Riyoko Ikeda, Claudine

ClaudineClaudine by Riyoko Ikeda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 2018 English translation of Riyoko Ikeda’s 1978 shōjo manga about the brief life and tragic loves of the eponymous protagonist is being hailed, to quote Wikipedia, as “one of the earliest manga to feature a transgender protagonist.” While I’m sure this is literally true, it might be a bit misleading. The word “transgender,” while it was coined in 1965, was not to my knowledge in popular or common use in English at the time of the short graphic novel’s creation, and the then-more-common word “transsexual” is supplied in the book’s English-language dialogue (I am not aware of the nuances of corresponding Japanese terms). Further complicating matters, even “transsexual” is anachronistic for the book since Ikeda’s setting is early 20th-century France and her narrator a psychologist of the period: at this time, concepts like “inversion” might have been used by the sexual scientist to describe Claudine’s dilemma.

I emphasize all of this history at the outset because this slim, sturdy paperback edition of Claudine from Seven Seas Entertainment is a beautiful one, but it lacks much in the way of contextualization—contrast the informative introduction supplied by the translator to the recent translation of another shōjo masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas. Readers coming to Claudine for the first time and expecting a text in line with contemporary thinking on gender, a positive transgender representation, will certainly be disappointed. The book is too good, qua comics, though, to be simply hurled across the room in frustration.

claudine2This impassioned and operatic tragedy is structured by the three amorous involvements, and the three corresponding encounters with the psychologist narrator, of a young aristocratic woman named Claudine. Claudine begins at the age of eight to identify as a man, despite her mother’s objection and her society’s rejection. In adolescence, Claudine falls in love with the family’s hapless maid, Maura, a relationship doomed because of its cross-class as well as cross-gender nature. Later, Claudine becomes attached to the high- school librarian as well as to the librarian’s romantic vision of literature that is incarnated in this very book’s very emotional texture. Claudine’s final, fated love is for a dancer at university (a girl encountered twice earlier in the novel), and the severance of this relationship brings Claudine to a crisis. For despite Claudine’s insistence on an innate male identity, French society does not permit her to live as a man; consequently, her lovers tend to terminate their affairs by insisting that, to quote the librarian, “But, Claudine. You’re a girl…”

There is still more plot than I have recounted in this 100-page book, including the suggestion that Claudine has inherited “inversion” from the aristocratic family’s beloved patriarch. This hint that, like the psychologist’s concluding narration (“With her imperfect ‘body,’ Claudine nevertheless gave her everything and dared to love a woman”) and the book’s climax in self-slaughter, will not endear some contemporary readers to this supposedly pathbreaking but also sensationalistic and potentially exploitative story full of “queer tragedy” stereotypes.

On the other hand, Ikeda’s romantic narrative invites such sympathy, and her art style is moreover so beautiful—a dazzling performance full of architectural splendor and decorative verve: Ikeda stipples and she hatches; she puts patterns in the flowers and the cobbles and the sconces; flames and flora dance fatally across the pages—that Claudine has to be hailed as a fine graphic novel, a superb example of comics. It should be seen in its multiple historical contexts, and queried as to its ideological character, yes, but also appreciated as a work of art we are lucky to have in a quality translation and edition.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!


Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: StoriesWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories by Raymond Carver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A character in this iconic collection’s final story thinks of her daughter’s truancy as “another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies.” This 1981 book, which perhaps more than any other made its author’s name as a figurehead of minimalist fiction, might be subtitled “low-rent tragedies.” In content, it tells stories of working-class and lower-middle-class white American life, usually in the west or northwest. It is about men and women struggling with work and poverty, adultery and domestic violence, divorce and alcoholism. Anyone who ever experienced or witnessed any of what’s described in these stories—and alcoholic desperation in the 1980s was the background, though happily not the foreground, to some of my own earliest memories—will be able smell the stale cigarette smoke molecularly bonded to the pages.

A writer can use several authorial strategies to save such subject matter from exploitation or artless severity. Carver himself tended to prefer what we might call the Chekhovian tactic of sympathetic amplitude: giving us his characters from the inside, allowing them, even in the third person, their own voice and language and sensibility with which to tell their own stories. Carver’s later fiction, his work of the mid-to-late ’80s before his death in 1988, exhibits such a classic style of story-writing.

The fiction in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, though, reflects a different aesthetic: that of its highly interventionist editor, Gordon Lish. For Lish, as I understand it, fiction was less about the mimesis of consciousness than it was about intensive semiosis. If Carver descended from Chekhov’s humanism, Lish comes down from that other and much different instituter of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, with his almost mathematical philosophies of composition and his proto-camp approach to sentimental subjects. Lish was a reader of Shklovsky, Barthes, and Kristeva; he was a friend and companion of DeLillo. He believed literature was the arrangement of sentences for maximal effect rather than the expression in language of some pre-linguistic, self-sufficient essence popularly called the self.

Lish’s approach to Carver, then, was to delete anything that might seem extraneous, often paring down Carver’s stories by 30% or even 50%. He excised over-explanation and lopped off discursive conclusions, favoring rather the stark dialogue, the incised image, and the abrupt ending.

A classic example is the story “The Bath” (appearing in What We Talk About) in contrast to its earlier/later iteration, “A Small, Good Thing” (appearing in Cathedral). Lish’s version is a brief and benumbed account of a couple’s grief and terror after their son is struck by a car on his birthday. Carver’s text, by contrast, lets the emotions find utterance rather than evoking them by their verbal absence. Lish, faithful to writers like Joyce, Hemingway, and O’Connor, tries to induce readers to feel by withholding all feeling from the story’s own tone:

The father gazed at his son, the small chest inflating and deflating under the covers. He felt more fear now. He began shaking his head. He talked to himself like this. The child is fine. Instead of sleeping at home, he’s doing it here. Sleep is the same wherever you do it.

But there is a problem of means and ends here: Joyce wanted to show his fellow citizens the ugly reality of their political and cultural paralysis, Hemingway was trying to craft and communicate a stoic ethic that could replace modernity’s vanished traditions, and O’Connor was trying to make us recognize the necessity of the divine by presenting us with its absence. Their story-writing styles of what Joyce called “scrupulous meanness” had serious political, ethical, and religious purposes. They contrasted their cold forms with their warm contents for a reason, and their intended effect on the reader was more than a sensational one.

What purpose did Lish bring to Carver when he killed his darlings? Carver wanted to tell the stories of the world he knew in a language that was not over-stylized but rather naturalistic and discursive. Lish, by contrast, wanted those stories to be objects he could find aesthetically interesting according to his own theories. This disjunction leads, in my experience, to the curdling of modernist irony into postmodern sarcasm. Lish turns Carver’s stories into near-cartoons of curtailed emotion, as if to mock the idea of feeling at all. In his hands, Carver’s fictions end with anti-epiphanies, shock tactics, as in “Tell the Women We’re Going,” with its calmly-stated last-paragraph double-murder ( which had developed into a full-fledged suspenseful scene in Carver’s earlier draft):

He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.

I derive much of my information about Carver’s drafts and Lish’s interventions from Brian Evenson’s recent book-length appreciation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Evenson, though better known nowadays as a fiction writer, was one of the first scholars to study the Carver/Lish issue, precisely because as a college student he had so fallen in love with Lish-phase Carver, and particularly with this collection.

Evenson admits that Lish’s dealings with Carver verge upon, or even cross into the territory of, the unethical. Added to that is the political question of the high-powered editor’s not allowing stories from the provinces into circulation until he’d shorn them of all that the jaded metropolitan would regard as overly sincere or sentimental. Yet Evenson wants to defend What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as a cohesive collection that communicates an authentic nihilism. On this reading, we might say that Carver was trying for Chekhov but reaching only Dreiser, so Lish was right to use a few deft excisions to turn him into Kafka instead.

Kafka is Evenson’s own comparison: “So when I got to Carver, I had Beckett and Kafka as models for what literature could do. Which probably made me see Carver in a very eccentric light.” Despite the self-mockery in the word “eccentric,” Evenson is, I believe, trying to rescue Carver from his own reputation by making us re-evaluate his style. Later in the book, Evenson notes that his older classmates, hipper to the literary journal scene in the ’80s, were able to place Carver among the other minimalists and dirty realists of the time: “people like Richard Ford or Bobbie Ann Mason or Ann Beattie or Tobias Wolff.”

To put it somewhat unkindly, though, readers who don’t have MFAs do not necessarily care for these “crafty” short story writers who tend to feel as mannered and formulaic as “genre fiction” is supposed to be. This increasingly common observation is in fact one source, beyond his obvious gifts, of Evenson’s own success as a writer who works in the mode of the weird. There has been in this century a turn in literary fiction away from artisanal realism to artisanal fabulism, which does indeed descend, among other writers, from Kafka.

Evenson’s slyly polemical originality is to offer us the Carver of What We Talk About as an inhabitant of this fantastical lineage rather than the realist one, of seeing him as the companion less of the dirty realists than the magical realists: the explorer of a slightly different type of bloody chamber, but a bloody chamber nonetheless. The Carver of Lish’s invention, no less than Lish himself, is a child of Poe more than of Chekhov.

All of the above is literary sociology, but what about literary criticism? Are these stories, taken at face value, worth reading? Read all at once, What We Talk About is too much of a good thing (which sounds like a be-Lished Carver title). As I read them, I could only admire their compression and concision and the often brutal punchlines these artistic priorities allow. But this is a limited aesthetic, and the effect of reading one story after another in this mode is slapstick. The less up-to-date, less polished instrument of Carver’s own style, though it can do less with a single page, can probably accomplish more in a story or a book. I hardly remember a character from these stories, because they come as vivid images but don’t stay long enough to impress, still less to ramify. What I remember is a tone, an unforgettable one.

The title story is justly famous for its non-communicative dialogue and darkening tone. “The Calm” is a surprising study in homoeroticism, “After the Denim” an almost sweet and definitely scary paean to marriage under the stresses of illness and age. “I Could See the Smallest Things” has a loopy, Lynchian slug-killing suburban surrealism. My favorite is “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a true affront, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I’d quote from it, but you need to read the whole thing; I doubt Andrea Dworkin herself ever wrote with such cosmic pessimism about men, women, and sex.

Such a story validates Evenson’s claim that Carver, under Lish’s influence, attains true originality: he gives us, or they give us, lower-class American life seen under the blacklight of a meaningless eternity. They are a chortling, bleak poetry preferable to the second-rate humanism of Chekhov’s mere imitators.

“Our moods do not believe each other,” said Emerson; in one mood, I want Lish’s Carver, and in another mood I want Carver unLished. Which Carver is better? I leave it to you, but if you want to see what Poe or Kafka might have written in the 1980s about my aunts and uncles and my parents’ friends, then you should read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life

Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged LifeMinima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life by Theodor W. Adorno

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It helps to know that this 1951 book, an unclassifiable philosophical masterpiece consisting of 153 divisions ranging in length from the aphorism to the brief essay, was written largely in the light of Southern California. Adorno was a German-Jewish philosopher and member of the Frankfurt School, an institute devoted to the investigation of social phenomena from a neo-Marxist perspective inflected by psychoanalysis and German Idealism. Exiled from Germany by Nazi race laws, Adorno spent the war years, among other exiles like Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenberg, under and within the even yellow blue-sky sunlight of Los Angeles.

