:: Article

To Situate the Otherworldly Concretely in the World

By Javier Padilla.

Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, Omnicide: Mania, Fatality, and the Future-In-Delirium (Urbanomic, 2019)

Man prays for evil as he prays for good…

– The Qur’an

What might we be expected to make of a book of manic passages and dangerous incantations—a book which eschews the oppressive conventions of traditional literary criticism in order to convey something new; something venomously dark and unsettling? Quite simply, Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh’s Onmicide: Mania, Fatality, and the Future-In-Delirium is not only a book about the killing of everything, but more importantly, it is “nothing less than a catalogue of insane reinventions of subjectivity in an always already insane world…”. Most disconcertingly, Mohaghegh’s Omnicide lures the reader into contemplating the terrifying idea that perhaps all of modern society’s cultural and socio-scientific modes of organization (taxonomies, typologies, symptomatologies) might themselves be emanations from the cauldron of mania.

But before plunging into this cauldron, let us take a step back to consider Mohaghegh’s background and the book’s stance against the dogmas of psychoanalysis and criticism. Mohaghegh is an academic (an associate professor of Comparative Literature at Babson College). As the book jacket informs us, his focus is on “tracking experimental thought in the Middle East and the West”. In earlier works like New Literature and Philosophy of the Middle East: The Chaotic Imagination, and Insurgent, Poet, Mystic, Sectarian: The Four Masks an Eastern Postmodernism he explored “concepts of chaos, violence, illusion, silence, sectarianism, madness, disappearance, apocalyptic writing.” He is also the translator of Born Under the Dark Spear by the Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlu.

In Omnicide, Mohaghegh expands on these previous academic endeavors to consider mania and fatality beyond the strictures of psychoanalysis, the conventions of literary criticism, and the haze of postmodern thought.  As he writes in his introductory remarks (“Movement of the Lost Cause”) his aim is to go beyond the standard symptomatology of mania provided by psychiatry and the ever-changing Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Or the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

one of the aspects of bipolar (manic-depressive) mood disorder, characterized particularly by euphoria, grandiose thought, rapid speech expressing loosely connected thoughts (flight of ideas), decreased need for sleep, increased physical activity, and sometimes delusions or hallucinations.

All of this is well and good, as Mohaghegh puts it, yet entirely insufficient, since, for starters, it obviates the etymological provenance of the word, from the Greek μανία, namely “to be in a frenzy, to be inspired.” Beyond psychiatry’s forensic reductivism, Mohaghegh is interested in mania as “a thirst for the exacting particular and the compulsion to extinguish”, and elsewhere, as “the point where one departs from the world, and then takes the world down alongside oneself, in the name of the infinitesimal”. It is this explosive alliance between mania and fatality which form a dark compendium of “typologies of excessive power”.

Interestingly, one of the few philosophers Mohaghegh mentions in his introduction is Gaston Bachelard, whose series of phenomenological treatises on poetry (Poetics of Space, Poetics of Reverie, Poetics of Fire) are vaguely similar to Mohaghegh’s “poetics of mania.” Similar, though not quite, since beyond “Bachelard’s Parisian reveries,” Omnicide is a book about going beyond “the liberating abrasiveness of ephemerality itself”. It follows that the methodological foundations are highly mobile, at times neo-phenomenological, at others narratological, and conceptual. According to Mohaghegh, his own:

critical gaze pursues a poetic register, tracing a selected word or phrase back into its rich etymologies or forward into its most devious maledictions, watching the minute inflections of language, tone, and utterance; and lastly there are times when thought must grow bizarrely associative, detouring into seemingly trivial, adjacent backdrops and forging unique connections with whatever other philosophies, mythologies, theologies, cosmologies, numerologies, fairy tale mysticisms, occult archives, aesthetic paradigms, symbolic systems, scientific happenings, superstition, and magical practices can be scavenged across such experiential landscapes.

This passage may give the reader a feel for Mohaghegh’s process. One may call the result an enumeration of poetico-forensic manias, or better yet, a highly associative, tentacular exploration of mania and extermination.

