Skip to content

If Bleakest Batman Wrote a Western

They were about in the morning before daybreak and they caught up and saddled their mounts as soon as it was light enough to see. The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning. As the riders came up through the mesquite and pyracantha singlefile in a light clank of arms and chink of bitrings the sun climbed and the moon set and the horses and the dewsoaked mules commenced to steam in flesh and in shadow.

—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

(the trick is to read all Cormac McCarthy in a batman voice)

Fresh Categories, New Sciences

For much of twentieth-century philosophy it is no longer possible to think of Being as foundation, not simply because of the risk that objectivism might lead to a totalitarian society—to Auschwitz or to the Gulag—but above all because European culture has become aware that there are other cultures that cannot be merely classified as “primitive,” that is, as lagging behind the West in the way of “progress.” The 1800s were the century in which the historical sciences, including cultural anthropology, arose: there was a ripe awareness that there was not just a single course of history (culminating in Western civilization) but different cultures and different histories. This awareness would be decisively advanced through the wars of liberation of the colonial nations. Algeria’s revolt against France as well as the petroleum war of the early 1970s were the last episodes within the theoretical, practical, and political rupture of Eurocentrism, i.e., of the idea of a unique human civilization of which Europe was conceived to be the leader as well as the apex.

—Gianni Vattimo, After Christianity

Paranoiac Alien Lonesomeness

In their exquisite self-centeredness our ancestors believed that they were alone in the universe. At the same time, they had convinced themselves that Earth was the blue apple of God’s eye and the sole reason for all of creation. This two-headed fallacy caused humanity both delusions of grandeur and a paranoiac sense of loneliness. Although we eventually achieved the ability of space travel at speeds exceeding that of light and discovered a proliferation of planets along with the near-infinite diversification of species inhabiting them, we could never flee far enough to escape those ingrained disabilities of ego and the angst of isolation but carried them with us like ghostly stowaways to the most remote corners of the universe. The drama caused by the tension between these two psychological conditions born of the same impulse played itself out on a million far-flung stages. As a historian, I can tell you that in studying the history of mankind, this is, though it dons a multitude of disguises, the sole phenomenon one studies. At least a thousand instances come readily to mind, but allow me to apprise you of a single case, and it will be for you like a mirror. One glance and you will be assured that you are not alone in your willful loneliness.

—Jeffrey Ford, “The Far Oasis”

Peradventure Led Into Error

Fleshy janglers, open praisers and blamers of themselves or of any other, tellers of trifles, ronners and tattlers of tales, and all manner of pinchers, cared I never that they saw this book. For mine intent was never to write such things unto them, and therefore I would that they meddle not therewith; neither they, nor any of these curious, lettered, or unlearned men. Yea, although that they be full good men of active living, yet this matter accordeth nothing to them.

—author unknown, The Cloud of Unknowing

A French Breakfast in Tourist Thailand

The coffee was revolting, weak, almost undrinkable; from that point of view at least, we were working to American standards. The young couple looked completely bloody stupid, it almost pained me to see their ‘ecological paradise’ crumbling before their eyes; but I had a feeling that everything was going to cause me pain today. I looked to the south again. ‘I’m told Burma is very beautiful,’ I said in a low voice, mostly to myself. Sylvie solemnly agreed: it was indeed, very beautiful, she’d also heard as much; that said, she forbade herself from going to Burma. It was impossible to think that one’s money would go to supporting a dictatorship like that. Yes, yes, I thought, money. ‘Human rights are extremely important,’ she exclaimed almost despairingly. When people talk about ‘human rights’, I usually get the impression that they’re being ironic; but that wasn’t true in this case, at least I don’t think so.

‘Personally, I stopped going to Spain after the death of Franco,’ interrupted Robert, taking a seat at our table. I hadn’t seen him arrive. He seemed to be in excellent form, his formidable ability to infuriate well-rested. He informed us that he’d gone to bed dead drunk and consequently had slept like a log. He had almost chucked himself in the river a couple of times on his way back to the chalet; but in the end it hadn’t happened. ‘Insh’allah.’ he concluded in a booming voice.

