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extension du domaine de la lutte

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(Crossposted from Long Sunday, where I’m taking part in a symposium on democracy

I’m a bit daunted, now, by the passage that I breezily told Angela I’d deal with for this symposium. It’s from E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), and it deals with a central character of the work – or, better, a character whose centrality to the work is very much the question, the issue, at play.

Leonard Bast is 21 when the novel opens, something of a would-be social and intellectual climber, an auto-didact, who has somehow pinned himself on to the Schlegel sisters, who fascinate him as avatars of cultural capital and unearned income. (The “umbrella” in the passage below refers to an embarrassing incident, fraught with class-anxiety, that occurs when Leonard first meets the sisters…)

The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more. He knew that he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich. This may be splendid of him. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food. Had he lived some centuries ago, in the brightly coloured civilizations of the past, he would have had a definite status, his rank and his income would have corresponded. But in his day the angel of Democracy had arisen, enshadowing the classes with leathern wings, and proclaiming, “All men are equal–all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas,” and so he was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the abyss where nothing counts, and the statements of Democracy are inaudible.

It’s an interesting passage, very tough to pin down the narrator’s tone here, the degree of affiliation or remove from Bast’s own sense of things. Our first response might be that Forster says Democracy when he really means Capitalism. This anxiety that haunts Bast, the necessity of constantly scrambling, constantly reinforcing the foundations of the self, lest he slip into the “abyss” is not, of course, a matter of political self-representation or governmental organization, but rather a matter of market forces, economic liberalism, and individual gumption. Or, if were more politically charitable to Forster, then he means us to hear the euphemistic usage of the word Democracy as euphemistic. And then there is the reactionarily nostalgia, ironized or not, for “the brightly coloured civilizations of the past.” It is true, even if it doesn’t mean all that much, that were Leonard born under pre-democratic / capitalistic feudalism, he at least wouldn’t have suffered from this anxiety about the abyss – either in it or not, but no nervousness about climbing and falling. And, it follows, why leathern wings, exactly? The angel of democracy, as it grants the ability to fly, also turns the classes satanic, naturally unnatural?

It is an interesting, and deeply ambiguous, passage. But how ever we read it, we find in it an echo of an old story about the perils of formal democracy in the absence of material equality, But the emphasis of the passage is on not so much the economic constraints behind this situation as the psychic burden of staying afloat, the stress of passing for gentility while climbing an increasingly slippery slope. And in arranging its emphasis in this fashion, it calls to mind a similar sentiment evoked in a much more recent work, Michel Houellebecq’s Extension du domaine de la lutte of 1994, published in English under the (horrific) title Whatever.

In societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism. And for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.

Houellebecq theorizes – and this isn’t the only place he does it – that along with the economic/class anxieties that haunt Leonard Bast, democracy incites yet another arena of asymmetrical competition – sexual fulfillment. In this passage, he compares the post-sexual revolution world of loosened morés to the liberalized economy, where rather than a rising tide of sexual availability raising all… boats (harumph), it rather accelerates the disproportionate accumulation of erotic access by the winners while sexually pauperizing the losers in the game of love. And in fact, in Les Particules élémentaires (1998 – published as The Elementary Particles and Atomised in the US and UK respectively), Houellebecq goes one step further, suggesting that this sexual inequality survives and perhaps even trumps the elimination of social inequality.

Denmark and Sweden, which provided the socioeconomic models for European democracies, also obliged with a model of sexual liberation. Unexpectedly, the great middle classes of labourers and office workers – or, rather, their sons and daughters – were to discover a new sport in which to compete.

Further, it is extremely interesting to note that both Forster’s novel and Houellebecq’s Les Particules élémentaires resolve their outbreaks of psychological discomfort by purging the afflicted characters from the scene: Leonard Bast dies so that the novel can find what we might call an affective resolution – as if the problem that his presence in the text raises is so insoluble that only with his disappearance could the work find an acceptable ending. In Houellebecq, the answer is more extreme: the opening of the novel indicates that the entire body of the work is a retrospective portrait of the last days of the human race, just before the advent of a posthuman species who had solved the problem of love and the pain that comes of it and its lack. Both endings, in a sense, are profoundly undemocratic, as they purge the prole (in the case of Forster) and human subjectivity itself (with Houellebecq) in order to solve the problem of an insufficient liberated humanity.

So, taking these engagements with the perils of incomplete democratization (or the insufficiency of democracy I suppose the questions relevant to this symposium are these:

We all know that “democracy” itself, in its strictly political sense, isn’t a synonym for material inequality. But what other modes of inequality does it mask or even promote? And how do we esteem these modes of inequality in comparison to the one that we are most accustomed to keep front and center?

In order to “solve” the problems of democracy, both Forster and Houellebecq purge the worlds of their works of those who were the victims of democracy in the first place. What might we find ourselves leaving behind in our efforts to repair this broken or incomplete political form? What are we willing to leave behind, and in exchange for what?

It is not all that surprising that novels would focus on the affective, interior, psychological trauma of living in democracy – it’s an aspect of human existence that the form is particular attuned to. is this emphasis something that we should see as an abstraction or mystification of the real problems that we face, or is the opposite true – are our usual modes of discussing and criticizing democracy tone-deaf when it comes to realms of experience that aren’t easily quantified?

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 20, 2006 at 12:55 am

Posted in literature

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  1. JE6aIT ydemfuxtyvtc


    April 22, 2011 at 6:21 pm

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