Review of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas
America was once seduced by a violent, charming, but ultimately insane egotist with a distinctive mustache, a superiority complex, and a penchant for unabashed cruelty. Captivated by his mercurial flashes of comedy and brutal passion, and by the verve with which he quoted Italian, Americans were of two minds about his unapologetic domination of weaker, yet more moral, men; but his final undoing was brought on him, unexpectedly, by the woman we knew as his sister.
The systematic genius of Krasznahorkai’s Satantango
by Dan Bevacqua
Twenty-seven years after it was first published in his native Hungary, László Krasznahorkai’s debut novel, Satantango, has materialized in America. Published by New Directions, it is the third of Krasznahorkai’s works to be translated into English by George Szirtes, Hungarian-born poet and winner of, among other honors, the T.S. Eliot Prize in Poetry for his book Reel. (Szirtes’ work deserves more than a nod; it is a terribly skilled and patient man who can translate, as he did with Krasznahorkai’s novel War and War, a seven-page-long sentence motored by madness without missing a single rhythm, beat, or complex plot point.)
Set in an unnamed Hungarian village, Satantango is the story of an almost forgotten group of people, forgotten to themselves, to one another, and to the world, who wait — fighting, and dancing, and drinking, and dreaming, and trying to get it on all the while — for a pair of saviors to rescue them from the misery of their lives. Imagine if, instead of waiting on Godot, Vladimir and Estragon were themselves a reckless, absent, and know-it-all God? How hard up and bad off would the poor bastards waiting for them have to be?
Pretty hard up and bad off, as it turns out. The citizens that populate Satantango are some of the most miserable characters in literature. They make Thomas Bernhard’s monologists (to whom Satantango’s narrative point of view eventually owes a great debt) seem as sentimental as they truly are. By this reviewer’s count, there are only two moments of actual kindness in the book. In one, a bar owner cleans the mud off a drunk cripple. In the other, a boy teaches his mentally retarded sister the best way to commit suicide. (She thinks of it as a type of favor.)
In Satantango, sex is a meaningless act, except as a way to make money or cure boredom. Teenage girls turn tricks in an abandoned factory. A certain Mrs. Schmidt (her beauty, in a wonderful way, matched only by her girth) sleeps with every man in town but, so it would seem, her husband. Furthermore, everyone despises everyone — and with good reason. Every single character in Satantango, in their own way, is trying to cheat, betray, wound, destroy, or escape the other. All this drama is set inside a rain-pelted, fog-swallowed, dark and crumbling village, where, as the image of the once impregnable, now decayed estate at its edge suggests, the words comrade and serf are all but interchangeable, and as equally dehumanizing and ridiculous.
While the ghosts of feudalism and a dying communism linger and affect the characters in Satantango, Krasznahorkai is not merely interested in how the Hungarian psyche suffered under failed sociopolitical systems. He is more interested in the illness of the human individual inside all systems, and the visions we experience and delusions we create in order to “attempt to forget despair.” Krasznahorkai’s mastery of structure, character, and language is matched by his ability to simultaneously weave all three together; readers can feel themselves physiologically immersed in the world of the book, itself a finely orchestrated system.
In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, women are nowhere and everywhere
A tea-soaked palette floods recession London. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, we see the khaki styles and filing boxes of an empire packing itself away. Director Tomas Alfredson, known best for his gentle adolescent vampire tale (Let the Right One In, 2008), stays orthodox to neither John le Carré’s text nor the sonorous lurch of the film’s TV predecessor. Alfredson instead stacks rapid visual clues, beginning with a title sequence of offbeat jazz to underpin chain-smoking functionaries. With its singsong suspense among the classified stacks, Tinker has a bureaucratic bebop. Alfredson, a Swede, in an admitted second-language evasion, storyboards with the comic-book cuts of a kid who ran straight past the Oxford Classics to Tin Tin.
In Tinker, the Cold War strikes soothing, senile hues: mint, rose, brown. Le Carré’s MI6, dubbed “the Circus,” stands in brick and imperial ivory, its ponds marred by dead leaves. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, born 1971, resurrects 1973 through a dusky haze of cigarette smoke and locker-room steam. Despite a lively pace, weary tones pervade. Wiretappers huddle under red-veined ecru maps. Even bleak Soviet torture is conducted in a pastel room where a bun-haired monitor crisply folds her newspaper. As Václav Havel said when asked to recall the 1970s on the other side of the Curtain, “The first half of the decade is a single, shapeless fog.”
