In the series The Dialectics of the Sexes: no. 7
Once a friend and I were discussing what we called ‘viewpoint logic’, the thinking pattern of leftwing hard-liners. We’re talking of the 70’s, beginning of the 80’s.
These rather narrow-minded people could only see events and persons in two ways: either from the ‘standpoint of the bourgeoisie’ or from ‘the standpoint of the proletariat’. According to them there was something like ‘scientific socialist research’, which ought to examine the society from the perspective of the ‘future ruling class’, the working class that is. Obviously biased they were. Meanwhile, few people in the university still believe in such nonsense. More and more people, however, believe in new dodges, oddities and excuses for stupidity, mostly with a similar effect.
At the time, my friend described the WC interior of a befriended ‘comrade’; after all we were both members of the Communist Party, whatever qualms we had about its foolishness. A man peeing there, member in hand, his gaze downwards, found himself standing on two large, painted ‘feet’. In between these was written in capital letters: ‘The position of the proletariat’. An intimate little space transformed into a critical cell.
How this differed from the petty-bourgeois toilets animated by such poetry as – in Dutch it rhymes: ‘Gents, please raise the seat – Ladies also want dry meat’; or piss pots decorated with that horrible fly which navigates your spout direction bull’s eye, indeed a practical problem that women do not share with us. But don’t despair, the woman’s ‘point of view’ is my topic here.
All this went through my mind when I was reading The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas. A copy I happened to see in a window of an Antwerp second-hand bookstore. A superb novel it is. Vicarious shame burst upon me when I reread the critical article by Susanne Kappeler, read the month before visiting Antwerp while doing some research on the topic of the obscene. Without having read Kappeler’s critique, though, I would probably not have picked up Thomas’ volume. The vicissitudes of reading…
Making her pedestrian joke, Kappeler titled her piece The White Brothel, indeed foreshadowing the rudeness of her own writing.
The first reading of her critique had already made me feel uneasy, one is always inclined to think of smoke and fire. Yet, sine ira et studio should always be the motto. Now, rereading the novel I could understand how Kappeler actually counted on her reader not to have read the book – and not wanting that reader to read it after having read her critique.
She put The White Hotel aside as sheer hard-core pornography. She claims that for the feminist reader she aims at there is simply no place in this literary romance. It focuses on the conventional sex act as defined by the male-chauvinist – sex as an ‘assault’ on women reduced to objects. The protagonist of the novel, Lisa Erdman, is ‘admittedly’ a victim who resists, yet ‘in spite of herself’ she also ‘relishes’ such violence. For the Kappelers of this world this attitude is reprehensible as such.
When the daily paper of the Dutch Communist Party The Truth was still published in the Netherlands I always told the rigid ‘comrades’ selling it, that surely you can sell The Truth but you can never own the truth.
The ‘standpoint of the proletariat’, the ‘feminist point of view’ – ridiculous about such ‘positions’ is not so much their bias, after all one can always hold up a silly ‘truth’ to such people as their own distorting mirror. Nothing as fragile as a truth. The real problem lies in the rather unsavory ease with which such ‘critics’ pretend to think and talk on behalf of an entire class of silent people, whose position they deem to articulate. The prejudice of the Kappelers exudes the kind of confidence of people who are in need of a Pantzer Ego, an armour-plated self.
Intriguing is the way she goes at critics and readers who dare find The White Hotel a good book. Her approach is that of ‘labelling theory’, the sociological model which assumes that every social order uses labels to cement its unity, labels that are tagged by groups of people on groups of people. According to this theory, people tend to behave according to the label tagged on them. ‘Social order’, in this perspective, consists of a complex of sheer semantic codes.
Knowing its limitations, careful use of this theory may help in explaining some everyday social behaviour. Expectations that others have of us will undeniably produce compelling effects on our behaviour. Luhmanns fine study Liebe as Passion, for example, successfully analyzes various modes of ‘love’ as framed by different historical codes. Each period demands a certain manner of courtship according to a historically specific code – to deviate from it, one runs the serious risk of erotic failure.
