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.
An Analysis of All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525
My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature. His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the problematical plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost, are his masterworks. All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematical plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.
One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda. They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society. In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are expected to have been begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.
But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage. In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.
Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.
The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her. As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate. A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer. She pursues Bertram relentlessly. As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her. Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play. Quite the opposite, as I shall contend. Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i]. And yet, does obsession ever end?
When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i]. She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.]. Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father… I have forgot him. My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.]. All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects the socks of her lover which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.
Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i]. Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status? I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated. I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.
When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii]. Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii]. No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv] that she pretends to be. Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii]. Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram? Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram. Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him? Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.
The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram. As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play. The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.
And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive. And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.
Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram. Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage. She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].
Why not take Helena at her word? On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her. She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart. On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own. She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law. All’s well that ends well. She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body. Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]? She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband. She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.
It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana. He is revolted by Helena. The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea. Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her. In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii]. He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].
Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century. Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign. However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor. Again, he finds her physically repellent.
Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent. Is this not rape? According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.
And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology? There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother. But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother? They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.
The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v]. Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.
Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv]. Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate. When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.
Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences. Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality. Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors. The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]). The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii]. A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status. One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena. Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.
Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i]. She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays. Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated. His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time. This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii]. The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think. Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL. Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.
For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v]. (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena. Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.) (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena. He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].) Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around. (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.) Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.
Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France. When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more. The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.
When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition. It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.]. It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.
The King is revived from the dead. Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena. Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram. In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena. I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.” The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision. Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority. Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne. This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.
Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction. Desire cannot be systematized. We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.
Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not. Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection. Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her. Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii]. When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired. It is not a statement of resignation. Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal. Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.
It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her. However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy. Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.” Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother. To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement. She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.
Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him. The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective. The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern. Treachery is circular; treason is circular. This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:
We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors. And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].
I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves. We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal. As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.” According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603. All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605. If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.
All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves. We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.
Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.
Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse. Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage. She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society. In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong. Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win? Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality? A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else. No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.
Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself. He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.
From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case. In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin. All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner. It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii]. And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v]. “Fine” here means “ending.” The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it. The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning. The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.
No one is innocent, and no one is guilty. Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii]. The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.
One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite. Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii]. Language kills. That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean. When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication. When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.
Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect. For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii]. He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.]. He often cannot finish his sentences. Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis). And yet there is some sense in his nonsense. When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar? When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i]. And yet are they gabbling? Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest. Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble. Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless. There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning. Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.
At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii]. In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.” He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion. Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father. The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test. It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law. Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.
Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage? Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition. But was Kant incorrect? All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing. It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s most problematical comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.
When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii]. This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.
“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine]. There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending. Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy. All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well. All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well. All’s ill that ends well.
HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES (Friedrich Nietzsche)
A commentary by Joseph Suglia
MAM = Menschliches, Allzumenschliches. Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878); second edition: 1886
VMS = Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche (1879)
WS = Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (1880)
The following will not have been an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Human, All-Too-Human. It will have been a commentary: Comment taire? as the French say. “How to silence?” In other words: How should the commentator silence his or her own voice and invisibilize his or her own presence in order to amplify the sound of the text and magnify the text’s image?
An interpretation replaces one meaning with another, or, as Heidegger would say, regards one thing as another. A commentary adds almost nothing to the text under consideration.
Nietzsche’s Psychological Reductionism and Perspectivalism
Human, All-Too-Human is almost unremittingly destructive. For the most part, it only has a negative purpose: to demolish structures and systems of thought. However, there is also a positive doctrine within these pages, and that is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity (to which I will return below) and the promise of a future humanity that will be unencumbered by religion, morality, and metaphysics.
In the preface of the second edition (1886), Nietzsche makes this thrust and tenor of his book clear with the following words: The purpose of the book is “the inversion of customary valuations and valued customs” (die Umkehrung gewohnter Wertschätzungen und geschätzter Gewohnheiten). The highest ideals are reduced to the basest human-all-too-humanness of human beings. This is a form of psychological reductionism: Once-good values (love, fidelity, patriotism, motherliness) are deposed. The man who mourns his dead child is an actor on an imaginary stage who performs the act of mourning in order to stir up the emotions of his spectators—he is vain, not selflessly moral. The faithful girl wants to be cheated upon in order to prove her fidelity—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral. The soldier wants to die on the battlefield in order to prove his patriotism—he is egoistic, not selflessly moral. The mother gives up sleep to prove her virtuous motherliness—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral [MAM: 57].
The inversion of valuations leads to an advocacy of the worst values: vanity and egoism (but never the vaingloriousness of arrogance, against which Nietzsche warns us for purely tactical reasons). As well as lying. Nietzsche praises lying at the expense of the truth to the point at which lying becomes the truth, and the truth becomes a lie that pretends that it is true. This, of course, is a paradox, for anyone who says, “There is no truth, only interpretations of truth” is assuming that one’s own statement is true.
Again and again, Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world. Appearance (Schein) becomes being (Sein): The hypocrite is seduced by his own voice into believing the things that he says. The priest who begins his priesthood as a hypocrite, more or less, will eventually turn into a pious man, without any affectation [MAM: 52]. The thing in itself is a phenomenon. Everything is appearance. There is no beyond-the-world; there is nothing outside of the world, no beyond on the other side of the world, no επέκεινα.
