Picking up where I left off, and continuing our exploration of cinema and/as exorcism – see also here (on Australian film), here (on District 9), here (on 2012), here (on the wretched Avatar), and here (on Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) – I want to branch out in new territory here and discuss the ways Lars von Trier’s utterly brilliant but utterly nihilistic new film Melancholia is being sold to the American public, a collective audience notorious – but not of course universal – for its dislike of moral ambiguity or philosophical complexity.
Melancholia is von Trier’s best film, and by a long chalk. It is also the most purely entertaining science-fiction defence of a nihilistic worldview since Kurt Vonnegut’s incomparable 1959 novel, The Sirens of Titan. While I have heard some (though not many) critics and fans pan the film for being too accessible and for lacking the blunt controversy of something like his 2009 film Antichrist, Melancholia succeeds in my book as no other von Trier film for no other reason that von Trier steps back from his usual strategy of rubbing the audience’s face in the depravity of humanity and simply allows the film to quietly and calmly make its points, letting the film’s preternatural stillness and its deliberate pacing tell the story far more effectively than the melodramatic mode of many of his previous films. Melancholia, in the simplest terms, is the first von Trier film I have ever watched without feeling the need for a shower immediately afterwards. The ability for a film to make the viewer feel literally, physically soiled is of course the mark of a true cinematic talent, and here von Trier, with his talent for evoking mood and tension to the point where it becomes palpable, can be counted among the ranks of such directors as Paul Schrader and John Hillcoat. It is, however, infinitely refreshing to see someone as gifted as von Trier working in a different, less confrontational, and more formally Romantic mode.
For all its almost gentle touch, the film presents a view of the world – no, of the universe itself – that is bleaker and more final than anything in von Trier’s oeuvre. Even films as stark and forbidding as Breaking the Waves or Antichrist are shot through with something resembling hope. In Waves, Bess’ unshakable goodness and belief in love anchor a film suspended over an abyss, an abyss that von Trier, then a recent convert to Catholicism, chooses to ignore with his final – and in my mind, completely misguided – image attesting to the literal truth of Bess’ salvation. Even the end of the determinedly repellent Antichrist offers a kind of redemption when the male protagonist, known only as He, leaves a metaphoric wilderness, having rejected his cold psychologist’s view of the world. (For a pdf of an intriguing scholarly article by Gitte Buch-Hansen offering a positive reading of the film from a feminist biblical studies perspective, follow this link; for two very good discussions of the film from a religious studies perspective by S. Brent Plate, see Religion Dispatches here and here.)
Melancholia first appears to be a riff on a theme that appears from time to time in science fiction, the collision of the Earth with another planet, but I think there is more to be learned in placing it next to the history of texts – again, most of them from sci-fi, which trace the impact of the discovery of previously unknown planets. The best-known – and simply the best – of these stories is Isaac Asimov’s classic short story ‘Nightfall’, which first appeared in a 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. In Asimov’s spare and ultimately devastating tale, the greatest scientific minds of a complex society on the planet of Lagash discover on the very eve of its destruction that its society is doomed by the eclipse of one of its suns by a previously hidden planet, an alignment of celestial bodies that happens only once every 2049 years. Thrown into total darkness, unknown on the planet, which is lit by no less than six suns, the people of Lagash are driven to madness and to set massive fires to provide the heat and light that they simply cannot exist without, especially given that most of the population does not know that this is a temporary situation. In the story, an intrepid band of scientists discovers the coming of the darkness, something that has been long predicted by the Cultists, Lagash’s dominant religious tradition, but are unable to convince the population to prepare for it. Here we find not only the classic sci-fi conception of religion as bad science and poorly remembered history, but also a potent allegory for the futility of scientific knowledge when dealing with a fearful and undereducated public. ‘Nightfall’ ends on a fittingly bleak note as Lagash’s society again, faced with the enormity of darkness and the devastating and sudden revelation of its own ignorance – the astronomers, working only in daylight, believed that the universe contained only six suns, but the darkness reveals that there are millions, quite unseating Lagash as the centre point of the observable world, a repeat of the Copernican revolution taking place in seconds rather than centuries – sets fire to itself and all that it has built over more than two millennia.
There are other, simpler entries into this rather obscure sub-category of sci-fi, including Philp Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s classic 1932 novel When Worlds Collide, made into a space opera-style film of the same name by Rudolph Maté in 1951. In both, the Earth encounters not one but two rogue bodies in space, one of which destroys the Earth, though a small band of intrepid scientists and travellers manage to escape destruction and take up life on one of the new worlds, Bronson Beta, which shows clear signs of previous inhabitants. While Wylie and Balmer’s slim pot-boiler of a novel has become largely neglected, Maté’s film is better-remembered both for its Oscar-winning special effects – including a still-stunning vision of the flooding of New York City – and for its wildly uneven tone, veering from melodrama to cheesy whimsy from one scene to the next with little rhyme or reason. This is probably most obvious in the closing scene, played to rapturous, triumphant music and with blissful happiness from our intrepid astronauts, who are overcome with an uncomplicated joy when safely landed on the Technicolor wonder of Beta, despite the fact that billions of people have been obliterated and they are the only human survivors (this being the 1950s, they are apple-cheeked, white, healthy, and Christian survivors). The final image says it all, really.
Interestingly enough, there is another film this year, Another Earth, which grapples with the existential questions raised by the discovery of an unknown world, this time an exact duplicate of Earth which may or may not have duplicate versions of each every person living, though this need not detain us here for long. Where Another Earth ends on a New Age-tinged moment of self-realisation, and thus a note of hope, though not one so strident as that which concludes When Worlds Collide, von Trier’s Melancholia ends on an even bleaker note than Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’. In ‘Nightfall’, at least, the reader is free to assume that the people of Lagash will rebuild, though this is tinged with the near-certainly that all of that newly built world will turn to ashes on that fateful night some 2000 years in the future. Melancholia ends with the irrevocable and inescapable end of the Earth, smashed into rubble by the far larger planet Melancholia.
What is most interesting – in this reporter’s opinion, at least – is how thorough, and ultimately how brutal, Melancholia‘s social critique really is. The film is essentially a character study of two sisters, the melancholic Justine (very nicely played by Kirsten Dunst) and the resolutely ordinary Claire (a surprising turn from Antichrist‘s Her, Charlotte Gainsbourg). Each of the sisters gets a half of the film named after her, though, really, this is Justine’s story, and her perspective is the one the film champions in the end. After a stunning Prologue of ultra-slow-motion images that comprise a series of vignettes of the end of the world, set very appropriately to Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’, the film’s narrative begins with the lavish and increasingly uncomfortable spectacle of Justine’s wedding reception, celebrating her marriage to the increasingly baffled Michael. Von Trier stages this sequence, much of which is riotously if uncomfortably funny, as a piece of social-realist cinema, not unlike many of his other films. Shot on an isolated but extremely luxurious golf resort in Sweden but set in an unidentified Anglo-American no-place, the first half of the film shows us Justine’s increasingly futile attempts to play the part of the happy bride that everyone around her (with the exception of the sisters’ acidic mother) expects her to play. Justine commits the unpardonable sin of failing to pretend to be happy and satisfied and instead ends up rejecting not only Michael but her family and her smarmy boss, who has come to the wedding to offer her a promotion.
Claire’s section of the film is set months later as she struggles to care for the borderline catatonic Justine, who has come to live with her at the resort, and to prepare for the arrival of the rogue planet Melancholia, which experts tell everyone will miss the Earth and cause minimal damage. As it becomes ever clearer that the planets will collide and that everyone and everything on Earth is doomed to a violent death, Justine emerges as the sanest of the characters. Her reaction to the news of the destruction of the Earth is as much indifference as it is anything else. While Claire fears for her son Leo and begins to fall apart psychologically, Justine has the one truly rational reaction in the film, that of resignation. For Justine, the end of a world which is facile, inauthentic and meaningless is nothing to mourn.
That the film takes Justine’s side is, of course, debatable, but I will lay out my case here: Justine works in advertising and is thus implicated in selling the world of wealth and privilege that she despises to a public that cannot afford it. In this role, she becomes a representative of a consumer society that defines itself through a lie that it does not ultimately believe is possible. Justine is the only one the film (again, aside from her mother) who is not buying what she herself is selling. Everyone at the wedding is clearly invested in the mythos of comfort and happiness that such events of conspicuous consumption both celebrate and make normative, but Justine, try as she might, is unable to invest herself in the role that she and others have laid out for her. Claire’s husband, John, the owner of the resort, is angry and bitterly disappointed in Justine, not because she is in genuine distress, but because she is a failed consumer, because she does not participate in the wedding passively, but questions its meaning at every turn, perverting the gathering with her unpredictability and her lateness, profaning such familiar ritual elements as the cutting of the cake and the reception dinner.
Ultimately, Justine is the film’s voice of reason and, oddly enough, its conscience. Her rejection of the trappings of bourgeois respectability – and what is more bourgeois that golf? – is the film’s rejection of these trappings, especially the ever-more-pervasive discourse on ‘happiness’. Indeed, the film is a coherent argument on the futility of the dream of happiness as an ineffective and ultimately hopeless strategy for keeping the problems of the world at bay. In von Trier’s nihilistic universe, Justine’s choice to simply reject her role in a system of value and morality is the most rational choice and would be the most ethical one if the film had any real interest in right or wrong. It is Justine who understands the world and the place of people within it and her heroism lies in the simple, honest, straightforward rejection of all of it.
As the film draws to its inevitable conclusion (the Prologue leaves no doubt as to what is going to happen), Justine is also the only one to show any true selflessness, distracting and comforting Leo with the task of finding and carving a set of ‘magic’ tree branches that she says will protect them from Melancholia. Claire, who has bought into the fantasies that Justine makes her living selling, struggles against her fate and rails against the absolute meaninglessness that it reveals. She is also unable to offer any comfort to her son and thus abdicates her final responsibility to the sister she has been unable to convince of the value of the life of luxury which she has built and in which she is has invested so much of herself.
In the end, then, given the utter finality of its situation, Melancholia is as damning a critique of contemporary Anglo-American-European values as can be imagined and as thorough a skewering of the consumer mythos of a never-defined ‘happiness’ lying just around the corner as has been committed to celluloid for years. It is an articulate, clear-eyed, historically and culturally astute fable for a world and a closed system of value that is in the process of perhaps inevitable and irreversible decay. A world as hollow and as lacking in conviction as this, the film intimates, is better destroyed, echoing again von Trier’s fondness for Nietzsche, to whom Antichrist is also deeply indebted. To this world, literally nothing is preferable.
Melancholia‘s marketing, on the other hand, does everything it can to soft-sell the film, to exorcise it of its very real demons. The marketing scheme chosen for the film is ingenious, consistent, and systematic. In short, it runs something like this: Melancholia is a metaphorical film about depression. Though this is a perfectly defensible interpretation, this is also the safest and most palatable way possible to read the film and its allegorical structure. In the press kit issued for the film, both the studio’s voice and that of von Trier emphasise that Justine has the measure of the world only in a state of crisis, something the film nullifies by setting the first half of the film at a time when much of the world is unaware of the coming of Melancholia. In a short promotional video released via the Apple Trailers site, Dunst underlines this, saying: ‘Justine is a very sensitive, creative human being that felt things maybe sometimes more than other people. To me, her relationship with the planet turns into almost her being a representation of the planet’.
This gesture, to dull the edge of genuine (and almost always systematic) social criticisms by accusing the critic of insanity, is, of course, a common strategy in the mainstream media when dealing with acts of violence – often labelled selectively as ‘terrorism’, though rarely when such acts are committed by anyone other than a Muslim – whose political or economic subtext is uncomfortable.
While it is easy enough to understand why the film’s distributors would be interested in reading the film’s allegorical construction in the narrowest, most private, and thus least threatening manner, we, as viewers and critics, need not feel the same compulsion, given that we have no financial stake in the film itself.