This enumerative drive is evident in the book’s structure.  As Robin McKay remarks in his helpful foreword, Omnicide “presents only a partial archive of [the manias] listed in its (provisional) Mania Tabula” (xiii). The Tabula lists almost one hundred manias (Atelomania, Necromania…) divided in 25 parts. Of these, the book deals with three parts, namely Part 1 (focusing on manias of light), Part 5 (focusing on manias of movement), and Part 20 (focusing on solitude, isolation, mirrors, and giants). The result is a series of microchapters on each of the manias and their corresponding exterminations, ending with a series of keywords, rendering the collection into a kind of abridged compendium culled from an infinite manic volume. Each of Mohaghegh’s incandescent reflections follow a particular quotation from a Middle Eastern writer (both poets and narrators), namely:

Sade Hedayat (Iran), Réda Bensmaia (Algeria), Adonis (Syria), Joyce Mansour (Egypt), Forugh Farrokhzad (Iran), Ibrahim al-Koni (Lybia), Ahmad Shamlu (Iran), Gada Samman (Lebanon), Mahmoud Darwish (Palestine), and Hassam Blassim (Iraq).

It is a pleasure to read the selected passages from these writers, since many may well be new to an English-speaking audience otherwise unaware of their output, and Mohaghegh’s masterful distillations of their words into mania and death serves to augment the book’s intrepid conceptual scheme.

In an early microchapter on manic obsessions with the moon (Selenomania), Mohaghegh offers an excerpt from a poem by the Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlu:

To rekindle the moon
.           I climbed to the roof
with agate stone and grass and mirror.
A cold scythe passed across the sky
that banned the flight of doves,
The pines said something in a whisper
and the night watchmen frantically drew swords
.           upon the birds
The moon
did not rise.

Mohaghegh reads Shamlu’s fragment as a kind of magical ceremony for the re-apparition of a lost moon. Insofar as “night watchmen” surround the poet’s incantation “it is also evident from the worried description above that we find ourselves in a deeply totalitarian interlude…”. It follows that the poet’s selenomanic ritual is an intensely subversive act—it turns poetic mania into poetic protest and incantation. However, Mohaghegh adds to his interpretation a kind of supplement—a “Note.” After describing an event in which “Xerxes the Great, Emperor of Persia” orders his army to attack the sea “as punishment for thwarting his effort to cross it with his fleet,” Mohaghegh condenses his interpretation to form a radical question:

What is it exactly that occurs when one punishes an ocean channel with whips and manacles, or takes a steel weapon to the moon? Are the psychoanalysts right to pore over such dreams only to yield reductive interpretations of paranoia, or is there a grander cosmological tremor in play here, some magnificent determination known only to mad emperors and sorcerer poets, a megalomanical gesticulation that actually makes viable for a split second what was otherwise foolish.

Mohaghegh’s question goes against not just psychoanalytic reductionism, but also one of the central taboos of critical interpretation, namely the pathetic fallacy, which ‘prohibits’ the attribution of emotions to so-called inanimate objects. And yet, it is in these asides, notes, and parentheticals where Mohaghegh’s associative writing scintillates with new possibilities, opening new ways of conceiving language and interpretation by daring to subversively cross wretched seas, and to evoke the cryptic language which might lead a poet to pray for a disappearing moon.

In yet another microchapter from the section on Selenomania, Mohaghegh presents us with yet another text shot through by mania for the moon. It is an excerpt from two poems by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

We cleanse the moonlight. Your road is long, so dream of
seven women to bear this long journey on your shoulders.

I walk on the lip of the well: I have two moons,
one in the sky, the other swimming in the water.
I have two moons.

