Toni Morrison, Paradise

ParadiseParadise by Toni Morrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paradise was not well received upon its publication in 1997—influential critics like Michiko Kakutani, James Wood, and Zoë Heller disparaged it, and even Oprah’s audience, instructed to read it for the talk show host’s book club, demurred, prompting Oprah to call Morrison to offer the viewers encouragement. One of the studio audience members protested that, confused by the novel’s multiple perspectives and non-linear chronology, she was lost on page 19; Oprah asked Morrison what the poor woman was to do; and Morrison’s reply—which I have never forgotten—was, “Read page 20.” Unsurpassable advice! Profiling Morrison in 2012, Boris Kachka summarizes the case against Paradise:

Both Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Don DeLillo’s Underworld came out in 1997, the year Paradise did. Both addressed historical eras and themes, as Morrison does, but both spoke directly to contemporary anxieties in a way that Paradise did not. Roth and DeLillo were nostalgic for an old American consensus and alarmed at its disintegration, and both used voices resonant with modern paranoia and neurosis. In contrast, Morrison still seemed to be in cross-racial dialogue with the same long-dead ­Modernists on whom she’d written her thesis in the fifties.

This is both right and wrong: Morrison does reject any nostalgia for postwar consensus (whether or not Roth and DeLillo express this nostalgia is another matter), but in so doing she very much speaks to “contemporary anxieties”; the problem is simply that many readers did not like either what she said or how she said it. They are entitled to their opinions about the “what,” but once you have allowed such opinions to cloud your view of the “how”—for example, none of the above critics show any awareness that Paradise is often supposed to be funny—then you have lost critical control.

Let’s get the “what” out of the way right now: Paradise bears an epigraph from a gnostic gospel narrated by a female deity, and it concludes with the theophany of a black madonna. Searching for a term to describe its apparent ideology, I could come up with nothing more neutral than “New Age.” It is a novel that, parodying the Bible, at least entertains the notion that our religious sensibilities must expand to include female divinity. While this view would undoubtedly not interest Philip Roth much, it, along with other dissident religious approaches harking back to gnostic and pagan cults, was undoubtedly reflected in much late-twentieth-century Anglo-American culture. Such views are embarrassing to the liberal intelligentsia because said intelligentsia legitimates itself by its appeal to secular knowledge and often materialist or at least spiritually orthodox intellectual methods, and not without reason. This religious reflex, I believe, and not simply snobbism or sexism, accounts for the critical cringe Nick Salvato writes about with respect to Tori Amos, some of whose songs (see “Marys of the Sea,” for instance) could furnish a soundtrack to Paradise.

But I did write above that Paradise “entertains” its religious thesis rather than straightforwardly promoting it. As Boris Kachka notes, Morrison remains faithful to modernism. If modernist writers from Eliot to Woolf shared one thing in common, it was a commitment to putting forth their spiritual intuitions in obsessively fragmented and recursive literary forms, to remind readers to take no single narrative on faith, especially not narratives about faith. This brings us back to Oprah’s audience and their problem with Paradise: the novel has no single viewpoint, no clear chronology, no central character, and no reliable perspective. The most basic facts of the narrative remain in doubt by its conclusion. Even the miraculous resurrections with which it seems to end could be explained by a mixture of lucky escape and hallucination. Condemning religious orthodoxy and political ethno-nationalism for their shared demand of unthinking assent, Morrison leaves her readers free to differ with her suggestion that they worship the goddess.

“They shoot the white girl first,” the novel famously begins. Its opening chapter is really its penultimate one, narrating the story’s climax: in July 1976, nine leading male citizens of the all-black town of Ruby, OK, murder five women who are living in a former convent near the town. This first chapter is maddeningly indirect, as none of the men or women is named; moreover, we see through the men’s POV so that the perspective is unreliable from the start (“They are nine, over twice the number of the women” they are seeking, the second paragraph begins; but, as Ron David long ago pointed out, nine is not “over twice” five; these little word problems occur throughout the text, making it impossible to read passively). The opposite of a mystery novel—though something of a mystery play—Paradise tells us who committed the murder in the first chapter and then spends the rest of the book seeking an explanation.

The next eight chapters, each bearing a woman’s name, tell the story of how four women on the run assembled in the late 1960s and early 1970s in an embezzler’s mansion that became a Catholic convent and Indian boarding school before falling into disuse. In the stories of these women—Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, and Pallas—Morrison enumerates the threats faced by the poor, the young, or the female, such as poverty, state violence, domestic violence, and sexual predation from the “mundane” (Mavis’s marital rape at the hands of her husband) to the more outlandish (the Eyes Wide Shut scenario to which Seneca is subjected by a wealthy woman named Norma Keene Fox). Animal imagery abounds in the women’s stories, from aforementioned predator “Keene Fox” to the name of Mavis’s mother (Birdie Goodroe), as does classical and mythical allusion (Pallas, Seneca), to signal that this novel asks to be read skeptically as a work of exaggeration, as fable and myth rather than strict social realism.

