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.
An Analysis of BLINK (Malcolm Gladwell) by Joseph Suglia
Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (2005) is not a meticulously researched book. Nearly all of its ‘research’ was derived from studies in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the book’s Notes (a mere seven pages in length), you will count fifteen references to that journal and a few references to other sources.
It seems appropriate that Gladwell’s research is so slipshod. After all, Blink is like a war machine pitted against research in all forms. There simply isn’t time to investigate and deliberate, after all. And the more you research, the less you will know.
The more you think, the less you will know.
Blink celebrates and affirms pre-knowledge, the uncritical reflex, the snap judgment, the spur-of-the-moment decision.
Our initial perception of things is always correct, according to Gladwell, unless our minds are led astray by some extraneous matter. All of us would come to the same conclusions, as long as we were to refine our “thin-slicing” skills. “To thin-slice,” in this context, means to extract the salient meaning from an initial impression. All of us are afforded an immediate and direct insight into the atemporal essences of things.
All of this is ‘argued’ anecdotally. As I mentioned in the opening of the review, nearly all of the anecdotes were stolen from a single source. And in many cases, misappropriated. Gladwell tells us that students can instantly judge a teacher’s effectiveness as soon as s/he walks into the classroom. What Gladwell doesn’t tell us is that the article from which he derived this ‘truth’ concerns the impact of a teacher’s perceived sex appeal on course evaluations.
How the ‘glimpse’ actually works is never explained; we are told, in several places, that instantaneous intuition “bubbles up” unbidden from the recesses of the “adaptive unconscious.” “The” adaptive unconscious, mind you, as if there could only be one. This is, of course, monism, and Gladwell believes in absolutes.
Of course, one’s initial impressions might yield profitable results. But to say that one’s immediate intuition of the world is inherently superior to slow and careful thinking is madness. One should beware of any form of mysticism, and Gladwell’s blank intuitionism could easily be put in the service of a fascistic Wille zur Macht.
Blink’s target audience is composed of Hollywood producers, literary agents, advertisers, and military strategists. You will learn in this book that films that exhibit Tom Hanks are superior to those that do not, that margarine tastes better when packaged in foil, that music sounds better when marketed the right way to the right people, that military strikes should be carried out without discipline or forethought. The surface impression is everything. Submit to your impulses!
Blink is American pop-culture’s defense of its own stupidity.
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
Aphorisms on Art
by Joseph Suglia
Art is not art the moment that it ceases to be a fabrication. I support anything in art, on the basis that it is choreographed / fabricated. The moment that a human being wounds, mutilates, kills an animal, the boundary that separates art from life has been crossed. The moment that an artist kills an animal in the name of art, she or he has ceased being an artist in my eyes.
Art is a way of making life seem more interesting than it actually is.
Art transforms the spectator’s relation to the world, to others, and to oneself. It is a human activity, not a natural or divine activity.
I have become an aesthetic nihilist: The word “art” is applied to whatever a person or a community believes is art. I can only speak or write with authority on what I think art is.
Art is the perception of a perception.
An Analysis of A Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Dedicated to Lux Interior (1948-2009)
What is one to say when the beloved dies? There is nothing to say. None of the platitudes of bereavement, none of the polite formulae seems adequate. My husband was sitting on that chair, alive, and now he is dead. “John was talking, then he wasn’t” (10). What else is there to say? There are no words that could properly express the banality of mortality.
A Year of Magical Thinking (2005) is Joan Didion’s attempt to craft a language that would make meaningful the death of her husband, John Greg Dunne. It is a language that, at times, seems almost glaciated. After all, she doesn’t offer any of the customary symptoms of bereavement (simulated tears, screaming, protests of denial, etc.). The social worker who ministers to Didion says of the author: “She’s a pretty cool customer” (15).
Didion: “I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” (16).