For, lurking not far outside of this metaphorical reading of the film is a far more radical critique of contemporary Western societies. As the film draws to its conclusion, it becomes apparent that it is not only the ludicrously elaborate and costly wedding reception that is hollow and ultimately empty; it is the whole of Claire’s bourgeois world. When Claire invites Justine to wait out the end on the patio overlooking the golf course with a glass of good wine and some classical music, Justine’s refusal of this idea as ‘shit’ is more than a simple symptom of her state of mind, it is rather something more, an admission of the futility of Claire’s entire life and the entire world of privilege and taste that it represents.
Claire’s husband John, a stock von Trier character, the resolutely rational man who is utterly unable to make any sort of the sense of the world around him, which makes him something of a personification of Max Weber’s ‘iron cage of rationalisation’, takes the only route that his character could possibly take: he commits a sad and sordid suicide in the stables, even robbing his wife and child of the painless poison that Claire was relying on as a last resort.
In the end, all that Claire, Justine, and Leo are left with are the sort of simple, intuitive magical lies that people tell their children. In the indelible final image, as Melancholia looms ever larger in the background and begins to quite literally devour the Earth, we are left with the image of three lonely people sheltering under a tripod of dead tree branches, helpless in the face of the meaningless destruction of a meaningless existence.
It is in this final moment – and in the diegetic world of Melancholia, this is an absolutely final moment, the end of life in the universe – that von Trier makes his kindest gesture to date, that he allows the three last people on Earth to hold hands, to face the end together, even if it means less than nothing for them to do so.
And that is precisely what the metropolitan denizen teaches himself to do: he lives, not in the real world, but in a shadow world projected around him at every moment by means of paper and celluloid and adroitly manipulated lights: a world in which he is insulated by glass, cellophane, pliofilm from the mortifications of living. In short, a world of professional illusionists and their credulous victims.
Lewis Mumford 
Continuing on with the ongoing Cinema as Exorcism series (more here, here, here, and here), with a look at the dynamics of modernity and magic in a (very slightly) older film, Tom Tykwer’s 2006 Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The film does not so much as exorcise as bring to the surface the dark, magical underbelly of the Enlightenment, the inadmissable but undeniable presence of enchantments in the form of forms of logic that exist underneath, behind, and all around conventional calculations of value, exchange and utility. These enchantments, these dark magics, are represented as a profound source of threat. Such enchantments must be understood as a potent and potential source of danger, something the sociologist Max Weber, the father of the theory of rationalisation, or as he also called it, ‘the disenchantment of the world’, recognised in his own lifetime in the volatile atmosphere of German society at the end of the First World War.
Tykwer’s Perfume is based on the German-language novel of the same name by Patrick Süskind. Süskind’s novel, his first, has been highly influential and wildly popular since its publication in 1985 and is widely considered as part of the always de facto canon of magical realism. The film seems at first to be an absolute departure for Tykwer, who is perhaps best known for his two related fairly tales about the transcendent, even supernatural power of love, Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run, 1998) and Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (The Princess and the Warrior, 2000). The brilliance of these two collaborations with the actress Franka Potenta aside, Tykwer’s best film is likely Heaven (2002), a near mystical, quasi-Christian take on the redemptive power of love, written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz for a planned trilogy of Kieslowski-directed films, offered to Tykwer after Kieslowski’s death in 1996. Against the studied Romanticism of his other works, Perfume is violent, confrontational, even disturbing. It is a rich and finely textured allegory that seeks to examine from within the hidden, dark enchantments of modernity. The narrative undermines any easy account of modern history as the triumphant march out of darkness and into the light of perennial truth. The film is not strictly about modernity as such, it focuses its metaphoric gaze on Enlightenment rationalism, a crucial element in the development of the forms of modern self-understanding embodied in evolutionary narratives. Perfume represents nothing less than a fictional account of that which is unthought, forgotten or simply ignored by modern narratives of progress and by unilinear theories of rationalisation.
The narrative itself is deceptively simple: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan in eighteenth-century France, gifted, like Palahniuk’s Rant Casey, with a supernaturally keen sense of smell, discovers upon reaching maturity that he has no scent of his own, which renders him unlovable and even sub-human. After years of toil as a near slave in a leather tannery, he trains as a perfumer and learns the technological mastery of the world of scent. Yearning to be loved as others are loved, he comes rationally, even scientifically, to a way to enchant the world into loving him. He creates, from the scents of virgin girls he has murdered, a perfume so sublimely beautiful that it holds the power to enchant the whole world into loving him. Upon succeeding, he discovers that his triumph is hollow and commits a strangely beatific act of suicide. Metaphorically, Grenouille, the titular murderer, is an abominable outgrowth of the rationalising tendencies of modern thought, a monster whose dark magic reaches its full potential only when it is augmented by his technical training and the growing body of scientific knowledge that characterised the age in which he lived. In Enlightenment France, Grenouille is seen as an abomination; indeed, the people who encounter Grenouille and his crimes simply cannot grasp his motives or come to grips with his very existence. However, the film presents Grenouille not so much as an anomaly but as a fully explicable and natural outgrowth of rationalisation.
The film features an extensive voice-over from an anonymous and wryly amused narrator (the great John Hurt), who sets the scene of Grenouille’s birth at the heart of Europe:
In eighteenth-century France, there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and notorious personages of his time. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and, if his name has been forgotten today, it is for the sole reason that his entire ambition was restricted to a domain that leaves no trace in history: to the fleeting realm of scent … In the period of which we speak there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. Naturally, the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city in Europe. And nowhere in Paris was that stench more profoundly repugnant than in the city’s fish market. It was here, then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom that Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on the 17th of July, 1738. 
From his earliest days, his knowledge of this hidden world sets him apart from the other children in the foetid, overcrowded orphanage where he is raised by the coldly rational Madame Gaillard, who treats Grenouille, and all the other children, as nothing more than sources of income. Grenouille, with his supernatural sense of smell, has access to levels of the world that other people do not. The film casts Grenouille’s extraordinary ability in terms of language:
By the age of five, Jean-Baptiste still could not talk, but he had been born with a talent that made him unique among mankind. It was not that the other children hated him. They felt unnerved by him. Increasingly, he became aware that his phenomenal sense of smell was a gift that had been given to him and him alone. When Jean-Baptiste did finally learn to speak, he soon found that everyday language proved inadequate for all the olfactory experiences accumulating within himself.
Grenouille lives, then, outside of the world of conventional language, though he does so because of his gifts, not because of his own will. He survives the orphanage and years as an abused tannery apprentice and grows into a gaunt, silent and scarred young man. Confronted for the first time with the wider world of Paris (outside of the orphanage and the tannery) and the staggering wealth of scents the city has to offer, Grenouille begins his own version of the task of world mastery that is taking place at the same time in salons, laboratories and lecture halls in other, more privileged parts of the city. Tykwer only rarely shows this world. Grenouille serves as the primary guide within the structure of the film itself, forcing the viewer to contemplate the world largely from his perspective. Part of this identification comes through Tykwer’s attempts to emulate the world of scent in a visual medium. He does this with jump cuts and vivid close-up shots of the things that Grenouille is able to smell, images which both focus attention on their particularity and isolate them from their context. As Grenouille enters Paris, the camera dissects the city into discrete, disconnected images, breaking the world down to its constituent elements – powdered wigs, cracking oysters, fabric, bread, mud, sewage, high-born women in carriages, horses. Confronting the confusion and majesty of Paris with a growing hunger, Grenouille seeks understanding and order by breaking things apart, by removing them from the totality of smells and reifying each of these elements in the desire of possession and mastery.
This is true of people as well as inanimate objects and animals. On this first visit to the city, when the film implicitly connects Grenouille to the emerging project of modern science and its hunger for new knowledge, Grenouille also commits his first murder. Visually, the film depicts Grenouille’s fragmentation of the world, and by implication that of emerging modern science, as an act of violence and dismemberment. The camera and the editing break down Grenouille’s victims long before he does, reducing them to fleeting glimpses of a naked shoulder, a vein pulsing on a slender throat, red hair flowing in the wind. Grenouille catches the intoxicating smell of a redheaded young woman carrying plums and follows her into a dark courtyard where he, perhaps unintentionally, kills her. Intentional or not, Grenouille doesn’t appear to care that she is dead, only that her unique smell is dissipating rapidly as her body cools. He drinks up her scent as it fades, stripping her naked and exploring her body with his nose. He cups his hands to hold onto her scent, but he cannot posses it and it fades, igniting within him to fierce desire to permanently possess scent.
It is telling to note one of the narrative’s harshest criticisms of modernity comes across in the fact that Grenouille must enter mainstream society to fully exploit his perverse need for world mastery, not shy away from it; Grenouille must embrace the emerging bourgeois world to fully realise his aims. Shortly after his first murder, Grenouille insinuates himself into the laboratory of faded perfumer Giuseppe Baldini by sheer persistence and demands that Baldini teach him: ‘I have to learn how to keep smell!’ Because of his gifted nose, Grenouille’s facility with perfume is nothing short of magical. Testing a perfume that Grenouille improvises for him, Baldini is transported to an enchanted garden, where a buxom young woman whispers, ‘I love you’ into his enraptured ear. In the novel, Süskind explicitly makes this connection: ‘It was not a scent that made things smell better, not some sachet, not some toiletry. It was something completely new, capable of creating a new world, a magical, rich world’. 
Grenouille, who is often treated as little more than human capital, comes to work as an apprentice for Baldini. Working late in the basement laboratory, Baldini imparts a piece of perfumer’s lore to his new apprentice:
Baldini: Now, pay careful attention to what I tell you. Just like a musical chord, a perfume chord contains four essences, notes carefully selected for their harmonic affinity. Each perfume contains three chords: the head, the heart and the base, necessitating twelve notes in all … Mind you, the ancient Egyptians believed that one can only create a truly original perfume by adding an extra note, one final essence that will bring out and dominate the others. Legend has it that an amphora was once found in a pharaoh’s tomb and when it was opened a perfume was released after all those thousands of years, a perfume of such subtle beauty and yet such power that for one single moment every person on Earth believed they were in paradise. Twelve essences could be identified, but the thirteenth, the vital one, could never be determined.
Grenouille: Why not?
Baldini: Why not? What do you mean, why not? Because it’s a legend, numbskull.
Grenouille: What’s a legend?
Baldini: Never mind.
It says a great deal about the film’s take on modernity and positivistic science that Grenouille confuses this legend with historical fact and later turns to this story for a model when he begins his murderous final act of creation. It likewise says a good deal that it is this mistake that allows him to be so successful when creating his masterpiece, a perfume containing the scents of thirteen virgins. Grenouille is either not aware of or simply ignores the implicit distinction in Baldini’s story between the technical accuracy of the perfumer’s art and the Egyptian story, which is clearly not to be taken as the same level of truth. Grenouille has no need for modern epistemological distinction. Nonetheless, with this syncretism of scientific and mythological ways of knowing, Grenouille is able to replicate the story of the legend, even though it was probably never true in the first place. If we are to pause here briefly to consider Grenouille’s metaphoric role in European modernity, it is worth suggesting that he is not unlike the alchemist in his application of rational methods for supernatural aims. Alchemy perhaps played a greater role in the history of modern science than the subtraction stories are willing to admit, as Louis Dupré notes:
Too often the cosmology of the early modern age continues to be viewed as a prehistory of the scientific revolution, as if there had been nothing between the Aristotelian picture and the mechanistic one. Such a view overlooks a prolonged attempt to understand the universe through chemistry rather than through the laws of mechanics. Until the end of the seventeenth century alchemy developed side by side with mechanical physics as an alternative science. 
