Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: literature

The passion according to Luke

Everyone has their fantasies. There are people who dream of chains and rope and hot wax, silent watching eyes, dungeons of degradation, masked strangers, shiny black leather. Then there are the perverts, people who get unaccountably excited by the idea of second homes and high-quality consumer goods, holidays in Europe, tasteful interior décor, and a high-paying job in a full-employment economy. Repulsive as they might be, even these fantasies help sustain the subject of the fantasist; they don’t really hurt anyone as long as nobody tries to actually put them into practice. This is the rule of fantasy: you can act it out as an image of an image, but it can never actually come true. Once it does, it loses all its power and enchantment. There are many fantasies like these, tiny glittering gasps of desire, but they’re all in orbit around an invisible sun, one single hidden image that gives them their allure: the ‘foundational fantasy,’ represented by Lacan in the matheme $ a. In this formulation $ represents the castrated or ‘barred’ subject, forced to understand the world through images in response to a primordial lack, with a standing for that absence, the transcendent and nameless object of desire. What’s notable about this matheme is that it lacks an intermediary symbol (such as standing for a problematic relationship, as in the formula $ a for neurotic fantasy): between the two terms there is no relation. Fantasy is grounded in a double absence; the fantasist never necessarily knows the full content of their fantasy. You have to browse through an infinite collection of images and see which ones excite you, find out what kind of radiation the black hole of your desire emits. Here are a few fantasies. See if they work for you.

Luke Vivian-Neal, of the School of Oriental and African Studies team in the 2013-14 season of BBC2’s University Challenge, has a woman with beautiful hair brought to him, saying he simply wishes to examine her hair; but he cuts it off very traitorously and discharges upon seeing her melt into tears and bewail her misfortune, at which he laughs immoderately.
Luke Vivian-Neal, whose team made it to the semi-finals before being beaten by Somerville College, Oxford, sups at an immense table; for light, he has six burning candles, each inserted into the ass of a naked girl lying upon the table.
Luke Vivian-Neal from Lusaka in Zambia, who is studying Chinese but also knows a lot about words of Arabic origin and the location of the Schönbrunn Palace, attaches a slender but attractive girl to a large rocket, the fuse is ignited, the rocket ascends, then returns to earth with the girl still attached.

These are all from entries in the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, a pornographic novel that quickly descends into an early example of the Buzzfeed-style listicle; six hundred numbered acts of debauchery and murder presented with very little adornment or narrative sequence. De Sade was a fantasist in the classic mould: while his libertinage caused some scandals he was still entirely devoted to his wife and obedient to his mother; in his actual sexual practices he tended far more towards masochism than the sadistic tendency to which he gave his name. What’s interesting about the 120 Days of Sodom is that all these deeds are described not as fantasies or stories, but as passions, divided into les passions simples, doubles, criminelles, and meurtrières – all this despite the somewhat offhand way in which de Sade’s heroes carry out their orgies and massacres. In traditional medieval dualism, passion was opposed not to boredom or indifference but to action; it shares a Latin root with passivity. Pneumatic theory, which posited a substance called pneuma through which physical sense impressions were mediated into mental images, held erotic desire to be a passion: you are not an agent, a subject desiring an object, but a patient, the object of a desire that acts on you. Passions are pneumatic images,sensations from outside that seize and overwhelm the subject. For the advocates of courtly love, the idea that you might grab hold of the source of your desire and actually fuck them wasn’t just crass and unseemly; it missed the point entirely. Actions belong to the body, and passions to the mind; consummation of a passion is nothing more than the contemplation or the expression of an image. It’s in this context that de Sade’s passions begin to make sense. His passions are fantastical images, stories within a story, emerging from a void: mise en abyme.

Luke Vivian-Neal is clearly a very passionate man. Or, in the words of various Twitter commentators, he is ‘ever so intense,’ ‘a prime example of a secret serial killer,’ ‘the sort who would wear your skin to a party,’ ‘an evil Paul Merton,’ and ‘actually going to kill all of us #thoseeyes.’ He’s certainly the most interesting contestant University Challenge has had in a while. He holds his forehead low, his hair flops over his eyebrows, and he stares up at the camera with what appears to be utterly undisguised loathing. When he answers a question correctly there’s a tiny grin, a fractured chink through which the horror of the Other’s enjoyment can be glimpsed. When he gets one wrong he looks omnicidal, a glowering thundercloud of a human being. He definitely has a rich inner life. This effect is only heightened by the rest of the SOAS team: motherly Weber, trying to cheer Vivian-Neal up with a smile and a pat on the back; team leader McKean, the cheerfully studious everyman; thoughtful and deliberate Figueroa. They don’t seem to be from the same planet as Vivian-Neal, let alone the same university. It’s not hard to imagine them as the cast of a University Challenge spinoff, a tense psychological thriller in which Vivian-Neal slowly picks them off one by one. Of course, the most important thing about the passion of Luke Vivian-Neal is that it’s a passion: something that acts on him from the outside, an image, a fantasy. Real serial killers are, for the most part, astonishingly boring people; not cold and steely and erudite like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates, but driven by dull brutish psychopathy. If Vivian-Neal actually had bodies in his freezer, he’d lose all his fascination. The fantasy of the smart, brooding, potentially murderous young man isn’t his – it belong to us, the viewers.

