Our aural reinterpretation of HEDDA GABLER, written by Yours Truly and directed by Steve Balderson, won the Silver Award at the HEAR NOW festival!!! For God’s sake, listen to the audio play:
Our aural reinterpretation of HEDDA GABLER, written by Yours Truly and directed by Steve Balderson, won the Silver Award at the HEAR NOW festival!!! For God’s sake, listen to the audio play:
SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia
VIDEO: CHANGE TITLE [ADD VIDEO]
Table of Contents
THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES
OVERESTIMATING / UNDERESTIMATING SHAKESPEARE
VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES, PROBLEM PLAYS, AND LATE ROMANCES
VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES
MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM
What Is the Eternal Recurrence of the Same?: Part One
NOTE: The original version of this essay was written when I was a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, a much different person than I am today. For this revised and refined edition, I have cut out the superfluity and smoothed out many of its sentences. I have also reorganized many of the paragraphs. The original text was, in places, obscure; I have substantially revised the language so that it will be more legible.
Vraiment, c’était la une journée dont on se souviendrait.
—Pierre Klossowski, Le Souffleur
Pierre Klossowski’s Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, published in 1969, was born out of the legacy of “the thought of May 1968,” and perhaps may be best understood within the context of the student riots and the decentralization of the Parisian university system that occurred at that time. These insurrections and destabilizations confirmed what had already been asserted in theory: that the concept of power, as well as the relationships power customarily assumes, should be expanded. According to this thought, the police are not the only manifestations of institutional control; the regiments of university professors,[i] priests, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, sociologists, doctors, and media figures constitute homologous forms of social domination. Nor are philosophers—and this means, a fortiori, philosophy—exempt from institutional power relations. Whenever the philosophizing drive is subordinated to the function of the philosopher—as a social entity, as a representative of society—philosophy is prompted by institutional or social policy. And when that happens, philosophy might become a medium of manipulation and control. Philosophy might afford one a position from which one can legislate in the name of truth, but this “truth” is formulated, vouchsafed, or homologated by specific institutions. When a degree in Philosophy becomes a license to practice philosophy, philosophy becomes professionalized—and this means that it becomes departmentalized, divorced from the vital experiences of the human being who is called a “philosopher” and organized according to an institutional division of labor. The subjective experiences of a human being are relegated to the service of the society in which s/he functions as a member. The accents placed upon mystical thinking—as opposed to the thinking of a philosophical subject—in Klossowski and Bataille hint at an attempt to deinstitutionalize the philosophizing drive.
It is from this perspective—one that contests the metaphysics of subjectivity in favor of anonymous drives, impulses, inclinations, or, as they are called here, “experiences”—that one may approach Klossowski’s study of Nietzschean repetition. When it registers the inconceivable thought that all things recur eternally, consciousness is struck by a kind of delirious lucidity. In the experience of the eternal recurrence of the same, to move forward into “spiritual clarity” is always simultaneously to lose one’s advance. What Klossowski stresses is the non-narratable character of this experience; it is an experience which may not be preserved, since a forgetting is essential to this experience. The time in which the experience of the eternal recurrence is itself experienced must occur in time and so must be archaized; it is a time which must be relegated to an amnesia no less vital than an anamnesis. As Klossowski remarks, “It is inscribed in the very essence of the circular movement that the movement itself be forgotten from one state to the next.”[ii]
The “he” or “she” to whom eternal recurrence discloses itself is in the impossible position of a spectator of its own eternalization, for the time in which the “he” or “she” will have experienced the “fact” of eternal recurrence is not the time in which the “I” generally lives, subordinated to the everyday system of signs. Personal pronouns are the fossilized signs of ordinary language and crystallize through their repetition. The experience of eternal recurrence casts the stagnant character of the “I” into dispersion and transforms it into a “he” or a “she.” When I experience that all things will have returned, I am reconciled with myself only insofar as I become integrated within an infinite series of permutations of this self. Auto-affection is at this moment a kind of hetero-affection.
Klossowski’s ecstatic self is not a selfsame subject; the self of eternal recurrence is, rather, expropriated from its own identity. All the ecstatic self has in common with itself is reduced to a mere moment of disjunctive instantaneity, wherein the “presence” of its own self-sameness is forgotten, insofar as it is temporalized, disappropriated only to be taken up again, reappropriated not in the lucidity of self-consciousness, but reintegrated as a disjunctive member of an eternal series—what Klossowski calls “the successive realization of all possible identities.”[iii] It is here that one discerns an elision of sameness for the sake of similitude—the self takes on the resemblance of itself, the self takes on the resemblance of instantaneity, of the likeness of being-the-same-with-itself. The self takes form upon a play of surfaces.
The epiphanic moment at which I become aware that I shall come back, that I shall return eternally, constitutes a kind of formative blow. Klossowski describes the self as an undulating figure which loses its identity only to come back to this identity—but upon its return, this second identity is different than the first. The same is never the same or only provisionally the same. It is not difficult to discern that this passage from identity to difference is paralleled by that from lucidity to delirium—that passage which Klossowski determines as the course of thinking itself. Just as lucidity is overthrown by the delirium around which it revolves as though delirium were lucidity’s center, through recurrence, every given identity is carried into its dispersion. Every singularity multiplies, but this experience of fragmentation leads to an eventual recuperation, safeguarded by forgetting.
The moment at which I become aware that all things recur endlessly is one in which the fact of forgetting is raised to consciousness, for though I must forget the prolific sequence of selves I once was, I never, at the moment the truth of recurrence is revealed to me, forget the sheer fact that I have forgotten and I will have forgotten. Remembering that I am my own incessant repetition, I am surrendered to a movement of becoming-other (Anderswerden, to use Hegel’s term). The estrangement of the self will have been contradicted: The residue of my past selves must be sentenced to oblivion in order for me to constitute a self which I can call my own. When the meaning of the eternal recurrence is disclosed to me, my self is obliterated in the face of something objectively necessary and absolute—its own othering. The experience of the eternal recurrence is the experience of a non-experience, for it implies the dissolution of the very self that would experience it.
What Klossowski understands by “the eternal recurrence of the same,” then, it is not the reconstitution of a static identity, for the self that experiences the eternal recurrence must reactualize all possible selves, revealing itself as nothing more than one of a series of masks. The self is revealed, in Klossowski’s language, as a “fortuitous moment the very fortuity of which entails the necessary and integral return of the whole series.”[iv] The subject that experiences recurrence is not an individuated, intending consciousness, but every self in history in succession, is the communication of one self with another, is nothing more than this pure communication. Each self which communicates with the other is disjoined from the other and yet connected to the other selves within a reiterative series, for each self within this series has forgotten the other until the epiphanic moment comes which will have revealed that the self is othered and so undone within an integrative sequence. The meaning of the self is accrued only with respect of its intensity. Klossowski’s choice of this term is not accidental: “Intensity” is etymologically derivable from the Latin verb intendere, which means “to draw out” or “to stretch across.” Intensity is that series of instants which stretches across time within which each moment of identity differs from all other moments, for intensity is this difference between identities. In the intensification of time, both extremes, the past and the future, communicate with each other.
The instant accrues its significance only through this intensification. Incessant repetition drains the individual moment of all significance it would have if it were set aside from all other moments within the series. Infinite repetition divests every “unique” instant of its meaning, but this withdrawal of meaning is the constitution of sense; it is the sheer possibility of signifying. For signification is nothing other than the “rise and fall” of this intensity. As Klossowski phrases it, “Either all returns because nothing has ever made any sense whatever, or else things never make any sense except by the return of all things, without beginning or end.”[v]
The moment when the eternal recurrence is experienced is one when the disjointed self says, “Yes” to that intense and infinitely repetitive series which is temporality itself. Yes, this present instant is occurring, but it has occurred before countless times, and it will have occurred countless times again. The pronouncement of this affirmation discloses that the present moment is devoid of singularity—it will recur and recur endlessly. Conjoined with the impassioned lucidity of this affirmation is a countermovement. The moment of revelation—affording the greatest clarity—is also the moment of madness. The mind grows giddy, is seized with vertigo at the advent of such a thought.
Despite the power of such an analysis (a power that is surpassed only by that of Heidegger, Deleuze, and Karl Löwith), we cannot follow Klossowski along his path of reflection. We cannot follow him, for nothing survives his treatment except the experience the subject of recurrence has of its own undoing. Klossowski’s analysis dovetails into a desubjectifying, polysubjectifying subjectification of the return. A fractured self is still a self. Similarly, Fichte’s “I-am-not-I” is a closed system, for the self always returns to itself, despite its unremitting self-laceration. Nothing else emerges from Klossowski’s account of the eternal recurrence than the unraveling of the subject who experiences it as it confronts the multiplication of itself into duplicable selves or non-selves. Klossowski, in effect, reduces the eternal recurrence to the marks, the notches that impress themselves upon the human subject that is the spectator of its circularity and is this circularity. The subject is disconnected, as it were, from all existing, worldly actuality, is destroyed in its particularity and opens to nothing other than the absolutization of itself, the eternalization of itself in all of its multiple and proliferating forms. To quote once more Klossowski: “I am not even this fortuitous moment once and for all if, indeed, I must re-will this very moment one more time! For nothing? For myself?”[vi] This statement and its follow-up questions might indicate the extent to which Klossowski’s post-subjectivism is also, unwittingly, a subjectivism.
The experience of eternal recurrence, according to this interpretation, bears similar features in common with the experience of mysticism. Indeed, Klossowski’s description of this experience is nothing besides the description of an ecstatic, mystical experience—this is also the limitation of Bataille’s analysis and marks out clearly enough that for which Bataille’s study fails to account.[vii] Klossowski places a strong accent upon an experience through which the self is dissolved into a frantic and proliferative sea of copies of itself or “simulacra” and is surrendered to the necessity of the “divine” absolute. But if this experience constitutes anything like an epiphanic moment, it discloses only that there could be no epiphany, there is no moment independent of recurrence; the transcendence afforded by this revelation is a negative transcendence. Nietzsche emerges from this treatment as a mystic without a god, with no divinity other than of the divine vicious circle. But despite the disclosure of the circular character of temporality, there could be no Second Coming—there are only a multitude of resurrections. The chiliastic or messianic aspects of religious dogma are rendered absurd by such a thought, since the repetitions of historical instants are swept into their redundancy and so are made ridiculous.
Somewhat dubious is Klossowski’s description of Nietzsche’s thinking of the eternal recurrence as possessing a “doctrinal” character: “[T]he idea itself emerges as a specific doctrine…”[viii] From the evidence found in the all the scattered notebooks of Nietzsche’s literary estate, one might argue that perspectivism or the will-to-power are subsumable under an ideology or a dogma, perhaps, but the eternal recurrence? One wonders how Klossowski could remark upon a “doctrine” of eternal recurrence at all, since, according to his own claims, the experience of eternal recurrence is an experience to which forgetting is essential and that could never be doctrinal, since it dissolves the very subject who would experience the miraculous “fact” that all things recur endlessly. In the absence of a subject who would promulgate it, what possible doctrine could emerge?
This account abstracts from the time in which and through which all of the world would repeat itself; the temporality of world-time is ignored by Klossowski. For he is less interested in how the universe and humankind are regulated by eternal recurrence than in the effects this thought upon Nietzsche’s lucidity and in the conditions of passivity and receptivity one must assume in order to become a sacrificial altar upon which the meaning of this experience would be made manifest. Klossowski’s interpretation, furthermore, underplays the complex temporal paradoxes of eternal recurrence.
There is a series of questions that Klossowski does not pose that seems to be essential to this topic. For example: Why must the same eternally come back to itself? Why must the same return? And if the same is not equatable to the identical, by what possible criterion could one make that distinction? Does the same maintain its constancy even when subjected to postponement? What befalls the same through its repetition? Does recurrence exclude the same, given as something unified, given as a totality? Is the same the same if it recurs? Would the same be the same if it did not recur? Or is it the case that the same is nothing other than its own recurrence?[ix]
If the eternal recurrence of the same is pure repetition, nothing would recur, strictly writing, for there would be no present instant that would be subject to recurrence. If the eternal recurrence of the same were to be taken seriously as a philosophical concept, one would have to exclude from it from the category of presence altogether. I will try to demonstrate this in the following argument.
I understand the concept of the eternal recurrence of the same to mean that all worldly acts and events will have repeated themselves ceaselessly. If one were to accept this definition, then it follows that the past and the future are, in a certain sense, conjoined. That is to say, the future would have been anticipated by each moment in the past, while the past would have projected itself into the future. The time of recurrence is a time that throws itself backward, but only in order to cast itself forward. To phrase it concisely: The past is recoverable in its futurity. If this is the case, the “present instant” does not recede into a “present instant” that is no longer. Each moment would not only occur once and never again; each moment would rather occur “this” time and yet again, and so on eternally. If this is the case, no instant could be said to be singular, for each instant would be the reiteration of an infinite series of moments. Of course, the notion of the instant—understood as a discrete temporal unit the integrality of which cannot be reduced—is here problematized.
Each instant moves forward into the future; the past is projective, insofar as each instant anticipates its own futurity. Yet the future, according to this conception, is retrocessive because the future is determined in advance. The future has already occurred, for each instant in the past determines a futural series of instants. By the same token, the past is determined after the fact, inasmuch as the past only has meaning in its futural recuperation. In other words, the time of the eternal recurrence is of a progressive-regressive temporality. Progression and regression are one and the same.
What, then, of “presence,” of the present instant? The instantaneity of the moment is already a futurity because the present is already subject to a necessary repetition. The “now” is always what will have occurred and will have recurred ad infinitum. What is occurring only occurs because it will have occurred. The future perfect tense is here appropriate, since each instant is predetermined as proleptic. But if what we call the “present moment” is already determined as the repetition of a prior series of moments, then presence has already been outlawed before it could begin. There is nothing new under the sun: As Nietzsche writes in his posthumously published notebooks, “The world lacks the capacity for eternal novelty,” Es fehlt der Welt… das Vermögen zur ewigen Neuheit.[x] What would be the present moment is already marked as the futurity of the past. As Nietzsche writes in The Will to Power Fragment 684, recurrence is a regressus in infinitum or “a temporal infinitude of the world going backward,” eine Zeitunendlichkeit der Welt nach hinten.[xi]
The time of the eternal recurrence is a time without the “now” because no instant ever occurs once. Everything in the present has already happened and has happened eternally and will have happened eternally. Nor is this time a matter of hopefulness, even though the future is perfect. It is a time of reversible futurity, but this does not mean that future moments may be prophesized. No moment is forecast; every moment will have occurred and will have recurred.
Let me return to one of my earlier questions: Is the same ever itself, if it recurs? Thrown into the disjunctive repetitions of recurrence, being is never being. Nothing in time is ever absolutely itself, for what is in time is never absolutely present. What occurs is the necessary possibility of its being-repeated. The illusion of transcendence—understood here as abstraction from temporality—founders in endless repetition. The present is nothing more than a mode of possibility.
[i] Even though Foucault never wrote a genealogy of the university as an institution that appoints dispositions of power.
[ii] Pierre Klossowski, “Nietzsche’s Experience of the Eternal Return,” The New Nietzsche: Contemporary Styles of Interpretation. Ed. David B. Allison. Trans. Allen Weiss. Cambridge: p. 110. I draw from Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche et le cercle vicieux. Paris: Mercure de France, 1969.
[iv] Ibid. p. 109.
[v] Ibid. p. 113.
[vii] Cf. Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche. Trans. Bruce Boone. New York: Paragon House, 1992, pp. 139-140.
[viii] Klossowski, “Nietzsche’s Experience of the Eternal Return,” p. 108.
[ix] Maurice Blanchot attempts to answer similar questions in his The Infinite Conversation. Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 82. Trans. Susan Hanson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993.
[x] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Wille zur Macht: Eine Auslegung alles Geschehens. Ed. Max Brahn. Stuttgart: Alfred Kroener, 1921, p. 372.
[xi] Nietzsche, p. 370.
My screenplay has become an audio play. And it is available for free, on YouTube, here: HEDDA GABLER: a sonic melodrama of Ibsen’s masterpiece – YouTube
In 2010, I wrote a screenplay for Ibsen’s HEDDA GABLER. I discovered recently that filmmaker Steve Balderson committed my screenplay to sound. That is fine with me; I am not angry at all. He gives me due acknowledgment, for which I am profoundly grateful. The sonic melodrama is stately, elegant, and incredibly intense. I might quibble over the fact that the director changed my ending slightly, but on the whole, I approve of what he has done. I highly recommend entering this aural landscape.
Click here to watch my best video:
Now is the time to listen to me read the fifteenth chapter of my novel TABLE 41. Stop whatever you are doing and listen to me:
Shakespeare the Punk | Lecture-Analysis-Commentary-Essay on Shakespeare’s CYMBELINE
by Joseph Suglia
Shakespeare is playing a prank on us. He is playing a joke on us.
There is only one way to defend this play, and that is to see it as a deliberate affront to the audience, in a manner that is comparable to the manner in which Lou Reed intentionally affronted his audience by releasing sixty-four minutes of painfully dissonant guitar feedback under the title Metal Machine Music in 1975.
