In the Name of the Father

My father did not live to see 9/11. I don’t know what he would have thought of the so called war on terror, let alone the equally so called Arab Spring. Though not particularly old, he was frail and muddled by the time he died—flattened out by decades of depression, isolation and inactivity.
I think of him now because the trajectory of his views seems relevant to 25 Jan. From a Marxist intellectual in the fifties and sixties—a member of a group that could transcend its class function to effect change, he became a liberal democrat in the eighties and nineties—an individual who had a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of his beliefs. In retrospect I think the reason for this change of heart had to do with a certain kind of honesty or transparency: at some point he must have realized that to be proactive was to be caught in a lie (the lie of independent nation building, of the dictatorship of the fellahin, of Islamic renaissance…), a lie for which not even an unhappy life was worth risking.
In a sense, while the outbreak of protests on 25 Jan and the collective determination that they should have tangible results amounted to that rare thing—a moment of truth in modern Arab history—events since 11 Feb 2011 have borne evidence of just how much of a lie Arab politics had been since colonial times, and how peripheral the truth must remain to society even after the revolution “triumphed”.
Where history is concerned, truth evidently cannot stand up to the lie. The truth of a predominantly young population with no need for identity-related hangups, who want money, sex, and space in which to express themselves and be productive, for example: such truth will not be articulated politically in the foreseeable future; and likewise the lie of an oppositional Islam with a vision for development or concern for the people: its being exposed, even repeatedly, will not stop society from behaving as if it were true.
A year ago on Tuesday the result of the referendum on constitutional amendments proposed by SCAF and embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood—an unequivocal yes—effectively bracketed the “revolution” in time. It shifted the emphasis away from rights gained through protests (including the right to protest) to a reshuffling of the power structure via an indefinite “transition” whose purpose has been to restore and/or sustain a status quo that had—more often than not, by invoking an overriding sense of identity—systematically denied people those same rights.
The vote, however disastrous it is now judged to be, established the population’s willingness to cement the two bulwarks of corrupt—incompetent—conservatism: fascist-flavored religious authority and arbitrary military power; the very culturally articulated nepotism, rarefied inferiority complex, and xenophobia that had reduced the project of an independent nation guarding Arab-Muslim identity under Nasser to a client state riddled by poverty and Wahhabism under Mubarak. With the regime’s logistical powers deployed in Brotherhood-held voting blocs, “democracy” could quickly abort what opportunity for change had been generated, fueled by blood. And it became easy from then on to involve well-meaning political players in endless lost battles of the vote, even as their comrades were being killed at protests and defamed on “pro-25 Jan” TV.
In the wake of 25 Jan, a conscious or unconscious alliance between devout and patriotic sentiments, whether honest or hypocritical, thus became the truest expression of the lie. It not only exiled the truth, it also forced sincere champions of change to adopt more or less peremptory discourses divorced from the reality of “the people” while, consciously or unconsciously, elements of dissidence that had worked to dissipate and obstruct the effort to gain basic rights on the ground were reintroduced:
Once again “politics” is not about the right to live but about the Palestinian cause, the struggle against “American-Israeli empire”, the notion of collective as opposed to individual dignity. In this sense the “revolutionaries” have ended up echoing generations of “the opposition” whose isolation rendered them so ineffective they could be safely ignored and/or co-opted by the regime, themselves eventually becoming part of the lie.



Graffiti showing the pro-yes sign for the 19 March referendum—”say yes for faster stability”—and asking, “Is it stable yet?”

I think of my father now because his change of heart regarding the role of the intellectual in Arab history reflects my own regarding the Arab Spring: from far-fetched faith in improving the world to a form of well-meaning resignation or despair, the stance of an interested but stationary observer.
Thanks in part to the pace of life in the electronic age, the story of four decades of Egyptian politics—from the fifties to the nineties—was reenacted almost in its entirety in the space of a single year, from March 2011 to March 2012: after mass protests generate hope for a freer society, “patriotism” is instantly co-opted by a military junta that proves more repressive than the “fallen regime”; quasi-socialist sloganeering eventually gives way to ruthless capitalism in the garb of “Islamic” quasi-democracy; and the need for development is subordinated to the perpetuation of (religion- and military-based) power…
I wonder if my father’s experience left him as cold as mine has left me; I wonder if, by the end of his life, he felt as existentially disconnected, politically denuded, and socially paralyzed. Somehow, he maintained his compassion: his stoic insistence on dressing like a worker and only using public transport, for example, coupled by a strange delight in engaging working-class people in a debate among peers.
In this and other ways his complete rejection of the role of the patriarch belied his middle-class provincial origins and his aspiring-politician career path as a law graduate of the fifties. Evidently he could be anything but a patriarch—which is particularly interesting because so much of the psychosocial underpinnings of 25 Jan and its aftermath have reflected that very concept.
Perhaps the lie depends on fathers maintaining the semblance of an order: whatever else has been said in his favor, the most effective defense of Mubarak—which, having stood in the way of a pretend trial, will help to absolve SCAF of the very likely crime that he will be acquitted—was the notion that Mubarak has been a father to Egyptians. What this means in practice is of course very different from what it should mean: a true father, the chief of a tribe or the don of a mafia—the endless, intricate web of mafias that is Egypt—will supposedly care for his children, making their enemies offers they cannot refuse…
But, like so much else in the lie—religious commitment, professional efficiency, national pride—the substance of a given discourse had been so thoroughly subverted that only its surface appearance now mattered: that there should be someone in the haloed place of the father, not that there should be a father as such.
And perhaps that is why I am mistaken about Egyptians, most of whom—unlike me—will have had patriarchal fathers variously implicated in the lie. Perhaps the predominantly young population does have a need for psychosocial hangups connected with their Muslim identity, after all. That hunger for money and sex, which Muslim religiosity in practice by no means forbids: perhaps it is not bound up with any desire for self expression or any obligation to contribute quantitatively or qualitatively to human civilization; those things, after all, require some degree of acknowledgement of the truth; why else is it that individuals who have a common-sense opinion on current affairs regardless of their beliefs—in contrast to venerable sheikhs holding ridiculous keys to paradise, or even Marxist intellectuals playing in the extra time—are so impossibly few?
Watching the news these days, I am often overwhelmed by the sense that my father is communicating with me, reminding me that I should have attempted to a deeper understanding of his change of heart. The lie, he tells me, is much bigger than Mubarak, perhaps even bigger than SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood combined.


