Margaret Atwood’s work illustrates our need to enjoy other people’s pain

Heaven is not enough, and has to be supplemented by the permission to take a look at another’s suffering – only in this way, as Aquinas says, the blessed souls ‘may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly’


Slavoj Zizek
Saturday 14 September 2019 17:00 BST
The Handmaid's Tale season 3 episode 7 preview

A well-crafted worldwide publicity campaign is raising expectations for The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her Handmaid’s Tale. This, perhaps, is the right moment to take a deeper look into the reasons of our fascination with the dark world of the Republic of Gilead.

Since Gilead is run by Christian fundamentalists, the best way to begin is with theology.

In his Summa Theologica, philosopher Thomas Aquinas concludes that the blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned in order that their bliss be more delightful for them. Aquinas, of course, takes care to avoid the obscene implication that good souls in heaven can find pleasure in observing the terrible suffering of other souls, because good Christians should feel pity when they see suffering. So, will the blessed in heaven also feel pity for the torments of the damned? Aquinas’s answer is no: not because they directly enjoy seeing suffering, but because they enjoy the exercise of divine justice.

But what if enjoying divine justice is the rationalisation, the moral cover-up, for sadistically enjoying the neighbour’s eternal suffering? What makes Aquinas’s formulation suspicious is the surplus enjoyment watching the pain of others secretly introduces: as if the simple pleasure of living in the bliss of heaven is not enough, and has to be supplemented by the enjoyment of being allowed to take a look at another’s suffering – only in this way, the blessed souls “may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly”.

We can easily imagine the appropriate scene in heaven: when some blessed souls complain that the nectar served was not as tasty as the last time, and that blissful life up there is rather boring after all, angels serving the blessed souls would snap back: “You don’t like it here? So take a look at how life is down there, at the other end, and maybe you will learn how lucky you are to be here!”

And the corresponding scene in hell should also be imagined in a totally different way: far away from the divine gaze and control, the damned souls enjoy an intense and pleasurable life in hell – only from time to time, when the Devil’s administrators of hell learn that the blessed souls from heaven will be allowed to observe briefly life in hell, they kindly implore the damned souls to stage a performance and pretend to suffer terribly in order to impress the idiots from heaven.

In short, the sight of the other’s suffering is the obscure cause of desire which sustains our own happiness (bliss in heaven) – if we take it away, our bliss appears in all its sterile stupidity. And, incidentally, does the same not hold for our daily portion of Third World horrors – wars, starvations, violence – on TV screens? We need it to sustain the happiness of our consumerist heaven.

And this brings us to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: a case of the direct “critical” depiction of the oppressive atmosphere of an imagined conservative-fundamentalist rule. The novel and the television series allow us to dwell in the weird pleasure in fantasising a world of brutal patriarchal domination. Of course, nobody would openly admit the desire to live in such nightmarish world, but this assurance that we really don’t want it makes fantasising about it, imagining all the details of this world, all the more pleasurable. Yes, we feel pain while experiencing this pleasure, but psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s name for this pleasure-in-pain is jouissance.

The obverse of this ambiguity is the fundamental blindness of Atwood’s tale for the limitations of our liberal-permissive universe: the entire story is an exercise in what American literary critic Fredric Jameson called “nostalgia for the present” – it is permeated by the sentimental admiration for our liberal-permissive present ruined by the new Christian-fundamentalist rule, and it never even approaches the question of what is wrong in this present so that it gave birth to the nightmarish Republic of Gilead. “Nostalgia for the present” falls into the trap of ideology because it is blind to the fact that this present permissive paradise is boring, and (exactly like the blessed souls in paradise) it needs a look into the hell of religious fundamentalism to sustain itself.

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This is ideology at its purest, ideology in the simple and brutal sense of legitimising the existing order and obfuscating its antagonisms. In exactly the same way, liberal critics of Trump and alt-right never seriously ask how our liberal society could give birth to Trump.

In this sense, the image of Donald Trump is also a fetish: the last thing a liberal sees before confronting class struggle. That’s why liberals are so fascinated and horrified by Trump: to avoid the class topic. German philosopher Friedrich Hegel’s motto, “evil resides in the gaze which sees evil everywhere”, fully applies here: the very liberal gaze which demonises Trump is also evil because it ignores how its own failures opened up the space for Trump’s type of patriotic populism.

Slavoj Zizek’s new book, ‘Sex and the Failed Absolute’, is published by Bloomsbury on 19 September

He will also be discussing “The Death of Truth?” with Paul Mason on 27 September in London

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