There is No Ferryman


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Book Review: Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. Cambridge & London: MIT Press. 2003
& Milbank,  The Monstrosity of Christ. Cambridge & London : MIT Press. 2009

Leibnitz famously posed the fundamental ontological question when he said we have a right to ask why there is something rather than nothing but on a more ontic level  we are also entitled to ask, in respect of attendance at Catholic churches in Ireland and elsewhere, why is there someone rather than no one. Why have congregations not left in disgust at the stream of revelations about moral corruption at the heart of a male-only, libidinally suspect Church that purports to represent the Good? Church attendance may be falling but not terminally so and at times of celebration and crisis-birth, marriage, death-many people still turn to a church service and see little to object about. Marx’s metaphor about religion as the opium of the masses is used against him for if a church funeral offers solace and comfort to the bereaved and if the presence of a priest helps make the pain more bearable then is this any more reprehensible than the occasional use of drugs to help us through the night?

People who might say this are not thinking here about habitual use, serious addiction (God forbid!) is strictly for fundamentalists, but an enlightened understanding that has a place for small mercies. After all, as Fuerbach explained, the concept of God is a projection of what is best about human love: ‘In love alone resides the truth and reality of the God who counts the hairs on your head. The Christian God himself is only an abstraction from human love and an image of it.’ We are really worshipping ourselves when we worship a divine figure. But if, as Fuerbach concluded, we ‘alienate’ what is essential about our own being by projecting it onto a god then we are cutting ourselves off from something that truly belongs to us as humans. This, perhaps, is why atheists often find it difficult not to feel contempt for believers in an afterlife. A part of being human is facing the reality of suffering and death but religion, through the promise of a redemption from suffering, offers to explain this by demonstrating how our pain on earth has a purpose.

This is what the priest tells those who gather in grief at a funeral mass and even if we sense we are being offered a placebo why not, we secretly reason, swallow it down and turn aside from the horror of the Real.  Nietzsche urges us to do otherwise in The Gay Science:

After Buddha was dead they continued to show his shadow for centuries in a cave – a massive eerie shadow. God is dead; but given the way human beings are there will perhaps still be caves for millennia in which his shadow is shown. – And we – we also have to triumph over his shadow!

Stepping out of the shadow is not as straightforward as this image might make it seem because the mind-forged manacles are also in shadow and they resist the rationality of science and the arguments of atheists. There is a need to believe in God, a longing for there to be something to be given as a condition of intelligibility rather than face the task of self-determining such a condition. And it is not just spiritual cowardice that accounts for hesitation in the face of atheistic claims to know there is no God, no afterlife; the very stridency of claims that would reduce everything to scientific laws smacks of the same ‘irrational’ assumption held by believers: that there exists a point where an absolute perspective is possible. There is no such point and, anyway, such stridency misses the simple importance that we give to caring about the meaninglessness of our existence. Life, the trauma of human existence, exceeds the notions that we bring to bear on it.

There is a disharmonious dynamic at work  in our souls that Freud identified as the ‘death drive’ and this drive cannot be satisfied; perversely, it takes pleasure in not being satisfied. Thomas Metzinger puts it nicely in his recent The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self:

The emerging image of Homo sapiens is of a species whose members once longed to have immortal souls but are slowly recognising they are self-less Ego Machines. The biological imperative to live-indeed, live forever-was burned into our brains, into our emotional self-model, over the course of millennia … Mortality is not only an objective fact but a subjective chasm, an open wound in our phenomenal self-model….Many of us, in fact, spend our lives trying to avoid experiencing it.

This ‘subjective chasm’ can be filled by the notion of a transcendent God and arguing in the way that Dawkins does for the non-existence of such a deity does not cut any ice with believers because it fails to address the death drive, the insistent yearning for the Real. The paradox of the death drive is that it is not a wish to die but the search for something more than mere biological existence. It seeks to reach the Real by filling the gap in the symbolic order, the gap that is itself the real, but, caught up as it must be in the loop of the signifying chain, this becomes an impossible task, hence the unremitting, never-to-be-satisfied rotation of the death drive. We are not like other animals, are not content with just living, and, condemned to never finding what is not there, the death drive becomes an excessive attachment to that surplus which cannot be  accommodated within the symbolic order of existence.  Jenny Diski’s description of an ice rink in Skating to Antartica comes close to capturing our predicament:

An ice rink is as cruel a reminder of reality as any that has yet been devised. It is a surface artificially constructed to be as friction-free as you can get while having both feet on the ground – yet it is enclosed on all sides by a wooden barrier. An ice rink is a promise made purely for the pleasure of creating disappointment. If you want to skate without stopping you have to go round and round the bounded ice; you can’t go on and on, even though the surface permits a gathering of speed which can only be for the purpose of heading forwards without hindrance.