Minima Moralia, a book whose ironic title suggests how little remains in the middle of the 20th century of morality or of a good life to which it might pertain, radiates a sense of malign benignity, of catastrophe, crisis, and slaughter concealed behind a deceptive pleasantry; Adorno denounces midcentury society as a whited sepulcher whose consumer pleasures and technological marvels mask a process of unremitting domination whose already completed climax was the Holocaust.

Adorno’s critical disposition has been so mocked and memed by now, stereotyped with evasive irony as mere gloom-mongering by those who suffered and thought less than he did, that his work can be difficult to discuss. Let’s begin a discussion, then, not with his infamous judgments—about the crypto-fascism of jazz and cinema and astrology and The Odyssey and just about everything else in consumer society or in western civilization at large—but with the philosophy that brought him to his doleful conclusions.

Adorno was an adept of the philosophical method called dialectics. In a hysteron proteron worthy of Pynchon, he explains the origin and the dilemma of dialectics three pages from the end of his book:

The dialectic stems from the sophists; it was a mode of discussion whereby dogmatic assertions were shaken and, as the public prosecutors and comic writers put it, the lesser word made the stronger. It subsequently developed, as against philosophia perennis, into a perennial method of criticism, a refuge for all the thoughts of the oppressed, even those unthought by them. But as a means of proving oneself right it was also from the first an instrument of domination…

The dialectic, then, abjures transcendental truth, truth that stands outside the world as posited by Plato and his followers, in favor of immanent truth consummating itself by ideological conflict within time and collective human experience. Hence its use as a weapon of the oppressed against the dogmas of their rulers, but also its serviceability to anyone who would shake any conviction whatever, even in service to the cynicism of power. Ideally, dialectics says that truth would be the progressive self-realization and actualization in history of human reason, until we reach our perfected form in the ethical society, whether conceived as the modern nation-state, a communist future, or our own end-of-history liberal capitalism.

In the dedicatory preface to Minima Moralia, inscribed to his collaborator Max Horkheimer on his 50th birthday (also Valentine’s Day), Adorno declares his intention to correct Hegel’s concept of the dialectic, because it subsumes every element of experience in a totalizing progress that vanquishes all difference. Adorno thus dissents from Hegel’s dialectics, which the 20th-century post-Holocaust thinker arraigns for neglecting the individual and preparing the way for totalitarianism. But you can’t outwit a dialectician: he will only synthesize your antithesis with his thesis. In this way, Adorno is faithful to Hegel, presents him with a Valentine bouquet, precisely by criticizing his system. This is the Frankfurt School method of immanent critique: assailing a theory in its own terms for not realizing its own potential: “the self-criticism of reason is its truest morality.” The dialectic should mean liberation; if the historical process has produced only oppression, then the dialectician must side with those oppressed by the historical process if it is ever to be righted again. “The whole,” Adorno argues contra Hegel, “is the false.”

Adorno wrote an earlier book with Horkheimer called The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). There they describe how the human mind seeks to escape the domination of external nature by learning how to dominate nature in turn. This rational mastery of nature is an emancipation, because it frees humanity from subjection to the external world (often in the most literal ways: stemming floods, dousing fires, etc.) along with the superstitions and myths devised to propitiate the uncaring cosmos. On the other hand, as the mind brings more and more of nature under its command, and enthralls or oppresses as well those human beings the rational ruling classes designate as irrational (women, the lower orders, people of other races, etc.), it re-enslaves humanity at large to nature, now justified as “the way things are” disclosed by reason.

This theory is the necessary background to the manifold denunciations of modern culture undertaken by Adorno in Minima Moralia. Often not distinguishing among liberal, fascist, and communist societies, Adorno sees all of 20th-century modernity as a progressive enclosure of the human within mechanical systems that crush thought, spontaneity, complexity, creativity, and individuality. There are passages in this book where he links the dissolution of interpersonal courtesy (which, with a respectful concern for beauty and distance, mediates power relations between people), the driving of automobiles (which accommodates humanity to the inhuman mechanism), and even the decline of hotels (which, he argues, have become impersonal, sexless prison-clinics) to the rise of fascism: everywhere he looks in 1951 Adorno sees naked power perfected as an all-encompassing social machine.

It is ironic, then, that Adorno should mainly be known today outside universities as a figurehead for what the political right calls “cultural Marxism.” In fact, Adorno was not much of a Marxist: in the final lines of this book, he comes very close to saying outright that he only still believes in Marxism “because it is absurd,” i.e., as a kind of desperate religious faith the abandonment of which would mean siding against fascism’s victims.

Elsewhere, he contends, in a passage that would not find a ready reception on Twitter today, that only the educated bourgeoisie can even be trusted to create revolution because only they, as the indigenes of bourgeois society, are capable of its immanent critique:

There is to be found in African students of political economy, Siamese at Oxford, and more generally in diligent art-historians and musicologists of petty-bourgeois origins, a ready inclination to combine with the assimilation of new material, an inordinate respect for all that is established, accepted, acknowledged. […] One must have tradition in oneself, to hate it properly. […] It would be poor psychology to assume that exclusion arouses only hate and resentment; it arouses too a possessive, intolerant kind of love, and those whom repressive culture has held at a distance can easily enough become its most diehard defenders.

Since I, as a semi-diligent writer and critic of petty-bourgeois origins, am grouped with the naive African and Siamese students as incapable of truly hating tradition because we do not really possess it, let me allow that even here Adorno has a point: I have certainly never been fond of the canon-smashing (as opposed to canon-expanding) impulse indulged by some who claim to be the heirs of Adorno’s critical theory, and perhaps that is because I came to the canon on my own, not as my inheritance or even, except desultorily, my education, but precisely as a counter to what I found at home and in school. I am always astounded by people who speak as if Shakespeare were my passive patrimony as a white man and not my passport out of the white-flight Sunday-football suburbs.

My main argument here, though, is that Adorno’s high-handed lecture hardly represents orthodox Marxism: it is a professor’s dream of bookish revolution. Adorno made a fetish—or, more charitably, an article of faith—out of “the oppressed,” for the good reason that he had as a Jew joined their number despite his privileged upbringing, but he remained a defender, however ambivalent, of the high culture to which he was the legatee. He would have little patience for attempts to achieve equality by lowering standards:

Condescension, and thinking oneself no better, are the same. To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power, and to develop in oneself the coarseness, insensibility and violence needed to exert domination.

The cultural deprivation of the oppressed, their exclusion from educational attainment, is the very mark of their oppression; to adapt one’s own behavior to it, then, is a patronizing reaffirmation of inequality:

In the end, glorification of the splendid underdogs is nothing other than glorification of the splendid system that makes them so.

Here we come to Adorno’s complete contempt for mass culture, which I find so refreshing in these poptimistic times. Borrowing Walter Benjamin’s insight that every document of culture is a document of barbarism, Adorno explains the dual character of high art, of the classics. On the one hand, these works, with their model of a richer, more various, more intense, and even sometimes more just life, implicitly rebuke by contrast the injustice and privation we encounter in the actual world. But the classics are unable to bring about a better state of affairs, existing as they do in the autonomous, thus impotent, realm of art. Moreover, because they themselves become adjuncts of oppression through their contexts as (usually) the work of elite individuals and through their function as class markers or nationalist props, they testify to the need for actual remediation of our social life. Pop culture, though, as pacifying product prefabricated by the culture industry, offers its audiences only a smooth surface unable to challenge or surprise; beneath its shiny veneer, it is all barbarism, no culture:

The stagnation of the culture industry is probably not the result of monopolization, but was a property of so-called entertainment from the first. Kitsch is composed of a structure of invariables which the philosophical lie ascribes to its solemn designs. On principle, nothing in them must change, since the whole mischief is intended to hammer into men that nothing must change.

Hence Adorno’s praise for difficult modernist art like that of Kafka and Beckett, art that impedes immediate understanding to make impossible passive reception or evasion of the Rilkean command, “You must change your life.”

Adorno’s analysis no doubt misses much of value in the wide and various field of popular art, and fails to foresee much that was to come: recognizing only high culture vs. trash/kitsch, he elides not only the middlebrow but also what we might call the fringe, from which so much startling and powerful work in cinema, music, comics, and even literature and painting was to emerge after the 1950s, as we can see for instance in the criticism of a writer like the late Mark Fisher. Still, Adorno’s point holds when we honestly compare the most “artistic” or “political” big-budget movies with the abyssal ironies and involuted passions of a Goethe or a Mann, a Herman Melville or a Toni Morrison.

If the conservatives who rail against “cultural Marxism” were to rise to the challenge of reading Adorno’s mind-bending prose, they might find an ally rather than an adversary. Adorno judges socialist utopianism vulgar, merely a power trip that can only produce images of the good life out of experiences of the bad life, leading inexorably to totalitarianism; faithful to Proust, he finds sustenance in the past, in the old bourgeois world eliminated by leveling mass society and fascist politics, and even in the domestic realm from which images of peace and freedom come:

Unpolitical attempts to break out of the bourgeois family usually lead only to deeper entanglement in it, and it sometimes seems as if the fatal germ-cell of society, the family, were at the same time the nurturing germ-cell of uncompromising pursuit of another. With the family there passes away, while the system lasts, not only the most effective agency of the bourgeoisie, but also the resistance which, though repressing the individual, also strengthened, perhaps even produced him. The end of the family paralyses the forces of opposition. The rising collectivist order is a mockery of a classless one: together with the bourgeois it liquidates the Utopia that once drew sustenance from motherly love. 

This nostalgia, motivated partially by the danger faced by Adorno’s own persecuted parents in Germany (he notes the Nazis’ penchant for terrorizing and murdering the elderly), accounts for his essays’ frequent allusions to fairy tales and children’s books (Struwwelpeter, Alice), which, he suggests, having been left out of the dialectic of high art, may disclose an otherness un-subsumed by progress. Just before his elegy to the family, he even recants his generation’s oedipal revolt:

Even the outdated, inconsistent, self-doubting ideas of the older generation are more open to dialogue than the slick stupidities of Junior. Even the neurotic oddities and deformities of our elders stand for character, for something humanly achieved, in comparison to pathic health, infantilism raised to the norm. One realizes with horror that earlier, opposing one’s parents because they represented the world, one was often secretly the mouthpiece, against a bad world, of one even worse.

Adorno’s suspicion of modern youth validates more than almost anything his conflation of fascist, communist, and liberal societies, all of which weaponize the young to disarticulate any institutions that stand in the way of total state or market administration, from the requisitioning of Hitler Youth to Maoist Red Guards struggle-sessioning their professors to American teenagers insisting in the name of consumerism on every fad and trend.

The denunciation of “Junior” was to prove prophetic during the upheavals of the late 1960s, when Adorno was shamed, protested, and humiliated by student radicals (“If Adorno is left in peace, capitalism will never cease”), a sustained assault by figures who would now be labeled social justice warriors that probably hastened his death from a heart attack in summer 1969. According to Stuart Jeffries’s entertaining 2016 popular history of the Frankfurt School, Grand Hotel Abyss, Adorno’s colleague Herbert Marcuse enjoined him to sympathize with the protestors, but Adorno, while agreeing with many of their aims, remained adamant that their irrational violence was reminiscent of fascism.

