I wrote the cover story for the latest TLS.
I wrote the cover story for the latest TLS.
This is a witty book that I disliked immensely. It asks the reader to be moved by the decline of the English country house (Brideshead) and the world of inherited privilege (as represented by the Marchmain family). At no point is there any suggestion that all their style and splendour might be the product of inequalities of gender and class; the vast majority of society is only represented in the form of uncomplaining servants. There is a singular lack of compassion for anyone less fortunate, and scorn for anyone who tries to ‘do good’. When Charles Ryder (the book’s narrator) speaks of Cordelia Marchmain’s work as a nurse during the Spanish civil war, he does so in a withering fashion.
It hurt to think of Cordelia growing up ‘quite plain’; to think of all that burning love spending itself on serum-injections and de-lousing powder. When she arrived, tired from her journey, rather shabby, moving in the manner of one who has no interest in pleasing, I thought her an ugly woman.
But I would probably be able to forgive the novel these limitations if it wasn’t so overwritten. Though there are many fine passages of prose, there are far too many overworked metaphors. Waugh himself said he regarded ‘writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language’.
I am, however, glad that I read to the end, else I would have missed this piece of unpleasantness.
It was no time for the sweets of luxury; they would come, in their season, with the swallow and lime flowers. Now on the rough water there was a formality to be observed, no more. It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure.
This would have been a contender for the Bad Sex prize, had it existed then.
In case you were wondering, look no further:
Go to another man who is a good snake charmer, and this man will pour some water into a plate, then he makes a snake drink this. After this he puts a piece of salt in the plate with a little more water, and then makes the snake vomit the water he has drunk back into the plate. The would-be snake charmer must then drink this water. After he has done this he can handle any snake, none will hurt him.
This was the advice Winifred Blackman receved in 1924 from Sheikh Muhanni. I found this in Anthony Sattin’s excellent book,The Pharaoh’s Shadow which also contains a story of a Tree That Bleeds.
‘Tell me about the tree,’ I asked, as innocently as I could.
‘There is lots of baraka [blessing] in the tree. So much. It is the sheikha’s tree.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Twenty years ago, someone wanted to cut it down. but the sheikha appeared to them and said, “Don’t do it. This is my tree. Any my name is Sheikha Khadra.” Another time magicians came and cut the tree. It started to bleed.’
‘Red blood,’ she said with untainted sincerity. ‘But the sheikha dealt with them. She cut off their hands.’
I waited to see if she would smile, but she didn’t.
Klaus and other stories by Allan Massie
Klaus is a novella and collection of stories that span the entirety of Massie’s writing life. Though the stories are solidly composed, none are thematically or formally challenging, and for the most part feel slight- the kind of story one might write in response to a commission. The onus thus falls on the novella (which gives the volume its title) to impress. The ambition of Klaus is certainly praiseworthy- an attempt to relate the last days of Thomas Mann’s son Klaus, a novelist and political activist who ends up committing suicide after the war. The mode of narration slips between free-indirect and straight third person, in the course of which much of Klaus’s life is presented- his relations with his father, his sexual life, his opposition to the Nazis. Given the richness of this subject matter, it is all the more disappointing that the novel fails to provide a compelling portrait of the author. This can be attributed to two main failings. The first stems from Massie’s preface to the collection, which sketches the biographical details of Klaus Mann’s life and how Massie came to be interested in him. There are several cogent reasons why few novelists write prefaces to their own novels (the exceptions being when the novel is being re-issued some time after its initial publication). Firstly, it suggests that the novel cannot speak for itself (which is almost a vote of no-confidence in the novel, or perhaps, its reader). The second, perhaps more serious reason, is that it can easily diminish the reader’s curiosity about the forthcoming narrative. With a narrative in which the reader knows virtually everything that is going to happen, the burden borne by the prose, and the ideas it contains, is bound to be far greater.