When I was briefly living in America, I naturally took it upon myself to smugly educate as many of the country’s inhabitants as possible in the wonders of British television. These efforts had various levels of success. Some people liked Peep Show, fewer had patience for Stewart Lee, but University Challenge was met with unanimous approval. Part of its appeal might have to do with the show’s inherent excess: these people are quizzed on knowledge that is for the most part fundamentally useless, for what appears to be no real reason, and without even getting a cash prize at the end. There’s a gleeful superfluity to it that fits in well with the sprawling all-consuming mentality of Los Angeles. At the same time it’s something of a human zoo: you’re presented with a constant succession of endearingly dorky and often utterly strange characters, but in a way that deliberately encourages the formation of fantasy. Unlike some quiz show hosts, Jeremy Paxman never asks his contestants how they’re feeling, or who they’ve got supporting them back home, or what their hopes and dreams are; you have to work it all out (or invent it) based on their eagerness with the buzzer, their spluttering when named, the things they know and the things they don’t, their reactions when they win and when they lose. University Challenge reproduces, in laboratory conditions, the formation of fantasy as a defence against the lack that inheres in the Other. No wonder so many of its contestants become minor sex symbols. Intelligence might be sexy, but there’s nothing that stimulates neurotic attachment like a void.

The fantasy of Luke Vivian-Neal is of someone somehow inhuman, someone whose mind follows different rules to the rest of ours. This image forms part of a process of transference. All those desires that the viewer at home watching University Challenge isn’t comfortable with are shifted onto him; he becomes a receptacle for our own deadly passions. In fact, unlike the neurotic voyeurs observing him on their screens, Vivian-Neal seems fully healthy and fully human, entirely unashamed of himself. When he gives that sullen stare, he’s communicating exactly what he wants to.  There might be murderers in this season of University Challenge, but he’s not one of them. The SOAS team lost a decisive quarter-final match to Trinity College, Cambridge 280 points to 105. Vivian-Neal was inconsolable; he couldn’t even bring himself to say the traditional end-of-match ‘goodbye’ to the viewers. The standout character of the Trinity team is Filip Drnovšek Zorko. It’s not just his excellent name, which the announcer reads out with an air of unbridled excitement: Drnovšek Zorko appears to be a genuinely agreeable person. He’s a lamb among wolves. The rest of the Trinity team, with their collared shirts and v-neck jumpers and gemstone-dead eyes, are all monsters of the Oxbridge elite – the same British impulse that conquered the world and killed millions out of sheer boredom. Vivian-Neal has an authentic misery; the only thing they communicate is a shark’s mindlessly propulsive self-satisfaction. Phantom pith helmets hover over their heads. In tonight’s final, Trinity play against Somerville, Oxford for the title. There’s every chance they’ll win; they’re an extremely effective team. If they do, everyone goes home happy. If they lose, the last thing Drnovšek Zorko will see will be his teammates’ pupils narrowing to reptilian slits and their fangs swooshing down from their mouths before they consume him. 

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.

Exclusive extract: The Lacan Conundrum, by Dan Brown

Dan Brown’s new novel Inferno went on sale yesterday and has already careered straight to the top of the bestseller charts. Naturally, I was a little jealous. However, unlike the throngs of snobbishly unpublished authors who take it upon themselves to parody Brown’s works, I decided it would be far more productive to try to learn from someone so clearly a master of his craft. That said, I needed an edge on my competitors, and just reading Inferno wouldn’t cut it. I knew his next novel, scheduled for publication in 2015, had already been written. So at midnight last night I parachuted stealthily out of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk plane with a Garmin G1000 Primary Flight Display flying at 13,000 feet over the small Westphalian city of Gütersloh – home to Bertelsmann SE & Co. KGaA, parent company of Doubleday, the publisher of Dan Brown’s novels. Landing on the roof of the squat office building, I quickly incapacitated the guards, who were armed with Heckler & Koch MP5 sub-machine guns, for reasons best known to themselves. Gingerly, I entered the building through a ventilation duct. Eventually I found myself outside the room where Dan Brown’s next novel was being kept. What I found in there revolted me. The air stank of ordure and rotting bananas. The shit-speckled walls, the piss-sodden carpet, the flies, the rats. About a thousand primates sat there on ergonomic office chairs, chained to antique typewriters. The macaques and tamarins were visibly distressed, straining at their manacles, screeching helplessly, banging their heads against their desks. A few chimpanzees had resigned themselves with seeming good humour to their work; while one typed, another groomed its back. By the far wall, a sad-faced old orangutan slowly and arrhythmically pressed the ‘H’ key, over and over again, staring dejectedly at the reams of paper it had yet to fill. The baboons seemed to be in charge of the place, though. They were unshackled. As I entered they shrieked in unison, baring their yellow fangs. I grabbed a few sheets from the typewriter of the nearest gibbon and ran. As I left the building, pursued by the chilling ululations of the baboons, I briefly passed Bertelsmann’s Employee of the Week board. On every square was a picture of a baboon. And at the top, smiling benevolently down on them, was a photo of the Reinhard Mohn, the corporation’s legendary former CEO: a silverback gorilla, staring with a pipe in his mouth and the faint gleam of a deep unknowable wisdom in his round brown eyes.

The lines that follow are all that I could rescue from that room.