As far as egoism is concerned: Nietzsche tells us again and again: All human beings are self-directed. I could have just as easily written, All human beings are selfish, but one must be careful. Nietzsche does not believe in a hypostatized self. Every individual, Nietzsche instructs us, is a dividual (divided against himself or herself), and the Nietzsche of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885) utterly repudiates the idea of a substantialized self. To put it another way: No one acts purely for the benefit of another human being, for how could the first human being do anything without reference to himself or herself?: Nie hat ein Mensch Etwas gethan, das allein für Andere und ohne jeden persönlichen Begweggrund gethan wäre; ja wie sollte er Etwas thun können, das ohne Bezug zu ihm wäre…? [MAM: 133]. Only a god would be purely other-directed. Lichtenberg and La Rochefoucauld are Nietzsche’s constant points of reference in this regard. Nietzsche never quotes this Rochefoucauldian apothegm, but he might as well have:
“True love is like a ghost which many have talked about, but few have seen.”
“Jealousy contains much more self-love than love.”
Whatever is considered “good” is relativized. We are taught that the Good is continuous with the Evil, that both Good and Evil belong to the same continuum. Indeed, there are no opposites, only degrees, gradations, shades, differentiations. Opposites exist only in metaphysics, not in life, which means that every opposition is a false opposition. When the free spirit recognizes the artificiality of all oppositions, s/he undergoes the “great liberation” (grosse Loslösung)—a tearing-away from all that is traditionally revered—and “perhaps turns [his or her] favor toward what previously had a bad reputation” (vielleicht nun seine Gunst dem zugewendet, was bisher in schlechtem Rufe stand) [Preface to the second edition]. The awareness that life cannot be divided into oppositions leads to an unhappy aloneness and a lone unhappiness, which can only be alleviated by the invention of other free spirits.
What is a “free spirit”? A free spirit is someone who does not think in the categories of Either/Or, someone who does not think in the categories of Pro and Contra, but sees more than one side to every argument. A free spirit does not merely see two sides to an argument, but rather as many sides as possible, an ever-multiplying multiplicity of sides. As a result, free spirits no longer languish in the manacles of love and hatred; they live without Yes, without No. They no longer trouble themselves over things that have nothing to do with them; they have to do with things that no longer trouble them. They are mistresses and masters of every Pro and every Contra, every For and every Against.
All over the internet, you will find opposing camps: feminists and anti-feminists, those who defend religious faith and those who revile religious faith, liberals and conservatives. Nietzsche would claim that each one of these camps is founded upon the presupposition of an error. And here Nietzsche is unexpectedly close to Hegel: I am thinking of Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, which is, surprisingly, closer to the Hegelian dialectic than most Nietzscheans and Hegelians would admit, since they themselves tend to be one-sided. In all disputes, the free spirit sees each perspective as unjust because one-sided. Instead of choosing a single hand, the free spirit considers both what is on the one hand and what is on the other (einerseits—andererseits) [MAM: 292]. The free spirit hovers over all perspectives, valuations, evaluations, morals, customs, and laws: ihm muss als der wünschenswertheste Zustand jenes freie, furchtlose Schweben über Menschen, Sitten, Gesetzen und den herkömmlichen Schätzungen der Dinge genügen [MAM: 34]. It is invidiously simplistic and simplistically invidious to freeze any particular perspective. Worse, it is anti-life, for life is conditioned by perspective and its injustices: das Leben selbst [ist] bedingt durch das Perspektivische und seine Ungerechtigkeit [Preface to the second edition]. A free spirit never takes one side or another, for that would reduce the problem in question to the simplicity of a fixed opposition, but instead does justice to the many-sidedness of every problem and thus does honor to the multifariousness of life.
There Is No Free Will. Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche.
Let me pause over three revolutions in the history of Western thought.
The cosmological revolution known as the “Copernican Revolution” marked a shift from the conception of a cosmos in which the Earth is the center to the conception of a system in which the Sun is the center. A movement from geocentrism (and anthropocentrism) to heliocentrism.
The biological revolution took the shape of the theory of evolution (“It’s only a theory!” exclaim the unintelligent designers), which describes the adaptation of organisms to their environments through the process of non-random natural selection.
There is a third revolution, and it occurred in psychology. I am not alluding to psychoanalysis, but rather to the revolution that predated psychoanalysis and made it possible (Freud was an admirer of Nietzsche). Without the Nietzschean revolution, psychoanalysis would be unthinkable, and Twitter philosopher Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) would never have existed.
I am alluding to the revolution that Nietzsche effected in 1878. It was a silent revolution. Almost no one seems aware that this revolution ever took place.
It is a revolution that describes the turning-away from voluntarism (the theory of free will) and the turning-toward determinism, and Nietzsche’s determinism will condition his critique of morality. Nietzschean determinism is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity.
[Let it be clear that I know that Spinoza, Hume, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, et al., wrote against the concept of the free will before Nietzsche.]
The free will is the idea that we have control over our own thoughts, moods, feelings, and actions. It conceives of the mind as transparent to itself: We are aware in advance of why we do-say-write-think the things that we do-say-write-think. This idea is false: You no more know what your next thought will be than you know what the next sentence of this commentary will be (if this is your first time reading this text). It is only after the fact that we assign free will to the sources of actions, words, and thoughts. Our thoughts, moods, and feelings—e.g. anger, desire, affection, envy—appear to us as isolated mental states, without reference to previous or subsequent thoughts, moods, and feelings: This is the origin of the misinterpretation of the human mind known as “the free will” (the definite article the even suggests that there is only one). The free will is an illusion of which we would do well to disabuse ourselves.
We do not think our thoughts. Our thoughts appear to us. They come to the surfaces of our consciousness from the abysms of the unconscious mind. Close your eyes, and focus on the surfacings and submersions of your own thoughts, and you will see what I mean.
