April fish and other hoaxes

Simon Critchley is Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. His last book was Things Merely Are (Routledge 2005). Infinitely Demanding is forthcoming from Verso.

Foucault's Gotham

Augustine

In Book 8 of the Confessions, Augustine describes himself as "still tightly bound by the love of women", which he describes as his "old will", his carnal desire. This will conflicts with his "new will", namely his spiritual desire to turn to God. Alluding to and extending St Paul's line of thought in Romans, Augustine describes himself as having "two wills", the law of sin in the flesh and the law of spirit turned towards God. Paralysed by this conflict and unable to commit himself completely to God, these two wills lay waste Augustine's soul. He waits, hesitates, and hates himself. Seeing himself from outside himself, from the standpoint of God, Augustine is brought face-to-face with his self and sees how foul he is, "how covered with stains and sores". He continues, "I looked, and I was filled with horror, but there was no place for me to flee away from myself".

Such is the fatal circuit of what Michel Foucault calls the Christian hermeneutics of desire opposed to the pagan aesthetics of existence. In a seminar at New York University in 1980, Foucault is reported to have said that the difference between late antiquity and early Christianity might be reduced to the following questions: the patrician pagan asks, "Given that I am who I am, whom can I fuck?" The Christian asks, "Given that I can fuck no one, who am I?" Foucault's insight is profound, but let me state categorically and without a trace of irony that, as a committed atheist, I side with the deep hermeneutics of Christian subjectivity against the superficial pagan aesthetics of existence. The question of the being of being human - who am I? - that begins with Paul and is profoundly deepened by Augustine arises in the sight of God. The problem is how that question survives God's death. This is Rousseau's question in Confessions, it is Nietzsche's question in Ecce Homo, and Heidegger's question in Being and Time. In my less humble moments, I think of it as my question as well. Whether or not he exists, we are slaves to God.

New York City

My friend David is an anarchist anthropologist, and it is to him that I owe the true story of Gotham. It was a small village in south Nottinghamshire which, during the reign of bad King John in the early 13th Century, decided to forgo the questionable pleasure and huge expense of welcoming the King and his considerable retinue. Instead, they decided to behave like idiots.

It is reported that royal messengers found the villagers engaged in ridiculous tasks, like trying to drown an eel or joining hands around a thorn bush to shut in a cuckoo. King John took fright and moved on. This story of Gotham as a village full of would-be village idiots burbled down through history until Washington Irving picked up the legend as an appellation for New York in the early 19th Century, and the name stuck, right through to Batman and beyond. It is also the name of a chic little restaurant on Manhattan's West 12th Street, between 5th Avenue and University Place, which offers an excellent and reasonably priced lunch menu, despite being full of idiots. New York is a city of idiots, a town full of crazies, some of them under medication, some exploring their inner truth, some doing both at once. One or two New Yorkers still try to scare the king.

But the idiocy of New York also has another deeper dimension evoked at the beginning of E.B. White's wonderfully tightly written memoir Here is New York. "On any person who desires such queer prizes," he begins, "New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." Of course, this is deeply paradoxical, but completely accurate in my view. The prize of life in New York is the only privacy that is worthwhile, one that is not lived sequestered behind walls but lived in the crowded exposure of the public realm, on the subway or on the street. The loneliness of which White speaks is utterly foreign to a feeling of alienation or anomie; it is the gift of idiocy. In the many idioms of New York life, idiosyncrasy and individuality can meld together. Provided, of course, that one is lucky. As White adds, no one should live in New York unless she is prepared to be lucky. The idiocy of New York can forge the strongest individuals, but it can also destroy them and drive them mad.

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