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A commentary on HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN by Nietzsche / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES: Nietzsche and Sam Harris / Nietzsche on Women / Was Nietzsche a sexist? / Was Nietzsche a misogynist? / Nietzsche and Sexism / Sam Harris and Nietzsche / Sexism and Nietzsche / Misogyny and Nietzsche / Nietzsche and Misogyny / Nietzsche and Sexism / Nietzsche and Feminism / Feminism and Nietzsche / Friedrich Nietzsche on Women / Friedrich Nietzsche and Sam Harris / Is Sam Harris Influenced by Nietzsche?

HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES (Friedrich Nietzsche)

A commentary by Joseph Suglia

MAM = Menschliches, Allzumenschliches. Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878); second edition: 1886

VMS = Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche (1879)

WS = Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (1880)

The following will not have been an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Human, All-Too-Human.  It will have been a commentary: Comment taire? as the French say.  “How to silence?”  In other words: How should the commentator silence his or her own voice and invisibilize his or her own presence in order to amplify the sound of the text and magnify the text’s image?

An interpretation replaces one meaning with another, or, as Heidegger would say, regards one thing as another.  A commentary adds almost nothing to the text under consideration.

Nietzsche’s Psychological Reductionism and Perspectivalism

Human, All-Too-Human is almost unremittingly destructive.  For the most part, it only has a negative purpose: to demolish structures and systems of thought.  However, there is also a positive doctrine within these pages, and that is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity (to which I will return below) and the promise of a future humanity that will be unencumbered by religion, morality, and metaphysics.

In the preface of the second edition (1886), Nietzsche makes this thrust and tenor of his book clear with the following words: The purpose of the book is “the inversion of customary valuations and valued customs” (die Umkehrung gewohnter Wertschätzungen und geschätzter Gewohnheiten).  The highest ideals are reduced to the basest human-all-too-humanness of human beings.  This is a form of psychological reductionism: Once-good values (love, fidelity, patriotism, motherliness) are deposed.  The man who mourns his dead child is an actor on an imaginary stage who performs the act of mourning in order to stir up the emotions of his spectators—he is vain, not selflessly moral.  The faithful girl wants to be cheated upon in order to prove her fidelity—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral.  The soldier wants to die on the battlefield in order to prove his patriotism—he is egoistic, not selflessly moral.  The mother gives up sleep to prove her virtuous motherliness—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral [MAM: 57].

The inversion of valuations leads to an advocacy of the worst values: vanity and egoism (but never the vaingloriousness of arrogance, against which Nietzsche warns us for purely tactical reasons).  As well as lying.  Nietzsche praises lying at the expense of the truth to the point at which lying becomes the truth, and the truth becomes a lie that pretends that it is true.  This, of course, is a paradox, for anyone who says, “There is no truth, only interpretations of truth” is assuming that one’s own statement is true.

Again and again, Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world.  Appearance (Schein) becomes being (Sein): The hypocrite is seduced by his own voice into believing the things that he says.  The priest who begins his priesthood as a hypocrite, more or less, will eventually turn into a pious man, without any affectation [MAM: 52].  The thing in itself is a phenomenon.  Everything is appearance.  There is no beyond-the-world; there is nothing outside of the world, no beyond on the other side of the world, no επέκεινα.

As far as egoism is concerned: Nietzsche tells us again and again: All human beings are self-directed.  I could have just as easily written, All human beings are selfish, but one must be careful.  Nietzsche does not believe in a hypostatized self.  Every individual, Nietzsche instructs us, is a dividual (divided against himself or herself), and the Nietzsche of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885) utterly repudiates the idea of a substantialized self.  To put it another way: No one acts purely for the benefit of another human being, for how could the first human being do anything without reference to himself or herself?: Nie hat ein Mensch Etwas gethan, das allein für Andere und ohne jeden persönlichen Begweggrund gethan wäre; ja wie sollte er Etwas thun können, das ohne Bezug zu ihm wäre? [MAM: 133].  Only a god would be purely other-directed.  Lichtenberg and La Rochefoucauld are Nietzsche’s constant points of reference in this regard.  Nietzsche never quotes this Rochefoucauldian apothegm, but he might as well have:

“True love is like a ghost which many have talked about, but few have seen.”

Or:

“Jealousy contains much more self-love than love.”

Whatever is considered “good” is relativized.  We are taught that the Good is continuous with the Evil, that both Good and Evil belong to the same continuum.  Indeed, there are no opposites, only degrees, gradations, shades, differentiations.  Opposites exist only in metaphysics, not in life, which means that every opposition is a false opposition.  When the free spirit recognizes the artificiality of all oppositions, s/he undergoes the “great liberation” (grosse Loslösung)—a tearing-away from all that is traditionally revered—and “perhaps turns [his or her] favor toward what previously had a bad reputation” (vielleicht nun seine Gunst dem zugewendet, was bisher in schlechtem Rufe stand) [Preface to the second edition].  The awareness that life cannot be divided into oppositions leads to an unhappy aloneness and a lone unhappiness, which can only be alleviated by the invention of other free spirits.