Tinker’s plot turns on the search for a KGB mole, but le Carré’s story really invokes dying glory — specifically, the duty and defeat of a Blitz-battered old guard under amoral new management. Gary Oldman’s George Smiley, the cast-off spy brought back to investigate a possible sleeper agent, is accordingly reduced and ruminative. We see him don oversize frames that highlight under-eye bags and jowls. He is a disheveled pensioner on an empty bed whose emotional range peaks at silent gagging.
Compare this to television’s Smiley: an arch Alec Guinness, playing the entire scale of upper-crust talk with a percussive lilt. Directed by John Irvin, the 1979 BBC serialization of Tinker suited only the ascetic. Viewers had to commit to six claustrophobic hours of calculated old-man maneuvers in thickly wallpapered rooms. The matryoshka doll of the series’ title sequence, nesting and revealing, indicated its nature: cramped but analytically gratifying in the extreme. The late Ian Richardson did “dandy in aspic” Bill Haydon best here: haughty, sniveling, and slim. (Colin Firth’s version in the new film swaggers out of turn.) BBC screenwriter Arthur Hopcraft ensured the old Smiley had a tense and inquisitive agency. Oldman — working with the redacted language of writers Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan — seems stunned silent by comparison, if touchingly so. He matches Guinness’ musicality only when describing an encounter with Soviet arch-nemesis Karla. Both actors convey Smiley’s dignity, but only Guinness gave him carriage.
The genius of the Smiley character is in his sublimation. Though under acute suspicion, Smiley is no Condor on the run. Nor, thankfully, is he an avenging “codger with cudgel,” avoiding spy actor Michael Caine’s reactionary turn to raging Harry Brown (2009). Smiley is too discreet for blood — at least among his own. Forgiven his vocation, Smiley would be the witness archetype at its moral best. A custodian of unspoken codes forged in wartime, spent Smiley watches former British knights-errant be bought off by the highest bidder. Tinker thus marks the point when the rational neoliberal approach to intelligence collection ousted the honor-bound gentlemanly spy culture of the Second World War.
Erotic capital doesn’t set us free. It yokes women’s careers to the whims of men
Before I actually read Erotic Capital, sociologist Catherine Hakim’s treatise on how women should flex their powers of sexual allure in the workplace, I wanted to like it. As Hakim presents it, erotic capital is a combination of physical assets (beauty, style) and know-how (liveliness, charisma, social skills) that can make those around you want to help you succeed.
Who can argue with that? I cheer a vivacious, charming acquaintance who thrives in her career because she strives to make her workplace convivial; I recall repeatedly going out of my way to help out a strikingly handsome colleague who always smiled at me in the hallways, even though I wasn’t particularly attracted to him. Even as a “radical feminist” — the sort of person Hakim blames for limiting women’s sexual power in the workplace — I’ve used erotic capital. When I was teaching English as a second language, I suspected that being a well-groomed, friendly, lively American woman helped me keep students’ attention.
In fact, it was because of my feminism that I wanted to like Erotic Capital: Whether from nature or nurture, women have traditionally excelled at “soft skills” like taking the emotional temperature of others, listening, adjusting one’s behavior to any given situation, and cooperating. These all happen to be skills that, until fairly recently, have been undercompensated in the workplace. In Hakim’s book I anticipated a deftly written argument that would reclaim the value of women’s work so that maybe we’d eventually start paying people in the professions that make use of those skills — say, teaching and nursing — their true value.
That’s the book I wanted to read. The book I actually read was more like this: Men supposedly have higher sex drives than women, creating a “male sex deficit,” which means men are always in a state of wanting more of what women supply. (Hakim has some convoluted theories about gay men and lesbians, but the book assumes people with actual power are heterosexual.) So women who are willing to address that deficit, by either having actual sex with men suffering from it or presenting themselves in an enchanting manner to exploit it, have erotic capital that can be traded for other forms of capital.