Although originally social in structure, ‘points of view’ are nevertheless also individual. Complete reduction of all behaviour to labelling, however, wrongly suggests that it is merely the result of that labelling. This approach ignores the structured interests that are shared by groups of people and that ‘cause’ the use of certain labels. These interests are of a practical order.
Without an analysis which digs deeper than mere semantics, one easily tends to attribute the relative success of some labels to someone’s loud presence, to mass media or to psychological manipulation of people. Luhmann’s insight in the social structure of these semantics is then lost. The structural interests underlying phenomena of labelling need independent investigation.
Kappeler accuses those who appreciate The White Hotel of applying the label ‘literature’ to pornographic material, – they are merely laundering money. She blames them for calling ‘literary’ any text written by someone who has successfully ‘labelled’ himself as a ‘writer’. Whoever manages to post himself up as such can then easily sell his ‘hardcore pornography’ as literature.
What then is ‘hard porn’ according to Kappeler? She claims that the genuine feminist is equipped with special specs with which she instantly looks through each vile scam that is going on. The true feminist simply knows what pornography is and thus what it is not. She also knows that literature and pornography are as such mutually exclusive. This unnamed and not-argued prejudice of Kappeler deprives her of an opportunity to be both self-critical and a true literary critique of Thomas’ book.
An elementary definition of ‘porno=x’, as elementary as the definition of elements in their closed niche in Mendeleev’s ‘periodical system’, from the outset terminates any interesting criticism. What remains may be called moralism. Thus you will never reach into the multiple layers of meaning in books like Bataille’s L’Histoire de l’Oeil, Irène by Albert the Routisie or l’Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage. The last name, by the way, turned out to be the pseudonym of a renowned female editor of the famous French literary publisher Gallimard. A surprise when it ‘came out’, most readers and critics suspected a man behind ‘Pauline’.
Such texts trace an ‘I’ that liberates itself via the detour of a sexuality stretched to the limits of aggression. The critical problem of such novels is much more comprehensive than the banal, feminist question of the mutual oppression of man and woman.
Kappeler uses a age old debating trick. At the beginning of her extensive discussion of labelling theory she presents it as a hypothesis with possible counter-arguments. A few pages later, however, labelling theory appears as a self-evident truth.
Rereading The White Hotel confirmed my first impression. Apart from a series of violent fantasies there is no mention in the book of any ‘sexual assault’ on or opposition to it by Lisa Erdman. Actual, real violence against women as described by Thomas occurs in the gruesome passages on the Holocaust that ‘context’ his story. All other ‘violence’ only appears in Lisa’s imagination.
Kappeler, however, reads the whole text as realistic, as story about factual relationships between men and women. She projects her own image of such relations between onto the Thomas’ book and thus ignores the varied sexual psychology not only of women, but also of the men.
This is extraordinary, as the self-declared and avowed feminist Kappeler who must possess a sizable library full of such books and text plus their critiques, simply denies her soul sisters fantasies that she herself does not have or, perhaps, is repressing. In the same move she shortcuts fantasy and actual needs by assuming that women who in their fantasy get excited by rape also desire to be actually raped. The versatile phenomena of both fantasy and practical eroticism are thus reduced to the simple opposition of healthy versus pathological sex.
In The Pornographic Imagination Susan Sontag wrote that the right question for a critic is not the one about the relationship between a book and ‘reality’. In that case each novel is assessed as a unique thing, while the world is considered to be less complex than it is in fact. The right question is the one about the complexity of our consciousness, being the only medium through which the world exists and is constantly being established. I could not phrase it any better.
Although Kappeler is staging the labelling theory as her argument against any appreciative interpretation of The White Hotel – thus: the world is exactly what the label says it is – unfortunately enough, she does no apply that theory to herself. She explicitly considers her own interpretation as not an interpretation, not merely one possible perspective, but a self-evident truth. Unlike Sontag’s sophisticated point of view, Kappeler’s feminist ‘truth’ assumes an elect empiricism of women who cannot be puzzled by man-made, thus sexist fantasies of authors like Thomas.
