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This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: nietzsche

If I’m so bad, why don’t they take me away?

Vivek Chibber is the most controversial figure on the Left today – or, at least according to Vivek Chibber he is. The latest kerfuffle is, once again, over his attacks on postcolonialism. Chibber’s stated goal is to rescue Marxism from what he sees as an empirically incorrect perspectivism embedded in postcolonial theory – essentially, the idea that ‘our capitalism is different.’ Part of this programme involves, with the tedious weight of inevitability, a defence of Enlightenment rationality. This is a boring dispute, and I’m not really going to go into it. The more interesting aspects of his critique are those that slip and tremble in those strange spaces between the great tectonic monoliths of politics and ontology. Chibber wants to reclaim the universal: the idea that behind all the squirming differences of the world there is a level of understanding in which all things are essentially the same, and can all be described according to a single principle. But the way he goes about this is very odd.

Disputes between universalism and particularism go back to Spinoza and Leibniz, and beyond. The question runs like a zigzagging fissure throughout recent thought, opening up sudden chasms within formerly continuous areas of the intellectual landscape. On the side of the Universal there’s Hegel, Deleuze (in his plane-of-immanence univocity-of-Being mode), and Badiou (at least in terms of the political, with his reference to the figure of the ‘generic’); the partisans of the particular include Heidegger, Adorno, Derrida, and Spivak. There are convincing concepts on both sides here, and even if the politics envisaged are seemingly irreconcilable, this ought to indicate something for those of us who know our dialectic: what’s being presented is ultimately a false choice.

There are some aspects of Chibber’s argument that are worthwhile. The idea that we can have solidarity and even some level of understanding of lived experiences that are not exactly the same as our own really ought to be a truism: however arbitrary language may be, it’s still grounded in the commonality of the Symbolic. When Chibber characterises subaltern studies as a kind of contemporary Orientalism, one in which the colonial other is always an irrational, occulted mystery, his critique does seize on something important, even if it’s slightly unfair. I certainly agree that Marx is not just ‘another white male philosopher’. (Although I’m not sure if anyone of any significance is really disputing this. It’s an argument that’s been made, but from what I can tell it’s mostly made on Twitter rather than in the academy, and usually alongside other claims that are so bafflingly untrue – the idea that Marx was suspiciously silent on the question of slavery, for instance – that they indicate the operation of some unspoken fixation or agenda.) It’s a shame, then, that the central portion of Chibber’s argument is not just wrong and non-Marxist, but fully horrifying.

A dominant – and strangely unacknowledged – influence on Chibber’s line of thought is of course Jürgen Habermas. Habermas has charted an interesting course, from the would-be saviour of Frankfurt School critical theory to his current post as the official rubber duck lookalike of the European Union. Taking cues from a theorist so unabashedly enthusiastic about the European project – one that future historians (if any are allowed to exist) could only ever regard as one of history’s greatest evils – doesn’t generally make for a good critique. Elsewhere in the world the oceans are only poisoned by oil slicks; on Europe’s fortified seasides, the waves roll bloated corpses against the holiday resorts. In some cases, Chibber even doubles down on some of Habermas’s more profoundly stupid innovations. Habermas argues for socialism as the actual realisation of the liberal ethos – the problem with liberalism isn’t its principles, but the contradictions that prevent it from being able to actually put those principles into practice. Chibber puts a new gloss on this, going beyond slightly dodgy immanent critique into what amounts to an outright surrender to existing conditions: what we think of as liberalism isn’t a unified project but the result of extended class struggle. This is not particularly controversial in and of itself, but for Chibber those ‘positive’ elements within liberalism are not heterogeneous to liberalism itself. In other words, the good society isn’t a promise yet to be realised; it’s here, now, and we’re living in it. Exactly how this position can be reconciled with the scum-soaked pit of shit and misery that constitutes life in the twenty-first century is yet to be seen.

The really scary stuff only appears late in Chibber’s lecture, but it’s what really constitutes the core of his project. For Chibber, there are certain ‘basic human needs’ that are not conditioned by class or culture, that have to do with the biological core of our being, and that are exactly the same everywhere in the world. It’s on this level that we can all understand each other, and it’s from this base that we can build a solidarity that cuts across boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. As with Badiou’s invocation of the ‘generic’, this is a political project that insists on the stripping-away of all that is not essential; those elements that are lost in returning to this common core of our species are ultimately ephemeral epiphenomena. Even provisionally accepting that this kind of operation is even possible, it’s founded on a fairly dubious assumption – that what is the same between people is ontologically essential to them, and what differs between them is not. Race and gender might be constructed, but it’s this kind of formulation that can – without ever meaning to, but by slipping down the rungs from ontology to normativity – allow for the idea that being black or a woman is somehow a deviation from the norm.

