To Wake the People: Egypt’s Interminable Haul to Democracy

“The People are asleep my darling”
So she’d tell him;
He, too,
Was careful not to wake the People,
To endure its dreams
Like a kid’s kicks,
To ape its slack tongue like a fool,
To crawl before it on all fours
That he might tell it the story of creation…

— Mohab Nasr (translated by Robin Moger)

Two and a half years after the January 25, 2011 uprising, I’m with my friend Aboulliel in the room I still have at my parents’ house. We’re slurping Turkish coffee and dragging on Marlboros, absorbed in conversation, when suddenly it feels as if we’ve been on the same topic since we sat here for the first time in 1998 or 1999: what should Egypt’s army-dominated government do about the Islamists’ sit-ins?

There are two of them, each thousands-strong, in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Mosque and Al-Nahda squares (east and west Cairo), the latter within walking distance of Dokky, where this apartment is located. They are crippling Cairo’s hobbling traffic and, as a security hazard, blocking the inflow of much needed tourist cash. They include all kinds of adherent of political Islam: Salafist, Jihadist, Jihadist-Salafist, Muslim Brother, renegade Muslim Brother and independently operating Islamist. And they’ve been going on for nearly 40 days, immobilizing the middle-class residential community of Rabaa and taunting the Cairo University students and faculty shuffling about campus near Al-Nahda. Their “defense committees” function like checkpoints, with club-wielding men searching baggage and reviewing IDs. Amnesty International has corroborated reports by independent local news channels like OnTV and CBC that “spies” caught inside them were secretly buried after having their fingers chopped off, among other atrocities. The media claims that each garrison harbors hardcore weaponry, and machine guns have been sighted in use against pro-army citizens who picked fights with protesters marching through their neighborhoods…

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God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire


God’s Books: Interview with the Vampire
Mohab Nasr, Ya rabb, a’tina kutuban linaqra’ (Please, God, give us books to read), Cairo: Al Ain, 2012