Cymbeline is not quite as sadistic as Metal Machine Music is, and it contains a profusion of fascinating incongruities. King Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen has a deep and rich inner life, and she seems out of place in a play that seems to be otherwise a slaphappy farce. There are other profundities, as well. Upon discovering what they believe to be the corpse of Innogen, now disguised as the waifish boy Fidele, the King’s lost sons Guiderius-Polydore and Arviragus-Cadwal sing a dirge to their unrecognized sister, one of the most beautiful hymns to death written before Novalis’s Hymnen an die Nacht (1800). The death song, interestingly, recalls another play by Shakespeare. It alludes to a moment in Act One of The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus in which the Roman general Titus laments the killing of his sons in the battle against the Goths.
Cymbeline is an auto-reflexive play, a play that refers often to itself. That the play evinces an awareness of the audience is undeniable. Posthumus addresses us directly in the beginning of the fifth act—or, at least, those of us who are married: “You married ones…” But it is also a meta-theatrical play that refers to other Shakespeare plays. The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is only one of them.
To say that Cymbeline alludes to other Shakespearean works would be to say too little. Shakespeare’s other works swirl endlessly in the funhouse mirrors of Cymbeline. The Arden edition describes this play as “recapitulatory,” recapitulating, as it does, a gallimaufry of Shakespeare’s earlier plays (this is a late romance, composed in 1610). Cymbeline recapitulates quite a bit, but to what purpose?
What is the point of all of this auto-reflexivity and meta-theatricality? Harold Bloom thinks that the Shakespeare of Cymbeline is fatigued with himself, exhausted, ennuyé: “Shakespeare is his own worst enemy in Cymbeline: he is weary of making plays.” The implication here is that the Shakespeare of Cymbeline is sterile, out of new ideas. Bloom also believes that Cymbeline is a clutch or constellation (my words) of self-parodies. Shakespeare, Bloom thinks, is play-weary and is making fun of himself.
But I see the play differently. Shakespeare is not making fun of himself; his play is making fun of its audience. All of the recapitulation seems wonderfully affrontive.
Cymbeline sets up and reaffirms the audience’s horizon of expectations and then undermines these same predeveloped expectations. It would be unpresumptuous to say that the play is contemptuous of its spectatorship.
As far as whether or not Shakespeare was weary as he composed the play (if indeed he was the only one who did compose the play): Not only is it impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of a dead author, it is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of a living author. All we have is the text.
Posthumus, too lowborn for his father-in-law Cymbeline’s taste, is exiled from Roman Britain and migrates to Italy. (Some commentators have noted that the Italy to which Posthumus retreats seems strangely like the Italy of the Renaissance, which would mean that Posthumus time-travels for about four hundred years.) His wife Innogen is a prisoner in the kingdom and is forbidden by the King, her father, from consorting with her husband.
While exiled in Italy, Posthumus encounters the oleaginous dandy Iachimo, who wagers that he can seduce Innogen. The husband agrees to wager his wife’s chastity and his diamond ring against ten thousand of Iachimo’s gold ducats.[i] Posthumus is, in effect, flogging his wife’s chastity (and the diamond which symbolizes that chastity) as if it were a saleable commodity.
The story about a bet between two men—one of whom is a rogue who wagers that he can seduce the wife of the other—is a trope in Western literature. You can find this story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, one of the greatest works of Western literature, nearly equal to Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy and the best of Shakespeare (among which this underestimated play can, arguably, be said to be numbered). You can also find this subject fictionalized in a magnificent short story by Roald Dahl called “The Great Switcheroo,” which should never be read by children.
Iachimo bluntly proposes to Innogen a copulatory revenge strategy: “Be revenged, / Or she that bore you was no queen, and you / Recoil from your great stock… I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure… Let me my service tender on your lips” [I:vi].
The innocent Innogen remains inseducible. She is understandably aghast at Iachimo’s overboldness and threatens to report him to her father, the King: “The King my father shall be made acquainted / Of thy assault” [I:vi]. Iachimo quickly turns things around and claims to have been merely testing her fealty to her husband: “I have spoke this to know if your affiance / Were deeply rooted” [Ibid.].
Innogen pardons Iachimo, the failed seducer, exactly thirteen lines after she condemns him: “You make amends” [I:vi]. Even more incredibly, she promises to share her kingdom with the rogue only twenty-four lines after she summons her servant to drag the scoundrel away: “All’s well, sir. Take my power i’th’ court for yours” [Ibid.].
Things swiftly become even more preposterous. Iachimo requests to leave his traveling case in Innogen’s bedroom, and Innogen agrees: “Send your trunk to me: it shall safe be kept / And truly yielded you. You’re very welcome” [I:vi]. You’re very welcome, indeed, my dear sir! Innogen not only pardons the lacertilian failed seducer; she welcomes him into her home, the man who lied about the infidelity of her husband and who proposed a night of coital vengeance on the basis of this lie.
I am citing these lines and summarizing the scene at length in order to highlight how absurd all of this is. We are supposed to be ingenuous enough to believe that Innogen will forgive the loutish failed seducer Iachimo after he confesses that he lied to her about her husband’s faithlessness. We are also supposed to believe that Innogen, daughter to the King, will forgive Iachimo after the libertine admits that he lied to her in order to provoke her into copulatory revenge. We are supposed to be naïve enough to accept that Innogen will not only pardon Iachimo, but allow him to put his traveling trunk in her bedchamber. Or are we? This conduces me to my main point: It might be the case that the improbabilities are calculated and the inhumanly sudden and suddenly inhuman metanoias are designed to thwart the received ideas of the audience.
The slithery Iachimo insinuates himself into Innogen’s bedchamber by hiding in the traveling case and then springs up out of the trunk like a Jack-in-the-Box while she is sleeping. Iachimo filches the bracelet given to her by Posthumus, slipping it from her sleeping arm, a bracelet which is as “slippery as the Gordian knot was hard” [II:ii].
Literate spectators will expect Iachimo—who likens himself to Sextus Tarquinius, the slobbering Roman patrician who ravished the plebeian girl Lucretia—to do the odious thing that Sextus Tarquinius did. He is also likened to Tereus, the violator of the tongueless Philomel, who transforms into a nightingale (as her name suggests). Iachimo finds a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on Innogen’s bedside table: “She hath been reading late / The tale of Tereus: here the leaf’s turned down / Where Philomel gave up” [II:ii].
The same allusions appear in The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, which make the allusions in Cymbeline the allusions of allusions. Specifically, Iachimo reminds us of the lupine sons of the Goth Queen Tamora, who ravish and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia in the wood. They are likened to Tereus and to Sextus Tarquinius, and Lavinia points with a stick to a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And which story does she indicate, precisely? She indicates the story of Tereus.
The point that I want to highlight is that Iachimo never actually ravishes Innogen, even though he is likened to Tereus and Tarquin, two violators in Greek and Roman Antiquity, respectively.[ii] Rather, Iachimo crawls into her bed and ogles her and her bedroom as she is sleeping. Iachimo advances upon Innogen’s sleeping body and surveys both the décor of the bedchamber and the “cinque-spotted” mole upon her chest [II:ii].
Thank goodness Iachimo does not violently appropriate Innogen! But the fact that the audience is expecting the ravishment to happen and the fact that the ravishment does not happen fortifies my conviction that Shakespeare is pranking us better than even the most skilled prankster could do. What we are reading may only be described as a farce, as a spoof, as a lampoon. In the slightly underprized 2014 cinematic interpretation, Iachimo is played by Ethan Hawke. (Iachimo could be played by no one other than Ethan Hawke.) Hawke’s character leers at Innogen as she is slumbering and takes a picture of the “cinque-spotted” mole on her chest with his cellular telephone. In a staged production of the play (which I have not yet witnessed), I could imagine the “cinque-spotted” mole being screened on the cyclorama.
So, we, as an audience, move from the dreadful to the ludicrous. Humor comes from incongruity—when two disparate things clash in a way that is unexpected. An elephant that trundles into proctological conference would probably elicit laughter. When Iachimo, instead of violating Innogen, takes out a notebook and inventories the furniture in her bedroom and itemizes its architecture and decorations, this probably will stimulate laughter in the audience, though it perhaps will also provoke bafflement: “But my design—To note the chamber. I will write all down… Such and such pictures, there the window, such / Th’adornment of her bed, the arras, figures…” [II:ii]. One can imagine the questions that will surface in the mind of the spectator or reader: “What absurdity am I watching? What absurdity am I reading? This is Shakespeare?”
Iachimo manipulates Posthumus into believing that his wife is faithless and thus provokes his jealousy, recalling The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. But Iachimo is far too ridiculous to be equated to Iago. Iachimo is likely so nominated because he is an incompetent imitator of Iago, which is why the former shares the first two letters of his name with his nihilistic model. Iachimo is an inadequate who, at least, has the scintilla of a moral conscience and is, at least, not immalleable, as we see in Iachimo’s self-accusation and assumption of guilt in the second scene of the fifth act: “The heaviness of guilt within my bosom / Takes off my manhood. I have belied a lady, / The princess of this country, and the air on’t / Revengingly enfeebles me…” Iachimo is the Wal*Mart edition of Iago. Iago, by contrast, is a snarling void, a propulsion of pure negativity. Iago is anti-ontological. Iachimo is like a professional circus employee who twists balloons and wears face paint. He is a zany, not the enemy of existence that Iago is.
Iachimo’s false supposition is that no woman is monogamous; Posthumus’s false supposition is one of out-and-out gynophobia. “I’ll write against them” [II:v]: Posthumus tells himself, in his misogynous rant, that he will write misogynous novels and poems, condemning every woman on the planet because of his misapprehension of one woman, his wife Innogen. “We are all bastards…” [Ibid.]: All men, he means, are bastards, for all husbands, he thinks, are cuckolds. This is the source of male misogyny: A man has a negative experience with one woman and thus generalizes his experiences with that one woman to the whole of womankind. Posthumus appears to become a parody, a more extreme version of Iachimo in Act Two: Scene Five.[iii] We are also reminded here of the misogyny of Troilus in Troilus and Cressida, who repudiates the whole of womankind for the apparent treachery of the woman he loves. Posthumus suborns the assassination of his wife, who goes into exile after Pisanio’s attentat—for in the “great pool” of the world, Britain is but a “swan’s nest,” and there are “livers” elsewhere [III:iv]. And here is another meta-theatrical reference—to Coriolanus, who says, “There is a world elsewhere” in the play that is named after him.
To escape assassination, Innogen-Fidele escapes the British kingdom, where her life is at risk and where she is daily besieged by marriage proposals (I will return to this matter below). The self-exiled Innogen wanders through a forest and comes upon a cave that is inhabited by a CHAZ-like commune. The Chazians are the two boys who will later be recognized as the King’s lost sons—Guiderius-Polydore and Arviragus-Cadwal—and their pseudo-father Belarius, who was “unjustly banish[ed]” from Cymbeline’s court [III:iii]. In the slightly underestimated 2014 cinematic interpretation, one of the boys is wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.
The Chazians dispense with money. They dispense with the norms of capitalist society in the same way that the twenty-first-century Seattle anarchists claimed to dispense with the norms of capitalist society (though, as it later turned out, the Seattle Chazians did require money). Arviragus-Cadwal expresses his disgust for pelf in the following terms: “All gold and silver rather turn to dirt, / As ’tis no better reckoned but of those / Who worship dirty gods” [III:vi]. The transformation from prince into anarchist is complete; the transformation of prince into anarchist reflects Innogen’s transformation from woman into man.
The forest is much like the Forest of Arden in As You Like It: It is a realm that is free from the rigid roles and gestures of courtier life. As I mentioned above, Innogen moves from the feminine to the masculine and becomes Fidele. Here we have another allusion to As You Like It, with the self-masculinization of its female character Rosalind-Ganymede. This happens in the forest, since the forest is always a space of freedom and transmutation in Shakespeare, a transmogrifying space in which one can become whatever one likes to be, much like the internet, though more of a locus amoenus than the internet ever is.
Innogen also exiles herself in order to elude the entreaties of Cloten, who is her stepbrother, son to the poisonous witch queen. The punkish Cloten is so named because he is a clot, a dolt, a yokel, a buffoon, a dimwit, an imbecile, a cretin, a lump, a lug, a dullard, an oaf, a “harsh, noble, simple nothing” [III:iv]. She refuses to marry Cloten, and her rejection fills him with white-hot rage. Cloten’s violent rage toward Innogen is reminiscent of Posthumus’ violent rage toward Innogen, which makes Cloten a sinister-yet-unfrightening parody of Posthumus, who, in turn, is a diabolical parody of Iachimo, which makes Cloten the parody of a parody. All three of the male characters—Iachimo, Posthumus, and Cloten—are doubles of one another, but each successive double in the series is more grotesque than he who comes before him. They are all vile degenerates and incompetents, and it presses the limits of credulity to believe that Innogen would ever forgive Posthumus and Iachimo. But forgive both of them she does, beyond all plausibility, beyond all probability, beyond all comprehension. She forgives Posthumus and (temporarily) Iachimo with inhuman swiftness. (I will return to this matter below.)
Cloten’s interest in assuming the persona of a man of lesser station than he likely means that he is more interested in becoming Posthumus than he is interested in appropriating Innogen. Such is the triangular mimesis of rivalry: The double rivals for the model’s love-object because the double identifies with the model and wishes to become the model. Gratefully, the reader will discover that no such violation will take place in the space of the play, which confirms its prankish, farcical character.
Blazing with wild devilment, Cloten swathes himself in Posthumus’s clothing, a mark of his obsessive, envious identification with the low-born man whom Innogen chose as her husband and whose “meanest garment” [II:iii] would be dearer to her than the hair on Cloten’s head, even if each hair were to turn into a man! Cloten literalizes Innogen’s fetishization of her husband’s clothes in Act Two: Scene Three. The vile villain Cloten intends to violate her upon her husband’s dead body while he is clothed as her husband, recalling again The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus: “With that suit upon my back will I ravish her—first kill him, and in her eyes. There shall she see my valor, which will then be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and when my lust hath dined—which, as I say, to vex her, I will execute in the clothes that she so praised—to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly, and I’ll be merry in my revenge” [III:v]. In a hilarious inversion, Innogen will sleep on the “bloody pillow” of Cloten’s headless corpse [IV:ii].
It is difficult to take Cloten seriously, since, despite his disgustingly sinister intention to ravish Innogen, he is swiftly decapitated by Guiderius-Polydore. His hacked-off head will cast into the creek, presumably, where it will be devoured by fish: “I’ll throw [the head] into the creek / Behind our rock, and let it to the sea / And tell the fishes he’s the Queen’s son, Cloten” (Guiderius-Polydore) [IV:ii]. The creek represents bucolic life; the sea represents the life of the court.[iv] This is yet another allusion—to The Tragedy of Macbeth, with its multiple decapitations. The scene here, though, is high comedy. The first time someone is decapitated, it is a tragedy; the second time, it is a farce. The decapitation of Cloten is farcical, ridiculous—it provokes to laughter much in the same way that Shakespeare’s other late romance The Winter’s Tale provokes us to laughter when the old man Antigonus is mauled and devoured by a bear. Yes, the scene is one of carnage—it is a sanguinary scene—but no one has sympathy for Cloten, who is a psychopathic varlet, and his death is hilarious because it seems so incongruous in relation to its textual environment. Why “incongruous”? The incongruity comes from a happy moment of cosmic irony (for once, the term is earned): Cloten tells himself that he will decapitate Posthumus and then is decapitated while wearing Posthumus’s clothes: “[T]hy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be cut off” [IV:i].
Posthumus is death-obsessed, and with good reason. He is so called because he survived his childbirth, whereas his mother did not; she was “deceased / As he was born” [I:i]. He is also so called, perhaps, because he ardently wants to die, and yet his death is denied to him.[v] He says to the Jailer: “I am merrier to die than thou art to live” [V:iv].[vi] Posthumus, then, is posthumous. As his name implies, he is a survivor; he survives both his birth and his death sentence, despite his will to die. Spasming with guilt, he begs for a judiciary suicide: “O give me cord, or knife, or poison, / Some upright justicer” [V:v]. Posthumus’s wish for an assisted suicide recalls Marcus Antonius’ wish to be decapitated in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Antonius implores his servant Eros to chop off his own head. Not to psychologize, for all we have is the text, but there is a heavy yearning for the sweetness of death that pervades the work.[vii] Every member of Posthumus’s family is dead—his father, Sicilius Leonatus, his mother, and his brothers, the Leonati. Their apparitions hover over him as he sleeps in his prison cell, and he wishes to join them in the infinite nothingness.
The reconciliation between the father Cymbeline and the daughter Innogen is devoid of all pathos and is more risible than anything else. It does recall the restoration of Pericles’ thought-dead daughter Thaisa in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, yet another allusion which makes Cymbeline seem even more self-plagiaristic and almost (God help us all) postmodern. This is not intended as a commendation, since there is nothing sicklier, more anemic than postmodern art.
The resipiscence of Posthumus and Iachimo is far stranger; indeed, it is incredible. As I suggested above: Are we so credulous as to believe that Innogen will take Posthumus back after he gambled her virginity and suborned her assassination? Posthumus is ethically unrestorable and unpardonable. What he has done is unforgivable, and he has surpassed the possibility of redemption. And yet Innogen apparently forgives him, only to be struck to the ground by Posthumus, who does not recognize her. “Peace my Lord,” she implores him before she is struck. “Hear, hear—” [V:v]. This moment resurrects the final act of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, wherein Pericles forcibly drives back his daughter Marina, whom he does not at first recognize. We are also supposed to believe that King Cymbeline will forgive Belarius for having kidnapped the princes, thus robbing the King of the opportunity to experience twenty years of their lives. Cymbeline even calls the abductor Belarius “brother” in the fifth scene of the fifth act!