Unfortunately, the second great failing of ‘Klaus’ is that it is poorly written. Despite the promises on the back cover regarding Massie’s ‘subtle prose’ and ‘dense and highly effective style’, the writing is leaden and possess a number of stylistic tics, such as as the overuse of points of ellipsis and the continued recourse to rhetorical questions (the prose is also not helped by the obvious lack of care with which the book was proofed and typeset- there are numerous errors of punctuation throughout). The imagery for the most part lacks subtlety and fails to resonate.
What would he say now? What advice would he give?
(Klaus ordered a pastis and wondered as he poured water in and watched the liquid turn cloudy…) (p.29)
The novel’s frequent attempts at pathos are similarly unsuccessful.
Klaus thought he was looking into that cupboard under the stairs where unwanted memories are hidden away, but can’t be forgotten (p.55)
Why it should be a cupboard under the stairs- a place where brooms and vacuum cleaners are kept -that is equated with painful recollections is unclear (perhaps Massie felt that a basement or attic was too obvious).
The reader is seldom allowed to draw their own conclusions about Klaus’s mental state in his last days- instead Massie resorts to frequent passages of heavy exposition, where we are continually told (either by the omniscient narrator, or by Klaus) about some aspect of his character. On page 11 alone we are informed that, ‘Humiliation, he had known that for a long time… the humiliation of lovelessness, the knowledge that he could never find what he sought because those to whom he was most attracted could not respond in kind’. A few paragraphs later we are told that ‘Klaus had known the temptation of that abyss too well for too long not to tell it truly’. In addition to the heavy-handed way in which this information is imparted, there is also the fact that the preface has rendered the majority of such information redundant. Though Massie tells us a lot about the life of Klaus Mann, he rarely manages to show us anything vital.
The Island by R.J. Price
The Island is a novella that describes the journey of a father and daughter to the zoo, one which becomes increasingly fraught as it becomes apparent that some kind of disaster has occurred. During the trip we are shown the childhood and marriage of the father in flashback, the latter of which seems unsatisfactory, probably doomed. However, it is the portrayal of the relationship between father and daughter, their insistently private world of shared references, in-jokes, and affectionate point-scoring that the novella is at its most successful. Unfortunately, their well-rendered relationship is embedded in a narrative that lacks any real urgency- the catastrophe is so vague and sporadic a presence that father and daughter never feel endangered, not even emotionally. It is also difficult to understand the father’s determination to reach the zoo- it is not presented as a place of safety, or hope, and given the father’s feeling for his daughter, there is no apparent reason for him to take her there. As a result, the climax of the book feels melodramatic, too eager for significance.
The same flaw inhabits much of the book’s language. There is always a compromise between what a character might plausibly think or say, and what an actual person would, but Price has the father say to his wife, who has just had a serious operation, in explanation of why he wrote verse in her get-well card,
‘It’s so much easier to say it in poetry, because poetry has silences you can fill, if you want to.’
This portentous tone occurs throughout the novella. When the father is filling in a lottery slip, he sees it as
a burlesque of a chained book in a cathedral library. Certainly, the flimsy plastic pen was likely to be worth more than the religious text of the lottery slip.
Having strained this metaphor, Price immediately has the father overcome by moral reservations about using his daughter’s birth date as a source of lottery numbers.
But he hated the thought of using numbers that had a human resonance- his own daughter, for heaven’s sake. The lottery was a dehumaniser, and people-as-numbers only colluded with its statistical hopelessness.
Even if the reader is able to believe that a character thinks like this, it is likely to be injurious to their interest in them.
Though many novels by poets (R.J. Price is better known as Richard Price, a poet) suffer from over-wrought sentences, which though sometimes elegant, cumulatively make for 0verly-effortful reading, there are some remarkably awkward sentences in what is a very short book.
His precognitive senses registered disquiet without his intelligence being able to articulate just what the problem was.
The strength of her vulnerability- the tiny intricate bonds of their life together, multitudinous, delicate each in themselves, the singe chord that kept a structure like the Erskine Bridge suspended gracefully in air!