“Any pretence of having specific reasons to stop writing poetry at one point or to return to it at another will be a fabrication,” says Mohab Nasr (b. 1962). “All I can say for sure is that I was surrounded by friends who used up my energy in conversations, which gave me a sense of reassurance of a certain kind, the extent of whose hazardousness it took a long time to realise.”
Thus the seemingly eternal vicious circle, perhaps even more pronounced outside Cairo, the underground literary centre of operations—in Alexandria, where, after a stint in said centre in the mid-1990s that cost him his government schoolteaching post, Nasr was living again:
To write, you have to have a reader; but, being a serious poet in late 20th-century Egypt, your reader can only be a fellow writer; you might as well just talk with them at the cafe—and, beyond an inevitably skewed sense of personal fulfillment, what on earth in the end could be the point of that?
Prompted by his short-lived marriage to the feminist-Marxist activist, aspiring theorist and Student Movement icon Arwa Saleh (1951-1997), Nasr’s experience of Cairo had been more depressing than instructive. But, like the bite that makes a man immortal, freezes him in the age at which it happened and binds him to a routine of bloodsucking, spending the day in a tomb and surfacing only in the nighttime, the experience marked him; some 14 years later, when unprecedented protests broke out while he lived and worked as a cultural journalist in Kuwait, it would prove obliquely regenerative.
Cairo gave Nasr a direct taste of the wannabe aesthetician’s pretensions and the wannabe autocrat’s mean-spiritedness so rife among Generation of the Seventies activists and writers; it made him aware of the potentially fatal fragility of the Arab Intellectual—a creature as mythical and parasitic as a vampire, and perhaps ultimately as irrelevant to consensual reality, since its emergence in Muhammad Ali Pasha’s times.
It was in 1997 that Nasr’s first book of poems, Ann yassriq ta’irun ‘aynayk (or “For a bird to steal your eyes”), was published in a small edition in Alexandria: the year during which his divorcee, Saleh, finally killed herself.
They had not been in contact for months and he felt no guilt about the incident; he felt he had done all he could to be supportive, and anyway what drove her to suicide as he saw it, the inevitably failed attempt at literally embodying moral-political principles, had nothing to do with him. But the horror of what happened left him unsure not only about moral and political but also emotional and aesthetic issues.
Following the event, he started working on a long and involved text he still refers to as The Fragments, in which—without the arguably necessary theoretical equipment, as he readily admits—he tried to work out the meaning of life in the context of his experience. But, realising the result was too abstract to lead anywhere, he gave up.
The process was to be echoed far more recently—and perhaps also more meaningfully—in the wake of 25 January, 2011, when Nasr began responding to a Facebook comment by an old Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic coworker who asked, “What if the Brotherhood comes to power?” It was as if the question unplugged a cache of latent energy:
“Instead of writing a few lines to him I found myself reviewing with him the entire history of the concept of the state and the decisive point separating two histories before and after the emergence of modernity and capital. I dealt with the rise of the notion of identity as more of a slogan than a truth; with the way the scaffolding of society had been taken apart; and with the resulting absence of society. It ended up as an incredibly long Facebook ‘note’, and I repeated the experiment with several other topics after that.”
Nasr had himself been a Muslim Brother once, however briefly, as an Arabic student at Alexandria University’s Faculty of Arts (he graduated in 1984); and it was not as if, by the time his Fragments took on such concrete form—for which he thanks the revolution—he had made no discoveries.
“When the writer creates an image to be attached to, they stand directly behind that image and lionise it as a ‘conviction’—a mask: when you remove it the writer goes away with it, vapourises. The real writer places their image at a distance, knowing that any image is a moment out of something fluid, a portion of existence in flux; and when they place it between the covers of a book, they are also placing it between two brackets of doubt…”
As is nearly always the case with poetry, it is next to impossible to say anything about the present book, apart from: “If you know Arabic, read it!” Mohab Nasr defines the poem very tentatively as a text that says something it never actually makes explicit, linking it to the cliche of knowing that someone is lonely when you notice how compulsively they chatter. After a hiatus that lasted over a decade, poems came back to Nasr like a reunion with a long lost friend, once he was out of Egypt. There was a sense of vertigo, he says: he was less confident than simply, shyly joyful; and he would send his texts to a select number of fellow writers to make sure they really were poems. The revolution, which would set off a parallel process of nonfiction writing, made his emotions raw and intense. Finally history was opening its door, he says, even if only monsters and dwarfs came through. It is interesting to note that, unlike much Generation of the Nineties poems to which it is linked, the present book makes absolutely no concessions to sensationalism: besides the fact that—prose as they remain—they are written to be read out loud, Nasr’s poems achieve the Nineties objectives of concentrating on immediate (physical) reality, drawing on day-to-day life and avoiding rhetoric precisely by avoiding direct and formulaic approaches to the New Poem. The language and images are extremely familiar, easy and recognisable; but they are just as extremely hard won.
“The life of an image in a book is the death of that image in reality. It is being free of the image’s limitations, of the illusion that an image however satisfying actually represents life.”
Thus the seemingly eternal life cycle of genuine or meaningful (literary) discourse, as opposed to the discourse of the Poet (the Arab Intellectual) who, precisely by placing himself above and beyond, manages effortlessly to be nonexistent as well—the echo of an echo of a lie:
To write, you have to have been a reader; you read what books life throws at you, but you also read the books of life itself—the people, the places, the things, the relations—as honestly, as sceptically, as unpretentiously as you can; then, when you tell someone else about what you have read, you contribute to an exchange that will somehow at some time actually shape a collective consciousness, a social state of being, life.
By 1999 Mohab Nasr will have met his present wife, the young short-story writer and fellow Arabic teacher Jehan Abdel-Azeez, with whom he settled down in Kuwait in 2007, three years after they were married. By then there had been a year of employment in Libya, and a difficult year of unemployment.
Kuwait seemed to open up a new space through both the slave-driven routine of having to produce a newspaper page every day and distance from Egyptian intellectual life, where the problem has less to do with a scene that puts pressure on or unsettles you than it does with one in which “the battle is lost from the beginning, even with yourself, because it is completely spurious”; he had felt he could only respond to that scene by letting it choke on its own lies.
“In the same way as writing in itself creates delusions, so too do opinions laid down easily during informal gatherings among writers,” he says in response to my questions, typing into his laptop in a seaside cafe back in Alexandria, a city he now visits only for holidays:
“They create delusions of belonging to a common, mutually comprehensible language… There is an extremely subtle difference between the writer creating images of consciousness as an interactive and critical medium and the writer creating those images with the intention of being attached to them as a person, of using them as a shield against society,” a tool for upward mobility, a sense of individual distinction, a lucrative link with the—political—powers that be, “not a way of relating to human beings at large.”
Prompted by this belief in a common ground, a multiparty dialogue, a welfare that eschews elitism without being populist, with Nasser Farghali, Hemeida Abdalla and the late Abdel-Azim Nagui, Nasr founded a literary group, Al Arbi’a’iyoun (or the Wednesdayers)—three issues of their eponymous journal were published in the early 1990s—and was later among the founders of the much longer-lived and by now well-known non-fiction journal, Amkenah, edited by Alaa Khalid.
In both cases his tendency towards excessive abstraction seems to have got in the way of a greater or longer-lived contribution on his part, but it was the increasingly dog-eat-dog conditions of life that drove people away from each other and dissipated the collective momentum (Amkenah charges ahead thanks to Khalid’s individual dedication).
Nasr’s nonfiction, an open-ended form of critique that can be seen as both amateur sociology-philosophy and political commentary-journalism, reveals a moralist eager to transcend morality, an aesthete well aware of the absurdity of art for art’s sake and an aspiring scholar with neither the patience nor the dispassion for scholarship; it reveals, in short, exactly the kind of man of letters whose scarcity has robbed the scene of vitality for decades, reducing the Role of the Intellectual to yet another empty slogan.
“I always suffered from this idea of abstraction as a writer, and even though I still believe in abstraction I feel it is necessary for live examples of the abstract concepts to be always present. This is what the revolution has done, or let’s call it the dissolution that facilitated such unprecedented human boiling over: the essential questions—even if they are extreme or naive or fallacious—have risen to the surface, come out (if temporarily), broken free of the hegemony of a cultural sphere that is dead and in shameful conspiracy with itself.”

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha


Please, God, give us books to read
by Mohab Nasr

I was a teacher;
I considered that natural.
For this reason I began to bow
to words I did not say;
and to communicate my respects to my children.
I tried to make them understand that it was absolutely necessary
for someone to read,
to review with his parents—
while he hurls his shoe under the bed—
how exhausting and beautiful respect is:
that they have no future without words.
You yourself, Dad,
are bowed over the newspaper
as if a cloud is passing over you;
and when I call out to you,
I see your temple
stamped with melancholy,
as if it was raining specifically for your sake.
Read, Dad,
and call my mother too to read.
Let the cloud pass over all of us.
Please, God,
give us books to read:
books that smell of glue,
their pages like knives;
that cough out dust in our faces
so that we realise our life is a cemetery;
whose covers bear a dedication from the respected author
to the retired bureau director;
cleanshaven in preparation for being slapped
and others that howl
in the margins
at people who, like us, loved
and, like us, became teachers;
books in the form of Aloha shirts
at the Reading Festival;
books on whose giant trunks we can urinate
to unburden ourselves as we go on walking.

Aw, aw…
because we too are books, God,
flailing blind in our bed of love—
aw, aw—
because we are squeezed in on Your bookshelf
looking on Your miracles:
angels on the wall,
losing gamblers tearing up their bonds;
the despair of hands that strike
and hands that sleep, hurt, on the same pages.
Aw, aw…
Then someone screams: What goes on there?

The desks of the bosses arranged in the form of the Complete Works,
snakes and bears,
crosses and wall magazines,
disgust and rotting bread,
the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?

Lost with ideas on wheels,
lost at home
and on the streets,
unseen to You or ourselves,
alone before our bosses
who are also alone,
alone with the sound of a distant latch:
Why did You unfasten it, God?

