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

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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”

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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

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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.