THE STORY SO FAR: Around the world, hundreds of men and women drop dead on the same day. The tall man Chad McRib, professor of Obscurantology at Hardton University, is accused of complicity in their deaths. Fleeing the French police through the streets of Paris, he finds himself catapulted into the ancient mysteries of the 20th Century, as it emerges that all of the victims had at one time or another been analysands of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. After Chad enlists the help of the beautiful European nuclear scientess Slavojina Zizek, it is discovered that Lacan had been highly radioactive. It was for this reason that he had gone against the Société Parisienne de Psychanalyse in introducing shorter sessions: he knew that prolonged exposure could give his patients a lethal dose of radiation. But who had irradiated him, and why? Chad and Slavojina delve into the sewers of Paris with a stolen copy of Lacan’s notebooks to find the answer, but find themselves trapped in the terrifying Mirror Stage, and shadowed by mysterious gazing figures…

The tall brown-haired man walked into the room. The man was Chad McRib, who was tall. The attractive woman Slavojina Zizek clung to his arm. The whirr of a VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) air-conditioning unit hung in the air, which was suffused with the hum of a VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) air-conditioning unit.
“We’ll be safe here, Slavojina,” Chad said. “As we have checked into this hotel, the Hôtel Fièvre Gastrique on the Rue  Grossier, under false names, the Big brOthers will be unable to find us here, in this particular place.”
Slavojina reclined delightfully on the expensive bed. “Zhe question ish, what ish it we should we do now?” she purred, like a cat suddenly teleported to Planet Milk. “Theesh I claim: we musht carry out the sexual act, it ish our duty, in zhe Kantian senshe.” Her hand fluttered teasingly over her eyebrow and the bridge of her bulbous nose as she grunted sensuously.
“While it is true that we are now experiencing a high level of mutual attraction, especially when compared to our first meeting two days ago, during which you were somewhat wary of me, we have no time for that,” said Chad, who was high in stature and had brown hair. “Whoever those people are, they won’t stop looking for us until they have these écrits,” he continued cromulently. “Whatever the secret is, it must be hidden in this notebook,” he mouth-flappled.
The notebook was square and had yellowed over the years. Its cover was black with embossed gold lettering. The paper was made from pine woodpulp. 60% of the pulp that had gone into the notebook had come from a single pine tree. The tree had been planted in 1928 near the Spanish town of Rascafria. In 1941 a Spanish imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca adalberti) had nested in its branches like a zeppelin docking at the Empire State Building. The eagle was later shot by a hunter named José Mercader, who had a thick moustache and later fell into penury for unrelated reasons. None of its chicks survived. Chad McRib opened the notebook with his fingers, which were long and slim, much like his body, which was tall and slim. He read a few pages, like a crowded minivan plunging tragically off a cliff. I’ve got it, he thought. If the unconscious mind is itself a series of chains of signification, then literally everything has a hidden meaning and every single object is part of a vast paternal conspiracy. But what could be the purpose of it all? Suddenly, he knew.

~

He then told Slavojina what he had discovered, which was very unsettling and also exciting. “It is commonly said in the bar-rooms and crack dens of the world that Lacanian psychoanalysis is difficult,” the professor said, thrillingly. “Indeed, many of my students have told me that they find it difficult to read Lacan, because his words are difficult to understand and the order in which they are placed also makes them difficult to understand,” the noted academic who was on the run from the police said, in tones that made it sound very exciting. “However, what if the reason for this complexity is that Lacan’s works in fact carry a hidden message, explaining who had given him his continual doses of radiation? For instance, Lacan attempted to explain psychoanalytic concepts through mathematical formulae. The traditional interpretation is that he did so as a half-serious attempt to give his theories objective mathematical weight. But could it be something else?” The teaching-type person, who was very clever and also had brown hair, directed the woman’s attention to a diagram in the notebook. “Look at this,” he said. “Does thees not demonstrate precisely zhat in making a line acrosh zhe face of zhe Real, zhe act of represhentation ish itshelf monstrous, in a senshe deesgushting?” Slavojina giggled.
“Exactly,” said the man, who was called Chad McRib. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense. But what if we tried to solve it as if it were a perfectly ordinary triquadratic biequation?” He scribbled in the notebook with the furious zeal of an itinerant lobster, using a Pentel GraphGear 1000 PG1015 automatic pencil. “You get this.”
 “My God,” said Slavojina. “Pure ideology.”
“I think the whole book is a map” said the fêted head-think-brain-man. “It’s a set of directions. Where is the name of the Father written in Paris? Above the altar in Notre Dame. And what forms a phallus? The Eiffel Tower. Somewhere along the line between those two points an incredibly precious object is hidden, an object people have been seeking for centuries. That’s what the Big brOthers are after. Lacan’s notebook gives us the route to the objet petit a. The ultimate object of desire. The Holy Grail, Slavojina.’
“But zhees ish eempossible,” said Slavojina. “Zhe objet petit a ish unobtainable. Zhat ish zhe source of eets transcendence.”
The famous professor flipped through the square book. “What if I told you that I know exactly where it is?” the elegant variation pronounced.
“In zhe filum of Heetchcock, zhe gaze ish never a pure gaze, eet ish alwaysh accompanied by zhe threat of viyolence,” Slavojina gasped.
“You’re right. We haven’t a second to lose.”
As the tall man Chad McRib and the attractive woman Slavojina Zizek stepped out of the hotel onto the Rue Grossier, a dark bad figure of a bad man lurking in an alleyway watched as they hurried off towards the Seine. He cocked his SIG P226 pistol and began to follow them.

~

A short man burst into the boardroom of a superbly appointed office building in New York. “Sir,” he said, proffering a photo of Chad exiting the hotel. “McRib is back.”
Sitting alone in the room, which had excellent views over the river, wearing a sharp navy-blue three-piece suit, the Master-Signifier smiled in an evil way as would befit someone who is obviously the villain in this story. “All is going according to plan,” the Master-Signifier said. “Once McRib finds the objet petit a for us, no power on Earth can prevent us from crushing the schizoanalysts and achieving world domination.’