While he makes overtures to feminism (“The feminine character is a negative imprint of domination”), his overall politics of gender and sexuality are conservative by today’s standards. He adopts the midcentury left’s Freudian homophobia, diagnosing fascist brutality as repressed homosexuality:

In the end the tough guys are the truly effeminate ones, who need the weaklings as their victims in order not to admit that they are like them. Totalitarianism and homosexuality belong together.

He argues that the downfall of traditional marriage in the name of true love is a symptom of a society that disguises capitalist cunning and selfishness behind immediate sensationalism, today honorifically labeled “desire,” and that therefore the most radical gesture is fidelity: “He alone loves who has the strength to hold fast to love.” He dismisses “actually-existing socialism” as totalitarian and mocks western left-liberal bohemians as a hive of radical-chic conformists:

What they subjectively fancy radical, belongs objectively so entirely to the compartment in the pattern reserved for their like, that radicalism is debased to abstract prestige, legitimation for those who know what an intellectual nowadays has to be for and what against. […] They are already just like the rest.

None of this is to say, though, that Adorno is not himself radical; he always goes to the root. It is what makes his prose, dialectic-governed, always coiling and reversing on itself, reading in Jephcott’s translation as if it were written less in German than in Hegelian, such a strenuous thrill. When you trace domination and oppression to their roots, you find that their roots are so deep they may never be extirpated, that they are entangled with the very structure of mind and world.

For example, in the remarkable penultimate passage of the book’s first of three major divisions, Adorno notes that time itself produces domination. Because we met our lover before any other lover, we think we may possess her; because we were born into a nation, we think latecomers like immigrants should be ejected. “Abstract temporal sequence,” not morality, governs our decisions: “I was here first,” a claim as morally dubious as the right of might. Even so, totally free love and totally open borders may not be entirely practical solutions; what are we to do about time, in which, after all, we live?

What we are not to do, Adorno makes clear, is to seek refuge in the occult. Minima Moralia climaxes with its famous “Theses against Occultism,” which condemn magical thinking as a confusion of categories that distracts us with over-literalized supernaturalism, ghosts and demons, from really changing our lives by altering our societies. Traditional religions like Christianity and Judaism are to be preferred to occultism, since they take the union of flesh and spirit, secularized in dialectical thinking, much more seriously. (Adorno even included an attraction to astrology as an indicator of latent fascism in his sociological research, anticipating today’s apparent trend of “straight men hating astrology.”) He likewise condemns the decadent modernism of Poe and Baudelaire, eulogized by his erstwhile friend Walter Benjamin, for contributing to fascist sensationalism, for offering a pseudo-relief for industrial society’s enervations that, requiring stronger and stronger stimuli to achieve the same nervous charge, leads eventually to the shock tactics of war and genocide.

Adorno lauds instead the more stringent modernism of Proust, Mann, Kafka, and, later, Beckett; their modernism was left behind by the mere trendiness of the culture industry with its ever-new product and content posing as a bold futurism, but precisely high modernism’s belatedness and its lack of complicity with kitsch make it a perennial resource for resistance to the dominant order. As a writer, Adorno aspires to the modernists’ literary devotion and asperity, to the post-Flaubertian demand that prose be a woven text that excludes “the word coined by commerce” and every other florid lie:

Properly written texts are like spiders’ webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm. They draw into themselves all the creatures of the air.

This unyielding radicalism, this fearlessness of thought and sedulousness of prose, makes Minima Moralia a masterpiece. Sold as a contribution to Marxism, it offers little in the way of political advice; it is so political that it is in fact apolitical. Generally read in the company of more locally Marxist thinkers like Gramsci or Lukács or academic epigones like Jameson and Eagleton, Adorno is perhaps better placed in the company of the great moralist-essayists: Montaigne, Johnson, Thoreau, Ruskin, Nietzsche, Weil, Baldwin, Sontag. He suggests that emancipation might not look like any extant or even imaginable socialist policy, but like the bliss of doing nothing whatever, of having nothing to do, of finding peace at last:

Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars. A mankind which no longer knows want will begin to have an inkling of the delusory, futile nature of all the arrangements hitherto made in order to escape want, which used wealth to reproduce want on a larger scale. Enjoyment itself would be affected, just as its present framework is inseparable from operating, planning, having one’s way, subjugating. Rien faire comme une bête, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky, ‘being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfillment’, might take the place of process, act, satisfaction, and so truly keep the promise of dialectical logic that it would culminate in its origin. None of the abstract concepts comes closer to fulfilled utopia than that of eternal peace.

As for the duty of the philosopher, it is to behold our damaged life in the ever-present consciousness that it is damaged, and that our very ability to imagine its repair accuses and exposes the present in the light of a messianic future portended by thought:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.

Adorno even provides perhaps the best definition of love I have ever read: “Love you will find only where you may show yourself weak without provoking strength.” If that—the palpable presence of love amid the evil of an everyday pleasantry stretched over an abattoir—is not reason enough to read Minima Moralia, I do not know what is.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Wesley Yang, The Souls of Yellow Folk

The Souls of Yellow FolkThe Souls of Yellow Folk by Wesley Yang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was once a pop-socio-psychological commonplace of American foreign-policy commentary that terrorism on behalf of political Islam was motivated less by ideology and more by an intractable reality of gender: young men with no prospects in their societies will inevitably become violently anti-social. Maybe people still say that about what used to be called “the Arab street,” but the consensus in the west today is that males (and other longstanding elites) can be displaced from their previous positions of ill-gotten authority, given no meaningful alternative but to atone quietly for the sins of their fathers, and that no unseemly consequence will follow from this dispossession. The tough-minded political pragmatism which led Virginia Woolf at her most radical to write in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” that “We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun” has given way to an imperative in the guise of a question: “Why Can’t We Hate Men?”

To the (limited) extent that it is a unified work and not just an omnium gatherum of a decade’s published journalism, Wesley Yang’s merrily mistitled essay collection is, often brilliantly, about this state of affairs: about those, sometimes Asian, often male, excluded from certain intangible perquisites of American life—love, success, security, belonging—in our time of the decomposition of the liberal polity under pressures both right-wing (the dominance of markets and market-thinking over every aspect of life) and left-wing (a totalizing identity politics that sets itself against hierarchy as such).

It begins with an essay that is germinal to the whole book, one published in 2008 in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre: “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho.” Meditating on his literal resemblance to the school shooter, Yang identifies Cho as a type of superfluous or underground man, but also identifies his alienation as inflected by an invisible racial politic: the non-erotic valuation of the Asian male. From Dostoevsky to Houellebecq: Cho was a loser not just in general, but a loser in the sexual marketplace.

A perfectly unremarkable Korean face—beady-eyed, brown-toned, a small plump-lipped mouth, eyebrows high off his eyelids, with crooked glasses perched on his nose. It’s not an ugly face, exactly; it’s not a badly made face. It’s just a face that has nothing to do with the desires of women in this country.

Yang—the most daring essayist currently trying (and apparently failing) to stay in the good graces of the liberal literati—does not justify Cho’s murder spree but seeks to understand it. In the essay’s finest polemical passage, he quotes Cho’s teacher, Nikki Giovanni, who pronounced his creative writing submissions “weird” and “intimidating,” before quoting Giovanni’s own weird and intimidating poetry from the height of the Black Power and Black Arts movements (“Do you know how to draw blood / Can you poison / Can you stab-a-Jew”). He comments:

Black militancy was something that many people admired, and many more felt sympathy toward, given the brutal history of enslavement, rape, terrorism, disenfranchisement, lynching, and segregation that blacks had endured in this country. And so you wonder what would have happened if, for instance, Cho’s poems (and thoughts) had found a way to connect his pain to his ethnic identity.

One of the questions of the collection, then, comes to be whether or not Asian-Americans, particularly men, should or even can avail themselves of the redress of identity politics to ameliorate their legitimate grievances.

The collection’s second essay, “Paper Tigers,” addresses the “bamboo ceiling” that prevents otherwise successful Asian-Americans from rising to the commanding heights of the American class/status structure—they stall at middle management and never get to be CEO, due to a combination of pernicious ethnic stereotyping and actual cultural difference. Yang, though, is interested less in those who pursue the bureaucratic solutions offered by identity politics than he is in those who take action to hack or game the system as they find it, getting coached on the western way of calibrated insouciance from self-help mavens. This focus on those who try to win by the pre-set rules rather than changing the system itself is echoed later in the collection when Yang gives us a ruefully sympathetic-satirical portrait of the pickup artist community and its adoption of a Darwinian rulebook in an ostensible search for a Darwinian object—sex—but in a genuine search for the object Darwinism cannot help us to understand: love.

For despite the fact that Yang finds a welcome reception these days in the purlieus of “Sokal-squared,” his sensibility is far from their STEM-mongering rationalism, even though he shares a common enemy with them in contemporary left irrationalism. His political thought is essentially Hegelian, as a profile of Francis Fukuyama in these pages demonstrates. Yang writes so sympathetically of the unloved because he believes life is not a quest to attain power or to spread one’s genes, but a quest for recognition as an equal in a community of equals. Hence his exquisite ambivalence, thought by his critics to be mere troglodytic right-wingery, in the face of the new generation of academic radicalism:

And yet [the campus protestors] also gave voice to an aspiration that people of my generation and older, who had grown up more isolated in a whiter America, had not thought could be expressed as a collective demand rather than as an individual wish: that all of us, even the unexceptional, could claim as a matter of right an equal share of existential comfort as those who had never had cause to think of themselves as the other. This still seems to me an impossible wish, and, like all impossible wishes, one that is charged with authoritarian potential. But those of us who have grown inured to life’s quotidian brutalities—the ones we accept for ourselves and the ones we unthinkingly impose on others—should not be surprised that the young have a different sense of the possible than we do, or forget too readily what it was like before we were so inured.

The struggle for recognition continues outside the pages of this book, as Yang collects and satirizes his bad reviews on Twitter, arraigning his critics for being so involved in their own self-righteous ideologies that they are incapable of hearing his message. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s review in the New York Times is sufficient to make the point, as it complains that Yang doesn’t address the history of Asian-American activism (Nguyen, by the way, wrote an acclaimed novel that I found predictable and so never finished because it is yet another—60 years after Achebe and 52 years after Salih—riposte to Heart of Darkness, which should go to show that “social justice” as an intellectual method and as a literary aesthetic is far from cutting edge, has rather fallen into its decadence if not senescence).

But the fact is that The Souls of Yellow Folk fails as a book from time to time, and not just because Yang is not DuBois. Some of Yang’s works are strictly reportage, bereft of any personal voice and only tenuous in their thematic relevance to the other essays, such as pieces on historian Tony Judt or on a controversial expert witness at terrorism trials, and they really don’t belong here in my view. The terrorism essay plausibly provides another variation on the alienated young man theme, while Judt’s intellectual perseverance amid devastating terminal illness gives us a model, against identitarianism, of the mind’s superiority to circumstance; but for all that one can make connections, they and a few others still seem out of place. Yang is right to complain that some of his reviewers simply want him to have written a different book with different politics, but it’s not wrong to observe that Souls often fails to hang together as a book at all. Without having to become a treatise, it might still have been a more focused collection.

