to the left, and it did strengthen. It almost split the Democratic Party [and helped] not only Bernie Sanders but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It created, for the first time in I don’t know how many decades, a true American left. So I still think the great merit – I’m sorry for this obscene term to be used with somebody like Trump – is Trump mixed the cards in a new way.”
Who would he vote for this time, Joe Biden or Trump?
“Biden is long-term the same catastrophe as Trump,” he replies. While welcoming “the chaos” of the current incumbent, “I think Trump is a little too much.” On the other hand, the Democratic contender “is sometimes, you can see, painfully senile”. Without giving a straight answer, he says he hopes Biden “has this talent Ronald Reagan had. I was told . . . Reagan had a good Leninist talent to nominate the right people to positions. I hope [Biden] will build a better équipe around him, which will somehow control the situation”.
As a committed Hegelian, or more accurately Hegelo-Lacanian – his other lodestar is French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan – Žižek is constantly holding at least two opposing ideas in his head at once. At one juncture, he describes the Hegelian outlook as “desperately optimistic” but he also says, “I don’t know a much more pessimist philosopher than Hegel.”
To the extent that Žižek accounts for this particular contradiction, it is in the fact that no one is sure what Hegel actually believed; he was, after all, a philosopher described by Arthur Schopenhauer as “a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense”.
Žižek is Hegel incarnate in one sense at least: He has an enormous catalogue of work, producing a book roughly every six months. So frequently, in fact, that he loses track of the title that he is currently promoting. “Which book are you talking about?” he asks about five minutes into our Skype call. “Ah, it’s already that one!”
The book in question is Hegel in a Wired Brain, a meditation on what the German philosopher – born 250 years ago on August 27th – would make of technological progress. Žižek doesn’t use social media and says he has never had a Twitter account; the “personalised” aesthetic doesn’t appeal to him.
“I have this old philosophical distain, when somebody says ‘I personally feel like that’. My immediate reaction is: ‘F**k off. I don’t care how you feel.’ I’m interested in truth. Truth not in the naive sense of objective truth but truth in the sense of what is the presupposition of what you’re saying.”
He credits Angela Nagle, the Irish author of Kill All Normies, for influencing his view of online communities. A “weird reversal” has occurred, says Žižek, where“the new right almost appropriated all the vulgarity” once associated with student reformists, “and much of the new left is going into this politically correct direction”.
“This is my problem with the tendency to get rid of all remainders of racism, sexism and so on . . .”
While Žižek is “for this struggle”, he asks whether “ruining monuments” is the best tactic. René Descartes, for example, “is the quintessence of the western mind, pure rationalism, privileged man, no sense of empathy, and so on – but wait a minute! Do you know how popular Descartes was among women readers? Why? Because cogito – the pure Cartesian ‘I’ – has no sex; it’s open to contingent sexual construction . . . Without cogito there is no modern feminism.”
Whatever about the quality of his logic, Žižek is charming company.
“I have a personal question,” he interjects. “Don’t laugh at me. I ask every Irish person: de Valera versus Michael Collins?” Later, he cites the Dublin-based novelist Tana French – “a big hit in Slovenia” – as evidence of Ireland’s greatness. “Every stupid, small nation can have a great poet, a great national novelist. To have a good detective writer means you are in.”
Given the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Ljubljana’s most famous son is already thinking of the next book. It will be “something like Hegel in the Viral World”, he says, having already brought out a short tract called Pandemic! in April.
The restarting of tourists’ flights across Europe is “absolutely crazy”, he believes. At the same time, “I sympathise with the guy who says ‘I don’t want to wear a mask’. I understand him. We are being asked literally to change our nature.”
As for the effect of Covid-19 on the capitalist system, Žižek says: “What I like – ‘like’, it’s an obscene term to use here – for what goes on now is that even conservative prime ministers and presidents have to do things which, if you had to mention them a year ago, they would tell you: ‘Are you crazy? This is radical left; it will never be done.’”
Don’t expect any neat conclusions from Žižek. But even his fiercest critics must admit that, like a stopped clock which tells the right time twice a day, he inevitably hits upon some truth – even if it’s the simple truth that humans are hopelessly flawed and contradictory.
With a nod to his own shortcomings, he suggests the ridiculousness of our species is what makes us special, as it’s something no superintelligent computer can match.
