spies from the house of love

In Gunzberg, on his itinerary down the Danube, Claudio Magris was reminded of one of its most famous citizens, Joseph Mengele. Mengele was hidden by the monks at Gunzberg after WWII, who then helped him ratline it to South America. In 1959, he was so confident that Adenauer’s Germany wasn’t too interested in his ass that he returned for his father’s funeral. Upon Mengele’s story – the banal bureaucrat who used to “hurl babies into the fire, tear infants from their mother’s breast and dash their brains out, extract fetuses from the womb… gouge out eyes, which he kept threaded on strings and hung on the walls of his room, and then sent to Prof. Otran van Vershauer (Director of the Berlin Institute of Anthropology, and a professor at Munster University even after 1953)”, Magris hangs his complaint about the cult of transgression. Magris starts by laying down a liberal principle that perhaps two thirds of Americans would disagree with – “As long as transgression is applied to codes of sexual behavior things are easy, because infractions of erotic taboos do not constitute evil if performed by responsible persons and inflicting no harm on others” (92) – a strangely naïve view of sexuality. But having laid this down as an “easy” principle – it being easy to argue for if one simply pays no attention to history, experience, the cultural codes that have been in place for millennia, and other trivialities – Magris makes the ‘hard” argument – or is it easy? that transgression equals Mengele.

Joseph Frank’s group evidently crystallized around transgression – in fact, the rumor about Frank is that he destroyed a Talmud in front of his followers. He also, like many Sabbataians, found no reason not to seem to convert – in his case, not to Islam, as did Sabbatai Zev, but to Christianity, signaling to those who could read the signs that he was the successor to Jesus Christ. To do this in Poland in 1760 was a transgression against the very survival of Judaism, or at least so the rabbis thought. And they had an excellent case.

Magris, of course, is not arguing against the messianic impulse, but rather, against the notion, made intellectually fashionable in the 70s by the posthumous edition of Bataille’s work, that transgression was a way out of the iron cage of the liberal, bourgeois lifestyle – a lifestyle in which, among other things, it is “easy” to argue for infractions of erotic taboos, since after all, sex is exactly equal to and only about pleasure. As such, tabooing consensual fun and games is silly – it is all chocolate, anyway. Chantilly. Lace.

However, Magris (I am being harsh about him here, but I do like the little essays that make up the Danube) has at least found the right problem. Of course, that problem was found long before – Artaud found it in Heliogabule, and Bataille took it up as his life task. Given an unequal social order, how can the powerful possibly transgress? Mengele received a salary from the state. When Beria had Meyerhold, the greatest theater director of the twentieth century, some say, taken to the Lubyanka and beaten on a regime that soon left him so crippled he couldn’t stand – then had his wife murdered – then moved into his apartment in Leningrad, perhaps on the same day they shot Meyerhold, burned his body, and mingled his ashes with a thousand others that they dumped in a grave – he was not transgressing.

And it was against this “glitch” in the social order, a glitch that caused and forgot the wars, the terror famines, the conquests, that the idea of transgression came about.

I’ve already given a hasty outline of libertinage in a number of posts from last year. In brief, my idea was that the standard story was skewed a little too much by the end of the story, the decline of libertinage in the eighteenth century. Volupte, I claimed, was a central and crystallizing libertine idea, but it was not, in the seventeenth century, synonymous with sensual pleasure. Rather, it was a social pleasure, firstly, and it was closer to what Edmund Burke, in his Essay on the Sublime, called delight. It was a delight that waited at the portals of the senses as the senses opened to nature, as the senses became nature. And that opening was made in defiance of the supernatural order – but it preceded the very idea that the world was human. In its defiance, it generated a code of revolt that naturally gravitated to the great Christian model of revolt: Satan’s. Those who read Paradise Lost and identified with Satan at the end of the 18th century were not engaged in a total misreading: after all, the Milton who wrote that epic was a regicide. In France, alas, the wrong king was beheaded –surely Louis XIV deserved that honor. A maker of battlefields and hunger. But the Fronde, which gathered free thinkers, “bold spirits” to itself, failed.

So when the volupte of the libertines was transformed, in the eighteenth century, to sexual pleasure, the transformation was part of the collapse of the original libertine agenda, in which the human limit existed, briefly, outside of any sacred sanction. However, even as volupte was being transformed, the gesture of defiance, dimly linked to Lucifer, transposed itself to new modalities. The mechanical libertine and the mesmerist met on unexpected psychological and social levels. Just as there is a Marxism of the people, symbolic understandings of commodity fetishism that crop up where a more fully developed capitalism meets an economy in which exchange value has not yet become hegemonic, so, too, messianic movements that center around transgression are a form of the libertinism of the people. At least, one can hypothesize that this is happening, in the oddest way, at the intersection of Poland, Russia and the Ottoman empire in the 18th century.

Of course, the fantastic conjunction of gnosticism and libertinage has a long presence in our collective dream life. Norman Cohen has shown that the story of a esoteric group that engages in sexual orgies to break the social ties of the members and incorporate them into the worship of strange gods – that total cosmic reorientation – is told and retold about the Christians (by the Romans), the Cathars, the witches, the Jews, the Templars. Galinsky’s report could be put in the category of myth, except for the fact that we know such things also happen. There is something psychologically plausible in the fact that Jacob Frank became the seigneur of sexual bestiality, keeping a cold eye on the couplings of his followers, after his wife died. Was it at this point that he made his daughter, Eva, the mother of God?

Eva Frank. Driving about Offenbach in a carriage, visiting respectable houses, dying well off. One wonders, I wonder, about her story.

Fringe viewpoints, and yet it is here that I see so many crossings – Marx with Michelet’s Sorciere, Nietzsche with Jacob Frank, Hazlett with Huene-Wronsky. All the spies in the artificial paradise, sleeper cells from the very beginning.


Anonymous said…
and Louise Colet's story.