What is a “free spirit”?  A free spirit is someone who does not think in the categories of Either/Or, someone who does not think in the categories of Pro and Contra, but sees more than one side to every argument.  A free spirit does not merely see two sides to an argument, but rather as many sides as possible, an ever-multiplying multiplicity of sides.  As a result, free spirits no longer languish in the manacles of love and hatred; they live without Yes, without No.  They no longer trouble themselves over things that have nothing to do with them; they have to do with things that no longer trouble them.  They are mistresses and masters of every Pro and every Contra, every For and every Against.

All over the internet, you will find opposing camps: feminists and anti-feminists, those who defend religious faith and those who revile religious faith, liberals and conservatives.  Nietzsche would claim that each one of these camps is founded upon the presupposition of an error.  And here Nietzsche is unexpectedly close to Hegel: I am thinking of Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, which is, surprisingly, closer to the Hegelian dialectic than most Nietzscheans and Hegelians would admit, since they themselves tend to be one-sided.  In all disputes, the free spirit sees each perspective as unjust because one-sided.  Instead of choosing a single hand, the free spirit considers both what is on the one hand and what is on the other (einerseits—andererseits) [MAM: 292].  The free spirit hovers over all perspectives, valuations, evaluations, morals, customs, and laws: ihm muss als der wünschenswertheste Zustand jenes freie, furchtlose Schweben über Menschen, Sitten, Gesetzen und den herkömmlichen Schätzungen der Dinge genügen [MAM: 34].  It is invidiously simplistic and simplistically invidious to freeze any particular perspective.  Worse, it is anti-life, for life is conditioned by perspective and its injustices: das Leben selbst [ist] bedingt durch das Perspektivische und seine Ungerechtigkeit [Preface to the second edition].  A free spirit never takes one side or another, for that would reduce the problem in question to the simplicity of a fixed opposition, but instead does justice to the many-sidedness of every problem and thus does honor to the multifariousness of life.

There Is No Free Will.  Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche.

Let me pause over three revolutions in the history of Western thought.

The cosmological revolution known as the “Copernican Revolution” marked a shift from the conception of a cosmos in which the Earth is the center to the conception of a system in which the Sun is the center.  A movement from geocentrism (and anthropocentrism) to heliocentrism.

The biological revolution took the shape of the theory of evolution (“It’s only a theory!” exclaim the unintelligent designers), which describes the adaptation of organisms to their environments through the process of non-random natural selection.

There is a third revolution, and it occurred in psychology.  I am not alluding to psychoanalysis, but rather to the revolution that predated psychoanalysis and made it possible (Freud was an admirer of Nietzsche).  Without the Nietzschean revolution, psychoanalysis would be unthinkable, and Twitter philosopher Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) would never have existed.

I am alluding to the revolution that Nietzsche effected in 1878.  It was a silent revolution.  Almost no one seems aware that this revolution ever took place.

It is a revolution that describes the turning-away from voluntarism (the theory of free will) and the turning-toward determinism, and Nietzsche’s determinism will condition his critique of morality.  Nietzschean determinism is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity.

[Let it be clear that I know that Spinoza, Hume, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, et al., wrote against the concept of the free will before Nietzsche.]

The free will is the idea that we have control over our own thoughts, moods, feelings, and actions.  It conceives of the mind as transparent to itself: We are aware in advance of why we do-say-write-think the things that we do-say-write-think.  This idea is false: You no more know what your next thought will be than you know what the next sentence of this commentary will be (if this is your first time reading this text).  It is only after the fact that we assign free will to the sources of actions, words, and thoughts.  Our thoughts, moods, and feelings—e.g. anger, desire, affection, envy—appear to us as isolated mental states, without reference to previous or subsequent thoughts, moods, and feelings: This is the origin of the misinterpretation of the human mind known as “the free will” (the definite article the even suggests that there is only one).  The free will is an illusion of which we would do well to disabuse ourselves.

We do not think our thoughts.  Our thoughts appear to us.  They come to the surfaces of our consciousness from the abysms of the unconscious mind.  Close your eyes, and focus on the surfacings and submersions of your own thoughts, and you will see what I mean.

This simple exercise of self-observation suffices to disprove the illusion of voluntarism.  If your mind is babbling, this very fact of consciousness refutes the idea of free will.  Mental babble invalidates the voluntarist hypothesis.  Does anyone truly believe that s/he wills babble into existence?  Does anyone deliberately choose the wrong word to say or the wrong action to perform?  If free will existed, infelicity would not exist at all or would exist less.  After all, what would free will be if not the thinking that maps out what one will have thought-done-said-written—before actually having thought one’s thought / done one’s deed / said one’s words / written one’s words?