Will our heroes find the objet petit a? (no.) Does it even exist? (no.) What about the Big brOthers, do they exist? (no.) Will Chad uncover their plot before the radical schizoanalysts detonate a nuclear bomb over Vienna and wipe out the Freudian legacy? (no.) What unexpected twist awaits us before the novel’s end? (Slavojina is quite clearly a man.) To find out, you’ll just have to wait until 2015.

Why not to write: a confession

Once you’ve done a little writing you start to hate words, really hate them, the kind of frothing obsessive hate that might be love if you could only push it a little further, but you can’t, something’s stopping you. The words are everywhere, they’re invasive; you wish they’d go away, but at the same time you can’t imagine life without them. There are too many of the things. Little stubby ones; long serpentine ones with twitching antennae and gossamer-thin probosces; pale words, translucent and squirming; big rich words engorged with blood, their carapaces dense with tiny thorns. An infestation. Some people freak out and see bugs crawling all over their skin; I get words. I don’t know which is worse.

There’s a sea of them. Not a pacific blue mirror nibbling tenderly at the sands, not an iron-grey ocean roaring its foam-flecked fury. A sullen greenish bog, oozing and bubbling, squirming with life, a primordial soup. I feel this sea of words somewhere at the base of my spinal column, a fetid reservoir, and with every sulphurous belch from its surface the words come teeming, crawling up my back, rippling under my neck, gnawing into my brain. When the words seize you it’s a feeling not unlike pain. It’s sharp and constant. You can’t think of anything else. They’ve got you by the throat, they repeat themselves in your ear, they can utterly ruin your day. The only way to get rid of them is to spit them out. You have to write them down.

That’s where the hate comes from. When the words are still crawling their way around your body they’re just an annoyance. Nobody really hates their runny nose or their aching feet. Like any sickness, it doesn’t really belong to you. Only when you’ve expelled the words and lined them out all neatly on a page do they become yours. Then their intrinsic hideousness is all your own fault.

The hatred is everywhere, it runs like a spine through the body of literature. Beckett’s Unnameable can’t go on, he must go on, he goes on, but all he really wants is to be silent. Shakespeare rejects words through Hamlet and renounces them through Prospero. Chaucer ends his Canterbury Tales with a penitent’s retraction. Virgil orders the Aeneid burned. There’s something really grotesque about words, it’s on the level of an innate repulsion, they’re hideous to the touch. It’s something unique to writers. Artists are a temperamental self-important bunch in general, but painters don’t tend to see the very act of applying pigment to canvas as something shameful. Sculptors don’t throw their clay to the ground and curse its earthy worthlessness. Composers don’t cultivate an instinctual distrust of their pianos.

If you work with paint or clay, what you make is already in the world, you’re just moving stuff around. That’s OK, you’re not disturbing anything too seriously. If you write, you’re making new world, you’re pumping more and more reality into the already overstuffed carcass of the Earth. Even if you never show anyone what you’ve written, it’s still there. The planet sags under its weight. All this blasphemy just to get the bugs off your skin.

If you do show it to people, it’s worse. Love this! you cry, shoving a handful of worms in their faces. Validate me! It’s pathetic. If you join a writing workshop, you’re beyond salvation.

In the book of Genesis, God forms the first man out of dust and breathes life into him. The animals are formed ex nihilo, but before he can be created, man must first be moulded. His image comes before his reality; he’s a representation first and a being second. It’s the same in so many creation myths: humanity is unique, its form precedes its function. There’s a difference, though: in the Old Testament, the world is spoken into being: before images there are words, the universe is a linguistic construct. It’s strange, then, that the Torah – usually so rigidly formulated – begins not with aleph, the first letter of the alphabet, but with beit, the second. The text is incomplete from the start, it’s intrinsically insufficient. Even the Word of God is still just a word, a hideous foreign thing that bores its way into your brain. To deal with words, to surround yourself with words – it’s an imperative, but it won’t save you. Christianity offers salvation by the blood of Christ. Judaism gives you only the Book: you trace your way backwards through the entire scroll, until you come up against the letter beit, and then you’ve got nowhere else to go.

That’s the root of it. Great writers tend not to be nice friendly Anglicans. In the West, at least, they’re of two types: Jews and antisemites, antisemites and Jews. One type, really. Antisemitism is just a desperate attempt to capture some of the Jew’s particular talent for self-loathing; Judaism is just a desperate attempt to account for the antisemite’s hatred. A Jew doesn’t have to be circumcised: Yitzhak Shapira is not a Jew; Jacques Lacan was a Jew par excellence. The Jew is the one for whom something is missing, circumcision is just a reminder of that fact. You try to replace it: that’s where you get psychoanalysis, political radicalism, Christianity. Pathological inventions, all of them.

Writing is displacement. The words are loathsome because they’re a constant reminder of something that isn’t there. It’s a symptom. If Nietzsche (the antisemite who wasn’t an antisemite) wasn’t crippled he could’ve walked the mountains himself, he wouldn’t have needed to write Thus Spake Zarathustra. If Kierkegaard (the Jew who wasn’t a Jew) wasn’t impotent he could’ve fucked Regine Olsen, he wouldn’t have needed to write Fear and Trembling. If you’re writing, it’s because the world has failed you. And, like the good little masochist that you are, you make more world, you make more people, you make more absence.