Mohaghegh separates these two visions as, on the one hand, the visionary who “cleanses the moonlight” even as he predicts a “long journey” to his interlocutor, and the schizophrenic in whose “fractal mindscape… the moon is split into two lifeblood counterparts… one forever unreachable and the other immediately touchable…” (108). However, it is the visionary about whom Mohaghegh offers a decidedly non-dialectical portrayal. “Such is the cunning of the visionary,” he writes:

… to project hallucinogenic images before the mind’s eye, never with the dialectical flaw of fantasy that remains conscious of the original reality-referent, never with the helpless economy of delusion in which the madman loses the capacity for creative intervention, but rather as a phantasmatic dressing of the impossible core endeavor…

It is through these definitional consolidations through which Omnicide invites its readers to reconsider what they understand by mania and finitude. Importantly, and this bears repeating, Mohaghegh does not mean “the helpless economy of delusion in which the madman loses the capacity for creative intervention …” (my italics). This would be irresponsible, and it would be a misreading of Omnicide. The mania Mohaghegh is interested in is not an “irresponsible pleasure-principle,” nor the “neurotic [who] is guided by a compulsive preservation-instinct.” In fact, all of the subjects under consideration in Omnicide “remain acutely aware of the fact that the manic object… is itself the source of a potentially lethal burden”. All of this to say that the mania descried in Omnicide is an imaginative etiology rather than a pathology, insofar as Mohaghegh is not interested in a misguided romanticization of a disease, but rather in the ways in which a new way of understanding mania might open up non-dialectical ways of conceiving “how the manic imagination supersedes both social and psychoanalytic identity”.

This refinement of the manic imagination continues with each microchapter of Omnicide. In a section dedicated to the mania of labyrinths (Labyrintomania), Mohaghegh focuses on the work of Syrian writer Ghada Samman. The fragment he presents us with is from a short story by Samman titled “The Swan Genie.” In it, the narrator complains about the labyrinthine urban crowds confronting her on a daily basis. She fears:

the river of humanity that almost sweeps me off as it gushes down through automatic metal doors that open with a circular pressure on the handle, which appear like the last thing distinguishing the relation between what is mechanical and what is human, and perhaps is the last communication between them.

While the word ‘labyrinth’ is never mentioned, in his reading of this passage Mohaghegh reads the crowd itself as a kind of labyrinth: “a decentralized power-structure behind which there lurks a certain genius, though now diffused, transferred out of the hands of an original nefarious author into the walls themselves…”. This—admittedly liberal—narratological interpretation expands possible interpretations of Samman’s text, and it is unexpected associative moments like these which make Omnicide such a fascinating and surprising read. In a poignant addendum, Mohaghegh writes: “Mania… is the complete victory of the outside; prologue to sheer excoriation: something flayed beyond both self and other”. This  could be considered a fine summation of his book’s understanding of mania. After describing the narrator’s desire for a “counter-labyrinth,” he concludes: “This is what comes after ‘the last communication’—untenable pressure finally giving rise to visionary outburst”.

Omnicide is ultimately not just about the manic imagination and its desire for finitude, but more crucially, it is a book obsessed with communication—with the ecstasy of communication, as Baudrillard would put it. It is a book about the internal manic desire to commune with the outside. In a dazzling passage criticizing psychoanalysis, Mohaghegh wonders, “what if mania were capable of turning subjectivity into its external object of desire and fascination?” It is a captivating question, since it takes inner life and turns it inside out, leading us to question if mania has been misunderstood in the narcissistic West. He goes on to expand this consideration into an even more alarming hypothesis. What if “schizophrenic violence emerges precisely from the rancorous confrontation between the schizoid imagination and the surrounding majority” who never realize “that normalized everyday culture is itself deeply psychotic at almost all levels”.  Omnicide is a book which destabilizes normative ideas about health and insanity, one which relates poetry and writing, as modes of inspiration and frenzy, to the finality of the maniacal. Or, as Mohaghegh himself suggests:

“Perhaps the maniac is the only true keeper of the promise”.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Javier Padilla is Assistant Professor of English at Colgate University. His current research project, The Poetics of the Instant, examines the work of several 20th century poets, philosophers, artists and thinkers around the discourse of immediacy and temporality. His articles and translations have appeared in The Capilano ReviewLiterary ImaginationRevista IberoamericanaThe Journal of Modern Literature, and Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos.

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 27th, 2019.