Belief in free will provokes hatred, malice, guilt, regret, and the desire for vengeance.  After all, if someone chooses to behave in a hateful way, that person deserves to be hated.  Anyone who dispenses with the theory of the free will hates less and loves less.  No more desire for revenge, no more enmity.  No more guilt, no more regret.  No more rewards for impressive people who perform impressive acts, for rewarding implies that the rewarded could have acted differently than s/he did.  In a culture that accepted the doctrine of total irresponsibility, there would be neither heroes nor villains.  There would be no reason to heroize taxi drivers who return forgotten wallets and purses to their clients, nor would there be any reason to heroize oneself, since what a person does is not his choice / is not her choice.  No one would be praised, nor would anyone praise oneself.  No one would condemn others, nor would anyone condemn oneself.  Researchers would investigate the origins of human behavior, but would not punish, for the sources of all human thought and therefore the sources of all human behavior are beyond one’s conscious control / beyond the reach of consciousness.  It makes no sense to say / write that someone is “good” or “evil,” if goodness and evilness are not the products of a free will.  There is no absolute goodness or absolute evilness; nothing is good as such or evil as such.  There is neither voluntary goodness nor voluntary evilness.

If there is no free will, there is no human responsibility, either.  The second presupposes the first.  Do you call a monster “evil”?  A monster cannot be evil if it is not responsible for what it does.  Do we call earthquakes “evil”?  Do we call global warming “evil”?  Natural phenomena are exempt from morality, as are non-human animals.  We do not call natural phenomena “immoral”; we consider human beings “immoral” because we falsely assume the existence of a free will.  We feel guilt / regret for our “immoral” actions / thoughts, not because we are free, but because we falsely believe ourselves to be free: [W]eil sich der Mensch für frei halt, nicht aber weil er frei ist, empfindet er Reue und Gewissensbisse [MAM 39].  No one chooses to have Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder.  Why, then, should someone who is afflicted with Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder be termed “evil”?  No one chooses one’s genetic constitution.  You are no more responsible for the emergence of your thoughts and your actions than you are responsible for your circulatory system or for the sensation of hunger.

Those who would like to adumbrate Nietzsche’s “mature” thought should begin with Human, All-Too-Human (1878), not with Daybreak (1801).  Nietzsche’s critique of morality makes no sense whatsoever without an understanding of his deeper critique of voluntarism (the doctrine of free will): Again, the ideas of Good and Evil only make sense on the assumption of the existence of free will.

Anyone who dispenses with the idea of free will endorses a shift from a system of punishment to a system of deterrence (Abschreckung).  A system of deterrence would restrain and contain criminals so that someone would not behave badly, not because someone has behaved badly.  As Nietzsche reminds us, every human act is a concrescence of forces from the past: one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s environment, one’s genetic constitution.  It makes no sense, then, to believe that any individual is responsible for what he or she does.  All human activity is motivated by physiology and the unconscious mind, not by Good or Evil.  Everything is necessary, and it might even be possible to precalculate all human activity, through the mechanics of artificial intelligence, to steal a march on every advance: Alles ist notwendig, jede Bewegung mathematisch auszurechnen… Die Täuschung des Handelnden über sich, die Annahme des freien Willens, gehört mit hinein in diesen auszurechnenden Mechanismus [MAM: 106].

If you accept the cruelty of necessity (and is life not cruel, if we have no say in what we think and what we do?), the nobility of humanity falls away (the letter of nobility, the Adelsbrief) [MAM: 107].  All human distinction is devalued, since it is predetermined—since it is necessary.  Human beings would finally recognize themselves within nature, not outside of nature, as animals among other animals.  I must cite this passage in English translation, one which is not irrelevant to this context and one which belongs to the most powerful writing I have ever read, alongside Macbeth’s soliloquy upon learning of his wife’s death: “The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest as we do, when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the Earth: Indeed, we are still modest if we stop there and do not arrange a general twilight of the world and of the gods (eine allgemeine Welt- and Götterdämmerung) for the funeral rites of the final human (zur Leichenfeier des letzten Menschen).  The most dispassionate astronomer can oneself scarcely feel the lifeless Earth in any other way than as the gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity” [WS: 14].

The demystification of the theory of free will has been re-presented by Sam Harris, who might seem like the Prophet of the Doctrine of Necessity.  Those who have never read Nietzsche might believe that Dr. Harris is the first person to say these things, since Dr. Harris never credits Nietzsche’s theory of total human irresponsibility.  If you visit Dr. Harris’s Web site, you will discover a few English translations of Nietzsche on his Recommended Reading List.  We know that Dr. Harris’s first book (unpublished) was a novel in which Nietzsche is a character.  We also know that Dr. Harris was a student of Philosophy at Stanford University.  He would therefore not have been unaware of the Nietzschean resonances in his own text Free Will.  Why, then, has Dr. Harris never publically acknowledged his indebtedness to Nietzschean determinism?

Nietzsche Is / Is Not (Always) a Misogynist.

