Aphorisms on Racism, Cultural Studies, and Kim Jong-un

APHORISMS ON RACISM, CULTURAL STUDIES, AND KIM JONG-UN

by Joseph Suglia

Race is nothing more than an abstraction; only individuals actually exist.

Cultural Studies explains philosophy through the speculum of trash culture.  This is very appealing to people who are bored by philosophy and who are attracted to trash culture.

Kim Jong-un might be able to read minds.  But can he read books?

Joseph Suglia

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Aphorisms on Libertarianism, Criticism, and Psychoanalysis

Aphorisms on Libertarianism, Criticism, and Psychoanalysis

Dr. Joseph Suglia

Libertarianism is conservatism that is ashamed of saying its own name.

Criticism is the stratosphere of the mind.

The whole enterprise of psychoanalysis is to turn aliens into pets.

Joseph Suglia

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

 

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

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).  Our culture, by contrast, despises shame (consider the all-pervasive campaigns against shaming in our culture of timidity) and extols pity and hope (as evidenced by the 2008 presidential campaign) as virtues.)

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

 

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

 

 

 

Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One

An analysis of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Dedicated to C.S.

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

I will analyze the ballad stanza by stanza.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Joseph Suglia

Postscript

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)

An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

I normally avoid discussing the plots of works of literature.  I prefer to dwell upon the words as they are written on the page, to interrogate and interpret the language of the text.  If I have hesitated to talk and write about plot, it is because conversations about plot generally ignore the language in which the text is written.  The plot seems to exist somewhere outside of the language of the text.  After all, a plot could have been invented before the actual text was composed, and when literary critics discuss plot, they must be abstract.  It is rare to cite the text when describing a plot, for the obvious reason that plot is structure, not literary language.

Since the world is essentially plotless, why should a literary work have a plot at all?  From the late nineteenth century onward, much of Western literature has discarded the mandate of the plot (Lautreamont, Flaubert, Nerval, and Proust were vanguards in this respect).  Even earlier, to refer to a single example: Shakespeare’s The Tempest does not have much of a plot.  This is not to suggest that plots vanished since the late nineteenth century; millions of books have been written and published since that time that do, in fact, have plots.  They are summoned into existence by writers and readers who come to books to experience the imposition of order upon a world that is bewilderingly and overwhelmingly chaotic.  There is nothing wrong with the desire to experience a closed, self-contained representation.  But closed, self-contained representations belong to the province of art before the late nineteenth century and to the province of entertainment.  Modern art poses questions that it does not itself answer (this is the job of the interpreter); works of modern art have open-ended structures.

Despite my reservations about plot, I would like to adumbrate the design of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the first edition of which was published in 1600).  By doing so, I think that we can learn something about the configuration of this massively complex play and, perhaps, about how plot in general works and perhaps even why so many people have the desire for a plot.  I will fix my gaze upon the structure of the play.  Again, this will have the necessary but unfortunate consequence that I will have to disregard much of the play’s filigreed, aureate verse.

The initiating conflict takes place in the first scene of the play: Egeus sentences his daughter to death or a loveless marriage.  He forbids his daughter Hermia from marrying Lysander, the man she loves.  She must choose between death and marriage to Demetrius, a man whom she definitely does not love.  The Athenian duke Theseus alleviates Hermia’s dilemma somewhat by allowing her to choose between a marriage to Demetrius and a life of celibacy, but still reinforces the father’s judgment with all the power of Athenian law.  It is the sentencing of the father, and the legitimation of the sentence by the law, that drives both lovers, Hermia and Lysander, into the moon-bathed forest.  The law impels the lovers into the forest, and the law will bring them out of the forest.  Theseus revokes his judgment when Demetrius has a change of heart, but let us not ignore the fact that the play begins with the law and ends with the law.  The man who sets into motion the inaugural conflict of the play, Theseus, will also resolve all the conflicts at the close of the play.  He promulgates that Hermia must make her decision by the day of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, and, indeed, all the conflicts will be reconciled in a triple marriage: the marriage of Lysander and Hermia, the marriage of Demetrius and Helena, and the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.

