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Tag: beckett

Writing and identity

There are also others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility. I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others… As a result, the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death

schiele1915

0. To write feels like violence. All of us are mortal, but the text can survive long after its author: who are you, fleshy and contingent thing, who wants to live forever? To write is to stain clean paper, press sticks in smooth clay; in some sense always, to deform the world. To write something down is to turn the limitless possibility of what could be into the dead presence of what turned out to have been. A line in Beckett’s Molloy which I always find myself returning to, because it speaks what it isn’t: ‘You would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till everything is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.’ Writing obscures the ghastliness of what is, which is speechlessness; it weaves a flimsy veil of presence around the eternal nothing. Writing is a lack, but the lack is not in words but the world that surrounds them.

1. One form of the discourse in question, an instance: Don’t write thinkpieces about Beyoncé (or whatever) if you’re not a black woman. You will not understand the subject-matter, not properly, it will be a waste. It isn’t for you. (As if the commodified culture-object is ever really for anyone.) The really notable thing here is where the demand is placed. What’s needed – and what’s generally articulated – is a critique of the journalistic economy and its deeply unequal hiring and commissioning practices, the thorny nexus of social practices that create a class of profession writers that generally looks like the class of the bourgeoisie from which it is mostly drawn. But what can often occur with it is a metaphysics of the text: illegitimate writing is not even itself, but an absence, the absence of everything else that could have been there instead. Any one person writing means another who can’t; the sin is in its having been written, the fault belongs to the writer as such. But while most writing really is inexcusably bad, the one mark in its favour is that the possibility of writing is limitless. It’s the industrial complex of writing that is restricted, along with the number of people who can sustain themselves in this fairly shabby trade: here, as everywhere, the task is to reproduce in the economy at large the infinity that already exists in the economy of language, to abolish the distinction between the professional writer and the public they serve or negate, to make sure that nobody will ever go hungry again.

2. Instead, a general trend within those discourses that claim to have justice as their aim is the selective and demographic apportioning out of the field of human understanding: black writers may and must write about black celebrities, music, and their own experiences; women writers may and must must write about lifestyle trends, feminism, and their own experiences; trans writers about their own experiences; Muslim writers about their own experiences; disabled writers about their own experiences. In one avowedly intersectional-feminist online publication, female writers are given an ‘Identity Survey,’ a monstrous questionnaire in which they’re asked to list every horrifying experience they had ever survived, and are then told to turn it all into short, shareable, fungible articles for $90-a-day wages. I was raped, I was in an abusive relationship, I had an abortion, I suffered; a strip-mining of saleable identities, a kind of primitive accumulation across the terrain of trauma. Meanwhile the universal subject, the one that need not suffer to be heard, remains white and male. The right of black women to write about Beyoncé is important. But they must also be able to write about deep-sea ecology, Kantian philosophy, writing itself, and what they do not know – and while there are many who do precisely this, the under-representation of writers of colour, queer and trans writers, and other marginalised people on the topics of oceanography, German idealism, deconstruction, and ignorance is significantly more marked. Overwhelmingly it is white men who are afforded the privilege of being other than themselves, of not having to continuously say ‘I’ – not least because the validity of their self-identity is already assured, because the world is already in their image. And while the ability to declare oneself in the face of a world that would prefer you not to to is essential, the dogma that writing must and can only be a self-declaration resigns marginalised people to this condition. My critique here is very limited: within this discourse it has become the case that it is the presence and particularity of the ‘I’ that legitimises writing, that makes it appropriate or inappropriate, that makes it either it either presence itself or the lack of something else. And this is not helpful.

3. If there must be a rule, then it should be that we must not only write what we know. If we don’t write an ignorance other than ourselves, in the end all that remains is a mute, gnashing, helpless, final I. There is no writing that is only legible to and can only be created by people occupying a particular subject-position; there are experiences that are unique and incommensurable, even incommunicable, but if this were the case here there would be no possibility of writing: everyone who could understand would already know.

4. Derrida notes in Plato’s Pharmacy that ‘the speaking subject is the father of his speech […] Logos is a son, then, a son that would be destroyed in his very presence without the present attendance of his father. His father who speaks for him and answers for him. Without his father he would be nothing but, in fact, writing.’ There is no speech without its anchor in the person that speaks and her physical presence, but in writing – the ‘breathless sign’ – the author is always simply not there, even if she has an active Twitter account. It persists without its creator; what faces you is the text, something entirely different. I speak and say ‘I’ and you know who says the word, but the written ‘I’ is always indeterminate, a tangle of lies and fantasies and ironies and pretences, a person just like you half a world away, the person that you are yourself, an immortal and changing thing. If you speak and someone interprets what you say in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is a misunderstanding. If you write and someone interprets what you’ve written in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is literature. The demand that any text be legitimised by the self-identity of its author is the demand for a text that behaves more like speech. And not just any speech. The writing that responds to this demand is ‘testimonial’ or ‘confessional’ writing, and the place in which one testifies or confesses is in a court. In a courtroom logocentrism holds sway; the preference is for a speaking person, whose truth is guaranteed by a spoken oath, who is present to speak for and answer for their own speech. The discourse here is not one of justice, strictly speaking, but the law. It is the law that, first of all, demands to know who a person is before deciding what to do with them. These are not opposing concepts, necessarily, but they are not the same. The law can be deconstructed. Justice cannot.

