Alan Moore, Miracleman

Miracleman, Book Three: OlympusMiracleman, Book Three: Olympus by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1980s, Alan Moore, the most celebrated writer in the history of mainstream Anglophone comics, made his name by telling the same story four times.

In Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, a commanding male figure, superior of intellect and sometimes even god-like, remakes the world, or at least part of it, into some version of utopia.

In two cases (V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing), the reader is invited to celebrate this transformation, generally because Moore keeps the ideology of the hero and his utopia within the remit of the political left; in two cases (Watchmen and Miracleman), the reader is invited to question this transformation, generally because Moore surrounds the hero and his revolution with echoes of fascism.

In each case, including the more positive ones, doubts dog the utopian narrative; even the anarchist V and the environmentalist Swamp Thing trample ordinary people and democratic institutions, and all these utopian men, whether metaphorically or literally, attempt to control or fall to degrading women, with the female body seeming to stand in Moore’s imagination as a metaphor for ungovernable reality.

Evidently grasping the problem of his attractions to inhumane and even inhuman utopianism, Moore attempted a correction in his opus of the 1990s, From Hell: here the utopian hero is Jack the Ripper (AKA royal physician William Gull), his victims working-class prostitutes. Surely, we are not asked to sympathize with this vivisectionist-misogynist-revolutionist?

Yet Moore himself was quite literally ensorcelled by his hero-villain’s rhetoric, persuaded by his creature’s own monologues to become an occultist. In the final chapter but one, Gull ascends the Tree of Life into the white blankness that is God while his final, escaped victim Mary Kelly remains below with only those human appurtenances of flesh, family, and nation (to be more politically specific, female flesh [her murder-spared body], female family [her daughters, named for Gull’s other victims], and colonized nation [Ireland, occupied by the English power Gull served]) to console her.

The balance of Moore’s career shows his increasing efforts to synthesize magic and revolution with democracy and humanity, some more persuasive (Promethea) than others (Lost Girls), even if rather severe problems remain (why in the name of Glycon is the figure of love at the center of the universe in Promethea an image of Pan raping Selene?), and I’ll certainly get back to you if I ever finish Jerusalem.

My goal today is to account for Miracleman, which I have just re-read in part and in part read for the first time. As an adolescent I was never able to assemble all the out-of-print back issues and graphic novels, so I have only now read the whole saga in Marvel Comics’s recent reprints.

Miracleman was originally titled Marvelman. Marvelman was a 1950s English superhero created by Mick Anglo (whose Anglicized surname sounds like that of an English superhero) modeled on Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam. Both characters are boys gifted a magic word by a wizard, a word that when spoken transforms them into superheroes.

Marvelman spent the 1950s having adventures with his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, and then went into publishing dormancy. Moore, an ambitious up-and-coming writer, was given a chance to retool the character in the early 1980s for the British comics anthology Warrior (in which his anarchist dystopia V for Vendetta also appeared).

Upon publication in America, the series’s title was revised to Miracleman under legal threat from Marvel Comics. The publication history of the series is dispiriting and complicated, with Moore publishing first in Warrior in Britain, then in an American series published by the indie company Eclipse. Moore turned over the series to Neil Gaiman after he completed the story he wished to tell, and Gaiman managed to publish six issues with Eclipse. Then the series and characters got caught up in an unfathomably complex legal entanglement, the result of which allowed Marvel to republish Moore and Gaiman’s work only in the last decade, with the anti-corporatist Moore’s name removed at his own request. His work is now credited to “The Original Writer.”

The difficulties of publishing the series means that it took almost a decade to get Moore’s whole story out, with a changing crew of artists. The story, though, was evidently planned from the first as cohesive whole by the meticulous Moore, and showcases his brutally realist-revisionist approach to superheroes in the 1980s.

Miracleman, according to Moore, is not really a 1950s superhero; his Mick Anglo–penned adventures were a Matrix-like delusion fostered by the crypto-fascist intelligence program, headed by one Emil Gargunza, which created superhumans by repurposing the technology found in a downed UFO. Once Miralceman learns this truth, defeats the corrupted Kid Miracleman, dispatches Gargunza, and has a baby with his mortal wife, the aliens return to discover what earthlings have made of their tech.

This alien incursion draws Earth into the Cold War between two rival interstellar empires who eventually agree to make our planet the staging-ground of their détente. Meanwhile, Miracleman and his fellow superheroes (now including a newly-discovered Miraclewoman as well as his own daughter, Winter), transform earth into a utopia without money, poverty, disease, war, or oppression. Such transformation is all the more necessary after the aforementioned Kid Miracleman returns to destroy London in a gruesome episode before his final defeat.

Moore’s story ends not only with miracle people but with a miracle world, even as the hints that this utopia is really a dystopia from the perspective of ordinary mortals become increasingly hard to ignore.

Completed between 1982, when Moore was just starting out, and 1989, when Moore was at the height of his powers, Miracleman displays extreme variations from beginning to end in the quality of its scripting. The early episodes are clumsy, with corny comic-book narration a cut below even that of contemporaries like Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont. I am being cruel, but here is one egregious narrative caption:

A can of worms has been opened. A can of worms called “Project Zarathustra.” And every time you open a can of worms…you need a bigger can to get them all back in. (ellipses in original)

Why would you need a bigger can for the same amount of worms? This is prototypically bad writing: choppy, portentous, clichéd, and nonsensical.

Moore’s style improves exponentially, though; the final chapters, making up the narrative’s third division, Olympus, are almost an illustrated text as much as they are comics, with Miracleman himself narrating retrospectively in an epic (some say purple) prose-poetry that one might compare, among writers of the 1980s, not to Marv Wolfman but to Cormac McCarthy or, in the SF genre, to Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin.

Consider this passage, which stunned me when I was 14; it is Miracleman’s elegy to a fallen alien warrior, its fantastical imagery passing into a sighed diminuendo as binary code becomes the mourner’s cry:

And Aza Chorn, so swift that by compare the thunderbolts crept earthwards with the speed of stalactites…? Why, Aza Chorn is dead. Just dead. About his monument, the ghosts parade, the zephyrs shriek and howl and tear apart the clouds, rail uselessly at death and in frustration snatch up blossoms shaped like human lips, and fling them like blood-red confetti from Olympus to those mortal pastures far below, a rain of angry kisses showering down upon those tiny, distant lives…[11010000]: the And/oroids use this term to denote the sorrow that is felt on realising sorrow is a thing one can no longer truly feel. One one, oh one, oh oh, oh oh. (ellipses in original)

The art shows similar variations. The first artist, Garry Leach, is an excellent but rather literal illustrator, while the final artist, Moore’s Swamp Thing collaborator John Totleben, provides a moody, mixed-media extravaganza, often applying legendary pulp artist Virgil Finlay’s psychedelic pointillist technique to provide a visual corollary to Moore’s high rhetoric.

So what can all this mean? Is Moore on the side of his miraculous utopian revolutionary? Despite the unevenness in quality and the pains of production, is Miracleman a cohesive statement worth reading as political speculation?