A deeper flaw, a philosophical one occasioned by Yang’s intellectual commitment to recognition, makes itself known in the concluding pages of this book, when in essays from 2017 Yang provides a detailed critique of the social justice left. He accuses its activists of having absorbed a set of lessons from poststructuralism that posit both language and institutions as nothing other than vectors of power, obviating the old liberal ambition to reform institutions by using language to persuade a majority to abandon its prejudices and alter its practices. By contrast to the social justice left’s radical ambition to bring in an egalitarian millennium through linguistic and institutional engineering, Yang concedes the manifold injuries social life deals to those who have lost its lottery while also worrying that attempts to reduce harm through new forms of undemocratic social control may only entrench new hierarchies under the false labels of peace and equality.

Why do I call this theory flawed? Because it is from Hegel, not from the poststructuralists, that identity politics derives. Poststructuralism represents the midcentury European left’s borrowing of some insights from the reactionary tradition—Nietzsche, Heidegger—precisely because its partisans saw how Hegelianism, in its Marxist variant, leads to the totalitarian dogmatism Yang so well describes.

Social-justice theory comes ultimately from Marxism, which is the attempt to overcome existential alienation by altering power relations within political and social institutions. Marx began as a Romantic rebel and ironist, hailing Prometheus and imitating Sterne, until he became convinced that his alienation could be ameliorated through a total social transformation, one premised on what we now call identity politics. What differentiated Marx’s scientific from his precursors’ utopian socialism was precisely the identification of a mechanism—in the form of a social class—that could effect the transformation of an inegalitarian society to an egalitarian one. A social class whose exploitation was the engine of the entire system could, by resisting that exploitation, bring the system to a halt; having been exploited, this class would not replicate exploitation in its turn but rather abolish the class relation as such. Marx and Engels identified the industrial proletariat as this revolutionary class:

Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

Over a century later, this prophesy having failed, the Combahee River Collective appropriated the narrative shape of the theory but inserted a different protagonist:

This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. […] We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.

Given these premises, proximity to white-maleness is proximity to oppression, proximity to black-womanhood proximity to liberation. By the terms of this theory, there is no good-faith middle ground, no legitimate arbitration from a position of universal because disinterested neutrality, between white-male and black-female identities of the kind that Yang wants to construct out of the Asian male:

In an age characterized by the politics of resentment, the Asian man knows something of the resentment of the embattled white man, besieged on all sides by grievances and demands for reparation, and something of the resentments of the rising social-justice warrior, who feels with every fiber of their being that all that stands in the way of the attainment of their thwarted ambitions is nothing so much as a white man. Tasting of the frustrations of both, he is denied the entitlements of either. This condition of marginality is both the cause and the effect of his erasure—and perhaps the source of his claim to his centrality, indeed his universality.

Never mind that the position exactly between oppressed and oppressor is already structurally occupied in our society—by white women—but Yang’s moderation cannot be read in the present political atmosphere as anything other than either immoral dithering or esoteric reactionism; he is trying to inhabit a position of principled universalism that does not exist within institutions that have pledged themselves to liberation conceived on social-justice terms, which is to say the terms of zero-sum Hegelo-Marxian eschatology.

Consider, for instance, that Yang got his start at n+1, an intellectual journal that was at its inception over a decade ago an organ of what might fairly be called left-conservatism: its editors’ essays, resembling Adorno with an Americanizing dash of Chomsky and Lasch, criticized capitalist reductionism and brutality in a tone the ironic sorrow of which betrayed an unavowed nostalgia for the older and more ostensibly humane bourgeois order that capitalism had melted into air (Yang’s essay on Britney Spears in this volume is a good example, as is Mark Greif’s similarly themed “Afternoon of the Sex Children.”)

A motto printed in n+1‘s first issue wittingly or unwittingly echoed Buckley’s stand athwart history: “We’ve begun by saying No. Enough.” This was a natural response to the progressive imperialism of the Bush years; but after the Obama age redeemed for the left the concept of the “right side of history” by applying it to race-class-and-gender and superficially detaching it from militarist adventurism, n+1 itself became an organ of a very different ideological character; there we now read, in its most notable essay of recent years, Andrea Long Chu dissenting from exoteric-liberal transgender claims to the inherence and authenticity of gender identity to suggest instead (partially in provocative jest, it should be noted) that a man who sincerely sympathizes with the project of dismantling patriarchy will become a woman, that the abolition of maleness should become a biological and material as well as an ideological reality to complete second-wave feminism’s own Marxist-derived project of destroying gender as the legitimating ideology of sexual exploitation: “We are separatists from our own bodies. We are militants of so fine a caliber that we regularly take steps to poison the world’s supply of male biology. […] Because of us, there are literally fewer men on the planet.” In another notable n+1 essay, Dayna Tortorici puts it more crisply: “Must history have losers? The record suggests yes.”

There is simply no way Yang will be recognized by his peers—whose own legitimation as authority figures depends on the premises he criticizes—as a good-faith interlocutor. As his panoply of bad reviews makes this more clear, I wonder if in retrospect this book, which seeks moderation, will come to appear as a historical marker: the first manifesto of the next neoconservatism. Anyone honestly and dispassionately assessing the surpluses and deficits in the current American ideological economy—overrun as it is with competing identitarianisms and bereft of any universalism untethered to class, race, gender, or party interests—will wonder what on earth took so long.

But there is something other than politics, something other than Hegel, at work in this book. You can find it stated of chef and comedian Eddie Huang in Yang’s profile of him: “Huang is…a person at war with all the constraints that would fetter him to anything less than an identity capacious enough to contain all his contradictions and ambivalence.” And then Yang states it far more powerfully of himself in “Paper Tigers”:

I wanted what James Baldwin sought as a writer—”a power which outlasts kingdoms.” Anything short of that seemed a humiliating compromise. I would become an aristocrat of the spirit, who prides himself on his incompetence in the middling tasks that are the world’s business. Who did not seek after material gain. Who was his own law.

He distances himself from this—it is “madness,” he writes, it is “self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves”—but why? Isn’t this far more interesting—I think it is—than a desire to rise smoothly through the corporate ranks? What is this but a need not to be recognized? To be able to mediate between competing social factions because one neutrally shares aspects of both their identities and complaints is one thing; but Yang here evinces a wish to persist in the total isolation from which literature, not journalism, comes.

We hear in these tones not a need for social validation but a need for, or just an acknowledgement of, an alienation that is existential, ontological, that is before as well as behind the face, and which the transformation of social institutions can never bring to an end. I think of Kafka:

What do I have in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself, and really ought to go stand myself perfectly still in a corner, grateful to be able to breathe.

I think of Hamlet, the anti-father of us all, the anti-founder of our anti-Zion, and I note that Seung-Hui Cho wrote a vulgar adaptation of Hamlet called Richard McBeef, though he apparently failed to learn the Adornian lesson that every work of art is, or anyway should be, an uncommitted crime.

These moments of a- or anti-social sublimity in The Souls of Yellow Folk struck me more powerfully than anything else in the book. Yeats (himself torn between political community and aesthetic anarchy) said that it is out of the quarrel with others that we make rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves that we make poetry. Yang has poetry in him; the poet sings, though, not to be seen by other people but for the sake of the song.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

Faust: A TragedyFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Goethe’s Faust, including Part One and Part Two, was written over the entire course of the author’s adult life, begun when he was in his twenties and finished when he was in his eighties, at the threshold of death. Many dates can be given for the composition and publication of various parts and versions, but its true dates are something like 1772-1832. This biographical and historical span, encompassing the entirety of what cultural historians label the Romantic period, must at least partially account for the extraordinary stylistic, tonal, and thematic variety of the work, especially of the operatic, phantasmagoric extravaganza that is Part Two.

It is not even clear to which genre Faust belongs: it is formally a play but is essentially unperformable, both due to length and to the special effects that would be required to bring to life its mythopoeia. So a dramatic poem, or, given its hero’s wanderings, a dramatic epic poem; or perhaps, considering its universal comment upon all traditions and ideologies, a Menippean satire or anatomy of the world. Goethe himself called it a tragedy, but it is hardly that: its hero rises rather than falls. As one of its translators, Walter Kaufmann, notes in his introduction to his edition, Faust is “closer to Ulysses than to The Odyssey.”

Kaufmann further quotes from Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann, as the poet in 1827 mocks those who ask him what Faust means: “As if I myself knew that and could express it! […] The more incommensurable and incomprehensible for the understanding a poetic creation may be, the better” (emphasis in original). Likewise, in one of the two prologues to the poem, a dialogue among an otherworldly poet, a money-minded theater manager, and an easygoing clown, the manager asks:

Now tell me, what good is your artistic unity?
The public will only make hash of it anyway.

Kaufmann translated all of Part One and selections of Part Two in an edition published in 1961. Martin Greenberg translated the entire poem in the 1990s, and a revised edition was published by Yale in 2014. Kaufman and Greenberg both share a commitment to faithfully translating Goethe’s poetry, preserving elements of meter, rhyme, and general verse form, but in a modern idiom shorn of the archaisms used by prior translators. I recommend these versions, then, and have read them both, while also consulting Barker Fairley’s excellent prose version of the entire poem as collected in Everyman Library’s 2000 volume of Goethe’s Selected Works. In my own exploration of this “incommensurable and incomprehensible” work that follows, I will quote from Greenberg’s version.

While Goethe was preceded in the creation of a serious literary adaptation of the Faust legend by Christopher Marlowe in the 16th century, Goethe had not read Marlowe nor even Marlowe’s source, the German chapbook recounting Faust lore published in the 1580s, when he began his own work: fittingly, he primarily adapted the puppet-show dramatizations of the legend that he saw as a child, themselves freely adapted from Marlowe, and his work has much of the puppet-show about it.

Goethe provides two modernizing innovations to the legend. First, he recasts Faust as a disaffected post-Christian Romantic-era intellectual, riven by the rival claims of materialism and idealism, acquisitiveness and aspiration: “Two souls live in me, alas,” he famously laments, one “lusting after the world” and another that “rises from the dirt.” He does not seek reconciliation through religious faith, though; he claims that salvation comes only from within:

[T]he only true refreshment that exists
You get from where? Yourself—where all things start.

(If you hear an echo of Yeats’s “Circus Animals’ Desertion” there, it is no accident: part of Greenberg’s method of translating Goethe for Anglophone readers is periodically to recall Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Eliot, the King James Bible, etc., as if to recreate Goethe as part of the continuum of English literature.)

Faust revises the Gospel of John so that “In the beginning was the Deed!” and vows to make his own way in the world; it is for this reason, and not necessarily for secular riches or knowledge that he contracts with the devil:

It’s from our fathers, what we inherit,
To possess it really, we’ve got to earn it.
What you don’t use is a dead weight,
What’s worthwhile is what you spontaneously create.