The conflict between Father and Daughter will be enlarged and mapped onto a second conflict between Oberon and Titiana, the Fairy King and the Fairy Queen.  Just as Theseus represents the Law of Athens, Oberon will represent the Law of the Fairy World.  Oberon’s most serious task is to suppress the insurrection of his fairy queen.

There is a further conflict between the world of the fairies and the world of the human beings.  Puck (also known as “Robin Goodfellow”) is the Interferer.  He is the agent of the supernatural that will intervene in the affairs of the morals (as will his lord Oberon).  The intrusion of the supernatural into human affairs will be one of the motors that pushes the plot forward; this conflict, in turn, will be applied to conflicts between Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena, which tangle the plot further.  The eavesdropping Oberon intervenes in the relationship between Helena and Demetrius.  Oberon delegates to his jester the responsibility of intoxicating a man wearing Athenian garb with an aphrodisiac in the shape of a purple flower.  The romance between Lysander and Hermia is interrupted and complicated by a mistake: Puck drugs Lysander instead of Demetrius with the juice of the purple love-narcotic.

We, then, have three pairs of lovers who are in conflictual relations with one another: Oberon and Titiana, Helena and Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia.  Theseus and Hippolyta are now in a harmonious relationship, but were once at variance with each other.

As I wrote above, the judgment of the father leads to the elopement of Hermia and Lysander.  When both lovers rush into the moon-bathed forest, they turn their backs on the Law of the Father; they enter a metamorphic, transformational space (compare with the Forest of Arden in As You Like It): Within the wood, the craftsman Bottom will be translated into an assheaded man.  Within the wood, Lysander will cease to love Hermia.

The forest is also a place of erogenous desire; the erotomania with which the characters are seized is mostly synthetic.  Only Hermia’s desire for Lysander and Helena’s desire for Demetrius are natural, but, it should be remembered, their desire predates the exodus from the Father and entry into the forest.  While in the forest, almost everyone else’s desire is artificially induced: Demetrius and Lysander only fall in lust with Helena because their eyes have been infected with flower juice.  Titiana lusts after Ass Head because she has likewise been intoxicated.  Under the influence of the flower, Helena and Ass Head become objects of lust.

The perversity does not end there: First, Titiana is obsessed with a child and then, she is obsessed with Ass Head.  After having her eyelids squirted with flower juice, Titiana’s unholy obsession with Ass Head replaces her obsession with the stolen Indian boy.  Both of these obsessions are perverse: Titiana’s strange, quasi-maternal obsession with the stolen Indian child causes a scission between her and Oberon and his bride, and Titiana’s obsession with Ass Head is both drug-induced and interspecies.

Titiana’s obsession with the stolen Indian boy parallels Helena’s obsession with Demetrius.  Shakespeare’s play suggests that all the love in the forest is unnatural love (with the exception of Hermia’s constant love for Lysander).  Again, Lysander’s obsession with Helena, as well as Demetrius’s obsession with Helena, are both brought on by the Ketamine-like purple flower love-toxin.

The forest is a place of disunification.  Within the wood, the human characters are separated from the agents of the supernatural: While in the forest, the fairies are hidden from the craftsmen and from the lovers.  The fairies are concealed from the lovers, but the lovers are not concealed from the fairies.  Furthermore, the craftsmen are not aware of the existence of the fairies or the existence of the lovers in the forest.  This concealment allows the fairies–in particular, Puck–to complicate the plot further by drugging Lysander and, later, Demetrius.  (Again, Puck confuses Lysander for Demetrius, and this mistake creates pandemonium in the forest: Hermia is abandoned, and now Helena becomes the object of lust of the two male lovers.)  And yet the audience will find this amusing, since we know that their lust is not genuine.  This is what I would call “comedic irony”–the counterpart of dramatic irony.  Dramatic irony surfaces when the audience knows an uncomfortable truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: Romeo thinks that Julia is dead, but the spectators know better.  Comedic irony is when the audience does know an amusing truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: that Lysander and Demetrius only “love” Helena because they have been infected by the juice of the purple flower, Love-in-idleness.  Laughter comes about through the contradiction with human reason, as Kant wrote in the Third Critique: “Es muss in allem, was ein lebhaftes, erschütterndes Lachen erregen soll, etwas Widersinniges sein (woran also der Verstand an sich kein Wohlgefallen finden kann).”

