Julia Kristeva, defining abjection, in a 1980 interview with Elaine Hoffmann Baruch.
Ostensibly a collection of fictional short stories, Gordon Lish’s Goings reads more like a memoir-in-fragments. All thirteen stories are told by a first-person narrator named Gordon, who parenthetically appends an exclamatory repetition of his name (“I, Gordon (Gordon!)”) throughout the work, a verbal tic that registers the tension between the author and narrator, memory and truth. All these stories are in some way about memory and truth—and language, always language. Some of the tales are heavier on plot than others, although “heavier” is hardly the right modifier—let’s be honest—the plots here are thin, almost nonexistent: gestures, images, feelings—but that’s not why we read Gordon Lish, is it?
Opener “My Personal Memoir” sets the tone here, its title an honest ironic joke, I suppose. Old Gordon tells the story of young Gordon and his boyhood chums playing paddle-ball. A minor tragedy ensues. That’s pretty much the plot, but with Lish it’s really about the sentences, the memory behind the sentences, or maybe the inability of sentences to communicate the memories, or maybe just the failure of all of it—language, memory, truth—themes that carry through the collection in Lish’s (Lish’s!) often tortuous syntax.
In “Für Whom?”, Lish offers a sketch of his family, his boyhood piano lessons, his teacher, his competitive anxieties, his burgeoning lust:
Siblings, families—what else is there to say? Furthermore (I love that: the chance to flaunt it with echt balance), it was I whose fingers took up his arpeggios while his backside thrummed ever more thrummingly to a kind of low-register attunement to the propinquity of Miss Buggell’s same. Oh, the nearness of her ass (sirs, and madam, it was no rump, now was it?), all yearning angularities not infrequently settling itself within fractions of centimeters afar. I quote, of course. Yes, I, Gordon (Gordon!), aged seven, aged six, aged eight, hankered after that piano teacher as I have never since hankered after the person of a woman since.
In another strong story, “For My Mother, Reg, Dead in America,” Lish returns again to his parents, weaving them into a strange half-rant that moves from rutabagas to spelling to Kierkegaard to Grace Paley to lettuce. Like most of these stories, “For My Mother” is obsessed with its own telling (and the conditions that might authorize its telling). Its narrator tells us:
I don’t know. I don’t look anything up in any fucking dictionary. Who’s writing this? I’m writing this. The dictionary is not in any goddamn charge of this act of expression, or of this, if you please, scription. Even me, even I, even the author of this is barely in charge of it. Or of anything else. And you know why? Would you like to know fucking why? Because he does not fucking want to be—is that answership enough for you. Make sure you have mastered the spelling of your father’s name of of your mother’s name. Never refer to your mother as “Mom.” Never use the word “reference” as a verb. The same goes for “experience,” the word. Never start a sentence with the word “however.”
Lish’s narrator Gordon continues offering editorial advice, which I suppose we may take ironically or otherwise. In any case, the book is crammed with moments like these, little fits of our narrator’s (author’s?) doubt coupled with a commanding viewpoint on how language could, should, mean.
At least one (very funny) story, “Knowledge,” hangs entirely around Lish-as-editor—only this time, our Gordon isn’t cutting into Raymond Carver’s prose or tightening up some Barry Hannah. No, he’s tearing down a poorly-worded sign from a lamp post. Gordon (Gordon!), “for the decency of my community, for its bloody battered decency,” tears it down. The sign? — “WE ARE LOOKING FOR INFORMATION ABOUT THE MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT THAT OCCURED THIS PAST SUNDAY IN THIS AREA. WE HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED.” There’s a story in there too, in that sign, but our narrator’s not interested in any human characters that the sign’s written characters, letters, might try to represent. The brilliance of the story: Lish leaves it to the reader to suss out the gap between the meaning of the sign—the information that it communicates—and the narrator’s critique of how that sign communicates.
“Avant La Lettre” offers another literary space for gaps to evince between reader, narrator, and author. Our narrator Gordon (Gordon!) tells us at the outset: “The title, pay it no mind. It does not apply. It does not appertain,” suggesting that he doesn’t even know what the phrase means, that it just came to him as he “sat down to tell you about a mystery (the vanishing of the man on the corner).” The immediate denial of a link between the meaning of the story’s title and the story’s content isutterly disingenuous, a clue really to the mystery here (more of a non-mystery, an anecdote at best). Lish pokes fun at the denial by repeatedly referencing literary theorists throughout the story: “(tell Barthes, tell Derrida, tell Badiou)” and then “Well name it and (tell Schopenhauer, tell Schelling, tell Spinoza or Freud) it dies.” The punch line to the story is too good to spoil here, but it can’t hurt to share part of the set-up. Lish writes (or Gordon (Gordon!) says):
Where’s in me anymore (in Gordon, in Gordon!) the discipline for the creation of the succession of elaborations, for the concatenation of the falsifications, for the accruing of the exhausting collocations?
I’m sad….Writing’s not the god of me.
Is writing not the god of you, speaker? And what is “Avant La Lettre” but a succession of elaborations, a concatenation of falsifications, an accrual of collocations?
“Avant La Lettre” admittedly requires from its reader a certain comfort with (or at least understanding of) postmodern literary theory; this is a story that casually (and of course not casually) references Alphonso Lingis and Julia Kristeva.