My shoulders are always tense, they’re full of knots, I can feel the muscle fibres fraying, like old sea-worn rope. It’s never painful, not exactly, but it’s hard to get comfortable. I can’t say why, but I almost relish it. I worked in an office for a few months; one day they had a masseur come in. They asked if I wanted a massage. I said no. Nothing valuable comes out of a lack of tension. It’s idiotic.

It’s said that everyone has a novel inside them. Always a novel: never a film or a painting or a really good spaghetti bolognese. Books about writing are everywhere, they’re consistently popular. The advice is consistently lousy, especially when it starts to border on spiritualism. You have to write from a place of love. You have to love storytelling, you have to love your characters, you have to love words. You have to write for an audience. You have to use fewer adjectives. I think the books should come with little warning labels. Caution: it won’t help, something like that. Not that they’ll save anyone, if you have the sickness there doesn’t seem to be much you can do about it, but at least people won’t be allowed to delude themselves.

Maybe I’m wrong. There are plenty of writers, many of them published, some of them quite successful, who claim that they do what they do out of a genuine love of words. I happen to think they aren’t much good, but after all I’ve not been published. Sometimes people tell me I do this to myself, I indulge in it, I could be content if I wanted to. They may well be right; it’s immaterial.

I’ve never felt like I have a novel inside me. Only words, sentences, stories, characters, flowing like pus from an open sore, crawling like ants. Sometimes the flow dries up for a while and I get worried, but it never stops for too long. The only way to really halt it would be to fumigate the anthill, to give it a nice fresh blast of diazinon, to tear down the whole rotten structure. I’ve been writing almost since I can remember. As a child I’d take a few sheets of blank paper, fold them in half and staple together to make a little book. I collected my first few volumes in a VHS case. I’d carry it around with me wherever I went. I don’t know where it is now. The first story I wrote – I must have been five or six years old, maybe younger – was called Lost in Space. In the story an astronaut on a spacewalk accidentally breaks his tether to the ship. He goes floating out into space. He drifts past planets and stars. It doesn’t seem to bother him too much. That’s all. I don’t think he ever made it back.

Forget Orwell

obama-orwell

Monday of last week marked the first annual George Orwell Day, seeing Penguin’s rerelease of several of his books, mass giveaways of his essay Politics and the English Language, and the launch of an Orwell season on BBC radio. (Purely by coincidence, it was also ‘blue Monday’ – the day calculated by to be the most depressing of the year.) For a supposedly radical writer, Orwell fits very comfortably into the cultural mainstream. Certainly it’s easy to claim that Orwell’s been hijacked by the political Right – witness the countless chiding voices from the Left reminding those that hold up the Obama administration as a prophecy fulfilled or recommend Animal Farm as an education for naive socialists that Orwell was, in fact, actually, despite what you might think, incredible though it may seem, something of a leftie himself. Was he actually, though? Now that Orwell’s been thoroughly assimilated into the ideological state apparatuses, it’s time to ask if there’s really much left over. To be honest, there’s not a lot. Here’s why.

1: Nineteen Eight-Four misses the point entirely.

I’ll start with the big one. There are two main criticisms of the dystopian society presented in Nineteen Eighty-Four: firstly, it’s impossible, and secondly, it already exists. These aren’t quite as contradictory as they appear.

The society in the novel is an absolute tyranny, a warning (not, as we’re continually reminded, a prediction) of the horrific consequences of absolute power and its ability to completely dominate both the individual human and the entire world. This Orwellian-Arendite dogma needs to be challenged. So-called ‘totalitarian’ societies are in fact defined not by their totalising discourses but by their utter failure to exert such a monopoly. Totalitarianism is a state of vulnerability: the paranoid totalitarian state continually affirms its own weakness. It is beset by saboteurs or contaminated with impure races; it is situated in opposition to a political Other with which it must maintain a constant dialogue (albeit one of repression); it depends, utterly and openly, on the support of the faithful masses. (Really, Arendite totalitarianism should be considered not as a social form but as a tactic.) The Orwellian society simultaneously projects an image of fragility (bombing its own citizens, inventing a political Other in the form of Emmanuel Goldstein) and an image of strength (orders are barked from screens, Big Brother is everywhere, sexuality is confined, reality itself is moulded to its rulers’ will).  Such a society wouldn’t last two minutes: in its crude parody of authoritarianism it could never admit that the source of its continuation lies in the faith of its populace, despite such an admission being absolutely essential for its operation.  This is why, for instance, present-day dictatorial societies are in general far more likely to yield to popular pressure on matters of policy. It’s precisely because such governments are not constrained by judicial, constitutional or electoral limits to their power that they have to listen very carefully to the voice of the street: if they ignore it too much, they lose all legitimacy. Democratically elected governments, meanwhile, already have their legitimacy in the ritual of the vote; they are entirely unbounded; they can ignore millions of marchers or break up protest camps with disproportionate force, and when challenged, they have an undeniable excuse: well, you voted for us.

This is where the impossibility of Nineteen Eighty-Four meets its pre-existence. We do, in fact, live in a society where discourse is totalised and panopticism is embedded in the structure of everyday life. Dictatorial societies must engage with their Other; in liberal society the political Other is pathological or an aberration, it can be rectified through the use of military violence but is never engaged with. A constrictive discourse of rights, freedoms, limitations, and above all of choices is maintained far more subtly than any Newspeak because the violence that underpins its operation is not an overt one. The panoptic gaze that fixes and individuates us is everywhere, but rather than watching for forbidden activity, it commands us to enjoy. When it comes to subsuming libidinal flows, the pornographic commodification of sexuality functions more efficiently than the Junior Anti-Sex League.

