BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): Julie Maroh’s (2014) Skandalon

12 November 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

When you suck a book off, do you swallow or spit?

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

This means you might disagree with me, especially where I have it wrong.

A Reply To: Julie Maroh’s (2014)[2] Skandalon

Old people or dust-jacket-bunnies will recall the marketing of the novelist Carson McCullers as a curiously frail and precious kind of thing—something very strange and delicate. Maybe that served as code for “lesbian” at the time; I have no idea. Meanwhile, on the back of this graphic novel, Maroh’s follow-up to her 2013 “tender, bittersweet graphic novel about lesbian love,” we read it telling us, “Skandalon, Julie’s follow-up novel, marks a startling change of pace”. Apparently, after a tender, bittersweet beginning, we now stand on a first name with Julie. Curious!

The book ends with an afterword by Maroh. And well may you laugh if I begin griping about the “pretentious intellectualism” of this afterword—especially since lots of folks mightwouldcould point that phrase at any number of the things I write. However, without intending to defend myself, a difference exists between any “intellectual apparatus” used by a critic after the fact to analyse a text and an essay by the author, loaded with footnotes to René Girard, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mircea Eliade, and Aristotle (none of whom appear in the text), as a sort of analytical framing for what one has just read. Perhaps more fairly, I could say Maroh simply writes her own first analytical review.

But the unhappy part of this: it suggests strong that one other to compare the analytical framework she supplies, as a sort of justification for her book, with the actual content of the book. And what makes this essay seem to deserve the phrase “pretentious intellectualism” (whatever the merits of the afterword itself) turns crucially on the non-relationship of it to the book.[3]

Just so you know, the book tracks the downward arc of a supremely celebrated rock star who ultimately gets beat to death for a rape he got away with.

With that in mind, I have no desire to do the work that Maroh declines to do when she makes no link between her anthropological perspective and the book itself. In point of fact, it seems she really only cares to deploy the work of René Girard. And to that end, and only to provide one example: as far as the title of the book goes—conventionally taken from its sense in the bible as a stumbling block, or “a behaviour or attitude that leads another to sin”—she writes and quotes:

With the exasperation of mimetic desires, and the predominance of conflicts, the unity of the group is shattered. What should we do then? And who is the guilty party?

Christ announces before his Passion that he will become a skandalon for everybody and for his disciples as well, for they will also play a part in his Passion. The word skandalon means a “mimetic stumbling-block,” something that triggers mimetic rivalry. […] Although skandalon and Satan are fundamentally the same thing, the two terms emphasize different aspects of the same phenomenon. In the case of skandalon, the emphasis is on the early phases of the mimetic cycle, mimetic rivalry between two individuals who are obstacles to each other; whereas Satan refers to the whole mimetic mechanism. […] Both Jesus and Satan prompt imitation. Imitation is the road to our freedom, because we are free to imitate Christ in his incomparable wisdom in a benevolent and obedient way, or on the contrary, to imitate Satan, meaning to imitate God in a spirit of rivalry. Skandalon becomes the inability to walk away from mimetic rivalry, an inability that turns rivalry into an addiction, servitude, because we kneel in front of those who are important for us, without seeing what is at stake. The proliferation of scandals, meaning of mimetic rivalry, is what produces disorder and instability in society, but this instability is put to an end by the scapegoat resolution, which produces order. Satan casts out Satan, meaning that the scapegoat mechanism produces a false transcendence that stabilizes society, through a satanic principle, and the order cannot but be only temporary and it is bound to revert, sooner or later, into the disorder of scandals (155–6).

Whatever local interest this might have, in vain does one connect it back to Maroh’s text. It does happen that her main character, the well-hung Tazane, courts scandal, but he can certainly do this without having anything to do with mimetic rivalry, god, Satan, or Christ (none of whom appear even by direct reference in the book, if memory serves). To invoke this passage as a justification for Tazane’s scandals seems empty and silly.

Something more possibly relevant lurks in the phrase, “Skandalon becomes the inability to walk away from mimetic rivalry, an inability that turns rivalry into an addiction, servitude, because we kneel in front of those who are important for us, without seeing what is at stake” (155). Disregard what “the inability to walk away from mimetic rivalry” might mean in this context, because it doesn’t even seem that Maroh provides sufficient explanation in her own essay.[4] So mote it be; what then? It seems she implicates the citizen or read, since “we kneel in front of those who are important for us, without seeing what is at stake” (155). We have then (on page 41) the image of the homosexual male kneeling in a coat closet and sucking him off. And, of course, Maroh goes to some successful pains to make Tazane sexy (it seems his fan base consists most maniacally of female though males attend his concerts too).