In 1882, Nietzsche was sexually rejected by Lou Andreas-Salome, a Russian intellectual, writer, and eventual psychoanalyst who was found spellbinding by seemingly every cerebral man she met, including Rilke and Paul Ree.  Since the first edition of Human, All-Too-Human was published four years before, Salome’s rejection of Nietzsche cannot be said to have had an impact on his reflections on women at that stage in the evolution of his thinking.

Nietzsche is sometimes a misogynist.  But I must emphasize: He is not always a misogynist.

At times, Nietzsche praises women / is a philogynist.  To give evidence of Nietzsche’s philogyny, all one needs to do is cite Paragraph 377 of the first volume: “The perfect woman is a higher type of human being than the perfect man” (Das volkommene Weib ist ein höherer Typus des Menschen, als der volkommene Mann).  Elsewhere, Nietzsche extols the intelligence of women: Women have the faculty of understanding (Verstand), he writes, whereas men have mind (Gemüth) and passion (Leidenschaft) [MAM: 411].  The loftier term Verstand points to the superiority of women over men.  Here, Nietzsche is far from misogynistic—indeed, he almost seems gynocratic.

Nor is Nietzsche a misogynist, despite appearances, in the following passage—one in which he claims that women tolerate thought-directions that are logically in contradiction with one another: Widersprüche in weiblichen Köpfen.—Weil die Weiber so viel mehr persönlich als sachlich sind, vertragen sich in ihrem Gedankenkreise Richtungen, die logisch mit einander in Widerspruch sind: sie pflegen sich eben für die Vertreter dieser Richtungen der Reihe nach zu begeistern und nehmen deren Systeme in Bausch und Bogen an; doch so, dass überall dort eine todte Stelle entsteht, wo eine neue Persönlichkeit später das Übergewicht bekommt [MAM: 419].

To paraphrase: Nietzsche is saying that the minds of women are fluxuous and not in any pejorative sense.  He means that multiple positions coexist simultaneously in the consciousnesses of women.  Personalities are formed and then evacuate themselves, leaving dead spots (todte Stellen), where new personalities are activated.  This does not mean that the minds of women contain “dead spots”—it means that they are able to form and reform new personalities, which is a strength, not a weakness.  And yet does he not say the same thing about his invisible friends, the free spirits?  Free spirits are also in a state of constant flux, and their fluxuousness, while necessarily unjust to their own opinions, allows them to move from opinion to opinion with alacrity and to hold in their heads multiple opinions at the same time.  Free spirits have opinions and arguments, but no convictions, for convictions are petrific.  Free spirits are guiltless betrayers of their own opinions [MAM: 637] and goalless wanderers from opinion to opinion [MAM: 638].

Why would the substitution-of-one-position-for-another, intellectual inconstancy, be considered as something negative?  Is it not a trait of the free spirit the ability to substitute a new position for an older one with alacrity?  And is the free spirit not Nietzsche’s ideal human being—at least before the overhuman takes the stage?  Such is my main argument: Free-spiritedness is womanliness, and free spirits are womanly, if we accept Nietzsche’s definitions of “free-spiritedness” and of “womanliness.”

This is not to deny the strain of misogyny that runs throughout Nietzsche’s collected writings.  Yes, Nietzsche does write unkind and unjustifiable things about women—some of his statements about women are downright horrible and indefensible.  My objective here is to highlight the polysemy and polyvocality of his writing, its ambiguity.  For a further discussion of Nietzsche’s ambiguous representations of the feminine, consult Derrida’s Spurs, wherein he analyzes the figure of the veil in Beyond Good and Evil.

To say or write that Nietzsche is always a misogynist would be to disambiguate his work—if by “Nietzsche” one is referring to the paper Nietzsche.  (For a series of accounts of Nietzsche as a human being, see Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries, published by Oxford University Press.)  Nonetheless, let us pause over the historical, living human being Friedrich Nietzsche, who was male, and his relation to one historical, living human being, who was female: Marie Baumgartner, the mother of one of Nietzsche’s students and his sometime French translator.  In the original manuscript of Mixed Opinions and Maxims, the first appendix to Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche wrote: “Whether we have a serpent’s tooth or not is something that we do not know until someone has put his heel upon us.  Our character is determined even more by the lack of certain experiences than by what we have experienced” [VMS: 36].  In a letter to Nietzsche dated 13 November 1878, Marie Baumgartner wrote: “I would gladly have added to your very striking maxim: ‘a woman or mother would say, until someone puts his heel upon her darling or her child.’  For a woman will not silently allow something to happen to them that in most cases she patiently accepts for herself.”  Nietzsche was so affected by Baumgartner’s rather delicately worded suggestion that he modulated the text to reflect her proposal.  If Nietzsche regarded women as inferior (and he never did), why would he take seriously something that a female reader wrote about his manuscript—so seriously that he modified his manuscript to incorporate her words?  The fact that Nietzsche reflected Marie Baumgartner’s suggestion in the revision of his manuscript is evidence enough that he respected the intelligence of this particular woman—the grain of his own writing confirms that he respected the intelligence of women in general and even considered women in general to be more intelligent than men in general.

