Thursday, February 22, 2018
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a physically and emotionally abused orphan whose supernatural sense of smell guides him in a perverse search for the lost origin of his own identity.
Grenouille himself lacks any personal scent, signifying an absence of an individual identity. But it is not only his supernatural sense of smell that is the focus of Grenouille's life, but the idea that a persons scent is integral to their very humanity.
While on his mission to create a scent of his own, he desired to create a perfume so sweet smelling that it gives the person wearing it complete control over the emotions of the people around him. The olfactory sense having direct connections to the two brain areas that are most strongly implicated in emotion and memory. This may be why olfaction, more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories. But as powerful as scent is, it is also terribly fleeting. It’s transitory. It vanishes. It does not last. Much like human beings themselves.
Grenouille essentially comes of age and becomes the “god” he dreamt of becoming at the expense of, and thanks to, the 25 virginal girls he murders. However, this acquisition of power comes at a price to Grenouille as well as to the families of the girls, as Grenouille finds his misanthropy is still far too intense for him to enjoy his power. Rather than enslave the world, Grenouille opts to take himself out of it. And with a profound sense of disgust he went back to Paris, doused himself with his newly created perfume while among his ‘low-life’ brethren and then and there met his demise. His scent making him so desirable that they literally devoured him body and soul.
Self-discovery ultimately lead him to self destruction after he learned what we all inevitably must, that the release from the wounds of childhood is a task never completed, not even on the point of death.
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
The Catcher in the Rye and Philosophy by Keith Dromm
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Have you ever wondered where the ducks go in winter? Well wonder no more my friends!
With this entry in Open Court's "Popular Culture and Philosophy" series we tackle head on an American icon, and, although far from perfect, it provides numerous philosophical insights into a number of aspects of Holden Caulfield's tortured existence.
Overall, its a worthwhile read for anyone who really wants to dig deeper into what "Catcher in the Rye" is really all about, or someone who perhaps simply has a term paper due date rapidly approaching.
I may very well be called a bastard after writing this review, but at least I'm not a phony or a moron. Although...maybe perhaps a little mad but after living in such a “phony” world for all this time, who could blame be?
Monday, February 12, 2018
Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The question of how to approach this novella is a difficult one. It’s an erotic surrealist book by an unhappy Frenchman, yes, but it’s also the story of an object and what that object represents.
I was drawn to the image of the egg in this story, mostly because of what the image of the egg represents within this context. The Eye, through a certain number of substitute objects, e.g. eggs, comes to symbolize false birth, in other words the impossibility of life.
Nothing is real. But it’s a truth that’s also a lie, because ultimately there is no truth. But if there is no truth then the statement I just made has involved me in a contradiction, hence our problem. Bataille says “I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.” What an apt description of what it means to be alive, a “violent contradiction.” But the symbol for us becomes an abstraction, too avant-garde. The main focus should be on human sexual activity itself.
Bataille has a way of describing the inability to achieve real satisfaction or fully satiate desire even after a climax is achieved. Sex for him is a series of profane and sacred acts, bodies devoid of purpose beyond the violence of movement, the slap and tickle of separating and colliding, sex as a sublime sort of personalized violence. Violence itself is sex with no happy ending.
Human sexuality is a highly questionable phenomena, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than ordinary experiences of humanity. Sex is an extreme experience but sex is also frightening, indulgent, melancholy and scandalous. It’s frequently expressed as an assertion of power or a willingness to cede our bodies to the powerful and from the heights of ecstasy we often fall into the trenches of despair.
Reading this book was very much like having a sexual experience. One where we begin in lust and then ultimately end in shame.
But eroticism also orients us toward death. As the narrator says, “death was the sole outcome of my erection, and if Simone and I were killed, then the universe of our unbearable personal vision was certain to be replaced by the pure stars, fully unrelated to any external gazes and realizing in a cold state, without human delays or detours, something that strikes me as the goal of my sexual licentiousness: a geometric incandescence (among other things, the coinciding point of life and death, being and nothingness), perfectly fulgurating.” This association with death is also what makes it so desirable, terrifying and enjoyable. But unlimited freedom, sexual freedom in the case of this novella, ceases to make sex special.
Roland Barthes, in his essay, “The Metaphor of the Eye,” said, “Eroticism is not an object of enquiry, simply because the erotic is precisely that ‘sacred’ materiality which abrades and ruptures the categories of subject and object, self and world, inside and outside, human and animal. Unlike Hegelian reflections upon the logical constitution of the limit, Bataille is primarily concerned with the somatic limits of experience and theorizations thereof. It is not our habits or their disruptions which make us human, Bataille contends, for animals seem to exhibit as much: “animal sexuality does make for disequilibrium and this disequilibrium is a threat to life, but the animal does not know that [...] Eroticism is the sexual activity of man to the extent that it differs from the sexual activity of animals. Human sexual activity is not necessarily erotic but erotic it is whenever it is not rudimentary and purely animal…”
This book can also be said to embody the injunction to enjoy ourselves as somehow becoming a barrier to enjoyment itself.
It breaks all social boundaries not as a way to free the individual but as a way to show us that those boundaries are what make us human, that those boundaries are there for a reason perhaps and that human sexuality can’t be bound by conventions.
What Bataille really does is help us navigate the moral and socially polite barricades that are foisted upon us and allows us to deal frankly with how sex expresses itself in our imaginations.
This novella is not exactly a deep work. Everything it is is on the surface. The metaphor is laid out in its entirety with no secret reference behind it, but bizarre books like this one, take me to places I would not ordinarily see and anybody interested in the darker side of the arts, social sciences and humanities, or who is interested in destruction in any of its forms should take a look at this strange, yet interesting, little book.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
It’s been said by more liberal pundits that this is a book you should read and ponder, but after having read it there doesn’t seem to be much here to really ponder.
Journalist Steve Sailer had this to say about the author, “The secret behind Coates’ appeal to white liberals is that he’s not very smart. He’s not likely to bring up awkward facts that don’t fit The Narrative. Why not? Because he can’t remember them. Paradoxically, Coates’ forgetfulness has convinced many of his fans that he is an authoritative historian. We live in an age of increasing antiquarianism in which the more historically remote the alleged cause, the more plausible it sounds to moderns. Coates’ inability to recollect much about recent decades provides his politically correct interpretations of the distant past with an infectious confidence. He’s the left’s Glenn Beck.”
Cornel West writing in The Guardian said of Coates, “He rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia. In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable.” Adding, “There is no doubt that the marketing of Coates – like the marketing of anyone – warrants suspicion.”
Coates mentions larger societal racism as being somehow endemic to our society and culture and he does this by quoting studies and statistics as if that should be the end of the discussion. But data without interpretation is useless. If a group of people are statistically represented as being discriminated against we need to know why that is and not just assume that the numbers tell the whole story and we certainly shouldn’t assume that the disparity is solely due to racism. Show me a policy or institution that is racist in its intent and I’ll agree, but Coates seems to want to conflate whiteness with wrongness at every turn.
Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of Losing My Cool, said, “What ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates has become a figure far too frequently interviewed and listened to and these eight essays, originally published in The Atlantic, have ultimately failed to enlighten in any meaningful way.