5. Whose voice is allowed to speak? Only yours. In Beckett’s novels the reader is lost and confused, stranded in a mire of words that seem designed to be inhospitable and to exclude, accompanying something that speaks its unquestioning I-say-I while forbidding any identification – until you realise that the strange tormenting voice that is mentioned sometimes, the one that tells people what to do, the one that is constantly trying to bring itself to an end but is never able to stop speaking itself, is the same voice that’s been in your head the entire time as you read. It’s shocking, but there’s a sense of joy at the same time. What distinguishes real writing from a legal deposition or a laundry list is its occasional capacity to provoke a kind of joy, even in evocations of sadness, loneliness, misery, loss, repression, and horror, the sheer pleasure of something entirely alien and entirely intimate, of a voice that is nobody’s and everyone’s and yours, there with you in your solitude, of language in the infinity of its play and substitutions, a moment of the freedom that’s still to come.

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JK Rowling and the Cauldron of Discourse

discourse

Please understand that I’m not making any kind of criticism of her when I say that JK Rowling has abandoned the real world. When you have one billion dollars, it’s not really something you need any more; there’s no real need to explain why she chooses to live with magic instead. If nothing else, she inhabits herself. In Edinburgh’s rain-splattered streets familiar beings are at work. The troll in chains, for instance, grunting behind the wheel of the bus, pressed into its dreary service shuttling endlessly from Hanover Street to Holyrood and back by a simple first-year spell, Instrumentio, for the manipulation of hyponoiacs – because why else would the Lothian number 6 have ploughed so carelessly into that puddle just as she was walking past? You might think that Ocado being out of smoked salmon for three weeks running is a supply-chain problem, another of those market inefficiencies that together determine the course of our lives, but she knows better: when she scans down her receipt to see it replaced by mackerel again, she knows it’s an infestation of nifflers, scurrying rapacious all along the warehouse floor, snuffling up anything that looks like it might be valuable, cramming thick slices of translucent rippling salmon into their always-hungry bellies. When helicopters thrum overhead to ruin her sleep at three in the morning, JK Rowling knows that a werewolf’s on the loose; when politically engaged young people mass in front of Parliament she sees the crowded hoods of the Dementors, and shivers.

Things continue to work after their usual fashion; it’s house-elves in their willing legions that stitched all her clothes together, and worryingly megarhinic goblins judiciously sliding banknotes to her through the cash machine. She’s grateful for the advice of Hagrid and Dumbledore and all the others as they follow her around this greyed-out half-world, she’s glad that she’s not like all the boring and stupid people, that she has an active imagination and a rich inner life. Of course she knows that all these wizards and griffins are just stuff that she made up, that none of it is really real, that she prefers living with them because she can control it all to the last detail, while even one billion dollars won’t let you rearrange the universe at will. But things aren’t always so clear. She’s sure, occasionally, that Harry had always been there, telling her what to do. He told her to write the book. Then she went back into the house and wrote, It was nearly midnight, and Harry Potter was lying on his stomach in bed. It was not nearly midnight. Harry Potter was not lying on his stomach in bed.

This is about JK Rowling’s political interventions, of course, her pathological tendency to justify vague and insipid reaction by pointing out that some fictional wizards she thought up inside her own head also share her views, her apparent inability to think about the real world without first mapping it onto the one she invented. JK Rowling has variously pissed off Scottish nationalists and the Palestine solidarity movement and the Labour left, wielding a Dumbledore hand puppet that repeats everything she says in a slightly lower voice, but she’s also pissed off a significant number of her own fans, and that’s where you have to start.

In 2007, Rowling was widely celebrated for announcing that her character Dumbledore was gay, despite the fact that there’s nothing to suggest this in the text itself, where she had an opportunity to actually advocate for queer issues; this year, when she told her fans that their personal theories were all incorrect and another character, Sirius Black, was not gay, they were outraged. We grew up with these characters, they insisted, we decide how to read them. JK Rowling is over, they declared, as if she hadn’t already been dead since Barthes. (Or longer: there’s a reason every testament is final, why God never actively intervenes in the world once His holy book is set down, why the medieval Kabbalists had to invent reader-response theory and the Catholic Church headcanons.) What’s clear is that absolutely nobody involved has ever read a word of Derrida.

There are many definitions of deconstruction, none of them particularly good, but you could do worse than to describe it as a mode of reading that refuses to forget the textuality of the text, the fact that it’s a series of marks on a material substrate that were written and which can be read, copied, misunderstood, ignored, or destroyed, that before it conjures up a private universe it exists as a shared object in this one. As a sop to her LGBT+ critics, Rowling shortly afterwards revealed that in her books lycanthropy is actually a metaphor for AIDS. Her position on all this is clear: she came up with these stories, she owns them, and long after they’ve slipped into the wider discourse they still remain essentially hers, essentially private. On Twitter, her header image was briefly two lines of text reading ‘I know what Dumbledore would do. Deal with it.’ The true text of Harry Potter is not on the printed page, but between her ears, to be altered whenever she wants; in her Platonist cosmology fictional events have a shining reality that is all their own, which emanates from out her mouth. She’s following the fandom-headcanon model of literary theory, but here hers is the largest, most bloated head, and the only one that counts. It’s impossible to read this denial of the text anything other than an abrogation of her rights and duties as an author. Sometimes dedicated fans whip themselves up into such a frenzy over their favourite culture-commodities that they act as if the stories were real, centring themselves in a private world that does not belong to them, and JK Rowling does the exact same thing. As soon as she moves to keep hold of her creation, it gains a terrifying, spectral autonomy. JK Rowling is not the author of the Harry Potter books; she is their biggest fan.