In fact, Morrison parodies realism with aplomb in the Mavis chapter, throwing brand names and other “dirty realist” paraphernalia onto the page with witty abandon—this to trick us into thinking that Mavis is “the white girl” of the first sentence by writing about her in the literary idiom associated with the white lower class. Realism too, Morrison here tells us, is a fable, one whose moral we might distrust. As in her oft-misunderstood statement about Bill Clinton as the first black president, Morrison is making the point that “tropes of blackness” are often simply tropes of poverty, the latter fact deliberately obscured by the powers-that-be to divide the poor.

Those eight chapters also interleave the women’s stories with the story of the founding of Ruby, “the one all-black town worth the pain.” Summarizing this straightforwardly is no easy feat since the narrative comes piecemeal and from partial perspectives. The basic story is this: a group of very dark-skinned black people who had lived near Louisiana since the mid-eighteenth-century found themselves, at the end of Reconstruction, dismissed or oppressed not only by whites but also by lighter-skinned blacks. This led them to found their own town called Haven in 1890 in Oklahoma, when many all-black towns were created due to the federal government’s encouragement of homesteading. When Haven fell into poverty and disrepair in the mid-twentieth-century, the grandchildren of Haven’s founders set out again and founded a new town called Ruby.

In the 1960s and ’70s, however, Ruby is torn by the social conflicts tearing apart the rest of the country—between men and women, old and young, conservative and radical. These conflicts center on the town’s symbolic center, a brick oven that bears the words “the furrow of his brow.” The contending ideological forces in the town differ over how this message is the be completed: “Beware the Furrow of His Brow,” as the conservative town elders insist, or, in the preferred message of the young radicals, echoing the gnosticism that Morrison evokes with her epigraph, “Be the Furrow of His Brow”? Or even, as one of the town’s female citizens thinks, “Be the Furrow of Her Brow.” Eventually, the town elders come to see the convent women as the source of their troubles—”not a convent but a coven”—and go on a witch hunt.

Just before they are hunted down, the women consolidate themselves into a quasi-religious order. The old woman Consolata, who was kidnapped from a Rio slum by the nuns and who has lived in the convent ever since, becomes the “new revised Reverend Mother” for a kind of mystery cult wherein the women shave their heads and heal themselves with “loud dreaming” and artistic expression. These scenes provoked a not entirely unpersuasive objection from Zoë Heller in the London Review of Books (“the narrative itself dissolves into Adrienne Rich-ish poetry”), but just as Morrison is unsparing in her portrayal of the racism and colorism that led the men of Ruby to their extremes of intolerance, so her tongue never quite leaves her cheek in her depiction of this New Age religion, which makes the women too otherworldly to function: “Gradually they lost the days.” Warned by a female citizen of Ruby that they are about to be attacked, the women “yawned and smiled,” a small detail but a crucial one: Morrison, who once rather hair-raisingly wrote that it is “wildly irresponsible” not to inquire about women’s complicity in their own rape or abuse, places supreme importance on personal autonomy and the material means of self-reliance. In the last glimpse we get of the convent women, after they have either come back from the dead or are appearing as ghosts to their loved ones, they are on the road and they are armed.

“Come back from the dead”: yes, however hedged by modernist technique, Paradise entertains a spiritual notion. It does not entirely dismiss Christianity; Ruby’s newest clergyman, Rev. Misner, is sympathetic to the young radicals in the town and muses with eloquence and authority on liberation theology:

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fastened to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO and supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives.

All the same, the definition and defense of female divinity comes into view as the novel’s theme. To the men of Ruby, the women they hunt are “[b]odacious black Eves, unredeemed by Mary.” But Consolata tells us that “Eve is Mary’s mother,” and the novel ends, very beautifully, with Consolata in the arms of black madonna, presumably like that worshipped in her native Brazil:

In ocean hush a woman black as firewood is singing. Next to her is a younger woman whose head rests on the singing woman’s lap. Ruined fingers troll the tea brown hair. All the colors of seashells—wheat, roses, pearl—fuse in the younger woman’s face. Her emerald eyes adore the black face framed in cerulean blue. Around them on the beach, sea trash gleams. Discarded bottle caps sparkle near a broken sandal. A small dead radio plays the quiet surf.

There is nothing to beat this solace which is what Piedade’s song is about, although the words evoke memories neither one has ever had: of reaching age in the company of the other; of speech shared and divided bread smoking from the fire; the unambivalent bliss of going home to be at home—the ease of coming back to love begun.

When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. Another ship, perhaps, but different, heading to port, crew and passengers, lost and saved, atremble, for they have been disconsolate for some time. Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise.

