My Favorite Authors, My Favorite Films, My Favorite Music

MY FAVORITE BOOKS, MY FAVORITE FILMS, MY FAVORITE MUSIC: Joseph Suglia

My favorite music is German, African, and English Progressive Rock from 1969 until 1987.

My favorite film is First Reformed (2018), directed by Paul Schrader.

My favorite writings include those of Gayl Jones, Roland Topor, D.H. Lawrence, J.G. Ballard, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Shakespeare, Martin Amis, Paul Valéry, Daphne du Maurier, Will Self, Herman Melville, Marcel Proust, Gore Vidal, John Wyndham, Richard Matheson, John Milton, Ambrose Bierce, Georg Trakl, Witold Gombrowicz, Henrik Ibsen, Georges Perec, Roald Dahl, Elias Canetti, Frank Wedekind, Epictetus, H.L. Mencken, Arthur Schnitzler, Michel Leiris, et al.

Joseph Suglia

THE TRACE OF THE FATHER: A review of SPUR DES VATERS (Peter Schuenemann) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

THE TRACE OF THE FATHER

by Joseph Suglia

One of the most enduring myths in the history of literature is that the traces of a writer’s paternity can be erased, that the literary artist is parthenogenetically or autogenetically created.  One witnesses this myth not merely in the work of authors who have taken it explicitly as their subject, such as Joyce or Artaud; as Peter Schuenemann suggests in Spur des Vaters, the reader may also discover the lineaments of this myth in less likely places.  Each of the five authors Schuenemann analyzes–Lessing, Goethe, Freud, Thomas Mann, and Benn, all giants of the German literary canon–self-deceptively struggles to wipe out the traces of fatherhood in his writing, only to discover, despairingly and belatedly, that these traces are, in fact, ineffaceable.

Schuenemann examines the points at which each author’s psychological history collides with the trajectory of his writing.  Lessing’s desire to detach himself from the sway of the father corresponds to his desire to detach himself from all forms of heteronomy and religious orthodoxy.  According to Schuenemann, “Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts” is, at once, a history of humanity’s progress from intellectual obscurity to enlightenment and also Lessing’s self-interpretive attempt to document his movement from slavish dependence on the father to the attainment of total self-sufficiency.  When, in the “Duplik,” Lessing voluntarily loosens his grip on “the truth itself,” this renunciation corresponds to Lessing’s own disillusionment with his father, who, like a mendacious and deceptive god, reserves the truth “for himself alone.”  The Patheismusstreit and the quarrel with the apoplectic pastor of Hamburg are interpreted through the speculum of Lessing’s conflict with his father’s dogmatism.  Lessing’s transcendental interpretation of Goethe’s “Prometheus,” for instance, is derived from a personal desire for self-sovereignty that, in its extremism, anticipates Stirnerian egoism.  Nonetheless, there is no absolute break with the father, no clear point at which Lessing moved toward self-sufficiency.  One of the central contradictions in Lessing’s work–and, by extension, in the Aufklaerung as such–consists in its uncanny resemblance to the conventional theologies that it professes to despise.

Schuenemann discovers analogous traces of fatherhood in the writing of Goethe.  In the years following his return from Italy (1797), Goethe takes on his father’s resemblance, in spite of his repeated attempts to dissolve all ties to his biological provenance.  For his entire life, Freud is deeply preoccupied with parricide (Die Traumdeutung, Totem und Tabu, Dostojewski und die Vatertoetung, and Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion all contain this motif).  Nonetheless, Freud is unable to kill off the father, and his seeming atheism (Die Zukunft einer Illusion, Unbehagen in der Kultur) does nothing to change this fact.  Classical psychoanalysis is inextricably entwined with Talmudic religiosity.  Soldiers sacrifice their lives to satisfy their fathers’ bloodlust in the danse macabre that concludes Mann’s Der Zauberberg.  Though his Nietzschean anti-humanism explicitly distances Benn from involvement in the forms of religiosity, there persists in his lyric a “Fanatismus zur Transcendenz.”  In every context, the author in question confronts the paradox of sublation.