Superficial readers, predictably, mistake her seeming sangfroid for indifference. Yet Didion is hardly apathetic. She takes words too seriously to lapse into maudlin kitsch. If she refuses sentimentalism, it is because she knows that the language of sentimentalism isn’t precise enough. If she refuses to be emotionally effusive, it is because she knows how easily an access of emotion–however genuine–can deteriorate into cliché. If she avoids hysteria, it is because she knows that abreaction is incommunicative. Her sentences are blissfully free of fossilized phrases, vapid slogans that could never do justice to the workings of grief.
Of course, the opposite reaction would bring about censure, as well. Had Didion expressed her grief in histrionic terms, American readers would have asked, rhetorically, “Why can’t she just get over it.” (I deliberately omitted the question mark.) The appropriate response to the death of the beloved is temperate mourning and cool-headedness: “Grieve for a month and then forget about the man with whom you spent nearly forty years of your life! Don’t talk about it anymore after that fixed period; we don’t want to hear about it.”
Philippe Aries in Western Attitudes Toward Death: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.”
In place of a tragedy, Didion gives us a sober account of bereavement. What is it like to be bereaved? You will never know until it happens to you. Didion discovers vortices everywhere–centers of gravitation that pull her toward the abyss left by her husband’s death. A new Alcestis, willing to die in the place of her husband, she calls forth his presence, and yet each of these pleas for his presence reinforces the perpetual silence that separates her from him. Self-pity, of course, is inescapable. She becomes “she-whose-husband-has-died.” She defines herself in relation to the absent beloved. When John was alive, she was a younger woman, since she saw herself exclusively through her husband’s eyes. Now that John is dead, she sees herself, for the first time since she was very young, through the eyes of others. Now that John is dead, she no longer knows who she is.
Every one of us is irreplaceable, which is why death is an irretrievable, irreversible, irrecoverable, infinite loss. When the beloved dies, an impassible divide is placed between the survivor and the absent beloved. Didion hears her husband’s voice, and yet this voice is really her own voice resonating within her–a voice that nonetheless makes her own voice possible. Nothing remains for the survivor to do but to turn the dead beloved into dead meat, to substitute for his living presence a tangible object (whether it is a photograph or any form of funerary architecture), to resign oneself to the dead beloved’s non-being. She must accept the transformation of being into nothingness, the movement from everything to nothing, the withering of fullness into boundless emptiness. Writing is one way to fashion an image of the dead man and thus bring to completion the work of mourning. The failure of objectification, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, will lead to melancholia, the infinitization of the Trauerarbeit.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name in the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water (226).
This is minimalism, of course, but Joan Didion’s minimalism is minimalism in the genuine sense of the word, not the kind of infantilism that most other American writers practice today and which goes by the name of “minimalism.” They confuse scaled-down writing with simplicity; they externalize everything. They write their intentions explicitly on the surface of the page. Didion, on the other hand, attends to the cadences and pregnant silences inherent to the rhythms of speech. She is attuned to the interstices that punctuate articulated speech, that articulate speech, that make speech communicable. What is unsaid is weightier, for Didion, than what is said. She does not express matters directly; she indicates, she points. There is a kind of veering-away from naked being here, a swerving-away from the nullity of death. Joan Didion is far too dignified, far too noble to pretend to bring death to language.
Theses on AUCH ZWERGE HABEN KLEIN ANGEFANGEN (1969), a film directed by Werner Herzog
1.) No film is more subversive, more revolutionary.
2.) A film that goes wild, a world without a head. Midgets run amuck, perform an insurrection, razing buildings and trees to the ground. A Lilliputian assault: The dwarves take revenge on the tall people who once dominated them.
3.) Not so much a film about violence as a cinematic act of violence against society.
4.) A paedophobic nightmare: The children of the world revolt against the world of adults.
5.) Reason’s nightmare. Typewriters are smashed, telephone lines ripped down, flowers set ablaze. The revolt of the dwarfs is a symbolic one: Everything that is pure, everything that is sacred, everything that is dignified is brought down into the mud. Absolute de-rationalization, de-intellectualization, de-idealization. A camel–a symbol of piety, nobility, and grace–is repeatedly forced to kneel. A dwarf’s psychotic laughter fills our ears. The revolt against reason. Social anarchy. The smashing of plates, the throwing of food. The end of all propriety. The absence of limits.
