After 9/11: Indifferent Artists, Ruined Writers, and Destroyed Plots in Michel Houellebecq’s “Platform”


We find a play within a play in Hamlet and a novel within a novel in many postmodern novels. But we don’t always find literary criticism within the novel. And when we do, the reader can take such criticism as a possible key to understanding the (main) novel. During a trip to Thailand with a tourist group, the main character of Michel Houellebecq’s Platform tells his readers that he tried reading two American novels – The Firm by John Grisham and  Total Control­ by David Baldacci. He found both books unsatisfying.   His criticism of the books shows the reader that he doesn’t appreciate novels whose plots and characters are obvious.   The narrator is more interested in the English novel – by writers such as Sir Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie – because they give the reader the “pleasure of recognition” and the “pleasure of discovery.”

But it is his insightful literary criticism of the latter that gives the reader a key into the kind of novel he is – so to speak – writing and about the kind of reader who can best appreciate it. It is the sudden twists of fate that produce indifferent artists and ruined writers that the narrator finds most intriguing. Can the artist or writer, he muses, be truly happy? Is their happiness “filtered” by art or obliterated by their dedication to harsh reality (which, in their view, always ends on a bitter note)? Or is it history which has the final say on how a novel is written….or received? After 9/11 or after historical irruptions of terrorism, will plots, characters, and writers be ruined?  And instead of the “pleasure of recognition” (or “discovery”) does the reader experience the opposite: the shock of recognition (or discovery)?

When the narrator first mentions the Grisham book, he mockingly notes that “it was an American best-seller, one of those that sold the most copies. The hero was a young lawyer with a bright future, a talented good-looking boy who worked eighty hours a week”(37). In contrast to the main character of that novel, he works for the government (and has an indifferent relationship to his work; which is to book cultural and artistic events for Parisians).   This novel makes him sick because of its obviousness:

Not only was this shit so obviously a proto-screenplay it was obscene, but you had the feeling that the author had already given some thought to the casting, since the part had obviously been written for Tom Cruise. The here’s wife wasn’t bad either, even if she didn’t work eighty hours a week, but in this case, Nicole Kidman wouldn’t fit, it wasn’t a part for someone with curly hair – more like someone with a blow dry….It was a suspense thriller – well, there was a little suspense. (37)

When he comes to the part in the novel where “Tom Cruise…was still plagued with worries about his affair with the mixed-race girl”(65) who he meets in his travels abroad, the narrator starts experiencing the confluence of reality and fiction. Since he is in Thailand and has seen Thai girls (the theme of sex tourism is central to the novel), his criticism of the novel becomes sharper.

The idiot (Tom Cruise character) behaved as though the future of his marriage was at stake…Eventually, the hero’s unremitting remorse, though it was of no interest whatsoever, began to interfere with the plot…it was enough to make you angry, and it wound up making you sick. (65)

From this disgust with the novel, we learn that the American character should feel no remorse about his affair. It ruins the plot because it should, as the narrator thinks, be seen as natural. To be sure, this shows that the narrator has no problem with affairs and embraces the notion of sex tourism as a matter of course.

The narrator then turns to the Baldacci book and finds it equally disgusting. What he finds reprehensible is the American perspective on a European company “that had resorted to fraudulent practices in order to corner the market. Said market should have been the territory of the American company for which the hero was working”(66). The European company “said bad guys” had the “audacity to smoke several cigarettes”(66). These simple dichotomies prompt him to “bury the two books” in a “small hole.”

This irks him.

Now he has to find something to read. If he doesn’t he will have to face the fact that his death may be meaningless and that he may die alone, without “knowing a wife’s body.”

The problem now was that I had to find something to read. Not having anything around to read is dangerous: you have to content yourself with life itself, and that can lead you to take risks. At the age of fourteen, one afternoon when the fog was particularly dense, I got lost while skiing, and I had to make my away across some avalanche corridors. What I remember most were the leaden clouds, hanging very low, and the utter silence on the mountain….Despite this, I wasn’t in the least afraid. I was annoyed that things had turned out this way, annoyed for myself and for everyone else. I would have preferred a more conventional death, more official in a way, with an illness, a funeral, tears. Most of all, I regretted never having known a wife’s body. (66)

Fiction, in other words, is a distraction. And the American fictions aren’t working. However, when he discuses literature with a woman who, later in the novel, becomes his lover, we learn that Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie are two of his most favorite authors. And his literary criticism shows us that literature does, in fact, let the darkness it…through the cracks.

Every story introduces some new peculiarity (the cocaine, the violin, the existence of the older brother, Mycroft, the taste for Italian opera…). Each new detail that is revealed casts new areas of shadow, creating a truly fascinating character. Thus, Conan Doyle succeeded in creating a perfect mixture of the pleasure of discovery and the pleasure of recognition. (69)

In contrast, he feels that Agatha Christie “placed too much emphasis on the pleasure of recognition”(70). However, the narrator tells us that “The Hollow was different” and that “was largely due to the ambitious character of Henrietta, the sculptor, in whom Agatha Christie tried to portray not only the agony of creation…but that suffering that is particular to being an artist, an inability to be truly happy or unhappy, to truly feel hatred, despair, ecstasy or love”(70). And this “inability to be truly happy or unhappy, to truly feel despair, etc” is due to the “aesthetic filter that separate the artist from the world”(70).   These words, to be sure, describe the way the reader of Houelebecq’s novel should read the narrator.   But they don’t go far enough.

The narrator completes his assessment of Christie’s portrayal of the artist by noting that she over-identified with the sculptor and, as a result:

This isolation causes the artist to experience her surroundings in only a vague, ambiguous, and completely less intense manner, making her a less interesting character. (70)

These words are to be read as cautionary and should prompt a question for the reader: is the narrator indifferent to his surroundings because Houellebecq, the author, is too close to his character or is there a margin which creates a more interesting character who experiences things in an intense manner?

In Christie’s novel it is the writer, Edward, who contrasts most with the sculptor. He thinks of himself as a failure. And this suggests another identification for Houellebecq that alters our reception of the male narrator of Platform:

The author is clearly fascinated with her creation, who has clearly forgotten even those rules that apply to all human beings. She must have enjoyed writing sentences like “But then one doesn’t exactly introduce people – not when somebody has just been killed” but her sympathies did not lie with Lady Angkatell….Edward, for his part thinks himself a failure.   He hasn’t succeeded at anything in his life, not even becoming a writer; he writes short stories of disenchanted irony for obscure journals read only by confirmed bibliophiles. (71)

Midge, a character who “loves Edward hopelessly,” saves “Edward from committing suicide, and in which he proposes to her”(71). Likewise, in the novel, Valerie saves the narrator from self-hatred and self-destruction.

Her arms closed round him firmly. He smiled at her, murmuring:

“You’re so warm, Midge – you’re so warm.”

Yes, she thought, that was what despair was. A cold thing, a thing of infinite coldness and loneliness. She’d never understood until now that despair was a cold thing. She always thought of it as something hot and passionate, something violent, a hot-blooded desperation. But that was not so – this utter darkness of coldness and loneliness. And the sin of despair, that priests talked of, was a cold sin, the sin of cutting oneself off from all warm and living contacts. (71)

The irony of these lines is that, at the end of Platform, the narrator loses Valerie to an act of terror. Moreover, the narrator is not the only one experiences despair. The reader does as well.   However, it is not after someone is saved from suicide; it is when someone is killed in the most horrible way: through an act of terrorism in which a lover’s body parts are blown away in front of the lover.

Although the narrator may leave literature behind for the risks of life and the possibility of a meaningless death and succeeds – by way of finding a woman who he can love – he is exposed to the death.   But it is not his death; it is the death of the beloved.   And as Emmanuel Levinas notes, in contrast to Heidegger, it is the death of the other that concerns me more than my death because I am a-being-for-the-other.

The narrator’s literary criticism of Agatha Christie shows us, ironically, that the “pleasure of recognition” and “discovery,” in Houellebecq’s Platform, are out of balance because we can assume that, for the writer, there is no pleasure in recognizing himself as a failure; not at writing so much as in the risks he takes with a woman he meets on his trip.   In the end, the writer is more like the sculptor: who is unable to “truly” feel “happy or unhappy.”

