Jordan Peterson Is Overrated / Jordan Peterson Does Not Understand Nietzsche / Entrain the Nietzschean Time Machine / An Analysis of ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA by Friedrich Nietzsche / An Analysis of THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA by Friedrich Nietzsche

Entrain the Nietzschean Time Machine

by Joseph Suglia

“It’s a love/hate relationship I have with the human race.  I am an elitist, and I feel that my responsibility is to drag the human race along with me—that I will never pander to, or speak down to, or play the safe game.  Because my immortal soul will be lost.”

—Harlan Ellison

“When belief in a god dies, the god dies.”

—Harlan Ellison

NIETZSCHEAN RETROACTIVE CONTINUITY

Nietzsche is like a peaceful hurricane—not a hurricane that has been pacified but a hurricane that peacefully sweeps aside villages.

I am convinced that Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885) is work of retrodictive speculative fiction.  By “retrodictive speculative fiction,” I mean a work of a fiction, such as a novel, that imagines what the world today would look like if the world of yesterday were different than it was.

The thesis makes perfect sense if we consider the following: The historical Zarathustra was an ancient Iranian prophet (circa 1500 B.C.E.) who founded one of the first monotheisms—some religious historians even say the first monotheism—Zoroastrianism.  It is a religion that vastly predated Platonism and Christianity and is one of the first religions to postulate a divine order, a world beyond the world of the senses.  It clearly inspired Christianity, which also posits a dichotomy between the world-in-which-we-live and the beyond.

Nietzsche considers every religion to be a hive of intellectual errors.  If one were to go back in time and correct one of the first and most influential religions, Zoroastrianism, in what kind of world would we be living today?  This, I believe, was Nietzsche’s question as he was writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche is asking us: What if this book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, were a book written by the historical Zarathustra?  What if Nietzsche’s Zarathustra were the real Zarathustra?  If Nietzsche’s Zarathustra were the historical Zarathustra, the book is suggesting, we would be living in a much better, saner, healthier, more robust, more living world.  What effects would it have on the history of Christianity, if Nietzsche’s Zarathustra were the historical Zarathustra?   Christianity would have been entirely different—indeed, Christianity would never have existed.  There would be no Christianity without the historical Zarathustra.  We must remember that Nietzsche considered Christianity to be anti-life and anti-human.  One can find ballast for my supposition in Nietzsche’s opusculum Ecce Homo: “Zarathustra created this fateful error of morality [the division between benevolence and self-interest]: This means he has to be the first to recognize it.”  And to correct it.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra will go back in time and will correct the ancient Zarathustra’s errors—errors that gave birth to Christianity and to Christian-inspired moralisms.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra will reverse the errors that the ancient Iranian prophet Zarathustra made and thus obviate the supervenient Christianity.  Nietzsche’s target is clearly Christianity, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a counter-Bible.  It is a speculative-fictional retrodiction of the Christian Bible.  Its title could have been What Would Nietzsche Do?

The historical Zarathustra never said anything that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says.  Nietzsche’s Zarathustra even acknowledges that he is not his Iranian namesake at one stage (in “Von Tausend und einem Ziele”).[1]  This is why I maintain that Thus Spoke Zarathustra is an ex-post-facto speculative novel.  The novel establishes retroactive continuity, what we might call “Nietzschean retcon.”  We, as readers, are enjoined to travel in the Zarathustran Time Machine and to alter the past, which will, of course, alter the future.  This is not quite utopian fiction, since it does not present a paradisaical utopia, but it is not far away from utopian fiction, either (along the lines of Bellamy’s chiliastic-utopian Looking Backward).  It is a shame that Nietzsche did not live to write a science-fiction novel that would have been about the future—one that would have been written in the future perfect about a perfect future.

The narrative takes place in the hyper-past—not in the Before as it was lived, but in the Before as it might have been lived from the perspective of the After.  I am well aware that Thus Spoke Zarathustra makes allusions to nineteenth-century Europe and that the book is a modern book.  But its modernity resides in the fact that it bends the past to the will of the future.  A citation from T.S. Eliot (in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) is a propos to this context: “Whoever has approved this idea of order [the idea that the order of the English literary canon must be adjusted when a new work is canonized], of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.  And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.”  (Žižek, in his debate with Jordan Peterson on 19 April 2019, slightly miscited this passage from T.S. Eliot.)  One must modulate the T.S. Eliot quotation somewhat: The past should be altered not by the present, in the case of Nietzsche, but by the future.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is an irreligious prophet who lives alone in a mountain cave with his pet eagle and his pet snake.  (The eagle represents pride; the snake symbols cunning.)  After living in solitude for ten years, Zarathustra is now forty years old—only one year older than Nietzsche was when he began writing this book, in 1883.  Bored with his self-imposed exile, he returns to humanity and showers his wisdom on the people.  He is like the sun and wishes to radiate, for a sun needs an object against which to refract its rays in order to show its brilliance—we remember that Zarathustra’s Greek name, Zoroaster, means “Golden Star.”

An overflowing cup, Zarathustra wants nothing more than to teach and so he teaches the lesson of the overhuman, the Übermensch, to the residents of the Motley Cow, the bunte Kuh, a city that is as bovine and as disorderly as its name suggests.  He sermonizes the crowd non-messianically, lecturing them on “the sense of the Earth,” der Sinn der Erde, the overhuman (which I will discuss in greater depth below).  In doing so, Zarathustra gives what could be best described as an Anti-Sermon on the Mount.  Implicit in this sermon is a perversely subversive reinterpretation of Jesus.  Zarathustra blesses the meek, as Jesus does—but Zarathustra blesses the meek not because the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs, but because they will soon go under, because they will soon decline.  To go under (untergehen) is the necessity prerequisite for going across (übergehen) to overhumanization.  Unlike Jesus, Zarathustra is not a prophet who praises meekness, weakness, self-renunciation.  Unlike Jesus, Zarathustra is a prophet who praises strength, pride, vitality, creativity, fecundity.  Zarathustra favors the noble and the dignified, those who are vornehm, to the weakly meek and the meekly weak.  Zarathustra Contra Jesus.

Unlike Jesus, Zarathustra is no populist and would rather be alone than mingle with the mob.  Love of the crowd quick-transforms into disgust and contempt for the crowd, into a thick admixture of nausea and contempt, for the crowd is distractible and manifestly unworthy of his love and his lesson.  This is likely why Nietzsche subtitles the book A Book for Everyone and No One, Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen—he does not write for the herd, for the ironically anointed “higher humans” of today, or for the “last humans” of tomorrow.  He writes for his imaginary friends who will come about the day after tomorrow, the supra-futural free spirits who alone will understand his writings, his message, his lessons (the All), not for the human beings of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries who will constantly misinterpret his messages and lessons (the No One).  As all great authors, he writes not for readers of today, but for readers who have not yet been born.

Zarathustra witnesses a display of funambulism in the city square.  A tightrope walker, a Seiltänzer, is balanced above the crowd.  Suddenly, a buffoon, a Possenreisser, appears and leaps over the funambulist, who topples from the line and plummets to his slow death.  Much like the tightrope walker, modern humanity, Zarathustra reminds us, is positioned between the ape and the overhuman.  Who could the jester represent other than those nihilists who would overthrow humankind as it exists in modernity in a simple and hasty fashion?  The mistake of the buffoon is to believe that humanity could ever be merely “jumped over.”  Humankind must go down before it can ever go across, before it transforms into the overhuman, it is true—but it must go across.  The Prologue suggests that humanity cannot be “jumped over” in a simple way—great longing and self-disgust precede the lurch into the overhuman.  Epigenesis, then, not autogeny or spontaneous birth.

DEVALUATING THE VIRTUES

After the Prologue, very little happens.  Zarathustra just gives speeches most of the time.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra becomes, formally, a novel of sermons—a microscopic subgenre of literature to which novels of Hölderlin, Gibran, and Hesse also belong.  Zarathustra sets to work dispraising and disprizing virtues—exposing them as genetically vicious—and praising and prizing vices.  He will do so throughout Part One, Part Two, and Part Three (this is a book in four parts).  Until Part Four, wherein Thus Spoke Zarathustra again becomes a narrative, the book will not be especially literary.  Part Four did not appear until 1885; forty copies were published privately and gifted to friends.

In a book that is heavy in metaphor,[2] Nietzsche compares his language, his writing, to the snout of a boar which digs up acorns and insects from the dirt.[3]  As the boar, as the wild pig, Nietzsche will uncover, reveal, disclose our hidden motives whenever we do something that seems to be moral.  So, Nietzsche the boar digs up our hidden motives—and what does he find?  He finds that all of our motives are unclean and selfish and rotten.[4]  Human beings are grasping and designing creatures.

According to Nietzsche, no one ever does anything without the promise of a reward.  Behind every virtue is the desire for an advantage.  The virtuous want to be paid, Nietzsche tells us: ‘[S]ie wollen noch—bezahlt sein!’ (“Von den Tugendhaften”).  I have coined the adjective virtuous-Machiavellian to describe this disposition.  Think of those who perform good acts because they want transcendence: They want compensation, in the beyond.  After death, I will receive repayment for all that I have suffered in the name of virtue.  I will receive my compensation for being a good person.  But this is only a religious framework.  Nietzsche is not writing about a religious framework, really; he’s writing about those who are virtuous for the sake of the approbation of an audience.

For Nietzsche, virtues are not inner properties, inner qualities (here, Nietzsche partly agrees with Aristotle).  They are not signs of a good character.  A virtue is a performance.  What is a virtue if you can’t perform it in front of spectators?  Virtues exist for one reason—to be displayed.  We have virtues in order to show them off, according to Nietzsche.  We have virtues in order to assert our moral superiority.  Someone who speaks in a very loud voice about his or her moral outrage over some event or over some sequence of syllables—does that person not want to be regarded as morally superior?  And isn’t such a megaphonic blast of phony moral outrage a kind of strike or attack against other people to whom one wants to be superior?  All virtuousness is sanctimony.

To adduce three examples of sanctimonious virtuousness (from Human, All-Too-Human and Daybreak, slightly paraphrased):

a.) The man who rescues an anile old woman from an immolating building wants everyone around him, including himself, to think that he is heroic.  He is performing a counterstrike against his own feeling of powerlessness—as he is suggesting that who do not intervene are powerless.

b.) The soldier who dies on the battlefield wants to be memorialized as a superhero—in opposition to the Most, who, he implies by his self-chosen death, are cowardly and not as strong as he.  He really has the vain desire for immortality.

c.) The girl who is faithful to the boy she loves wants her beloved to cheat on her so that she can display her virtuous faithfulness.  She can then boast of her virtuous chastity and loyalty.

The point is, to paraphrase Nietzsche, that these self-anointed saints of virtue want to elevate themselves by degrading others.  In Daybreak, Nietzsche writes of the nun who wants married women to hate her because she is celibate and piously devoted to God.  The nun flaunts her holiness; the nun flaunts her virginity.  She degrades all other women in order to elevate herself.

This is why Nietzsche suggests that virtue is vengeance.

We learn that the virtues are actually vices, that Good is actually Evil.  After all, all virtues have degenerate, corrupt, filthy, unspeakable origins.  At the bottom of our virtues are malice, the desire for revenge, envy, gluttony, hatred, vanity—our darkest impulses lie at the bottom of every virtue.  Nietzsche lets no one off the hook and certainly not the meek, the charitable, the volunteers, and the saints.

Chastity is disguised vulgarity, for instance.  Chastity is nothing more than lust misspelled.  The chaste are vulgarians who would revirginize themselves—but one cannot revirginize oneself.  Chastity places extraordinarily unhuman restrictions on our somatic constitutions—but it does not eliminate lust.  Chastity intensifies lust.  As Nietzsche reminds us, chastity is originally filthiness, and the chaste tend to be filth-obsessed.  Chastity, and all of the other conventional virtues, are already rooted in the body—and yet the virtues pretend to be transcendences, idealizations, sublimities.  They pretend to be away-from-the-body etherealities.  The point is that the virtues are not so virtuous and the vices are not so vicious and we should invent new values that would celebrate and affirm the bodiliness of the body and that would celebrate and affirm the worldliness of the world.  The elaboration of new, life-affirming values could only happen once we accept that all of us are selfish and that we can never erase our petty envies and trivial vanities.

Nietzsche’s chapter on the virtuous, the Tugendhaften, is clearly a riposte to Kantian ethics.

Kant criticizes what Nietzsche acknowledges, the impurity of motives, but Kant believes in a higher morality—in a morality that is enacted for the sake of morality, for the sake of pure practical reason.

There are no pure incentives or pure motives, according to Nietzsche.  Here is a difference from Kant.  Kant believes in the pure, insensate feeling of respect (Achtung) as the affective basis of all moral action.

For Kant, morality is autonomy (reason talking to itself, reason telling itself what to do, the human reason giving the law to itself).

For Nietzsche, all morality is heteronomy (reason is told what to do by external forces—social forces, the sensorium, the emotions).

For Kant, to be moral, we must be rational: We must perform moral acts and make moral choices without expecting anything in return.

For Nietzsche, whenever we perform moral actions and make moral choices, we always expect something in return.

Human beings are not autonomous, despite what the Kantians and the libertarians tell us.  Human beings are automatic; they are automata.

Nietzsche’s “On the Despisers of the Body” (“Von den Verächtern des Leibes”) is a rejoinder to Plato’s theory (in the Timaeus) that the soul is immaterial and the body is an obstruction to the intuitions and perceptions of the soul.

In the Prologue, Zarathustra exclaims to the residents of the Motley Cow: “Whoever [-] is the wisest among you, he is nothing but a conflict and a hybrid between plant and ghost,”  Wer [-] der Weiseste von euch ist, der ist auch nur rein Zwiespalt und Zwitter von Plfanze und von Gespenst.  If we see the vegetative “part” as the body (matter without consciousness) and the ghostly “part” as the mind (consciousness without matter), we are artificially dividing the human being into two antagonistic components.  This is a false interpretation of the human animal.  This is the OLD way of looking at human beings, not the NEW way that Zarathustra teaches.

As is well-known, Aristotle asserted that the human being is a rational animal—an animal with reason superadded to what is animal, that is to say, the human being is an animal with reason superadded to what is body.  Rationality, thinking, the mind, the soul, the spirit, the ectoplasm, the anima, according to this conventional path of thinking, is somehow transcendent to the physical—as if these ideals were immiscible with physical reality.

But it is precisely the other way around: The body is not a function of the soul; the soul is a function of the body.  Nietzsche suggests, as well, that the mind is an appendage of the body, thinking is a physiological process, the cognitive supervenes upon the somatic.  Sense is a figure of the body, Zarathustra tells us, so ist [der Sinn] ein Gleichnis unsres Leibes (“Von der schenkenden Tugend”).  The mind, and the consciousness that is dependent upon the mind, could not exist outside of the body and is subordinate to the body.  Every cognitive scientist today knows this already.

And yet Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says more than this.  Nietzsche despiritualizes and animalizes / bestializes the human being.  The animal “part” is, according to Nietzsche, the whole of the human animal.  He places the body above the spirit and then supersedes the distinction between body and spirit altogether.  The Cartesian distinction between mind and body is a false distinction.

Since at least the time of Plato, human beings have thought of themselves as divided organisms (as composites of body and mind or as composites of body and soul), whereas, for Nietzsche, they are unified bodies that misinterpret themselves.  Contempt for the body is itself a manifestation of the body, of the body that despairs of the body, Der Leib war’s, der am Leibe verzweifelte (“Von den Hinterweltlern”).  We learn that the body is a great reason, Der Leib ist eine grosse Vernunft (“Von den Verächtern des Leibes”).  We are taught that “soul” is only a word for a Something on the body, Seele ist nur ein Wort für ein Etwas am Leibe (Ibid.).  The human reason is corporeal, the “soul” is corporeal, the “I” is corporeal, the mind (or spirit) is corporeal.  Everything that is considered “spiritual” is corporealized.  Everything is the body; the body is everything.

There is no evidence that the mind does anything apart from the body—quite the contrary.  The idea that the mind is separate or separable from the body is an anti-physiological wish—the wish for human self-mastery and human freedom.

The soul is a part of the human anatomy.  There is no pneuma outside of soma.  The spirit does not come before the flesh.  For Nietzsche, the flesh comes before the spirit.  What Nietzsche is suggesting is far more radical (than suggesting merely that the mind is a part of the body): He is telling us that the ideal is rooted in the real.  The real makes possible the ideal, not the other way around.  The overhumans will not think of themselves as half-bodies and as half-souls but as all bodies—and each body of each human being contains a thinking organ.

The world, as the body, is empty of sin.  Zarathustra, accordingly, terrestrializes the world: “Stay true to the Earth,” bleibt der Erde treu, Zarathustra says in the Prologue.  “To blaspheme the Earth is now the most terrible thing…”  An der Erde zu freveln ist jetzt das Furchtbarste…  We should no longer believe that the world is infused with sin or that the body is infused with sin.

After deposing the body and the world, Nietzsche deposes pity as a virtue.  Nietzsche unmasks pity as the desire to inflict shame (Scham) on the object of pity.  Pity is formative of a power-relation: The pitier has dominance, preponderance, superiority over the pitiful.  The one who is capable of pity has a greater degree of power than the one who is incapable of pity.  The one who pities makes the pitied dependent on the pitier—the pitied forms a “great dependency” ([g]rosse Verbindlichkeit) as a result of being pitied by the one who is capable of pity.  This dependency creates within the pitied, in turn, the impulse toward revenge against the pitier (“Von den Mitleidigen”).

Generosity is unmasked as a form of revenge, for Nietzsche: When we are generous, we are trying to show how noble we are—which means that we are suggesting that we are better than most people, especially the benefactors of our generosity.  We give with an aggressive freehandedness, which is why the one who refuses our gifts is regarded by us as an insulting person.  The overnice are not very nice.  The overmellow are not very mellow.

Gratitude is likewise unveiled as the sign that one is overflowing with power—one has the power to be grateful to someone who has done one a favor.  Here we must remember: Life itself is the will-to-power.  That is to say: Every living thing desires mastery, preponderance, superiority over all other living things.  The two forms of will-to-power are obeying and commanding, and even obeisance is the desire for mastery: “Even in the will of the serving I found the will to be master,” noch im Willen des Dienstenden fand ich den Willen, Herr zu sein (“Von der Selbst-Überwindung”).  Even in servants, especially in servants, there is the will to become master.  Every secretary desires to become the boss; every nurse desires to become the doctor.

Nietzsche-Zarathustra reduces benevolence to vengeance.  Reclining under a Bodhi Tree—much like the Buddha did, except the Buddha squatted under a Bodhi Tree—Zarathustra is bitten in the neck by an adder.  And what does Zarathustra do in response?  He does not forgive the adder, nor does he offer the snake his neck for a second bite.  He thanks the serpent for awakening him, for he has a long journey ahead of him.

Zarathustra, then, doesn’t offer his neck to his enemy.  To do so would be to dishonor the snake.  “Turning the other cheek” is not a morally pure action.  There is nothing good about “turning the other cheek”—it is a passive-act of aggressive generosity.  As Nietzsche reminds us, not avenging oneself can be a subtle and elegant form of vengeance.

Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek—to exchange an evil with a good.  Zarathustra teaches us not to exchange an evil with a good—but to show our enemy that by doing us evil, he has actually done us some good, beweist, dass er euch etwas Gutes angetan hat (“Vom Biss der Natter”).  At this point, I cannot resist paraphrasing the greatest of all Nietzschean novelists, D.H. Lawrence, who warned us never to forgive our enemies prematurely, lest we breed murderers in our hearts.  In the same way that benevolence is vengeance, vengeance can be a form of benevolence.  This is what I would call salutary revenge.

Even the desire for justice, for equality and equitableness, is distilled to the hunger for revenge against the powerful—and decocted to the enviousness of the powerful.  The contempt for tyrants is itself the “tyrannical lunacy of impotence” (Tyrannen-Wahnsinn der Ohnmacht) (“Von den Taranteln”), for within every socialist revolutionary pulses the heart of a micro-tyrant or a failed tyrant, a tyrant manqué.  The tarantulas (Nietzsche’s name for justice advocates) and the firehounds (his name for revolutionaries) practice the sadism of unearned victimhood.  Justice advocates and revolutionaries are driven by emotional-political and political-emotional impulses.