What are these basic human needs? In his works Chibber gives a few examples: the need for shelter, for security, for dignity, liberty, and personal well-being. These are the things that define what it is to be human, across time, space, and culture. But if this is a universal essence, it’s a strange kind. The need for shelter is here a fundamental part of the species; but of course shelter itself is not. Nobody is born with a roof bolted to their heads. If well-being, rather than the need for well-being, were basic to existence, there would be no need for well-being. All these needs in fact describe a lack – what’s essential to all humanity isn’t in us at all; our basic properties consist of those things we don’t have. In a way, Chibber’s stripping-away of epiphenomena is really incomplete: he’s retained an extraneous need, when what he could have said is that the basic nature of humanity is to be exposed, vulnerable, wretched, persecuted, and sick.

This is a decent (if uncreative) reading of Beckett, but it’s not Marxism.

For Marx there is something like a universal solidarity, as in his famous slogan that ‘the working men have no country.’ But where Chibber makes a major and bizarre misstep is in ontologising this universality. In Marx what unites people is not some mysterious quality locked in to every human being, the navel and core of their existence, but the most ephemeral of all ephemera: capitalism itself. International proletarian solidarity is a unique creature of the capitalist mode of production; it emerges because capitalism (as Chibber correctly points out) is universal, not out of some pre-existing universal substance that gloops beneath the phenomenal appearances of things. This universality need not be homogeneous. The forces of capitalism act in different ways on different people – wage-labourers and artisans, queer and disabled people – because these people are different. This is not to say that there can be no solidarity and no processes of overdetermination, but these are fleeting unities formed out of the false and imposed unity of capitalism.

There is a real universal, but it’s not subject to the tyranny of the Same. Marx does, it’s true, refer in his ‘humanist’ works to something called ‘species-being’, but it’s not a ‘being’ in the usual, ontological sense of the word. Species-being is bound up with the process of production: the human capacity to change and remake the world, a capacity that is itself coded by that which is produced and changed. Species-being stands for the unfettered and continual realisation of human potential, with new potentialities opening with every new realisation. Returning to species-being does not for Marx require the stripping-away of everything but the essential, but the creation of vast and unknown realms of possibility and difference. This is not so much being as becoming; an ontology of continual flux. (Here, as in so many other areas, Marx and Nietzsche are not just compatible but exhibit an almost spooky level of correspondence.) This is where Chibber’s divergence from Marx is most striking: for Marx, communism means freedom from alienation and an opening up of the infinite possibilities that constitute our being. Chibber, meanwhile, presumably wants to see a world in which dignity and well-being are available to all, but because in his cosmology human beings are eternally defined by the fact that we lack these things, for him communism can only be a total estrangement from what we really are.

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In defence of Fred Phelps

God is a “no” to the world.
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

The primal scene takes place on red earth and under red skies. It’s close to sunset; it’s always close to sunset here. Tangled thorny shrubs gasp in the thirsty Levantine scrubland, leaves caked with dust, roots twisting up through the ground. Two men walk through this flat and deathly expanse, one as knotted and bended by age as the small desperate plants that surround him, the other still young, carrying wood and kindling. They walk in silence; both knowing what has to happen. The wind shrieks an unworldly, callous laugh; a chorus of distant vultures takes up its refrain. Far on the horizon cliffs tower like grim fortifications, and beyond them the mountain of Moriah stands wreathed in storm, the clouds looking as hard and jagged as the rocks they obscure. Abraham, father of nations, is afraid. He is despised by the idolaters of the world, he is forced to live alone in the desert of his God, but through all this he took comfort from the promise that through his son Isaac a mighty people would arise. Some promise. As father and son hobble ever closer to the forbidding foothills of Moriah, a voice booms out from beyond the infinite. ABRAHAM, ABRAHAM. A voice in which cities are reduced to rubble calls for its prophet. Here am I, says Abraham. What else can he say before the majesty of the true God? By what right can he argue his case? The voice of the Lord sounds out again. ABRAHAM. DID YOU SEE FAMILY GUY LAST NIGHT? THAT’S SOME FUNNY SHIT MAN. FREAKIN SWEET LOIS HAHA.

Kierkegaard had it easy; in the light of modernity his fear and trembling before God’s infinite qualitative difference is child’s play. He asks us to consider the anguish of an Abraham commanded to sacrifice his son, confronted by a God who suddenly appears as a monster, vicious and cruel, but one whose pronouncements still carry a terrible duty; a teleological suspension of the ethical. No problem. There’s still terror and glory in a cruel God, as Job would soon discover. The real anguish begins when we’re forced to confront a teleological suspension of good taste, the possibility of God as a dull, cretinous boor. Not a Father dressed in celestial robes, but a flabby and balding God in polyester tracksuits and a white t-shirt stained beige by the centuries, dropping His cigarette ends in empty beer cans and subsisting off a diet of 7-11 hotdogs and instant mac’n’cheese. A mediocre, sexually frustrated, perverted, boring God. This isn’t the God that exists, or one that’s held to by any of the world’s major denominations. Still, there are those that really do believe in Him and hold Him to be all-powerful; somewhere in the world He carries the same teleological gravity as the God of Abraham, Mohammed, and Kierkegaard.