Translation © Youssef Rakha


Phenomenologically any politician is a TV program

Dissolution of the totalitarian Soviet regime brought Russia democracy of an imperfect sort. But much of the euphoria of the early nineties has dissipated in the face of new realities. Russia turned in just a few years from one of the most equal countries on the planet to among the least so, as a handful of gangster-businessmen hijacked the state’s most attractive assets.
Using the upheaval of late-Soviet and post-Soviet society as his raw material, Victor Pelevin has spent the last decade producing works of exceptional humor, beauty, and insight: four novels, a novella, and many short stories. His latest novel, Homo Zapiens (Viking), follows the career of Babylen Tatarsky, a failed young poet who becomes a copywriter in Russia’s burgeoning advertising industry. He adapts Western marketing concepts to the “post-Soviet mentality,” encounters Sufi-mystic Chechen gangsters and the ghost of Che Guevara, experiences synthetic satori through agency of entheogenic drugs, and winds up involved in a Sumerian-Masonic conspiracy that controls the “virtual” government of Russia: three-dimensional digitized dummies on TV whose movements are scripted by screenwriters. After reckoning with the dissipation of the Soviet past and the cynical facts of a freshly materialistic world (“initial accumulation of capital is also final”), Tatarsky comes to glimpses, however imperfect, of an underlying, unchanging, and perfect reality.
The mystic and carpet salesman Gurdjieff advises us that dream and waking are equivalently subjective states, each far removed from the objective reality sometimes called God. The subjective state “reading a work by Victor Pelevin” is somewhat difficult to classify. It is rather less like waking and rather more like high-quality dreaming, and despite its subjectivity, suggestive of unsayable reality: that the puddle reflects the sun, but also that the sun reflects the puddle, but also that neither of these is the case.