There are other improbabilities. Bloom raises the reasonable question: How likely is it that Innogen will fail to recognize her husband’s anatomy?: “It seems odd that Imogen could mistake the anatomy of Cloten for her husband’s, but then she is in a state of shock.” Bloom is being too charitable, I think, in the final clause of his sentence (“but then she is in a state of shock”). And I would raise another improbability: Why does Innogen assume that the clothing of Cloten’s headless cadaver is that of Posthumus? “Where is thy head?” she asks, addressing the corpse as if it belonged to her husband. “Where’s that? Ay me, where’s that?” [IV:ii]. Does Posthumus wear the same clothing every day? Is Posthumus the only one who would wear the outfit that his ostensible corpse is wearing? Cymbeline is improbable as The Comedy of Errors, in which you have characters who are mistaken for one another and who wear the same outfits as their counterparts.
Not merely is the play fraught with improbability; there are leaps of false logic, as well. Paralogisms abound. Why, for instance, does Cymbeline muse aloud that it would have been “vicious” to have “mistrusted” the evil Stepqueen, even after he discovers that “she never loved [him]” and murdered his bio-daughter [V:v]? (This is not a rhetorical question, it is an instance of hypophora.) The King gives us an answer: Because the evil Stepqueen was “beautiful” and her “flattery” seemed to be sincere! The King’s “ears” and “heart” “thought her like her seeming” [Ibid.]—in other words, she was pleasing in a coenaesthetic manner and therefore, she was trustworthy! Do I need to point out that this does not follow logically?
We are mistreated by another paralogism at the opening of the text: The First Gentleman overpraises Posthumus because Innogen chose him over her stepbrother Cloten: “[Posthumus’s] virtue / By her election may be truly read / What kind of man he is” [I:i]. As if beautiful and virtuous women only choose handsome and virtuous men as their husbands!
Certain moments in this text are so fantastically bizarre that they surpass the limits of dramaturgical respectability. My favorite example of this is Innogen’s ejaculatory optation in Act One: Scene One. Innogen frothingly fantasizes that she would like to see her stepbrother and her husband sword-fighting each other in Africa! And she would “prick” with a needle the “goer-back”—i.e. whichever of the two backs away from the fight! Everyone’s fantasies are odd, I suppose, but you rarely read or hear fantasies such as this verbalized in Shakespeare.
Since we are reading a play that is never entirely its own, we might reasonably question, what precisely are we reading? Is this a play about the character named in its title? Why is this play entitled Cymbeline? I can understand why The Tragedy of King Lear is so called, for it is the tragedy of King Lear. But why is this work called Cymbeline? King Cymbeline hardly dominates the play; he is given relatively little stage time. We see him screaming at his daughter and his son-in-law in the first scene of the play; he does not remerge before the beginning of the third act, wherein he discusses Roman-British diplomacy and conflict with the poisonous Queen and her slimily reprobate son Cloten. Cymbeline then vanishes again and resurfaces in Act Three: Scene Five, only to withdraw once more. Indeed, we only see him again at the very close of the play—to be precise, in the second scene of the fifth act, in which he is silently taken by the Romans and then rescued by his unrecognized sons and his substitute, Belarius.
The auto-reflexivity, the meta-theatricality, the improbability, the fallacious logic, and the overall absurdity of the play fortify my conviction that it is a prank, a farce, a comedy, a lampoon. A lunatic play, an antic play, a woozy play, Cymbeline unsettles the reader’s (or spectator’s) expectations, expectations that would be incubated and marinated by other Shakespeare plays. Taking all of these matters into consideration, Cymbeline comes across as an elaborate practical joke. Perhaps Shakespeare learned that to become a great author, one must have a seething contempt for the reader or for the spectator.
[i] Iachimo: “If I bring you no sufficient testimony that I have enjoyed the dearest bodily part of your mistress, my ten thousand ducats are yours; so is your diamond, too. If I come off and leave her in such honour as you have trust in, she your jewel, this your jewel and my gold are yours, provided I have your commendation for my more free entertainment” [I:iv]. Posthumus: “I embrace these conditions. Let us have articles betwitxt us. Only thus far you shall answer: if you make your voyage upon her and give me directly to understand you have prevailed, I am no further your enemy; she is not worth our debate. If she remain unseduced, you not making it appear otherwise, for your ill opinion and th’assault you have made to her chastity, you shall answer me with your sword” [Ibid.].
[ii] Iachimo: “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded” [II:ii].
[iii] Notice that Iachimo has already expressed misogynous opinions: “If you buy ladies’ flesh at a million a dram, you cannot preserve it from tainting” [I:iv]. And in the next act: “The vows of women / Of no more bondage be to where they are made / Than they are to their virtues, which is nothing” [II:iv].
[iv] We know this from Innogen’s aside in Act Four: Scene Two: “Th’imperious seas breeds monsters; for the dish, / Poor tributary rivers as sweet fish.”
[v] Mournful Posthumus thinks that he killed his wife and longs to die: “[T]o the face of peril / Myself I’ll dedicate” [V:i].
[vi] And earlier: “For Innogen’s dear life,” Posthumus implores God, “take mine, and though / ’Tis not so dear, yet ’tis a life; you coined it…” [V:iv].
[vii] A superabundance of verbal cues informs us that Posthumus is a death-obsessed survivor. He tells Innogen that he will “cere up his embracements” of his wife from other women with “bonds of death” [I:i]. He apostrophizes his diamond ring, newly given to him by Innogen: “Remain, remain thou here / While sense can keep it on” [Ibid.]. “Sense” here refers to consciousness—hence, the duration of his lifespan. The dirge that the boys sing in Act Four: Scene Two is, again, an encomium to mortality which suggests that the sweetness of death should be welcomed, for it means the cessation of all fear and anxiety. The ghost of Euriphile (“The Lover of Europe”) hovers over the play. She was the nurse of the lost sons of Cymbeline the King and was taken as their mother [III:iii]. The dirge was originally written for Euriphile and then is sung for Innogen, who is only phenomenally deceased.
I am not a lyrical poet, but for some reason, these two lyrical poems surfaced in my mind recently. If you like them, you will love my novel TABLE 41, the novel which predicted the novel Coronavirus.–Joseph Suglia
by Joseph Suglia
The zoogenic and zoonotic pestilence is encoiling and ensnaring the quiet city
Encoiling and ensnaring
The plan-disruptive plague
There are pigs in the alley
These pigs do not squeal; they screech
There is a screeching outside in the quiet city
CRUISE SHIP POEM
by Joseph Suglia
A scintilla of space
in a sea of time
not fixed to any place
A migratory, nomadic space
with an affinity to the flows of water
THE UNREADABILITY OF HAMLET
by Joseph Suglia
“No wavering mind, infected with Hamletism, was ever pernicious: the principle of evil lies in the will’s tension, in the incapacity for quietism, in the Promethean megalomania of a race that bursts with ideals, that explodes with convictions…”
—Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay
“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
—T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Hamlet is not killed by Laertes, nor is he killed by Claudius; he is killed again and again by consumer culture, which is incrementally becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth. That is to say: The text entitled The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, which is attributed to a person named William Shakespeare, has been distilled to a compound of popular-cultural clichés. The text has been zombified. I do not mean that the language of the text is obsolete or irrelevant. I mean that the play “lives on” in the deathful form of clichés, for clichés are dead language.
Nearly every line of the play has become a platitude, a slogan, a title of a song or a film, a song lyric. Most have an at least sedimentary understanding of the play—in the form of the clichés that the play has generated. You might not have read Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, but Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark has read you.
It is nearly impossible to read the words of the text in their original context, since the text now appears porous to any culturally literate person. It is not an open-source text; it is an open-sore text. It is leachy, pervious, permeable to the outside. That is to say, the text constantly refers to popular-cultural detritus, to bastardized commercializations of the play that Shakespeare was fortunate enough never to have seen or to have heard. Or, proleptically, to other works of literature; I have read about half of these lines in other works of literature. When I read “sweets to the sweet,” “ay, very like a whale,” or “beetles over his base into the sea,” I think not of Hamlet (or of the play of which he is the eponym), but of Joyce’s Ulysses, wherein these same phrases reappear. I am forcibly extricated from the initial text and redirected to another, much later work of literature.
It is not that my mobile telephone is pulling me out of the text. Staying alone with the text, without the buzzing and shrilling of our telephones, without the compulsive need to check one’s e-mail is a persistent challenge for most, it is true. Yet this argument is not so much incorrect as it is banal. It is an argument has been too easily and too often made before (most notably, by Nicolas Carr in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”). My argument is not that the webware of our minds has been redesigned and redrawn—something that I have accepted as an immovable fact long ago. Yes, I know that most are distractible. I have known this for years. My argument is different.
What is pulling me out of the text is a set of exophoric references that has come long after the fact of the text’s composition.
I am arguing that the play is unreadable independently of its multiple references to consumerist culture. I do not mean that the text cannot be read (it is as compulsively readable as any text in the Shakespearean canon). Again, this is not my argument. I am suggesting something else. I mean that the text cannot be read as a text, so englutted is it with post-date media clichés and references to other works of literature. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a multiply linked polytext.
In an age in which Google is the New God, it is even less probable that one could read a text in its nudity. We have reached the point at which many of us cannot read a text as text, assuming that such a thing were even ever possible. As Nietzsche writes in the late notebooks, “To able to read off a text as text, without interposing an interpretation between the lines, is the latest form of ‘inner experience’—perhaps one that is scarcely possible,” einen Text als Text ablesen können, ohne eine Interpretation dazwischen zu mengen, ist die späteste Form der “inneren Erfahrung,”— vielleicht eine kaum mögliche… One would require an innocent mind to be able to read a text that is unalloyed.
And yet there are no innocent minds any longer—if there ever were! So supersaturated is the play with after-the-fact media clichés, so embedded is the play with alluvial deposits, so thoroughly is the play encrusted with post-date media messages that it is pre-contaminated. It is pre-inscribed, paradoxically, by cultural references that were superimposed on the text 400 years after the fact. Cultural references that have been superimposed to the extent that they are have become part of the text “itself.” The clichés are not extricable from the text “itself.”
The play cannot be ensiled, protected from the intrusion of clichés. To ensile means to prepare and store fodder (such as hay or corn) so that it is conduced into silage (succulent feed for livestock).
The lines of the play have taken on lives of their own outside of the play. Many of them have fallen into the flabbiness of ordinary language. Popular culture has engulfed the text and debased it.
* * * * *
Here is a partial list of popular-cultural vandalizations and vulgarizations of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. I will be citing the Second Quarto (1604-1605) exclusively, for it is the most expansive version of the play:
“’Tis bitter cold / And I am sick at heart” [I:i] is now the language of the weather report. Squalls and flurries are routinely described by meteorologists as “bitter cold.” Supporters of politicians are said to wait for their candidates in the “bitter cold.” “Bitter cold” is said to be the climate of beautiful Rochester, New York. Poeticism has been deflated, fallen into the stupidity of ordinary language.
“Not a mouse stirring” is now a verse in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Moore defamiliarized and rescrambled the cliché: It has now become “Not a creature was stirring / not even a mouse.” And yet that itself has become a cliché. Readers and spectators of the play will call the Christmas favorite to mind—and digress from the text of the play into yuletide musings.
The stage direction Exit Ghost is now the title of a 2007 novel by Philip Roth.
“Stay, Illusion” is now the title of the book of poetry by Lucie Brock-Broido.
“A little more than kin, and less than kind” [I:ii]: Hamlet’s reproving words to his adulterous, fratricidal stepfather is now a Canadian television series called Less Than Kind (2008-2013).
“I shall not look upon his like again”: Whenever someone dies and the eulogist at the obsequy wants to sound literate, s/he will say, “We’ll not see his/her like again.” In their eulogies to David Bowie and John McCain, Will Self and Joe Biden, respectively, change the “I” to “we”—a common misremembrance, a common misrecollection of the line. It is originally Hamlet’s manner of saying that his father—his only father, his real father, his bio-dad—is irreplaceable and certainly may never be replaced by an incestuous, fratricidal drunkard and idiot.
“This above all, to thine own self be true” [I:iii]: These words no longer are counsel given by the unbrilliant Polonius to his son Laertes before the latter is dispatched to France to study at university. They now form an inscription tattooed on the faceless arms of hundreds of thousands of “social-media” mystics and cybernetic insta-priests (the words before the colon are usually deleted).
I place “social media” in quotation marks because there is nothing social about “social media.”
I suspect that the tattoo exists in order to be photographed and “shared” for the benefit of “Likes.” I wonder how many carve, chisel, these words into their flesh in order to display the insignia / imprint to their shadowy internet “friends” and “followers.” This is a good example of denaturing the body in order to receive approval from hollow cybernetic effigies.
In the twenty-first century: We do not experience and then represent; we represent and then experience.
“But to my mind, though I am native here / And to the manner born, it is a custom / More honoured in the breach than the observance” [I:iv]: As Philip B. Corbett illuminates in his The New York Times article “Mangled Shakespeare,” “to the manner born” is often misheard and misremembered as “to the manor born.”
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” [I:iv]: Once Marcellus’s baleful diagnosis of his country upon seeing the ghost of the dead king, the statement is now a cliché that can be found almost everywhere.
No longer the admonition of Claudius to his son to leave the boy’s mother unpunished by worldly vengeance, “leave her to heaven” [I:v] is now a 1945 film noir directed by John M. Stahl.
Once Horatio’s words of astonishment upon seeing the ghost of his friend’s father, “wondrous strange” is now the title of a young-adult fantasy novel by Lesley Livingston.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”: This was originally Hamlet’s gentle rebuke to Horatio for his Epicureanism (Epicurus denied the supernatural) after both characters see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The “your” is often changed to “our,” Horatio’s name is almost always deleted, and this is now the favorite weasel sentence of agnostics who condescendingly allow the probabilism of the supreme deity.
“The time is out of joint”: This is now the resaying of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who uses the quotation to explain what Kant means by the universal form of sensibility, which is time. Deleuze is unaware that “[t]he time” refers to the unspecified age in which the play is set, not to temporality itself. Though he is no marketer, Deleuze belongs on this list.
“Doubt thou the stars are fire” [II:ii] has been curdled into a line that can be heard in the films Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Letters to Juliet (2010).
“Thou this be madness yet there is method in’t”: The original context (Polonius’s interlude of lucidity) has been forgotten, since it is now a thought-annihilating platitude, with neither method nor madness therein. It is also the 2019 cinematic comedy Madness in the Method, directed by Jason Mewes.
“What a piece of work is man!” is no longer Hamlet’s ejaculatory paean to the intricate elegance and elegant intricacy of humanity. It is now “You’re a real piece of work!” which is a favorite insult of the insecure, one which is sometimes applied to a person who steps too far outside of the herd. Urban Dictionary makes the interesting point that a “piece of work” is someone who is needlessly difficult.
“The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” One of the most stupid lines in the whole of Shakespeare has become an episode of the seventh season of SpongeBob SquarePants, “The Play’s the Thing.”
“To be, or not to be—that is the question” [III:i] has been transmuted into a 1983 film by Mel Brooks entitled To Be or Not to Be (superseding an earlier film with the same title which has been largely forgotten). It is also a 1965 song by the Bee Gees.
“Slings and arrows” is now a Canadian television series (2003-2006).
“Outrageous fortune” has been transformed into a 1987 film comedy starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long.
“Perchance to dream” is the twenty-sixth episode of the animated series Batman (1992).
“What dreams may come” has become a 1998 film drama starring Robin Williams. Few seem to remember that the film is based on a novel by the great Richard Matheson that was published two decades earlier.
“The undiscovered country” is no longer Hamlet’s metaphor for death. It is now the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
“Get thee to a nunnery”: Hamlet’s vicious insult to Ophelia, after he declares his non-love for her (and perhaps his lovelessness in general, his possible inability to love anyone), has been reduced to a meme, to an ironic, internet cliché. “Nunnery” might signify “brothel,” but it more probably signifies “convent,” since, in tandem with his To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be soliloquy, Hamlet seems to be pursuing the antinatalist argument that it is better for humankind to stop breeding, that it is better never to have been born (following Sophocles and anticipating the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Cioran). What thwarts Hamlet’s suicide is his fear of the afterworld, of afterwordliness—this fear is the “conscience [that] does make cowards of us all.” There is no reason to breed, then. It is better never to give birth, for suicide is too dicey.
“[T]he mirror [held] up to Nature to show Virtue her feature” [III:ii] is now an infantile short story by David Foster Wallace called “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” (which, in turn, was based on a work of philosophy by Richard Rorty).
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”: Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, the Queen of Denmark, means that the Player Queen is affirming too much, she is over-emphatic in her declarations of love for her second husband. Protesting does not mean, here, negating. It is not an instance of Freudian Verneinung, as if a husband were to say to his wife, unprompted, “I am not saying that I’m attracted to the waitress.” Nor does it mean “to disagree with someone vehemently, in a suspiciously egregious manner.” In Shakespeare’s England, “to protest” meant to give repeated affirmations, “to over-assert,” “to pronounce a statement vigorously and forcefully.” In an interesting example of the Mandela Effect, there has been a collective misremembrance of the line as “Methinks you protest too much.”