But it is not so much the “aesthetic filter” that the narrator evokes with respect to Agatha Christie’s sculptor as the pain (not “pleasure”) of surprise (and recognition) that destroys the plot and takes the reader and narrator from the world of love and exoticism (in Thailand) to a world of terror and loss.

The alteration is prompted by something that no modern plot – or our world – could anticipate: terrorism.   And this makes sense since Houellebecq wrote this novel after 9/11. To be sure, that missing historical link is crucial. In the wake of this novel, one may be startled to find that terrorism and its alteration of modern life have, in many ways, become the new “platform” for Houellebecq’s modern novels. But what is most shocking is what it leaves the reader with at the end of the novel: a traumatized narrator (and writer) who has, in the wake of terror, lost his ability to truly feel…anything.

We need to ask ourselves whether we, as post 9/11 readers who have seen ISIS and multiple acts of terrorism, experience what I would call the “shock of recognition” in the narrator’s inability to feel…in the wake of trauma. Are we unable to “truly feel anything?” That can only be the case if the terrorist has taken the world we once loved away from us.   But it need not be, that is, if the world is still ours. For Houellebecq’s narrator it is not, but we need not agree with him. But, and this is the point, it depends on how we view the world, on the one hand,  and how it has been affected by terror, on the other.   Can the writer or the reader stand up to terror and “truly” say no?  

Loving Life by Hating It: First Thoughts on Michel Houellebecq’s “Platform”


For some modern writers and artists, the cultivation of solitude and alienation are worthwhile pursuits.   They would claim that one should dedicate one’s writing to this project because it makes the modern writer unique. But it also makes us look at things that, in their view, are more definitive than the commonplace celebrations of progress and the joys of modernity. These writers are world-weary and cultivate what the Germans call Weltschmerz in order to produce literature and art that is repulsive and repulsing.   To keep one’s mind focused on such disgust is, for them, to be honest, authentic, and modern. The bitter artist is better off than the smug one.

In one of his journal entries, the famed Parisian “father of symbolism,” Charles Baudelaire, notes that he “will have conquered solitude” when he has “inspired universal horror and disgust” by way of his poetry and prose.   Michel Houellebecq – who often includes Baudelaire’s name in his fiction – has taken to Baudelaire’s advice.   And, unlike many fiction writers today, I have noticed that Michel Houellebecq’s narrators and plots are consistently bitter.  He, like Baudelaire, makes use of cynicism and melancholy.

As with Baudelaire’s poetry and prose (see Paris Spleen), the literary technique employed by Houellebecq is effective because it prompts the reader to distance him or herself from narrators, characters, and language so as to ask him or herself whether such a take on life is valid or necessary. Moreover, Houellebecq turns his reader to think not just about plots, language, etc but to the world itself. And this prompts many questions. Is it as bad as it seems? What is going on in the world? Do we have the right framework or, as Houellebecq suggests in the title of his 2001 book, platform?

To be sure, a platform has two divergent meanings. It can be read as a medium or as a ground through which one articulates one’s views on this or that subject.   A medium is a means, a ground is an end in itself.   With this in mind, and with Houellebecq’s other novels in view, I wonder if this book’s platform will be cynicism. But how can groundlessness be a ground? After all, cynicism looks to eliminate the philosophical notion of a ground or founding truth. The platform must be cynicism as a medium or, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger might say, a “groundless ground.” Either way, one needs to consistently ask oneself what the platform of Houellebecq’s novel is.   Cynicism may be a general platform but there are others such as the sex industry, late-capitalism, pornography, globalization, and terrorism which can be found throughout the novel.   In each of these platforms, however, happiness and bitterness alternate.

The epigram of the novel, which comes from Honre de Balzac, sets out a framework for the novel which shares much with Baudelaire:

The more contemptible his life, the more a man clings to it; it thus becomes a protest, a retribution for every moment.

In other words, the contempt with one’s life is actually redemptive because in protesting it one becomes free of the world, solitary.   And this, for Balzac, is life itself. But how can this be?

The novel starts off with the death of the main character’s father. The main character and narrator, Michel, reflects on it but it is his vulgarity and contempt for his life and his father’s that gives him a kind of distance from it:

As I stood before the old man’s coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made most of life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt. “You had kids, you fucker,” I said spiritedly. “You shoved your fate cock in my mother’s cunt.” I was a bit tense, I have to admit. It’s not every day you have a death in the family. I’d refused to see the corpse. I’m forty, I’ve already had plenty of opportunity to see corpses. Nowadays, I prefer to avoid them. (3)

Michel wants to rethink his life in the wake of his father’s death. He wonders whether happiness is possible for someone as bitter as himself…at 40. He his bitter about life but now that he has money (from his inheritance) he imagines that going to another place, far away from Europe (his platform), he can perhaps find happiness. But the search is already determined in advance since he sees sexuality as offering the only avenue for possible happiness. But even this is put into quotation marks since we learn that his father was murdered because of a sexual relationship.

When the detective comes, he learns more about what may have happened.   And what he learns suggests the crossing of themes: sexuality, travel, globalization, and Islam. Since the last person to see the father was the Islamic cleaning lady and she discusses her “crazy” brothers and how they get when they drink – regarding their faith – the reader wonders if there is a connection.  But instead of pursuing this link, the narrator (and the detective) leaves it untouched. This comes back at the end of the novel like what Freud would call “the returned of the repressed.”

More important at this point, for the narrator, is not to solve the murder mystery around the father but to leave France for a little while and explore another world (Thailand) and the possibility of (sexual) happiness. The fascinating thing, however, is how this desire for departure and the need for sex and happiness (via travel), feed on one aspect of bitterness that is particular to the narrator.

As the novel progresses, we realize that there are other platforms for bitterness which interrupt his personal journey. It reminds us that bitterness has many dimensions and the world we are distant from, as a result of the narrator’s bitterness, is not singular but plural.   It comes back to bite him and it puts his freedom into question. It also puts the reader’s judgment into question since the reader must decide what it means when one world crashes into another.   Do we share the same world? Are we free to leave it? Does our “contempt” for the crashing of one world into another enable us to be free despite the fact that such a crash destroys our world? These are questions that Houellebecq’s novel poses to the reader.

….to be continued

Nothing to Laugh About: On Jean Amery’s Phenomenology of Aging and Louis CK’s


In an era which endlessly celebrates youth and beauty, aging oftentimes provokes shame, revulsion, and denial. For this reason, celebrities do their utmost to look and seem young when they are old and why the elderly often feel worthless and unappreciated.   Think, for instance, of Joan Rivers or the bevy of celebrities who turn to botox and plastic surgery to cover up the wrinkles and signs of age or the fact that we see little of old people on our information feeds.   In addition, people often choose to send their parents to homes or away than, as was in the past, to take care of them in their homes. “We” need to stay happy and youthful.   Such images of aging (or the actual presence of aging) can only prompt “us” to stop in our tracks and make us morose. (I put we and us in “scare quotes” because there is exclusion at work and that we doesn’t include the aging.)

By looking age square in the face, one becomes serious. There is nothing funny about getting old. Or is there? While comedians like Sara Silverman (think of her latest film, I Smile Back), Ben Stiller (think of his performance in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010) and While We’re Young (2014), or Gretta Gerwig (think of her latest film, Mistress America) have taken on more serious roles as they have grown older, Louis CK takes (and has taken, for at least ten years) a more comical – though very dark – approach to aging in his show Louie and in his stand-up routine.

In this clip, Louis CK emblematizes a struggle with lost youth through his attempt to get the “eyes” of the doll back into its head.   The loss of eyes, for Freud, is associated with castration and shame. His attempt to make his daughter happy by finding and replacing the eyes of the doll is an utter failure. With the music, camera angles, and desperate facial contortions made by Louis CK, it comes across as horrific.

To be sure, the doll is a great figure for many a horror story or horror film and it works well to bring out the desperation of aging, failure, and shame before his daughter and an audience that sees him in the same way.   Even so, the attempts to get the eyes or repair the doll – because they are so exaggerated – come across as comical.