In conclusion, this is a slight, oddly insubstantial novella, despite the many potential sources of emotion and interest that it contains.
One More Stop by Lois Walden
I am unsure what genre this novel belongs in- probably inspirational chick-lit, if such a category exists. I am far more certain that I do not fall into the intended readership of this novel, which I found baffling, foolish, trite and banal. The novel focuses on the consideraby-larger-than-life character of of Loli Greene, a drama teacher, who is search of closure/resolution/coming to turns with the demons of her past (insert your own talk show cliche), who meets a variety of obstacles which she naturally overcomes. This is one of the major flaws in the narrative: many seemingly insoluble problems are easily resolved. Her troubled relationship with her father is one such example- though she has been wishing him dead, when he calls her, she phones him back, then immediately forgives him because he sounds terrrible. Loli’s involvement in a cult in the wake of her mother’s death also ends with no real conclusion. In some kinds of novels this wouldn’t matter- but given the simple models of psychological causation that books like these are supposed to offer (X is a bully because his father beat him, Y takes drugs because her husband doesn’t love her) Walden isn’t even offering her readers a plausible series of emotional transformations, just a set of platitudes e.g. ‘When you change your life, some who love you will fall to their knees, begging you to reconsider their plans’; ‘There are times in your life when you must let the dearest parts of yourself slip through your fingers like sand’.
As for the prose, it swerves from sentimental (‘She lived inside her tears. My heart still swims in her sorrow’) to grandiloquent (‘I prefer the slow dance. This is not completely true. Depends… Age, place time. History… It is always about history.’).
Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor
Ghost Light is a fictionalised version of the relationship between the playwright John Synge and his leading lady, Molly Allgood. The novel begins in 1952, long after Synge is dead, when Molly is living in London in virtual destitution. The novel always stays focussed on her, whether it is following her through London, or through various episodes during her time with Synge. Though this is doubtless supposed to increase our attatchment to her, the problem is that in both the past and the novel’s present there is not enough narrative tension to sustain interest in her thoughts and memories. After the first chapter, all the novel does is put meat on the bones of what we already know. There is also an issue with voice- the perspective shifts between second and third for no obvious reason, and even her internal monologue moves between high and low registers.
The aurora borealis is their national anthem, for they are able to hear colours, touch sounds. Their flicker-lit eyes sees no blitzes, no firestorms. Their language needs no word for torture. (37-38)
Now look at that man and he gawping at me strernish, like the seam of his bollocks is hand stitched (61)
What might explain these shifts of person and register is the ghost of Synge that seems to literally haunt her present. He is present in a derelict flat opposite hers, and later in a cinema. If more were made of this in the narrative, one might be able to argue that the narration of the book is shared, perhaps contested, between Molly and Synge (hence the shifts between second person and a sort of free indirect third person), or alternately, that these different registers reflect Molly’s affectations of gentility whilst being obviously destitute. If it seems that I am working hard to excuse what are most likely failings of the novel, it is because the novel is so well-written. One wants this to count for something, whilst knowing it is not sufficient.
Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer
This collection of stories covers the entirety of Gordimer’s writing life, and as such cannot help but raise the question of why these particular stories were selected. Should we take these to be the ‘best’ stories, or at least the most representative, of her ouevre? The former arguably places more pressure on the work to impress; the latter perhaps allows for the inclusion of the occassional good, but not excellent, story in the name of variety. In terms of the range of the stories, most of the early work takes place in South Africa or surrounding countries, and primarily deals with the complexities and moral ambiguities of people living under apartheid, whilst the latter stories, written in the 1980s and after, are more geographically (and thematically) diffuse. At their best, the early stories go beyond the simple oppositions of black and white, and show how even tolerance and apparent open-mindedness can be problematic. In ‘Which New Era Would That Be?”, Jake bemoans ‘the white women… who persisted in regarding themselves as your equal’ (52)
There was no escaping their understanding. They even insisted on feeling the resentment you must feel at their identifying themselves with your feelings… (53)
‘Six Feet of the Country’ and ‘The Smell of Death and Flowers’ contain similar moments where the veener of white characters’ sympathies are betrayed, often with an offhand expression. There is a merciless quality to Gordimer’s writing, one that often denies the characters a rich, inner life, and instead focuses on what follows from their actions. There are few, if any, white characters in the stories set in South Africa who are not shown to be complicit in the workings of apartheid, at least to some degree. In ‘A Soldier’s Embrace’ a lawyer who has represented black clients in cases against the state is shown to be motivated as much by self-interest and vanity. Though he and his wife are ‘rather proud of their friendship’ with a dissident, and claim to have been against the regime, neither have a problem with retaining a servant. After the old regime falls, they claim to have no intentions of leaving, but in the end all it takes the offer of another job elsewhere- in a different repressive regime in which they will again have both an affluent lifestyle whilst feeling themselves morally superior. But there also stories, like ‘The Bridegroom’ and ‘Town and Country Lovers’ that explore more intimate territory. Though these display the same alertness to the inequalities present in people’s relationshhips under apartheid, they also offer occassional moments of personal respite from that system. Even the abolition of apartheid is shown to be problematic. In ‘At the Rendevous of Victory’, the leader of the guerilla forces that made the overthrow of the regime possible becomes a marginalised figure the new leaders are embarassed of.
The later stories are more uneven- ‘Why haven’t you written?’ is a compelling story of a man stuck in snow-bound Mid-Western town during the winter, who drunkenly writes to his distant wife to tell her about an affair he’s having. Gordimer impressively shows him vacillating between wanting it to arrive, and wishing that it would not. On the other hand, ‘Letter from his Father’, a fictional evocation of Franz Kafka’s father, who writes reproachfully to his son from heaven, is a cliched, cringeworthy effort.
Of all the books I reviewed for the prize, this is the only one I can recommend. Though some of the other novels contained good writing, or effective scenes, what all of them lacked was the sense that they mattered, or even had much to say. Ultimately, however, it is not the undoubted gravity of Gordimer’s themes that impresses, but the precision, and subtlety with which she shows how such issues are realised in daily life.
I was recently given a stack of books to read for a literary prize which should probably remain nameless. Part of my duties was to write a short review of each, justifying why it should or should not be recommended for the prize. I present these here, and should warn you that despite striving for fairness, I probably failed at times. I have an insurmountable aversion to some genres (barring the honorable exceptions that exist in each), and so may not have been as fair to the several books of quasi-mystical self-help masquerading as novels that the pile contained. To their authors, I can only apologise, and wish them better luck in the next prize-giving year.
The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak
This is the story of how Ella, an affluent woman with a slightly unhappy marriage reads a manuscript about the poet Rumi, and is so overwhelmed by its timeless precepts about the human heart that she falls in love with its author, and the way of Rumi, and subsequently leaves her affluent life and slightly unhappy marriage. That this is going to happen is telegraphed to the reader with incredible haste.
And it happened fast, so fast in fact that Ella had no time to realize what was happening and to be on guard, if one could ever be on guard against love. (3)
Little did she know that this was going to be not just any book, but the book that changed her life. In the time she was reading it, her life would be rewritten. (14)
The novel takes no chances that Ella’s decision to leave her husband and children will be seen in a negative light. From the moment of his introduction, it is clear that he has mistresses and is conscending. Yet when he discovers her affair with the manuscript’s, even this unlikable man is remarkably understanding:
I don’t blame you Ella, I deserve it. I neglected you, and you looked for compassion elsewhere.
