A friend and I have begun reading Gil Anidjar’s Blood: A Critique of Christianity (2014). It’s a daunting book, one that almost coerces, given its difficult yet clever syntax and its breadth of allusions and citiations, one to the work of “slow reading.” In his preface, Anidjar writes:
I shall have occasion to reiterate (interrogate and elaborate on) the following formulation, blatantly plagiarized from Carl Schmitt . . .: All significant concepts of the history of the modern world are liquidated theological concepts. This is so not only because of their historical development—in which they circulated between theology and the operations of the modern world, whereby, for example, the blood of Christ became the flow of capital—but also because of their systematic fluidity, the recognition of which is necessary for a political consideration of these concepts. . . . A political consideration of these concepts, the irresolute condition for comprehending, contesting, or opposing them, has little to do with “the new atheism,” God forbid; it is rather tantamount to a recognition that “the worst witness to truth,” blood flows still—in, under, and through these concepts. It is by way of blood, Christian blood, that these concepts have become available, sustainable, and readable in their multifarious structure and historical development, in their endurance, too, and cathected significance. A scholarly and, let us say, critical exploration of these concepts, the blood that runs through them, shall have to follow closely and fluently their motion and their flows. It shall adhere to blood, stick to it, heed to the presence of blood and to its absences, to its making and its fashioning, and to its differences (in philosophy and medicine, from ancient Greece to Melville; in love and in melancholia; in poetry, history, and on TV; from economy to science; and from Jesus to Freud and beyond). For blood not only suffuses these concepts, regions, and more; it constitutes each as a clotted version of its currents. (viii)
Last night in my Topics in Romanticism course, we discussed Michel Foucault’s I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother: A Case of Parricide in the Nineteenth Century (1973, trans. 1975). Though the bulk of this edited volume comprises a dossier of witness statements, court documents, medical opinions, and the memoir of Pierre himself (who commits triple parricide on June 3, 1835), Foucault writes the preface and one of the critical “notes” in the book’s final section. In the latter, he explores the way in which Pierre’s murders and his memoir do not have a simple chronological relation: first murder, then memoir/explanation. For as Pierre’s memoir explains, he had originally planned to write before committing the murders. Foucault summarizes:
If Riviere’s text is to be believed, his first project was that the memoir was to surround the murder. Pierre Rivière intended to start by writing the memoir; the announcement of the crime would have come first; then the explanation of his father’s and mother’s life; and, at the end, the reasons for the deed. Once he had finished the draft, he would have committed the murder; then, after he had mailed the manuscript, Rivière would have killed himself.
Second project: The murder would no longer be interwoven with the text; it would be shifted from the center, placed outside, at the culminating point, and at the same time moved to the far end of the text, and would, so to speak, be finally produced by it. Rivière planned to narrate his parents’ life in a memoir which everyone might read; then to write a secret text narrating the murder to come, what he called “the reasons of the end and the beginning”; and only then would he commit the crime.
Final decision, taken because a fatal drowsiness prevented him from writing and caused him virtually to forget his memoir: He would kill, then get himself taken, then make his declarations, and then die. This is the decision he finally put into execution. Except, however, that, instead of writing, he wandered for a whole month before he was taken and, after making false statements, wrote down his true narrative at the examining judge’s request. But though he wrote so long after killing, he emphasized that his memoir had all been drafted in his head beforehand; he had “considered most of the words he would put in it”; this is why, though the murder had been accomplished, the harsh and unnecessarily wounding words about his victims were still in it. A memoir stored beforehand in the memory. (201-2)
Blood flows. Though the aftermath of Pierre’s slaughter is described in gruesome detail in the opening documents of the dossier and though Pierre quickly passes by the actual act itself in his memoir—”Taking advantage of this opportunity, I seized the bill, I went into my mother’s house and I committed that fearful crime, beginning with my mother, then my sister and my little brother, after that I struck them again and again”—blood flows through Pierre’s text too. The memoir becomes, via Foucault’s discursive slashing, a “murder/narrative” (202). But Pierre’s narrative is not so much indecipherable from murder as it is consubstantial with it. A different discourse, the stories of ancient heroism in particular, stir and support Pierre’s decision to kill, to attain glory, and to enter his own life in the historical discourse of heroism, and the idea of writing it all down—fabricating and imagining it before, during, after—turns his words into weapons, what Foucault dubs “verboballistic inventions” (203). There will be blood, Pierre decides. And there is: in his words, in his imaginings, in discourse, in the memory of the memoir before the murder, in his “discourse/weapon” (203), in each and every para-text in this dossier.