Zarathustra scrapes off the coating of gold from the Golden Rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself!”  One might rightly ask oneself these questions: Why should I love my neighbor?  What has s/he done to earn my love—and can love ever be earned?  Is love a matter of choice?  What if I hate myself?  How could I then love my neighbor?  Love of the neighbor means not loving oneself, eure Nächstenliebe ist eure schlechte Liebe zu euch selber (“Von der Nächstenliebe”).  Neighborly love, Nächstenliebe, is really the abrading of self-love, the failure to love oneself properly, or a kind of cowardice, the fear of being hit or otherwise hurt by one’s neighbor.  Other-centeredness benefits the neighbor, and yet neighborly love is selfish, paradoxically (I will return to the concept of self-love below).

Nietzsche distills love to envy.  By loving someone, one often wants to jump over the envy that one has for the person whom one loves, oft will man mit der Liebe nur den Neid überspringen (“Vom Freunde”).  Yes, love is a form of envy.  To love someone is to want to become that person.  In the eyes of lovers, in their Liebesblicke, there is the desire to become those whom they love—and then to become better than those whom they love.  What is attractive to the lover are certain qualities that the lover lacks.  Love is a form of cannibalism, and cannibalism is the urge to ingest desired traits of the cannibalized.

The indiscriminate love of humanity makes no sense, either, for Zarathustra/Nietzsche (there is no essential difference, is there?).  Nietzsche has a name for average human beings.  He calls them flies.  And Nietzsche’s flies are venomous—though, as far I know, there are no venomous flies in nature, though biting flies, such as the female Horse Fly or the Yellow Fly, do exist.

Why flies, precisely?  In the eighth chapter of Exodus of the Hebraic Bible, God sends swarms of flies to attack the Pharaoh of Egypt and his retinue.  Nietzsche’s imaginary friends, the suprahuman readers of tomorrow, are pharaonic disbelievers, of course; accordingly, his Zarathustra advises us to flee into our solitude—away from the divinely propelled flies, away from the rabble, away from the mob, away from the crowd, away from the commonal.

Here, Nietzsche is passing close to the teachings of stoicism, the philosophy of the corridor.  Stoicism teaches us that we can control the way that we feel (I actually don’t believe this) but that we cannot control what we cannot control: the uncontrollable, ananke.  Do your best in everything, and don’t worry about what you cannot change!  Such is the watchword of stoicism.  One of the things that is within our control is the number of friends we permit through the narrow aperture of our lives.  Zarathustra has no time for the venomous flies.  As Darius Foroux writes, “[Y]ou don’t control others.  That’s why who you spend your time with is a matter of life and death.”  Epexegesis: You cannot control other human beings, but you can control who you spend time with.

What I gather from this lesson in Nietzschean stoicism: The crowd is not the enemy of the free spirit; average people are flies, not enemies.  Flies are not enemies, for the concept of enmity implies parity.  An enemy is your equal; to call someone an “enemy” is to imply that such a creature is your equal.  To avenge oneself on a fly is to grant that subhuman organism a dignity that is not its own.  Do not swat them!  Dismiss them from your life, that is all.  A fly is unworthy of becoming the object of your vengeance.  One does not avenge oneself on flies.  One does not swat flies.  As Nietzsche writes, it is not Zarathustra’s lot to be a flyswatter, a Fliegenwendel (“Von den Fliegen des Marktes”).

Zarathustra drags everything ideal down to the Earth.  He pollutes every form of purity.  There is no such thing as pure perception, as immaculate perception (die unbefleckte Wahrnehmung), we are told.  Here he is in total concordance with his unofficial Philosophy teacher Schopenhauer, with one important distinction—Nietzsche believes that perception is contamination, which is something that Schopenhauer nowhere suggests.  We never perceive anything like an objective world—our perceptions are sullied with our desires, with our anthropomorphisms, with prejudices that we impose on the world.  We screen the world through our own speculum.  I do not perceive the moon as it actually is; I perceive an image on my retina.  My mind is a hegemonikon, a sun that illuminates all of the things that surround me and gives them meaning.  My hand does not touch the branch of the tree; my hand touches itself, my hand only touches its own touching.  I do not see the waves as they rush to the shore; I only see my own seeing.  As Schopenhauer argues, the hand can let go of anything other than itself; Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are concordant on this point.  The world has to reach to my height, zur meiner Höhe (“Von der unbefleckten Wahrnehmung”).  An honest perception is one that embraces the veil—and this embracement-of-the-veil is art.  An honest percipient is one who perceives that we only perceive our own perceptions, that any possibility of “purity” is contaminated by our valuations, our prejudices, our background, our desires, our feelings—and the highest form of perception is formative, aesthetic perception.  Art expresses the desire for a perception to become more than mere perception while acknowledging that all perception is mere perception.  How does art do this?  By creating the image of a perception.  Art is the image of an image.

In contradistinction to the teachings of the Iranian Zarathustra and to the lessons of Jesus, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra tells us that there is no otherworldliness, that there is no mind apart from the body, that soma is spirit.  There is no reason, we learn, for tormenting the body for its necessary cravings and impulsions; there is no reason for tormenting ourselves for feelings that are inborn within us, feelings that are innate, our congenital affections and desires.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra anticipates, welcomes, promises, celebrates a self-affirmative, spontaneous, productive, fruitful humanity that will not condemn itself for what it is and for what it cannot but be.

It is as if Nietzsche were presenting to us a Zarathustra, one of the first religious prophets we know of, who is anti-metaphysical, who believes in sanctifying the Earth, who celebrates the body and who does not see the mind as separate from, or superior to, the body, and who even tells us that benevolence is selfishness, that there is no giving without selfishness.  A healthier, more vigorous, more lifeful overhumanity will accept these things.

THE OVERHUMANITIES

The overhuman is a new species of humanity that will be disencumbered from the intellectual lies of religion, metaphysics, and morality.  The overhuman is the one who will exceed, surpass, transcend the religions, the moralities, the metaphysics that have hitherto encumbered humankind.  It will be the end of the Anthropocene and the beginning of the Meta-Anthropocene.

But what are the virtues of the overhuman?  We know the Official Theories that are subjected to critique by Zarathustra: pity, generosity, gratitude, benevolence, the sense for justice, romantic love, love of the neighbor, the love of humanity or philanthropy, immaculate perception, etc.  Zarathustra de-ballasts the traditional concepts of morality, as well as those of metaphysics and of religion.  But what does Zarathustra stand for?  Zarathustra heralds the overhuman.  What does the overhuman stand for?  What are the virtues of the overhuman?  What are the overhumanities?

It is too early to say with precision—the overhuman has yet to be born, the overhuman will come after the last human—but there are three overhumanities that we know of, and they are presented in the chapter entitled “On the Three Evils.”  We learn a great deal about what the overhuman will not be.  What the overhuman is, what the overhuman believes and thinks, in a positive sense, will be explained in “On the Three Evils.”  What, then, are Zarathustra’s values?  The answer is: Zarathustra’s values are what have hitherto been called “vices.”  Nietzsche soberly and dispassionately evaluates three so-called “vices” or “evils”: voluptuous carnal pleasure, the desire to rule, and selfishness, Wollust, Herrschsucht, and Selbstsucht (“Von den drei Bösen”).

“Selfishness” is healthy self-love, not the sickly “own-love” (Eigenliebe) of pathological narcissism, the self-obsession of sadistically abusive, exploitive narcissists who do not genuinely love themselves and who are forever unhappy—and forever heavy.  Self-loving is a kind of delicious selfishness.  Self-love cannot be the basis of a moral action, according to Kant.  Against Kant, Nietzsche is urging us to love ourselves.  Nietzsche teaches us to love ourselves, against Christianity, as well, which teaches that self-love is the deadliest of all sins.

Voluptuous carnal pleasure, the desire to rule, and selfishness are all life-affirming and signs of human strength.  Are they really so bad?  Virtuousness, which hides the demand for moral superiority, and which praises weakness and meekness, is far worse.  Virtuousness is a life-hating position; vice is enhancing of life.

Nietzsche, then, elevates “Evil” and “vices” and derogates “Good” and “virtue.”  Again, what is traditionally called “good” isn’t very good, and what is traditionally called “evil” isn’t so bad.

The first stage, then, is the dispraise of conventional virtues.

The second stage is the praise of conventional vices.  Nietzsche/Zarathustra prizes, in particular, voluptuous pleasure, the lust for power, and selfishness.  None of these deserves to be goblinized; none of these deserves to be monsterized.  Here it is imperative to clarify: Thus Spoke Zarathustra is not some Satanic Anti-Bible; this is not inverted Christianity.  Nietzsche wears the devil’s horns, prankish Nietzsche, but it is only a mask.  Marilyn Manson, who is conscious of Nietzsche, similarly plays the role of the bogeyman.  Nietzsche is not an endorser of Evil; he is not Mephistopheles who pops up from the abysses of Hell and proclaims, “Let Evil be my Good!”  He wants to rethink the dichotomy between Good and Evil altogether, which leads us to the third stage.

The third stage is the displacement, the overcoming of the distinction between “virtue” and “vice” altogether and the making-way for a set of new values.  The final stage is the abrogation of common Good and common Evil.  There is no reason to have virtues or vices in an overhuman world in which the Earth and the body are valued.  Invent new values!  Invent your own values!  Actively forget the virtues and the vices!  Values, yes.  Virtues and vices, no.

So: In the first stage, the virtues are diabolized, and in the second stage, the vices are angelized.  In the third stage, there are neither devils, nor are there angels.  Derrida does not appear terribly original anymore when we see the supersession of dichotomies in Nietzsche.

After praising vices and dispraising so-called “virtues,” we accede to a new order in which there will be no vices and there will be no virtues.  A world in which nothing will be considered “moral” or “immoral,” a world in which nothing will be considered “good” or “evil.”  Create your own morality, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is suggesting to us.  And to create, Zarathustra reminds us, one must be a lover—and one, perhaps paradoxically, must be solitary.  “With your love go into your solitude and with your creating, my brother,” Mit deiner Liebe gehe in deine Vereinsamung und mit deinem Schaffen, mein Bruder… (“Vom Weg des Schaffenden”).  Then comes the euphoria of aesthetic productivity.  Overhuman values will be generated.  And this is what Nietzsche means by “self-overcoming” (Selbst-Überwindung): the devaluation and destruction of conventional values and the creation of overhumanly affirmative values.

Here Nietzsche is not far from the anti-ethical philosophy of Max Stirner, whose work Nietzsche certainly read and admired.[5]  Stirner thinks that the Good is whatever is good for me and that the Evil is whatever is evil for me.  Such are the contours of the Stirnerian ego-system.  However, Nietzsche goes beyond the egosphere, beyond the egoic.  Nietzsche, by contrast, asks: What is good for humanity?  And what is good for humanity will be a banquet of delights for overhumanity.

The point is not to humanize humanity, but to overhumanize humanity.  Nietzsche welcomes not the superhuman, but the suprahuman.  Zarathustra is not the overhuman but the one who heralds the overhuman.  Accordingly, Zarathustra’s new animal friends will be a lion and a flight of doves that encircles the beast—the sign of the overhuman (“Das Zeichen”).

* * * * *

If the world seemed like a desert to Nietzsche, the Europe of the nineteenth century, the modern world, it was because there were so many camels about, so many human beings who loaded themselves up with toxic, noxious inherited concepts, concepts that were extrinsic to humanity—and that stultified humanity.  Good and Evil, the concept of original sin, led to the desertification of the world and the becoming-camel of cameline humanity.  Of camelinity.

Nietzsche sees humanity as weighed down by the so-called virtues and vices, as weighed down by fictitious Good and fictitious Evil, a humanity burdened by the self-hatred that comes with guilt and the presumption of selflessness, which does not exist.  Nietzsche’s diagnosis is that modern humanity is still freighted by the “Spirit of Gravity,” der Geist der Schwere—but this spirit is losing its gravitas.  Nineteenth-century Europe is drifting toward nihilism.

The Spirit of Gravity is the misbegotten idea that the world is aggravated by some inherent meaning.  The Spirit of Gravity freights the world with theological lies such as Good and Evil, as if human beings were simple and undifferentiated and pourable and fillable into Tupperware containers marked ‘Good’ and ‘Evil.’  Specifically, Nietzsche is concerned with original sin.  The concept of original sin blocks self-love—after all, if we are born evil, if sinfulness is inborn within us, what is lovable about you or me?

Nietzsche’s goal is to liberate humanity from the concept that existence is sinfulness (as promulgated by Christianity and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche’s former ex officio mentor).

For Schopenhauer, existence is hatable for three essential reasons: 1.) When the human will can’t get what it wants, it suffers.  2.) When the human will seizes upon what it wants, it doesn’t want that object anymore.  3.) The fundamental character of the will is striving.  There will thus inevitably be a conflict of wills.  Two people want the same piece of land—because the other person wants the same piece of land.  Two men desire the same woman—because the other man desires the same woman.  Two women desire the same man—because the other woman desires the same man (one does not need to limit oneself to heterosexual desires; here, Schopenhauer is close to Hobbes).

Nietzsche has a different, more interesting characterization.  Life appears terrible because the past is irrecoverable, irreversible, immutable.  We grow bitter, resentful, because we wish that the past were otherwise than what it was.  The past seems immovable, like a stone.  We hate existence because we hate who we were in the past.  The Spirit of Revenge (der Geist der Rache) avenges itself on existence by regarding existence as punishment, as sinfulness.  Christianity holds that human beings are essentially mired in sinfulness—which means, of course, that they are sinful even before they are born.

Zarathustra would liberate—redeem—human existence from the imputation of sinfulness.  He would emancipate humanity from its self-inculpation.  How?  By regarding the irretrievable, irrecoverable, undeletable, unerasable, hatable past into something that is fervently desired—the “It was” becomes the “So I want it,” the Es war becomes the So wollte ich es (“Von der Erlösung”).

Against Schopenhauer, against Christianity, Nietzsche reverses resentment toward the “It was.”  Both the Christian and Schopenhauerian positions are concordant: “I can’t do anything about the ‘It was,’” they both suggest.  Yes, you can do something about the “It was”—you can impassionedly affirm it.  You can desire the “It was.”

Regarding existence as sinful or as a punishment (Schopenhauer agrees with Christian theology that existence is fallenness and a punishment) stops being meaningful as soon as you desire the “It was.”  More than that: You desire that the “It was” will repeat itself infinitely.

Not only is the past vigorously affirmed—the infinite repetition of the past is vigorously affirmed.  The thought experiment is as follows: Act as though everything that you do will have been repeated infinitely.  This suspends the category of the past; the “It was” becomes the “It will always be” and “It will always have been.”  Living one’s life for the sake of its own infinite repetition—the past is now subject to its own infinite repetition—means that the category of the past is suspended.  It also means that the category of the present is abolished, as I will argue when I finally get to Nietzsche’s posthumous papers.

(Briefly: There is no present moment, since the present moment will repeat itself infinitely.  The infinite repetition of the same suspends the category of the present.  There is no such thing as the present, only the future perfect.  Nothing happens now—things only will have happened.  The future has already occurred; the future will have already occurred.)

The embracement of the eternal recurrence of the same, the affirmation of infinite repetition, eliminates all human regret and all human guilt.

In “Vom Gesicht und Rätsel,” Zarathustra experiences a vision of the eternal recurrence of the same.  Two roads lead from and to a gate upon which is emblazoned a sign that reads “MOMENT.”  One eternity leads to the past, the other to the future (assuming that the word “MOMENT” actually means that the intersection of the two eternities is the “MOMENT”).

Zarathustra envisions a spider in the moonlight and a talpine dwarf.  (Talpine = “mole-like.”)  Zarathustra hears the baying of a dog.  The spider in the moonlight, the baying dog, the dwarf-mole—all of these creatures will recur again and again, forever.  They will play their parts in an infinitely restaged spectacle.

Zarathustra dreams of a shepherd who is lying supine on the ground in the moonlight with a snake down his throat, choking on the snake that is tunneling down his throat.  Why is he a “shepherd”?  How is he a “shepherd”?  Isn’t a shepherd someone who tends sheep?  But this “shepherd” doesn’t tend sheep—he is writhing on the ground with a snake in his mouth.  Perhaps the shepherd represents Zarathustra himself—the shepherd without sheep, the leader without followers (I will return to this matter below).

Nietzsche is also slyly suggesting to us that the one who gazes at his or her life with an eternal eye will be free from every role, will not be reducible to any social role or to any social function.  S/he will be liberated, fully transformed, fully human for the first time.

Why “choking”?  In the same way that God chokes on His pity for humankind, the shepherd is choking on his pity for humankind, on a thick admixture of disgust, contempt, and pity.

Biting the snake, the shepherd who tends no sheep transcends his nausea.  It is nauseating, at first, to think of all of time repeating itself eternally.  A future humanity will embrace and affirm the eternal repetition of all things without nausea.

The point is to think eternally, in the way that Zarathustra does, and to surmount one’s nausea in the face of life’s abyssal eternal self-repetition.  Nietzsche is not suggesting that our lives will actually repeat themselves endlessly; Nietzsche does not believe in reincarnation, in samsāra, in the perpetual recycling of rebirth and redeath.  The eternal recurrence of the same is a thought experiment.  It is a Nietzschean imperative.  The Nietzschean imperative is: Act as if your life will repeat itself eternally.  Once you act as if your life will endlessly reinitiate itself, concepts such as Good and Evil seem as if they were only wispy clouds, drifting ephemerae against the backdrop of the infinite blue sky (“Vor Sonnen-Aufgang”).[6]

The theory of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same lightens the world.  It alleviates the world of its anti-human cargo.  The lightness that suffuses one is not unbearable at all, especially since Nietzsche stresses that the levity of self-love exists “so that one [can] bear oneself,” dass man es bei sich selber aushalte (“Vom Geist der Schwere”).  The consequence of believing in the Eternal Recurrence of the Same is not the unbearable lightness of being, but the floaty legerity of existence.

THE ETERNAL RECURRENCE OF A JOKE

In order to properly understand the chapter entitled “On the Poets” (“Von den Dichtern”), the reader must know something about Goethe.

Goethe writes at the end of Faust: Part Two (1832): “All that is perishable is just a parable,” Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.  He meant that the idea that anything is decaying, decomposing, dying, temporary, ephemeral, evanescent, vanishing is an illusion.

Zarathustra says to his disciples: “‘Imperishable’—that is just a parable,” ‘Unvergängliche’—das ist auch nur ein Gleichnis (“Von den Dichtern”).  In other words, the idea that anything is immortal, permanent, eternal, everlasting is an illusion.  Zarathustra’s disciples are rather upset by this announcement, but they are even more upset when their leader tells his followers not to believe anything that he says.  The leader disfollows his followers; he tells his own followers not to follow him.

Zarathustra says more than this.  He even calls his own erstwhile beloved overhuman one of the “colorful brats” (bunte[-] Bälge) that we place into the heavens—in other words, the overhuman is nothing more than a bombastic fiction, nothing more than an ethereality, nothing more than a fabrication, nothing more than a mystification, nothing more than an abstraction, nothing more than one form of unreality among other forms of unreality.

One should draw a contrast between the Goethe of Faust II and the Goethe of the second edition of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1775).  In the second version of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe revised the poem at the beginning of the book to end thusly: “Be a man, and do not follow me,” Sei ein Mann, und folge mir nicht nach [in italics].  It is as if Goethe were admonishing young men not to follow Werther’s example.  It is as if Goethe were admonishing young men not to kill themselves, as Werther did, and not to imitate Werther’s atrocious fashion choices.  Goethe didn’t want his young male readers to kill themselves; he probably didn’t want them to dress the way that his Werther did, either.

Nietzsche is turning toward the Goethe of 1775 and turning away from the Goethe of 1832.  It is as if Zarathustra were saying to his followers, and Nietzsche were saying to his readers, “Do not believe in me!  Believe in yourselves!  Do not follow me!  Follow yourselves!”