To continue the metaphor, in much the same way that Grenouille is a forgotten product of rationalisation, alchemy is part of the unthought and often ignored inheritances in positivist science. For Baldini, Grenouille’s abilities are uncanny, even worrisome, something he is willing to overlook with the floods of money coming into his shop as customers arrive in droves to buy Grenouille’s creations. For Baldini, his new apprentice’s strangeness is defused somewhat when Grenouille learns the techniques and the operational language of perfuming, bringing his knowledge and his skill under the comforting umbrella of known registers of utilitarian language. Süskind notes this connection explicitly in the novel: ‘The more Grenouille mastered the tricks and tools of the trade, the better he was able to express himself in conventional language of perfumery – and the less his master feared and suspected him’.  If Baldini feels more at ease the more that Grenouille learns, he is being greatly deceived. Grenouille, under the respectable language of the perfumer, is growing ever more powerful, ever closer to the realisation of his dream to capture scent. In an intriguing parallel with the novels of Chuck Palahniuk operational language becomes a shield for Grenouille’s uncanny abilities and his unsettling aims.
Trading the formulas for one hundred new perfumes for his freedom, Grenouille departs for a journeyman’s post in the Provençal town of Grasse, which Baldini calls ‘the Rome of scents, the promised land of perfume’. On the way, he is distracted for no less than seven years, living a base, animalistic existence hidden away in a cave in the mountains, revelling in the cold, clean, scentless air but equally horrified to discover that he has no scent of his own, that he is, as others have long suspected, something less than fully human. The narrator tells of the new desire this opens up within Grenouille’s heart:
For the first time in his life, Grenouille realized that he had no smell of his own. He realized that all his life, he’d been a nobody to everyone. What he now felt was the fear of his own oblivion. It was as though he did not exist. By the first light of next morning, Grenouille had a new plan; he must continue his journey to Grasse. There he would teach the world not only that he existed, that he was someone, but that he was exceptional.
Arriving finally in Grasse, Grenouille takes a post as a journeyman perfumer and expands his repertoire beyond what Baldini was able to teach him. He also continues his experiments in his free time, first trying to capture the scent of a reluctant living prostitute then resorting to simply killing women so he will have bodies to experiment with. Grenouille’s experimentation is relentless, passionless and rigorously scientific. After several failed attempts, he finally strikes upon a complex method involving cold enfleurage, digestion, lavage, and distillation that renders the scent of the woman into a single tiny flask. Having robbed these women forcibly of their essence, Grenouille leaves a series of corpses, stripped naked and shorn, for the people and authorities of Grasse to find. In Grenouille’s reign of terror, undertaken in the interests of world mastery and in the selfish needs of Grenouille to perfect himself, the narrative finds its metaphorical centre.
Grenouille’s application of the scientific method in the interests of possessing ‘all the smells in the world’ is what allows his magic, and his perversion, to fully flower. Without the equipment and techniques of the perfumer, Grenouille would be condemned to the fleeting sensations of the scent of the living, accessible to him only via his gifts. Wendy Faris underlines Grenouille’s conjunction of magic and science, which, as we have seen, also manifests itself in the discourses of reenchantment: ‘Grenouille’s perfuming abilities resemble those of an experimental chemist of genius, so that in addition to the magical powers of its narrative mode, the novel also takes on a quasi-scientific aura, intimately connected to the concrete worlds of natural and constructed chemical compounds’.  Grenouille’s perfuming skills bring the reification of the individual inherent in disenchantment and the rise of modern capitalism sharply into focus; the women Grenouille harvests are human capital, literally liquid assets in his quest to manufacture an identity for himself and in his relentless pursuit of the sublime beauty of his thirteen-note masterpiece. In an extended sequence, Tykwer underlines this connection visually. Tykwer intercuts sensuous images of Grenouille’s flasks, bottles, and experimentation with blackly comical images of the discovery of the bodies of the murdered women, drawing an explicit visual parallel between the act of manufacture and the act of destruction.
In Grasse, Grenouille meets his only formidable opponent, the wealthy merchant Antoine Richis, whose sublimely beautiful daughter, Laura, Grenouille needs as the thirteenth and crowning note of his perfume. Richis is a deeply rational and practical man, like Grenouille a child of the Enlightenment. The two are opposites and antagonists; however, they also represent the two sides of the dialectic of enchantment and Enlightenment. When the town council meets to try to decide what to do about the murders, Richis calls for a rational approach to the seemingly irrational horror in their midst:
We have to put ourselves inside the mind of this man. Each of his victims had an especial beauty. We know he doesn’t want their virginity so it seems to me it’s their beauty itself that he wants, almost as if he’s trying to gather something. His ambitions are those of a collector … Whatever it is, I fear he won’t stop killing until his collection is complete.
For Richis, who suspects early on that Laura is a necessary part of Grenouille’s collection, Grenouille’s threat is greater than mere murder; the killings are inexplicable, unreasonable even in the deranged logic of murder. Grenouille attacks conventional structures of knowledge and value by not sexually violating his victims and by following an inexplicable but undeniable logic of his very own. His violation of his victims is symbolic at the same time it is literal, an act of extreme violence, especially considering Baldini’s assertion, which Grenouille takes to heart, that ‘the soul of beings is their scent’. Richis is blinded by his understanding of modernity, which only allows him to understand Grenouille by one standard of truth and logic. The town council refuses to listen to Richis’ sobering and rational call, opting instead to fall back on the divine language of the Catholic Church, which Richis, as an Enlightened man, is visibly sceptical of. Tykwer stages here a very brief debate between science and religion:
Judge: This man is a demon, a phantom who cannot be fought by human means. Now, I insist that we call upon our bishop to excommunicate him.
Richis: What good would that do?
Judge: Have you no faith at all in the power our Holy Mother Church?
Richis: This is not a matter of faith. There’s a murderer out there and we must catch him by using our God-given wits.
Judge: I say until we submit to Mother Church, these killings will not cease.
Tykwer plays the following scenes as a perverse comedy and a mockery of both the council and the Church to even slow Grenouille down. The bishop stands up in his cathedral in front of the town and declares Grenouille’s excommunication with all the vigour the corpulent churchman can muster. The scene is intercut with Grenouille, not in the least bothered by his communication, if he is even aware of it, deliberately mixing his perfume from his twelve tiny flasks of oil, awaiting its crowning thirteenth note in the scent of Laura Richis, which he soon has, despite Richis’ best efforts to thwart him using clever ruses that are no match for Grenouille’s supernatural abilities. Grenouille is caught the next morning as he finishes his perfume over an open flame and is taken back to Grasse for interrogation and execution. As Grenouille is tortured, Richis strives in vain to understand his reasoning. Their meeting is a clash of different epistemologies in which there is no exchange or dialogue between sides. The Janus face of Enlightenment rationalism is here brought into sharp focus as is becomes clear that both men are equally rational, equally methodical. The divide between the two remains nonetheless absolute, their positions utterly irreconcilable by any common discourse, what Jean-François Lyotard calls a differend:
Richis: Why did you kill my daughter? Why?
Grenouille: I needed her.
Richis: Why did you kill my daughter?
Grenouille: I just needed her.
Grenouille is sentenced to a horrific death in the public square. Dressed in blue velvet finery, Grenouille is led to his punishment in front of the entire town. He, through his dark magic, retains the position of power. During the scenes on the platform, Tykwer accentuates the strange and monstrous aspect of Grenouille by placing him dead centre in the frame. A rare composition in contemporary cinema, such an image has an intensely alienating effect (see Figure 1). With a light application of his perfume, Grenouille faces the crowds with equanimity and a wry smile. The executioner is the first to fall under the spell of Grenouille’s perfume, shouting, ‘This man is innocent!’ Spreading the scent with a wave of his handkerchief, the crowd takes up this call. The bishop falls to his knees, declaring, enraptured, ‘This is no man, this is an angel’. Even Richis, the last to fall under the spell, lays down his sword and asks for Grenouille’s forgiveness as the crowd degenerates into a massive and undifferentiated orgy. Soon everyone is naked, or near to it. The coupling is indiscriminate, men with women, women with women, old with young, bishops with prostitutes. Grenouille has brought about with his technique and his magic a perverse flowering of communitas. In his final appearances he possesses a power and an authority, however artificially generated, to control the desires and actions of all those around him. The ambivalent relationship of modernity to enchantment is embodied in these simple narrative and visual moments; unable to stop Grenouille’s killing spree nor understand his motives, the secular and ecclesiastic authorities of the day end their relationship with Grenouille by falling under his spell, by embracing against their will everything they claim to be against.
As Grenouille stands on the scaffolding, all of the forces of early modern French society are unable to do anything but fall under the enchantment of his mastery, born half from his inexplicable sense of smell and half from rational techniques. What Grenouille represents is the forgotten magic that underlies modernity, the hidden agency of ancient, animalistic elements buried within the structure of European modernity, forgotten but always present. Grenouille, however, feels no satisfaction as he stands above the crowd, a master of the world. Grenouille is, if anything, both disgusted and regretful. In one of the few moments in which Tykwer allows Grenouille some remorse, some ordinary humanity (something Süskind never does in the novel), watching the sea of naked townspeople, Grenouille has flashbacks to his first killing, the girl with the basket of plums. As the whole of the city writhes naked at his feet, caught up in his manufactured reenchantment, the film re-enacts the scene of the murder but shows the plum girl reacting to Grenouille very differently as he approaches her openly. She welcomes him, embraces him, kisses him, returns his singular affection. Grenouille imagines the scene as it could have gone if he were fully human. Grenouille weeps at the thought of her dead, at the thought of the lost opportunity for a living exchange with a living woman rather than his one-sided violation.
Instead of facing up to Grenouille and what he represents, the people of Grasse look away and arrest another man, Grenouille’s former employer, who is hanged for Grenouille’s crimes, thus balancing the scales of justice and the demand for an exchange for the murdered girls in terms that they are able to understand. The march of order and history has been restored and Grenouille, forgotten in the emerging triumphalist narratives of modernity, is left out of the history books:
The people of Grasse awoke to a terrible hangover. For many of them, the experience was so ghastly, so completely inexplicable and incompatible with their morals that they literally erased it from their memories. The town council was in session by the afternoon and an order was passed to the police lieutenant to immediately begin fresh investigations into the murders. The following day, Dominique Druer was arrested, since it was in his backyard that the clothes and hair of all the victims had been found. After fourteen hours of torture, Druer confessed to everything. With that, the case was closed.
That Grenouille is forgotten only further underlines his historical power, in that he works in a threatening symbolic register and cannot be captured in language. His regret, and the ever-present narrator, follow him back to Paris:
By then, Grenouille was already halfway back to Paris. He still had enough perfume left to enslave the whole world if he so chose. He could walk to Versailles and have the king kiss his feet. He could write the Pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new messiah. He could do all this and more if he wanted to. He possessed a power stronger than the power of money, or terror, or death; the invincible power to command the love of mankind. There was only one thing the perfume could not do. It could not turn him into a person who could love and be loved like everyone else. So, to hell with it, he thought. To hell with the world, with the perfume, with himself. On the twenty-fifth of June, 1766, around eleven o’clock at night, Grenouille entered the city through the Porte d’Orléans and like a sleepwalker, his olfactory memories drew him back to the place where he was born.
Grenouille, still dressed in his finery, sees a group of ragged, dirty people huddled around a fire. He upends the bottle of perfume on his head, drawing the attention of the gathered crowd as he is suffused with a warm glowing light. Two women approach him and cry, ‘An angel’ and, ‘I love you’. The crowd falls upon him and literally devours him. There is nothing but a pile of clothes left, and these are stolen by a group of poor children. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille fades into the mists of history, the dark side of Enlightenment and modern science forgotten save for the fragments of finery he briefly wore as the master of the world. Reenchantment is necessarily, as we have argued in conceptual terms, a fleeting, ephemeral, if forever renewed phenomenon not unlike Grenouille and the scraps of his enchantment he leaves behind after his death.