Leo Kropywiansky Your writing career began as the Soviet Union was dissolving, a dissolution that has brought greater literary freedom, capture of the press by oligarchs notwithstanding. Could your second novel, Omon Ra, given its irreverent treatment of the Soviet system, have been published five years earlier than it was, during the time of Gorbachev? Or during the time of Chernenko?
Victor Pelevin Actually, I don’t think we can use the term “was dissolving.” It attributes some continuity to the process. The Soviet Union collapsed in a flash. But even in 1990, when I was writing Omon Ra, nobody in Moscow expected that the collapse would ever happen. I don’t remember the exact dates, but I do remember that I finished the book days before the coup that finished the Soviet Union. So it might well be the last novel written in the USSR. It would definitely have been possible to publish Omon Ra in the late Gorbachev era, as Gorbachev was exactly the person who gave Russians the widest freedom of speech they’d ever had. Others didn’t add anything to it. Chernenko’s time was a very different story—it was still possible to be put into a loony bin for writing things of that kind.
LK Then, Omon Ra was written with some confidence that its writing would not land you in the loony bin. A counterfactual: if there had been no Gorbachev, say if Chernenko-ish or Brezhnev-ish times had prevailed for a decade or more, do you believe you would have still written Omon Ra, self-publishing it or burying it in your backyard? Or would it have never been written at all?
VP Well, I’d rather put it this way: it was written with some confidence that its writing actually took place in the loony bin. Writing Omon Ra, I sometimes felt scared of what I was doing. But this fear was residual, like white noise—there was no real danger. The political aspect of this book wasn’t really important to me. I didn’t write a satire of the Soviet space program, as the book was branded both in Russia and abroad. It was a novel about coming of age in a world that is absurd and scary. My part of the scary world was Russia, so I wrote a book where the space quest—a metaphor of the entire Soviet myth—became a background. The book was dedicated to the heroes of the Soviet Cosmos, not just “space.”
A counterfactual? I really don’t know what to say. Counterfactuals deal with abstract situations, but not a single book was ever written in an abstract situation. Books are only written in concrete circumstances.
LK What is the first book that you can remember reading as a child? Do you recall your response to it?
VP My first book—strangely enough, I remember it. It was The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov, a satirical novel written in the early Soviet era. This book is incredibly funny. It is also very good—Nabokov placed it on his hero’s bookshelf next to his own chess novel, which means a lot if you remember how he treated all things Soviet. But I read it at the age of five and didn’t find it funny at all—though I managed to finish it. I remember my awe and horror, my feeling of how horribly complicated and dangerous was the task of being a grown-up.
LK Your training and first career were as an engineer. How and when did you decide to take up writing?
VP I was in my middle twenties at that time and was a postgraduate student. A funny thought came across my mind about secret heirs of Stalin still living in a system of underground caves and tunnels under Moscow. It wasn’t the first funny thought in my head but it was the first time I decided to put it down. As I was doing it, this thought developed itself into a short story. I can’t say that the story was very good, but I liked the feeling I got when I was writing it—it was like nothing else I knew. So I started to write short stories.
LK Do you ever miss engineering? With its finite problems, as opposed to the more open-ended ones posed by fiction writing?
VP I can’t say I miss engineering. Perhaps one of the main reasons was that in Russia this field of human activity poses much more open-ended (even metaphysical) problems than writing.
LK In the U.S., the metaphysics implicit among engineers, and it is only implicit, is a simple form of logical positivism. Although I’ve known a few engineers who secretly dabbled in the occult. This I take to be an understandable response to spending one’s workdays within the confines of a too-narrow worldview. How exactly is it that Russian engineers are able to find, within their professional lives, a healthy outlet for their metaphysical yearnings?
VP The only American engineer I ever met was a Buddhist monk in Korea, so I can’t totally agree with you. As for metaphysics in the professional life of a Russian engineer, it is of a very different nature. To explain it I have to go back to the origin of the term. As you know, metaphysics literally means “after physics” in Greek. It was a general designation for everything placed after things pertaining to physics in the compendium of Aristotle’s works. In Russia, when you are trained as an engineer, you spend several years studying theoretical physics: from mechanics and electricity to elementary particles. And this training is quite deep and serious. After you graduate from your institute you are assigned to some factory where you have to work for three years (at least it was like this when I was a student and factories were still working). What happens next is they give you a crowbar, a padded coat and a cap with earflaps, and you are entrusted with the leadership of three stone-pissed proletarians (you can’t use the term “worker” here as they never work). And your task is to remove ice in the backyard. That was the metaphysics of engineering in Russia. I say “was” because these days nobody removes the ice anymore.
LK In 1992, Russia privatized some of its state-owned companies. Citizens received vouchers that could be exchanged for shares in companies. This was early in your career as a writer, perhaps while you were still writing Omon Ra. Did you receive a voucher and if you did what did you do with it?
VP Yes, I did receive it (I think I was writing The Life of Insects at the time, but I’m not sure). Mr. Yeltsin’s government said it was my share of the motherland and, symbolically enough, it amounted to the value of a vodka bottle. I responded with an act of symmetrical symbolism: together with my nation I squandered it on alcohol.
LK Sometime after your youthful reading of The Twelve Chairs, you came across the work of Mikhail Bulgakov, who you have in the past cited as a primary influence. Which of his works did you first read? What would you say is the most important lesson you have drawn from his works for your own writing?
VP The first Bulgakov book I read was The Master and Margarita. As for the lessons I drew, I’m afraid there were none, though it overturned all ideas I had about books before. At that time I wasn’t reading books to draw lessons from them. On the contrary, I often skipped lessons to read the books I liked. That was exactly the case. I read it at 14 in a library during school hours, as it wasn’t published in the USSR as a book at that time, but was only available as a publication in a literary magazine with lots of omissions. I really don’t think we get a lesson when we meet something we like. I’d rather say we get a lesson when we meet something we don’t.
LK You are of course right. Lesson is a nasty little word to use in this context. Surely, however, the overturning at age 14 of old ideas about books was something that ultimately affected your writing? Were there any especially oppressive old ideas from which that book liberated you?
VP Since it happened a long time before I started to write, there’s no way to determine how it affected my writing. However, the effect of this book was really fantastic. There’s an expression “out of this world.” This book was totally out of the Soviet world. The evil magic of any totalitarian regime is based on its presumed capability to embrace and explain all the phenomena, their entire totality, because explanation is control. Hence the term totalitarian. So if there’s a book that takes you out of this totality of things explained and understood, it liberates you because it breaks the continuity of explanation and thus dispels the charms. It allows you to look in a different direction for a moment, but this moment is enough to understand that everything you saw before was a hallucination (though what you see in this different direction might well be another hallucination). The Master and Margarita was exactly this kind of book and it is very hard to explain its subtle effect to anybody who didn’t live in the USSR. Solzhenitsyn’s books were very anti-Soviet, but they didn’t liberate you, they only made you more enslaved as they explained to which degree you were a slave. The Master and Margarita didn’t even bother to be anti-Soviet yet reading this book would make you free instantly. It didn’t liberate you from some particular old ideas, but rather from the hypnotism of the entire order of things.
LK What books have you most enjoyed reading in the last few years? In particular I wonder if there are any American authors among your recent favorites.
VP I can’t say I read too much fiction. I liked Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders, but his best story I read so far was “I Can Speak!™” published in The New Yorker. I liked some stories by David Foster Wallace and plan to siege his Infinite Jest one infinite day. Talking of the old guard, I like Robert M. Pirsig. The real heroes in his books are concepts rather than humans, and they change and develop like characters do in more traditional novels: this is incredible.
