E. L. Doctorow's vicious eroticism: dangerous affect in The Book of Daniel.
--E. L. Doctorow (1971, 22-23)
E. L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel is saturated with a negative affect that I will refer to as vicious eroticism. I borrow the phrase from Daniel Isaacson Lewin, the novel's narrator, who uses it to describe the predatory aura exuding from Selig Mindish, whose testimony condermaed Daniel's biological parents, Rochelle and Paul Isaacson, to death: "There was about him some vicious eroticism. He was always looking at Rochelle's tits or ass, a fact which she didn't seem to notice. He was always treating Paul with his clumsy humor like a ridiculous child, with shards of envy perhaps for Paul's mind or youth, or energy" (104). In Daniel's damning portrait of his parents' friend and family dentist, Mindish's "vicious eroticism" manifests itself in observable behaviors: his lecherous gazing at Rochelle, patronizing treatment of Paul, opportunistic conversational tendencies and generally wolfish habitus. When Paul and Rochelle are tried as atomic spies, Mindish's vicious eroticism provides the basis for their failed defense. Their attorney argues that Selig's unsatiated lust for Rochelle prompted Mindish to betray the couple by falsely accusing them of participating in an atomic spy ring. Doctorow doesn't disclose whether the Isaacsons actually spied for the Soviet Union, but the fact of this matter is less relevant than the link made between sexual desire and a political betrayal of deathly consequence. Broadly speaking, vicious eroticism connotes the sadism infusing characters' sexual and political desires.
Insofar as vicious eroticism pervades Daniel's violently sexualized narrative, it acts as the text's "global or organizing affect," the predominant "feeling tone" that establishes the book's "affective bearing" toward the world (Ngai 28-29). (1) Coming to terms with how this "objectified emotion" organizes Daniel's often explicit and frequently sadistic sexual content is crucial to understanding this political novel, particularly Doctorow's deployment of what, since the novel's publication in 1971, has become a predominant postmodern trope: the fantasy of a directly transmissible experience. Taking seriously two of Daniel's schizoid rhetorical interjections (a fragmentary formulation, "the novel as a sequence of analyses" (281) and the Ebonics-inflected taunt cited in the epigraph), this essay analyzes Daniel's book as "the story of a fucking" (23)--a narrative that imagines sexual sadism, defined broadly to encompass a range of eroticized practices, to be an exceptionally affective and meaningful mode of communication. It provides an account of the dialectic between affect and meaning in Daniel's fragmentary book, elucidating Doctorow's avowed commitment to literature's ability to convey the "truth of the felt life" (2003, 52) while observing how The Book of Daniel stages some of the dangers involved in conflating a truthful representation of an event with the experience of reliving the event's affective force. (2) This account focuses on three aspects of the book's vicious eroticism: epistemological: the desire to know that motivates it; rhetorical: the tone of the erotically charged rhetoric and the reasons why various characters, all of whom Daniel depicts as victims, deploy sexualized figures to denote sociopolitical oppression; and technological: the fantasy that sexual violence, as a mode of "extreme and dangerous affective communication (30), can function as an affective technology for the "artful transfer of knowledge" (71) and be deployed pedagogically for political purposes.
Throughout The Book of Daniel, epistemology is eroticized. Daniel's desire for verifiable knowledge regarding the Isaacsons' alleged spying and the nature of their involvement with Mindish and other Communist Party members gets conflated with his sexual desires. He fantasizes that the transmission of this impossible knowledge can be effected affectively and sexually, with human bodies serving as the primary conduit. This knowledge is impossible insofar as the Isaacsons' secrets died with them. Their innocence or guilt remains even more uncertain than that of the real-life Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose trial and execution, Doctorow told Larry McCaffery, provided the "occasion for the book" (1983, 104). (3) Even as the obstacles to ascertaining the truth about his parents' political activities become increasingly apparent, Daniel feels tremendous pressure to communicate the truth about the Isaacson "family mythology" (36). This pressure manifests itself stylistically in his book's disjunctive composition, its "discontinuous narrative with deferred resolutions, and in the throwing of multiple voices that turn out to be one narrator" (1983, 99). Although Daniel is not a "documentary novel," historiographic pressures also deeply affected Doctorow, who "was fully sensitive to the McCarthy period" abuses of power but didn't consider writing about them until Vietnam War-related outrage moved him to do so: "Here was the New Left, the antiwar involvement, an amplification by a later generation of the torment of the 1950s ... it seemed to me that I could write about the case, that my imagination could find its corporeal being in those circumstances," which made him aware of the extent to which, in the twentieth century, "people have [had] a great deal to fear from their own governments" (1983, 104; emphasis added). Writing in the voice of a sensitive character "over-tuned to the world," Doctorow felt "history moving in Daniel, powering his own pathology" (104), and the violence of these sensations, these "pre-subjective forces" (Abel 2008) traversing his body, impacted the shape of his violent narrative. (4)
As these reflections suggest, it's important not to assess Doctorow's oeuvre or postmodern historical fiction solely on the basis of Ragtime (1975), which was designed to generate the frisson that famously reminds Fredric Jameson of Roland Barthes' "white writing" and the blank detachment of Meursault, the narrator of Camus' The Stranger (1945). (5) When writing Ragtime, Doctorow was "aiming for the narrative distance of the historical chronicle that you find ... in Kleist," and became "most interested" in the "historical imagery and the mock-historical or ironic-historical tone." But with "Daniel, it was a far different feeling: it was the characters and their complexity that moved me--the historical intersection of social and personal agony ... all this had enormous meaning and interest for me." Doctorow elaborates:
Daniel's relationship to himself as he sits in that library and does these historical essays and descriptions of himself in the third person, breaking down his voice and transforming his own being to produce this work. Daniel breaks himself down constantly to reconcile himself to what is happening and what has happened to him. This kind of act that the book is--Daniel's book--is the central force that I felt in the writing of it. (1983, 98; emphasis added)
To make sense of Doctorow's intensely affective political novel, it's necessary to consider the events that punctuate the breakdowns in Daniel's autobiographical text and provoke him to write such an agonizing book.
Daniel begins his book out of a sense of familial obligation. In an astute psychoanalytic reading of the novel, Naomi Morgenstern explains, "Daniel's desire to record, analyze, and construct the past follows from an encounter with his parents' death repeated in the suicide attempt of his sister" (2003, 69). Morgenstern's Freudian formulation usefully emphasizes the extent to which a repeated trauma, a psychic encounter with familial death, motivates Daniel's writing. A Lacanian formulation further clarifies the scenario: Daniel wants to reconstruct his parents' history so as to demonstrate to his sister Susan and various stand-ins for the big Other ("the Lord God who is so frantic for recognition") that he is no longer "trying to escape from [his] relatives" (Doctorow 1971, 30) and their radical legacy. (6) His historiographic efforts to narrate the events leading up to and following from his parents' execution begin as a direct response to the prospect of Susan's self-inflicted death, an imaginary suicide that becomes real with her becoming-starfish in Book Three. (7)
This essay considers how Daniel's negotiation of this deathly encounter is sexualized, why the deathly encounter is also a sexual encounter, and how figurations of this speculative identity generate the text's global affect--vicious eroticism. Textualized affects must be recognized, not just intuitively felt, in order for a dialectical understanding of the book's violent imagery to emerge. The specific impetus for Daniel's narrative, for instance, is a cryptic remark Susan utters when Daniel visits her in the psychiatric hospital following her suicide attempt: "'They're still fucking us,' she said. 'Goodbye, Daniel. You get the picture'" (9). Daniel's disjunctive narrative follows from his efforts to "get the picture," to render in prose the metaphorical "fucking" to which Susan's verbal image alludes. Consequently, Daniel saturates his retrospective narrative with eroticized images and tropes that must not be overlooked as gratuitous obscenities or dismissed as decadent rhetorical excess. These tropes, both explicit and implicit, must be worked through, for what makes Daniel such a seductive, yet often repellent, (8) novel is the way it explores how sexually charged and equivocal affects can modulate political effects. Daniel's narrative traces the erratic and torturous emergence of a conflicted young man's leftist political sensibilities. Of particular interest is how Doctorow stages the ideological contradictions inherent to many postmodern historicist narratives, which are based on a fantasy in which meaningful communication entails the direct transmission of intensely affective experiences. (9) The experiences Daniel feels compelled to transmit are primarily familial, those of his dead parents, sister, and grandmother, who were all betrayed by their comrades and their country. We'll begin by considering why and how the epistemological desire registered in Susan's remark becomes ontologized and eroticized, violently.
