You have probably come across Zlavoj Zizek (Slavoi Zhizhek) the Slovenian post-everything Marxian bafflegabber at some point in your wanderings through youtube videos. Some people take him seriously, the kind who need some physical exercize in a thought reform camp. I cannot, but apart from his snot-nosed ludicrous lectures – really just outpourings of close-to-nonsense – I have never had quite the time available for analyzing why he is drivel. I just know that he is. Now the wonderful skewer of nonsense, Theodore Dalrymple, has explained why: there is nothing to understand; it is completely bogus.
Professor Žižek brought to my mind something that at first I could not put into words (a phenomenon that is of some philosophical significance, I suspect, for it shows that thought can precede the words in which we express it). But then, in a eureka moment, I realized what it was: Professor Žižek reminded me, even physically, of the Californian fake gurus that I had met at the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival that comes every twelve years to Allahabad, when the Ganges there turns, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, into ambrosia that washes away sins.
I want to avoid all misunderstanding: this is no condemnation of Professor Žižek; on the contrary. The Kumbh Mela is easily the most wonderful human gathering in the world, where tens of millions of people converge more peaceably than, say, eight men in a British pub could ever manage. It is a gathering of the most perfect tolerance, where no one is in the least disturbed by the charlatanry (and obvious prosperity) of the Californian gurus, with their solid gold knuckle-duster rings and sexual acolytes. They do no harm, and Hinduism is in any case not a doctrinal religion; indeed, whenever I have finished reading books about it I am not much better able than I was before, and certainly not for very long, to say what Hinduism is. I suspect that many readers have a similar experience after they read Žižek.
In any case, I am not against charlatans; I even admire them if they are amiable, as of course the vast majority of them are (an unamiable charlatan is almost an oxymoron). To be able to glide through life in the knowledge that one is bogus is a great achievement, far greater than that of the majority of genuinely earnest people. If the world, including academia, were to be purged of its charlatans, how dull life would be!
Dr. Dalrymple has made me feel so much better. A Dalrymple a day keeps a Marxist away.
I have had the same reaction to Charles Taylor, who is, I suspect, an altogether better philosopher and person. There are people of whom you have read, or whom you have read, listened to or met, that generate a deep feeling that their rubber does not quite hit the road, and you do not have four years and a master’s thesis worth of reading to find out exactly why. And you are ready to be thought ignorant by some for having come to such conclusions. You do not care, life is too short to do otherwise.
An article in the German magazine Der Spiegel captures the essence of Zizek: logorrhea, monomania and boredom.
The experience of meeting Zizek is initially fascinating for everyone (for the first hour), then frustrating (it’s impossible to get a word in edgewise) and, finally, cathartic (the conversation does, eventually, come to an end). Zizek begins to talk within the first few seconds, and in his case talking means screaming, gesticulating, spitting and sweating. He has a speech defect known as sigmatism, and when he pronounces the letter “s” it sounds like a bicycle pump. He usually begins his discourse with the words “Did you know…,” and then he jumps from topic to topic, like a thinking machine that’s been stuffed with coins and from then on doesn’t stop spitting out words.
In earlier life I knew a Polish emigré to Canada who was one of the new class of people created after World War 2 by the Communist regime. His dad had been in the Polish equivalent of military intelligence, so he was a part of the Communist priviligentsia. He had an amazing capacity to put together words in the same semi-brilliant way as Zizek. He could manipulate any bureaucracy in the world into giving him something, though he had no idea how to do an honest day’s work. He could get into the guts of your computer and do amazing things with the underlying software such that it would be permanently unusable, but his fingers fairly flew across the keyboards. He once nearly caused a seven car pile-up driving my car by panic braking where panic braking was uncalled for. He had been talking too much to notice the slowdown in traffic. Hyper-reactive, adept at manipulation, but completely unable to perform the ordinary tasks of getting a living, because, for all the brilliance, he was unable to write a coherent sentence in English, and, I sometimes think, in his native Polish.
When I think of Zizek, I think of my erstwhile Polish friend in the same light: as new communist men, philosophers of nonsense, flaneurs, layabouts, artistes, bohemians, the upper class of a socialist regime. They are of a type, one that is only reproducible in a world immunized against practical consequences for spouting drivel. If that sounds like a western university, welcome to Communism for the privileged.