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E. L. Doctorow’s Vicious Eroticism: Dangerous Affect in The Book of Daniel
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Oh, baby, you know it now. We done played enough games for you, ain’t we. You a smart lil fucker. You know where it’s at now, don’ you big daddy. You got the picture. This is the story of a fucking, right? You pullin’ out yo lit-er-ary map, mutha? You know where we goin’, right muthafuck?

E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel is saturated with a negative affect that I will refer to as vicious eroticism. I borrow the phrase from Daniel Isaacson Lewin, the novel’s narrator, who uses it to describe the predatory aura exuding from Selig Mindish, whose testimony condemned Daniel’s biological parents, Rochelle and Paul Isaacson, to death: “There was about him some vicious eroticism. He was always looking at Rochelle’s tits or ass, a fact which she didn’t seem to notice. He was always treating Paul with his clumsy humor like a ridiculous child, with shards of envy perhaps for Paul’s mind or youth, or energy” (104). In Daniel’s damning portrait of his parents’ friend and family dentist, Mindish’s “vicious eroticism” manifests itself in observable behaviors: his lecherous gazing at Rochelle, patronizing treatment of Paul, opportunistic conversational tendencies and generally wolfish habitus. When Paul and Rochelle are tried as atomic spies, Mindish’s vicious eroticism provides the basis for their failed defense. Their attorney argues that Selig’s unsatiated lust for Rochelle prompted Mindish to betray the couple by falsely accusing them of participating in an atomic spy ring. Doctorow doesn’t disclose whether the Isaacsons actually spied for the Soviet Union, but the fact of this matter is less relevant than the link made between sexual desire and a political betrayal of deathly consequence. Broadly speaking, vicious eroticism connotes the sadism infusing characters’ sexual and political desires.

Insofar as vicious eroticism pervades Daniel’s violently sexualized narrative, it acts as the text’s “global or organizing affect,” the predominant “feeling tone” that establishes the book’s “affective bearing” toward the world (Ngai 28–29).1 Coming to terms with how this “objectified emotion” organizes Daniel’s often explicit and frequently sadistic sexual content is crucial to understanding this political novel, particularly Doctorow’s deployment of what, since the novel’s publication in 1971, has become a predominant postmodern trope: the fantasy of a directly transmissible experience. Taking seriously two of Daniel’s schizoid rhetorical interjections (a fragmentary formulation, “the novel as a sequence of analyses” (281) and the Ebonics-inflected taunt cited in the epigraph), this essay analyzes Daniel’s book as “the story of a fucking” (23)—a narrative that imagines sexual sadism, defined broadly to encompass a range of eroticized practices, to be an exceptionally affective and meaningful mode of communication. It provides an account of the dialectic between affect and meaning in Daniel’s fragmentary book, elucidating Doctorow’s avowed commitment to literature’s ability to convey the “truth of the felt life” (2003, 52) while observing how The Book of Daniel stages some of the dangers involved in conflating a truthful representation of an event with the experience of reliving the event’s affective force.2 This account focuses on three aspects of the book’s vicious eroticism: epistemological: the desire to know that motivates it; rhetorical: the tone of the erotically charged rhetoric and the reasons why various characters, all of whom Daniel depicts as victims, deploy sexualized figures to denote sociopolitical oppression; and technological: the fantasy that sexual violence, as a mode of “extreme and dangerous affective communication (30), can function as an affective technology for the “artful transfer of knowledge” (71) and be deployed pedagogically for political purposes.

Throughout The Book of Daniel, epistemology is eroticized. Daniel’s desire for verifiable knowledge regarding the Isaacsons’ alleged spying and the nature of their involvement with Mindish and other Communist Party members gets conflated with his sexual desires. He fantasizes that the transmission of this impossible knowledge can be effected affectively and sexually, with human bodies serving as the primary conduit. This knowledge is impossible insofar as the Isaacsons’ secrets died with them. Their innocence or guilt remains even more uncertain...