6.) The viewer loses all sense of perspective, proportionality, and distance. Spectators are forced to identify with the dwarfs. It is the world that has lost its balance; the dwarfs are normal.
7.) And yet the dwarfs are nonetheless grotesque. The dwarfs who massacre the pig are completely unsympathetic. Unsympathetic, and yet we are forced to identify with them. A reconceptualization of what it means to be human.
8.) A corruption of the sacred, a besmirching of all that is holy. Ridiculing all that is pious. The inversion of all relations. The crucifixion of a monkey. One chicken cannibalizes another. A dead sow is fed upon by her piglets.
9.) Meaninglessness, absolute infantilism, irrationality, chaos. But like the student rioters of May 1968, are the dwarfs searching for a new master? One must take into account where the revolt takes place: an educational institution that resembles a penal colony. Public institutions demand their own infringement, their own violation.
10.) A remake of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). We lock away the freaks, rejects, mutants of the world; they are the strangers, the foreigners, “the Others.” But in this film, we the spectators have no sense of what we would usually consider “the norm.” Are we not like the dwarves? Only a few steps away from being freaks ourselves. “We will make her one of us, one of us, one of us…” The nightmare of the normal people.
11.) In a profound sense, the film is anti-humanist; the human animal appears as absolutely grotesque. The viewer loses his bearings: “Am I large? Are they truly small?” The world moves out of whack.
12.) The subversion of logos, narrative, language.
13.) Midget sexuality. The dwarfs lust after tall women.
14.) A real live homunculus gangbang, smashing a century of Hollywood cinema to pieces.
THE TEMPEST (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
George Bernard Shaw inked the following (in 1913, “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”):
“Reflective people are not more interested in the Chamber of Horrors than in their own homes, nor in murderers, victims, and villains than in themselves; and the moment a man has acquired sufficient reflective power to cease gaping at waxworks, he is on his way to losing interest in Othello, Desdemona, and Iago exactly to the extent to which they become interesting to the police.”
George Bernard Shaw is making the excellent point that Shakespeare’s plays keep the spectator in the jury box. I endorse this thesis 100%. Shakespeare never inflicts guilt on the spectator. I feel guilty, at times, while reading Strindberg. I sometimes feel guilty while reading Ibsen. There are passages in Shaw that fill me with guilt. There are guilt-inflicting and -afflicting scenes in the films of Ingmar Bergman. But Shakespeare? Shakespeare is incapable of infusing anyone with guilt. There are enchantments, entertainments, and enticements in Shakespeare, but there is never a guilt-inspiring moment. Guilty characters (think of Alonso in The Tempest or of Lady Macbeth). But no guilty spectators, ever. At least, the probability of a guilty spectator seems an improbability to me.
* * * * *
The plot of The Tempest, such as it is, should already be familiar to most. It is centered on Prospero, thaumaturge and erstwhile Duke of Milan, who is marooned on an island–more than likely, one of the Bermudas, which were explored by the English in the early seventeenth century, the time of the play’s composition. A shipwreck brings phantoms from Prospero’s past, the promise of revenge and reinstatement to Prospero, the promise of freedom to Prospero’s slaves, Ariel and Caliban, and the promise of marriage to his daughter Miranda. Revenge comes swiftly and easily, Prospero’s dukedom is restored, freedom is won, and marriage is inevitable. Since all of the protagonist’s desires are fulfilled, The Tempest is a comedy in the Shakespearean sense. There is very little struggle and thus very little worry over the outcomes. I will return to this point below.
It might be useful to survey some of the dramatis personae.
Caliban is a cheetah-speckled fish-beast and the Earth-Spirit of the play. His name is anagrammatical of “can(n)ibal.” Shakespeare read of South Seas cannibals in Montaigne, and the English of the early seventeenth century did believe that the South Seas islanders were cannibals, devils, evil spirits, fantastic creatures. Caliban is the whelp of the North African witch Sycorax; his god is Setebos. “Setebos” is the name given to a Patagonian “devil” by one of Magellan’s companions. One can see that this is indeed a text that reflects the age of the European seafaring expeditions, the Age of Exploration.