The root of the problem here is Orwell’s conception of power as something that is held and wielded by a group or individual. It’s not: power is a field, it’s decentred, something that can only be directed; that’s what makes it so pernicious. In the medieval period the field of power was fractal, with the feudal and family units replicating royal sovereignty; in this manner its structure was able to be continually reproduced. In liberal capitalism it is decentred; this is another defence mechanism. In the panopticon the exercise of power is both universally supervised and universal in its reach; there is no Big Brother, just everyone else. Improper attitudes aren’t punished, they’re medicalised; the patient turns herself in, there’s no need for rats, and the administrator of the cure can believe that she’s doing the right thing.

Displacing the panoptic and discourse-totalising elements of contemporary society onto an imagined ideal totalitarian state means that these aspects are relegated to the Outside of contemporary politics. It is precisely because of this that paranoiacs of all shades can see the incipient elements of a Nineteen Eighty-Four-style tyranny manifesting themselves in our society: totalitarianism is evident in security cameras, in government jargon, in detention without trial. The Orwellian society is one that we might move towards, it is not something that is already there. Not that these aren’t valid concerns, but they’re the accoutrements of totalitarianism, not its content. Our present society can’t exert despotic power, Nineteen Eighty-Four tells us, not until the government starts rationing food and banning sex.

2: Animal Farm is pretty awful and Trotskyism isn’t much good either.

Admittedly, the most glaring problem with Animal Farm isn’t so much the text itself as the way it’s entered the literary canon. It’s a staple of the GCSE curriculum in the UK, and seems to be just as prevalent in America. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that it’s not presented as a historical document embodying a certain political attitude, but both as allegorical literature representing universal themes and as an accurate history of the Russian Revolution. It’s no such thing. Animal Farm is, avowedly and openly, a Trotskyite polemic, a political pamphlet.

The text has its own problems – the lack of a Lenin-figure, for instance, or any allegorical representation of the Civil War – but it’s this Trotskyism that lies at the root of its easy integration into the educational apparatuses of ideology. Trotskyism shouldn’t really be considered as a branch of Marxist thought in the proper sense. Rather, it’s a symptom. Trotskyism represents simultaneously the elevation of the October Revolution to a world-historical moment and the disavowal of every subsequent attempt at building socialism. Trotskyites like the idea of revolution – which is why they make every effort to turn 1917 into an abstract ideal – but they don’t much like any of its ‘perverted’ aftereffects. Trotskyism means keeping the revolution pure and unsullied by historical reality, turning it into a dinner party.

Trotsky himself is really incidental to all this. His actual deeds and policies are irrelevant; he’s only a master-signifier for anti-Stalinism. Needless to say, this is all profoundly anti-materialist: despite their attempts to effect a materialist analysis of Stalinism as ‘bureaucratic state capitalism,’ the jargon really just disguises a complaint: ‘if my guy had won out, everything would have been so much better!’ – with the unspoken caveat that this can never be anything other than a conditional, that Trotsky represents nothing more than the guy who didn’t win out. As such Trotskyism raises the cult of personality to its apotheosis: it’s pure personality-cult, based on a ‘pure’ personality, defined entirely negatively, a personality that can gain universal relevance through avoiding any particular affirmation.

It should be remembered that after he consolidated his power, Stalin actually put most of Trotsky’s ‘far-left’ policies into practice, collectivising agriculture and focusing on the rapid development of heavy industry in the five-year plans. None of this is to say that the excesses of Stalinism should not be critiqued; the point is that the Trotskyite critique lacks any substantive foundation. Imagine a counterfactual: if Trotsky had won the Soviet power struggle, expelling Stalin and extending the violence of War Communism into peacetime, would present-day Trotskyites have affiliated themselves with his period in power? Of course not. They’d be calling themselves Stalinists.

You can see this in Homage to Catalonia: Barcelona under the Anarchists and the POUM is described as ‘real socialism,’ pure and unsullied. Why? Because they were crushed. Any successful socialist project is inherently untrustworthy; ‘real socialism’ is that which is crushed. This is why Animal Farm lends itself so easily to anti-Communist interpretation. The only pig-character not at fault – including Snowball, the Trotsky-surrogate – is Old Major, representing Karl Marx, who dies before the Revolution. While Napoleon demonstrates his evil by drinking the communal milk, his evil is on an axis with Snowball’s speechmaking and political organising; despite their internal differences the pigs are for the first few pages presented as a coherent bloc. Class divisions inhere; socialism is ultimately a quixotic endeavour. In other words, Trotsky himself is guilty of the Trotskyite original sin: he actualised revolutionary ideology.

3. Politics and the English Language is utterly repulsive.

Really it’s not the whole essay I want to take issue with, but this helpful list right near the end:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

There’s a great line in Godard’s film La Chinoise: ‘We are not the ones using obscure language; it’s our society, which is hermetic and closed up in the poorest of languages possible.’ Orwell’s rules, more than those of anyone except perhaps Strunk and White, have impoverished the English language. They’ve become entrenched: creative writing programmes encourage their students to righteously purge their works of any adjectives or adverbs, contemporary literature has become a sullen grey plain of terse mediocrity. Why shouldn’t we use long words? Why shouldn’t we use more words than is strictly necessary? Why not enrich our works with language from around the world and throughout the span of human knowledge? Orwell has his answer: without poetic language it would be impossible for politicians to mislead people. Any cursory reading of the grimly matter-of-fact reportage that surrounds the ongoing drone war would be enough to bring that into question. Nonetheless, he has something of a point: it would be hard for a dictatorship to survive under his rules; the same goes for anything approaching literature. Orwell is not a great stylist. He communicates himself through language well enough, but to reduce the incredible power of language to its capacity to convey a series of statements – in the name of combating totalitarianism, no less – is to rob it of everything that makes it valuable. It’s barborous. And so, by Orwell’s sixth law, the others should be immediately discarded.