Despite the overused term “graphic novel,” the novelistic texture of the work is thin. The characters are flat archetypes, except for two disruptive figures of the early episodes, Miracleman’s fascist “father,” the scientist Emil Gargunza, and the black assassin (with sapphire teeth) Evelyn Cream.

Art: Alan Davis

Gargunza is a Mexican displaced by the Revolution and its aftermath; he later sojourns in Germany and then comes to England to birth superheroes by mingling alien technology with captured orphans. Physically unattractive, intellectually brilliant, and wishing for immortality, he is a genuinely poignant figure. The chapter where he tells his life story (which oddly takes its title from Warren Zevon’s “Veracruz”) is more successful than anything in V for Vendetta in humanely and anti-fascistically rooting fascist ideology in actual human fears and needs.

Evelyn Cream is even more compelling, his complex character one key to the meaning of the whole book. At first, the reader fears he will be a dire racist stereotype out of James Bond, but his rich inner monologues provide much-needed political reflection on the meaning of Moore’s fable. Here one aspect of his psyche accuses the other in an instance of racial double consciousness:

Really, old horse! These antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume. It seems one cannot take the jungle out of the boy after all. What do you say, Mr. Cream? Educated at Rugby. Trained at Sandhurst. You read the untranslated novels of Collette [sic] and own an original Hockney. Good God, sir, you are practically white! […] And yet you follow this white loa, this Miracleman who leaves a trail of dead and fisheyed fellows in his wake! Can it be that you have gone native, Mr. Cream? Mr. Cream, do you at last believe in juju? Great grandfather, pass me down the gris-gris and the pointing bone, for I have opted at this late stage to become another crazy n—–.

I believe, by the way, that the last word, censored by Marvel, was spelled out in the original publication. But this linguistic whitewashing cannot conceal Cream’s ambiguous assessment of Miracleman as a survival from before modernity, the white atavism the Nazis often dreamed of. Moore’s words above perhaps don’t pass racial-justice muster today, but note, in mitigation, Moore’s (or the letterer’s) own poignant failure of upper-class white-imperialist cultural-capital mimicry signaled by the misspelling of “Colette.” Race is obviously not the only variable at work here, and Moore is as little superhuman as are his human characters.

In Cream’s second and final major monologue, he reverses the meaning of the first and finds in Miracleman not a white atavism but a white ultra-modernity, even a kind of ultra-colonialism, as he laments his own postcolonial compromises:

I wanted the white miracle. I wanted to touch the pale god that they had birthed in their machinery. The thing they had which we had not. And thus I reached out for that ivory promise, as did my father, as did his father before him…and I learned that thing which I must tell: That whiteness which we pursue through the dark trees of our inner continent…it is not the whiteness of hot steel, or of sanctity…it is the whiteness of bone. It is death. (ellipses in original)

So is Miracleman (or Miracleman) pre- or postmodern, emancipatory or oppressive, anti-fascist or fascist? Cream’s confusion, or Moore’s confusion about what a man in Cream’s subject-position would actually say and think, extends to the whole tale. One of Moore’s weakest major works overall, Miracleman is nevertheless productively confusing. It brought to my mind many conflicting political philosophies, all the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” in Orwell’s words.

I thought, for instance, of the Marxist theorist Christian Thorne. In a sharp essay occasioned by the carnivalesque and French-Theory-infused elements of the various alt-right subcultures that helped bring Trump to power, Thorne warns that fascism is not merely cultural conservatism or political authoritarianism. Thorne implores the American left to reckon with the bohemian, anti-bourgeois, avant-garde, and even authentically multicultural and queer commitments of historical fascism lest the fascism in the left’s midst, in its very anarchist pedagogy, be overlooked:

Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes.

Faithful to Marxism, Thorne doesn’t make the other half of the argument, which I have done in my writings on, for example, Lukács and Camus: namely, that Marxism often just is, like the stereotype of fascism Thorne repudiates, a disturbing doctrine of political authoritarianism and cultural conservatism.

Both of these befuddling ideologies, a radical fascism and a reactionary Marxism, came to mind as I read and re-read Olympus. Miraclewoman introduces polymorphous queerness into the erotic life of the general population as a prelude to her superman-breeding eugenics program, which, while more democratic, is not a lot different from what Gargunza had intended. Is this sexual emancipation or sexual domination?

Miracleman, for his part, abolishes money and takes central control of the economy. When a frail-looking and sympathetic Margaret Thatcher protests, he curtly implies that, in her own words, “there is no alternative.” Thatcher here briefly occupies the position of Rorschach in Watchmen: in both books, written by an avowed leftist who at the period of composition liked to be photographed in a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, conservatives and conservative ideology come to stand in for nothing less than humanity’s free will.


By contrast to these evocations of fascism and communism, Peter Y. Paik, in his brilliant (conservative) study of superhero and science fiction narratives as political philosophies, understands Olympus to prophesy the triumph of liberalism after the Cold War, and liberalism’s becoming in turn an unaccountable hyperpower. On Paik’s view, Miracleman is not Hitler or Stalin but rather an amalgam of Bush and Obama, smugly insisting that their reign of surveillance and imperial global dominance is on the right side of the end of history:

Miracleman: Olympus, completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, envisions the predicaments and crises that would follow when an interminable stalemate gives way, when the sources of catastrophe become more elusive and thus more alarming and ominous. Moore’s shattering of the geopolitical taboo accordingly serves to give flesh to the ineluctably revolutionary dream of an unconstrained expansionism and unlimited power that has been dreamt—and become magnified—within liberal democratic society.

The value of Moore’s Miracleman as political speculation, then, is that it can support Thorne’s anti-fascism, my anti-Marxism, and Paik’s anti-liberalism, not to mention Evelyn Cream’s anti-colonialism, because its real philosophical function is to warn of the severed head at the base of every capitol and all capital, the et in arcadia ego of every utopia, the murderousness of every politics, even as it also, through Moore’s soaring rhetoric and Totleben’s visionary illustration, refuses to deny the gorgeous attractions of our revolutionary dreams.

Roaming the preserved killing fields of London, ravaged by his former sidekick, Miracleman considers just this theme:

These charnel pastures serve as a reminder, a memento mori, never letting us forget that though Olympus pierce the very skies, in all the history of earth, there’s never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones. (ellipses in original)

And while Marvel Comics trolls Moore by printing in the back of Olympus a never-before-published Miracleman story by his rival and nemesis Grant Morrison (whom I read as a crypto-moderate in politics), Morrison’s story is slight. The true repudiation of Moore’s radicalism comes in the work of his hand-picked successor, Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s Golden Age is a collection of short stories portraying (via the intelligently mixed-media artwork of Mark Buckingham) the private lives of those in Miracleman’s imperial utopia. I find it to be gimmicky and precious, as much of Gaiman’s work, so impressive to me in adolescence, reads to me now.