Nietzsche Was Not an Atheist, if by “Atheist” One Means “Someone Who Does Not Believe in God.”

Nietzsche tells us, in Paragraph Nine of the first volume, “Even if a metaphysical world did exist, it would be nothing other than an otherness [Anderssein] that would be unavailable and incomprehensible to us; it would be a thing with [purely] negative characteristics.”

My question (which has been inspired by Nietzsche) is the following: Why do we even care about the beyond?  Should questions such as “Is there life after death?” not be greeted with apathy?  Why are we engaged with such questions to begin with?  Do not such questions merit indifference rather than seriousness?

Questions such as “Does God exist?” and “Is there life after death?” cannot be answered scientifically or logically.  We do not require their answers in order to live.  All of us live out our lives without knowing the answers to such questions.  Not merely that: It is entirely possible to live out our lives without ever ASKING or PURSUING such questions—and would we not be better off for not having done so?

Let me put it another way: Do the questions “Why does the world exist?” and “Why is there being rather than nothing?” not presuppose a reason for existing and a reason for being?  I am looking at you, Heidegger.

The Nietzsche of 1878 is not an atheist, if by “atheist” one means “someone who does not believe in God.”  Those who contest the existence of a deity or deities are practicing a form of skiamachy.  Nietzsche, on the other hand, is someone who considers questions about the existence of God, or of any extra-worldly transcendence, to be superfluous.  Otherworldliness is not something that can be discussed, since it is purely negative.

Moreover, the Nietzsche of Human, All-Too-Human is not merely not an atheist.  He is also not a philosopher, if by “philosopher,” we mean someone who speculates about imaginary worlds / is an imaginary world-builder.  Nietzsche will not become a philosopher, speculative or otherwise, until the very end of his period of lucidity, with the doctrines of the Eternal Recurrence of the Always-Same and the Will to Power.

Nietzsche Contradicts Himself.  Often.  But This Is Not a Flaw in His Thinking.

Nietzsche contradicts himself—often—but this is not a flaw in this thinking.  He tells us to stop using the word “optimism” [MAM: 28] and then uses the word himself, without any perceptible irony, in other sections of the book.  After scolding us for believing in heroes, he warmly sponsors the “refined heroism” (verfeinerten Heroismus) of the free spirit who works in a small office and passes quietly into and out of life [MAM: 291].  In Paragraph 148 of the first volume, Nietzsche claims that the poet alleviates (erleichtert) life—this seems to contradict his claim, five paragraphs later, that “art aggravates the heart of the poet” (Die Kunst macht dem Denker das Herz schwer), that listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony infuses the listener with the heavy feeling of immortality, with religious and metaphysical conceptions.  If Nietzsche contradicts himself, and he does, this is because free-spiritedness is multitudinous, multi-perspectival, self-contradictory thinking.  Free-spiritedness is multi-spiritedness.

Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche

On Religion and Politics

What is religious is political, and what is political is religious.

On Morality

Morality depends on opportunity.

On Communication

A word means something different to you than it does to me, which means that communication is impossible: Nothing is communicable save the power to communicate the impossibility of communication.  (Nietzsche suggests that the worst alienation is when two people fail to understand each other’s irony.)  Consciousness of this fact would liberate us from the bitterness and intensity of every sensation.

On Interpretation

The mind is geared not toward what has been interpreted, but toward that which has not been interpreted and might not even be interpretable.  Nietzsche: “We take something that is unexplained and obscure to be more important than something that has been explained and made clear” [MAM: 532].

On the Voice

We often disagree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice.  We often agree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice.

On Salvation

In a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, Heidegger claimed: “Only a god can save us.”  This statement must be revised: Not even a god could save us now.

On Censorial America

In contemporary America, you may be prosecuted and persecuted for what you think, insofar as what you think is available in language.

Joseph Suglia

FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palahniuk – A Review by Dr. Joseph Suglia / Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer

 

 

An Analysis of FIGHT CLUB (Chuck Palahniuk) by Joseph Suglia

Before discussing the form of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), I would like to reconstruct its political content.

* * * * *

The thirty-year-old narrator of Fight Club feels alive only when surrounded by decrepitude and death.  He attends testicular-cancer support groups in order to enhance his vitality: By distinguishing himself as much as possible from the sick, he attempts to wrest himself away from a consumerist culture that suppresses death; by exposing himself to the mortality of others (which grants him the knowledge that he also is going to die), every moment in his life becomes more valuable.  One of the infinite number of go-betweens in this culture (his job is to determine the expenses of recalling lethally defective automobiles), the narrator yearns to die in an airplane crash in order to free himself from the superficiality of a world that trivializes death and immortalizes the unliving commodity (a “necrophilous” culture, as Erich Fromm would say).  Only what he imagines to be a direct experience of death grants him a real and intense sense of life, and, as the novel proceeds, violence will come to be his salvation.