—Michel Houellebecq, Platform

The Immortal Minds Were His Brethren

Only a few close friends knew of his theory: that much which is unworthy in human life might be avoided if people would only accustom themselves to talking in verse. “It need not exactly rhyme,” he said. “Nay, it really ought not to rhyme. Rhyming verse in the long run is an underhand attack on the true being of poetry. But we should express our feelings, and communicate with one another, in blank verse. For iambics gently sway our nature’s rawness—to noble worth, and zealously divide—chatter and tripe and scandal’s overspill—from gold and silver in the human speech.” In the great moments of his existence Herr Soerensen himself thought in iambics.

—Isak Dinesen, “Tempests”

And Yet Everything Hath its Own Phlegm

5. Q.–Which is the most noble salt?
A.–If you desire to learn this, descend into yourself, for you carry it about with you, as well the salt as its Vulcan, if you are able to discern it.

6. Q.–Which is it, tell me, I pray you?
A.–Man’s blood out of the body, or man’s urine, for the urine is an excrement separated, for the greatest part, from the blood. Each of these give both a volatile and fixed salt; if you know how to collect and prepare it, you will have a most precious Balsam of Life.

7. Q.–Is the property of human urine more noble than the urine of any beast?
A.–By many degrees, for though it be an excrement only, yet its salt hath not its like in the whole universal nature.

8. Q.–Which be its parts?
A.–A volatile and more fixed; yet according to the variety of ordering it, these may be variously altered.

9. Q.–Are there any things in urine which are different from its inmost specific urinaceous nature?
A.–There are, viz., a watery phlegm, and sea salt which we take in with our meat; it remains entire and undigested in the urine, and by separation may be divided from it, which (if there be no sufficient use of it in the meat after a convenient time) ceaseth.

10. Q.–Whence is that phlegm, or insipid watery humidity?
A.–It is chiefly from our several drinks, and yet everything hath its own phlegm.

11. Q.–Explain yourself more clearly.
A.–You must know that the urine, partly by the separative virtue, is conveyed with what we drink to the bladder, and partly consists of a watery Teffas (an excrementitious humour of the blood), whence being separated by the odour of the urinaceous ferment, it penetrates most deeply, the saltness being unchanged, unless that the saltness of the blood and urine be both the same; so that whatsoever is contained in the urine besides salt is unprofitable phlegm.

12. Q.–How doth it appear that there is a plentiful phlegm in urine?
A.–Thus suppose; first, from the taste; secondly, from the weight; thirdly, from the virtue of it.

13. Q.–Be your own interpreter.
A.–The salt of urine contains all that is properly essential to the urine, the smell whereof is very sharp; the taste differs according as it is differently ordered, so that sometimes it is also salt with an urinaceous saltness.

14. Q.–What have you observed concerning the weight thereof?
A.–I have observed thus much, that three ounces, or a little more, of urine, taken from a healthy man, will moderately outweigh about eighty grains of fountain water, from which also I have seen a liquor distilled which was of equal weight to the said water, whence it is evident that most of the salt was left behind.

15. Q.–What have you observed of its virtue?
A.–The congelation of urine by cold is an argument that phlegm is in it; for the salt of urine is not so congealed if a little moistened with a liquid, though it be water.

16. Q.–But this same phlegm though most accurately separated by distillation, retains the nature of urine, as may be perceived both by the smell and taste.
A.–I confess it, though little can be discerned by taste, nor can you perceive more, either by smell or taste, than you may from salt of urine dissolved in pure water.