These final images are deeply ambiguous, if not deeply perverse. The narrator finishes his tale in a matter of fact manner: ‘Within no time, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille had disappeared from the face of the Earth. When they had finished, they felt a virginal glow of happiness. For the first time in their lives, they believed they done something purely out of love’. It is possible to read this final scene in a number of ways. That Grenouille is identified on at least two occasions as an angel, as a figure from traditional Christian cosmology, is highly significant if we return our attention to the concept of religious modernity. In this context, it is possible to interpret the deeply ambivalent ending of Perfume in a different way. What Grenouille, as an angel, represents is the destructive, monstrous aspects of the religious productions of modernity, a murderous hybrid of the religious, the magical and the scientific. This fusion of differing epistemologies can take violent forms, exemplified today in various forms of religious fundamentalism. Similarly, as Faris notes:
In magical realist texts irruptions of magic sometimes constitute the surfacing of buried religious traditions, which speak independently of particular themes and styles. In Perfume, for example, the magical quality of Grenouille’s perfuming abilities transmits a trace of pre-Enlightenment belief in magical powers of enchantment, which operates within the satiric narrative that condemns the beginnings of the scientific age and its culmination in Nazi experimental atrocities, and yet it is not entirely defined by it. 
It is more than this, however. Grenouille is not a trace or a survival, he is a production of modernity and the processes of rationalisation. Jean-Baptiste’s Christian name implicates him both as a significant religious figure and also the one who comes before something greater, in this case both the French Revolution and modernity as a whole. In Perfume, it is a magically endowed, coldly rational and utterly vicious killer of virgins who prepares the way for the modern era, which, the story suggests, is forever haunted by the dark enchantments that lie forgotten in its history by those things it produces and then seeks to forget.
 Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961), 546.
 Perfume, DVD. All quotations and screen captures are the work of the author.
 Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, trans. by J. E. Woods (New York: Penguin, 1987), 90.
 Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 52.
 Süskind, Perfume, 96.
 Wendy B. Faris, Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative (Nashville, AB: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004), 74.
 Faris, Ordinary, 70.
The Battlestar Galactica prequel series, Caprica, really started to hit its straps at about Episode 4: ‘Gravedancing’ (for more on BSG-related topics from Tyrone and Eric, visit here, here, and here).
Caprica is set on the planet of the same name, a planet possessing technology a decade or so more advanced than ours, and on the brink of developing artificial intelligence. The planet Caprica is controlled by global business and a world government, exercising effective political control over the other eleven of the twelve colonies, and wielding a powerful law enforcement and intelligence service called the Global Defense Department (G.D.D.). The parallels to our own political situation (in descending order of power: global business, the U.S. government, and the F.B.I.) are obvious.
The only apparent threat to established power is posed by the terrorist group, Soldiers of The One, whose monorail bomb explosion in the first, pilot episode killed Zoë Graystone, daughter of artificial intelligence entrepreneur, Daniel Graystone. The dominant religious belief within the twelve colonies is polytheism, one more or less based on the ancient Greek pantheon. This polytheistic religion is practiced more nominally and with less literalism on Caprica than it is on other planets, such as the more fundamentalist Gemenon and Tauron. By contrast, the religious innovation of the Soldiers of The One (S.T.O) is monotheism, belief in one God, a belief that sets them against the secularizing and nominally polytheistic Caprican government.
This clash in worldviews – and again the parallels with life on Earth in 2010 are obvious – produces some fiery religious dialogue, punctuated with the usual half-truths, ignorance, fear, and prejudice. When the G.D.D. confronts Amanda Graystone (Zoë Graystone’s mother) and proceeds to force a search of Zoë’s possessions for evidence of her links with the S.T.O., the confrontation produces one of the best lines of the season to this point:
Amanda Graystone (Zoë’s mother): What do you think you’re going to find here?
Jordan (GDD Agent): I really don’t know. Maybe who she met with. Who brainwashed her into believing in a moral dictator called ‘God’…
The GDD agent then delivers a line which nicely captures the inevitable conflict which arises when a political power and a rival religious power each claim absolute authority – and the resulting systemic violence from the political hegemony, defended as though it were benignly protecting the existing order from unaccountable violence:
Jordan (GDD Agent): I’m sorry if we have to take your daughter’s life apart in order to put other terrorists behind bars. But if we have to, then so be it.
After Zoë’s involvement with the S.T.O. is made public, the Graystones are invited on a comedian’s talk show – the media form in which most Caprican young people receive their news. The theme of religious conflict is further developed on the show. Amanda Graystone is asked why she didn’t report her daughter as a terrorist, and replies that she never knew:
Amanda Graystone: When was I supposed to call the cops?
Baxter Sarno: Well, I don’t know, maybe when she started worshiping the big Destructo-God-In-The-Sky, maybe?
Daniel Graystone (Zoë’s father): We didn’t know, there weren’t any signs.
Baxter Sarno: You said she was ‘troubled’.
Daniel Graystone: See… she was angry. That’s a better word. My wife’s right.
Baxter Sarno: Well, ok, ‘angry’, but I would also like to add – “morally blank”. Because the virtual world is a poor teacher and doesn’t provide boundaries…
Daniel Graystone: You know who would completely agree with that – that is Zoe. And that’s exactly how the S.T.O. [Soldiers of The One] got to her… She saw things in the virtual world – ritual sacrifices, games like New Cap City, and she felt the absence of moral guidelines, just like you do, like a lot of folks do. And into that absence steps the S.T.O., offering this marvelous ultimate moral arbiter. It’s quite appealing – for a teenage girl especially.
This exchange captures something Bruce Lincoln notes in Holy Terrors. The typical response of the U.S. to Muslim terrorism was to deny that the terrorists operated from religious motivations; to instead paint them as amoral agents acting merely for political – or even selfish – purposes. Such a slant is completely contradicted by the nature of the instructions which each of the 9/11 bombers were issued and followed before the attack – which stressed the religious rationale for their actions at almost every step of the way, and which was couched in language which emphasized their overall goals of holiness, cleansing, and purity. If any religious element was mentioned in official U.S. media reports, it was painted as a variety opposed to “true Islam” – as though the religion the 9/11 bombers practised was somehow not a valid form of religion. But while it is certainly not a valid form of Islam for the vast majority of Muslims, it does constitute “genuine” Islam for some.
Before her death, Zoë created a virtual copy of herself, the program for which becomes the prototype for artificial intelligence and the creation of the Cylons.
As the Mother of an entirely new species, her name, Zoë, takes on a special significance. It means “Life” in Greek, for which the corresponding Hebrew name is חוה (Ḥavvah): “Eve”.
While doing some research for a lecture on Holocaust films (which included a minor Holocaust film festival at my house, including Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard, without a doubt one of the toughest 31 minutes in the history of cinema), I’ve been pondering the question as to why people still insist that the Holocaust is so impossible to understand, when on so many levels, it is a fully explicable episode in the history of modern Europe, a history that remains haunted by it past and by the irrationality and brutality that all our talk of progress has failed to eliminate from the cultural landscape.
Omer Bartov, in his excellent study Murder in our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), gets to the heart of the reasons for this disconnect, when he argues, if implicitly, that we are still beholden to the myth of progress, still blinded by the view of history that insists on seeing an ongoing process of growth and development (both moral and scientific) rather than embracing the chaos that is the hallmark of all authentic human history. What Bartov argues so clearly here that the Holocaust was a part and parcel of rationalisation and modernity, not an anomalous eruption of the irrational, bur a simple surfacing of fact that modernisation and rationalisation have no necessary moral value, either good or evil. A few excerpts:
War, slaughter, and genocide, are of course as old as human civilization itself. Industrial killing, however, is a much newer phenomenon, not only in that its main precondition was the industrialization of human society, but also in the sense that this process of industrialization came to be associated with progress and improvement, hope and optimism, liberty and democracy, science and the rule of law. Industrial killing was not the dark side of modernity, some aberration of a generally salutary process, rather it was and is inherent to it, a perpetual potential of precisely the same energies and ideas, technologies and ideologies, that have brought about the ‘great transformation’ of humanity. But precisely because modernity means to many of us progress and improvement, we cannot easily come to terms with the idea that it also means mass annihilation. We see genocide as a throwback to another, premodern, barbarous past, a perversion, an error, an accident. All evidence to the contrary, we repeatedly believe that this time, in this war, it will finally be stamped out and eradicated, never to reappear again. (p. 4)
It would seem that our main difficulty in confronting the Holocaust is due not only to the immense scale of the killing, nor even the manner in which it was carried out, but also to the way in which it combined the most primitive human brutality, hatred, and prejudice, with the most modern achievements in science, technology, organization, and administration. It is not the brutal SS man with his truncheon whom we cannot comprehend; we have seen likes throughout history. It is the commander of a killing squad with a Ph.D. in law from a distinguished university in charge of organizing mass shootings of naked women and children whose figure frightens us. It is not the disease and famine in the ghettos, reminiscent perhaps of ancient sieges, but the systematic transportation, selection, dispossession, killing, and distribution of requisitioned personal effects that leaves us uncomprehending, not of the facts but their implications for our own society and for human psychology. Not only the ‘scientific’ killing and its bureaucratic administration; not only the sadism; but rather that incredible mixture of detachment and brutality, distance and cruelty, pleasure and indifference. Hence the genocide of the Jews, its causes, and its context, must be seen as part and parcel of a phase in European civilization that blended modernity and premodernity into an often dangerously explosive mixture (though, of course, also a highly creative one, not only in the science of murder) (p. 67).
The Holocaust can therefore be seen as the culmination (but neither the beginning nor the end) of a process begun the late eighteenth century and still continuing, whose first paroxysm of violence was the Great War, and whose subsequent repercussions can be seen among the millions of victims of the post-1945 era. It is characterized by the missile-wielding religious fanatic, or the cool-headed scientist directing a slave colony of rocket builders, the brutal guard with a given quota of bodies to be disposed of on a daily basis, and the official busy with his schedule of trains bringing anonymous masses of passengers to destinations from which they never return. It is also characterized by two types of professionals essential to the fabric of modernity – the physician and the lawyer (67).
Oddly enough, Bartov makes a point similar to one I’ve made elsewhere about the ways in which we react to suicide bombing in the contemporary world – not that suicide bombings are on any level equivalent to the Holocaust. It is not too much to suggest that the horror that people feel when faced with modern violence is perhaps largely due to a simple and sustained failure to grasp the fact that modernity is not morally on the side of the angels (at least not necessarily). Additionally, like so many before him, Bartov makes the failures of representing the Holocaust into a moral issue:
Western representations of the Holocaust fail to recognize that this extreme instance of industrial killing was generated by a society, economic system, and civilization of which our contemporary society is a direct continuation. In other words, we can note a powerful reluctance to admit that industrial killing is very much a product of modernity … while the Holocaust belongs both its past and its future – our present – and can therefore not be marginalized as an aberration representative only of itself, at the same time, it must not be contextualised to the extent that it becomes part of a general history of progress or degeneration, heroism or atrocity. The centrality of the Holocaust for the human experience of modernity has been recognized even by those who seek to deny that it had ever happened … There may perhaps not be any lessons to be learned from the genocide of the Jews; but, all the same, we must know that killing goes on, and even if we are safe from it today, we may become its victims tomorrow. This is not a memory, not even a history, for the murder is in our midst and our passivity will be our nemesis (pp. 9-11).