The characters, then, are balkanized into three mutually exclusive communities: the lovers, the fairies, and the craftsmen.  The exception to this is Bottom, who, when transformed into Ass Head, belongs both to the human and the fairy communities.

The forest is also the place of another form of sexuality that would have been considered perverse in the Age of Elizabeth.  The play is adorned with two female characters–one earthly, one ethereal–who are enormously aggressive: Titiana and Helena.

Both Helena and Titiana hunt the men they desire.  Much like her namesake in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena is a woman who has unreciprocated love for a man and who refuses to take “Yes” or “No” for an answer.  Helena herself acknowledges that this is an inversion in gender roles.  Helena to Demetrius:

“Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex. / We cannot fight for love, as men may do; / We should be woo’d, and were not made to woo” [II:ii].

Titiana is even more sexually aggressive than Helena.  She imprisons Ass Head in the forest:

“Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” [III:i].

I would like to emphasize how remarkable this is: A female character is restraining a male character against his consent.  This doubtless would have provoked laughter in the Elizabethan audiences for which it was performed because it would have been considered absurd, uncanny, and unnatural.  Consider, further, that the entire plot is set in motion by Helena’s furious jealousy and talionic rage.  I don’t think that this is a matter of comedy, however.  Without Helena being thrown into a rage, Demetrius would never have pursued Hermia into the forest, nor would Helena’s father and the Duke of Athens and his minions chased them.  Were Helena not in the forest, she would not have been eavesdropped upon by Oberon, and Oberon would not have delegated Puck to drug the killjoy Demetrius with the flower-shaped aphrodisiac.  When Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, this creates chaos in the forest.

All of this, the totality of the plot, was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder.  Am I the first literary critic to notice that Helena is a borderliner?  Those with Borderline Personality Disorder shift from absolute love to absolute hatred with the velocity of a single beat of a hummingbird’s wing.  They angelize the object of their desires prematurely and rapidly and then diabolize the object of their desires with equal prematurity and with equal rapidity.  A borderliner dismisses all flaws in the beloved in the ‘love’ phase and dismisses all positive traits in the beloved in the ‘hatred’ phrase.  This movement from absolute love to absolute hatred is often typed “splitting,” which is an unfortunate term.  It is more of a switching than it is a splitting.  Though we do not witness her diabolization of Demetrius, Helena pursues Demetrius with such voracity that she does resemble a borderline-disordered person.

*****

The play’s raison d’etre is to amuse the spectatorship with a spectacle of deformations and denaturations and then reassure that same spectatorship that the Great Chain of Being is still intact or has been restored.  The crises of the play are, in sum, as follows: The Fairy Queen, Lysander, and Demetrius are intoxicated with love-sap.  Within the forest, the characters belong to mutually exclusive societies.  The play-within-the-play is interrupted.  Titiana and Helena go against their traditional feminine roles and pursue male characters.  The Fairy Queen and the Fairy King hate each other.  There is the animalization of the human (the becoming-ass of Bottom).  Characters are mistaken for one another (to repeat, Lysander is confused with Demetrius).  The four lovers are single, as are the Duke and the Duchess-to-be.

In the final act, the power of the floral aphrodisiac has (in most cases) dissolved, the character-tribes that were once separated from one another are now integrated and interleaved (the craftsmen, the duke and duchess, the fairies, the lovers), the harlequinade is performed, Titiana and Helena are no longer playing the role of the huntress, the Fairy Queen and the Fairy King are no longer at variance with each other, Bottom has returned to his human shape, everyone knows who everyone else is, and six of the principal characters are getting married.  I would like to highlight what the culmination of the plot means:

  • No more drugs.
  • No more separateness.
  • No more interruption.
  • No more perverse sexuality.
  • No more conflict.
  • No more bestialization.
  • No more confusion of identity.
  • No more bachelorhood.

Love does not triumph over marriage in the play; marriage triumphs over love.  At the beginning of the play, to state it again, Theseus mandates marriage between Hermia and Demetrius; the only thing that changes is that now, there is a mandatory marriage between Hermia and Lysander.  The play begins with the compulsion of marriage, and it ends with three compulsory marriages.  It is not the case that Hermia frees herself from a marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state; she subjects herself to a different marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state.