Since Hegel, it has been assumed that what is annihilated is absorbed and brought to a higher level.  One of the meanings to be derived from Schuenemann’s account is that the dialectic of paternity is merciless in its omnipresence.  Try to destroy the father.  Try to erase every trace of his existence.  The more you try to negate the father, the more you shall resemble him.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET / Dr. Joseph Suglia on “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” by Herman Melville

I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

One of the most common misinterpretations of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is that it is a story about writing.  (See Leo Marx’s unjustly influential 1953 essay “Melville’s Parable of the Walls.”)  Bartleby, according to this falsification, is a figure for the Writer.  Whatever Bartleby experiences, then, would be whatever the Writer experiences.

Those who set forth this erroneous interpretation must answer the following: If Bartleby is a figure for the Writer, why does he never actually write?  Only a watery understanding of the word writing would encompass what Bartleby does.  He copies; he does not write.  He does not produce anything original; he is a replicator.  He is no more a genuine writer than a Subway sandwich artist is a genuine artist.

Not only does Bartleby never write.  He does not even seem to read.  The lawyer says of Bartleby: “I had never seen him read—no, not even a newspaper.”

And why would Bartleby be a figure for the Writer and not the other copyists in the office?  Why would Turkey not be the symbolic expression of the Writer in the story?  Why not Nippers?  Turkey and Nippers do the same thing that Bartleby does: They copy contracts and deeds for pay.

One might rejoin that Bartleby represents all poetic writers.  There are indeed references to poeticism in the text.  John Jacob Astor, the lawyer’s symbolic father, is said to be “a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm”; Byron is called “mettlesome” by the anti-poetic lawyer; the view from within the artless lawyer’s office is described as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life,'” and so forth.  To say that Bartleby represents all poetic writers—and not every writer in the world—would be to engage in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but we can put that aside for the moment.

There is a more urgent problem with this argument: If Bartleby represents all poetic writers and the ostracism and martyrdom of all poetic writers, why does he stop copying in the third act of the story?  Surely, a poetic writer is someone who never ceases to write poetically, someone who turns every experience into a writable experience.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” then, is not a parable about the Writer or about Writing.  What is the story about?

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in the first place, is the story of a copyist at a lawyer’s office who reproduces documents, but resists, with gentle dignity, doing anything other than reproducing documents.

Too many readers have overlooked the fact that Bartleby is the ideal employee.  He does exactly what he is paid to do.  Indeed, he does his work with excessive dedication and never seems to step outside of the office (before his forcible eviction): “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere… he was always there.”  He works to the limit: “He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.”  He does not do anything, however, that he is not paid to do.  This is why Bartleby is disinclined–prefers not–to examine his own copies, why he is disinclined to bring letters to the post office, why he is disinclined to fetch Nippers, etc.  Whenever the lawyer asks him to do anything other than copy contracts and deeds, the response is always the same: “I prefer not to” or “I would prefer not to.”  Whenever impressed upon to perform even the simplest of errands, Bartleby states his non-preference—passively, reactively—from a place of hidden privilege and gentle condescension.  The literalization of his job description, Bartleby resists performing duties outside of his job description with a painful politeness.

One must be careful not to read the slogan “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to” as a refusal or declination.  Bartleby’s slogan is not a “No”-saying.  It is a form of “passive resistance.”  It is a slippery slogan.  It is a way of hovering over the categories of “Yes” and “No”–a linguistic trapeze act.

The “Sunday episode” is the crux of the story.  One Sunday morning, the lawyer goes to Trinity Church to hear a “celebrated preacher.”  Arriving rather early, he decides to kill time before the sermon starts by walking to his office.  Unable to open the door, he struggles with the lock.  The door opens, and Bartleby appears, his lean visage thrusting at the lawyer.  The lawyer slinks away, servilely accepting the apparition of Bartleby (the term “apparition” is used, evoking the spectral character of Bartleby).  One of the effects of this episode is evidence that there is absolutely no division between the private and the professional for Bartleby.  This point—the erasure of the distinction between the private and the professional—is reinforced later in the text, when the lawyer invites Bartleby to stay with him at the former’s home.

