“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Monday, October 24, 2005

the messianic timetable

The spirit of the common place book is about one of those facts in the reader’s natural history: suddenly there will loom, out of one’s loose and general reading, some phrase or anecdote that seems mysteriously to signal one – a wink in the suddenly lighted up dark. The darkness descends again, the wink is registered. The reader continues, spending a portion of his life in one book or another. LI received one of those winks from the beyond while reading this in Mark Mazower’s Salonica:

“In 1524, a mysterious Jewish adventurer called David Reuben arrived in Venice and presented himself as prince of one of the lost tribes of Israel. He gained an audience with the Pople and told the Holy Roman Emperor to arm the Jews so that they might regain Palestine. Crossing his path was an even less modest figure – a Portugese New Christian called Diego Pires. After rediscoving his Jewish roots and changing his name to Solomon Molcho, he studied the Kabbalah in Salonica with some of the city’s most eminent Rabbis and gradually made the transition to messianic prophet. He predicted the sack of Rome – which occurred at the hands of the imperial troops in 1527 – and then declared himself to be the Messiah, and went to Rome itself, in accordance with the apocalyptic programme, where he sat for thirty days in rags by the city gates praying for its destruction. Before being burned at stake, Molcho saw the future: the Tiber was flooding over, and Turkish troops were bursting into the seat of the Papacy. The truly striking thing about Molcho is how many people believed in him and preserved and reinterpreted his messianic timetables.”

The wink I received from this story was about my own liberalism, for it is a liberalism derived from drifting away from the Marxist oriented left, and its main characteristic is that it has weaned itself away from the apocalypse. It is not, then, an ideology for every situation – during the late forties, Zoltas, the Hungarian Jewish writer, made bitter fun of the community leaders who simply refused to believe reports about Auschwitz. My instincts would certainly be with those community leaders. I resist believing that my enemies are enemies on that scale. That they can be points to the very limits of liberalism, its vacancy in the face of certain existential crises. But – liberal to the end – I don’t believe in one ideology for all seasons.

This, at least, is LI’s position for the moment. But as I say, I recognize, in the pull of Marxism, the pull of a more passionate worldview, and one from which I still extract a considerable stock of critical insights. So I could see myself as a potential candidate for belief in the divine appointment of Solomon Molcho. I just can’t see myself reinterpreting the messianic timetables after his untimely auto de fe.

All of which is by way of sliding into a subject I know little about: Slavoj Zizek. My friend T. sent me a Zizek essay to help me get a better grasp on this guy, but he warned me that, probably, Zizek is not someone who would make a good subject for an LI post. Probably he is right. However, after reading this interview with Zizek in the Journal of Philosophy and Scripture, I am… well, confounded. In the interview, Zizek takes up the religious turn that appeared in Lacan’s writings in the seventies, and has continued in Badiou. In particular, Zizek comments on the special place Badiou accords St. Paul.

That special place, one would think, for a Marxist would be in the invention of conversion. The ritual of conversion, the movement from God to God, was commonplace in Paul’s Hellenic Eastern Meditteranean. But that movement did not signal a change in world view, so to speak. In fact, world views qua world views didn’t exist, as far as I can see, in that world – using Heidegger’s sense of World, which he explicitly ties to Christianity. Rather, there were views of fate. All of which I won’t batter on about. But according to Badiou, apparently, St. Paul was the inventor of something far different. And that different thing is not something I like at all, although Zizek does. When the interviewer asks Zizek about the significance of St. Paul, he gives a long answer. Part of it goes like this:

“I think the reason that Badiou does not deploy this, as I tried to develop in the long chapter on Badiou and St. Paul in The Ticklish Subject , the key question for me is negativity in the sense of death. For him, in Badiou's reading of St. Paul, the death of Christ, as he puts it, has no inherent meaning whatsoever—it's just to prepare the site for the event. All that matters is resurrection life. This is connected with a very complex philosophical-theological topic . . . you may have noticed if you read Badiou, Badiou has some kind of natural, gut-feeling resistance toward the topic of death and finitude. For him, death and finitude, animality and so on, being-towards-death, death-drive—he uses the term sometimes in a purely non-conceptual way, "death drive, decadence" as if we were reading some kind of naïve Marxist liberal optimist from the early 20th century. This is all somehow for me interconnected. Although I am also taking St. Paul as a model, a formal structure which can then be applied to revolutionary emancipatory collectivities, and so on, nonetheless I try to ground it in a specific Christian content, which again for me focuses precisely on Christ's death, [his] death and resurrection. I am trying even to identify the two. The idea that resurrection follows death, the idea that these are two narrative events, this is at the narrative level of what Hegel would have called vorstellungen , representations. Actually, the two of them are even united. That is to say that Christ's death, in the Hegelian reading, is the disappearance of disappearance. It is in itself already what becomes for itself the new community.
What interests me is how precisely to distinguish Christ's death from this old boring topic—and all the old materialist critics of Christianity like to point this out: what's the big news, don't you have this sacrificial death of God in all pagan religions? Ah ah! You don't. The structure is totally different if you read it closely: already at the most superficial level, after Christ's death what you get is Holy Spirit, which is something totally different than in previous societies. All this about Isis, and so on, this rather boring circular myth, where basically god dies . . . you know, it's like, people are disordered, things go bad, but then there is the phoenix, everything is good again—no wonder this version is so popular, like even in The Lion King, where you have a kind of Hamlet-version where king dies, son redeems, there is a new king and so on . . . Christianity precisely is not this.”