Marriage is the Imprint of the Father and the Imprint of the Law.  As Theseus says to Hermia:

“Be advis’d, fair maid. / To you your father should be as a god: / One that compos’d your beauties, yea, and one / To whom you are but as a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it” [I:i].

Let us not forget that marriage is the effect of the Law of the Father and the Law of the State.  As he explains himself to the Duke of Athens, Lysander’s speech is broken off by what rhetoricians call aposiopesis, and Egeus summons the law:

“Enough, enough, my lord; you have enough! / I beg the law, the law upon his head!” [IV:i].

Another ambiguity in the plot that has never been sufficiently clarified: Does Demetrius genuinely desire Helena at the close of the play, and has the spell of the flower worn off?  His desire for her was a fabricated desire, brought about by the magical flower.  Is his desire for Helena now authentic?  On what basis could we say that it is?  In Shakespearean comedy, as I have written many times before, all of the principals shall be married, whether they want to be or not.  Demetrius’s marriage to Helena might very well be a mandatory marriage, a marriage that is contrary to love, impelled by the unreciprocated love of a woman, the dictates of the Athenian state, and the constraints of the plot.  Again, this same pattern will become integral to All’s Well That Ends Well: Even the name of the pursuing female character (Helena) will be the same.  Demetrius:

“I wot not by what power—/ But by some power it is—my love to Hermia, / Melted as the snow, seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon; / And all the faith, the virtue of my heart, / The object and the pleasure of mine eye, / Is only Helena” [IV:i].

He knows not by what power he has fallen out of love with Hermia and fallen into love with Helena.  Notice that Demetrius separates the source of his new love for Helena from his own mind and his own body.  The power that compels him to desire Helena, then, is something exterior to his self.  Could the power of which he speaks come from the lingering effects of the flower-drug?

*****

There are two instances of prodiorthosis in the play, or what are called today “TRIGGER WARNINGS.”  Prodiorthosis = a warning to the audience that something offensive or shocking is about to be said or displayed.  The second is a TRIGGER WARNING after the fact (if such a thing be possible):

Quince: “If we offend, it is with our good will. / That you should think, we come not to be offend, / But with good will” [V:i].

Puck: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear” [V:i].

The “shadows” are the characters themselves, since the work of art is itself a dream, and Puck reminds us that the adventure in the oneiric forest is a dream within the dream.  As I have written elsewhere, Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, and the contours of the plot are shaped by a wedding.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself was most likely written on the occasion of a wedding and first staged at a wedding.  This is worth remarking upon because conjugality is the transcendent value of the play.  The sexual tension that is stimulated and aggravated throughout the play ends in the moderation of marriage, the institutionalization of sexuality.  The perversity and the savagery of the huntresses in the play (Titiana, Helena) is tamed by marriage.  As the second prodiorthosis reminds us, the entire plot might have been a dream, an erogenous dream that is cancelled out by a mass-wedding.  The wildness of an erotic dream fizzles out into the crushing boredom of marriage.

*****

From all of the above I draw the principle: Plot is a literary artifice that creates the illusion that the world is organized.  But there is no prestabilized harmony that holds together the world.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

STEPS by Jerzy Kosinski

 

 

An Analysis of STEPS (Jerzy Kosinksi)

by Joseph Suglia

 

Jerzy Kosinski did not write his books alone.  His authorship has long since been discredited as fraudulent; all of the writings to which he gave his signature have been dismissed as the trickery of a con artist.  Indeed, this very signature preempts any of “Kosinski’s books” from being taken seriously.  What Kosinski once fobbed off as his own creation is now surrounded by an embarrassed silence.  One smirks bemusedly at these works as the artifacts of an interesting life.

What is one to make of the fact, then, that Steps, a novel that bears Kosinski’s name and yet was not composed in his language, is one of the most intensely powerful novels of the twentieth century?