4. Time for a purge.

There’s plenty more to be said, I’ve barely scratched the surface. John Dolan has an excellent piece on Orwell’s racism, classism and anti-Catholicism. It shouldn’t be forgotten that he wrote a blacklist of ‘crypto-communists’ working in the media for the British Foreign Office, or that the dissemination of his books was encouraged by imperialist intelligence agencies. Above all, however, the problem with Orwell is not that he was a writer who collaborated with oppressive forces or held incorrect or prejudicial opinions – there have been plenty of those; some are very good – but the extent to which he’s wormed himself in to the general understanding. To understand totalitarianism, you must read Nineteen Eighty-Four, and end up with an entirely distorted view of what State power is and how it functions. As an introduction to Soviet history, we’re given Animal Farm, and a partisan screed is enshrined as a true historical fable. And, God knows why, but being a writer still means being held to the standard of Politics and the English Language, and the blandly awful fiction being produced today speaks for itself. It’s time to rid ourselves of this toxic influence – maybe only temporarily, so that afterwards we can go back to Orwell without the figure of Orwell weighing down on us. It’s interesting that this year’s Orwell Day was held not on the anniversary of the writers birth, but that of his death. Perhaps Orwell Day should mark the day that he can finally be laid to rest.

Slavoj Žižek answers a question on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

SLAVOJ: Yes. My god. This question, I claim, it is inevitable, but I had hoped that it would be inevitable in the manner of Derrida’s messiah which is always coming but never comes, not in the manner of the inevitability of socialism. I should begin, I think, by saying that I have not read this book. In my house in Ljubljana, I have a hundred copies of each of my own books, there is no room for anyone else’s. It is a field of pure madness, pure narcissism, in the Lacanian sense, of course; it is the perfect image that constitutes the Subject. I may as well have made every wall a mirror. This book, it starts on the Internet, no? People are reading more than ever before with this technology, it is disgusting, wholly degenerate. I think the only true literary figure of our times is Katie Price, you know this? The woman who has written more books than she has read. She forms the highest critique of literature – and I do not mean this in the liberal nostalgic way of the culture is declining, everything is becoming commercialised, and so on, and so on. No! What she does is very important, I claim, she reveals the truth that was always there, that reading books is a worthless activity. There is an excellent line in Nietzsche, he says: at the dawn of one’s strength, to read a book – I call that viciousness! So I claim, the problem with this book is not that the author has not read enough, it is that she has read anything at all. My god. But this book, it is simulated sex, no? It is pure pornography. But that is not what is obscene about it; all literature is pornography, after all. No, what is obscene is the reaction. This is the difference between the modern and the postmodern: when that other pornographic book was published, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it was banned at once. This is good, very healthy indeed. Pornography that is not banned at once, you know, it is like coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, a proletarian movement without the Absolute, and so on, and so on. But this book, the Fifty Shades of Grey book, it is embraced openly, the women read it on public transport, and so on, and so on. It is the Other without Otherness, utterly obscene. In the liberal society, everything is permitted, every kind of sexuality; not only permitted, it is mandatory. The command everywhere is this: you must Enjoy! The truly radical act, this I claim, is to not enjoy. The revolutionary is the real hedonist of the twenty-first century because he puts Communism over his own jouissance. It is this which is unacceptable. I am reminded of an old Soviet joke: Marx, Engels and Lenin take turns buggering a peasant woman in a field. When they are done, Marx kisses her cheek, Engels kisses her mouth, and Lenin has been stealing the wheelbarrows. I claim: if you do not get this joke, you are a fascist.

I’m convinced that it would be relatively easy to programme a computer algorithm which, given sufficient input in the form of pop culture and political events, would be able to churn out fully formed Žižek books at the rate of three hundred a second. The man himself already lies deep within the Uncanny Valley: like Marxism and eschatonic Christianity, he exists only to prefigure his own redundancy.

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 self-expression

Check this out:

My world is falling, crumbling apart, life is meaningless & that’s just the start
My hearts so sore, I can feel it breaking & I swear to god it leaves me shaking
Late at night till early in the morning, lying in bed eyes wide open. Didn’t sleep last night, like all the others, instead I just lie crying in the covers
Quick, wipe away all the tears before they come near. must hide this depression & the feelings of fear
For all they know I’m happy & always smiling, but deep inside my soul is dying
I can feel it rotting, it wants to scream, but I won’t let it… not for the time being
I can never tell them how I feel cause the happiness I wear to them is real
For them to hear that I wish I was dead… it would kill them, they’d be filled with dread
So I’ll try my best no to be selfish, I’ll keep my secret hidden & just let them rest
but god I can’t take it much longer… I’ll probably be dead before they even wonder.