Other material here is less obscure (and more subtle) in its treatment of theory. “In the District, Into the Bargain” uses a chance meeting between widower Gordon and a widowed acquaintance to restage the central paradox of Rene Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images (you know: “This is not a pipe”). There’s also the oblique feminism of “Women Passing: O Mysterium!” and the semiotic play of “Troth.” This is all great stuff, or maybe not. I mean I loved it, lapped it up, but I’m the audience for this. I’m Lish’s (Gordon’s!) reader, the reader he addresses so directly in closer “Afterword.” Only I’m not—because “Afterword” is so clearly written to, spoken to Lish himself.
This literary solipsism, onanism, pick-your-ism is so not for everyone. Lish is a cult writer, and his performance here is appropriate to any aging (aged!) cult leader, one who’s painfully aware of how easy it is to point out a naked charlatan. The structure of Goings is something like I-see-you-seeing-me-seeing-myself-try-to-see-myself-etc. But the book is very funny, often painful, and downright moving at times, like in “Gnat,” where Lish shares a simple memory of trying on a new shirt for his wife, or the terror of “Speakage,” a two-page dialogue between young Gordon and his mother that begins “What is it, die?” The stories here are real—obscure, sure, difficult, yes, but also emotional, rewarding.
Goings In Thirteen Sittings is not the best starting place for anyone interested in Lish’s prose. This new book continues a project that will feel familiar to those who’ve read Self-Imitation of My Self, Epigraph, and My Romance, books that many critics felt were too insular, too inscrutable. New readers might do better to start with Mourner at the Door (although you can’t really lose in picking up Collected Fictions, which collects that book among others). I also highly recommend the Iambik recording of Lish reading selections from Collected Fictions. Hearing his intonation and rhythm totally changed how I read his prose, enriched my understanding of what he was doing and how he was doing it.
But the book accomplishes what it sets out to do, delivering on its two epigraphs. The second, ascribed to “Anon.” (another joke on Lish’s part, I think): “Mother! Father! Please!” The first is from a literary critic, but in its phrasing on the page it looks like a poem. In any case, it’s a fitting summary for Goings:
Goings In Thirteen Sittings is available now from OR Books.
1. So usually after I watch the newest episode of True Detective—this week, that means episode five, “The Secret Fate of All Life”—usually I rewatch the episode and then want to write about it and feel stymied. Last week, I had to (was compelled to) rewatch “Who Goes There” immediately after the first viewing.
This is a long lead up to saying, basically, that I haven’t gotten to rewatching “The Secret Fate of All Life” yet, because this episode compelled me to go back to the beginning, to start from “The Long Bright Dark.”
2. So some quick thoughts on “Secret Fate” (with the caveat that I haven’t rewatched it, along with the caveat that these riffs are written to an audience which has already watched the show):
3. The major theme of “Secret Fate” is time. This episode argues that time is an illusion (just as earlier episodes argued that identity is an illusion)—that time is a trick of perception. Read More
From “A Conversation with Gordon Lish,” an outstanding interview between the writer/editor and Rob Trucks. The interview is really amazing—Lish talks at length about his writing process, his sense of competition, his friendships with Don DeLillo and Cynthia Ozick, his interest in Julia Kristeva, his feelings for Harold Brodkey and Barry Hannah—and Blood Meridian. Lots and lots of Blood Meridian.
I chose this little nugget because I think it reads almost like a perfect little Lish story—or at least, it seems to perfectly express Lish’s voice, which if you haven’t heard it, my god, get thee to his own reading of his Collected Fictions. Again, the whole interview is well worth your time if you have any interest in Lish. It includes this insight into the man’s fiction:
Playing online bingo games: Horrific?
Book shelves series #42, forty-second Sunday of 2012
Couldn’t really get a good pic of the whole shelf, so in portions, starting with a spread of postmodernist favorites from years past. Julia Kristeva was a particular favorite of mine in grad school, but her Portable stands up well outside of, jeez, I dunno, theory and deconstruction and all that jazz; there are plenty of memoirish essays, including a wonderful piece on Paris ’68 and Tel Quel &c. Sam Kimball‘s book The Infanticidal Logic of Evolution and Culture still maintains an important place in the way I approach analyzing any kind of storytelling. Love the cover of this first American edition of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, which I bought for a dollar years ago at a Friends of the Library sale:
I may or may not have obtained the The Viking Portable Nietzsche through nefarious means in my sixteenth year. In any case, it’s not really the best intro (I’m partial to The Gay Science), but it’s not bad. The Plato I’ve had forever. I never finished Bloom’s The Western Canon, although I’ve returned to it many times in the past five or six years, as I’ve opened up more to his ideas. I wrote about many of the books on this shelf, including a few by Simon Critchley.
The book I’d most recommend on this section of the shelf—indeed, the entire shelf—is Freud’s The Future of an Illusion:
The end of the shelf moves into more pop territory, including two good ones by AV Club head writer Nathan Rabin. You might also note Reality Hunger, a book that I am increasingly afraid to go back to, fearing that I probably agree more with Shields’s thesis, even if I didn’t particularly like his synthesis.
Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States is an overlooked gem that should have gotten more attention than Shields’s “manifesto.” He shares a bit of Georges Perec (whose writing helped spark this project of mine):
From my review:
Like most people who love to read, both academically and for pleasure, I like a good argument, and Wood’s aesthetic criticism is a marvelous platform for my ire, especially in a world that increasingly seems to not care about reading fiction. Wood is a gifted writer, even if his masterful skill at sublimating his personal opinion into a front of absolute authority is maddening. There’s actually probably more in his book that I agree with than not, but it’s those major sticking points on literary approaches that stick in my craw. It’s also those major sticking points that make the book an interesting read. I’d like to think that I’m not interested in merely having my opinions re-confirmed.
