Humanities on the Edge Article Review: Gregg Lambert
November 4, 2014
In The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt’s dazzling new novel (released earlier this year), Harry Burden has a problem with the art world. A somewhat obscure artist as well as the widow of a renowned art collector, she feels herself slighted by the competitive, sexist New York art scene—in large part due to her gender. “All intellectual and artistic endeavors, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls,” Burden writes in her diary (3). So she hatches a plan: in order to exhibit her work and expose the sexism of the art world in one fell swoop, she finds three men who will put their names on her work and display them in solo shows.
The Blazing World presents itself as an anthology of documents by Harry’s friends and associates, as well as diary entries by Harry herself, assembled after the artist’s death. The fictional academic behind this project, I.V. Hess, seeks to understand the complexities of Harry’s life and those shows in particular. Underlying the narrative is a strong focus on the possibility of determining one’s friends and enemies, broadly construed: “the art world” is Harry’s abstract nemesis, and her relationships to people often come down to whether they are for or against her.
Gregg Lambert’s 2008 article “Enemy (der Feind)" is also concerned with how we identify our friends and enemies. Beginning with the political (i.e., how the state makes these distinctions) and moving to the personal (how we as people make do the same), Lambert sketches out an understanding of the friend-enemy determination. In this post, I’m going to outline Lambert’s claims in the article. Then I’ll contextualize Lambert’s analysis—primarily that relating to the friend-enemy determination on the level of the personal—in terms of The Blazing World’s narrative mechanics.
The friend-enemy determination is practical knowledge. Though the concepts themselves remain abstractions (there are no essential, universal qualities of the friend or of the enemy), it is possible to recognize with certainty the identities of our friends and our enemies. Rather, of our enemies and our friends—both Marx and Schmitt focus first on the enemy, because it’s identifying our enemy that makes possible determination of the friend. A state determines its adversaries before its allies: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In fact, the state is the “purest and most instrumental determination of the friend-enemy distinction” (116). The state’s function is to wage war based on this distinction: it protects itself by defending against adversaries and discovering allies.
This seems to be the case for the personal, too, at least in a basic sense. It is easier to identify who is unlike us than otherwise, and to choose our friends accordingly. In addition, Lambert suggests as a definition for friendship “the concrete social experience of the negation of the self as a unique, isolated, and purely solipsistic experience” (123). If the enemy would make me feel alone in the world, friendship makes clear to me that others exist as I do: my experience as a living human person is not completely unique and uncommunicable to others. No man is an island, you might say. Lambert also notes that friendship includes “much discourse on the mutual affirmation of the same tastes” (123). What he means is that friends tend to agree on things: I may go to a movie with a friend and, afterward, agree with her that the movie was enjoyable. This expresses both our aesthetic judgments as well as affirms our friendship.
In The Blazing World, Harry certainly acts on these principles. To carry out her project, which bears the title Maskings, Harry chooses people who she believes share the common “enemy” of the New York art scene—that is, who are as eager to carry out the trick as she is. With Phineas Q. Eldridge, the second and most successful of Harry’s masks as well as her friend, she finds common ideological ground, as Phineas notes: “Didn’t we understand each other? Weren’t we alike in many ways? . . . She didn’t truck much with conventional ways of dividing up the world—black/white, male/female, gay/straight, abnormal/normal—none of these boundaries convinced her. These were impositions” (122). Harry’s work, following her beliefs, is experimental and demanding. She finds in Phineas someone who shares her resistance to conventionality, conservatism, and injustice. And so their friendship develops on the basis of a mutual enemy.
This enemy is embodied principally for Harry in the circles in which she’s moved as the wife of an art collector—not taken seriously as the brilliant artist she is. But it’s important to note that “embodied” is a relative term. If Harry lays out her scheme clearly and precisely, her enemy remains abstract. “The art world” or even more specifically “the New York art scene” defines more of a mindset or attitude than particular people who have slighted Harry, notwithstanding actual incidents of injustice and sexism she has no doubt experienced. A monolith, she thinks, it will crumble easily. The problem is that her enemy is not a unified, monolithic institution. She wants to expose an attitude, and how it in turn informs people’s responses to art.
For Lambert, the enemy is “the most reductive and abstract form of differentiation” (122). Because the relationship with the enemy takes one general form—conflict—the enemy as a concept remains an abstract threat to the self, Lambert argues, even if one can identify many different enemies. I would push against this slightly by suggesting a richness of conflicts: though it is true that conflict forms more or less the only relationship between enemies, it is also true that it can take wildly divergent forms and degrees. And the form or degree that conflict may take results not in abstractions but relationships as potentially complex and variable as those between friends. Still, though, when dealing in a conflict with an abstraction, as Harry does in The Blazing World, her ostensible enemy never moves into the realm of the tangible: it is perhaps because Harry does not identify specific enemies that her project fails to do what Harry wishes. Harry’s relationship with this abstraction is complex: she is scornful of artists and collectors (again, not so much specific targets but typical artists, typical collectors) around her who fail to take her art seriously, and she desires to lay bare their pretensions—and yet on some level she requires validation. But this only works one way; her attempts to demonstrate the truth behind Maskings are little-remarked, and the project itself turns out to be less notable than the scandals surrounding it, above all her third mask, the artist Rune, who refuses to acknowledge the work’s true creator and indeed accuses Harry herself of deception.
Indeed, Rune becomes the only one who could be understood as a concrete enemy. Harry catalogues her emotions, her rage and her vow of redemption. But most strikingly, she begins to write to herself such statements as “You are all alone with your thoughts” (319). It is at this point that Harry confronts Lambert’s definition of the relationship with the enemy as “a social existence reduced to its barest abstraction, bereft of all other social relations, as well as all forms of dependency, and for this reason, condemned to death, or to nothingness” (124). The enemy makes one feel isolated: Rune’s true attack is not turning Harry’s trick back on her but causing her to feel truly alone, her experiences not just misunderstood but in some way incommunicable to others. This is the upshot of the enemy relationship, its true threat, and what friendship works directly against. Still, the relationship between Harry and Rune is not only a matter of this threat of isolation; the novel illustrates the early affection between the two and its transformation into rage on Harry’s part, rage which, perhaps, compels her to produce more art, to keep working and thinking. So it may be that this, or any, enemy relationship is in some ways productive, not “merely” threatening.
Lambert’s article is a compelling account of how these apparently basic relationships work, and I think The Blazing World illustrates those mechanics well. But it also challenges them, suggesting the potential richness of enemy relationships. As for the novel itself, it’s brilliant in its own right. It is such an effective narrative because it is restless in its depiction of relationships, constantly complicating them by introducing new, competing voices to challenge what we think we have understood. So if it seems that Harry feels “alone with her thoughts,” her art unacknowledged and she herself without allies, we also read of and through her friends, who seek to understand her—and who work against the danger of solipsism. Lambert writes that the “exact labor of friendship” is the mutual affirmation of tastes, opinions, culture (124). This is true, but the novel suggests another of friendship’s labors (and one of art’s): challenging our tastes and opinions, demonstrating to us that we are not alone in the world by encouraging us to interrogate how we perceive it.
Hustvedt, Siri. The Blazing World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.