This simple exercise of self-observation suffices to disprove the illusion of voluntarism. If your mind is babbling, this very fact of consciousness refutes the idea of free will. Mental babble invalidates the voluntarist hypothesis. Does anyone truly believe that s/he wills babble into existence? Does anyone deliberately choose the wrong word to say or the wrong action to perform? If free will existed, infelicity would not exist at all or would exist less. After all, what would free will be if not the thinking that maps out what one will have thought-done-said-written—before actually having thought one’s thought / done one’s deed / said one’s words / written one’s words?
Belief in free will provokes hatred, malice, guilt, regret, and the desire for vengeance. After all, if someone chooses to behave in a hateful way, that person deserves to be hated. Anyone who dispenses with the theory of the free will hates less and loves less. No more desire for revenge, no more enmity. No more guilt, no more regret. No more rewards for impressive people who perform impressive acts, for rewarding implies that the rewarded could have acted differently than s/he did. In a culture that accepted the doctrine of total irresponsibility, there would be neither heroes nor villains. There would be no reason to heroize taxi drivers who return forgotten wallets and purses to their clients, nor would there be any reason to heroize oneself, since what a person does is not his choice / is not her choice. No one would be praised, nor would anyone praise oneself. No one would condemn others, nor would anyone condemn oneself. Researchers would investigate the origins of human behavior, but would not punish, for the sources of all human thought and therefore the sources of all human behavior are beyond one’s conscious control / beyond the reach of consciousness. It makes no sense to say / write that someone is “good” or “evil,” if goodness and evilness are not the products of a free will. There is no absolute goodness or absolute evilness; nothing is good as such or evil as such. There is neither voluntary goodness nor voluntary evilness.
If there is no free will, there is no human responsibility, either. The second presupposes the first. Do you call a monster “evil”? A monster cannot be evil if it is not responsible for what it does. Do we call earthquakes “evil”? Do we call global warming “evil”? Natural phenomena are exempt from morality, as are non-human animals. We do not call natural phenomena “immoral”; we consider human beings “immoral” because we falsely assume the existence of a free will. We feel guilt / regret for our “immoral” actions / thoughts, not because we are free, but because we falsely believe ourselves to be free: [W]eil sich der Mensch für frei halt, nicht aber weil er frei ist, empfindet er Reue und Gewissensbisse [MAM 39]. No one chooses to have Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder. Why, then, should someone who is afflicted with Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder be termed “evil”? No one chooses one’s genetic constitution. You are no more responsible for the emergence of your thoughts and your actions than you are responsible for your circulatory system or for the sensation of hunger.
Those who would like to adumbrate Nietzsche’s “mature” thought should begin with Human, All-Too-Human (1878), not with Daybreak (1801). Nietzsche’s critique of morality makes no sense whatsoever without an understanding of his deeper critique of voluntarism (the doctrine of free will): Again, the ideas of Good and Evil only make sense on the assumption of the existence of free will.
Anyone who dispenses with the idea of free will endorses a shift from a system of punishment to a system of deterrence (Abschreckung). A system of deterrence would restrain and contain criminals so that someone would not behave badly, not because someone has behaved badly. As Nietzsche reminds us, every human act is a concrescence of forces from the past: one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s environment, one’s genetic constitution. It makes no sense, then, to believe that any individual is responsible for what he or she does. All human activity is motivated by physiology and the unconscious mind, not by Good or Evil. Everything is necessary, and it might even be possible to precalculate all human activity, through the mechanics of artificial intelligence, to steal a march on every advance: Alles ist notwendig, jede Bewegung mathematisch auszurechnen… Die Täuschung des Handelnden über sich, die Annahme des freien Willens, gehört mit hinein in diesen auszurechnenden Mechanismus [MAM: 106].
If you accept the cruelty of necessity (and is life not cruel, if we have no say in what we think and what we do?), the nobility of humanity falls away (the letter of nobility, the Adelsbrief) [MAM: 107]. All human distinction is devalued, since it is predetermined—since it is necessary. Human beings would finally recognize themselves within nature, not outside of nature, as animals among other animals. I must cite this passage in English translation, one which is not irrelevant to this context and one which belongs to the most powerful writing I have ever read, alongside Macbeth’s soliloquy upon learning of his wife’s death: “The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest as we do, when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the Earth: Indeed, we are still modest if we stop there and do not arrange a general twilight of the world and of the gods (eine allgemeine Welt- and Götterdämmerung) for the funeral rites of the final human (zur Leichenfeier des letzten Menschen). The most dispassionate astronomer can oneself scarcely feel the lifeless Earth in any other way than as the gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity” [WS: 14].
The demystification of the theory of free will has been re-presented by Sam Harris, who might seem like the Prophet of the Doctrine of Necessity. Those who have never read Nietzsche might believe that Dr. Harris is the first person to say these things, since Dr. Harris never credits Nietzsche’s theory of total human irresponsibility. If you visit Dr. Harris’s Web site, you will discover a few English translations of Nietzsche on his Recommended Reading List. We know that Dr. Harris’s first book (unpublished) was a novel in which Nietzsche is a character. We also know that Dr. Harris was a student of Philosophy at Stanford University. He would therefore not have been unaware of the Nietzschean resonances in his own text Free Will. Why, then, has Dr. Harris never publically acknowledged his indebtedness to Nietzschean determinism?
Nietzsche Is / Is Not (Always) a Misogynist.
In 1882, Nietzsche was sexually rejected by Lou Andreas-Salome, a Russian intellectual, writer, and eventual psychoanalyst who was found spellbinding by seemingly every cerebral man she met, including Rilke and Paul Ree. Since the first edition of Human, All-Too-Human was published four years before, Salome’s rejection of Nietzsche cannot be said to have had an impact on his reflections on women at that stage in the evolution of his thinking.