In the interests of critical fairness, I will quote eloquent praise for what Gaiman does in The Golden Age from Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the original collected edition (not reproduced in Marvel’s reprint, but available in Delany’s Shorter Thoughts):

The last movement of the previous Miracleman book [i.e., Olympus] was a raging panegyric, a dithyramb, a jeremiad dancing, hot and searing, right up off the sizzling griddle of language. There was no place to go—so Gaiman threw the whole machine into reverse. His six entwined tales here come like sapphires afloat on a supercool liquid, like shards of sea-ground glass, shadow-cooled; these understated stories almost hide their theme: For Miracleman is a book that is largely, generously, compassionately about mourning.

Delany’s sentences, which I am tempted to call better than anything actually found in The Golden Age, repay the tribute of Gaiman’s own allusion in the book to Delany’s classic short story, “Driftglass.”

The highlights of The Golden Age are two. One is a Dick-style tale about a city populated entirely by spies, overseen by the resurrected Evelyn Cream, a homeopathic dream-world meant to bring spies out of their mirror-halls of suspicion so that they may enjoy an honest life in the perfect state of the superheroes.

Art: Mark Buckingham

The second highlight is based on one line in Moore’s series (Balzac’s praise of Stendhal for writing entire books on single pages might apply to Moore). A resonantly mythological feature of Miracleman’s Olympus is its underworld, where the recent dead are resurrected using alien technology. At the conclusion of Olympus, Moore mentions the arrival to this underworld of Andy Warhol, which Gaiman takes as an occasion to do a comic-book rendition of “A Dream” from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, a Warholian monologue on the meaning of this science-fictional world. Considering Miracleman’s abolition of money, Warhol laments:

He stopped [money]. Said it was bad. That’s fine, I suppose, but how do you know if you’re more successful than anyone else? How do you know if what you’re doing is working? You’ve got to keep working.

Spoken like Margaret bloody Thatcher: without signals from markets, how can you know your art is good or your society free?

Gaiman, whose early work did so much, by affirming marginalized identities, to portend today’s social-justice revolution in comics, never pretended to be an anti-capitalist or a radical. He aspired to, and after writing Miracleman ascended to, the Olympus of the bestseller list. His watchword was “the personal is the political,” which is true, but not true enough for the philosophical ambitions proper to Moore’s Miracleman.

As for the Original Writer, he always was aware that the market, no less than those utopians who would overthrow it, might err. We are left, as ever, with his second thoughts, imperfectly expressed. This is, in its way, as it should be, since with his second thought, if not his first, he cautions us in this flawed epic against the pursuit of inhuman perfection.

Art: John Totleben

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!

Tom Wolfe, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers

Radical Chic; &, Mau Mauing The Flak CatchersRadical Chic & Mau Mauing The Flak Catchers by Tom Wolfe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a tiny bit arrogant of people to go around worrying about those less fortunate.
—Whit Stillman, Metropolitan

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it is a year or two into a conservative presidential administration—one that follows an epoch-making liberal one, and that was carried into office on a wave of resentful white populism. Social and cultural changes that once looked permanent now feel a bit insecure. An alliance between the cultural and economic elite with progressive causes, including some of those causes’ more radical exponents, starts to break. Satire overwhelms earnestness. The ideological and demographic constituencies of the broad political left itself begin to fall out: socialist vs. liberal, working class vs. middle class, African-American vs. Jewish. The ethical status of the state of Israel is a particular flashpoint. And the New York Times increasingly appears to side, at least in matters cultural, with the political right.

Is this America? Is this 2018? It is indeed America, but I am describing the Nixon years, and you can read all about it in the late Tom Wolfe’s 1970 classic of embedded and excitable reportage, “Radical Chic.” The titular phrase, by the way, is one—among others—that Wolfe introduced into the language; it signifies the temporary adoption of left-wing ideology by the rich as a matter of fashion. (The word woke now means roughly the same, at least in its ironic usage, where it is spoken in imagined quotation marks to suggest a privileged white liberal’s patronizing adoption of black slang.)

Upon the white-suited author’s recent death, I wanted to read something of his, preferably not a 900-page novel in the mode of a zany Zola, so I chose this diptych on hearing “Radical Chic” commended on social media as especially relevant to the politics of the present. I just didn’t realize how relevant it would prove, even though I am the one always saying history is likely more circle than line.

“Radical Chic” famously narrates a party and/or meeting and/or benefit (the nature of the gathering actually becomes a point of contention in its controversial aftermath) held in the home of celebrated conductor Leonard Bernstein in 1970 wherein he hosted a number of Black Panthers alongside his more customary guest list of VIPs (Otto Preminger, Barbara Walters, Harry Belafonte—to cite a few names still in circulation). The event itself goes awry when Bernstein and his cohort begin interrogating their new guests not so much on racial politics, but rather on the Panthers’ avowed revolutionary goal of overthrowing capitalism—obviously an unwelcome prospect to this gathering of the haute bourgeoisie. Further, there is the tense subtext of worsening relations between the black and Jewish communities, exacerbated by the Panthers’ Third Worldist politics and concomitant hostility to Israel. When a columnist somewhat mockingly reports on the party in the New York Times the next day, it becomes a watchword for the delusions of fashionable bien pensance at the end of the 1960s.

While Wolfe artfully restricts his narrative timeline to the present of Bernstein’s party and its immediate aftermath, his own authorial voice ranges through the history of status wars between old and new money in New York City. Because America has no landed aristocracy, Wolfe explains, there are always new rich emerging from new bases of wealth (railroads, oil, steel, etc.) who need to set themselves apart with new status symbols. Often this takes the form of nostalgie de la boue, or “romanticizing of primitive souls”—essentially, slumming. Making matters more complicated, the new rich of the midcentury, who made their millions in media and culture, come from the ranks of the formerly impoverished immigrant groups: they are Catholics and Jews. These groups, especially the latter, have an understandable historical connection to the political left without compare among previous Protestant cohorts of the new rich. For this reason, they are especially divided between their self-interest and their desire for social justice, and are accordingly susceptible to radical chic, a fundamentally dishonest way of reconciling these incompatible commitments, and one moreover accompanied by an exploitative aestheticization or fetishization, even a consumption, necessarily de haut en bas, of the objects of their pity:

These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—

—no more interminable Urban League banquets in hotel ballrooms where they try to alternate the blacks and whites around the tables as if they were stringing Arapaho beads—

—these are real men!

Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women—there are three or four of them on hand, wives of the Panther 21 defendants, and they are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they’d stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them. All at once every woman in the room knows exactly what Amanda Burden meant when she said she was now anti-fashion because “the sophistication of the baby blacks made me rethink my attitudes.”

Radical chic is the anti-racism that is really just racism.

Now Wolfe could not explicate this history and its results so knowledgeably without some sympathy for the subjects of his investigation. His attitude is not simply one of contempt; there is too much understanding in it for that. But there is satire, especially in the piece’s opening explanation of how Bernstein and friends clamored to hire white (largely Hispanic) rather than black servants in preparation for their encounter with the Black Panthers.