Others have made a similar point, though too many of them insist that the proper response to the Holocaust is a reverential silence. Siegfried Krakauer, in his classic book The Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), argues that the cinema, whose relationship to reality he perceives is more chemical than interpretive – something that many critics Bazin among them, have long insisted – is a mirror for the realities of human history:
The mirror reflections of horror are an end in themselves. As such, they beckon the spectator to take them in and thus incorporate into his memory the real face of things too dreadful to be beheld in reality. In experiencing the … litter of tortured human bodies in the film made of the Nazi concentration camps, we redeem horror from its invisibility behind the veils of panic and imagination. And this experience is liberating in as much as it removes a most powerful taboo. Perhaps Perseus’ greatest achievement was not to cut off Medusa’s head but to overcome his fears and look at its reflection in the shield. And was it not precisely this feat which permitted him to behead the monster? (p. 206)
So what does all of this mean? It remains an open question, though we must not neglect the fact that so many of the things that shock us about the modern, rationalised world should not be, in the end, all that surprising.
One of the most palpable pleasures of the academic life is to find a new thinker, a new author who challenges, excites, infuriates, or simply makes one prick up one’s ears. So much the better to stumble upon a thinker who has a long list of books just waiting to be explored, deconstructed, and enjoyed. My recent encounter with Emil Cioran’s collection of essays, The Temptation to Exist, is the intellectual equivalent to my first listen to Tom Wait’s Closing Time as an undergraduate, where the joy of discovery is only deepened with the knowledge that there are – in the case of Waits – albums like Rain Dogs and Bone Machine waiting in the wings. Unlike Waits, Cioran is no longer living and working among us, so his body of work is bounded in time, but there is still a lifetime of writing to anticipate reading. I’ve got two more of his books waiting for me at home already. I’ve come to Cioran by recommendation of Deane, who is, according to one commenter, The Dunedin School’s ‘archblogger’, who has yet to recommend to me a bad book, which is in itself rather remarkable.
Cioran, born in Romania in 1911 with a Romanian Orthodox priest for a father, took to philosophy early in life, travelling to Berlin in 1933, where he developed a certain sympathy for the Nazis and for the Romanian nationalistic organisation The Iron Guard, despite the fact that violence of any kind made him uncomfortable. Cioran spent much of his adult life working and living largely as a hermit in France and he would eventually repudiate all of his ties to the political right, expressing his regret clearly in later interviews. He died in 2005, leaving a mass of unpublished work that is still tied up in the French courts. Reading Cioran is maddening, joyous, and difficult. Understanding him is, if anything, even worse. Writing in the aphoristic philosophical tradition that includes such diverse figures as Nietzsche, Baudrillard, and Wittgenstein, Cioran is one to read and to ponder in mad, great lumps or in discrete bites. I can’t pretend to have mined any of this with any thoroughness, but I’ve included some highlights, some things that caught my attention, that pricked up my ears.
Cioran, in ‘Thinking Against Oneself’, betraying his history of sympathy to fascism (which, though this is a troubling thought, does not mean that he is wrong):
Almost all our discoveries are due to our violence, to the exacerbation of our instability. Even God, insofar as He [sic] interests us – it is not in our innermost selves that we discern God, but at the extreme limits of our fever, at the very point where, our rage confronting His, a shock results, an encounter as ruinous for Him as for us (33).
In the same essay, on Christianity:
But the Christian virus torments us: heirs of the flagellants, it is by refining our excruciations that we become conscious of ourselves. Is religion declining? We perpetuate its extravagances, as we perpetuate the macerations and the cell-shrieks of old, our will to suffer equalling that of the monasteries in their heyday. If the Church no longer enjoys a monopoly on hell, it has nonetheless riveted us to a chain of sighs, to the cult of the ordeal, of blasted joys and jubilant despair … No sage among our ancestors, but malcontents, triflers, fanatics whose disappointments or excesses we must continue (34-35).
Wherever there is suffering, it exhausts mystery or renders it luminous (39).
The only minds which seduce us are the minds which have destroyed themselves trying to give their lives a meaning (45).
From ‘On a Winded Civilisation’ on the intellectual life (and this hits very close to home):
The tired intellectual sums up the deformities and the vices or a world adrift. He does not act, he suffers; if he favors the notion of tolerance, he does not find in it the stimulant he needs. Tyranny furnished that, as do the doctrines of which it is the outcome. If he is the first of its victims, he will not complain: only the strength that grinds him into the dust seduces him. To want to be free is to want to be oneself; but he is tired of being himself, of blazing a trail into uncertainty, of stumbling through truths. ‘Bind me with the chains of Illusion’, he sighs, even as he says farewell to the peregrinations of Knowledge. Thus he will fling himself, eyes closed, into any mythology which will assure him the protection and the peace of the yoke (57-58).
The future belongs to the suburbs of the globe (64).
In ‘A Little Theory of Destiny’ and ‘Advantages of Exile’, Cioran explores the idea of exile and living as an expatriate, which is very much on my mind on as I am on a short trip back to my American hometown of Boulder, Colorado (the New Age capital of the universe), a place I love and hate in equal measure – and his writing captures some of the essence of my experience so well that is almost chilling:
The aspiration to ‘save’ the world is the morbid phenomenon of a people’s youth (66).
Hating my people, my country, its timeless peasants enamored of their own torpor and almost bursting with hebetude, I blushed to be descended from them, repudiated them, rejected their sub-eternity, their larval certainties, the geologic reverie. No use scanning their features for their fidgets, the grimaces of revolt: the monkey, alas! was dying in them. In truth, did they not sprout from the very rock? Unable to rouse them, or to animate them, I came to the point of dreaming of an extermination. One does not massacre stones. The spectacle they offered me justified and baffled, nourished and disgusted my hysteria. And I never stopped cursing the accident that caused me to be born among them (70).
It is a mistake to think of the expatriate as someone who abdicates, who withdraws and humbles himself, resigned to his miseries, his outcast state. On a closer look, he turns out to be ambitious, aggressive in his disappointments, his very acrimony qualified by his belligerence. The more we are dispossessed, the more intense our appetites and our illusions become (74).
On poetry, an analysis that fits New Zealand, a decidedly minor nation that is very fond of poetry, like a glove:
Consider the production of any ‘minor’ nation which has not been so childish as to make up a past for itself: the abundance of poetry is its most striking characteristic. Prose requires, for its development, a certain rigor, a differentiated social status, and a tradition: it is deliberate, constructed; poetry wells up: it is direct or else totally fabricated; the prerogative of cave men or aesthetes, it flourishes only on the near or far side of civilization, never at the center. Whereas prose demands a premeditated genius and a crystallized language, poetry is perfectly compatible with a barbaric genius and a formless language (76).
In ‘A People of Solitaries’, which on occasion strays dangerously close to an unformed, casual anti-Semitism, Cioran offers as astute, troubling look at Judaism in European history:
To be a man is a drama; to be a Jew is another. Hence, the Jew has the privilege of living our condition twice over. He represents the alienated existence par excellence or, to utilize an expression by which the theologians describe God, the wholly other (80).
However grave its consequences may have been, the rejection of Christianity remains the Jews’ finest exploit, a no which does them honor. If previously they had walked alone by necessity, they would henceforth do so by resolve, as outcasts armed with a great cynicism, the sole precaution they have taken against the future (85).
The tragic hero rarely seeks an accounting from a blind, impersonal Fate: it is his pride to accept its decrees. He will perish, then, he and his. But a Job harasses his God, demands an accounting: a formal summons results, of a sublime bad taste, which would doubtless have repelled a Greek but which touches, which overwhelms us. These outpourings, these vociferations of a plagued man who offers conditions to Heaven and submerges it with his imprecations – how can we remain insensitive to such a thing? The closer we are to abdicating, the more these cries disturb us. Job is indeed of his race: his sobs are a show of force, an assault. ‘My bones are pierced in me in the night season’, he laments. His lamentation culminates in a cry, and this cry rises through the vaults of Heaven and makes God tremble. Insofar as, beyond our silences and our weaknesses, we dare lament our ordeals, we are all descendents of the great leper, heirs of his desolation and his moan. But too often our voices fall silent; and though he shows us how to work ourselves to his accents, he does not manage to shake us out of our inertia. Indeed, he has the best of it: he knew Whom to vilify or implore, Whom to attack or pray to. But we – against whom are we to cry out? Our own kind? That seems to us absurd. No sooner articulated than our rebellions expire on our lips … Job has transmitted his energy to his own people: thirsting like him for justice, they never yield before the evidence of an iniquitous world. Revolutionaries by instinct, the notion of renunciation fails to occur to them: if Job, that Biblical Prometheus, struggled with God, they would struggle with men (99-100).
There is so much more that could be said about The Temptation to Exist, but it is late and I will leave you with a final note, from ‘Some Blind Alleys: A Letter’, in which Cioran, writing decades before the rise of the now dominant therapeutic ethos and the repellent spectacle of reality television, sees into the future with a striking clarity:
The confessional? a rape of conscience perpetrated in the name of heaven. And that other rape, psychological analysis! Secularized, prostituted, the confessional will soon be installed on our street corners: except for a couple of criminals, everyone aspires to have a public soul, a poster soul (109).
Never have I wanted more to be a criminal, and more ashamed to be working – with these very words – towards a public soul.
 E. M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist, translated by Richard Howard, with an Introduction by Susan Sontag (London: Quartet Encounters, 1987). All page numbers cited in parenthesis refer to this version of the text.
(Incidentally, The Dunedin School has been ranked #35 on the Biblioblog Top 50 list this month, which is kind of funny, as some of us aren’t even Biblical scholars, though we are constantly running into that damned thing.)
Children of Men, commodification, disenchantment, dystopia, Georges Bataille, Henning Mankell, Jean Baudrillard, Kurt Wallander, Logan's Run, Max Weber, Never Let Me Go, New Age, Ninni Holmqvist, PBRF, rationalisation, Sweden
Proving that we here in the Dunedin School are interested in books other than the Bible, we turn our attention in quite another direction and continue our ongoing discussion of rationalisation – or disenchantment – and human society (see more on this here, here, here, here, and here).
Whoever pushes rationality forward also restores new strength to the opposite power, mysticism and folly of all kinds.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power
Right now, no-one else is doing fictional social commentary about the continuing process of rationalisation quite as well as Scandinavians. From Jens Lien’s lithe, brilliant 2006 Norwegian film The Bothersome Man, which envisions the afterlife as a sterile, highly controlled modern city, to Let the Right One In, which unearths an unspeakable, timeless evil living on the perfectly planned streets of Stockholm (or perhaps this evil is created by or drawn to the city because of its inhuman perfection), there is a whole host of powerful narratives emerging from the northern reaches of Europe, narratives which seriously question the social costs of quantification and reduction of all things, human life included, to exchangeable commodities.
To these more fanciful works, we need to add the growing numbers of excellent Swedish crime fiction, a list which must include Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (along with the two other titles in his Millennium Trilogy), which puts a very human face on the immense suffering and violence that goes on, unnoticed and unremarked, in the interstices of rationalised societies. The gold standard here is probably set by Henning Mankell’s brilliant Kurt Wallander detective novels, which are so popular in Germany that Mankell outsells J.K. Rowling. Over the course of nine novels, Wallander, a kind of dishevelled, stoic, and utterly baffled Everyman, fights a losing battle against a tide of violence and senseless crime in what should, by all accounts, be an earthly paradise of social planning, a triumph of the welfare state. The Wallander novels are shot through with a crawling sense of dread that is shocking not because it is so out of place in the quiet towns of southernmost Sweden, but because it quickly becomes so natural, because it feels so familiar. Mankell turns what could be boilerplate police procedurals into both a highly-nuanced character study and a far-ranging, even courageous theodicy that could only have emerged out of one of the most secular nations on earth. The Wallander novels amount cumulatively to a systematic interrogation of the failures of the welfare state and a deconstruction of the social engineering promises that were made so easily, and with remarkably little foresight, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. (Incidentally, for the uninitiated, the suburb English-language BBC production Wallander, with a doughy and heartbreakingly human Kenneth Branagh as Wallander is a great point of entrée into Mankell’s world; for those of you who still read books, I’ll recommend 1995’s Sidetracked as a personal favourite among the novels).
To this illustrious list we should now add Ninni Holmqvist’s compelling and unjustly overlooked first novel The Unit (2006), an examination of the failures of the present through the classical allegorical strategy of the dystopia. The story is told by Dorrit Weger, a fifty-year-old woman who, as the novel opens, has been moved to something called ‘the Unit’, about which the reader knows nothing. As the story unfolds through Holmqvist’s quiet, precise, understated prose, we learn only gradually what the Unit is and why Dorrit finds herself there. In the future Sweden in which the novel is set – and its exact timeframe is ambiguous, though it is not too far in the future – anyone who has reached the end of their usefulness to society is taken to the Unit, where they are used for medical experiments and as living organ banks, forced to donate their organs one by one until they donate a vital organ, say the heart or the lungs. ‘Final donation’ is in fact the Unit’s callous euphemism for death. Dispensable Elsa, in an attempt to be light-hearted about her fate, jokes with her friend Dorrit, ‘We’re like free-range pigs or hens. The only difference is that the pigs and hens are – hopefully – hopefully ignorant of anything but the present’.
This is no prison camp, however, at least not in the traditional sense and this, for some reason, just makes the fate of Dorrit and her fellow ‘dispensables’ all the more repellent. The Unit is an immaculately constructed alternative world with no view of the outside. It is a prison, without question, but it is a comfortable prison. There are shops, gardens, healthy restaurants, and plenty of amusements. Everything is clean, rational, and as humane as such a thing could possibly be. The dispensables, within the confines of their role as human capital, are treated with respect and encouraged to pursue their own interests and look after their own (decidedly relative) wellbeing. Neither is the selection of people for the Unit random or unexpected; the selection criteria are highly rational, highly quantified, and systematised to remove those all-too-human elements of chance and luck. Anyone who does not work in a vital field – teaching, nursing, etc. – and who remains childless is destined for a one-way trip to the Unit when they reach a certain age. For women, the cut-off age is fifty, while for men it is sixty. Even this has a rational justification; male sexual function has a slightly longer life-span than female, thus men retain their usefulness for longer.
The Unit is many things: it is a moving study of the intense and genuine friendships that quickly develop within the pressure cooker atmosphere of the Unit among people who know they have, at most, a few years left to live; when Dorrit meets Johannes and falls in love, it is a refreshing (and refreshingly frank) study of a sexual relationship between two characters past middle age, a time of life that most popular fiction, Harold and Maude notwithstanding, renders oddly asensual; and, in the end, it is simply heartbreaking, especially when Dorrit reminisces about her simple life outside the Unit and about her dog Jock, who she was forced to leave with friends when she taken to away.
In the final analysis, what The Unit, with its focus on the usefulness or utility of human beings, is criticising is rationalisation, the increasing dominance of instrumental reason, and how this effects people living in rationalised societies. What matters in a rationalised or disenchanted system is what works, not what has meaning. Only that which conforms to a narrowly-defined idea of function has proper, demonstrable value. Those in Holmqvist’s dystopian future who find themselves in the Unit fall outside the brutal calculus of value that equates usefulness with the biological necessity of reproduction. The world that supports the Unit is thus in this sense a subsistence economy that places the highest interest in its own survival. Holmqvist makes it apparent that members of the Unit have internalised this value system, as we see Dorrit fretting, even after being labelled as dispensable, about being ‘unusable’ as a medical commodity within the Unit itself. She also spends much of her time – tellingly, she follows standard week-day working hours even while inside the Unit – writing a novel about a mother who gives birth to a deformed baby, in which she muses, ‘The question was: Is this mother to be regarded as a parent in the practical, concrete meaning of the word? Is she to be regarded as needed? The question was: Is a person needed if she gives birth to a child that will never be able to bond with her, and will never be able to make any kind of contribution?’
Rationalisation, first theorised by the sociologist Max Weber in early years of the twentieth century, has arguably held up better than its contemporary, the secularisation thesis. There are a number of sociologists, theorists (including yours truly), and philosophers who have done some very interesting work within a Weberian framework, working with what Weber famously called ‘the disenchantment of the world’. One of the more prominent of these thinkers is Georges Bataille, who captures the long and ultimately indeterminate struggle between instrumental and values-based rationalities when he writes of ‘the poverty of utility’. Bataille’s related concepts of accursed share and sovereignty have strong resonances with both Weber’s disenchantment and Jean Baudrillard’s concept of symbolic exchange. Bataille’s concept of the sovereign is also related, not coincidentally, with his challenging theory of religion, which in turn owes a good deal to Weber’s narrative of rationalisation and its identification of religious and economic history. Echoing Jean Baudrillard’s concept of ‘symbolic exchange’, which celebrates the extra-economic and extra-instrumental use of goods, Bataille writes critically of the ‘servile man’, who ‘averts his eyes from that which is not useful, which serves no purpose’. He opposes the servile to the sovereign: ‘The sovereign I speak of has little to do with the sovereign of States, as international law defines it. I speak in general of an aspect that is opposed to the servile and the subordinate’. The sovereign, then, stands apart from and opposed to the closed system of political economy, as does symbolic exchange; indeed, Bataille champions the ‘opposition to the mercantile spirit, to haggling and self-interested calculation’ that is embodied in true exchange. In the world of The Unit, human beings are understood only in relationship to their use value and are thus granted different levels of exchange value in a brutal, mercenary logic where a single older woman is worth demonstrably, quantifiably less than a young single mother of young boys. There is a good deal that this kind of instrumentalisation misses, of course, and Weber, when formulating his theory of rationalisation, noted that disenchantment carries with it necessarily a dehumanising element. When Dorrit finds out her sister had been in the same Unit and had died a few years previously, she rages against the narrowness of this calculus of value: ‘But what about me? Perhaps I needed my sister, why doesn’t anyone think about things like that?’
Though exploitative medical practices and the disposal of the aged are classic themes in dystopian fiction, from Michael Bay’s patently awful film The Island to the classic (both in novel and film form) Logan’s Run, to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go (soon to be released as a film), The Unit is still compelling, neccessary reading, due in no small part to the fact that it is far more grounded in the realities of the disenchanted, rationalised world than many of these other texts. After all, what makes any dystopia work is that it is believable. This is why Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men is so striking, so haunting: it is chillingly plausible; its account of the future is so convincing as to seem almost inevitable. What makes Holmqvist’s nightmare so recognisably grounded in our reality is that she draws out the connections between rationalisation and commodification, which are inextricably linked in consumer capitalism. Dorrit tells a friend:
I used to believe that my life belonged to me … Something that was entirely at my disposal, something no one else had any claim on, or the right to have an opinion on. But I’ve changed my mind. I don’t own my life at all, it’s other people who own it … Those who have the power, I suppose … The state or industry or capitalism. Or the mass media. Or all four. Or are industry and capitalism the same thing? Anyway: those who safeguard growth and democracy and welfare, they’re the ones who own my life. They own everybody’s life. And life is capital. A capital that is to be divided fairly among the people in a way that promotes reproduction and growth, welfare and democracy. I am only a steward, taking care of my vital organs.
As a condemnation of an increasingly rationalised world where everything and, more importantly, everyone, can become a unit of economic value, The Unit is a very fine novel and a nice bit of social criticism. However, there is something going on further in the depths of the text that should be immensely troubling to anyone invested in the idea of therapy. That the usual therapies of our world go on unhindered with the Unit, that Doritt regularly visits a psychologist, or that art therapy is available to the doomed residents, suggests something deeply subversive; that the whole therapeutic ethos that dominates contemporary European cultures, with its rhetoric of healing, wholeness, mind-body unity, self-awareness, and self-fulfilment and its social structure of support groups, twelve-step programs, talk therapy, is nothing more than an integral part of the rationalised and rationalising apparatus that prepares and maintains human capital. That very few of the people who work at the Unit (though they live outside of it) have any intimation of the sheer hypocrisy of the whole enterprise is telling of the perverse coexistence of the recognisable world of therapy and the utterly ruthless logic of exploitation and violence that exists behind the whole edifice of the Unit. Slavoj Žižek gets at this point in his contributions to the recent The Monstrosity of Christ:
Spiritual mediation, in its abstraction from institutionalised religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institutions to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.
This paints the whole of The Unit in a new light and draws out the fact that the novel voices a criticism of the whole edifice of contemporary spiritual/therapeutic culture, most visible in the New Age movement, which often calls for a reversal of disenchantment and the creation of a ‘reenchanted’ world (and here Thomas Moore’s best-selling book The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life is but one example). Viewing it from the angle set out by Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit, what is going on in the development of the whole therapeutic ethos is in reality very different. In important ways that go largely unspoken, the world of universal individual achievement, the world where we can go to a yoga class or purchase ancient Mayan herbs to mediate the effects of a stressful life, is a world not unlike that of the Unit, and we, as its residents, are not unlike the human capital that is corralled there to serve a purpose and then to be discarded when our usefulness is finished. All of this raises a series or vital, necessary question: Is therapy really just another management technique and, worse, one that many people gladly submit themselves to? Are we concerned with all of this healing and wholeness because it allows us to more effective employees, voters, and consumers? Is all of this a symptom of the commodification of the human subject? Is the New Age, rather than a new era of freedom and respect for the individual, in reality an ideal embodiment of disenchantment and a pathway to an even more dysenchanted world?
Sheer pointlessness is a deeply subversive affair.
Terry Eagleton, After Theory
Brief excursus on rationalisation and the contemporary university: That this poverty of utility has permeated the contemporary academy to an unprecedented degree goes perhaps without saying. That the value of university research and teaching is now primarily filtered though economic concerns is immediately obvious to anyone working within the Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF) system in New Zealand, a system which imposes an inappropriate and ultimately harmful standard of ‘excellence’ and ‘performance’ drawn from the business world and situated within a narrowly-prescribed system of valuation. Education is not a product, nor is it a service and to treat it as such has serious detrimental consequences, such as the need to court and treat students as customers. On the reverse side of the coin, we find significant numbers of students who are unwilling or simply unable to make the intellectual leap to find the value in studying something that will not help them find a job or in studying for a purpose other than gathering marks towards a degree. The great tragedy here when thinking about the value of the study of religion, or any of the Humanities for that matter, is that, in spending time and energy attempting to prove their worth in the narrow strictures of utilitarian and economic value, scholars are distracted from doing work that is truly valuable (Mark Bauerlein has an excellent piece on this in the Chronicle of Higher Education). Perhaps all of this ultimately breaks down to a question of belief; either one believes that the pursuit of knowledge is valuable in its own right, or one does not. This may be one of those things about which one must square one’s shoulders and declare, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’.
As the Unit’s librarian Kjell tells Dorrit early on in her stay, ‘there are so many intellectuals here. People who read books … People who read books tend to be dispensable. Extremely’. That the Unit is also home to a number of artists and writers should perhaps come as no surprise, for the arts, like the pursuit of knowledge, are formally – and often economically – useless. That these things make life worth living is, of course, of no consequence.
 Ninni Holmqvist, The Unit, translated by Marlaine Delargy (New York: Other Press, 2006), 52.
 Holmqvist, Unit, 93.
 See Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion, trans by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 35-42 and 90.
 Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, vol. 2, trans. by Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 15. Emphasis in original.
 Bataille, Accursed II, 197.
 Bataille, Accursed II, 42.
 Holmqvist, Unit, 136.
 Holmqvist, Unit, 103.
 Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?, edited by Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009), 28.
 Holmqvist, Unit, 48.