This is why the late Fred Phelps was our age’s heir to the greatness of the biblical Abraham. His tiny Westboro Baptist Church (they of the ‘God hates fags’ signs) is doctrinally not too different from the other Primitive Baptist congregations that sprout up across much of the Southern and Western United States like a fungal infestation: thin, grey, mycetic churches, damp to the touch, with unavoidably phallic caps. Unlike the rest of them, however, his church seems to really believe what it preaches. Not just the stuff about homosexuality, which is still commonplace and usually just mere bigotry given a religious gloss, but the whole lunatic doctrine. There’s no point in hating the Westboro Baptist Church; hatred for them is the one point on which the world presents a united front. They want this. If the only thing that distinguished them was the virulence of their God’s hatred for homosexuality, they’d be unexceptional among the ‘Christian’ right – but they also picket the funerals of dead soldiers. If they only picketed military funerals they might have allies among Code Pink and other anti-imperialist movements – but they insist on insulting gays, Jews, and religious minorities. If they abhorred homosexuality and American troops they could conceivably find some common ground with unreconstructed Stalinists – but they won’t budge on their devotion to God. The universal revulsion in which they’re held makes them an easy target for civil rights activists, but at the same time it makes them a useless target. Nobody supports the Westboro Baptists; they have no influence – it’s institutional violence that creates misery for queer people across the world, not a travelling band of placard-waving loonies. At the same time repugnance for Fred Phelps isn’t just a cheap shot, it also blots out his Abrahamic dedication.

The Westboro Baptists famously believe that when a convoy of Humvees in Afghanistan is hit by an IED or a bus full of schoolchildren plunges off a bridge, this is God’s punishment for America’s toleration of homosexuality. This seems to be a fairly singular fixation, given the number of other Old Testament laws that are carelessly and blasphemously disregarded by modern society (Clothes made from mixed fibres (Leviticus 19:19)! Seafood restaurants on every corner (Deuteronomy 14:10)! Men with flat noses in church! (Leviticus 21:18)! Abominations! Blasphemy! Horror!). Still, it’s arguable that their homophobia is ontologically derived from their religious belief, rather than being the fleck of dirt around which the pearl of their theology forms. Phelps was a lawyer, and a good one too (in his early career he took on a number of civil rights cases, and helped overturn the Jim Crow establishment in Kansas); his faith starts from first principles. The Westboro baptists hold that nothing happens on Earth that is not according to God’s will – how could it, when God is all-powerful? Unlike other Christian sects, they don’t believe that homosexuality is a personal decision to defy the laws of God and Nature; it’s a punishment. Their God doesn’t hate queer people because they’re queer; they’re queer because He hates them. Phelps held to the idiot hyper-Calvinist logic of double predestination: an omniscient God must have known from the beginning of time which souls would be saved and which would be damned – and if some souls are damned, it can only be because an omnipotent God decided that they should be damned, because  He hates them. And so to ensure their damnation He makes them disobey His law, and then He punishes them accordingly. The God of the Westboro Baptists is a lawyer-God, taking guilt as an axiom – in other words, an absurd clownish pervert. And they love Him.

In the strict Freudian sense, homosexuality is a fetishistic perversion – but then so is heterosexuality. Every pleasurable activity beyond procreation is some kind of confusion of sexual object or aim. A married couple, holding each other in bed, delighting in the electric sensation of skin against skin and the warmth and security of their love: foetid Sodomic perversion, vice and infamy, deviance, ungodliness, filth, filth. It’s not even as if there’s some original state of purity and propriety; infantile sexuality is dominated by oral and anal eroticism, with the genital stage following on as something of an afterthought. The base-state of humanity is described by Freud as polymorphously perverse; the movement towards a socially acceptable hetero- homo- bi- or pansexuality is just a matter of refining this multiplicity of foundational deviances. If fetishism is a necessary component of a normal healthy sexuality, you have to look elsewhere to find the real perversions. Things like trying to fight the legal system on its own terrain, or eating deep-fried butter on a stick, or playing a blandly brutal millennia-long game with the eternal fates of billions of souls, or reaching out from beyond the veil of the cosmos to proclaim with a divine finality: NO BUTT STUFF.