Extreme and Dangerous Communication
When Susan utters her cryptic remark, her final words to Daniel and apparently her last spoken words ever, her intended meaning is ambiguous. Her weak voice is difficult to hear, and although Daniel "listen[s] alertly" he cannot discern "if she had said goodbye or good boy" (9). Susan's remark is so decontextualized as to be almost impossibly vague. While Daniel understands that "us" refers to him and Susan, the subject ("They") and the predicate ("are still fucking") of Susan's statement remain obscure. As in Thomas Pynchon's Gravittfs Rainbow (1973), the ambiguous pronoun They registers postwar-era paranoia, or "agency panic," which stems from an inability to identify an autonomous agent that can be held responsible for the oppressive effects of complex systems that resist cognitive mapping. (10) The ambiguity of Susan's cryptic statement proves catalytic. Daniel's narrative arises from and chronicles his efforts to register Susan's "extreme and dangerous communication," to become a conductor capable of transmitting the Isaacsons' electrifying and potentially deadly legacy. (11) "Extreme and dangerous communication" refers to both Susan's cryptic utterance and her suicide attempt, which Daniel conflates into a single speech act after being "summoned" to her Volvo and discovering the razor blades with which she cut herself:
Susan had communicated with me; just that; and if now in our lives only extreme and dangerous communication was possible, nevertheless the signal had been sent, discharged even, from the spasm of the soul that was required--and that was the sense of summons I felt sneaking up over the afternoon like a blanket of burned space around my ears. (30; emphasis added)
This episode, one of the most important ill the novel, establishes a link between the text's vicious eroticism and a common postmodern fantasy about nonsemantic communication. The fantasy involves positing a radically affective mode of corporeal communication that would make interpretation, which is prone to error and unable to convey adequately sensory perceptions, unnecessary. In this fantasy, meaningful communication occurs directly via a material, signaletic transmission that, by acting directly upon the addressee's body, short-circuits the need for hermeneutic activity. The direct transmission of sensations, that is, bypasses the need for interpreting semiotic messages. In postmodern narratives, these affective transmissions are regularly imagined to play a foundational and indexical role in establishing a character's authentic identity. In this case, the identity being transmitted is primarily familial: Daniel I Lewin recognizes himself as an Isaacson (Note that Daniel omits the period after his middle initial, transforming Isaacson into I, which typographically accentuates the extent to which his sense of self-identity is a function of his parents' stigmatized public identities). And insofar as Daniel's parents were first-generation Russian Jews and communists convicted of treason, the family name bears powerful national, ethnic, religious, and political connotations--most of which, as a consequence of the predominant representations circulating throughout the media ecology of Vietnam-War era America, are overwhelmingly negative. (12) The point of Daniel's parking-lot epiphany, then, is not simply that he understands Susan's suicide attempt to be a particular type of communication (extreme and dangerous) but also that, hereafter, he believes such acts are the only viable mode of communication available to the Isaacson children.
By italicizing some of the peculiar terms Daniel uses to describe Susan's suicide attempt, I've tried to foreground the abject, erotic, and signaletic manner in which Daniel figures communication as a sort of dissemination, for it is these qualities that make the communication extreme and dangerous. Daniel does not speculate here about what Susan's suicide attempt meant or the beliefs that contributed to her decision to end her life. Instead of interpreting the meaning of Susan's act, which would require him to analyze her intentions, Daniel focuses on the signal itself, which he figures using a blatantly abject sexual image--a load of semen or vaginal fluid ejaculating from a spasming body. This scene is one of interpellation, not interpretation, and during this summoning, Daniel is interpellated as an Isaacson. He is struck by a burning awareness that "Susan and I, we were the only ones left" (30). All of his other "blood" relatives are gone: His biological parents have been executed, and his grandmother, a Russian Jew who escaped the pogroms, has passed away. After years of trying to deny his stigmatized familial identity, Daniel decides he must heed the responsibilities that come with it. This section concludes,
And all my life I have been trying to escape from my relatives and I have been intricate in my run, but one way or another they are what you come upon around the corner, and the Lord God who is so frantic for recognition says you have to ask how they are and would they like something cool to drink, and what is it you can do for them this time. (30)
Daniel responds to this imperative by writing his book, which we could plausibly describe as a fictionalized memoir or an autobiographical novel, two popular postmodern genres that reemerge during the sixties. When, exactly, Daniel begins composing his book is unclear. What is clear is that before beginning to write, he makes several attempts at "extreme and dangerous communication" that involve sexual violence. Perhaps because critics have tended to focus on the hermeneutic project informing Daniel's book (following Linda Hutcheon's lead, scholars regularly discuss The Book of Daniel as a historiographic metafiction), (13) the text's affective dimension, particularly its sexual violence, has not received the critical attention it deserves. In what follows, I explain how the two elements--historiography as hermeneutic technique and vicious eroticism--are interrelated in The Book of Daniel.
Several months after his summoning, as a result of meeting with Artie Sternlicht, a countercultural radical modeled loosely on Abbie Hoffman, Daniel is able to provide this gloss on Susan's remarks: "THEY'RE STILL FUCKING US. She didn't mean Paul and Rochelle. That's what I would have meant. What she meant was first everyone else and now the Left. The Isaacsons are nothing to the New Left. And if they can't make it with them who else is there? YOU GET THE PICTURE. GOODBYE, DANIEL" (153). In other words, Daniel comes to understand Susan's remark as expressing her desperate sense that the Left, particularly the young members of the New Left (who at the time were splitting into at least two factions, a political left and a countercultural left), (14) have betrayed the Isaacsons' political legacy. Susan's sense of betrayal, Daniel believes, led her into a deep depression, which drove her, first, to a suicide attempt, then into her catatonic "starfish" state, and, ultimately, after her body atrophies, to her death. But Daniel's gloss hardly provides the whole picture; in fact, it raises a host of interrelated questions: What is the nature of the Isaacsons' legacy? How has it been betrayed? Why does Susan feel so fucked over? Why does Daniel feel fucked over by his adopted parents? What would it mean to "make it" with the New Left? Possible answers to these questions emerge as the novel unfolds, and this essay touches upon some of them, though the primary focus will be on the way Susan's sexualized metaphor informs the "monstrous" shape of The Book of Daniel, which Daniel describes as "the story of a fucking."
Political Victimization and the Rhetoric of Vicious Eroticism
To unpack further the connotations reverberating from Susan's "They're still fucking us" remark, let's consider three of Daniel's more dialogic scenes in which characters metaphorically map political relations as modes of vicious eroticism. It is not fortuitous that Doctorow has Daniel figure conspiratorial abuses of power and political betrayals in which leftists are victimized in terms of sexual violence. Scene one: in a flashback to 1947, Daniel recalls a discussion in the family's living room between his father and a group of unidentified men, all of whom are apparently Communist Party members. The men discuss timely political issues including the Truman Doctrine, the beginnings of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and the Mundt-Nixon bill--a controversial piece of legislation which, among other things, established an "elaborate scheme for the compulsory registration of every 'Communist political organization' and every 'Communist-front organization'" (Chafee 1950, 1382) and barred Communist Party members from holding public office. During this discussion, a mysterious, well-spoken man who, it is insinuated, may be a Soviet spy, figures Cold War geopolitical relations between the two superpowers in crudely sexual terms: Soviet Russia is a woman who has been "fucked over" by her former partner, the U.S.