In other words, don’t divide Eve from Mary, whore from madonna, but adopt a holistic spiritual view capable of embracing flesh and spirit, capable of leading us away from domination based on or justified by difference.

Do not miss, as the early critics did, the ending’s emphasis on “endless work” (nor the admission that “down here” is all the paradise we’re likely to get). What is the “endless work”? The work of interpretation. Midway through the novel, Ruby’s resident writer Patricia, who has been assembling a genealogy, discovers that the men of the town have been maintaining their racial purity through incest in a parody of white racism (“They think they have outfoxed the whiteman when in fact they imitate him”). Upon finding this out, she burns her family trees—this to suggest that any attempt at purification is to be rejected as an arbitrary imposition. Ruby’s elderly midwife, Lone, takes a view of God that is more in keeping with the novel’s narrative mode:

Playing blind was to avoid the language God spoke in. He did not thunder instructions or whisper messages into ears. Oh no. He was a liberating God. A teacher who taught you how to learn, to see for yourself. His signs were clear, abundantly so, if you stopped steeping in vanity’s sour juice and paid attention to His world.

Read the clues, try to assemble the narrative, but accept in advance your defeat even as you press forward in trying to understand. I accept—there is so much more to say about Paradise. About characters and their names (“His grandfather had named his twins Deacon and Steward for a reason”), about twins and doubles. I have merely alluded to Morrison’s parody of the Biblical Exodus and its American re-creation by the Puritan settlers, and I have not even mentioned how the novel emphasizes that both Ruby and the convent exist only because the land was cleared by the state of its prior Native American inhabitants. I have not mentioned the novel’s love of nature, its endless invention, its food (the hot peppers that grow only at the convent).

Nor have I mentioned Paradise‘s flaws: it really is too short and feels thinner than it should as a result, with poetic prose often doing duty for narrative and characterization (James Wood was not wrong in this complaint). A novel of this spiritual and political ambition should be as long as The Brothers Karamazov, and I am convinced that Morrison would not bore us at that length.

Well, every narrative is flawed, including that of Paradise, as Paradise itself tells us. Even so, after twenty years we can say that its first critics judged it too hastily or too ideologically. It sits on the shelf without embarrassment next to the most ambitious fictions of its time. Don’t take my word for it. Read it and “see for yourself.”


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Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic GospelsThe Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this 1979 classic of popular non-fiction, religious scholar Elaine Pagels explains to a broad audience the theological significance of the trove of early Christian writings discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Not only that, but she also places these documents in their social and political context, largely to explain why the diverse body of thought labeled “gnostic” was so decisively defeated by the ideas and institutions of what would become Christian orthodoxy. Finally, Pagels, while unsurprised by gnosticism’s defeat, suggests the perennial appeal—if only to artists, mystics, and other anti-social types—of the gnostic vision, with its emphasis on individual spiritual experience as against all hierarchies and establishments.

What is gnosticism? While Pagels is at pains to emphasize the diversity of the Nag Hammadi writings (the “gnostic gospels” of her title), some generalizations can be made. Gnosticism tends to posit the creator God of the Hebrew Bible as a mere demiurge, who fashioned this botched reality we inhabit out of malice or stupidity; the true God lies well beyond nature, and is only evidenced by the sparks of divinity lodged in the souls of human beings, like gems scattered amid offal. Because this world is not merely fallen but evil or illusory, then human hierarchies and institutions are religiously irrelevant, and the believer comes to God not by following someone else’s rules but by attaining private knowledge (gnosis) of the God within. Having dismissed nature and the body, the figure of Christ becomes less important as the incarnate God, a God who is also flesh and who died a real death; Christ is rather a kind of alien emissary modeling the ascended human rather than the descended deity: “Jesus was not a human being at all; instead, he was a spiritual being who adapted himself to human perception,” Pagels explains. Finally, with hierarchies made irrelevant by the distance of the true God, the gender distinction so important to Christian orthodoxy is de-emphasized and a greater place allotted to female spirituality and indeed female divinity. Gnostics have no need of codes and canons: “like artists, they express their own insight—their own gnosis—by creating new myths, poems, rituals, ‘dialogues’ with Christ, revelations, and accounts of their visions.”

The body of thought that would win out over gnosticism stressed, by contrast, an ordered hierarchy:

As God reigns in Heaven as master, lord, commander, judge, and king, so on earth he delegates his rule to members of the church hierarchy, who serve as generals who command an army of subordinates; kings who rules over “the people”; judges who preside in God’s place.

As Christianity expanded, its institutions could not sustain the kind of spiritual anarchy gnosticism portended if it was to organize a mass constituency:

Seeking to unify the diverse churches scattered throughout the world into a single network, the bishops eliminated qualitative criteria for church membership. Evaluating each candidate on the basis of spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness, as the gnostics did, would require a far more complex administration.

