Throughout God of Vengeance, there is a recurrent motif of the contractual relationship between a gendered understanding of innocence, and ethno-theocratic cultural identity. Certainly, in the introduction of queerness, in the depicted relationship between Manke and Rifkele – above all regarding its emancipatory logic as discussed between the two characters – one can see fit to apply both Emma Goldman’s and Gayle Rubin’s essays entitled “The Traffic in Women” as a means of understanding first the functional continuum between systems of marriage and the maligned representations of sex work (as with Goldman’s initial essay), as well as nods toward a broader structural understanding of the female subject position as delineated in such an economy of signification. Undoubtedly, the spatial architecture of the play’s proceedings speaks to the ultimately frustrated separation of patriarchal concepts of piety and castigated forms of female labour – easily interpretable as respective parallels to the Superego / Symbolic and Id / Real – consequently making the liberationist “rain scene” the fleetingly triumphant Ego / Imaginary. It is within reason to understand this scene as something of a dialectical synthesis between the innocence demanded by the “upstairs” society, and the unbridled disregard for respectability. Indeed, the sexual Aufheben from patriarchal rule we see in this moment, through queer relationality as praxis, occurs both through sublation and supplementation via Manke’s concurrent – indeed, contingent – adoption both of the roles of mother and of bridegroom. Accordingly, family dynamics – both intergenerational / parental and intragenerational / spousal – are at once disavowed in their prior mode of application, revealed as little more than dispositifs of performative function, and then repurposed as such for a new economy of same-gender affection.

Manke’s address to Rifkele, reliant as it is on aqueous imagery in its romance, feels pointedly reminiscent of the Song of Solomon aka Song of Songs, whose eroticism has throughout history resulted in its performance in taverns and brothels as well as by observant Jews during Pesach. Crucially, then, we can interpret an expressly spiritual dimension to this affair: invoking a “Holy of Holies” that nevertheless transcends borders of respectability and indeed, even in its official religious application, uses the language of desire to indicate an Exodus: first from Egypt, and now from Yekel.

Returning, however, to the question of space: if we hold with the notion of the upstairs apartment, downstairs brothel, and street outside as representing the various components of the Borromean knot, we might well accordingly interpret Rifkele’s exodus from the Symbolic patriarchal order as being also an exodus from language – not least of all the function of language to delineate the moral parameters of her position within the traffic of women, including and especially the piety so hypocritically demanded of her by her parents. Thus, Rifkele’s uncertainty how to respond to Yekel’s interrogation of her virginity is not merely reticence. Rather, the language of patriarchal order bears next to no meaning for queer discourse and, in kind, queer discourse appears untranslatable to the language of patriarchal order.

The dominant narrative within Venus in Furs – Severin’s autobiographical text-within-the-text – in its opening scene, presents Severin’s journey within a few pages from a devoted and seemingly public worship of the “cold, cruel” statue of Venus, to the far more clandestine fascination with a procured photograph of Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, to the immediately horrified response to seeing first the statue adorned with furs, and then Wanda, similarly attired. Certainly, the synthetic operation at play here is on one level an entirely uncomplicated function of the Hegelian dialectic that so influences Masoch’s personal philosophy. However, the intermingling of Severin’s horror and desire is what catalyses the parameters of this text’s analysis, from both a Freudian and Deleuzian perspective.

There is a stark immediacy in the fetishistic function within this scene, such that the instigating stimulus for the horrified reaction to the revelation of maternal castration is, in fact, the erotic object of the realisation’s disavowal, which is to say the furs. Accordingly, I am reminded in this encounter yet again of the “dangerous” supplementation of the Symbolic order, that which – through its imposition of language upon the Real which itself lacks nothing, establishes an absence that must now be healed. This horrific encounter soon follows Severin’s rumination, first on Samson and Delilah, and then on the Book of Judith. Interestingly enough, the two editions of Venus in Furs I possess have divertingly distinct translations regarding the beheading of Holofernes: one reads “The Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman,” whilst the other: “The almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.” Accordingly, the uncertainty between these two positions of smiting and deliverance feel entirely borne out in the ambivalence of the encounter, and indeed the novel’s resolution.

Nevertheless, we can interpret in both accounts, a degree to which the role of woman can supplant the classically considered punishing patriarch and, in so doing, can render even capital punishment a source of jouissance for the masochist. From such a perspective, Deleuze’s assertion that the masochistic route toward pleasure is to portray his patriarchal superego, so that it may be castrated by the figure of the oral mother, having both defeated and acquired attributes of the hetaeric and oedipal mothers (whom we might understand as the overtly deistic / Titian-painted Venus, and the marble statue Venus, respectively), is affirmed. Indeed, Severin, speaking to himself so harshly during his flight response indicates the splitting mechanism upon which so much of this process is dependent.

Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” which seems so overtly to influence Deleuze’s commentary, in all its cultural critique, makes central two plays of Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear. Assuredly, this scene in Venus in Furs is also highly indicative of a third: The Winter’s Tale. Freud tells us that, ultimately, the third mother is above all “the Mother Earth who receives [the subject] once more…the silent Goddess of Death will take him into her arms.” Yet again, smiting and deliverance are inextricably married. And yet, just as with The Winter’s Tale, here we see a statue come to life. Severin’s demanding fantasy necessitates that a figure of death become a figure of life. Within the vain folly of this prerequisite lies the source of the frustrated resentment that so permeates the relationship between Severin and Wanda.