Žižek has been saying this as long ago as 1989 when his first book in English appeared. There is no balanced, organic state that we as humans intrude on, transforming creaturely instincts into monstrous drive. This is the error subscribed to by believers in a Western-style  Buddhism and all the New Age claptrap about getting back to our real self and restoring some inner harmony that has been upset by desire and consumerist lust. Western Buddhism operates like a fetish by allowing its believers to happily cooperate with capitalism by allowing them to mistakenly think they are not really caught up in its soulless logic. And this is the soft allure of Tibet for Californian-style Buddhists, the place where the lost object-cause of desire is to be found, the exotic location of an ultimate spiritual wisdom. Try telling the victims of a tsunami about Mother Earth and the need to balance ying and yang. Imbalance and excess are always there, a natural malfunction, the Real of the inherent inconsistency, the ‘deadlock of pure simultaneity’ which the Symbolic strives defensively to domesticate. Time, the horizon for the structures of our life is the attempt to grasp eternity through symbolization, excluding it through an act of repression. Christianity can look to the Incarnation, the mortality of Christ in time, as proof that eternity is possible: there is salvation and a coming to terms with the Real through Redemption.

This is not the Christianity that Žižek finds interesting and he turns for inspiration to St. Paul and to St. Luke’s Gospel (14.26) for an understanding of agape as political love, the need to uncouple oneself from the social hierarchy (‘If anyone come to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and sisters-yes, even his own life-he cannot be my disciple’). The supposed equilibrium of ‘an eye for an eye’ is rejected and St. Paul turns instead to a community of outcasts. This is not a Buddhist-like inner contemplative state but active love rooted in a community. St Paul’s call for a community of believers struggling to create a new order of existence chimes with Žižek’s belief that a radical politics will only emerge when accompanied by a commitment to the creation of a new structure of subjectivity. One of the pleasures of reading The Puppet and the Dwarf and The Monstrosity of Christ is that Žižek steps in where Dawkins does not tread and positions belief as an act that arises from a decision and this is why he likes to refer to Pascal’s advice to agnostics that they should act as if they believe and they will come to really believe.  Belief, not guaranteed by knowledge, is an action, a decision manifested, and it comes before belief as an inward state of mind (which, by the way, helps explain why Wittgenstein’s favourite type of film was the Western, a genre whose aesthetic is grounded on just such an insight). A ritual, like that of getting down on one’s knees to pray, retroactively produces the idea that the ritual was observed because of one’s belief when really it is the other way round. Žižek the avowed atheist wants to appropriate the radical theology that is in Christianity and reclaim it from the repressive clutches of the Church.

The Puppet And The Dwarf is an important and eminently readable book for the way it clarifies Žižek’s radical theology. Žižek’s jokes are legion but one worth retelling in this context concerns three Russian political prisoners in a cell, one of whom explains how he has been sentenced to five years for opposing Popov (a real victim of Stalin’s purges) while the second, prey to a change in the party line, is serving ten years for supporting him and the third trumps them by announcing he has been jailed for life and he is Popov; this is shifted onto a theological plane with ‘I was thrown to the lions in the arena for believing in Christ!’ ‘I was burned at the stake for ridiculing Christ’ ‘I died on a cross, and I am Christ!’ When we share the moment on the cross and realize there is no paternal, transcendent Other, divine or otherwise, to provide answers, then Christianity becomes ‘the religion of atheism’.

For Žižek, Christ’s moment on the cross bespeaks a universe lacking the wholeness that could bind being into a totality, a cosmic dissonance and impotence, an encounter with the Real that throws everything out of joint.  The obscene superego has always kept secret the impotence of the big Other but Christ reveals this secret (there is no bigger big Other than God) and Christianity jettisons the split between the official symbolic order and its unofficial obscene supplement. This tumbling of the symbolic order brings ethics into play, presenting the subject with a choice: to disavow the moment and retreat or to accept the encounter and reboot, reorganizing the coordinates of the symbolic universe that structure identities. Figures as different as St. Paul and Lenin rose to the challenge because they discerned the parallax gap that makes a new beginning possible. They also bear testimony to the need for an ethical commitment to eternal ideas of universality, of the kind preached by St. Paul and made available by the death of Christ and the coming of the Holy Ghost, a community of believers functioning without the need for a master signifier. Žižek employs the language of Christianity because secular humanism cannot give force to the theological form of thought that allows us to say that ‘it is not we who are acting, but a higher force that is acting through us’. This is not the big Other but a sense of collective purpose that would be part of a new structure of subjectivity. The legacy of Christ’s death on the cross is God as the final ethical agency who leaves us with the burden and duty of organizing our existence and retaining fidelity to a Cause. Communism is both this Cause and the fidelity necessary to create and sustain it. The idea that Christ’s death as a human brings about a sublation and the rebirth of the Holy Spirit is reinscribed by Žižek who sees instead the Spirit as ‘a virtual entity’, a  ‘subjective presupposition’ that, like Communism, actualizes itself when subjects assume its existence and act accordingly. This in essence is Žižek’s Hegelian theology–