“I must be cruel only to be kind” [III:iv] are no longer the self-exculpatory words of Hamlet, defending the very cruel words that he says to his mother, Queen Gertrude. It is now the advice of Nick Lowe, given in his 1979 hit song “Cruel to Be Kind,” a song that is sometimes cited by cruel people who claim to be honest.
“Hoist with his own petard” doesn’t mean lifting oneself by one’s own crane, despite what a number of political cartoons and political commentators suggest. “To hoist with one’s own petard” means “to blow oneself up with one’s own bomb.”
“This man shall set me packing” means “This man will provoke me into action.” It has nothing to do with eviction, with kicking someone out of an apartment, with expulsion, which is what it has come to mean colloquially or when Joe Biden says, “We will send Trump packing and keep Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.” Or when current Prime Minister of Great Britain Boris Johnson says that he is “absolutely confident that [the Britons] can send the Coronavirus packing in this country.”
“Goodnight, ladies, goodnight. Sweet ladies, goodnight, goodnight” [IV:v] has been demoted to the final song on Transformer (1972), Lou Reed’s worst album, which is really a bad David Bowie album (Bowie was its producer). The line does also reappear in intentionally, floridly bastardized form in “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot—a poem that concerns the cheapening, the coarsening, of literary values in the mass culture of the European twentieth century.
“A fellow of infinite jest” [V:i] is no longer a phrase that Hamlet uses to praise his father’s jester Yorick, who is now dead and whose skull Hamlet is holding. It is now the title of one of the most execrably written books ever published, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
“[T]he quick and dead” is now the 1995 film The Quick and the Dead, directed by Sam Raimi.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” [V:ii] is now the title of Tom Stoppard’s not-always-bracing postmodernist, auto-reflexive play. It has also been resurrected as the 2009 American independent film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead.
* * * * *
As the snapshots of popular culture above demonstrate, popular culture has vulgarized and continues to vulgarize the play, for popular culture vulgarizes all art, degrading it until it becomes something other than art, something baser than art.
Each popular-cultural citation leaves a residue. Of course, there would be no “pure” text beneath the accrual of sedimentation. However, I am arguing something else: The text is even less pure than it would be otherwise, so buried is it under a mountain of kitsch, a garbage mountain of clichés in an ever-compounding media landfill.
We deviate from the text at hand. We are force-fed bowls of fuzz-word salad.
If I were able to approach the text in its “nudity”: My own approach to the text would be to examine it through the speculum of the question of the free will. Multiple essays have already discussed the question of free will in Hamlet, but none, as far as I know, have argued that the play is suggesting that free will is a delusion from which we would do well to disabuse ourselves. If the play is about anything at all, it is about the impossibility of anything like a free will.
The crux of the play, its pivotal question, is why does Hamlet delay? Why is Laertes a swift avenger whereas Hamlet is a sluggardly avenger? Whereas Laertes is undiscouraged and rushes headlong toward vengeance—Laertes, who all but breaks down the door to slaughter Hamlet, whom he blames for his father Polonius’ death—Hamlet is unnimble and delays the exaction of revenge for the murder of his father. Hamlet’s hesitancy, his hesitantism, has nothing to do with will, for Hamlet is consciously committed to exacting revenge for his father’s death “with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love” [I:v].
The answer is that Hamlet’s will is not his own, as Laertes himself says in the third scene of the first act to Laertes’ sister Ophelia. He has no free will for no one has freedom of will. Our decisions emerge from the abysses of the unconscious mind. The source of decisions is not consciousness; we are only free to choose what our unconscious minds have chosen for us.
We see that Hamlet believes in the mirage of the free will when he commands, “About, my brains!” in the all-important soliloquy of Act Two: Scene Two, a soliloquy that is far more significant than the To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be soliloquy. “About, my brains!” means “Get to work, my mind!” Or: “Activate, my mind! Impel me into action!” Hamlet (his consciousness and the Ego which is the nucleus of his consciousness) is commanding his brain (his unconscious mind, the hinterbrain) to prompt him to action. And yet Hamlet’s “I” (the Ego, the idealized and self-preserving representation of the Self) remains unprovokable. The “I” commands the brain to act—Hamlet apostrophizes his brains. It is a dialogue or a duologue between consciousness and the unconscious mind. Hamlet is both talking-to-himself and listening-to-himself-speak. The play is suggesting that action does not issue directly from the “I” but from the unconscious sources of human cognition and activity. Hence, it is a critique, in dramatic form, of the misbegotten concept of the free will.
It is only within the final scene of the play that Hamlet learns that all human thinking and acting is necessary, involuntary, inadvertent, unwitting: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” [V:ii]. He learns to leave things as they are, in a manner similar to stoicism or Heideggerean Gelassenheit: “Let be,” Hamlet says. “Let be”: Let things be in their being. Accept things as they are, instead of tyrannizing nature and expecting life to follow according to one’s subjective volition. Adjust to the swirl of experience, which is beyond anyone’s conscious control.
None of this will appear to readers and spectators of the play, so dumbed down has the text become by ordinary language and the stupiditarians of the entertainment industry. Language does change over time, as the descriptivists repeatedly claim to justify their unreflective assertion that language speakers do not need to be told what the rules of that language are. It is as if the descriptivists were calling out: “Let chaos reign!” and “All hail disorder!” I would say, in rejoinder: Language becomes more and more stupid over time.
Ultimately, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has become a cliché-manufacturing factory—generative of clichés that are more enduring than the Prince of Denmark’s sweaty vacillations and testy temporizations.
I DON’T THINK YOU’RE READY FOR THIS VILE JELLY: ON KING LEAR (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“One has not observed life very carefully if one has failed to see the hand that gently—kills.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Paragraph 69
“Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits. If this were not so, each performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown.”
—Martin Amis, “Philip Larkin: His Work and Life”
Any writer who has received a Letter of Rejection knows the sting of malignancy behind that letter’s boilerplate politeness: “Every month, we are sent thousands of manuscripts for review. Unfortunately, your manuscript was not among the few that reached our editorial board. We will keep your query on file should another opportunity arise.” Any suitor whose desires have been refused knows the malicious assertion of power that surges and throbs behind the superficially gentle refusal, so unkind in its apparent kindness: “Thank you. I am very flattered; unfortunately, I am not available for dating.” When American corporatists say, “I am sorry that you feel that way,” this means: “I don’t care how you feel.” When Disney employees cheep and chirp, “Have a Disney Day!” to tourists, this is another way of saying, “Kill yourself!”
Such is what Slavoj Žižek calls the “unmistakable dimension of humiliating brutality” inherent to polite responses (In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 17). Politeness is ambiguous because it seems to be a form of gallantry and respect for the other person’s feelings; just as often, it conceals a radical disregard for a person’s sensitivity. Open expressions of dislike must be avoided in polite society; therefore, one’s contempt for others maintains itself as disguised contempt. Respectfulness and tact are, often enough, screens behind which disrespectfulness and insensitivity lurk. There is, in a word, such a thing as aggressive politeness; there is such a thing as being aggressively polite.
I believe that the ambiguity of politeness is evident in Shakespeare’s traumatizing King Lear (1605-1606). Let me be blunt: The play concerns a king who is thrown down to the level of a homeless beggar, and he is subjected to a series of brutal humiliations throughout the play, as are Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear’s rough yet loyal-to-the-death servant Kent. The abjections begin long before the King’s exposure to the cold gusts of the open heath. Lear is humiliated long before he experiences undisguised elder abuse, long before he is pushed out of doors, long before he is diminished to an undignified poverty. The degradations begin with the manifest politeness of his two eldest offspring, Goneril and Regan. Lear is mapping out and parceling out his kingly estate—prematurely, I would add—to his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, before his “[u]nburdened crawl toward death” [I:i]. His crawl toward death turns out to be a severely burdened one, despite his expectations. His decision to give away his land, property, and revenue is an undiscerning one—hence the ocular imagery that spreads throughout the play. The gruesome enucleation of Gloucester in Act Three: Scene Seven, for instance, mirrors Lear’s own blindness, his inability to leer. The play’s twin metaphors are blindness and nothingness.[i]
When Lear asks his youngest daughter, his favorite, to declare her love for him, Cordelia’s response is monstrously inappropriate: “Nothing, my lord” [I:i]. (Inappropriate yet not as cruel as the pointed flatteries of Goneril and Regan, which I will turn to below.) Inexpressive Cordelia says this to herself, and so we know that it is genuine: “I am sure my love’s / More ponderous than my tongue” [Ibid.]. She knows that language always lies, she knows that any word that she could possibly say would belie the love that she has for her father, transmuting her feelings to their converse,[ii] so she chooses to say nothing: “Nothing, my lord.” She utters the following to explain her mutism: “I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” [Ibid.]—“to heave” means “to lift.” She cannot raise the profundity of her feeling to language, with all of its manifold evasions, pomposities, and solecisms. Undiscerning Lear misses Cordelia’s meaning: All Cordelia is suggesting is that she loves her father according to a wordless obligation. She is “[s]o young” and “true” [Ibid.]—and Lear, dotard that he is, mistakes his youngest daughter’s brazenness and refusal to dote on him for disloyalty.[iii]
Again, Lear’s successive humiliations begin not with Cordelia’s inadvertent insult, but with the politeness of Goneril and Regan. Cordelia, the malapert minx, with her saucy bluntness, is kinder than Goneril and Regan, who are empty flatterers and who are cruel in their flattery. Politeness and manners are cruelty. Goneril and Regan are followers of the conventions of the court; their intimacy is a kind of formalized intimacy or a kind of intimate formality. One of Goneril’s inflated flatteries goes thus: “Sir, I do love you more than word can wield the matter…” [Ibid.].[iv] Undiscerning Lear, who “jointly” “invests” his eldest daughters with his “power” [I:i][v] trusts their statements—statements that are no more meaningful than the proposition “Banana trees eat cheese.”
Cordelia’s resistance is nothing in comparison with Goneril and Regan’s insubordination, for they undermine their father’s standing and resources before pushing him out into the cold of the storm.[vi] The point that I am trying to make is that Cordelia’s resistance, however inapposite it might be, is far less destabilizing than the savage overthrows of her older sisters, who wear the mask of politeness.
Lear is a literalist. He literalizes Cordelia’s impoliteness, as if it represented disloyalty, when it does not. He literalizes Kent’s bluntness, his “unmannerliness,” his “plainness” [I:i], as if it represented rebelliousness, which it does not. Instead, he prizes Goneril and Regan’s “oily” and “glib” [I:i] flatteries, which conceal a deep and deadly disobedience. To repurpose something once said by George Carlin, their version of politeness is contempt pretending to be manners.
The King’s demand is for the expression of love, as if the expression of love were love itself.[vii] Lear prefers expressions of politeness to genuine loyalty. He believes that Goneril and Regan love him because they say that they do. When he finally grasps the venom with which their polite formulae is saturated, Lear makes the logical error of associating the inhuman behavior of Goneril and Regan with the behavior of all women. Lear becomes a full-blown misogynist on account of this logical error (the Fallacy of Composition), which is similar to the unfortunate mistake of some critics who think that the play is misogynistic because the character Lear blindly becomes a misogynist.[viii]
Lear’s absolute authority at the beginning of the play is gradually triturated. Contemptuously, Oswald refers to the King as “My lady’s father” [I:iv]. “My lady’s father” places the emphasis on the “lady” (Goneril) and thus suggests the unmanning of Lear. Everyone in the hall knows this nasty bit of pseudo-politeness for what it is: an insult to the King. Kent accordingly gives Oswald a good drubbing—Kent, who is blunt and painful in his honesty yet far, far kinder than those flatterers, those sycophants, those sophists, whose loyalties lie in their mouths and not in their deeds.
The eldest daughters are the cuckoos that bite the head off the hedge-sparrow, their father. The Fool to Lear: “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it’s had it head bit off by it young” [I:iv]. The most shocking thing about the second line is the intentional absence of proper grammar. The grammatical way of composing the lines would be: “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long / That it had its head bit off by its young.” The intentionally bad grammar intensifies the shocking character of the image. Since the cuckoo and the hedge-sparrow belong to different species within the avian kingdom, the Fool might even be suggesting that Lear’s daughters belong to a different species than the King—though, to be historically precise, Linnaeus established the separate classification of dunnock and cuckoos slightly over 150 years after this play was composed (in 1758). If the Fool intends that they belong to the same family, this is an image of the daughters cannibalizing their father.
Soon after his eldest daughters drive him down, inverting the traditional father-daughter relationship,[ix] Lear becomes estranged from himself; he becomes unrecognizably other. Alienated from himself, alienated from his estate, which he has imprudently given to his eldest daughters, Lear can no longer recognize himself: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” [I:iv]. His previous self is foreign to him: “Does any here know me? Why, this is not Lear” [Ibid.]. He is the father who is father no more; he is the king who is king in title only. For much of his life, he thought of himself as father and as king. Now that the roles of father and king have been robbed of their substance, he does not recognize who he is. This non-self-recognition is madness.[x]
Lear tries to strip off his royal habiliments in the storm, which would be a kind of stripping-away of the symbols of royal authority, but is restrained by the Fool. The Fool is introduced in Act One: Scene Four, three scenes after the befooling of Lear has been initiated. The Fool disappears in Act Three: Scene Six, right after Lear says, “We’ll go to supper in’the morning” [III:vi], which means that Lear is now completely demented. Now, it is the King who has become the Fool. What use is the Fool when the King is foolish? It is only when the Fool is hanged that we hear of the Fool again.
Even though, on the surface, Cordelia has “scanted” her “obedience” [I:i] by avoiding an explicit declaration of love for her father, she shows signs of real devotion to him toward the end of the play, when she leads a charge into England to restore him to the throne. After the first scene of the first act, we do not see Cordelia again until the fourth scene of Act Four, wherein she reemerges as the Queen of France. At least, this is the case in the Quarto of 1608. There are significant discontinuities between the Quarto of 1608 and the First Folio of 1623. In the First Folio, Cordelia reappears in the third scene of “Actus Quartus,” surrounded by pendants, drums, and her entourage: “Enter with Drum and Colours, Cordelia, Gentlemen, and Souldiours.”
One of Cordelia’s roles, after she accedes to the queenship of France, is to re-man, to re-virilize Lear, to undo the unmanning to which he has been subjected: “How does my royal lord? How fares your majesty?” Cordelia asks her father in the seventh scene of the fourth act—without ever addressing him as her father! No, she gives Lear a higher status than that of a father, than that of a biological progenitor. He is the King, her royal lord, his majesty once more, and he is addressed with respect—and yet, for once, one senses that there is no malice beneath a shifty veneer of respectfulness.
The play does end in a certain restoration—the King reunites with his disowned daughter—and it is a beautiful resipiscence, a beautiful reconciliation between father and daughter, which makes the play almost endurable. At the risk of sounding facile, this is a very dreary, very abjective, and quite nauseating play, but it does contain one positive value, and that is the value of covert loyalty. Whereas Harold Bloom inflates the role of Edgar, I would emphasize the magnificent Kent. Even when he disguises himself and escapes banishment, Kent does so in order to better serve his master. Kent’s dishonesty masks a deeper honesty, his deceptions mask a deeper loyalty, as Cordelia’s phenomenal coldness masks a profounder warmth. Kent shows a deeper obedience to Lear by standing up to the King and telling him, in essence, that the King is acting against his own best interests. Kent is the very model of disloyal loyalty, of traitorous piety, of the fidelity of treason, which is something that Nietzsche knew well.
[i] These are not matters that I am able to pursue in this essay directly, so I will place the relevant citations within an endnote. Concerning the ocular metaphors: Goneril claims, phonily, that her father is “[d]earer than eyesight” to her [I:i]. Lear exclaims to Kent: “Out of my sight!” Kent’s response: “See better, Lear, and let me still remain / The true blank of thine eye” [Ibid.]. Lear says to his own eyes: “Old fond eyes, / Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck yet out…” [I:iv]. Concerning the metaphors of nullity, within which Harold Bloom would see a creative gnostic vacuity: There are Cordelia and Lear’s “Nothings” in the first scene. Edmund says to his father, “Nothing, my lord” in the second scene of the play. In the fourth scene of the first act, Lear tells the Fool that “nothing can be made out of nothing.” The Fool says to Lear: “I am a fool, thou art nothing” [Ibid.].
[ii] Cordelia knows the deceptiveness of language, as does her male double, Edgar. Edgar says, to himself, that “the worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’” [IV:i]. The verbal articulation of one’s condition nullifies that very condition. One is not fully lonely, as long as one can say, “I am lonely,” to follow Blanchot. One is not fully sad, as long as one can say, “I am sad.” One at least has energy enough to say that one is sad; one still opens the possibility of an addressee or an auditor when one says that one is lonely.
[iii] So scandalized is Lear that he (ostensibly) delights in the company of his youngest daughter no more than he delights in the company of cannibals: “[H]e that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom / Be as well neighboured, pitied and relieved, / As thou my sometime daughter” [I:i], Lear intones to Cordelia.
[iv] Cordelia, by contrast, is reticent: “To speak and purpose not—since what I well intend, / I’ll do’t before I speak” [I:i].
[v] By way of an illocutionary performative speech act.
