I didn’t mean to find Baudrillard. I was looking in bookstores for self-help, answers about love and masks and deceit. I wasn’t asking for everything I thought I knew to get flipped and destroyed in the sweet nothings of the world’s best mansplain.
Sometimes you get what you need.
THE PERFECT CRIME. A random pull from the Philosophy section, after The Rules and Mars and Venus weren’t hitting the spot. When thoughts about false fronts led me down other aisles.
THE PERFECT CRIME, the Verso edition, 2002 reprint, translated by Chris Turner (how would you even begin to translate it, keep the mindfuck pure?).
It hooked me first with superficials; title and cover, red spill in the car park, the weird shape. What is the perfect crime?
Suckered like the noob I was.
‘Perhaps the most cogent expression of his mature thought’, it says on the back. Why not. The book I actually wanted wasn’t in stock, though I’d read it later, with less awe; the one everyone knows from The Matrix: SIMULACRA AND SIMULATION, or was that ‘stimulation’?
I took it home, snuggled with it under the duvet. Love at first sight.
The first thing is the voice, siren call into the nightmare. A droll paradoxical vivisector of the horror, such zing. Best writer of our age, hands down, in any genre – doesn’t everyone know? Like the Prince of Darkness himself has risen up to dish his strategies in complicit whisper, Evil Confidential. And it matters that it’s in translation: a foreign voice telling us foreign things about ourselves in lucid Latin, no quirky Anglo Saxon.
But but but.
This is a long-running project, you can’t just come in mid-series, as I had, and expect to understand what’s going on. You don’t know the characters, the plot. Nothing makes sense, at first (at last). And this show is fast-paced, action-based, full of twists and cliff-hangers, where nothing is as it seems, least of all the terms.
The terms are the characters, certain words. ‘Fatal strategies’, ‘symbolic exchange’, transparency’, ‘simulacra’. You can look these up but they’ve been stretched, hyperventilated, in previous episodes I hadn’t read yet. And then new words I had to look up: scissiparity. What the hell was going on?
And those beginning chapters: so dense, incantatory, existential. I wasn’t quite up to it, my first time. A bit of skimming (I would return with the right tools to unpack the ecstasy eventually). A bit of skimming, hoping it wasn’t going to be one of those. Thirteen quid down the drain. Fingers crossed. I needed everything solved. Nothing made sense in those days, I wanted revelation.
I’d get it first in the fourth chapter, the easy and fabulous Tromp-l’oeil Genesis. This is built round the anecdote about ‘naughty’ God’s ‘malicious pleasure’ as the ‘evil genius of simulation’, as refracted through the strange hypothesis of P.H. Gosse, a nineteenth century naturalist who tried to square his Christianity with the fossils he discovered by claiming that:
‘all the geological and fossil traces of the origin and evolution of the species, including the human species, are a simulation contemporaneous with the creation of the world by God five thousand years ago, as in the biblical account. Everything which appears to reach back beyond that point, right down into the depths of time, has, he alleges, merely been got up by God in his infinite kindness to bestow and origin and a history upon our world, and is intended to create the illlusion of elapsed time. God, argues Gosse, gave men a past in order to soften the unbearable confrontation with the world as it is, the product of an act of force on the part of a higher will.’
I loved this, and could understand it, and loved where Baudrillard goes with it (not just the master of language and analysis, also the master of metaphor and literary allusion):
‘Beyond all this theological allegory there lie some very burning problems. It is of some consequence whether this simulation is the world of a beneficent God or the trap set by a malicious one. It is of some consequence whether the virtual illusion upon which we are entering is a beneficent illusion or whether, by moving further in this direction, we are merely getting more and more caught up in the strategem… a deliberate choice on the part of the human race, fascinated by the idea of inventing an artificial destiny for itself? Or is it that humanity simply dreams of exacting revenge by putting the divine Creation out of joint, debasing it by systematic simulation and turning the universe into a total artefact out of scorn for the Last Judgement?’
Yes yes and yes. My personal and political fused. This was the burning question I wanted answered, in this urbane tone: the consequence of inventing artificial destinies, for people and for cultures. Is it the inevitable step? Are concerns about it naïve? Why is the choice of fakeness, manufactured reality, the wrong choice? Given what we’re born into, why shouldn’t individuals and universes be allowed to turn themselves into anything they want in scorn, total artefact?
This was the life-meat I wanted unpacked.
That’s when I fell in love, got obsessed.
I read THE PERFECT CRIME over the next few days. I would read it again and again over the years, understanding it better each time. I don't understood it all . But I am starting to know what it says about machines and virtual tech, men and women, asymmetric destinies, the desire for immortality via asexual reproduction, clones, the excision of desire and difference, lies and fakeness, much more.
I tried to explain it to friends, to act on its secrets, with some success. I wrote a novel with filched bits. I had my revelation, saw the world clear, felt my old life fall away. Even now, opening it again to find quotes for this post, I turn the pages, I have to read more, in thrill and terror, lusting for the pings of truth.
These pings are what we read for, or what I read for at any rate. Because there is truth and it feels good in ways that artifice can’t match. Moments where a key turns and the world opens. Agatha Christie, Baudrillard, James Ellroy, koans, Jane Austen – anything worth reading is a crime and detective story really. Who dunnit and why, what’s the punishment, can you even see the crime in the first place? Except in Baudrillard the stakes are huge and real, and we’re the victims, perpetrators and detectives. A perfect crime indeed.