Goethe’s devil is his second great innovation. His Mephistopheles is, in a sense, still more the modern intellectual than Faust is, a jeering cynic, queer and acerbic, skeptical of all grandeur and transcendence: “Take note the Devil’s a jester, my dears!” he announces.

Goethe’s God, however, in the Prologue in Heaven, addresses Mephistopheles among the other “spirits of denial” and blandly proclaims, “I’ve never hated your likes much.” Mephistopheles refers to himself as a spirit that produces only good though he wills only bad, and we are reminded that Goethe was writing in a time and place where philosophers were defining negation and contradiction as the motive force of all development, personal and historical. Mephistopheles may be more the hero of the play than Faust is, since Faust’s growth would be impossible without the devil’s dialectic.

Faust, Part One counterposes to Mephistopheles’s irony the sentimental tragedy of Gretchen, a poor young woman that Faust seduces. Their romance ends in tears, with Gretchen’s mother and brother dead and herself sentenced to death after killing the child she had with Faust when he abandons her. Gretchen represents what the 19th century would go on to honor as domestic woman, the angel in the house, a spirit of gentle inwardness that redeems the corruptions of the world. Faust addresses her as an angel, praises her maternal influence, and says:

I feel, dear girl, where you are is all comfort,
Where you are, order, goodness all abound.

As Kaufmann points out, the poem complicates this incipient ideologeme considerably, since Gretchen is hardly a creature of pure, pious virtue: like her lover, she too is a striver-idealist and commits herself with spirit to their illicit romance. Nevertheless, Gretchen is the first of the poem’s salvific female souls, Mephistopheles’s equal and opposite, as shown by her instinctive revulsion from the devil’s air of negation:

His lips curl so sarcastically,
Half angrily,
When he pokes his head inside the door.
You can see there’s nothing he cares for…

The devil himself, after distracting Faust from Gretchen’s plight by taking him to the supernatural Walpugis Night celebration, is blithe about her tragedy: of the fallen woman, he says simply, “She’s not the first.” While this remark outrages Faust for its insensibility to the value of each individual soul, Goethe himself cast the crucial vote in 1783 on a three-person privy council to condemn a woman very like Gretchen to death for infanticide following her abandonment by her lover. Relaying this information in his introduction to Greenberg’s translation, W. Daniel Wilson notes “the gulf between the writer and the politician,” a gulf widened by the conclusion of Part One when a voice from above proclaims that the soul of the executed Gretchen is saved.

With its focus on this romantic tragedy, Part One is a deeply affecting play, a Shakespearean balancing act of psychic forces in conflict, rife with humor and passion. Part Two, however, is twice the length and has no focus at all. Only its fifth act returns to the concerns of Part One as it dramatizes the conclusion of Faust’s deal. The four acts that precede it are an explosion of poetry and settings, wild ideas and reflections on culture and mythology. Part Two comments on everything. For instance, when Faust and Mephistopheles offer their services to the Emperor, they help him by introducing paper money, a “magic” act that shows our own economic assumptions to be based on the mystical acceptance of signs as real value.

Its overbearing theme, though, is Goethe’s later-life preoccupation, after his own early Storm und Drang phase typified by Gretchen’s tragedy, with Classicism. He sends Faust back to Greece for a paradoxical “Classical Walpurgis Night,” an odd synthesis of Greco and Germanic, and dwells on the dark side of the antique with an emphasis on grotesque wars among ants, pygmies, and cranes and on hideous chthonic deities. As Harold Bloom comments in The Western Canon, “The Goethean gods themselves are monsters: the Phorkyads, formless lurkers in primeval Night.” The Phorkyads, before merging with Mephistopheles, deliver some of the the most moving and strange lines in Part Two:

Born in the night, with nighttime things allied,
Unknown to the world, by our selves mystified.

Not only does this “Gothic Classicism” frustrate any neat distinctions between Greek and German, it also adds nuance to the poem’s otherwise sincere commitment to idealizations of the feminine, since both the female Phorkyads and the mysterious Mothers (the disquieting sources of all life to whom Faust must descend with an engorged key to unlock incestuously the treasures of antiquity) suggest that the feminine encompasses both ideal beauty and material mess, and as such is a complete archetype:

Goddesses there are, apart, sublime,
Their throne outside of place, outside of time.
To talk about them makes me feel uneasy.
They’re called the Mothers!

As in Marlowe and other sources, Faust falls in love with Helen of Troy (she, like Gretchen, is instantly averse to Mephistopheles and for the same reason: “Finding fault again!”). The product of their union is a boy who is the spirit of poetry, a figure meant to recall Byron and who, like Byron, answers the siren song of emancipatory war: “Only what’s seized by force / Ever suits me,” says this Euphorion, showing that poetry, for Goethe, made no guarantees of peace or stability or morality. Like his father, he strives intransitively, for the pure sake of self-transcendence.

The theme of striving brings us to the fifth act, which finds Faust an old man who has made himself rich but who has also committed himself to the development and modernization of his lands. This is the final portrayal of the split in his soul between greed and aspiration. On the one hand,

how it haunts me
Knowing that what I possess is
Less than all.

On the other, his desire is not only to enrich himself but the populace:

Where teeming nations now may have
The space they need to work and thrive.

But Goethe’s own restless spirit endlessly negates, as if the poet were his own Mephistopheles, and it is Faust’s very selflessness that proves destructive. An old couple living on his land, Baucis and Philemon, worry that they will eventually get in the way of his development plans. Though they marvel that people are now “[r]ulers where the sea had reigned,” they cannot shake the feeling that this “progress” is amiss:

Well, it was a wonder, no doubt,
But I’m troubled by it still.
For the whole thing didn’t seem right,
Had about it something ill.

Their forebodings prove correct when they are accidentally slaughtered after Faust orders them to be removed for the sake of further land reclamation. While Faust regrets their loss, he shortly after has a vision of peace and a future of progress (“To stand with free men on ground that’s free!”), and then he dies. Mephistopheles is cheated of Faust’s soul when angels seduce him with pederastic visions, and Faust is finally saved. The angels praise him and aver the principle by which he was not damned:

The spirit world’s most noble soul
Is saved from deathly Satan.
“Who strives and keeps on striving still,
For him there is salvation.”

This is morally unacceptable, and meant to be. Not only has our hero as good as killed Gretchen and her whole family, his schemes of progress and modernization displace and murder as well. The translator Greenberg hears an anticipatory echo of Nazi atrocities—

The destruction of the old couple is a horror and I think, belatedly I think, of the immeasurable German horrors waiting to be enacted in the not so distant future.

—and W. Daniel Wilson’s introduction notes that German fascists and communists alike saw their doctrines of iron political will validated by Faust. But what if Goethe is not telling us the way things should be, merely the way things are? Let us not be so busy congratulating ourselves that we are not Nazis or Stalinists that we forget the Faustian bargains we have made for our technology and leisure, what costs we have asked others to bear for our own beautiful (and they are) artistic and spiritual aspirations.

Faust ascends to heaven, led by the similarly saved Gretchen, as the chorus concludes that the eternal feminine draws us onward. Harold Bloom, himself no friend to feminism, remarks:

I shudder to contemplate feminist readings of Goethe […] When the Chorus Mysticus concludes Part Two by chanting, “Woman, eternally, / Shows us the way,” a woman now is likely to ask, “To what?”

This is like asking what Faust strives for: the point is just to strive, to add to the ever-onwardness of the world. As we have seen, Goethe does not simply idealize and mystify women, just as he does not, despite whatever thematically-illiterate Nazi admirers he may have had, enable any simplistic identification of a German national spirit. The spirit of Faust is syncretic, blending Classical and Romantic, and with added biblical allusions as the play goes on, synthesizing Northern Europe with the Mediterranean, Germany with Greece with Judea, and above all the ancient with the modern.

Likewise, the poem’s vision of femininity is a complete one, more complete than any male archetype Goethe here presents. In fact, Faust itself is structured according to, or modeled upon, its female presences: it is as ethereally beautiful and aristocratic as Helen, as sentimentally soulful and bourgeois as Gretchen, as transcendental and mystical as the Mary to whom Gretchen prays; and ultimately as chthonic and formless as the Phorkyads, as incommensurable and incomprehensible as the Mothers in the very night of time.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Dave McKean, Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul NashBlack Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash by Dave McKean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In one of the many brilliant parables that occur throughout English artist Dave McKean’s 1990s graphic novel Cages, a character (who may or may not be a cat) briefly dies and goes to two flawed heavens in succession. Both versions of the afterlife are centered on art, and both fail to do justice to art’s real purpose and complexity.

In the first heaven, the soul is encouraged to take pleasure in beautiful paintings, but when it asks the meaning behind the artworks, the moon-, sun-, and star-faced beings who preside over this mindless and sensual eternity argue that the question is foolish and impertinent: “It’s enough to look at the picture and enjoy it.”

Finding this non-explanation inadequate, the soul flees and finds itself in an opposite paradise; in this one, a bespectacled professor-docent exhaustively explicates the work of art with reductionist glosses derived from the painter’s biography and the theory of symbolism, replacing the prior heaven’s injunction to absent-minded sensuality with a commitment to schematic rational certainty. The soul retreats from this sterile heaven as well.

The best way to respond to art, Cages implies, is with open-ended questions and open-minded awareness, neither surrendering the intellect in empty sensuality nor driving out emotion by an arrogant mind. As another character, the jazz musician Angel, puts it earlier in the novel: “If you over-refine, you get lost in de music, if you under-refine, you get lost in de experience. Either one results in going away from who you really are.”

Given its vast scope, beginning with more than one creation myth and encompassing several apocalypses, Cages remains McKean’s masterpiece and one of the masterpieces so far of the comics form: the magical realist and multimedia saga of artists and their creative travails in a London redesigned to the specifications of Central European modernism is the best graphic novel I’ve read about art and creativity.

McKean’s much briefer recent graphic novel, Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash, broaches some of the same themes as Cages and is no less visually ambitious than its precursor, even if its central conceit prevents it from being as philosophically and emotionally capacious.

Based on a real historical figure and commissioned by an organization whose mission is commemorate the centennial of the First World War, Black Dog recounts through his dreams the life of the English Surrealist painter Paul Nash, an artist whose work (you can view several paintings at his Wikipedia page) reflects his experience of the trenches of the Great War. As Nash lived and worked in the same southeast England countryside where McKean now resides, the book stages a meeting of sensibilities across a century between two English artists committed to the imagination’s right to respond freely to reality.

Dreams are an appropriate vehicle to convey the life of a Surrealist. The graphic novel’s dream-episodes, narrated by Nash, often in rhymed poetry, allows McKean to cover a lot of biographical territory in a brief number of pages, as Nash’s family and friends can be evoked in symbolic imagery without having to be developed as characters in 30- or 50-page increments as was the norm in Cages.

But the peril of this approach is the thin barrier between symbol and cliche, archetype and stereotype. Nash’s distant father and disturbed mother have no specific life of their own, and his bullying math teacher, an ogre who demands answers and offers only physical abuse, oversimplifies into outright hostility the complex relation between art (considered as intuition) and intellect (considered as mathematical reason). Likewise, the dream structure leaves little room for the development of ideas; when Nash, on the eve of the war, debates the need for a distinctly modern art in a London cafe attended by Bloomsbury luminaries Roger Fry and Dora Carrington, the conversation never goes beyond commonplaces about new art for “a new world.”