In The Gospel according to Luke, Jesus commands his disciples to follow him blindly: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and his sisters—yes, even his own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” [14:26].  Unlike Jesus, who demanded obeisance from his disciples, Zarathustra wants traitors, not followers.  By being faithful to Zarathustra, his disciples are betraying themselves.  Zarathustra thus implores his disciples to follow him with a kind of treacherous piety and to believe in themselves, not in him: “Now I summon you to lose me and to find yourselves; for only after you have all denied me will I turn back to you.”  Nun heisse euch, mich verlieren und euch finden; und erst, wenn ihr mich alle verleugnet habt, will ich euch wiederkehren (“Von der schenkenden Tugend”).  In other words: Think for yourselves!  And thinking for yourselves means to contradict yourselves, to overthrow your own convictions and credulities, again and again and again.  Jesus never says, “Betray me!” or “Deny me!”  He says (to Peter), “You will deny me three times” (Matthew 26:34).

The Jesus of the Johannine Gospel says, “Whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (11:26).  Zarathustra, by contrast, affirms the “consummative death,” [der] vollbringende[-] Tod (“Vom freien Tode”)—the death that is undergone by the complete free spirit who chooses his or her own death, who chooses to die at the right time, at the time of his or her fullness and ripeness, who completes his or her life in the active passivity of dying.  And life can only complete itself through the voluntary assumption of mortality.  More relevant to this section of my essay: Zarathustra is saying, in essence: Whoever lives by believing in me is deceiving oneself.  This is not a didactic or pedantic book.[7]

Nietzsche is telling us, in effect, that everything that we have been reading is a lie!  Zarathustra brooks no fans, no fanatics, no followers.  He wants to missionarize no one.  Zarathustra is a sermonizer who urges his disciples to betray him and to contradict his lessons.  A prophet who renounces his or her own followers renounces himself, renounces herself.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a book that cancels itself out; it takes on the strange appearance of a book that annihilates itself and leaves the reader alone to think for himself, for herself.

DETHRONING THE HIGHER HUMANS

In Part Four, Zarathustra encounters the ironically typed “higher humans.”  Each one of them lets out a cry of distress (Notschrei) in the forest, and Zarathustra, out of pity, rushes to soothe their lachrymose lachrymations.  A cry of distress leads Zarathustra from one higher human to the next, from one station to the next.

The higher humans are invited to a feast at Zarathustra’s cave.  They are the following: the Soothsayer, the Two Kings, the Conscientious of Spirit, the Wizard, the Last Pope, the Ugliest Man, the Wanderer, and the Voluntary Beggar.  Each personage misinterprets Zarathustra’s lesson (I will return to this matter below).

1.) The Soothsayer (der Wahrsager) predicts the coming emptying-out of all values—the epoch of nihilism, the historical moment at which human beings will no longer have the desire to value anything at all.  This will be the time of the last humans, those who blankly blink, those who are passionless, those who are self-complacent, those who don’t even understand the concept of striving.  The absence of all values will be the moment when values will devaluate themselves, which is the final stage before the coming of the overhuman (see Deleuze’s remarks on the Soothsayer in Pure Immanence).  The Soothsayer holds that all life is suffering; he, perhaps, reflects Schopenhauer.

2.) The Two Kings might be best described as “anthropotheists”: those humanists who worship the Human as if it were a god.  They allegorize those who seek the higher humans; they are also, paradoxically, called “higher humans” themselves.  The Two Kings replace the dead gods with the living human being.  It is they who bring the donkey.  They misinterpret what Zarathustra aphorizes: that a “good war hallows any cause” and that a “short peace is better than a long one,” der gute Krieg ist es, der jede Sache heiligt and [Ihr sollt] den kurzen Frieden [lieben] mehr als den langen. (“Vom Krieg und Kriegsvolke”).  Nietzsche knew that some of his hastier and lazier readers who misinterpret him as an endorser of bellicosity.  Zarathustra (and Nietzsche) does not endorse war in the literal sense—he endorses an intellectual war against the complacencies of faith.  The Two Kings literalize Zarathustra as a militarist.

3.) The Conscientious of Spirit (Gewissenhafte des Geistes) allegorizes scholarship and scholarliness.  He is the Man of Knowledge; he is the one who holds knowledge above all else.  He fetishizes knowledge in lieu of thinking.  Thinking is superior to knowledge—and those who privilege knowledge over thinking are paving the way for religiosity, for political ideology, for morality, for all forms of dogmatism.  He misinterprets Zarathustra’s language: When he said that “spirit is that life which cuts into life,” Geist ist das Leben, das selber ins Leben schneidet, Zarathustra never meant that life should turn against life (“Von den berühmten Weisen”).  The Conscientious One wants security (Sicherheit) and comes to Zarathustra for security.  But Zarathustra is a great destabilizer and destabilizes all certainties, all complacencies, all assurances.  The Conscientious of Spirit is parasitized by a leech, the leech of knowledge.

4.) The Wizard is a comic figure, a self-deceptive figure, who deceives himself into mourning the death of the gods.  The best contemporary instantiation of the Wizard is Professor Jordan Peterson (I will return to this matter below).

5.) The Last Pope claims that the gods died for their pity of humankind (in “Ausser Dienst”).  Having lost the dead gods, the sad hierophant now worships the godless one, Zarathustra.  Nietzsche appears to be proleptically making fun of the vulgar Nietzscheanists who will distort him into resembling a religious thinker.

6.) The Ugliest Man has assassinated the gods.  Why did he assassinate the gods?  He assassinated the gods because the gods witnessed the Ugly Man’s ugliness and the Ugly Man could not stand the idea of the all-seeing gods witnessing his ugliness.  He kills the gods so that the gods can no longer see the Ugliest Man’s ugly hideousness and hideous ugliness.  When he writes of the Ugliest Man’s “ugliness,” Nietzsche means the Ugliest Man’s perception of sinfulness, his sinful self-perception, the perception of his mortality, his thanatoception.  But what madness is this?  Omnificent gods create sinful human creatures, and then the gods punish human creatures for their sinfulness.  This means that the gods punish their own creatures for what the gods have put into their creatures—the gods create human beings and then punish their own creations for being imperfect.  The gods punish themselves.  The Ugliest Man is ashamed of his sinfulness, and this leads to self-contempt, Verachtung.  The cure of self-contempt is self-love—something that the Ugliest Man certainly does not have.

7.) The Wanderer is entranced by dancing girls from the East, by their shapely choreomania.  Nietzsche is probably metaphorizing those who are allured by Eastern mysticism.  There is also mention of the Shadow, but the Shadow is tenebrous to me.

8.) The Voluntary Beggar (der freiwillige Bettler) gives up all of his wealth so that he might live among sheep, among the ovinely faithful.  He figures the ascetic, the self-denying religionist.  He misinterprets Zarathustra’s great disgust, grosser Ekel, as disgust over one’s own affluence, as nausea over riches and self-accumulation, which is something that Zarathustra has never actually expressed (“Der freiwillige Bettler”).

* * * * *

Zarathustra returns to the cave where the higher men were feasting, a cave that was until now full of joy and laughter.  No one is laughing anymore.

And what are the higher men doing, these visitors, these guests?

Zarathustra is shocked to see the higher men in the cave worshipping the donkey as if the beast were a god.  They are godifying the donkey, the donkey is to them a god, an asinine divinity or a divine asininity.  It is like a Satanic mass, but the problem, for Nietzsche, is not its unholiness, but its holiness!  Zarathustra, and Nietzsche, are alarmed by the pointlessness of it all, the pointlessness of muttering prayers to oneself that no one else can hear.  After all, it makes as much sense to worship a donkey as it does to worship a wafer, a cracker, a goblet of wine, or a piece of wood.

Why a donkey?  Why does Nietzsche use this metaphor, and what is being metaphorized?

The donkey metaphorizes the gods—all deities, all idols.  The donkey is the Ass God.  The nimbus of mystery that shrouds the gods has been dispelled.  The god is revealed as an animal.  An enigma that is revealed is an enigma no longer; a mystery that is revealed is no longer a mystery.  What we are left with is not the mysticism of mystery, but the animalism of an animal.

The donkey has long ears—it is incapable of subtle, critical listening, incapable of listening with discernment, incapable of distinguishing lovely sounds from harsh sounds.  It likes everything and everyone, without discrimination.  The donkey’s long ears are figurative of the indiscriminate listening of the inscrutable gods.

Donkeys never answer questions; the gods never answer questions.  The donkey spews inhuman, unintelligible gibberish.  Hence, its mindless cry: “I-A.”  Pronounced: “Eeeh-Ahh!”  Donkeys laugh inanely at everything and at nothing.  Much as the deity who is forever silent or, what amounts to the same, utters indecipherable mishmash, the donkey never discloses itself; no one knows what its message is.  No matter what the gods say, the believers will find something meaningful in it.  No matter what happens, it is always the will of the gods.  When a child dies, “the gods work in mysterious ways,” we are told; if a child’s life is saved, that, too, is the work of the gods.  This is a game that is rigged in advance, a game that is impossible to lose, an infinitely inflatable air bag.  No matter what one says about the will of the gods, it will be correct—because the gods do not disclose themselves.  No matter what the donkey says, it is regarded as meaningful—even though it is braying senselessly.

The donkey accepts everything and nothing with a kind of blank stupidity, with an empty stupidity.  The donkey emptily affirms everything.  It bawls its affirmation, its I-A, to everything and nothing.  The yee-hawing of the donkey, its empty affirmation of everything and nothing with equal vacuity and acuity, is not the affirmation, the Yes-saying, of Zarathustra.

Zarathustra denounces the higher humans and their false idol—for all idols are false, according to Nietzsche.  Zarathustra denounces the higher humans with the same rage, with the same asperity, with which Jesus denounced the money changers and the animal hawkers in the temple.  It is thrilling to read Zarathustra’s denunciation of the ass-drunk hypocrites.

The higher humans are not high enough.  The higher humans are still deists; they are still godly men.  They are still god-obsessed, god-addicted, god-infected, god-infested, god-injected lunatics.

The entire point is that the humanists are religionists and humanism is a form of religiosity.  The higher humans are not yet overhuman; humanity has not yet superseded itself and acceded to the overhuman.

The humanists talk about the “transcendent,” as Jordan Peterson does.  They talk of the religiosity of art, how “art and poetry are not possible without religion,” as Peterson said.  They are hucksters, quacksters, fraudsters.  They are the resurrectors of the gods.

The higher humans are not irreligious enough for Nietzsche.  They pretend to be irreligious, but they are all covert god-believers—they are all infected, infested, injected with religiosity.

Humanism fills the abyss left by the absence of the gods.

After the gods die, humanism takes over.

Why did the gods die?  The gods died because they pitied humankind.  The Christian God “died” when He became Christ—even Karl Barth acknowledged that the finitization of God-as-Christ is the mortalization of God.  God “died,” even before Christ was mounted on the cross.

Such is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modernity: Modernity is the slow convalescing from a sickness—belief in the gods is a sickness, and since the gods died, we have been convalescing from this sickness.

On guidance counselors’ office doors throughout the United States of America is emblazoned the overcited declaration: “Whoever would give birth to a dancing star must have chaos within,” man muss noch Chaos in sich haben, um einen tanzenden Stern gebären zu können (Prologue).  Nietzsche means that the higher men will give birth to the overhuman, once the agonies of self-contempt and nausea have subsided.

Nietzsche’s genealogy of the future runs like this: First comes self-contempt on the part of humanity.  Humanity will become contemptuous of itself.  Then comes the death of the gods.  Then, nihilism, or the self-evacuation of all values.  Then, the last human, who cares about nothing, who has no longing, no yearning, no striving.  Then, self-overcoming or the invention of new, life-affirmative and world-affirmative values, which leads to the overhuman—a humanity that finally keeps pace with its fullest promise.

Part Four is especially brilliant in the way that it folds back on Parts One, Two, and Three.  Part Four contains ways in which the first three parts of the book will have been misinterpreted by Nietzsche’s careless readership long after he will have been gone.  To give one example of this: The Ugliest Man quotes Zarathustra: “One kills not by wrath, but by laughter,” Nicht durch Zorn, sondern durch Lachen tötet man.  (These words were originally written in “Vom Lesen und Schreiben” and are now quoted in “Das Eselsfest.”)  However, the Ugliest Man misinterprets these words to mean: “It doesn’t matter whether or not one excises God from one’s life.”  He mistakes Zarathustra’s laughter as silliness, as giggling nonchalance.

Part Four is a meta-literary device—it affords a meta-perspective that anticipates the book’s future reception.  Nietzsche installed in his book its inevitable misinterpretation in the hands of a lazy, glazy, dazy, hasty readership.  (Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a fissile book—it opens to the future.)  Indeed, this is exactly what happened: Nietzsche has been misinterpreted as a proto-Nazi and as a crypto-Christian, among other things that he was not.

No one has misinterpreted Nietzsche more perniciously and more fatefully than Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Dr. Jordan Peterson.

NIETZSCHE CONTRA PETERSON: JORDAN PETERSON DOES NOT UNDERSTAND NIETZSCHE

The most visible and effective public intellectual on the Planet Earth, at the time that I am composing this essay, is almost certainly Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson.  He is far more effective and visible than competing public intellectuals Dr. Slavoj Žižek and Twitter philosopher Dr. Sam Harris, both of whom he has debated publicly.  The fact that Dr. Peterson is so visible and so effective says more about the current state of the Planet Earth than it does about Dr. Peterson.

Dr. Jordan Peterson—who is a homarine brophilosopher (or, as my friend Andy Ball puts it, a “brosopher”)—makes sense 88.8% of the time.  Unlike other critics of Dr. Peterson, I actually believe that some of his prescriptions, such as “Stand up straight!” and “Clean your room!” are only apparently simple, are indeed profound, and have great utility, both as literal and as metaphorical prescriptions for the young and for the old (here is not the place to pursue this argument).  And then he says things such as “There can be no art or poetry without religion” to a cackling audience of atheists (see his debate with Matt Dillahunty; April 2018).  Even worse are his remarks on Nietzsche.  His pseudo-reading of Nietzsche is that of a Christian existentialist (a contradictio in terminus, if there ever was one).

On the 18 April 2019 episode of his podcast, Dr. Peterson had this to say about the Nietzschean Death of God: “When Nietzsche announced the Death of God—which, by the way, as you may know from listening to my lectures [!!!]—was not precisely a triumphal… wasn’t an announcement of triumph.  It was a warning and the tolling of bells of sorrow.  That’s a good way of thinking about it.  Even though Nietzsche styled himself as a vicious [!]… an intellectually vicious critic of institutionalized Christianity, which he certainly was, he was also a strange friend to the faith.  I think, in the most fundamental sense, that’s the truth…  So, when Nietzsche announced the Death of God, he did it sorrowfully…”

These are not adventitious remarks.  These remarks are at the core of Dr. Peterson’s thinking.  Whenever he lectures or interviews, Dr. Peterson refers to Nietzsche, almost without exception, and whenever he speaks of Nietzsche, he invariably speaks of the Death of God.

On the 8 June 2018 episode of a video series entitled, fittingly, The Big Conversation, Dr. Peterson had this to say:

“You know, Nietzsche announced, of course, in the 1880s, in the late 1880s [sic!!!], that God was dead.  Typical rationalist atheists regard that as a triumphal, a triumphalist proclamation.  But that wasn’t that for Nietzsche.  Nietzsche knew perfectly well and said immediately afterward that the consequences of that was going to be a bloody catastrophe because everything was going to fall…  Nietzsche knew perfectly well that when you remove the cornerstone from underneath the building that even though it may stay aloft in mid-air like a cartoon character that’s wandered off a cliff, that it will inevitably come to crumble.”

Dr. Peterson makes the claim that Nietzsche was really very sad about the Death of God almost everywhere he goes.  On 16 May 2018, Dr. Peterson participated in a structured Question-and-Answer session at the Oxford Union.  When an exceedingly bright student asked him if meaning is artificially imposed on the world by human beings, Dr. Peterson uttered this non-response in response:

“When Nietzsche announced the Death of God, which is something that he announced in sorrow and trembling [!!!!!!], I would say, rather than triumphantly, which is often how that’s read because people don’t actually read Nietzsche; they just read one half of a quote from Nietzsche.”

But have you truly read Nietzsche, Dr. Peterson?  If anything, Dr. Peterson is the illiteratus and his followers, the illiterati.  “Nietzsche was sad about the Death of God” is a false axiom.  To refute Dr. Peterson’s erroneous claim that Nietzsche mourned the Death of God, one only has to consult the following passage from “On the Apostates”:

“It has been over for the gods for a long time now: —and indeed they had a fine, joyful gods’ end! / They did not ‘twilight’ themselves to death—that is a real lie!  Rather: They laughed themselves—to death!”

Mit den alten Göttern ging es ja lange schon zu Ende: —und wahrlich, ein gutes fröhliches Götter-Ende hatten sie! / Sie “dämmerten” sich nicht zu Tode—das lügt man wohl! Vielmehr: sie haben sich selber einmal zu Tode—gelacht! (“Von den Abtrünnigen”).

Dr. Peterson believes that Nietzsche is one of those who think they want the destruction of God but who “creep at midnight around God’s tomb,” mitternachts um das Grab seines Gottes schleicht (“Von den Hinterweltlern”).  And Jordan Peterson is the mournful mourner, not Nietzsche, who never mourns the death of the Old Gods.

Nietzsche did suggest that belief in the gods, which constitutes the absolute virtue, is an obstruction to aesthetic creativity.

Nietzsche/Zarathustra proclaims: “[I]f there were no gods, how could I stand not being a god!  Therefore, there are no gods.”  [W]enn es Götter gäbe, wie hielte ich’s aus, kein Gott zu sein!  Also gibt es keine Götter (“Auf den glückseligen Inseln”).

This is both a false inference and an argument from pleasure, an argumentum ad consequentiam.  Nietzsche actually appears to be suggesting: “Because I can’t stand the idea of not being a god, there are no gods!”  As if the existence of gods were dependent on my emotional needs!  Right after the fake syllogism that I cited above, there is the sly suggestion that Nietzsche is being ironic, that he knows that he is being illogical.[8]

All healthy virtues will be rooted in the body and in the world—and the unhealthiest of all virtues, according to Nietzsche, is faith in the Old Gods, which leads Nietzsche into a logical contradiction.

In contradistinction to Jordan B. Peterson, who believes that there can be no art or poetry without religion, and who said as much to an amphitheater of giggling atheists, Nietzsche writes the exact opposite: There can be no art or poetry with religion!

There would be no reason for art if gods existed.  “What would there be to create if gods—were there!” [W]as wäre denn zu schaffen, wenn Götter—da wären!  (“Auf den glückseligen Inseln”).  Art is a fundamentally human activity—it only makes sense in the absence of gods.  I create because no gods exist, for the gods and goddesses would be the superior craftsmen and craftswomen.  To believe in a god that you have not created is to negate yourself.  Nietzsche is suggesting: Don’t believe in any god that you haven’t invented yourself.  The absence of gods makes possible artistic creativity.[9]

Nietzsche affirms the gaiety of creation in the absence of deities.  The only person who is mournful about the absence of the deities is—Dr. Jordan Peterson, who is no Zarathustra!

The one who feels as if one were a human god has no need of gods.  I acknowledge that this is a dangerous position, but it is Nietzsche’s position, regardless of whether one agrees with it.  Nietzsche wants all of us—each free spirit who reads his words—to feel as gods ourselves.

Above all, Nietzsche wants to inspirit the broken-spirited.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

[1]Wahrheit reden und gut mit Bogen und Pfeil verkehren”—so dünkte es jenem Volke zugleich lieb und schwer, aus dem mein Name kommt—der Name, welcher mir zugleich lieb und schwer ist.”

[2] A book that is heavy in metaphor will not be understood by professional philosophers who do not know how to retranslate its metaphors into concepts, who will be puzzled by, for instance, Zarathustra’s claim that he speaks too crassly and openly for Angora rabbits (Seidenhasen).

[3] Metaphor conceals the harsh nascency of the concept.

[4] Style is a means of concealing one’s motives.  Having style—finesse, trickery, chicanery—means not showing everything.  Style is the corrective of nature.

[5] We know that Nietzsche read Stirner with admiration (see Conversations with Nietzsche, edited by Sander L. Gilman, pages 113-114).

[6] The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is the forever-supervenient and the non-obviatable.

[7] Compare the following passages: In “On the Spirit of Gravity,” Zarathustra tells us, “The way precisely—that does not exist!”  Den Weg nämlich—den gibt es nicht! (“Vom Geist der Schwere”).  In “On the Old and New Tablets,” Zarathustra claims that he is a “prelude to better players,” Ein Vorspiel bin ich besserer Spieler (“Von alten und neuen Tafeln”).