Erotic capital has many guises: from “trophy wives” whose skilled self-presentation becomes a part of a man’s public persona, to men or women who style themselves in such a way as to garner attention at their workplace, to women with otherwise limited means who sell their erotic capacity (whether forthrightly, as with sex workers and performers, or more covertly, as with sales jobs) to establish themselves. It’s “sell yourself” meets “sex sells.” What’s most surprising about all this is that Hakim seems to think she’s saying something new.
Georges Simenon’s The President shows how history swallows its agents
by Rob Horning
With its focus on a destabilized European government, currency manipulation, and the frailty of technocracy, Georges Simenon’s novella The President seems a surprisingly timely book, especially considering it was originally published more than 50 years ago. The scene in which Simenon describes various ministers meeting at a country retreat to decide the fate of the franc in the midst of a financial crisis could easily be taken for a fictionalized rendering of any number of the E.U.’s serial efforts to save to the euro. “After the disastrous experiments made by previous governments, which had lived from day to day, robbing Peter to pay Paul, the only solution was a large-scale devaluation…”
But the novella also explores the timeless theme of the pettiness engendered by power and the cumulative personal sacrifices it necessarily compels. Simenon, whose attitude toward writing was something like ordinary people’s attitude toward breathing, seems to have known something about pettiness and certainly about compulsion. In a 2007 Bookforum profile, Luc Sante summarizes some of the highlights of Simenon’s prolific career: his anti-Semitic journalism, his boasting about sleeping with thousands of prostitutes, his becoming a collaborator during the Vichy regime, his ego-driven feuds with publishing houses, and so on. Sante suggests Simenon was one of those writers “whose finer qualities have been siphoned off into their books,” which means, considering the hundreds of novels he wrote, he might have been an extraordinarily fine man.
Simenon is mainly remembered for his series of detective novels featuring Inspector Maigret, but he also wrote scores of other books, his so-called roman dors (hard novels), uncompromising examinations of human moral weakness. Reissued in November by Melville House as part of its Neversink Library series of overlooked works, The President is one of these. It ushers readers into the mind of a retired politician, referred to only as the Premier, who believes he has accumulated enough blackmail material on his colleagues during his time in government to assure that he will be a power player until his death. Hobbled by a stroke and sidelined in a provincial town, the Premier — a character Simenon based on Georges Clemenceau, France’s Prime Minster during World War I who survived an assassination attempt in 1919 — spends his days surly and half-sedated, fretting impotently about his legacy. The action, such as it is in this glacially paced novella, takes place entirely in the Premier’s desiccated interior world, as he waits to be consulted about the formation of a new Cabinet and mulls over the various shifts he employs to uphold his dignity among his retinue of servants.
Of course, those helpers, who have been hired by the state to provide him material and emotional support, are also spying on him, rooting through his books and collected papers and photographing the incriminating documents he cherishes. We learn that the Premier’s sense of embattled privacy, so intrinsic to his own conception of his identity, is entirely an illusion, stage-managed by his servants and the protection agency responsible for guarding him. His apparent status of national figurehead emeritus merely masks his true condition, that of a political prisoner under house arrest.
Violence, idleness, and nihilism in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84
Clocking in at just short of a thousand pages, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is the author’s ostensible pitch for the Nobel Prize and what many expect will stand as his magnum opus. Published in Japan in three installments beginning in 2009, the novel was released in North America in a single volume this past October.
True to form, Murakami sprinkles artificial flavoring from the likes of Franz Kafka and Raymond Chandler throughout, and begins the novel with a tribute to another of his great influences, Lewis Carroll. In 1Q84, Murakami’s Alice is an assassin named Aomame; a stairway off a congested Tokyo expressway takes the place of the rabbit hole; and Wonderland is not a strange and amazing place but an eminently similar-but-different universe called 1Q84. The novel is set in 1984, and after her decent down the staircase, Aomame’s world mysteriously and — at first imperceptibly — shifts.
Violence appears in much of Murakami’s prior work. It is impossible to forget, for instance, a haunting passage in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle describing the meticulous skinning of a man’s entire body. While perhaps excessively explicit, it stands alongside Dostoyevsky’s most poignant illustrations of human cruelty and vileness. However much the theme of violence may have been explored in his earlier work, in 1Q84 — and unlike in any of Murakami’s other work — violence is the constitutive element at the novel’s core. Violence manifests itself, or else lies in wait, at every turn of the page.