But what this has to do with mimetic rivalry, much less choosing between god, Satan, or Christ, &c., has nothing more to say than the usual platitudes against celebrity. Tazane fails to function as any one of the three figures in any compelling (much less any convincing) way. Maroh establishes his narcissistic rock-star identity at the first, perhaps succeeds in modulating it slightly with the surprise blow-job in the closet, although that this even amounts to a sexual act comes across clearly enough—i.e., it betokens power, not sex and serves, then, as a kind of “willing rape” on the part of the guy who sucks him off. As Tazane assures us, “When they’re sucking me off, they don’t talk. And I love how grateful they look after I cum in their mouths” (43). This kinder, gentler rape merely sets up the rather narratively fatuous and unmotivated actual rape that Tazane indulges in—the one he gets beaten to death for, declaring—reminiscent of Kakihara at the end of Miike’s Ichi the Killer—that he finally feels alive.

The question of to what extent Maroh successfully reprises the seduction of celebrity must remain an open question. Do we want to kneel before Tazane and have him cum in our mouths? But what does that really mean? As if him exercising power over us (as a joke on us) doesn’t simultaneously play a joke on him—just as the Master in Hegel’s parable of the master and the slave simply cannot see the slave at all, and exists in a kind of oblivious naiveté. So he quits the scene, tries to live a conventional life, and becomes “the” scapegoat when he gets beaten to death?

Just to keep it precise, no one kills the scapegoat—it gets driven out of the community. Since Occidental tends to fantasize that everything starts with Greece (and likes to take up the pretence of acknowledging anything earlier preferentially through the bible), we know the tradition of the scapegoat better through more recent Greek and biblical examples, but many near East traditions have elimination rituals whereby spotless animals get driven into the wilderness. They don’t get sacrificed, in other words; cultures reserved that privilege for other beasts. So how Tazane’s death here links up with a scapegoat doesn’t make general anthropological sense.

In general, I found this book more compelling before Maroh started trotting out the “moral”.[5] Once she permits the narrative to enter rape per se into the book, it becomes more or less a tedious exercise in stereotypical retribution. Exposed to the world now, Tazane no longer has the safety net that permitted him to act the entitled ass—his fans have abandoned him, he has become addicted to heroin (oh look, he suffers!), and he caps it all off by feeling alive only as someone beats him to death. Boring.

Presumably Maroh intends us to understand him as done in by scandal (and hubris) and the fact that “the media that lavishes attention on him are waiting for him to fall from grace” (back of book). Really? Cue Aristotle again, that “envy is pain at the sight of such good fortune” (155) in others. This might describe the reaction of some to good fortune, but Maroh doesn’t especially characterize the press as looking forward to his fall; she doesn’t position the reader to necessarily revel in it; and envy in any case doesn’t always or only supply the emotion we experience seeing celebrities. If I experienced “envy” at some point in the book, it had nothing to do with Tazane and only to do with the guy who got to suck his dick. And, moreover (and just for clarity), not because the dick stuck out of a rock-stars pants but because it looked like a very suckable dick. Attach it to anyone, and I’d suck it.

Again, the scapegoat embodies the pure one that gets sent away, not the one sacrificed. The scapegoat doesn’t experience a fall from grace, unless we want to pretend that loading you up with the sins of the community and then telling you to leave constitutes the sort of “fall from grace” implied in the narrative here (or the back of the book). One wonders how a scapegoat might feel—honoured at first and then dirty as the innocence of its purity gets sullied with sins and horrors it has never known. Does it break then or, simply out of the sheer marvel of its good nature, actually bear up under that unbearable weight and takes its grievous burden out into exile and loneliness?

The figure of Tazane doesn’t linger in this zone of symbolism at all—quite apart from his tedious narcissism and entitlement. His (drawn) innocence serves only as a façade, one that seduces of course. And why not: yes, put your cock in my mouth and jerk your cum all over my tongue. Do you imagine for a moment I think this means more (to you) that the mechanical expulsion of your sexual pleasure?

&c.