[8] “Wohl zog ich den Schluss; nun aber zieht er mich” (Ibid.).

[9] Much like Archimedes, Zarathustra demands that the stars orient themselves around him: Kannst du auch Sterne zwingen, dass sie um dich drehen? (“Vom Wege des Schaffenden”).

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

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.].

And later:

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.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

A Review of MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE: Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard): by Dr. Joseph Suglia / MY STRUGGLE by Karl Ove Knausgaard

An Analysis of My Struggle (Min Kamp): Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s only aim.”

–Oscar Wilde, Preface, The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Woo. I don’t know how to sum it up / ’cause words ain’t good enough, ow.”

–One Direction, “Better Than Words”

If I could accomplish one thing in my life, it would be to prevent people from comparing the Scandinavian hack Karl Ove Knausgaard with Marcel Proust.  Knausgaard does not have a fingernail of Proust’s genius.  Comparing Knausgaard to Proust is like comparing John Green to Proust.  Those who have actually read À la recherche du temps perdu know that Proust’s great novel is not the direct presentation of its author, a self-disclosure without literary artifice.  Those who compare Knausgaard to Proust have never read Proust and have no knowledge of Proust beyond the keyword “madeleine.”

Knausgaard calls his logorrheic autobiography, My Struggle (Min Kamp), a “novel,” but in what sense is it a novel?  It is completely devoid of novelistic properties.  There is not a single metaphor in the text, as far as I can tell, and the extended metaphor (perhaps even the pataphor?) is one of Proust’s most salient literary characteristics.

The first volume dealt with Knausgaard’s unimportant childhood; Volume Two concerns the middle of the author’s life, his present.  He is now in his forties and has a wife and three children.  He spends his time, and wastes our own, recounting trivialities, stupidities, and banalities.  All of the pomposities are trivialities.  All of the profundities are stupidities.  All of the epiphanies are banalities.

For most of this review, I will refer to Karl Ove Knausgaard as “Jesus,” since he resembles a cigarette-smoking Jesus on the cover of the English translation of the second volume.

We learn that Jesus dislikes holidays.  We learn that raising children is difficult.  Jesus takes his children to a McDonald’s and then to the Liseberg Amusement Park.  In the evening, Jesus, his wife, and his daughter attend a party.  Jesus thanks the hostess, Stella, for inviting them to her party.  His daughter forgets her shoes.  Jesus gets the shoes.  He sees an old woman staring through the window of a Subway.

Jesus smokes a cigarette on the east-facing balcony of his home and is fascinated by the “orangey red” [65] of the brick houses below: “The orangey red of the bricks!”  He drinks a Coke Light: “The cap was off and the Coke was flat, so the taste of the somewhat bitter sweetener, which was generally lost in the effervescence of the carbonic acid, was all too evident” [66].  He reads better books than the one that we are reading (The Brothers Karamazov and Demons by Dostoevsky) and tells us that he never thinks while he reads.  For some reason, this does not surprise me.

Jesus attends a Rhythm Time class (I have no idea what this is) and meets a woman for whom he has an erection.

Jesus’s daughter points her finger at a dog.  “Yes, look, a dog,” Jesus says [80].

Jesus assembles a diaper-changing table that he bought at IKEA.  The noise irritates his Russian neighbor.  He cleans his apartment, goes shopping, irons a big white tablecloth, polishes silverware and candlesticks, folds napkins, and places bowls of fruit on the dining-room table.

In the café of an art gallery, Jesus orders lamb meatballs and chicken salad.  He informs us that he is unqualified to judge the work of Andy Warhol.  I agree with the author’s self-assessment.  He cuts up the meatballs and places the portions in front of his daughter.  She tries to brush them away with a sweep of her arm.

Almost ninety pages later, Jesus is in a restaurant eating a dark heap of meatballs beside bright green mushy peas and red lingonberry sauce, all of which are drowning in a swamp of thick cream sauce.  “The potatoes,” Jesus notifies us, “were served in a separate dish” [478].

(Parenthetical remark: “[A] swamp of thick cream sauce” is my phrasing, not Knausgaard’s.  Again, Knausgaard avoids metaphorics.)

Upstairs in the kitchen of his apartment, Jesus makes chicken salad, slices some bread, and sets the dinner table while his daughter bangs small wooden balls with a mallet.  And so forth and so on for 592 pages of squalid prose.

Never before has a writer written so much and said so little.  The music of ABBA is richer in meaning.

Interspersed throughout the text are muddleheaded reflections on What It Means To Be Human.  We learn (quelle surprise!) that Knausgaard is a logophobe, “one who fears language”:

Misology, the distrust of words, as was the case with Pyrrho, pyrrhomania; was that a way to go for a writer?  Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature?  Or put another way: whatever we say is true we can also always say is untrue.  It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread [here, Knausgaard seems to be channeling Ronald Barthes].  However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader.  It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe.  Paul Celan’s mysterious, cipher-like language has nothing to do with inaccessibility or closedness, quite the contrary, it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover.  Paul Celan’s words cannot be contradicted with words.  What they possess cannot be transformed either, the word only exists there, and in each and every single person who absorbs it.

The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this.  They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also nonconceptual.  There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do [129-130].

The only value of literature, then, according to Knausgaard, resides not in words, but in the transcendence from words.  Literature is not composed of letters, for Knausgaard; literature is the feelings and the impressions summoned forth within the reader.  After all, any idiot can have feelings.  Very few people can write well.

It is clear that Knausgaard, then, does not think very much of literature.  He is much more interested in LIFE.  Everyone alive has life.  Yes, palpitant life–throbbing, living life.  Life is the most general of generalities, but talent is much rarer, to channel Martin Amis.

This might be the reason that Knausgaard dislikes Rimbaud’s verse, but is interested in Rimbaud’s life.

“Fictional writing has no value” [562] for Knausgaard.  After all, fiction is distant from life, isn’t it?  This Thought is at least as old as Plato.  Knausgaard is unaware that fiction is, paradoxically, more honest than autobiographical writing.  Autobiographical writing is fiction that cannot speak its own name, fiction that pretends to be something more “real” than fiction.

(Parenthetically: Despite what Knausgaard tells you, Pyrrho did not practice misology.  He affirmed the uncertainty of things.  Following Pyrrho: One can never say, “It happened” with certainty; one can only say, with certainty, that “it might have happened.”)

Hater of words, enemy of literature: Such is Knausgaard.  He despises language, presumably because he does not know how to write.  What is one to say of a writer who hates writing so much?  One thing ought to be said about him: He is alarmingly typical.

Knausgaard is at home in a culture of transparency, in a culture in which almost everyone seems to lack embarrassability.  Almost no one seems embarrassed anymore.  People go out of their way to reveal everything about themselves on social-networking sites.  Average people reveal every detail of their lives to strangers.  The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is violated, and almost no one seems to care.  We live in a culture in which our privacy is infringed upon countless times every day, and where is the outrage?  Those who are private–or who believe in the right to privacy–are regarded with malicious suspicion.  Seen from this cultural perspective, the success of My Struggle should come as no surprise.  An autobiography in which the writer reveals everything about himself will be celebrated by a culture in which nearly everyone reveals everything to everyone.

Art is not autobiography.  As Oscar Wilde declared in the preface to his only novel, the purpose of art is to conceal the artist.  Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, the presentation of the self that lives, the “writing of the living self.”  It is, rather, auto-thanato-graphy, the writing of the self that dies in order for art to be born.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

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.

Joseph Suglia

My Favorite Authors, My Favorite Films, My Favorite Music

MY FAVORITE BOOKS, MY FAVORITE FILMS, MY FAVORITE MUSIC: Joseph Suglia

My favorite music is German, Zambian, and English Progressive Rock from 1969 until 1987.

My favorite film is First Reformed (2018), directed by Paul Schrader.

My favorite writings include those of Gayl Jones, Roland Topor, D.H. Lawrence, J.G. Ballard, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Shakespeare, Richard Matheson, and [NAME REDACTED].

Joseph Suglia

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare): An analysis by Dr. Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

If Much Ado about Nothing (1598/1599) is about anything at all, it is about the social character of all desire, about the triangulations that make desire possible.  Love comes about as a conspiracy.  That is: Love is the result of a conspiracy.  A love-relation is not an isolated relation between two individuals who feel affection for each other.  Love-relations are arranged by the community.  They have nothing to do with individual desires and feelings of fondness.  It is the community that decides who loves whom.  It is the community that makes love-relations possible.

We get a sense of this in the very first scene of the play.  Claudio confesses to his lord Don Pedro, Spanish prince, that he is attracted to Hero, daughter to Leonato.  Immediately, Don Pedro imposes upon his subject.  He will be Claudio’s intercessor:

The fairest grant is the necessity. / Look what will serve is fit.  ’Tis once, thou lovest; / And I will fit thee with the remedy. / I know we shall have reveling to-night; / I will assume thy part in some disguise, / And tell fair Hero I am Claudio; / And in her bosom I’ll unclasp my heart, / And take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale. / Then, after, to her father will I break; / And the conclusion is she shall be thine. / In practice let us put it presently [I:i].

Notice the metaphors: Don Pedro is a doctor who will supply the “remedy” to Claudio’s erotic sickness.

Why, precisely, must Don Pedro intervene in the prospective love affair between Claudio and Hero?  Why does Claudio not speak of his desires in his own name?  Why does Claudio not do the courting himself?  Why does he require someone above his station to seduce his inamorata?  Why must Don Pedro be his consigliere?

The answer seems to be that desire always requires a third.  A third party, a mediator, a matrimonial go-between, a manipulator, an intermediary.  Rene Girard is quite brilliant on this point—for his discussion of mimetic desire in Much Ado about Nothing, read pages 80-91 of A Theatre of Envy.

Before he learns that Don Pedro’s matchmaking operation has been successful, Claudio forswears his lord, the mediator: “Let every eye negotiate for itself, / And trust no agent” [II:i].  Afterwards, he accepts that all love requires what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third.”

As we will eventually discover, Don Pedro takes an erotic interest in his subordinates’ lovers.  (He flirts openly with Beatrice in Act Two: Scene One.)  And yet his eroticism resides in the role of the mediator, not that of the actor.  Don Pedro insists on bringing both Beatrice, who has renounced all men, and Benedick, who has renounced all women, into a “mountain of affection” (an allusion, perhaps, to Seignior Montanto?).

Don Pedro, the most powerful human being in the play, makes the following statement:

I will… undertake one of Hercules’ labours; which is to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’ one with th’ other. I would fain have it a match; and I doubt not but to fashion it if you three [Leonato, Hero, and Claudio] will but minister such assistance as I shall give you direction [II:i].

Notice the use of the verb “fashion.”  Notice the reference to Hercules and his twelve labors.  What chthonic beast will he slay?  Notice that it is Don Pedro who desires the match (“I would fain have it a match”), not Beatrice or Benedick.

And a few lines later, Don Pedro gives us this rodomontade:

I will teach you [Hero] how to humour your cousin [Beatrice] that she shall fall in love with Benedick; and I, with your two helps [Claudio and Leonato], will so practice on Benedick that, in despite of his quick wit and his queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice. If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer: his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods [Ibid.].

Notice the irreligious way in which Don Pedro’s speech ends.  Shakespeare always refuses extra-worldly transcendence.

This is no intercession on the behalf of a mooning lover (as was the case with Claudio).  This is a conspiracy of marriage.  Just as Signior John and Borachio sabotage the marriage plans of Claudio and Hero, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato fashion the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick.  When Seignior John slanders Hero, is this not the exact obverse of what Don Pedro, Hero, and Leonato have done to Beatrice and Benedick?

Ensconced in the arbor, Benedick quickly changes his mind about women and marriage when he overhears his friends talking about Beatrice’s affections for him.  He eavesdrops upon Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro, all three of whom praise Beatrice.  Perhaps this is the clincher (spoken by Don Pedro):

I would she had bestowed this dotage on me; I would have daff’d all other respects and made her half myself [II:iii].

“All other respects” is an allusion to the class divide between Don Pedro and Beatrice.   When he hears these words, Benedick falls in love with Beatrice, I suspect.  His superior desires Beatrice.  So must he.

In a series of asides, Claudio likens his friend to a “kid fox,” a “fowl,” and a “fish” [Ibid.]—all three metaphorical animals are to be trapped.  Benedick himself is the quarry, the beast who is entrapped in the matrimonial cage.

The exact scene is replicated in the third act.  Ensconced in the arbor, Beatrice quickly changes her mind about men and marriage when she overhears her friends talking about Benedick’s affection for her.  Hero—Beatrice’s rival—praises Benedick:

“He is the only man of Italy, / Always excepted my dear Claudio” [III:i].

Ursula, lady-in-waiting to Hero, says in an aside: “She’s lim’d, I warrant you; we have caught her, madam” [Ibid.].  “Liming” refers to a trick that bird-hunters used to catch birds.

Hero’s reply: “If it proves so, then loving goes by haps: / Some Cupid kills with arrows, some traps” [Ibid.].

She utters what are utterly the worst lines in Shakespeare, with the exception of Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing.  / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”  More importantly, she casts light on one of the play’s most pronounced meanings: The one does not relate to the other except by way of the intervention of the third.

Ultimately, Much Ado about Nothing is conjugal propaganda.  And are not all of the Shakespearean comedies marriage propaganda (with the exception of Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Winter’s Tale, which are not even “comedies” in the Shakespearean sense of that word)?  Much Ado about Nothing is a play in which the principal characters get married, whether they want to or not.  The misogamist and misogynist Benedick is married, almost against his will.  The misogamist and misandrist Beatrice is married, almost against her will.  Claudio is married to a woman whose face is disguised with a veil.  The exception to the marriage plot is Seignior John, who, we are told, is a bastard.  A melancholic bastard.  And those who were born illegitimately will die without ever being married and cuckolded.

What saves the play from being one of Shakespeare’s worst is the immense power of the first scene of its fourth act and Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most living female creations.  Were it not for the crisis of Act Four: Scene One and the divine Beatrice, Much Ado about Nothing would be nothing more than an Elizabethan beach blanket bingo that ends with the characters swiveling and beveling their hips.

Joseph Suglia

THE CASSEROLE CLUB by Steve Balderson

A review of THE CASSEROLE CLUB (2011) by Joseph Suglia

Steve Balderson’s The Casserole Club (2011) is a film about a conclave of very nasty, very selfish suburbanites in the late 1960s who try to escape the plastic tedium of their lives through ritualistic spouse-swapping.  This one-sentence synopsis hardly does the film justice.  Watching it is like being thrown around by a gorilla at your local elementary school’s Christmas pageant.

Usually, when you watch a mainstream Hollywood film, you know exactly who the characters are–often before the film even starts, thanks to the supersaturations of advertisement.  And not long after the film starts, after the hamfisted labeling of every quirk, every gesture, every impetus, you know where the characters are going.  You know where the characters come from.  You know what the characters are going to do.  There is seldom any surprise.

In the case of The Casserole Club, it is impossible to anticipate what will happen next, how the film will advance and unfold.  The spectator is plunged into a motley of swirling colors and sounds and has no idea, precisely, who these people on the screen are, what they are doing, or why they are doing what they are doing.  At first.  As in every great work of cinema (think of Fassbinder or Miike at their best), things gradually come into focus, but the intelligence of the spectator is continuously respected and required.  Nothing is dumbed down.  Nothing is didactic.  You are thrown into the space of the presentation.

Imagine that you are invited to a party by one of your friends.  When you walk through the door, you are told that your friend hasn’t yet arrived.  You then realize that you are attending a party of strangers and are forced to figure out, on your own, who these strangers are.  This is the experience that The Casserole Club offers.

It is a curious film.  In the first act, the suburban spouse-swappers form a cohesive collective, a communitarian unity.  There are rude jokes, obscenities, invasive party games, repartees, and sallies.  They play at one another’s closures.  When wounds are exposed, lighthearted raillery follows, but no one seems seriously insulted or abashed, though embarrassment seems to be the point of it all, as if shame would season desire.  They seem to form a single unit, partygoers lying in a circle, their bodies radiating like sunflower petals.  But, as I suggested earlier, the spectator feels a bit estranged from the goings-on.

It is only in the second act, when the commune begins to fragment, that the viewer begins to connect.  The attentive spectator will be sucked into the world that is gradually illuminated.  Identification becomes possible only when the group of suburbanites is dispersed.

The first act will be difficult for all but the hardest-hearted.  The marrieds descend into carnality, into vulgarism and animality.  There are grotesqueries and unpleasantries, but everyone seems to be enjoying oneself.

Why this “enjoyment”?  Because, as I wrote earlier, these are very selfish people and selfish people enjoy themselves when they think they are getting what they want.  Husband takes neighbor’s wife and therefore (symbolically) anything that belongs to his neighbor.  They imagine that they are returning to the bubbling effervescence of childhood, when the object of one’s every whim seemed within reach.  These are infantile adults who lay up for themselves treasures on Earth.  Adult infants.

After the orgy, bitterness and loathing.  Self-disgust, but not much.  There is anger at having one’s wife or husband borrowed–and here is another manifestation of selfishness.  Above all, the partygoers seem bored.  Why?  Because sex is boring, though the film never is.

Sex is boring.  Sex–when stylized, formalized, divorced from all affect and intimacy–is mechanically monotonous emptiness.  Disharmonizing glaciality.

For the first time in his career, Steve Balderson has mastered both cinematic rhythm and cinematic space.  With the exception of a single scene on a golf course and a few transitional moments, the entire film takes place indoors.  One feels that one is inhabiting the space that the camera is describing.  The direction is THAT strong.

The acting is eerily convincing and adds to the film’s strange assertion of realness.  Two performances stand out: that of Starina Johnson and that of Backstreet Boys escapee Kevin Scott Richardson.

Mr. Richardson would be like Tom Cruise, if Tom Cruise were more than a one-note performer.  His is a character who wounds himself as much as he wounds everyone else in the room, a character tormented by unexorcizable demons.

Ms. Johnson has the unnerving ability to fool you into thinking that she is not acting.  Her character Kitty, whose breasts serve as the catalyst for the film’s sexual gymnastics, is the very model of self-deceptive housewifery, and Ms. Johnson makes her self-contradictions and -deceptions seem very, very authentic, particularly in a scene in which she is concocting what looks like an inesculent casserole and prattling on with her closeted gay husband.  If Proteus were female, her name would be Starina Johnson.

The film is awash in Matissean pastels–lavenders, pinks, yellows, blues–and buoyed along by the slow hypnosis of Robert Kleiner’s beautifully lugubrious score.  There is a superior use of imagery–the central images are the mask and the moon.  Without giving too much away, let me say that the film is demarcated by the first moon landing, suggesting that miracles are around us every day but the characters lack the eyes with which to see them.

Robert Bresson once exhorted young filmmakers: “Make visible what without you would never be seen.”  Steve Balderson, still young, is the incarnation of the Bressonian creed.  We are able to see the world through his darkly magical eyes.  The Casserole Club was Balderson’s finest work–before his 2020 sonic melodrama Hedda Gabler.

Joseph Suglia

The five couples are as follows (note the gender ambiguities): Sugar (Susan Traylor) and Connie (Kevin Scott Richardson); Jerome (the elegant Daniela Sea of The L Word) and Leslie (Mark Booker); Kitty (Starina Johnson) and Sterling (Garrett Swann); Florene (Pleasant Gehman) and Burt (Hunter Bodine); Max (Michael Maize) and Marybelle (Jennifer Grace).

Analogy Blindness: I invented a linguistic term. Dr. Joseph Suglia

ANALOGY BLINDNESS by Joseph Suglia

Over the years, I have invented a number of words and phrases.  Genocide pornography is one that I am especially proud of (cf. my essays on Quentin Tarantino); anthropophagophobia is another word that I coined, which means “the fear of cannibalism” (cf. my interpretation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It).  I would like to introduce to the world (also known as Google) a new linguistic term:

analogy blindness (noun phrase): the inability to perceive what an analogy represents.  To be lost in the figure of an analogy itself, while losing sight of the concept that the analogy describes.

EXAMPLE A

The Analogist: Polygamy is like going to a buffet instead of a single-serve restaurant.  Both are inadvisable.