Caliban is not merely uneducated–he is not educable, not civilizable, not humanizable. His naturalness, his earthiness, his childish stupidity are what make him dangerous. It does seem that he is the one character who escapes, if only for a moment, Prospero’s power; thus, Prospero’s power is not absolute. The ex-Duke is so unsettled by the breach in his power that he takes a walk to clear his head. Then again, Prospero’s dazedness is nothing more than an interlude of impotence, an interruption of senescence or senility. As Miranda says of her father: “Never till this day / Saw I him touch’d with anger so distemper’d” [IV:i].
No one has ever seemed to notice before that Caliban’s desires mirror Prospero’s own desires. Caliban expresses his desire to burn Prospero’s books [III:ii]; Prospero drowns his own books (or “book”) toward the close of the play. Caliban expresses the desire to violate Miranda. Does Prospero have the same desire? Am I alone in believing that Prospero has incestuous feelings for his own daughter? Here is what the magus says about Miranda:
“…I visit / Young Ferdinand, whom [his fellows] suppose is drown’d, / And his and mine lov’d darling” [III:iii].
In the lines quoted above, Prospero does not separate his fatherly feelings from Ferdinand’s erotic feelings for Miranda.
Ariel is the air sprite who does nothing without Prospero’s directive, but it also might be said that Prospero does nothing without Ariel’s assistance. Ariel’s name means “The Lion of God” in Hebrew. Despite what Harold Bloom says, the etymology is neither accidental nor irrelevant to the pith of the play. Ariel releases a leonine roar in the second act and is the serf of Prospero, who is indeed the deific figure of the island. Ariel is endlessly promised a freedom that seems to be forever denied to him.
Miranda means “She Who is Admired.” Before she meets Ferdinand, her soon-to-be-husband, the only man she knows is Prospero, unless we consider Caliban to be a “man” (he is, again, a hybrid of man and fish, a fish-man or a man-fish. As Trinculo says, Caliban is “[l]egg’d like a man, and his fins [are] like arms” [II:ii]). Prospero is more than mother and father to Miranda–he is the very model of manhood. And of womanhood.
Miranda is a gift–perhaps a potlatch–from the former Milanese duke to the presumptive King of Naples, Ferdinand. It is the gift of his daughter that will lead to the restoration of Prospero’s lost dukedom. Marriage is always a political transaction, in Shakespeare:
[T]hou shalt find she will outstrip all praise,
And make it halt behind her…
[A]s my gift, and thine own acquisition
Worthily purchas’d, take my daughter [IV:i].
Note the nastiness that Prospero showers on his daughter in absentia, discussing her as if she were a horse.
Ferdinand is a big beefy beefhead. He is a Joe Rogan type. In fact, Joe Rogan was most likely born to play the role of Ferdinand. This is how he describes himself (to his fiancee):
“[F]or your sake / Am I this patient log-man” [III:i].
He Log Man lift logs good.
* * * * *
The play was first performed for the amusement and bemusement of James I in November 1611. This explains why usurpation is one of the play’s leitmotifs and why it contains a wedding masque in the style of Ben Jonson. The presence of the wedding masque is not accidental: The Tempest is itself a masque and has nothing in its pretty little head other than the desire to beguile, to enchant, to entertain, and to reassure the King, his minions, and the groundlings of the Globe that the King shall always prevail. The usurping of Prospero’s power by Antonio is the antimasque; the fifth act represents the restoration of the Duke’s (and the King’s) power. In Ulysses, usurpation takes on a world-historical AND a personal significance–here, it is nothing more than a regal anxiety to be pacified.
There is beautiful poetry to be found in the play, but also some very lenient and lazy writing. Take, for instance, the following. Gonzalo, the court lawyer, intones at the close of the first scene of the first act:
“Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground–long heath, brown furze, any thing. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death.”
Well, that is a wasted bit of dialogue, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to die on dry ground rather than in a shipwreck, as the ship one is in is wrecking?