“This example I use all the time – I’m embarrassed it’s in at least five of my books,” he says, before retelling a joke from the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch comedy Ninotchka: “You go to a restaurant and ask: ‘Can I get coffee without cream?’ The waiter says: ‘Sorry sir, we don’t have cream, we only have milk, so you only can get coffee without milk.’
“This is a properly Hegelian point,” Žižek adds. Both types of coffee, along with “plain coffee” are “materially the same but they are not symbolically, in our space of meaning, the same”.
“I debated this with computer specialists and asked them a simple question: ‘Could an artificial mind distinguish between plain coffee, coffee without cream and coffee without milk?’ And I didn’t get a good answer.”
Do you know how popular Descartes was among women readers? Why? Because cogito – the pure Cartesian ‘I’ – has no sex; it’s open to contingent sexual construction . . . Without cogito there is no modern feminism
Hegel in a Wired Brain by Slavoj Zizek is published by Bloomsbury Academic.
Don’t send “congratulations on your new book” flowers to Kathleen MacMahon. Also, don’t pick up the lunch or coffee bill at a meeting. Well, not if you are her publisher anyway. “The way women are treated in this business is something I find really interesting . . . and patronising,” she says.
This preference not to be a pampered author emerges over coffee and melt-inthe-mouth scones made by Lucy, one of McMahon’s 18-year-old twin daughters. We’re in the garden of her gorgeous Dublin home near the Grand Canal. There’s a friendly dog called Bonnie running around and a sewing machine inside the house where colourful piles of face coverings are crafted.
Her husband Mark, who works in IT, is out. Their other daughter, Clara, arrives home, sanguine about her cancelled Leaving Cert. With domesticity swirling around us, MacMahon, animated, sharp and entertaining, is talking about what she has learned from her professional writing career so far. A journey that began back in 2011 with a much-publicised six-figure advance from Sphere at the London Book Fair for her first book, the bestselling, heart-wrenching love story This Is How It Ends.
“I think women writers, in particular, are treated like mistresses. You know, you get sent flowers the day your book is published. People pay for your lunch and your coffee. So I always insist now on paying for my coffee.”
Her new book is called Nothing But Blue Sky. It’s an elegantly written and moving account of one man coming to terms with the sudden death of his wife in a plane crash. It’s about grief and loss and reflections on a 20-year marriage. Her publisher is new too; Penguin Sandycove was until recently known as Penguin Ireland.
Warming to her point about free lunches and patronising flowers, MacMahon says she does not like that writers are treated “like show ponies . . . I’m not comfortable with that. I’d prefer to be an equal professional at the table. Everybody is doing a different job. You do your job and I’ll do mine. I sound harsh but I think it actually makes me better to work with . . . I am not trying to make friends with anybody.”
When I ask her to tell me about the challenges of working with Sphere – she has written in this newspaper about the trauma of the Difficult Second Novel – she is diplomatic but truthful.
“I don’t want to go down the road of criticising them because they gave me a fantastic opportunity, but I think that there was a market in mind for what I was doing and that’s a problem because it’s not a product as far as I’m concerned . . . it is a product at the end but not when you are writing it.”
The problem began when the contract for her lucrative two-book publishing deal arrived in the post. Several publishers had been interested in This Is How It Ends but Sphere took it off the table for ¤684,000, a deal brokered by MacMahon’s agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor.
The writer was sent a contract for “two works of women’s commercial fiction”. “I was like, wow, is that what I’m writing? I was so naive . . . I found it offensive.”
She is quick to point out she has no issue with commercial fiction or books aimed at women, but she felt suddenly pigeonholed.
“I just find it extraordinary that somebody decided that’s what I was. Like, here is a fledgling writer, starting a new career, writing about life and love and whatever I find interesting, and it’s in a box already. I don’t think that would have happened to a male writer.”
She felt constrained – by a deadline that was, she felt, unrealistic, and by the pressure to provide a certain kind of book.
“You are so free when you write the first book, free of your own fears and people’s expectations, you write it in a secret happy place. A big publishing deal is amazing, of course, but I did find myself in a very difficult position. I think that book a year thing is bonkers. It’s like asking somebody to produce a baby in three months. I had a problem with that from the start but there was no budge.
“I was freaked by it,” she says. “I knew it wasn’t going to happen . . . I nearly had a nervous breakdown. The second book had to be scratched after 20 rewrites, during which time I worked like a lunatic. It was
Slavoj Zizek: ‘I have this old philosophical distain, when somebody says ‘I personally feel like that’. My immediate reaction is: ‘F**k-off. I don’t care how you feel.’