Wolfe largely spares the Black Panthers themselves his satirical scrutiny. I suspect he sees them as honest political players, pursuing their interests in the open sans the complex codes of the comme il faut among the jet set, codes that often operate precisely to conceal conflicts of interest. In the slighter second piece in this volume, “Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers,” he is more unsparing, and here his conservative politics come to the fore as he presents an elaborate game between community organizers and poverty programs in San Francisco. The staid bureaucrats, he explains, require the organizers to intimidate and harass them to justify getting anything done, though what they bring to the communities they ostensibly serve is often make-work amounting to little. Wolfe allows that this characteristic exchange of administrative liberalism helps to bring self-reliance to otherwise desperate constituencies, but here his derision is withering, especially in his depiction of a climactic parade through the gilded and marble City Hall of children, grotesquely eating junk food and headed by an organizer in a dashiki.

But if “Radical Chic” helped me to understand aspects of elite media in the Age of Trump, “Mau-Mauing” helped me to understand why the last president—himself a former community organizer—often implored his audiences to push his ostensibly moderate government toward more radical goals; according to Wolfe, this is a longstanding technique for change in urban politics. While “Radical Chic” exhibits a certain tact in writing about the Black Panthers that prevents the piece’s satire from lapsing into racist invective, “Mau-Mauing”—with its eponymous mocking allusion to anti-colonial revolt—does no such thing: its author is the anthropologist as insult artist, and the field report is acidly cartoonish, even if written with contemptuous relish.

The progression in this book, then, is the one narrated by this book: a rightward shift, a growing impatience with the attempt to display sympathies whose honest extension would mean your own undoing. It is true that this can be a cold and unfeeling doctrine, a Nietzschean call to the right of might, but on the other hand at least it does not have that particular reek of hypocrisy. And anyway, Wolfe seems to suggest in his relatively respectful allowance of voice and distance to the Black Panthers, better an open conflict of interests than the cheat that is the power-play of pity. Wolfe’s own justly celebrated writing style, its dandiacal energy unimpeded by guilt or condescension, is the literary correlate of such an aristocratic politics.

The effect of Wolfe’s satire against the high-low alliance made by radical chic is to shield the middle classes, the “silent majority,” from the scorn of the cultural elite and the anger of the insurgent oppressed; yet Wolfe is certainly not of this middle realm himself. His overture to them—like so many we see today—is possibly only another unworkable and hypocritical partnership across the line dividing the cultural haves from the have-nots. As Flaubert claimed he was Emma Bovary even as he anatomized her delusions, so Wolfe might have to acknowledge a kinship with Leonard Bernstein. But I doubt the maestro is the doppelgänger Wolfe would have chosen out of his own text. Perhaps as he gazed across Bernstein’s parlor, over the heads of the cringing liberals, he saw—in a moment of nostalgie all his own—the Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party as his own self-image in photo negative: the stylish warrior.


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 for reading!

Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-RightKill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kill All Normies is like three books in one.

A reader coming to it casually will focus on its useful if somewhat cursory tour of the various factions of the new political right, their intellectual roots in right-wing anarchism or left fascism from Sade to Bataille, and their consequent difference from most forms of traditional conservatism descending from Burke, Christian thought, or, in the case of neoconservatism, even Marxism.

It is for the second layer of Nagle’s argument that her book has become infamous in some quarters, because she also spends about two chapters—including her conclusion—and her most incendiary rhetoric on what she calls “Tumblr-liberalism,” the identitarian victimological cultural politics that came to dominate culturally left-wing Internet platforms in tandem with the rise of the alt-right. Nagle claims that this version of left politics, to which she counterposes her own “materialism,” was both the goad to and the inspiration for the alt-right:

And yet, amid all the vulnerability and self-humbling, members of these subcultures often behaved with extraordinary viciousness and aggression, like their anonymous Pepe-posting counterparts, behind the safety of the keyboard.

But the rather aimless organization of Kill All Normies conceals a purpose deeper even than Nagle’s apportioning of blame to the Tumblr liberals: in holding our culture’s embrace of “transgression” in all its forms responsible for the turn toward irrationalism and identitarianism in both the left and right Internet subcultures (i.e., Tumblr and 4chan) that have begun to dominate IRL politics, she is carrying on an old, old Marxist argument (which I have written about in the context of Georg Lukács’s literary criticism) against the entire tradition from Romanticism to postmodernism of trying to correct capitalism through art and culture. Nagle’s vintage Lukácsian dismissal of Nietzsche, whom she judges simply as a forerunner of Nazism and not as a complex and ironic thinker, is the tell for her quiet dissemination of what I would somewhat inflammatorily call a neo-Stalinist cultural politics that is no less of a twentieth-century dead end than are the Tumblr and 4chan ideologies, or what Nagle rightly labels “two rival wings of contemporary identity politics,” marring collective life in the twenty-first century. At the end of her penultimate chapter, Nagle writes:

The alt-right often talks about the mind-prison of liberalism and express their quest for that which is truly radical, transgressive and ‘edgy’. Half a century after the Rolling Stones, after Siouxsie Sioux and Joy Division flirted with fascist aesthetics, after Piss Christ, after Fight Club, when everyone from the President’s fanboys to McDonalds are flogging the dead horse of ‘edginess’, it may be time to lay the very recent and very modern aesthetic values of counterculture and the entire paradigm to rest and create something new.

Readers of my essays on writers as various as Georges Bataille, Boris Groys, and Grant Morrison will know that I sympathize with this downgrading of the avant-garde and the counterculture. Yet the revivified Marxism for which Nagle stands has never shown sufficient psychological awareness of the human necessity for revolt expressed by the ideology of transgression. In seeking to eliminate transgression as a cultural ideal in the name of collective peace and freedom, Marxism and related traditions (Nagle seems likewise drawn to a second-wave-style feminism) have often created the kind of repression that makes someone like Bataille look more convincing than perhaps he should.

My own work of this decade, both critical and creative, has been a long attempt to avoid all three of these political and cultural alternatives—fascism, identity politics, and Marxism, which I tend to see as three expressions of one underlying error: the wedding of resentful pathos to totalizing logos—by identifying and perpetuating a rival tradition that incorporates what is best in the avant-garde and neutralizes what is dangerous in it. I have discussed this rival tradition under the heading of the “modern novel,” though it also includes all sorts of other cultural expressions in poetry, painting, film, and comics. I champion it because it can outdo identity politics and Marxism by giving voice to submerged, exploited, or oppressed subjects without using their expression to hypostatize race, gender, and class, while it can outdo fascism and its valorization of transgression by merging transgression’s vital ruptures into narrative continuities that dissolve the aesthetics of mindless destruction in flows of irrepressible significance.