It’s in this context that Rowling’s bizarre forays into politics, her marshalling of the powers of literary enchantment for the most banal and miserable of mundane causes, start to make a kind of sense. When she stridently opposed the academic boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society, she did so through a lengthy exegesis on the moral message of her own books, eventually concluding that BDS is wrong because the magical wizards wouldn’t like it. (To be fair, she admits that Harry might have started out with natural pro-Palestine sympathies, but maintains that by the end of the last book he would have grown up and learned to accept that Israel has a right to exist.) When Britain voted to leave the European Union, her public response was that she’d ‘never wanted magic more,’ presumably so she could cast a spoiling spell on millions of ballots. Her opposition to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn seems to be based on the usual confused half-ideas about electability, as if the party’s right wing and its generic brand of watered-down Toryism hadn’t shown itself to be a losing proposition twice in the last decade, but it’s mostly supported by the fact that, as she insisted, ‘Corbyn. Is. Not. Dumbledore.’ Which is true: Jeremy Corbyn simply isn’t as good as the wise old magician who doesn’t exist, having shown himself to be entirely incapable of casting even the most basic of spells, and utterly failed to function as a universally adored avatar of infallible good; he’s capable of occasionally holding views contrary to those of JK Rowling even when she doesn’t want him to, and he didn’t even have the good grace to give her one billion dollars. None of this is, strictly speaking, analogy; in almost every case she’s responding to other, lesser fans to say that their analogies are inadmissible. In analogy a fictional scenario acts as a map for real events; something intersubjective and mutually agreed upon can explicate (or, if you know how to do it right, confuse) an objective situation. For Rowling, the situation is reversed: real events are trespassing on her characters, the real world is only an imperfect map for Harry Potter.

Rowling’s politics didn’t create those of the Harry Potter fantasy – she is, remember, not an author but a fan. Instead, the books themselves distilled all the latent fascism out of the political mainstream, boiling the discourse into a heavy green slime, and she drank it all down in one gulp. People sometimes try to play a fun game in which they match the Hogwarts houses to political ideologies, usually ending up with a ranked list of what ideas they like and don’t like (Gryffindors are nice social liberals like me! Donald Trump is a Voldemort!). This is the wrong way of looking at it; any division into types must itself exemplify a particular type, so that the four together express a single Weltanschauung. Gryffindor are fascists according to fascist ideology itself, the ideal-ego of the fascist subject: a natural elite, strong, noble, honourable, yellow-haired, and respectful of difference, but only within strict limits. Slytherin is the same figure as she appears to the outside world, her negative aspects projected onto a despised other. Hufflepuff is the fascist’s ideal ordinary political subject, dull and stolid, but essentially good-hearted; Ravenclaw is the indeterminate other that resists assimilation into this conceptual matrix, the thing that constitutes the order through its exclusion, the figure that in the early twentieth century was identified with the body of the Jew.

Harry Potter is a profoundly reactionary fable; its fantasy isn’t really about dragons and broomsticks but the tired old fantasy of the British class system. Harry Potter is the petit-bourgeois boy who goes to a magical Eton (one that, incidentally, runs on actual slave-labour), faces a few tribulations along his way, but eventually finds himself admitted to the ranks of the aristocracy. The central moral dilemma is one of inequality – what do you do when you have one class of people who, by dint of their extraordinary powers, are innately superior to the society surrounding them? (This goes some way to explaining its popularity: Harry Potter is a book for people who are very pleased with themselves because they love books and love to read, without any judgements on what’s being read; it was never for children and always for the bored 29-year-old human resources workers they would grow into. To read Harry Potter uncritically is to adopt the posture of a Hufflepuff.) The crude, cartoon fascism of Voldemort and the Death Eaters answers that they must rule, killing and enslaving the lesser races. The good characters, meanwhile, want the wizarding world to coil up into its own superiority and seethe in its own ressentiment; every adult is seemingly employed by a government bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to maintain a system of magical apartheid. But remember that these are not actually opposing factions, only varying perspectives of a single ideological object; the difference between Dumbledore and Voldemort is as illusory as that between white nationalism and white supremacism. When JK Rowling announces what Dumbledore would do, she’s announcing the politics of the entire work, its good and evil figures all rolled into one. This is what fandom-hermeneutics fails to understand: you can’t introject a single character sliced off from its text; you can only swallow the whole thing. When JK Rowling ventriloquises her friendly wizard to say that Palestine solidarity or socialism make the Hogwarts man feel very sad, watch her head spin round to reveal the pale leering mouth of the Dark Lord.

