Limited, Inc.

“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, July 24, 2015

the mystery of the NYRB's article, the mystery of ISIS

These are times that try men’s ribcages – due to the laughter the bigwig journals provoke. Case in point is an “analysis” of Isis that was published by “Anonymous”, in the NYRB. We are assured by the editors that Anonymous is a very serious person. In fact, so serious that the editors seem to have blithely given him carte blanche to say things and give references that have the same relation to fact as, say, the figures of monsters on medieval maps have to zoology. At least the medieval cartographers were cute.

But where to begin? Reading the hopeless mess of the article, I was struck by one passage.
“The movement’s behavior, however, has not become less reckless or tactically bizarre since Zarqawi’s death. One US estimate by Larry Schweikart suggested that 40,000 insurgents had been killed, about 200,000 wounded, and 20,000 captured before the US even launched the surge in 2006.” 

I asked myself why such a toll hadn’t attracted much more world wide attention. Then I looked up the “u.s.” analyst, Larry Schweikart. There’s no reference for Schweikart’s article, but going to Schweikart's author page, I learned all about his expertise in Iraqi history, which is, it appears, considerably less than his knowledge of the electric guitar, which he once played in a minor rock bank. His cv is unimpressive even by the low standards of second rate institutions of higher education. It consists most impressively of the fact that he co-wrote a book entitle Patriot’s History of the US and a bestseller entitled 48 Liberal Lies About American History.  So, basically, under the highminded pretence that we are reading about anonymous' very informed views about the Middle East, where he served in some kind of diplomatic capacity, heaven help us, we are served up retreads from Fox and Friends, which often interviews Mr. Schweikart. NYRB, meet Daily Caller. At least the rightwing site makes no pretences. 
It is interesting that in the period of time since 2002, when the media hysteria about Iraq was at its height, to now, when the media hysteria about ISIS is at its height, the major journals have learned absolutely nothing about reporting. The NYR should profusely apologize to its readers for thrusting anonymous on their attention. I doubt they will.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

jim holt's review: witches, slaves

I’ve been pondering Jim Holt’s review of a biography of Sir Thomas Browne. You don’t often see Browne, who is a mandarin’s mandarin writer, given space in the NYT. The review was evidently launched from the side that does not appreciate Browne as a writer.  So be it. Yet there was an emphasis on Browne’s belief in witchcraft that I found troubling – notably this paragraph:
:Browne harbored some foolish beliefs himself, even by the standards of his time. Notably, he believed in witches. Worse, he acted on this belief. In 1662, the supposed savant offered expert testimony at a trial in which two elderly widows were convicted of practicing witchcraft and hanged. The trial at which Browne testified cast a long shadow, serving as an exemplar for the infamous Salem witch trials in America 30 years later.”
Foolish belief it may have been, but Holt’s paragraph has a certain positivist peremptoryness that is unfair and distorting. Sir Robert Boyle, Browne’s contemporary and certainly one of the heros in the creation of early modern science, wrote a preface to Glanvill’s book defending the belief in witchcraft. One could round up a number of worthies whose beliefs, if parsed through the lens of foolish belief, might not be spared the condenscension of the popular science writer, including Newton, who of course spent a good number of years working out the numerology of the apocalypse. Newton is actually a case in point of the use of foolish beliefs, since it has long been known that the action at a distance that he ratified against the Cartesian insistance on the naïve material world picture that depended on vortices was borrowed from the alchemists.
Browne’s testimony against the hapless defendents in the Bury St. Edmond’s trial. Browne testified that the accounts given by the bewitched could be evidence of a satanic power devised against them. He didn’t give his opinion as to the guilt, however, of the accused. As has been noted by one of Browne’s biographers, his testimony was an odd amalgam of naturalizing description – “that the devil in such cases did work upon a natural foundation” - and orthodox witch belief. However, one must grant that Browne’s opinion, which was considered expert, may well have converted the jury to condemning the two women, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender.