Seven years before:


Satre, my father and me (2005)

When my father’s body gave in at the age of 67, there was no cause of death as such. His health was undoubtedly poorly, he was addicted to a range of pharmaceuticals — but none of the vital organs had stopped functioning. Strangely, my mother and I saw it coming: there were tears on the day, long before we could have known it was happening. And when it did happen, the relief of no longer having to care for a prostrate depressive seemed to justify it. In the next few months there was oblivion. I had felt alienated from his dead body, I saw it wrapped in white cloth, in public, and I thought I was over the fact.

Then, suddenly, a sharp, steely grief was boring into me. Within weeks it had disoriented me so profoundly I could no longer recognise myself. Principally it expressed itself through fear, a fear so primal it rendered the greatest fears of my life ridiculous; and the worst part of it was that it had no object. It didn’t belong in space or time. Only a solitary subject existed, to suffer it. And that subject wasn’t a self I could relate to. For the first time I felt I was getting Jean-Paul Sartre’s point about the self being separate from consciousness. I had read enough to be familiar with the concept, but I hadn’t managed to bring it onto any experiential plane. Then, out of nowhere, everything was making sense: the notion of freedom as an unbearable burden of responsibility, the conflict between imagination and situation in life, and the way in which this could be made to fit in a radical ideological framework.

Much like Baba’s death, it turned out, consciousness had no cause; it was just there, inescapable, a force of nature with its own rules. Where your self is something you might want to define, consciousness is nothing at all. Rather it’s a grief, a fear, capable of transforming you at will, negating you. But besides the self-consciousness dilemma, there was the look Baba gave me a few hours before he died: I was on my way out, I chose not to be with him though I could intuit he would die; and there was something humiliating about this. For the rest of my life I would have to accept being a person who preferred going out to sitting by his father’s deathbed. It was a brief, vacant look — you could argue it meant nothing — but it taught how hell really could be someone else’s eyes.

It would take me years to be able to remember my father without experiencing the abysmal horror of those days, but it seemed natural that I should seek out his own thoughts about Sartre eventually. And not only because it was his death that made existentialism real: however marginal and uncommitted, he remained a member of the generation of so-called intellectuals who engaged with both Marxism and French existentialism. People like Ibrahim Fathi and Yehya El-Taher Abdalla were once his friends, but he only expressed admiration for Saad Zaghloul and Mustafa El-Nahhas (both Pashas); he referred not to 1952 but 1919 as the glorious moment at which Egyptians made a free historical choice. It seemed that, through some warped ideological devolution, he had become a latter-day Wafdi — a “liberal wanker” of the homegrown variety, someone who saw the way out in a small, elitist coterie who believed in fairness, charity and empirical common sense. In 1989 he obsessed about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never in a plaintive way; more than once he called Gorbachev courageous and commended the principles of perestroika.

I have not been able to locate Abdel-Rahman Badawi’s translation of Being and Nothingness, though I seem to recall him labouring over it. Maybe I’ve invented this memory: in my lifetime he seldom read anything involved, beyond the law books of his profession and some early 20th-century history. Occasionally he would pick up an old favourite like Nikos Kzanzakis’s Freedom and Death and spend months reading and rereading it.

In contrast to his revolutionary adolescence — he himself never recounted it to me — by the time I was old enough to discuss things, he could only adopt a reactionary stance. Very occasionally, he spoke about communist activity in the 1950s. Once, in extremely simple terms, he described how Nasser had managed to either crush or co-opt all those who could have championed “the cause”. It would be easy to link his disillusion to the failure of the July Revolution (for many members of the generation in question, the 1967 War was the moment it all came down), except that he never supported it in the first place. He was always vitriolic about Nasser, emphasising the failures of what he saw as a coup d’etat, and lamenting the way in which the regime turned Egypt into a police state, a mega-community of informers, a madhouse of personal ambition and political suicide. For him Nasser was personally accountable for eliminating all hope for democracy or progress, let alone social transformation. Which hope, in the 1920s, he firmly believed there had been grounds for husbanding. In his all but unique opinion, I think, the Sadat regime, which leftists decry as counterrevolutionary, was but a logical result of the reign of Nasser.

Of the Marxism some things did persist. And I don’t mean the lingo he sometimes sarcastically reiterated or the vast knowledge he must have had, judging by his library, most of which consists of cheap “popular edition” paperbacks. Marxism manifested most prominently in his daily life: as someone who never drove, he refused to acknowledge the advantages of the taxi over the public bus, even when he started coming home with bumps and bruises from attempts to get on and off insanely chaotic, overcrowded vehicles. He was always class-conscious — something that paradoxically emerged in his rejection of the social implications of class: he would treat working-class people as equals; he never managed to cut his subordinates’ salaries or otherwise exercise administrative authority at work; and, in spite of despising his own background — ” petty bourgeoisie”, he always stressed — he tended to share his money with hard-up relations and friends. I think he would have enjoyed being single and poor — a rare virtue indeed for an Arab Marxist. He owned very few things of his own and seldom bought clothes. Perhaps sympathy with the Wafd party was his way of reconciling his personality with the fact that, after much resistance, he had conceded the role of middle-class husband and father, he owned electric appliances and sent his son to expensive educational institutions; he let his wife accumulate savings.

But at the level of the intellect none of this counted. What remained of Marxism in the way of mental activity had, rather, to do with the existentialist principles I came to discover the hard way. I say principles, not practises. For in the end my father’s attachment to Sartre’s notions of freedom and consciousness remained, tragically, a matter of wavering conviction and occasional verbal commentary, not one of personal expression.