And here is one of Ariel’s excruciatingly stupid songs:
Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go,’
And breathe twice, and cry ‘so, so,’
Each one, tripping on his toe
Will be here with mop and mow.
Do you love me, master? No? [IV:i].
I could quote more senile singsong, but my tolerance is limited. There are those who could read such lines and still consider all of Shakespeare, the paper Shakespeare, to be perfect. I am not one of them.
There is too much tawdry bawdry in the play, too much of what we would call today “comic relief.” With the exception of a botched assassination attempt, the entire second act is wasted on laughless comedy. The comedy is the poetic nadir of the play. It is not that the raillery is dated, nor that it has long since been drained of any humor it might have had. The problem is that it is fluff, filler–empty pages and too much empty time, time wasted idly and emptily on the stage.
* * * * *
Why, exactly, should we believe that Prospero ought to be reinstated as the Milanese duke? Prospero was disgracefully inept as a duke. He explains to Miranda how his brother, Antonio, usurped control of the Milanese dukedom:
The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies…
I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retir’d,
O’er-priz’d all popular rate, in my false brother
Awak’d an evil nature… [I:ii].
The neglectful and inadvertent duke, absorbed in the dark arts, loses his material power. We won’t have to wait very long before he wins it back again. Despite all of his flaws, and of these there are many, Prospero emerges as “The Favored One,” as his name implies. He does this so effortlessly and smoothly that there is no space to wonder about the outcome. Prospero wins, without even trying to win, a game that is rigged in advance, and this (as I stated earlier) is what makes The Tempest a Shakespearean “comedy.”
A Shakespearean comedy is not a play that makes us laugh, but a play in which the (sometimes unlikable) main character is easily victorious and the principals are married off, even if they don’t want to be married off.
All Shakespearean comedies project utopias. They are not frictionless utopias, to be fair. There are discordances in every one of Shakespeare’s utopias. Antonio, the usurping brother, and Caliban, the rebel slave, provide the discordances in The Tempest. And yet these disharmonies, these frictions, only exist in order to make the triumph of favored Prospero all the sweeter. The Duke is deposed, then reinstated. The Duke is dethroned, long live the Duke!
Some commentators have mused: Why are Prospero’s adversaries so threatened by the thaumaturge after he abjures his art? Why don’t they rise up and slit his throat (which Caliban intended to do earlier)? That they do not do this is nonplussing. On the contrary, they stand in fear of the demystified mage. Even after the abjurement of his magic, Sebastian says that the “devil speaks” in Prospero and Caliban worries that his master will “chastise” him [V:i].
It is difficult to say why Prospero’s enemies are meekened and weakened at the close of the play. Perhaps, as Harold Bloom proposed, the magus does not need any of the external signs of magic. Perhaps he has interiorized all of his powers. He can break his staff, drown his book, and shed his mantle, for his power now comes from within. Or is it merely the case that Prospero’s enemies–Sebastian, Antonio, Caliban, Stefano, Trinculo–are unaware that the magus has abjured his art?
While reading the play, there will be pleasantly unpleasant thought that more mischievous readers will not be able to suppress: They will wish that Caliban would rise up and devour all of the inhabitants of the isle. This is more or less what happens in Peter Brook’s dramatization. But no, instead, Prospero wins and forgives every one of his adversaries in the proto-Nietzschean affirmation of his power.
Indeed, forgiveness is the final phase of Prospero’s revenge plot. Prospero calls his perfidious brother “wicked” and “unnatural” in the very sentences through which he forgives him:
“I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art” [V:i].
The “rarer action” [Ibid.] is to forgive rather than to avenge. But my question is thus: Can forgiveness not be a form of vengeance?
* * * * *
In the Epilogue, the actor who plays Prospero steps onto the stage one last time to beg for applause: “[R]elease me from my bands / With the help of your good hands.” He asks for the spectator’s “indulgence.” He says that his project was to “please.” Only applause can free the actor from the isle of mirages over which the mage presides.