After Paul expresses incredulity that Congress "could pass such an insane bill" (Doctorow 1971, 85), one that was blatantly unconstitutional, the mysterious man elucidates the logic informing the proposed legislation: "A Bill to protect the US against certain un-American and subversive activities, and for other purposes" (Chafee 1950, 1382). The politicians behind the Mundt-Nixon bill--Karl Mundt of South Dakota and Richard M. Nixon of California, both Republican members of the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities--understood that it was unconstitutional, the man explains, but their purpose was "not to pass a simple bill making the American Communist an outlaw" (Doctorow 1971, 85). Rather, they intended to harass American Communists, "to stifle and intimidate the forces of progressivism" in the U.S., and to divert attention from the failings of "capitalist imperialism" by attacking "socialist democracy" (85-86). Although these efforts, the man predicts, will ultimately fail "to turn back the tide of history" and stop the spread of global communism, "things will get worse before they get better--the contempt proceedings, the blacklists, the jailings" (86). These repressive phenomena, he suggests, are reactionary efforts plotted by "the Wall Street conspiracy" to buttress an economic system doomed to fail:
it is the reflex of capitalist imperialism trying to shore up its rotting foundations. That is the whole purpose of the "cold war." That is the whole purpose of our foreign policy since the death of Roosevelt. American capitalism conceives, quite correctly, that it can only survive in opposition to socialist democracy; that is the real meaning of the Truman Doctrine. (86)
Proof of this latter claim, the man proposes, is evident in the U.S.' postwar treatment of Soviet Russia, "our socialist ally who won the war in the East." By the end of the Second World War, a deliberate anti-communist effort to shift U.S. public opinion had transformed the U.S.S.R. from a partner in the global fight against fascism to a dangerous enemy whose political influence needed to be contained. Speaking as an American who condones Marx's prediction about capitalism's inevitable end, the man figures Russia as a woman who has been used sexually and then callously abandoned by her former lover, America: "We made love with Soviet Russia during the war because we needed her. Now we jilt her once again and resume the great conspiracy that has gone on since the very days of the Revolution when American troops occupied Siberia in hopes of restoring Czarist tyranny" (86). The "great conspiracy" refers to U.S. efforts to contain the spread of communism. Because the official U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was to avoid direct engagement with the communist enemy, the U.S. government will not attempt to repress American communists outright, at least not immediately. Instead, the strategy on the domestic front will be to undermine communism though acts that indirectly contain its spread and circumscribe its influence. (15)
Ultimately, the mysterious man deploys the sexual metaphor in the service of an argument about how the law functions and the need to comprehend the realpolitiks behind the Mundt-Nixon bill, which not only required communists to register with the U.S. government but also gave the Subversive Activities Control Board, comprised of three members appointed by the President and affirmed by the Senate, the power to "classify any organization as either Communist political or Communist-front and then to order it to register" (Chafee 1950, 1382). The theoretical underpinnings of this argument are Foucaultian: the declared purpose or intent of a legal code, the ostensible reason why a piece of legislation is drafted, must not be confused with or distract from the manner in which the law actually functions. In a disciplinary society, Michel Foucault argues, the law does not function primarily by repression, and legal prohibitions are not really expected to eliminate prohibited practices. Rather, legal prohibitions function productively to produce useful delinquencies: "the existence of a legal prohibition creates around it a field of illegal practices, which one manages to supervise, while extracting from it an illicit profit through elements, themselves illegal, but rendered manipulable by their organization in delinquency. This organization is an instrument for administering and exploiting illegalities" (Foucault 1979, 280). Foucault's theorization helps make explicit the implications of the man's argument: Americans who believed in the viability of socialism or communism as political systems would be required to register and identify themselves publicly as communists at a time when people who subscribed to these ideological positions were being represented to the American public as a particularly dangerous type of subject--a Commie, Red, Pinko, etc. who was inherently subversive and "Un-American." The production of such stereotypes was a useful political tactic for manufacturing consent and discouraging dissent, because it individuated persons on the left as delinquent subjects who were understood, by definition, to be anti-American, traitors to the nation, and potentially treasonous "bad subjects." Early in the Cold War era, we already witnessed the now familiar post-political move of rendering political disagreement irrelevant by transforming ideological positions into identities. (16)
The registration required by the Mundt-Nixon bill exemplifies how discipline functions positively to produce delinquent subjects, and not just negatively, as a form of punishment for illegal acts. Indeed, in this instance, there was no specific illegality to be punished. The disciplinary act itself, the requirement that Communist Party members register with the government, caused these Americans to be conceived of as a type of delinquent subject. In this way, they were identified as being a stereotype, as opposed to someone who holds a particular set of beliefs, e.g., that private property should be redistributed more equally or eliminated altogether, etc. In short, the Mundt-Nixon bill wasn't intended to prohibit communism, but rather to make those who believed in its viability as a political system visible to the public as delinquent subjects, whose very presence threatened the integrity of the legitimate social body and whose political beliefs and activities were presumed to be de facto illegitimate and effectively irrelevant. The man's claim that American communists could expect to be "jilted" like their Russian counterparts proves to be prophetic; the Isaacsons do not receive a fair trial. Because the Isaacsons' delinquent communist identities circulate widely in the mass media, active participants in the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthyism, they are presumed guilty before the trial even begins. In The Book of Daniel, a novel obsessed with images and image making, being made extremely visible is repeatedly associated with being exposed, betrayed, and fucked over. However, the danger of being visible in a society of the spectacle is not apparent to all characters, most notably members of the New Left who understand themselves to be political and sexual revolutionaries. (17)
Scene two: Consider the novel's primary figure of sixties countercultural radicalism, Artie Sternlicht, who boldly announces, "We're gonna overthrow the US with images!" Ultimately, the illogic of Artie's hyperbolic claims and his debilitating fatigue, which he attributes to hepatitis, foreshadow both the actual historical demise of the Movement as a political force after 1968 and Susan's sense of betrayal (Doctorow 1979, 140, 149). After the debate about the Mundt-Nixon bill, the next major scene in which the Left is figured as a betrayed victim is set two decades later, when Daniel visits Artie and his followers in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Daniel's visit coincides with a journalist's interview, a scenario that provides Artie, who purports to speak on behalf of "the freaks," an extended platform. Artie's ostensible agenda is to mobilize the freaks into "a clear and present danger" (134). A freak, in sixties parlance, referred to a member of the counterculture and was often used as a synonym for hippie. When Artie uses the term, it's shorthand for various radical political groups ("You've got PLP down here, and a W.E.B. Du Bois, and the neighborhood reformers, and Diggers like me, and some black destruct groups, and every freak thing you can think of"), though history suggests that Artie's dope smoking and free-love rhetoric will be what readers of the Cosmopolitan profile associate most closely with him and the other countercultural freaks. Freak was also slang for a drug user or a sexual deviate, and to mainstream America, Artie would fit in both these delinquent categories.
Not that publicity-hungry Artie cares. Affiliated with the Artists Liberation Front, a group that originated guerilla street theater practices, his audacious performance is characterized by its sexual bravado. He tells the young woman interviewing him that the first stage of the imminent revolution will be to "Liberate those girls who write about sex and dating. We're gonna pull off their pants and put daisies in their genitals" (134). Throughout the interview, Artie's political commentary repeatedly draws upon vulgar sexual metaphors. Preaching revolution, Artie ridicules the anti-war movement, dismissing it as being "part of the war" and "a way for the middle class to get its rocks off" (134); attacks the Old Left for being dupes of both the capitalist system and the Soviet Union; and expresses contempt for American communists: "They were Russian tit suckers. Russia! Who's free in Russia? All the Russians want is steel up everyone's ass" (150). Artie's figuration infantilizes the American communists, who are depicted as being dependent on sadistic Soviet sodomites. The "American Communist Party set the Left back fifty years," he rages, while accusing them of conspiring with the FBI and of being an invention of J. Edgar Hoover. While his rhetoric is extreme, Artie expresses positions held by many members of the New Left: "The most dramatic departure of the New Left in the 1960s was to have rejected two of the cardinal features of the Old Left: its preoccupation with the Russian Question and its unadorned statism" (Aronowitz 1996, 17).
Daniel discovers that Artie has discussed the Isaacsons' trial with Susan and realizes that Artie's contempt for the Issacsons' handling of their trial has hurt Susan deeply. He concludes that Artie was probably the catalyst for Susan's suicide attempt. Greatly disturbed, Daniel writes a "shameful letter" (Doctorow 1971, 154) to his foster father, Robert Lewin, in which he expresses his desire to become Susan's guardian. Readers don't have access to Daniel's letter, only Robert's reply, and so are left to speculate about why Daniel feels obligated to apologize to Artie. What's clear is that Daniel, like Susan, is affected greatly by the charismatic Artie, whom he credits with "reacquaint[ing him] with the merciless radical temperament" (154).
Given Daniel's characterization, what are we to make of Artie, a contradictory, larger-than-life figure who boasts, "Fuck me if I'm ever consistent" (153)? To Daniel, he appears as both a rival and a disavowed role model. Daniel's remarks suggest that Artie embodies his ideal ego, an idealized self-image, and his Ego-Ideal, the point in the symbolic order from which I observe and judge myself. He speculates that Artie is "probably a champion fucker" (152), a "revolutionary stud" who embodies a hyper-masculine political and sexual virility that he can only hope to emulate. "Your sister mentioned you only once," Artie goads Daniel, "[s]he said she had a brother who was politically undeveloped. She made it sound like undescended testicles" (150). Artie's machisimo gets to Daniel. He's relieved that Phyllis hasn't meet Artie, because "she would have gone with him and made the right choice" by choosing a man who could liberate her "rhythm" rather than keeping her in bondage (152). Obviously, Artie can be viewed as figure emblematic of the sexism that plagued many members of the New Left, and Daniel can be read productively in conjunction with second-wave feminist texts from the early1970s, such as Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1970) and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (1970), that critiqued women's subordinate status within the Movement. Such a reading would surely condemn Artie for being complicit with the abuses of the patriarchal state he ostensibly opposes. But without disregarding the sexism and homophobia inherent in Artie's macho rhetoric (he is as opposed to "the fag peace movement" as "Corporate liberalism" or "big money" ), let's focus instead on Artie's vulnerability, particularly the role that the threat of sexual abuse plays in his explanation about how he contracted hepatitis. This shift in focus not only makes Artie appear as a less one-dimensional character, but also demonstrates the pathos in Doctorow's diagnosis of Artie's sadism and illuminates Doctorow's claim to be preoccupied with "sex as power" (qtd. in Morgenstern 2003, 77). During his interview, Artie claims he contracted hepatitis from a dirty needle the police used to collect a blood sample. He only agreed to "let the fuckers stick their dirty needle in my arm" because the police threatened to bust his girlfriend for drug possession and to "put her in Women's Detention in a cell with all bull dikes [sic]" (133). According to Artie, the implicit threat of the lesbian rape of his girlfriend provided the NYPD a means of blackmailing him into submitting to an unconstitutional blood test, which was merely a ruse to infect him with a debilitating disease. In short, the prospect of his girlfriend being raped during her incarceration made Artie vulnerable to police abuse, abuse in which direct physical violence was submerged or hidden behind the facade of providing health care.