Blood connects the components of this dossier together, but it also obfuscates and renders the situation and all the questions it inspires unanswerable—why did Pierre do it? was his mother all that bad? is he mad? what is to be done about him? execution? jail? madhouse? therapy? laughter? But it—the blood of toads, birds, mother, sister, and brother; the blood that still stains the bill; the blood that returns to accuse him in court—also does something else.
I have no interest at the moment in connecting Foucault’s analysis of this dossier to Anidjar’s Schmittian investigation of liquidated theological concepts—which still have (Christian) blood flowing through them, which still leave in their wake bloody trails of (targeted) conquest—but it is interesting that Foucault moves from his musings on the ever-shifting relation between memoir and murder (and memory) to an argument about how everyday tales of crime and murder—of which Pierre’s parricide was but one example in post-revolutionary France—take on the status of history (like the history of Napoleon or of Roman warriors/heroes/leaders). Foucault writes:
Fly sheet and infernal machine, Riviere’s narrative is subsumed—at least so far as its form is concerned—under a vast number of narratives which at that period formed a kind of popular memoir of crimes. . . . In this way such narratives could make the transition from the familiar to the remarkable, the everyday to the historical. And in this transition three essential processes came into play. First, what people had seen with their own eyes, what one muttered to another, and all the tales that spread by word of mouth within the confines of a village or district became universally transcribable by becoming out of the ordinary, and so ultimately became worthy of setting down on paper in print: the transition to writing. Secondly, the narrative simultaneously changed its status; it was no longer a vague tale carried from one posting stage to the next; it became news, with all its canonical details fixed once and for all: floating rumor was transformed into statement. And thirdly, the village or the streets, of their own accord and with no outside intervention, came to produce history; and, in turn, history stamped the dates, places, and personages with the mark of its instantaneous passage. No king or potentate had been needed to make them memorable. All these narratives spoke of a history in which there were no rulers, peopled with frantic and autonomous events, a history below the level of power, one which clashed with the law.
Hence the relations of proximity, opposition, and reversibility set up by the fly sheets among the “curious” news items, the “extraordinary” facts, and the great events and personages of history. For the broadsheets narrated both contemporary crimes and episodes of the recent past; the battles of the Empire, the great days of the Revolution and the war in the Vendée, 1814, and the conquest of Algeria rubbed shoulders with murders; Napoleon and La Rochejaquelin took their place beside brigands and bandits, patriotic officers beside cannibal shipwrecked sailors.
On the surface the two sets were contraries, like crime and glory, illegality and patriotism, the scaffold and the annals of immortality. From the far side of the law the memorial of battles corresponded to the shameful renown of murderers. But in fact they were such near neighbors that they were always on the point of intersection. When all is said and done, battles simply stamp the mark of history on nameless slaughters, while narrative makes the stuff of history from mere street brawls. The frontier between the two is perpetually crossed. It is crossed in the case of an event of prime interest—murder. Murder is where history and crime intersect. Murder it is that makes for the warrior’s immortality (they kill, they order killings, they themselves accept the risk of death); murder it is that ensures criminals their dark renown (by shedding blood, they have accepted the risk of the scaffold). Murder establishes the ambiguity of the lawful and the unlawful.