In books subsequent to Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, it seems as if she becomes curiously enamoured of Lestat.[6] Perhaps Maroh gets dragged into Tazane’s muck as well. Maybe his “fall” (one can hardly say “from grace”) has the characteristics of revenge and tragedy for Maroh, or she intends that. Insofar as the back of the book tritely repeats, “Skandalon is a powerful and relentless meditation on the high cost of fame, and the demons awaiting anyone who refuses to be wary of them” (back of book), then this points more to the fear and pity of Aristotle’s tragic catharsis, but Maroh’s book delivers none of this hyperbolic text. We can say Occidental discourse places this (incorrect) emphasis because clearly Julie (the now celebrated author) or any incautious and unwary reader might dare to aspire to fame. This tale—at least in its outward form—serves as a warning against that. Just stay poor. Just remain a feudal and futile consumer.

Maroh positions (citing others) prohibition as “the first condition for social ties and the first cultural sign as well” (153). Whatever the merit of this premise, the use of prohibition in Maroh’s narrative turns simply on taboo—the usual rock-n-roll trinity, with sex and drugs. To imagine patriarchal culture has a prohibition on rape, though, accepts at face-value patriarchy’s not-too-polite fiction—if we would imagine that Tazane violates a taboo and for that reason suffers his hubristic fall. Thus, just as he engages in victim-blaming, not just indirectly when he says “And I love how grateful they look after I cum in their mouths” but much more explicitly when he claims his literal rape victim wanted it, &c., Maroh’s book sings in this patriarchal voice as well, claim that we who crave scandal bring disaster upon ourselves (and on the likes of Tazane as well). Our envy leads to mimetic rivalry (whatever that means), as if the Jews who watched Christ die were really actually responsible.

&c.

No one makes a prohibition who lacks the power to enforce it. More precisely, prohibition without power to enforce it becomes farce. If “in the origins of civilization, mankind sought peace, and its first act was to prohibit” (153), then we see in this not peace but violence, not humankind but some narrow slice of it that sought power-over. Whatever benefits of organization this might have brought about, we needn’t pretend that the prohibited assented to it just because they obeyed. Or, for that matter, that the one’s making the prohibition had only scummy motives at hear. Doubtless, inasmuch as human being reinvented civilization over and over again, the admixtures of oppression and assent varied by location.

Meanwhile, none of this has any bearing on Maroh’s book except that it encodes a prohibition on aspiration. It assumes your envy, since she “burst onto the scene in 2013” with a book that “spawned an acclaimed feature film that won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival as well as accolades for its stars Adèle Exarcholpoulos and Lea Seydoux; the book itself was an international bestseller” (back of book). We see in this Power (or, rather, the self-congratulatory flunky of Power scribbling ad-text) talking to itself in its own deluded naiveté, as if one cannot see through this sort of silly text.

It lacks the ability, entirely, to see how we can suck its fat cock every bit as mercenarily as it aims to positions itself toward the reader. Of course, it pretends not to care why we suck its dick—so long as units move, whatever conceit or delusion the guy on his knees in the closet has about the circumstance means just as little as Tazane’s bored anticipation of gratitude on the guy’s face, or the reader’s. The glossy-lipped facial of a book-job well done.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Maroh, J. (2014). Skandalon. Toronto: Coach House Books, pp. 1–160.

[3] Let me add the disclaimer of course, and remind any reader of my opening disclaimer, that I may say stupid things. Perhaps I have grossly misunderstood how the material Maroh adduces here in fact deeply and clearly informs her text. In which case, I will have the privilege of being wrong and hopefully someone will be so kind or arrogant as to set me straight.

[4] She cites Girard on mimetic desire, so that “no culture invents itself but only replicates itself. Still, in the sphere of mimetic desire, crises are all but inevitable and lead to violence within communities, given the exacerbation of individual desires” (154). What might this mean? She cites Aristotle, “Envy is pain at the sight of such good fortune” (155). All the same, before and after the long passage quoted previously, Maroh (and Girard) offer no formulation for mimetic rivalry.

[5] I certainly don’t mean by this that Maroh agrees with the moral or doesn’t have some kind of ironic stance on Tazane’s fate. I can’t tell, nor do I much care, whether she (implausibly) metes out rough justice a la Arabian Nights or not. Once Maroh takes the narrative from the “soft rape” of earlier through a literal and specifically cruel rape, she puts the narrative beyond the pale of rescue. The issue doesn’t at all involve whether one could or should or any lazy condemnation on my part (of rape). Certain things in texts have consequences and a writer who resorts to them has to live with those. Whatever pity or sympathy one has for the “rock-star problems” of the world, Maroh spends shoots the wad of the text’s good will.

[6] If we posit Team Louis or Team Lestat, I never once wavered in my loyalty to Louis.

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