Nietzsche is sometimes a misogynist. But I must emphasize: He is not always a misogynist.
At times, Nietzsche praises women / is a philogynist. To give evidence of Nietzsche’s philogyny, all one needs to do is cite Paragraph 377 of the first volume: “The perfect woman is a higher type of human being than the perfect man” (Das volkommene Weib ist ein höherer Typus des Menschen, als der volkommene Mann). Elsewhere, Nietzsche extols the intelligence of women: Women have the faculty of understanding (Verstand), he writes, whereas men have mind (Gemüth) and passion (Leidenschaft) [MAM: 411]. The loftier term Verstand points to the superiority of women over men. Here, Nietzsche is far from misogynistic—indeed, he almost seems gynocratic.
Nor is Nietzsche a misogynist, despite appearances, in the following passage—one in which he claims that women tolerate thought-directions that are logically in contradiction with one another: Widersprüche in weiblichen Köpfen.—Weil die Weiber so viel mehr persönlich als sachlich sind, vertragen sich in ihrem Gedankenkreise Richtungen, die logisch mit einander in Widerspruch sind: sie pflegen sich eben für die Vertreter dieser Richtungen der Reihe nach zu begeistern und nehmen deren Systeme in Bausch und Bogen an; doch so, dass überall dort eine todte Stelle entsteht, wo eine neue Persönlichkeit später das Übergewicht bekommt [MAM: 419].
To paraphrase: Nietzsche is saying that the minds of women are fluxuous and not in any pejorative sense. He means that multiple positions coexist simultaneously in the consciousnesses of women. Personalities are formed and then evacuate themselves, leaving dead spots (todte Stellen), where new personalities are activated. This does not mean that the minds of women contain “dead spots”—it means that they are able to form and reform new personalities, which is a strength, not a weakness. And yet does he not say the same thing about his invisible friends, the free spirits? Free spirits are also in a state of constant flux, and their fluxuousness, while necessarily unjust to their own opinions, allows them to move from opinion to opinion with alacrity and to hold in their heads multiple opinions at the same time. Free spirits have opinions and arguments, but no convictions, for convictions are petrific. Free spirits are guiltless betrayers of their own opinions [MAM: 637] and goalless wanderers from opinion to opinion [MAM: 638].
Why would the substitution-of-one-position-for-another, intellectual inconstancy, be considered as something negative? Is it not a trait of the free spirit the ability to substitute a new position for an older one with alacrity? And is the free spirit not Nietzsche’s ideal human being—at least before the overhuman takes the stage? Such is my main argument: Free-spiritedness is womanliness, and free spirits are womanly, if we accept Nietzsche’s definitions of “free-spiritedness” and of “womanliness.”
This is not to deny the strain of misogyny that runs throughout Nietzsche’s collected writings. Yes, Nietzsche does write unkind and unjustifiable things about women—some of his statements about women are downright horrible and indefensible. My objective here is to highlight the polysemy and polyvocality of his writing, its ambiguity. For a further discussion of Nietzsche’s ambiguous representations of the feminine, consult Derrida’s Spurs, wherein he analyzes the figure of the veil in Beyond Good and Evil.
To say or write that Nietzsche is always a misogynist would be to disambiguate his work—if by “Nietzsche” one is referring to the paper Nietzsche. (For a series of accounts of Nietzsche as a human being, see Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries, published by Oxford University Press.) Nonetheless, let us pause over the historical, living human being Friedrich Nietzsche, who was male, and his relation to one historical, living human being, who was female: Marie Baumgartner, the mother of one of Nietzsche’s students and his sometime French translator. In the original manuscript of Mixed Opinions and Maxims, the first appendix to Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche wrote: “Whether we have a serpent’s tooth or not is something that we do not know until someone has put his heel upon us. Our character is determined even more by the lack of certain experiences than by what we have experienced” [VMS: 36]. In a letter to Nietzsche dated 13 November 1878, Marie Baumgartner wrote: “I would gladly have added to your very striking maxim: ‘a woman or mother would say, until someone puts his heel upon her darling or her child.’ For a woman will not silently allow something to happen to them that in most cases she patiently accepts for herself.” Nietzsche was so affected by Baumgartner’s rather delicately worded suggestion that he modulated the text to reflect her proposal. If Nietzsche regarded women as inferior (and he never did), why would he take seriously something that a female reader wrote about his manuscript—so seriously that he modified his manuscript to incorporate her words? The fact that Nietzsche reflected Marie Baumgartner’s suggestion in the revision of his manuscript is evidence enough that he respected the intelligence of this particular woman—the grain of his own writing confirms that he respected the intelligence of women in general and even considered women in general to be more intelligent than men in general.
Nietzsche Was Not an Atheist, if by “Atheist” One Means “Someone Who Does Not Believe in God.”
Nietzsche tells us, in Paragraph Nine of the first volume, “Even if a metaphysical world did exist, it would be nothing other than an otherness [Anderssein] that would be unavailable and incomprehensible to us; it would be a thing with [purely] negative characteristics.”
My question (which has been inspired by Nietzsche) is the following: Why do we even care about the beyond? Should questions such as “Is there life after death?” not be greeted with apathy? Why are we engaged with such questions to begin with? Do not such questions merit indifference rather than seriousness?
Questions such as “Does God exist?” and “Is there life after death?” cannot be answered scientifically or logically. We do not require their answers in order to live. All of us live out our lives without knowing the answers to such questions. Not merely that: It is entirely possible to live out our lives without ever ASKING or PURSUING such questions—and would we not be better off for not having done so?