17. Q.–What doth pyrotechny teach you concerning urine?
A.–It teacheth this, to make the salt of urine volatile.

—Eirenaeus Philalethes, “The Secret of the Immortal Liquor Called Alkahest or Ignis-Aqua” from Collectanea Chemica: Being Certain Select Treatises on Alchemy and Hermetic Medicine

Interpretation in Variegated Life

Ricoeur’s phrase, [“hermeneutics of suspicion,”] moreover, has the singular advantage of allowing us to by-pass the exceptionalist tendencies of critique: its presumption that whatever is not critique can only be assigned to the ignominious state of the uncritical. As a less prejudicial term, it opens up a larger history of suspicious reading, including traditions of religious questioning and self-scrutiny that bear on current forms of interpretation, but that are occluded by the aggressively secular connotations of critique (Hunter). In this context, Ricoeur’s own account needs to be supplemented and modified to acknowledge this larger cultural history; the hermeneutics of suspicion is not just the brain-child of a few exceptional thinkers, as his argument implies, but a widespread practice of interpretation embedded in more mundane, diffuse and variegated forms of life (Felski 220).

Finally, the idea of a suspicious hermeneutics does not invalidate or rule out other interpretative possibilities—ranging from Ricoeur’s own notion of a hermeneutics of trust to more recent coinages such as Sedgwick’s “restorative reading,” Sharon Marcus’s “just reading” or Timothy Bewes’s “generous reading.” Literary studies in France, for example, is currently experiencing a new surge of interest in hermeneutics (redefined as a practice of reinvention rather than exhumation) as well as a reinvigorated phenomenology of reading that elucidates, in rich and fascinating detail, its immersive and affective dimensions (see Citton; Macé). This growing interest in the ethos, aesthetics, and ethics of reading is long overdue. Such an orientation by no means rules out attention to the sociopolitical resonances of texts and their interpretations. It is, however, no longer willing to subordinate such attention to the seductive but sterile dichotomy of the critical versus the uncritical.

—Rita Felski, Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion.

A Message Without Code

Thus can be seen the special status of the photographic image: it is a message without a code; from which proposition an important corollary must immediately be drawn: the photographic message is a continuous message. Are there other messages without a code? At first sight, yes: precisely the whole range of analogical reproductions of reality—drawings, paintings, cinema, theatre. In fact, however, each of those messages develops in an immediate and obvious way a supplementary message, in addition to the analogical content itself (scene, object, landscape), which is what is commonly called the style of the reproduction; second meaning, whose signifier is a certain ‘treatment’ of the image (result of the action of the creator) and whose signified, whether aesthetic or ideological, refers to a certain ‘culture’ of the society receiving the message. In short, all these ‘imitative’ arts comprise two messages: a denoted message, which is the analogon itself, and a connoted message, which is the manner in which the society to a certain extent communicates what it thinks of it. This duality of messages is evident in all reproductions other than photographic ones: there is no drawing, no matter how exact, whose very exactitude is not turned into a style.

—Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text

Oblivion Hidden from Our Eyes

Now the memories of love are no exception to the general laws of memory, which in turn are governed by the still more general laws of Habit. And as Habit weakens everything, what best reminds us of a person is precisely what we had forgotten (because it was of no importance, and we therefore left it in full possession of its strength). That is why the better part of our memories exists outside us, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which, when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source, can make us weep again. Outside us? Within us, rather, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged. It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the person that we were, place ourselves in relation to things as he was placed, suffer anew because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what now leaves us indifferent.


I believed that I hankered after Balbec just as much as the doctor who was treating me and who said to me on the morning of our departure, surprised to see me looking so unhappy: “I don’t mind telling you that if I could only manage a week to go down and get a blow by the sea, I shouldn’t have to be asked twice. You’ll be having races, regattas, it will be delightful.” But I had already learned the lesson—long before I was taken to see Berma—that, whatever it might be that I loved, it would never be attained, save at the end of a long and painful pursuit, in the course of which I should have first to sacrifice my pleasure to that paramount good instead of seeking it therein.

—Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower