The Center Cannot Hold: Elisa Gabbert’s “The Self Unstable”


What is this book? I have read it cover to cover, gone over passages several times, underlined, annotated, and yet I am still unsure how to classify it. The back classifies it as essay/literature, but the back also states that it is worth $14.95, so clearly this means nothing (there is nothing so grotesque as a price-tag on a book). In terms of classification essay may strike closest to the mark, while still falling short. It is a short book, in length, a brisk 83 pages, divided into five sections. Each section is compromised of paragraph length aphorisms, seemingly dealing with the topic of the section it falls under, some of these links seem tenuous at best. Each one engages you though. As I read through, a line, a whole paragraph, a whole chapter, would strike a chord of recognition. There is a sentiment expressed throughout William Gaddis’ Agape Agape, something akin to, “you plagiarized my ideas before I wrote them down.” I got this sense while reading this book. Gabbert gives a clear voice to what has only been a mumbling in my own mind. What else can you ask from a work of art, than to clarify what has been out of focus. Almost like a pair of prescription lenses, she makes the corners of the world a little less blurry, and like a pair of glasses, I would prescribe this book to all of us bumping around in our own nearsightedness.


As indicated by the title this is a work that is interested in the concept of the self. At a glance that lofty goal could seem boringly academic and tedious (one of the blurbs references Lacan for godsakes!). However, whether through the form of the book, or the razor sharp writing, this is a book that hold and often demands your attention. Each sentence, paragraph, chapter, builds and builds, until it washes over you with the beauty of recognition and illumination. And humor. A quote:

“A visitor from the past would look around and mainly see an absences of hats. The primary function of fashion is to signal in-group conformism.”

The self Gabbert is exploring is not just the “I” you see in the mirror, or hear in your head. It is the cultural construct. The self that exists in interaction with the society we live in now, the things the “self” creates: art, games, fashion, memories, “society, man”. This is a short book whose page length belies its depth and breadth.

“The future isn’t anywhere, so we can never get there. We can only disappear.”

Only the present exists for the self, for ourselves. The past is a ghost, the future a dream. We cannot attain the future, it is the vanishing point on the horizon, the carrot at the end of the stick, except in this scenario the cart never stops, or rather, we never get to eat the carrot. When you are a child you marvel at how big everyone is, when you grow old you miss the marvel of being small.

I think one of the keys to this works success is that the recognition of a truth in a sentence has a revelatory nature. Gabbert may as well of ended each paragraph in ellipses, because even after you finish reading your mind continues to make connections. Like an advanced game of connect-the-dots, you leap from point to point forming a larger picture in your mind. I don’t believe this would have been possible if all of these paragraphs were crushed together. The blank space on each page is for you. Gabbert is as concerned with answering questions as asking them. You may read a passage and have a moment of insight, but undercutting that is a larger question, a wider world. An example:

“Art, over time, makes a crude kind of progress, but toward what end? Art may improve our quality of life, but better art does not improve it more.”

By that logic does terrible art not degrade our quality of life? Is there such a thing as terrible art; if it is terrible does it even function as art? This line of thinking links back to many of the criticisms of modern art. One cannot help but think some aspects of modern art are an elaborate joke that has gone on for too long. What was once an inside joke is now accepted by everyone, and available for purchase on If you place a can of Campbell’s on your mantel can you call it a homage to Warhol? As Gabbert says, “we want it to be art, so we redefine art.” What better illustration for the march of time than the reclassification of things, the redefining of words. We shape things into what we want, or need them to be, including ourselves. Our methods of coping are to change the parameters of what we face. Battle fatigue becomes PTSD, and the world goes on spinning.

In attempting to (although I am not sure this was much of attempt) review The Self Unstable, I find myself, instead, falling down a rabbit hole of Miss Gabbert’s construction. And there appears to be no way out. What is this book?

“If life has any meaning, it comes at the end.”


