At Home He's a Tourist

He fills his head with culture/ He gives himself an ulcer.

Saturday, September 06, 2003

The P. and the D. continued

Chapter 1: When East Meets West

Eastern religions appeal to many people in the post-Christian West; in this chapter Žižek gives a couple of reasons for sticking with trinitarian monotheism (atheist though he is). The first is the superiority of the Christian concept of love over that of the East. He sees the Incarnation as the ultimate statement that "true love is...forsaking the promise of Eternity itself for an imperfect individual," whereas Hindus and Buddhists aim at a generalized compassion without personal emotional attachments. (Think of the character in "An Enduring Chill" whom Flannery O'Connor described as "bland as the Buddha.") These different ethical ideals are given appropriate metaphysical backing in their respective traditions, Christians believing in individuality to such an extent that, not only are souls distinct from each other, but God is, in the Trinity, distinct from Himself; Hinduism and Buddhism, on the other hand, obliterate all personal distinctions by adhering to variations on pantheism. Žižek is probably the first person in history to compare C. S. Lewis to a Buddhist, noting that the conversion experience in Surprised by Joy is remarkably unemotional compared to the "ecstatic pathos in the usual style of Saint Teresa [with her] multiple-orgasmic penetrations by angels or God." Anyway, I think Žižek is basically right; sure, there are strains of medieval Catholic mysticism which sound Buddhist (e.g. St. John of the Cross saying that one must eliminate all desire to attain union with God), but since I'm sticking with Protestantism for the time being, I'm free to reject later developments in favor of the original teaching. Check the New Testament: Jesus said there was no higher love than that a man would die for his friends, and wept over the fate of Jerusalem--can you imagine Buddha crying for anybody? St. Paul, too, felt "much anguish" over the state of the churches.

But this Christian elevation of the passionate love of the individual over the passionless love of the universal is problematic for Žižek, since he claimed in the introduction that the founding of Christianity as an institution occurred only because St. Paul so strongly emphasized its universal features: "When one reads Saint Paul's epistles, one cannot fail to notice how thoroughly and terribly indifferent he is toward Jesus as a living person (the Jesus who is not yet Christ, the pre-Easter Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels)--Paul more or less totally ignores Jesus' particular acts, teachings, parables, all that Hegel later referred to as the mythical element of the fairytale narrative...What matters to him is not Jesus as a historical figure, only the fact that he died on the cross and rose from the dead." In this way, says Žižek, Paul is as much of a betrayer of Jesus as Judas.

His solution in chapter 1 is to make a difficult, paradoxical argument that the highest act of love towards an individual is a betrayal of the person for a universal cause. (To be continued...)

Friday, September 05, 2003

Robert Christgau Word of the Day

picong: from the French word "piquant" meaning cutting or stinging; it means making jokes about someone in front of his/her face. (

Lord Melody Precious Melodies [1995, Ice]
Although he doesn't have the voice to ape Cassius Clay or picong-wrestle with Sparrow, he does have the lyrics. A good half of these songs abound in calypso's outrageously observed hyperbole, and his failures with women are a relief from the usual BS even if they're hyperbole too. As for "Crazy Love" and "My Baby Is All Right," well, they don't merely justify his sobriquet--they make you think maybe this plug-ugly cared more for women than his better-endowed rivals. I still covet his gibberish-German Hitler farewell, not to mention the original of Harry Belafonte's "Mama Look at Boo Boo." But the compilation he deserves might as well be this one. A- (

The Puppet and the Dwarf

Introduction: The Puppet Called Theology

After announcing the project of his book, Žižek pokes fun at postmoderns who are open to religion as a "culture" or "lifestyle" but are intolerant of "fundamentalists" who "dare to take their beliefs seriously." I can see why: Marxism and Christianity, although opposed in so many ways, are both quaintly absolutist compared to the ironic, relativist stance of postmodernism. I also agree with him that contemporary liberals are incoherent in tolerating everything but intolerance. (This hypocrisy is evident in the current debate over the status of gays in the Anglican church; a conservative bishop was attacked in the streets of London by two Chuch of England priests for condemning homosexuality, a conservative ECUSA church was burned to the ground by gay activists, four men beat a church sexton because of his priest's opposal to the actions of General Convention, and now a homosexual group in England is pressuring the government to refuse a visa to Nigerian bishop Peter Akinola.)