[vi] Regan and Goneril’s insubordination of their father is mirrored by the bastard Edmund’s insubordination of his father. Edmund betrays his father, the Earl of Gloucester, as Goneril and Regan betray their father, Lear. Edmund, at least, becomes sympathetic in his dying. In his final moments, he has a coda of self-acknowledgement. Not so Goneril and Regan. Edmund is an obvious sociopath but is less dislikable than Goneril and Regan.
[vii] Lear is King James I perceived through the speculum of a funhouse mirror. Much as James I, who patronized Shakespeare and whom Shakespeare served when this play was first performed, King Lear demands absolute obedience. James I asserted his absolute authority in writing, in The True Law of Free Monarchies; or, The Reciprocal and Mutual Duty Betwixt a Free King and His Natural Subjects (originally published in 1598). Anyone who reads this text will see that James I considered obedience to the King to be identical to obedience to God. Intriguingly, Shakespeare seems to be subtly criticizing his patron. Both James I and Lear make the mistake of believing that an outward show of submission is true obedience. Moreover, James I similarly divided his estate, giving it to his sons, renouncing the ownership of moieties of his land and money. Instead of burbling about Shakespeare’s “universalism” or “infinity,” it is important to place the plays within their proper historical contexts. “Universalism” and “infinity”: Such are a few of the pomposities and vaporizings of Harold Bloom, who is otherwise often admirable.
[viii] Lear is nothing if not the Father. If he is not patriarchal, then no one is.
[ix] Lear is infantilized, becoming son to Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. In this play, daughters are mothers to their father. “Old fools are babes again,” Goneril says of her father to Oswald [I:iii]. The Fool tells Lear, “[T]hou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers” [I:iv]. Similarly, Edmund says of his brother Edgar that the latter claimed: “[T]he father should be as ward to the son and the son manage his revenue” [I:ii]. Likewise, Edgar says of his father, “He childed as I father’d” [III:vi], implying an inversion of relation between father and son. It is an inverted world in which the characters are dwelling, one in which the home-space is outside of the kingdom and the outside is within: “Freedom lives hence and banishment is here” [I:i], as Kent phrases it.
[x] There is a great deal of self-estrangement in the play. Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, peasant and bedlamite, before becoming the next King of England, and Kent disguises himself as Caius before being recognized for who he is by the dying Lear in the final act. In the guise of Poor Tom, Edgar dispatches the vermin Oswald and Edmund, who have verminated England. Interestingly, there is a legend that the historical King Edgar committed lupicide, dispatching and expelling wolves from Albion immediately after he became king.
A Fragmentary Analysis of TIMON OF ATHENS (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible, be daily before your eyes, but death chiefly, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.”
—Epictetus, The Enchiridion
“A friend asks only for your time and not money.”
—From a fortune cookie. Chinatown, Chicago, 2019
Athenian lord Timon has an embarrassment of wealth, and he doesn’t seem in the least embarrassed about it. He is generous—absurdly, promiscuously generous, prodigal to the point of profligacy. His Lucullan feasts are well-attended. Of course, he is parasitized by the mob—by the mob of disgusting parasites who call themselves his “friends.” As if they were a pack of baphometic daemons, his “friends” eat up his money until he has nothing left. When the creditors demand repayment, Timon has nothing to give them. None of his “friends” helps Timon in his time of need; the pseudo-friends to whom he appeals for money—Lucullus, Lucius, and Sempronius—refuse his entreaties, even while they are wearing the jewelry that Timon gifted them. Timon is soon on course for self-immolation. He is so aggrieved that he spends the rest of his life in a wasteland, where he execrates the whole of humanity.
So goes the epitasis of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens (circa 1605-1608), largely based on Plutarch’s life of Antony and Lucian’s dialogue on Timon. It is an allegory of language (this is not something that I will pursue in depth here) and an allegory of misanthropy and sounds particularly allegorical when Timon declares dismally to Alcibiades: “I am Misanthropos and hate mankind” [IV:iii]. It is clear that Timon is allegorizing misanthropy in the general and in the abstract. However, Shakespeare’s great play, one of the most underestimated in the Western literary canon, is not a misanthropic play, despite appearances, but a subtle critique of Timonian misanthropy.
TIMON IS NOT APART FROM HUMANITY; HE IS A PART OF HUMANITY
Timon retreats to the wasteland in order to avoid human contact and to correct the errors of his personal past, to correct the mistakes that he made when he was rich (profligate liberality, exploitability). And what does he do while in the wasteland? He socializes still!
Even while wasting away in the wasteland, Timon is thronged by other human beings. In the same way that the Forest of Arden in As You Like It is an overpopulated desert, there are too many people in the wasteland, and Timon can’t escape contact with them. Timon curses Alcibiades for approaching him: “The canker gnaw thy heart / For showing me again the eyes of man!” [IV:iii]. He withdraws from humanity and yet draws humanity to him at the same time.
The obvious question floating in my mind: If Timon wishes to be left alone, why does he ask Apemantus to report to Athens that Timon has money: “Tell them there I have gold” [IV:iii]. He knows well, and Apemenatus tells him as much, that he will soon be thronged with Athenians. Apemantus even affirms that the rogues of Athens will come for him, seeking money: “I’ll say thou’st gold: / Thou wilt be thronged to shortly” [IV:iii]. This is a strange paradox or a koan: If he wants to be left alone, why does Timon send Apemantus as a messenger to Athens? And why is the message that Apemantus carries, in effect, “I have money. Come to see me!”?
Apemantus and Timon are paradoxes: both misanthropes and social animals at the same time. If Apemantus dislikes humanity so much, why does he attend Timon’s well-attended dinners? He doesn’t eat the food that is prepared; he instead show-offily eats roots and drinks water. Why even go to one of Timon’s parties if he is not there for the food? Apemantus does relish piercing the revelers with caustic insults. Everyone appears to know who he is, and he interacts with the partygoers.
The most interesting thing about Shakespeare’s punk-rock play is that it is a condemnation of the whole of humanity—and of Timon along with it! This condemnation extends to misanthropy. Timon’s misanthropy does not go far enough; it leaves Timon immune. Timon is not apart from humanity; he is a part of humanity, even after he renounces it. The play suggests the impossibility of liberating oneself from humanity, the impossibility of ever being alone while being alive, something that brings the work—the strangest, darkest, most nihilistic, most heterodox work in the Shakespearean canon—in close proximity to the shocking literature of Roland Topor. Timon the Misanthrope thinks that he is soaring over the unhuman crowd, but he is one of them; he is a member of the crowd.
WHEN HIS LANGUAGE ENDS, ALL LANGUAGE SHALL END
Timon of Athens is an allegory of language. It suggests that language is empty. Timon’s parasitical “friends” make empty promises and justify the non-performance of their promises with empty words. Timon spends more money than he has and thus defaults on his loans. The Poet promises to craft a poem in honor of Timon that he will never present, the Painter promises to paint a likeness of Timon that he has no intention of completing, etc. Flavius claims that “the world is but a word” [II:ii], the world only extends as far as language does, and that the “breath is gone whereof this praise is made” [II:ii].
It is no wonder that Timon looks forward to the apocalyptic death of language, the reduction of human words to muteness, to silence. Ultimately, all we have are words. When human language dies, humanity dies—and this is something that Timon welcomes in his final words, as if the language of humanity will die when his language dies: “Lips, let sour words go by, and language end” [V:ii]. When his language ends, Timon suggests, all language shall end.
HE IS EITHER GENEROUS TO EVERYONE OR GENEROUS TO NO ONE
Timon moves from indiscriminate generosity to indiscriminate human-hatred. Life is a zero-sum contest, for Timon. He knows only absolutes. Much as Coriolanus, another one of Shakespeare’s simpletons, either loves his motherland Rome or hates Mother Rome, Timon either loves Athens or hates Athens.
Timon is either a profligate prodigal or a human-hater. There is no middle ground for him. He is a quasi-borderline, as if he were afflicted with a version of Borderline Personality Disorder. He absolutely loves or absolutely hates—not one individual, but the totality of humanity.
Note Timon’s use of the word “therefore,” as if he were drawing a logical conclusion:
There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,
But direct villainy. Therefore, be abhorr’d
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men! [IV:iii]
He proclaims that he holds no brief for human beings and their communities and rituals, holds no brief for those who compose the human species because they are unequal (it is as if he were attempting to refute Hobbes, whom Shakespeare certainly read, and read with great admiration, according to Ben Johnson). Allow me to paraphrase further: “Human beings are unequal except that they are equal in villainy; therefore, all of human society should be hated!”
Again, Timon is either generous to everyone or generous to no one. As we have known at least since Hegel, opposites interpenetrate. Opposites are inwardly connected; they belong to the same system.
Leftism is nothing more than the inversion of rightism, and Satanism is nothing more than the obverse of Christianity. An opposite is not completely different from the original term. The opposite of something is related to that thing.
Timon, a man whose fortune suddenly changes to misfortune, is not a genuine misanthrope at all. For he only hates humanity after he has been exploited. Had he not been exploited, as Apemantus suggests, he would never have converted to misanthropy. As Apemantus phrases it, Timon’s misanthropy is forced: “This is in thee a nature but affected” [IV:iii]. Timon’s human-hatred is a pre-reflexive, ungenuine, affected misanthropy. It is an immature misanthropy.
Apemantus, who, in many respects, is the raisonneur of the play, is suggesting, quite rightly, that Timon’s rejection of sociality is the mere opposite of promiscuous sociality. Apemantus says, in prose: “The middle of humanity thou never knewst, but the extremity of both ends” [IV:iii]. Apemantus has a more nuanced view of humankind than Timon does.
Jonathan Swift knew that Timon’s misanthropy is naïve and simplistic. This is likely why Swift refuses to identify as a Timonian human-hater. Swift acknowledges that he is a misanthrope, but not a misanthrope in Timon’s manner (see Swift’s letter to Alexander Pope, 29 September 1725). Timon’s misanthropy is not intelligent enough for Swift.
Similarly, in Paragraph 379 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche distances himself from Timonian misanthropy. Nietzsche knew not the love of hatred, but contempt. Contempt is hatred’s icy cousin, and Nietzsche knew well the aristocratic pleasures of contempt, as he knew well that hatred is an all-enmeshing obsession.
HE MOCKINGLY IMITATES THE MOCKING IMITATORS
Timon’s attitude toward art undergoes a change. First, he believes that art is almost the direct representation of human nature: “The painting is almost the natural man” [I:i]. Art is like reality itself; it shows things as they are: “[T]hese penciled figures are / Even such as they give out” [I:i]. He is naïve, again, and has a naïve, pre-reflexive attitude toward art. At the beginning of the play, he actually believes that art is honest!
In the fifth act of the play, Timon considers art to a sham, a kind of fakery, a confidence trick, a lie. The Painter is said to draw “counterfeit” and the Poet is said to compose “fiction” [V:i]. Timon mockingly imitates the mocking imitators.
What Nietzsche writes about Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar may also be written about Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: Shakespeare slyly ridicules poetry and all other forms of art. There is in Timon of Athens the playful disparagement of poetry as a kind of frivolity (see Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Paragraph Ninety-Eight).
HE IS A MISANTHROPE, IT IS TRUE, BUT IT IS ALSO TRUE THAT HE MISANTHROPIZES HIMSELF
Timon is a misanthrope, it is true, but it is also true that he misanthropizes himself. His misanthropy comes from his autolatry, his self-worship, his narcissism, and his inability to forgive himself for his prodigal liberality. It is for this reason that Flavius says of Timon: “[H]e is set so only to himself” [V:ii]
Timon, or Timonian misanthropy, presages the cultural movement in this century known as the “incel” movement. “Incel” is a portmanteau abbreviation of “involuntary celibate.” “Incels” are sexually disappointed young men, men who cannot find sexual release with women and who despise these same women for rejecting them. Often, “incels” are “black-pilled,” which seems to mean that they are anticipating a dreary, hopeless future for themselves and, often, for everyone else.
I see the similarity in that “black-pilling” involuntary celibates transfer their self-hatred onto a world that does not bend to them, much in the way that Timon transfers his self-hatred onto a world that is indifferent to him.
Misanthropy is founded on narcissism and on narcissistic self-hatred. Misanthropes project their hatred of themselves onto the numberless faces that they will never see.
Misanthropy is an immature response to the venality of humanity. Rather than inventing more nuanced, cleverer ways of dealing with people, the misanthrope thinks: “Because a small group of people mistreated me, all of humanity should be condemned.” It is as if the misanthrope were saying: “Because I was exploited and because no one helped me when I was abject, die, everyone, die!”
It is important to highlight that this play is critical of Timon’s liberality and his misanthropy.
HE REINTERPRETS HIS PERSONAL EXPLOITATION AS INFECTION BY PESTILENTIAL HUMANITY
In his final words, Timon says, dismally: “My long sickness / Of health and living now begins to mend” [V:ii]. Dying is the healing, the “mending,” of the sickness of life, the remedying of that disease which is life. Timon reinterprets his personal exploitation as infection by pestilential humanity.
Timon is someone who seems endlessly fascinated by Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), to the extent that I would describe him as a syphillographer, a syphillologist, and a syphillophile. This makes perfect sense when we consider that Timon associates venereal disease with human life, since, after all, human life is a Sexually Transmitted Disease.
ONE IS THE CANNIBAL AND THE OTHER IS THE CANNIBALIZED
Timon of Athens sets forth the dreariest vision of humankind of any Shakespearean play. In the fourth line of the text, the Painter says that the world “wears… as it grows” [I:i]: that is, the world is progressively wearing itself down, depleting itself, exhausting itself, decomposing, rotting, putrefying, in the same way that Timon’s fortunes are shrinking and shriveling.
Human relations are anthropophagous relations, the play is suggesting: In every relationship between any given two human beings, one is the cannibal and the other is the cannibalized, one is dominant and the other submissive. Alcibiades looks forward ghoulishly to a “breakfast of enemies” that would be “bleeding new” [II:i]. Apemantus knows that wherever two human beings meet, one is the predator and the other is the prey, one is more active and the other is more passive: “What beast couldst thou be that were not subject to a beast? And what a beast art thou already that seest not thy loss in transformation!” [IV:iii]. In other words, humanity has devolved into the purely bestial: “The strain of man’s bred out into baboon and monkey” [I:i]. Apemantus asks, rhetorically “Who lives that’s not depraved or depraves?” [I:ii], and it is the clear that Apemantus knows well that Timon’s friends are devouring him: “It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood” [I:ii].
The distinction between eater and eaten runs throughout the play. Timon’s friend-enemies are feeding upon him, eating his flesh, slicing him up: “Cut my heart in sums—” [III:iv], Thomas cries out as the creditors come for him. Flavius declares that the creditors ate of his “lord’s meat”; “they could smile and fawn upon his debts, / And take down th’interest into their gluttonous maws” [III:iv]. This is an interesting use of antiprosopopoeia (the representation of human beings as objects): Timon is represented as the meat on which his “friends” feast. The creditors come, demanding payment and charging interest—they are metaphorically ingesting Timon.
Timon is preyed upon by creditors who wear the jewels that Timon has given them. The “strange event,” Titus says of his master, is that “he wears jewels now of Timon’s gift / For which I wait for money” [III:iv]. Here is the sickening cosmic irony: Timon has given gifts to recipients who now demand payment for those same gifts. In the very diagesis in which he claims to have warned Timon about keeping a tighter purse, Lucullus says that he ate Timon’s food!: “Many a time and often I ha’ dined with him, and told him on’t, and come again to supper to him of purpose to have him spend less…” [III:i]. The “friends” who are wearing Timon’s gifts refuse to lend him any money and charge Timon for the gifts that he has given them.
It is as if Shakespeare were canalizing Machiavelli, whom Shakespeare might have read and who claimed, in The Prince, that human beings are, in general, “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous.” One might add, according to the metaphorics of Shakespeare’s underestimated play: self-interested, swinish, gruesome, callous, lazy, unreliable.
THE REAVING THIEVES AND THE WATERY NOTHINGNESS OF THEIR WORDS
At the end of the third act, Timon feeds the parasites lukewarm water. He tosses the water at the false friends and tosses them out of his house. “Smoke and lukewarm / water / Is your perfection” [III:vii], he declares. As Jesus evicts the money changers and the dove hawkers from the temple, Timon evicts the false friends from his house, baptizing them with tepid water, a kind of reverse christening.
Why water? Why smoke? The smoke is the vapor emanating, paradoxically, from the lukewarm water—and the vaporous, lukewarm water is the perfect metaphor for the reaving thieves and the watery nothingness of their words. Water literalizes the metaphor of friendship as liquid—that is to say, as not solid, not trustworthy, not constant. As Flaminius asks, rhetorically, “Has friendship such a faint and milky heart / It turns in less than two nights?” [III:i].
Liquid metaphors drench the text. Apemantus is a root-eater and water-drinker, and water, as I will explain below, symbols the reversion to nature and the desertion of fortune.
HE DIGS IN THE EARTH
Fortune overtakes nature, as it always does in Shakespeare. Timon tells us, recalling As You Like It (written around ten years earlier), that brothers who are twins by nature will fight against each other as soon as one brother grows more fortunate than the other: “Twinned brothers of one womb / Whose procreation, residence and birth / Scarce is dividant, touch them with several fortunes, / The greater scorns the lesser” [IV:iii].