This conspiratorial scenario offers a striking example of how modern biopower--the control of populations through corporeal technologies and institutions (such as health-care providers) responsible for managing the security and welfare of human lives--operates. (18) In this case, the NYPD, an exemplary Repressive State Apparatus (RSA), partner with the medical establishment in order to give a more "humane" face to the threat of violent force that they represent. What's intriguing about this scenario, even and especially if it is a paranoid fantasy, is how the RSAs use Artie's desire to protect his girlfriend from what he understands to be a deviant and unwanted form of sex (lesbianism and rape are conflated, both being undesirable) against him. It is not a stretch to suggest that Artie's homophobia is the hysterical fear that facilitates his biopolitical victimization by the State. (19)
Scene three: Speculation about a conspiratorial abuse of power and state-sponsored hysteria also arise when Robert Lewin discusses the Isaacsons' trial with Daniel. During their frank discussion, Robert acknowledges that although Paul and Rochelle were convicted of conspiring to commit treason against the U.S., the Isaacsons could have been the victims of a larger political conspiracy: "After the war our whole foreign policy depended on our having the bomb and the Soviets not having it. It was a terrible miscalculation. It militarized the world. And when they got it the only alternative to admitting our bankruptcy of leadership and national vision was to find conspiracies" (222). The U.S. government needed scapegoats, and the Isaacsons' Communist Party membership made them ideal candidates for this role. When Daniel wonders why "it would be laid on us. A particular family in a country of millions of families" (22), Lewin makes a striking analogy between "left-wing activists" and sexual "deviates" to explain why the F.B.I. might have decided to frame the Isaacsons for treason:
Well, if you're the Bureau you have on hand a resource of files, especially of known left-wing activists. That is what you go to first, your own files. It's like at the local police level, a crime of a certain kind is committed, say of sexual deviation, so you question your known deviates. And when he's brought in he knows he's vulnerable. He'll take pains to establish his innocence, or to distinguish himself from who is guilty. But say he is apprehended when no crime is known to have been committed, well then the distinctions he makes reveal to the police the sense he has of his own vulnerability. And they go to work on that. They go to work on it with the sense of being justified in their original decision to question him. (222)
In Lewin's hypothetical scenario, which is premised on the notion that the U.S. government lacked sufficient evidence to convict anyone of espionage and so resorted to building a conspiracy case by pressuring suspects to "name other people" (223), the vulnerable suspect first targeted by the F.B.I. was Selig Mindish, not the Isaacsons. Mindish was vulnerable because he was a Communist Party member and an immigrant who "had never been naturalized and ... his citizenship was in doubt" (224). Under the threat of deportation, Lewin speculates, the F.B.I. pressured Mindish to confess to espionage and to identify other members of his spy ring. Again, the Isaacsons' attorney argues that Mindish's unrequited lust for Rochelle provides the "sexual motivation" for his false accusation: Mindish's frustrated sexual desires fueled his resentment of Paul and made him willing to accuse the couple, ostensibly his friends, of a treasonous crime. However, in Lewin's analogy between the left-wing activist and the deviate, Mindish's sexual desire for Rochelle is not made an issue. The theoretical point at the core of Lewin's analogy is the Foucaultian lesson about the way disciplinary power functions through individualization and how the production of abnormal and deviant identities means that persons identified as delinquents can be more easily manipulated by those agents and agencies authorized to make such normalizing judgments.
It's no coincidence that Lewin compares Mindish to a sexual deviate, for in the modern era, sexualized bodies became especially vulnerable to manipulation. In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault's primary example of how delinquency can be usefully organized is that of the French sex industry, which emerged in the nineteenth century with the establishment of brothel chains that were organized hierarchically for more efficient regulation by pimps and police alike. Foucault explains how the forging of linkages between the officially illegal brothel chains and legitimate state institutions, most notably the police and physicians, led to the rise of illicit sex zones or "red-light districts" that constituted a new delinquent milieu. Within these zones, state representatives, law-enforcement officials, and members of the medical establishment could unofficially supervise and regulate sexual transactions whilst secretly sharing in the industry's illicit profits. Prostitution existed before, obviously, but on a smaller scale and without the machinations of organized crime. Previously, visiting a prostitute was regarded as a personal vice that was tolerated and sometimes even taxed. But the prohibition of prostitution turned paying for sex from a vice to an illegality and transformed prostitutes from small-time merchants to criminalized sexual deviates whose bodies were subject to disciplinary management from both the private sector, in the form of the entrepreneurs (pimps, brothel owners, etc.) who profited from the surplus value extracted from their labors, and the state, in the form of the medical and law-enforcement officials with the authority to regulate and disrupt the sex trade.
Returning to Lewin's analogy, if Selig Mindish is like a sexual deviate, it is not because he lusted after a married woman. The comparison is not intended to pass moral judgment about his sexual desires; rather, it alludes to the way in which Mindish's background and position within the delinquent milieu, one populated by political dissidents and immigrants, could have made him an easy target for overzealous F.B.I. agents and ambitious federal prosecutors. The Book of Daniel's readers must attend constantly to the ways in which Doctorow makes sexual desire the catalyst that fuels the flows of power traced by Daniel's violently eroticized rhetoric.
The Artful Transfer of Knowledge
In the course of recounting the events of "Memorial Day in 1967," Daniel first hints at his sadistic treatment of Phyllis, most evident in their sexual relations. While remarking on his stepparents' disappointment about his marriage, Daniel observes,
He didn't like my marrying Phyllis, neither did my mother, but of course they wouldn't say anything. Enlightened liberals are like that. Phyllis, a freshman dropout, has nothing for them. Liberals are like that too. They confuse character with education. They don't believe we'll live to be beautiful old people with strength in one another. Perhaps they sniff the strong erotic content of my marriage and find it distasteful. Phyllis is the kind of awkward girl with heavy thighs and heavy tits and slim lovely face whose ancestral mothers must have been bred in harems. The kind of unathletic helpless breeder to appeal to caliphs. The kind of sand dune that was made to be kicked around. Perhaps they are afraid I kick her around. (4-5; emphasis added)
The placement of this deliberately passive-aggressive passage in the book's incipit forces readers to confront two factors (Daniel's sadomasochistic domination of his wife, figured here as a pungent odor, and the possibility that Daniel's callousness manifests itself as spousal abuse) that immediately challenge readers' inclination to identify with a text's narrator. It quickly becomes apparent that Daniel expects readers to react strongly to the violence of his commentary, and although aggressive rhetoric is his primary means of manipulation, the symbolic violence of his rhetoric is intensified by his obscene allusions to brutal subjective violence. (20) Daniel works hard, to put it crudely, to "get a rise" out of his readers. What kind of husband, he wants us to ask, would speak about his wife in such degrading terms? Is he insinuating that he physically abuses his wife? By describing Phyllis as a "helpless breeder" descended from harem girls and comparing her to a "sand dune," Daniel manages to be sexist, racist, and xenophobic. Daniel's digression, striking in its candor and casual cruelty, sets the tone for Doctorow's novel by anticipating the vicious eroticism to come. The dynamic Doctorow establishes early on between Daniel and his readers is critical. Daniel makes a rhetorical connection between his sadism and Phyllis' character, which, in his judgment, the Lewins wrongly equate with her lack of education. In so doing, he works to implicate readers in the passage's sexual violence.
