The End of the Affair

Well, I think I’ve reached that point that sometimes pops up with prolific authors: the point where you realize you’ve essentially read this information, style, phrasing, etc., before, under a different title and using, if you’re lucky, different examples to illuminate the author’s case-making. In this instance, I got to about the middle of Slavoj Žižek’s The Fragile Absolute and wondered why I needed to reinforce my existing knowledge of how he channels Lacan to talk about the Real, enumerate the implications of scenes from Vertigo, and provide a slew of “well-known” stories from Cold War days.

By Ida Waugh, via Wikimedia Commons

By Ida Waugh, via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t get me wrong; even though I often don’t agree with his interpretations and/or pronouncements, I’m still a fan of Žižek, especially of his zingers, his social and cultural critiques, and his tendency to bring up things that should have been obvious to us all along, but which jolt us into recognizing our own observational laxity. Take, for example, the philosopher’s observation about the strange power of certain music, by using the plot of The Marriage of Figaro as an example: “the true contrast is… between the sublime dimension of music and the trifling character of its content.”* Try sitting through the opera with that reminder next time, and try not to think about the fact that you’re checking into difficult and artfully sung 18th-century Hollywood gossip.

But even with these gems, the sheen has worn off for me, at least for a while. If the master were to start writing poetry, now that would be interesting– but I fear he won’t.

This isn’t the first time a waning of literary affections has happened; I think I first felt it with Salman Rushdie, most definitively with The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I had the distinct sense that I’d tapped into some magical-realist formula, and until I went back to his earlier Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the pizzazz fizzled out. Maybe it’s when an author or other sort of producer gets a little too comfortable with his/her own familiar world– obeying too much to the letter the admonition to write about what you know– that the glitter fades. (Listen to too much Philip Glass in one sitting, for example, and everything starts to blur into the same intriguingly minor-ish repetitive run.)

Admittedly, it’s not that we should ask, or even believe it’s really possible for, anyone to toss out the variety of things that have formed her/him (for Žižek, one of those givens is Lacanian thought). But maybe when things come too easily, especially in shocking profusion, it’s time to step back and think about how satisfied you should be with your output. I’m wondering if Woody Allen did such a thing when putting together Match Point, set in London; for me, that film got him out of his slump of blahs, and I get a sense that it had something to do with his not being able to fall back on New York as a locale/character/known quantity.

I’m not saying I won’t ever go back to Žižek, but it’ll probably be a while. After all, I’m terrified to read anything Orhan Pamuk has written since The Museum of Innocence, which gave me a punch to the emotional gut, having to face up to its treacly awfulness when I’d been so enamored of his previous work (especially Snow and The Black Book). But maybe in the end, these confrontations with literary and/or artistic disappointment have a positive side to them; for me, at least, it’s a reminder that idolizing anyone, even the greats, is both unfair to the one set on a pedestal (imagine anyone demanding consistent perfection from you all the time), and to the devotee (whose general worth tends to get diminished in comparison with the giant who’s been elevated to divinity). And maybe, just maybe, I can believe that if writerly heroes can flub now and again, my own flubbing has a bit of potential to turn into something of quality down the line.

 

 

* Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, or, Why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? (New York: Verso), 2001, 159. Žižek’s talking specifically about a scene in which two ladies are singing out the contents of a “letter designed to trap [the Countess’] unfaithful husband.”

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