It is no wonder that Timon favors nature to fortune. It is no wonder that Timon reverts to nature, to eating roots and drinking water: “Earth, yield me roots” [Ibid.].
The stage direction makes it plain: Timon digs in the earth [Ibid.], excavating for roots, much in the way that his model Apemantus does—Apemantus, the ape man whom Timon is aping. Timon, then, turns against fortune and turns toward nature, for he knows well that fortune quickly converts into misfortune.
HE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS DESTRUCTION
Only a coarse and lazy reading of the play would suggest that Timon is innocent of his exploitation and eventual destruction. Sharper, more careful readers will not think of Timon as an innocent victim. Both meanings are supportable: His friends are parasitical, and Timon is complicit in his demolition.
HE GIVES MORE THAN IS ASKED FOR AND THEN GROWS SPITEFUL WHEN HIS LARGESSE IS NOT RETURNED
Timon refuses to allow the recipients of his gifts to give him anything of equal value. It might be tempting to describe his gifts as a kind of potlatch, but let us remember that (according to Mauss and Bataille) potlatch places the recipient of the gift in the uncomfortable position of having to out-give the original giver. This is not the case here. Timon does not accept the repayment of debts—in that sense, Timon does not loan money; he gives it. He refuses Ventidius’ offer to repay the money that Timon has given him. Timon’s response is that gifts should be given freehandedly: “[T]here’s none / Can truly say he gives if he receives” [I:ii]. He gives promiscuously, but not entirely without the reciprocity of interest (I will discuss this matter later on).
Not only that: Timon cannot accept a gift without giving something to the giver in exchange. When Lucullus gives Timon two brace of greyhounds, Timon’s response is that they should not be received “without fair reward” [I:ii]. As the Second Lord phrases it: There is “no meed but [Timon] repays / Sevenfold above itself, no gift to him / But breeds the giver a return exceeding / All use of quittance” [I:i]. In other words, Timon has the tendency of giving beyond compensation, beyond remuneration.
More so: Timon gives excessively. He gives more than is asked for and then grows spiteful when his largesse is not returned. He ransoms Ventidius from debtor’s prison—and even offers to support him financially after he is freed: “’Tis not enough to help the feeble up, / But to support him after” [I:i]. Timon is too trusting, too naïve, too credulous, and gives too readily, too quickly to the firstcomer; he guarantees more than is requested. (When Timon is down in a financial hole, incidentally, Ventidius does not come to his aid.)
Worst of all, Timon is financially illiterate; indeed, his knowledge of money is at best lineamental. He is not financially hyperopic enough to see that his lavish expenditures exceed his income. When Timon complains that Flavius never warned him about the rapid decrease in his funds, the servant says: “You would not hear me: / At many leisures I proposed—” [II:ii]. Timon interrupts Flavius before Flavius can conclude his sentence of explanation, inadvertently proving Flavius’ point: Timon is a terrible listener and hence a terrible learner. When, in his previous life, Timon is overly generous to those around him, he speaks of a “bond in men” to “build [the] fortune” of others [I:i; emphasis mine]. He uses this word—bond—as if it were a divine commandment to give his servant Lucilius a massive raise.
HE IS AS MUCH OF AN EXPLOITER AS THE FLATTERING PARASITES WHO FAWN OVER HIM
Timon seems to be a selfless giver—“more welcome are you to my fortunes / Than my fortunes to me” [I:ii], he says to Ventidius—and yet Timon does expect compensation. He just doesn’t expect monetary compensation. As Nietzsche reminds us, no one gives without expecting a reward.
Timon is every bit as parasitical as his so-called “friends.” Timon says: “[W]hat need we have any friends, if we should ne’er have need of ’em?” [I:ii]. He is saying, in effect: “Because I give to you, you will give to me, if I ever need you!” But this does not follow logically; it is an argument that contains false inference. Timon discovers his non sequitur too late.
He is an exploiter in a culture of exploitation—he is as much of an exploiter as the flattering parasites who fawn over him.
EVEN WHILE WASTING AWAY IN THE WASTELAND, TIMON GIVES MONEY TO THE UNWORTHY
Unfortunately, there is one thing about Timon that only changes very late in the play: Even while in self-imposed exile, even after renouncing and repudiating humanity, Timon gives away his money!
He gives money to Alcibiades (“There’s gold to pay thy soldiers—” [IV:iii]), he throws gold at the prostitutes without getting or asking for anything in return (“There’s more gold” [Ibid.]), he squanders money on thieves. His gives money to everyone besides the Poet, the Painter, and the Senators. What, then, has changed about Timon—if anything?
(Interestingly, one of the prostitutes is named Phrynia, a name which almost certainly is an allusion to Phryne, the high-end batrachian call girl of Ancient Greece. And as deep readers of Greek history will know, the historical Alcibiades was a kind of prostitute himself.)
Has he changed at all? He gives now out of spite, not out of love—but the ridiculous excessive liberality has not changed. He gives out of different motives than he gave before, but he still gives—indeed, squanders—what he has. “More whore, more mischief first—” [IV:iii], he says to the prostitutes, whom he pays to sow discord, and pays Alcibiades to wage war against the Athenians. But he is still Timon the Spendthrift. As far as the thieves are concerned: Timon might curse them, but the thieves might as well say, in contemporary American English slang, “I still got your money, dude.”
Has Timon truly changed? Even while wasting away in the wasteland, Timon still gives money to the unworthy. If I were to be even more curmudgeonly, I would like to suggest that Timon hasn’t learned his lesson: He is still giving to the parasites who are feeding upon him.
Timon of Athens is the complex character study of a misanthrope who never succeeds in hating humanity as much as humanity deserves to be hated.
 Much like Thersites in Shakespeare’s earlier Troilus and Cressida, Apemantus is a cynical philosopher. In the fourth act, Timon has transformed himself into the likeness, into a grotesque burlesque of Apemantus, the ascetic who eats nothing but roots and who drinks nothing but water (perhaps in denial of the opulent pleasures of affluence). A defensible reading of Apemantus’ name would be Ape-mantus: the Ape Man, as well as the Man Who Is Aped. He is an ape man, and he recognizes that other human beings are apes. And he is aped by Timon, who takes on Apemantus’ misanthropy. There is a flaw in Timon’s imitation of Apemantus, however. Though Timon takes on the human-hating position of Apemantus, there is something forced, something affected in Timon’s misanthropy. Apemantus is not a hater of the whole of humankind. It would be accurate to say that Apemantus has contempt for humanity, but there is no evidence that he is gripped and entangled by that obsession which is called “hatred.” Apemantus seems to approach Timon in the desert only in order to torment him further and to prevent him from copying his mannerisms: “Do not assume my likeness” [IV:iii]. Timon and Apemantus are not pleased to see their doubles. It would not be relevant for me to pursue a sustained comparison between Thersites and Apemantus here.
 Here is another of the play’s cosmic ironies: In the sixth scene of the third act, Alcibiades pleads to the senators for the life of one of his rogue soldiers. They banish him for his alleged impudence. At the end of the play, these same senators will plead for their lives with the grinning submission of passive chimpanzees when confronted by a dominant chimpanzee. The Third Senator proposes “decimation and a tithed death” [V:v] for the Athenian people. “Decimation” does not mean “destruction.” It means “the killing of every tenth being.”
 The thrust and the tenor of this essay is not to explore the ways in which the play is an allegory of language (I am more concerned here with the ways in which it is an allegory of misanthropy), but let me give some indications of how such an analysis would proceed. There are apostrophes, in the rhetorical sense, throughout the text. A (rhetorical) apostrophe is an address to someone or something that is absent. Here is a partial list of apostrophizing in the text: The Poet addresses an absent Timon as “Magic of bounty” [I:i]. Both the Poet and the Painter frequently speak of Timon in absentia. Flavius apostrophizes Timon in his lord’s absence: “My dearest lord…” [IV:ii]. Timon apostrophizes money: “O thou sweet king-killer…” [IV:iii]. In the third scene of the fourth act, Flavius apostrophizes the gods (“O you gods!”).
 This statement is every bit as insane as when Timon says to Apemantus: “[T]hou’rt an Athenian, therefore welcome” [I:i; emphasis mine].
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An Analysis of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia
A question that arises in the minds of readers of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is inescapably the following: “Why does Iago have a pathological hatred for Othello?” Well, why does anyone hate anyone? Why does anyone love anyone? The sources of hatred, as of love, are largely unconscious. Hatred and love are not the products of conscious agency. They are feelings that appear inexplicably in the mind. The unconscious sources of human behavior can be marked in literature, however. We are dealing here with a literary fabrication, a figure made of paper and ink, not a human being, and there might be textual clues that would explain Iago’s seething hatred for Othello.
There seem to be four hypotheses for the grounds of Iago’s vehement antipathy toward Othello:
Othello passes over Iago for promotion to lieutenant and instead selects him as his ensign or “ancient.” He becomes someone who delivers Othello’s letters and carries his luggage. Iago inveighs against the election of Cassio, whom he considers someone who has a merely theoretical knowledge of the science of death, a “great arithmetician… [t]hat never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster” [I:i]. And yet Othello does raise Iago to the lieutenancy in Act Three, Scene Three. Why, then, would Iago continue to hold a grudge?
This is mere rumor, and Iago knows that the rumor is probably a canard: “I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true, / But I for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety” [I:iii]. Iago admits that he has no evidence to support this hypothesis, and it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other whether Othello has cuckolded him. Iago seizes upon the rumor as a pretext for his boundless negativity.
This interpretation is not altogether without evidence, but it is not a comprehensive interpretation. If Iago is sexually possessive of Desdemona, why, then, would he offer her to Roderigo?: “[T]hou shalt enjoy her—therefore make money” [I:iii].
Iago makes his lust for Desdemona plain in the following lines: “Now I do love her too, / Not out of absolute lust—though peradventure / I stand accountant for as great a sin— / But partly led to diet my revenge, / For that I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…” [II:i]. This passage makes it clear that “love,” for the immoralist Iago, is the mere scion of lust and that his desire for Desdemona is really the desire to screw Othello over. He cannot bear the thought that Othello has “leaped into his seat”—which is to say that Iago’s rivalrous-emulous identification with Othello takes precedence over his carnal interest in Desdemona.
It is true that Iago repeatedly calls Othello “the Moor.” Depriving someone of a proper name, and replacing that person’s proper name with a common noun, is a common way of depersonalizing someone. George W. Bush engaged in this linguistic practice quite often, renaming Vladimir Putin “Ostrich Legs,” Tony Blair “Landslide,” Silvio Berlusconi “Shoes,” and John Boehner “Boner.”
There is no question that Iago uses ugly racist language: Othello is nominated “an old black ram [that is] tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” [I:i]; he is “a Barbary horse” that covers his daughter; “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have courses for cousins and jennets for germans” [Ibid.]. Consider the audience to whom this language is addressed. Iago’s invective might be used for purely rhetorical purposes, in order to produce specific effects within Brabantio, Desdemona’s father. Brabantio is clearly a hardcore racist idiot who thinks that all North Africans are witches and warlocks and that Othello, therefore, could only win his daughter through ensorcellment: “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her” [I:ii]. He makes this point with deadening repetitiousness. He cannot conceive of his daughter “fall[-ing] in love with what she feared to look on” and cannot comprehend why she would reject the wealthy “curled darlings” [I:iii] of the state in favor of the Moor.
Iago, the reptilian-Machiavellian manipulator, might be playing on the racist sympathies of Brabantio in the way that a clever lawyer might stir up the racist antipathies of a jury without being a racist him- or herself. While it is possible that there is a racial element in Iago’s hatred for Othello, his hatred is not reducible to racism or racialized nationalism.
Iago’s hatred for Othello is an absolute hatred—a hatred absolved from qualification, from relation. A textual clue for the unconscious sources of his hatred is contained in the following lines: “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago… I am not what I am” [I:i].
Were Iago the Moor, Iago would not be Iago: Am I alone in hearing in this line an unforgiving self-contempt and the desire to become Othello? Whenever a human being encounters a stranger, the question is always the same: “Who are you?” In other words: Who are you in relation to me? Are you similar to me? Are you different from me? To what degree are you different from me? How do I measure myself against you? In the case of the stalker Iago, there is, I suspect, the painful consciousness of his own inferiority vis-à-vis Othello and the painful desire to become Othello, which is an absolute impossibility. This is the meaning of the last line quoted: “I am not what I am.” Iago is not identical to himself because he identifies himself intimately and yet impossibly with Othello. If you are obsessed with someone, you desire to become the person with whom you are obsessed. This will never happen, but what will happen is that you will no longer be your own, you will no longer be yourself, for the object of your obsession will engulf you.
Iago’s rivalry with Othello embodies the dialectic of the self in relation to the other human being. There is, on the one hand, the self-assumption of the self–which is based on the differentiation of the self from the other human being–and, on the other hand, the becoming-other (Anderswerden) that Hegel describes in The Phenomenology of Spirit. In the lines cited above, Iago articulates how he imagines himself as other-than-himself–how he exteriorizes himself as Othello–and recuperates himself from this self-exteriorization.
Would Othello have murdered Desdemona even without Iago’s deceptions and interferences? This, of course, is a silly question from a philological point of view, since we only have the text and any speculation about “what would have happened” outside of the text is absurd. However, it is important to think through the necessity or the non-necessity of Iago in relation to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs.
Let me rephrase the question, then: How integral is Iago to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs?
My interpretation is that Iago plays a non-essential role in the murder of Desdemona. He externalizes a jealous rage that is already within Othello. Iago echoes prejudices and suspicions that are already seething inside of him. From the third scene of the third act:
OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
IAGO: Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like / Seeing you coming.
Notice that Iago is merely reflecting Othello’s suspicions. Iago is reactive, not active. It is Othello, not Iago, who questions Cassio’s honesty:
OTHELLO: Is [Cassio] not honest?
IAGO: Honest, my lord?
OTHELLO: Honest? Ay, honest.
IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO: What does thou think?
IAGO: Think, my lord?
OTHELLO: Think, my lord! By heaven, thou echo’st me / As if there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost mean something, / I heard thee say even now thou lik’st not that / When Cassio left my wife: what didst not like?
The monster does not dwell in Iago’s thought, but in Othello’s. Iago draws out the monstrous thoughts that have been devouring Othello for some time. It is Othello who does not like the way in which Cassio slinks away from Desdemona when her husband approaches. It is Othello who finds Cassio’s behavior suspect, not Iago. Iago eschews direct accusation and instead employs innuendo.
It is often said, as I discussed above, that Othello is a victim of racism and nationalism. One should not also forget that Othello has nationalist prejudices of his own, absorbing, as he does, the idea that all Venetian women are whores—hence, his rush to judge Desdemona as licentiously “liberal” as he inspects her hand: “This hand is moist, my lady… This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: / Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires / A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer, / Much castigation, exercise devout, / For here’s a young and sweating devil, here, / That commonly rebels. ’Tis a good hand, / A frank one” [III:iv].
The inspection of Desdemona’s hand was Othello’s idea, not Iago’s. Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, for Othello has already condemned Desdemona in his mind. Just as Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, and denies Emilia’s every word defending her, Desdemona impulsively takes the side of Cassio, pledging to be his mediator until the end. Both Othello and Desdemona are impulsive, acting without evidence.
Nor is Desdemona entirely innocent in her own annihilation. When she falls in love with Othello, Desdemona falls in love with what she once and always has feared to look upon. She loves Othello because of his violence, not despite his violence. Desdemona is what psychologists call a “hybristophiliac”: someone who, like Rhianna or Bonnie Parker, is sexually attracted to violent criminals. She is originally drawn to Othello for his adventurous exoticism and his proximity to death. As Othello puts it in the first act of the play: “[Desdemona] loved me for the dangers I had passed” [I:iii]. Iago suggests to Roderigo that Desdemona will grow tired of Othello’s differentness and seek out another lover: “[Desdemona] must change for youth; when she is sated with [Othello’s] body she will find the error of her choice; she must have change, she must” [I:iii]. Is Iago wrong? As Rene Girard suggests in A Theatre of Envy, Othello could eventually be replaced by a younger version of himself, for, in marriage, what husband could escape the crushing banalizations of the everyday? The “extravagant and wheeling stranger” [I:i] would become a boring and bored husband like any other. Othello, if he does not solidify his role as the death-giving general, is doomed to disintegrate into a cuckold.
In a sense, Othello is never other than who he appears to be. By contrast, following Harold Bloom, Iago is engaged in a war against being. Iago is anti-being or nothingness: He is not what he is. When Iago says, “For I am nothing, if not critical” [II:i], this may be taken literally: He is divided against himself. Othello, on the other hand, is always only what he is. From the beginning of the play until its terrifying end, Othello is the violent warrior who loves death more than he loves love.
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An Analysis of The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson) by Joseph Suglia
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003) is an unclassifiable book. It seems to tolerate no generic distinction. Yes, it is a work of history–there are copious end notes and a substantive bibliography; its research seems historiographically sound (though it is not; read Adam Seltzer’s book H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil); every direct quotation is taken from an imposing armature of sources. And yet it reads as if it were a novel.
The book is concerned with two figures who are said to be diametrically opposed to each other: Daniel Burnham, one of the chief architects of Chicago’s World Fair, and H.H. Holmes, murderer of young women (despite Larson’s claims, Holmes was a serial failure; he even failed at being a serial killer). Both are said to be emblematical of the Gilded Age, that is, late nineteenth-century industrial America. And both are said to have converged at the World’s Columbian Exposition.