Their deaths should stain Browne’s reputation, just as Locke’s investments in the slave trade and arguments for slavery as head of the Board of Trade in response to various laws in Virginia should forever stain his. Let all the ghosts be heard. But I don’t think this should serve the idea of some few “modern” scientific men advancing our consciousness. Because it is never like that. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

me and my goomba

The dermatofibrosarcoma of Darier Ferrand is one of the million and one goombas that seem to lurk about in the world, just waiting to fuck with us. According to one french entry about it, the sarcoma evolves “indolently”. That was certainly true about mine. In return, my response to the thing evolved indolently too, until last year I finally saw a dermatologist in Santa Monica and had him do a biopsy of this welt like thing on my thigh. The biopsy came back with the conclusion that the lab hadn’t had enough material to make a definitive identification. Two weeks ago, I went to a French doctor who, without much ado, took a much bigger chunk of my thigh and sent it to the laboratory, where they ID’ed it. And so it was that I was advised by a surgeon that it was the kind of thing which, though benign, would produce troubles for me later on. His advise was to take it out.
Yesterday morning, A. and I advanced to the Clinique St. Jean, which is just around the corner here in Montpellier. I promised that I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything the previous night or morning. I showered in this chemical substance that I think was designed to kill my lice, if I had them, and that apparently rendered me medically neutral as far as germs go. And then I was off, which meant the dreams of my childhood were fullfilled and I was wheeled on a gurney through the halls of a hospital. And then I went under general anaesthesia.
General anaesthesia my be the most disturbing thing I have ever undergone. There was little ceremony. First, I was hooked up to a drip, and then the triangular shaped plastic bit was fitted over my mouth and nose and I smelled anti-life. Whatever it is that composes that anaesthetic, the smell went through me like death. In fact, it is surely one of the smells of death. I don’t have a group on my tongue that corresponds to its taste. It was the taste of Anti-Roger.
Then it was two hours later and I was waked up. I was in a room with a bunch of other patients and some jolly doctors and nurses. The personnel at Clinique St. Jean are invariably nice and sweet. The hospital services a lot of children, and perhaps that is one of the reasons. In comparison, American hospitals are pits of doom. But at the time I woke up, the jolliness was viscerally revolting. I was asked if ca va, and I answered oui, but all the while I was having the wierdest reaction, a sort of full body panic. I felt somehow that I’d been turned wrong in my skin. In fact, the divot taken out of my thigh and the skin grafts taken out of my lower stomach didn’t even register, at that moment. Now they do, of course, and I’m enjoying the idea that I can now describe, with some authenticity, the feeling of being shot in some future novel – or maybe the novel I am writing now. But the full body panic was very different. I could barely stand the room, and then, fortunately, it was decided to wheel me elsewhere. The childish pleasure of being pushed on the gurney was, to say the least, attenuated. Finally, though, I saw A.
There have been countless times in the past when A. has saved my sanity. This was one of those times, a big one. I felt finally that I was anchored, that the panic would pass, that I’d be out of here, and that I would do this and we’d be all right.

Now I sit here with my two cannes anglaises next to me, wondering how it was I thought this was going to be easy. Of course, that’s my narcissism. Soon enough, the skin grafts will attach themselves and I’ll be a new man, sans goomba. At the moment, though, I am definitely on Jimmy Stewart’s frequency in Rear Window. Save for the fact that I have no neighbors to peer at in this heat wave. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I’ve been extremely and disgustingly idle this vacation. I blame the heat. I blame old age, the slowing down of my cerebral processes, and George W. Bush – because anything bad that happens in the world has to be blamed on George W. Bush. That’s my philosophy and I’m stickin’ with it.
However, my brain ain’t so slow that I’m going to take “idleness” as a self-evident description.
It strikes me, at least, that this idleness is connected with simultaneity, the temporal mode that characterizes modernity. Simultaneity is of industrial manufacture – it was produced as an effect of the steam driven printing press, the railroad, and the system of manufacture that came about in the nineteenth century, which has resulted in the fact that you can get strawberries all the year round in your local grocery store and that you can, if you want, breathlessly follow the crisis in Greece on computer and tv screens in ‘real time”.
Idleness is falling out of the zone of the simultaneousness. Well, up to a point. I don’t breathlessly follow the news – I don’t even summon the usual indignation when reading about the plutocrats and crooks that lead the Western world, among others, and lead it badly while picking its pocket. And I tend to not miss the strawberries, instead indulging in the fruits of summer where I can find them at the corner marche. This, admittedly, is easier to do in Montpellier France, where I am writing this, than in Los Angeles, California.
Outside of the zone of the simultaneous, to which all our tasks and habits seem to attach themselves, I have to move forward in a dreamier space-time, the older, slower modes of past, present and future. Now, this should be ideal for writing a chapter in a novel – the chapter in my novel that I have been working on for the past three weeks – since after all, when we are idle, we reach for novels. Summer reading is, for many people, the only reading they ever do – that is, of the novelistic kind. Magazines of a certain type, too, tend to pile up on the picnic table – Paris Match, Vanity Fair, Elle, Healthy Living – as if now is the time to plunge into them. Of course, this isn’t entirely removed from the simultaneous world, as we often speaking of “catching up” with our reading – and “catching up” is the central imperative of the world of simultaneity, the glue that keeps it together.
The paradox is that I want my novel, I want my chapter, I want my characters to be fully charged with the “catching up” imperative, and even become something to be published and caught up with.  Fond hope!
Which is where my idleness has hit me broadsides. I can’t be bothered to catch up. And he who is  not busy catching up is surely not busy at all, and can only be tolerated in small increments.
In other words: all vacations have to end, my situationist friends. Sorry about that.  

Friday, July 10, 2015

Henry James as supermike

This summer I decided, once again, to go the eight rounds with James’ The Ambassadors, a novel I have never been able to finish. This is weird to me, since I am a great admirer of the late James, and in particular the two novels associated with The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, which preceded it, and The Golden Bowl, which came after it – speaking strictly in terms of order of publication.
Of course, the late style is either damned for its obscurity or praised for its epistemological complexity – but it is always there as a fact, one of the stranger facts in American literature, to put besides Melville’s style, and Faulkner’s.  James managed, in these late novels that were dictated to his secretary, to combine the diffuse and the dense, and by their opposition and entanglement create those great sentence-enigmas.  James, by this point, knew what he stood for ethically, aesthetically, and even, one might say, ontologically – he stood for discrimination. By this, he meant a fidelity to the adventure of perception, to the adventure of not missing things. The problem is that too much perception seems to fatallly thwart the larger narrative movement – or so say the haters. But to me, and to other Jamesians, the effect is really to only that of making it necessary to subdue oneself to the peculiar pulse and pattern of James’ telling. As Aubrey Beardsley supposedly said on his deathbed, beauty is difficult – an ethos which, in Henry James, sometimes seems to have been overused, as though the difficult were always beautiful. Still, once you have the sound down, the novels go at a good clip. In fact, the lentissimo introduced by certain curling and recursive passages becomes something to look forward to, much as a kayaker looks forward to white water downstream. The enigmatic sentences are sport.
Of course, this is not the whole story. The structures wouldn’t work without their vicious little human interest at the base. What is Wings of the Dove, in the end, but the story of a grift – Kate Croy’s beautiful vision for all of Milly Theale’s gorgeous money? And what is The Golden Bowl but a page six gossip item, quasi incest and full on adultery among the wealthy? Intimacy, in James, is the prelude to betrayal. Treason is in the blood – the close connections woven by family, old friendship, sex, and the inescapable proximities of the house hold. For this reason, its turned out that James’s works are really easy to turn into great television – they have a surprising affinity to the soap opera. Although soap operas are teased for their grand production of coincidences, those coincidences, too, are subordinate to the violence visited by nearest and dearest one upon the other.
Unfortunately, this tabloid spirit is absent, or nearly absent, as far as I can tell, from The Ambassadors. James was proud of this novel, his last novel to be serialized in a major magazine – The Atlantic. I can just  imagine the editorial conferences as the novel wended its incomprehensible way through the issues. In this novel, James finally exhausted his Racinian jones, his desire to create a piece of work that left as many things as possible out. Discrimination is, after all, the art of getting as much as possible out of a hint. And I can see the fun in that!
But still – the novel tends to defeat me by page one hundred. It is a curious thing – ordinarily, novels that defeat readers defeat themselves. James is right, though, that this rule is not universal. All of his novels in one way or another press on the initiatory expectation that the reader is never a passive recipient of the novel, never a mere consumer, a like/don’t like automaton. Rather, the reader’s reflexes, his or her skills, must be tested, must be ritually hazed, before he or she can be granted the full force of the whole, impossible vision of life the novel delivers. Impossible, in as much as it is fiction, and a whole vision, in as much as it is art.
Sign me up! I usually think.
Well, this time around, I think I’ve finally figured out the thing about the Ambassadors. Other novels of its cohort were written to maximize the obliqueness of the prospect – but in this novel, James lets himself go to the extent that he dispenses with “good” writing altogether – or if not altogether, at least for large stretches.  I noticed this early on – there’s a scene in which Lambert Strether, our percipient in this book, meets Maria Gostrey, another percipient. Percipients, in James’ novels, tend to associate in order to conspire – and so these two do, almost immediately. Strether is on a mission for the woman to whom, as we are not exactly told, he is betrothed, or at least whom he is confident of marrying if he carries his mission out. This woman, Mrs. Newsome, is a formidable widow, rich and rectitudinous, whose son Chad lives in Paris with his mistress. Chad, so far, has preferred this life to a position in the Newsome business. Strether’s mission is to separate Chad from Paris and his mistress and pack him back to America. He is relying on help from Waymarsh, a New England lawyer of the grand American type, who finds Europe uppity and corrupt.
There’s the making of a good plot here. Patricia Highsmith saw that and, with suitable alterations, made her first Ripley novel out of a similar mission from America to Europe. But James’ adage, always dramatize, seems to fail him here, partly because of what he does leave out.
But I am not going to go in that direction. Rather, this is the passage where I got hooked on a different reading of this novel.   The she here is Maria Gostrey, the he Lambert Strether:

“She was as equipped in this particular as Strether was the reverse, and it made an opposition between them which he might well have shrunk from submitting to if he had fully suspected it. So far as he did suspect it he was on the contrary, after a short shake of his consciousness, as pleasantly passive as might be. He really had a sort of sense of what she knew. He had quite the sense that she knew things he didn't, and though this was a concession that in general he found not easy to make to women, he made it now as good-humouredly as if it lifted a burden. His eyes were so quiet behind his eternal nippers that they might almost have been absent without changing his face…”

Say what? I said to myself here. You could have plucked out his eyes and their absense might almost have gone unnoticed?
Which makes me want to cry out: Everybody go, hotel motel holiday inn/ if your girl starts acting up, then you take her friend. Or something. Because the hip has definitely gotten the hop on me, here. And then it dawned on me that James, sly dog, was laying down a mandarin appearance that really disguises a letting go of all the highly structured shit that went into Victorian and Edwardian prose. As soon as it occurred to me that the Ambassadors might be badly written, I began to see more possibilities in the thing. More humor, more hidden intention, more self mockery.
Now I’m past the dangerous 100 page point, and so far the awfulness of the writing, under the beautiful pretense, has called out to me again and again. I’m not sure what is up, but I am beginning to think that James, for a change, is playing Supermike and committing a long crime against his own style of art for the very hell of it.  