First as funny, then as die

There’s a lot wrong with Zach Galifianakis’s interview with Barack Obama, leader of the current American regime and undetained war criminal, on the spoof internet chatshow Between Two Ferns. Given the bleak absurdity of the situation and of all existence, here’s a listicle.

1. The title. Funny or die? Nonsense like this is why dialectics needs to be added to the primary school curriculum. Samuel Beckett wrote that nothing is funnier than unhappiness, but death gives it a run for its money – especially death as generally practised in late capitalism: death as a bureaucratic procedure, death without heroism. The family gathered at the hospital bedside, the desperate attempt to squeeze out a few last words of scrabbled-together wisdom, so full of abject seriousness that it always risks turning into a farce. The dying don’t have any more access to truth and meaning than anyone else, generally all they have is an intensity of regret. Sometimes the anal sphincter relaxes; the dead have a tendency to perform one last act of slapstick. And then a doctor arrives to cheerily tell everyone what time it is. The comedy of the grotesque is based on the continuity of bodies against prim and orderly individuation; that’s why shitting is funny, why sex is funny, and why corpses are hilarious.

2. The abrogation of comic duty. When confronting the great and the good, good comedians tend to feign deference to power while actually subverting it. Galifianakis does the opposite. He yawns in Obama’s face, identifies him as a ‘community organiser,’ accuses him of being a nerd, questions his allegiance to the nation, drops references to the conspiracy theory that he was born in Kenya, and (quite callously) to his enlargement of government surveillance and his programme of drone warfare. It’s all meaningless; in the end the interview is just a publicity stunt for the Affordable Care Act, a massive payout to insurance companies disguised as an egalitarian reform. Galifianakis’s faux-insincerity and neutered mockery isn’t even trying to mask the real content: isn’t it cool that the President is doing this? At the end of the sketch the black curtain comes down and it’s revealed that the whole thing has been taking place in the White House – in other words, within a structure of power. The comfortable remain unafflicted. It’s not just unethical, it tends to not be very funny. That’s why Stephen Colbert will always be funnier than Jon Stewart, a man who’d respond to a war crimes tribunal with a series of minutely composed funny faces. There’s a strange and awkward tension surrounding the whole Between Two Ferns interview, one that has nothing to do with the overt cringebait and everything to do with the sense of a stillborn satire.

3. The whole nerd thing. The interview is supposed to be a joke, but when Galifianakis accuses Obama of being a nerd the President’s eyes flash with a genuine fury. His denial is real. I’m not a nerd, bro! I smoked weed in high school, bro! I ordered the extrajudicial assassination of an United States citizen and his sixteen-year old son, bro! I’m fucking Michelle, bro! He has a point.

4. Obama as the straight man. Comedy duos tend to consist of one character behaving oddly and another to vent his ‘normal’ frustrations: Abbott of Abbott and Costello; John Cleese in the dead parrot sketch. Here it’s Obama. On his other shows Galifianakis sends himself up and allows his guests to do the same; on this one there’s no question of that happening. The President of the United States is transformed into some hideous Chandler-from-Friends figure, wisecracking about the Hangover films and the fantasy spider bites on his host’s arm. It’s not the show’s intention, but the ease with which Obama can enter this role demonstrates precisely that the straight man is always in fact a deluded and murderous psychopath.

5. The end of greatness. The cosmological principle states that the universe is homogeneous and isomorphic. Look at the universe on a large enough scale and it’s made of enormous walls of galaxy clusters, each billions of light years across, containing millions of galaxies that themselves contain billions of stars, forming a fragile web between vast and empty voids. Great things happen. Galaxies collide, stars are born and burn out, intelligent life stares out into the darkness and dreams stories for itself. Look at the universe on a slightly larger scale and the filaments and voids vanish. The universe is a flat grey expanse, all matter and all energy distributed evenly across its infinity, with no structure and no hidden meaning. On a large enough scale, the heat death of the universe has already happened. The world we think we inhabit, with its iridescent nebulae and heroic struggles for life and Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis – it’s a translation error, a glitch between the blankness of the large-scale universe and the blankness of subatomic chaos. You exist, miraculously, in the middle of this precarious mistake of heterogeneity, and President Barack Obama has decided that he has the right to snuff out your life by missile-armed robot in the event that you might pose a threat to the future security of a national abstraction. And that’s pretty funny.

