Book Review

The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity by Slavoj Zizek

The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity by Slavoj Zizek

The Puppet and The Dwarf is dense, bonkers, massively erudite, tautological, brilliant, baffling. Slavoj Zizek has been called "an academic rock star" and "the wild man of theory" and its understandable why. His writing mixes pop cultural references with reading of some of "high culture's" big names (notably Freud and Lacan). In The Puppet and The Dwarf he rereads Christianity in the light of a critical Lacanian psychoanalysis finding lost within it a "materialist" kernel (bolshy old Leninist that he is, he sees the Pauline community of early Christian believers as the first version of a revolutionary collective!).

Christianity asserts and affirms the Big Other but, as Lacan tells us, "Le grand Autre n'existe pas." But we - perverts all - need God for "if God is dead, then nothing is permitted". The pervert requires the prohibition of the Other - his/her perversion is dependent upon it. And the Christian him/herself is a pervert. Zizek reminds us on a number of occassions throughout the text that, on the cross, at the moment of his greatest need for faith/knowledge Jesus radically doubts: "Why hast thou forsaken me?" Identifying as Christians means alligning oneself to that radical doubt; actually, to the belief in the non-existence of God.

Unlike Levinas's (or Derrida's) judaism, Christianity is an immanent religion - it is sameness (God via Jesus becomes Man) not Otherness that defines and sustains it. And that sameness of God with man is key - God becomes Man not as a falling but as its opposite: "What if that which appears to us, finite mortals, as God's descent toward us, is, from the standpoint of God Himself, an ascent? What if, as Schelling implied, eternity is less than temporality. What if eternity is ... sterile, impotent, lifeless". It is not time that is a prison-house but, rather, time is a space, a clearing in which we can define ourselves and live. And how, then, to live well in that space? Well, Zizek is a difficult, allusive writer and, probably, not one you would necessarily immediately think of to pick up to learn any easy life-lessons from. But, what makes life worth living, according to Zizek, is the very excess of life. To be fully alive means to be larger than life.

As Christianity is an immanence, so is the (tripartite) Real. Zizek is obsessed with the Real (a subject he comes back to time and again in his writing) which he understands to be entirely immanent to phenomenal reality. Zizek calls, ultimately, on Christianity to cancel itself by declaring itself the "religion of atheism", for it to be true to its perverse atheistic core.

Mostly, I think, that what the "general reader" (as opposed to the student of continental philosophy) could get from this book is simply the intellectual excitement invoked by such an iconoclastic writer. Everything for Zizek can be explained counter-intuitively (the world only makes sense if you turn it upside down and inside out). To be told that Christianity is, really, an atheistic creed (if only it recognised itself as such) is the kind of inversion you either find intellectually exciting and theoretically challenging or, simply, absurd. I'm in the former camp but Zizek is most certainly the kind of postmodern gadfly who'd have Bertrand Russell turning in his grave.

-- Reviewed by Mark Thwaite on 30/08/2005

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0262740257
ISBN-13: 9780262740258
Publisher: The MIT Press
Publication Date: 03/10/2003
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 190
URL: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/search?keywords=9780262740258&index=books&linkCode=qs&tag=marksbookrevi-21

Readers Comments

  1. Hasn't it become overwhelmingly obvious to anyone who is still reading that Zizek just isn't very good? His recent 'thoughts' on Levinas' Judaism (http://www.lacan.com/symptom/?page_id=91) are so shallow, so shot through with cringeable bad faith, as to be just a bit sad, really, a bit embarrassing.

    His desperate need to spew out ever more words becomes progressively more obviously an attempt to cover over his own self-realisation that, with each more ludicrous attempt to shock or offend (mate, if students are so dull & offensive, why don't you do something to get rid of the lick-spittling coterie of kids trotting mindlessly around behind you?), he simply doesn't have a single thing of of merit to say.

    Perhaps the next time you hear him, you could take the trouble to say 'Sssshhh', quietly, firmly, but nevertheless consolingly...

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