Clearly, Daniel expects readers to be concerned about spousal abuse and because of this concern to identify with the liberal Lewins. But in positioning readers to identify with the Lewins, Daniel subtly interrogates our sense of concern by insinuating that it is not based out of genuine compassion for Phyllis. The line of reasoning goes like this: If Daniel's account is reliable (which is by no means certain), the Lewins secretly disapprove of Phyllis because she is undereducated, a college dropout whose lack of education makes her an unsuitable partner for Daniel, a doctoral student. And if the Lewins suspect that Daniel physically abuses Phyllis yet find it merely "distasteful," then perhaps they are actually more concerned about issues of propriety than about Phyllis' well-being. Is maintaining a respectable public appearance more important to them than Phyllis' suffering? Daniel implies as much. Moreover, having just been introduced to these characters, might not readers' sense of concern also have more to do with bourgeois class anxieties about status than genuine compassion for another's suffering? Are we truly affected by the violence alluded to in Daniel's remarks, or is our concern simply an affectation?
In this opening passage, Doctorow introduces a key problematic concerning the novel's sexual violence: As spectators witnessing sadistic scenes or images, can we confidently judge the characters of the participants? To what degree are we complicit in what we observe? As my reading of three sex scenes between Daniel and Phyllis will demonstrate, Daniel's rhetoric works to trap readers whose first impulse may be to either voyeuristically enjoy or moralistically condemn his sadism.
In books one and two, a sequence of disturbing sex scenes make explicit what Daniel means by "the strong erotic content of [his] marriage" (5), what critics have described as Phyllis and Daniel's sadomasochistic relationship, and what I regard as the most overt instance of the novel's vicious eroticism. A close examination of these scenes reveals the affective logic informing Daniel's sadistic treatment of Phyllis. Daniel understands his acts to be pedagogic, and his understanding of sexual violence as a technique for instructing Phyllis is related to the novel's underlying epistemological concern with the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next. In The Book of Daniel, Doctorow addresses one of postmodernism's primary concerns--coming to terms with the ways in which communication technologies, most notably language, but also newer media such as film and television, impact the distribution of the sensible by altering our "rhythms of perception" (1983, 99).
This coming to terms involves identifying the material constraints inherent to our mediating technologies, as these constraints both limit and enable our ways of knowing and of representing different types of experience as meaningful within various historical perspectives (global, national, familial, individual). Daniel's book expresses a deep anxiety about the limits of reason and sense making and whether it's possible to write a meaningful history that doesn't reduce other people's experiences into medial forms that inevitably betray the singularity of their lives and the events through which they lived. Much of this anxiety stems from a sense that our commitment to meaning effects--generated from the complex interplay of signifiers standing in for what was always absent--frequently conflicts with our desire for presence effects, that is, for affective encounters with sensible phenomena that, in various ways, touch our bodies. (21) The phrase from The Book of Daniel that best captures this desire for presence effects is the "artful transfer of knowledge" (71). The phrase is used by Daniel's Grandma, through whose spectral presence Doctorow raises the epistemological problematic outlined above. More specifically, readers must consider whether the most vital mode of transferring historical knowledge might not entail the direct transmission of a traumatic experience, in the form of what Grandma calls "ritual," as opposed to a dialogic exchange, in which interlocutors grapple with how best to interpret an event given that the very facts that might be appealed to in order to ground the event are ambiguous and contestable. The logic underlying Daniel's vicious eroticism can be described as "historicist," for its ritualistic impulse involves a "commitment to cultural identity and cultural heritage, and to events that are experienced and transmitted rather than represented and known" (Michaels 2004, 16). Realizing that he cannot escape from his relatives, Daniel is driven by the question "what is it you can do for them this time" (Doctorow 1971, 30)? Daniel's answer, never explicitly stated, is to demonstrate his fidelity to the Isaacson family legacy, a tortured legacy filled with multiple betrayals. While Daniel's inquiries into his parents' past and the pages of historical commentary, presumably extracted from his dissertation, indicate that he never entirely abandons a traditional hermeneutic approach to history, one in which the historian seeks to provide a meaningful account of events whose ontological status has been sufficiently verified, Daniel's references to family ghosts indicate the extent to which he grapples with his sense that people and events from the past can, and perhaps should, have a more immediate impact in the present.
We learn, for instance, that Daniel has been haunted at different times by various ghosts. These ghosts include parapraxes--the "ironies," "slips of the tongue" and "the brutal meanings in innocent remarks" (75)--speakers in Lewin household make, which evoke the presence of the children's dead parents, and Daniel's "visits" from his dead Grandma, who went mad at the end of her life. During one of these visits, she declares that Daniel has the "strength and innocence that will reclaim us all from defeat. That will exonerate our having lived and justify our suffering" (70). She bestows upon him the impossible task of bearing witness to "that excess of passion that shimmering fullness of stored life which always marks the victim" (70). In the Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition, this excess of passion is, of course, jouissance, often translated in English as simply "enjoyment," though it designates something more, something excessive--"a violent intrusion that brings more pain than pleasure" (Zizek 2006, 79), which is experienced as being intensely enjoyable. When Daniel protests that this responsibility scares him (understandably so, given that the intensity of jouissance makes it unknowable and its violent effects rather unpredictable), she responds, "Just remember, though, this placing of the burden on the children is a family tradition. But only your crazy grandma had the grace to make ritual of it. Ritual being an artful transfer of knowledge" (Doctorow 1971, 70-71). Even before Susan's suicide attempt and his subsequent summoning, Daniel was called upon to be the family member responsible for bearing witness to the Isaacsons' legacy, its family mythology.
One way of explaining Daniel's sadism is to see it as a reaction to the pressure he feels as a representative of the Isaacsons. He wants to maintain fidelity to his family's history but, like Susan, is burdened by this responsibility. Daniel aspires to redeem past suffering and betrayals, but doesn't know how to proceed. Consequently, he begins to "act out" instead, turning to forms of "extreme and dangerous communication," sadistically tormenting Phyllis and tossing his son Paul higher and higher into the air. Only such extreme, ritualized behaviors, which, interpreted as speech acts, signify by testing the integrity of the addressee's body, seem capable of conveying the affective intensity of the historical material--the family's history of "ecstasy," "suffering," etc.--that is to be transmitted. In short, Daniel's sadism can be understood as not only a pathetic way of compensating for his political impotence, (22) but also as a reactionary form of acting out in the face of interpretive uncertainty. With this hypothesis in mind, consider the way Daniel presents three instances of his sexual sadism as scenes of instruction.
The Soul of Education
The first episode occurs on "Memorial Day Eve," moments before the phone rings with news of Susan's suicide attempt, and depicts "Daniel and his child bride at sex in their 115th Street den" (6). Daniel stages the scene so as to contrast his active virility with Phyllis' passive submissiveness: "The music of the Stones pounds the air like the amplified pulse of my erection. And I have finally got her on all fours, hanging there from her youth and shame, her fallen blond hair over her eyes, tears sliding like lovebeads down the long blond hairs of her straight hair" (6). Casting himself in the role of "the tormentor," a domineering male master whose cruelly deliberate sexual practices humiliate his victim, Daniel boasts, "She gets all tight and vulnerable and our lovemaking degrades her" (6). Lovemaking? Daniel's use of the euphemism seems curiously misplaced here as the emphasis is on degrading Phyllis, whom he wed because "[s]he becomes a sex martyr. I think that's why I married her" (6).
The abrupt shifts between first- and third-person narration, which occur throughout Daniel's book, are jarring for readers, who may also be put off by the narrator's egotism and arrogance. By emphasizing his wife's youth, naivete, vulnerability, and suffering, while objectifying her genitalia in a series of vulgar euphemisms ("her virtue, her motherhood, her vacuum, her vincibles, her vat, her butter tub ..."), Daniel makes himself repulsive. His primary erotic motivation appears to be a desire to dominate, degrade, and control Phyllis, whom Daniel tries to drive to a point where she will lose her "principles." With this scene, Doctorow introduces the sadomasochistic dynamic at the core of the couple's relationship: Daniel is the domineering sadist, the "tormentor" whose cruel treatment of Phyllis turns her into a "sex martyr." What I want to examine further is how Daniel's sadism relates to his desire to re-educate Phyllis, and how the ritualistic communicative model that Daniel embraces helps explain how he goes from being Phyllis' mentor to her tormentor.