The book’s premise seems to be that, in America’s Gilded Age, two polar energies were at work: that of technological construction and that of destabilization, the grandeur of architecture and what erodes stability and what reverses progress. Larson further qualifies this opposition in his introductory “Note”: “[I]t is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”
But are architecture and destructuring, “good” and “evil” parallel oppositions? Where can “good” and “evil” be seen in the Gilded Age outside of these two isolated figures? Are architecture and destructuring indeed opposed to each other? Where else was this vague disassembling at work in the Gilded Age? Outside of a description of what Holmes and Burnham did and said, Larson does not provide answers to these questions.
The “voice” of the work is that of the grandfatherly storyteller. Nearly every sentence is bloated with hoary bombast. Patiently, bombastically, the author recounts the stories of the murderer and the architect. And yet what is the meaning of it all? Does this book have a clear and defensible thesis?
The Devil in the White City never affords its readers access to the killer’s mind. In the section of book entitled “Notes and Sources,” Larson concedes, “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known.” He defers to “what forensic psychiatrists have come to understand about psychopathic serial killers.” But should forensic psychiatry be given the last word? Is the dossier then closed after they have spoken?
What, exactly, is the relationship, for Larson, between the architect and the murderer? Is Larson suggesting that Holmes’s desire for “dominance and possession” was also the desire of Burnham? Does Burnham merely wear a more socially acceptable mask? Do they represent two variations of the same impulse? Regrettably, Larson never pursues any of these questions.
A review of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
You know the rumor already: Queen Elizabeth commanded Shakespeare to write The Merry Wives of Windsor (circa 1596) in two weeks. Well, not The Merry Wives of Windsor specifically, but a play in which the fat old knight Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most developed creations, falls in love. This rumor was first set down by John Dennis (1702), over one hundred years after the play was composed. For three centuries, Shakespeare scholars have debated the question: “Did Queen Elizabeth ever issue such an edict? Did she command the poet to write his play in two weeks, for Her pleasure?”
The answer is, who cares? You may either buy the royal-command hypothesis or reject the royal-command hypothesis. Either way, the play seems to have been written for money, and it seems to have been written in two weeks. As every conscientious writer does, Shakespeare reserved his genius lines and genius staves for his stronger plays. The wordplay here is less than dazzling; there is not a single memorable line in the entire play (though the play does have the virtue of having contributed to Orson Welles’ masterly Chimes at Midnight (1965)).
Whenever he wants to make fun of one of his characters, Shakespeare has that character make fritters of the English language. Clearly, Shakespeare valued English more highly than he did anything else. It is a pity that his love for English isn’t particularly legible in this work. There are some amusing countrified insults: “cony-catching rascals” [I:i]; “Banbury cheese” [ibid.]; “Let vultures gripe thy guts!” [I:iii]; “jack-a-nape” [I:iv]; “his guts are made of puddings” [II;i]; “mechanical salt-butter rogue” [II:ii]; “your cat-a-mountain looks” [II:ii]; “jack-an-ape” [II:iii]; “Jack dog” and “John ape” [III:i]; “Jack-a-Lent” [III:iii]; “polecat” [IV:ii]. Characters liken one another to animals and food products. Contemporary readers of the play might begin insulting their irritating neighbors by calling them “Banbury cheese.”
Shakespeare seems to have disobeyed the queenly command (if one was ever given). Falstaff doesn’t actually “fall in love” with anyone. He has a purely financial interest in the merrily sadistic wives of the title, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. He attempts to seduce and exploit both of the women for money–unsuccessfully, of course. I write “seduce” but should qualify that Falstaff appears to have no erotic desire for the wives, nor for anyone else. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford quickly disclose Falstaff’s scheme and dispatch the fat old knight.
In the Arden edition, the editor makes the incisive claim that The Merry Wives of Windsor is not a humorous comedy at all. I partially concur with this assertion. Approaching the text as a black comedy is probably the best way of going about it. A “black comedy” in the sense that Andre Breton defined the term (in relation to Jonathan Swift): a comedy that provokes the audience to laugh, even though the author is never laughing.
The play has the shape and the style of an erotic nightmare. If you know the early films of Peter Greenaway–particularly, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and Drowning by Numbers (1988)–you have some idea of what to expect. The resemblance between these two excellent films and The Merry Wives of Windsor is uncanny. To truly appreciate what Shakespeare is doing, I would recommend viewing both of these films before reading the play.
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford gang up on poor Falstaff. He is thrown into a laundry basket and tossed into a river. He nearly suffocates in the laundry basket and nearly drowns in the river. He is dressed up as a woman–feminization is a classic form of humiliation in the vocabulary of sadism and perhaps also in the vocabulary of masochism, though not in the writings of Sacher-Masoch–and beaten with a cudgel. Antlers are mounted on his head. He is pinched and burned. He becomes a sacrificial figure.
This last form of torture and humiliation does fascinate me, I must confess. The antlers give to the play an even darker valence. In at least three ways: 1.) We learn that Falstaff is a deer-stealer in the first act–the antlers thus create a cosmic irony. 2.) What Falstaff said he would do to Mr. Ford (literal cuckoldry) is done to Falstaff instead (metaphorical cuckoldry). 3.) Falstaff is an Actaeonian figure.
The myth of Actaeon is alluded to implicitly and explicitly throughout the play. The name ‘Actaeon,’ in fact, appears twice in the text: “Like Sir Actaeon he, with Ringwood at thy heels” [II:i]; “divulge Page himself for a secure and wilful Actaeon…” [III:iii].
The myth is simple and powerful. Actaeon spies on the naked bathing goddess, Diana. Since the goddess is not containable in any human form, Actaeon stares at an empty appearance, a simulation. A rustling in the bushes reveals all. Diana raises herself in her divine nudity and screams at the voyeur: “Tell that you saw me bathing here naked–if you can tell at all!” The hunter is transformed into a stag and ripped into pieces by his own hounds.
What we are given here is a sadistic fantasy, a masochistic fantasy, or a sadomasochistic fantasy. The play culminates in a ritual persecution in which a human being is sacrificed.
Of all the many attempts to ideologize Shakespeare and to press him into the service of a sexual-political cause, this might be the best play to use as a vehicle. And yet the play has been strangely ignored both by specialists in Gender Studies and Shakespearean scholars in general. An Emeritus Professor of Renaissance Literature wrote a book entitled Shakespeare on Masculinity without ever so much as mentioning The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The play does have a great deal to say about disgraced masculinity. Every full-grown man in this play is a puddinghead–even Mr. Ford, who is cuckolded without being cuckolded and who commits adultery with his own wife (prefiguring All’s Well that Ends Well). The women are the crafty ones. Whether this vision of hell is making an ontological claim about the differences between men and women is ambiguous; whether this vision of hell is misogynistic, misandristic, or both is non-obvious. Reading the play is rather like watching two cackling little girls flinging apples at an old lion in the zoo.
Reading over what I have written so far, I see that I am making the play appear more interesting than it actually is.
On the Distinction between the flâneur and the boulevardier
1.) A boulevardier drinks in the fashionable atmospheres; a flâneur drifts like a ghost through fashionable spaces, which are less remarkable to him than emptied factories.
2.) A flâneur takes pictures in the mind of landfills; a boulevardier takes pictures of tourist attractions.
3.) A flâneur is a seer; a boulevardier is a sightseer.
4.) A boulevardier strolls down prescribed paths; a flâneur is a mapless wanderer.
5.) A boulevardier walks to be seen; a flâneur walks to see.
A review of Oblivion (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
When I was in graduate school, I was (mis)taught Literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and who had absolutely no interest in eloquence. I learned that he held an undergraduate degree in Physics and wondered, as he chattered on loudly and incessantly, why this strange man chose to study and teach Literature, a subject that obviously did not appeal to him very much. I think the same thing of David Foster Wallace, a writer who probably would have been happier as a mathematician (Mathematics is a subject that Wallace studied at Amherst College).
A collection of fictions published in 2004, Oblivion reads very much as if a mathematician were trying his hand at literature after having surfeited himself with Thomas Pynchon and John Barth–-not the best models to imitate or simulate, if you ask me.
The first fiction, “Mr. Squishy,” is by far the strongest. A consulting firm evaluates the responses of a focus group to a Ho-Hoesque chocolate confection. Wallace comes up with some delightful phraseologies: The product is a “domed cylinder of flourless maltilol-flavored sponge cake covered entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting,” the center of which is “packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped lard” . The external frosting’s “exposure to the air caused it to assume traditional icing’s hard-yet-deliquescent marzipan character” [Ibid.]. Written in a bureaucratized, mechanical language–this language, after all, is the dehumanized, anti-poetic language of corporate marketing firms, the object of Wallace’s satire–the text is a comparatively happy marriage of content and form.
Wallace gets himself into difficulty when he uses this same bureaucratic language in the next fiction, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” which concerns a homicidal substitute teacher. I could see how a sterile, impersonal narrative could, by way of counterpoint, humanize the teacher, but the writing just left me cold. The title of the fiction simply reverses Stephen Dedalus’s statement in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Wallace never composed a sentence as beautiful as Joyce’s. Indeed, Wallace never composed a beautiful sentence.
“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” simply duplicates the title (!) of Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the misconceived idea that language is capable of mirroring the essence of things). It concerns a son who accompanies his mother to a cosmetic-surgery procedure. The son, who is also the narrator, says: “[A]nyone observing the reality of life together since the second procedure would agree the reality is the other way around…” . The narrator might or might not be one of the deluded representationalists against whom Rorty polemicized. For Rorty, “the reality of life” is not something that we are capable of talking about with any degree of insight. Unfortunately, this is the only point in the text at which the philosophical problem of representation arises.
The eponymous fiction “Oblivion” and the self-reflexive “The Suffering Channel” (which concerns a man whose excreta are considered works of art) are inelegantly and ineloquently written.
After laboring through such verbal dross, I can only conclude that David Foster Wallace was afraid of being read and thus attempted to bore his readers to a teary death. His noli me legere also applies to himself. It is impossible to escape the impression that he was afraid of reading and revising any of the festering sentences that he churned out. Because he likely never read his own sentences, he likely never knew how awkward they sounded. Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision, it appears. It is merely because of the boggling bigness of Infinite Jest that the book has surfaced in the consciousness of mainstream America at all (hipsterism is a vicissitude of mainstream America). We, the Americanized, are fascinated by bigness. To quote Erich Fromm: “The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers…”
Speech is irreversible; writing is reversible. If you accept this premise of my argument (and any intelligent person would), must it not be said that responsible writers ought ALWAYS to recite and revise their own sentences? And does it EVER seem that Wallace did so?
The prose of Oblivion is blearily, drearily, eye-wateringly tedious. The hipsters will, of course, claim in advance that the grueling, hellish tedium of Wallace’s prose was carefully choreographed, that every infelicity was intentional, and thus obviate any possible criticism of their deity, a deity who, like all deities, has grown more powerful in death. That is, after all, precisely what they say of the Three Jonathans, the sacred triptych of hipsterdom: Foer, Franzen, and Lethem, the most lethal of them all.
One thing that even the hipsters cannot contest: David Foster Wallace did not write fictionally for his own pleasure. Unlike Kafka, he certainly did not write books that he ever wanted to read.
A valediction: The early death of David Foster Wallace is terrible and should be mourned. He was a coruscatingly intelligent man. My intention here is not to defame the dead. I recommend that the reader spend time with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and leave his other writings alone. As I suggested above, he probably didn’t want his prose to be read, anyway.
Bret Easton Ellis: Escape from Utopia
by Joseph Suglia
America is a utopia. A placeless “place” in which all desires are answered even before they are articulated. A non-place without a history and without horizons.
The “America” to which I refer is less the nation that bears this name than that nation’s ideal, one that posits a world which is seemingly disconnected from the contingencies of time and space. One could object, of course, that America is hardly “utopian” or paradisaical: There is, after all, misery everywhere. And yet utopianism does not exclude the possibility of misery. Like all ideological constructions, the image of America contradicts the existing conditions of its societies. America interprets itself as a locus of absolute plentitude, overflowing with whatever one may need/desire; it presents itself as a space that is anti-spatial, anti-temporal and anti-historical, a non-place in which desires are quickly converted into needs and in which “new” desires proliferate infinitely.
It is America’s utopianism that Bret Easton Ellis addresses in his fiction. His novels are populated by those who, theoretically, have everything–except “something to lose” (Less Than Zero). They are the illiterate glitterati–ridiculously stupid and narcissistic people who say ridiculously stupid and stupidly ridiculous and narcissistic things (e.g., “She wasn’t looking at my abs, but she wanted to,” from The Rules of Attraction; “You’re tan, but you don’t look happy,” from The Informers). Members of the “beautiful elite,” each of his “characters” (if this word even applies–the personages have no identity) is vapid and vacant precisely because their desires are produced by mainstream consumer culture–a culture that is fundamentally shallow. Although they numb themselves with drugs and sex, they cannot even be called “hedonistic” because they don’t enjoy themselves. The majority of Americans would say that Ellis’s “characters” are without problems: After all, most are rich, gorgeous, and young. But the absence of problems is, in itself, a problem.
In Ellis’s first truly “political” literary work, his aptly titled third novel, American Psycho (1991), the white, rich, and impossibly handsome Wall Street yuppie Patrick Bateman is, strictly speaking, the “perfect” American–and the “perfect” representative of a “perfect” world. He has no flaws. He’s a trust-fund baby with an immensely well-paying job that seemingly requires no effort; women fall for him wherever he goes; he is young and beautiful. He lives at the center of American culture and, for this reason, wants for nothing. And yet the tragedy of his (and of all) “perfection” is that it must constantly reestablish itself: No one who is “perfect” can afford not to be vigilant.
Patrick Bateman is “perfect”–and also perfectly vicious. He is a murderer–and also at the center of American culture. These statements are not contradictory.
The following question plagues the readers of American Psycho: How is it that others are seemingly unaware of, or indifferent to the murders that Bateman commits? The answer is obvious. There is nothing extraordinary about homicide; indeed, homicide has become completely normalized. Whether one has committed homicide is less significant than whether one wears Armani. Throughout the novel, descriptions of dismemberment occur in the same paragraph as discussions of insipid, 1980s pop-music kitsch. In fact, much of the book is a recitation of such trivia interspersed with gruesome descriptions of the mutilation of women. What is one to make of this? Is Ellis a violent misogynist, as many have claimed?
On the contrary, American Psycho is the perhaps most radical critique of American culture in general–and of American misogyny, in particular–in novelistic form. American culture is “evil,” the novel suggests, because “evil” no longer matters. One’s moral value is insignificant in relation to one’s physical appearance and the size of one’s bank account. The smug, self-preening Bateman is able to commit the most ghastly and monstrous acts imaginable with impunity, precisely because he looks good and has a hierarchical position in society. When Bateman dissects his victims–who, for the most part, are homeless people, prostitutes, and ethnic minorities–the reader should remember that such acts are “business as usual” in the United States. There is nothing unusual about anything that Bateman does; his murderous behavior is representative of the mainstream. If he gives a disquisition on the greatness of post-Peter Gabriel Genesis, Huey Lewis and the News, or Whitney Houston before slicing up a prostitute, this is because there is no essential difference, the book suggests, between the stupidity of American pop culture and the monstrosity of evil. “Evil,” the book suggests, is not some Mephistophelean figure that springs up from the depths of Hell. Nor may be it explained by the Kantian concept of “radical evil,” in which the senses are maximized and elevated to the basis of moral decisions. No, for Ellis, “evil” is the money-sucking, racist, homophobic, and misogynistic yuppie businessman: the axis and apotheosis of American culture.
Bateman, the “American psycho,” is perfect, and perfection is the American psychosis. More specifically, the American psychosis is the drive to be perfect, to have an apartment more expensive and better situated than Paul Owen’s. Anyone outside of the sphere of perfection is regarded as trash. “You are not … important to me,” Bateman says to his equally superficial and vacuous fiancée: Such is the ethos of the Reaganite 1980s. And it is precisely this maxim of conduct that Ellis represents in American Psycho.
The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of American Psycho ominously hints at the impending apocalypse of heterosexual white upper-class male domination. A Middle-Eastern taxi cab driver and a homeless woman–evocative of the disenfranchised minorities killed off by the hard-hearted yuppie earlier in the novel–take their symbolic revenge on the majoritarian Bateman. As he enters his twenty-eighth birthday, he faces the inexorable demise of his regime and his self-deceptions.
* * *
Ellis’s next experiment, The Informers (1994), seems, at first glance, to be nothing more than a collection of short stories and drafts for Ellis’s more ambitious novelistic projects (“The Secrets of the Summer,” for instance, reads as if it were an early version of American Psycho). It is far more than that, however. Each story connects with all of the others; the book has an inner continuity that is strikingly intricate. There are complicated interchanges between the “characters”; each one of them is absolutely interchangeable with everyone else.
The Informers is set in Los Angeles in the 1980s. No one in the book has an individuated personality, if by “personality” we mean a distinguishable set of preferences, disinclinations, and verbal expressions. All of the characters take Valium and drink Tab. All of them say the same things and have the same desires and aversions. Indeed, all of Ellis’s “characterologies” are the same. This is not a flaw in his novelistic practice. It is, rather, a sign of his writerly strength. In “The Up-Escalator,” a middle-aged woman cannot distinguish her son, Graham, from any of the other tall, blond boys that populate the novel. In “In the Islands,” William cannot distinguish his son, Tim, from Graham. One stoned pool boy is identical to another stoned pool boy.