Pagels concludes that “the religious perspectives and methods of gnosticism did not lend themselves to mass religion.”

The above summary hints at who Pagels seems to be asking us to root for: the plucky anarcho-feminist artists against the stodgy authoritarian bishops. This is a more serious book than that, though. In one chapter, Pagels stresses the importance to believers of Christ’s incarnation, especially in the context of Christian persecution: how gravely moving it is to worship a God who was willing to suffer just as you suffer. The gnostic’s quasi-Platonic hologram Christ is, in a sense, much less interesting or original, another theophany who doesn’t really bleed or weep as we do. Moreover, gnosticism is a private religion, with each member his or her own church, whereas, Pagels explains, “[r]ejecting such religious elitism, orthodox leaders attempted instead to construct a universal church.” Pagels understands that in religion (as in politics) there is a necessary tension between the individual and the collective, insight and iteration, agency and structure, anarchy and community. She shows the gnostic traces in orthodox thought from the Gospel of John to the dissents of the church fathers—because even the orthodox sometimes sense the need to make a separate peace with our alien cosmos—just as she carefully notes the less appealing qualities of gnosticism’s more chaotic theology.

But gnosticism is appealing for all that. Pagels observes that, while it was extirpated by orthodoxy, it survived throughout the Christian era from medieval heresies (e.g., the Cathars) to Protestant mysticism. She several times mentions psychoanalysis as a modern manifestation of gnosticism: “For gnostics, exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly—a religious quest.” Not to mention the Romantic poets and post-Christian philosophers and proto-Existentialist novelists who have been drawn to a sublime of spiritual insight beyond matter and humanity:

William Blake, noting such different portraits of Jesus in the New Testament, sided with the one the gnostics preferred against “the vision of Christ that all men see” […] Nietzsche, who detested what he knew of Christianity, nevertheless wrote: “There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, attributes to Ivan a vision of the Christ rejected by the church, the Christ who “desired man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely,” choosing the truth of one’s own conscience over material well-being, social approval, and religious certainty.

Pagels does not mention, because, I assume, it was much less visible in 1979, gnosticism’s massive influence in late-twentieth-century popular culture, an influence that is probably at least partially attributable to her own book; see a semi-whimsical old Tumblr post of mine for details, and see Victoria Nelson for a more responsible treatment.

Most disappointingly to me, she also does not mention the political interpretation of gnosticism: Eric Voeglin, for instance, believed that modern political movements like Marxism and fascism, with their “ruthless critique of everything existing” (per Marx) and their consequent desire to re-organize all human life via the state according to otherworldly ideas of justice, derived essentially from gnostic thought—a controversial idea updated for the post-Cold-War period and its perhaps now collapsing neoconservative/neoliberal consensus by such thinkers as John Gray and Peter Y. Paik. Pagels’s focus on gnostic anarchy and individualism may well be an antidote to such attempts to materialize the alien God through the bloody rites of mass politics. Likewise, Herman Melville imagined in his remarkable short lyric “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century” that gnosticism enjoins withdrawal from all activity, an ineradicable spiritual impulse despite its worse-than-uselessness to the organization of humanity:

Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.

Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.


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Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye

Story of the EyeStory of the Eye by Georges Bataille

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

[This is a pornographic novel, and not all of the activities it describes are consensual, so you might avoid this review if you would like to avoid discussions or descriptions of such material.]

Back during the dark heart of the George W. Bush administration, I followed a blog and message board of the radical Left whose contributors became increasingly convinced that sex magick (including Satanism and Satanic ritual abuse) was key to the neoconservative elite and their empire. Today, in the deliberations of the alt-right in their quest to defeat the Clintons, such speculations about the occult predilections and supposedly attendant sexual predations of the imperial ruling class have returned, this time among the reactionary Right (see here, for instance). How are these hair-raising tales of the night-side of U.S. fringe politics relevant to a French pornographic novel published in 1928?

I mainly wanted to read Story of the Eye because of [P]’s fascinating review, which made Bataille seem a bit more wholesome, almost Rousseauist, than anything I’d seen before, but also because I was discussing with a correspondent what books we were reading on Election Day 2012, and I recalled, with the help of my Goodreads catalog, that I was reading Guido Giacomo Preparata’s rather psychedelic tract, The Ideology of Tyranny: Bataille, Foucault, and the Postmodern Corruption of Political Dissent (2007).

For Preparata, Bataille is the key artist and philosopher of our debased, war-ridden, and exploitative postmodernity, the hidden thinker who expresses the truths of our time concealed by more “respectable” philosophers of postmodernism, such as Foucault—not to mention think-tank neoliberals and warmongering neoconservatives, whose implicit philosophy of endless war and unlimited exploitation belies their ostensible liberalism to reveal their actual devotion to Gnostic cults of ritual sacrifice, to the sovereignty of a murderous elite of adepts to the formless unholy Void.