1. In Powers of Horror philosopher Julia Kristeva describes the idea with which she’s most closely identified, the abject, the intense horror our subjective psychology—and our bodies—experience when faced with corporeal reality: the edges of our body: filth, vomit, shit, blood, death: the me that is not me. Breakdown of subject and object: abject.
2. Julia Kristeva shows up as a character, a phantom from a photograph in Roberto Bolaño’s story “Labyrinth,” collected in The Secret of Evil, new from New Directions.
3. (Can there be a more Bolañoesque title than “Labyrinth”?)
4. This is ostensibly a review of that Bolaño collection, but I’ll be riffing on some other things.
5. Bolaño created his own genre. His oeuvre, piecemeal and posthumous at times, is nevertheless a complete fiction or discourse of its own. Think of the Bolañoverse like Middle Earth, like Yoknapatawpha County, like dark Narnia with no Aslan to redeem it.
6. The Bolañoverse is abject. Consider the pile of bodies that heap like rubbish in “The Part About the Crimes,” the cruel center of 2666—has ever a book repeated the phrase “vaginally and anally raped” so many times?
7. Kristeva, in Powers of Horror:
The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanninness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.
It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a savior . . . Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility.
8. But I promised to remark upon The Secret of Evil; I used the term “review” even.
A few things:
It’s a beautiful book (I mean the physical book itself; the cover, the design). The name is perfect.
Much of what’s collected here is perhaps unfinished—-scraps, riffs, bits of tales, sketches.
Much of what’s here is finished, or, more to the point, much of what’s here—scratch that, all of what’s collected in The Secret of Evil—fits into the Bolañoverse, fleshes it out, or stretches it, or condenses it maybe (let me have my paradoxes, will you?).
9. Bolaño’s friend (and literary executor) Ignacio Echevarría puts it aptly in his introduction to The Secret of Evil:
Bolaño’s work as a whole remains suspended over the abysses that it dares to sound. All his narratives, not just The Secret of Evil, seem to be governed by a poetics of inconclusiveness. The eruption of horror seems to determine the interruption of the storytelling; or perhaps it is the other way around: the interruption of the telling suggests the imminence of horror.
10. I have been slowly, slowly rereading my way through 2666, edging my way into it in the latest of hours. I’m nearing the end, or the end of “The Part About Archimboldi,” and what I find most remarkable upon rereading is how precise, how tight it seems this time, how each book seems to answer to the other. (Take, for instance the female politician who, at the end of “The Part About the Crimes,” seems to peer through a strange mirror into the future (past?) to see the English critic Norton, who, in “The Part About the Critics,” in turn gazes into (the same?) mirror at a woman—not herself but surely the politician. Or take another instance: The visitations to madhouses made by peripheral characters to even more peripheral characters: artists, suspects, lovers, poets, teachers. Or take all the abysses. Or the labyrinths. Or mirrors. Or dreams. Or murders. Maybe I’m tipping into a simple recitation of motifs and themes now).
11. But no, what I want to remark on is how The Secret of Evil is part and parcel of the Bolañoverse, how it answers backward and forward and throughout Bolaño’s “poetics of inconclusiveness,” his “eruption[s] of horror.” Fragments like “The Secret of Evil” and “Crimes,” with their journalist heroes and noir lighting seem to dance around the same central mysteries that pulse through 2666. The strange literary criticism of “Vagaries of the Literature of Doom” and “Scholars of Sodom” answers not only to “The Part About the Critics,” but to the entire course of Bolaño’s work as well. And continuing—
12. Of course Arturo Belano appears in The Secret of Evil, as does his erstwhile partner Ulisses Lima. How could they not? They roam the Bolañoverse beyond their own narrative proper, The Savage Detectives (that is what detectives do), even popping up (unnamed) in 2666 where they father (both of them figuratively and one of them literally) that other savage detective, Lalo Cura.
13. And then (back to The Secret of Evil) there’s “The Colonel’s Son,” a sketch of a zombie film, a B-movie, shades of Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (recall that Rodriguez is given a vague credit for a surreal porno horror film that plays in “The Part About Fate” in 2666). “The Colonel’s Son” shows Bolaño’s poetics of inconclusiveness at their sharpest. Our narrator describes a terrible film he sees on late night TV, only he misses the beginning, so we are without context, without rationale or reason for the awful onslaught that happens. There’s a labyrinth, 0f course, a dark twisting complex of passageways that hide secrets under a military facility, and then a twin labyrinth, a sewer system. There’s love, familial and romantic. There are Kristevan bodies, zombies, corpses infected with life (or is it the other way around). There’s horrific indeterminancy.
14. I remarked on Bolaño’s powers of horror back in the spring, making a bizarre argument that 2666 was somehow a werewolf story. 2666 and the Bolañoverse in general is crawling with all kinds of monsters though.
15. I’ve used the word Lynchian repeatedly when writing about Bolaño, in reference to the American film director David Lynch—whose name is in fact directly evoked in 2666, in “The Part About Fate.” In his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace provides a succinct description of David Lynch’s powers of horror, a description that I believe applies to Bolaño as well:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them. This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed.