The teenage author of this poem, as much as they might object, is not really taking off the mask of their day-to-day ‘false’ persona and letting their real unique self shine through in all its tortured tragedy. They are, in fact, simply putting on another mask: their ‘true’ ‘hidden’ self is as much a construct as the face they show to those around them, and this constructed identity is constituted of all manner of external influences: the hegemonic image of the ‘teenager’, music, cinema, television, and, not least, other poems like this one, which are speckled about the Internet like chewing gum and bird shit on a pavement. This example is just one of a brimming ocean of such poems: all employing the same metaphors, using the same key words, expressing the same sentiments. The hormonal turbulence of adolescence and the alienation that pervades society is not enough to account for the sheer homogeneity on display. They are all fundamentally intertextual, in constant dialogue with each other and with other forms of art, creating between them a holographic projection of decentralised teenagerhood. In writing, the author of this piece is adopting the conventions of depression, moulding herself into a particular archetype. It’s not that the depression felt is somehow unreal, but in its articulation it undergoes a culturally informed metamorphosis. Her poem is not an example of art as a form of self-expression, but of the self as something produced by art.

Alexander Semionov, smashing lazy assumptions about socialist realism like Chuck Norris with a paintbrush. I’m not actually going to talk about this painting but I think it’s pretty good

I point all this out because the teenage angst-poem is held to be a paradigm case of art-as-self-expression, and it is in fact nothing of the sort. Writers and artists do not produce their works in a vacuum. A work of art does not emerge from some cloistered part of the soul in which Pure Emotion quivers, unseen by the rest of the world. Artists are not nexuses of infinite subjectivity. They are conduits through which the fabric of ideas and aesthetics that surrounds them achieves its self-actualisation. Art is composed of references and reactions to tradition or the prevailing conventions of the time (sometimes along with outright theft). This holds true for every facet of art: the teenager’s work above is as much informed by cultural norms and the pre-existing canon as Eliot’s frenzied patchwork-poetry. The function of art has never been unadulterated self-expression but always communication. A work of art is a dialogue between creator and viewer; it is at the point of interaction between the two that the actual creation of art takes place. Good art doesn’t just look nice: it is a palimpsest, a space of continual reinscription. A painting locked up in a safety deposit box is not art, it’s just a bunch of chemicals smeared on a canvas. For something to be art it must be engaged with.

Against this, however, we have the Cult of the Artist, which continues to insist that we must know about Van Gogh’s ear to understand his paintings, which situates the Timeless Artist outside his milieu, which upholds individual self-expression as the ultimate source of all art. This obsession has had its opponents from Keats to Barthes, but still it persists: discredited in academia, it hangs on in galleries and auction houses, it dominates the way art is taught in schools, and forms the underlying narrative for the presentation of art to the public.

We don’t always blindly follow the Cult of the Artist, however. When it comes to artefacts from ‘ethnic’ or aboriginal cultures (usually those we Westerners pushed to the edge of extinction and are now equally intent on preserving in some kind of cultural stasis) there’s no consideration for individual artistry or for self-expression. In the popular examination of such works, an emphasis is placed on social function that is unseen in the criticism of contemporary and Western pieces. Art is seen as being representative not of an individual but of an entire culture, as if every member of the tribe gets together to make bone-carvings or tapestries as a commune. This is the case even in instances when such works are exercises in bragging, monuments to shamanistic prowess like the Mojave Desert petroglyph pictured above.

This distinction encodes the idea that ‘our’ art doesn’t actually fulfil any social function. What happens, though, when artists themselves start to buy into their own cult? What happens when, conscious of the existing traditions, they nonetheless attempt to express their Sovereign Indivisible Self? You get asemic awfulness like abstract expressionism, works that sell for millions but that have no discernible aesthetic or semiotic qualities, shit like this:

Jackson Pollock, Aftermath of a Marathon Masturbation Session, oil on canvas, 1950

Here we find the artist so engrossed with the idea that they must be expressing themselves and their hidden inner feelings through art that they forget to actually express anything, let alone communicate. This work induces no emotional response and has no intellectual content; any meaning it might have contained is intelligible only to its creator. If I’m picking on Jackson Pollock here it’s simply because he was by far the worst of the bunch, allowing his vaunted apolitical self-expression to be used as an ideological weapon by the CIA, who believed his series of overpriced squiggles to embody the personal freedom that can (of course) only be realised through the market economy. In a way, they were right: individualism suffuses the work; it’s self-expression for its own sake, empty and meaningless.

I’m not trying to argue against abstraction itself. There are plenty of artworks even within the expressionist school that are communicative rather than simply expressionistic; but there remains a distressing trend in contemporary art for pieces so wrapped up in their self-expressive qualities that they make any attempt at hermeneutics impossible. As a counter-example, take a work by Kandinsky, one of the pioneers of abstraction:

Wassily Kandinsky, Now That’s How You Fucking Do It, oil on canvas, 1923

In contrast to Pollock, Kandinsky’s abstraction (and even his expressionism) opens up a space for interpretation rather than snuffing it out. We are not commanded to stoke the painter’s ego by trying to imagine how he was feeling as he slapped pigment against parchment. The frozen explosion of lines and colours by themselves communicate a sense of unrestrained exaltation, an emotion not just felt by the artist but induced in the viewer; around its edges we find shapes that could almost be recognisable objects but that stop short of actual representation; in the interplay of organic and geometric forms a strange harmony emerges.

The Futurists of the early 20th Century wanted to burn all the galleries and destroy all the cluttering art of the past (it’s a cruel irony that futurism is now just one of the many aesthetic modes for contemporary art to draw influence from). Perhaps it would be better to leave all the art of the past centuries exactly where it is, but rip the informational labels from gallery walls, blot out the name of the author on every book jacket, to encourage expression, but without the self.

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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