The subject of Steps undergoes a continual metamorphosis throughout its pages.  At the beginning of each of the forty-six episodes into which this fissiparous book is sharded, an “older” self is negated (not cancelled out entirely, but absorbed and preserved in the memory of the work) and a “new” one forms and takes its place.  Each self belongs to a “present” instant that is disconnected from the series of instants that precede it, each of which is itself displaced from history.  If a unified authorial consciousness embraces each transformation, holding together the death and reformation of the subject in each instance, this can only be discerned in the articulation of the individual episodes.  And if a continuous link binds the episodes together (the “steps” of the title), it is the guiding thread of submission and domination, the only two forms of relationship of which the subject is capable.  The putative author, Jerzy Kosinski, was surely mistaken (or was otherwise disingenuous and willfully misleading) when he claimed in an interview that the book progresses from “the formed mind of the protagonist (in the beginning of the novel) when he sees himself as a unique manipulator of others, to the stage (at the novel’s end) when he realizes that he is nothing but a composite of various steps of culture.”  To speak of a “progression” in any strict sense would be inaccurate.  It is the case that the narrator manipulates a young girl who is dazzled by the narrator’s credit cards at the very beginning, but there are no traces of a gradual progression from the mind of a sovereign subject who deploys a dominant culture for his own purposes to one who recognizes his subjection to that culture.  On many occasions throughout the work, long before its denouement, he is a plaything given over to powers that infinitely surpass his own, exposed to the vagaries of the uncontrollable, without a barrier to shield him from the forces that invade him.

The seductiveness of Steps resides in its power to lead the reader astray, away from the world to which s/he has grown accustomed and into a fictional space from which there is no easy escape.  However oppressive its horror becomes, it is difficult to tear one’s eyes from this book.  Literary analysis might engage with the book’s meaning, but will necessarily fail to adequate the spell that it casts over the reader.  Each “step” is macabre and unsettling in its violence.  In one episode, the subject is a farm hand at the mercy of peasants who spit on him for their amusement [II, 2].  He seeks revenge by inserting discarded fishhooks into morsels of bread, which he feeds to the children of those who torture him.  The only way to invert the existing hierarchy, he seems to feel, is to become an oppressor oneself: oppression generates oppression in the way that fire generates fire.  A group of peasants, in another “step,” gapes at a performance in which a young girl is violated by an animal [I, 4].  It is uncertain, the narrator tells us dryly, whether her screams indicate that she is actually suffering or whether she is merely playing to the audience.  The extent to which the girl is a victim or a manipulator remains undetermined.  In another episode, a nurse endures the amorous advances of the narrator, now a photographer, who longs for sexual contact with her in order to distinguish himself as much as possible from the seemingly non-human inmates of a senior citizen’s home whom he has been photographing [III, 1].  When the narrator enters uninvited into the nurse’s apartment, he finds her coupling with a simian creature who, ambiguously, is later described as “human.”  The narrator, in another episode, is an office worker whose lover is unaware that she is his lover [V, 5].  The narrator plots with a friend to take possession of her.  The woman submits entirely to the friend’s will and agrees to allow herself to be possessed by a stranger while blindfolded.  Now the narrator can dispose of her sightless body as he wishes: a relationship that is emblematic of all of the relationships portrayed in Steps.  Despite her complete availability, his desire remains frustrated.  Nothing about her is concealed, but her nudity is itself a form of concealment.  At another moment, narrator is on a jury [V 3].  The defendant explains his deed in the most ordinary terms without ever attempting to justify his behavior.  A fictive identification is afforded between the members of the jury and the “executioner”: They visualize themselves in the act of killing, but cannot project themselves into the mind of the victim who is in the act of being killed.  The agony of the victim is lost to vision altogether.  The narrator, in another episode, becomes the powerless spectator of his girlfriend’s rape [III, 3].  Afterward, their relationship changes.  He can now only represent her to himself as one who has been violated and who is worthy of violation: (In his eyes,) her rape comes to define her.  He visualizes her as a kind of crustacean or mollusk emerging from her shell.  The conclusion of the episode follows an implacable logic: Under false pretenses, the narrator offers his girlfriend to the rowdy guests at a party, who proceed to have their way with her.  Her pearl necklace, a gift from the narrator, scatters to the floor like so many iridescent seeds (a somberly beautiful passage that gives the lie to Kosinski’s own self-interpretive remark that Steps eschews figurative language).  The architect of an orchestrated violation, the narrator departs without witnessing the inescapable result of his designs.  Such a summary can only imperfectly approximate the grotesque horror of this book.