LK The ghost of Che Guevara appears in your most recent book, Homo Zapiens, propounding a theory of television as either (1) switched off, in which case it is like any other object, i.e., not any more or less difficult for the unquiet mind to pay attention to than, say, a rock, or (2) switched on, in which case it guides the attention of the viewer to such an extent that he becomes “possessed,” “techno-modified,” “a virtual subject” and no longer himself. In August of 2000, the Ostankino TV tower in Moscow caught fire, interrupting broadcasts for several days and rendering all television sets as objects of type (1). Was there a perceptible change of mood among Moscow citizens at that time?
VP I think so. People were getting nervous and irritated, like drug addicts without a routine injection. But there were a lot of jokes about it nevertheless. As for me, I hadn’t been watching television for a long time by that moment, so I didn’t experience any personal problems.
LK A big change over the last decade has been the decline in the influence of Russia’s military, which was called upon to fight a difficult war in Chechnya even as morale was falling and resources available to it were shrinking. Your father, who I understand passed away several years ago, was himself in the military. How did he view this decline in influence?
VP My father was a rather strange Soviet military man, and never had any particular influence as such. He wasn’t even a party member, which made him kind of a white crow and impeded his career badly. It wasn’t his choice to join the military: the Soviet Union started its missile program when he was a student in Kiev, and many students from technical institutes were drafted to serve in this new branch of armed force as officers. Your consent wasn’t necessary for this at that time. I never had access to the inner workings of my father’s soul but I think he never totally identified himself with the Red Army’s military might, though he was a good specialist. At the time of the decline he was much more concerned with his own health, which was deteriorating quickly. But I think that, like many people who spent their entire lifetime in the USSR, he was too stunned by its demise to take any ensuing events seriously.
LK In Homo Zapiens, the Russian government is portrayed as “virtual”: three-dimensional dummies on TV whose movements are scripted by screenwriters. This device seems particularly apt in describing the Yeltsin government, held together as it was with television coverage, funding from tycoons and the IMF, multiple heart bypasses and so forth. Do you believe it has become any less apt now, under the leadership of Putin?
VP Phenomenologically any politician is a TV program, and this doesn’t change from one government to another. But if you want me to compare the government we had under Yeltsin with the one we have under Putin, I won’t be able to do it. Not only because I don’t watch television. For this kind of assessment you need a criterion. I guess the right one would be the way the government handles the economy, because its primary function is to take care of the economy. Politics is usually the function of the latter. To pass a judgment here you need to understand, even approximately, how the economy works. In the Western economy you have a set of instruments that allow you to make this assessment even if you are not a specialist. It is always clear whether it is a bull market or bear market. So you can say: bull market, good government, bear market, bad government (I know it is an oversimplification, but still). But these instruments are not applicable to the Russian economy because its very nature is different. The essence of your business cycle here in Russia is that you always have a pig market, which means that you don’t get whacked as long as you pay the pigs. And sometimes you get whacked even if you pay because it is a real pig market. Russian economy is the dimension where miracle meets subpoena and becomes state secret. How do you compare the numerous different governments that preside over this? The only criterion would be personal appeal of the ministers: a goatee fashion, a necktie color, et cetera. But for this you have to watch television.
LK Reading philosophy is in some ways a disease, like alcohol or drugs or dog racing or any other addiction. I wonder what Western philosophers you have found most compelling. In particular I wonder if, like the moth Mitya in The Life of Insects, you have a particular affinity for Marcus Aurelius. Here I think of the Marcus Aurelius who insists upon an inner self that can’t be, except by its own assent, corrupted by the outer world. This seems to be a recurring theme in your works: the primacy of the individual mind in the face of a dangerous external world, whether the Soviet one or that of post-Soviet wild capitalism.
VP If we put it your way, the most compelling Western philosophers in my life were Remy Martin and Jack Daniels. They compelled me to do many things I otherwise would never think of. If seriously, I don’t take professional philosophers seriously even when I understand what they say. Philosophy is a self-propelled thinking, and thinking, no matter how refined, only leads to further thinking. Uncoerced thinking gives us the best it can when it subsides down and halts, because it is the source of nearly all our problems. As far as I’m concerned, thoughts are justified in two cases: when they swiftly make us rich and when they fascinate us with their beauty. Philosophy could sometimes fit into the first category—for instance, if you write “The Philosophy That Burns Fat” or something like “The Philosophy of Swimming with Sharks without Being Eaten”—but it would be an exception. Sometimes philosophy fits into the second category (also an exception), and Marcus Aurelius is exactly the case. I read his book many times when I was a kid but I’m not sure I understood his philosophy—I was simply captivated by the noble beauty of his spirit. By the way, I read somewhere that Bill Clinton’s favorite quote came from Marcus Aurelius: “One could lead a decent life even in a palace.” The very notion of Western philosophy as opposed to Eastern seems to me quite dubious and arbitrary, though Bertrand Russell wrote a very good book on its history. This label implies that your mind starts to generalize in a different manner when it is placed in a different geographical location. But how would you classify Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy—as Eastern or Western? As for the self, it is a very tricky notion. We should define it before we use it. I prefer the term mind. I think you are absolutely right when you say that my theme is the primacy of the mind. But the external world is also your mind because the categories external and internal are purely mental. Mind is the ultimate paradox because when you start to look for it you can’t find it. But when you start to look for something that is not mind you also can’t find it. Mind is the central issue that interests me as a writer and as a person.
LK I think the insight that mind can’t be found, as not-mind cannot be, could arbitrarily but not unusefully be called “Eastern.” Certainly it is not, as pepper and potatoes are not, indigenous to Enlightenment France. “Western” philosophy I take to be a line of thought (“insanity” is Bertrand Russell’s term) insisting that there is a substance called “mind,” which line of thought was terribly compelling for a long time, philosophers and readers gravitating to it as men to the bottle or dog track, as moths to the lamp, and residues of which are still so much among us that one might call it the default worldview. Although like the dog track or bottle it is ultimately unsatisfying, or at least has its limits. Which led Huxley, William James, Nietzsche, and others of catholic tastes to study “Eastern” thought, I imagine as a sort of antidote. Which leads me to my next question. You have been a student of Zen Buddhism for some years now, and its influence on your works is pervasive. How did you first become interested in Buddhism?
VP A French Structuralist (a rather modern Western line of thought) might say that both “mind” and “substance” are born in the discourse. This would quite coincide with the position of Madhyamika Prasangika (a rather ancient Eastern school) that all objects, physical and mental, including “mind” and “substance,” are but labels issued by mind. On the other hand, you could find Eastern systems saying that mind has substance, some of them saying that it is the only substance. There have been so many views in the last 3,000 years that whenever we use the term “Western philosophy” we have to redefine it at a certain moment, getting back to the nature of thinking behind the term, as you did. “Western philosophy” is a bit like the name of that biblical soul dweller who introduced himself as Mr. Legion. Generally, it is the vagueness of the subject that allows people to talk about the East and the West at such length. When the theme is so indistinct you can say almost anything and it would safely fit one of the existing clichés. Somebody could say that Eastern philosophy denies that it exists while Western philosophy pretends that it exists. A lower mind—like mine—might add that the real Western philosophy is “money talks bullshit walks” while the real Eastern philosophy is “ultimately money walks too,” written in small font under “money talks.” When you mentioned Enlightenment France, it opened another interesting possibility of comparing the essence of Western and Eastern thought, via the different meaning attributed to the term Enlightenment. Do you know Van Morrison’s song “Enlightenment, Don’t Know What It Is?” I just thought it could make a wonderful Marquis de Sade aria.