While I may sound as if I am alluding to some very hidden body of thought, I refer only to the mainstream of the modern literary tradition from Shakespeare and Cervantes through Woolf and Ishiguro; it is just that this tradition has never been taken seriously enough as politics and as philosophy, which has left the field empty for the partisans of group identity and group eliminationism to clash ignorantly by night. Nagle shows little awareness that this tradition I refer to exists; in one telling moment, she even confuses Harold Bloom with Allan Bloom, naming Allan Bloom as Camille Paglia’s grad school adviser (which is funny if you try to imagine it; by the way, it was not Paglia but Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick whom the author of The Closing of the American Mind influenced).[*] Yet if Harold Bloom, along with Paglia, were read seriously instead of being demonized by the left-liberal literati, the political potential of a literature that has attempted, in Bloom’s words, “to transcend the human without forsaking humanism” might be better appreciated.

Despite all my criticisms above, I do appreciate Nagle’s forthright admission of political complexities that too many commentators prefer to ignore:

What constitutes movements of the right and left in Anglophone culture wars discourse is based on a political compass that has long been reorienting, rethinking and reconstituting itself. In particular, class politics and social liberalism have not always sat comfortably together, nor did social conservatism with free-market economics for many decades until the neocons perfected the formula when in power.

As for Nagle’s concretely political analysis, I think she is on the right track with her careful discrimination among new right factions. As readers of this country’s founding documents—or of its great novels The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick—should grasp, America is a machine for converting chaos and conflict into stability. So lost in reinterpreting our big red A, we forget to be properly puritanical; we are so mesmerized by the open-ended meaning of our quest-object that we re-narrate monomaniacal tragic allegory as comic-parodic metafictional symbolism. Intolerant of extremes, America just moves the center in response to extremist agitators, which is both the best and the worst thing about this country.

Look at the liberal magazines of the last month to see the center in motion: The Atlantic is in effect publishing ideas associated in the Obama era with notorious types like Steve Sailer (curiously not mentioned in Nagle’s account) as advice to the Democrats, while  Harper’s has put Zadie Smith on the cover to say much the same about identity politics as Nagle so controversially has said—though even Nagle doesn’t label any identitarian liberal ideas as Nazi the way Smith does. Meanwhile, from the other side, what Nagle calls the alt-light is on a similar march away from the alt-right fringe. She rightly identifies Mike Cernovich as an example. While still using the Internet mobbing/shaming tactics deployed both by the alt-right and the ess-jay-dubs, he is visibly shedding the ideological appurtenances of right-wing extremism, sometimes even of mainstream social conservatism: I watched one of his videos wherein he told his wife she shouldn’t say “retarded” and another wherein he explained to his viewers that he believes in using trans people’s correct pronouns. I am sure he would hate to hear it, but I believe he is a new variant of neoconservative (with different foreign policy preferences, it should be said), and I suspect it is his politics and those of his fellow-travelers that will dominate the coming decade—which will inevitably be a more conservative one, like the ’50s, ’80s, and ’00s—not those of the rather ludicrous Richard Spencer and the neo-Nazis. This is all bad news if you were hoping for social justice but good news if you were expecting the total end of the world.

I do not quite believe in “justice” in the relevant sense in any case. The wisdom of atheism tells us that man is an animal, subject to the law of nature: the big fish eats the little fish. The wisdom of religion tells us that man is inherently corrupt, bearer of original sin or bound to the wheel of desire, and so unable to do more than approximate holiness on earth. Taken either way—atheistically or religiously—humanity will not be just or it will not be humanity. Using the mysterious resource of human consciousness, however, which makes both the transcendent science of the atheist and the transcendent theology of the religious possible, we are able to render life’s inevitable hierarchies more amenable to reform, more intellectually tenable, and more beneficial to everyone organized within them. The misguided pursuit of justice, in the sense of total human emancipation from any and all dominance (a species of religious fanaticism, in that it seeks to bring heaven down to earth by force), can only distract from this goal, and that is when it is not seized by opportunists to create hell on earth.

In short, both those who wish for apocalypse and those who fear it will probably find that life remains a variousness and a chaos. Normies have perhaps always been a bit more aware of this than we intellectual extremists, “we knowers,” as Nagle’s behated Nietzsche calls us with his withering and self-implicating irony. Normies, but also novelists—novelists being those intellectual extremists forced through our wrestling with the aesthetic material of narrative to reckon with the normal, the everyday: the stream of time rather than the break of catastrophe.


[*] The Bloom/Bloom mix-up has been corrected in subsequent printings and revised, Soviet-style, in every iteration of the ebook, including ones already downloaded, like my own. But I didn’t imagine the mistake: if you can find the earliest printing, the error is on page 83, as pictured:

Screen Shot 2018-11-22 at 11.05.23 AM

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 for reading!

Jeanette Winterson, Art and Lies

Art and LiesArt and Lies by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[Spoilers, disturbing ones at that, toward the end of this review.]

My first encounter with Jeanette Winterson went badly. In college, I read Written on the Body and found it ludicrously overwritten, an imprecise prose poem wearing the guise of a novel, and poorly. I almost wish my Livejournal from that period of my life were still extant so I could quote from my bad review; I remember that it turned on mocking the line from the novel, “Your clavicle is both keyboard and key” (honestly, I still think that is a stupid sentence).

But something about Winterson lingered—her aestheticism, her daring, her egotism (a trait I find wholly lovable in writers and artists)—and I decided to revisit her work. I am glad I did, because Art and Lies could almost serve as an example of the kind of fiction I have been calling for in my more polemical essays (see here, here, and here). It is a completely invented novel, set in a dream-world of its own, rather than dwelling in the merely social or autobiographical. It is a completely written novel, composed in an elevated register that enlivens rather than transcribing common speech, even as it is an echo chamber for poetry. It is a completely traditional novel, alluding to Sappho, Ovid, Shakespeare, Sterne, Blake, Wordsworth, Pater, Eliot, Woolf, and Calvino on almost every page, its sentences sinuous hooks for the eyes of the canon. It is a completely radical novel, both formally as it reinvents what a novel can do and be, and politically as it mounts a thoroughgoing critique of modern society that is both coherent and independent (i.e., it does not merely repeat the cliches of Right or Left). It is also, alas, a somewhat didactic novel—more about this later.

Art and Lies has three narrators: Handel, a Catholic surgeon who revisits in memory his moments of missed opportunity in love even as he laments the spiritual and physical state of modern London; Picasso, a female artist from a strict and sexually abusive household who has struggled to escape the physical and mental confines of her terrible family; and Sappho, the legendary poet, who seems to speak from beyond time, challenging the misrepresentations of her life and work, even as she wanders the streets of London. These three characters are distantly, tenuously united, and they come together as they board a train that seems to be headed to a symbolic sea (death or eternity). Interpolated throughout are passages from an eighteenth-century pornographic novel—their bawdiness and scatology function like the servants’ banter in Shakespeare, to let some of the air out of the novel before we are overcome by its poetic afflatus. All three main characters judge the present in one voice, a voice that occasionally overwhelms the fiction and threatens to turn this rather intricate literary construction into a political screed.