[Let me remark parenthetically: the word “violence,” etymologically, means “life.”]

And yet Western culture manufactures not merely inclinations and proclivities, but also aversions and forms of disgust: Particularly relevant to a discussion of Palahniuk’s novel is the aversion toward violence and mortality that the narrator attempts to unlearn.

The narrator’s desires are prefabricated.  As countless others in a consumerist society, his selfhood is defined by the merchandise that he purchases: His “perfect life” is constituted by “his” Swedish furniture, “his” quilt cover set, “his” Hemlig hatboxes, and the IKEA catalogues that serve as the foundation of his “identity.”  He is the member of a generation of men who identify themselves with commodities (“Everything, the lamp, the chairs, the rugs were me” [111]), commodities that, according to the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, serve as extensions of one’s personality in the capitalist world.

Enter Tyler Durden (a man who is, apparently, the same age as the narrator).  Aggressive, virile, and charming, Durden represents alternative possibilities that the narrator could assume.  Tyler is radically opposed to the progressive “improvement” of the self that has been so valorized by capitalist societies; he claims that the drive toward “perfection” has led to the loss of manhood and has transformed men into feminized purchasers and consumers who slave away in life-draining jobs.

By randomly destroying property (with which members of consumerist society identify), Tyler intends to explode the foundations of capitalist “identity.”  Since Rousseau and Hegel, it has been assumed that the bourgeois self is divided into civil and private dimensions: the citizen and the “true” individual.  Here we encounter two analogous versions of a single self: Whenever the narrator (who subserves capitalist society) falls asleep, Tyler Durden (who represents the “authentic” self) inhabits his body.

Tyler and the narrator form a masculine unit that exists apart from the feminized support groups that are populated by man-women such as Bob, an estrogen-saturated former weight-lifter who sprouts what appear to be mammary glands, as well as Marla Singer (associated, at one point, with the narrator’s mother), who appropriates the narrator’s support groups and eventually unsettles the homoerotic / homosocial bond between the two men.

Tyler founds “fight club,” an underground boxing organization and a perverse version of the support group attended by the narrator.  The split between the bourgeois and authentic selves is replicated in the difference between one’s work existence and fight club: “Who guys are in fight club is not who they are in the real world” [49].  Fight club thus opens up a separate space, one that is divorced from the dependency and servility of the world of exchange; it posits a self-sufficient universe in which control and mastery, sovereignty and force are achieved, paradoxically, through self-destruction.  The fights are not based on personal acrimony but on the exercise of power.  It is the fight that is pure; it is through the fight that one’s human implications are drawn out.  Norms learned from television (that mass accumulation is life’s goal, that success is equatable with financial success, that violence must be shunned)—all of these values are reversed in fight club, the sole objective of which is the reclamation of one’s manhood, which has been diminished in the feminizing world of capitalism (hence the phallic imagery that crystallizes throughout the novel).

The constituents of fight club (copy-center clerks, box boys, etc.) are members of the Lumpenproletariat, those who labor without a productive or positive relation to work, who are estranged from their own slavery, and who are excluded from every social totality.  Even those on the higher levels of the bourgeoisie, it seems, conform to the same model.  Their strength is vitiated; they, too, function as the refuse of a society that refuses to acknowledge them.  Dying in offices where their lives are never challenged (and therefore lacking anything with which to contrast with life), they are the mere shadows of the proletariat, deprived of access not merely to the fortunes of the capitalist world, but also to consciousness of their own oppression: They are “[g]enerations [that] have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need” [49].

Eventually, fight club transcends and operates independently of the individuals who produced it (following Tyler’s anti-individualist creed) and becomes wholly acephalic: “The new rule is that nobody should be the center of fight club” [142].  Fight club thus transmutes into Project Mayhem, a revolutionary group that begins with acts of vandalism and food contamination and eventually expands into full-blown guerilla terrorism.  Its aim is regression: to reduce all of history to ground zero.  Project Mayhem wants to blow the capitalist world to smithereens in order to give birth to a new form of humanity.  What fight club did for selfhood and individuality (the formation of a new “identity” apart from the one mandated by capitalist society), Project Mayhem would do for capitalist society itself.  In the same manner that fight club destroys capitalist “identity,” Project Mayhem aims to destroy Western civilization in order to “make something better of the world” [125]—a world in which manhood would intensify through a non-moral relation to violence.

Here we are in territory already elaborated—much more richly—by J.G. Ballard.  And John Zerzan, Portland anarchist.

Washing oneself clean, returning to one’s hidden origin, primitivism, regressionism, cleansing, and sacrifice…  Soap, which Freud named “the yardstick of civilization,” is here emblematic of a reduction to primal manhood.  The meaning of soap is not, in this context, propriety (as Freud would have it), nor, unfortunately, the ebullitions of language (Francis Ponge), nor, following Roland Barthes, the luxury of foaminess.  Soap is indissociable from sacrifice.