16. The Bolañoverse is darkly haunted, comically haunted, savagely haunted, haunted by history and the present as well. The crimes of the Nazis, maddeningly, expertly elided in “The Part About Archimbolid” extend in “The Part About the Crimes” to Santa Teresa, fictional stand-in to real-life murder capital Juarez—and Nazism percolates out into neo-fascism, into the horrific confessions in By Night in Chile or the art-terror of Distant Star, or to the absurdity of Nazi Literature of the Americas. Throughout it all though, Bolaño crafts his powers of horror not so much through evil individuals (although they are easy to find there) but through, to use Wallace’s term, “evil as environment.”
17. How often do the characters in 2666 look out on the desert in a horror approaching madness?
18. And then madness, too, madness as a type of possession, but also madness as a kind of inescapable outcome, or madness as even a type of salvation, the sense that we might end up mad or dead (murder or suicide).
19. Let me try to connect these last few points in a citation from late in “The Part About the Crimes,” a few lines from our female politician trying to find justice for her friend Kelly who soon learns about the extensive victimization of women in Santa Teresa:
As I learned about other cases, however, as I heard other voices, my rage began to assume what you might call mass stature, my rage became collective or the expression of something collective, my rage, when it allowed itself to show, saw itself as the instrument of vengeance of thousands of victims. Honestly, I think I was losing my mind. Those voices I heard (voices, never faces or shapes) came from the desert. In the desert, I roamed with a knife in my hand. My face was reflected in the blade. I had white hair and sunken cheeks covered with tiny scars. Each scar was a little story that I tried and failed to recall. I ended up taking pills for my nerves.
We see here the descent into madness, the rage of it all, the violence of the landscape, the great ventriloquist act of insanity.
20. Bolaño, master ventriloquist, authors the heteroglossic Bolañoverse with an abyssal void at its invisible center. His characters wish to speak some kind of truth or name or answer to this void, but it exists outside of the realm of language, of possibility, accessible instead only in dreams or nightmares or mirrors or strange transmissions, psychic or otherwise. It’s terrifying, of course.
21. But it’s a mistake to cast Bolaño as some kind of malevolent puppet master, confounding his ventriloquized characters and driving them mad (not to mention his poor readers!). Perhaps it’s instructive to dip into Kristeva again, who gives us the deject to go with her abject. From Powers of Horror:
The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays, instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing. Situationist in a sense, and not without laughter—since laughing is a way of placing or displacing abjection.
. . . wishing to know his abjections is not at all unaware of them. Often, moreover, he includes himself among them, casting within himself the scalpel that carries out his separations. . . the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic. A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of a nonobject, the abject–constantly questions his solidity and impel him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray.
22. Bolaño the exile. Bolaño the stray.
23. This riff has swollen now, ballooned up, mutated; I can no longer wrangle the rest of my outline into cohesion at this point. Save it for later.
24. I’ll try to end more sensibly, or at least more practically. The Secret of Evil is not some grand intertextual key that unlocks the secret of the Bolañoverse; the “secret” in the title is not a revelation but a synonym for “mystery”. Fans will find some sharp moments here, but it’s not a good starting place for those unfamiliar with his writing (try Last Evenings on Earth or Distant Star). For completists only—but completists will find dark joy here.
Book shelves series #23, twenty-third Sunday of 2012
Okay. So, a bit later than usual getting this in. It’s the daughter’s birthday and I’m recovering from a Saturday party and I’ve been out in the garden other day and some other excuses.
Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor—and then some books that seem misshelved. Calvino used to hang out with Umberto Eco but that shelf got too crowded. The John Barth should be with the other John Barth books, but they’re all mass market paperbacks in shabby condition.
I like the cover of the Breece D’J Pancake collection:
Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales is this secret awesome book that almost no one has read. It was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog and the review is so woefully short that I’ll just cut and paste it below:
In a sublime synthesis of traditional folklore and imagistic surrealism, Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales questions the normative spaces occupied by bodies. Deriving from animist tradition, her characters exist in an impossible multiplicity of spaces, being at once animals and plants, humans and gods. Cabrera’s characters endure trials of biological identity and social co-existence, and through these problems they internalize authority, evince taboos, and create a social code. Cabrera’s trickster characters provoke, challenge, or otherwise disrupt the symbolic order of this code. In “Bregantino Bregantín,” a story that recalls Freud’s primal horde theory, as well as the work of more contemporary theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, narcissist Bull kills all the males of his kingdom and takes all the women for himself. The sadistic titular turtle of “Papa Turtle and Papa Tiger” uses the power of his dead friend’s antlers to shame, torment, and torture the other animals of his community. And in the magical realism of “Los Compadres,” Capinche seeks to put the horns on his best friend Evaristo by sleeping with his wife–a transgression that ends in necrophilia. This union of sex and death, creation and destruction is the norm in Cabrera’s green and fecund world; the trickster’s displacements of order invariably result in reanimation, transformation, and regeneration—the drawing, stepping-over, and re-drawing of boundaries.
The New Yorker has published an excerpt from The Secret of Evil, the latest posthumous offering from Roberto Bolaño (new this spring from New Directions). The excerpt begins by extrapolating on a photo of some of the Tel Quel folks, (including a striking Julia Kristeva):
They’re seated. They’re looking at the camera. They are captioned, from left to right: J. Henric, J.-J. Goux, Ph. Sollers, J. Kristeva, M.-Th. Réveillé, P. Guyotat, C. Devade, and M. Devade.
There’s no photo credit.
