Tag Archives: litcrit

RIP George Steiner (1929 – 2020)

An episode of Wim Kayzer‘s ‘Of Beauty and Consolation’ (2000) [the introduction is Dutch only, the rest of the interview is in English]

George Steiner was a Franco-American literary critic and essayist.

His anti-pornography essay “Night Words” (1965) was the first of his writings which came to my attention in my capacity as pornosopher in the early 2000s.

Although I did not agree with them, his points were well-written and intellectually interesting.


“My true quarrel with the Olympia Reader and the genre it embodies is not that so much of the stuff should be boring and abjectly written. It is that these books leave a man less free, less himself, than they found him; that they leave language poorer, less endowed with a capacity for fresh discrimination and excitement. It is not a new freedom that they bring, but a new servitude. In the name of human privacy, enough!”

But then again, he also found the pearls and showed an appreciation for Diderot, Crebillon fils, Verlaine, Swinburne and Apollinaire. Pornography as such is just not very interesting, it is only interesting where it intersects with other genres or with other domains of interest in meaningful ways. In that sense, it is very similar to other art forms.

I happened to read In Bluebeard’s Castle (1971) during last summer. I had discovered the work when researching the notion of Western guilt. The book features the much quoted dictum:

“And it is true also that the very posture of self-indictment, of remorse in which much of educated Western sensibility now finds itself is again a culturally specific phenomenon. What other races have turned in penitence to those whom they once enslaved, what other civilizations have morally indicted the brilliance of their own past? The reflex of self-scrutiny in the name of ethical absolutes is, once more, a characteristically Western, post-Voltairian act.”

The book was on David Bowie’s Top 100 Books .

“By Allah, this story is my story and this case is my case”

Currently reading  De Zahir.

I’m currently reading  De Zahir.

One sentence in “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges caught my attention.

“I remembered too that night which is at the middle of the Thousand and One Nights when Scheherazade (through a magical oversight of the copyist) begins to relate word for word the story of the Thousand and One Nights, establishing the risk of coming once again to the night when she must repeat it, and thus on to infinity…”

Marina Warner in Stranger Magic points to “Readings and Re-Readings of Night 602” by Evelyn Fishburn which identifies the night Borges refers to as the “Tale of the Two kings and the Wazir’s Daughters“.

“By Allah, this story is my story and this case is my case,” shouts the king when he finds out that Scheherazade is telling him his frame tale.

Again in the words of Borges (from “Magias parciales del Quijote“) in which he calls that night a “magic night among the nights”:

“The King hears his own story from the Queen’s mouth. He hears the beginning of the story, which embraces all the others as well as – monstrously – itself. Does the reader really understand the vast possibilities of that interpolation, the curious danger – that the Queen may persist and the Sultan, immobile, will hear forever the truncated story of A Thousand and One Nights, now infinite and circular?”[1]

This passage illustrates the concepts of infinite regress, the Droste effect and metafiction.

The castrated woman of Laura Mulvey

 Venus at the Opera (1844) by Grandville is the best illustration to the male gaze

Yesterday, a fascinating but notoriously obscurantist text became a little clearer. In the process I was reconciled to French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

My eldest daughter, now in her second year of theatre studies, is studying one of the texts that had for a long time baffled as much as fascinated me: “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema[1], a 1970s film theory essay by Laura Mulvey.

Now, it is my belief that the most valuable philosophers are not always the most lucid ones. I agree with Emil Cioran: ‘between the demand to be clear, and the temptation to be obscure, impossible to decide which deserves more respect.’

Philosophers such as Georges Bataille (‘Eroticism … is assenting to life up to the point of death’) and Gilles Deleuze (‘flying anuses, speeding vaginas, there is no castration’) I’ve never fully understood, but I’ve always been fascinated by them and and felt that it was not impossible to reach some kind of comprehension of their texts, even if the explanation remained ambiguous.

However, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure …” is so stooped in litcrit and psycrit jargon that it is almost unreadable. Key terms in the vocabulary of that essay are lack, castration, fetishism, voyeurism, gaze and scopophilia. So far so good. These are difficult terms to grapple with but not beyond comprehension (except for perhaps the Lacanian lack).

The trouble starts on the first line of the second paragraph:

“The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.”

Castrated woman?

I start Googling.

I find the phrase ‘castrated woman’ in Spurs, Nietzsche’s Styles (1978), a work by Jacques Derrida in which one reads, toward the end:

He was, he dreaded this castrated woman.
He was, he dreaded this castrating woman.
He was, he loved this affirming woman.

So that’s were the notion of the ‘castrated woman’ comes from.

I continue my quest. I find a video[2] by American professor Rick Roderick who defends Derrida’s sense of humor.

I’ve never much cared for Derrida. I’m fond of many 20th century French philosophers but Derrida has been my least favorite and the most dislikeable ‘bums to be kissed by American academics’, to say it in Paglia’s words.

Nevertheless, the premise of Spurs is fascinating. In it, Derrida “imagines that Nietzsche left behind, among his many papers a little scrap of paper that says: “I forgot my umbrella”. Then Derrida goes through a long, complex way that an academic interpreter would try to fit this brilliant aphorism of Nietzsche’s into the body of his work. I mean, after all, it might just mean “I forgot my umbrella”, but on the other hand…”

I am reminded that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I’m happy with my philosophical detective work.

And I may just seek out that “I forgot my umbrella” book by Derrida.

Illustration: Venus at the Opera (1844, Grandville), perhaps the best illustration to the male gaze.