The fanatical hatred the Westboro Baptist Church has for queer people, their willingness to blame sexual minorities for everything from natural disasters to political unrest to disease epidemics, can only be because of this. Perversion is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. In such a context homosexuality can only be read as a Tower of Babel, an attempt to storm the gates of Heaven. It takes faith and courage to submit yourself to a mighty and glorious God whose ways and whose love are entirely beyond our comprehension; it takes far more to do the same for a God at once sick, sadistic, depraved, and at the same time incredibly insipid, a transcendental pedant. The Westboro Baptist Church wasn’t founded in the holy wastelands of the Middle East, surrounded by mountains and idols and warring cities. It was founded in Topeka, Kansas, among big-box supermarkets and low suburbs and endless flat fields of genetically modified corn. The gods that reveal themselves there generally turn out to be obnoxious pimply brats. Despite all this there’s a heroic dimension to the faith of the children of Fred Phelps, who embrace every evil and injustice in the world because they think God made it. It’s almost Nietzschean. In a religious landscape full of feeble cringing Hinterweltlern, only Fred Phelps really believed; only he could face a dull God and a dull world with fear and trembling and love.

There’s courage in bad doctrine, but it’s still bad doctrine. The Westboro Baptists write that the modern militant homosexual movement poses a clear and present danger to the survival of America, exposing our nation to the wrath of God as in 1898 B.C. at Sodom and Gomorrah. The crime for which the God of Abraham destroyed those cities is often held to be that of sodomy – but the Book of Genesis never really identifies the nature of their sin, only its gravity. Fred Phelps  give the impression of being a man much interested in Jewish theology, but there’s a passage in the Talmud that’s relevant here. In Sanhedrin 109a it is written: [The Sodomites] said: Since there cometh forth bread out of our earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth? Pirkei Avot goes further: One who says, ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours’ is of average character, and some say this is the character of Sodom. When the wrath of God descended upon these cities and a rain of fire blasted their green fields to red wasteland, it wasn’t because of any perverse sexual enjoyment: it was because they refused their ethical duty to be open to the Other.

Philosophy for the weak

But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.
I Corinthians 1:27-28

A sick man, a spiteful man, an unpleasant man; a cruel and strange weirdo, a loser, a stateless foreigner living alone in a single room; in other words, a man who can’t bear to see a horse being whipped. He hugs its neck, he wails, he collapses. Eventually the police are called. What’s the deal with Nietzsche and horses? Twenty years beforehand, when he was young and strong, he’d abandoned his ancient books and joined the Prussian artillery, quickly distinguishing himself as an excellent rider. Then, one day, as he jumped happily into the saddle, something went wrong. He tore two muscles down his left side; he couldn’t walk for months. A fracture opened up. No more games with horses and cannon for young Fritz; an unhappy return to his old childhood world of classical philology, Hölderlin and Schopenhauer. From here on his body would only disintegrate: syphilis turns his bones to mush; indigestion sets his entrails on fire; genius, the worst sickness of all, sends him mad. All because of one horse. It’s hard to see Nietzsche angry at the horse, though; it’s much easier to imagine him bent over in pain as the horse watches with placid incomprehension, looking up into its dark eyes and suddenly conceiving of the doctrine of eternal recurrence. All this could happen again, exactly, to the last detail, and he’d be glad. Nietzsche trying and failing to mount his horse is a philosophical encounter. He loves horses, wild horses, war-horses, cart-horses. We could ask instead: what’s the deal with Nietzsche and his father? Ever since Freud’s Little Hans we’ve had to look at horses suspiciously. A horse isn’t just a horse, it’s a big snorting priapic dad. It’s strange, though: the same furious Nietzsche who tears down gods and nations speaks in only the kindest terms of his timid Lutheran pastor of a father; through him he invents an entire lineage of Polish nobility to be his ancestors. A delusional man. A man whose life isn’t so much a life as a constant writhing agony. His apartment in Turin is full of dust and little else; no wonder his lungs are playing up. It’s dark, and faintly moist, and it smells of decay. Moths flap about in gloomy corners. A single trunk, a single desk, a single bed. The gas-lamp outside sends the odd flicker of orange light, Dämmerung-deathly, across the room. In the middle of all this, Friedrich Nietzsche sits down at his desk and writes works of cold bright Arctic clarity.

In Anti-Nietzsche, Malcolm Bull confronts the modern-day ubiquity of that strange and lonely man going mad in Turin. Nietzscheanism is everywhere; Bull points out quite rightly how strange it is that a philosopher famous for his oppositionalism is so scarcely opposed. Socialists, feminists, and Christians swear their fidelity to the ideas of the anti-egalitarian, misogynist and atheist Nietzsche. However, Bull points out that defeating him isn’t an easy thing to do. Nietzsche writes about the will to power; if you try to critique his ideas, you’re only asserting your own will to power over his. Nietzsche writes about master and slave morality; if you try to overturn his principles, you’re only proposing your own master morality. Nietzsche’s works are full of conflict, war, and dynamite; if you try to fight him, he’s already won. So Bull doesn’t try. As he puts it, Nietzsche wants us to ‘read for victory,’ so he reads for defeat. Bull’s tactic is for us to accept Nietzsche’s philosophy in its entirety but to position ourselves on the ‘wrong’ side of every opposition. Rather than trying to raise ourselves to Übermenschen, we should become less than human; we should abandon the aesthetic; we should arm ourselves with nothing except our weakness, because we are weak. Bull encourages us to ‘read like losers.’ It’s a fascinating idea, but I think there’s something he’s missed. There’s no need for us to read like losers, because Nietzsche writes like a loser.