I became interested in Buddhism—and other religions—when I was a kid. At that time religious literature of any kind wasn’t easily available in the USSR, but we had tons and tons of atheistic reference books and methodological manuals for lecturers on scientific atheism. They were available in any library and described various religions in such detail that one could call these books a Soviet equivalent of The Varieties of Religious Experience. I used to read these books at the air defense base near Moscow where I spent most of my summertime. I still can’t understand why atheist lecturers needed to know so many things about Taoism—perhaps to be able to fight it in the Moscow region if the pandemic were to begin. Well, Buddhism seemed to me to be the only religion that didn’t resemble the projection of the Soviet power onto the domain of spirit. It was only much later that I understood that it was exactly the other way around—the Soviet power was an attempt to project the alleged heavenly order onto Earth. Well, Buddhism was totally out of this vicious circle and there was something so strangely compelling and soothing about it.
LK I understand that in the past few years you have been traveling to Asia to further your studies in Buddhism. Which countries have you visited?
VP First of all, I can’t really say I study Buddhism. I’m not a Buddhologist. I can’t even say I’m a Buddhist in the sense of rigidly belonging to a confession or a sect, following rituals, et cetera. I only study and practice my mind for which the Dharma of Buddha is the best tool I know: and it is exactly what the word Buddhism means to me. And I also totally accept the moral teaching of Buddhism because it is the necessary condition of being able to practice your mind. But it is not too different from the moral teachings of other traditions. I visited South Korea several times to participate in the Buddhist practice. I also visited China and Japan but without any direct connection to Buddhism.
LK Your subject matter is deeply Russian. As equally it is informed by and interested in Asia. Do you believe you will always live in Russia, or have you thought of living abroad for an extended period?
VP If you say it’s deeply Russian I don’t dare to argue, though the very fact that you were able to understand what I’m writing about might mean that it is not so deeply Russian. Or maybe it means that there’s nothing deeply Russian in being a Russian these days. As for living abroad, well, everything is possible. But so far I’m not making any plans.
LK I withdraw the “deeply Russian” and simply claim your works are “Russian.”
The logic is prior to knowledge of Russia or of Victor Pelevin’s works: Pelevin the empirical Russian writes about the empirical Russia, so unless he’s removed himself entirely from his works, they are Russian. Do you believe there’s less to being Russian these days? Or are you referring to a belief, which is on a different level, that humankind has no essence, with corollary that Russia has no essence?
VP I often think that logic is the missing link between prostitution and law (if we assume there is a gap between them). Logically, my inner lawyer can claim that your writing is more Russian than mine based on the following evidence derived from our exchange: first, you are the one to be strangely interested in this particular issue; secondly, you seem to use the term Russian more often than I do; thirdly—attention of the jury, please—your surname is much more Russian than mine (it sounds like Mr. Nettles for a Russian ear, while Pelevin means nothing at all or me at best). However, as the former CIA director used to say, Thank God I’m not a lawyer. I won’t argue that my books are not Russian because they certainly are. But what does it mean for a book to be Russian? Does it mean being soaked in Orthodox Christianity or a belief in the messianic role of Russia, or any seriously taken ideology, the way it often happened in the last two centuries? In this sense I don’t think I fit the definition as I was never inspired by anything of the kind. Does it mean following the Russian literary tradition? The only real Russian literary tradition is to write good books in a way nobody did before, so to become a part of the tradition you have to reject it—a condition necessary but not sufficient. If you are talking about the reflection of the uniquely Russian life experience, it is just a different combination of the same ingredients that comprise the uniquely French or uniquely German life experience when mixed in another proportion, these ingredients being suffering and joy, hope and despair, compassion and arrogance, the words of love, the cries of hate (I’m listening to Genesis at the moment, sorry), and so forth. Everyone of us is acquainted with each of the ingredients, that’s why you can read Anton Chekhov and I can read Kinky Friedman. But since empirically your life is always a narrow moment that takes place right now, you can’t perceive all these ingredients simultaneously. You can experience them (or describe them when you write) only in a sequence, one after another, thus making the entire difference between various national lifestyles purely statistical. It could matter in life but not in a book. And even in life it matters only if you make it matter. So there’s nothing Russian about being a Russian. More than that, Russian subject matter does not exist at all. Neither does any other. If you try to write something long and coherent about Russia, you won’t be able to do it: even if your first sentence is about Russia, your second and third will have to be about something else. And ultimately you will end up writing about yourself. In my life I have written maximum ten or twenty sentences about Russia, I guess. As every other writer on this planet, I can only write about my mind. However, I understand that the most touchingly naive notions often make the most effective marketing weapons, and when the invisible hand gives you a gold finger at the dawn of your days, you enter into a solemn bond to carry supermarket shelves inside your head for the rest of your life. In this respect the so-called subject matter is nothing compared with the sincere belief in the existence of nonfiction.
LK I pause here only to note I prefer to translate my deeply Slavic surname as “Of or having to do with nettles (of the stinging variety).” My next question I fear may be more ill-posed even than my others. I dare it only out of an honest interest in your answer. Fiction and poetry use words, which are inherently reductive, in an attempt to say or at least point at that which is unsayable. Your own works refer to this frequently. For example, the Sirruf in Homo Zapiens notes that “any insight of true breadth and profundity will inevitably be reduced to words. And the words will inevitably be reduced to themselves.” While it is your craft and livelihood, and your works achieve a great measure of success in pointing at the unsayable, have you ever imagined reaching a point where writing no longer interests you, or is no longer necessary for you?
VP I’ve just finished a short story on this subject: about the limits imposed by words. It was my attempt to rewrite The Lord Chandos Letter by Hugo von Hofmannstahl. This is a very interesting topic. The very idea that words are inherently reductive comes into existence within the realm of words and is comprised of words. If you say that there’s something that can’t be spoken about, you contradict yourself because you are already speaking about this unspeakable thing. The only difference is that you use the words unspeakable and unsayable to speak about it. I think that unspeakable might be the only possible one-word oxymoron.
Words can never be reduced to themselves because they simply don’t have anything that could be called a self. They only come into relative existence as objects of your mind and their meaning and emotional charge may vary significantly from one person to another. What exactly can they be reduced to? Words are the only way to deal with the mind, as mind is also a word and you can only tackle one word with another. However, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing beyond words. But it is beyond words only when we are silent about it from the very beginning.
As for the point where writing no longer interests me—I reached it for the first time five minutes after I had started to write my first short story. But on the sixth minute I felt that writing interested me again. If we take this to be my cycle, I reach this point approximately twelve times every hour that I dedicate to writing. So I don’t have to imagine reaching it, I know it very well. But this point is never the final one. I think there’s no final point at all. Life is a bitch, and then you die. Death is a bitch, and then you are born. Writing is very much like this, as it is living multiple short lives within your longer one.
—Leo Kropywiansky lives in Boston, where he works as an economist specializing in Japan and broader East Asia. He is working on a first novel, entitled South-by-Southeast Denver, a meditation on weather modification, paleo-ichthyology, the hangover of Cold War militarism, romantic love in its unilateral, bilateral, and triangular forms, and other disorders of selfness inherent in the samsaric condition.