Black Dog comes into its own in its war sequences. Here McKean attains real insight, insights counter to long-institutionalized academic cliches about modernism as response to the dislocations of the Great War. Like Gabriel Josipovici in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, McKean intimates that modern war, like modern technology, did not bring newness into the world but only revealed what was always there, concealed behind the everyday placidity of the 19th-century middle classes:

If you strip away the accumulated fiction of the war—the mud and the limbs and the jolly old rain, the constructs and stories that constitute an official history—what is left? In war, one lives on the desperate edge of now. War reveals that essential, present-tense creature at the centre of oneself, and once it has been illuminated, even in the most failing of light, you can’t unsee it. That is the only subject worthy of this oil and ink and blood. To reach that essential pulsing life, one must excavate, deep into the paper and the canvas.

The essential subject, then, is not the Great War but the animal chaos (the eponymous black dog) at the heart of existence contingently revealed by violence but better immortalized as art. At the book’s conclusion, Nash’s monologue allows that there will always be war but that art may resist it through its function as “an empathy machine.” This nowadays obligatory empathy-boosterism is Victorian sentimentality all over again, as if there had never been a Great War or modernist art, but the book’s overall tendency is against such pointless moralism.

In the most moving scene, Nash encounters his brother and is startled to find him so matured by the experience of mass violence. His brother explains that drawing has kept him sane, given him an inhuman but humane perspective that has allowed him to retain his own humanity. Later, Nash explains how a friend of his who had survived the trenches dies young of an illness, as if surviving in extremis were rendered moot by going on to die anyway of merely “natural” causes: “In war, and in peace, life is a sniper’s alley.”

McKean’s art throughout Black Dog is a constant surprise. No comics artist that I know has even been so committed to combining different media and modes in his individual works. There are stunning paintings—a hallucinatory fish-shaped zeppelin over London—sequences rendered in an animation-inspired style, photo-collages, colored-pencil sketches, and, I assume, all manner of digital design. It is McKean’s mixed-media approach, which may have seemed almost like a gimmick when he first hit the scene 30 years ago, that now certifies him as a master of the form and an heir to modernism: his projects literally change shape as they proceed, creativity welling up from the dark heart of experience, and they inspire in readers and viewers the attentive, open-ended, and fully alive response that McKean had implied in Cages was the true heaven of art.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Regarding the Pain of OthersRegarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Susan Sontag’s oeuvre is a long palinode. Identified for years with the positions she took, or at least appeared to take, in the 1960s, she seemed to spend the rest of her life strategically retracting or at least clarifying and qualifying her earliest theses. The victim of her own authoritative literary register, a wonderfully imperious and impersonal voice from the whirlwind, she was often taken to be advocating what she (perhaps disingenuously) understood herself to be merely describing.

She was describing “the modernist attitude,” a set of priorities derived from what artists and philosophers made, starting in the late 19th century, of the death of God. (Though she was sometimes scorned as only a trend follower—e.g., in Harold Bloom’s famous annotation to Camille Paglia’s doctoral dissertation, “Mere Sontagisme!”—we can measure her independence from intellectual fashion by her refusal to be much taken in by the once-ultrahyped idea of postmodernism, which to her would have been only a development of modernist and even Romantic ideas.)

It is true, though, that she found these modernist attitudes redemptive in an America stultified by midcentury cultural stasis. The manifesto-like “Against Interpretation” imagines an exit from hermeneutics to be a liberation from the suffocations of a scientific-industrial society:

Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

“Notes on ‘Camp,'” a partial vindication of the ironic style that she regarded as a queer contribution to culture, offhandedly charts the dilemma of her thought:

Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture. Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities. The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.

Ironic aestheticism vs. moral seriousness: the dialectic governing her essays. Aestheticism wins out in the early work, while the energy of the later work is morality’s reconquest of her idea of culture.

(Contemptuous of identity politics, she does not identify herself on the page as gay and Jewish, though she was. This makes sense to me: I am not gay or Jewish, but I worry at the same intellectual knot. On the other hand, I am a lapsed Catholic; Catholicism itself is the uneasy synthesis of pagan aesthetics with Jewish moral seriousness, while lapsed Catholicism is proverbially equal to homosexuality in being a ready road to the aesthetic outlook. Finally, those who are not insensible to identity politics will wonder at her startling exclusion of black people from “the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture.”)

On Photography, from 1977, is one of the most moralistic of her works. There she damns photography as the global triumph of the Surrealist ironization of all experience, a medium that democratizes the world’s transformation into an object, once the utopian project of the avant-garde. That we all carry cameras means that the modernist dream of an art that fuses with everyday life becomes merely middlebrow and turns all experience (for citizens in the first world) into a trove of junk or else commodities. She delivers bitter Adornian anathemas against “the middle-class perspective of photography,” a timid sublimation of exploitative violence:

Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive. However, despite the extravagances of ordinary language and advertising, they are not lethal. In the hyperbole that markets cars like guns, there is at least this much truth: except in wartime, cars kill more people than guns do. The camera/gun does not kill, so the ominous metaphor seems to be all bluff—like a man’s fantasy of having a gun, knife, or tool between his legs. Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

Regarding the Pain of Others, published in 2003, is Sontag’s final book. A brief and somewhat aleatory ramble through the history of war photography with editorial remarks, its most striking feature is its mildness, an especially rare affect for argumentative nonfiction in the years after 9/11. As she forthrightly states, the later book speaks back to On Photography:

In the first of the six essays in On Photography (1977), I argued that while an event known through photographs certainly becomes more real than it would have been had one never seen the photographs, after repeated exposure it also becomes less real. As much as they create sympathy, I wrote, photographs shrivel sympathy. Is this true? I thought it was when I wrote it. I’m not so sure now. What is the evidence that photographs have a diminishing impact, that our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities?

The grand utterances of the earlier book now seem inadequate to the complexities of experience. She meant, she essentially says, to criticize television, which dissipates attention; but still photography may still possess moral force because it encapsulates an event and focuses the viewer’s sight.

Moreover, she acknowledges that her complaint is not a new one, which implies that it need not have been phrased so absolutely: she quotes Wordsworth complaining as early as 1800 about how mass media’s glut of strong stimulus numbs the sensibility. She reaffirms her distance from French theory, whose view that images have supplanted reality she finds “a breathtaking provincialism” that “universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world.” On Photography had concluded with a resounding call for “an ecology of images,” whereas Regarding the Pain of Others far more soberly concedes:

There isn’t going to be an ecology of images. No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock. And the horrors themselves are not going to abate.

Overall the book, really just an extended essay, radiates good sense. Atrocity photos have always been faked, but war photographers are heroic witnesses; war is evil, but it’s not going away; the media may numb or propagandize us, but it may also inspire useful action; the world is unequal, but some good may still be done.

Sontag opens by citing Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938), also a book about war, also its author’s final book-length essay; but she cites it to dismiss it. Three Guineas is in its fierce assertions (universities should be built of flammable material to enable cultural change; a British policeman is different only in degree from a Nazi; fascism is just one instance of patriarchy) a work far more nearly resembling early Sontag than late. Late Sontag finds Woolf’s feminism vapid and her pacifism naive. Woolf seems to assume that war photos will make us want peace. But what, Sontag sensibly asks, if we approve for ideological reasons of the carnage we see in the pictures? Later in the book, she resumes this theme, faulting the idea of sentimentality and the promotion of empathy as a political panacea:

Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent—if not an inappropriate response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.

There will be photos, there will be no rational control of their production, and their chief good, she now asserts, is to make us think:

It is felt that there is something morally wrong with the abstract of reality offered by photography; that one has no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power; that we pay too high a human (or moral) price for those hitherto admired qualities of vision—the standing back from the aggressiveness of the world which frees us for observation and for elective attention. But this is only to describe the function of the mind itself.

There’s nothing wrong with standing back and thinking. To paraphrase several sages: “Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time.”

In this way, Regarding the Pain of Others may be read as the palinode of palinodes. Whereas On Photography recanted the aestheticism of the early essays in favor of moral seriousness, she now recants the severity of its Plato-citing iconoclasm, not to celebrate a renewed aestheticism (atrocity camp, say), but rather to uphold moderation. Look at the pictures, she says, and then reflect upon them. Combine aesthetics and intellect, sensuous experience and moral reflection. Experience and interpret.

The entire book is encapsulated on its strangest page, the one containing the epigraphs:

…aux vaincus!

The dirty nurse, Experience…

I don’t mean this as the slight that the proud Sontag would no doubt take it as, but these quotations are the most brilliant thing in Regarding the Pain of Others. First, we have the tension between moral seriousness and aesthetic irony exemplified by the juxtaposition of two opposite 19th-century poets, a French immoralist and an English sentimentalist. Yet the puzzlingly brief quotations from each poet reverse their presumed positions. We would expect Queen Victoria’s favorite poet to be writing odes to the vanquished (e.g., “The Charge of the Light Brigade”) and the decadent Frenchman to be fantasizing about dirty nurses, yet Sontag gives us the reverse: Tennyson the aesthete and Baudelaire the moralist.

The epigraphs announce the reunion of the sundered halves of her sensibility as well as her abandonment of extremism. If this quiet moderation makes the book at times banal, it is a banality Sontag earned with each previous reinvention of herself. And if the book’s calm was refreshing in the garish bomb-glare of the Bush years, isn’t it also a relief in our time of even more and more universally violent rhetoric? The injunction to stand back and think is as timely as ever, even if this book, less than 20 years old, seems to have fallen to our hands from a distant era, as it was written on the eve of social media’s swallowing whole of culture.

I recently gave a lecture on the development of Sontag’s ideas, aesthetic and political, her advance and retreat, her many recantations. A student asked why we should read an author who never made up her mind and who never seemed to say anything usefully final. I suggested that we should read Sontag, or any powerful author really, not to find conclusions but to behold the mind in motion. In this book, we behold it coming to a well-earned rest.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus

Doctor FaustusDoctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am neither a Marlowe scholar in particular nor an early modernist in general, but as far as I can determine—with the aid of the contextual and critical materials collected in this Signet Classics edition edited by the late Sylvan Barnet—there are three main schools of thought about the meaning of Marlowe’s tragedy Doctor Faustus, the most famous and widely-read play of the English Renaissance not written by Shakespeare.

The meaning of this seemingly didactic Christian drama shouldn’t be as difficult to determine as it is. Doctor Faustus tells the story, derived from German lore, of a brilliant upstart scholar. Like Luther and Hamlet, Faustus studied at Wittenberg; like Marlowe, he was born to the lower classes before going on to higher education, exemplifying the period’s greater social mobility. This doctor of divinity is frustrated with the limits of the knowledge offered by the Christian curriculum and begins to study magic.