The prose throughout the novel is over-scented, constantly attempting a kind of emotional wisdom that lacks foundation in either believable characters or even the ideas of Rumi. The morning call to prayer is described as being ‘beautiful, rich and mysterious. And yet at the same time there is something uncanny about it, almost eerie. Just like love.’ (345)
Even after the death of the manuscript’s author, emotional depth is absent. Ella simply says that she has learned ‘that ‘death was not something to be afraid of’. This last-gasp at profundity is immediately undercut by her chirpily telling her daughter,
‘I’m going to Amsterdam. They have incredibly cute little flats, overlooking the canals. I can rent one of those. I’ll need to improve my biking.’
The Wilding by Maria McCann
The Wilding is set in England in 1672, just after the end of the Civil War. Jonathan Dymond, a young man who works as a cider-maker, lives with his loving parents and leads a quiet, life, travelling around the neighbouring villages with his mobile cider-press. When Jonathan’s father receives a mysterious letter from his dying brother, Jonathan grows suspicious and decides to visit his uncle’s widow to investigate. At his Aunt Harriet’s house he meets Tamar, one of his aunt’s servants, and begins to unravel the circumstances surrounding his uncle’s death.
This is a well-written novel, with a fast-moving plot, which seems well-researched (not least in the minutiae of cider making). Thematically, it ably charts Jonathan’s journey from an initially bucolic existence to one that is more alive to the tensions and dangers inherent in people’s relations. The main problem with the novel is that the characters lack depth, especially its protagonist, which makes it difficult to be interested in his minor evolution. Perhaps the use of at least one other perspective in the novel (for example, Tamar’s) would have brought variety and balance to the book, which for the most part lacks genuine tension- even when two women try to murder Jonathan, there is no real sense of danger. For the most part, the novel also lacks a strong sense of period. There is rarely the impression of a different culture and sensibility to that of the present.
Zero History by William Gibson
Zero History is the third novel in Gibson’s foray into the contemporary techno-thriller, a genre whose rules he subverts (or perhaps ignores), as this novel lacks the violence and sense of imminent catastrophe that such books rely on. The plot centres around the attempt to locate the designer of a secret brand of clothing, with the aim of getting them to design clothing for the US military. Behind this, there are occassional , vague hints that Something Big Is About to Happen. Barring a few, somewhat dutiful chase sequences, the book mainly consists of fairly roughdrawn, though likable, characters serving as vehicles for Gibson’s observations of our contemoporary Western mores. At their best, these allow Gibson to make familiar moments into something unsettling.
She hung up before he could say goodbye. Stood there with her arm cocked, phone at ear-level, suddenly aware of the iconic nature of her unconscious pose. Some very considerable part of the gestural language of public places, that has once belonged to cigarettes, now belonged to phones. (103)
He was elsewhere, the way people were before their screens, his expression that of someone piloting something, looking into a middle distance that had nothing to do with geography. (179)
At other times, Gibson seems to be trying to hard to impart significance to the quotidian, as in this description of driving through London, which seems somewhat sub-Pynchon.
Like entering a game, a layout, something flat and mazed, arbitrary but fractallly constructed from beautifully detailed but somehow unreal buildings, its order perhaps shuffled since the last time he’d been here. The pixels that comprised it were familiar, but it remained only provisionally mapped, a protean territory, a box of tricks, some possibly even benign. (37)
For the most part, the prose is taut and smooth flowing, though Gibson does over-punctuate at times, as in the following sentence which has too much going on it.
The van slowed, honked, changed lanes, stopped briefly, turned. (373)
The novel is written in short numbered sections of between 1 and 6 pages, which serve to flick attention between Hollis and Milgrim, the two narrative subjects of the novel. Though this makes the book easy to read, it might have been profitable to deepen our understanding of some of the other characters- even a brief diversion from the alternation of the two main characters would suffice. Another issue with the novel (and its predecessors in the trilogy) is the sense that Gibson likes his main characters too much for anything truly bad to happen to them. As such, the resolution of the novel is somewhat flat, with most the main characters forming stable couples, a modern equivalent of the traditional all-the-good-people-get-married kind of ending. With regard to the (somewhat half-heartened) promises of a paradigmatic shift in society, this turns out be somewhat ludicrous- a way of predicting the financial markets’ behaviour seventeen minutes in advance. Gibson has written better, more imaginative novels, with a greater sense of threat, than this. Though an enjoyable read, it is not recommended for the prize.
