Michel Houellebecq’s basic experience in his novel Whatever (or literally: the extension of the domain of the struggle) is that we are unable to live in the domain of the rules – the uniformity of the current information society in which human relations are no longer possible – and that we have to enter the domain of the struggle in order to differentiate between the information society and ourselves. Opportunities for these differentiation strategies are found in total economic and sexual liberalism in this novel. These strategies are definitely inspired by Darwin’s concept of a struggle for existence. The Darwinian struggle is however not inconsistent with the domain of the rules; successful differentiations end up in a new dominant design, i.e. in new rules of the game. Because the economic struggle always ends up with the reinforcement of the domain of the rules, we should reject Houellebecq’s differentiation strategies. On the contrary, if we really experience that we are unable to live in the domain of the rules, we should look for differentiation strategies which do no longer belong to the domain of the economic.
At first glance, Peter Terrin’s Post Mortem is a book about an author who is writing an autobiographical book about his alter ego, while his four year old daughter is hit by a cerebral infarction. In fact, it describes the struggle of an author in the current age, in which the complete revelation of yourself – the transparency of our biography in literary works but also at social networks like facebook and wordpress – is celebrated as the greatest good. Steegman, the main character of the book, is a child of his time and completely transparent for himself; he recognizes and knows himself, writes an autobiographical book and even tries to have control over his future biographer. At the same time, he suffers from biophobia and wants to escape his biography. Why? Because of the banality of transparency in which there is no room anymore for any difference between what you are and what the world knows about you. Originally, it was precisely this difference that drove authors, poets and philosophers to write their books and sing their songs. In the age of transparency, Steegman’s idea is to move in the opposite direction; he becomes completely transparent in his book (“he has become his books”) and at the same time, he explores a diversionary tactic; the exploration of another possible meaning of his biographical events and based on this, the establishment of an ambiguity and secrecy in which Steegman can withdraw and escape the transparency of his biography.
Although I acknowledge that Steegman’s diversionary tactic is promising – especially the tactic to raise dust clouds in which you can hide yourself in the age of transparency – the focus on biophobia and the biographical is still subjectivistic in this novel. I would like to propose another possible meaning of Post Mortem, inspired by the temporary amnesia of Steegman’s daughter. After her cerebral infraction, she suffered from temporary amnesia as a self-protective reflex of the bodily system. Maybe, we have to conceive the banality of transparency as a temporary amnesia with regard to the difference between ourselves and what the world knows about us. This amnesia is nothing negative. On the one hand, it is precisely this amnesia that has to be conceived as self-protective, i.e. as a protection of the self in the age of transparency. On the other hand, it is precisely this amnesia with regard to myself, which provides the only access to the difference between myself and what the world knows about me in the age of transparency. In this respect, not biophobia but a non-subjectivistic desire for the “self” should be key in future literary efforts. Coetzee’s descriptions of the personal over the universal in ‘the Childhood of Jesus’ – see my previous blogs – could be seen as such an effort.
´How to live without desire´ (Simon)
In ‘The Childhood of Jesus’, John Coetzee describes the arrival of Simon, a middle-aged man, and a young boy in a new country. They do not only bid farewell to the past and embrace a new beginning of life when they arrive. It involves a transformation of the ‘personal’ to the ‘universal’; in the new country, people abstract from the singularity of their bodily existence and their desire for the future in favour of their living in the present, i.e. in a universal and transparent order of benevolence and goodwill in which there is no room for any ambiguity or discontent. Coetzee’s description of this new country unmistakably evokes memories of our present time.
Contrary to the universal order of the new country, Simon insists on the primacy of the personal over the universal, matter over form. In this, he repeats a fundamental critique of the metaphysical tradition. In this tradition, primacy is given to the universal and stable form of an entity over the singularity and instability of its materiality. Simon criticizes the philosophical abstractions of his fellow citizens – what makes a chair a chair for instance – and insists that things do not have their due weight in this new country: “the music we hear lacks weight. Our lovemaking lacks weight”. For this reason, Simon maintains the materiality and singularity of his desires in the new country.
The consequence of this maintenance of singularity becomes clear if we consider Simon’s confrontations with the boy he is trying to raise. The young boy represents precisely the primacy of the personal over the universal; he declares that he wants to be an escape artist and a magician, he refuses to accept the mathematical order and develops his private language. This radical differentiation between the boy as a singular person and the world around him is criticized by Simon: “’If you refuse, if you go on being rude about Spanish and insist on speaking your own language, then you are going to find yourself living in a private world. You will have no friends. You will be shunned’. ‘What is shunned’? ‘You will have nowhere to lay you head’. ‘I don’t have friends anyway’”. Simon criticizes the boy’s radical insistence on his singularity over the universality of the mathematical and linguistic order, because it makes him lose contact with the world around him completely. For Simon, singularity means that I acknowledge a ‘gap’ between myself as a singular person and the world around me, which can be bridged in my love or desire for the other. But the boy has a more radical experience of singularity, i.e. a fundamental ‘crack’ between myself and the world around me which cannot be bridged. As a consequence, the singularity of the boy is no longer characterized by a desire for another person or the world around him, because such a desire may result in his falling down the crack. The boy “keeps hesitating and hopping to avoid cracks” and it is precisely this basic experience which drives his escape to a new beginning of life at the start and the end of the novel. The question is no longer how to live without a desire for the world, but rather how to live without continuously escaping the world. If we want to maintain our singularity in the age of universality, we have to become escape artists and magicians ourselves, we have to become wanderers like Ahasverus.
Last week I was finally able to read Dostojevski’s ‘Notes from Underground’. It contains important considerations for scholars and practitioners interested in stakeholder theory, which is so popular in our society. The basic idea is that the private sector is primarily self-interested and that stakeholders like governmental organisations, NGO’s and civil society should be involved in the solution of the grand challenges of our time – climate change, poverty alleviation, obesity etc. – in order to balance economic (profit), social-cultural (people) and environmental (planet) interests in a better way. Dostojevski raises the fundamental question whether people and organizations are in the end self-interested at all: ‘man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated. And one may choose what is contrary to one’s own interests, and sometimes one positively ought … One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be…, what man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead’. Notes from underground do not only raise questions with regard to the validity of popular distinctions between ‘self-interested’ and ‘common-interested’ or altruistic value frames etc. More important is that it raises the fundamental question whether people can primarily be understood in terms of their ‘stake’ or ‘interest’ at all. The big mistake of stakeholder theory is that the point of departure is exactly found in such a ‘stake’.
Reading The Satanic Verses opens a new perspective on the enthusiasm for the transmutation of human being by humanists, ecologists and philosophers of the current age. The question is whether such a transition of the self ‘by doing so brings immediate death to its old self’ (Lucretius), or is ‘still the same forever, but adopts in its migrations ever-varying forms’ (Ovid). Saladin Chamcha chose Lucretius over Ovid; he actually breaks out of his limitations and becomes another, discrete, severed from history. Gibreel Farishta on the contrary, chose Ovid over Lucretius. As a consequence, he develops a deadly form of schizophrenia between his current self and his old self, which inevitably results in his committing suicide at the end of the novel. When do we stop halting between two opinions and make Lucretius our choice? In the current ecological crisis, such a transmutation of human being can be seen as a mutation in extremis to ensure the survival of the human species on earth. At the same time, and contrary to the celebration of such transmutations in the current age, the confrontation between Chamcha and Firishta shows clearly the death and despair which is inseparable from such a transmutation of human being. It will not become a happy century in any case!