One might wonder whether there is a point to such an uninterrupted current of phantasmagoric images.  The reader might be invited to take delight in the extremity of its descriptions: Such would nurture one’s suspicion that Steps is a purely nihilistic work.  What we find in each instance is a relationship between one who terrorizes and oppresses or who sympathizes with terror and oppression (this is often, but not always, the narrator) and one who surrenders, voluntarily or otherwise, to the will of the oppressor.  By describing such scenes of exploitation and persecution in a neutral manner, the book seems to offer no ethical transcendence.  Such an interpretation, however, would ignore the book’s ethical center.

The book’s ethical dimension first becomes apparent in an italicized transitional episode in which the protagonist tells his lover of an architect who designed plans for a concentration camp, the main purpose of which, the narrator explains, was “hygiene” [IV, 1].  Genocide was, for those responsible, indistinguishable from the extermination of vermin: “Rats have to be removed.  We exterminate them, but this has nothing to do with our attitudes toward cats, dogs, or any other animal.  Rats aren’t murdered–we get rid of them; or, to use a better word, they are eliminated; this act of elimination is empty of all meaning.”  This passage in particular casts light on the motif of dehumanization that runs pervasively throughout the book.  In Steps, the other person is reduced to the status of a thing.  To make of the other human being a thing: Such is sadism.  Only by representing those to be murdered as vermin (as things to be exterminated) is mass murder possible.  It is no accident, from this perspective, that the narrator imagines himself felling trees when he obeys an order to slit his victim’s throat toward the end of the book: It is the only way that he can suppress the nausea that wells up within him [VIII, 3].  Each human being is irreplaceable, and the death of a person is, therefore, an irrecoverable loss.  By forgetting this, by turning the other human being into a mere object, one is able to dutifully “obey orders” to kill without the intrusion of moral consciousness.  Steps aims at disgusting the reader by showing him/her the obscene consequences of dehumanization.  From this perspective, Steps is a profoundly ethical book.

The center of Steps might serve as a counter-balance to the parade of scenes of horror and degradation that constitute it.  However, this center does not govern the totality of its operations.  A tonality of evil informs these poisonous pages; in terms of its sheer cruelty, the work could only be compared to the writings of Lautréamont and Sade.  Although one can point to its ethical character from the passages cited above, the book could also be determined as a willfully perverse affirmation of simulation, falsehood, and metamorphosis that suspends the dimension of the ethical altogether.  The subject ceaselessly yearns to exteriorize himself, to become part of an exterior space in which he would become entirely other-than-himself.  It is a space in which he would be unencumbered by all forms of ethical responsibility: “If I could become one of them, if I could only part with my language, my manner, my belongings” [VII, 1].

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

Happy Father’s Day: Or, Chopo Chicken

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY: OR, CHOPO CHICKEN

by Joseph Suglia

Chopo Chicken in Chicago, Illinois: the most insulting eatery I have yet attended.

The dwellers of Lincoln Park were entranced by the parti-colored mural on the residential-street side of this chowtrough for three months before its vernissage.  This makes the experience that I had all the more disheartening.

The place is grungy.  The Styrofoam containers are flecked with filth, even before being loaded with the swill that is hawked here.  Were they taken from the trash and reused?  There are clean Styrofoam containers beneath the counter, if you ask for them.

The Yucca fries are cold and old.  They taste like week-old French fries and are smothered in a bilious goo.

A man in a grime-sodden gown takes out a cleaver and hatchets a whole chicken into quarters.  The chicken is encrusted with an anthracitic substance.  The chicken is, strangely, almost meatless.

It is roadkill chicken.  It looks like a chicken that was killed on the road.  It looks as if the chicken, with Schopenhauerian exertion, strove to cross the road only to end up as faux-Peruvian cuisine at Chopo Chicken.

The portions are cafeteria-size.  I understand well the fundamental principle of business: buy cheap and sell dear.  It is clear that the gangsterish restaurateurs want to spend as little money as possible and charge as much money as possible.  But if they want their restaurant to survive–and nine out ten restaurants go extinct–they have to offer something that people would want to eat or would want to eat again.

Joseph Suglia