In 1Q84’s dystopia, the exterior world is not a complex multifaceted otherness but instead simply a bad and nasty place, the habitat of violence. Consequently, Murakami’s characters are faced with a limited set of responses. The first and most obvious is to fight back, battle with that exterior world with violence of their own to overcome it. In 1Q84, this strategy is epitomized by Aomame, who assassinates domestic abusers with the help of “the dowager,” her ethereal partner in crime. But this approach has obvious moral hazards. Doesn’t violence breed violence, even when deployed for laudable ends and in homeopathic doses?
Murakami himself seems ill at ease with this solution and proposes a second option for dealing with an inherently violent world: idleness. Like Bird, who spends days at the bottom of a dried-up well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Kafka, who spends weeks alone in a secluded cabin in Kafka on the Shore, many of 1Q84’s characters spend a lot of time not doing much. Aomame may well be forced into hiding, but it remains that she spends nearly the entire third book following a daily regimen of exercise, looking down from her balcony, looking up into the sky, and reading (Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, no less). The novel’s other primary character, Tengo, for his part, does little more than read, write, wait for the phone to ring, go to work, and visit his comatose father — no surprise here — at a sanatorium.
Cruel Optimism at the beginning of the end.
By Jenna Brager
Lauren Berlant wants you to break your New Year’s resolutions. Or at least she wholly understands your impending failure to keep them. So go ahead, smoke another cigarette. Smoke whatever you can find. Down a few more 100-calorie snack packs. Eat a whole goddamn box of 100-calorie snack packs. Fuck 100-calorie snack packs, find some actual cookies and eat all of them. Eat whatever you can find. Don’t give up caffeine. Don’t work harder. Slack off. Don’t get a promotion. Keep drinking. Drink more. Ignore your new gym membership. Pick up new bad habits. Hone your bad habits into an art form. Master the art of sustaining your bad habits, because your bad habits are what sustain you.
After all, bad habits are lifesavers we cling to in the face of the fraying and always already toxic “good-life fantasies” we wallow in, in the face of becoming totally unmoored. Are you really that guilty about your guilty pleasures? What exactly were you hoping for anyway?
In her new book Cruel Optimism, University of Chicago English professor Lauren Berlant describes the titular phrase as “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” We cling to the fantasy that “this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way.” This time she’ll really love you. This time you’ll lose the weight. This time you’ll make enough money. This time the candidate’s promises will last after election night. This time the mission will really be accomplished. This time, you will be happy. Except, you know, you won’t. At least not for long.
Happy fucking New Year.
A Dangerous Method taps the allure of sexual dysfunction
David Cronenberg’s new film A Dangerous Method opens with the ominous notes of a cello, that, leading out of the opening credits, give way to a horn and string crescendo and the disturbing first scene: Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) arrives screaming, restrained by men, in a black carriage drawn by black horses, at the Burgholzli Clinic. And as our stomachs vibrate from the bass and the violence of the scene just past, a calm Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) greets his new patient in a beige paneled room with dark parquet floors and bounced light. This is Zurich. It is 1904. Sabina suffers from mental hysteria (with spontaneous orgasms provoked by humiliation), and she and Jung eventually begin a sexual relationship.
In these early meetings between Jung and Spielrein, conversation occurs in total silence — that is, without any background atmospheric noise. No cricket or ticking clock gives the stillness form. This is a pure and unnerving silence. Chirping birds add texture to the air, without which the infinity of time and space weighs down upon you so that it is unthinkable to sleep without the whir of a fan. Hyperconsciousness promotes a focus of such stimulating intensity, it quickly becomes erotic, and at the end of the long road of observations that occur in the first moments of a movie, you find yourself contemplating the details of faces and bodies with growing arousal.
You realize that there are three lines decorating the expanse of Fassbender’s forehead. And as you admire the precision of those lines and the glorious precision of his upper body, the precise subtleties of his performance and how each tooth in his head lies precisely against the next tooth, you think increasingly of Keira Knightley and her humiliation upon first unveiling her character on set, not because her performance was weak (it was strong), but because, rather strangely, it is all about her vagina.
Not as glistening pussy, but vagina ungroomed, as anatomical fact.