The Faithless Wife by Jo Eames
The Faithless Wife is billed as a novel about secrets, in both the present and the past. Kate, the main character of the novel, has run away to Menorca, a place she last visited as a child. After seeing a body on the beach, she finds that the dead man was an old man named Luis she had met as a child. The novel is written in short sections that shift quickly between Kate’s present, her childhood, and Luis’s experiences during the Spanish civil war. Though there’s a lot of promising historical material in this latter narrative strand, Eames struggles to portray the people during this era in a convincing manner. Many of its characters speak as if auditioning for the part of Revolutionary:
“Married? You? I’d like to see the man brave enough to try that, comrade. Even Stalin might not be man of steel enough for that job” (23)
“This time it’s our land, our people’s land. We’re not mercenaries or occupiers. We’ve sworn loyalty to the Second Republic that the people elected, that we elected. And the only way I’m giving up this island to an invader is with my last breath!” (115)
This wooden characterisation means that the past is not particularly interesting, which thus deprives the gradual revelations about it (during the present) of their importance. This isn’t helped by some fairly unsubtle foreshadowing. Luis tells Kate:
“You think adults can’t keep secrets. You think secrets are for kids, eh? To keep things from their parents? No, my child, the adults have their secrets too. Here especially, on this island, there are many, many secrets. Too many.” (90)
As for Kate’s secret- that she has cancer -this occupies curiously little narrative space during the first half of the novel. Though this can be explained as part of her wish to avoid the truth, the sense of threat and fear is not enough to generate interest in the ‘mystery’ of what she has come to the island to escape.
After my conversation with the organisers of the July 2009 Urumqi protests, I’ve been thinking a lot about protest, in all its forms. Slavoj Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes is a book that aims to convince the reader that the ills of the world will not be solved peacefully. What is needed, he argues, is revolutionary terror. The book is a sustained attack on the idea that tolerance and democratic debate are going to effect meaningful change (which for Zizek means the end of capitalism). It’s a complicated book whose argument wanders at times, and occasionally gets lost in score-settling, or Hegelian nitpicking, but it is always readable, provocative and entertaining, not least because for Zizek everything- whether it be Shakespeare or a Jennifer Anniston film -can be illustrative. As a Pynchon scholar I was particularly interested in how he deals with alternative communities, whether or not these are genuinely subversive, or just a form of escape which does nothing to threaten that which they are fleeing from. If I rely heavily on Zizek’s quotes to summarise some of the book’s main arguments, it’s because it seems a safer way to avoid any ‘violence’ to his ideas.
The book’s aim “is not to defend Stalinist terror, and so on, as such, but to render problematic the all-too-easy liberal-democratic alternative… the misfortunes of the fate of revolutionary terror confront us with the need- not to reject terror in toto, but- to reinvent it” (6-7).