The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: People love buffets!

EXAMPLE B

The Analogist: Being taught how to write by Chuck Palahniuk is like being taught how to play football by a one-legged man.

The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: A one-legged man who knows how to coach football?  That’s great!

EXAMPLE C

The Analogist: You should not have reprimanded her in such a rude manner for taking time off from work.  You treated her as if she were guilty of some terrible offense, such as plagiarism.

The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: But plagiarism is bad!

EXAMPLE D

Derived from Hui-neng: When the wise person points at the Moon, the imbecile sees the finger.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (Shakespeare)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Shakespeare’s shortest and dumbest play, The Comedy of Errors (circa 1594) concerns identical-twin brothers who are separated in a shipwreck and their servants who, incredibly, are also identical twins.  The shortest and the dumbest play, yes, and also the most infantile thing the Swan of Avon ever composed.  Nauseatingly and horrifically infantile in three senses of the word “infantile”: 1.) It belongs to Shakespeare’s infancy as a dramatist.  2.) It contains scatological humor and slapstick violence.  Only stupid people, infant infants and adult infants, find scatological humor and slapstick violence diverting.  The comedy is designed for those who find something intrinsically funny about a harlequin being beaten by an unforgiving master.  3.) The play lacks eloquence in the same way that infants lack eloquence.

It is also Shakespeare’s most Aristotelian play, slavishly obeying, as it does, Aristotle’s unities of time and place.  The entire comedy takes place uninterruptedly in the span of one day and unfolds at a frenetic velocity.  Antipholus of Syracuse comes to Ephesus to find his brother and his mother.  There, he is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus.  Hilarity ensues.

The comedy has Plautine origins and perhaps owes some of its buffoonery to the Commedia dell’arte.  The plot is largely derived from Plautus’s Amphitruo, where a master and his servant are locked out of the house while the wife entertains Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as her husband and his servant, respectively, and the Menaechmi, with its two sets of twins.

A second literary source is likely St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.  Ephesus was, at the time that St. Paul composed his epistle (circa 100 CE), in the thrall of Artemis (Diana, Goddess of the Hunt).  Shakespeare’s audiences would not have been unaware of St. Paul’s condemnation of the witcheries of Ephesus.  One can hear resonances of St. Paul’s apotropaisms in Antipholus of Syracuse’s words:

They say this town is full of cozenage; / As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, / Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, / Soul-killing witches that deform the body, / Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, / And many such-like liberties of sin [I:ii].

Shakespeare’s revision lent itself easily to stupid Broadway musicals and even sillier off-Broadway burlesques.  The Digital Theatre recently performed a slaphappy version of the play for digital children, and that is the ideal public for this awful play.  Add meows and barks and moos and other animal sounds and kitschy songs, and you have a farce.

* * * * *

A question taxes first-time readers of the erroneous comedy: Why are both of the merchant’s sons given the same name, Antipholus?  And why are their servants, who are also twins, given the same name, Dromio?

Aegeon, father to the Antipholuses, describes the event of his wife’s pregnancy and the double birth of his sons:

There had she not been long but she became / A joyful mother of two goodly sons; / And, which is strange, the one so like the other / As could not be distinguish’d but by names [I:i].

If the twins could only be distinguished by their names, why, then, are they both named Antipholus?  One explanation is that they were given separate names, but were confused in the storm.  Both parents took each twin for Antipholus and Dromio, respectively (what the “other” names are, we will never know).

However, this hypothesis falls to pieces when we consider Aemilia’s story in the one-scene fifth act.  She claims that “rude fishermen” from Corinth took “Dromio” and her son from her.  They were then brought to Ephesus by Duke Menaphon, uncle to Duke Solinus.  “Antipholus of Ephesus” and “Dromio of Ephesus” were infants at the time of their separation from their mother.  How, then, does Antipholus know that his name is “Antipholus”?  And how does Dromio know that this name is “Dromio”?

There is an even more vexing improbability: Are we credulous enough to believe that both sets of twins would appear in the same town on the same day wearing exactly the same hairstyles and outfits?

Yet another taxing improbability: Antipholus of Syracuse has been searching the world for his brother and his mother.  Surely Aegeon told Antipholus of Syracuse that his son is a twin.  If the Ephesians greet Antipholus of Syracuse “as if [he] were their well-acquainted friend” [IV:iii], shouldn’t he have been able to figure out that his twin brother is in Ephesus?

The plot is so confusing that it might be helpful to list the confusions:

1.)    In the marketplace, Antipholus of Syracuse mistakes Dromio of Ephesus for his own servant.  The master asks the servant what the latter has done with his money.  The Ephesian Dromio urges Antipholus of Syracuse to come home for dinner and is viciously beaten.

2.)   Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, accuses Antipholus of Syracuse of having “strumpeted” her.  The Syracusan Antipholus is uncomprehending, having only been in Ephesus for two hours, and does not know who she is.

3.)   Luciana, sister to Adriana, commands the Syracusan Dromio to bid the servants to set the table for dinner.  Dromio of Syracuse, of course, has no idea what she means.

4.)   Dromio of Syracuse locks out Antipholus of Ephesus (and his servant) from his own home.

5.)   Luce (also known as “Nell”), wife to Dromio of Ephesus, mistakes Dromio of Syracuse for her husband.

6.)   Luciana is courted by Antipholus of Syracuse.  Luciana believes, mistakenly, that Adriana’s husband is flirting with her.

7.)   Angelo, Ephesian merchant, gives a necklace to Antipholus of Syracuse, who accepts it with bemusement.  Later, Angelo will demand payment for the necklace from Antipholus of Ephesus.  Angelo, as it turns out, is in debt and in danger of being imprisoned for his debtorship.  (Though “debtorship” does not appear in Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, it was used by George Meredith.)

8.)  Aegeon mistakes his Ephesian son for the other, etc.

Ephesus is a town in which everyone is strange to Antipholus of Syracuse.  Ephesus is a town in which Antipholus of Syracuse is a stranger to himself.  Doubled, he does not know himself.  The Comedy of Errors is a prototype to The Tempest: Both plays are about self-alienation and self-loss.  Ephesus seems a magical land where no man is his own, where no woman is her own.  The play hints at the impossibility of self-ownership and self-mastery:

He that commends me to mine own content / Commends me to the thing I cannot get. / I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. / So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself [I:ii].

One drop of water in the ocean in which he nearly drowned, Antipholus of Syracuse is neither unique nor the master of himself.  This is why Adriana, the wife of his Ephesian double, asks him: “How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it, / That thou art then estranged from thyself?” [II:ii].

The Comedy of Errors suggests that to be oneself is to be another person, that selfhood is not identity.

Is this why neither Antipholus of Ephesus nor Antipholus of Syracuse seem very happy to meet each other the end of play?

Dr. Joseph Suglia

SO LONG, PLANET EARTH!: An analysis of ODE TO THE WEST WIND (Percy Bysshe Shelley) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

SO LONG, PLANET EARTH!: An analysis of “Ode to the West Wind” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Bad news, humans!  The Andromeda Galaxy is barreling toward the Milky Way, the sun of our solar system will explode, will extinguish itself, as all stars do, and, long before either of these things happen, most of the Planet Earth will become uninhabitably hot.  All of the planets within our galaxy, with the exception of Earth, are unlivable, which means that the human species, if it is to survive at all, will have to trickle away the rest of its existence in spacecraft.  Otherwise, we are hurtling toward our extinction and oblivion as if we were a suicide of lemmings.

Percy Bysshe Shelley saw all of this coming and wrote a poem about the destruction of our world, in the autumn of 1819, when the poet was twenty-seven, entitled “Ode to the West Wind.”  It recalls an earlier poem by Albrecht von Haller entitled “Incomplete Poem on Eternity” (1736), which was quoted by Immanuel Kant in his youthful essay “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and of the Sublime” (1764).  (It is not entirely certain whether Shelley read Kant, much less Haller.  See Hugh Roberts’s article “Shelley among the Post-Kantians.”)  Both poems—that of Shelley and that of Haller—are chillingly apocalyptic and yet also celebratory of the apocalypse, the coming of what Haller described as “the second nothingness” that will “bury” us all.

The ode is divided into five groups.  Each group contains five stanzas.  The first four stanzas in each group are three lines long; the last stanza of each group is a rhyming couplet.  The entire poem is written in iambic pentameter: Each line has ten syllables; the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed.  It begins thus:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!

The West Wind is like an invisible exorcist that expels leaves in the way that an exorcist expels ghosts.  Thus far, the poem seems to be nothing more than the description of a natural phenomenon that uses a supernatural simile: A natural phenomenon (the West Wind) is likened to a supernatural force (the enchanter) that drives away another supernatural force (ghosts).  Until we read of the “pestilence-stricken multitudes” who are escorted to their mass-death.  “Multitudes” evokes human beings, not leaves—sick human beings, poor human beings.

When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, England was horribly impoverished.  It was a time of famine, grave poverty, and deep unemployment.  Thanks to the Corn Laws of 1815, the import of corn was blocked and the multitudes were starving.

At this point, one of the meanings generated by the poem is clear: This is an ode that welcomes the death of humanity (as it was in the early nineteenth century) and the birth of a new humanity.  The poem suggests that the Apocalypse might not be such a bad idea, after all.  It is not a misanthropic poem, however, since Shelley is not opposed to humanity as such; indeed, he (the paper Shelley) affirms the advent of a better humanity.  I hesitate to use the word nihilistic, since the poem is not absent of value.  Value-building is all that the poem does.  There is a value presented in the poem, and it is the value of preservative destruction: The westerly wind is named a “Wild Spirit,” at the close of the first section, and both a “destroyer” and a “preserver.”  It is the unseen presence that destroys the immiserated multitudes and the regal chariot that bears the seeds of a new humanity to their wintry sleep, to be awakened by the Spring Wind.  The West Wind, then, has two functions: to destroy lost contemporary humanity and to plant the seeds for a stronger future humanity.

At the close of the first stanza, as at the close of the second and the third, the narrator sounds a clarion call, a plangent summons to the West Wind (which is apostrophized by the familiar “Thou”): “oh, hear!”

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!

The focus of the poem shifts from the ground to the sky.  To be precise: The view of the poem moves from the leaves that are being dispersed, as rioters in a mob, to the clouds that are being dispelled by the aerial force of the West Wind.  No longer does the poem look down upon the poverty-stricken multitudes; now, the poem looks up at the Castlereaghs and the Eldons.  No love is shown for the upper classes, which are likened to a bacchante’s tresses.

It is important to place the poem in the age in which it was written.  Shelley had already condemned the government of Lord Liverpool for butchering the British people at Peterloo, Manchester (16 August 1819), in a rage-incented and rage-incenting poem entitled “The Masque of Anarchy.”  Shelley was no nihilistic, ennui-drowsy elitist wishing for the death of the poor and uneducated masses.  The paper Shelley, at least, wishes for the West Wind to sweep away everyone and everything that currently exists, both low and high.

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!

The tyrannies of the world—the violently repressive British government among them—are overthrown by the annihilating gust.  The great wind dreamed, and this is what it dreamed: The wind envisioned the “old palaces and towers” reflected in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.  And these “old palaces and towers” were “all overgrown with azure moss and flowers.”  Swathes of invasive vegetation colonize the city, which is transmuting into a jungle—an ever-growing, ever-flourishing, ever-blossoming jungle.

This is the last time that the prophet will summon the West Wind. Now, it is the prophet himself who will become the focus of the poem.  I use the masculine pronoun because it is clear that the narrator is a he in the fourth section:

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

The prophet, far from exempting himself from the wind’s sweepings, calls to the wind to carry him along as if he were a leaf, a cloud, or a wave.  At first, it seems as if the prophet were calling for his own self-negation, but then notice how he quickly calls himself a “comrade” of the wind in Stanza Three and then identifies himself with the wind in the second line of the couplet: “[o]ne too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.”  One cannot escape the impression that the prophet sees himself as something more than a leaf, a cloud, or a wave.  If anything, this is self-deification, the raising of the Self to the godhood.  This is anthropotheism, similar to the anthropotheism that Feuerbach saw in Christianity: Christians attribute the best parts of themselves to God.

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Translation: Let my leaves emerge from the nothingness that the wind will leave in its wake.  Let me be revivified after the wind’s many destructions and annihilations.  Let my poems revitalize the dead Earth.  Like any good Romantic figure, Shelley’s prophet desires to unify himself with nature, but this does not mean that he would be swallowed up by nature–it means, rather, that he would swallow nature, engulf nature, interiorize nature, transform nature into the Self: “Be thou me.”  This is, again, not self-obliteration; it is anthropotheism, the aggressive self-assertion of the human will.  The poet’s song will outlast the wind.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript.  German Romanticism (of the Jena period) is nostalgic for the reunification of subject and object, self and world.  English Romanticism seems to want the same thing, except, in the English Romantic imagination, the Self dominates Nature.  It wants Nature to capitulate to the Self.

Compare Shelley with Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them?

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

THE TRACE OF THE FATHER: A review of SPUR DES VATERS (Peter Schuenemann) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

THE TRACE OF THE FATHER

by Joseph Suglia

One of the most enduring myths in the history of literature is that the traces of a writer’s paternity can be erased, that the literary artist is parthenogenetically or autogenetically created.  One witnesses this myth not merely in the work of authors who have taken it explicitly as their subject, such as Joyce or Artaud; as Peter Schuenemann suggests in Spur des Vaters, the reader may also discover the lineaments of this myth in less likely places.  Each of the five authors Schuenemann analyzes–Lessing, Goethe, Freud, Thomas Mann, and Benn, all giants of the German literary canon–self-deceptively struggles to wipe out the traces of fatherhood in his writing, only to discover, despairingly and belatedly, that these traces are, in fact, ineffaceable.

Schuenemann examines the points at which each author’s psychological history collides with the trajectory of his writing.  Lessing’s desire to detach himself from the sway of the father corresponds to his desire to detach himself from all forms of heteronomy and religious orthodoxy.  According to Schuenemann, “Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts” is, at once, a history of humanity’s progress from intellectual obscurity to enlightenment and also Lessing’s self-interpretive attempt to document his movement from slavish dependence on the father to the attainment of total self-sufficiency.  When, in the “Duplik,” Lessing voluntarily loosens his grip on “the truth itself,” this renunciation corresponds to Lessing’s own disillusionment with his father, who, like a mendacious and deceptive god, reserves the truth “for himself alone.”  The Patheismusstreit and the quarrel with the apoplectic pastor of Hamburg are interpreted through the speculum of Lessing’s conflict with his father’s dogmatism.  Lessing’s transcendental interpretation of Goethe’s “Prometheus,” for instance, is derived from a personal desire for self-sovereignty that, in its extremism, anticipates Stirnerian egoism.  Nonetheless, there is no absolute break with the father, no clear point at which Lessing moved toward self-sufficiency.  One of the central contradictions in Lessing’s work–and, by extension, in the Aufklaerung as such–consists in its uncanny resemblance to the conventional theologies that it professes to despise.

Schuenemann discovers analogous traces of fatherhood in the writing of Goethe.  In the years following his return from Italy (1797), Goethe takes on his father’s resemblance, in spite of his repeated attempts to dissolve all ties to his biological provenance.  For his entire life, Freud is deeply preoccupied with parricide (Die Traumdeutung, Totem und Tabu, Dostojewski und die Vatertoetung, and Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion all contain this motif).  Nonetheless, Freud is unable to kill off the father, and his seeming atheism (Die Zukunft einer Illusion, Unbehagen in der Kultur) does nothing to change this fact.  Classical psychoanalysis is inextricably entwined with Talmudic religiosity.  Soldiers sacrifice their lives to satisfy their fathers’ bloodlust in the danse macabre that concludes Mann’s Der Zauberberg.  Though his Nietzschean anti-humanism explicitly distances Benn from involvement in the forms of religiosity, there persists in his lyric a “Fanatismus zur Transcendenz.”  In every context, the author in question confronts the paradox of sublation.

Since Hegel, it has been assumed that what is annihilated is absorbed and brought to a higher level.  One of the meanings to be derived from Schuenemann’s account is that the dialectic of paternity is merciless in its omnipresence.  Try to destroy the father.  Try to erase every trace of his existence.  The more you try to negate the father, the more you shall resemble him.

Joseph Suglia

 

A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia : LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST (Shakespeare) / An Analysis of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST by Shakespeare / Analysis of William Shakespeare’s LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST / Interpretation of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST by William Shakespeare

A review of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia

We fall in love with our own hallucinations, according to the most rigorous of the “comedies” (if it is one), Love’s Labour’s Lost (circa 1595-1597).  As the title itself announces, this will not be a typical Shakespearean comedy in which everyone gets married, whether they want to or not.  From the final scene:

Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Jill [V:ii].

Courtship does not result in conjugality, but rather in the weak promise of deferred gratification: King Ferdinand “falls in love” with the Princess of France, who forces the Navarrean ruler to wait for her for an entire year.  Berowne “falls in love” with the mysterious Rosaline, who forces the Navarrean lord to wait for her for an entire year (all while doing charity work at a hospital).  There is absolutely no reason to believe that the Princess of France will give herself to King Ferdinand, nor is there any reason to believe that any of the French ladies will give themselves to the Navarrean lords, Berowne, Dumain, and Longaville.  The play ends, without ever ending, with the indefinite postponement of erotic fulfillment.

The King demands payment for the province of Aquitaine from the Princess of France.  In vain.  Just as his desire to be paid for Aquitaine is disappointed, the King’s lust for the Princess is disappointed.  Not merely is it the case that the male desire to conquer the female fades into libidinal nonfulfillment (or “erotic defeat,” to use Harold Bloom’s term); the male desire to accumulate wealth fades into financial nonfulfillment.  Women outwit their male suitors in this puckish farce, a sophisticated problematical comedy that ridicules all of its male characters and extols the brilliance of its ladies, who emerge looking far from foolish.  To quote the Princess of France:

[P]raise we may afford
To any lady that subdues a lord [IV:i].

A feast of language in which the characters dine on scraps, the play mocks the speech of the hypereducated and of the undereducated alike.  The speech of the pedants Holofernes and Nathaniel is all but unintelligible, since they speak Latin as often as they speak English and obsessively employ synonymia.  (Synonymia: a long sequence of successive synonyms.)  The magnificent Don Adriano de Armado, who avoids common expressions as if they were strains of the Ebola virus, is admirable and ridiculous at the same time.  He obsessively employs synonymia and tatutologia.  (Tautologia: a tiresome repetition of the same idea in different words.)  The rustic Costard only talks in malapropisms, mistaking “reprehend” for “represent,” “adversity” for “prosperity,” “manner” for “manor,” “desolation” for “consolation,” “collusion” for “allusion,” and so forth.  Somewhat implausibly, Costard is also the bearer of a word that seems above him, one of the longest words in the English language: honorificabilitudinitatibus (“to be gifted with honors”).  Berowne is perhaps Shakespeare’s linguistic ideal, since he neither utters malapropisms nor translates his every word into Latin.  He is mocked in other ways.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is probably Shakespeare’s filthiest play, as well, with at least two lines that sound like they belong to a hit song by Ke$ha:

Thou canst not hit it, hit it, hit it,
Thou canst not hit it, my good man [IV:i].

Two metaphorical strands are woven throughout the play.  The first series of metaphors concerns the opposition between the spring and the winter.  This one leaves me cold.  The second metaphorical filament is immeasurably more interesting than the first: Ocular and optical metaphors proliferate throughout the play, which concerns the act of seeing and the relationship between seeing and desiring.

The men of this imaginary world have a purely visual interest in their female “beloveds.”  For example, the entire sensorium of Navarre, according to Boyet, attending lord to the Princess of France, is housed in his eyesight:

All senses to that sense [eyesight] did make their repair,
To feel only looking on fairest of fair.
Methought all his senses were lock’d in his eye,
As jewels in crystal for some prince to buy [II:i].

Berowne’s fear, or so he says, is the loss of his eyesight from reading too much.  He would much rather study a woman’s physiognomy:

Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed,
By fixing it upon a fairer eye [I:i].

The meaning of the first verse quoted seems to be: “Eyes that seek intellectual enlightenment are distracted from the light of truth, which comes from the eyes of a woman.”  In the late sixteenth century, it was still believed that the human eye produced light beams.  This idea, known as the “emission theory,” is at least as old as Plato.