Source: BOMB magazine



Anis Mansour and the Intellect of Consent

With the death of Anis Mansour (1925-2011) of pneumonia last Friday, one significant image of the Egyptian intellectual comes crashing down. It may be crass to speak in any but the most admiring terms of a man just deceased: a lively mind initially devoted to philosophy, which he briefly taught at Ain Shams University after graduating from Fouad I (Cairo) University in 1947. But his fascination is such that a critique of his career, on its folding, gives invaluable and timely insight into what his generation would have called, without irony, the cultural life of the nation.

A confirmed geek from his time at the village kuttab (where provincial toddlers started their education, learning the Quran by heart), he extracted praise all through secondary school and university and had no difficulty finding work and (soon enough) an aristocratic, well-heeled wife.

After 1950, when he started a lifetime career with Al Ahram, he became an extremely prolific producer of journalism (sometimes fictionalised, often in the form of travel writing: fat books on subjects as disparate as the Arab-Israeli conflict and UFOs never prevented him from coming up with a daily column for decades on end). Like his initial employers at Akhbar Al-Yom, the Amin brothers, he managed to ingratiate himself with whoever oversaw his work despite coming into his own at a historical juncture when, it would seem, a writer would have had to take sides. A philosopher-turned-newspaperman, he also became a public figure and a literary and intellectual authority, which no doubt he wanted; his weak protestations regarding a career that forced him away from literature should not be taken seriously. But here is the crux:

As a man of letters who grew famous prior to the audiovisual explosion, Anis Mansour was probably the last true household name in literature. But today few beyond the barely literate and the ultra-mainstream have any interest in Anis Mansour.

This is what makes the example of Mansour interesting in the wake of what was, more than a revolution as such, a collective moment of reckoning and a horribly overdue update of the socio-political software driving “national” hardware. It is a paradox that seems perversely typical, somehow: that the only surviving intellectual known outside intellectual circles should have been, for three or four decades, the least relevant to intellectual life. Perhaps thinking about why that is the case can spotlight an aspect or two of Egyptian culture in the time between June 1953 and January 2011: the first life cycle of the so called independent republic.


To look at Mansour’s CV is, of course, to trace a trajectory of success: a path of upward mobility crowned, past any number of official and semi-official awards, posts and honours, by a close personal friendship with the third president of the republic, Anwar Sadat. Also known as the Believer President because, in line with CIA policy during the Cold War, he endorsed political Islam as a bulwark against socialism, pan-Arab nationalism and opposition to peace with Israel, Sadat was a kind of early homegrown Neocon operating, especially after the October War of 1973, as absolute autocrat. How an avowed existentialist (a la Sartre) and symbol of secular liberalism could be this man’s advisor, confidante and speech writer is unclear.

For nearly two decades until Nasser died in 1970, past the establishment of the one-party police state and the Six Day War, Mansour had never so much as questioned “Nasserism”; under what was evidently a more sympathetic dictatorship which, without reversing the machinery of centralism and repression, virtually institutionalised corruption and greed, what did he contribute to national consciousness for the next ten years, until Sadat was killed by the very monster he created?

“Nothing” may be harsh and unfair, but it is possible to see the contradiction between Mansour’s principles and his practises as an instance of a much more predominant trope in Egyptian culture: the tendency to confuse pragmatism with opportunism, placing writing and thinking – down to moral questions – outside the frontiers of the real. Except for the kind of dogmatic political affiliation Mansour avoided – arguably in itself a sublimation of religiosity – few intellectuals ever got past the position of the parent who, while encouraging their son to practise his literary or artistic hobby, insisted that he should have a “real job” and, failing that, measured his accomplishment in the arts by the money and kudos said hobby could bring him, not by consistency, rigour or beauty. In a centralised police state money and kudos would always depend on consent.

In a way Mansour was the perfect candidate for a “realistic” career in the arts. Though always solid, by aesthetic and intellectual standards, his writing is seldom compelling. It is derivative and diffuse, lightweight, loquacious; all breadth and no depth. Euphemistically described as “encyclopaedic”, his intellect is in fact noncommittal, which is precisely how he could be, in the same breath, a liberal secularist and an agent of Sadat’s quasi-theocracy. As per the dictates of his modest provincial background, he deferred to older writers like Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad regardless of the substance of their discourse, never daring to open up a discursive space.

Like any number of writers since the mid-20th century, Anis Mansour wanted – and got – access to “the people”, but having paid the price (becoming part of the establishment), he ended up having little to say to them, far less than the intellectually retarded theocrat (and dissident) Sheikh Kishk, another star of the Sadat era, who had a famous scuffle with Mansour over whether or not Egypt Air should serve alcohol. Mansour could only engage those of them who were literate and open-minded enough to read his column in aimlessly rambling conversation, providing what many see as little more than vaguely learned distraction – part of the production line of a media machine which, though not yet as dysfunctional as it would become under Mubarak, was already expert at manufacturing consent in the absence of ideology.

Mansour’s last column for Al Ahram, written in the context of 25 January, seems to recognise or acknowledge the mirror image of success which makes up so much of his contribution, blessing a task he never took upon himself: “There may come a time when you are incapable of staying injustice, but there must come a time to protest that.”


‘Plain old untrendy troubles and emotions’

David Foster Wallace at the Hammer Museum in L...
Image via Wikipedia


David Foster Wallace, who died last week, was the most brilliant American writer of his generation. In a speech, published here for the first time, he reflects on the difficulties of daily life and ‘making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head’



* David Foster Wallace

* The Guardian, Saturday 20 September 2008


There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”


If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude – but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete …


A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real – you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues”. This is not a matter of virtue – it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.


By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home – you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job – and so now, after work, you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: you have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.


Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your cheque or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc.


The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.


Or if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just 20 stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks …


If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do – except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible car accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a much bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am – it is actually I who am in his way.


Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible – it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important – if you want to operate on your default setting – then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.


Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.


