Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Book Review: The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity by Slavoj Žižek


Originally appeared on the WBUR web site.

Slavoj Žižek, "The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity"

By Harvey Blume

Though born in Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia) in 1949, Slavoj Zizek belongs to that most slippery school of recent French thought: he's a Lacanian. Jaques Lacan, who died in 1981, was a Parisan psychoanalyst whose tantalizing departures from orthodox Freudianism prompted the English writer Adam Phillips to label him an "inspired" albeit "bizarre analyst." Lacan's work resists simple capsulization, but you can get a taste for the kind of post-Freudian hi-jinks that have made Zizek's high-flying academic reputation just by taking a good look at the front and back covers of "The Puppet and the Dwarf."



On the front, we see a reproduction of "The Virgin and the Christ Child," by Antonio Boltraffio, a student of Leonardo's. The painting partakes of Da Vinci's humanism, with its comely, curly-headed and contented baby Jesus being suckled by a gently smiling Virgin. The back cover is a cryptic rejoinder to all this naive and, as Zizek would have it, "vulgar" humanism. At its center we see a photograph of a divan from the Freud Museum in London. It is enclosed on all sides, except the front, and swaddled with bold tapestries. At the upper left of this striking piece of furniture, facing the viewer, there hangs a reproduction of Gustave Courbet's "The Origin of the World," with its realistic rendering of a vagina. Directly below, reclining on the divan, there is the master of this ceremony, Zizek himself.


With or without the Courbet to drive the point home, the divan is womb-like. To top it off, a caption informs us that the photograph was taken during the commemoration of the 100th birthday of Jaques Lacan. So then, baby Jesus on the front cover, baby Lacan, or at least the idea of him, on the back, And Zizek, nestling there, ready to spring out and explain the connection, to mediate between Christ and Lacan, to bring forth, in fact, a sort of Lacanian Gospel.

One obvious question might be, why pay mind to such esoteric stuff? A simple answer is that there is a flourishing give and take between French high culture and American mass media. Jean Luc Godard, sees Hollywood gangster epics and is inspired to make New Wave classics that galvanize a new generation of American film-makers. Theorist Jean Baudrillard popularizes the concept of a simulacrum, in which reality plays second fiddle to media representations of it. Not only does this become all the rage in the academy for a spell; it also translates into "Wag the Dog," starring Robert De Niro, and "The Truman Show," starring Jim Carrey. Michel Foucault expands, in "Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison," upon Jeremy Bentham's notion of a panopticon, a prison in which activity is monitored from an all-seeing center. Subsequently, HBO comes out with its prison series, "Oz," predicated on a panopticon that oversees much more trauma than it does rehabilitation.

Who, then, would provide the American parallel to the Zizek of "The Puppet and the Dwarf?" No need to look far. His name, believe it or not is Mel Gibson. It's not just that both belong to the A list of their respective systems: Gibson to Hollywood and Zizek to the international academic circuit. The parallel runs deeper. Both Gibson and Zizek share the same aim: to reformulate Christianity and boost it to the top of the world's cultural agenda. We tend to think of the impact of Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" as a function of America's peculiar obsession with religion. Zizek's book indicates that the French are just as likely to relish a bit of the old-time schism, maybe not at the box office, but in the refined reaches and elite discourses of the academy.

By now, of course, Gibson's Christ needs no introduction. He's the messiah who can take a punch, the redeemer who absorbs the worst that cold-blooded Jews, brutal Romans, and Satan himself throw at him and who still, when it's over, rises. Some students of American religion -- Stephen Prothero, for one, author of "Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon" -- see Gibson's Jesus as a rebuff to America's warm, fuzzy Christs and good vibe messiahs. Gibson reinstates the edifying value of ordeal. He calls viewers back to a harsher faith, when Masses were in Latin and Jews couldn't squirm out of their share of responsibility for killing the Lord (after all, as Gibson's said often enough lately, those weren't *Swedes* turning Christ over to Pilate, were they?)

Zizek's Christ isn't nearly as blood-stained, which doesn't mean understanding him is necessarily less painless than watching Gibson's Jesus being mauled and murdered. The truly stunning thing about "The Puppet and the Dwarf," is that it is far more overtly and dully-wittedly anti-Semitic than Gibson's movie. The book even raises various anti-Jewish canards Gibson doesn't have time for, or mercifully, has never heard of. Zizek complains that Judaism has become "the hegemonic ethico-spiritual attitude of today's intellectuals." He's thinking of the late Emmanuel Levinas, an influential philosopher inspired, in part, by the Torah and its commentaries, and of Jaques Derrida, who has become increasingly engaged with Jewish tradition. What Zizek wants to do is drive a Christian wedge through this Jewish "ethico-spiritual" pack by means of a Lacan inspired Christ.

It's demoralizing enough that a supposedly risque thinker such as Zizek can't come up with anything better to do at the beginning of the twenty-first century than to rekindle religious rivalry. The way he goes about it makes it worse. For all of his argument's cultivation of cleverness, wordplay, and paradox, when it comes to Christianity's relationship to Judaism, Zizek is an unreconstructed (indeed, a "vulgar") supersessionist. This means he thinks Christianity isn't sufficient unto itself. Its value chiefly derives from its claims to improve upon, complete and thereby supersede Judaism. In the supersessionist view, everything that was latent in Judaism becomes manifest in Christianity; all that was obscure is revealed. In this view, Judaism is merely preparation for what was fated to succeed it. Jewish scripture is a caterpillar, Christian scripture, is, well, you get it.

Supersessionism has been subjected to withering criticism by a host of Christian writers, including James Carroll in "Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews." But Zizek is not even remotely aware that his view is contested, or that a Christianity so heavily dependent on knocking Judaism, or, for that matter, other faiths (Zizek takes swipes at Eastern religions, too) might thereby be exposing weaknesses of its own.

Zizek's view of religion hardly provides much in the way of spiritual sustenance to believers, which may be the very thing our sly, ever mischievous author likes most about it. "The secret to which the Jews remain faithful," he writes, "is the horror of the divine impotence." In Zizek's view, Job suffers pointlessly and needlessly. Instead of explaining why He allowed torture, God changes the subject, blithering and blustering from out of his whirlwind. Christ goes through a worse ordeal on the cross, and Christ isn't just mortal. He's also divine, for all the good it does him. With the crucifixion, God's impotence can no longer be concealed. This is a deity who can't help himself, much less man, a God who gets himself crucified to illustrate that very point.

 Zizek thinks this idea constitutes some sort of a theological breakthrough because it is an advance over Judaism's "obscene obscurities" about a potent deity. Oddly, though, Zizek's Christ is not so terribly different from Gibson's. Both are too busy being annihilated (physically, in Gibson's case, spiritually in Zizek's) to lend humanity a hand.

It's hard to tell if this is a rebirth of Christianity at the start of a new millennium or a glorified post-mortem.

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