[Fight Club does not merely imply, but states in the most obvious manner that bare-knuckled fist-fighting makes one more virile, more masculine.  Palahniuk’s jock-fascism is jockalicious.]

If Western culture, as Freud claims in Unbehagen in der Kultur, is a culture of soap (sanitizing one from the awareness of death), the accustomed meaning of saponification is here transformed into its opposite.  Western culture represses the sacrifices that were its origins through a process of cleansing: Soap here would indicate a return to those repressed sources.  Violence must be re-vived in order to reclaim the self, now unclean.

The dream of capitalism complements the dream of fascism: “We wanted to blast the world free of history” [124].  Their common project is dehistoricization.  By attempting to destroy history, Project Mayhem pretends to break with the capitalist world but ends up mirroring it.  Capitalist culture homogenizes all of its inhabitants until individuality is lost—its alternative, communism, would lead, theoretically, to the redistribution of wealth and the elimination of rank.  Neither is accepted by Fight Club.  Nor, for that matter, are the utopian primitivism and fascistic terrorism represented by Project Mayhem.  The refusal of the capitalist / communist / fascist alternatives does not imply nihilism, either.  Fight Club posits nothing other than the impossibility of a way out.  This is evident in the text.  When the narrator attempts to demolish the fascist version of his self, his phantom double remerges.  Neither capitalism nor its double is overcome.  Tragedy is not death, the liberation from all forms of the political; it is, rather, the impossibility of dying.

* * * * *

A few words on the form of Fight Club (the only section of this review that will be read).

This could have been an excellent novel.

Any strong writer knows that a dead page–a dead paragraph, a dead sentence, a dead word–is unacceptable.  Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be electric, vibrant, vivacious.  Fight Club moves in the exact opposite direction: Its prose is soul-deadening, life-negating, dull.  It is a prose that neither confronts nor challenges.

Chuck Palahniuk does not have an easy way with words.  The language of this book is metallic, anti-poetic, and illiterate.

The writer claims to write in the way that “people talk.”

This would be good advice if we lived in an age in which people knew how to talk.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

Is THE TAMING OF THE SHREW misogynistic? Is THE TAMING OF THE SHREW sexist?

An analysis of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (William Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“Happy Birthday, Mr. President! / Happy Birthday to you!”

–Marilyn Monroe, 19 May 1962

With all of the graciousness of a Wall Street businessman offering a homeless man a wine bottle bubbling with urine, a noble lord orchestrates a play for the amusement of drunkard and wastrel Christopher Sly, who is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord himself.  This meta-narrative, called the “Induction,” does not exactly frame the play that we are watching or reading, since the meta-narrative only reappears briefly in the first scene of the first act and does not resurface after the play is over.  (It should be remarked parenthetically that Christopher Sly is pushed above his social station, in the same way the servant Traino will be pushed above his social station when he impersonates his master Lucentio.)

The play in question is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592), if Shakespeare did indeed compose the text (I have my doubts), and critics have wondered about the relation (or non-relation) between the Induction and the play itself.  The word induction comes from the Latin inducere, which means “to lead into,” and indeed the Induction does feed through the play.  A close reading would bear this out.

Petruchio, Veronese drifter, travels to Padua to find a dowry and a wife (in that order).  A disgustingly selfish person, he courts acid-tongued bachelorette Katherine Minola when he learns how much money he can get from her father, the wealthy Baptista.  Much in the same way that Christopher Sly is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord, Petruchio will be deceived into believing that he is a master and shrew-tamer.  As Christopher Sly, Petruchio is trapped in his own illusions.

Like a triad of lascivious lizards, the suitors Lucentio, Gremio, and Hortensio encircle Katherine’s younger sister, the vacuous narcissist Bianca.  The courters seem genuinely attracted to Bianca and genuinely repelled by Katherine.  No man will have access to Bianca until or unless Katherine is sold to a suitor.  This, however, cannot be said to be the challenge of the play, since Baptista easily gives his eldest daughter to Petruchio.  The courtship of Katherine, such as it is, is insultingly brief.  Katherine feels the insult deeply, and we know this when she says that she was “woo’d in haste” [III:ii].  The challenge of the play is rather: How will Petruchio tame the shrewish Katherine?  How will Petruchio subdue her tongue and force her to submit to his husbandly will?

Let there be no mistake: Katherine is a shrewd shrew.  She is abrasive and hurtful.  In a clear sense, she is the precursor of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, who also uses verbal aggressiveness to camouflage her erotic desires.  Verbal aggressiveness, for both women, is a defensive mechanism.  Both the divine Beatrice and her predecessor Katherine reserve their sharpest rebukes and barbs for the men they love.  It is not fortuitous that Katherine’s opening salvo terminates with the provocative reference to a taboo sex act [see Act Two: Scene One].  Katherine is hardly indifferent to Petruchio.  Her verbal violence is a symptom of her desire for the man.

