Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Veils and Scape Goats

Alas, I have not yet read Azar Nafisi's book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. (See this earlier post.) It is still on the table that is next to the table that is next to the bed. Shame on me. At least it should be on proximal table, not the distal one.

I seemed to go on a bender after reading Lolita last spring, delving into both fiction and nonfiction about cultures headed for self-destruction and people who themselves self-destruct and then maybe resurrect themselves. As in the novels of Michel Houellebecq, which my husband and I read, one after the other, during spring break. As in Rick Moody's The Black Veil. (I didn't care that Dale Peck didn't like it.)

Of course, I had to read the original story, The Minister's Black Veil, by Nathanial Hawthorne, which Moody kindly includes in the back of his book. Despite not having read Nafisi's book, I was developing, apparently, some sort of veil fetish. Which wasn't helped by suddenly deciding to re-read Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, with its sexy blue-veiled Tuareg tribesman who carries Kit Moresby deep into the Sahara and ravishes her to the sound of camels braying (is that what they do?), next to piles of steaming camel dung.

And then I got all fixated on the Tuaregs, their matriarchal culture, which keeps the men but not the women veiled, and their written language, used only by the women, which resembles Phoenician, and is used by them to compose beautiful poetry, and on their legendary queen, Tin Hinan, whose remains were dug out of a cave in the southern Hoggar in the 1920s by Count Byron Kuhn de Prorok, who was looking for Atlantis. I read his dusty books. Discovered connections with Frenchman Pierre Benoit's novel, L'Atlantide, in which an adventurer is captured by the Tuaregs. Benoit also relies on legends about the lost kingdom of Atlantis. And I read of the controversy over Benoit's alleged theft of plot from a similar novel, H. Rider Haggard's She. I learned that Haggard's mythology "can also be seen as a precursor of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos stories."

Now we're having fun. Because Houellebecq wrote a book about Lovecraft. Co-winky-dink? No, no. There's a connection. In this translated extract from the book that appeared 4 June 2005 in The Guardian, Houellebecq writes:

From his journeys to the penumbral worlds of the unutterable, Lovecraft did not return to bring us good news. Perhaps, he confirmed, something is hiding behind the curtain of reality that at times allows itself to be perceived. Something truly vile, in fact.
(Emphasis supplied.) Veils again. I noted that Bowles' Moresby is herself a metaphor for a colonialist culture attracted to the sweet nothingness of self-destruction and that this culture, like Moresby, ignores myriad opportunities for retreat. Moresby effects her retreat by plunging forward, through the veil, into that sweet nothingness which her Turareg offers. And I wonder... perhaps this is the only way to proceed. Like Kali, the dark goddess of India, under whose command the world renews itself only by ghastly destruction. To keep the flame alive, must we as individuals continually propel ourselves straight forward into oblivion?

Does it turn out better if, as with the Tuaregs, and with Hawthorne's character, it is the men, rather than the women, who are veiled? I suspect not. It's the graven defining of otherness which gets folks into trouble, because of the misguided assumption that what we know of ourselves is as certain as the veils that we use to wall off the other. These veils achieve nothing but self deception.

Walling oneself off from the one who knows us most intimately is what Hanif Kureishi's flawed protagonist does in his novella, Intimacy. Somehow that book slipped into the reading pile ahead of Nafisi also. You see, walling himself off from someone who has intimate knowledge of him is what Humbert is trying to do in Lolita when he kills his rival, Quilty. But unlike the original scape goat ritual, which served to restore order in man's earliest troubled societies, Humbert's projection of his own flaws onto Quilty merely effectuates his own destruction. Otherwise he would have gotten away with his foul crimes against Lolita. It was Quilty -- the character who spent most of the novel veiling himself from Humbert -- who knew Humbert the best. And Humbert could not bear it.

So here's another lesson, courtesy of Kureishi and Nabokov: we erect veils between others and ourselves because we cannot bear to be known. Worse, we cannot bear to know ourselves.

Perhaps our preoccupation with this fellow Karr (getting back to the JonBenet thing) is just another version of Humbert's fixation on Quilty. It's the scapegoat reaction. But then, there's a whole nother reading list, about various Fall-guys, like Jesus, and Fall-women, like Eve, and before we know it we're back to Hawthorne, rereading The Scarlet Letter in the guest room, which is where we shelve the novels. And then onto a couple of the other books, like Rhawn Joseph's The Transmitter to God (see below), with, inter alia, its descriptions of the Catholic Church's sponsored torture and gender-cide of women in the 1400s. The amygdala. The limbic system. The reptile brain lurking inside us all, ready to connect us to murder and sex and fear and domination. And on, to the web to read more about mimetic desire. And on, to a couple of radio interviews with Rene Girard from last season, which you can still listen to online.

Along the way I also read The Call of Cthulhu, and some other Lovecraft stories. Hubby and I had a blast watching the movie Dagon, which is based on Lovecraft's tales. Lovecraft named his creature after the ancient Middle Eastern deity, Dagon. Dagon, once a god of grain, and before that a fish-god, is a sort of fall-guy, but he's also a projection of our own inner slithering god-demon. Our inner jailer. Our shadow selves.

All of these ideas are rolling around in Houellebecq's novels, whose characters are tormented up front and center by the worst aspects of their own makeup, and the worst aspects of their own culture. And yet there is some sweet precious thing lurking, just out of his characters' reach, beyond the curtain of Houellebecq's worst dystopias. The possibility of love. If only Houellebecq's character, Daniel, and Nabokov's Humbert, and Kureishi's Jay -- all middle-aged writers -- could go about it without fucking everything up.

Now it's time for a fresh look at the creature behind the veil. It's time for Nafisi.

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