I am for the popular version here, the Lion King versus the death of Jesus, if those are the terms. But I can’t help wonder: if those are the terms, isn’t something wrong with the choices in this game? Which is why, at the very threshold, I have trouble with the religious turn. Give me material ecstasies and agonies, and less imperial tortures on hilltops. More specifically -- I simply don't see why one would chose St. Paul over Solomon Molcho. I don't, I guess, see the specialness of Christianity at a point in history where, in Europe, the Christian myths are dying, and in America, the Christian myths are being replaced by the American Jesus, a relatively new godhead. There is something that vaguely repulses me, here, in this dabbling in a language that embraces the old Cold war idea of Communism as a religion. To embrace the God that failed as the God that fails, and whose revolutionary project is to fail every time, is a sort of messianic nightmare to me.

All of which probably means: I don't understand what Zizek wants.


h said...

Me neither Mr. Limitedinc. He is too cute by half. I haven't had a chance to read any of his books, but by these tidbits I come across all the time, he is fun, but too much of a Maoist. And he skips over some of the stuff I find interesting--not exactly a crime, i know, but you'd think he would atleast pause abit. And then he makes a big deal out of the stuff I would gloss over. Like when he so quickly moves beyond the conversation between God and devil,"that's how sacred books are written" Are they? ALl of them? Or some. And why. And his reading of Paul too is annoying. Univeral truth accesseble from an "engaged position." Now Mr. LT, where have we heard that before? And it is even less persuasive now. Again, something like Negri's notion of "tendenciousness" in reading Capital.
Any how, and I just don't get the exciting breakthrough that wasn't there to begin with. I mean, the notion of suffering godhead just doesn't do it for me. The point has been made repeatedly for centurires, but insofar as the GH is god, he has no claim to meaningful suffering, and then suffering qua man is no more no less priviledege than all others stoned, hacked, hung, shattered, incinerated, bludgeoned...you get my drift.
So yes, and no, I just don't get zizek either.
By the way, lots of luck with the fundraising. If it turns out very successfully, send some beers my way.

roger said...

Mr. H! Haven't heard from you in a while. I' totally curious -- how are you doing! Send me an email with details, will ya?

And yeah, I remember, back in the day, how you used to slice and dice up liberation theology. Except this is anti-liberation theology. Or is it liberation anti-theology? In any case, I would chose Solomon Molcho over St. Paul.

T.V. said...

The thing to understand is that Zizek is the Christopher Hitchens of the theory set. His recent embrace of Christianity--just as Christianity and the other desert religions are collapsing into their terminal fascistic & violent decay--is the single worse piece of wowza lecture-circuit "contrarianism" I have ever seen. Ever. There just aren't any contenders. And the docile, frictionless way that Zizek's kid disciples gulped it down really does speak worlds about how detached all his apocalyptic gesturing is from any identifiable politics. It's like a whole generation of kids patiently explaining that when Heidegger wore the armband to parties he wasn't supporting fascism as it had actually existed but rather the core ideal of fascism that had been so tragically tragically misunderstood, it's all very subtle and complex and you have to read all nine volumes of The Ticklish Subject of Being and Time before you're qualified to assess the gesture.

It's another sign of decay, isomorphic to all the other ones you discuss here so well. Watching Lacan rise phoenixlike with George Bush and fundies from the ashes of dismissability is the very best proof that Jesus really is coming back tomorrow. Are you ready, Roger?

roger said...

T.V. -- I'm a little more cautious than you, since I haven't read enough Zizek to know what he is doing.

But Lacan... I have read the early seminaires of Lacan, and the ecrits, and much of Lacan makes sterling sense to me. Up until the late sixties, where Lacan suddenly takes up St. Theresa, mathemes, and other matters that, frankly, make me think that the master has been bounced on his head a few too many times.

I discussed this, once, with a famous Yale prof. I met this guy at a dinner party. At the time, I had just read Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, which is full of funny stories about, among others, Gurdijeff. Somehow, we got to discussing Gurdijeff and Lacan, and the professor told me about inviting Lacan to give a talk at Yale. First, Lacan shows up with a strange and beautious babe, not his wife. Next, he demands a better hotel. Next (unbeknownst to the Yale committee) he makes about two thousand dollars worth of long distance calls from the hotel, which of course is charged to the room, which is charged to Yale. Next, to a full house -- many shrinks in the area eager to hear the latest -- he gives a talk. However, although supposedly the talk was going to be in English, no, after a few preliminary sentences, off he goes into Lacanian French. And talks. And talks. A full two hours. Next, at the party to celebrate (at which the famous professor was thinking of throwing a very un-Lacanian punch at the guy), he insists on talking about the sexual life of elephants. That is all he wants to talk about.

After that story, I must admit, I liked Lacan a lot more. What a character! I didn't know what I liked best -- the balls of getting Yale to pay for your calls to Tokyo or the elephant sex stories. Breton said the first surrealist act was firing a loaded revolver into a crowd. Surely the second, and more satisfying, is lecturing in obscure French to a crowd of English speaking psychoanalysts for two hours. And this also reminds me of Peter Sellars playing Quilty, in Lolita, doing those strange dances with his karate suit assistant.