A central component of Daniel's sadism is Daniel's adopted role as Phyllis' mentor, the well-educated older husband who schools his young wife in order to form her character. A couple factors are at play here: As a graduate student, Daniel is a professional pedagogue in training, which explains why he fills his book with scholarly analyses and observations about historical events. Yet when Daniel assumes the role of Phyllis' mentor, his mode of instruction is hardly academic in form or content. It doesn't seem to be the case, for instance, that Daniel ever discusses the historical material inserted throughout his text with Phyllis, and the content of his lessons remains ambiguous. What's apparent is that sadistic sex is Daniel's preferred mode of instruction and has been central to their relationship from the start. After meeting at a "Central Park Be-In," Daniel takes Phyllis, whom he depicts as being as a naive but "lovely" wanna-be hippie, "avid for spiritual experience" (56), back to his apartment. Playing the role of the sophisticated, young intellectual, he wows her by playing Bartok on his stereo, amazes her with his large library, and ultimately seduces her. He reports, "I suggested to her that fucking was a philosophical act of considerable importance. I knew that in deference to this possibility she would allow herself to be fucked" (57). Positing sexual intercourse as a philosophically significant act is part of Daniel's seduction strategy, a come-on line intended to get Phyllis into bed. Yet it also proves to be a prophetic utterance, for ritualized sex does come to perform a pedagogic function for Daniel, who endows it with epistemological import. Sex, for Daniel, is integral to the artful transfer of knowledge and the formation of one's political subjectivity.
As Phyllis' mentor and tormentor, Daniel aspires to use sex to teach his wife a lesson about the fragility of her principles and to reshape her character:
Phyllis grew up in an apartment in Brooklyn, and her flower life is adopted, it is a principle. Her love of peace is a principle, her long hair, her love for me--all principles. Political decisions. She smokes dope on principle and that's where I have her. All her instinctive unprincipled beliefs rise to the surface and her knees lock together. She becomes a sex martyr. (6)
Principle, as Daniel first ironically uses the term, refers to rules of conduct. Daniel resents the fact that Phyllis has too easily adopted a set of ready-made moral attitudes and behaviors and embraced them as matters of principle. Phyllis' political principles (antiwar, pacifism, etc.), Daniel believes, are merely superficial accoutrements to her "hippie" lifestyle, as meaningful as the lovebeads she wears. So when Daniel compares Phyllis' tears to these lovebeads, he implies we should be wary of taking pop culture's sentimental signifiers (tears were marks of sincerity in the nineteenth-century sentimental novel) too seriously. (23) Phyllis hasn't fully thought through the arguments that might justify her political positions; she's just digging the countercultural scene. If martyr here means "a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle" (Merriam-Webster Online), calling Phyllis a "sex martyr" makes a caustically ironic point: unlike Daniel, who lost his parents, Phyllis has not sacrificed anything in her life. And since she's insufficiently experienced when it comes to suffering, her political commitments appear suspect to Daniel. Is she opposed to the Vietnam War because she regards it as a form of violent imperialist aggression? Or is her antiwar position posturing, a fashion statement, like long hair, lovebeads, and bell-bottoms? Daniel doesn't directly raise such questions (perhaps because he has doubts about his own political commitments), which might actually help educate Phyllis. Instead, rather cynically, he aspires to teach Phyllis how tenuous her principles really are by tormenting her and testing her ability to suffer, fucking her until she cries. Of course, we don't know whether these are tears of pain or joy or some admixture thereof, which is why Daniel refers to them as "unprincipled beliefs."
The second scene of sadistic instruction occurs when Daniel drives Phyllis and their son Paul home after visiting Susan in a state psychiatric hospital. What occurs on the ride back is arguably the novel's most shocking scene, even more disturbing than other more explicitly violent scenes, including the Isaacsons' execution and the mob attack on concert goers following a Paul Robeson performance. Driving Susan's Volvo during a rainstorm, Daniel asks Phyllis to remove her bell-bottom trousers. When she refuses, he accelerates to a dangerously high speed. Phyllis tells Daniel his "sick kidding around" frightens her and that he has "no right to freak out driving a car with your own baby in it" (58). Daniel responds by driving even faster while identifying various "mechanical problems" that make his driving even more dangerous given the weather conditions. Terrified, Phyllis promises Daniel she'll "do whatever you want" when they reach their destination, though she does protest that his family members are "all such big deals of suffering" (59). Phyllis' "formulation" pleases Daniel, who patronizingly regards her complaint as a sign of intellectual development: "She wouldn't have been capable of it six months before" (59). Nonetheless, he continues to speed and even turns off the windshield wipers while insisting that Phyllis remove her pants. When she acquiesces and strips naked from the waist down, Daniel "instruct[s] Phyllis to kneel on the seat facing her side of the car, and to bend over as far as she could, kneeled and curled up like a penitent, a worshipper, an abject devotionalist" (60; emphasis added). As Phyllis, hands over her ears, eyes closed, and weeping, begs Daniel not to hurt her, Daniel proceeds to massage her erogenous zones: he caresses her buttocks, "teasels] the small hairs of her tiny anus," and rubs her labia. Although Daniel "gently urge[s]" Phyllis to try to get comfortable and reassures her that the baby is asleep and nobody can see her, the scene hardly reads as being tender or sensual. Phyllis remains terrorized, and Daniel's description includes bodily details--Phyllis' uncontrollable shivering, her trembling backside, and the "slightly sour smell of excrement" (60) in the air--that render the scene of instruction horrifically abject. The olfactory metaphor from the incipit--"Perhaps they sniff the strong erotic content of my marriage and find it distasteful" (5)--acquires greater affective significance.
Phyllis is not the only pedagogic subject in this scene; readers, too, are being instructed. The object of Daniel's lesson is twofold: the explicit lesson is to implicate us in the sadomasochism and thus to challenge our inclination to distance ourselves from the sexual violence we witness. The implicit lesson is concerned with teaching us how to read. Just as Daniel appears prepared to do something horrific with the cigarette lighter, he interrupts his narrative with a series of questions addressed at the reader:
Daniel leaned forward and pressed the cigarette lighter. His hand remained poised. Do you believe it? Shall I continue? Do you want to know the effect of three concentric circles of heating element glowing orange in a black night of rain upon the tender white girlflesh of my wife's ass? Who are you anyway? Who told you could read this? Is nothing sacred? (60)
These questions suggest that Daniel is about to brand Phyllis' backside. Their performative power stems from the way in which they interrogate readers, interpellating us as voyeuristic intruders fascinated by an obscene ritual we shouldn't be witnessing. By demanding an explanation for our presence at a desecrated scene, Daniel implies that our illicit gaze makes us complicit in the violence.
To a degree, he is correct. Regardless of the outrage and horror we feel when reading about Phyllis' torment, the fact that we've chosen to read on suggests we're captivated by the sensationalistic sexual violence. Daniel's narrative strategy is to make us confront the likelihood that our attentiveness is partly a function of our own prurient desires. We want to know what happens next and not purely, as we might want others to believe, out of altruistic concern for Phyllis: no, we're fascinated, perhaps even secretly aroused by the obscene spectacle. Daniel plays upon our disavowed desires in two ways. First, he leaves us in suspense. Instead of disclosing what happens next, he teases us by observing, "the only thing worse than telling what happened is to leave it to the imagination" (60). Then an intertextual reference to "a classic surrealist silent film by Bufiuel and Dali" (60) manipulates our desire for closure in the face of non-knowledge by further implicating us in the episode's eroticized violence.
Daniel's remark is followed by a description of a famous scene from Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's film Un Chien Andalou (1929) in which viewers see alternating shots: clouds moving through a bright moonlit sky, then a half-dressed woman sitting in a room with a man who is sharpening a straight razor:
The man comes over to the woman, large eyed, bow mouthed, and impassive in her straight-backed chair, and with his thumb and forefinger spreads her eyelids as far apart as they will go. Then he brings his straight razor down toward her face and her eyeball. The film cuts to a night sky outside the window. A thin, knifelike cloud is seen gliding across the bright orb of the moon. And just as you, the audience, have settled for this symbolic mutilation of the woman's eye, the camera cuts back to the scene, and in close-up shows the razor slicing into the eyeball. (61)
Daniel's narrative abruptly cuts to another topic altogether, the unspoken communication between Susan and Daniel as they grew up in the Lewin household, leaving readers to speculate about what happened to Phyllis. Did Daniel actually burn her? The inserted surrealist intertext and the abrupt cut are designed to produce a specific psychological effect: we are led to infer that the book's editing will replicate the logic of the film cut. Inasmuch as the film scene shocks viewers by presenting an image of actual physical violence, the mutilation of the woman's eye, which repeats and literalizes the previous symbolic violence, we are now conditioned to expect a similar progression in Daniel's narrative. In other words, if the stylistic flourish of Daniel's previous description ("the effect of three concentric circles of heating element glowing orange in a black night of rain upon the tender white girlflesh of my wife's ass"), with its emphasis on formal qualities (patterns, shapes, and colors) aestheticized the violent image so that it seemed unreal, a hypothetical scenario included for symbolic reasons, then the filmic image of the sliced eyeball ruptures our ability to maintain a safe aesthetic distance. We've been conditioned to expect Daniel's narrative to cut back to the scene in the car and to show us Phyllis being branded by the lighter. Upon arriving at the Lewins' house, Phyllis leaves Daniel, but what actually occurred during the rest of ride remains a mystery. The reference to "the smell of burning in the mouths of our mother and father" (61) in the following scene, however, insures that an imaginary close-up image of Phyllis' scorching flesh lingers on in readers' overexcited imaginations.