Preparata explains that because liberalism promises human emancipation but has actually delivered class oppression, cultural extermination, and imperial war on a technological scale that exceeds anything before it, its devotees require a philosophy that explains what they are actually doing rather than what they claim to do. Bataille’s philosophy fills this need: it advocates an autonomous and vital materialism, which conceives the universe as the self-generative spawning of a headless god, best revealed in acts of sublime violence and sacrifice. He inspires thinkers of the Right with a justification for their imperial warfare and grinding down of the poor, and inspires Leftists by leveling ethics to a relativizing identity politics that obscures the common needs of humanity and provides cover (behind the academic bureaucratization of anti-humanism) for destructive cultural practices, all while adding a lurid countercultural glamor for those who would play “Sunday rebel.”

(I will confess that I’ve tried Bataille’s theoretical essays and made my way through one or two famous ones, such as “The Solar Anus” and “The Big Toe,” but I find his writing impenetrable and soporific, far beyond the supposed difficulty of Foucault or Deleuze—another reason I opted for his fiction instead.)

Preparata, it should be emphasized, is an economist and published his book with an academic press; not himself an occultist, he proposes as a corrective to the shared crypto-Gnosticism of the postmodernists and neoconservatives a rational and compassionate tradition exemplified for him by Thorstein Veblen, though imbued, to be sure, with a numinous classicism in his allusions to Goethe, Rudolf Steiner, and the god Apollo. This latter is obviously in pointed distinction to Dionysus; though Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy in The Birth of Tragedy, to which I largely subscribe, recommends, for psychic and political balance, a dialectical synthesis of Apollo and Dionysus in the artwork, not the thoughtless veneration of the wine-god.

Back to Bataille’s pornographic novel, with all of the above in mind. Story of the Eye tells the tale of two teenagers who begin an energetic exploration of non-normative and fetishistic sex practices, particularly dwelling on eyes, eggs, and urine. Our narrator and Simone soon become obsessed with a more innocent friend named Marcelle and devote themselves to her debasement. During an orgy led by Simone, Marcelle runs to a wardrobe to masturbate in shame, then floods the wardrobe with urine upon her orgasm, and remains locked inside for the duration of the orgy; as a result of this traumatic experience, she has to be institutionalized. Our heroes eventually succeed in springing her from the asylum—[P] is surely right to note in his review that this sequence is a perversion of the classic fairy tale princess in the tower—but she eventually kills herself when she awakens enough from her madness to notice that her deliverers were those who had previously debauched her, particularly a man she thinks of the as “the Cardinal.” Her interpretation of the narrator’s significance is important:

“But who is the Cardinal?” Simone asked her.

“The man who locked me in the wardrobe,” said Marcelle.

“But why is he a cardinal?” I cried.

She replied: “Because he is the priest of the guillotine.”

I now recalled Marcelle’s dreadful fear when she left the wardrobe, and particularly two details: I had been wearing a blinding red carnival novelty, a Jacobin liberty cap; furthermore, because of the deep cuts in a girl I had raped, my face, clothes, hands—all parts of me were stained with blood.

Thus, in her terror, Marcelle confused a cardinal, a priest of the guillotine, with the blood-smeared executioner wearing a liberty cap: a bizarre overlapping of piety and abomination for priests explained the confusion, which, for me, had remained attached to both my hard reality and the horror continually aroused by the compulsiveness of my actions.

The narrator’s identification with both premodern clerical authority and the modern political authority that has supposedly supplanted it (through acts and technologies of terrifying violence) may be the key to the novel’s politics, which I cannot read as Rousseauist: its orgiastic fetishistic rites are in service not to liberation but to power pure and simple, power for its own sake, whether the power of the priest or the revolutionary.

After Marcelle’s suicide, Simone and the narrator flee to Spain with an English aristocrat, where they have further escapades at a bullfight. For example, in the audience Simone inserts a bull’s raw testicle into her vagina and orgasms at the same moment a toreador’s eye is gouged out by a bull’s horn in the arena. Eventually, they find themselves in a church in Seville, one supposedly founded by a penitent Don Juan, where they rape and murder a priest—his eye, too, ends up in Simone’s vagina, but not before spending some time in her anus. Finally, from Gibraltar, they “set sail towards new adventures with a crew of Negroes.”

In several afterwords, Bataille outlines the intersections of his fiction with his own life (much of the urine imagery comes from the debility of his syphilitic father, for instance) and plots a sequel, wherein Simone ends up beaten to death at thirty-five in a “torture camp,” where she is transfigured far beyond the masochistic by her “labor of agony”—a parody of birth that so blasphemes the universe that the universe becomes all the more exalted in its hideous sublimity.

