Acclaimed Intellectual Slavoj Žižek Waxes Philosophical About God
Posted Thursday, May 24, 2012 5:57 PM
God In Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse
Slavoj Žižek, Boris Gunjevic (authors)
Seven Stories Press
Slavoj Žižek has earned himself a reputation as something of a philosophical wild man, an epithet derived at least as much from the way he inhabits a room as it is from the content of his books. When I heard him speak, a few years back at a lecture he gave during the Sarajevo Film Festival, he was in true oracular form, a kind of mangy apostle of sharp, caustic philosophical insight. The threadbare brown T-shirt he wore—for those of the correct age, think early Seattle grunge—darkened steadily with rings of sweat that moved out in widening crescents from each armpit, eventually meeting in the middle. His hair was fully adrift. Eyes wild. Arms swinging beneath an enormous screen that projected clips of the films he was “reading” — themselves a delightful mix, running through classic Hitchcock, Stalinist propaganda films, They Live (starring Rowdy Roddy Piper), Schindler’s List, and Jurassic Park. About those final two Žižek memorably, and rightly, quipped: Schindler’s List is a remake of Jurassic Park. . And Jurassic Park is the better film.
The four of us who saw the lecture went out afterwards for coffee. We were divided over what we’d heard in pretty much the way critics remain divided about Žižek. One of us thought he was brilliant, one of us wasn’t so sure, one thought he was a total huckster, the other just enjoyed the show. The next day my friend who hadn’t been sure (a journalist in Sarajevo), was assigned to interview Žižek. He arrived at 10 a.m. at Žižek’s hotel, as instructed. Žižek emerged in the courtyard wearing the same brown T-shirt, sat down rapidly, and declared that he had very little time, really just a minute or two. Two-and-a-half hours later, my friend’s recorder long since dead, Žižek was soaked in sweat, swinging his arms, still filling my friend’s ear.
Following this session, my not-sure-about- Žižek friend was now my very-sure-about- Žižek friend.
In reading Zizek’s new book, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse, written with Boris Gunjevic, I feel like I get close to the euphoria my friend witnessed while talking to—well, really, listening to— Žižek up close. The book is written in a very direct manner, and if Žižek can sometimes suffer from being a paradoxicalist, he (usually) means what he says. In God in Pain he is also able to say what he means (usually).
The crux of the book is a good one, and although tempting to see it as a corrective to Hitchens and Dawkins-esque writings on atheism, the latter group is so thoroughly outweighed by the sheer force of Žižek’s brain—I’m reminded of a comment made by another politician when Žižek ran for the presidency of Slovenia: Look, we all know you’re the smartest one in the room—that the comparison is sort of pointless. Still, Žižek is running in the same milieu, and his response to the wild rush of atheism, especially in the more privileged regions of the West, is to say, Not so fast:
“If, once upon a time, we publicly pretended to believe while privately we were skeptics or even engaged in obscene mocking of our public beliefs, today we publicly tend to profess out skeptical, hedonistic, relaxed attitude while we privately remain haunted by beliefs and severe prohibitions.”
For Žižek, the fundamentalist and the cynic both drink from the same well. It’s a compelling argument, and Žižek is particularly apt in discussing a timely issue without falling into t clichés: He has no interest in any so-called war on religion (from either “side), and he has no interest in the virtues or vices of atheism (again, from either “side”). What he is interested in doing—and this is more or less Žižek’s bread and butter as a thinker—is to think clearlythrough a topic that is so pervasively thought about and discussed as to be nearly unthought. Said another way, everyone is able to take a position on the God question; Žižek isn’t so much interested in taking a position as he is in pointing out what the positions are — and aren’t.
The entire book might be reduced to Žižek’s reading of the aphorism, (mistakenly) first attributed to Doestoevsky by Sartre, that “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” Žižek works with this phrase, turning it into the opposite assertion Lacan saw in it — If God is dead, everything is prohibited.” This, argues Žižek, is the real dilemma faced by the death of God.
As is the usual case in Žižek and, really, most insightful thinkers, not only are the widely accepted positions wrong — they’re actual veils preventing any possibility of insight. Morality, for instance, has nothing to do with the loss of God. God never made anyone good. (But that’s too easy, and it isn’t really Žižek’s point). At best, under God the good stay good. (Also, too easy). The bad also stay bad. (Too easy, still).
Žižek’s real point, vis a vis God and morality, is that only religion makes it possible for a good person to become bad. Evil can only be conducted on a biblical terrain—i.e., a field larger than the quotidian that makes sacrifice, terror, inquisition, merely in service of that transcendent terrain. In fairness, Žižek adds, it is only the biblical terrain that can adequately answer to and consider these very transgressions.
Žižek discusses The Grand Inquisitor scene from The Brother’s Karamazov as the great literary exemplum of the curious truth that in the name of God nearly anything is permissible. When Christ returns, The Grand Inquisitor tells him that the church no longer needs him, and that his presence would merely impede the Church’s ability to bring happiness to the people. The Inquisition must go on, despite God. If God is alive, then everything is permitted.
This takes us to the problem of the modern atheist: If God is dead, then everything is prohibited. Dispatching God hasn’t turned any particular group into a pack of marauding wolves (again, it’s easier to argue the opposite), nor has it made the doing of good, the finding of meaning, or the expressing of love impossible.
What it has done, Žižek says, is create a moral landscape in which, lacking the liberating prohibitions of a faith in God, the modern atheist is turned into a collection of invented, substitute prohibitions — non-belief is asserted with as much uncritical certainty as fundamental belief might be, even less perhaps; and the modern atheist, far from running with open arms into wild and truly free pleasure-seeking and satisfaction, is a bundle of mini-prohibitions. Political correctness. Gym memberships. Cage-free eggs. Locally sourced beef. Seitan. These tiny terrors come up, over and over, and, for the free, everything if prohibited:
“However, even if Lacan’s version [‘If God is dead, everything is prohibited’] appears an empty paradox, a quick look at our moral landscape confirms that it is much more appropriate [than the idea that ‘If God is dead, everything is permitted’] to describe the universe of atheist liberal hedonists: they dedicate their life to the pursuit of pleasures, but since there is no external authority guaranteeing them space for this pursuit, they become entangled in a thick web of self-imposed Politically Correct regulations, as if a superego much more severe than that of traditional morality is controlling them. They become obsessed by the idea that, in pursuing their pleasures, they may humiliate or violate others’ space, so they regulate their behavior … not to mention the no less complex regulation of their own care of the self (bodily fitness, health food, spiritual relaxation…).
“Indeed,” Žižek adds, “there is nothing more oppressive and regulated than being a simple hedonist.”
Trevor Laurence Jockims, a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine, teaches English literature at Hunter College, City University of New York. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Anderbo, Kino Kultura, Connotations, and elsewhere.
Photos: Seven Stories Press; Erste Foundation.