A short report from The Charterhouse of Parma


Have you read Honoré de Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet?

I haven’t, but I’ve read the Wikipedia summary.

I’ve also read, several times, Donald Barthelme’s 1968 parody, “Eugénie Grandet,” which is very very funny.

Have you read  Stendhal’s 1839 novel The Charterhouse of Parma?

After repeated false starts, I seem to be finishing it up (I’m on Chapter 19 of 28 of Richard Howard’s 1999 Modern Library translation).

I brought up Eugénie Grandet (Balzac’s) to bring up “Eugénie Grandet” (Barthelme’s). Stendhal’s (1830’s French) novel Charterhouse keeps reminding me of Barthelme’s (1960’s American) short story “Eugénie Grandet,” which is, as I’ve said, a parody of Honoré de Balzac’s (1830’s French) novel Eugénie Grandet. Balzac and Stendhal are pre-Modernists (which is to say they were modernists, I suppose). Donald Barthelme wanted to be a big em Modernist; his postmodernism was inadvertent. By which I mean— “postmodernism” is just a description (a description of a description really, but let me not navelgaze).

Well and so: I find myself often bored with The Charterhouse of Parma and wishing for a condensation, for a Donald Barthelme number that will magically boil down all its best bits into a loving parody that retains its themes and storylines (while simultaneously critiquing them)—a parody served with an au jus of the novel’s rich flavor.

My frequent boredom with the novel—and, let me insert here, betwixt beloved dashes, that one of my (many) favorite things about Charterhouse is that it is about boredom! that phrases like “boredom,” boring,” and “bored” repeat repeatedly throughout it! I fucking love that! And Stendhal, the pre-Modernist (which is to say “modernist”), wants the reader to feel some of the boredom of court intrigue (which is not always intriguing). The marvelous ironic earnest narrator so frequently frequents phrases like, “The reader will no doubt tire of this conversation, which went on for like two fucking hours” (not a direct quote, although the word “fuck” shows up a few times in Howard’s translation. How fucking Modern!)—okay—

My frequent boredom with the novel is actually not so frequent. It’s more like a chapter to chapter affair. I love pretty much every moment that Stendhal keeps the lens on his naive hero, the intrepid nobleman Fabrizio del Dongo. In love with (the idea of) Napoleon (and his aunt, sorta), a revolutionist (not really), a big ell Liberal (nope), Fabrizio is a charismatic (and callow) hero, and his chapters shuttle along with marvelous quixotic ironic energy. It’s picaresque stuff. (Fabrizio reminds me of another hero I love, Candide). Fabrizio runs away from home to join Napoleon’s army! Fabrizio is threatened with arrest! Fabrizio is sorta exiled! Fabrizio fucks around in Naples! Fabrizio joins the priesthood! Fabrizio might love love his aunt! Fabrizio fights a duel! Fabrizio kills a man! (Not the duel dude). Fabrizio is on the run (again)! Fabrizio goes to jail! Fabrizio falls in love!

When it’s not doing the picaresque adventure story/quixotic romance thing (which is to say, like half the time) Charterhouse is a novel of courtly intrigues and political machinations (I think our boy Balzac called it the new The Prince). One of the greatest strengths of Charterhouse is its depictions of psychology, or consciousness-in-motion (which is to say Modernism, (or pre-modernism)). Stendhal takes us through his characters’ thinking…but that can sometimes be dull, I’ll admit. (Except when it’s not). Let me turn over this riff to Italo Calvino, briefly, who clearly does not think the novel dull, ever—but I like his description here of the books operatic “dramatic centre.” From his essay “Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse:

All this in the petty world of court and society intrigue, between a prince haunted by fear for having hanged two patriots and the ‘fiscal général’ (justice minister) Rassi who is the incarnation (perhaps for the first time in a character in a novel) of a bureaucratic mediocrity which also has something terrifying in it. And here the conflict is, in line with Stendhal’s intentions, between this image of the backward Europe of Metternich and the absolute nature of those passions which brook no bounds and which were the last refuge for the noble ideals of an age that had been overcome.

