HBO debuted the first episode of True Detective this weekend. The series will be an anthology, with its first eight-episode season exploring a ritualistic murder in the backwoods of Louisiana. Written by series creator Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga (who filmed a moody 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre), True Detective stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as State murder police trying to solve the crime.
I loved the opening episode, “The Long Bright Dark.” There’s a heavy streak of Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy here, not to mention a dose of The Wire, Michael Mann (and a pinch of David Lynch). Detractors of the show will likely single out its ponderous and cerebral dialogue, or maybe point out that, yeah, we’ve seen this story before. Such criticisms would be (will be) intertwined; those who want a murder mystery delivered with a nice neat bow on it are almost surely going to be disappointed—and most likely, will fault the show’s philosophical tone.
It’s easy—comforting, maybe—to ignore that philosophical tone, most of it delivered by McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. There’s even something of an audience surrogate in Cohle’s partner Marty Hart (Harrelson), who bristles uncomfortably at Cohle’s near-nihilism. I found this particular scene electrifying (uh, language NSFW):
The lines that stand out in particular come at about the 2 minute mark. Cohle:
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself—we are creatures that should not exist by natural law . . . We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory, experience, and feeling—programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.
It’s easy to dismiss these lines, as Hart would like to—to not listen, to fail to attend to the meaning there—to pin Cohle’s outlook down as meaningless, dark gobbledygook—because the lines essentially attack “the illusion of having a self,” an illusion we all hold dear, an illusion that protects us. Cohle here echoes what Jacques Derrida called “auto-affection”—the I that thinks/feels itself into being. This auto-affection stabilizes us, tells us our certitude is, y’know, certain. It authorizes us.
I’ve seen only the first episode, but my guess is that the murder that the series would seem to foreground is really its backdrop. Murder—figured here in the gruesome, abject corpse that we (to use Cohle’s term) “bear witness” to in the show’s opening moments—destabilizes the illusion of having a self. It tears down the borders between the illusion and the real.
The murder is not to be solved/resolved then. The murder instead functions to call attention to the problem that Cohle posits in the middle of this first episode: The illusion of having a self.
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:
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. How to go about this?
A starting place:
Clarice Lispector’s 1977 novella The Hour of the Star is a superb collection of sentences.
2. But what do I mean by this ridiculous statement? I mean isn’t that what all or most writing amounts to–a “collection of sentences”?
What I mean then is that Lispector’s sentences prickle and tweak and glare, launch off in strange angles from each other as if they were building out narratives in disparate, separate tones, moods, colors.
3. Another way to say this: the writing is strange, marvelous, uncanny. The good weird.
4. Or maybe I should let Lispector’s narrator say it:
Remember that, no matter what I write, my basic material is the word. So this story will consist of words that form phrases from which there emanates a secret meaning that exceeds both words and phrases.
(Our narrator repeatedly invokes the power of “the word,” but I’ll linger on the way those words string together in sentences).
5. And yes, our narrator is a “he.” Clarice Lispector the ventriloquist. Early in the book the narrator says that the tale could only come from “a man for a woman would weep her heart out.”
6. I’ll be frank: I don’t know how to unpack all the ventriloquizing here, the layering between Lispector and her narrator Rodrigo S.M., who relates the sad tale of Macabéa (a typist!), indigent slum-dweller, no talent and no beauty.
7. Narrator Rodrigo S.M. seems unsure himself how to unpack the tale. He spends almost the first fifth of the book dithering over actually how to begin to start to commence:
I suspect that this lengthy preamble is intended to conceal the poverty of my story, for I am apprehensive.
And a page or two later:
I am scared of starting. I do not even know the girl’s name. It goes without saying that this story drives me to despair because it is too straightforward. What I propose to narrate sounds easy and within everyone’s grasp. But its elaboration is extremely difficult. I must render clear something that is almost obliterated and can scarcely be deciphered. With stiff, contaminated fingers I must touch the invisible in its own squalor.
8. (I promise to pick back up on that squalor and whatever invisible might be at the end of this riff).
9. The Hour of the Star: The story is thin, the plot is a shell, a threadbare ancient trope, as brave Rodrigo S.M. repeatedly tells us.
10. The plot is archetypal even. The orphan girl in the big city. Cinderella who imagines the ball, or tries to imagine the ball. Etc.
11. So here’s a proper plot summary, c/o translator Giovanni Pontiero (who surely deserves large praise heaped at his feet (or a location of his choice) for his poetic translation):
The nucleus of the narrative centres on the misfortunes of Macabéa, a humble girl from a region plagued by drought and poverty, whose future is determined by her inexperience, her ugliness and her total anonymity. Macabéa’s speech and dress betray her origins. An orphaned child from the backwoods of Alagoas, who was brought up by the forbidding aunt in Maceió before making her way to the slums of Acre Street in the heart of Rio de Janeiro’s red-light district. Gauche and rachitic, Macabéa has poverty and ill-health written all over her: a creature conditioned from birth and already singled out as one of the world’s inevitable losers.