I usually don’t like this kind of biographical argument. When people claim that Bishop Berkeley’s subjective idealism was just a philosophical manifestation of his life-long constipation and inability to produce matter, I find it hard not to have a vague objection. It’s the same when there’s an attempt to reduce political ideologies to some kind of cod-psychopathology: you’re only a conservative because of your dominating father, I’m only a communist because I never got over my infantile egotism, whatever. These are ideas, they should be confronted as such. With Nietzsche it’s different. His great achievement was to drag philosophy down from its pretentious heights and roll it around in the mud a little. He was the first to see philosophy as a ‘kind of unintended and unwitting memoir’ of its author – as a symptom. There’s no reason to think that Nietzsche ever excluded his own (anti)philosophy from this perspectivism. When he tells us not to believe everything written down in fine style, he’s talking about his own writing. There’s a note of sad irony in all his works: his chapters with titles like ‘why I am so clever’ and ‘why I write such good books’ refer to nothing more than his migraines, his blindness, and his loneliness. Nietzsche carefully cultivated this image of his own lack: even as he was dying of syphilis, he continued to maintain that he’d never slept with a woman. In his Introduction to Antiphilosophy Boris Groys writes that ‘when Nietzsche praises victorious life, preaches amor fati and identifies himself with the forces of nature that are bound to destroy him, he simply seeks to divert himself and others from the fact that he himself is sick, poor, weak and unhappy.’ I don’t think diversion is what’s going on here. He’s coding or communicating his sickness; the incredible strength of his works and the incredible weakness of the man himself are one and the same thing, and neither one can be understood without the other.

Ignoring Nietzsche’s weakness can get you into trouble. I’m not talking about the fascists, whose Nietzsche is more a signifier than a thinker, but people like Georges Bataille. Bataille was a great philosopher but a really shoddy Nietzschean. While he famously confronts Hegel with laughter, he takes Nietzsche far too seriously – because Nietzsche’s laugh is that of the weak, choked with phlegm. Bataille wasn’t weak, even despite his tuberculosis. He lived an affirmative life of the kind that Nietzsche recommended: he wasted several fortunes in bars, casinos, and brothels; he founded secret societies; he was an enthusiastic participant in the partouze, he masturbated over the corpse of his mother while his pregnant wife slept in the next room. He was outwardly courteous and handsome; he didn’t need to hide his face behind a ridiculous moustache. He didn’t quite get it. You can see this in some of his most overtly Nietzschean texts; The Practice of Joy before Death, for instance. Bataille writes that ‘man “is” as soon as he stops behaving like a cripple, glorifying necessary work and letting himself be emasculated by the fear of tomorrow.’ Later he shows us how to do this: ‘I AM joy before death. Joy before death carries me. Joy before death hurls me down. Joy before death annihilates me. I remain in this annihilation and, from there, I picture nature as a play of forces expressed in multiplied and incessant agony.’ It’s powerful stuff, but there’s a glaring lack of irony here, a very un-Nietzschean didacticism. Bataille doesn’t quite get it because Nietzsche is a hypocrite, and he isn’t.

Bataille’s attitude to weakness is one of disavowal: Je sais bien that I am tubercular, mais quand même when I scream I AM THE SUN the verb être is the vehicle of an amorous frenzy. This is particularly evident in his writings on ritual orgy. In Eroticism Bataille rejects the idea of the orgy as an agrarian ritual, or at least the idea that the ritual orgy is entirely reducible to agrarian ritual. Instead it’s seen as an intrusion of the sacred world (that characterised by continuity, deindividuation, violence and ecstasy) into the profane world of work and discontinuity. The ritual orgy is a religious experience in the highest sense; it has no primary purpose other than unleash the transgressive forces of violent and frenzied eroticism. Bataille likens the orgy to war, another explosion of the sacred whose secondary, political purpose is only assigned to it later; it becomes enmeshed in his doctrine of excessive life and overabundant strength. He refers to ‘the men who ordained these orgies,’ but the men who ordained these orgies were women. The Dionysian Mysteries were a grotesquerie, a festival of the weak and the excluded in Greek society: women, slaves, cripples and outlaws. Their power was like Nietzsche’s: the paradoxical power of weakness, a power Bataille has disavowed. When the weakness goes; so does the power. Last year I took part in a masquerade orgy in London’s South Bank; the principle of female ordination was there (men could only attend if accompanied by a female partner, only women could approach men) but it was immensely different from the ancient mysteries. Afterwards many of my friends wanted to know what it had been like; more specifically they wanted to know if the whole thing had been tinged with horror and if it had left me feeling dead inside. They were quite disappointed to find out that it had just been quite fun. The people there were young and wealthy, bankers and investors; before we could go we had to send photos to the organisers so they could make sure we were attractive enough. In Bataille’s terms, it was libertinage rather than dissolution. There was no element of the sickness or the weakness that expresses itself as lightning and dynamite.