The dramatic centre of the book is like an opera (and opera had been the first medium which had helped the music-mad Stendhal to understand Italy) but in The Charterhouse the atmosphere (luckily) is not that of tragic opera but rather (as Paul Valéry discovered) of operetta. The tyrannical rule is squalid but hesitant and clumsy (much worse had really taken place at Modena) and the passions are powerful but work by a rather basic mechanism. (Just one character, Count Mosca, possesses any psychological complexity, a calculating character but one who is also desperate, possessive and nihilistic.)

I disagree with Calvino here. Mosca is an interesting character (at times), but hardly the only one with any psychological complexity. Stendhal is always showing us the gears ticking clicking wheeling churning in his characters’ minds—Fabrizio’s Auntie Gina in particular. (Ahem. Excuse me–The Duchessa).

But Duchess Aunt Gina is a big character, perhaps the secret star of Charterhouse, really, and I’m getting read to wrap this thing up. So I’ll offer a brief example rather from (what I assume is ultimately) a minor character, sweet Clélia Conti. Here she is, in the chapter I finished today, puzzling through the puzzle of fickle Fabrizio, who’s imprisoned in her dad’s tower and has fallen for her:

Fabrizio was fickle; in Naples, he had had the reputation of charming mistresses quite readily. Despite all the reserve imposed upon the role of a young lady, ever since she had become a Canoness and had gone to court, Clélia, without ever asking questions but by listening attentively, had managed to learn the reputations of the young men who had, one after the next, sought her hand in marriage; well then, Fabrizio, compared to all the others, was the one who was least trustworthy in affairs of the heart. He was in prison, he was bored, he paid court to the one woman he could speak to—what could be simpler? What, indeed, more common? And this is what plunged Clélia into despair.

Clélia’s despair is earned; her introspection is adroit (even as it is tender). Perhaps the wonderful trick of Charterhouse is that Stendhal shows us a Fabrizio who cannot see (that he cannot see) that he is fickle, that Clélia’s take on his character is probably accurate—he’s just bored! (Again, I’ve not read to the end). Yes: What, indeed, could be more common? And one of my favorite things about Charterhouse is not just that our dear narrator renders that (common) despair in real and emotional and psychological (which is to say, um Modern) terms for us—but also that our narrator takes a sweetly ironic tone about the whole business.

Or maybe it’s not sweetly ironic—but I wouldn’t know. I have to read it post-Barthelme, through a post-postmodern lens. I’m not otherwise equipped.

Derrida Speaks of Love (Or Not)

Slavoj Žižek on Love, Belief, Snapple

Derrida’s Terror

“I Want a Third Pill” — Slavoj Žižek on The Matrix, Fantasy, Sexuality, and Video Games

See Astra Taylor’s Documentary Examined Life, Featuring Judith Butler, Peter Singer, and Cornel West

Slavoj Žižek on the Failure of Imagination

Derrida Talks About Biography, Authority, and Stability


Derrida Talks About Stupidity

“One of the Gestures of Deconstruction Is to Not Naturalize What Isn’t Natural” — Derrida Kinda Sorta Almost Defines Deconstruction

Slavoj Žižek Uses the Marx Brothers to Explain Freud’s Notion of Superego, Ego, and Id

Derrida Talks About the Myth of Echo and Narcissus

Derrida Speaks of Love (Or Not)

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying — Simon Critchley

Simon Critchley’s latest book How to Stop Living and Start Worrying picks up where his last work, The Book of Dead Philosophers, left off. Both works explore what Critchley contends to be the signal problem of all philosophy; namely, how one might live a meaningful life against the backdrop of inevitable death. In Dead Philosophers, Critchley plumbed this question by surveying the deaths of dozens of famous philosophers, ultimately affirming a positive reality in death (both our own deaths and the deaths of others), and arguing that philosophies (and religions) that advocate the idea of a spiritual afterlife ultimately negatively disrupt human existence and lead to inauthentic lives. How to Stop Living reiterates these themes in a new form, essentially arguing that in asking “how to live,” we must also ask “how to die” — and also how to love and how to laugh. How to Stop Living takes form as a series of conversations between Critchley and Carl Cederström, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Economic Research at Lund University in Sweden. There’s a warm rapport between the pair, and although Critchley does most of the talking, there’s a genuine dialog in play, not merely a flat interview. The book unfolds over six chapters. The first, “Life,” is a discussion of, well, Critchley’s life, both personal and academic. I originally thought I’d be doing a lot of skimming here, but it’s actually kind of fascinating; more importantly, though, it establishes Critchley’s contention that a philosopher’s work cannot be divorced from his biography. To philosophize is to live. This idea is reiterated succinctly at the beginning of the second chapter, “Philosophy,” when Critchley states—

The first thing to say is that philosophy is not a solely professional or academic activity for me. Philosophy is not a thing, it’s not an entity; it’s an activity. To put it tautologically: philosophy is the activity of philosophizing, an activity which is conducted by finite, thinking creatures like us. Now, my general view of philosophy is that this activity must for part of the life of a culture. Philosophy is the living activity of critical reflection in a specific context; it always has a radically local character.