Soon he bargains away his soul to Lucifer for 24 years on earth during which he will be served by the demon Mephostophilis, who will explain to him the secrets of the universe (except for those divine truths that conflict with hell’s doctrines) and who will grant him worldly power. At first, Faustus uses this power to investigate the cosmos and the earth; then he explores the world’s kingdoms, bringing his literal magic show to the planet’s potentates and even comically intervening in the quarrel between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. In the meantime, his servant Wagner also adopts the dark arts and, in counterpoint to the main plot, involves himself in a number of comic scrapes.

Faustus’s own ambition, though, has so shrunk by the play’s middle that his actions—making a sleepy knight grow horns, for instance, or cheating a cart driver— are indistinguishable from the subplot’s comic business. By the end, the drama’s seriousness of tone resumes as Faustus wavers, pleading for his soul even as the devil comes to tear him apart. The moral of the story hardly needs explication. As an old man who enjoins Faustus to mend his ways puts it:

O stay, good Faustus, stay thy desperate steps!
I see an angel hover o’er thy head,
And with a vial full of precious grace
Offers to pour the same into thy soul:
Then call for mercy and avoid despair.

Why should the significance of so homiletic a play be mysterious? For at least three reasons, as follows.

The first explanation for Doctor Faustus‘s elusive meaning is textual. The play was probably written and first performed in the early 1590s, shortly before its author’s notorious death, either in a bar brawl or in a politically-motivated espionage-related assassination (depending on your taste for conspiracies). It exists on paper, however, in two rather different texts, one from 1604 and one from 1616, the latter of which is longer and emphasizes the drama’s vein of crass comedy. Moreover, records indicate that two other authors were paid in 1602 for writing “additions” to the play, but we have no way of knowing what those additions are. Questions of authorship and of textual authority always make for interpretive questions.

More thematically, the writer of this seemingly straightforward cautionary tale had, in his own time and after, a reputation as rebel, freethinker, and queer rather than as any kind of pious believer. His erstwhile roommate Thomas Kyd, arrested for owning subversive literature after Marlowe’s death, claimed the blasphemous papers were Marlowe’s and (to quote from Kevin Dunn’s essay in this volume) further asserted that Marlowe used to “jest at the divine scriptures, gibe at prayers, and strive in argument to frustrate & confute what hath been spoke or write by prophets and such holy men.” No surprise, therefore, that Marlowe came into vogue in the late Victorian period as (to quote G. K. Hunter’s essay in this volume) “a harder and more gemlike Oscar Wilde.” If Doctor Faustus is seen as antithetical to its own overt Christian moralizing, as in fact a celebration of its reprobate anti-hero, then Marlowe’s radical reputation is one reason why.

Another reason is the play’s own seeming artistic disorder. Two serious acts, in which sober and lyrical blank verse predominates and comedy is diminished, frame three internal acts consisting mostly of slapstick and crude humor. In the middle of the drama, Faustus uses the powers furnished him by Lucifer in exchange for his soul to play tricks on everyone from the pope to a passing horse dealer. It is perhaps appropriate that a play whose hero dismisses Aristotle in his opening soliloquy will lack classical unity. Moreover, the disorder of the play is possibly meant to enact, rather than just representing, the chaos of life without faith. And in any case, this volume reprints much of Marlowe’s source, an English translation of a lively and even trashy late-16th-century German prose tale recounting the exploits of Faustus. Marlowe is faithful, in broad outline, to this source, but if anything he lessens its silliness in adapting it; nothing in his play is quite as earnestly ridiculous as this, for instance:

Lucifer himself sat in manner of a man, all hairy but of a brown color like a squirrel, curled, and his tail turning upwards on his back as the squirrels use; I think he could crack nuts too, like a squirrel.

In sum, we cannot know how to read this play because we cannot establish an authoritative text, cannot reconcile its overt message with the probable life and opinions of the author, and cannot even find dramatic unity in the script as we have it. This leads, as I said, to at least three possible readings.

The first interpretation, brilliantly articulated in a 1964 essay by G. K. Hunter, “Five-Act Structure in Doctor Faustus,” reprinted in this edition, holds that the play in fact possesses a hidden pattern, a figure in the carpet. Its structure, argues Hunter, embodies its theme. Marlowe opens with the scholar Faustus dismissing the intellectual disciplines of his time—liberal arts, law, medicine, and divinity—in favor of magical knowledge. But because magic, a form of human hubris that seeks spiritual power without God’s sponsorship, proceeds in the absence of the divine, it serves to degrade Faustus.

According to Hunter, then, the play dramatizes the proud overweening scholar’s fall back through the curriculum: having discarded divinity, he attempts to master cosmology and geography, but since he cannot learn these disciplines’ own final ends because the devil forbids him from making any Christian inquiry, these fail to satisfy. Hence, his next attempt to attain worldly political command, which eventually decays into his serving as crass court entertainer to popes and emperors, mere juggler in the halls of power. Sans public authority, he ends up in squalid circumstances, defrauding laborers and dissipating himself in masturbatory sexual reveries, before losing his soul entirely. The structure of the play, Hunter claims, is the order of knowledge reversed, from divinity back through worldly arts to ignorance and damnation.

Such a reading, which recovers the drama for Christianity, has much to recommend it. It makes sense of the plot, for one thing, finding a coherent theme that corresponds to the initially mysterious order of events. It also increases our admiration for Marlowe, discovering in him a profound erudition and capacity for creating philosophical argument onstage. And this reading even lets us find our own time’s preoccupations in the Christian text. We may or may not now share the theology, but our own era’s concern for the oppression of labor and the destruction of the natural environment entailed by global trade finds an early modern echo when Faustus uses magic to fetch unseasonable foods from across the globe for a pregnant duchess—a consumerist act we in the rich world may perform several times a week with only the magic of money:

Duke. This makes me wonder more than all the rest, that at this time of the year, when every tree is barren of his fruit, from whence you had these grapes.

Faustus. Please it your Grace, the year is divided into two circles over the whole world, so that when it is winter with us, in the contrary circle it is likewise summer with them, as in India, Saba, and such countries that lie far east, where they have fruit twice a year. From whence, by means of a swift spirit that I have, I had these grapes brought as you see.

Likewise, Faustus’s many proclamations of his political interest in world empire associates such dominance with evil, an opinion we probably nowadays also share, if in a less metaphysical register:

Had I as many souls as there be stars
I’d give them all for Mephostophilis.
By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge through the moving air
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributory to my crown:
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany.

But there is another way to read the play, or two variants on the same way, which I find represented in this volume in Sylvan Barnet’s introduction and in Kevin Dunn’s essay, “Resolving Ambiguities in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.”

On this reading, the play is not a tragedy if there isn’t something sublime in Faustus’s ambition. Yes, that ambition collapses into the ugly and stupid spectacle of the scholar making himself invisible to slap the pope or eating all a horse-courser’s hay—a collapse that finds its cross-class echo in Marlowe’s subplot, which shows the even more absurd antics of Faustus’s servants—but his desire to explore all the possibilities of knowledge exemplifies the grandeur of the Renaissance, its gargantuan ambition rising out of the Middle Ages’ dogmatic slumber like Michelangelo’s late sculptures struggling from the marble. Is the drama’s most beautiful and quotable verse not consecrated to pagan beauty rather than to Christian piety?

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

According to Sylvan Barnet, we can read Faustus’s tragedy as at least a partial commendation of the Renaissance man, or at least as a summoning of his early modern glory as against medieval morality: “In him we occasionally hear the voice of the Renaissance humanist, the man refreshed by the greatness of the pagan past and anxious to live an ampler life than his father had lived.”

Barnet complicates this argument, though, when he notes that the Renaissance’s—and our own—attitude toward the Middle Ages is overly simplistic, as if the epoch of Dante and Chaucer could be dismissed merely as a time of barbarous superstition, as if modernity has not come at its own costs. Surely Marlowe’s own linguistic fun—original to him and not derived from his source—with the resources of medieval learning in Faustus’s opening speech bolsters this claim that the play is not some crude boosterism for the Renaissance:

Settle thy studies Faustus, and begin
To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess.
Having commenced, be a divine in show—
Yet level at the end of every art
And live and die in Aristotle’s works.
Sweet Analytics, ’tis thou hast ravish’d me.
Bene disserere est finis logices.
Is to dispute well logic’s chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle?
Then read no more, thou has attained that end.

Which historical ambiguity brings me to Kevin Dunn’s argument that Doctor Faustus is a play of and about ambiguity, without resolution:

Rather than asking us to choose the good, Marlowe asks us not to resolve ambiguities, not to reconcile our revulsion at Faustus’s choice with our fascination at his conjuring…but rather simply to marvel at the performance itself, the matter we see staged before us, “good or bad.”

Given all the hints Shakespeare obviously took from Doctor Faustus for his own best tragedy—both plays concern tormented intellectuals from the university at Wittenberg—it is possibly too easy to read Hamlet back into Faustus. Shakespeare’s art is of a much higher order, though. Marlowe brings good and bad angels onstage to squabble over the soul of the hero, whereas Shakespeare invents an inner life—and a dense, mysterious, paronomasiac language—for his characters that locates metaphysical struggle in the psyche rather than in heaven and hell. Hamlet is constitutively ambiguous, Faustus merely frustrating.

I prefer the first reading offered above by Hunter: Doctor Faustus can be seen as a structurally coherent poem affirming earnest faith. Any perceived ambiguity comes from the author’s ability to write such a poem without necessarily feeling such faith himself, hence the play’s moments of farce where we would expect terror and humanistic majesty where we would expect Christian humility.

Mephostophilis tells Faustus that hell is not a place but a confusion, a state of mind: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” So it is appropriate that this hellish play is itself confused, as if to damn the audience. But such a definition of hell would not be possible unless we knew what heaven was, as Mephostophilis so notably mourns for the holiness the devils have given up; so in literary terms does ambiguity rely on structure. Doctor Faustus has a discernible soul, even if author and character are tempted to exchange it for new knowledges and novel pleasures.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo, Alack Sinner

[This post combines my Goodreads reviews of both volumes of Alack Sinner, The Age of Innocence and The Age of Disenchantment.]

Alack Sinner: The Age of InnocenceAlack Sinner: The Age of Innocence by Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Age of Innocence is the first of two American omnibus collections of the noir graphic novels by Argentine writer Sampayo and artist Muñoz, originally published in Europe from 1975 to 1982.

Set in a phantasmagorically corrupt New York City, its grotesquery somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Chester Gould, and focused on the titular hard-drinking but fundamentally decent ex-cop P.I., Alack Sinner is an outsider’s jaded perspective on American society, pictured as a fever dream of rape, murder, police corruption, racism, right-wing fanaticism, and greed at every level. In a wittily metafictional chapter, Sampayo and Muñoz themselves inform Sinner that even good white yanqui liberals like him will not be spared on the day of red revolution.

Aside from the metafiction and the hard-edged Marxism, though, Sampayo adds little, literarily, to the likes of Chandler. It is Muñoz’s art that earned this series its fame, justly so, a style that has influenced a very wide range of Anglo-American comics artists from Miller to McKean. The globular black shapes and shadows that are Muñoz’s medium seem viscous and mobile, ink flowing from page to page and panel to panel. His distorting perspective works against the narrative’s humanism: it reduces all to nightmare caricature.