My interpretation squares with the narrator’s explanation of his own book, offered in the middle of the novel:

To others, the universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes. That is why they fear lewdness. They are never frightened by the crowing of a rooster or when strolling under a starry heaven. In general, people savor the “pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid.

But as of then, no doubt existed for me: I did not care for what is known as “pleasures of the flesh” because they really are insipid; I cared only for what is classified as “dirty.” On the other hand, I was not even satisfied with the usual debauchery, because the only thing it dirties is debauchery itself, while, in some way or other, anything sublime and perfectly pure is left intact by it. My kind of debauchery soils not only my body and my thoughts, but also anything I may conceive in its course, that is to say, the vast starry universe, which merely serves as a backdrop.

I associate the moon with the vaginal blood of mothers, sisters, that is, the menstrua with their sickening stench…

Mothers and sisters—that is, female blood relations—are presumably sickening for Bataille because, like eggs, they stand for generation and their menstrual blood for the processes that generate life. The eye, on the other hand, stands for visionary perception, but it too must be debased because the eye’s idealism has in the western tradition also upheld life by associating it with a higher ideal, God or the Platonic forms or, simply, the truth. Bataille and his heroes are inverted Platonists, no less in love with an ideal, but a dark and negative ideal, an upside-down sublime, a mountain standing on its head, a photo-negative of the good, an anti-truth of the rapture of torture.

As a philosophy, such speculations are not uninteresting, but they are intensely dull when expressed as the hackneyed Catholic-schoolboy blasphemies of Story of the Eye‘s final chapters. The opening chapters, too, failed to interest me; they are a standard male fantasy of finding a woman who will be your perfect fetishistic sex toy, and if the fetishes described are not your own, you may be bored by their elaborate description. Some of the material in the middle, though—the folkloric image of Marcelle’s imprisonment; the scenes at the bullfight, which may shed new light on Hemingway—is thought-provoking and resonant.

All in all, Story of the Eye is a typical piece of “French extremity,” to cite the film genre, a narrative tradition almost unchanged since the days of Sade, whose books I have never succeeded in finishing, and which continues onscreen today. Mechanically reversing the traditional pieties of the west like flipping a series of switches, the devotees of extremity have created a pious tradition of their own, carried on to a stultifying extent in the institutions of culture, particularly the art world and some wings of academe. That conspiracy theorists like those cited in my opening paragraph mistake this ossified counterculture for a dangerous coven is amusing, but Preparata’s judgment is probably truer: the official philosophy of transgression in our time is the alibi of those whose designs are more worldly—wealth and power.

I am not a gelded-eyed Apollonian myself and have written with admiration in just the last few weeks of writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Seamus Heaney, William Butler Yeats, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg who perceive inhuman powers at work in the cosmos and in society and disparage any weak sentimentalism that would evade this fact. But these disparate writers do not pretend that the human condition can be one of simply melding with the anti-light of the black sun and disappearing up our own orifice in an ecstatic worship of the void; from Lovecraft’s rationalism to Schnackenberg’s Christianity, to say nothing of Yeats’s unforgettably articulated inner conflict between the needs of the flesh and the desires of the soul, these writers chart what actually is: the void, yes, but also every attempt to fill it or redeem it or see ourselves in it, all those human drives from reason to love that exist alongside or in tension with the will to annihilate ourselves or another.

Bataille, and perhaps “French extremity” in general, is without this tension, without this dialectic, and so, for me, does not rise to the level of literature, however well it may function as a book of one hand—or one thought.


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John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human FreedomThe Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom by John N. Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A brief and essayistic digest of Gray’s analysis—he views western modernity as deludedly self-satisfied in its unwitting recapitulation of the Gnostic heresy that humanity can be God—and his aesthetic—his is an austere and gentlemanly nihilism, such as one finds in Borges or Sebald. There is little new here for those who have read Straw Dogs or Black Mass, but Gray’s opening tour of modern literary Gnosticism from Kleist to Dick is fun, like a good lecture, and it put a few more books on my reading list (Giacomo Leopardi, T. F. Powys) even as I enjoyed its review of books and authors I already admire (Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, Lem’s Solaris—though not Dick, whom I’ve never liked or been able to read).

I must say, though, that Gray’s literary history follows very closely, even down to the specific examples and the governing marionette metaphor, Victoria Nelson’s own analysis of contemporary cultural Gnosticism in her wonderful 2003 book, The Secret Life of Puppets, a work Gray oddly does not mention. Likewise, “Gnosticism is the hidden theology of modern secular progressive thought” is a thesis first developed, if I am not mistaken, by the philosopher Eric Voegelin, who also goes uncredited here, despite the book’s many references and annotations.