What follows in “Philosophy” is a somewhat discursive overview of the philosophers who will pop up again and again in the book: Heidegger, Husserl, Kant, Nietzsche, and, of course, Derrida. While I’m laundry listing, I might as well add Freud, Lacan, Beckett, and Hegel as key figures in How to Stop Living. In the third chapter, “Death,” Critchley discusses how many of these philosophers frame a subject’s individual relationship to his or her personal death. In a particularly enlightening passage, Critchley explains Heidegger’s “possibility of impossibility,” the idea that to be authentic, to lead an authentic life, one must internalize and master the finitude of a personal death. The chapter continues, working through other conceptions of death, including those of Freud, Beckett, and Derrida. Perhaps because of its dialogic structure, How to Stop Living often feels like a rap session, a big brainstorm, a work in process, and nowhere is this more evident in a chapter called “Love,” where Critchley moves from Hannah Arendt to The Song of Solomon to Lacan and Freud to a story about his marriage proposal. It’s all a bit messy, a bit watery, a bit undefined, and therefore difficult to summarize, so I’ll let Critchley dish on love in his own words—

Love is the attempt to break the logic of masochism that defines the subject, and to behave in a different way. That’s something that has to be wound up everyday . . . and it’s something with no end; and it requires a constant experience of faith. That’s the only sense I can make of love.

The next section, “Humour,” is better defined—and one of the highlights of the book. Critchley discusses jokes against a backdrop of psychoanalysis and anthropology, ultimately arguing that humor has the power to disrupt an individual’s relation to time or place, and thus reconstitute that relation in some meaningful way. Critchley’s book itself is indeed a meta-joke, a play against the sophistry of New Age self-help books. Indeed, the very name of the book is an inversion of Dale Carnegie’s 1948 “classic” of the genre, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. If you find the cover of Critchley’s book as off-putting and cheesy as I do, just remind yourself that it’s a parody of Carnegie’s cover. And yet Critchley’s sense of humor is not ultimately black irony, but rather a humor of affirmation of — and confrontation of — the absurdity of contemporary life. It’s not irony but authenticity he wants. “Authenticity” is thus the final chapter of this relatively short book, and here Critchley invites his friend (and partner in the International Necronautical Society) novelist Tom McCarthy to participate in the conversation. The chapter is lively, almost frenetic, and frankly all over the place, as Critchley and McCarthy rocket from subject to subject — Finnegans Wake, the Challenger explosion, Terrence Malick, J.G. Ballard, Levinas, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, McCarthy’s first novel Remainder — each reference seems to slip into the next, reined in occasionally by Cederström, who steers the conversation back to its center (leave it to deconstructionists to get off center). Good stuff.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, despite its tongue in cheek title and cover, and its discursive flow, is serious (if playful) about philosophy. Those interested in the thinkers and topics I’ve mentioned in this review may be interested, but it’s not necessary for one to have a working knowledge of Continental philosophy to enjoy Critchley’s latest. Recommended.

How to Stop Living and Start Worrying is available now from Polity Books.

Roland Barthes on the Labyrinth Metaphor

Roland Barthes on labyrinth-as-metaphor. From The Preparation of the Novel

. . . let’s imagine a Labyrinth without a central quid (neither Monster nor Treasure), so one that’s a-centric, which basically means a labyrinth without a final signified  to discover → Now, that might be the Metaphor for Meaning, in that it disappoints → Interpretation (detours, investigations, orientations) like a kind of mortal game, possibly with nothing at the center; here, again, the path would be equivalent to the goal–but only if you manage to get out (Rosenstiehl: the only mathematical problem presented by the labyrinth is how to find a way out). Imagine Theseus not finding the Minotaur at the center and yet sill turning back in the direction of . . . Ariadne, Love, Infidelity, “Life to no avail.”