The most successful synthesis of literary and artistic vision comes in my favorite episode, about a Spanish boxer caught in a scheme by a promoter and his murderous right-wing henchmen. The boxer’s grandfather, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, takes protective measures, dealing anti-fascist death under a Guernica montage: Muñoz meets Picasso.


Alack Sinner: The Age of DiscontentmentAlack Sinner: The Age of Disenchantment by Carlos Sampayo and José Muñoz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Age of Disenchantment collects the Alack Sinner stories published from the 1980s through the early 2000s. In the narrative the authors, politically radical Argentines exiled to Europe by their country’s 1970s right-wing dictatorship, keep time politically.

The first Sinner story in this volume of avowed disenchantment is set against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua as the titular detective tries to keep visiting Nicaraguan leftists safe in the atmosphere of the Reagan ’80s, all the while falling in unrequited love with one of them, a woman named Delia. As the series progresses, Muñoz and Sampayo’s storytelling style, never very linear to begin with, becomes even more dream-like and uncertain: the centerpiece of “Nicaragua” is a hallucinatory puppet show the white Sinner attends with his young black daughter, Cheryl, a horrifying pageant that displays the history of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. “My mom said that Nicaragua is like…black people…” Cheryl hesitantly muses on the spectacle, a phrase that compresses a unified theory of white western dominance.

Sinner’s relationship with Cheryl and the other women in his life, including Cheryl’s mother Enfer, his on-again-off-again lover Sophie, and his sister Toni dominate the middle stories in the book, one of which is aptly titled “Private Stories.” While Sinner’s inner monologue refers to “my women,” the series begins to dwell more consciously on gender, especially in the long story where Sinner struggles to save first his daughter and then his sister from various forms of imprisonment. Politics-with-a-capital-P is also touched on here, as the “private story” of Cheryl’s false accusation of murder involves her extrication in Haiti’s long oppression by the west.

The politics return in full in the final story, titled “The U.S.A. Case,” as if to signal Muñoz and Sampayo’s own object of criminal investigation: a country they do not live in but whose global dominance has shaped their lives nevertheless. “The U.S.A. Case” takes place a month before September 11, 2001, a month in which Cheryl, now pregnant, is threatened again, this time by a shady arms deal whose implication is U.S. intelligence services’ foreknowledge of the coming terrorist attacks. As one ghoulish old agency man puts it on the book’s final page, “Security? […] That’s the investment of the future, as long as the Bin Ladens and company are around.” Too paranoid? Alack Sinner is about nothing other than the corruptions of power, global, economic, racial, and otherwise; in this world, as in its noir forerunners, you can’t be too paranoid.

The passage of time makes these stories more affecting than those in the first volume, as we watch Sinner and his friends and lovers go from middle age to the brink of old age, and as we watch his daughter grow from child to mother. Muñoz’s inkily fluid, shadow-laden pages remain the best thing about the work, even if his style ages, along with its hero, into sometimes illegible forms of looseness and abstraction. I don’t know if Alack Sinner is one of the best comics I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly among the best I’ve ever seen.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!


Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of OtrantoThe Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Published pseudonymously in 1764 by an English politician, The Castle of Otranto is usually praised as the first Gothic novel. It not only set off a craze for novels about haunted castles and abbeys, about predatory dukes and scheming monks and fainting maidens, all necessary popular accompaniments to Romanticism’s more philosophical critique of Enlightenment rationality, it also changed the novel form. And this was its author’s explicit goal. In his preface to the second edition, to which Walpole appended his own name, he writes:

It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life.

Walpole here observes the same trend noted by Dr. Johnson in his Rambler, No. 4: the movement of fiction toward realism, a mode that aspires to tell invented stories about common people in a style that emphasizes social and psychological verisimilitude. Unlike Johnson, who praises this development for making literature morally relevant to its audience and raising it above mere entertainment, Walpole laments the loss of “fancy” that characterized prose fiction—romance—from late antiquity to the 17th century.

The formal solution Walpole devises to this problem of how to write fantastic fiction in a realist age is one that is still with us today: he recommends that authors use both plausible external detail and naturalistic human behavior to make the supernatural events of their fiction more believable. Walpole lives on in every meticulous horror-movie attempt to create a real world for the the monster or the demon to reduce to ruins. The most recent example that comes to my mind is the family psychodrama at the heart of the film Hereditary, complete with a stagey set-piece dinner-table argument that belongs, in terms of dramatic mode, to the realist theater.

Walpole’s theory is better than his practice, however. The Castle of Otranto is not very good qua novel. While its supernatural episodes have an intriguing surrealism—the book’s inciting incident occurs when a prince is “dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet”—the narrative’s brevity coupled with its complexity makes it read like farce. Walpole’s idea of realistic human behavior seems to have come from sentimental fiction, so much of the novel consists of tearful arias by the confusing profusion of heroines, Matilda, Isabella, and Hippolita, as they struggle under the tyranny of the novel’s villain, Prince Manfred.

The plot is not worth recounting in full: it essentially concerns the supernatural means by which the rightful heir to the titular castle comes to succeed the usurping Manfred. The story is in constant motion—Walpole uses a five-chapter structure that mirrors Shakespearean plotting, and his method is more dramatic than novelistic, comprised mostly of action and dialogue—which means that we never come to care about any of the characters, who exist only as types (cruel tyrant, pious mother, young brave, etc.); granted, the types are moody and changeable in another superficial borrowing from Shakespeare, but Walpole lacks Shakespeare’s gift for creating characters who introspect in language so rich that they come to seem not mechanically unpredictable but humanly complex.

The bulk of Otranto‘s plot consists of a love triangle among the mysterious peasant hero Theodore, Manfred’s daughter Matilda, and his would-be daughter-in-law (spared marriage by the aforementioned helmet-crushing of his son) Isabella. Because the characters are uninteresting, many of the novel’s sentences read like word problems; you could substitute letters for the characters’ names, and it would still make as much sense:

Theodore, under pretence of expressing his joy at being freed from his apprehensions of the combat being fatal to Frederic, could not resist the impulse of following Matilda. Her eyes were so often cast down on meeting his, that Isabella, who regarded Theodore as attentively as he gazed on Matilda, soon divined who the object was that he had told her in the cave engaged his affections.

By blending a supernatural tragedy with a sentimental love story, Walpole fulfills his mandate of combining ancient and modern fiction-writing techniques. To the same end, and again following Shakespeare, he uses the castle’s servants to leaven the tragedy with humor. Bianca, a dim and loquacious maid who comes across as a youthful version of Juliet’s nurse, steals the show, as in a late scene when Manfred tries to pry information from her despite her stream of naive and self-serving prattle.

Everything about this novel leads me to believe that Walpole’s real literary gift was a comic one. How seriously are we supposed to take this quasi-Shakespearean tragedy anyway? The preface to the first edition casts it as a manuscript “found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529.” Our author, posing as translator and editor, goes on:

The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of Christianity; but the language and conduct have nothing that savours of barbarism. The style is the purest Italian.


It is not unlikely that an artful priest might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators, and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions. If this was his view, he has certainly acted with signal address. Such a work as the following would enslave a hundred vulgar minds beyond half the books of controversy that have been written from the days of Luther to the present hour.

This solution of the author’s motives is, however, offered as a mere conjecture. Whatever his views were, or whatever effects the execution of them might have, his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment.

In other words, this story of haunted castles and sinister monasteries and the underground labyrinths linking them may once have been dangerous: it might have served to reawaken belief in all the Catholic superstitions the Renaissance and the Reformation (the “innovators” named above) had so successfully dispelled. But now that this danger has passed, now that we definitely don’t believe that nonsense anymore, we can read such a story as a lark or a game, especially if its style is a pleasing one. From the aesthetic distance of Enlightened England, the barbarous past of Italy and “the Orient” (the novel, at least in recollection, spans both settings) can be enjoyed in good fun.

Walpole, son of England’s first prime minister, spent much of his life as a Whig politician, despite his predilection for the arts. In his introduction to this Oxford edition, W. S. Lewis notes that, to discharge the stresses of politics, Walpole devoted his free time to proto-Romantic artistic pursuits, famously renovating his house on Strawberry Hill into a neo-Gothic villa as well as building in prose The Caste of Otranto.

It takes a Whig, not a Tory, to invent the Gothic genre. To recast the barbarous brutal past, Catholic and Oriental, as light, if shocking, relief, a nerve-titillating escape from the workaday world of the modern, you would have to belief in that past’s absolute supersession, or at least that it deserves such supersession. Once aestheticized in a pure literary style, the beauties and the terrors of the Old World, its aristocrats and monks and visionary maidens, become a theme park and a tourist trap, as well as an occasion for self-congratulation—an assertion of who is on the right side of history.

On the other hand, Walpole’s formal innovation of combining the supernaturalism of the old-style romance with what the age of sentimentality considered a realistic portrayal of character tends to have the opposite effect: if the people undergoing these ghostly experiences are just like us, then why can’t the repressed return to us as it does to them? If character is so unchanged across time and space, then how can we moderns be sure we have evaded what we were obviously too quick to mock as the Latin barbarisms we supposedly left behind with Luther?

Because the Gothic grounds its terrors in everyday emotion and naturalizes them through the techniques of realistic fiction, it works against its own ideological presupposition that we have thrown off the dead hand of history. Lewis in his introduction writes that Walter Scott, inventor of the modern historical novel, praised Otranto for its well-researched detail in the description of architecture and costume; this presumably inspired Scott’s own innovations in fictionally recreating a past that feels different from the present, a quality absent from prior historical novels and dramas. Yet insofar as Lewis combines period costume with perennial psychology, he creates an anti-historical novel and gives the Gothic its counter-Whiggish political edge.

Walpole borrowed from Shakespeare, and moreover defends Shakespeare in his second preface to the novel against the neo-classical and Enlightened criticism of Voltaire. Whereas Voltaire had chastised the English playwright for his mixed modes, mingling high tragedy with low farce to create a disordered aesthetic effect, Walpole hails Shakespeare as “[t]hat great master of nature,” which presumably does not obey the schematic dicta of French literary theory. Again, though, Walpole implies that what is natural is universal: nature holds true in modern England as in medieval Italy, under Protestantism as under Catholicism, in 18th-century novels as in 16th-century tragedies. Can you be a Whig and think that Shakespeare copied nature in all its grotesque, chaotic copiousness of mood and meaning? Can you read Macbeth or King Lear—or even Richard II—and believe that history is, or at least should be, moving toward a telos of enlightenment?

We may be crushed at any moment by an uprising of what we thought was settled history; we may be undone today or tomorrow by secrets that suddenly seize us and, without our understanding, control our passions. Ironically, to be modern is to feel always insecure in our modernity, which is to say unsure that we are in rational command of our lives or others’. We all live in the castle of Otranto.

As a much later Gothic novelist will so famously propose, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” When Walpole finds a fictional form for those elements of the mind and of history that rational realism cannot contain or explain away, he invents more than just modern genre fiction with its attempts at verisimilitude. He finds the neglected road that leads from Shakespeare to Faulkner and to Freud—to modernism.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!