What Happens to a Loan Deferred?: Love and Money in “Fox and His Friends” (Faustrecht der Freiheit)“Cash, cash, cash. You say a word enough and it has no meaning.” – Bank Teller in Fox and His Friends

I did not count how many times Franz “Fox” Bieberkopf said “I love you,” or expressed the sentiment about or to his boyfriend Eugen Theiss, and it probably isn’t important. What is important is that Eugen never responded in the affirmative. It is Fox who has the love and money to give, and Eugen only takes and takes until Fox is left, his corpse lying on a cold cement floor, his pockets picked, abandoned by his friends.

Fox and his Friends charts the rise and fall of an unemployed carnie, the eponymous Fox. After winning the lottery he goes on to fall in love with the son of a publishing magnate. The film follows the up-and-downs of their relationship and finishes with their break-up. It contains one of the most brutal endings I have ever seen. Not because it was unexpected, but rather because of the buildup leading to it. It was akin to staring down a slow moving freight train, watching it gain speed, and then letting it run you over.

The film opens in a lighter atmosphere than how it ends, although even the happy tones of a carnival quickly sour. Fox’s lover, and boss at the carnival, Klaus, is arrested by the police in the first few opening moments of the film. We do not learn it is for tax fraud until much later when Klaus reappears, but his involvement in the film, and the downfall of Fox are only incidental. The plot of FAHF is fairly basic, but this is neither a movie nor a director that is concerned with plot. What Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who also plays Fox, is interested in is relationships; the relationship between Eugen and Fox, between upper and lower class, between love and money. The carnival scene recedes and we see Fox desperately attempting to purchase a lottery ticket, stating that he knows he is going to win. In his search for the funds to buy the ticket he comes across an older, distinguished looking man, in a men’s room. This man, Max, picks up Fox. After swindling the money, and eventually buying the ticket, Fassbinder cuts to a sort of house party at Max’s. Here we see the direct juxtaposition of the two classes that will remain a major theme throughout the film. We also see the first change in Fox, his ratty jean jacket with his name bedazzled, is now replaced by a new leather jacket. It is important to note that throughout the film Fox’s transformation are all on the exterior, new clothes, new furniture, new friends, but his essence, his nature is not changed, so much as twisted. But his being is not as malleable as some, and like a rubber band, no matter how much you twist it, it will return to its natural position, or snap. At the party, Eugen is the one who shows the most contempt toward Fox, until Max reveals that he won 500,000 marks in the lottery. After the party they sleep together. When Eugen is discovered with Fox by his boyfriend Phillip, he rather enigmatically states he would explain all of this later. It seems that Eugen’s family business is going under, and in Fox he has found a perfect investor. Fox is struck by one of Cupid’s arrows and can only see hearts, Eugen is instead struck by the bill collector and can only see dollar signs.

The movie has a fluidity in its sense of time. Months, day, years, come and go, and the only indications are passing lines of dialogue. Oh, 6 months has passed, oh, it has been 2 years since I started working here. This fluidity adds to the films power. You as a viewer are just as swept up in Fox’s life as he is, time and life go on quickly. There is also a strain of humor suffused in the film that adds to the sense of lightness that is established with its time construct. The recurring character of the florist that Fox swindled out of the money for the lottery ticket is played for laughs, but the laughs come when he, in times of distress, whispers “Policia!” You know they are not coming, but our need for them is real. There is also humor, although of a most uncomfortable kind, in the dinners between Fox, Eugen and Eugen’s parents. These scenes can almost be seen as comedy of manners, with Fox playing the lower class fool, grabbing the wrong fork, saying the wrong thing. While I said there is a lightness to the film, it is the light that exist before night, before the darkness comes crushing down on our heads.