As is often the case in Daniel, form trumps content: the specifics about what happened are less important than the episode's staging within the narrative. Regardless of whether or not Daniel burned Phyllis, his treatment of her clearly crosses the line from consensual sadomasochism to unwanted abuse. Rather than focusing on the details of that abuse, we should consider where Doctorow positions the "autoeroticism" scene in Daniel's narrative, as its significance is largely a function of its relationship to surrounding passages. Within the structure of Daniel's narrative, the car ride is preceded by an account of Paul's "heroic" actions during the mob attack at Peekskill and followed by a passage about Susan and Daniel's relationship after the Lewins adopted them. Following the Peekskill incident, Daniel "began to appreciate the mystery in the dark intercourse of adults" (52; emphasis added), namely, the difference between his father's "mysterious and complicated" act and the way others came to interpret Paul's opening the doors of the besieged bus as a sign of heroism. What troubles Daniel is his father's appeals to the police to restore order, which he takes as evidence of a naive belief that the "Law would arrest the Fascist hoodlums," which "put him [Paul] at the [bus] door and made him vulnerable" (52).
While the car incident is preceded by a passage concerned with the way various adults possibly misinterpreted a traumatic event involving the law's complicity with obscene violence, it is followed by a passage in which Daniel expresses regret that as children, he and Susan "never talked about Paul and Rochelle" (61). Chronologically, the car incident occurs shortly after the summoning in the parking lot, when Daniel decides that henceforth only "dangerous communication" is possible, and shortly before Daniel reads a letter Susan wrote before her suicide attempt that convinces him "she was mad" (77). How does the car incident relate to the passages that frame it? All of these passages deal with miscommunications, failures to communicate, and dangerous communication between vulnerable subjects. This observation provides a clue about how best to approach Daniel's sadism in the car: While it is correct to understand it as a scene of instruction, we will remain frustrated if we try to specify the content of the lesson. Its significance resides in the cognitive effects induced by affectively modulated rhythms of perception.
Phyllis and Daniel's "reconciliation" (a term also used for Rochelle and Paul's final meeting) is the final scene of sexual instruction. Having left Daniel after the car incident, Phyllis returns in the autumn to nurse her husband, bedridden with a severe flu, back to health. Anticipating that readers might be surprised, disappointed, or incredulous to learn that Phyllis would go back to an abusive relationship, Daniel speculates that her returns are motivated by an erotically charged desire to forgive: "Forgiving me turns her on, I have no other explanation for the fact that she keeps returning" (169). Not surprisingly, once Daniel is feeling better, the young couple makes love. His affective account of their sexual reconciliation merits a close reading, for the irony is that this encounter alters the gendered power imbalance that has hitherto characterized the couple's relationship: the would-be educator loses his cool, and the "cruel thing" that is supposed to be the subject of his lesson doesn't register with his pupil. But more is going on in this sex scene than a simple inversion of stereotypical gender roles. Daniel's remarks make explicit what has only been alluded to before, that he understands sex, particularly cruel sex, to be mode of transmitting knowledge.
Consider the paragraph that introduces the sex scene, recalling that the "something" to which Daniel alludes refers to his lovemaking techniques--e.g. his "insolently slow" rhythm, his pulling back ("the cruel thing") when Phyllis was on the verge of orgasm, and then the way he "slowly sank it back in"--which he recounts in graphic detail:
In our last reconciliation I did something that I thought did not take. I wish I knew how education works. I wish I knew the secret workings in the soul of education. It has nothing to do with time as we measure it. Small secret chemical switches are thrown in the dark. Tiny courses are hung through the electric passages of the tissues. Silken sequences of atoms which have no property other than self-knowledge. (169)
Although Daniel regards sex as a communicative act with pedagogic applications, the specifics about how the "soul of education" works remain a mystery to him. Daniel's mixed metaphors fuse the erotic (secret, silken) and the technological (chemical switches, sequences of atoms), the sensual and the scientific, and imply that he has a curiously materialist conception of learning. Education here is figured as an electrifying physiological process involving the stimulation of the body's nervous system, with sex being an exemplary technique for triggering this process. While it would be absurd to try to extrapolate a coherent theory of education from Daniel's remarks, knowledge is clearly figured in affective terms--as a "cruel thing," a recording or impression "written on the body" (to use a phrase that following the publication of Jeanette Winterson's erotic novella in 1992 became something of a lit-crit cliche) that bypasses the need for interpretation. But the fact that the lesson fails indicates that Daniel's pedagogic model of knowledge transfer is flawed. Ultimately, this scene discloses more about Daniel than it does Phyllis. As Daniel tells it, when they began to make love, Phyllis "was way ahead of me. Not at her pitch I noted it as a self-concern, an inward attention that seemed to exclude me" (169; emphasis added). Phyllis' increasingly frenzied exertions and the pleasure she derives from their lovemaking trigger in Daniel the panic he felt as a young boy when, following Mindish's arrest, he feared going to sleep because he was terrified his parents would abandon him and Susan and go to a "secret place": "It's the same thing when you catch them fucking, the same terror of exclusion. Flopping about, completely out of control, these people who control you" (109). Daniel's reaction demonstrates the extent to which his sexual experiences are haunted by terrifying childhood memories, saturated with vicious eroticism ("the one sentiment that was their Passion" ), and driven by the imperative to regain the control his parents lost, which prompt him to write a thoroughly profane book, one that experiments with "monstrous" narrative forms and expands the concept of autobiography.
Doctorow's metaphor for the extent to which we are driven by eroticization--by our failure to ever fully satisfy our bodily desires, which get endowed with symbolic import and become a source of surplus, libidinal enjoyment that transforms our goal-oriented activity into an end-in-itself that must be repeated, perpetually, until we die (24)--is the "fucking" that haunts Daniel throughout the novel:
What is most monstrous is sequence. When we are there why do we withdraw only to return? Is there nothing good enough to transfix us? If she is truly worth fucking why do I have to fuck her again? If the flower is beautiful why does my baby son not look at it forever? Paul plucks the flower and runs on, the flower dangling from his shoelace. Paul begins to hold, holds, ends hold of the flower against the sky, against his eye to the sky. I engorge with my mushroom head the mouth of the womb of Paul's mother. When we come why do we not come forever? The monstrous reader who goes from one word to the next. The monstrous writer who places one word after another. The monstrous magician. (245; emphasis added)
Without so much as a subheader, a black square (the symbol separating the lexias extracted from Daniel's dissertation notes), or even white space, the just-cited passage abruptly interrupts Daniel's account of his first visit with Susan to see their parents in the "Death House." Even for a fiction in which the author "gave up trying to write with the concern for transition characteristic of the nineteenth-century novel" (1983, 99), the interruption is jarring. It disrupts a tragically poignant scene in which Rochelle cannot disguise from her children the fact that her death is imminent. Why does Daniel do this? A monstrous awareness of death is palpable throughout Daniel's recollection of the Death-House visit, which emphasizes how attuned he was to his mother's affective state: "She stared at us with an expression on her face either of joy or terrible pain, I don't know which, but of such intensity that I couldn't meet her gaze" (1971, 242; emphasis added). Of particular interest is the effect of Rochelle's gaze on Daniel; he can barely withstand the affective force of the jouissance her gaze conveys, let alone identify what emotion it might express. The entire scene is colored by anxiety, the affect indicative of our proximity to the Real, and this anxiety taints all efforts at communication. Rochelle tries to assure Susan that although she's imprisoned, she's "in no danger" of being killed and that electrocution is "very painless ... very fast and ... doesn't hurt" (243). She's wrong on all counts it turns out, and Daniel can sense that she's lying, putting up a brave front, just as he's had to lie in his letters in order to "make her feel good" (243). "She was so unlike herself that I became discouraged about the possibility of communicating with her" (244). Just as Daniel "had a terrible sense of illness, of my mother's illness," Rochelle registers and reflects back her son's anguish: "I found her looking at me with a sad half-smile. It is a little hard to make up for all the lost time. A strange feeling isn't it'" (244). The "monstrous sequence" passage cited above divides Daniel's recollection into two parts, the kids' visit with their mother and then their father, foregrounding the artificiality of the remembered sequence we've been reading. As Daniel remarks at the close of his recollection, "Probably none of this is true. There's a lot more I can't remember. But the first visit was the worst" (249). Although the details of the visit are hazy, and Daniel's account contains fabrications to compensate for what he can't remember, one fact, or rather, affect, is certain--Daniel's abjection: "I had felt the humiliation of having to leave them there" (249).