Compared to Louis CK’s struggle with aging, Jean Amery, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, journalist, and thinker – who has given us some of the most powerful philosophical meditations on the Holocaust and the fate of post-Holocaust humanism – gives his readers an unforgiving and utterly serious reflection on aging and otherness.   In the spirit of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, he attempts what can be called a phenomenology of aging. His descriptions of aging bring us close to its dark, existential kernel.   The descriptions are nothing to laugh about. They are sober and painful to read…or accept.   Amery sees the phenomenological inquiry into aging as the key to understanding what it means to have a temporal (time oriented) consciousness.

In his book On Aging: Revolt and Resignation, Jean Amery begins his book with a meditation on time.   He contrasts the way a physicist reads time to the way a phenomenologist reads time. One sees time as something external while the latter as something internal (“time is the inner sense, the form through which we perceive ourselves and our condition” p.8).   While the physicist would see the phenomenologist as playing a “mental game,” the phenomenologist sees his description of aging, from the angle of consciousness, as of the utmost urgency.   His question: what does aging mean? The answer to this question discloses a temporal consciousness that is extremely alienated and pained.

According to the phenomenologist, the physicist speaks “idle talk” since he is avoiding the more meaningful inquiry into aging and time. To measure time and what happens to the body in space, we avoid the more authentic engagement with aging and that engagement, for Amery, is necessarily painful.

As Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt taught, one appears in the world and before others. But according to Amery, the “world ‘an-nihilates’ aging human being and makes them invisible”(68).   Amery, here, equates the “world” with “young people” because he sees the world that we live in as a world that is created by and for the young.   In this world, when one ages one slowly becomes “invisible” and irrelevant, one is “an-nihilated.”   On this note Amery makes a suggestion:

It is good for the aging to realize that society, regardless of how it arranges the demographics of its age pyramid, accepts the annihilating judgment of the young and the most recent. (69)

Amery laments that even the aging look at other aging people from this angle and visit the “annihilating judgment” on other aging people. In doing so, “they deny the solidarity to their comrades in destiny, try to maintain their distance from the signs of the negation of existence that they read on their features”(69).

And as a result of this “denial of solidary,” these aging people live in desperate attempt to “cling” to the young when they are aging. They also deny that they are envious and this troubles Amery:

That is not to say that they love the young, only that they cling to them in an absurd longing and with an envy that they cannot admit to themselves. (69)

Drawing on Sartre, Amery calls these denials “bad faith.” To negate this “bad faith,” Amery suggests that those who age face the fact that the world they were young in is gone and that the world that now exists rejects them: “the world they understand no longer exists”(78).   For Amery, the acceptance of the future generations, in a progressive sense, is difficult if it is to be taken in good (rather than bad) faith.

The phenomenologist of age must address a few questions:

  • How does one accept the fact that “society ascribes a social age to us”?
  • Can one accept the fact that, for society, “old people can’t become” (can’t change or grow but…die)?
  • Can one accept that one’s world is “dated”?
  • Can one, most importantly, accept that, in aging, one becomes invisible?

Amery’s questions resonate with the existential concerns of Kierkegaard and many modern writers and artists because, as Nietzsche well knew, in the wake of Napoleon one could be “someone” who is recognized in the world.   On the other hand, one may be a nobody. Although one can ponder this question at any age, the process of aging, for Amery, makes it clear that a decision has already been made.   The acceptance of aging, for Amery, is tied to the acceptance of death. Once the world rejects you, there is nothing left for you, save death.

The fact that one can no longer appear to the world is a frightening prospect. And the Louis CK’s clip brings out the desperation of this loss. He desperately tries to find the dolls eyes. Without them, he can’t be seen as a good parent.   The irony is that we still see him. In his mockery of aging, Louis CK is still a celebrity. Despite the fact that he is aging, he can still be accepted by the world. But he gets this pass only because he mocks aging. And that is exactly what Amery says is part and parcel of the world we live in. By mocking aging, we, together with Louis CK, assent to the “fact” that the world we live in belongs to the young and that “society ascribes a social age to us.”

One wonders what Jean Amery would think of Louie in general and this clip in particular.   Is the comical performance of the desperate battle with aging a challenge to bad faith? Does Louis CK fight against becoming invisible and meaningless? Isn’t that what the whole show is about?

These questions suggest that Amery’s phenomenology of aging needs to take into consideration what it means to wage a comic battle with aging and invisibility.   The predominance of the comedic performances of age – from Ben Stiller, Seth Rogen, and Judd Apatow to Sara Silverman and Louis CK – should prompt us to think about how comedy addresses the questions raised by the phenomenology of aging. This is an urgent issue since the question of what is or is not to be “seen” in our visual culture can be given greater scope by those who we love seeing most: not ourselves but celebrities.

In seeing the other in this or that film or TV episode, perhaps we can better see ourselves. Jean Amery was aware of this since he dedicates several pages to how he saw his hero of youth, Jean-Paul Sartre, go from a celebrity to an old man. And in seeing this he saw himself fade into invisibility.   He realizes that his world, which he shared with Sartre, is gone.

Today, we don’t have the same kind of intellectual celebrities but, even so, watching celebrities like Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Sara Silverman, or Seth Rogen age, on screen, can prompt us to reflect more on what aging means in a world that, as Amery says, “an-nihilates” it.

Someday You’ll Be A Star…or Maybe Not: Gabriel Josipovici on What it Means to be “Someone” After the French Revolution and Napoleon


I grew up in a small town in the middle of New York State. It was like a small family. Everyone knew everyone else and could see the potential in this or that person. As for myself, my family, teachers, and coaches always told me that I would someday be “someone.” My grandmother, who loved Broadway and Hollywood, always told me that I was special. She always said that one day, when I was an adult, my name would be in the lights. I grew up with this kind of hope, but I was not alone. And today what kid doesn’t want to be a famous singer, actor, or musician? Shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, etc encourage such hopes. The small town naivite is shared throughout American households. Indeed, the American dream is not just to have a house, a car, savings, and food on the table; it is to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

But with all of the talk of being someone, there is the possibility that one may just be an ordinary person or, as the classic Guns and Roses song puts it, “one in a million.”

Although Gabriel Josipovici, in his book What Every Happened to Modernism? is interested in the European moment when the notion that you or I could be “somebody,” his insights can prompt American thinkers or critics to look into the historical legacy of this claim in America. It can also show how this moment was the source of jubilation and existential despair. Modernist art and literature, for him, cannot be thought aside from this moment and its offspring.

Josipovici argues that in the Middle Ages the system within which one was born discloses a sense of fate rather than freedom. One’s meaning was contingent on one’s birth. But after the French Revolution that all changed:

No-one in Europe had any doubt that something decisive, whether wonderful or terrible, had happened in 1789. What the revolution did was give everyone a sense that even the most ordinary life could be changed. You were not stuck for ever in the place and role into which you had been born. Everyone was now equal and everyone, in principle, had equal opportunities. By the time Napoleon was crowned Emperor not only did every soldier feel that he had a field-marshal baton in his knapsack, every citizen felt that he too could be an Emperor. (40)

As Goethe, Nietzsche, and Emerson well knew, Napoleon was a world-historical person who opened the door for a new kind of individualism and hope that one could be somebody. For Nietzsche, Napoleon was the arbiter of “master morality” and a model for the Ubermensch (overman).

However, as Josipovici also notes, the Napoleonic ideal had terrible consequences. Now one not only feels one can be “somebody,” but that one may also be “nobody.” We see this, says Josipovici, in Doestoevsky’s most controversial character, Raskolnikov:

He is nobody, he cannot earn enough to help his family, yet he sense that he is destined for great things, that he is a second, Russian, Napoleon…In the end, as the examining magistrate, Porphyry, explains to him, he murdered the old money-lender and almost asked to be caught for the simple reason that, like the rest of us, he prefers to be someone, even a murderer, than no-one at all. (41)

Many characters, notes Josipovici, destroy their lives and the lives of others in order to feel like they are “alive” and unique.   In contrast, one can, as Melville’s Bartelby, decide to be anonymous and a nobody. But this decision is fraught with sadness and meaninglessness.