“Perfection,” it would seem, may be bought and sold in mass quantities. According to the metaphorics of the work, one’s identity is founded upon the products that one buys. Because products are available in mass quantities, identity is also available in mass quantities. If commodities are equivalent to one another (through the medium of money), there is no reason that identities should not be posited as equivalent, as well. It is the logical consequence of living in a culture that valorizes consumerist equivalence that its citizens should also be indistinguishable from each other. The most dominant figure of The Informers is the destruction of individuality by the exchange of equivalents.
Another of the novel’s obsessions is the effect of a highly technologized media culture on social relationships. Rather than bringing the “characters” together, audio-visual technology drives them further apart. One person can only relate to another by relating him/her to a media image. While on a plane to Hawaii, William and Tim both listen to headsets, each playing a different kind of music; they can only endure each other through the magic of technological “communication.” In “Another Grey Area,” Graham identifies his father’s corpse by likening it to Darth Vader. His “friend” Randy drapes his own face with a copy of GQ and effectively becomes John Travolta, whose image is featured on the cover. One character, Ricky, is murdered on the night of a Duran Duran lookalike contest, which is a propos because everyone in The Informers participates, whether intentionally or not, in a celebrity-lookalike contest. In “Sitting Still,” Susan dislikes her father’s fiancée (partly, at least) because the latter likes the film Flashdance (1982). Most pitifully, in “Letters from L.A.,” Anne is slowly swallowed up in the media culture of Los Angeles–a culture that she once disdained.
* * *
Ellis’s most recent novel, Glamorama (1998), is a departure for the author, insofar as it does not merely concern the hollowness and superficiality of American culture, but also the way in which the whole of reality is structured within the context of this culture. In Glamorama, the entire structure of reality is choreographed. It is impossible to tell, throughout the work, whether a character is in a “real” scenario or whether that scenario has been rehearsed, scripted, and staged. In Glamorama, the surface of things overtakes all depth. We have reached, Ellis seems to suggest, a hyper-Kantian moment in which appearances are finally liberated from the things that they would represent. Indeed, the novel “itself”–a panorama of hollow, glitzy appearances–is an endless play of surfaces without profundity.
The “star” of Glamorama, semi-model Victor Ward, is photographed at film premieres and fashion shows that he never attended; these photographs take on the status of the “truth.” Only that which is mediated by the media, the novel seems to imply, is regarded as “real” in American culture. The “characters” of Glamorama–models and celebrities and those who serve them–can only recognize something as “true” to the extent that it is simulated. In particular, for the lovable idiot Victor, the “living” instant exists only for the sake of its media duplication: That is to say, he can only recognize something as significant insofar as it recalls a popular song lyric, television show, or film. A human being has value for him except inasmuch as s/he resembles an actor/actress such as Uma Thurman or Christian Bale (“You’re looking very Uma-ish, baby” is a typical remark). Like all of Ellis’s mannequin figures, Victor is vacant, a media sponge, a mediator of transitory sound-bytes. In the first and second sections of the novel, for instance, Victor is nothing more than a vehicle for the words of others (a running joke throughout Glamorama is Victor’s tendency to respond to questions, inanely, with decontextualized popular song lyrics). It is his emptiness of meaningful content that allows him to become the scapegoat of various political factions, who exploit his naïveté for their own programs. Victor becomes entangled with fashion-model terrorists who are even more surface-fascinated than him and who “teach” him that a world of pure surfaces is a world without ethical limits.
A Bildungsroman for the early twenty-first century, Glamorama charts Victor’s gradual transformation into a person of substance. At the end of his metamorphosis, Victor fastens his mind on the image of a mountain that he must “ascend” in order to escape from the world of self-referring resemblances. An agent of “the real,” Victor yearns to break free from the network of appearances that constitutes American culture. He yearns to break free from his culture (“Have you ever wished that you could disappear from all this?” an MTV journalist asks Victor in an interview) precisely because it is utopian. Only after the traumas of the latter sections of the novel does Victor become aware of the drawbacks of America’s utopianism. He is “[o]n the verge of tears–because [he is] dealing with the fact that we lived in a world in which beauty was considered an accomplishment.” A world in which “supermodels” are automatically qualified to be actors, filmmakers, artists, writers, representatives of the United Nations–and terrorists. A world in which physical appearance and money are the only significant power-categories.
Ellis’s equation of beauty with terror might strike one as capricious. It is not. In America, it is not surprising to see the televised image of a “supermodel” such as Claudia Schiffer wearing a T-shirt that reads “EVIL” or to learn that a popular fashion-designer (Von Dutch) was a Nazi. Fascism intersects with fashion at multiple points. Fashion makes raids on human consciousness no less damaging than terrorist initiatives. Both assault memory and self-perception. Both destabilize one’s sense of security and well-being. Ellis demonstrated the conjunction of terrorism and performance before the attacks of September 11, 2001. In its conflation of fashion with fascism, Glamorama recalls Stockhausen’s callous but nonetheless accurate remark that the terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center constituted a work of performance art. An accurate statement, insofar as the terrorist interventions of September 11, 2001 would not have existed were it not for the spectacle of television.
There is nothing new about any of this. Indeed, fascism has traditionally used aesthetic means to take hold of the human imagination and exert its dominion over human life (Italian futurism is one example of this). Such is the meaning of the Nazi swastika on the ceiling of Victor’s New York nightclub and the Hitler epigraph at the beginning of the novel: “You make a mistake if you see what we do as merely political.” By way of the epigraph and the figure of the swastika, Ellis suggests that fascism is not merely a political, but also an aesthetic movement. But the reverse is also true, according to the logic of Glamorama: What once appeared as merely aesthetic reveals itself as a political movement.
Victor, then, wants to escape from utopia. It is this swerve away from shallow phenomenality that leads one to believe that Ellis is not a “postmodern” novelist–that is to say, one who has resigned himself to the omnipresence of empty images. Far from it. Indeed, as a novelist, Ellis traces the limits of postmodernism. There is, Glamorama suggests, a space beyond postmodern culture–a culture in which image ceaselessly passes into image, in which signs have no order except for that constituted by their own formal arrangements. Ellis beckons away from the image sphere toward the space-time of consumption. In terms of the “society of the spectacle” (following Guy Debord, a philosopher to whom Ellis alludes at least once in Glamorama), reality exists only insofar as it is converted into an image. Ellis’s Glamorama suggests that it is still possible to engage with “the real” outside of the sphere of simulation.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said of America: “This country is without hope.” In a typically American fashion, Ellis refuses to resign himself to hopelessness. He is a writer who relates to his own culture (a culture with which he also, to a certain extent, identifies) by ridiculing it mercilessly.
A satirist with a laser-sharp wit, Ellis opens up the imaginary possibility of liberating ourselves from the space in which each of us is imprisoned. But Ellis is not a politician, only a writer. He seems to have no program for radical social change, and that is refreshing. Ellis relinquishes utopian alternatives to America’s utopianism. He merely presents American culture through the distorted speculum of his own fun-house mirror. By doing so, he ventures further than any of his contemporaries have dared.
A commentary on “Eveline” (James Joyce)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
The opening of “Eveline” (1904-1907; published in 1914), from Dubliners, by James Joyce:
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue.
Notice that Eveline is not named at the beginning of the story. Her name is given in the title, it is true, but not in the first sentence of the text. She is a nameless, passive percipient, rather than an agent (an actor). She does not act; she observes. It is the evening that is performing an action; it is the evening that is acting. The evening is invading—Eveline is already paralyzed, immobile, static at the very opening of the story, as she will be at the story’s close.
Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
Joyce does not write, “She leaned her head against the window curtains…” He writes that her head was leaned. The head is described as an object, as the object of an action. The head was leaned—this means that Eveline was not leaning her own head; someone or something was leaning her head against the window curtains. The use of the passive voice illuminates Eveline’s own passivity and immobility.
In her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne: The odour of the heavy fabric enveloping the furniture was invading Eveline’s nostrils. Again, an image of invasion, of infiltration, of violation. She was tired: This was Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite of all sentences, presumably because the simplicity of the language is a red herring, distracting the reader from the complexities of the text-web.
Few people passed. The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.
The last house where? Where is the cinder path? Where are the new red houses? It is difficult to locate any of these things. Joyce is generally very good with space and with describing the placement of objects within spaces, but here, he leaves it to the reader to imagine where the last house is, where the cinder path is, and where the new red houses are.
One time there used to be a field there in which they used to play every evening with other people’s children. Then a man from Belfast bought the field and built houses in it—not like their little brown houses but bright brick houses with shining roofs. The children of the avenue used to play together in that field—the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, little Keogh the cripple, she and her brothers and sisters.
Notice that Eveline places herself after the Devines, the Waters, the Dunns, and little Keogh the cripple. Eveline puts herself at the end of the line. Already we have a sense that this girl has abysmal self-esteem.
Ernest, however, never played: he was too grown up. Her father used often to hunt them in out of the field with his blackthorn stick; but usually little Keogh used to keep nix and call out when he saw her father coming.
“In” and “out” are a strange coupling of prepositions. What does it mean to hunt children in out of the field? Shouldn’t the independent clause read: Her father used often to hunt them out of the field? Incidentally: “To keep nix” means “to be on the lookout.”
Still they seemed to have been rather happy then. Her father was not so bad then; and besides, her mother was alive. That was a long time ago; she and her brothers and sisters were all grown up her mother was dead. Tizzie Dunn was dead, too, and the Waters had gone back to England. Everything changes. Now she was going to go away like the others, to leave her home.
If Eveline’s father was not so bad then, just imagine how bad he is when the story takes place.
Home! She looked round the room, reviewing all its familiar objects which she had dusted once a week for so many years, wondering where on earth all the dust came from.
Eveline identifies herself as a duster-of-inanimate-objects.
Perhaps she would never see again those familiar objects from which she had never dreamed of being divided.
She does not distinguish herself from the static objects that surround her. At the end of the story, when she has the opportunity to realize her human freedom and spontaneity, she imitates the inertia of inactive objects.
And yet during all those years she had never found out the name of the priest whose yellowing photograph hung on the wall above the broken harmonium beside the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Beloved of Irish Catholics, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque was a French Catholic nun who was the embodiment to pious devotion to tradition—much in the same way that Eveline is piously devoted to her family and her homeland.
He had been a school friend of her father. Whenever he showed the photograph to a visitor her father used to pass it with a casual word:
“He is in Melbourne now.”
She had consented to go away, to leave her home.
The fact that she describes her decision to escape Dublin as one of consent implies that she does not see that decision as her own, but rather as one that has been made for her and one to which she has assented.
Was that wise? She tried to weigh each side of the question.
Apparently, she assented reluctantly. Her mind has not yet been made up. The reader also is invited to weigh each side of the question: Should she leave? Should she have left? No answer is given. A literary work of art, “Eveline” provokes questions that it never answers; it never gives readers the means of answering these questions.
In her home anyway she had shelter and food; she had those whom she had known all her life about her. Of course she had to work hard, both in the house and at business. What would they say of her in the Stores when they found out that she had run away with a fellow? Say she was a fool, perhaps; and her place would be filled up by advertisement. Miss Gavan would be glad. She had always had an edge on her, especially whenever there were people listening.
“Miss Hill, don’t you see these ladies are waiting?”
“Look lively, Miss Hill, please.”
She would not cry many tears at leaving the Stores.
But in her new home, in a distant unknown country, it would not be like that. Then she would be married—she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect then. She would not be treated as her mother had been. Even now, though she was over nineteen, she sometimes felt herself in danger of her father’s violence. She knew it was that that had given her the palpitations.
At this point, one has to wonder why any person of sense would want to stay in the Hill household. Her father is abusive; this much is clear. She is treated derogatorily by her employer, Miss Gavan. Her brother Ernest and her mother are dead. She is suffering from violent paroxysms, tremors brought on by her father’s abuse. What is there to keep her in Dublin? And trying her luck in the open air of Buenos Ayres would afford her a new possibility. Though not everything that is possible is positive, at least she would have the possibility of something positive being brought into her life.
[Frank] told [Eveline] the names of the ships he had been on and the names of the different services. He had sailed through the Straits of Magellan and he told her stories of the terrible Patagonians.
Now, the bit about the Patagonians makes me wonder if Frank is a liar. A chronicler of Magellan’s expeditions wrote that the Patagonians were a race of giants. Is Frank repeating the same myth of the “terrible Patagonians”? If Frank is telling Eveline such nonsense, this should lead us to question the integrity of his intentions.
He had fallen on his feet in Buenos Ayres, he said, and had come over to the old country just for a holiday. Of course, her father had found out the affair and had forbidden her to have anything to say to him.
“I know these sailor chaps,” he said.
Is the father necessarily incorrect? As dour as Eveline’s life is in Dublin, is it not preferable to being seduced and abandoned in South America? There is no way to know with authority whether or not Frank is a reptilian seducer. He very well might be a boa constrictor in human form. Not even Frank might know if he is a seducer, if we consider the unconscious sources of human cognition and activity. Frank is inscrutable to us, and perhaps Frank is even inscrutable to himself. The inscrutability of Frank summons forth the indeterminacy of life itself.
Sometimes [Eveline’s father] could be very nice. Not long before, when [Eveline] had been laid up for a day, he had read her out a ghost story and made toast for her at the fire. Another day, when their mother was alive, they had all gone for a picnic to the Hill of Howth. She remembered her father putting on her mother’s bonnet to make the children laugh.
The atypical tenderness of the father only serves to underline his general abusiveness.
Her time was running out but she continued to sit by the window, leaning her head against the window curtain, inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne.
The grammar changes here: Now, Eveline is playing a more active role: She was leaning her head, she was inhaling the odour of dusty cretonne.
Down far in the avenue she could hear a street organ playing. She knew the air. Strange that it should come that very night to remind her of the promise to her mother, her promise to keep the home together as long as she could. She remembered the last night of her mother’s illness; she was again in the close dark room at the other side of the hall and outside she heard a melancholy air of Italy.
The song of the Italian organ player conjures the most dominant figure in Eveline’s life. Neither her father, her surviving brother Harry, nor Frank, her lover, but rather her dead-yet-deathless mother. The mother is resurrected, invoked by the organ-player’s song, and reminds Eveline of the latter’s death-bed oath to glue together the unglueable pieces of their shattered family. As if to hook and draw Eveline into the tomb. To save her from life.
The organ-player had been ordered to go away and given sixpence. She remembered her father strutting back into the sickroom saying:
“Damned Italians! coming over here!”
The father’s hatred of itinerant foreigners stands in contrast to the Wanderlust of Frank, an émigré from Ireland who travels to the “good air” of Buenos Ayres.
As she mused the pitiful vision of her mother’s life laid its spell on the very quick of her being—that life of commonplace sacrifices closing in final craziness.
Notice the use of the verb to close. Three sentences before, Joyce used close as an adjective. Here, he is using close as a verb. This is paronomasia (punning). An adjective in one sentence is used as a verb in another. The fact that Joyce is using close twice in proximity means something: Close evokes the sepulchral narrowness of the life that Eveline will choose.
She trembled as she heard again her mother’s voice saying constantly with foolish insistence:
“Derevaun Seraun! Derevaun Seraun!”
This is, apparently, corrupt Gaelic for: “The end of pleasure is pain! The end of pleasure is pain!” It is as if the mother were admonishing her daughter from beyond the grave to avoid pleasure—to live in a narrow life of nunnish self-renunciation, to stay mired in the misery in Dublin, to languish in Dublin, to duplicate the self-negations of her mother and the insanities of her mother’s dying. These are irenic words, sibylline utterances. They are necrotic commandments, words spoken from the tomb, words spoken from deathness.
She stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! Frank would save her. He would give her life, perhaps love, too. But she wanted to live. Why should she be unhappy? She had a right to happiness. Frank would take her in his arms, fold her in his arms. He would save her.
And she would not, then, save herself? This passage highlights, more than any other, why Eveline is immobilized. Rather than will to escape, she wills not to have a will. She wills to let someone else make the decisions for her. Her absence of self-determination is the reason that she is likely condemned to the self-negating boredom and insanity that marked her mother’s life.
Through the wide doors of the sheds [Eveline] caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes.
Joyce, again, is very good at describing place—particularly, at describing blockages. A less talented writer would have merely pointed to the existence of the boat. A less talented writer would have merely described the boat. Joyce describes the visual impediments, the obstructions that impede the view of the ocean liner. The black mass of the boat is seen through the wide doors of the sheds—an image of blockage, of separation. The sheds are emblematic of the self-imposed barriers that divide Eveline from freedom.
Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.
It is difficult to believe, but Joyce—one of the greatest literary artists who ever lived—makes a usage error in this passage. Amid, which means “in the midst of,” should only be placed before singular nouns. Seas is a plural noun and should take among.
[Eveline] set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
Nothing has changed within Eveline since the opening of the story. She is immobile from the beginning of the story unto its end. The blankness of her eyes—their illegibility, their incomprehensible nothingness—can be interpreted to signify anything. Readers may introject their own meanings into those null eyes.
Dr. Joseph Suglia