Job is, as St Jerome understood well, the slipperiest of the biblical books. It is also one of the rare moments when the Hebrew Bible truly approaches literary and philosophical greatness. In this it ranks alongside the Epic of Gilgamesh as a treasure from the ancient Near East. Its complexity scares me, which is why I have a monograph worth of drafts still sitting unpublished on my hard drive. As a corollary of its complexity, it fascinates me that so many generations of readers have felt compelled to close down its ambiguities and to redeem its horrors: for the god this book offers us is truly a monster. No wonder there is so little evidence of its authority in the sectarian scrolls from Qumran (except perhaps in the Hodayot) or in the New Testament (except perhaps in Romans), no wonder the rabbis debated its meaning so vigorously, and no wonder its reception history is one that reflects the endless attempt to own its meaning. Job becomes patient, he becomes a type of Christ, and so on.
I have here the modest aim of offering a footnote to Deane Galbraith and Philip Davies, via a slight detour through a revisionist approach to the personality of Adolf Hitler. In a recent interview in Der Spiegel, Birgit Schwarz has suggested we need to reconsider Adolf Hitler’s conviction that he was an artistic genius. This is the theme of her book Geniewahn: Hitler und die Kunst (Böhlau, 2009). For Schwarz, Hitler’s conviction that he was a genius misunderstood by those who rejected his art was at the centre of his worldview. Along with his deep inner conviction he needed a community of admirers, of which Josef Goebbels was a fine example, to bolster this delusion. This delusion of genius carried with it the conviction that Hitler was above morality and thus permitted to do anything: “The genius has outstanding ideas, and they must be implemented, even if they are completely amoral.”
The Yahweh of the book of Job is a Genie in the Hitlerian sense. That is, he is utterly amoral by virtue of being an artistic genius above the banalities of the human world in which puny, scabby little Job finds himself mired. This is how he answers Job in Job 38:1-41:26. “Will you condemn me that you may be justified?,” asks Yahweh in 40:8. He asks this in the context of asserting that because he is such a genius that he can create the marvellous cosmos, from the morning stars to the dumb ostrich, he is in no way bound by the kind of morality Job understands. In this I suggest Deane Galbraith is slightly missing the point by suggesting that Yahweh “simply demands obedience without justification.” That, perhaps, was always to be read between the lines of Job 23:12, but the focus in the Yahweh speeches is on Yahweh’s genius, not Job’s obedience. Job submits after a fashion to this dreadful god, but his obedience is not quite the point. It is that to whatever little world of justification Job may feel himself to belong, Yahweh is too much of a genius to worry about it. He can treat Job as a pawn in his cosmic game of oneupmanship with the Accuser without scruple.
But to leave the matter there would be to do an injustice to another genius, the greatest of all ancient Hebrew poets, from whose stylus this masterpiece has proceeded. (S)he was a genius in our sense of an extraordinary talent, not in Hitler’s. This is obvious, given that her name and personality have vanished behind her creation. This creation has much to teach us in the ethical sphere. If there truly exists a god such as the one portrayed in Job, He has nothing to teach us about ethics. As Job himself learns, true ethics begins when we face one another and acknowledge our common humanity (Job 21:5). Here Philip Davies is far too simple in his rejection of the Hebrew Bible. The problem lies as much in the sphere of textuality and the nature of Scripture as in the sphere of ethics in sensu stricto.
Davies’ reflections have much to commend them. It does seem prima facie that it is ridiculous to suggest that the religions of the world have given humans ethics that bestow value on human life: frequently the effects of these traditions have shown the opposite. The “divine command” approach to ethics so fundamental to the Hebrew Bible and to many communities of its readers is arguably not a question of “ethics” at all. For a start, it is inseparable from ancient Near Eastern treaties, in which people were compelled under threat of torture, genocide, and exile (see Deuteronomy 28 for a particularly edifying example) to obey the suzerain king. Such treaties offer the framework for biblical ideas of covenant, and are the reason biblical ideas of covenant are inseparable from ancient Near Eastern notions of kingship. The Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible was created in the image of an ancient Near Eastern despot. If we focus on “codes” of law in the Hebrew Bible, we are more or less lost with respect to ethics. As in Job 1-2, we are surely unable to serve Yahweh gratuitously, because if we fail to serve him he will afflict us with blight and mildew (or at any rate a gruesome skin disease).
But is this all? It seems to me at least that part of the purpose of the book of Job is precisely to deconstruct the covenant on which such a hideous and inadequate moral code is based. It deconstructs it by exposing the unspeakable deity at its root. If, however, we shift our attention from Job 38:1-41:26 and look at the dialogue, we see an attempt to negotiate an approach to ethics that is based not on obeying the random precepts of a capricious (and generally invisible) deity, but rather on attention to the suffering of the Other. Job commands his friends to look at him and be appalled (Job 21:5) – that is, engage with him as he is, rather than explaining his place in an irrelevant and dehumanizing ethical system that buys divine righteousness at the price of human dignity. An ethic that begins with Job 21:5 cannot be a matter of a code of law but must be negotiated in the mess of human life.
For this we need not simply a text but a community of readers, and this is where the problem lies with Davies. He reifies the text in a manner more akin to some (by no means all) of the advocates of theological hermeneutics to which he is so implacably opposed. Scripture only exists, however, in its recognition as such and in its consequent use in the context of an interpretive community. We receive Scripture through the lens of Talmud (in Judaism) or apostolic tradition (in Catholic and Orthodox Christianities). While these traditions provide frameworks that are used to limit the meaning of Scripture, the availability of Scripture to an infinite readership means that its meaning cannot be controlled. There can be no “biblical values” without a community to pick and choose from the smorgasbord of biblical options, yet at the same time there can be no limit on a given reader’s reclamation of Scripture from those who would construe such “biblical values” as the hermeneutical key to scriptural interpretation. More simply, Scripture can be taken to mean (almost) anything; consequently it actually means nothing. The range of possible construals is radically open.
Back to ethics. Job 21:5 can be construed as the key to the deconstruction of the ethical system that the Job of the prologue had taken as read. In the canon of the Hebrew Bible as a whole, it is perhaps Leviticus 19:18 that has that honour. This is because to command someone to love their neighbour as they love themselves is to command something that cannot really be codified. While “love” in the context of ancient Near Eastern treaties tends to be a matter of unquestioning obedience, what might it mean to love one’s neighbour in that sense? The radical openness of this command, not to mention its resistance to definitive codification, is arguably what made it so central to the ethics of the synoptic Jesus and of the Hillel portrayed in b. Shabb. 31b, as well as the command on which much of the work of Emmanuel Levinas could be construed as an extended commentary.
So readers make Scripture, and readers make biblical values. Davies is right that it is to some external set of values that such readers in fact make appeal when they attach themselves to “biblical values.” But it is in the engagement between readers, interpretive communities, and the sacred texts that are constituted by them that such values emerge, and in this more complex sense it could just be asserted that “religion” (on some level) has, by an extended process of extrapolation, given us ethical values we can live by.
In what will hopefully become a recurring feature here at The Dunedin School, we are proud to present the opening of an ongoing dialogue about a single text. For our inaugural Call and Response, we have chosen Mary Doria Russell’s 1996 science fiction novel The Sparrow as our object of discussion. Set in the mid-twenty-first century, The Sparrow recounts the fate of an interstellar mission, led by the Society of Jesus, to a distant planet known as Rakhat. Though thematically a sci-fi novel that explores the classic trope of ‘first contact’, The Sparrow unfolds almost like a detective story, slowly peeling away the layers of rumour and hearsay to arrive, finally, at the horrific truth of why the Jesuit Emilio Sandoz was the only member of his expedition to survive and make the return journey to Earth. WARNING: these posts will contain very significant plot spoilers, so if you’re interested in reading the book (as you should be), read it first, then come back here and see what other readers have made of it. The Dunedin School believes firmly that the analysis of books should never be allowed to impinge on the pure, elemental pleasure of reading them.
Before her deserved success as a novelist, Russell, a convert to Judaism, worked in the academy in the fields of physical and cultural anthropology. Incidentally, as an academic, one of the pleasures of reading The Sparrow comes from watching Russell struggling to break out of the formal strictures of academic writing – in her Acknowledgements, she admits to feeling uneasy ‘without footnotes and a huge bibliography’ – and stretch her legs into prose fiction. To her credit, Russell is largely successfully, though, on an aesthetic front, the novel is at times something of a mixed bag. Some of the dialogue she concocts between her characters, especially when expressing deep, even mawkish affection, is stilted or even flat-out clumsy, due, perhaps, to years spent observing people with a detached intellectual eye (one of the perils of working in the human sciences). Structurally and allegorically, however, Russell rarely puts a foot wrong and the novel’s intricate structure, without which it would lose a good deal of its power, never falters.
The narrative of The Sparrow, Russell’s first novel, is in itself fairly simple. The novel’s structure is considerably more complex; Russell weaves the story of the mission to Rakhat into the story of what happens to Sandoz when he comes back to Earth and faces a Jesuit commission who want to know why the mission ended so disastrously. Not only are the rest of the tight-knit crew of Jesuits, scientists, and friends killed on Rakhat, but the mission’s presence caused the deaths of a number of sentient natives, including at least one child who had been close to the Jesuits. Sandoz’s superiors also want to know why Sandoz was discovered after years of silence working as a prostitute on Rakhat. Finally, they want to know what happened to his hands, which have been mutilated by an operation that removed the flesh and muscles from his palms, leaving him with unnaturally long, skeletal fingers that hang from his arms with a certain perverse grace. For much of its considerable length, The Sparrow operates on an exquisite slow burn that comes to a boil in the final pages, in a series of emotionally potent revelations that reveal the deeply unsettling truth of what happened to Sandoz and his crew, a fate that has a good deal to tell us about colonialism, faith, and Christianity.
Reading the novel allegorically, and science fiction is, as Peter Nicholls has noted, ‘the great modern literature of metaphor’, what The Sparrow is ‘really about’ is European colonialism and the inevitable if unconscious harm that it caused on Earth. It is also no less concerned with grappling honestly with the role of Christian missionaries in the history of colonialism. The novel begins with a very brief Prologue that draws a parallel between the expedition to Rakhat and to the earliest days of European colonialism, in which the then newly-founded Society of Jesus played an important part. The opening words of the novel are telling: ‘It was predictable, in hindsight’. Rakhat civilisation seems eerily familiar, even though it is literal light-years from Earth. It is a tribute to Russell’s intricate and tightly-controlled structure that the similarities become more apparent the more the expedition – and in turn, the reader – learns about the different peoples of Rakhat.
Though it is obvious from the first that the gentle, forest-dwelling Runa, the first alien group that Sandoz’s party encounters, are involved in certain economic activities, the extent of capitalism – or something that looks very much like modern European capitalism – on Rakhat only becomes clear in the closing chapters. The Runa, the reader slowly learns, are the majority population of Rakhat but are under the control of a cultivated species called the Jana’ata, who dwell in cities with a rich, complex culture. It is, in fact, the Jana’ata’s songs, broadcast on radio signals that are picked up by powerful radio telescopes on Earth, that first draw the Jesuits to Rakhat. For all their aesthetic development, the minority Jana’ata rule the Runa with a shocking degree of coercion and violence. The Runa are treated as little more than sympathetic (if intelligent) cattle, despite the fact that they are the engines that make the Jana’ata economy run. The Runa’s reproduction is strictly controlled, to the extent that the Jana’ata even breed the Runa selectively in order to make them more useful as traders and gatherers. As readers, once the humans are discovered by the Jana’ata, our guide into the world of the dominant species is one Supaari VaGayjur, who is a wealthy merchant and trader of scent. As we move from the forests of the Runa into the cities, the allegorical identity with the Jana’ata and European colonialism come into sharp, surprising focus. Reading all of this as an allegory, it is difficult not to see the echoes of scientific Enlightenment culture in Russell’s descriptions: ‘But Jana’ata life was never simple and rarely straightforward. Deep in the Jana’ata soul there was an almost unshakeable convictions that things must be controlled, thought out, done correctly, that there was very little margin for error in life. Tradition was safety; change was danger’. Though hyperbolically amplified in the novel’s allegorical structure, there are also recognisable parallels between the Runa and the economic underclasses which form the majority population of contemporary human life on Earth.