All the eyes disclose are illusions.  Moth, Armado’s page, makes this point in rhyme:

If she be made of white and red,
Her faults will ne’er be known;
For blushing cheeks by faults are bred,
And fears by pale white shown.
Then if she fear, or be to blame,
By this you shall not know;
For still her cheeks possess the same
Which native she doth owe [I:ii].

What the peasant woman Jaquenetta is thinking and feeling Armado will never know.  (Here we have the charming mixing of social classes that is so common in Shakespeare.)  What the even more enigmatic Rosaline is thinking and feeling Berowne will never know.  Again, the desire to master the totality of Woman is frustrated.

The unknowability of the object of desire is perfectly dramatized in the second scene of the fifth act.  At the beginning of the scene (the scene itself is 1,003 lines long), the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting are in the park, ridiculing the gifts, letters, and attentions that they have received from their gentlemen callers.  Boyet informs the Princess that he eavesdropped upon the king and his lords, who are planning to accost the ladies while disguised as Russians.  The Princess orders the ladies to wear masks and swap the gifts that they received from the lords so that Katherine will be mistaken for Maria, and the Princess will be confused with Rosaline.  When the men arrive, disguised, the ladies have their backs turned to them.  As Moth remarks:

A holy parcel of the fairest dames / That ever turn’d their—backs—to mortal views!

Each man is disguised and therefore exchangeable with another; each woman’s face is veiled and is therefore exchangeable with another.  Bodies are clothed; faces are inscrutable.  All that is visible is the eyes.  If you would like to find the authentic precursors of Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), look no further.

The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost are unknowable to the male characters, for the men only know the figures that they have created.  In scene after scene of Shakespeare’s great play, we encounter men who love themselves more than the women they profess to adore.  For instance, Boyet loves not his mistress, but his own language.  As the Princess says of his overblown encomium to her beauty:

I am less proud to hear you tell my worth
Than you much willing to be counted wise
In spending your wit in the praise of mine [II:i].

Ingenuously or disingenuously (which will never be discovered), Berowne asks Rosaline (some versions, erroneously, say ‘Katherine’):

Did I not dance with you in Brabant once? [II:i].

Berowne does not even seem to recognize the woman whom he “loves.”  She mockingly repeats his leading question:

Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?

Repeating his question, she neither confirms nor denies its suggestion that such a dance had ever taken place.  Whereas Bloom proposed Did I Not Dance with You in Brabant Once? as an alternative title to the play, I would suggest Last Year at Brabant, echoing, of course, the cinematic masterwork of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad (1962).  We know nothing of the prehistory of these lovers, if lovers they be.  It is indeed entirely possible that their prehistory is wholly imaginary, that Rosaline is playfully assuming the fictitious role that Berowne has imposed on her.  For Berowne loves only his own reflection, the mirror image that is reflected in her eyes.  As he says (in prose):

By this light, but for her eye, I would not love her—yes, for her two eyes [IV:iii].

Berowne loves Rosaline, then, because she is a reflective surface.  “What do you see when you look at me?”: This is Berowne’s implicit question.  And Berowne is not the only autoeroticist in the play.  From the King of Navarre himself, in a letter to the Princess of France:

But do not love thyself; then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep [IV:iii].

Translation: “Don’t love yourself!  Love me!”

With these words Berowne describes the beauty of Rosaline:

A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the deed,
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard [III:i].

Argus, the monster with one hundred eyes, is the castrated guard who protects the woman with sightless eyes.  And into those null eyes Berowne looks and sees what he wants to see.  He introjects his own images into the blackness.  What does he see in Rosaline’s eyeless eyes?  Nothing but himself.  Her pitch balls are as black as the eyes of a chicken, and there is nothing but his own Self to be seen within their unfathomable, fathomless blackness.

All interpretation is projection, since interpretation is drawn not to objects, but to the absence of objects.  We desire to interpret not when there is something to interpret, but when there is nothing to interpret.

Joseph Suglia

The Horse Dealer’s Daughter (D.H. Lawrence): An Analysis

N.B. This is a severely truncated version of a much longer study of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence.  The complete edition is about 10,000 words long.

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THE HORSE DEALER’S DAUGHTER (D.H. Lawrence): An Analysis

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

from England, My England (1922)

“My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is!  Nothing but ************ cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest…  what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all new!”

—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce

“James Joyce bores me stiff—too terribly would-be and done-on-purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.”

—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce

“What a stupid olla podrida of the Bible and so forth James Joyce is: just stewed-up fragments of quotation in the sauce of a would-be dirty mind.  Such effort!  Such exertion!  sforzato davvero!”

—D.H. Lawrence on James Joyce

“[D.H. Lawrence] is a propagandist and a very bad writer.”

—James Joyce on D.H. Lawrence

From the third paragraph of “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence is the following sentence:

There was a strange air of ineffectuality about the three men, as they sprawled at table, smoking and reflecting vaguely on their own condition.

The word sprawl is used for the first time here (it will be used twice more in the text).  To sprawl is to spread oneself out irregularly and unevenly.  The three Pervin brothers—Joe, Fred Henry, and Malcolm—are positioned perversely around the table, positioned in a way that suggests their collective stupidity; they are asprawlSprawled makes them appear insensate, callous, obtuse, stolid.

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Sprawling denotes a mindless subhuman inactivity (I will return to the motif of subhumanity below).

Stupidity is the inability to grasp even basic concepts, and in that sense, all three brothers are stupid.  They are not even individual entities (they are not “alone” in the sense that Mabel is “alone”); they form an undifferentiated “ineffectual conclave.”  They cannot apprehend that their sister is geared toward the absence of all relations which is death–self-imposed death.

Safe in their stupidity, the brothers are sprawlingly looking forward to their eviction from their father’s house, whereas the youngest (?) daughter in the family, Mabel Pervin, is conscious of, and sensitively sensitive to the loss of her dignity, to the loss of her status, and to the curtailing of her possibilities.  The men in the story propose that she might become a nurse, she might become a skivvy, or, worst of all, she might become someone’s wife.  It is important to stress that she wants to become none of these things.

Mabel is not sprawling around the table: Unlike her brothers, who are only able to reflect “vaguely,” her external “impassive fixity” masquerades a hive of conscious activity (I will return to the “impassiveness” of Mabel’s exterior below).

The great draught-horses swung past.

The word swing comes into play for the first time here (it will be deployed four times altogether in the text).  Swung: This connotes a mechanical back-and-forth movement.  Motion without any consciousness.  The idiocy of the boys’ sprawling is correlated with the idiocy of the horses’ swinging.  The horses are swinging their great rounded haunches sumptuously (in a manner that pleases the senses, but not the intellect).  Their movement shows a massive, slumbrous strength (the intellect is asleep).  They rock behind the hedges in a motionlike sleep (they only seem to be kinetic; they are mindlessly static).

Draught-horse: a large horse that is used for bearing heavy loads.

Joe watched with glazed hopeless eyes.  The horses were almost like his own body to him…  He would marry and go into harness.  His life was over, he would be a subject animal now.

D.H. Lawrence gets himself into some trouble here.  He tells too much (which is unlike him) and shows too little (which is unlike him).  I can write without fear of repudiation or of exaggeration that this is the weakest passage in the story.  The writing of this passage is didactic / propagandistic (to refer to the Joycean epigraph above).  It is far too explicit and spells out what should have been left to the reader to decode: Joe is looking forward to an engagement to a woman as old as himself and therefore to financial safety, and this “safety” is the safety of a kept animal.  A domesticated animal.  Marriage will reduce him to subjection.  He will lose his vitality.  He will lose his human spontaneity.

[W]ith foolish restlessness, [Joe] reached for the scraps of bacon-rind from the plates, and making a faint whistling sound, flung them to the terrier that lay against the fender.  He watched the dog swallow them, and waited till the creature looked into his eyes.

And what is in those doggy eyes other than the nullity of animal stupidity, a stupidity that reflects his own stupidity?  What is in those eyes other than the likeness of his own animal insensibility?

The flinging of the bacon corresponds to the swinging of the horses.  The word swing, etymologically, means “to fling”—the Old High German word swingan means “to rush” or “to fling.”  The idiocy of the mechanical movement of swinging corresponds the idiocy of the mechanical movement of flinging.  The etymology of swing further establishes a metaphorical connection between Joe and the animals of the story (the dog, the horses).

The equine and canine metaphors bestialize all of the brothers.  (Joe, in particular, is described as straddling his knees “in real horsy fashion”; he seems “to have his tail between his legs,” etc.)  They are all dull, dim beasts, animals that will soon be subjected to the yoke of marriage and of other forms of servitude (labor, etc.).  As all domestic beasts, they will become subject to human authority.  To be an animal, according to the metaphorics of the text, means to be subjected to human power.  As mentioned above, Joe will soon be subordinated to the bestial subjection of marriage.  To draw out one the implications of the text: A married couple resembles two animals yoked together.

The face of the young woman darkened, but she sat on immutable.

Mabel, on the other hand, is described as seeming immutable (once) and impassive (four times): not incapable of emotion or without affectability, but inscrutable, as withholding herself from expression, from saying and speaking.  Impassivity, here, means not the absence of emotion, but rather, inexpressivenessExpression will become important in the third and final act of the story.

‘I’ll be seeing you tonight, shall I?’ he said to his friend.

‘Ay—where’s it to be?  Are we going over to Jessdale?’

‘I don’t know.  I’ve got such a cold on me.  I’ll come round to the Moon and Stars, anyway.’

‘Let Lizzie and May miss their night for once, eh?’

‘That’s it—if I feel as I do now.’

No one appears to know what “Jessdale” refers to—whether it is the name of a fabricated city or the name of an inn or a bar–but I suspect that it is the name of a bordello and that Lizzie and May are prostitutes therein.  If I am correct about this (and I am), Jack Fergusson is (initially) a rogue and a roué, someone who isn’t the least interested in marriage.  What, then, draws Mabel to him in the first place?  Could it be his relative freedom from convention and from the constraints of bourgeois society?

But so long as there was money, the girl felt herself established, and brutally proud, reserved.

Her father was once a well-off horse dealer.  No more.  Now comes the shame that is killing her.

She would follow her own way just the same.  She would always hold the keys of her own situation.  Mindless and persistent, she endured from day to day.  Why should she think?  Why should she answer anybody?  It was enough that this was the end, and there was no way out.  She need not pass any more darkly along the main street of the small town, avoiding every eye.  She need not demean herself any more, going into the shops and buying the cheapest food.  This was at an end.  She thought of nobody, not even of herself.  Mindless and persistent, she seemed in a sort of ecstasy to be coming nearer to her fulfilment, her own glorification, approaching her dead mother, who was glorified.

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Unhappily, Jack Fergusson will (try to) take away her godlike freedom and subjugate her to the conjugal yoke.

It was a grey, wintry day, with saddened, dark-green fields and an atmosphere blackened by the smoke of foundries not far off.

As Martin Amis reminds us, D.H. Lawrence never took a breath without pain.  Lawrence died of emphysema at the age of forty-four.  He knew too well the colliers of Northampton, near where this story takes place.  Could it be that the smoke from the foundries that are blackening the sky also blackened Lawrence’s lungs?  Are the black billows that Mabel sees the same black billows that killed her creator?

It gave [Mabel] sincere satisfaction to [tidy her mother’s grave].  She felt in immediate contact with the world of her mother.  She took minute pains, went through the park in a state bordering on pure happiness, as if in performing this task she came into a subtle, intimate connexion with her mother.  For the life she followed here in the world was far less real than the world of death she inherited from her mother.

Here, I would like to make the rather obvious point that suicide, not merely the tiding of her mother’s grave, would bring Mabel into a subtle and intimate connection with her mother.

[Fergusson] slowly ventured into the pond.  The bottom was deep, soft clay, he sank in, and the water clasped dead cold round his legs.  As he stirred he could smell the cold, rotten clay that fouled up into the water.  It was objectionable in his lungs.  Still, repelled and yet not heeding, he moved deeper into the pond.  The cold water rose over his thighs, over his loins, upon his abdomen.  The lower part of his body was all sunk in the hideous cold element.  And the bottom was so deeply soft and uncertain, he was afraid of pitching with his mouth underneath.  He could not swim, and was afraid.

It is as if Jack Fergusson’s body were being liquefied, as if his body were being fluidified in the aqueous deeps of the pond.  Or is his body being softened into clay?  The clay suggests, perhaps, the amorphous clay of the golem.  In Jewish mysticism, the golem is a clay figure that comes alive once a magical combination of letters is inscribed on its forehead: emeth (“truth” in Hebrew).  If you erase the aleph from the word emeth, the golem will collapse into dust (meth means “dead”).  (See Gershom Scholem’s seminal book On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, Chapter Five.)

And so doing he lost his balance and went under, horribly, suffocating in the foul earthy water, struggling madly for a few moments.  At last, after what seemed an eternity, he got his footing, rose again into the air and looked around.  He gasped, and knew he was in the world.  Then he looked at the water.  She had risen near him.  He grasped her clothing, and drawing her nearer, turned to take his way to land again.

He went very slowly, carefully, absorbed in the slow progress.  He rose higher, climbing out of the pond.  The water was now only about his legs; he was thankful, full of relief to be out of the clutches of the pond.  He lifted her and staggered on to the bank, out of the horror of wet, grey clay.

He laid her down on the bank.  She was quite unconscious and running with water.  He made the water come from her mouth, he worked to restore her.  He did not have to work very long before he could feel the breathing begin again in her; she was breathing naturally.  He worked a little longer.  He could feel her live beneath his hands; she was coming back.

The pond is the uterine vessel through which Mabel undergoes her palingenesis, her renaissance, her second birth.  It is as if some tellurian current were transferred within her.  She dies in the pond and is brought back to the life upon the bank.  Her body has been revived, and yet her consciousness is still slumbering.  Her total revivification will take place in the house, now desolate, upon the hearthrug, by the fireplace.

Who dwells within the house?  Consider the following: Mabel’s father has died.  Her three brothers have evacuated the house.  Her sister is long gone.  The dog and the horses are gone.

No one is alive in the house except for the spirit of her dead mother.

‘Do you love me then?’ she asked.

He only stood and stared at her, fascinated.  His soul seemed to melt.

She shuffled forward on her knees, and put her arms round him, round his legs, as he stood there, pressing her breasts against his knees and thighs, clutching him with strange, convulsive certainty, pressing his thighs against her, drawing him to her face, her throat, as she looked up at him with flaring, humble eyes, of transfiguration, triumphant in first possession.

Emerging from the pond an amorphous mass of clay, Jack will now be resculpted by Mabel into her own creature.  He will be completely reconstructed.  His body was already likened to clay when it was immersed in the pond.  Now his soul, too, is melting into the shapeless stuff of the pond-clay.  Note that Mabel’s eyes are “of transfiguration”: It is she who is transfiguring Jack into her own effigy.  She is the creator; he is the golem.

He had never thought of loving her.  He had never wanted to love her.  When he rescued her and restored her, he was a doctor, and she was a patient.  He had had no single personal thought of her.  Nay, this introduction of the personal element was very distasteful to him, a violation of his professional honour.  It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees.  It was horrible.  He revolted from it, violently.  And yet—and yet—he had not the power to break away.

There is indeed something horrible going on in this passage, given that Jack is powerlessly being shaped, rounded, molded into something that is not of his own making.

‘You love me,’ she repeated, in a murmur of deep, rhapsodic assurance.  ‘You love me.’

Her hands were drawing him, drawing him down to her.  He was afraid, even a little horrified.  For he had, really, no intention of loving her.  Yet her hands were drawing him towards her.

I only want to underline something in the text: She is drawing him toward her.  Repeatedly, it is emphasized that Jack is being reconstructed against his own will into something that is not of his own creation.

The assertion “You love me” is a performative speech act.  But is it an illocutionary or perlocutionary speech act?  If it were an illocutionary speech act, “You love me” would be a description of what is being done, such as, “I now pronounce you man and wife” or “I move that we adjourn the meeting.”  And yet Mabel is not saying, “I seduce you” or “I make you love me.”

It is, rather, a perlocutionary speech act: that is, a speech act that is designed to have an effect on someone’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.

Every human being you meet will want to impress one’s fingerprints upon you, as if you were a ball of clay.  A perlocutionary speech act is the attempt to mold someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or actions through words.

‘You love me?’ she said, rather faltering.

‘Yes.’  The word cost him a painful effort.  Not because it wasn’t true.  But because it was too newly true, the saying seemed to tear open again his newly-torn heart.  And he hardly wanted it to be true, even now.

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Much in the way that letters inscribed on the forehead of the statue bring to life the golem, the words “You love me” form a perlocutionary performative speech act that gives Jack Fergusson a second birth.  Mabel Pervin has destroyed and recreated him.

‘And my hair smells so horrible,’ she murmured in distraction.  ‘And I’m so awful, I’m so awful!  Oh, no, I’m too awful.’  And she broke into bitter, heart-broken sobbing.  ‘You can’t want to love me, I’m horrible.’

‘Don’t be silly, don’t be silly,’ he said, trying to comfort her, kissing her, holding her in his arms. ‘I want you, I want to marry you, we’re going to be married, quickly, quickly—to-morrow if I can.’

But she only sobbed terribly, and cried:

‘I feel awful. I feel awful. I feel I’m horrible to you.’

‘No, I want you, I want you,’ was all he answered, blindly, with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.

There are two “horrors” intimated in these words, the final words of the story.  The first horror is the horrified apprehension that Mabel will become her mother.  That is to say, Mabel is horrified that she will be mired in the same soul-deadening stupidity in which her mother was steeped and in which her brothers are steeped.  We return, then, to the opening moments of the text: to the image of the yoked horses (which figures marriage as subordination and subjection to the will of another).  The second horror is that she will be undesired or no longer desired.

Consider this: Mabel has created a golem that will desire her, a male Pygmalion, a Frankensteinian monster.  And now, her creation desires her too much.  Golem-making is dangerous, as Scholem reminds us, but the source of danger is not the golem itself, or the forces emanating from the golem, but rather the conflict that arises within the golem-maker herself.  It is a conflict between the horror of being desired by one’s creature and the horror of not being desired enough by one’s creature or the horror of not being desired at all, the horror of undesirability.  It is a conflict between the horror of being-desired and the horror of the absence of being-desired.

Joseph Suglia

VICTOR/VICTORIA – Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of VICTOR/VICTORIA (1982) by Joseph Suglia

Victor/Victoria (1982) is clearly Blake Edward’s most significant and most pleasant film.  It has very little of the garishness, decadence, and sordidness that mar some of his other work, though I admire all of his cinematic projects.

I believe it would be fair to say that Victor/Victoria is about the moment at which art stops resembling life and becomes life.  The hilarious cockroach scene is a beautiful instance of the traversal of the seeming / being distinction: The restaurant IS, in fact, infested with cockroaches if the patrons believe that it is.  The James Gardner character feels duped at first–he is attracted to a man impersonating a woman, but that figure is, in fact, a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman.  Later on, Gardner’s character recognizes that it doesn’t matter, ultimately, if Victor is naturally male or female.  “Her” project is to contrive appearances of appearances–not to persuade spectators that her appearance is natural, but to persuade them that her appearance is merely a persuasive appearance, that her “truth” is purely phenomenal.  How clever that the film alludes to Madame Butterfly!  At times, the phenomenon is more “real” than any reality.  “People believe what they see”–they want to be taken in by appearances and are inescapably disappointed by nuda veritas.

I think, in this regard, of Bernstein and Toddy: Both characters are gay and yet also persuasively, almost natively heterosexualized.  When they are wearing their “straight” masks, are they lying?  Are they pretending?  The film conjures up the ancient paradox of Megara: When liars say, “I am lying,” are they telling the truth?  A lie is not a lie if everyone believes it, including the liar him- or herself.  I think of the wonderful bedside conversation between the Julie Andrews and ultra-masculine James Gardner characters: “I find it all fascinating. There are things available to me as a man that I could never have as a woman.  I am emancipated…  I’m my own man, so to speak.”