Let me put it another way: Do the questions “Why does the world exist?” and “Why is there being rather than nothing?” not presuppose a reason for existing and a reason for being? I am looking at you, Heidegger.
The Nietzsche of 1878 is not an atheist, if by “atheist” one means “someone who does not believe in God.” Those who contest the existence of a deity or deities are practicing a form of skiamachy. Nietzsche, on the other hand, is someone who considers questions about the existence of God, or of any extra-worldly transcendence, to be superfluous. Otherworldliness is not something that can be discussed, since it is purely negative.
Moreover, the Nietzsche of Human, All-Too-Human is not merely not an atheist. He is also not a philosopher, if by “philosopher,” we mean someone who speculates about imaginary worlds / is an imaginary world-builder. Nietzsche will not become a philosopher, speculative or otherwise, until the very end of his period of lucidity, with the doctrines of the Eternal Recurrence of the Always-Same and the Will to Power.
Nietzsche Contradicts Himself. Often. But This Is Not a Flaw in His Thinking.
Nietzsche contradicts himself—often—but this is not a flaw in this thinking. He tells us to stop using the word “optimism” [MAM: 28] and then uses the word himself, without any perceptible irony, in other sections of the book. After scolding us for believing in heroes, he warmly sponsors the “refined heroism” (verfeinerten Heroismus) of the free spirit who works in a small office and passes quietly into and out of life [MAM: 291]. In Paragraph 148 of the first volume, Nietzsche claims that the poet alleviates (erleichtert) life—this seems to contradict his claim, five paragraphs later, that “art aggravates the heart of the poet” (Die Kunst macht dem Denker das Herz schwer), that listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony infuses the listener with the heavy feeling of immortality, with religious and metaphysical conceptions. If Nietzsche contradicts himself, and he does, this is because free-spiritedness is multitudinous, multi-perspectival, self-contradictory thinking. Free-spiritedness is multi-spiritedness.
Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche
On Religion and Politics
What is religious is political, and what is political is religious.
Morality depends on opportunity.
A word means something different to you than it does to me, which means that communication is impossible: Nothing is communicable save the power to communicate the impossibility of communication. (Nietzsche suggests that the worst alienation is when two people fail to understand each other’s irony.) Consciousness of this fact would liberate us from the bitterness and intensity of every sensation.
The mind is geared not toward what has been interpreted, but toward that which has not been interpreted and might not even be interpretable. Nietzsche: “We take something that is unexplained and obscure to be more important than something that has been explained and made clear” [MAM: 532].
On the Voice
We often disagree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice. We often agree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice.
In a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, Heidegger claimed: “Only a god can save us.” This statement must be revised: Not even a god could save us now.
On Censorial America
In contemporary America, you may be prosecuted and persecuted for what you think, insofar as what you think is available in language.
My analysis was cited in Marco Caracciolo’s article “Narrative Space and Readers’ Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account,” Style. Vol. 47, No. 4, Narrative, Social Neuroscience, Plus Essays on Hecht’s Poetry, Hardy’s Fiction, and Kathy Acker (Winter 2013), pp. 425-444. Print.
An Analysis of THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) by Joseph Suglia
“When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it…”
—Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) is something of an undergraduate exercise. It is a Faulknerian pastiche and, above all, hedonistic. Hedonism, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of art. Whereas Blood Meridian is verbally expansive, the language of McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is strictly delimited.
We follow a nameless father and son as they wander through a post-American void, a “blastosphere,” to use J.G. Ballard’s term. (Blastosphere = Not the blastula, but the “implicit shape of the way matter is perturbed by an explosion” (Will Self)). They scavenge for food and tools. They encounter those who seemingly show their seamiest impulses and who behave in an unseemly manner.
And yet I suspect that this is less a novel about a post-apocalyptic future than it is one about our atheological present. It is a theological allegory about a world from which the gods are manifestly absent. Eine gottesverlassene und gottesvergessene Welt.
We find grounds for this supposition in those passages in which the grey waste is described as “godless”  and “coldly secular”  and wastes of human flesh are named “creedless” .
“On this road there are no godspoke men” .
The worst thing that could be written about The Road is that it is a sappy religious allegory. Nabokov wrote of Faulkner’s Light in August:
“The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work.”
I would write of McCarthy’s The Road:
The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which does not pervade Faulkner’s work.
This does not mean that the book is unredeemable, however. What might have been a pedestrian trifle in the hands of a lesser writer has become something genuinely pedestrian with author McCarthy. The most distinctive feature of The Road is not the story that is told, but the manner in which McCarthy tells it: that is to say, the narrative. He writes so magically that a grey empty world is summoned forth vividly before our eyes.
It needs to be said and emphasized that McCarthy has almost completely superseded standard English punctuation in the writing of this novel. He strategically, willfully omits periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes throughout the work in order to equivocate, in order to multiply meanings, in order to enlarge the literary possibilities of language.
The relative absence of punctuation in the novel makes the words appear as if they were the things themselves. Of course, one could seize upon the conscious, literal meaning of the words. But does language not slip away from us? Are its meanings not dependent on the interpretive framework of the listener, of the reader? And is it not conceivable that the linguistic elisions reflect the consciousness of the central character?
Proper punctuation would disambiguate and thus flatten the sentences–sentences that are, liberated from such restrictions, both benign and lethal. We have before us a rhetorically complex novel, a work of literature that is rife with ambiguity.
And the non-punctuation makes us feel. If the “sentences” were punctuated in the traditional manner, we, as readers, would feel nothing. We would not feel, viscerally and viciously, the nightmarish world into which father and son have precipitated. We would not be infused with the chill of post-civilization.