Here we have a pitiful plea for approbation from an attention-hungry actor-dramatist. It is a Pathetic Appeal in two senses of the term: On the one hand, it is the attempt to stimulate the pity of the spectators and to provoke within them the pity-driven need to clap. On the other hand, it is an appeal that is, well, pathetic, in the colloquial-American sense of the word. But then, the Actor himself is yet another mask. One mask conceals another mask conceals another mask conceals another mask, and so forth ad infinitum.
Here we have the Shakespearean conceit that life is theatre and theatre, life. The island is an island of illusions where no man is his own [V:i]. The characters on the stage, of course, are nothing more than dramatic illusions–and are themselves illusioned. We–the audience, the spectators, we human beings–we ourselves are illusions, according to Shakespeare: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” [IV:i]. Each character is seduced by simulations or seduces by simulation: The shipwreck is described as a “spectacle”; Ariel assumes the shape of a water-nymph and then a harpy; Prospero camouflages himself throughout the play in various disguises; Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano are seduced by garments hanging from the bough of a tree, etc., etc.
To please the audience, to appease the audience, to entertain the audience is also Shakespeare’s only goal in The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s most overestimated plays. I should here make the point that Shakespeare was, in the non-problematic comedies, a panderer, a jongleur of the court. His non-problematic comedies always pander. They seek to assuage their audiences’ fears. They never provoke their audiences. To return to my opening point: No one has ever been made to feel guilty by a Shakespeare play.
At the end of the day, The Tempest does bear one redeeming facet: The play sparked some of the most exciting works of literature of the twentieth century. The hallucinatory wonderlands of J.G. Ballard, for instance (by way of Joseph Conrad) would have been unthinkable without the tempestuous bluster of The Tempest, a play that never shakes the pear tree of the audience’s expectations.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An Analysis of ROBERTE CE SOIR and THE REVOCATION OF THE EDICT OF NANTES (Pierre Klossowski) by Joseph Suglia
Roberte ce soir and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: two religious-erotic/erotic-religious novels from one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Pierre Klossowski.
Roberte ce soir: Who is Roberte? To her nephew, Antoine, she is an austere and prepossessing older sister. To her husband, Octave, she is an infuriatingly beguiling hostess. To any guest who traverses the threshold of their home, she is an open receptacle for virility–strangely inaccessible and accessible at once. But Roberte is nothing, strictly speaking, in herself: She is a ceaselessly multiplying play of masks. Her self-multiplications enlarge infinitely. Purely mutative, purely transformative—who is she, really, in herself, if not a series of duplicates? To every man she encounters, she is the replica of his desires.
Her sin, according to Octave (and the narrative!), is to have separated the spirit from the body. She is both atheist (exclusive of the spirit) and a censor (exclusive of physicality). Quite appropriately, the prose is, at times, erotically informed (emblematical of the body); at others, theologically informed (emblematical of the spirit).
The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes: In this second novel, Roberte speaks in her own language. We see her free from the one-sided interpretations that men have imposed upon her. No, she never separates the word from the flesh. She is word and flesh at once; like Klossowski’s God, she is eminently communicable, absolutely self-transformative, the hypostatical union of three-in-one. And she never denied God, only the idol that men have made of God (God as an immutable and incommunicable substance).
The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes revokes every hypothesis that might be imposed on Roberte, Klossowski’s muse and God. Like a tableau vivant (a living painting, a human sculpture), she dangles silently in space.
In both of these absolutely remarkable books, theological digressions and eroticism dovetail into a seamless flow of language. Together, they form a metaphysics of the flesh.
Klossowski, my neighbor.
CONTRACT, OATH, AND THE LETTER IN THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
Was Shakespeare a hater of Jews?
It is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of dead author, as it is impossible to reconstruct our own thoughts. All we have are the plays. The question, then, ought to be revised:
Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play? There are certainly disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in the text. There are disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in other Shakespeare plays, as well. Confer Much Ado about Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance.
The frequent charges of Anti-Judaism that have been leveled against The Merchant of Venice perhaps derive from the play’s presentation of a relationship between Jewishness and the calculation of interest, or usury. But more specifically, the play stages a relationship between the making of an oath and the accrual of a debt.