Sympathy for the antisemites

For all their faults – and they have plenty – it’s undeniable that antisemites are incredibly productive. Other racists don’t even come close: a slur, a darkly muttered comment, occasional eruptions of violence; they don’t need to really say anything because their racism already forms the unvoiced content of society at large – the state does their job for them, groups like the EDL can even function as an auxiliary wing of the police and the border agency. People who hate Jews are different. They need to write it all down; each one of them has to produce their own personal account of exactly what it is that they think the Jewish hive-mind is up to. From Martin Luther’s On the Jews and their Lies to Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Trifles for a Massacre to contemporary polemics on the Zionist Occupied Government, antisemities are driven to produce manifestos. It’s hard to not feel sorry for them. They’ve been trapped, and it’s not entirely their fault. The problem with all their constant literary production is that the ramblingly impassioned hate-screed is very much a Jewish art. Nobody hates the Jews quite like the Jews themselves; ordinary antisemites are grasping amateurs. In the Old Testament the Jews are so venal and wicked that God is required to periodically massacre them as they plod in circles through the desert. The prophets are full of bitter reproach. Jeremiah thunders: Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot… This people hath a revolting and a rebellious heart; they are revolted and gone. Ezekiel seethes: They are impudent children and stiffhearted. Little’s changed since. Every Jew-hating tract is an unwitting tribute to Portnoy’s Complaint. In his study of the phenomenon Sartre writes that the antisemite depends on the Jew to maintain his status as an antisemite, that if there were no Jews the antisemites would have to create them. He came close, but as he wasn’t a Jew or an antisemite, he couldn’t see what was actually going on. The antisemite doesn’t just depend on the Jew; consciously or not, antisemitism is an imitation, an attempt to capture and reproduce some of the Jew’s unique talent for self-loathing.

These days there are very few Jews and even fewer antisemites, and both are furiously engaged in the invention of the other. I’ve always been fascinated by antisemitism, especially in its conspiracy-oriented strains. Part of it’s pure narcissism: I’m a Communist and a Jew, someone whose face is turned to history as to a single catastrophe, and it’s quite nice to hear that I’m not in a desperate struggle against existing conditions but actually part of a tiny cabal that secretly rules the world. At the same time this stuff has an incredible heuristic potential; it’s not unlike Borges’ First Encyclopedia of Tlön, a description of a totally different world that intends to slowly map itself onto our own. Read enough antisemitic literature and you’ll learn that the chief architect of our alienated and commodified culture is none other than Theodor Adorno, otherwise known for his scathing critiques of alienated and commodified culture. You’ll discover that Lenin’s struggle against the bourgeoisie, the same revolution that prompted military intervention from the imperialist powers, was in fact a ploy by the Rothschild banking houses. You might even encounter something called ‘sexual Bolshevism,’ which for some unaccountable reason is held to be a bad thing. Antisemitism in the West has for the most part shed its appearance as mass or state violence; it’s turned into a glitteringly inventive mythopoeia. That’s why I’m unusually heartened by the news that the model and reality TV personality Tila Tequila has decided to launch a one-woman crusade against the international Jewish conspiracy.

Tila Tequila – born Thanh Thi Thien Nguyen – is one of those people that inhabits a strange shadow-zone on the borderlands of ontology. She exists (even if her reality is more virtual than actual), but unlike tables and mountains and other things that exist in the ordinary sense of the world she continually has to justify why. In this she’s in pretty exclusive company, sharing her spectral realm with Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, and the State of Israel. Unlike Hilton or the Kardashians, whose rise to fame could be seen as a sensible old-fashioned reinvestment of already existing capital, Tila Tequila’s emergence represents more of an autogenerative point of intensity in the swirling field of aleatory alienation that constitutes present-day existence. She was spotted by a Playboy scout in a Houston mall; by some quirk of chance (or eternal destiny, there’s little difference) the music she put on MySpace snowballed into mass popularity and a record deal while other near-identical attempts didn’t. Since attaining stardom Tequila has had a number of high-profile media gigs, including hosting duties on the televised striptease contest Pants-Off Dance-Off and cameos in The Cleveland Show, finally culminating in A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, her own reality dating programme. In early 2012, she announced that she was converting to Judaism. In late 2013, she set up a new (and very much non-anonymous) website called Anonymous Truth Blog, in which she announced, among other revelations, that a secret ‘dark cabal’ of Jews controls the world and that she is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler.

Clearly Tila Tequila isn’t at all well, but to simply state that fact out misses the point. Given that antisemitism is now primarily a literary phenomenon, are Tila Tequila’s Jew-hating rants actually any good? Are we dealing with a Louis-Ferdinand Céline or a Mel Gibson?

Tequila’s writing isn’t immediately accessible, but it’s not necessarily bad either – in fact, it can be situated squarely within the tradition of continental Modernist literature. Her screeds are punctuated with *giggles* and *sighs*, conventions that have their origins in internet language but that also represent an attempt to break through the ossification of the written word and recover some of the immediacy of speech. Here Tequila pushes against the binds of the antisemitic pamphlet as literary form – one that is, of course, heavily indebted to the Jewish scriptural tradition. By advancing this logocentrism she attempts to claim back the primacy of the Greek system (abstract logic, vocal discourse, circular time) against that of Judaism (written polemic, scriptural law, linear time) – in other words, to undo both the Pauline and the Derridean critique of the logos. It fails, of course: in fighting the tainted written word she can’t help but refer back to other literary works. There are strong traces of Céline, who perhaps succeeded most in stripping writing of its textual quality and dragging it into new forms. He’s there in the breathless fury of her ellipses and interjections – Tequila writes: They literally are out to kill you and if they cannot kill you, they will find other means, anything dirty and corrupt they can think of to fuck with you! Céline shouts in agreement: So you want to cover me with garbage! I hear your tawdry surreptitions! your riflings-through! your screwings-over of your wastebaskets! How dimwitted and stupid you are! More flatulent! More cowardly! At the same time her habit of sneaking in unattributed lines from other sources recalls the poetic bricolage of TS Eliot, that other great literary antisemite, and her manic asyntactic switching between themes and topics – declaring Hitler a prophet in one sentence, making jokes about her name in the next – bears the stamp of Antonin Artaud’s prose-poetry. (In fact, some of Artaud’s Letter against the Kabbala could probably be slotted into the Anonymous Truth Blog without much notice: I think I have taken about as much shit as I’m going to from Kafka, his arsoterical allegorical symbolism, as well as this Judaism of his, which contains every last one of those chicken-livered suckaprickadickadildoes that have never ceased giving me a pain in the ass… What I especially abhor in Kafka is that return of the old kike spirit, that intolerable kike mentality.) On occasion, her reflections tend towards a stoic melancholy that could be called Beckettian. What the fuck is wrong with these people?? she complains. Oh man… it’s just too bad because I think if they had a more open mind or if they weren’t already dead… Beckett’s Molloy utters a similar sentiment: Someone has drawn the blinds, you perhaps. Not the faintest sound. Where are the famous flies? Yes, there is no denying it, any longer, it is not you who are dead, but all the others.