Whereas Katherine’s desire for Petruchio is passionately real, Petruchio appears to have, at least initially, a purely financial interest in the shrew.  As the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Petruchio seems to have a purely financial interest in women in general.  Petruchio makes his intentions plain when he asks Hortensio if he knows of an eligible bachelorette with a rich dowry:

[I]f thou know / One rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife, / As wealth is burden of my wooing dance… / I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua [I:ii].

It is all about the dowry for Petruchio.  Not about love, not even about sex.  Katherine, understandably, sees herself as more than merchandise and resents Petruchio’s attempts to erase her human spontaneity and transform her into a thing of ownership among other things of ownership.

There are differences between the iterations of the Hebraic tablets known as “The Ten Commandments” in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but in all versions, the Tenth Commandment is the same.  In the tenth of the divinely chiseled commandments, women are leveled to the status of real estate, of servants, of livestock: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.”  The Tenth Commandment resonates through Petruchio’s description of Katherine:

She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing [III:ii].

Even the language is the same as the language in Exodus and Deuteronomy: the “house,” the “ox,” the “ass,” the “any thing.”

And how does Petruchio get poor Katherine to bow to his will?  The disgusting brute jilts her on their wedding day, famishes her, and disturbs her sleep.  Emotional abuse, starvation, sleep deprivation: The brute denies his wife her basic emotional and psychological needs.  Instead of indulging in uxorious excesses, Petruchio treats his bride disgracefully.  Even a threat of physical violence against Katherine emerges from the mouth of his servant Gremio: “Will [Petruchio] woo her?  Ay, or I’ll hang her” [I:ii].

Whereas Petruchio uses force to get his way, Katherine is a mistress of seduction and subtle manipulation.  Katherine’s revenge is to carnify Petruchio’s power-mirages.  She will become everything that Petruchio wants her to be: pliable, docile, servile.  Katherine remains the shrew—such is her essence—while assuming the disguise of the docile housewife.  She is separable from the disguises that she assumes and ironically dramatizes the role of the submissive bride.  Shakespearean philosophy—that life is dramaturgy, that the world is a stage and we are all performers—would corroborate this suspicion.  From the beginning of the play until its end, Katherine remains the malevolent termagant.  In a play in which characters impersonate one another (Traino impersonates Lucentio, Lucentio impersonates the Reading Tutor Cambio, Hortensio impersonates the Music Tutor Licio), Katherine plays the part of a repentant shrew and plays her part well.  Let us overhear the strength and the irony in her closing address to the big-minded female guests at Lucentio’s dinner party:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience [V:ii].

In these words, Katherine subtly rejects the role that Petruchio tries to impose and superimpose upon her.  If I am mistaken about this (and I am not), how does one explain the fact that we have never seen Petruchio do anything that Katherine says that husbands do?  She is the perfect parody of servility and docility.  Her becoming-parody is absolutely evident in the following conversation:

PETRUCHIO

Come on, i’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!

KATHERINA

The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.

PETRUCHIO

I say it is the moon that shines so bright.

KATHERINA

I know it is the sun that shines so bright.

PETRUCHIO

Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!

HORTENSIO

Say as he says, or we shall never go.

KATHERINA

Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

PETRUCHIO

I say it is the moon.

KATHERINA

I know it is the moon.

PETRUCHIO

Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.

KATHERINA

Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katherina [IV:v].

In other words: If I [Petruchio] say that the Moon is the Sun, then the Moon is the Sun.  If I say that the Sun is the Moon, then the Sun is the Moon.  If I say that two plus two equals five, then two plus two equals five.  The fact that Katherine assents to Petruchio’s capriciousness and silliness only highlights the absurdity of what he is saying.  By simulating Petruchio’s fantasy of mastery, she plays out the undoing of his presumptions of mastery.

Who IS Katherine, precisely?  Is she a reluctant conformist?  Is she an inconsiderate conformist?  Is she a vigorous conformist?  To Petruchio, she is the replica of his desires for supremacy, but this is not Katherine’s essence: She presents a ceaselessly multiplying play of masks.  Her self-multiplications enlarge infinitely.  Purely mutative, purely transformative—who is she, really, in herself?  The shrew has multiple names, and this means that she wears multiple guises.  The plurality of her personae is absolutely evident in this passage:

KATHERINA

They call me Katherine that do talk of me.

PETRUCHIO

You lie, in faith, for you are call’d plain Kate, / And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; / Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, / Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate, / For dainties are all Kates… [II:i].

The plurality of personae is what provokes Petruchio’s desire; the impossibility of ever mastering her totality is what makes Katherine so bewitchingly shrewish.  If she were vapidly selfsame, as Bianca is, Petruchio would likely not want her.  No matter how old she becomes, even when her luminosity dims, it is probable that she will be desirable to Petruchio.  Because she is never reducible to One Thing.  Which leaves us with these questions: Is it truly the case that Kate has been domesticated?  Has Petruchio not been Kated?  Has the shrew indeed been tamed, or has not Petruchio been beshrewed?

Joseph Suglia