The book’s concluding chapters detail a realistic appraisal of humanity’s future prospects: in short, the west will enter an anti-humanistic culture of intelligent machines and docile, tech-pacified people, with a periphery of unincorporated violence in the less technologically developed world. Likely, if depressing, enough. Gray’s counsel is neither Marxian revolution nor Nietzschean anarchy, both of which he dismisses as outmoded radicalisms that have proven themselves unworkable or worse; instead, he recommends a pursuit of “inner freedom,” like that of the Stoics (or the Taoists, whom he does not mention here but who feature in Straw Dogs).

But the most arresting part of Gray’s inquiry comes in the middle of the book, in his long discussion, and at least partial defense, of the Aztec or Mexica civilization, including its practice of human sacrifice. According to Gray, modern liberal society may congratulate itself on its supposed peacefulness, but in reality we only deny our capacity for violence even as we live behind walls policed by very violent agencies, from the coerced foreign labor that brings us cheap consumer goods to the endless proxy wars raging around the globe, in which people are slaughtered and their environments permanently despoiled for the sake of resources our techno-societies require or for the empowerment of the states in which we live. The Aztecs, Gray seems to say, were at least honest with themselves in formalizing a ritual, i.e., human sacrifice, that both expressed and contained their capacity to do harm, which all humans share. Gray sees it as no accident that their civilization was so orderly and aesthetically refined aside from this gruesome rite; the regulated release of disordered emotion, the ritual frenzy, in fact, enabled the elegance and control. Some contrast with our own disordered society, with all its disavowed killing, is certainly implied.

This kind of thinking, which disturbs but which cannot be dismissed, and which is not easily summed up in the usual arguments of the Left 0r Right, is the reason I read Gray. The Soul of the Marionette is not his best book among those I’ve read—Straw Dogs is more poetic and philosophically rich, and Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern more timely in this age of ISIS, as it convincingly argues that Islamic radicalism is not a medieval throwback or some “discourse of the Other” but is rather another modern or even modernist movement of revolutionary violence, like fascism and Marxism-Leninism before it. But the present book’s literary focus will interest readers seeking to understand our world through fiction; I do recommend that they go beyond Gray’s bibliography, however, and also seek out the aforementioned Victoria Nelson and Eric Voegelin.

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Simone Weil, On the Abolition of All Political Parties

On the Abolition of All Political Parties (NYRB Classics)On the Abolition of All Political Parties by Simone Weil

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you’ll allow me, dear reader, a self-indulgent preamble— Readers of my novella, The Ecstasy of Michaela, will notice a few lines from Simone Weil quoted as the heroine’s reading material. This should not be mistaken for deep familiarity with Weil on my part; I have read her in only in glimpses and glances and mainly thought that she was the sort of writer my fictional protagonist would be devoted to. In my experience, most creative writers read this way—I recently saw an essay in which Andy Seal expresses amused contempt for the supposedly opportunistic unseriousness of Saul Bellow as a thinker precisely because Bellow made creative use of philosophical writing in the way I just described; but I think Seal’s judgment is the kind of thing that gives academics a bad name among writers. Closer to the mark is Umberto Eco’s verdict in The Aesthetics of Chaosmos: The Middle Ages of James Joyce, delivered after Eco revealed just how shockingly little of Aquinas’s writings Joyce had really read, that Joyce had read enough to intuit the whole Thomistic philosophy and its possible uses and implications. While I am no James Joyce or even Saul Bellow, I think this is part of the novelist’s job description; after all, we have to understand the world, and there is no time to read everything. I do take Moses Herzog seriously as a thinker, and Stephen Dedalus, for that matter.

Now to Simone Weil herself. This very short book is only half taken up by Weil’s title essay, wherein she explains that only God is an end in itself; thus, political parties—which arrogate to themselves the whole truth of the human situation, thus making themselves ends rather than means to the good—are inherently idolatrous. In pursuit of this argument, Weil says a lot of attractive things that will have the truth-seeking reader nodding happily along:

Just imagine: if a member of the party (elected member of parliament, candidate or simple activist) were to make a public commitment, ‘Whenever I shall have to examine any political or social issue, I swear I will absolutely forget that I am the member of a certain political group; my sole concern will be to ascertain what should be done to best serve the public interest and justice.’

Such words would not be welcome. His comrades and even many other people would accuse him of betrayal. Even the least hostile would say, ‘Why then did he join a political party?’—thus naively confessing that, when joining a political party, one gives up the idea of serving nothing but the public interest and justice.

But let us not nod too quickly. For one thing, here in America, where the idea of a political party has historically been less totalizing than in Europe (though this may be changing as the Democratic and Republican parties split on regional and racial lines), politicians say the above all the time, and it tends to mean very little. Weil’s imagined honest partisan sounds like John McCain and the Straight-Talk Express; such sentiments guarantee nothing and can be used as propaganda for the worst political forces.

