Fatal Attraction

Bitter Carnival: Ressentiment and the Abject Hero.
by Michael André Bernstein.
Princeton University Press. 243 pp. $29.95.

Intellectuals often exhibit a fatal attraction for everything that intellectuality would seem to exclude. As if to prove that they, too, have charisma and erotic energy, mild-mannered professors allow themselves to be captivated by a truly monstrous figure: the raging rebel, filled with envy, spite, and murderous audacity. In the early 1970’s Tom Wolfe chronicled how limousine radicals loved to rub shoulders with Black Panthers, but something much more sinister than this pathetic spectacle sometimes emerges from the intelligentsia’s self-congratulatory self-loathing. The 20th century has witnessed intellectuals supporting Mussolini and Stalin, Mao and Ché, the Khmer Rouge and the Shining Path: anyone, so it seems, whose horrible energy might offer a vicarious thrill, at whatever cost to millions of people.

As if to feed off this tendency, our time has witnessed the rise to prominence of a second type, once treated with contempt but now beloved by intellectuals: the rebellious victim. Shabby but angry flouters of bourgeois social norms have made careers by cultivating this image. The spurious moral capital they appropriate allows them to indulge in a strange kind of whining spite, sometimes called ressentiment: a mixture of megalomania and self-contempt, a hatred for others fused with a hatred of themselves. Such figures regard themselves as unappreciated heroes while still suspecting that they are worthless nonentities. Dostoevsky called them underground men, and he regarded them as profoundly dangerous.

Bitter Carnival—whose author teaches comparative literature at Berkeley—brilliantly describes the relation between these two types, the self-doubting intellectual and the abject rebel, as they have developed in the history of European literature and as they exist today.

He begins with the lurid story of Ira Einhorn, once a very well-known countercultural guru in Philadelphia. By the time it was discovered in 1979 that Einhorn had bludgeoned to death a young woman (an acquaintance of Bernstein’s) named Holly Maddux, and hidden her body in a trunk for eighteen months, he had already achieved great influence as the spokesman for numerous causes. For example, despite the fact that Einhorn had openly declared that “Violence is the simplest mode of contact—it allows touch without formality,” the Episcopal Bishop of Philadelphia sought his advice and put him on the diocese payroll. The president of Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania scheduled regular meetings with Einhorn to keep informed about social issues. And, still more remarkably, Einhorn was appointed a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government just before the discovery of Holly Maddux’s body. Thanks to his local celebrity, the accused murderer was released on $40,000 bail; he fled to Europe and was never brought to trial.

What was it that led so many to embrace Einhorn? Bernstein rejects the standard answer that they were shrewdly trying to “coopt” him. Rather, he argues, they had bought into the myth, widely circulated in the popular as well as the high culture, of the romantic outlaw, the energetic violator of all bourgeois norms. Half-believing in their own philistine mediocrity, they knew the script Einhorn followed and were, as Bernstein observes, “persuaded of his potential significance before any actual dialogue began.”

____________

 

In the rest of his book, Bernstein explores the lugubrious history and frightful consequences of this myth. In his reading, the “Be-In” that Einhorn once famously organized in Philadelphia was in effect a reenactment of the ancient Roman Saturnalia and medieval Carnival. In all such rituals, a time is marked out that either recalls the lost Golden Age or foreshadows the coming utopia, when there will be no more social distinctions, no more restraints, and no more straitlaced moral norms—a time of anarchic sexual license and obscene but egalitarian enjoyment. In America, the idealization of Carnival has proven an important ideological tool in the general debunking of authority. But, as Bernstein points out, real medieval carnivals often ended in terrible acts of violence, and the mentality that idealizes them can bring forth monsters.

The spirit of Carnival also infuses the particular literary form that Bernstein examines here, the “saturnalian” dialogue between an intellectual and an underground man, a monarch and his fool, a philosopher and a madman, or, in its original Roman form, between a master and a slave. Bernstein traces this literary tradition from the Roman poet Horace to the 18th-century philosophe Diderot and beyond. But its true genius, and the one who saw most deeply into the pathology of the abject hero, was Dostoevsky.

In such figures as the ressentiment-filled narrator of Notes from Underground, the clownish Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov (the father of the brothers Karamazov), and the countless buffoons of his great novels, Dostoevsky dissected as no one else has done the mentality of self-conscious victimization. From him we learn precisely why former victims who have achieved power make the most ruthless tyrants—of all Dostoevsky’s lessons, perhaps the most pertinent for our time. As Bernstein writes:

Dostoevsky’s understanding of the dangers of this kind of rage, whose worst effects would not be felt until this century, was prescient in its clarity, and it is fascinating how many of his most tormented Abject Heroes are . . . embittered university intellectuals.

With unequaled brilliance, Dostoevsky also explored why so many representatives of high society or the arts fawn on these rebels and derive a taboo-breaking frisson from contact with them.

In our time, critics have approached the brilliant French novelist and Nazi collaborator Louis-Ferdinand Céline in just this way. Céline really was a self-conscious abject hero, filled with cringing spite, who somehow managed to see even Hitler’s government as infested by Jews. Yet remarkably enough, some recent critics have been attracted to his demonic defiance of all common sense and basic decency. For them, fascism seems to be no more than a matter of literary style, “at which point,” Bernstein sardonically observes, its “seductive glamor can be yielded to with a dismissal of the dully censorious bourgeois moralities that might be troubled by just such a move.”

In our time, too, the myth of saturnalian license has so suffused our culture that a novel like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), a compendium of every banality about heroic rebels and wise madmen, can manage to convince people it is defying cultural norms when it is in fact utterly subservient to them. Saturated with the idea that artists are akin to madmen and criminals, we have begun almost automatically to regard madmen and criminals as artists.

____________

 

We may see the danger of this myth all the more clearly when we reflect that Charles Manson—the subject of Bernstein’s final chapter—repeatedly made use of it in his defense at his trial, and that the revolutionary Weathermen and the underground Liberation News Service at first made Manson into a hero. “They even,” Bernstein reminds us, “coined a particularly hideous slogan, ‘Manson Power—The Year of the Fork,’ to commemorate the fork that the killers left sticking in Leno La-Bianca’s stomach.” Listen to the voice of Manson at his courtroom appearance, ringing changes on the theme of rebellious victimization:

You say how bad, and even killers, your children are. You made your children what they are. . . . These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them, I didn’t teach them. . . . The [Manson] Family were just people that you did not want. . . . I know this: that in your hearts and souls, you are as much responsible for the Vietnam war as I am for killing these people. . . . I am only what lives inside each and every one of you. . . . I am only what you made me. . . .

These are our era’s truisms, and they have not vanished with the 60’s. To the view that there really is no difference between moral and immoral people—because, if immorality is the voice of authenticity, it is therefore not immoral at all—Bernstein offers two replies. First, he cites the words of the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved:

I do not know, and it does not interest me to know, whether in my depths there lurks a murderer, but I do know that I was a guiltless victim and I was not a murderer. I know that the murderers existed . . . and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.

Second, Bernstein contends that sexuality, violence, apocalyptic visions, and dark urgings to domination, far from being “repressed,” have instead come to constitute the major part of our cultural conversation about the human psyche, while “what is repressed . . . is the force of the prosaic, . . . the myriad of minute and careful adjustments that we are ready to offer in the interest of a habitable social world.” This “counter-authenticity,” as Bernstein calls it, is what makes decency possible. Safe in their faculty compounds and studios, professors and artists who romanticize the demonic invite a repetition of the horrors that are the real story of the 20th century.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link