What is sublated in the move from the Son to Holy Spirit is thus God himself: after the
Crucifixion, the death of God incarnate, the universal God returns as a Spirit of the community of believers, i.e., he is the one who passes from being a transcendent substantial Reality to a virtual / ideal entity which exists only as the “presupposition” of acting individuals. The standard perception of Hegel as an organicist holist who thinks that really existing individuals are just “predicates” of some “higher” substantial Whole, epiphenomena of the Spirit as a mega-Subject who effectively runs the show, totally misses this crucial point.

— and the conclusion it leads to is that ‘only atheists can truly believe’ because only atheists can abandon the big Other of a higher Reality and yet still believe in a Cause.  Similarly, in a way that Žižek emphasises by quoting the anarchist Durutti-‘The only church that illuminates is a burning church’-and transposing its anti-clericalism  to signify how only Christianity makes available a space deep enough to bury the big Other, ‘a true religion arrives at its truth only through its self-cancellation’. With a shift of perspective that sees divinity in humanity, the Resurrection becomes not some longed-for moment in the future but, in the transformation of our life on earth, something that has already happened. Žižek reads passages from St. Paul in this Hegelian fashion and the biblical story of Job is similarly interpreted. Job does not accept his fate, he doubts and disbelieves and rejects the rational explanations proffered by the ideologues who visit him, and like Christ his suffering is meaningless. Sublation (Aufhebung) is achieved when the institutional Church is cast off and fidelity to the authentic, atheistic experience it embodies-the  realization there is absolutely no big Other-is fully acknowledged and faithfully kept alive.

The story of Job is returned to in the first of the two essays by Žižek in The Monstrosity of Christ, a book whose subtitle, Paradox or Dialectic?, clearly signals the kind of theological concerns raised in The Puppet And The Dwarf. The plight of Job is seen as parallel to Christ, a case of ‘double kenosis’ wherein the gap separating man from God is the distance of God from himself and this divine self-alienation is an aspect of the emergence of subjectivity. The second essay, ‘Dialectical Clarity versus the Misty Ground of Paradox’, concludes Žižek’s argument with John Milbank, the theologian whose essays make up the other part of The Monstrosity of Christ.

Žižek’s objection to celebrations of post-modernity and how we should all construct our own versions of who we are is that such paeans to plasticity do not contest but complement the fluid dynamics of contemporary capitalism. Notions of identity that speak of plurality and the nomadic reflect the world we live in but changing this world involves a different vocabulary, the kind found in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (7.7) that states how sin cannot be divorced from law because prohibition engenders desire for what is prohibited. This  Hegelian move leads to St. Paul asking  if we should not carry on sinning for the sake of increasing grace (6.1); God being our saviour only if we indulge in sin. Žižek spells out how St. Paul’s insight and his alarm at its implications leads to a subject divided between  willingly obeying the law while unconscious desiring to break with it. The conscious obedient self has in a sense ‘died’ because it is the impulse to sin that affirms itself and when St. Paul asks ‘how shall we who died to sin live in it’ (6.2) Žižek reformulates his question: ‘How would it be possible for me to experience my life-impulse not as a foreign automatism, as a blind “compulsion to repeat”, making me transgress the law, with the unacknowledged complicity of the law itself, but as a fully subjectivized, positive “Yes!” to my life?’ Žižek warms to St. Paul’s call for deliverance from the superego,  the ‘way of the flesh’ generated by the law, through a suspension of the big Other that allows for everything but which, mediated by the love that is the ‘way of the spirit’, disciplines choice: ‘All things are lawful for me, but not all things beneficial. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything’ (1 Cor. 6:12). What is valued here, amongst other things, is the stress on responsibility, risk-taking and the making of a decision – the qualities that endear Žižek to Westerns like Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma and The Hanging Tree and Zack Snyder’s 300 — and the unconditional love that St. Paul speaks of can translate into the idea of communism.