According to Josipovici, it is Kierkegaard who illustrates this decision between anonymity and being someone. The issue, for Kierkegaard, is how to address what is possible.   Now, after Napoleon, the modern individual must deal with the overabundance of possibilities:

Already in his first mature work Either/Or (1842), he had begun to explore what it might mean for a youth with brains and imagination to grasp that he was free to do what he wanted and to grasp at the same time that that freedom condemned him to a life of melancholy and inaction, as though the plethora of possibilities made all the actualities seem pale and insubstantial. (43)

On the one hand, a self with no possibilities is in despair (and we see this throughout America and the world). On the other hand, a self with too many possibilities may also be in despair. According to Josipovici, the world without tradition is a world with no necessity. Many of us don’t see ourselves within the narrative of a tradition with its rituals and commandments. For this reason, we feel the world consists of endless possibilities instead of necessities and this is overwhelming.   Nonetheless, citing Kierkegaard, Josipovici argues that one must have possibilities or invent them in order to have some sense of meaning:

If one wants to compare running astray in possibility with the child’s use of vowels, then lacking possibility is like being dumb (silent). The necessary is as though there were only consonants, but to utter them there has to be possibility. (47)

The metaphor is apt for out time and is applicable to Europeans and Americans. Without possibility, one is silent or dumb. One can neither speak nor be heard. But if one has possibility, one can speak. However, the catch is that even if one has vowels and even if one can speak, one may still not be heard. Despair is possibility whether one has or doesn’t have possibilities.

But in America, as in the Russia that gave birth to the character Raskolnikov, the problem with the need to be someone is that it can lead to violence. There are many sociopaths who resort to this path.   I’ll end with a video put out by Elliot Rodger – the son of a famous Hollywood film director – before he stabbed and shot several people in Santa Barbara.   He was born into a world with lots of possibilities for money and success. But since he felt he was rejected as a nobody and lacked the possibilities that other men had with women, he felt that he had to become a murderer and die as a somebody.  After Napoleon, this is the dark side of possibility. I’ll end on that note.

Looking for Optimism, Finding Pessimism: On Salon’s Recent Interview of Slavoj Zizek and his Turn to Harsh Realism

Slavoj ZIZEK, a philosopher

Slavoj ZIZEK, a philosopher recently interviewed Slavoj Zizek.   The most eye-opening aspect of the interview was the clash between optimism and pessimism from start to finish. Reading the interview it is apparent that the interviewer, Michael Schulson, believed Zizek would, in line with some of his thinking, give an optimistic forecast of the current political situation and the options for the left. But what he received was the opposite. I want to touch on – and parse – a few of these questions and answers because it shows us that Zizek’s hopes and dreams are not idealistic. They are contingent on this or that event which he sees as a possibility for change. Today, he sees little possibility for any. At this moment in history, Zizek thinks the left should be pessimistic and melancholic.  Here he seems to be drawing on a cynical approach to the current scene.

At the beginning of the interview, Zizek is asked about when the “authentic emancipatory process,” which he discusses in his latest book Trouble in Paradise: From the End of Paradise to the End of Capitalism. Schulson asks about “where” it is going to come from (America, Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, etc). Zizek answers, in the most pessimistic manner:

Maybe it will not come. I’m very clear about this, and rather a pessimist.

It is fascinating to hear this from Zizek because he is always on the trail of the possibility of revolution. He seldom speaks this way.

Rather, Zizek argues, quite to the contrary of Marx, that it may not happen at all. The revolution is NOT inevitable. Even after (or if) everything falls apart capitalism may not destroy itself as Marx believed.  History is unpredictable.

I don’t see any historical guarantee that some big revolutionary event will happen. The only thing I’m certain of is that if nothing happens, we are slowly approaching — well, if not a global catastrophe, then a very sad society. Much more authoritarian, with new inner apartheids clearly divided into those who are in and those who are out.

When the interviewer presses him on the “where” question of where the “revolution” will begin, Zizek, uninspired by this question halfheartedly suggests that maybe students in Europe:

It’s not a specific place. I see potential spaces of tensions. For example, you have literally hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of students in Europe who are doing their studies. And they’re well aware that they don’t even have a chance of getting a job.

Zizek also doesn’t see a moment in the refuge crisis. And this is odd because one of his mentors, Hannah Arendt, saw the refugee crisis in the early 20th century as a grand opportunity for the left:

Then I think more and more, this problem of Europe — should there be a wall? Should those outside Europe — immigrants, refugees — be allowed to enter Europe? I’m not a utopian here. I’m not a stupid leftist liberal who is saying, “Oh, you know, horror, people are drowning in the Mediterranean from Africa, we should open our gates to them.” No, that’s stupidity. If Europe totally opens its borders, you would have in half a year a populist anti-immigrant revolution. I’m just saying this problem will grow — those who are in, those who are out.

In the face of this Schulson tries to be optimistic (is he playing what Zizek would call the “stupid leftist liberal card”?):

There does seem to be a kind of upheaval underway —

In response, Zizek reiterates:

— I don’t have too high hopes. Like those old, stupid, pseudo-Marxists who claim, “We see the beginning, we just have to wait. The crowds, masses will organize themselves.” No, you can’t beat global capitalism in this old-fashioned way.

Schulson pushes Zizek to the point where Zizek says what he likes – namely, “rules” for the world regarding certain unethical practices. However, Zizek doesn’t think this is going to happen. And in this we see a big breach between a wish list and a realistic assessment of its possibility.

But it doesn’t end here. Schulson, exited about Bernie Sanders and the possibility of a revolution on America asks Zizek what he thinks. But Zizek, once again, deflate the interviewer’s hopes:

Of course I sympathize with him. But I’m a pessimist here. Okay, he can play a positive role, blah, blah, blah. But I don’t see the beginning of something that will amount to a real, serious change. Maybe one has to begin with small things. For example, as I always emphasize also in my book, I still have some sympathy for Obama. I don’t buy that leftist stuff, you know, Obama betrayed the Left. What did they expect, that Obama will introduce communism into the United States, or what? But what I like about Obama, which for me is a good operation, you remember, universal healthcare. He touched a very important point of American ideology.

Zizek goes on to say that President Obama is not, in his view, “revolutionary.” Obama’s challenge to ideology is stifled by what Zizek calls his “betrayal” of the left. But the interview swerves toward Zizek’s reflections on the possibility that we are in a “post-secular” era. In Zizek’s view, there is neither an erasure of religion or a new resurgence. What we have is religion with a consumerist font. More importantly, in a Marxist sense, he sees any resurgence of religion as a response to a lack of political involvement:

I don’t believe in this post-secular era. I think that the sacred which is returning today is part of our postmodern, individualist, hedonist universe. I mean, look at American TV preachers. They are pure creatures of modern performance. It’s ridiculous. Whatever it is, it’s not religion. The naïve critics of religion — Richard Dawkins, all of them, they are way too naïve. They are not really describing what is happening here. It’s not authentic religion. It’s part of our consumerist culture. On the other hand, it’s clear that these type of religious revivals are a reaction to what we can call post-politics, the end of traditional politics. You no longer have communal meetings, you no longer have these elementary forms of authentic political life. And I think that religion is entering as an ersatz supplement for politics. And it’s really true, if we identify politics with antagonism, passionate taking sides, combative attitude and so on and so on.

The interviewer, in an interesting final turn, takes on the topic of violence. Zizek’s response to the question of violence, however, shows us a turn toward a tragic and pessimistic view of reality that Zizek garners from religion and from Hobbes. Contrary to Marx who sees evil vis-à-vis an economic system, he sees human nature as violent and evil. But the only answer to a war of “all against all” is Communism.

It is everywhere. It is everywhere. The world is hell. My vision, basically, in religious terms — though I’m atheist, of course — is some kind of Protestant view of the fallen world. It’s all one big horror. I despise Leftists who think, you know, violence is just an effect of social alienation, blah, blah, blah; once we will get communism, people will live in harmony. No, human nature is absolutely evil and maybe with a better organization of society we could control it a little bit.

Strangely enough, with this declaration, Zizek shares not only a lot with religious thought but with conservative thinkers like Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss.   And this, to be sure, goes contrary to much of the left-leaning utopian thinking and idealism that has been lingua franca in the past…and is still…as the Salon interviewer shows us…today.

Where will the revolution begin? Zizek’s answer: Who knows if it will let alone where it will?

What does this mean about Zizek’s view of the left and its future? Must the left become more pessimistic and realistic if it is to survive and not be seen – as Zizek suggests throughout the interview – as “stupid?” Is the belief that a revolution is “possible” – today – shortsighted?   Must the left see the world as “hell” and humans as violent before anything can be possible?