Art and Lies is a strange political beast, though perhaps not as strange as it looks at first glance. Despite Winterson’s early vote for Margaret Thatcher, Art and Lies decisively repudiates Thatcherism, not least for its indifference or hostility toward the poor and the working class:

Homelessness is illegal. In my city no one is homeless although there are an increasing number of criminals living on the street. It was smart to turn an abandoned class into a criminal class, sometimes people feel sorry for the down and outs, they never feel sorry for criminals, it has been a great stabilizer.

But the novel is far more invested in an aesthetic critique of the postmodern west (itself a recapitulation of Eliot’s aesthetic critique of the modern west: “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag”) as a time and place of wasted time and squandered artifice. All three of the voices in this novel denounce the artlessness of a society given over to money-making and cheap entertainment:

In the country of the Blind the one-eyed man is King? But what of the articulate among the guttural? Once upon a time I would have been listened to with respect, now, I am regarded with suspicion, and for the wrong reason. I know that I am false; the irony is that the barkers and jabberers believe themselves genuine. As if to speak badly is to speak truly. As if to have no command of language must ensure a complete command of emotional sincerity. As if, as journalists and novelists would have me believe, to write without artifice is to write honestly. But language is artifice. The human being is artificial. None of us is Rousseau Man, that noble savage, honest and untrained. Better then to acknowledge that what we are is what we have been taught, that done, at least it will be possible to choose our own teacher. I know I am made up of other people’s say so, veins of tradition, a particular kind of education, borrowed methods that have disguised themselves as personal habits. I know that what I am is quite the opposite of an individual. But if the parrot is to speak, let him be taught by a singing master. Parrot may not learn to sing but he will know what singing is. That is why I have tried to hide myself among the best; music, pictures, books, philosophy, theology, like Dante, my great teacher is dead. My alive friends privately consider me to be rather highbrow and stuffy, but we are all stuffed, stuffed with other people’s ideas parading as our own. Stuffed with the idiocies of the daily paper and twenty-four-hour television.

Winterson goes so far as to indict modern medicine: a central symbol of the novel is a state-of-the-art cancer hospital, which is being erected in a poor district of London. Cancer serves for Winterson as a symbol of bourgeois emotional repression and material superfluity, and its expensive treatment as another means for the middle classes to make and spend, make and spend, its money. (Yes, you could light London with the power generated by Susan Sontag as she spins in her grave.)

But this Romantic assault on capitalist modernity, which is neither Left (too concerned about art and spirituality, too tragic in worldview) nor Right (too sympathetic to the poor and the colonized, too hostile to custom and religion), is a venerable tradition in British letters, encompassing Blake, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Ruskin, Pater, Woolf, Lawrence, and Eliot (if not, indeed, Shakespeare) before Winterson. And Winterson is easily able to reconcile her feminism and queer liberationism with this radically reactionary aesthetic because, in the person of Sappho, she persuasively identifies the artistic tradition itself with queerness and the feminine. Winterson’s polemic, in Handel’s voice, against the type of vernacular feminism that might now be labeled as Lean In feminism is quite timely:

It’s our fault, men like me I mean, we’ve spent so long trumpeting the importance of all that we do that women believe in it and want to do it themselves. Look at me, I’m a very wealthy man, at the top of my profession, and I’m running away like a schoolboy because I can’t sit at my desk even for another day. I know that everything I am and everything I stand for is worthless. How to tell her that?

While I have my qualms about aspects of this worldview—and sometimes Winterson’s personae go much too far (“Better to be a beggar on the Ganges than broken on the gilded wheel of the West,” says Sappho, without, I suspect, having consulted such a beggar)—I am more sympathetic to it than not, for better or worse. The question for literary criticism, though, is, “How didactic can a novel get before readers have a right to protest?” This novel was not very well-received when it was first published in 1994. Its reception seems to have been marred by a spuriously personal venom in the British press, but even in America, reviews were mixed to hostile. William H. Prichard:

“Art & Lies,” while it abandons novelistic constraints Ms. Winterson evidently feels are repressive, is saturated with echoes of Shakespeare and Blake and Wordsworth and T. S. Eliot (especially from “Four Quartets”). By contrast, Ms. Winterson’s own efforts don’t fare so well. “My belly was an unplowed field. Weeds had grown over my pubic hair. I was a nun among nettles,” Picasso declares; Sappho exceeds her in visionary extravagance: “I am the petals double-borne, white points of love. I am the closed white hand that opens under the sun of you.” “Shall I call your nipples hautboys? Shall I hide myself in the ombre of your throat?” Sappho asks rapturously, not staying for our reply. […] Ms. Winterson’s prolonged and steady infusions of poetry into her novel turn the medium gaseous.

And even Rikki Ducornet (“even” because she has many of the same virtues and vices as Winterson):

…a book that has opened with motion and light and a clear ringing becomes within a few pages gravity bound with the author’s good intentions–one must always be wary of good intentions. Just as do children, books suffer from pedantry, and “Art and Lies,” wanting to cover all the issues of our age, from ecological devastation, rampant corruption, dysfunctional families, homophobia, abortion, incest and more begins to preach. So that although the book’s structure is mutable and porous, it manages to be both opaque and tedious, and this from a writer of great capacity whose custom it is to juggle with fire.

And this is all fair enough, even Pritchard’s political complaint about the book’s ideological excesses (Winterson’s portrayal of Picasso’s father and brother make Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” look like a masterpiece of subtlety). Sappho’s section, in particular, is full of the breathless prose-poetry that made me dislike Written on the Body.

But when Winterson writes about Handel and Picasso, her prose becomes inventive and precise. It takes a true and a bold narrative gift to imagine the novel’s final section, in which we revisit with Handel his childhood romance with an older Cardinal who castrated him. This long and disturbing passage will have conservatives, feminists, and many if not most others hurling the book across the room (it did not bring a smile to my face either!), because Winterson, in her nostalgia for the aesthetic past, tells the terrible story without moral judgment; its outlandishness becomes plausible, its outrageousness delicate, as Winterson submerges herself and us in true otherness—not the fashionable otherness of commercial multiculturalism, in which self and other shop together, but the true otherness that even the most open-minded will want to denounce as mere barbarism. And maybe it is. But when Handel’s family finds out what has been going on and decisively ends his relationship with the Cardinal, the novel shockingly invites us to wonder, “Which cut did the harm? His or theirs?” What is worse—the mutilations of art and sex or the mutilations of a society hostile both to art and sex? That strikes me as a real question, a question you could spend your whole life trying to answer, and not a rhetorical one—which is what I mean when I say I want novels that deal with genuinely intractable and tragic quandaries rather than giving easy answers in the name of right-thinking.

It occurs to me that another novel was published around the same time in the U.K. that was similarly experimental and similarly ill-received: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. Ishiguro’s novel is as bold as Winterson’s, and as complicatedly involved with the modernist tradition (though Ishiguro’s agon is with Dostoevsky and Kafka, whereas Winterson’s is with Woolf and Eliot). But The Unconsoled, as befits its title, totally undermines any Romantic ambition on the part of the artist to redeem society. Ishiguro’s artist cannot even redeem himself—but for all that, the novel says, art is worthwhile, a deep and private pleasure. These are two novels to read together, in dialogue with each other. They also illustrate the importance of going back to work that has been too hastily dismissed. When the fog of the present lifts in the future, the supposed masterpieces of the moment may be revealed as flimsy cardboard, while some of those books derogated by their first readers will stand out as figures of depth and substance.