Her humdrum existence can be summarized in few words: Macabéa is an appallingly bad typist, she is a virgin, and her favorite drink is Coca-Cola. She is a perfect foil for a bullying employer, a philandering boy friend, and her workmate Glória, who has all the attributes Macabéa sadly lacks.
12. A dozen things that The Hour of the Star may or may not be about: Poverty, storytelling, lies, illusions, abjection, resistance, agency, self, class, power, romance, fate.
13. But let’s get back to those words the narrator is braggin’ on:
Another angle at approaching The Hour of the Star: Its page of thirteen alternate titles, which act as a prose-poem descriptor for the novella:
14. And some sentences:
The first provides a context. The second tells us everything about Macabéa. The third tells us everything about her awful, venal “boy friend” Olímpico:
For quite different reasons they had wandered into a butcher’s shop. Macabéa only had to smell raw meat in order to convince herself that she had eaten. What attracted Olímpico, on the other hand, was the sight of a butcher at work with his sharp knife.
15. Macabéa, our primary, and Olímpico a distant second. But also Rodrigo S.M. (and a few others):
The story—I have decided with an illusion of free will—should have some seven characters, and obviously I am one of the more important.
16. (Again though, how to parse Rodrigo from Clarice Lispector . . .)
17. So maybe in one of his (her) parenthetical intrusions (but how can they be intrusions?). From late in the novella:
(But what about me? Here I am telling a story about events that have never happened to me or to anyone known to me. I am amazed at my own perception of the truth. Can it be that it’s my painful task to perceive in the flesh truths that no one wants to face? If I know almost everything about Macabéa, it’s because I once caught a glimpse of this girl with the sallow complexion from the North-east. Her expression revealed everything about her . . .)
Solipsism? Hubris? Humor? Irony?
18. But I want to say something about how funny this novella, but I don’t know how to say it, or I’m not sure how to illustrate it, how to support such a claim with text—how does one support a feeling, a vibe, a phantom idea? Is The Hour of the Star actually funny? Or am I a sick man? Why did I chuckle so much?
19. I think, re: 18, I think that it must be a mild streak of sadism, or an identification with the narrator’s flawed empathy, his raw presentation of a pathetic, abject heroine, a heroine whose heroism can only manifests in strange eruptions of self-possession, minor triumphs of the barest self-assertions.
20. Perhaps an illustration, re: 18/19—a lengthy one maybe, but indulge me (or, rather, indulge yourself):
At this point, I must record one happy event. One distressing Sunday without mandioca, the girl experienced a strange happiness: at the quayside, she saw a rainbow. She felt something close to ecstasy and tried to retain the vision: if only she could see once more the display of fireworks she had seen as a child in Maceió. She wanted more, for it is true that when one extends a helping hand to the lower orders, they want everything else.; the man on the street dreams greedily of having everything. He has no right to anything but he wants everything. Wouldn’t you agree? There were no means within my power to produce that golden rain achieved with fireworks.
Should I divulge that she adored soldiers? She was mad about them. Whenever she caught sight of a soldier, she would think, trembling with excitement: is he going to murder me?
Can you feel the shifts here? A distressing Sunday, a hungry Sunday (“without mandioca”); its strange happiness; an ecstasy that repeats a childhood vision; the desire for more, to rise above one’s allotment (The Right to Protest, or, She Doesn’t Know How to Protest); the limits of words, of language. An unexpected, seemingly irrelevant anecdote. A rare dip into our heroine’s consciousness.
21. There’s a certain absurdity here, a methodical absurdity, of course. There’s a rhythmic certainty to the prose—a sense of aesthetic uniformity—but the content jars against it, the meaning spikes out in subtly incongruous jags that form some other shape. Folks say folks say Lispector echoes Kafka in this way. (I’m reminded of Robert Walser’s sentences too).
22. But I’ve shared enough to give you a sense of Lispector’s style, a taste anyway, right?
What about the book’s claim, its viewpoint, its thesis?
23. Okay, so it’s right there upfront in the book’s fifth paragraph, delivered early enough when the reader is suitably perplexed, looking for some kind of narrative inroad, not looking necessarily for a theme or a message or what have you:
Even as I write this I feel ashamed at pouncing on you with a narrative that is so open and explicit. A narrative, however from which blood surging with life might flow only to coagulate into lumps of trembling jelly. Will this story become my own coagulation one day? Who can tell? If there is any truth in it—and clearly the story is true even though invented—let everyone see it reflected in himself for we are all one and the same person . . .
24. Let’s not misunderstand the last sentiment as some hippy-dippy bullshit: Let’s go back to: “I must touch the invisible in its own squalor.”
25. That squalor is the abject, the filth, the not-me, the other, signified most strongly in waste, blood, filth, vomit, the corpse.
26. The gesture of The Hour of the Star is to make visible—in sentences, in words, in language—the invisible in its own squalor.
27. Highly recommended.
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.