This doubtless accounts for the fact that to the popular memory-as it was woven from the circulation of these sheets with their news or their commemorations—murder is the supreme event. It posits the relation between power and the people, stripped down to essentials: the command to kill, the prohibition against killing; to be killed, to be executed; voluntary sacrifice, punishment inflicted; memory, oblivion. Murder prowls the confines of the law, on one side or the other, above or below it; it frequents power, sometimes against and sometimes with it. The narrative of murder settles into this dangerous area; it provides the communication between interdict and subjection, anonymity and heroism; through it infamy attains immortality. (203-6)
I am teaching a class about bloody romanticisms: Shelley’s Frankenstein, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Blood flows through these works of fiction, raising—as fly sheets do with actual crimes—to the level of history. Blood matters. Without it, a figure like Caleb would have never entered history. Without his encounter with Robert Walton, Victor would have been forgotten. The creature’s murders and Victor’s creations would have remained bloody mysteries: a series bruised throats, rooms strewn with gore, slaughterhouses and dissecting rooms with missing inventory. Robert Wringham’s confessions would have remained in his grave (from which the Editor retrieves it, digging up the corpse). And without the blood and the bloody memoirs that Shelley, Godwin, and Hogg fabricate, these tales would have no claim upon our sympathies or our fellow feeling. They could not pose to us forceful moral quandries, sweep us up in the circulation and pulsation of ethical frustration. Next week we discuss the last books of Wordsworth’s Prelude, beginning with Book X. Recall these lines:
When on my bed I lay, I was most moved
And felt most deeply in what world I was;
. . . The fear gone by
Pressed on me almost like a fear to come.
I thought of those September Massacres,
Divided from me by a little month,
And felt and touched them, a substantial dread;
The rest was conjured up from tragic fictions,
And mournful Calendars of true history,
Remembrances and dim admonishments.
. . . [A]t best [Paris] seemed a place of fear,
Unfit for the respose of night,
Defenceless as a wood where tigers roam.
(Book X, lines 55-56, 62-69, 80-82)
This was 1792. Wordsworth was in Paris, where blood had flowed. Where blood had marked a change and where blood was still to come. Wordsworth may have only been a month removed from the September executions, but this is the not-too-distant past of Pierre and the Rivière family as well. Foucault’s edited volume might not take place in Paris, but it relates an event that eventually calls for King Louis Philippe’s signature (to stay the execution and secure the lifetime imprisonment of the bizarre parricide). Indeed, as Jean-Pierre Peter and Jeanne Favret put it in their opening critical note, “Pierre Rivère and his brothers in murder, village ogres and ogresses, frail women cutting off children’s heads, did not invent violence by themselves, nor did the parricide athirst for glory invent the holocausts that had to be performed that [a purported] good might come” (184). This everyday blood forms a circulatory network with the (absent) blood that haunts Wordsworth in the passage above, and (if we are to believe Anidjar) it is a blood that operates as the element of a legal, militaristic, philosophical, literary, economic, historical, and academic tradition. A tradition of war, of (mythical) violence, and (can we say it?) of Christianity.
Romanticism is also part of this tradition. The blood flows through it, just as it flows through Anidjar’s Melville and the later poetry of Wilfred Owen (“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood…”). But what do we do with it? Where will blood take us if we notice and follow it? Should projects of radical sympathy rely on blood spatters? Bloody deeds? Bodies left in the street? Is blood something we share? Is this what sympathy is, a recognition of what unites us in our vulnerable solidarity? If so, Anidjar warns us that such a recognition leads (or has historically led) to a differentiation of bloods. If my blood is your blood, whose blood is left out? Whose blood will be spilled to secure our own? How might we resist the allure of this red mythology?
My students and I did not answer these questions, but we spent a lot of time swimming in them. After class, a young woman told me that every story that had been workshopped in her fiction writing class involved murder.
Reading on . . .