(By the way, say what you will about Winterson’s high style, but this is a novel you can learn new words from: retiary orphrey, epurate, aurum, and more.)

In conclusion, it is time to look past the vagaries of Winterson’s reputation and even the datedness of this novel’s packaging—the cover of the edition I read looks (charmingly) like a 1990s cover for an alternative CD—and read this enchanting, disquieting, and exasperating novel. Not all of its risks are rewarded, but, as they say, better the interesting failure than the boring success.

View all my reviews

Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

NightwoodNightwood by Djuna Barnes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

…Felix was astonished to find that the most touching flowers laid on the altar he had raised to his imagination were placed there by the people of the underworld…

There are so many novels I have not read that I don’t do a lot of re-reading. I read Nightwood (1936) in a rush about six years ago for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, however, and knew that I’d barely absorbed even the surface meaning of the novel’s dense verbal texture. So I revisited it in this 1995 scholarly edition from Dalkey Archive, which restores the cuts made to the novel’s ethnic and sexual content by its editor, T. S. Eliot, and boasts a full textual apparatus, explanatory annotations, and pages from Barnes’s typescript. This is a superb edition—well, except for the hardcover’s cheap and fragile glue binding—and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand this modernist masterpiece.

Nightwood’s plot, such as it is, is as follows: Felix Volkbein, a Viennese Jew passing as an aristocrat, is introduced to the mysterious Robin Vote by Dr. Matthew O’Connor, a talkative habitué of the Paris underworld. Felix and Robin marry and have a child, but Robin soon takes to haunting the night-world of Paris, where she meets Nora Flood. Despite Nora’s love for Robin, she again spends her nights out—a chapter title calls her “La Somnambule”—and her absence devastates Nora, who turns to Dr. O’Connor and his endless monologues for comfort. Soon, Robin takes up with Jenny Petherbridge, a nervous widow with a penchant for making others as miserable as she is in her shallow passion to be important. The novel ends with an infamously ambiguous scene in which Robin, having left Jenny’s house, enters a chapel where she grapples strangely with Nora’s dog.

(The narrative is putatively autobiographical, as it dramatizes Barnes’s troubled relationship with Thelma Wood—Barnes glossed the title’s meaning as “Nigh T. Wood”—as well as her encounters with one Dan Mahoney, the model for Dr. O’Connor. But I do not much care for biographical interpretations: whether a novelist writes directly from experience or makes everything up from scratch, the only question for criticism is, “Does it live on the page?”)

The novel’s motifs are the following: 1.) bowing or going down, i.e., social and sexual submission (or masochism), which the novel identifies in various ways with Jewish and gay people in general; 2.) the porous boundary between male and female identities, as several key characters are androgynous (Robin, who “looks like a boy,” and Felix’s male-identified mother) or transvestite or even, to use an anachronistic vocabulary, transgender (Dr. O’Connor); 3.) the equally porous boundary between human and animal, which sometimes joins the “go down” pattern (as in, “go down on all fours”); and 4.) the glory and the sorrow of the sexual underworld, the queer-Gothic urban pastoral summoned up by the novel’s mysterious title, the nightwood in which its characters move.

Aside from the doctor, the novel’s characters are rather static or heraldic or allegorical figures; they do not really have the spontaneous life of great fiction’s figures. And while the novel’s tone is wholly its own, it might be ungenerously described, at the conceptual level, as a set of footnotes to Ulysses.

But its prose is some of the best in English in the twentieth century; a Gothic cathedral, complete with witty grotesques and severe saints, built of long hypotactic sentences. A sample, from when Felix first sees Robin:

Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room (in the apprehension of which the walls have made their escape), thrown in among the carnivorous flowers as their ration; the set, the property of an unseen dompteur, half lord, half promoter, over which one expects to hear the strains of an orchestra of wood-winds render a serenade which will popularize the wilderness.

The exception to the above description is in the doctor’s long speeches; he dominate the chapters he occupies, and speaks—from his bed, where he wears a Mary Pickford wig and a nightgown—for most of the thirty pages of the penultimate chapter, “Go Down, Matthew.” An extract from his more vital and extravagant rhetoric:

“My war brought me many things; let yours bring you as much. Life is not to be told, call it as loud as you like, it will not tell itself. No one will be much or little except in someone else’s mind, so be careful of the minds you get into, and remember Lady Macbeth, who had her mind in her hand. We can’t all be as safe as that.”

So what can all this mean? Some reflections below.


…the step of the wandering Jew is in every son.

“We have all become gay white negroes,” the British documentarian Adam Curtis once perhaps offensively complained, in protest against the widespread diffusion in the contemporary period of non-normative or subaltern social and sexual identities. Curtis traces this colonization by bohemia of mainstream society to Norman Mailer’s notorious essay on “The White Negro,” and he attacks it from the socialist left for distracting the working masses, or else compensating them, for their increasing economic exploitation under neoliberalism.

Barnes’s novel is set mostly in the sexual underworld of Paris. But it moves in on this bohemia from the outside; the novel begins with a chapter about Felix Volkbein, a Jewish man trying to pass in Viennese society as an aristocrat. The chapter title, “Bow Down,” refers to his deference to the social elite and traditional society he is trying to enter—though the phrase will later take on other connotations in this novel of erotic masochism. Barnes’s essayistic prose reflects at length on Jewish identity in modern Europe, a theme that seems distant from the concerns of the rest of the novel, a regrettable bout of fashionable prejudice in an otherwise radical queer novel. But Barnes’s intricate philo/anti-Semitic disquisition is central to Nightwood’s social vision, as Lara Trubowitz points out in Civil Antisemitism, Modernism, and British Culture, 1902-1939. Here is Barnes’s key paragraph:

In his search for the particular Comédie humaine Felix had come upon the odd. Conversant with edicts and laws, folk story and heresy, taster of rare wines, thumber of rarer books and old wives’ tales—tales of men who became holy and of beasts that became damned—read in all plans for fortifications and bridges, given pause by all graveyards on all roads, a pedant of many churches and castles, his mind dimly and reverently reverberated to Madame de Sevigné, Goethe, Loyola and Brantome. But Loyola sounded the deepest note, he was alone, apart and single. A race that has fled its generations from city to city has not found the necessary time for the accumulation of that toughness which produces ribaldry, nor, after the crucifixion of its ideas, enough forgetfulness in twenty centuries to create legend. It takes a Christian, standing eternally in the Jew’s salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes the “collector” of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until some goy has put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a “sign.” A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s. The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew’s history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood. In this manner the Jew participates in the two conditions; and in like manner Felix took the breast of this wet nurse whose milk was his being but which could never be his birthright.