The point, I think, is not that one appearance is a false and the other is “the truth,” but that two mutually contradictory appearances can coexist simultaneously.  Julie Andrews’ character can switch from “Victor” to “Victoria” in the same way that some bilingual students switch from Spanish to English and then back to Spanish again.  And why not?  We live in, to cite one of the songs, a “crazy world / full of crazy contradictions,” a world of shifting, ambiguous appearances that give life its thrill.  Philosophically speaking, the film exhibits neither a pious, life-negating Platonism nor a Nietzschean celebration and aestheticization of hollow appearances.  It suggests, rather, that you can shift from one phenomenal identity to another without either identity being “true” or emptily fraudulent.  And why not?  Humans are enormously complex creatures, and life is overwhelmingly ambiguous and complex.

Joseph Suglia

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

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

A commentary by Joseph Suglia

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

VMS = Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche (1879)

WS = Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (1880)

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

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

Nietzsche’s Psychological Reductionism and Perspectivalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nietzsche Is / Is Not (Always) a Misogynist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche

On Religion and Politics

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

On Morality

Morality depends on opportunity.

On Communication

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

On Interpretation

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

On the Voice

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

On Salvation

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

On Censorial America

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

Joseph Suglia

A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Two: A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again / “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” / “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” / “David Lynch Keeps His Head”

An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts.  His métier was, perhaps, mathematics.  David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).

Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed.  I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997).  Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can.  He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38).  Perish the thought!

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television.  Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television.  Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words.  “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase.  Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television.  David Foster Wallace was wrong.  No, writers should NOT trust television.  No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see.  The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste.  That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s.  Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65).  He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time.  They did not, of course.  One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification.  To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television.  But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist.  Let me enlarge an earlier statement.  Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer.  It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32).  Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it.  Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them.  We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.).  Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  That is your false dilemma.  If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY.  Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection.  There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism.  There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance.  The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990).  Did Wallace never see this film?  How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart?  Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence.  No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political.  How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness?  How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets?  And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are.  Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book.  It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.

Joseph Suglia

I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET / Dr. Joseph Suglia on “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” by Herman Melville

I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

One of the most common misinterpretations of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is that it is a story about writing.  (See Leo Marx’s unjustly influential 1953 essay “Melville’s Parable of the Walls.”)  Bartleby, according to this falsification, is a figure for the Writer.  Whatever Bartleby experiences, then, would be whatever the Writer experiences.

Those who set forth this erroneous interpretation must answer the following: If Bartleby is a figure for the Writer, why does he never actually write?  Only a watery understanding of the word writing would encompass what Bartleby does.  He copies; he does not write.  He does not produce anything original; he is a replicator.  He is no more a genuine writer than a Subway sandwich artist is a genuine artist.

Not only does Bartleby never write.  He does not even seem to read.  The lawyer says of Bartleby: “I had never seen him read—no, not even a newspaper.”

And why would Bartleby be a figure for the Writer and not the other copyists in the office?  Why would Turkey not be the symbolic expression of the Writer in the story?  Why not Nippers?  Turkey and Nippers do the same thing that Bartleby does: They copy contracts and deeds for pay.

One might rejoin that Bartleby represents all poetic writers.  There are indeed references to poeticism in the text.  John Jacob Astor, the lawyer’s symbolic father, is said to be “a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm”; Byron is called “mettlesome” by the anti-poetic lawyer; the view from within the artless lawyer’s office is described as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life,'” and so forth.  To say that Bartleby represents all poetic writers—and not every writer in the world—would be to engage in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but we can put that aside for the moment.

There is a more urgent problem with this argument: If Bartleby represents all poetic writers and the ostracism and martyrdom of all poetic writers, why does he stop copying in the third act of the story?  Surely, a poetic writer is someone who never ceases to write poetically, someone who turns every experience into a writable experience.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” then, is not a parable about the Writer or about Writing.  What is the story about?

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in the first place, is the story of a copyist at a lawyer’s office who reproduces documents, but resists, with gentle dignity, doing anything other than reproducing documents.

Too many readers have overlooked the fact that Bartleby is the ideal employee.  He does exactly what he is paid to do.  Indeed, he does his work with excessive dedication and never seems to step outside of the office (before his forcible eviction): “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere… he was always there.”  He works to the limit: “He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.”  He does not do anything, however, that he is not paid to do.  This is why Bartleby is disinclined–prefers not–to examine his own copies, why he is disinclined to bring letters to the post office, why he is disinclined to fetch Nippers, etc.  Whenever the lawyer asks him to do anything other than copy contracts and deeds, the response is always the same: “I prefer not to” or “I would prefer not to.”  Whenever impressed upon to perform even the simplest of errands, Bartleby states his non-preference—passively, reactively—from a place of hidden privilege and gentle condescension.  The literalization of his job description, Bartleby resists performing duties outside of his job description with a painful politeness.

One must be careful not to read the slogan “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to” as a refusal or declination.  Bartleby’s slogan is not a “No”-saying.  It is a form of “passive resistance.”  It is a slippery slogan.  It is a way of hovering over the categories of “Yes” and “No”–a linguistic trapeze act.

The “Sunday episode” is the crux of the story.  One Sunday morning, the lawyer goes to Trinity Church to hear a “celebrated preacher.”  Arriving rather early, he decides to kill time before the sermon starts by walking to his office.  Unable to open the door, he struggles with the lock.  The door opens, and Bartleby appears, his lean visage thrusting at the lawyer.  The lawyer slinks away, servilely accepting the apparition of Bartleby (the term “apparition” is used, evoking the spectral character of Bartleby).  One of the effects of this episode is evidence that there is absolutely no division between the private and the professional for Bartleby.  This point—the erasure of the distinction between the private and the professional—is reinforced later in the text, when the lawyer invites Bartleby to stay with him at the former’s home.

Bartleby destabilizes the office by being the perfect employee.  He super-agrees with the terms of the office.  He over-adheres to the policies of the office.  Soon, his keyword prefer spreads throughout the office as if it were a vicious linguistic virus.  Every adult in the office—the lawyer, Nippers, Turkey—soon finds himself using the word prefer.

Bartleby is the perfect copyist—and this is what unsettles the lawyer’s once-imperturbable placidity and is what robs the lawyer of his virility (the lawyer is “unmanned” by Bartleby, de-manified by Bartleby).  Bartleby perfectly identifies with his professional role as a duplicator—and thus subverts the profession with which he perfectly identifies.  He copies the office and thus undermines the office.

The point to be made is that Bartleby over-agrees with his job description.  He exaggerates and affirms his position to the point of absurdity, throwing the office into chaos and driving his employer to madness.  The logic of super-agreement is why Kierkegaard is an enemy of Christianity.  Kierkegaard was such a super-Christian, endorsing Christianity with such fervidness, that he made being a Christian a nearly impossible state of being.  Kierkegaard’s super-agreement with Christianity, his fervid endorsement of Christianity, means the undoing of Christianity for many readers.  Nietzsche, on the other hand, who ferociously hammered Christianity, is, paradoxically, Christianity’s friend.

This is not to say that Bartleby endorses the ideology of the office.  Bartleby is a rebel, to be sure, but he is a quiet rebel.  If he were a raging lunatic (think of “The Lightning-Rod Man”), Bartleby would be dismissible.  His commanding calmness is the reason that the lawyer is overthrown by his employee: “Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me as it were.”  Bartleby is a quiet rebel whose quiet rebellion takes the form of relentless passivity.  At the core of his passivity is an active dimension.  He is actively passive, pushing the terms active and passive beyond their usual significations.  His weakness is an unconquerable strength, to channel Duras.  He is emblematic of “passive resistance”–and in these words, one should hear resonating the words of that other great American, Henry David Thoreau: “civil disobedience.”

What, then, is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” actually about?

The work is a critique of Evil America in the nineteenth century–an America in which too much of everything is dehumanizing Business.  Bartleby is a Christ within the world of nineteenth-century American capitalism, but he is not a self-negating Christ.  [Note: Much in the way that Peter denies Jesus, the lawyer denies Bartleby.]  The “I” is the most important word in the slogan, “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to.” (Deleuze’s word is “formula.”)  “I prefer not to” is the assertion of subjectivity against the impersonal and anonymous space of the office, the imposition of subjectivity on the desubjectified world of exchange.

Reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in twenty-first-century America is a defamiliarizing experience.  These days, any employee who asserted, “I prefer not to” would be sent to Human Resources for immediate termination.  We live in a culture of compliance and submission, of obeisance to managerial authority (compliance is a word that is used in the text: “natural expectancy of immediate compliance”).  Now, Bartleby does, in fact, participate in the capitalist world of nineteenth-century America, yet his compliance is a kind of conditional compliance, his submission to authority is submission on his own terms, his acceptance of the world of exchange is a conditional acceptance.  His patrician passive-aggressive preferences-not-to are ways of saying, “I will do whatever I please, but nothing other than what I please.”  This is Americanism, to be sure, but the Americanism of Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers, not the Americanism of the bureaucrats.

Bartleby exists on the boundary of capitalism.  A Christ in Evil America, he is deathly, from the other side of life, former and current employee of the Dead Letter Office in Washington.  This is why Bartleby is iteratively described as “cadaverous” in this text (three times), an “apparition” (twice), and a “ghost” (twice).  He is dead and yet present; he is in the capitalist world and yet not of the capitalist world.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

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

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

by Joseph Suglia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

You can accuse an idiot of being an idiot, but this accusation will only dimly register in his primitive consciousness.  He will shrug his shoulders and continue being an idiot.

This raises the question, “Why criticize idiotic books at all?”  It is unlikely that a sharp-minded critic will improve a dimwitted writer.  And who will do the criticizing?  There are very few intelligent people left in the world, and in the country in which I reside, the United States of America, intelligence is condemned as a vice.  Nevertheless, we the intelligent must band together and identify idiocy whenever we come across it, especially when idiotic books such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty-Year Sword (2012) are praised by The Washington Post as works of literature, if for no other reason than to secure the concept of “literature” and to protect it from abuse.

The Fifty-Year Sword is undistilled swill, and it is impossible to understand how any serious person could defend such a book.  I am using the word “book” somewhat glibly, since what Danielewski and Co. have given us is a collection of blank pages, drawings (stitchings, really), and limp doggerel, all stitched together.

It might be useful to taxonomize the text into four categories.

Pages 2, 11, 13, 15, 17, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, 39, 41, 43, 45, 47, 49, 51, 53, 55, 57, 59, 65, 69, 71, 73, 75, 77, 79, 81, 83, 85, 87, 99, 107, 117, 119, 121, 125, 127, 139, 143, 147, 149, 151,  155, 159, 169, 171, 175, 177, 181, 183, 185, 189, 193, 195, 199, 201, 205, 207, 209, 211, 233, 234, 235, 237, 243, 245, 247, 249, 255, 257, 259, 261, 263, 265, 269, 273, 281, 283, and 285 are entirely blank.

On pages 7, 8, 9, 19, 35, 37, 61, 63, 67, 89, 91, 93, 95, 97, 101, 103, 104, 105, 106, 109, 111, 112, 113, 115, 123, 129, 131, 133, 135, 137, 141, 144, 145, 153, 157, 160, 161, 163, 165, 167, 173, 179, 187, 191, 197, 203, 213, 215, 217, 219, 221, 223, 225, 227, 229, 231, 238, 239, 241, 251, 253, 267, 271, 275, 277, 278, and 279 are unaesthetic stitchings that look like food stains.  No words to speak of.

Pages 18, 66, 88, 92, 94, 96, 98, 100, 108, 114, 116, 122, 124, 126, 128, 130, 132, 134, 136, 138, 140, 142, 152, 154, 158, 162, 164, 166, 168, 172, 174, 176, 178, 184, 186, 188, 190, 192, 196, 212, 214, 216, 218, 220, 222, 224, 226, 228, 230, 232, 242, 244, 246, 254, 266, 270, 274, 276, and 284: Printed on each one of these pages is a single ill-formed sentence or phrase and nothing else besides.  On some of the more generous pages, there are two ill-formed sentences.  On some of the more meager pages, there is a single word or two words.

Pages 12, 14, 16, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44, 46, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, 64, 68, 70, 72, 74, 76, 78, 80, 82, 84, 86, 90, 102, 110, 118, 120, 146, 148, 150, 156, 170, 180, 182, 194, 198, 200, 202, 204, 206, 208, 210, 236, 240, 248, 250, 252, 256, 258, 260, 262, 264, 268, 272, 280, and 282: Erratically indented, badly written verse, approximately fifty-sixty words per page.  Multicolored quotation marks, single and double.  The orange quotation marks seem to refer to the character Tarff.  The mauve (?) quotation marks seem to refer to the character Ezade.  The red quotation marks to Inieda, the brown to Sithis, and the yellow (?) to something called “ittle Micit.”  Often, it is difficult to distinguish one color from the other, one character from the other.

Let’s tally up the numbers.

83 out of the book’s 285 pages are entirely blank.

67 of these pages are polluted with “illustrations” (for lack of a worse word).

This means that approximately 52% of the “book” is wordless: There are more blank pages and pages of imagery than pages with words on them.

And what of the words that Brother Poe stitches together?  What is it like to actually read this book (such as it is)?

Reading this “book” is as pleasant as eating sand.  The lines are atrociously stupid, abnormally boring, and excruciatingly illiterate.  Let me pause over some of the language, since it is the most offensive thing about this intolerably mushy mishmash of bad verse, blank pages, and ugly pictures.  Here are three examples:

1.)  “A few times a year Mose would generously serve up booze / and sweet / to fortipify the many strangers against the expected strangeness of her minglings…” [24].

A “sentence” that was clearly “inspired” by Joyce without any of Joyce’s elegance or genius.  When Joyce invented neologisms, he did so with a purpose.  The awful coinage “fortipify” neither enhances nor enlivens the text.

2.) “It was even in the falling apart of the breeze (though is there a breeze / if I can still feel it on my face?)…” [110].

Here, we have a non sequitur that does not even rise to the level of a simple paradox.

3.) “Where / upon / he began to swing the handle in a wide but deliberately / slow / arc as if to pass a long blade through the wicks of those five / candles nearly six / feet away where indeed a yellow panic there, / perhaps by extraordidinary coincidence, momentarily cowered / into small rounds of blue and drowning smoke” [240].

This is the sort of verse that only a bananahead would like and respect.

And if I were a bananahead, I would find The Fifty-Year Sword impressive.  In truth, Mark Z. Danielewski is not a careful writer, and he does not have a feeling for words.  Blame should be also given to the seamstresses at the Atelier Z, who did a terrible job of stitching the stupid thing together.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

A review of DERMAPHORIA (Craig Clevenger) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of DERMAPHORIA (Craig Clevenger)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Did you know that most “Alpha Males” are, in fact, Beta Males?  And that most “Beta Males” are, in fact, Omega Males?  Craig Clevenger is an Omega Male who thinks that he is a Beta Male.  Chuck Palahniuk is a Beta Male who thinks that he is an Alpha Male.  As all Omega Males do, Craig Clevenger slavishly imitates the Beta Male.  Craig Clevenger apes Chuck Palahniuk’s this-is-how-pre-teens-talk writing “style,” which is no style at all.

Clevenger’s Dermaphoria (2005) will excruciate you with its illiteracy.  Consider the following sentences:

1.)    “Clumps of hair had melted together around one of his ears, which had swollen into a knot of blistered cartilage” [91].

How could clumps of hair melt together?

2.)    “He was sobbing as he spoke, trying to snow me with some cheap excuse like some eight-year-old while spitting out a stream of expletives with ‘hospital’ thrown in every three or four words” [Ibid.].

What?  This sentence is scarcely intelligible.  How could someone “snow” someone else with a single “excuse”?  “Eight year old” does not require hyphenation.  “Like” should never be used conjunctionally.  Taken literally, the phrase “some cheap excuse like some eight-year-old” means that the “cheap excuse” is like an eight year old.  Will MacAdam/Cage publish anything that comes over the transom, and did they copy-edit this book, or was the effort too herculean for them?

3.)    “I slip my fingers beneath your shirt to the slice of flesh above your hips that feels so good in the dark but you hate so much” [109].

Read literally, the final clause means that “you” “hate so much” in general, that “you” hate everyone and everything.  The context suggests, however, that “you” hate “the slice of flesh above your hips.”  A slightly less illiterate, slightly less irritating way of writing the sentence would be: “I slip my fingers beneath your shirt to the slice of flesh above your hips that you hate so much but that feels so good in the dark.”

4.)    “Some kid approached me with no finesse whatsoever, and asked me for ecstacy [sic]” [137].

Now, this is a sentence that only a beefhead would write.  Could Clevenger have come up with a more exciting verb than “to approach”?  Evidently not.  The comma is superfluous, and do I really need to point out that “ecstacy” should be spelled “ecstasy”?

5.)    “He was wearing tan work pants and dark brown work boots, and with the combination of colors, dark grey and tan, sitting in the sharp daytime shadows of the dilapidated desert house, he’s invisible” [97].

“He’s” is not the contraction of “he was.”  There is no contraction for “he was.”  When Clevenger writes, “dark grey,” doesn’t he mean “dark brown”?  The chuckies don’t care about such errors; after all, they aren’t very detail-oriented, are they?  Page after page, Clevenger is foundering and floundering, flailing and failing.  He cannot write.

Mencken once pointed out that most bad writers have congenital deficiencies–to write clearly, after all, one must think clearly.  But I would say that the converse holds, as well: To think clearly, one must write clearly.  Clevenger does not know how to write because he does not know how to think, and he does not know how to think because he does not know how to write.  He is inarticulate and slow-witted.

Clevenger is an experienced writer of literature in the same way and to the same degree that a eunuch is an experienced lover.  He has no relationship to literature other than a negative relationship or the relation of a non-relation.  His sentences sound like Metallica lyrics.  It is not fortuitous that Clevenger’s Work in Progress is called Saint Heretic: One can hear in the title resonances of Saint Anger, an album by Metallica.  As most chuckies have done, Clevenger has spent more time listening to heavy metal than he has reading books.

Craig Clevenger is a chuckling chucklehead.  He is nothing more than a soldier in Chuck Palahniuk’s army of mentally disenfranchised Everymen.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

Dave Eggers is a Bad Writer / A review of YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND YOUR PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? (Dave Eggers) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY?  AND THE PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? (Dave Eggers)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

One of the most important claims of anti-foundationalism–what is usually called “postmodernism,” the making-fashionable of anti-foundationalism–is that nothing has a single, unified meaning and that systems that pronounce single, unified meanings are fascistic.  Anti-foundationalist writing / film opens and multiplies meanings.  No matter what you say about an anti-foundationalist work of art, you will be wrong: Another interpretation is always possible.  We are all familiar with the rapid occlusions of commercial writing / film–once an alternative meaning appears, it is just as quickly shut out.

Dave Eggers is sometimes referred to, erroneously, as a “postmodern” writer.  It is important to correct this misinterpretation.  Dave Eggers is not a “postmodern” (read: anti-foundationalist) writer.  He is a lazy, slovenly commercial writer who has an unattractive prose style.

Eggers’ most recent catastrophe, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? (2014), could have been written in two hours.  It is entirely composed of dialogue–an easy move for a lazy writer such as Eggers.

The dialogic novel is certainly nothing new.  The dialogic form can be found in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930), Henry Green’s Nothing (1950), Charles Webb’s 1963 novel The Graduate, and Natalie Sarraute’s satirical novel Les Fruits d’or (1964).  John Fowles’ A Maggot (1985) qualifies, though is not entirely told in dialogic form.  There has never been a stronger novel in this subgenre than the great Roland Topor’s Joko’s Anniversary (1969) (in French: Joko fête son anniversaire), one of the most underrated novels ever published.  And of course, there is Chapter Fifteen of Joyce’s Ulysses (the so-called “Circe” or “Nighttown” episode).  Sadly, most dialogue-driven novels these days are proto-screenplays.  Since the 1960s, most commercial novels have been proto-screenplays, and this, I would argue, has led to the death of literature.  (For reasons of economy, I cannot pursue this argument here.)

The title is taken from The Book of Zechariah (1:5).  The book’s learnedness ends there.  In a style that owes nothing to Zechariah, Eggers will condemn American Society for not giving Young American Men what they are owed.

Eggers’s prophet is Thomas, a thirty-four-year-old American.  His maleness, his age, and his Americanness are all important to understanding this novel as a cultural document.  Why the name “Thomas”?  We’re supposed to think of Thomas Paine (use contractions, or Eggers will get angry at you).

