Democracy’s Leviathans (a double feature)


I. Democracy is caught up between two leviathans. One is Paul Auster’s novel entitled Leviathan, which is about a man called Benjamin Sachs who travels across the United States in order to blow up replicas of the Statue of Liberty in protest against the war in Vietnam. The other is Thomas Hobbes’ theory of sovereignty, which has the same title.

It is not unlikely that Auster, in a novel dedicated to Don DeLillo, and with an epigraph by Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Every actual State is corrupt”), had Hobbes’ book in mind when he wrote the opening sentences of the novel: “Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin. There were no witnesses, but it appears that he was sitting on the grass next to his parked car when the bomb he was building accidentally went off. According to the forensic reports that have just been published, the man was killed instantly. His body burst into dozens of small pieces, and fragments of his corpse were found as far as fifty feet away from the site of the explosion”. This image of a body blown to pieces undoes the political move that Hobbes, in his Leviathan, is making and that is captured most forcefully in the frontispiece of the book’s 1651 edition: his aim is to construct one sovereign body that represents all, that is made up by the bodies of all, and that thus acts with everyone’s interests at heart.

Whereas Auster’s novel begins with fragmentation, Hobbes’ project is to unify; his aim is not to fracture, but to bring together. If both texts present their readers with a political body, these bodies are thus opposed to each other: one–that of Hobbes–presents us with absolute, indivisible sovereignty; the other–Auster’s–with the anarchist/terrorist disintegration of that body into barely recognizable pieces.


II. But one should, perhaps, not judge too quickly. For it would be worthwhile to reflect on how the writing of both authors relates to these two bodies and to the opposing political projects that I am suggesting they present.

The project of Auster’s narrator, Peter Aaron, is precisely to reconstruct the life of Benjamin Sachs, to reconstitute the body that was blown into pieces. Literature thus comes to the aid of the various instances–the FBI, the local police, and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms–that do not “have any idea who the dead man was”. Although Hobbes rages against metaphor and literary language throughout his book, he will take recourse to every single trick in the writerly trade in order to make his theory of sovereignty real–in order to convince his readers that the union of the members of the sovereign body that he describes “is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all, in one and the same person”. The creaturely body that, in the frontispiece of his book, spectrally rises above the territory that it is supposed to protect is not a projection of the imagination; it is real. Sovereignty is a metaphor of which Hobbes is asking us to forget that it is a metaphor.

But Hobbes’ literary language, the fact that he takes recourse to the very type of language he rejects in order to get his theory of sovereignty across, undermines this appeal, and instead exposes Hobbes’ Leviathan as literary-political tour de force–as a political text infused with a literariness that undermines the unity that Hobbes wants to pass off as real. In Auster’s fiction as well, the biographical project ultimately fails, and the enigma of Sachs remains largely unresolved.

Thus, Hobbes might be closer to Auster, and Auster closer to Hobbes, than an all too easy juxtaposition of their Leviathans at first sight might make it appear. Both their Leviathans, and thus both their political visions, are with the Sphinx rather than with Oedipus.

References: Auster, Paul. Leviathan. London: Faber and Faber, 1992; Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Images: Dan Davis, Power to the People, oil on canvas, 180 cm x 134 cm, 2007; Dan Davis, Arpanet Nightdrive, oil on canvas, 25 cm x 35 cm, 2009.


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