His admiration for free love as it manifested in Sartre’s relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, for example, would never go beyond just that, an admiration — something he could only express in conversation, as it were on the margins of life, and towards which, insofar as it belonged to him at all, he could only feel frustration. The same sense of ambivalence permeated his feelings about religion, and even, perhaps, Marx as prophet. To fend off the no doubt stifling awareness of being petty bourgeois, he would place himself in the category of muthaqqafeen (intelligentsia), a group apart who were agents of the transformation towards communist society. He would pronounce the word in a wavering tone, with a mixture of gravity and comic self-awareness; it was as if he realised that, though it meant a lot to him, in the grander scheme of things it meant nothing. And so, too, with his response to my mother’s religiosity, which at the surface level he neither rejected nor endorsed. He was capable of humouring her and others about religion and God — hypocritically, I felt — but at times it seemed he was just as capable of embracing these concepts. His belief in chance as the overriding rule of being in the world, his sense of reality as a place shaped wholly by the radical consciousness of those who chose to change it: all of this turns out, the more I think about it, to be the frail gesture of an isolated and powerless intellect.

Contrary to his political discourse, which centred, with the exception of polemics directed at Nasser, on the evolution of modern Egypt and the beauty of 1919, he made frequent references to Sartre’s contribution. He quoted him, recounted episodes of his novels and plays, remembered his famous visit to Egypt in 1967. With the dispassionate objectivity of an emotionally involved observer, he stated Sartre’s position on Israel. Memorably, he would sometimes mention the way in which a Sartre character fatally injured at war asks the nurse, minutes before he dies, to touch him. Only at the moment of death, Sartre wrote, could imagination (consciousness, being-for-itself) be free of the constraints of situation (self, being-in-itself). And, somewhat in the same vein, at the hospital where they failed to identify a terminal illness (when he was released, none of the doctors thought he would die), Baba developed a desire for the blonde nurse who attended to his needs.

I’ve had to remove my mother’s mattress to dig out the well-kept paperbacks he left behind; the flat was too small to accommodate all the books he owned, and in the wake of his death especially, my mother justifiably resorted to hiding them. Some half of the total number have the word “Sartre”, in Arabic letters, on the cover: The Virtuous Whore, Marxism and Revolution, No Exit, The Flies, What is Literature, The New Colonialism, Critique of Dialectical Mind… Lying in a large cardboard box at the other end of the house, in English, are my own Nausea and The Wall. As I walk from one room to the other, I can’t help noting a kind of inter-generational continuity. But at the same time — it suddenly occurs to me — my interest in French existentialism has nothing to do with his; it is a mere coincidence, a historical accident, that we happen to have this particular thing in common. At a deeper level, I’d like to think, what we do have in common is a tormented consciousness of being in the world, subject to dying suddenly, without a cause.

I might have chosen to stay by his deathbed that fateful evening in 2000. And yet, I reassure myself, he would still have died alone.

Sacred genitalia: undergraduate essay

Sacred genitalia: the metaphysical inflections of Bataille’s surrealist voice

(Madame Edwarda, 1941; Story of the Eye, 1928)

Man is more than a creature limited to its genitals. But they, those inavowable parts of him, teach him his secret.

This essay will attempt to identify a specific (if arguably minor) aspect of surrealism, and trace its aesthetic and intellectual resonances in Bataille’s major works. The desire to come in contact with the sacred informed not only Bataille but Artaud, who envisaged in the theatre a potential for realizing it, and (despite ‘ideological’ admonitions and the struggle ‘against those who would maintain surrealism at a purely speculative level and treasonably transfer it onto an artistic and literary plane’, a struggle which, among other things, frequently cast Bataille and Artaud in the role of renegade surrealists) this selfsame yearning for the sacred can be deduced from Breton’s  quasi-metaphysical pronouncements throughout the vital period of surrealist activity in France. As early as 1922 Breton was defining surrealism in terms of ‘the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association’, and twenty years later he still felt  obliged to deny the charge of ‘mysticism’. While the sacred remains at best only a sub-stratum of metaphysics (‘most generally’ defined as ‘the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution, and structure of reality’), it is not difficult nonetheless to recognise a quasi-religious strain running through the surrealist project from its very inception. In Breton’s demand for a ‘monotonous metaphysic’ that ‘never speaks except of the one being, in which God, the soul, and the world come together, of the one which is the deepest essence of all multiplicity’, there is a clear potential for a form of art—a poetics, dramatics or even erotics of the sacred—whose aim it would be to develop new conceptions of the Ultimate and the Absolute, and ways of experiencing their presence. This potential was taken up by both Bataille and Artaud (the latter choosing a dramatics, the former an erotics of the sacred) and leaves its definitive mark in their concern with the negative, the horrifying, the terrible and the obscene (which constitutes an awareness of mortality that we do not encounter with the same intensity in the work of Breton, whose fundamental priority was the marvellous). Artaud himself alludes to the route chosen by Bataille in quest of the same destination when he says that ‘bringing together two impassioned revelations on stage [...] is just as complete, as true, even as decisive as bringing together two bodies in short-lived debauchery’. His Theatre of Cruelty works ‘like the plague, by intoxication, by infection, by analogy, by magic’; it works like war, in the public ‘ferment of great, agitated crowds hurled against one another’; it is a form of ‘soul therapy’ inflicting on an audience the ‘laceration’ and ‘cruelty’ of the sacred, whose essential function is to teach us that ‘[we] are not free and the sky can still fall on our heads’; and its foremost subjects are ‘love, crime, war and madness’. For Bataille, by contrast, it is the very private anguish of ‘little death’ that tells us our secret: that ‘[nudity] is only death, and the most tender kisses have the after-taste of the rat’; the function of philosophy and literature is to forge the age-old link between eroticism and death; and only at the supreme point of convergence where, correspondingly, pleasure and pain resolve their perpetual dialectic in a terrifying excess, do we catch a glimpse of our spiritual predicament. In either case there is a stress on emptiness and negation that somewhat transcends the surrealist imperative of unlimited ‘marvellous subversion’, and explains Breton’s distaste with Bataille’s particular strand of madness, ‘that he reasons like someone with a fly on his nose (i.e. a corpse)’. But Bataille’s literary endeavours remain profoundly surrealist, and the following will undertake to show this in two stages: first, by exploring Bataille’s metaphysics of the sacred (which finds its clearest, most compressed expression in Madame Edwarda); and second, by looking at his aesthetics of eroticism, the kind of pornographic imagination—in Susan Sontag’s words—that aims ‘at disorientation, at psychic dislocation’ (triumphantly exemplified in Story of the Eye).

