Mark Neocleous The Monstrous and the Dead: Burke, Marx, Fascism University of Wales Press, 2005, 152 pp. ISBN 0-708-31904-1 (hbk) £45 ISBN 0-708-31903-3 (pbk) £18
Reviewed by Andrew McCulloch
Mark Neocleous is one of the most interesting and original thinkers around, and I took this slim (and, unfortunately, rather expensive) book to review because of his transgressive track record, and because of my current interest in Hitler's charismatic career. In addition, a book with such an apposite photomontage by John Heartfield (whom I visited in the sixties) on the cover is not an easy one for me to pass up. Hitler is depicted by Heartfield in August 1933, posturing in front of a mirror and asking, 'Little Mirror, Little Mirror on the Wall, who is the strongest in the whole country?' In the mirror, the hand of a skeleton grips the reflection's throat. However, none of this made The Monstrous and the Dead simple to review. Neocleous's book is 'an attempt to generate new thoughts, ideas and perceptions about the monstrous and the dead, and about political thinking in general. This book has been written as a means of opening up, as well as contributing to, a debate about our relation to the monstrous and the dead' (p. 8). The argument is that the way in which political philosophies conjure up, think about and deal with the dead, the monstrous and the undead will throw fresh light on those philosophies. One of the 'undead' that Neocleous constantly attacks is 'mainstream cultural studies'; and one of the delights of this book is a long note (pp. 129-30) in which Neocleous, clearly on the side of the living, reports on an obviously heated and barbed conference debate with those from mainstream cultural studies about the relationship of tropes and metaphors to reality. This is not just a speculative work of cultural criticism, but is also intended as a properly (not a falsely) subversive political text: this book is also about winning the battle with fascism and capitalism.
Burke is taken in this regard as the key conservative thinker; Marx is supplemented with Walter Benjamin; and it is Hitler who is at the centre of the chapter on fascism. Part of the author's reason for selecting Burke and Marx (and Benjamin) is their quality as writers of richly allusive prose-a quality which, nobody will be surprised to learn, Hitler does not share. Neocleous hazards that 'if ... literary style has any connection with political presuppositions, then the choice of metaphor might be important' (p. 10). Much of this meditative, swirling discussion is fascinating, erudite and creative. For Burke, what is monstrous is the vulgar, inchoate, threatening and disrespectful mob that heralds the emergence of the organised proletariat. Neocleous notes that Burke's work influenced the rise of the gothic as a genre of fiction, central to which was the undead and monstrous figure of the vampire: 'The general point is that, just as the natural order is supposedly threatened by the various monsters it sometimes spawns, so the socio-political order appears to be threatened by the various monsters it spawns ... His [Burke's] monster is thus called upon to legitimize an intuitive vision of life in which "natural" order appears to be threatened by "artificial" monstrosities' (p. 21). Neocleous's descent into the darkest dreams of one of the greatest conservatives concludes brilliantly: 'we might say that the proletariat is an entity which cannot be killed because the bourgeois order requires it to be living, but which as a mob cannot be assimilated into the current stable order-it is essentially disorderly. And as a monster it also cannot be assimilated into the glorious and "safe" past. Why? Because as well as being an emblem of categorical anxiety, border concern and dis-ease, monsters are essentially undeaa" (p. 34).Marx (who has, in the main, been well served by his translators-except, perhaps, when they will translate 'Mensch' as 'man') is a brilliant, wonderfully imaginative writer in command of a cornucopia harvested from Western culture; but one contemporary image he uses is that of the vampire, which Neocleous describes as being 'at the heart of his work . …