Woman-model-Kappeler simply knows of an evident, purely feminine reality as absolute yardstick for evaluating literature. Sontag, by contrast, seems much more aware of the always dubious content of our representations of reality, not in the last place of the sense of our own dubious sexual identity.
Kappeler accuses Thomas of letting disappear the experience of Anna G. However, The White Hotel is a complex book. The aforementioned ‘Lisa Erdman’ also appears under the pseudonym ‘Anna G.’, this time in a fictitious case history in which the author Thomas has this second protagonist write to another author: ‘Freud’. ‘Anna G.’ in turn is Lisa’s construction who, as we are well aware, is also a construct of the writer Thomas. Kappeler’s criticism of those who ‘appreciate’ the book completely ignores not only this complexity, but also the the book’s intention.
The White Hotel contains eight sections. First, a prologue containing the fictitious correspondence between Freud and some psychoanalysts, in which Freud writes that once again he his picked up the theme of eroticism and death which he already addressed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Second comes a prose poem called Don Giovanni, written by Anna/Lisa as an alternative libretto between the lines of a Mozart score, the opera which she is rehearsing as a singer.
This is followed by a diary written by a woman during her stay in a hotel. Unrestrained promiscuity is at its centre, with an emphasis on the fusion of Eros and Thanatos – love and death. “No one was selfish in the white hotel.”
Then, we read a fictional case study by Freud about his patient ‘Frau Anna G.’, accompanied by a text from Lisa Erdman about herself, in which she returns to her psychoanalysis – a letter to her analyst Freud, written under her own name, in which she confesses to some facts she concealed from him. This is followed by a horrendous passage about Babi Yar, the site of a quarry in which the Germans massacred at least a hundred thousands Jews.
Illustration in one of the editions of The White Hotel
In Thomas’ novel Lisa is one of the victims. At the very end, quite unexpected, since inconsistent with the former part, Lisa reappears alive in Israel – a sure sign of the fictitious and fantastic quality of all the passages, except for the gruesome facts of Babi Yar.
Despite this heterogeneity and the miraculous resurrection of Lisa, the dating of all passages suggests a realistic time line – from Freud’s earliest letters dating from 1920, through the spring of ’29 where Lisa writes to Freud, to Babi Yar in the Second World War, and finally the Israel of the period following that war.
That at the same time this novel is eminently non-realistic, in Sontag’s sense of the word, is evidenced by the simple fact that Thomas does not hide his own sex behind a female pseudonym, something that many a male pornographer did before him. Thus, a serious reader knows from the start that the novel is a novel and will realize that these eight passages together put the issue of ‘critical perspectivism’ on the agenda. Not one of the passages describes reality as such, each contains a single perspective on it. The book is an archive of possible facts and provides an insight in the darker layers of consciousness which normally, that is outside literature, disappear from our attention.
The White Hotel reinforces our deeper understanding of there being more things between heaven and earth than dreamt of in our everyday lives. Thomas’ book reminds one of the philosopher Kierkegaard, who significantly confronted the reader of his Either/Or with a series of contradictory statements written under various pseudonyms. The reader will try to identify with any one of these – he cannot succeed.
No one can ignore the fact that Thomas used one same phrase in two different places. In his reply to Lisa, Freud quotes the philosopher Heraclitus: “Man’s soul of man is a distant country that cannot be approached or discovered.” To which, confident as he is about his own psychoanalysis and with high hopes, Freud adds that this is not entirely true: ‘I believe, success will depend on a reasonable port opening between the rocks’.
That quote from Heraclitus returns once more in the passage of Babi Yar, now however literally, that is without quotation marks. Suddenly the sentence becomes a phrase of the writer Thomas who, unlike Freud, does not limit its sphere of universal validity. Thomas considers that complex of the unconscious, the soul, as inaccessible tout court. However, for a writer who endeavours sine ira et studio to discard his powers of prejudice, it remains possible to ‘fake’ a constellation of that unconscious – for example in the form of eight passages titled The White Hotel.
Prejudiced Kappeler could not take seriously the doubts of both Heraclitus and Freud. Consequently, she could not take seriously Thomas’ literary effort to give such serious doubt a place in our consciousness.
Sierksma, written about 1990.