Tim recently recommended a book to me, "The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning" by Maggie Nelson. It's not a book I would have normally been inclined to pick up on my own, but I started it on his recommendation and am enjoying it mostly because I like to watch the way her mind works, and the way she has with finding words to convey what's going on in her head. By way of example, here is a quote from page 17:
But [Artaud's] use of the term [cruelty], and his unwillingness to give it up, were not semantic accidents. Like Nietzsche before him, Artaud insisted on cruelty because cruelty is associated not only with implacability, but also with evil. And both men considered the riotous reclamation of evil something of a necessary pit stop on the way to dancing with cosmic forces which have no truck with the normative, especially religious, conceptions of morality. In other words, embracing cruelty is a step—a sort of hazing, or threshold—on the path to moving beyond cruelty, a space valorized by Artaud ( as well as by the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, Camille Paglia, and countless others) as a more elemental, more animal, more "natural" realm than that of the civilized world, with the latter's internalized psychic limits, fretting over ethics, hypocritical moralizing, tedious social contracts and policy debates. "We sail straight over morality and past it, we flatten, we crush perhaps what is left of our own morality by venturing to voyage thither," Nietzsche wrote, rallying the invisible troops.
What do I like about this? First of all, I like the subject she has chosen, in that one of the most interesting things a good thinker can do is attempt to clearly articulate and understand points of view at odds with his/her own. Her rendering of the position of Artaud and Nietzsche is clear, energetic, precise, and, surprisingly, funny. The sentence "And both men considered the riotous reclamation of evil something of a necessary pit stop on the way to dancing with cosmic forces which have no truck with the normative, especially religious, conceptions of morality," might just as easily been written as something like "And both men celebrated the indulgence in evil because of what that indulgence potentially might lead to." Her hyperbolic diction (riotous reclamations) and colloquial metaphors (pit stop, dancing, having no truck with) offer an energetic alternative to scholarly dronespeak. Clearly she's having fun with this as a writer; as a reader, I am too. Likewise the last sentence might have ended before the tagline, "rallying the invisible troops," but look how much work that line gets done: it's accurately denotative (his followers being at least of the time of his writing unknown to him and to each other); it emphasizes how far outside the framework of thought of the vast majority of humans of his time Nietzsche was; and it suggests obliquely that however convincing he might be, he might also very well be mad. I laughed out loud when I read it.
Secondly, I'm impressed (and not just in this passage, but pretty much on every page) with the breadth of her reading, the depth of her understanding, and her overall chutzpah in even attempting to stake out this territory. In just the first twenty pages she cites, among others (and this is not even counting her many references to contemporary figures) Rousseau, Hobbes, Bacon, Plato, Aristotle, Brecht, Marx, Walter Benjamin, Freud, Breton, Barthes, and R.D. Laing. This girl has done her homework.
Which of course puts a certain stress on the poor reader who has to keep up with her. As I read her I periodically have to fight off the feelings of inadequacy that her erudition induces. (I should have read more. I should have paid better attention. Then I'd know what the hell she is talking about.) But like most good teachers, she's adept at backfilling when she gets in deep.
Thirdly, despite the conceptual challenges, there is something that cuts very close to home, at least for me, and I suspect probably for everyone to some degree, in the embedded critique of the world most of us inhabit: "the civilized world, with the latter's internalized psychic limits, fretting over ethics, hypocritical moralizing, tedious social contracts and policy debates." Who among us has not wished, with varying degrees of frequency and intensity, for a world in which we would not so often feel compelled, in order to keep peace in the family or in the workplace, to bite our tongue?