I write that Thomas is “Eggers’s prophet” because he has the same political convictions as Eggers: The money that the U.S. borrows from China should not be used to subsidize foreign wars, but instead should be used to finance space exploration, education, health care, and public television.  Thomas whimpers:

“You guys fight over pennies for Sesame Street, and then someone’s backing up a truck to dump a trillion dollars in the desert” [42].  This is only one of the many jewels with which Eggers’ novel is bejeweled.

Eggers would like to persuade us that his prophet is a normal, likable young man, but his attempts at making Thomas seem likable and normal are nauseatingly hamfisted.  Thomas is “polite,” “nice,” and “friendly” and says repeatedly that he has no intention of killing anyone.  Because Thomas tells us that he is a “principled” person (on page 7 and then again on page 84, in case we missed it), we are supposed to believe that Thomas is a principled person.  There is very little logos in the novel, but there definitely is a great deal of ethos.

And a great deal of pathos.  Unhappily, all of the pathos is artificial, particularly the pathos that is communicated when Thomas “falls in love” with a woman he sees strolling on a beach.  The emotions in this book have the same relationship to real emotions that the fruit flavors of chewing gum have to real fruit.

Eggers would like to persuade us, then, that Thomas is a principled young man who kidnaps an Astronaut, a Congressman, an Overeducated Pederast Teacher, his own Mother, a Police Officer, a “Director of Patient Access,” and a Hot Woman; each of these characters is a lifeless stereotype.  Such a rhetorical strategy would be difficult for even a serious and careful writer and because Eggers is neither (don’t say it with a long “I,” or Eggers will get angry at you), the outcome resembles a railway accident.

Thomas is an Angry Young Man of the same pedigree as Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, James Holmes, and Jared Lee Loughner.  And why is he angry?  Because his “friend” Kev never got on the Space Shuttle.  Because Thomas’s life didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to.  Don’t we live in America?  Aren’t Young American Men promised success and happiness?  Thomas rails against the Congressman:

“You should have found some kind of purpose for me” [37].

And: “Why didn’t you tell me what to do?” [Ibid.].

Why, Daddy, why didn’t you tell me what to do?  Why didn’t you “find a place” for me [47]?  Isn’t there a safe and secure place in the world reserved specially for me?  Why doesn’t the world need ME?

It is so sad that Thomas was promised success and happiness (by whom?) and that he never received either (say it with a long “E”) of these things.  It is so sad that Kev never got on the Space Shuttle.  Thomas unburdens himself to the Congressman: “That just seems like the worst kind of thing, to tell a generation or two that the finish line, that the requirements to get there are this and this and this, but then, just as we get there, you move the finish line” [34].

The world owes us success and happiness, doesn’t it?  And when we don’t get it, we get real angry!  Much of the novel is based on the mistaken idea that Young American Men are entitled to success and happiness.  And Thomas represents all disenfranchised Young American Men.  As Thomas says to the Congressman–his substitute “father”–at the close of the novel:

“There are millions more like me, too.  Everyone I know is like me…  [I]f there were some sort of plan for men like me, I think we could do a lot of good” [210; emphasis mine].

This is the worldview of a stunted, self-pitying, lachrymose adolescent.  It is the worldview of Dave Eggers.

To return to the opening paragraphs of this review: Eggers, hardly an anti-foundationalist writer, thinks that life is essentially simple and that everything should have an unequivocal meaning: “You and I read the same books and hear the same sermons and we come away with different messages,” Thomas laments.  “That has to be evidence of some serious problem, right?” [45].

It has to be!

Perhaps the novel would be endurable if it were well-written, but Dave Eggers is a mushhead with all of the style of a diseased hippopotamus.  He draws from a stock of words that is available to most English-speaking humans.  He writes familiar things in a familiar way.  He has a problem with people who say “either” with a long “I,” but misuses the word “parameter” (twice, by my count).

The spiritlessness with which he writes is dispiriting.  The prose is lenient.  Serpentine sentences are superseded in favor of a simple syntax.  Apparently, I am one of the few people alive who enjoys reading sentences that spread across the page as flourishing trees.

Despite its many flaws, the book will be praised for the same reason that audiences laugh while watching Saturday Night Live: Most human beings are followers and do what they think they are expected to do.

Joseph Suglia

A review of A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (Dave Eggers) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING (Dave Eggers)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

All novels may be taxonomized into three categories: There are novels of plot, novels of character, and novels of language.  A novel of plot is driven by a story that could be synopsized without damaging the novel itself.  Simply read an outline of the plot, and there is no reason for you to read the novel.  A novel of character creates–or should create–living-seeming, recognizably human figures.  But these figures, of course, are nothing more than fabrications, nothing more than chimeras that seem to breathe and talk.  A novel of language makes worlds out of words.

Dave Eggers’s A Hologram for the King (2012) is a novel of character, I suppose, but it doesn’t really work as a novel of character.  Nor does it work on any other level.  It must be said of this miserable little drip of a book that it fails as a plot-driven narrative, that it fails as the portrait of a character, and that it fails as a work of language.

PLOT

Eggers has the tendency to write novels that are based on American high-school standards.  You Shall Know Our Velocity–a novel that is as sincere as those fraternity boys who raise money for the homeless–is based on On the Road.  The Circle is based on Nineteen Eighty-FourA Hologram for the King is based on Death of a Salesman and En attendant Godot (the epigraph is from Beckett’s play: “It is not every day that we are needed”).  En attendant Godot is about the stupidities of faith, the stupidities of eschatology, and the infinitely postponed arrival (or non-arrival) of the Messiah.  And yet Egger’s Messiah arrives!  If Eggers wanted a classic about the degradations of growing old on which to model his tale, he should have turned to Bellow.  Henderson the Rain King, anyone?

Alan Clay is a semi-employed fifty-four-year-old former bicycle manufacturer who is contracted by Reliant, a major IT company, to introduce King Abdullah to a holographic projection system.  The inaction takes place in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), Saudi Arabia.  Every day, Alan and his enviably young colleagues wait in the desert for the arrival of King Abdullah.

Novels do not need to be realistic, but they ought to be convincing, and the question of probability comes up more than a few times.  If Alan is indeed “superfluous to the forward progress of the world” [75], why is he employed by the largest IT company of that same world and promised $500,000 if he succeeds in persuading King Abdullah to purchase the holographic projection system?

The novel is a novel about late arrivals, and Alan and his “Other” are forever arriving late to the party: Alan is too late to save his neighbor Charlie Fallon from self-drowning, Alan wakes up late on the day of his scheduled meeting with King Abdullah, Alan is “too late” (read: “too old”) to be sexually potent, King Abdullah himself arrives late, etc.  I would advise prospective readers to never arrive.

CHARACTER

As synaesthetes know, everything has a color.  Eggers’s washout is not exactly an iridescent character.  He is relentlessly grey.

A character should be, to paraphrase the Hegel of Die Phänomenologie des Geistes, an assemblage of Alsos.  That is: A character should not be one thing.  A character should not be simple.  A character should not be one-sided.  A character should be this AND ALSO that AND ALSO that.  Each of these traits should contradict one another.  Since human beings are complexly self-contradictory, why should characters not be, as well?

Regrettably, Eggers’s main character is flatter than a Fruit Roll-Up.  Alan is a never-was and has never been anything besides a never-was.

While waiting for King Abdullah, Alan meets (guess who!) two sexually prepossessing young women: a gorgeous blonde Dutch consultant named Henne and a Saudi physician named Zahra Hakem who is intrigued by the knob-like excrescence on the back of his neck.  At one stage, Alan imagines that his cyst has sexual powers.  I could imagine the entire novel centering on the sexuality of Alan’s cyst, but no, that would have been too daring.  This is a Dave Eggers novel, after all.

Each appointment leads to a sexual disappointment.  Henne offers Alan sexual release in the bathtub of her hotel room, but Alan prefers the “purity” and “simplicity” [177] of the bath water instead.  Dr. Zahra swims topless with Alan (this, apparently, is done all of the time in Islamic countries), but her toplessness does not lead to a toplessness-inspired act of sexual release.

Eggers simply cannot let his ageing protagonist be sexually uninteresting to women.  Even though the novel pretends to be an allegory about the downfall of America in an age of globalism, it is really an all-American wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Are we credulous enough to believe that the generously breasted blonde Dutch consultant is sexually desperate?  And that Dr. Zahra lusts after Alan’s knobby cyst?  Apparently, Eggers thinks that we are.

LANGUAGE

Eggers is more of a summarizer than he is a dramatizer.  He tells more than he shows.  An example (from the novel’s opening salvo):

[Alan] had not planned well.  He had not had courage when he needed it.  /  His decisions had been short sighted [sic].  /  The decisions of his peers had been short sighted [sic].  /  These decisions had been foolish and expedient.  /  But he hadn’t known at the time that his decisions were short sighted [sic], foolish or expedient.  He and his peers did not know that they were making decisions that would leave them, leave Alan, as he now was–virtually broke, nearly unemployed, the proprietor of a one-man consulting firm run out of his home office [4].

Now, a hard-working writer would do the grueling work of showing us Alan’s failures and shortcomings rather than telling us about Alan’s failures and shortcomings.  Eggers is less of a writer than a publicist.  The passage quoted above reads as if it came from a query letter addressed to a literary agent.

Wading through the brackish waters and the fetid marshlands of Eggers’s prose is not much fun.  I never once got the impression that the writer was groping for the right word.  To say that Eggers’s prose style wants elegance and richness would be a gross understatement.  His word choices are banal and obvious, his vocabulary is restricted, his writing style is plain, his paragraphs are dull.  To describe Alan’s dispute with Banana Republic over a one-time purchase that has killed his credit score, Eggers writes, doltishly, “Alan tried to reason with them” [138].  This sentence could not have been written any more unpoetically and is yet another instance of the lazy “telling” of an unqualified writer rather than of the laborious “showing” which is incumbent on every responsible writer of fiction.

Eggers’s writing is so bad that it is almost ghoulish.

I have heard it said of Eggers that he is a man who is “easy on the eyes,” and I have no doubt that this is true.  (His lecteurial admirers have a purely phenomenal interest in the writer.  That is to say, they don’t care about the writing; they are only interested in the writer qua man.)  Though I am not an adroit evaluator of male beauty, I suspect that Eggers-the-Man is indeed “easy on the eyes.”  It is a pity that the same could not be said of the books that he types.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

Corregidora / Corrigenda – by Joseph Suglia

 

 

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

 

 

 

EVERYONE IS SO LITERAL THESE DAYS: A review of MIN KAMP: Volume One (Karl Ove Knausgaard) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

EVERYONE IS SO LITERAL THESE DAYS: A review of MIN KAMP: Volume One (Karl Ove Knausgaard) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“If you are unhappy, you must not tell the reader.  Keep it to yourself.”–Isidore Ducasse

“Why is everyone so literal these days?  I was speaking metaphorically.”–Mahler (1974)

“Every mind needs a mask.”–Maurice Blanchot, La Part du feu

“Every profound mind needs a mask.”–Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse

Min Kamp (2009-2011) is the 3,600-page autobiography of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard.  Though the title has Hitlerian resonances, it ought to be stated that the first volume has no perceptible anti-Judaic content.  There is no evidence that Knausgaard is a fascist purifier or an ethnic homogenizer.  One could say, charitably, that by calling his book Min Kamp (the exact same title of Hitler’s memoir in Norwegian translation), Knausgaard has de-Hitlerized the title.

Knausgaard told the BBC: “I tried to write a novel for four or five years.  I wrote every day.  This is what I do, you know?  It’s kind of hard to fail every day.  But I was looking for something, and at the end, I was so frustrated, I told myself, I just write it as it was, you know, no tricks, no nothing.”

Knausgaard has indeed written a book that is almost completely devoid of irony, of figure, of metaphor, of simile, of literary language.  Min Kamp seems a transparent book.  In it, the author appears to disclose himself as he is.  He seems to present his life immediately.

On page 18 of the English translation, the author describes an early experience with sardines:

“This evening, the plates with the four prepared slices awaited us as we entered the kitchen.  One with brown goat’s cheese, one with ordinary cheese, one with sardines in tomato sauce, one with clove cheese.  I didn’t like sardines and ate that slice first.  I couldn’t stand fish; boiled cod, which we had at least once a week, made me feel nauseous [sic], as did the steam from the pan in which it was cooked, its taste and consistency.  I felt the same about boiled pollock, boiled coley, boiled haddock, boiled flounder, boiled mackerel, and boiled rose fish.  With sardines it wasn’t the taste that was the worst part–I could swallow the tomato sauce by imagining that it was ketchup–it was the consistency, and above all the small, slippery tails.  They were disgusting.  To minimize contact with them I generally bit them off, put them to the side of my plate, nudged some sauce toward the crust and buried the tails in the middle [???], then folded the bread over [????].  In this way, I was able to chew a couple of times without ever coming in contact with the tails, and then wash the whole thing down with milk.”

Upon reading this passage, I had a number of questions: Were the sardines grilled or pickled?  Were the sardines salty, and does Knausgaard have an antipathy for salty food in general?  What does Knausgaard think of whitefish?  Surely, he has eaten lutefisk before–this is a fairly well-known Scandinavian dish.  On page 377, we are given an answer:

“Lutefisk lunches with friends, well, that wasn’t a world I inhabited.  Not because I couldn’t force down lutefisk but because I wasn’t invited to that type of gathering.”

What of clams?  What of crustaceans?  Does he favor crab?  Does he enjoy shrimp?

The author answers this last question on page 150:

“Shrimp is what I loved most.”

He also favors American cuisine:

“Hamburger, fries, hot dog.  Lots of Coke.  That’s what I needed.  And I needed it now” [151].

We learn more than anyone would ever want to know about Knausgaard’s non-mainstream, avant-garde musical proclivities:

“The year before, when I moved, I had been listening to groups like The Clash, The Police, The Specials, Teardrop Explodes, The Cure, Joy Division, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Chameleons, Simple Minds, Ultravox, The Aller Vaerste, Talking Heads, The B52s, PiL, David Bowie, The Psychedelic Furs, Iggy Pop, and Velvet Underground…” [88-89].

The point of this passage is to show readers that Knausgaard is cool.  He is nothing like the unhip residents of Tveit (“In Tveit there was no one who had even heard of all these groups” [89]).  Yes, it is true that this passage resembles a rather typical response to a social-networking inquiry (“What Are YOUR Favorite Bands?”).  Yes, it is true that any dolt could write such a list, but Knausgaard’s past is more important than your past, and despite appearances, he is not a literary fraud.

His brother Yngve is not quite as cool as Karl Ove.  Flicking through his brother’s CD collection, Karl Ove discovers a number of Queen CDs:

“When Freddie Mercury died, the revelation that shocked was not the fact that he was gay but that he was an Indian. / Who could have imagined that?” [269].

Again, don’t expect any irony here.  What you will discover instead is acres and acres of dumbed-down self-pity; the morose self-pity almost never ends.  Dumbed-down self-pity was never Proust’s deal, yo.  The result is gruelingly gruesome over-hyped tripe.

The hype surrounding this book is to be expected.  Min Kamp is exactly the sort of commodity that would hystericize consumers in Europe and America at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  And not merely because of the author’s manifest good looks.  Yes, it is true: If Knausgaard were unattractive, no one would know of him or his autobiography.  Yet there is another, deeper reason for the predetermined hype.

We live in a culture of unconditional literalism.  It is hard to decide what is the worst feature of this culture: its illiteracy or its literal-mindedness.  Originally, media theorists theorized that the internet had metamorphic powers, that you could be anything or anyone you wanted to be on the internet.  If you are old, you can become young; if you are a woman, you can become a man, etc.  However, the precise opposite has happened: On social-media sites, people expose themselves in all of their banality and triviality.

When one reads a genuine work of literature, one is able to inhabit the selves of the characters within that work.  One assumes their personae.  One translates one’s essence into someone who is entirely different from the reader.  For a number of hours, you can become King Macbeth or Emma Bovary.  Fiction is adultery by other means.

In the culture in which we live, there are no disguises or masks.  Everyone is precisely what one appears to be.  Our digital selves tend to be identical to our real selves.  This is the most painful joke of the twenty-first century: If you want honesty, go to the internet.

Why translate your essence into another human life?  The impulse to project oneself into another self has decayed.  The unconditional literalism of the internet has led to the erosion of empathy, of fellow-feeling, of the love for one’s brother and sister.

The internet has killed the human soul.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

WHY I CAN’T STAND GEORGES BATAILLE / BLEU DU CIEL / THE BLUE OF NOON by Georges Bataille

WHY I CAN’T STAND GEORGES BATAILLE
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

I first discovered Bataille at the age of eighteen.  Here was a French Nietzschean who wrote strident essays and excessively explicit novels.  What was there not to like?  Throughout my eighteenth and nineteenth years, I read the oeuvres of Bataille, alongside the works of Heidegger, Derrida, and many others.

Around the age of twenty, my relationship with Bataille underwent a change.  I could no longer stand to read his writings.

La Littérature et le Mal (1957) destroyed my love for Bataille.  The book is almost unreadably silly.  Bataille argues, with the most incredible casuistry, that literature and evil are the same.  Literature evades collective necessity.  Evil evades collective necessity.  Both literature and evil evade collective necessity.  Therefore, literature IS evil.  However, this does not seem to imply, according to Bataille, that evil is literature.

This is a bit like saying: A duck is not a zebra.  A chicken is not a zebra.  Therefore, a duck is a chicken.  However, a chicken is not a duck.  This is the logical fallacy known as affirmative conclusion from a negative premise or illicit negative.

“Hegel, la Mort et le Sacrifice” (1955) troubled me, as well.  I had read enough of Hegel to know that Bataille was making intellectual errors, was misinterpreting Hegel.

Bataille’s misinterpretation of Hegel may be summarized thus: Human beings sacrifice the animal parts of themselves in order to become fully human.  Nowhere does this statement appear in the Gesammelte Werke of Hegel. Hegel writes instead: “[Der Geist] gewinnt seine Wahrheit nur, indem er in der absoluten Zerrissenheit sich selbst findet.”  When he writes that the Spirit finds itself in a state of absolute shreddedness, Hegel means that the human mind exteriorizes itself as an object and restores itself from its self-exteriorization.  The human mind is both itself and outside-of-itself at the same time.  There is no sacrifice of the animal for the sake of the human.

In L’Érotisme (1957), Bataille’s thesis is that death and eroticism issue from the same source, and many of his arguments are unforgettably convincing.  But his opening argument is both banal and irrelevant: Bataille contends that the relation between sex and death is apprehensible at the microbiological level: When the ovum is fertilized, it is demolished.  The ovum “dies” in order to form the zygote.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the phenomenology of eroticism, nor does it have anything to do with the phenomenology of mortality.

Last month, I read as much as I could endure of the fragments collected in The Unfinished System of Non-Knowledge.  These are the incoherent screechings of a lunatic.

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THE BLUE OF NOON: A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia

According to Georges Bataille’s autobiographical note, Le Bleu du ciel (“The Blue of the Sky”) was composed in the twilight before the occupation of Vichy France.

The descending night darkens these pages.

Dissolute journalist Henri Troppmann (“Too-Much-Man”) and his lover, Dirty give way to every impulse, to every surfacing urge, no matter how vulgar.  Careening from one sex-and-death spasm to the next, they deliver themselves over to infinite possibilities of debauchery.  A fly drowning in a puddle of whitish fluid (or is it the thought of his mother, a woman he must not desire?) prompts Troppmann to plunge a fork into a woman’s supple white thigh.  The threat of Nazi terror incites a coupling in a boneyard.

Their only desire is to begrime whatever is elevated, to vulgarize the holy, to pollute it, to corrupt it, to bring it down into the mud.

By muddying whatever is “sacred,” they maintain the force of “the sacred.”

As a historical document, Le Bleu du ciel is eminently interesting.  It offers unforgettably vivid portraits of Colette Peignot (as Dirty) and the “red nun” Simone Weil (as Lazare).

It is also the story of a man who is fascinated with fascism and the phallus, of someone who loves war, though not for teleological reasons.  It is the story of a man who celebrates war on its own terms, who nihilistically affirms its limitless power of destruction.

As the night spreads, the blue of the sky disappears.

Dr. Joseph Suglia