A reader might wonder why Žižek turns to theology instead of just outlining his ideas in terms of a humanist project. The reason is that he sees humanism as contained within limits that exclude changing what seems unchangeable; notions that speak of realizing one’s potential, discovering the true Self, do not allow for a return to the very beginning and a reinvention of the Self – ‘in short, to change Eternity itself  (what we “always-already are”)’ – whereas theology is a name for just such a dimension, one that engages with fundamental issues about subjectivity and belief, i.e the necessary conditions for a transformation of the socio-economic system.  These fundamental issues lead to the bedrock upon which our universe of meaning is built, the presuppositions that have always already been made and the orientations already taken, the primordial fantasy that shapes the contours by which we live, and Christianity’s act of faith is the belief that the fantasy can be traversed, the orientation transformed: ‘the Christian “Good News (Gospel)” is that it is possible to suspend the burden of the past, to cut the ropes which tie us to our past deeds, to wipe the slate and begin again from zero … a New Beginning is possible.’ Christian theology creates the ontological space for political revolution and the basis for a materialist account of change. Talk of God creating the world ex nihilo is not mystical nonsense since ‘God is already there’ and designates the paradox of ‘Something (a meaningful order) “miraculously” emerging out of nothing from the preceding chaos’. Žižek’s theological turn does not destroy the concept of God as a condition of intelligibility but reconfigures it.

Pagan notions of the divine, like Western concepts of  Buddhism, provide contentment from the sense of an attainable spiritual perfection and cannot reach this materialist realm which, instead of figuring a journey towards the truth, embraces the uncomfortable idea of an encounter that breaks with the pretence of balance and harmony. Some of the ancient Greeks understood this, as in this epitaph quoted by John Casey in his recent book After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory:

Do not pass by my epitaph, wayfarer
But stand, listen, and when you have heard,

go on your way.

There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman


All of us who have died and gone below
Are bones and ashes, nothing else.

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2 Responses


    April 24, 2011 11:39 am


    Ah now!! Could this be true? I know Hobbes most famously thought us savage in blood, tooth & claw, but even he sought an answer to our brutal humanity in the person of Jesus as God did he not?. But; “bones and ashes and nothing else”? How cruel. No?

    I jumped off the bus from London the other day and was walking home. Picture a typical (but not clichéd because it was true) Irish country road. I was heading nowhere but somewhere at the same time, and the morning sun was sparkling over the drumlins. And you! Like I did in, moment of revelation, yes you! Look out sometime for the emerald green that colours this island. The odd poet & author and artist ancient & modern have captured the transcendence of colour perfectly in verse. St Patrick captured it when he lay in the dung, searching for the helping hand of Jesus, the man & God. Bono put his shades on to see it better whilst at the same-time unknowingly nourished his minds eye, in his search for the divine and found him in the person of Martin Luther King. Me an ordinary man. I thought that morning, imagine never seeing these green fields ever again, imagine never hearing the lambs bleating early morning for the comfort of their mother’s milk. Just think, never knowing the beauty of our own lives suckling our mother’s milk? And really might this be Zixek’s paradox. The beauty of this life we sometimes live is unexplainably cruel because we have to leave it behind, forever.
    As an aside NME slated Radiohead’s new album ‘King of Limbs’ and I listen to it now as I write, and you know I believed the sages at NME, Oh Robert you doubting fool, you lost faith, you had to hear before you believed, you are forgiven for doubting. Radiohead are indeed blessed. Thom Yorke the poet can paint beautiful musical pictures that both celebrate and despair at the lines below…


    This is too tough friends; it is too hard to take. I know Fuerbach in a moment of profundity said that ‘religion is just another language’ that we use. We use the language of religion to try and understand who we are, why are we here, and where the f*ck are we going? Marx of course built on Fuerbach’s thoughts and reminded us directly that we should seek, or rather put our faith into our rooted ness to this earth. Marx thought that we have but our labour and this mixed with the earth; that fashioned us out of the dust as Casey above, is but all that is. No! Surely not?
    So what is this ‘insistent yearning for the Real’? Could it be as Popov; ‘I died on a cross, and I am Christ!’Just imagine the person you know and love. They could never become broken for you, nay they could never allow themselves to be spit upon whilst they lay dying. They would hate you. Or would they? Would they forgive you? Would they take pity on you, a wretch who had become blinded by the brutality of life on earth? Would they have found an amazing grace? Nietzsche famously said ‘that God is dead’. More profound maybe is his pointing out that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then we’ve all been taken for fools. We (not all of us) believed blindedly in the dogma of capitalism, that it would sanctify us with a ‘trickle down’ down of riches, we would go hungry no more. We put our faith in this illusion and yet by doing so we denied our own humanity, one that allows us to become broken for each other if only we had faith.
    Surely not?

  2. Colin Quirke

    April 28, 2011 3:47 pm

    “All of us who have died and gone below
    Are bones and ashes, nothing else.”

    A consolation. The bearable lightness of being.