The absence of standard punctuation in The Road is a fruitful, productive absence. It is a writerly, stylistic choice.
I hope I have persuaded my readers that McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation is stylized. It most certainly is not unnecessary. One of the lessons that we can derive from the novels of McCarthy is how to apply typography in literary craftsmanship. Punctuation opens or closes the doors of meaning. Let me invent my own ambiguously commaless sentence for the purposes of elucidation. If I write, “I want to eat my parrot William,” this would seem to signify that I want to eat a parrot named William, a parrot that belongs to me. However, what happens if the comma is explicitly absent? Three contradictory interpretations are then possible: 1.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her, a parrot named William; 2.) The narrator, apparently, wants to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her and is addressing this remark to someone named William (“I want to eat my parrot, William”); 3.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat in general, and this comment is directed at his or her parrot, the name of which is William (“I want to eat, my parrot William”). Punctuation, depending on how it is used, can restrict or expand meaning. Commas articulate, determine meaning. The absence of a comma, on the other hand, opens up semantic possibilities inherent to language. Its absence opens the doors of ambiguity.
As I suggested above, McCarthy’s refusal to punctuate in the conventional manner is also intimately connected to the internal struggles of the main character and, perhaps, the psychology of the author. The narrator eschews commas because he fears death. I suspect that, similarly, McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation bespeaks a futile desire to escape his mortality–a charmingly fragile and recognizably human desire.
“[E]ver is no time at all” .
The ephemerality of the instant. Hence, the relative commalessness of McCarthy’s statements. A comma would pause an enunciation, rupture its continuity, the incessant flow of language, the drift of language into the future. What, after all, is a comma if not the graphic equivalent of a turn in breath, of an exhalation or an inhalation? Commas do not merely articulate a sentence. Commas stall, they defer, they postpone, they interrupt without stopping. A speaking that speaks ceaselessly, without commas, in order to outstrip the nightmare of history. McCarthy’s language moves forward endlessly, without giving readers a chance to catch their breath. This is a writing that is unidirectional and decidedly equivocal.
The thrusting momentum of McCarthy’s language fertilizes my suspicion that The Road is also a book about time. More precisely, a book about time’s three impossibilities: the impossibility of ridding oneself of the past completely, the impossibility of eternalizing the present, and the impossibility of encompassing the future.
The future is essentially unpredictable for the son, and the reader has no idea, at the novel’s close, what will become of him. Will the son survive? Will he be bred for cannibal meat, for anthropophagous delicacies? An infinitude of possibilities… And here we come to yet another strange intimacy between McCarthy’s singular style of punctuating and not punctuating and one of the leitmotifs of his novel: The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of THE ROAD is no conclusion at all, a conclusion without a period. And the novel lives on inside of the reader’s head and heart, growing within as if it were a vicious monster fungus.
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY: OR, CHOPO CHICKEN
by Joseph Suglia
Chopo Chicken in Chicago, Illinois: the most insulting eatery I have yet attended.
The dwellers of Lincoln Park were entranced by the parti-colored mural on the residential-street side of this chowtrough for three months before its vernissage. This makes the experience that I had all the more disheartening.
The place is grungy. The Styrofoam containers are flecked with filth, even before being loaded with the swill that is hawked here. Were they taken from the trash and reused? There are clean Styrofoam containers beneath the counter, if you ask for them.
The Yucca fries are cold and old. They taste like week-old French fries and are smothered in a bilious goo.
A man in a grime-sodden gown takes out a cleaver and hatchets a whole chicken into quarters. The chicken is encrusted with an anthracitic substance. The chicken is, strangely, almost meatless.
It is roadkill chicken. It looks like a chicken that was killed on the road. It looks as if the chicken, with Schopenhauerian exertion, strove to cross the road only to end up as faux-Peruvian cuisine at Chopo Chicken.
The portions are cafeteria-size. I understand well the fundamental principle of business: buy cheap and sell dear. It is clear that the gangsterish restaurateurs want to spend as little money as possible and charge as much money as possible. But if they want their restaurant to survive–and nine out ten restaurants go extinct–they have to offer something that people would want to eat or would want to eat again.
Corregidora / Corrigenda
by Joseph Suglia
A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. All of us have heard the words “Never forget!” in reference to the Shoah. Most are familiar with Kristallnacht, with the Names Project, also known as “the AIDS Quilt.” The March for Humanity memorializes the mass-murder of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Every year, at this time in April, the Rwandan government urges its citizens to kwibuka—the Rwandan word for “to remember.” To kwibuka, to remember the countless Tutsis who were slaughtered in the massacre of 1994.
But how should one respond when genocide is misremembered? Is the misremembrance of genocide superior to the forgetting of genocide?
Which is worse, distortion or oblivion?
Is it worse to minimize, for example, the number of Armenians who were killed at the beginning of the twentieth century, or to forget that the genocide of Armenians ever occurred?
The most dominant medium of the twentieth century was the cinema, and the cinema still has the power to shape, and to misshape, collective memory.
Over the past seven years, a talentless hack filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino has manufactured films that I would not hesitate to describe as “genocide pornography.” That is to say, these are films that would turn genocide into an object of consumption, an object of enjoyment. These are also films that disfigure historical consciousness.
Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the succeeding generation might believe that the Jews defeated the Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, they might believe that Hitler was assassinated. They might believe that, in general, African slaves rose up and overcame their enslavers. They might believe that every African slave in antebellum America was a free agent. Not an insurrectionist like Nat Turner, but an action figure like Django.
But what if misremembrance were not a disfiguration or a distortion of memory? What if misremembrance plays a constitutive and formative role in memory itself?