‘God, if he knew…’

Bataille’s conception of an ultimate reality resembles Taoism in that ‘this reality must not be subject to the limitations of any of the individual entities within it’; whereas the modes of our being are invariably described by concepts (or, as the Tao te ching would have it, ‘names’) the non-being of the Ultimate is both nameless and immutable; ‘strictly speaking, nothing can be said about the Tao at all’. It must therefore be described in negative terms, and designates—first and foremost—a form of emptiness. This emptiness is further identified with ‘the lowly’ (arguably including the obscene) and ‘the female’ (i.e. the lover/vagina, the mother/womb, and the earth itself); it is equivalent for Bataille to the God of Western theism. (Interestingly, Artaud too attempted to apply Taoist principles—fullness/emptiness, male/female/neuter—to actors’ exercises.) ‘Being is also, doubtless,’ Bataille says in the preface to Madame Edwarda, ‘subject to certain other limits: were this not so, we should not be able to speak (I too speak [of non-being, i.e. of the ultimate reality, the sacred], but as I speak I do not forget that not only will speech escape me, but that it is escaping me now).’ The sexual act ‘whereby being—existence—is bestowed upon us is an unbearable surpassing of being, an act no less unbearable than dying’; and only in those two modes of being can we experience non-being; truth itself will signify nothing if we do not, through debauchery and death, ‘see that which exceeds sight’s possibilities, [think] that which exceeds thought’s possibilities’. Thus eroticism, like death, comes to open ‘directly upon a certain vista of anguish’ where ‘joy is the same thing as suffering, the same thing as dying, as death’; and this anguish alone is ‘sovereign absolute’, because it contains the resolution of the two extremes of consciousness, which are also the only two ways of experiencing God (a word that we ‘cannot without impunity incorporate into our speech’, since it ‘surpasses words’), and the two limits of all knowledge (or, as Bataille preferred—again in agreement with Taoism—non-knowledge or non-savior). This conception of the Ultimate, incidentally, was shared by Henry Miller, although the latter did not identify it with God. ‘What is unmentionable,’ he wrote, ‘is pure fuck and pure cunt [...] What holds the world together [is] sexual intercourse. But fuck, the real thing, cunt, the real thing, seems to contain some unidentified element which is far more dangerous than nitroglycerine.’

Madame Edwarda (the story of a prostitute who, after exposing her well-worn vagina and declaring herself to be God, gradually reveals her divinity to the narrator)  is itself a concrete depiction of this abstract line of thought. Here God is presented symbolically as a form of vaginal emptiness, the narrator feeling in Edwarda’s presence ‘unhappy and [...] painfully forsaken, as one is when in the presence of GOD.’ With her, he apprehends ‘the vulgar ritual of “the lady going up” with the man who wants her in tow [as] nothing short of an hallucinating solemnity’; and before she dresses in a black domino and slips out of the whorehouse and he follows, their lovemaking is described in terms of a straining wide open ‘to welcome “the emptiness of heaven”’. The narrator feels Edwarda possessed by ‘the delirious joy of being naked’; and soon afterwards, under an ark in the night darkness, she is ‘entirely black, simply there, as distressing as a hole’. Only when he sees that she is ‘mindless: rapt, absent’, does he know ‘that She had not lied, that She was GOD.’ Consistently, the narrative itself subsides into ‘madness’ and ‘meaninglessness’ as the sacred, that which surpasses words, takes over (when Edwarda, having finally overcome an unearthly spasmodic fit, ‘mount[s] and straddl[es]’ the taxi driver). The narrator lapses back into the abstract, telling us that ‘living self is there just in order [...] “not to know”’, and that ‘God, if he knew [meaning, presumably, if he were to be known or described in the vocabulary of being] would be a swine’. The rest, we are told, is ‘irony, long, weary, waiting for death’. In this way Edwarda comes to embody the tragic truth not only about God but also epistemology and metaphysics; and Bataille, in a few pages, offers us the distillation of his ‘religious (but anti-Christian, essentially Nietzschean)’ quest. Hence Yukio Mishima’s description of the novella as a demonstration of ‘the manifestation of God to man, [which is] at the same time a work that is extreme in its obscenity’, and a paradoxical ‘verbalization of a great silence called God’. (It would be beyond the scope of this essay to discuss My Mother, but it is worth noting here that it can be seen as a Bildungsroman version of Madame Edwarda, less intense and more ‘psychological’, in which the womb rather than the vagina comes to embody the ultimate reality.)

Although it gave rise to Sartre’s criticism of Bataille as a ‘new mystic’ and ‘a seeker after God’, this desire to understand the sacred can also be seen as an attempt at healing the split ‘between savoir [the hermeneutic] and jouissance [the erotic/pornographic] by pursuing simultaneously the knowledge of eroticism and the eroticisation of knowledge’, largely parallel to the general surrealist project of uniting the conscious with the unconscious—man with God, flesh with spirit—and faithful in essence to the surrealist rejection of all ‘Greco/Roman, Christian/bourgeois, Cartesian/positivist heritage.’ On the literary level, Madame Edwarda is surrealist in that it draws ‘a vivid, harsh, shocking and immediate connection between metaphysics and the human flesh’, and sustains ‘an anti-psychological delineation, anti-realism [and] a perception of the universe hidden behind all of these’, much like what Artaud envisaged in his ‘total theatre’, that superior communion of cruelty whose features include ‘an awful lyricism’. Bataille’s ultimate goal is precisely the ‘point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the communicable and the incommunicable [...] cease to be perceived as contradictions.’ His writing, however, unlike much surrealism, has given rise to two important criticisms, which can be seen in the wider contexts of the feminist and literary critiques of pornography. First, Bataille’s ‘conflation of sex and death’ is thought to be a mere extension of male—‘phalocratic’—supremacy, the fundamental conditions of which are hatred and violence. ‘Some classy men,’ writes Andrea Dworkin, ‘mean to suggest that [...] man fucks with a certain, tragic knowledge of death’ and ‘[Bataille], a classy guy, likens what he calls “eroticism” to dissolution and death’. It is implicit in her claim that men, deprived of the capacity to give birth and thus regenerate, can only realise themselves in the desperation and despair of death, of which the violence and hatred inflicted on women by patriarchy are but one example. Second, George Steiner’s suggestion that ‘the de-humanization of the individual in pornography [resembles] the making naked and anonymous of the individual in [the concentration camp]’, seems particularly relevant to Bataille’s fictional world, since in Bataille ‘the knowledge of physical mortality and frailty [...] places us in a state of complete vulnerability which also exists prior to humiliation, torture and sacrifice’. While the first question remains open to debate, the second brings us to the last point I want to make in connection with Bataille’s ‘religion’, namely that, notwithstanding its totalitarian potential (which Mishima’s admiration perhaps testifies to), it would be misleading to view this metaphysics of the sacred in isolation from the rest of Bataille’s intellectual pursuits.