They’re sitting around a table. It’s an ordinary table, made of wood, perhaps, or plastic, it could even be a marble table on metal legs, but nothing could be less germane to my purpose than to give an exhaustive description of it. The table is a table that is large enough to seat the above-mentioned individuals and it’s in a café. Or appears to be. Let’s suppose, for the moment, that it’s in a café.
The eight people who appear in the photo, who are posing for the photo, are fanned out around one side of the table in a crescent or a kind of opened-out horseshoe, so that each of them can be seen clearly and completely. In other words, no one is facing away from the camera. In front of them, or rather between them and the photographer (and this is slightly strange), there are three plants—a rhododendron, a ficus, and an everlasting—rising from a planter, which may serve, but this is speculation, as a barrier between two distinct sections of the café.
Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation explores the ways that having a body (among other bodies, among a social body) might leave us humiliated or otherwise abject. To perform this exploration, Koestenbaum surveys a discursive range of subjects, including the humiliation of public figures, the sordid “private” lives of celebrities, the work of philosophers and cultural theorists, and the art, music, films, and writing of various artists and performers. The book’s central subject though is Koestenbaum himself, who shares his own humiliations in a way that surpasses ironic self-deprecation. The results are surprisingly moving, intelligent, and very funny. I’ll let Koestenbaum explain his project—
Not merely because I am tired, but because this subject, humiliation, is monstrous, and because it erodes the voice that tries to lay siege to its complexities, I will resign myself, in the fugues that follow, to set forth an open-ended series of paradoxes and juxtapositions. (I call these excursions “fugues” not only because I want the rhetorical license offered by invoking counterpoint but because a “fugue state” is a mentally unbalanced condition of dissociated wandering away from one’s own identity.) Some of my fugal juxtapositions are literal and logical, while others are figurative, meant merely to suggest the presence of undercurrents, sympathies, resonances shared between essentially unlike experiences. If there is any reward to be found in this exercise of juxtaposing contraries to detect the occasional gleam of likeness, that dividend lies in the apprehension of a singular prey: the detection of a whimpering beast inside each of us, a beast whose cries are micropitches, too faint for regular notation.
Koestenbaum composes these fugues, these thematized chapters of his book, in small blocks of text, numbered entries that range from single sentences to several pages. These are aphorisms, anecdotes, japes, jokes, riffs, prose poems, howls. The style recalls Nietzsche’s aphoristic work or Barthes’s short essays in Mythologies, although these comparisons seem inappropriately pretentious. In any case, Koestenbaum sets these short pieces against each other to achieve the fugue state he describes above, a willful wandering from topic to topic—all within the kingdom of humiliation.
So what is humiliation? Or, rather, how does Koestenbaum define humiliation? While the entire book addresses the subject, our author gives us a fairly succinct definition upfront—
Humiliation involves a triangle: (1) the victim, (2) the abuser, and (3) the witness. The humiliated person may also behold her own degradation, or may imagine someone else, in the future, watching it or hearing about it. The scene’s horror—its energy, its electricity—involves the presence of three. An infernal waltz.
Koestenbaum takes turns playing all three roles, both through personal, historical, and cultural memory, as well as through a profound imaginative capacity. It is worth remarking upon, or at least listing, some of his examples here: Joan of Arc, King Lear, Liza Minelli, Bill Clinton, Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet, Jean-Michael Basquiat, Larry Craig, American Idol, The Swan, Anita Bryant, Harriet Jacobs, Richard M. Nixon, various creeps trolling Craigslist for weird sex, the Marquis de Sade, Abu Ghraib, lynching postcards, Michael Jackson—and always Koestenbaum himself (as well as his family, his friends, his colleagues, his students . . . ). Koestenbaum shuffles through his subjects, looking at the various ways that they might fall into his triangle of humiliation, and even when he tries on the hat of the abuser, he modulates this position by keeping his subject’s agency within his critical purview. Indeed, one of the great warnings that Koestenbaum has to offer concerns what he labels “the Jim Crow gaze” — the propensity and capacity that each person holds within himself at all times to look at another human without recognition that that person is a human being, an agent of his or her own desires, emotions, and intellect. Koestenbaum readily admits his own failings, times he has turned the Jim Crow gaze on others, a look that goes past “othering” to actually desubjectify the gaze’s object. Koestenbaum’s project pays great dividends here; by moving discursively from a range of subjects (including himself), he reveals the limitations of first-person consciousness when coming into contact with the social, the cultural, the political, the historical. Put another way, Humiliation is one of the few works of cultural studies I’ve ever read to actively show why cultural studies matters. Here’s Koestenbaum again—
The humiliation of a derided performer on American Idol is immeasurably different from the humiliation of a Palestinian under Israeli occupation. One plight is chosen, the other is not. But isn’t there present, in both situations, an underlying coldheartedness, a rock-bottom refusal to believe the worthiness of the person whose reputation (or house, or land, or ego, or self-esteem) is stolen, trashed, occupied, razed? Isn’t there present, in both situations, an underlying will to deracinate and desubjectify this other person? And, most insidiously—isn’t there an insistence on considering this process of desubjectification (with my laughter I take away your humanity) an entertaining process, even a cathartic exercise, therapeutic and energizing, like calisthenics?
This willingness to connect American Idol to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dramatically highlights the underlying psychological conditions lurking under the phenomenological apparatuses we see (or choose not to see) on a daily basis. And just as ridicule or schadenfreude may be posited as cathartic for the victimizer, Koestenbaum also finds that “the aftermath of humiliation can be paradoxically relaxing. Tranquilizing to have undergone humiliation and then emerge on the other side.” Perhaps it is toward some sense of release or tranquility then that Koestenbaum shares so much of his own humiliation with us—snubbings, embarrassments, accusations, disavowals, and, of course, his penis (he even apologizes for the “phallic” nature of the book).
