David Jack

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Lauren Elkin

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December 2021, no. 438

‘I loathe romans à clef as much as I loathe fictionalised biographies,’ wrote Simone de Beauvoir (1908–76). For this reason, the novel and the memoir were her preferred genres, even though the boundaries between the two were frequently blurred, a distinction that Beauvoir insisted must be maintained: fiction has ‘only very dubious connections with truth’. While Beauvoir was adamant that her fictional women protagonists are ‘not her’ in any recognisable sense, she conceded that characters may resemble living models. The most famous example is Lewis in The Mandarins (1954), loosely based on Nelson Algren, the American writer and Beauvoir’s lover for some twenty years. It may be loose, but the resemblance was enough for Algren to take his revenge by panning subsequent American editions of Beauvoir’s work. Even memoir has a very particular relationship to reality for Beauvoir. The writer of the memoir is not the same as the subject: the future, she notes in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), ‘would turn me into another being, someone who would still be, and yet no longer seem, myself’.

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Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s diagnosis of the condition of ‘bare life’ has assumed a new significance during the coronavirus outbreak. A new book, Where Are We Now? The epidemic as politics, collects some of Agamben’s most thought-provoking commentary on the politics of state responses to Covid-19. In today’s episode, David Jack reads his October article ‘Bare life and health terror’, in which he applies some of Agamben’s key insights to Australia, arguing that the philosopher’s willingness to speak up for the preservation of the foundations of civic life offers a tonic to the atmosphere of alarmism and the new medically endorsed state of exception.

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In the allegory of the cave, Plato hypothesised the birth of the philosopher as one who emerged from the darkness of illusion into the light of truth. In the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic, philosophers are finding a platform, mostly in the press, indicative perhaps that we need an interpretation of what is happening around us beyond that offered by the media and daily conferences. As with Plato’s philosopher, what they have brought back is not necessarily what we wanted to hear, and some have been threatened with pariah-like status for views that sometimes run counter to the prescribed consensus. This was certainly the case with Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

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Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Shaun Whiteside

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December 2019, no. 417

Serotonin is Michel Houellebecq’s eighth novel and appears four years after the scandalous and critically successful Submission (2015), a dystopian novel that depicts France under sharia law. In Serotonin, we are again presented with the standard Houellebecquian narrator: white, middle-aged, and middle class, seemingly in the throes of some mid-life crisis of a predominantly – but not exclusively – sexual nature.

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