It’s notable that the discussion of ritual orgy in Eroticism is immediately followed by a critique of Christianity. The reason the Bacchic orgy no longer exists as a mass phenomenon has to do with Christianity’s reappraisal of the sacred and the profane; Bataille argues that in Christianity the sacred is associated exclusively with purity and the non-erotic love of agápē, while the ‘bad’ elements of the sacred (frenzy, violence) become part of the profane world, which is condemned as evil. In doing so Christianity loses much of the religious spirit, replacing it with sterile piety. Even so, it can’t abolish the impure aspect of the sacred, which finds its medieval expression in the Witches’ Sabbath and the Black Mass, inverted representations of Catholic liturgy. Again, Bataille’s argument loses something from the absence of any sense for weakness; he doesn’t see what really distinguishes Christianity. As he himself notes, the ‘sacred world is nothing but the natural world.’ It’s the order of the profane, with its division into work-time and leisure-time, that’s an artificial world formed through societal rites. However, the formation of the profane world is itself a product of religion; the laws which set up taboos and demand diligence in work are universally held to be a product of divine or cosmic revelation. Religion doesn’t belong to the sacred; it establishes a boundary between the sacred and the profane. The innovation of Christianity is to cast the profane world as the site of evil, to reject the world of work and to uphold the radical continuity of the weak. It’s true that the medieval Church tried to suppress the unruly side of the sacred, and that this impurity nonetheless found a way to express itself; but it wasn’t in the Witches’ Sabbath and its inversion of Christian prayer. Instead, frenzy, violence, and liberation were expressed precisely within the fabric of Christianity, in the form of the peasants’ revolt. These uprisings, generally led by radical preachers and taking inspiration from Biblical communism, erupted with all the thunder and fury of the sick and the weak, flaring up across Europe from the 1300s until they reached their apotheosis in the French Revolution. In Christianity, the sacred is class struggle.

Nietzsche would have called this slave morality, but Nietzsche loved horses. He saw a horse being whipped on the Piazza Carlo Roberto in Turin and rushed over to the animal, cradling its neck, trying to protect it. Then he collapsed. His Zarathustra surrounded himself with eagles and serpents, but Nietzsche loved cart-horses, slow and docile animals cowering under the whip. This doesn’t invalidate his philosophy; it opens it up. Master and slave morality aren’t in absolute opposition; just like Nietzsche’s power and his weakness, they form a dialectic. At a certain extreme point an identity of opposites is reached: the weak are the strong, and the strong are the weak. All it takes is a little will.

The image at the top of this essay is from Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which you should watch.

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.

Art, money, beauty, shit, representation, the communal

א In Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes, Martin Heidegger attempts to account for and justify the phenomenon of modern art. While maintaining his own somewhat conservative tastes, he claims that modern art possesses autonomous value – despite its production requiring no evident skill or virtuosity, despite its challenge to conventional aesthetics pushing it into the realm of outright ugliness, despite its lack of any identifiable object of representation, despite it being entirely counter to the prevailing contemporary sensibility. This is, he concludes, because it contains an element of aletheia: clearing, or unconcealment; it is unpopular in the present because it speaks to the future; it has its origin in its own future. We are now in Heidegger’s future – Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes was first published in 1950 – and his prediction seems to have manifested itself. The challenges of modernism have become the dogmas of postmodernism; what was revolutionary has become institutionalised; what was vital has ossified. Artists parade an unending succession of mundane objects in front of us – is this art? Is this art? How about this? – and with every degree of separation from Duchamp the question steadily loses its power. Art has become solipsistic. And while Heidegger could see an unknowable future prefigured in art’s setting-into-work of Truth, the postmodern bonfire of the metanarratives has obliterated the future, replacing it with a terminal self-reference. Something, somewhere, has been lost.

1.1 There’s a simple answer to Heidegger: he’s ignored the position of art in the commodity market. Contemporary art is given value not because of its intrinsic qualities but precisely because anything that calls itself art is a good store for value. Art is an excellent investment, its use-value hovering in a zone of indistinction between infinity and zero, its exchange-value untouched by the turbulence of the market. Unlike oil or wheat or subprime mortgage derivatives, the price of art is invulnerable to fluctuations in supply and demand. Some of the greatest works of art ever produced lie unseen in safety deposit boxes; meanwhile, subjecting art to the cold logic of the commodity, corporate investors ensure the production of facile, anodyne artworks of ever-increasing value and ever-decreasing worth.