All I'm here to do ladies is hypnotize
Singing on and on and on on and on
The beat don't stop until the break of dawn
Singing on and on and on on and on
Like a hot buttered a pop da pop da pop dibbie dibbie
Pop da pop pop ya don't dare stop

Saturday, July 04, 2015

poetic opportunity

I define poetic opportunity as the moment in which the regular course of the world, that mechanism of objects and words, grinds to a sudden halt before an abyss of meaning, which it jumps over so quickly that you might not even think the ground had opened at your feet and you had almost drowned on dry land. This brief, symbolic crack in the order of things is, normally, normalized, shaken off, forgotten or explained. The idea that the world is working behind our back – a figure of speech that doesn’t quite logically work, as the world includes our back, brain and breath, but I will let it go for now – can lead to ecstasy, paranoia or breakdown, but mostly it just leads to irritation and a passing moodiness.
Sometimes it even leads to poetry. But not very often.
For instance – I’ve been mulling over some material presented to me by Adam. We’ve made it a habit, Adam and I, to walk up the street here in Montpellier, past the roadwork and, after a brief stop at the boulanger to buy a croissant, all the way up to the old College of Medicine. The portal to the College of Medicine is guarded on either side by two statues of eminent members of the Montpellier school of physiognomy from the 18th century. The statues are bronze, and look like they were created in the 19th century. Certainly they are more than a century old. During the time the two doctors – Lapeyronie and Barthez – have sat there, generations of pigeons have shit on them. In consequence, their faces are marked by traces of oxidation. Adam recognized those traces as tears, and decided that the statues are crying.  When Adam cries, people around him say, calm down. So Adam’s response to these two statues – which he likes, he sometimes asks me when we are going to see the statues – is to tell them to calm down.
I surely should be able to make something out of this scene – this pint sized Californian with the blond hair looking up at the statues, each of which are around ten feet high, and telling them to calm down.

But it is hot. The cicadas in the trees are incessant. The mosquitos are a nuisance. I want a gin and tonic. With a lot of ice. And the occasion escapes me. 

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

burning Greece

One would need the heart of an economist not to find the ECB’s dealings with Greece cruel and irrational beyond measure. And one would need the eye of an anthropologist to see how this outburst of elite irrationality connects up with other such outbursts that run in a series through Europe’s history. The troika reminds me, in its infinite causuistry, its moral outrage, and the endless punishments that it metes out, of the various commissions to investigate witchcraft that darken the pages of the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. One of the most famous was lead by Pierre de Lancre, Montaigne’s relative – he married the granddaughter of Montaigne’s uncle and the president of the parliament of Bordeaux, who in 1608 ventured with other grave worthies into the land of Satan which, according to credible report, had been conquering the women of Labourd in Southern France. The expedition was accompanied, it was once thought, by a holocaust of thousands of burnings. Historians now think that these moderates, these 17th century centrists, did things the way centrists do: they only burned a few dozen women, and then wrote laborious screeds justifying their actions.  What distinguishes Lancre is that he was justly proud of his relation to Montaigne and was a pure product of the humanist culture of Southwest France. Montaigne’s own opinions on witchcraft are, like all his opinions, an involved and dialogical affair, but he certainly comes out against the persecution of witches on the ground that the witch itself is a figure invented by the theorists of witchcraft: “C’est mettre ces conjectures a bien haut pris que d’en faire cuire un homme tout vif.”
A phrase that should haunt Europe now, while we watch a whole country being put to the stake in support of economic conjectures that were first proposed before there was any grasp of the business cycle, and are now being forced down the throats of entire populations because their elites are either complicit or afraid to act.
Vox EU, which is usually a site devoted to the reactionary maunderings of economists in thrall to neoliberalism, published an unusually blistering analysis of the ECB’s usurpation of state power and its expulsion of Greece from the European Union – which is, beneath the rhetoric, what is happening here.Written by Charles Wyplosz,   the heart of the article is in this to my mind unanswerable graf:
Why did the ECB freeze its Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) to Greece? The ECB will undoubtedly come up with all sorts of legal justifications. Whether true or not, this will not change the outcome.
If the ECB is truly legally bound to stop ELA, this means that the Eurozone architecture is deeply flawed.
·        If not, the ECB will have made a political decision of historical importance.
Either way, this is a disastrous step.
Whether it likes it or not, every central bank is a lender of last resort to commercial banks.
·        By not keeping the Greek banking system afloat, the ECB is failing on a core responsibility.

Surely the EU will never be the same. Either the strong European states – such as France - will reign in the ECB, or the EU will become a shell – and the quicker that happens, given the superstitions of the elites running Europe, the better.