Žižek says "Within this framework of suspended belief, three so-called "post-secular" options are permitted: one is allowed either to praise the wealth of polytheistic premodern religions oppressed by the Judeo-Christian patriarchal legacy; or to stick to the uniqueness of the Jewish legacy, to its fidelity to the encounter with radical Otherness, in contrast to Christianity...In addition to these two options, the only Christian references permitted are the Gnostic or mystical traditions that had to be excluded and repressed in order for the hegemonic figure of Christianity to install itself. Christ himself is OK if we try to isolate the 'original' Christ, 'the rabbi Jesus' not yet inscribed into the Christian tradition is allowed to praise Paul, if one reinscribes him back into the Jewish legacy--Paul as a radical Jew, an author of Jewish political theology..." In the course of the book he will reject the first two options and defend a version of the third, in which the Gnostic "core"of Christianity is Marxist atheism.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

"For more than four decades, researchers interested in folklore and oral history have trekked to Lubbock, Tex., to use one of the world's most comphrehensive collections of indigenous tales: the Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University." C'mon, "trekked"? Yes, the South Plains are flat and dusty, but they ain't the Sahara. FYI, here's the archives.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity

A weird book. I've read it twice and remain confused, although I don't feel too dumb because an Atlantic Monthly article on Žižek states that "he contradicts himself all the time." At the very least, though, he entertains the reader with a dazzling facility for finding apt illustrations of philosophical points in popular culture (movies, jokes, consumer products) and a Nietzschean outrageousness which will alternately delight and offend readers from both the right and the left.

The thesis of the book--I think--is stated in the introductory chapter: "My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach--and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience." With the collapse of Soviet communism, Marxism is out of fashion, while religiosity is making a comeback even among trendy thinkers like Derrida who declare that we have entered a "post-secular" age. In such an intellectual climate, the Marxist "dwarf" has to hide behind and manipulate the "puppet" of theology if it is to succeed. This approach strikes me as fundamentally dishonest, but Žižek takes for granted Hegel's doctrine of historical dialectic, according to which truth is only arrived at incrementally: "it is not possible to choose the 'true meaning' directly: that is, one has to begin by making the 'wrong' choice--the true speculative meaning emerges only through repeated reading, as the aftereffect (or byproduct) of the first, 'wrong,' reading." (83) Although he doesn't state this explicitly, I suppose Žižek would say that twentieth-century Marxism was such a dismal failure because it was a false start, an illegitimate attempt to bypass the Hegelian dialectical process in which communism would arise only after the "wrong" choice of Christianity was followed through to the uttermost.

More to come...

Robert Christgau Word of the Day

en·voy also en·voi n.
1. A short closing stanza in certain verse forms, such as the ballade or sestina, dedicating the poem to a patron or summarizing its main ideas.
2. The concluding portion of a prose work or a play. (

James Brown Say It Live and Loud: Live in Dallas 08.26.68 [1998, Polydor]
Counting the half-studio Sex Machine, this makes Brown's fifth live album from the crucial 1967-1971 period--and except for Sex Machine, it's also the best. Its chief competition, Live at the Apollo Volume II, was released a few weeks after it was recorded, but Brown moved so fast in those years that the Apollo record is radically different, a soul envoi at a moment when, as here, the funked-over "Cold Sweat" was his centerpiece and the daring "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud" his pride and joy. From touchstone to newborn, from bop-inflected Maceo on the piss-break instrumental to born-again JB on the climax medley, breakneck intensity for the ages. A- (

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Cash, Jean W. Flannery O’Connor: A Life. Tennessee, $30.

Christianity and Literature: “Cash has spoken with just about everyone who knew O’Connor and who is still around and willing to talk about here. Cash’s biography rests on this remarkable collection of interviews, which amplify the broad outlines of O’Connor’s life that were already known. The interviews also yield fascinating glimpses of a personality that was fierce and comic at ‘oncet’…Still, that determined and humorous individual never fully emerges in the details of Cash’s book.—J. Robert Baker, Fairmont State College.”

Publishers Weekly: “Cash's scrupulously detailed biography, the result of a decade of research, offers readers many particulars about O'Connor's (1925-1964) life, but ultimately falls short on insight into one of America's finest and most enigmatic writers.”

Library Journal: “O'Connor's daily life may have seemed prosaic, but as revealed by her writings and this fine new biography her interests, irony, and cold eye were hardly conventional. Cash (English, James Madison Univ.) spent ten years researching this work, and it shows; while this is not a critical study, it is the first book to chronicle O'Connor's life in such painstaking detail. Recommended for public and academic libraries. Robert L. Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN.”

First Things: “A bitter disappointment. To begin with, it is distressingly ill-written: ponderous, trits, tediously repetitious, and burdened throughout by a kind of master’s thesis nervousness that shows itself in quotes that illuminate nothing and arguments for points that require no proof….In a few places Cash’s own pieties cloud her view of her subject so greatly as to result in distortion.—Paul Mankowski, Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome.”

Southern Quarterly: “Cash tackles her subject with meticulous research and rhetorical sophistication…performs a valuable service for scholars and provides an accessible read for lay audiences…Cash works so hard to curtail speculation about O’Connor’s personal life that she loses the kind of narrative tension any good story needs…When Cash might offer far-reaching analysis, readers often get a list…gives readers plenty of important facts, but no growth, no struggle—no story.—Julie Buckner Armstrong, University of South Florida.”