Koestenbaum is willing to consider other penises too. Humiliation is very much a study of bodies in general: what it means to have a body, what it means for others to look at your body, how what your body looks like (its shape, its color, its gender, its parts, its excess, its lack) matters to others. Working from Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject (see: Powers of Horror), Koestenbaum writes—
Humiliation involves physical process: fluids , solids, organs, cavities, orifices, outpouring, ingestions, excrescences, spillages. Humiliation demands a soiling. Even if the ordeal is merely mental, the body itself gets dragged into the mess.
Our most abject moments then are when we realize that our body is not the impermeable fortress of self that we might imagine, but rather a dripping mess with ill-defined borders. We are constantly leaking. Private shame always lurks, is always susceptible to public scrutiny. Koestenbaum again—
An object that should be private and unseen is suddenly visible . . . My unseen experience has been forcibly ejected—thrust outside. The judge hears my secrets. My inner rottenness lies exposed. My skin has been turned inside out. This fold (the self become a seam) is the structure of revulsion.
Yet going through these trials is part of forming an individual, subjective identity. “Humiliation, an educating experience, breeds identity,” writes Koestenbaum. Of course, this idea goes back to our oldest stories, yet it often remains unremarked (curiously, Koestenbaum does not write about Adam and Eve in Eden, that primal scene of triangular humiliation). And while Koestenbaum posits the educational (and even possibly therapeutic) dimensions of humiliation, he’s very clear about the deep pain repetitive, institutionalized humiliation can cause—
I presume that as moral individuals we should work toward minimizing humiliation, toward not inflicting it. We should practice an ethics of abstention. Vow: I abstain from deliberately humiliating others. When I find myself involved in this abhorrent practice, I will immediately desist and try to reverse the process and remedy the crime. And yet is a world without humiliation possible.? It’s disenchanting to write about a horrible situation. About this subject, I can’t rhapsodize.
I’m happy to rhapsodize about Humiliation more, but I fear that this review teeters on becoming overlong any word now. I’ve yet to remark on Humiliation’s humor, which is abundant, weird, occasionally dark, but always warm and deeply human. In the interest of time, perhaps you’ll trust the director John Waters, who provides the following blurb for the book: “This literary ‘topping from the bottom’ is the funniest, smartest, most heartbreaking yet powerful book I’ve read in a long time.” I agree completely with Waters, and looking over my review, I fear that I may have portrayed a very accessible, humorous, and loving book in terms that are too academic. Humiliation may be a work of philosophical inquiry, but it also functions as a sort of cultural memoir, and if it’s a narrative of pain and abjection, it also repeatedly offers solutions to this pain when it can, and consolation and sympathy when it cannot. Very highly recommended.
Humiliation, part of the BIG IDEAS // small books series, is new this month from Picador.
I have the writer’s block somethin’ terrible.
Everything was going so well, too—I seemed able to blather and drivel at will for a few weeks, dribbling out my noisome little posts on books or films or TV shows or what have you.
But now, nothing, which is terrible, because I have been reading up a storm—putting away half a Hemingway in a day (The Garden of Eden), flying through Donald Harrington’s epic comic masterpiece Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks (still not finished), trudging through Breece D’J Pancake’s stories when I think I can take the sadness, and polishing off Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation in three short sessions.
I kind of blame Koestenbaum’s book for the writer’s block. It’s always hard to write about a book that you love, that you think others should read too, but even harder when the book is about subjects and figures that most people would rather not think about, like abjection or vomit or gloryholes or the terrible pain of Liza Minelli or Antonin Artaud’s electroshock therapy or Jean Genet’s prison sex or lynching photographs or Michael Jackson’s penis. Plus, Koestenbaum repeatedly points out that the act of writing itself, particularly writing for publication, writing for others to read is an abject, humiliating process. Here’s Koestenbaum—
Writing is a process of turning myself inside out: a regurgitation. I extrude my vulnerable inner lining. I purge. And then I examine the contents—my expulsed interior—and begin the bloody interrogation. I ask whether it is filthy or clean, valuable or deplorable.
Koestenbaum goes beyond metaphorical vomiting to consider the literal act of regurgitation in his book. There’s a lot of vomit in Humiliation—other bodily expulsions too, but Koestenbaum singles vomiting as a primary site of abjection (this seems a little less intense or mordant than theorist Julia Kristeva—whose work Koestenbaum is surely working from—who finds the corpse the ultimate abject object).
Maybe I’ll try to work through my writer’s block by telling a vomit story. The story is made more germane (to what, though?), perhaps, in light of the fact that I had just read some of Koestenbaum’s vomit theory (or vomit prose, if you prefer) the night previous.
Here is the setting: it is a pediatrician’s waiting room. I am waiting with my son, who is 13 months old, who is to receive shots on this visit to protect him from disease. The waiting room is packed and the progress is unusually slow. The woman across from me makes idle chit chat with me and with her own son who is maybe 13 or 14 years old; he’s in marching band; he needs new shoes for marching band; jazz band will be discontinued due to budget cuts, but the teacher (a man who shares my last name, I hear by eavesdropping although how can it be eavesdropping when their conversation is so public and the room so small) will teach jazz band after school. These details are unimportant to the vomiting story, although they perhaps signal the teenager’s mother’s caring, involved nature in her son’s life.
