at the end of the book and stuff, she don’t use big, fancy words anymore and talks real simple and good like the simple people do.  She was bad when she used the big words.  Now that she don’t use the big words she real good.  Just like us.  Just like Chuck.

Groundling “lit.”

Lilliputian “lit.”

Two things in the passage cited above immediately strike the attention:

1.) Palahniuk-Howard believes that insidious and convey are “big words.”

2.) In a paragraph that denounces “big words,” the word illusory is employed–which the non-literate would consider a “big word.”

Sloshing through this slush, it is easy to see why Doubleday delayed the publication of Damned for five months.  Even after Gerry Howard edited (i.e. recreated) the manuscript, it is still unpublishable.  What we are left with is a fetid and fetal scrawl that is far below the level of your neighborhood writers’ workshop.

If Hell were a library, Damned would be burned on the ninth floor.

* * * * *

Why, precisely, is Palahniuk’s Hell a place where The English Patient (1996) and The Piano (1993) are endlessly spooling and screening?  Why are showings of THESE films considered “punitive presentation[s]” [19]?  What exactly do these films hold in common?

The answer: They both limn the elegant bodies of beautiful women.  The lovely, flowing, alabaster skin of beautiful women.  The svelte, exquisitely sculpted, rotund bodies of Juliette Binoche, Holly Hunter, and Kristin Scott Thomas.  Whereas the female body is seen by many of us as a locus of fecundity and as a wonderland of infinite delights, for Palahniuk, the body of a woman is Hell.  I am not exaggerating.  In Damned, “the actual terrain of Hell” [73] is the body of a woman, with all of its creases and crevices and folds, all of its loops and nodes and lobes.

Did you hear that?  Palahniuk’s Hell is the body of a woman.

* * * * *

The time has passed when “Chuck” could be taken seriously as a serious novelist, postmodern or otherwise (though phrases such as “attachments to a fixed identity” [179] demonstrate that he still has postmodernist aspirations).  It is now generally recognized that this forty-nine-year-old Average American Male writes insufficient young-adult fiction and that his books belong in the ‘Young Adult’ section of libraries and bookstores, or perhaps in the ‘Special Interest’ category.  It is saddening that D students wasted their youth on hasty fictions agonizingly scribbled out by a dopey yokel.

As I suggested above, the Palahniuk cult is dissolving, though there remain fanatic boys and apostolic Lumpen “writers” who still slavishly cry out their Leader’s given name in the same way that religious zealots cry out the name of their tombstone messiah: “Chuuuuuuccckkk…  I will dress up in a wedding gown for youuuuuuu…!”  At the core of Palahniuk’s die-hard following are rabid mall rats who are ripe for fascist indoctrination.  In general, however, the Cult has moved from proselytization to disillusionment and is slowly shifting toward its eventual decontamination.


We live in a sad society in which opportunistic hacks are hailed as “artists” and genuine art is ignored.  It is time for the intelligent to stand up and denounce these hacks and to show them for what they truly are: money-sucking subliterate robots.

Dr. Joseph Suglia