Unlike Artaud, Bataille for the most part never abandoned communism, and his desire to understand the sacred did not interrupt his historical militancy. ‘Communist workers,’ he wrote, ‘are in bourgeois eyes just as gross and filthy as the bare and hairy sexual organs: sooner or later this will result in a scandalous eruption in which the noble a-sexual heads of the bourgeoisie will be sliced off.’ It is hardly surprising, nonetheless, that two of the main charges levelled at Bataille by French intellectuals—Stalinism and fascism—take their cue from the totalitarian potential of his thought. Contre-Attaque (Bataille’s revolutionary communist group of 1935 and its journal of the same name) proposed to use fascist weapons against fascism; in the face of an increasingly powerful and widespread fascist threat in the inter-war period, Bataille suggested surfascism (a word ‘intended to bear the same relation to fascism as surrealism bore to realism’) with the inevitable  consequences of misunderstanding that perpetuated the final break with Breton. ‘There is no doubt,’ he would write much later, ‘that the bourgeois world as it exists constitutes a provocation to violence and that, in that world, the exterior forms of violence hold a fascination.’ But after Contre-Attaque, it becomes clear ‘that this fascination can lead to the worst’. In the end Bataille ‘dissolved Contre-Attaque precisely because he was aware of the misunderstanding which this ambition to defeat Fascism on its own terms could give rise.’ Moreover, as ‘emotive intellectual’ (in a spirit of defiance against Sartre’s call for ‘responsible’ historical ‘engagement’) Bataille wanted to ‘wrest Nietzsche from the grip of the Nazis’; he was taken by ‘the possibilities of a world without God [...] The appeal to danger, to adventure, to war—the joy of chaos—worked for him as a stimulant, and an entire aesthetics of pathos seems to have arisen from it.’ Here too these qualities of mind (particularly in combination with Bataille’s emphasis on the role of ‘non-productive expenditure’ in political economy) seem to embody a philosophically articulated version of the general surrealist attempt to unite Marx with Freud. When ‘in Bataille, Nietzsche meets Hegel’, a unique thesis-antithesis-synthesis arises out of his Nietzschean jouissance (the will to expend), which in its partial agreement with the Marquis de Sade’s philosophy is re-enacted directly in the realm of the flesh: ‘sexual behaviour is opposed to everyday behaviour as expenditure is to saving’; ‘our only true happiness is to spend vainly, and we always want to be sure of the uselessness of our expenditure’; but since ‘affection cannot change the fundamental role played by death’, we can only sadistically deny ‘the value of others’ and must therefore extinguish both ourselves and our victims in the excessive happiness-expenditure that is eroticism. This particular brand of sacrifice, moreover, ‘is distinguished from others [including Sade’s] in that he who executes the rite is affected by the sacrifice himself; he succumbs to it and loses himself along with his victim.’ The unifying theme and objective of these apparently widely seperated intellectual strands is the idea of a ‘sovereign existence’, a state in which humanity would not be subject to ideological limitations (the Revolution, comparable—at the individual level—to sexual revolt, and also associated with the experience of God, since it constitutes a liberation from the limitations and predeterminations of the human predicament): ‘I do not distinguish between freedom and sexual freedom,’ Bataille writes, ‘because depraved sexuality is the only kind produced independently of conscious ideological determinations, the only one that results from a free play of bodies and images, impossible to justify rationally’. Since a full discussion of Bataille’s philosophy would be beyond the scope of this essay, at this stage I will rest content with suggesting that to dismiss Bataille as simply a totalitarian pornographer, or to accuse him of intellectual inconsistency, would be as unjust and presumptuous as Georg Lukacs’s contention that Nietzsche was a mere ‘forerunner of Nazism’.

The internal revolution

An alternative cue for interpreting Bataille is available in Sontag’s suggestion that pornography (in the sense of something other than ‘a psychological phenomenon’ and/or ‘an item in social history’) provides Bataille with a ‘modality or convention’ in which to function as artist and thinker. First, ‘Sade’s system’, (which Bataille thought ‘simply the most consistent and extravagant form of sexual activity’) ensures that Bataille’s narratives ‘qualify as pornographic texts insofar as their theme is an all-engrossing sexual quest that annihilates every consideration of persons extraneous to their roles in the sexual dramaturgy’; it also necessitates that these narratives (as complexes dealing with ‘that specific and sharpest inflection of the theme of lust, “the obscene”’) dramaturgically resolve themselves in death, whether or not the books are littered with corpses. The limitations imposed on a narrative by just such a ‘system’ (e.g. that it is inevitably episodic, that it ‘lacks the beginning-middle-and-end form’, that it does not deal with human relations) are arguably a challenge to the author—if he or she is to make something interesting out of them. Second, Roland Barthes’s structuralist analysis reveals that in Story of the Eye Bataille does not so much write a novel (‘something that might happen, all things considered’) as exercise his poetic imagination (‘something that could never happen [except] in the shadowy or burning realm of fantasy’). The elements of the narrative are neither real nor probable, but virtual; and the book, in effect, tells the story of an object passing ‘from image to image [...] the cycle of avatars that it passes through, far removed from its original being, down the path of a particular imagination that distorts but never drops it.’ Another challenge, then, is to advance and interchange the terms of two central series of images: the Eye/the Sun (which is ‘the matrix of a run of objects’, e.g. eggs, balls etc.) and liquid/light (which constitutes ‘a second chain’, e.g. tears, milk etc.) Out of the interaction of the two challenges—both of which Bataille meets with admirable literary power—the narrative reduces to ‘a form, the restrictive character of which is as stimulating as the old rules of meter and tragedy’. Since ‘the terms of the image can be taken only from two finite series’, the Eye and liquid, it is up to Bataille to displace that image in as many ways as the erotic episodes and the ideas underlying them require. On the one hand Bataille must relate absolutely everything in the text to his two overriding philosophical concerns (sex and death). On the other hand, he must subordinate human relations and language to a predefined poetic locus of images. Both tasks must be accomplished simultaneously and, particularly in Story of the Eye, with extreme economy of means—the rules Bataille has to observe, on reflection, are pretty stringent indeed, but the aesthetic discipline pays off.