In terms of the accepted ideas about which to put a human face to capitalism, he argues that “When one confronts a world which presents itself as tolerant and pluralist, disseminated, with no center, one has to attack the underlying structuring principle which sustains this atonality- say, the secret qualifications of “tolerance” which excludes as “intolerant” certain critical questions, or the secret qualifications which exclude as a “threat to freedom” questions about the limits of the existing freedoms. (30)
He goes on to critique the idea of opting out of the system:
“Postmodernity” as the “end of grand narratives” is one of the names for this predicament in which the multitude of local fictions thrives against the background of scientific discourse as the only remaining universality deprived of sense. Which is why the politics advocated by many a leftist today, that of countering the devastating world-dissolving effect of capitalism modernization by inventing new fictions, imagining “new worlds”… is inadequate or, at least, profoundly ambiguous: it all depends on how these fictions relate to the underlying Real of capitalism- do they just supplement it with the imaginary multitude, as the postmodern local narratives do, or do they disturb its functioning? (33)
Zizek is withering about the way in which many of our ‘ethical’ choices involve choosing how we consume:
True freedom is not a freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between a strawberry cake and a chocolate cake; true freedom overlaps with necessity, one makes a truly free choice when one’s chouice puts at stake one’s very existence- one does it because one simply “cannot do otherwise.” When one’s country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, the reason given is not “you are free to choose,” but: “Can’t you see this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?” (70-71)
At times the worldview he presents veers towards a form of Gnosticism (much like Pynchon’s):
The fact that God created the world does not display His omnipotence and excess of goodness, but rather his debilitating limitations. (153)
Many of the book’s best lines belong to Robespierre. This is his riposte to the moderates who deplored the excesses.
Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution? What is this spirit of persecution that has come to revise, so to speak, the one that broke our chains? But what sure judgement can one make of the effects that follow these great commotions? Who can mark, after the event, the exact point at which the waves of popular insurrection should break? (163)
Robespierre addressing those who complained about the innocent victims of revolutionary terror: “Stop shaking the tyrant’s bloody robe in my face, or I will believe that you wish to put Rome in chains”. (471)
On the anti-globalisation movement:
This movement also succumbs to the temptation to transform a critique of capitalism itself (centred on economic mechanisms, forms of work organization, and profit extraction) into a critique of “imperialism”… with the (tacit) idea of mobilizing capitalist mechanisms within another, more “progressive” framework. (181)
On the power of ‘failed’ revolutionary Events:
The ultimate factual result of the [Chinese] Cultural Revolution, its catastrophic failure and reversal into the recent capitalistic transformation, does not exhaust the real of the Cultural Revolution: the eternal Idea of the Cultural Revolution survives its defeat in socio-historical reality, it continues to lead an underground spectral life of the ghosts of the failed utopias which haunt the future generations, patiently awaiting their next resurrection. (207)
With reference to Pynchon and the failed Utopias that appear in his work (such as Lemuria in Inherent Vice), it makes me think that though it can be a form of escape, to posit some form of Utopia is always an essentially hopeful act.
For Zizek, the real problem is what happens after a revolutionary Event, how one keeps revolutionary momentum.
The problem is thus: how to regulate/institutionalize the very violent egalitarian democratic impulse, how to prevent it being drowned in democracy in the second sense of the term (regulated procedure)? If there is no way to do it, then “authentic democracy” remains a momentary utopian outburst which, on the proverbial morning after, has to be normalized. The harsh consequence to be accepted here is that this excess of egalitarian democracy over the democratic procedure can only “instituinalize” itself in the guise of its opposite, as revolutinary democratic terror. (266)
One of Zizek’s main strengths is overturning conventional wisdom about what rhetorical positions we should occupy:
The influx of immigrant workers from the post-Communist countries is not the consequence of multiculturalist tolerance- it is indeed part of the strategy of capital to hold in check workers’ demands… the lesson the Left should learn from it is that one should not… merely oppose populist anti-immigration racism with multiculturalist openness, obliterating its displaced class content (267)
Given how much of Pynchon’s work deals with delusion and escape, I was interested in what Zizek has to say about fetishes:
They can be our inner spiritual experiences (which tell us that our social reality is mere appearance which does not really matter), our children (for whose good we do all the humiliating things in our jobs) and so on and so forth (298)
Fetishists are not dreamers lost in their private worlds, they are thoroughly “realist”, able to accept the ways things effectively are- since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to canel the fall impact of reality. (296)
Zizek on how democracy has its own constraints:
When Rosa Luxembourg wrote that “dictatorship consists in the way in which democracy is used and not in its abolition” her point was not that democracy is an empty framework which can be used by different political agents (Hitler also came to power through- more or less -free democratic elections), but that there is a “class bias” inscribed into this. (379)
Zizek then goes on to offer what looks like an argument in favour of some kind of revolutionary faith, without which one cannot see the potential for change.