You can feel the darkness seeping in as the movie goes on. Fox is more and more willing to spend his money with or on Eugen. Besides the 100,000 marks that Fox gives as a loan to Eugen’s company, he also buys an apartment, and then Eugen picks out 80,000 marks worth of antiques with which to furnish it. As I watched I attempted to keep a running tally, how long until Fox runs out of money? At first he is a little resistant, but slowly he succumbs to Eugen’s wiles. He becomes passive, deferring to Eugen in all matters. You are shocked by his outburst at a party in defense of his drunk sister. Where has this man been? But even that recedes. His love for Eugen seems to have blinded him, or he has willfully blinded himself. Fox is attracted to this lifestyle. He wants to speak French, he wants to be able to appreciate the opera. And maybe with a better teacher he would be able to do these things, but Eugen is only interested in the money and belittling Fox at every turn. The stress from the relationship causes a physical reaction and a doctor prescribes Valium, and with that the gallows are built.

Throughout Eugen is hard to read, perhaps on purpose. You only realize later that he has planning Fox’s downfall the entire time. One of the saddest things about the movie, to me, was that you can easily imagine a version of this movie where Eugen is the hero. A sort of Henry Higgins, pulling Fox and his dirty jacket out of the gutter to the wider, classier world. His attempts to shape Fox into a cultured member of the uppercrust foiled by Fox’s own stupidity and character flaws. I think this speaks to Fassbinder’s class critique. Fox is flawed, yes, but he is also a human being. Eugen is more of a shark, dead-eyed, he senses there is money to be gained, circles and strikes.

I am glossing over a great number of details and scenes from the movie, because even a week later, I still have the remains of the physical reaction I had to this film. It left me utterly devastated. Watch enough sad movies or read enough Shakespeare and you should be able to guess when things will not end well. I think it is the build up, and the anger I felt at how thoroughly Fox had been taken advantage of by Eugen, that led to this reaction. Even Eugen’s father seems to sense the moral depravity of what his son did, when, near the end of the film Fox comes to claim back the money he loaned the company. Eugen smugly tells him that it had been paid out, that what Fox thought were his wages for working at the factory, were in fact payments of his loan. After Fox leaves Eugen’s father looks out on the floor, there is a sadness in his face. Eugen asks, “was I not right?” to which his father, resignedly replies, “in principle, yes.” I have read some opinions of this film, and of Fassbinder’s goal. They point out that he sees love as a contract, he sees it almost in financial terms. And you can see that translate to this, out of money, out of love. But I think his aim was not just exploring love, but the predatory relationship between the classes, at capitalism itself. Fox willingly gives all of himself in the hopes of bettering his situation. While he may have been in love, as that love unravels he still grasps unto its vestige. Eugen is better at this, Eugen knows all of this, this is a sort of repeated mantra by Fox. Eugen is some sort of ideal that he has been looking up to, striving toward. Eugen is not a marble statue to idealize, but rather a plaster one, hollow and easily chipped at. Fox does not see this, because Fox has been led his whole life to believe that the things he values are not the right things. There is a moment when Fox plays the first record he ever bought, some German pop song. Eugen shudders at it, stating that it is garbage, and Fox agrees. But Fox also says that for some reason he loves it anyway. There is Fassbinder’s real vision of love, you have to take it for what it is, trash and all.

In the beginning…

“The beginning is a delicate time. Know then…” – Princess Irulan (Dune , 1984, dir. David Lynch)

 Know then that this space will serve as a dumping ground for the thoughts that reverberate off the walls of my mind. Half-baked ideas given time to rise in the pressure cooker of the intraweb, conspiracy theories regarding beloved children’s movies, book reviews or riffs, short or long riffs on movies seen, the babblings of an overwhelmed consumer. My main concern is film and literature, with an emphasis on the art the truly challenges the participant, because believe it or not every time you encounter a work of art you are participating with it, either by reading, seeing, hearing or watching. The best art is the art that challenges you, that crawls inside of your brain, so that days, months, years later you are struck by it. The instant gratifications of “popular” works do not concern me as much as the art that burrows into your soul.

Tolstoy wrote that real art destroys, it is my intention to examine the rubble that remains.