The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.


I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”


Adapted from the commencement speech the author gave to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio

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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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One flew over the Dhakla oasis


After a few hours, Youssef Rakha writes, the presence of djinns seemed wholly unremarkable

Eight months ago, my London-based Egyptian friend came home to carry out the field-work component of his doctoral thesis, which explores the assumptions involved in treating the mentally ill. All he needed was an isolated, relatively self-contained spot where there was no modern psychiatric care. So, rather than learning a new language on top of everything else (the endless required literature reviews, etc), he decided to return to his home country.

For posterity’s sake I should say I am speaking of Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed: frustrated astronaut turned orthopaedic surgeon-in-training turned disgruntled psychiatrist turned, finally, philosopher and doctoral candidate. Mohammed had always liked the Western Desert. And so, like the old caricature of the Colonialist desperately in search of nutty Natives, he set off from Cairo to research all five of its oases. Eventually he settled on Mut, the capital of Dakhla – according to him “the most baseline”, the most typical and unremarkable of all, and of course without a single psychiatrist to its name. The idea was to live there on and off for six months, researching how the local approaches to madness – exorcism, for example – measured up to the western status quo.

I wanted to fly out to see him, but only return tickets were available, and the flights were a week apart. I couldn’t be away that long. In time I accepted that a 12-hour bus journey was my only option. Which is how my story begins …

Madness is fascinating. But so was Mohammed’s description of Mut – named after the ancient mother goddess, but otherwise devoid of links to ancient Egypt. He described it to me in paradoxical terms: an urban community of subsistence farmers; its people of neither Nile Valley fellahin ancestry nor Bedouin stock. Many of the city’s residents, Mohammed told me, trace their ancestors to Suez, an origin so unexpected it might as well be Mars. Others claim Arabian, even Ottoman descent. They share a distinct lack of interest in the world beyond their little city, along with an encompassing belief in the power of djinns.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but these details must have gone straight to the exoticism antennae on my head. An insular community where the supernatural enjoys a stronger-than-average presence in the collective psyche: my voyeuristic, rationalist neurons were buzzing, informing me of my superiority, readying me for some kind of exotic encounter extraordinaire. By the time I arrived at the newfangled Cairo Land Port, I was feeling slightly guilty. Surely I should be suffering the 12 hours in solidarity with Mohammed, who complained of isolation and boredom every time he called me – not looking forward to indulging in some complicated Orientalism.

I had barely made it to the platform when I noticed a podgy midget in a Mao suit eyeing me with an unsettling mixture of curiosity and contempt. Though I already knew the answer, I walked over and asked him how long it takes to get to Dakhla. After answering non-committally, he launched into a sort of cross-examination: where was I from, where exactly was I going, what for, who with, for how long, why? Finally he stepped abruptly away with forced politeness – only to go on giving me sidelong glances for as long as I remained in his sight.

Over three days at the town’s central cafe – Mohammed’s centre of operations – I saw for myself that it was exactly as he told me: everyone did in fact believe in invisible, fire-based djinns who wander the town speaking Syriac, a dialect of Middle Aramaic that has been extinct for centuries. These djinns, it seemed, could do anything: from snidely controlling your thoughts (paranoid schizophrenia) to shrinking themselves down and lodging themselves in your prostrate (erectile dysfunction). Within a few hours of my first day, I had heard enough about them that their presence felt perfectly ordinary, mundane, unremarkable. It did not strike me as particularly strange that bachelors live in fear of wedding-night impotence caused by a supernatural “knot” commissioned by their enemies, tied by some evil “sheikh” who knows all the fail-proof hexes by heart.

Other, less mystical things perplexed me more. Why did people in Mut, unlike most anyone else in millennial Egypt, love Bollywood films so much? How did they not realise that the childish violence broadcast by World Wrestling Entertainment is all staged? And why did everyone I met apart from Mohammed’s few friends give me the same look I got from the midget in the Mao suit at the bus station? Divine retribution, perhaps: for the three-day duration of my stay, the remote Orientals taught the Cairene Orientalist that they distrusted and despised him more than he could ever mystify or objectify them.

The look trailed me everywhere, from the cigarette kiosk to the town’s sole kebab restaurant, in the dark, empty internet cafe with straw seats so shaky and uncomfortable you could barely sit on them, on sleepy street corners and in bustling corner shops. It identified me as precisely what I was: a westernised Cairene dissatisfied with bland Egyptian food, the discomforts of my filthy one-star hotel, the lack of activities beyond worship and shisha, the absence of women from social space, the hopelessness of culture and art, the insularity – the terrible, terrible ordinariness of life.

In the end only the Asian-looking straw hats on the heads of farmers – utterly unlike anything traditional anywhere in Egypt – struck me as in any way noteworthy. The landscape was no doubt distinct (even in autumn, daytime heat was unbearable), but the streets themselves looked so indistinguishable from a Nile Delta town that whenever I went out for a walk I headed reflexively for the nonexistent corniche. And talking expansively with Mohammed (there was nothing else to do), I came to see just how badly he had been disillusioned as well.

Mohammed hoped that spirit possession might turn out to be a partially viable alternative or supplement to the increasingly prevalent biomedical model of mental illness. Then the “sheikh” who was providing him with information, a Tramadol addict continually using needles on his own arms, came up with a new method of exorcism, one inspired by Mohammed’s modern medical presence: instead of beating his patients up, splashing them with water blessed by the Quran or simply breathing the verses onto their head, he would henceforth write the relevant verses on paper in gazelle’s blood, then soak that paper in tap water, then inject the possessed with the resulting solution.

A handful of madmen roamed the city freely – well fed, muttering about djinns, occasionally solicited for sex. But the truly memorable characters in Mut were the same ones you might encounter anywhere. On my last day, one of Mohammed’s case studies, a lost soul in his mid-fifties, approached our table at the cafe, looking more or less presentable. Everyone invited him to join in for a drink, but he did not oblige. Instead he stood there with a tortured expression on his face. “You want me to sit with you, do you?” he said. “How many cockroaches are you?”

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