Gabriel Josipovici on Disenchantment, the Death of the Storyteller, and the Birth of the Novelist


Do we still look at and judge ourselves by virtue of a tradition or by virtue of our own private experiences? Perhaps we are too far away from the point in time where we can distinguish between having or not having a tradition? But this all depends on how we conceive of the word “we.” To be sure, millions of people around the globe are struggling with modernity and in doing so their traditions are put to the test by the ultimate modern measuring stick: experience.   Traditions still matter. But what I experience, as a person, defines “me” not “us” if and only if I no longer have a tradition to measure myself against.

In his book What Ever Happened to Modernism? Gabriel Josipovici argues that, in the face of disenchantment (by virtue of the loss of “tradition” in the European and Christian West), the modernist writer or thinker will have to address the possibility that man may, as Protagoras once said, be the “measure of all things.”   There are two options: humor or despair.   It all depends on how one understands the new relationship between the author and the reader which is based on sharing an experience. Without the “traditional sacraments”(36), we must ask ourselves, as Cervantes did with Don Quixote, what the “art of narrative,” the “most mysterious of arts,” means.   And this will require us to map out and discuss the death of the storyteller and the birth of the novelist.

Citing Marthe Robert, Josipovici argues that the “author” of Don Quixote is “not, like the Homeric bard, a central component of an organization where each one is, by virtue of tradition, both the protégé and the protector of order, but a solitary individual, answerable to no-one but himself, without any faith other than his experience, without any guide other than his intuition”(37).

In other words, the novelist draws on his or her own experience not on tradition. However, Walter Benjamin, in his “Storyteller” essay, points out that the experiences and the goals of the storyteller are different from the novelist. While the storyteller “makes” his experience “the experience of those who are listening to his tale,” the novelist “has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer capable to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others.”

The relationship of the novelist to the reader is more precarious than the relationship of the storyteller to his or her listeners. The community of the story teller is entirely different from the community of the novelist and his readers. To be sure, Don Quixote and his readers do not have a stable community and the reader cannot live their lives by the kind of “counsel” he offers. If they did, their lives would be mired in dreams, delusions, and distractions.

However, that may already be the case.

Even though the reader may distinguish him or herself from Quixote and even thought Quixote recognizes his folly at the end of the novel, the fact of the matter is that we readers went along with him on his journey.   The adventure of experience – in the wake of tradition – does in fact provide some kind of measure and it does offer us some kind of counsel.

Josipovici explains – like Michel Serres – that the point of the book is to keep things moving and that, itself, is a kind of counsel. But, more importantly, is the fact that we – the author and the reader – are moving together on a comical kind of journey:

The real protagonists…are the wrier and the reader, who both undergo adventures enough to last them a lifetime, even if neither ever quite understands what these are. (38)

And this is the main point. Even though we might not know “what” these literary adventures are, we still must go on them for in doing so we can find the only counsel worthy of our attention. In a world in which tradition is challenged, the new communities we form are based on the journeys that we take.   But the best community of all is mired in what Jean-Luc Nancy calls the “inoperative community” which thrives on “literary communism.” What Nancy doesn’t note, however, is that this community, which is based on a kind of comic literary journey, shares the measure that defines it and that measure can only be arrived at by way of taking cognizance of what is happening…as it happens.   But this taking note is always plagued by what is not noticed. And the discovery of these blindspots heightens our sense of what passes us by in each experience. This, I’d argue, is the literary event.

Josipovici correctly notes that despite what the reader thinks of Don Quixote’s foolishness, he or she is complicit.   For in being complicit, one can enchant a world that has been disenchanted. But this enchantment is not magical, mythical, or religious; it is secular and comical.   In the modern world, we delight in the blindspots only because “we” are immersed in experience not tradition.

But for those of us who are immersed in both experience and this or that religious tradition, the novel offers us a way to map out the blindspots that tradition encounters with modernity…and vice versa.   And it is this journey which is even more interesting since religious experience today – in the world of social networking – has the potential of modifying religious tradition.   In this situation, the novelist shares the stage with the storyteller. We have seen such a predicament in the work of Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aliechem and Mendel Mocher Sforim.  But instead of Don Quixote bringing the storyteller-slash-novelist into a relationship with the reader, it is the schlemiel. And while the former is born out of the novelist, the latter is born out of a storyteller who has become a novelist. The question – whether we are talking about Aleichem or Quixote – is how far they are from the tradition.  That distance or proximity will determine the kinds of shared experiences we find in this or that comic novel. But it is the fool who is the medium not the tragic-hero and that is the case because the fool is a creature of experience and tradition.

No End in Sight: Michel Serres on Harlequin, the Errant “Philosopher-Writer”


One picks things up as one goes along. And although one may forget this or that thing, he or she may have something fascinating right there in front of his or her face. By working with what one sees, by writing about it, coloring it, in short, interacting with it, something unknown is breached. It is this excitement of interaction with things – seen, touched, heard, read, or written – that the writer and thinker Michel Serres focuses on in his book The Troubadour of Knowledge.   For writers, reading Serres is inspiring since it gives the writer a sense of what s/he is doing, in a philosophical sense, when s/he writes.

The writer, for Serres, “experiences, experiments. He tests, he assays”(79).   The experiments done on language by the “philosopher-writer” are based on the “construction” or combination of words and letters. The philosopher writer is, says Serres, like a (al)chemist. S/he looks for affect. But this experimentation “carries a risk” which is “aleatory, the unknown.” In other words, the philosopher-writer may become dumbfounded. More importantly, Serres says that in experiencing the unknown, the “philosopher-writer” becomes “exposed,” “fragile,” and “naked.” However, in what he calls “unmaking” (or what one might call “deconstruction”) one is “never wrong.”

One exposes oneself when one makes, one imposes oneself when one unmakes. When one unmakes, one is never wrong, in effect. I know of no better way to be always right. I do not believe I know, on the other hand, a better definition of man that the old adage errare humanum est, to which I saw, Whoever makes mistakes is human. At least he tried. (79)

The model for Serres book, which he discusses in the preface is a clown: Harlequin.   After he lies to the audience about the things he has found on his “travels” around the world, Harlequin takes off all his clothes. Each layer of clothing, however, speaks the truth; namely, there is a diversity of color and form in each garment. And when he strips down to his naked body…there are tattoos and his sexuality is ambiguous. His flesh, in the end, is his coat. It is a surface which has taken in many different things over time:

What could the current, tattooed, ambidextrous monster, hermaphrodite and half-breed, make us see now under his skin? Yes, flesh and blood….flesh…Life throws the dice or plays cards. Harlequin discovers, in the end, his flesh. (xvi)

According to Serres, the “miracle of tolerance” is to act “as if” all the things one has become over time don’t change the fact that Harlequin is Harlequin.   And it is this humility and naivite which Serres sees central to being a “philosopher-writer.”

He can “miss, make mistakes, or lose himself,” but that is what happens when one experiments or moves from one thing to the next. Taking risks, one “experiences the pain and courage of wandering in order to pay for newness”(80). Against the dictates of experiences, the “philosopher-writer” must greet every experience as if it were his or her first and experiment with each making suppositions. He doesn’t – like Harlequin doesn’t – care about mistakes. And he will lie just to get things “going.” Whatever it takes, do it. Just move. But there is one rule: “don’t copy.”

He never knows who will enter on the next page. Never mind the fall, he tests! If he loses he will not have done anything wrong, and if he wins he will rejoice. To hell with the mistakes, he essays…Leave, go….Take off your clothes, go down to the field, paly. Criticism is easy, art difficult…Enough said, let’s have acts…..In any case, try. If not, you lie. You will lie, even if you tell the truth, supposing that you are content with talking. Live, taste, leave, do, play, don’t copy. (80)

If we keep moving, traveling over unknown spaces (whether on the page or in reality), and testing what we see, we can become “troubadours of knowledge.” And that, for Serres, is greater than being a scientist.

Although Serres’s enthusiasm for experience, experimentation, and knowledge is inspiring, there is something missing. What seems to be missing is a sense of evil and the ethical imperative that relates to addressing evil. The wandering, aleatory mind that the deconstructionists celebrated misses what Levinas knew so well: the ethical. Levinas’s reading of Don Quixote is interesting in this regard since it is, in his view, the “hunger of the other man” that brings Quixote out of his endless journey.