Freudian psychoanalysis has something to say about the interpenetration of remembrance and misremembrance.
At the earliest stage of his career, between the years 1895 and 1897, Freud formulated what is called “seduction theory.” Seduction theory is based on the idea that sexual trauma is pathogenic—that is, that sexual abuse produces neuroses.
Freud rejected seduction theory in 1897, but this does not mean that he silenced the voices of abused children. From the beginning of his career until its end, Freud never ceased to emphasize that sexual trauma has pathological effects.
Why did Freud reject seduction theory? Because it was too linear, too simple, because it did not take into consideration the supremacy of the unconscious.
The memory of sexual trauma, Freud recognized, might be repressed, sublimated, externalized, transferred, reintrojected, reimagined, or fictionalized.
This does not mean that when children claim that they have been sexually abused, they are lying. It means, rather, that experiences of abuse pass through the imagination and the imagination passes through the unconscious. Seduction theory did not take the imagination—die Phantasie—into account and therefore had to be abandoned.
The unconscious, as Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fleiss, does not distinguish between fact and fantasy.
It is difficult for a victim of abuse to acknowledge his or her trauma directly, and Freud knew this. Sexual trauma, after it occurs, does not manifest itself directly or immediately, but epiphenomenally—that is to say, symptomatically. It shows itself in disguise. It dramatizes itself. It retraumatizes. It might be phantasmatically reconstituted.
From the Freudian standpoint, remembrance and misremembrance are not mutually exclusive.
There is a third form of misremembrance that I would like to pause over. It is the kind of anamnesis or déjà vu when an individual recollects not her own individual history, but the history of past generations, the history of her ancestors. Cultural memory, seen from this perspective, would be a form of misremembrance.
Such misremembrance could only be figured in art.
The literature of Gayl Jones reminds us that the remembrance of personal trauma always contains a cultural dimension, that all memory is misremembrance.
The past that you have experienced is not the past that you remember.
When I first heard the title of Jones’s first novel — Corregidora (published in 1975) — I thought it was “corrigenda.”
Corrigenda: a list of errors in a published manuscript.
* * * * *
At the novel’s opening, lounge singer Ursa Corregidora is shoved down a staircase by her husband, Mutt — a catastrophic blow that results in her infertility. After she renounces her husband, Ursa enters into a relationship with Tadpole, the owner of the Happy Café, the bar at which she performs. Like all of her significant relationships with men, this second relationship proves disastrous and is doomed to failure.
Every man in the novel, without exception, sees Ursa as a “hole” — that is, as a beguiling and visually appealing receptacle to be penetrated. The narrative suggests this on the figural level. A talented novelist, Jones weaves images of orifices throughout her text — tunnels that swallow and tighten around trains, lamellae such as nostrils, mouths, wounds, etc. Although one of Ursa’s “holes” is barren, another “hole” is bountifully “prosperous” — her mouth, from which the “blues” issue. A movement of sonic exteriorization corresponds to a counter-movement of physiological interiorization.
It is easy to be trapped by these more immediate, socio-sexual dimensions of the narrative. Corregidora might seem, prima facie, to be nothing more than another novel about a woman imprisoned in abusive and sadistic relationships with appropriative men. But the meanings of Corregidora are far more profound than this. A “transcendental” framework envelops the immediate narrative and casts it in relief, thereby enhancing its significance. We learn that Ursa is the great-granddaughter of Portuguese slave-trader and procurer Corregidora, who sired both Ursa’s mother and grandmother. Throughout the course of the novel, the men in Ursa’s life take on a resemblance to Corregidora — and this resemblance sheds light on both the sexual basis of racism and the tendency of some oppressed cultures to take on the traits of imperialist hegemonies. According to the logic of the novel, the children of slaves resemble either slaves or slave drivers. Even within communities born of slavery, the novel suggests, there persist relationships of enslavement. “How many generations had to bow to his genital fantasies?” Ursa asks at one point, referring to Corregidora the Enslaver. As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, Jones’s novel suggests, there will never be an end to this period of acquiescence; Corregidora will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the enslavers will continue to achieve posthumous victorious.
As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the segregationists and the white supremacists will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
To return to the opening statement of this essay: A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. Although her infertility robs Ursa of the ability to “make generations” — something that, she is taught, is the essence of being-woman — she can still “leave evidence,” can still attest to the historical memory of slavery. All documents that detailed Corregidora’s treatment of his slaves were seemingly destroyed, as if the abolition of slavery abolished memory itself. According to the injunction of the Corregidora women (Ursa’s ancestors), one must testify, one must re-member, one must “leave evidence.” And yet memory is precisely Ursa’s problem. Memory cripples her. Throughout the novel, Ursa struggles to overcome the trauma of her personal past. And this past — in particular, the survival in memory of her relationship with Mutt — belongs to the larger, communal past that is her filial legacy. Her consciousness is rigidified, frozen in the immemorial past of the Corregidora women. This “communal” past is doomed to repeat itself infinitely, thus suspending the presence of the present — and, in particular, Ursa’s individual experience of the present. Her individual experience of the present is indissociably married to her personal past, and her most intimate past is, at the same time, also the past of her community. The words that Ursa uses to describe her mother could also apply to Ursa herself: “It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong within her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.”
At the shocking and unforgettable close of the novel, the past and present coincide almost absolutely. When, after twenty-two years of estrangement, Ursa is reunited with her first husband, the historical memory of slavery is superimposed and mapped onto their relationship. Both Ursa and Mutt become allegorical figures, each representing slave and slaveholder, respectively. The present-past and the past-present reflect each other in an infinite mirror-play until they both become almost indistinguishable from each other.