Here is the climax of the story: to my right, another man is at the doctor’s with his son, waiting; the son is perhaps 3 or 4 years old. He doesn’t look well—he looks queasy. In fact, when I look at him (not directly of course, but glancingly, the way that people might in a waiting room or other such place where direct eye contact is unspokenly shunned), when I look at him, I internally remark his queasiness, his ill gills, his distraught angle; I also internally remark his father’s concern, the way his father slowly strokes the son’s back in impotent consolation. And at the same moment I remark on these details, it occurs to me that this queasy looking boy is in the wrong section, that there is a clearly marked, smaller room (not so much a room but an alcove or adjoined large cubby—no door separates the two) for “sick” patients, for patients who are not attending a regular “well” visit (like my own son). My reaction though was not fear or disgust or anger, but more mild annoyance that the father was either flouting a convention of the office (one that I didn’t really care about, knowing that, hey, really, is that smaller room really going to protect my health or my child’s? Because, no it’s not), or that the father simply failed to read a clear sign (I feel a similar annoyance when people at the grocery store where I shop treat the clearly-marked entrance as an exit and vice-versa).
Anyway, I promised a climax, and failed to deliver. How humiliating. So here is the climax: the man’s son up and vomited all over the floor, all over the man’s leg. It was not the tidy vomit that we might sometimes manage—the short, projectile aimed mass that usually conforms to a strict element, mostly solid or mostly liquid. No, this was a messy, mucusy, ill affair, the kind of vomit that hangs from the vomiter’s mouth and sticks to the floor (for me, the most abject, threatening detail). It was foul. And yet I felt no abject horror or humiliation for the man or his child—in short, none of the vomit-horror that Koestenbaum describes in his book (a description I know I have not described for you, dear reader). Instead, I felt immediate empathy and compassion for the man. The mother of the teenager responded even more demonstrably. She immediately located a garbage bin for the boy to continue vomiting in, alerted the staff, went to the bathroom for paper towels, and helped the man while speaking consolingly to the son. She did what I wished that I had did. She behaved like a good human.
The point of this vomit story is to try to address what Koestenbaum does not address in his fantastic book. This is not meant to be a slight or an attack or even a criticism. A book should never be attacked for what it doesn’t aim to do. But what Koestenbaum, in his wonderful analyses of vomit, of expulsion, of all the ways our bodies, the material facts of our bodies humiliate us, make us abject, what Koestenbaum doesn’t consider is that the loving parent’s relation to a helpless child’s body’s expulsions bears the possibility (the strong possibility) of not being abject, but instead a site of abjection’s flipside: grace, love, empathy and all that jazz. In short, no one in the waiting room where the child vomited shrank in disgust or showed any visible sign of shared humiliation—quite the opposite. The child’s demonstrable illness became a moment not of horror but of empathy, of understanding the child’s illness and the father’s worry and care and love for his ill child, a love that transcends humiliation’s gaze.
So there’s my vomit story, or one of my vomit stories. But I still don’t know how to review the book right now.
Started Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation (forthcoming from Picador) last night, and it’s excellent—one of the best cultural commentaries I’ve read in years. Abjection, King Lear, Julia Kristeva, Michael Jackson, Liza Minelli, A Star Is Born, fear of writing—great stuff. Full review soon.
I came across this clip of Slavoj Žižek discussing the different types of toilets that one finds across Europe the other day, and his riff immediately reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s novella The Suffering Channel (or “The Suffering Channel,” if you prefer to think of it as a long short story). Here’s a version of the riff in English, which seems to approach a stand-up comedy routine at times—
“You go to the toilet and you sit on ideology,” says Žižek, arguing that “Disgust . . . is not necessarily, immediately characterized by its object” — disgust is when you confront something from your inside on your outside (Žižek is likely working in part from Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject here). His inventory and analysis of the differences between French, English, and German toilets immediately recalled this passage from The Suffering Channel—
She had also at some point spent a trimester at Cambridge, and still spoke with a slight British accent, and asked generally now whether anyone else who traveled abroad much had noticed that in German toilets the hole into which the poop is supposed to disappear when you flush is positioned way in front, so that the poop just sort of lies there in full view and there’s almost no way you can avoid looking at it when you get up and turn around to flush. Which she observed was so almost stereotypically German, almost as if you were supposed to study and analyze your poop and make sure it passed muster before you flushed it down
Of course, pretty much every page of The Suffering Channel concerns the scatological: it is literally about a man who shits out art. Wallace seems to be exploring the ways in which we are unable to reconcile what is inside us — that is, what makes us us — with its final form. For Kristeva, the ultimate abject is the corpse. Žižek, less mordant perhaps, seems to be signalling (in the short clip anyway) the relatively straightforward idea that ideology is always operating, always a force conditioning our identity.
Near the end of the clip (around 5:25 or so), Žižek brings up the example of saliva, pointing out that we are constantly swallowing it, producing it and absorbing it back into ourselves, yet to fill a glass with it and then try to drink it would be revolting, horrific. Compare this with another passage from The Suffering Channel—
‘Your own saliva,’ said Laurel Manderley. ‘You’re swallowing it all the time. Is it disgusting to you? No. But now imagine gradually filling up a juice glass or something with your own saliva, and then drinking it all down.’
‘That really is disgusting,’ the editorial intern admitted.
‘But why? When it’s in your mouth it’s not gross, but the minute it’s outside of your mouth and you consider putting it back in, it becomes gross.’