The status – certainly the role – of language in Histoire d’O feels most of all defined by its sexual-anatomical reticence, above all in its at first disorienting substitution with ventre where most readers would expect to read con. Such a discursive technique has various affective and analytical consequences, some appearing at first to be mutually contradictory, others definitively intertwined:

  1. The demonstrative capacity for acts of sexual subjugation and punishment, free from vulgarity aligns the text with – as Bataille expresses in Eroticism, and Deleuze echoes in Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty – the language of the torturer, “the language of authority.” Just as torturers are “people who in real life could only have been silent,” (MCC, 17) Réage’s text is effectively “silent” in its reference to conventionally sexualised organs.
  2. To one degree, the notable absence of references to the vulva operates as a dual process of castration, which would thus affirm Deleuze’s assertion that “sadism stands for the active negation of the mother” (68). Indeed, even ignoring the body itself, the text’s introduction to O, simply through her clothing, already feels oddly defined by notable absence: “elle est vêtue comme elle l’est toujours… un blouse de soie, et pas du chapeau.”
  3. However, to another degree, the almost mutual reservation in alluding to the sexe of any male character, rather than queue, pine or bite, may be interpreted as a functional, fetishistic, disavowal of sexual difference – not least of all maternal castration.
  4. Disavowal as a system of repression which, in the Freudian sense, is not merely a quashing down of reality but a system of distorted or dishonest representation here might allow for – in the case of ventre – a diffusion of the gaze to this typically-understood-as-separate body part, which could thus be interpreted as a linguistic device in accordance with the overall theme of Deleuze’s interpretation of masochism as a desexualisation of sex, and an effective re-sexualisation of everything else.

Permeating Histoire d’O is an economy of supplementation, at the level of content and form: René demonstrates his capacity to supplement any number of slaves at Roissy for O, and is himself supplemented by various masters and mistresses. Indeed, even the events themselves are revealed at multiple junctures to be possessed of an ontological uncertainty: the introduction is immediately countered with an alternative version, whilst there are small indications that neither passage may be entirely correct. Indeed, by the end of the novel, several variations are presented that leave the reader uncertain as to whether O is even alive or not.

That such a literary device may appear absurd is not, to my mind, particularly far from Réage’s intent, if we consider absurdism through temporal non-coincidence the manifestation of the humour Deleuze locates at the centre of the masochistic contract, and its enactment’s relation to law: “To imagine that a contract or quasi contract is at the origin of society is to invoke conditions which are necessarily invalidated as soon as the law comes into being. For the law, once established, violates the contract in that it can apply to a third party, is valid for an indeterminate period and recognizes no inalienable rights.” (92) And, indeed, several pages before, Deleuze states: “A close examination of masochistic fantasies or rites reveals that while they bring into play the very strictest application of the law, the result in every case is the opposite of what might be expected (thus whipping, far from punishing or preventing an erection, provokes and ensures it). It is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity.” (88)

Accordingly, we ask: what is the law, here? My interpretation, both of Histoire d’O and, indeed, Venus in Furs, is that it is love. In both cases, the masochistic contract is presented as a condition of, or for, love. In both cases, the tensions are revealed between love and the contract at the introduction of additional parties, even when such additions are stipulated as permissible within the contract itself. René’s characterisation throughout Histoire d’O is remarkably inactive, indeed impotent – he appears to be more of a voyeur of O’s subjugations than an agent, and yet does engage in one repetitive behaviour akin to the continuous repetition required of the sadist to appropriate the Ego of his victims, and that is his repeated declarations of love. That they evoke such feelings of repugnance is, I believe no mistake on part of the author, but a revelation of the logic of masochistic contempt. Rather, just as the logic of linguistic supplementation is invoked through discovery of a lack that, non-existent within the Real, must be a product of the linguistic Symbolic imposition, revealing a recurrence of failure through différance, there exists just such a phenomenon within the romance novel whose structure is predicated on a romance whose meaningful signification is forever deferred through an inherent vice of volatile supplementation.

The Restless Spirit and the Writing Ball

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“Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.”[i]

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A much-repeated parable in the theoretical fields of media and communications is Zhuangzi’s account of the Confucian disciple Zigong, encountering an old man tending his garden.  The old man does so in a manner of, to Zigong’s eye, needlessly strenuous manual labour. Asking the old man why he insists on watering his fields with a pitcher, drawn from a well by hand, rather than by using a well sweep, which “raises the water as though it were pouring it out, so fast that it seems to boil right over,”[ii] he receives the scornful retort:

I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines [jixie] does all his work in the manner of a machine [jishin]. He who does his work in the manner of a machine lets his mind run like a machine [jixin], and he who carries his machine-like mind around loses his pure innocence. Without the pure innocence, the life of the spirit knows no rest…I would be ashamed to use it![iii]

It is my intention with this paper to investigate further questions relating to corporeal and philosophical engagement with writing technology: specifically, the relationship between a blind Friedrich Nietzsche and his “Hansen Writing Ball.” A relationship that encouraged Friedrich Kittler to dub Nietzsche “the first mechanized philosopher.”[iv] Accordingly, I shall address the effect this overtly prosthetic application of technology had on the form of Nietzsche’s writing: not to allow him to continue in his previous manner of long-form, but rather a telegraphic expression that reified the obstructive nature of his myopia. From this perspective, I shall follow two philosophical paths, both of which relate directly to Nietzsche’s influence: first, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the machine, as contrasted with the organism, and how their definitions of both differ from those of more traditional vitalists. Second, addressing the deep connection between Nietzsche’s post-Writing Ball aphoristic mode and the literary aesthetics and philosophy of the pessimist school, I propose we interpret pessimism, as the inheritor of the legacy of Nietzsche’s literary prosthesis, as the (overtly written) language of the always-already machinic subject. At this meeting of postmodernism and pessimism, in the wake of Nietzsche’s Writing Ball, we can acknowledge the body’s position between the machine-like-mind, the mind-like-machine, and the resultant language of Zhuangzi’s spirit that knows no rest.

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