Koinonia, Praxis, Heterotopia, and Other Ten Dollar Words

Lacking the lexicon to describe your aporia? Need the right words to negotiate a particularly difficult text? Try the Dictionary of Postmodern Terms then. Fun for solipsists, sophists, and psychoanalysts of all ages.

The Sokal Hoax, Friedrich Nietzsche, Attacks on Deconstruction, and More Bad Writing

NYU physics professor Alan Sokal wrote a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” which was published in 1996 in Duke University’s Social Text, a cultural studies journal. The same day the article was published–with no peer review, incidentally–Sokal announced in Lingua Franca that the whole thing was a hoax, a collection of nonsense, buzzwords, and jargon, making liberal use of recontextualized quotes. Sokal’s intention was to provoke the postmodern tendencies of humanities professors, whom he viewed as having a poor understanding of the science they critiqued.

Now, anyone who has spent any time in any university’s cultural studies department or English department (they tend to be the same thing nowadays) knows that postmodernism is all the rage: the dominant thinkers tend to be of the deconstructionist/post-structuralist school of thought–Derrida, Kristeva, Deleuze, Foucault, Butler, and so on. The major goal of deconstructive analysis is to disrupt the traditional, metaphysical groundings that have been accepted as “natural” to philosophy–to free up marginalized and subjugated areas of thought and break through the layers of sedimentary “givens.” In this sense, deconstruction takes a major queue from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In many ways Nietzsche provided not only some of the major questions that initiate a deconstructive philosophy, but also a model for how those ideas would be presented in writing.

Nietzsche’s writing is poetic and often ironically self-reflexive. In his essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” he makes the claim that all language is an anthropomorphic jumble of metaphors, that concepts are only constructed upon other concepts, all understood through an anthropocentric viewpoint that is impossible to abandon. Nietzsche’s writing contains this awareness; he frames his argument in a series of illustrative metaphors and similes, arguing that language does not permit people to reach the true essence of “the thing in itself”; rather, concepts are the “fractured echo[es]” of the ego seeking recognition—deceptions and illusions. In Nietzsche’s view, science can only build on these empty metaphors and therefore all scientific, empirical knowledge is a house of cards waiting to collapse. Nietzsche prefers an irrational, intuitive, liquid approach to life—a “playing with seriousness”: by abandoning stoic, static reasoning, one will gain “illumination, cheer, and redemption.” This joyful disruption is one starting point for the deconstructionists who Sokal attacked in his hoax.

Sokal obviously disagrees with Nietzsche: as a physicist, Sokal clearly values empirical, rational thought. But his real disagreement is with his perception of an abusive misuse of scientific and mathematic terminology by humanities professors. Sokal views the majority of post-modern theorists as perpetrators of hogwash, arrogant elitists who obfuscate their hollow ideas in jargon.

Okay. Now. So. Is Sokal right? Is there a tendency in humanities departments toward obscurantism with elitist undertones? Absolutely. However, I see this as the academic byproduct of the writers under attack, the detritus of myriad misunderstandings and misreadings. Nobody’s perfect, obviously. I disagree that certain of the writers Sokal attacks–Julia Kristeva in particular (a hero of mine, whose writing I find to be both wonderfully lucid and poetically profound)–are purposefully difficult. Most of the deconstructionists mentioned above take their lead from Nietzsche, and thus employ a strange, elliptical, roundabout and often poetic strategy to their writing. The deconstructionist methodology itself is an affront to easy readings–simply put, it’s meant to make you think. Furthermore, philosophy, for most of us, is not beach reading.

Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, Sokal’s gesture is an essentially postmodern move, a deconstructive move–a challenge to the new establishment of academic humanities and cultural studies. Even his use of recontextualized quotes is an affirmation of Derrida’s concept of iterability. The greatest value of the hoax is that it reinforces the tenets of deconstruction: to upset the places we feel are comfortable and safe, prompting constant re-examination of our aims and goals. Sokal’s hoax initiates a dynamic rethinking of the way we write and the way we read. Who are we writing for? How are we presenting our ideas? Do we understand what we are saying? More than anything, Sokal’s hoax calls attention to the constant need for peer review, for academia to question itself, its products, its institutions.