‘Are you suggesting it’s somehow the same thing with poo?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think with poo, it’s more like as long as it’s inside us we don’t think about it. In a way, poo only becomes poo when it’s excreted. Until then, it’s more like a part of you, like your inner organs.’
‘It’s maybe the same way we don’t think about our organs, our livers and intestines. They’re inside all of us —‘
‘They are us. Who can live without intestines?’
‘But we still don’t want to see them. If we see them, they’re automatically disgusting.’
Wallce lards his novella with example after example of this kind, of the ways in which abject encounters with the borders of self — shit, saliva, menstrual blood, farts — confer identity through a kind of ritual shame. I doubt that Wallace is following, overtly anyway, any post-Lacanian figures in The Suffering Channel, and the concordance of examples used by Wallace and Žižek is probably ultimately not that remarkable. What I do find worth remarking upon, I suppose, are the ways in which Wallace and Žižek were/are so adept at discussing those areas of humanity we’re often happy to overlook.
While doing some background research for an upcoming Graduate Symposium I’ll be participating in later this month (more on that in the future), I somehow stumbled upon this post from Noam Chomsky in which the famous linguist/activist attacks post-modernism and its heroes. In this email/posting Chomsky criticizes what he views as “a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call “theory” and “philosophy,”” as little beyond “pseudo-scientific posturing.” Immediately, my thoughts jumped to the discussion of the Sokal Hoax I posted a few weeks back. Chomsky continues his affront to post-structuralism, arguing, much like Sokal, that the major figures of this movement–Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.–obfuscate their arguments with an incoherent vocabulary rife with misused and misapplied scientific terminology. Chomsky on Derrida:
“So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain [...]“
But Chomsky’s not done yet:
“Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones [...] I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.”
Illiterate gibberish? Charlatan? Cults ? (This is a really common charge leveled at psychoanalysis in particular, and when one considers that both the work of Freud and Lacan was carried on by their respective daughters, there may be some validity to the claim. Still…)
First, as a linguist, Chomsky is searching for an underlying, “universal grammar” or deep structure, a core pattern that underpins/organizes/generates all human languages. In this sense, Chomsky is searching for an ideal, a foundation. This method is in direct opposition to deconstruction, which as I understand it, seeks to decenter and disrupt all metaphysical anchors. I will never forget the class in transformational syntax I took at the University of Florida with Mohammed Mohammed (or MoMo, as we affectionately were permitted to call him). The class was a split grad/undergrad section, and MoMo scared away all of the undergrads in the first session, with the exception of myself and another student. After that point, he was always very kind to us (the undergrads) and cruel to the grads. MoMo was a Palestinian; he identified as a Jordanian refugee. He was a devout Chomskyian (cultishly so, perhaps). Derrida spoke at UF while I was in this class. I didn’t really understand what Derrida’s lecture was about, but it was very long and his English accent wasn’t so great. The next day in class, MoMo savaged Derrida for the entirety of the period on points both specific and general, most of it over our heads. It was a true rant, one of the best I’ve ever witnessed, culminating in (and I quote): “He’s full of shit!”
So Derrida certainly provoked MoMo, a strict Chomskyian–and why not? If you spend your academic career and your adult life searching for something that another person says you could never find, wouldn’t you be upset? (I believe that more than anything MoMo was upset over Derrida’s reception at UF, which was rock-starish to say the least). For MoMo, Derrida was a phony, a pied-piper misleading the children from the real issues.
Which brings me to point two–Chomsky is primarily a political figure, and really a pragmatist at heart. The core of his argument is not so much that po-mo writing is high-falutin’ nonsense, but rather that it ultimately serves no practical purpose. Here is where I would strongly disagree. The people that Chomsky attacks and their followers are re-evaluating the canon and the very notion of received wisdom. Chomsky attacks them for “misreading the classics”–but just what are the classics, and whose value systems created the notion that the classics were indeed “classic”? If Derrida & co. appear to “misread,” it is because they seek to recover the marginalized knowledge that has been buried under a sediment of givens as “truth.” Yes, the post-modern movement might have elitist tendencies, and yes, the subjects and themes of their work might not have much to do on the surface with the plight of a refugee (cf. MoMo in Jordan in 1948)…but the goal is actually in line with Chomsky’s goal–to make people question the powers that structure their lives.
I do agree, as I’ve said before, that post-modern writing often comes off as so-much sophistry and hogwash (I admit to plenty of this myself), that in some sense it relies too heavily on a coded vocabulary that seems unaccessible to the untrained eye, and that all too often an air of self-congratulation, an atmosphere of winks and nods replaces an environment of real thinking and debate. But my real take is this: any philosophy that could shake MoMo into discomposure is good. MoMo is a brilliant man and his class was fascinating, but to have seen him that day–his feathers so ruffled, his foundations tested–so infuriated over ideas–that was a beautiful thing. Right then, I knew there must be something to Derrida, something I wanted to figure out. And that’s what the best of these writers do–they infuriate us by provoking the truths that we are so sure that we hold in ourselves. They destabilize our safe spaces. They don’t allow for easy answers; they rebuke tradition. And if this approach falls into the norm in academia, becomes lazy and sedimentary, undoubtedly someone will come along and call “bullshit” on it, thus reigniting debate, questions, language. Nietzsche speaks of language as a series of hardened metaphors, language as petrified lava, sedimentary givens. This is the goal of deconstruction: to get that lava flowing again.