1.2 I find this line of argument entirely unconvincing. Before the age of corporate-funded art, it was financed by usurers and robber barons; before that by monarchs and aristocrats, before that by the Church, before that by the temple-State complex. Shakespeare called his group of actors the King’s Men for his patron, James I. Virgil’s Aeneid was a paean to Augustus. (While in Broch’s The Death of Virgil his dying command to burn the manuscript is the basis for a denunciation of State art, there’s little to suggest that such concerns were particularly prevalent at any time before the 19th Century, let alone the classical period.) Because the work of art tries to touch on something essential and immutable outside of the relations of production, because  its value is distinct from that of the money-economy, it is always forced to parasite itself off the exploiters of those same social relations.

1.2 Art and money are more than just joined at the hip: they’re joined at the anus. Freud famously formulated the equation money = shit, with miserliness being a mature manifestation of infantile anal eroticism; meanwhile, the production of shit is the first expression of creativity, the first instance of the subject creating something external to themselves to be admired. The anus is a Deleuzian machine, channeling and cutting off a single flow: a flow that appears as money on one side of the anus-machine and as art on the other.

1.3 The intimate connection between art and money is demonstrated by their shared origin. Marx notes that the currency-form has its root in ‘the sensuous splendor of precious metals.’ It is from this sensuousness that money develops the fetishistic power to transform ‘imagination to life, imagined being into real being’ – in Heideggerian terms, to effect the self-disclosure of Being. In other words, money performs the exact same function as art. Wherever the currency-form arises, the money-commodity is always something possessing a sensuous beauty: gold and silver, cowrie shells, beads, brass rods, sandalwood. It’s not just their value was seen to inhere because of their beauty: the money-commodity was always that which was used to adorn the body – a practice universal in human cultures and unique to them. Here is where the rupture between money and art can be found: the raw material of money is spectacular and beautiful, while art, by contrast, is built out of the base and the mundane. Early painters used pigments made from mud, blood, and shit. Sculptors used rock, earth, and bone. Poets and playwrights, mere words. Heidegger is correct when he identifies as an essential element of the work of art its thingliness, its grounding in the Earth, its existence as an object known to ‘cargo-carriers or cleaning ladies in the museum.’ The work of art is not the beautiful object; it never has been. Money is that which is used for adornment and enjoyment, the foundational purpose of art is entirely distinct from any sense of the aesthetic. In producing art that contradicted the prevailing sense of the beautiful, the Modernists weren’t defying art’s conventions but reaching back to its roots.  Money with its baseness doesn’t disturb the spirituality of art; rather with its spirituality it disturbs art’s baseness.

2.1 If art isn’t the beautiful, if the beautiful is disruptive to art, what differentiates it? It could be argued that the purpose of art is to be a ‘mirror held up to nature’; that the present condition has its roots in the movement of the Impressionists away from a truthful representation of the thing as it is towards the thing as it is perceived. A piece of art that doesn’t form an image of something isn’t an artwork at all. It’s just pigment of a canvas or a heap of atoms, as useless as it is meaningless.

2.2 I don’t think this is the case either. Modernism’s deliberate abstraction and rejection of the representational isn’t really anything new at all. When medieval artists depicted soldiers standing as tall as the walls they laid siege to, when they placed human figures in a spatial field without regard for pose or perspective, when they depicted Christ being crucified by Roman soldiers in knightly armour, it wasn’t from any lack of knowledge or skill. Much of the fiercely naturalistic art and sculpture of the classical period was still around: medieval art is deliberately stylised, its ultimate point of reference being not the external world but artistic conventions. Medieval art abounds in mise en abyme, representations of the work of art within the work of art itself, generally in a highly stylised form: artists of the period might not have produced works that were directly representative, but they were keenly aware of the question of representation and its problems and opportunities.

2.3 In fact, art itself implies self-reference. Pure representation has always had a magical quality to it: early drawings of animals were believed to summon the game to the hunting-grounds or functioned as objects of worship. In monotheism, the act of representation, as a sort of second-order creation, is a blasphemy. The image always threatens to come alive: it is for this reason that the God of the Old Testament forbids the creation of ‘any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ Only when the image is tempered with self-reference and self-consciousness of its position as a piece of art does this magical power dissipate. Pure abstraction is not therefore the antithesis of art, but art in the fullest sense.

3.1 This primordial magical quality is essential, however, if art is to find its way out of its current situation. In a sense, Plato’s assertion that art is a second-order imitation is correct, but it’s not the natural world that art refers to. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes how the theatre of ancient Greece has its origins in Dionysian rites later softened by the influence of the Apollonian Kunsttrieb. This principle holds true for all forms of art: sculpture and painting originally provided objects of ecstatic religious veneration, music and song were used to induce frenzy. The art of today is a shadow of these practices, but some of its power is retained. Schopenhauer’s belief in the power of art to suspend the rotation of the wheel of Ixion is well-founded, but this requires not individual contemplation but communal transcendence. It is precisely this quality that is missing in contemporary art. To reinvigorate art it is not necessary to reintroduce standards of aesthetic beauty, nor to return to the principle of artistic self-expression (as I discuss here), nor to reconnect it with the natural world as opposed to the artistic milieu. Art needs to return in some way to the communal.