The debt that is owed to Shylock–a “pound of flesh”–is guaranteed by an oath. The pound of flesh is not, according to The Merchant of Venice, a metaphor for money. It refers literally to the flesh “nearest the merchant’s heart”:
And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
Nearest the merchant’s heart [IV:i].
The oath prevents Shylock from translating the debt into figurative terms, despite Portia’s urgent offer to give him three times the sum (“Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” [Ibid.]). The debt of the “pound of flesh” must remain literal, not figurative–the phrase must refer to the excised human flesh, not to money.
If Antonio is compelled to liquidate the sum of money owed to Shylock, “the Jew” is not similarly coerced. Portia’s injunction to forgiveness–“Then must the Jew be merciful” [Ibid.]–is groundless according to contract law. There is nothing, no contractual obligation, no force of law that compels Shylock to be merciful and to forgive the debt: “On what compulsion must I? tell me that” (Shylock) [Ibid.]. For the hateful Christian Anti-Judaist, “The Jew” is one who clings to the letter of the law and not the law of forgiveness. Justice and mercy may not coexist. To show mercy would be, according to Shylock, to disregard the letter of the contract. Nothing, according to Shylock, obligates him to forgive the debt or to be merciful. The contract, however, which Shylock follows to the letter, requires repayment of the debt within three months. Such is a way in which Christian Anti-Judaism is staged in The Merchant of Venice.
The law is transcendent and submission to it is mandatory, both for the Christian judge and the Jewish creditor:
It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a degree established:
’Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be [Ibid.].
If the oath is binding, it is because it is based upon a transcendent law. But what is the source of the transcendent law? What gives it its force? And what compels one to follow it? The law, according to Shylock, has a divine origin:
An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.
Shall I lay perjury on my soul?
No, not for Venice [Ibid.].
I charge you by the law,
Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar,
Proceed to judgment; by my soul I swear,
There is no power in the tongue of man
To alter me. I stay here on my board [Ibid.].
The law is beyond all human power and representation and demands absolute submission from humanity; it must be followed. Human language, “the tongue of man,” is powerless against it, even though the word of the divine is written in the form of a contract, another instance of “the tongue of man.” Divine law demands absolute fidelity and inscribes itself in the contract which is written in the tongue of man. The contract–again, written in human language–is binding because of its divine provenance. Here we encounter a Shakespearean version of the natural-law argument. The naturalism of the moral law is evident in the contract itself, which “the Jew” knows inside and out, inwendig and auswendig. Both Christian AND Jew are obligated to follow the law of Venice, which is theological in origin.
Portia’s response to all of this theological nonsense is a reductio ad absurdum argument. Dressed in the garb of a man, Portia will take Shylock’s desire for a “pound of flesh” to the limit:
Tarry a little: there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood–
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”;
Take then thy bond, taken then thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice [Ibid.].
“The Jew,” according to the stupidity of conventional Anti-Judaism (and is there any Anti-Judaism other than the conventional version?), ignores the spirit of the law in favor of the letter. “The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’”: By literalizing his statement, Portia is able to undermine Shylock’s project to exact (and extract) from Antonio what these words denote. There is an absolutely unified relationship between words and what they mean. The codicil to the contract will state that “the Jew’s” property and land will be confiscated if the penalty is not carried out to the letter.
Shylock, of course, refuses to carry out the penalty; he refuses to punish the debtor, Antonio. Soon thereafter, the stage direction is given: “Exit Shylock.” Shylock disappears rather early in the play (Act Four: Scene One). The earliness of this disappearance is particularly strange for a Shakespeare play, given that the Shakespearean villain usually remains until the final act. Shylock’s fate will be a forcible conversion to Christianity, thus firming the play’s staging of a vehemently Anti-Judaic stance.
The question still remains unanswered: Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play? My impression is that it is. The Merchant of Venice shows a rabid hatred of Jews, as it stupidly identifies Judaism with literalism and the literalization of metaphors. The Merchant of Venice is about the literalization of the metaphor and the becoming-metaphor of the letter.