Bartleby destabilizes the office by being the perfect employee.  He hyper-agrees with the terms of the office.  He over-adheres to the policies of the office.  Soon, his keyword prefer spreads throughout the office as if it were a vicious linguistic virus.  Every adult in the office—the lawyer, Nippers, Turkey—soon finds himself using the word prefer.

Bartleby is the perfect copyist—and this is what unsettles the lawyer’s once-imperturbable placidity and is what robs the lawyer of his virility (the lawyer is “unmanned” by Bartleby, de-manified by Bartleby).  Bartleby perfectly identifies with his professional role as a duplicator—and thus subverts the profession with which he perfectly identifies.  He copies the office and thus undermines the office.

The point to be made is that Bartleby over-agrees with his job description.  He exaggerates and affirms his position to the point of absurdity, throwing the office into chaos and driving his employer to madness.  The logic of hyper-agreement is why Kierkegaard is an enemy of Christianity.  Kierkegaard was such a hyper-Christian, endorsing Christianity with such fervidness, that he made being a Christian a nearly impossible state of being.  Kierkegaard’s hyper-agreement with Christianity, his fervid endorsement of Christianity, means the undoing of Christianity for many readers.  Nietzsche, on the other hand, who ferociously hammered Christianity, is, paradoxically, Christianity’s friend.

This is not to say that Bartleby endorses the ideology of the office.  Bartleby is a rebel, to be sure, but he is a quiet rebel.  If he were a raging lunatic (think of “The Lightning-Rod Man”), Bartleby would be dismissible.  His commanding calmness is the reason that the lawyer is overthrown by his employee: “Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me as it were.”  Bartleby is a quiet rebel whose quiet rebellion takes the form of relentless passivity.  At the core of his passivity is an active dimension.  He is actively passive, pushing the terms active and passive beyond their usual significations.  His weakness is an unconquerable strength, to channel Duras.  He is emblematic of “passive resistance”–and in these words, one should hear resonating the words of that other great American, Henry David Thoreau: “civil disobedience.”

What, then, is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” actually about?

The work is a critique of Evil America in the nineteenth century–an America in which too much of everything is dehumanizing Business.  Bartleby is a Christ within the world of nineteenth-century American capitalism, but he is not a self-negating Christ.  [Note: Much in the way that Peter denies Jesus, the lawyer denies Bartleby.]  The “I” is the most important word in the slogan, “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to.” (Deleuze’s word is “formula.”)  “I prefer not to” is the assertion of subjectivity against the impersonal and anonymous space of the office, the imposition of subjectivity on the desubjectified world of exchange.

Reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in twenty-first-century America is a defamiliarizing experience.  These days, any employee who asserted, “I prefer not to” would be sent to Human Resources for immediate termination.  We live in a culture of compliance and submission, of obeisance to managerial authority (compliance is a word that is used in the text: “natural expectancy of immediate compliance”).  Now, Bartleby does, in fact, participate in the capitalist world of nineteenth-century America, yet his compliance is a kind of conditional compliance, his submission to authority is submission on his own terms, his acceptance of the world of exchange is a conditional acceptance.  His patrician passive-aggressive preferences-not-to are ways of saying, “I will do whatever I please, but nothing other than what I please.”  This is Americanism, to be sure, but the Americanism of Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers, not the Americanism of the bureaucrats.