We will avoid confusing Weil with a cynical American centrist if we understand her real values. The word “justice” in the passage quoted above provides a clue, as do these lines:

Goodness alone is an end. Whatever belongs to the domain of facts pertains to the category of means. Collective thinking, however, cannot rise above the factual realm. It is an animal form of thinking. Its dim perception of goodness merely enables it to mistake this or that means for an absolute good.

Weil essentially offers a modified Rousseauism, defending his concept of “the general will” and its materialization during the French Revolution as the view that “in certain conditions, the will of the people is more likely than any other will to conform to justice,” because the people have actual experience of the conditions related to their lives. This is a pleasant thing to think, but how true is it? Or, more to the point, who gets to say what those “certain” conditions are? Everybody, even kings and queens, claims to be doing the people’s will. Who will adjudicate this claim? In the end, Weil’s politics are not politics at all; she expresses a Platonic metaphysic in political terms, but what it would look like in practice varies from the hard-to-imagine (universal syndicalism, a kind of permanent Occupy meeting?) to the terrifying-to-imagine (terror on behalf of the general will?).

The second half of this volume contains an illuminating 1960 essay by the poet Czesław Miłosz, who translated Weil into Polish, elaborating her philosophy in full. He explains that he took Weil as an example of thinking beyond the Cold War polarities of nationalist Catholicism and international Communism, even as she demonstrated some of the real affinities between Marx and the Church. Miłosz is brilliant on the topic of Catholic thought’s inability to assimilate the historical dimension of philosophy more or less discovered by the nineteenth century, and he admires Weil’s addition of “the history of class struggle” to the Platonic and mystic strain in Christianity. According to Miłosz, Weil was a Cathar; she believed that

The only true Christian civilization was emerging in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the country of the Langue d’Oc, between the Mediterranean and the Loire. After it was destroyed by the Frenchmen who invaded that territory from the north and massacred the heretics—the Albigensians—there has not been any Christian civilization anywhere.

The Albigensians, let us recall, were essentially gnostics who considered this world the domain of evil, the kingdom of darkness. I am not saying they’re wrong—look around!—only that their dismissal, and Weil’s, of the reality of numinous pleasure in the world is a neurotic intellectual’s politics and can as easily lead to becoming a perpetrator of violence as becoming its victim. Totalitarianism in the twentieth century may very well have been a gnostic revenge upon Europe for the Albigensian crusade, and the whole thing is parodied today in the impossibly puritanical cult of “social justice” on the Internet.

Miłosz speaks for me when he says, “I consider myself a Caliban, too fleshy, too heavy, to take on the feathers of an Ariel. Simone Weil was an Ariel.” I am also with Susan Sontag in finding Weil’s extreme persona and her extreme philosophy interesting, which is to say aesthetically compelling. In fact, aesthetically, I condemn my own condemnation of Weil; how, well, tacky to argue against a politics of Platonic truth, to imply that we should all resign ourselves to being the smile on Richard Rorty’s face. Weil would have regarded this aesthetic praise, no doubt, as rebarbative paganism, the gratification of the natural animal at the expense of otherworldly grace. In her spirit, then, I would like to take Weil seriously enough to say that I think she is wrong, even dangerously deluded, and for the usual reasons: she was a self-hating bourgeois intellectual who devoted her life to slumming it, and in the process made a grotesque caricature of “the oppressed” in whose behalf she pointlessly starved herself. Miłosz attributes to Weil the view that we should always take the side of “the oppressed,” but this is easier said than done—or even understood. Who, in fact, is “the oppressed”? A rich white woman condescended to by a rich white man? A factory laborer in a sweatshop? While there are clear victims of some socio-political situations—civilians under bombardment, for instance (though maybe even this can be questionable; the WW2 bombings of Germany and Japan have long had their defenders)—for the most part, the whole rhetoric of oppression is mostly self-serving nonsense uttered by various power-seekers. Having grown up at least in part in a working-class milieu, I can testify that “the oppressed” mostly want money and power, just as “the oppressors” do, and that Nietzsche and Foucault grasp the truth much better than either Plato or Marx: “Power is everywhere…because it comes from everywhere.” If Weil wanted something else—and some people do—she should not have confused this with a politics. In fact, I charge her above all with that besetting vice of modernity, the confusion of an aesthetic disposition with a political argument. She should have gone somewhere to paint or write poetry; I wish I could.

And so back to aesthetics: I find her views distasteful, even as I find their extremity compelling. Hence my desire to represent her in fiction, and/but to use fictional form to hold her at a certain ironic distance. I would not really want to be a Cathar, would I? Or would I? Weil says that truth is one, as Plato told us. Would that I could experience this truth, this oneness. In the meantime, I take my stand with Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Joyce and Bellow and Sontag, those who turned their attention on the irreducible fact of our confusion. Even Plato wrote dialogues.

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