The Other Side of the Sexual Revolution: Sex, Violence, and History in Michel Houellebecq’s “The Elementary Particles”


In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud asks his readers to think about the relationship of two drives that are completely opposed: Eros (life) and Thanatos (death).   When one thinks of death one does not think of sexuality and vice versa. To be sure, the act of thinking sexuality in terms of violence is disturbing. The coinciding of the two contradicts the culture we live in and its celebration of consensual sexuality. And it suggests a type of sexuality that is forced or, on the other hand, masochism or sadism.   Just like Freud in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, we resist the thought because it is hard for us to understand how anyone can derive pleasure from pain. This phenomenon must be “beyond” the Pleasure Principle (which is based on the avoidance of pain and the maximization of pleasure).   However, Freud’s most important insight, in Civilization and its Discontents, is that even though we don’t want to think about such things, the era we live in forces us to give this relationship some thought.   History, Freud muses, can change how we experience the relationship of sex to violence.   War and revolution make things possible that, in the past, were not.

We live in a different era. Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontents in the wake of World War I and amidst new, dawning awareness of sexuality in Europe (which he helped to spur).   I was born in the wake of a number of different revolutions in the 1960s.   One of the legacies I received from my parents’ generation was the power of peace and love to overcome any obstacle. The slogan, “Make Love Not War,” comes to mind. The 60s also opened us up to political movements that supported gay rights and celebrated all forms of sexuality. But what I seldom heard about was one of the darkest legacies of the sexual revolution and the sixties generation: its experimentation with sex and violence. And I’m not just talking about masochism or sadism but something more disturbing.

French writers, poets, and artists are familiar with the topic of sex and violence.   Read a random passage from Marquis deSade, Charles Baudelaire, or Jean Genet and one will likely come across a reflection on this theme. Michel Houellebecq can be added to this list. In the work of the above-mentioned writers there is a literary, philosophical, and psychological reflection on sex and violence, but in Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, there is more of a focus on how an era may have affected the relationship of sex to violence. It opens up possibilities that, before then, didn’t exist.

Bruno, one of the main characters of the novel, is directly implicated by both legacies. His mother was involved in a cult that spread from France to California (and vice versa).   He and his brother Michel had the same mother and father but, since she left for California (only to return later in her life), they were raised by different relatives (Bruno was raised by the grandmother while Michel was raised by the father).   While Bruno is oversexed, Michel is not.   Bruno is in seek of truth and meaning by way of sexuality while Michel is interested in science. He has no interest in the truths that may be discovered by way of sex or love; Michel wants knowledge. These are two differing responses to their mother’s – and their era’s – aberrant and free flowing sexuality.   But there is another dimension to the sexual revolution that the narrator of the novel foreshadows earlier in the book: the violent one.

Throughout the novel, we see that Bruno is sexually frustrated in his middle-age. He is perverted and seems unable to go beyond fantasizing and masturbating. However, near the end of the novel, Bruno meets a middle-aged woman (Christine) who, like himself, loves sex and finds meaning through sex. Regardless, the narrator tells us that the meaning of sexuality must compete with Bruno’s cynicism.

Over the years he had developed a cynical, hard-bitten, typically masculine view of life. The universe was a battle zone, teeming and bestial, the whole thing enclosed within a hard, fixed landscape – clearly perceptible, but inaccessible: the landscape of the moral law. It was written, however, that love contains and perfects this law.   (170)

But there is a twist. This reflection on cynicism emerges out of a reflection on an era. When Bruno discovers that Christine was also exposed to the cult, they discuss the last days of the cult. When the leader of the cult, David Di Meola is near death, Christine’s parents have her visit him:

My idiotic parents were part of the same liberal, vaguely beatnik movement as your mom was in the last fifties. They probably knew each other.   I have nothing but contempt for them, in fact I hate them. They’re evil – everything they’ve done is evil, and believe me I know what I’m talking about…Two weeks after I got there, he took poison, something mild that took hours to work, and than asked to see everyone on the estate one by one….When my turn came (to see the dying cult leader) I was very moved, but he asked me to unbutton my blouse. He looked at my breasts and he tried to say something I couldn’t make out…Suddenly he reached up to touch my breasts. But I didn’t stop him…the only thing I could see in his eyes was fear. (169)

Christine goes on to note how, David Di Meola – the son of the sexual cult leader -burnt the body of his father after he dies. Her recollection of the experience is hard to read.   She notes how “everyone starts to dance” around the burning body and “everyone took off their clothes”(169).   Christine tries to run off from this mad sexual scene of celebrating death but is taken by the shoulders and dragged back to the fire to look at “what was left of the body”(170).

In response to hearing this, we learn that Bruno is fascinated with what happened to David Di Meola. For four pages, he discusses the “trial in Los Angeles” of Di Meola who had become a Satanist, was involved in countless violent acts of sexuality and murder, and had created violent home videos recording his violence:

The video showed to the jury was of the ordeal of an old woman, Mary McNallahan, with her granddaughter, an infant. Di Meola dismembered the baby in front of the grandmother with a pair of clippers, than ripped out of one of the woman’s eyes with his fingers and masturbated into the bleeding socket. He had a remote control camera in his other hand and used it to zoom right in on her face. (170-71)

Bruno then cites a book entitled From Lust to Murder: A Generation, to illustrate the new historical possibilities that were opened up by David Di Meola’s violent sexuality.   The book notes how David Di Meola, a rock musician, had taken after Mick Jagger and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones (171).   He was a part of a larger historical trend – that grew amidst war and the sexual revolution – that was looking to experiment with violence and sexuality:

Jagger was the biggest rock star in the world: rich, adored, cynical – he was everything David longed to be. To be seductive, he had to personify evil, to be its perfect embodiment – and what the masses adored above everything was the image of evil unpunished. (171)

The book (within a book) discusses how Brian “knew” that Mick Jagger “sacrificed” (murdered) Brian Jones in order to lead the band: “David was convinced that man’s greatest achievements were based on murder, and by the end of 1976 he was ready to push as many people as he had to into swimming pools as he could find in order to succeed”(171).

We also learn that David became a Satanist, experimented with sex, violence, and murder, and met with Charles Manson. He “sought” Satanic cults out. After discussing “abortion parties,” in which the people at the party would eat a “ground up fetus,” the narrator describes the Satanists as “pure materialists.”   At a certain point, they leave Satanism and its symbols behind for the act of evil itself.

Like him, they were pure materialists who quickly abandoned all the ritualistic kitsch of pentagrams, candles and long black robes, trappings which were mostly there to help initiates to overcome their moral inhibitions. (172)

It is this violent “pure materialism” that the narrator tries to situate in a historical context.

Like their master the Marquis de Sade, they were pure materialists – libertines forever in search of new and more violent sensations.   According to Macmillan (the author of the book), the progressive destruction of moral values in the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties was a logical, inevitable process. Having exhausted the possibilities of sexual pleasure, it was reasonable that individuals, liberated from the ordinary constraints of ordinary morality, should turn their attentions to the wider pleasures of cruelty. (174)

He concludes that “actionists, beatniks, hippies, and serial killers were all pure libertarians who affirmed the rights of the individual against social norms and against what they believed was the hypocrisy of morality, sentiment, justice and pity”(175). With this in mind, Bruno cynically notes that “Charles Manson was not some monstrous aberration in the hippie movement, but its logical conclusion; and what David di Meola had done was nothing more than to extend and put into practice the principles of individual freedom advocated by his father”(175)

The narrator tells us that Christine had “listened closely” to Bruno’s reading of history and the legacy of the sixties generation.   Her “silence,” however, “was pained.” And the reader can only assume that it was pained because it hit something deep inside her that she knew was painful…but true. The last words of the chapter tell us the decision that she and Bruno are now making. They are not taking on the legacy of the 60s and its “pure-materialism” which came to its “logical conclusion” in Charles Manson and David de Meola: “It was time to return to simple pleasures”(176).

While Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents should prompt us to think about the relationship of sexuality to violence, Houllebecq’s Elementary Particles should spur us to think about what historically has become possible vis-à-vis the confluence of sexuality, violence, materialism, and freedom.   It also prompts us to think about whether we, like Christine and Bruno, should “return to the simple pleasures” or whether we will be condemned to repeat the same conclusions. Moreover, what is implied by such a turn? Is it spiritual or cautionary? Is it done out of exhaustion or insight? What is at stake?

A Priest and a Schlemiel Get on the Slowpoke Express: On Sholem Aleichem’s “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah”


In the United States and Europe, the advent of the train and long distance travel prompted many artists, storytellers, and thinkers to turn the train into a metaphor.   Sometimes the images are exciting and feed utopian visions and cause happiness, other times they feed sadness at the loss of what was and cynicism. Think for instance of Freud who, in Civilization and its Discontents, writes the following:

If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home, and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing the mortality of children, when it is precisely this reduction which imposes the greatest moderation on us in begetting them, so that taken all round we do not rear more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for sexual life in marriage and probably counteracted the beneficial effects of natural selection? And what do we gain by a long life when it is full of hardship and starved of joys and so wretched that we can only welcome death as our deliverer?

On the other hand, one of the most celebrated images of trains in the early 20th century can be found in Buster Keaton’s film The Goat (1921) where he escapes the police by way of unhitching a train and drifting away.

The train can be the schlemiel’s best friend. Ten years before Buster Keaton put out his film, Sholem Aleichem put out the Railroad Stories (1911). In his story, “The Miracle of Hoshana Rabbah,” the main character, a schlemiel named Berl Vinegar – much like Buster Keaton – averts a disaster by way of a train. But he doesn’t do so by way of his will so much as by virtue of…chance.

Sholem Aleichem prefaces this story with a chapter entitled “The Slowpoke Express.”   This train, Aleichem tells us, is built for the type of speed that Eastern European Jews (before the Holocaust) or rather schlemiels like to travel into modernity – slowly.

Would you like to know what the best train of all is? The best, the quietist, the most restful?

It’s the Slowpoke Express. (Tevye the Dairyman and Railroad Stories, 184)

Like Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd and Sendrl, the train doesn’t often reach its destination and is never on time. It’s a schlemiel-train:

The Slowpoke Express is no ordinary train. In the first place, you needn’t ever worry about missing it: whenever you arrive at the station, its still there….I’ve been riding the Slowpoke Express for several weeks now, and I’m still practically in the same place. I tell you, it’s magic! Don’t think I’m complaining, either. (184)

Regarding this train, the Jews in the town (the Bohopolians, Aleichem calls them) feel that the train is so much better than other trains because “there’s no danger of the accidents that occur on other lines. The slower the safer, they say”(185).

Playing on this claim, Aleichem, the narrator, makes his own. Namely, that he has it, “on good faith,” that “the Slowpoke was indeed involved in an accident, a veritable catastrophe that sowed panic up and down the line and set the who district by the ears.   The incident was caused by a Jew and – of all people – a Russian priest”(186).

Aleichem tells us that the “great train accident” happened on Hoshana Rabbah.   The holiday marks the end of a span of time in which the Jewish people can plea for a good new year (which spans Rosh Ha’shanna – the Jewish New Year – Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – and Sukkoth – the festival of the tabernacles). On Hoshanna Rabba one puts in one’s final kvitel (a final, personal note to God for mercy and a good year).

Aleichem tells us that after praying at synagogue and putting in his kvitel, “a Jew” went to stand by an “unchained locomotive.” He was simply curious and wanted to see if anyone would go to the Slowpoke Express that morning. But, what, the narrator wonders, does he expect to see?

Just what does he hope to see that’s so exciting – another Jew like himself from Teplik? Or a Jewess from Obodivke? Or a priest from Golovonyevsk? Jewish pleasures! But it was the custom to go, and go this Jew did. And in those days, don’t you know. The railroad was new; we weren’t used to the Slowpoke yet and were were still curious about it. (188)

At the station, the Jew runs into a “Russian priest from Golonovnyevsk.”   The priest insults the Jew by calling him “Yudko” and asking him what he’s looking at. The Jew “retorts angrily” and tells him that his name is Yudko, its Berko (a nickname).

This comical exchange leads to the topic of how a train works. Since “Berko” is a schlemiel of the luftmensch variety (he makes a sells vinegar but has no formal education) he acts “as if” he knows how the train works (because, after all, he knows how to make vinegar).   The priest insults Berko again and says that he doesn’t know anything about the train. He forgets the Jews name again, but Berko reminds him and this prompts him to be more bold in his assertion of knowledge.

Berko then proceeds to get on to the train with the priest and show him that he knows what he’s talking about.   After tinkering with a few switches, the train starts moving. The schlemiel, excited, thinks he has pulled one over on the Priest. Meanwhile, the onlookers are astonished that the Slowpoke Express is actually moving:

I hardly need to tell you what pandemonium broke out among the passengers in Sobolivke station when they saw the uncoupled locomotive mysteriously take off on its own. (189)

The whole won panics. Meanwhile, the Priest and Berko (“Berl Vinegar”) realize that Berko doesn’t know how to operate the train and can’t stop it from hurtling itself to disaster.

To bring out the difference between perspectives as a topic in the story, Aleichem notes how the people imagine the worst and make up stories about its disaster or what was going on inside of it…while it was still traveling along the tracks!

That’s when the real shindig started. What could be the meaning of it? A Jew and a priest in a runaway locomotive? Where were they running away to? And why? And who could the Jew be? (191)

When they learn that it is Berl in the train, they take the schlemiel for a shlimazel and see a tragic rather than a comic ending. However, what happens flips their tragic expectations on its head.

As they near their impending death, an argument between the Priest and Berl over death and judgment.   Berl has the last word by arguing that on Hohsana Rabbah he accepts whatever God decides.   He prays for the best to happen but…it may not happen if God so decides.

After saying this, a miracle happens: the train runs out of steam.

Berl takes this miracle as a lesson about man: “If he doesn’t get anything to eat…” he “runs out of steam and kaput”(194).   But that seems to be the wrong lesson. If the train didn’t run out of steam the schlemiel and the priest would be dead.   His insight may be off, but it shows us what matters.

The schlemiel’s happiness is contingent on chance; and more often than not, he averts disaster and gets lucky.   And like many a schlemiel, Berl got himself into this mess by thinking that he knew better.   Even so, since he is a good, simple soul, who lives a life based on chance, he survived.     But the real issue is the outcome. The people expected a disaster and the priest looked down on the Jew and his lack of intelligence. In the end, goodness and not negativity and tragedy win.

On this note, Aleichem tricked his reader by announcing – at the outset of the story – that there was a train disaster. He lied because he knows that people are more naturally interested in tragedy than comedy.   The point, for Aleichem, is not to increase our natural cynicism but to challenge it. That way, we can experience the wonder of possibility.   In any situation, something good can always happen and that, in a world full of tragedy (remember Aleichem was writing when the Pogroms were in full swing and Jews were fleeing Eastern Europe for America and other destinations), its harder to entertain this possibility since its not the way of things. Nonetheless, that’s were salvation (hoshana) comes in.   For Aleichem, it’s “Jewish” to believe that good things can happen…despite the fact that reality – like a predator – looks back at you with contempt.

Lest we not forget, all of this happens on a train, on the Slow Poke express.  The irony is that schlemiel – and not a well-trained conductor – gets the train going.  Perhaps that’s what Aleichem dreamed of…a schlemiel at the head of the train. But that dream, it seems, can only come true in fiction….unless we are schlemiels like Berl. If so, perhaps we also get lucky because…the train is speeding fast into the future and it doesn’t seem like it will lose steam. A schlemiel can’t stop the train.   Perhaps, nothing short of a miracle can save us from crashing.  But why imagine the worst? That’s too easy.

Cynical, Middle-Aged, Oversexed, and Alone After the Sexual Revolution: On Michel Houellebecq’s “The Elementary Particles” – Part II


I love seeing new faces whether they are real or, as in reading a novel, virtual. What interests me most – in both reading faces and reading literature – is when glances are exchanged. When someone or something looks at you how do you look back? And what happens when the person you’re looking at, as in a dream, seems a lot like you and yet a lot different?  Do you confront the gaze or do you walk away in fear?