This is admittedly opaque prose, but the logic seems to be the following: since the Christian has usurped the Jewish God and even scripture (by arrogating the Hebrew Bible, via typology, to the New Testament), “the Jew” is intellectually and spiritually outcast, having to piece together even his own tradition from the culture of a hostile society. But let us extrapolate from this: to the extent that “we”—the kind of people who would write or read a book like Nightwood—are also post- or non-Christian, we too are outcast and peregrine, assembling our spiritual universe from shards and fragments and hints. This is why Felix, in his search for the normative, comes nevertheless “upon the odd.”

Dr. Matthew Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor, an unlicensed gynecologist, devout Catholic Irish-American from San Francisco, gay cross-dresser, Great War veteran, and alcoholic, dominates the novel. He speaks in endless monologues. They are learned, lyrical, campy, and maudlin. He is described this way:

His fabrications seemed to be the framework of a forgotten, but imposing plan; some condition of life of which he was the sole surviving retainer. His manner was that of a servant of a defunct noble family, whose movements recall, though in a degraded form, those of a late master.

In other words, the way he walks and talks is the way modernist masterpieces (Ulysses, The Waste Land) work: it is a makeshift arrangement of language and behavior assembled from the remains of a vanishing social order, with its armature of myth and scripture barely holding up the chaos. But this condition—of making do with fragments of one’s own tradition—is also how Barnes describes the ordeal of European Jewry; thus, as Trubowitz points out, Barnes uses the figure of “the Jew” as a metonymy for all modern subjects, and for the style of modernism. This is certainly anti-Semitic in its cavalier disregard for Jewish people’s own experiences, traditions, and—given that she was writing in the 1930s—their peril; but Trubowitz calls it philo-Semitic too, in its identification of Jews with an endemic resistance to dominant culture.

The point, though, is that Barnes uses Jewish people, and queer people too (with whom she did not exactly identify, famously saying, “I wasn’t a lesbian, I just loved Thelma”), as a metonymy for the glamorous exile in the urban night woods that her novel evokes with such verbal splendor. “We are all gay white negroes” might be the novel’s motto. Does this make it a work of radicalism—or, as Curtis might object, of crypto-conservatism?

Barnes’s biographer, Phillip Herring, writes, “Barnes would seem to agree with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche that human existence is suffering.” Conservatism is the natural political corollary to nihilist metaphysics, for if you believe we exist in a howling void, then you will recognize custom and tradition as the only proven shelters. The rebellion against the normative dominant, too, requires the persistence of the normative dominant for its self-definition; cultural radicalism tends to political conservatism, I have always thought. Indeed, despite Jane Marcus’s well-known and well-argued Bakhtinian reading of Nightwood as a revolutionary text in the female anti-fascist tradition, Barnes’s politics were not remotely of the left. In a letter quoted in Herring’s biography, Barnes complains about an old friend of hers having gone over the Marxists in the “red ‘30s,” the same period when she was forced to work for the WPA, an experience she despised:

He got like that in New York—its [sic] the style now—everyone (in the literary & artistic world) has now a notion that any artistic manifestation is is utterly worthless unless it is “in the Mass”—Filled with “Mass Consciousness”—whatever that is—I am, of course, being an Elizabethan—quite indifferent to the Mass, tho I do not doubt (much to my sorrow) that they will shortly be ruling the roost. What is the most annoying thing about Charles & all the others like him, is that they all take it as if it were something amazing & new a great big discovery—whereas its something the world has fought for 20 centuries, in one form or another—

A modernist anti-democrat, like her champion Eliot, Barnes sees the masses as perennial forces of conformity, enemies of art. This is not really surprising; what is surprising is that anybody ever wanted to identify bohemia—sexual and aesthetic—with the political left in the first place. The intention of its various partisans notwithstanding, the left has historically empowered the state and its centripetal agencies. The state, tolerating nothing outside itself, not only threatens to use the masses as justification for the cleansing of bohemia’s cruising-ground pissoirs and carnivalesque circuses, but, as I said above, it also extirpates the tradition against which bohemia necessarily defines itself. It razes the edifice of Christianity, brings the wandering Jew home, and abolishes the night in which Robin Vote and Dr. Matthew O’Connor sport like fauna in the forest. Even internally, bohemia is not democratic: it is, rather, an aristocracy of spirit. For these reasons, Nightwood is among the most reactionary of American classics, despite or even—what will confound the identity politics of today—because of its having nary a straight white male in its cast of characters.

As for Barnes and identity politics, Herring reports this remark, not very congruent with literary feminism today: “I think only two women have written books worth reading, Emily Brontë and myself.” (This oddly resembles Dylan Thomas’s assertion that Nightwood is one of the three greatest prose books ever written by a woman—though he did not name the other two!) On sexual identity, Dr. O’Connor sums up the nominalist and anti-essentialist attitudes of Foucault and Vidal in one memorably lamenting epigram: “You can lay a hundred bricks and not be called a brick-layer; but lay one boy and you are a bugger!”


“God, children know something they can’t tell, they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!”

Leaving politics aside, I love Nightwood. No novel so beautifully and intelligently written can fall to be a landmark in the history of the form. In fact, it should probably be a model of the form. In his famous 1937 introduction to the American edition, T. S. Eliot writes:

In describing Nightwood for the purpose of attracting readers to the English edition, I said that it would “appeal primarily to readers of poetry.” This is well enough for the brevity of advertisement, but I am glad to take this opportunity to amplify it a little. I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content. Unless the term “novel” has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel. And I do not mean that Miss Barnes’s style is “poetic prose.” But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really “written.” They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give. To say that Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.

I grant that Barnes sacrifices some of the vitality of less closely composed fictions; despite the novel’s late invocation of Dostoevsky in the final chapter’s title, “The Possessed,” Nightwood never creates the vertiginous sense that its characters are somehow alive in another world and capable of anything—the sense you get from Dostoevsky (or Tolstoy or Dickens or, each in her own way, both Brontës). The doctor is a partial exception; he really is like a Shakespearean character, a voluble nihilist like Hamlet or Edmund or Falstaff, one you wish to hear give an opinion on everything, but even his baroque intelligence is relatively static; he does not change or grow.

Is this a reasonable price to pay for taking up a challenge that Dostoevsky and the rest of the nineteenth-century masters didn’t have to face—the challenge, that is, of writing a novel that suitably differentiates itself from competing media? Every time I open a contemporary novel and feel I am reading an unproduced screenplay, I want to throw it down. Every time I go to write and find myself producing slangy, aimless dialogues that would require charismatic actors to be persuasive, I am disappointed in myself. Contemporary novels are not really written, Eliot said nearly a century ago, and it has only gotten worse. Maybe to really write them is a loss, an abdication of the novel’s great potential to create an inner theater, and Nightwood—more tableau than drama—does not quite disconfirm the hypothesis. But there are sentences, paragraphs, pages in it that I would love to have written, that I loved to read. I read this novel once to take an exam on it (the worst reason to read literature, surely) and then again to actually understand it; I would read it a third time for pure pleasure.


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 for reading!