Liberals claim that capitalism is today so global and all encompassing they they cannot “see” any serious alternative to it… The repy to this is that, in so far as this is true, they do not see tout court: the task is not to see the outside, but to see in the first place (to grasp the nature of contemporary capitalism)- the Marxist wager is that, when we “see” this, we see enough, including how to go beyond it. (393)
The following seems to be a fairly clear endorsement of ‘violence’ (though what that means is not yet clear, i.e. is it literal violence or symbolic?)
One should not renounce violence ; one should rather reconceptualise it as defensive violence, a defense of the autonomous space created by subtraction (408)
Zizek also offers a way of evaluating subtraction (e.g. the alternative communities that occur throughout Pynchon, especially in Vineland).
Is it a subtraction/withdrawl which leaves the field from which it withdraws intact (or even functions as its inherent supplement , like the “subtraction” from social reality to one’s true Self proposed by New Age meditation); or does it violently shake up the field from which it withdraws? (412)
It’s only in the afterword that Zizek starts to signal what he might mean by ‘violence’. Unfortunately, this seems to shift, initially from a kind of eye-of-the-beholder definition of violence (that differentiates between “radical emancipatory violence against the ex-oppressors and the violence which serves the continuation and/or establishment of hierarchical relations of exploitation and domination” (471)) to talk of violence that is really non-violence. He calls for
a passive revolution which, rather than directly confronting power , gradually undermines it in the manner of the subterranean digging of a mole, through abstaining from particiapation in the everyday rituals and practices that sustain it. (474)
However, Zizek concludes by arguing that the distinction between literal violence and non-violence is less important than whether the “violence” is “divine violence”.
What is and what is not divine violence?… it can appear in many forms: from “non-violent” protests (strikes, civil disobedience) through individual killings to organized or spontaneous violent rebellions and war proper. (483)
As for evaluating such acts, these are said to be
located ‘beyond good and evil’, in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what, to an ordinary moral consciousness, cannot but appear as “immoral” acts of killing, one has no right to condemn them, since they are the reply to years, centuries even, of systematic state violence and economic exploitation. (478)… If a class is systematically deprived of their rights, of their very dignity as persons, they are eo ipso also released from their duties toward the social order, since this order is no longer their ethical substance. (479)
This is about as unambiguous as it gets:
Sometimes one has to kill in order to keep one’s hands clean; not as a heroic compromise of dirtying one’s hands for a higher goal. (484)
However, in the final pages, Zizek again muddies the waters by suggesting that no one is able to pass judgement on whether an act of violence is ‘divine’ or not, which if he means it, to some extent undermines many of the judgements he passes on the value of various failed revolutions.
There are no “objective” criteria enabling us to identify an act of violence as divine: the same act, that to an external observer, appears merely as an irrational outburst of violence, can be divine for those engaged in it. (485)
The subtleties of this may be lost on me. But to me this seems dangerously close to denying us the right to condemn the killings by a lynch mob, the suicide bomber in a school, or acts of ethnic cleansing.
A few things worth a look-
William Vollmann’s review of Ted Conover’s ‘The Routes of Man’; a new take on Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish‘; the Great Male Novelists compared; why it isn’t worth being on Amazon sometimes; clip from the new Walker Percy documentary; and Zadie Smith’s rules for writers.
A while ago I posted a list of US journals to submit to (courtesy of Bookfox), to which I’d like to add this list from Perpetual Folly, which ranks the journals according to how they are represented in the 2010 Pushcart Prize anthology. Though the two lists have considerable overlap (the domination of Ploughshares and Conjunctions for example) there are also some surprises, such as the Iowa Review and Glimmer Train being much lower down. I hope it will also be useful for alerting people to journals they may not be familiar with (my submissions to Noon and The Threepenny Review are already in the post…).