Despite her engagingly doomed contributions to the genre, there’s no getting away from the content of what she writes. In between her exposés of the Jewish conspiracy, Tila Tequila claims to be a goddess, to be an avatar of Vishnu, and to have created two parallel universes. She’s (probably) mad – and given the tragic difficulties in her life so far, it’s not hard to see why – but the pathologisation of antisemitism is far less interesting than the pathology of that pathologisation. Why is it that antisemitism – which for an unacceptable prejudice has a fairly respectable intellectual pedigree – is now seen as a token of madness? Conversely, why is it that madness now manifests itself as an antipathy specifically towards Jews?

Unlike finance and entertainment, Jews don’t in fact have a monopoly on the conspiracy racket. In Azerbaijan and Turkey there’s some belief in the idea of a global Armenian conspiracy, one led by a secret cabal that fabricated the Armenian genocide and works tirelessly towards their goal of Armenian world dominance. For some reason, the Armenian conspiracy never reached the same heights as its Jewish counterpart. There’s something about the Jews: we were the bad conscience of Europe, but at the same time we have projects.

Deleuze and Guattari discuss some of this in Kafka: Towards  a Minor Literature. In their understanding, Jewish populations are not themselves minoritarian or in a state of absolute deterritorialistion, rather they’re molar formations, ‘an oppressive minority that speaks a language cut off from the masses.’ However, they raise the potential for minority within the minority: a becoming-minor more defined by the trajectory of its Becoming than the phases through which it passes, something ‘creating an interplay of similarity and difference that conspicuously resists reduction into identity.’ There are Jews of the Jews: Jesus of Nazareth sent to the cross; St Paul torn between Jerusalem and Rome, Spinoza excommunicated by the Amsterdam community; Karl Marx baptised as an infant; Kafka writing in German. Through this operation minority is put in direct contact with the universal, whether it’s as the undifferentiation of humanity in the body of Christ, the prior ontological substance, or emancipatory Communism. Along the way, you get all the other great Jewish inventions: linear time, literature, numerology, psychoanalysis. It’s also precisely this Jewish renunciation of molar identity that has its distorted (and sometimes murderous) mirror-image in antisemitism. Tila Tequila doesn’t want to be herself any more, so she starts hating Jews.

This quality is also precisely what’s missing today. The reason that antisemitism turned into a literary and heuristic project is that there are no Jews any more. Sartre’s prophecy has come to pass, and once antisemitism becomes fundamentally an  invention of its own object there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also invent parallel universes, black magick, reborn Hindu deities. Antisemitism has become isomorphic with madness because of something cataclysmic that happened in the middle of the twentieth century. With the horrors of the Holocaust, the old antisemites almost managed to destroy themselves as antisemites by wiping out the Jews. With the realisation of the Zionist project, Jews have finally succeeded in destroying ourselves. Israelis aren’t Jewish; all this messing about with states and armies and the systematic dispossession of other people is, in the end, something fundamentally very goyische. 1948 marks at once the culmination of Jewish universalism – finally we have a state, just like every other nation – and its extinction – finally we have a state, just like every other nation.

For all its crimes, perhaps the most startling thing about the State of Israel is just how boring it is. We’ve made the desert bloom, and now palm trees scar the Negev with their strict regimented grids. The settlements are as blandly pleasant as American suburbs, but they’ve been fully and murderously weaponised. For a country founded by the inheritors of one of the world’s oldest literary traditions, it’s astounding how few decent writers Israel has. Amos Oz is no Franz Kafka. AB Yehoshua is no Bruno Schulz. Meanwhile, across barbed wine and concrete walls, the Palestinian refugee camps are full of poets.