Bartleby exists on the boundary of capitalism.  A Christ in Evil America, he is deathly, from the other side of life, former and current employee of the Dead Letter Office in Washington.  This is why Bartleby is iteratively described as “cadaverous” in this text (three times), an “apparition” (twice), and a “ghost” (twice).  He is dead and yet present; he is in the capitalist world and yet not of the capitalist world.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

WHY I CAN’T STAND GEORGES BATAILLE / BLEU DU CIEL / THE BLUE OF NOON by Georges Bataille

WHY I CAN’T STAND GEORGES BATAILLE
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

I first discovered Bataille at the age of eighteen.  Here was a French Nietzschean who wrote strident essays and excessively explicit novels.  What was there not to like?  Throughout my eighteenth and nineteenth years, I read the oeuvres of Bataille, alongside the works of Heidegger, Derrida, and many others.

Around the age of twenty, my relationship with Bataille underwent a change.  I could no longer stand to read his writings.

La Littérature et le Mal (1957) destroyed my love for Bataille.  The book is almost unreadably silly.  Bataille argues, with the most incredible casuistry, that literature and evil are the same.  Literature evades collective necessity.  Evil evades collective necessity.  Both literature and evil evade collective necessity.  Therefore, literature IS evil.  However, this does not seem to imply, according to Bataille, that evil is literature.

This is a bit like saying: A duck is not a zebra.  A chicken is not a zebra.  Therefore, a duck is a chicken.  However, a chicken is not a duck.  This is the logical fallacy known as affirmative conclusion from a negative premise or illicit negative.

“Hegel, la Mort et le Sacrifice” (1955) troubled me, as well.  I had read enough of Hegel to know that Bataille was making intellectual errors, was misinterpreting Hegel.

Bataille’s misinterpretation of Hegel may be summarized thus: Human beings sacrifice the animal parts of themselves in order to become fully human.  Nowhere does this statement appear in the Gesammelte Werke of Hegel. Hegel writes instead: “[Der Geist] gewinnt seine Wahrheit nur, indem er in der absoluten Zerrissenheit sich selbst findet.”  When he writes that the Spirit finds itself in a state of absolute shreddedness, Hegel means that the human mind exteriorizes itself as an object and restores itself from its self-exteriorization.  The human mind is both itself and outside-of-itself at the same time.  There is no sacrifice of the animal for the sake of the human.

In L’Érotisme (1957), Bataille’s thesis is that death and eroticism issue from the same source, and many of his arguments are unforgettably convincing.  But his opening argument is both banal and irrelevant: Bataille contends that the relation between sex and death is apprehensible at the microbiological level: When the ovum is fertilized, it is demolished.  The ovum “dies” in order to form the zygote.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the phenomenology of eroticism, nor does it have anything to do with the phenomenology of mortality.

Last month, I read as much as I could endure of the fragments collected in The Unfinished System of Non-Knowledge.  These are the incoherent screechings of a lunatic.

* * * * *

THE BLUE OF NOON: A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia

According to Georges Bataille’s autobiographical note, Le Bleu du ciel (“The Blue of the Sky”) was composed in the twilight before the occupation of Vichy France.

The descending night darkens these pages.

Dissolute journalist Henri Troppmann (“Too-Much-Man”) and his lover, Dirty give way to every impulse, to every surfacing urge, no matter how vulgar.  Careening from one sex-and-death spasm to the next, they deliver themselves over to infinite possibilities of debauchery.  A fly drowning in a puddle of whitish fluid (or is it the thought of his mother, a woman he must not desire?) prompts Troppmann to plunge a fork into a woman’s supple white thigh.  The threat of Nazi terror incites a coupling in a boneyard.

Their only desire is to begrime whatever is elevated, to vulgarize the holy, to pollute it, to corrupt it, to bring it down into the mud.

By muddying whatever is “sacred,” they maintain the force of “the sacred.”

As a historical document, Le Bleu du ciel is eminently interesting.  It offers unforgettably vivid portraits of Colette Peignot (as Dirty) and the “red nun” Simone Weil (as Lazare).

It is also the story of a man who is fascinated with fascism and the phallus, of someone who loves war, though not for teleological reasons.  It is the story of a man who celebrates war on its own terms, who nihilistically affirms its limitless power of destruction.

As the night spreads, the blue of the sky disappears.

Dr. Joseph Suglia