In a pornographic text where the episodes lack structure, where everything must be subordinated to the mindless pursuit of sexual pleasure (and pain), the poetic limitation not only provides unity but also gives the obscene a particular tone. The text becomes ‘revolting in both senses of the word’: besides the obscenity that qualifies it as pornographic, there is also ‘the law of the Surrealist image’, ‘the more remote and right the relations between the two realities, the more powerful will be the image’. The metaphysical dimension, moreover, invests ‘each action with a weight, a disturbing gravity, that feels authentically “mortal”’, and the otherwise unrelated episodes acquire a particularly unsettling momentum. Alternatively one could say that the erotic/obscene aspect of the work adds ‘a savage lyricism’ (comparable to Artaud’s ‘awful lyricism’ above), ‘a capacity to shock’, a ‘continual oscillation between extremes’, to an already formulated surrealist composition, where the arbitrary dislocation of objects maintains a solid forward movement by virtue of its unified theme. In either case, the twofold technical restriction results in incredible inventiveness (a far cry from Steiner’s treadmill, and a masturbatory dance indeed), thus allowing Bataille, in effect, to set up ‘the parameters within which the project of surrealist pornography may be validated.’ The Eye-as-protagonist achieves precisely what Breton called ‘a breath of fresh air’: it denies the existence of the outer world and undertakes ‘a [radical enough] revision of moral values’, it throws ‘disorder into this order of words’, murders ‘the obvious aspect of things’, and ‘searches for the new beauty, “the beauty envisaged exclusively for passionate ends”.’ Against the stifling ‘capitalism of the sexual’, Bataille’s ‘play of metaphor and metonymy’ thus achieves ‘a counter-division of objects, usages, meanings, spaces, and properties that is eroticism itself’; through ‘psychic dislocation’—beauty that is compulsive or not at all—Bataille transgresses the sexual, ‘which is not, of course, the same thing as sublimating it’. When, in his tribute to Luis Bunuel, Carlos Feuntes invokes ‘Lautreamont’s famous juxtaposition of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table’, his words apply with startling exactness to Story of the Eye. Objects in Bunuel’s cinema, he says, ‘cease to behave normally and instead reveal their true beauty in an unsuspected encounter; they cease to be invisible and interchangeable and become, instead, the dazzling trophies of the masochist, the fetishist, the sadist.’

This notion of objects misbehaving is central to the objectified transmigration of images that forms the poetic substance of Story of the Eye. From the beginning of the narrative, it is the central poetic image that holds the key to the logic with which events unfold. The Eye is displaced from the saucer of milk (the cat’s eye) which triggers off  virtual tears (milk, semen, urine and, from the second chapter on, egg-yolk), to Marcelle’s—horrified, sobbing and then dead—eyes, to the eggs for which Simone develops a mania, to Granero’s eye and the bull’s testicle, to the priest’s eye which, placed ‘in Simone’s hairy vagina’ becomes ‘the wan blue eye of Marcelle, gazing at me through tears of urine’, the ‘cycle of avatars’ finally coming full circle. It is this that explains the arbitrary, mysterious (pornographically fantastical) development of relations and actions in the course of the narrative. The narrator and Simone, for example, refrain from copulating in the absence of Marcelle; no satisfying rationale is offered for their behaviour. But the irrationality is justified when we realise that Simone’s loss of virginity marks a further development in the Eye’s story: the object must be transferred from Marcelle’s living eyes (through Simone’s illness, during which many of the central associations are made explicit for the first time, linking the whole book with Bunuel’s Chien Andalou, e.g., ‘Upon my asking what the word urinate reminded her of, she replied: terminate, the eyes, with a razor, something red, the sun. An egg? A calf’s eye’, etc.) to the open eyes of the dead woman. The antique (significantly, bridal) wardrobe establishes the connection between the Eye of horror (Marcelle alive) and the Eye of death (Marcelle having hanged herself), and the ‘strange swish of water’ that alerts the narrator to Marcelle’s pissing in the wardrobe is similarly metamorphosed (through Simone’s pissing on the eyes of the dead woman) into a ‘urinary liquification of the sky’ that marks the penultimate stop on the Eye’s relentless journey (the bull’s testicle, with which Simone masturbates, reaching orgasm at the same moment as the bullfighter’s eye is displaced from its socket). The Eye’s story, moreover (aside from the ‘arbitrary but surrealistically logical associations’ it sustains), is governed, through the pornographic convention, by Bataille’s philosophy: Simone’s loss of virginity in the presence of the corpse establishes the connection between eroticism and mortality; similarly, Sir Edmund’s ‘mass’ (while at the same time revealing the extent of Bataille’s revolt against traditional Christian theism) extends the same connection to the sacred (the eucharistic hosts becoming Christ’s sperm, the wine Christ’s urine, etc.).