At the juncture of both temporalities is an inversion of power relations that comes by way of a sex act. Ursa performs fellatio on her first husband. Oral sex replaces oral transmission. Here we have the perpetuation of a traumatic past, and yet it is a repetition with a difference. Fellatio is disempowering for the man upon whom it is performed; dangerously close to emasculation, it is experienced as “a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness.” For the woman, by contrast, it might be an act vacant of all sensuality, one that is abstracted of all emotional cargo. Fellatio might infuse the performer with a feeling of power’s intensification; its objective might not be the enhancement of erotic pleasure, but of the pleasure that comes with the enhancement of one’s feeling of power.
By playing the role of the guardian of memory, Ursa dramatizes the intersection of her individual past with a communal past. The paralysis of historical consciousness sets in: “My veins are centuries meeting.”
End of quotation, and the end of the essay.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
GIRL GONE ROGUE: A review of GOING ROGUE: AN AMERICAN LIFE (Sarah Palin)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
The title of Sarah Palin’s martyrology, Going Rogue (2009), is richly significant. “Rogue” can mean “renegade” and thus point to Palin’s illusory departure from the ever-redefinable “political” and “media elites,” as well as from the McCain camp. Reactionary politicians, these days, like to style themselves as “mavericks”–when, in fact, they represent this country’s most powerful insiders. They endorse tax cuts for the affluent; they serve the gluttonies of the wealthiest financiers, corporate executive officers, and industrialists in America.
A slight logogriphic substitution would transform “rogue” into “rouge.” The title, then, could be rendered: The Reddening of Sarah Palin. (“Rouge,” in particular, recalls a shade of lipstick. Would “rouge” refer to the pig’s lipstick-smeared mouth?). Red, obviously, is the color of the Republican Party, but it is also the color of passion and evokes rage and lust. It is, as well, the color of fury, of blood, of rapine and viciousness. It is the color of ecclesiastics, of cardinals. In the iconography of National Socialism, black swastikas were emblazoned on red backgrounds.
This is a book that is drenched in red.
There is discussion of the animals Sarah Palin enjoys slaughtering, the caribou and moose she takes pleasure in shooting, the salmon she skins. A photograph of the Arctic Huntress beaming with the psychosexual thrill that comes from killing game, the bloodied corpse of a caribou under her heel. “I love meat… [I] especially love moose and caribou. I always remind people from outside our state that there’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals–right next to the mashed potatoes” [18-19]. Little commentary is required; what is said is clear. The only room for animals, even endangered animals, is inside of us. Kill animals and then interiorize them, kill animals that prey upon those other animals we want to interiorize: “[W]e had to control predators, such as wolves, that were decimating the moose and caribou herds that feed our communities” .
I wish someone would tell Sarah Palin that to decimate means “to kill every tenth being.”
Sarah Palin thinks that animals exist only in order to be devoured by human beings. That is their purpose, their end, their divinely ordained telos. As if it were a “red kite” , she tells us, her mind is connected by an invisible string to the mind of God. She has immediate access to the divine understanding: “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?”
In other words,
1.) Animals can be meat–meat that is devoured by human beings.
2.) Therefore, animals exist only to be devoured by human beings.
We have here both a non sequitur and a teleological argument. It is equivalent to saying:
1.) The human hands may be used for strangulation.
2.) Therefore, the human hands exist only for the purpose of strangulation.
The color red may connote the blood of animals. It may also connote shame. One is reminded of the red face of the unnamed Alaskan politician who observes Sarah Palin with horror as she gleefully breastfeeds her daughter on a radio program: “I acted like I didn’t see the shocked look on the politician’s face as he turned red and pretended it didn’t bother him at all” . In a single image, the flocculent creaminess of lactate mingles with the blood that rises to the politician’s cheeks.
Red reappears when Sarah Palin douses herself, Countess Bathory style, in the blood of political martyrdom or of “the popular political blood sport called ‘the politics of personal destruction'” . Seldom has self-imposed victimhood been exploited so meretriciously as it is here. Sarah Palin bemoans the fact that she was “slapped with an ethics accusation” . And yet which “ethics accusation,” precisely? There are many. That she misappropriated her governorship for personal and political gain? That she used the Alaska Fund Trust to cadge gifts and benefits? She never tells us. She merely dismisses all ethical grievances as personal attacks issued by the monolithic Left: “One of the left’s favorite weapons is frivolous ethics complaints” .
Sarah Palin’s silence over her ethical misconduct is only one of the many silences that perforate Going Rogue. She never attempts to wash away the record of her ignorance of Africa, the Bush doctrine, or NAFTA. Certain things are so shameful that they cannot be erased with lies. Let me cite one more instance of this studied silence: As Mayor, our gentle authoress called for the banning of “objectionable” books from the Wasilla Public Library. She claims to have merely asked librarian Mary Ellen Emmons, “What’s the common policy on selecting new titles?” . And yet nowhere does Sarah Palin, meek and mild, mention that she fired Mary Ellen Emmons two days after this conversation took place. So many of this book’s pages are devoted to assaulting her critics (169 out of 234, by my count), but those criticisms for which she has no rejoinder, those words and actions that are truly indefensible and cannot be mangled, are consigned to a willful silence.
The name of whoever wrote this book is unknown, but it is attributed to a ventriloquist’s doll, a cue-card reader, a red harpy, a Venus in Carmine.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
by Joseph Suglia
The plural of haiku is haiku.
The frog leaps into the water:
My inexistent wife
Plays the flute.
The grapes dance;
The rats are in the barn
Eating the oats.