What's monstrous about writing, then, is its inherent symbolic violence--the way the process of narrativization produces a sense of presence and imposes an illusory semantic order on top of the incessant flux of sensations continually bombarding our bodies. This semantic order, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Brian Massumi, and other theorists of sensation remind us, runs parallel to the order of a signifying affect, which is purely physiological. (25) We crave, desperately, this semantic ordering, cannot in fact do without the symbolic fictions that give meaning, purpose, and direction to our lives. Yet our desire for order and sequence is monstrous because it suggests that the world in its presentness is not enough to "transfix" or satisfy us. We keep returning to the past, despite the fact that when we were there, at a particular spatiotemporal moment, our minds probably "withdrew" from that present and imaginatively projected themselves into past or future scenarios. Cognitively, we're always living in multiple temporalities, and our thinking about what we once experienced in the past or anticipate experiencing in the future affects the way we feel now. And these private feelings, and the way we project them to others (including our virtual selves, our Ego-Ideals, etc.) as communicable emotions, alter our sense of the present. How we act in the here and now depends greatly upon our imaginary projections into other temporalities. Still, we are driven to make sense of it all, compelled to communicate our sense of a present that's past to others, even though our recollections and the illusory sense of immediacy and presence our words may conjure up are as fleeting as the moments they evoke and represent, obliquely.
Asked once by a student to account for his frequently violent treatment of sexuality, Doctorow attributed it to "a preoccupation having to do with sex as power, either perhaps using sex as a metaphor for political relations, or helplessly annotating what passes for sex in a society that suffers paternalistic distortions" (qtd. in Morgenstern 2003, 77). Doctorow's response is rather vague, probably intentionally so, but I want to conclude by proposing that, in The Book of Daniel, "fucking" functions as Doctorow's master trope for figuring the affective process by which history takes shape at the interface of epistemological and ontological considerations (how uncertainties about historical events and the desire for foundational knowledge of the past give rise to fantasies about modes of directly re-experiencing the past) that render political narratives monstrous. Doctorow's monstrous novel--a fragmented, hybridized narrative that combines multiple genres (autobiography, personal memoir, historical description, sociology, political theory, and pornography to name but a few) and which is rife with uncanny repetitions-results from Daniel's repeated efforts to assemble a discursive framework capable of properly illuminating the picture of the politicized fucking implied by Susan's remark. Readers attempting to comprehend The Book of Daniel's political, historical, and literary import must become attuned to the tone and feel the rhythm of this intense text's violently eroticized affects.
UNIVERSITY OF BERGEN
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(1) As a study of the aesthetics of negative emotions in what I consider to be Doctorow's most insightful political novel to date, this essay contributes to the project initiated in Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings (2005).
(2) On the fantasy of transmitting and experiencing traumatic events from the past rather than representing and understanding them, see Michaels (2004, 140-49), who notes how the mistaken "conflation of knowable with relivable" follows from the "conflation of not knowable for certain with not knowable" (140).
(3) Since the fall of the Soviet Union, declassified documents in "Russian archives have ... identified Julius Rosenberg as a spy," though the "separation from history provided by fictionalization still holds." Daniel never learns if the Isaacsons were "innocent," "trivial spies," or "major espionage operatives'(Hume 148-51). For a speculative reading of Rosenberg as a "tragically sublime" figure whose "disavowal of reality" in the name of his political convictions can be seen, paradoxically, as exemplifying the "innermost constituent of every ethical stance," see Zizek (2008, 50-52).
(4) On the tendency of affects to generate recognitions that reterritorialize these rhythmic intensities within meaningful narratives that reductively (and perhaps inevitably) posit a cause-and-effect logic to complex affective becomings, see Abel (2008).
(5) Following Jameson (1991), critics regularly mention Ragtime as being symptomatic of a postmodern "crisis in historicity," in which representations of stereotypes about the past replace representations of the past itself, but too often overlook the flip side of Jameson's dialectical reading of Doctorow's oeuvre, which emphasizes its purposeful formal experimentation. Jameson credits Doctorow, the "epic poet of the disappearance of the American radical past" and "one of the few serious and innovative leftist novelists at work in the US today," with inventing nonrepresentational forms designed to foreground mediating processes in order "to establish an explicit narrative link between the reader's and the writer's present and the older historical reality that is the subject of the work" (21-25). This essay analyzes the affective dimension of these links in The Book of Daniel.
(6) For a lucid, introductory account of the "central mystery of the big Other" in Lacan as involving "the point at which the big Other, the anonymous symbolic order, gets subjectivized" as a figure overseeing our activity who provokes anxiety, because we can never be sure what, exactly, this impenetrable Other wants from us, see Zizek (2006, 8-12, 40-43).
(7) On becomings-animal in modern literature, and the production of inhuman sensations as a way of becoming-imperceptible in overcoded human situations, see Deleuze and Guattari (1987, 232-309).
(8) On the curious neglect of displeasure in aesthetic theory, see Ngai (2010).
(9) For a critique of this historicist logic in postmodern historical novels, most notably Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), in which history is imagined as a type of memory, and transfers of memory provide the means of constituting one's identity, see Michaels (2004, 129-68).
(10) Timothy Melley defines "agency panic" as "intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy, the conviction that one's actions are being controlled by someone else or that one has been "constructed' by powerful external agents" (2000, vii, 12). This anxiety leads to masculinist fantasies of erotic domination in novels by Margaret Atwood and Thomas Pynchon. Gravity's Rainbow's Tyrone Slothrop, like Daniel's Artie Sternlict, who is discussed in the next section, "finds himself acting out--or being acted out by--a sexual fantasy of violent control" Doctorow, like Don DeLillo, ultimately undermines the "view that violence is a form of resistance to social controls" (154).
(11) For a brilliant account of how the trope of electricity and resistance courses through The Book of Daniel, see Harpham (1985).
(12) On the concept of media ecology and its relevance to literary studies, see Tabbi and Wutz (1997). See Wutz for an account of how Doctorow's use of the trope of waste signals his awareness of the novel's status as a marginalized "technological medium within an ecology of other contemporary media" (2009, 136).
(13) See Hutcheon (1989, 69-71, 81).
(14) See "The Revolution of Youth" in Daniels (2006, 97-117) and "1968: Rip Tides" and "Counterculture" in Anderson (1995, 183-291).
(15) For a brilliant analysis of how contradictions inherent to the U.S. policy of containment generated postmodern narrative forms in American literature, film, and popular culture, see Nadel (1995).
(16) See Michaels (2004,184n.12).
(17) For the classic account of "the spectacle" as the reification of social relations, see, of course, Debord (1967/1995).
(18) On biopower, see Foucault (1988, 2007).
(19) On the necessity of using fear to mobilize administered populations within biopolitical regimes, see Zizek (2008, 40-46).
(20) On the distinction between subjective, symbolic, and systemic violence, see Zizek (2008). Zizek's typology enables us to identify the systemic violence underlying the three scene depicting the state-condoned political victimization of U.S. leftists. Daniel's book, then, can be interpreted as a struggle to make this systemic violence visible within the Spectacle.
(21) I've adopted these concepts from Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, who proposes, "we conceive of aesthetic experience as an oscillation (and sometimes an interference) between 'presence effects' and 'meaning effects'" (2004, 2). Despite recent theoretical interest in "materialism," Gumbrecht argues, humanities scholars continue to bracket and thereby neglect presence effects. Daniel's book demonstrates how the experience of oscillation can be nauseating, particularly when repetitions fail to achieve a state of equilibrium.
(22) For a discussion of how nuclear-age anxieties about political impotence lead to the phenomenon of "digging in (reproducing in a supposedly private space the insecurities that retreat from an exterior world was supposed to eradicate)," see Cordle (2008, 128-36). Cordle's account focuses on the narrator-protagonist of Tim O'Brien's The Nuclear Age (1985), William Cowling, whose reactionary acting out against his family is compared in passing with Daniel's terrorizing acts.
(23) On Doctorow's appreciation for parodies of the "novel of sentimental education," see Doctorow (2003, 16). For pathetic manipulations of the trope of sincere tears in the twenty-first century (and evidence that, even after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, anti-communist hysteria still fuels right-wing populism), tune in to The Glenn Beck Program on the Fox News Channel.
(24) For an account of eroticization as the ur-example of the "shift from desire to drive," see Zizek (2010, 72-74).
(25) See Deleuze and Guattari (1994), Armstrong (2000), Massumi (2002), Ngai (2010), Abel (2007, 2008), Rasmussen (2008), and Shaviro (2010).
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|Author:||Rasmussen, Eric Dean|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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