3.2 As for how this is to be done, we’ll have to wait and see.

Zarathustra in Basel

The clear streams sing no more in the mountains, and the lush pastures of the plains shudder as articulated lorries rumble along the Autobahn.

Zarathustra is silent in the communal sitting-room of the Pflegeheim. The chilly winds of eternal recurrence have blown the hair from his head, and now only a dank grey fringe hangs limply down the back of his neck. His crown is scabbed and speckled, the sharp blue of his eyes has faded to beige, his lips quiver arhythmically. Only his nose still juts forward accusingly: a faint shadow of the ferociousness with which his eyes once interrogated those he spoke to lingers on in its haughty bend.

Once he had walked in the hills and the deserts, and had loved every thing that he saw. He had exulted in the poetry of the brooks and the mournful whisperings of the swirling sands. He had drunk deeply the cold water of the mountains, he had strode boldly through the dappled forests. He had walked on tightropes and danced on embers, and everywhere he went he would spread his teaching. Zarathustra scorned all morality and weakness, Zarathustra would never look behind him, Zarathustra would always surge on forward, in Zarathustra’s voice could be heard the screech of the eagle that embraces its freedom and the roar of the bear that does not hide from its own power. Except now there are no more rocky landscapes to traverse, and in front of him there leers a void. Once he might have plunged himself gleefully into that chasm. Now, for the first time, Zarathustra is afraid.

Zarathustra stares out the window. Across the street, rows of identical suburban houses behind neatly trimmed lawns. Clustered round them are globular cars, wheelie-bins, milk-bottles, plastic toys. Behind, the grey shape of the Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical factory, and in the hazy distance, the outline of the Basler Messeturm. There are mountains out there, somewhere in the distance, high peaks and jagged cliffs, glistening with ice, soaring through cloudless skies, bold and terrifying, the precipitous haunts of hawks and wolves. He can’t see them.

There’s a nurse. Perhaps she has always been there.

– Would you like us to bring you your lunch, Herr Köhler?

– Herr Köhler? I am Zarathustra. I am the imp dancing in the heart of the flames, I am the triumphant roar of the gale, I am the thunder of hooves and the surging of the sea. I am life itself. I drink only the pure light of the heavens. I eat only in the joyful company of my companions.

Only he doesn’t speak. The words roar in Zarathustra’s head, but his throat seizes up, and from his lips only a broken mumbling emerges. Maybe it’s because he almost doesn’t believe it any more.

– I’ll just get that for you, shall I?

Zarathustra never used to look over his shoulder at what he had left behind. Even if he came to the same place twice he would always find it different. Zarathustra never used to be remotely concerned with being or with essence, because he knew that everything around him was always becoming, always reaching out to be something greater. Now Zarathustra is trying to remember. Now Zarathustra is trying to remember who he is. He had been a Persian once, a wanderer, a lofty firebrand. And a Prussian, too, a solitary genius racked by frailties. But there are other faces and other images, his old class at Weiterbildungsschule, his commander during Militärdienst, the brown and avocado tiling of his bungalow – there’s no order to them, no sense. They are not Zarathustra’s memories.

– Here you go.

The nurse is holding a tray in front of him. In one little compartment, doughy-looking potatoes and semi-disintegrated beans. In another some shreds of stringy meat wallow in a puddle of gravy. A plastic cup half-filled with water, and three pills in red and purple capsules. It isn’t food: food must nourish the spirit as much as the body, it must leave a man feeling refreshed and vigorous. This is just matter, sustenance to stave off death for another day. It is smallness and mediocrity. He will not eat it. Zarathustra shakes his head.

– Am I going to have to feed you myself?

Balancing the tray in one hand, the nurse scoops up a forkful of meat and potatoes and brings it towards Zarathustra’s face.

– Open wide.

Zarathustra’s arm jerks out, he strikes the bottom of the tray with the last of his anger. Gravy splatters the nurse’s blouse, water drenches her face, potatoes slide down the front of her skirt. She storms out. Zarathustra isn’t proud of what he’s done, there’s no nobility in striking the small-minded, but he’s relieved that some dying glint of the Will still burns within him. He’s not been defeated, not yet.

The nurse returns, thin-lipped, cold-eyed. Kindness and humanity can only go so far. She tries so hard to help the old man, to keep him warm and safe and fed, but he seems incapable of gratitude. He doesn’t want to be helped. She knows that he’d appreciate the effort she puts in for him if he were in his right mind. She is a caring and selfless woman, even if hers is a thankless job. Two hundred milligrams of thioridazine for Zarathustra.

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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