Back II Beckett: naming the unnamable

There’s a novel. Oh not a novel exactly, not exactly, you couldn’t quite call it that, it doesn’t have any of the usual features, no plot, for instance, and precious little in the way of setting, but I’ll call it a novel, for the sake of, for the sake of what exactly? No matter, no matter, it is what it is. I’ll start with what I can see, it’s a good enough place to start as any, or at least I think so. There’s a voice, or several voices, it doesn’t matter, they’re all the same, or they’re all different, or they’re all the same precisely because they’re different, it’s not important, things like difference and similarity and identity don’t have any meaning any more. It doesn’t make any sense to talk about who the voice is, what the I of the novel is, the novel obliterates all is-ness, all ontology falls away in the vague mist, it doesn’t make sense to talk about what the novel is about, there is no room for about-ness either, no space for intentionality, or rather, there’s all the room in the world, an infinite space, but it’s empty, all void. I said I’d talk about what I can see. A voice, then. Or several voices. In a grey mist. It talks about itself. Or sometimes it talks about other people, or it talks about itself on the command of others, except the others are also itself. All it knows is that it must go on, it has to talk about something, except there’s nothing to say, but if it can say the right thing, if it can arrive at some truth it can be silent, but there can be no truth, so it must go on. Every attempt to talk about anything in particular is thwarted, it’s impossible, there can be no signification, there can be no significance. There are flashes of figure and background, a torso in a jar, a family in a cage, a Worm, but they melt away, they were only imagined, or rather, they were only real, the phenomenal world is only a matter of conjecture after all, especially in a novel, where nothing is real in the first place. It asks questions but gives no answers. What is the self, what is fiction, why do artists create, why do we speak, what is meaning, what is existence, meaningless, all meaningless. How am I to even start talking about this book? I could talk about other works, I could talk about Dante, I could talk about Joyce, I won’t do that, it wouldn’t help. I could be Lacan and say that the novel is about the horror of the Real, about subjects without subjectivity, about the unconscious structured like a language and the reality that lies outside language, I could be Deleuze and say that the novel is about difference and repetition, about eternal recurrence, about the multiplicity of the individual, about a subjectivity trying to refer to itself as an Oedipal whole and continually failing, always bursting out into multiple personalities, deterritorialising itself into Mahood and Worm and the others, the them, reterritorialising back into the arborescent structure of the self, insisting that it must say something about itself before it can be at peace, failing because there is no self, or I could be Schopenhauer, and say that the novel is about the Will, always reaching out for something, something it can never quite reach, speaking as willing, futilely willing the end of the Will, or I’m sure if I put my mind to it, if I used all my cunning, I could be Marx, I could talk about the subject alienated from himself, but it wouldn’t help, none of it would get me anywhere, I’d get lost in the words, they’d devour me. The novel is the death of criticism. Criticism is the attempt to draw meaning from a text, the novel has no meaning, its meaning isn’t even that there is no meaning, it points to nothing, the critics stumble over themselves trying to work out what any particular thing means, they’ve made a category error, the novel isn’t for them. It’s written in an emotionless tone but its effect is an emotional one, it is written in abstractions but it’s incredibly visceral, it’s for the reader not the critic, in writing this I’m making the same mistake, I shouldn’t have written anything, except maybe ‘read The Unnamable‘ in big letters, no matter, I’m like the Unnamable myself, I must go on, I must keep on speaking. The emotional effect. It’s like being shaken by the shoulders and slapped around the head, it’s like being a child again, being lost, but the most terrifying thing of all is the ending, I didn’t expect it, the formlessness of the novel is frightening at first, but I get used to it, I settle into its flow, I lose all hope of conclusion, I don’t expect any teleology, everything will go on exactly as it has been before, a wandering that can never end. But it does end, something catastrophic happens, something eschatonic, and the catastrophe at the end is more shocking than everything that has gone on before, at first I am plunged into a novel about nothing, without a distinct narrative voice, one in which the unity of the subject is not assured, but then there’s a door, not a door looking out onto some vague sea, a resolutely symbolic door, it’s not that there’s nothing, that would be too concrete, too definite, there is something, it’s always out of reach, there is hope, there is redemption, it’s not for us, or not yet at least. Meaninglessness is easy enough to accept, after a while, it’s everywhere, we all secretly know it, to be confronted with some vast and distant and transcendent truth is what really scares us, I face it, I cringe from its glare, it is out of reach, the novel is over, I go on.

On Beckett’s Trilogy

To read Molloy is to become Molloy. Beckett’s prose, the vast flat plain of his single paragraph, forms the landscape you have to traverse. Sometimes you go along at a pretty good pace, your mental crutches clanking fairly against the solid sentences, sometimes you barely hobble through, crawling on your belly through the thick undergrowth of a lexical forest. You travel in straight lines by reading in circles and travel in circles by reading in straight lines, often you are not sure exactly where you are or where you are heading, sometimes a particular word or phrase or sentence brings you to a sudden halt and you need to lie down for a while in a little literary ditch to contemplate it and hope you’re not disturbed. But Beckett doesn’t let you lie there: he kicks you in the back or jabs you with a stick: you can’t stay here, you must move on. For pages and pages we wander, in and out of extended inventories of sucking-stones or buttons; past the tantalising – or terrifying – silhouettes of philosophical concepts that linger here and there on the horizon, visible but never quite within reach; through teasingly brief flashes of past memory. Where are we going? What does Molloy want? To return to his home town again, of course, to return to his mother, but that’s not what drives him onwards: he moves because he moves, he is in a dynamic stasis. As he says:

I longed to go back to the forest. Oh not a real longing. Molloy could stay, wherever he happened to be.