Reading Michel Houellebeq’s Elementary Particles, I feel as if the book is looking back at me like a strange animal. I partially identify with this or that aspect of the two main characters Bruno (a middle aged retired French literature teacher) and Michel, his brother (a middle aged microbiologist). The two characters are so different from each other and from me.   However, there are things that I identify with such as: the crisis of identity that comes with growing older, with the aging body, with the changing attitudes toward sexuality, and with the meaning of life in the face of death and decay.

Although there are many points of identification, Houellebecq prompts his reader to draw the line with sexuality and perversion. This technique creates a complicated identification with the character which echoes, in many ways, what we see in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.   I contend that we draw the line through reading the text in a way that at one and the same emphathizes with the character and is repulsed by it.

Houllebecq is a lot like Charles Baudelaire, who, in 1848 wrote in his journal that “when I have inspired universal horror and disgust (through poetry and fiction), I will have conquered solitude.”     By experiencing disgust at Bruno’s sexual frustration and desperation, Houllebecq is not simply “conquering solitude,” he is also creating solitude for his reader since, by moving away from the character, the reader has a deeper sense of difference and solitude.  He or she becomes – like an elementary particle – atomized.

For this reason, Houellebecq explicitly notes how Bruno, who is looking to have sex with younger women, is surrounded – in the refuge for those in search of enlightenment and sex, the Lieu du Changement – by other 40 year olds. This frustrates him to no end because it painfully reminds him that he is alone and desperate like the others. They have too much in common!

Many of the people who went to the Lieu du Changement were, like Bruno, over forty, and many, also like him, worked in the public sector or in education and were safeguarded from poverty by their status as civil servants.   Most of them would have put themselves on the political left; most of them lived alone, usually as the result of divorce. He was, therefore, a pretty typical visitor.   (106)

The narrator tells us that he was so frustrated with actually meeting a younger woman and having sex with her (after all, he is, as I noted elsewhere, a pervert) that he gives up on his fantasies and accepts these older women.

After a few days he noticed that he felt somewhat less bad than usual. The women were tolerable at breakfast but by cocktail hour the mystical tarts were hopelessly vying with younger women once again. Death is the great leveler. (106)

After accepting his mortality in such a crude manner, he meets “Catherine, a fifty year old who had been a feminist of the old school. She was tanned, with dark, curly hair; she must have been very attractive when she was twenty”(106). While she is talking about “Egyptian symbolism” to someone, “Bruno lowered his boxer shorts; he decided she probably wouldn’t be offended by his erection and that they might become friends”(107).   This ridiculous fantasy is comically shattered when he realizes that “unfortunately, the erection didn’t appear.” And, to make things worse, the narrator adds insult to injury by noting her body’s response to his: “She had rolls of fat between her thighs, which remained closed. They parted on less than friendly terms”(106).

Following this embarrassing moment, things only seem to get worse for Bruno. We can have no doubt that Houellebecq brings one mad event after another upon Bruno because he, like Baudelaire, is trying to inspire “universal horror and disgust.” And this preponderance drives us to feel compassion and repulsion at Bruno’s situation and character.

In the midst of his sexual frustration and existential alienation, Bruno meets “Pierre-Louis…a math teacher.” Pierre-Louis is awkward looking: he “usually wore a sun hat. He was at least six foot four and skinny, but he had a bit of a paunch and made a curious sight walking along the diving board with his fat little belly. He was probably about forty-five”(107). Pierre-Louis has a corny sense of humor and many people feel sorry for him. He is a worse wreck than Bruno, who wants to stay away from him: “In the days that followed, Bruno had managed to avoid him on several occasions” (107).

But at a certain point the two end up sitting at the same table. Bruno’s irritation at this proximity, as described by the narrator, is meant to prompt the reader to feel repulsion of Pierre-Louis’s character. The narrator conveys the experience of shock (not the character) at seeing Pierre come out of the fray to sit with Bruno. And this creates an odd kind of (mis)identification with the reader:

Pierre-Louis appeared at the far end of the row of tables; he beamed when he noticed a vacant chair opposite Bruno. He had been talking for some time before Bruno noticed, partly because he had a rather bad stammer, and partly because of the shrill nattering of imbeciles next to them…The meal was beginning to get on his (Bruno’s) nerves; he got up to go out for a cigarette. Unfortunately, at precisely that moment the symbolists (a mocking expression for the people talking about Egyptian symbolism) left, hips swinging, without so much as a glance in their direction. This probably is what triggered the incident. (107)

When the narrator writes, “the incident,” the reader, as in a reader of horror, understands that something traumatic is about to be disclosed. And it does.

The narrator tells us that Pierre-Louis, now alone on the table with Bruno, has a mental breakdown:

Pierre-Louis was red-faced, his fists balled; from a standing start, he leapt onto the table with both feet. He took a deep breath and the wheezing from his chest stopped. He started to pace up and down the table, thumping himself on the head with his fist as the glasses and plates danced around him. He kicked out at everything with reach screaming, “You can’t do this! You can’t treat me like this!” For once he didn’t stutter. It took five people to calm him down. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the hospital…that evening. (108)

It is in the wake of this breakdown that Bruno starts his descent into nothingness. This is all the more powerful because Pierre-Louis speaks some kind of truth to Bruno; he is, in many ways, his double. But now he is gone. What will happen to Bruno? Will he also go mad?

The narrator recounts the internal battle Bruno has with himself with respect to why he went to the retreat and how unsuccessful he has been. His fantasy, it seems, has been smashed.

The circumstances were very different now: he had chosen to come to the Lieu; chosen to take part in its activities…All around him human beings were living, breathing, striving for pleasure or trying to develop their personal potential. On every floor, human beings were improving, or trying to improve. (108)

The implication of these words is that Bruno has chosen to go there but he is alone; he doesn’t feel like they do, he isn’t striving to become better. And instead of making him angry, this reflection only makes him “sleepy”(108). The narrator tells us why this thought has exhausted Bruno; but, according to the narrator, Bruno’s alienation brought him a kind of happiness.

He had stopped wishing, he had stopped wanting, he was nowhere. Slowly, by degrees, his spirit filled to state of nothingness, the sheer joy that comes of not being part of the world. For the first time since he was thirteen, Bruno was almost happy. (109).

“Almost” is the operative word. The next day Bruno awakes a feels sexual frustration once again. His separation from the world, as a separation from the opposite sex, makes him feel horrible.   It makes him more cynical and misanthropic.

The gaze that looks back at the reader is one that comes from “the incident” and Bruno’s frustration prompts the reader to feel empathy and repulsion by Bruno’s experiences of someone else’s mental breakdown and his unbearable situation.

Houllebecq wants us to ask ourselves how we should respond to the gaze of the text. He prompts his reader to think in doubles and by way of possibilities. If Bruno were, like his brother, the microbiologist (Michel), would he able to separate from the world and study it on a scientific level? Would Bruno, if he were like Michel, suffer? These questions are challenged at the end of the novel when Michel watches a woman he had known since childhood and had met again later in life goes through a horrible experience.  Although he doesn’t totally understand love, he agrees to live with her and have a child with her.  But the child miscarries and, as a result of the attempt, she dies.  He ends up intimately experiencing the suffering and death of someone close and, for the first time, starts to experience emotions.

Bruno seemingly has a better end. After being brought to the edge of self-destruction (because of sexual frustration), Bruno is saved by Catherine who, as we saw above, was turned off when he flashed her.     They end up becoming sexual intimate and Bruno becomes less and less frustrated.

However, Houellebecq, like Baudelaire, usually gives cynicism the last word. For this reason, Houellebecq also has Bruno suffer in the end.  We bare witness to Bruno as he learns, watches, and experiences Catherine’s death after he decides – with her – that they should move in together and start a new life.

Both Bruno and Michel had an opportunity to start a new, different life. But in the end they are both robbed not just of women they loved (or tried to love) but of the world. And it is this loss that Hollebecq amplifies throughout the novel by way of his crude descriptions of aging, sexuality, failure, and frustration.   In the end, all the characters are unhappy and in pain.

The gaze that looks back at us in Elementary Particles is that of a dog.   It is the gaze of cynicism. And it has weight. The question we need to ask ourselves is…how do we look back?  Like these characters, the reader looks back at the text and feels as if s/he has, in its gaze, become….atomized.