As with Madame Edwarda,  there are hints throughout the text that symbolically reveal its underlying preoccupations, breaks through the autonomous operation of the words which penetrate the poetic substance of a modernist composition, revealing Bataille’s consciousness directly. After Marcelle’s suicide, Simone becomes sombre with the absolute knowledge she has attained (the ‘knowledge of eroticism’ we have spoken of in connection with Madame Edwarda above); she too looks ‘as if she belonged to something other than the terrestrial world’; ‘or, if she was still attached to this world, it was purely by way of orgasms, which were rare but incomparably more violent’. Similarly, the narrator remarks (in the course of his own metaphysical ‘education’) that ‘death was the sole outcome of my erection, and if Simone and I were killed, then the universe of our unbearable personal vision was certain to be replaced by the stars, [to exist] in a cold state, without human delays or detours’. Even the Milky Way appears to him  as a ‘strange breach of astral sperm and heavenly urine [across] the open crack [of] the sky’. ‘The universe seems decent,’ he tells us, only ‘because decent people have gelded eyes. That is why they fear lewdness.’ In this way the issue is revealed to be ‘a struggle between two ways of seeing’, one of which is ‘only achieved by splitting eyeballs, desiring the impossible [e.g. to know God], desiring all that for moral, political or economic reasons has been [...] deprived of time, place, name or reflection in our societies.’ Like Bunuel in Un Chien Andalou (which was produced, incidentally, in the same year as Story of the Eye was published), Bataille picks on the organ of (rationalist) perception, slitting not only the priest’s eye in Seville but also the Eye/Sun of the Enlightenment, the Eye of Cartesian positivism/rationalism and the Eye of bourgeois Christianity. And like Bunuel, he ‘never [doubts] that the internal revolution, the profound liberator of poetic energy in every individual, is inseparable from an objective [communist] transformation of reality’.

We are now in a position to summarize the main lines of argument concerning Bataille’s erotics of the sacred, considered as a special application of surrealism. The notion of an art form that seeks to present and embody the experience of God is not exclusive to Bataille among the surrealists (Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty is another such art form); interestingly, it is also present (albeit in a latent form) in Breton’s intellectual decrees, especially in what he says about the metaphysical (i.e., his thoughts concerning the bearing that conceptions of what reality means might have upon surrealist creativity).  Bataille’s pursuit of the sacred should also be seen in the wider context of his intellectual achievement (including his fascination with ‘the weapons of fascism’, but not with fascism itself, his consistent revolutionary commitment, Nietschean jouissance , Sadean dialectics, and epistemology of non-savoir). Viewed in this light, Bataille’s pursuit of the sacred reveals itself to be surrealist in essence, constituting a profound but idiosyncratic attempt at ‘marvellous subversion’. He is also, nonetheless, deeply (even obsessively) aware of mortality and death. Transferred to the realm of the aesthetic, his erotics becomes a startlingly effective instrument, producing (in combination with other surrealist devices, as well as the more general ‘pornographic conventions’) such powerful and enduring works as Story of the Eye.  His life’s work is the best answer to Susan Sontag’s call for an erotics, rather than a hermeneutics, of art (an art and a criticism that would perceive reality—activity and creativity—directly through the senses, rather than through a system of textual interpretation), and thus what he has to say to us is immediately relevant—he speaks directly in answer to the central questions about art and literature,  often inviting a radical revision of the way we define these very terms. Bataille certainly presents us with a vision of darkness, but unlike the dehumanizing (commercialist or totalitarian) darkness envisaged by George Steiner in his attack on pornography, Bataille’s darkness ‘is neither static nor immutable: it is the fiercest expression of conflict’ within ourselves. Perhaps we are best referred to Bataille himself for a final recapitulation of the subjects discussed in this essay:

If thought and its expression have become his main area of activity, this has not been without repeated attempts, within the limits of his means, at experiences lacking in apparent coherence, but whose very incoherence signifies an effort to comprehend the totality of possibility, or, to put it more precisely, to reject, untiringly, any possibility exclusive of others. Bataille’s inspiration is that of a sovereign existence, free of all limitations of interest.

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Manifesto of the Halssist Party

On Nael El-Toukhy’s Two Thousand and Six

A spectre is haunting Arabic literature – the spectre of Halssism. All the Powers of old Culture have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Respectable State Cronies and Leftist Dinosaurs, poet Ahmad Abdel-Mo’ti Hegazi and critic Wael El-Semary, Moroccan philosophers and Lebanese novelists. Where is the literary endeavour in true opposition to the status quo that has not been decried as Halss by its opponents in power (halss being the quaint but all too appropriate term for Irreverent Nonsense, Hilarious Noise, Creative Nihilism)? Where is the Literary Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Halssism against the more advanced opposition parties within the same margin, besides hurling it against better established, reactionary adversaries?
Two things result from this fact: Halssism is already acknowledged by Arab literary Powers to be itself a Power; and it is high time that Halssists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Halssism with a Manifesto of the party itself. To this end, Youssef Rakha here provides his reading of Nael El-Toukhi’s Al-Alfain wa Sittah: Qissat Al-Harb Al-Kabira (Two Thousand and Six: The Story of the Big War, Cairo: Merit, 2009), perhaps the millennium’s first openly Halssist novel(la), in which the theme of Revolution serves as the backdrop not only to the kind of meticulously stylised, thoroughly contemporary and cult classic-making Halss few writers have had the courage or the oomph to produce but also to basic values of the Halssist doctrine, to be traced in its present form to a major shift through the Nineties from grand narratives and vaguely moralistic drives, from collectively conceived identities and high-falutin tones, to the individual and the vernacular and the everyday. Here, finally, is pure Halss – or almost.

The history of all hitherto existing literature is the history of genre struggles. Scholar and critic, journalist and blogger, prose- and free verse-champion, in a word, stylist/theorist and counter-stylist/theorist, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of literary discourse, or – more often, to be sure – in the common ruin of contending approaches to literature. And so too is the Philip K Dick-like  opening of the present text infused with the urgency and distress of Literary Life (the exclusive butt of Toukhy’s tongue-in-cheek Big War): “One day, some poet sent a message from his e-mail to a number of his friends. He said he had left Cairo, was on his way to the desert: the Western Desert, to be precise. He said he grew bored of life, and was heading there with the purpose of suicide. The poet, whose name is Abdelaziz, added that he took along a can of tuna and a loaf of bread on this journey that would last forever, a journey to the hereafter as he called it. He would die and his corpse would disintegrate, as he said, and in a month from now, everyone would know where he lay.”
Abdelaziz, as it turns out, is the macho, testosterone- as well as theory-driven Leader of the Poetry Revolution, which by the time he leaves for the desert following a breakdown precipitated by his falling out with his main collaborator and close friend, Reda, has been sabotaged into a Novel Revolution. Reda is the new Leader, and as such also the husband of Abdelaziz’s once wife Sayeda, a sort of living monument to the Revolution with whom he has had a peculiar, supernatural love affair since long before the momentous events of 2006. Ultimately the Revolution takes place with Sayeda’s blessings, and it is accomplished by Reda together with Nael (a critic who at times, because of his name, seems to stand in for the author himself) and Magdy (a dodgy character recruited by Nael and Reda to be the henchmen of the revolutionary army of Bald Fat Intellectuals). Abdelaziz, as it turns out, never kills himself in the end: his e-mail is a sort of lie, a device whereby he could escape his Historical Role (embodied in the magazine he founded and edited with the help of Reda). Instead he moved to Helwan where, forever dead to Literary Life, he opened a mobile-phone shop and transformed himself into Mi’allim (Master) Ziza, eventually to discover – to his chagrin – that he himself is in fact a passive homosexual…