We are not Molloy, though, not yet, even though we travel in his footsteps. Molloy is the ultimate essence of humanity. He is man at his rawest, most stripped-down form, not willing, not wanting, a Schopenhauerian aesthete without any need for music. He sleeps in ditches, he is beaten and harried wherever he goes, he is often confused and sometimes aggrieved but in his voice there is never a note of regret: Molloy suffers from no existential angst, he is not alienated from himself. In not willing, in his infinite passivity, Molloy is completely free. But, for now, at least, we are not Molloy. We still want something. What does the reader want?

To understand, of course. Throughout the whole first section of Molloy, we never quite surrender ourselves to the vague meanderings of the narrative, we are always trying to work out what is going on, to order the narrative, impose some kind of structure – we walk with Molloy, but unlike him, we whine the whole way through. We want to tap Beckett on the back, and tell him (with all necessary deference) that while we are very much enjoying the ride, we would like to know where we are going, and if we’re there yet. A novel should have a point, we insist, or at least it should tell a story, and his appears to be doing neither: could we pause in our journey, just for a moment, and have a little peek at the map? And Beckett – he smiles at us a little, as you might smile at an endearingly errant child, but his eyes are still stern behind those shining round glasses, and he says: No.

But it’s not as if Beckett has some grand master plan he is refusing to let us see: his Trilogy is a Barthesian suicide of the author. Beckett is not Joyce or Eliot: his masterwork is not some literary crossword puzzle that he has set and that we are challenged to untangle. In one of his 1949 Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, Beckett was challenged to explain why artists should feel obliged to paint. His response, in its entirety:

I don’t know.

These are not the words of an author-as-Aufklärer. Molloy is never sure of anything, his narrative is that of an author who admits that he doesn’t know. Witness the first few sentences of the novel:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there.

Molloy can’t say for certain which of his legs is stiff, he can’t quite tell what town he is in, how old he is, how long he’s been travelling for, he continually plays with the idea of explaining or elucidating on some particular point, on forming some kind of solid inventory of his life, and then dismisses it, it is immaterial. Reading his words, we are plunged deep into a kind of limbo, a miasmatic fog of possibilities, we become a catatonic body without organs, all that is solid melts into air.

And then, the long paragraph finally ends, and in the novel’s second part we return to a literary world we are at least somewhat familiar with. The perspective switches – there is the odd flash of Molloyity (‘My report will be long. Perhaps I shall not finish it.’) – but we are now on our own ground once more, in the safe hands of Jacques Moran, who knows how to write in proper paragraphs, who is a tyrant, perhaps, but comfortingly bourgeois. And he is human in the conventional sense, we are no longer faced with the terrifying Real of our reflection in Molloy’s starkness. And, look, thank Christ, what a relief, it seems like we might just get a conventional plot structure as well! Moran must go off to find Molloy, and finally we’ll be able to see our stiff-legged vagrant from the outside: Moran will find him for us, and all we’ll see is a mumbling decrepit geriatric. The unsettling freedom of his narrative will be reduced to a mere stylistic exercise, we won’t really need to consider the implications. There’ll be a confrontation, perhaps, some kind of climax, comfortable catharsis. Nice one, Beckett, you almost had us going for a minute there.

Except that doesn’t happen. Moran does find Molloy, eventually, in a way, but we never get to see him from the outside, because Molloy is inside all of us. Molloy is humanity, the perfect embodiment of our existential freedom: crippled, lame, dazed, unfeeling, unthinking, unwilling. As Moran walks off in search of Molloy, his bourgeois effects slowly fall away from him: he is deserted by his son, he loses all but fifteen shillings of his money, his joints seize up, he wanders, in his seventeen theological questions he cathartically cleanses himself of any notion of the Beyond. He does not find Molloy, he becomes Molloy:

Question. How did I feel?
Answer. Much as usual.
Question. And yet I had changed and was still changing?
Answer. Yes.
Question. How was this to be explained?
Answer.

This void, this lack of an answer, is the point where Moran sheds his tyranny: both over others and over himself. He is admitting that he does not know. We have been reading the novel backwards, the second half takes place before the first, but its ordering is important, because although Moran turns into Molloy, Molloy was there long before Moran, Molloy has always been there. And in the catastrophic final few lines of the novel, the conventional narrative we so greedily embraced when it first appeared is revealed for the lie it always has been: Beckett turns back on himself, we are shown Moran/Molloy writing the words that opened the second half:

Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

We were wrong in looking for a clear linear direction, we were wrong in looking for comprehensibility, there can be none. Molloy is not just a stumbling old man, he is our freedom, in all its aimless wandering, in all its its ineffable tragedy. When we read this line, we join Moran in his transfiguration, or his reduction: we have become Molloy. Or, in the words of our old pal Freddy Nietzsche, we have become what we are.

This post has been, more than anything, an excuse for me to have a go at getting my head around Molloy. There is a lot I haven’t covered. Why, for instance, does Moran compare his newly stiffened knee to a clitoris? There are probably some interesting psychoanalytical readings to be made here, but I don’t have a clue. I haven’t read much of the critical debate around the Trilogy, so if I’m wrong about everything, please let me know. I may attempt at some point to make some similar explorations through Malone Dies and The Unnameable, but no promises.

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