It is to Russell’s credit that she doesn’t condemn the Jana’ata outright and explores the fictional society on its own terms, something which allows her to make some pointed social criticisms. She has Sandoz compare the Jana’ata to human civilisation:
I am not defending them. I am trying to explain to you what happened and why. But it is their society, and the pay their own price for their way of life … There are no beggars on Rakhat. There is no unemployment. There is no overcrowding. No starvation. No environmental degradation. There is no genetic disease. The elderly do not suffer decline. Those with terminal illnesses do not linger. They pay a terrible price for this system, but we too pay, Felipe, and the coin we use is the suffering of children. How many kids starved to death this afternoon, while we sat here? Just because the corpses aren’t eaten doesn’t make our species any more moral!
What is perhaps most intriguing about The Sparrow is that the story of Sandoz – and it really is his story– underlines the problematic connections of Christianity and European expansion during the colonial period. The whole of the colonial project – and thus all of the destruction it caused – would likely have been simply impossible without the funding, the manpower, and the inherently legitimising power of the Christian churches, who were in this period fighting on all fronts (including the colonial) to gain (or re-gain in the Catholic Church’s case) power in European society. The churches, then, are doubtless complicit in the seemingly endless negative consequences that have grown out of the colonial period.
Granted, within the larger cultural and economic movement of colonialism, some of the missionaries, Jesuits and others, who travelled out from Europe in this period were first-rate scholars who added considerably to what was known about Asian cultures in Europe, and did so in an honest, sympathetic, and largely non-violent manner. The Lutheran Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1682-1719), the first Protestant missionary in India, is a good example of this kind of more ethical missionary; however, he was, sadly, very much in the minority. We can see this tension in the New Zealand context in that there were missionaries involved on both sides of the controversy that surrounded the signing of the still-contentious Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. There were missionaries working on the side of the colonisers who pressured Maori leaders to sign the document; however, there were also those who worked on the side of the Maori and encouraged resistance against the Treaty, which some suspected –with good reason, it turned out – was designed only to give the growing British rule over New Zealand the air of local legitimacy. Russell, through her fictional construct of spaceflight and alien civilisation, asks a compelling question: Can the drive to better the world ad majorem Dei gloriam, no matter how legitimate, ever be separated out from the evils of the colonial enterprise? She also asks, balancing the scales; what price should these missionaries be forced to pay for their complicity?
In the novel, Sandoz comes to pay a great, almost unimaginable price, one that is tied up wholly with his identity as a Jesuit, a priest, and a Christian. Throughout the novel, Russell takes considerable pains to create in Sandoz a central protagonist who is complex and conflicted but in many ways admirable. Sandoz comes from a poor background and becomes both a Jesuit and an accomplished linguist, all the while trying to work out the realities of his own Christianity. When the Aricebo radio telescope in his native Puerto Rico first intercepts the first faint radio transmissions of the Jana’ata songs, Sandoz is instrumental in getting the Jesuit mission off the ground. Sandoz’s motives are profoundly religious – he feels he is being called by God travel to Rakhat – at the same time they are academic and intellectual – as a linguist, he wants to learn more about the songs and those who sang them. On Earth, Sandoz is a tireless champion of the underprivileged and a dedicated worker in the service of the poor the world over. His intentions for the interstellar mission, for the most part, are admirable. For Sandoz, Rakhat is the site for a profound religious awakening, a flowering of the faith that has always troubled him. Landing on Rakhat and for the first time opening the hatch of their landing craft, Sandoz finds himself suffused with the sort of transformative experience of the presence of his God that he has long admired in others. In the Prologue, Russell writes of the intentions behind the expedition: ‘The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went for ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm’. Sandoz means no harm, but he nonetheless causes a great deal of it. He also comes in for more than his share of harm as things, after a long, idyllic interlude on Rakhat spent with the Runa, go very wrong very quickly. His friends dead, Sandoz returns after a solitary journey across space a pariah, an enigma with mutilated hands. He arrives home to a world where he is known as a prostitute and a man connected with a number of deaths. He arrives home to find the Society deeply immersed in the massive controversy the mission has caused.
As we learn towards the end of the novel, Sandoz is not a coldblooded killer or a willing merchant of the flesh but is more than anything the victim of profound cultural misunderstandings. In their desire to help the Runa, Sandoz and their crew fundamentally alter a social structure they did not understand until it was far too late for them to reverse the changes they had made in their ignorance. The deaths on Rakhat are the direct result of the violation of the carefully maintained social order. The minority Jana’ata, who are always in fear of a Runa uprising, cannot tolerate this intrusion and respond with violence. Sandoz is eventually taken by Suppari to a compound in the city. It is here that his hands are mutilated in an operation that is designed to make his hands look like the weeping branches of a willow-like tree. A similar operation causes the death of the only other surviving Jesuit in the interest of pure aesthetics and a desire among the Jana’ata to appear prosperous enough not to need something so mundanely useful as hands.
At the nadir of his suffering, alone and profoundly wounded with this alien stigmata, Sandoz is sold by Suppari to what he fist thinks is a sort of zoo. Upon meeting his purchaser, the poet who composed the lovely songs which drew him across the void of space, Sandoz experiences a moment of clarity that justifies in his mind all of the suffering he has endured:
And then, suddenly, everything made sense to him, and the joy of that moment took his breath away. He had been brought here, step by step, to meet this man: Hlavin Kitheri, a poet – perhaps even a prophet – who of all his kind might know the God whom Emilio Sandoz served. It was a moment of redemption so profound he almost wept, ashamed that his faith had been so badly eroded by the inchoate fear and the isolation … This is why I am alive, he told himself, and he thanked God with all his soul for allowing him to be here at this moment, to understand all of this at last.
At this very moment of spiritual realisation, Russell brings everything crashing down on Sandoz; the author of the songs has not bought a display animal, but an unwilling prostitute. That the poet Kitheri himself is the one who first violates Sandoz reveals a design in nature quite different to the one that Sandoz had seen with such joy only seconds before.
Russell gives the reader the irony and the horror of this moment without flinching, taking Sandoz’s suffering and humiliation about as far as it could go: ‘Kitheri, Reshtar of Galatna Palace, the greatest poet of his age, who had ennobled the despised, exalted the ordinary, immortalized the fleeting, a singularity whose artistry was first concentrated and then released, magnified, by the incomparable and unprecedented, inhaled deeply. We shall sing of this for generations, he thought’. New songs are written about the repeated rape of Sandoz, who reveals to his interrogators much later that the songs of the Jana’ata are nothing more than simple (if beautiful) pornography. That Sandoz has struggled successfully until this point in his life with his vow of celibacy adds a final and very severe insult to his forced prostitution. Sandoz is able later to frame his own understanding on very Nietzschean terms, telling his interrogators, ‘Not comedy. Not tragedy … Perhaps farce’? However, this doesn’t soften the blow of what happens to him on Rakhat, about which he says simply: ‘I laid down all my defences. I had nothing between me and what happened but the love of God. And I was raped. I was naked before God and I was raped’. Tying the title of the book back the Matthew 10:29 (‘Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it’) brings out the force of Sandoz’s continual suffering, as his God knows about his suffering but chooses to ignore it in silence. In this, there is an almost Job-like character to Sandoz’s story.
In these final revelations, The Sparrow sounds a note very much like that of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic 1956 Hugo Award-winning short story, ‘The Star’, in which a group of scientists discover that the brightly-flaring star that features in the biblical narratives of Jesus’ birth was in reality a supernova that laid to waste an interstellar civilisation that far outstripped anything that humanity has managed to achieve. The narrator of ‘The Star’, a Jesuit priest and scientist not unlike The Sparrow’s Sandoz, finishes his story with a plea that mixes the joy of discovery with a lament that such discovery has little enough to say to the age-old problem of evil: ‘There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?’ In The Sparrow, the question of theodicy, as indicated in the opening sentence, should be reframed to include humanity’s persistent inability to learn from its mistakes.
As a firm believer in the openness of the text, I have no problems with the fact that The Sparrow contains within it a number of possible reading; however, the question I wish to put to my fellows here at the School is this: is The Sparrow an apology for or a condemnation of the missionary impulse in Christianity and, just as importantly, in European modernity? Is it both? Is it neither? Does anyone, no matter what their crimes or their intentions, deserve to suffer as Emilio Sandoz suffers, both physically and spiritually?
 Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (London: Black Swan, 1996). 505.
 Peter Nicholls, ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, in P. Nicholls (ed.), Explorations of the Marvelous (London: Fontana, 1978: pp. 170-196): 180.
 Russell, Sparrow, 9.
 Russell, Sparrow, 423.
 Russell, Sparrow, 471.
 Russell, Sparrow, 10.
 Russell, Sparrow, 485-486.
 Russell, Sparrow, 488.
 Russell, Sparrow, 478.
 Russell, Sparrow, 490.
Eric recently commented on the way the forthcoming Battlestar Galactica prequel, Caprica, reflects the 20th Century Western shift from otherworldly to this-wordly spirituality:
“… The relentless drive for ‘self-improvement’ or ‘self-realisation’ that is part and parcel of so much of contemporary religious thought and practice, is necessarily a this-worldly matter…”
(Dr Eric Repphun)
In response, I wondered if the transhumanists might be the ones today who have reincorporated the infinite into this dominant strand of this-worldly spirituality. For, in the transhumanist body, both the finite-material and the infinite defeat of death are combined. Much like the Christ.
And as a spooky synchronicity (religiously speaking), Slavoj Žižek recently gave a lecture (with the same title as the book he co-wrote with John Millbank, The Monstrosity of Christ, 2009), in which he says this:
“Did you notice how, in contrast to previous centuries, especially the Nineteenth Century – when the topic of finitude was, as it were, reserved for materialism, and spiritualists, idealists were talking about (and I simplify very much, but nonetheless) the infinite, the spiritual dimension is our contact with the infinite, and so on – all of a sudden (it started with Heidegger, taken over by others) in the Twentieth Century, it’s the very finitude which becomes the ultimate support of spiritualization. The idea is that – precisely insofar as we are finite beings, that is to say, irreducibly thrown into a world that we cannot ever dominate, rooted in this world, unable to withdraw from our concrete place in historical reality to gain a kind of a neutral position, above the run of, outside the run of things – precisely because of this, we cannot ever think of dominating technologically, or in any other way, reality. So we have to remain open for an unfathomable transcendent otherness.
So again, no wonder that even with cinema-makers, I noticed – like, who is the most materialist cinema-maker, arguably, probably, over the Twentieth Century? My choice would have been Andrei Tarkovsky – the Russian guy. But he is also the most spiritualist. You see this idea that, precisely because of this idea that we are stuck into our bodies, our place, this gives to our existence an unfathomable abyss that sustains it, which is the proper place of spirituality.
And on the other hand, the only ones who are ready to take over – in a way that I don’t accept, but nonetheless – the old topics of immortality, infinity, in the sense of getting out of one’s body, are some (usually, even the more vulgar ones) Darwinists, brain scientists or cognitive scientists who claim, you know this idea that that the ultimate, especially in the so-called tech-gnosis movement, where the idea is that the ultimate goal of recent digital, bio-genetic development is to transform our very personal identity into – to cut a long story short – into software; into a virtual program which can then be downloaded from one to another hardware, so that we can indefinitely reproduce ourselves. So that’s an interesting reversal.
Where I am, along with Alan Badiou, is on the side of infinity here – not this vulgar materialist infinity, but nonetheless an infinity, if nothing else the Freudian infinity, even immortality.”