In what relation do the Writers stand to the Producers of Halss, the Postmodern Satirists and Jokers whose values differ fundamentally from those of the old Culture, and whose work appeared in the form of blogs if not Facebook statuses long before it made its way into print? The Writers do not form a separate party opposed to other satirical parties who, in a time of endlessly corrupt respectability and absurd political commitments, will not tire of poking fun at the Holy Cows not of Politics and Ideology (those, it would seem, were already slaughtered by the prose poets of the Nineties long before the Jokers came on the scene) but, more importantly, of a Literary Life increasingly and often ludicrously filled with values whose function is to respond to the capitalisation and globalisation to which both life and literature are increasingly – and as inevitably as the Revolution seemed to Marx and Engles, God bless them –  succumbing. The Writers have no interests separate and apart from those of the Jokers (whom we might safely identify with their Readers) as a whole. Except for values of sarcasm, irony, nihilism, laughter, pure enjoyment of a purely democratised creative act, which values cannot meaningfully be described as such, they do not set up any literary or cultural principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the inevitable Halss movement in its unstoppable forward march on history.
Here as elsewhere in the work of those who might be termed the post-millennial generation of cultural agents, Literary Life is the perfect target not simply for satire as such – and Toukhy’s book, it should be clear, is among the funniest satires currently on the market, certainly the most hilarious critique of the contemporary Egyptian literary sensibility to date – but also, and especially, for any effective portrait of life in the sprawling, multifaceted city eventually overtaken by the Bald Fat Intellectuals. Reda, Nael, Sayeda – not to mention Abdelaziz, especially in his Ziza avatar – are all deeply religious and pious people, for example, notwithstanding the irresolvable contradictions between the faith they purport to have and their actions and interests (beer drinking, sex, violence, and the cardinal sin of literary endeavour). This (true) fact of (contemporary) life, Toukhy presents, with unrealistic faithfulness to reality, as given. Somewhat problematically for a Reader not familiar with the immediate context in which he has produced this book – and as such problematically, perhaps, for the Halssist project as whole, since Halssism in its ultimate effect should never be context-specific – Toukhy feels no need to clarify whether or not he is poking fun at Wahhabi religiosity, whether or not expressions of religion on the part of his characters is as absurd as the Knowing Reader – au fait with Literary Life, will readily take it to be.
Yet Toukhy does other things with Halss – as Halssists should and will. He uses the language of bloggers and other post-millennial newcomers to the literary sphere, for example, (mis)spelling vernacular words to replicate the way they are pronounced – an involuntary mistake on the part of said bloggers, voluntary on his – in order to bring down the airy castles of the old Culture. He plays with values of manhood, womanhood and everything in between – in order to destroy prevalent (mis)conceptions about the roles people play and the places they occupy. With an intellectual rigour that is necessary for the effective communication of a Halssist message (Halssist messages can say little or nothing, of course, apart from Halss), he places the idea of Revolution before him and looks at it. He looks long and hard at this idea and its connections with a broad range of the ideas and images informing contemporary Arab life. He reviews ways in which the idea has been used, manners in which it has been critiqued, and he gives a more or less realistic account of what Revolution amounts to, in the end. And yet, perhaps to avoid the pitfalls that await the committed Halssist once he approaches political, social or cultural themes, Toukhy does this through the oblique and distorting lens of an extremely narrow and ultimately absolutely impotent community of Citizens: the cafe-going intellectuals who populate downtown Cairo, the drinkers and the smokers, the little-educated, self-obsessed founders of literary magazines.
“We suggest a new and exciting subject to the young researchers among our children: the Revolution’s view of itself, how it expressed itself (in this case, its selves) through different names: Revolution, War, Haifa,” the long cherished Palestinian town the book’s Revolutionaries invoked in their forward-marching slogans, “Beyond Haifa, Beyond Beyond Haifa, ending with Two Thousand and Six, the year of the outbreak of the Revolution: 1 February 2006. How was each one of those titles made to prevail in the press and the media? How did society receive them (sometimes easily, often after resistance)? Sources will be available and plentiful: the newspapers issued in 2006. The researcher who wants to register his thesis will clash with an essential obstacle, however. He will be told that Two Thousand and Six is not yet an event that can be contemplated from afar, it is not yet history. And this is true, for something in Two Thousand and Six made it an ahistorical event, an event forever in present time, an event in which we live. Two Thousand and Seven came and went, then Two Thousand and Eight, even Two Thousand and Twenty. And still, in every year, part of Two Thousand and Six moves along with that year, runs parallel to it, does not overtake or lag behind it. Therefore the crisis that Abdelaziz felt was that he lived in pre-Two Thousand and Six times, before that moment that proved itself eternal…”

As we draw up the outlines and constituents of the Halssist party as a whole, glimpsing the potential of this all-encompassing spectre, which will no doubt beget a wider variety of offspring as the millennium moves ahead heralding the triumph of the Jokers, it is important to set Halssism apart from an increasingly popular mode of quasi-literary writing that has been identified as Humorous or Comic, and which shares with Halss the essential elements of satire and social critique. Humorous writing which has in these recent, commercialised years made the best-seller list as often as anything else may have been a step on the way to the true liberation of the Jokers that Halssism proposes, their prevalence and their ultimate, scientifically ordained triumph. But it is not the same as Halss in that it holds onto various aspects of the real and the moral the presence of which will hamper and potentially kill the transformation now besetting our world. Revolution is indeed afoot, in order once and for all to bring down Revolution.


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