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“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

Monday, March 27, 2017

origami, metaphysics, and Lichtenberg

A week ago I was going out of the public library in kind of a hurry. It was nearly time for me to pick up Adam. But, as I passed through the main lobby, I was too attracted by a display not to stop. Two people were behind a desk, making paper cranes. In front of them, an interested girl was being instructed in the oragamic art as well. I thought, Adam would like one of those cranes, so I asked the woman if I could have one. The answer was no, but I could make one. And due to one of those failures of the will to which I am subject, instead of saying no, I’m in a hurry, or saying no, I am the most lousy folder ever to set foot on planet earth, a menace to gift wrap and boxes,  I said alright. What followed was a painful five minutes for both me and my teacher, who must have thought, as I clumsily folded the wrong way here and sloppily failed to make one fold equal to its other there, that I’d been sent to test her. She passed the test. Now and then she’d grab my misshappen piece of paper and correct what I’d done wrongly, and hand it back (disappointing my hope that he was letting me off the hook) with some encouraging word. And of course once again my hand grew six thumbs. But in the end, I did come up with a crane.
I’m trying to make an analogy here, although I fear I’ve put too much thumb into it. The folding process for me involved two twin awkwardnesses. First was my mechanical incompetence in folding the piece of paper through a series that lead to the crane. Second was my mental blindness that saw in each twist of the paper another sort of shapelessness. There’s an essay by Paul Valery, Man and shell – man here being l’homme – in which Valery marvels not only at the spirals of the sea creature, mussel or nautilus, which he acknowledges a geometrician could generate with a formula, but also at the lips of it, where the marvelous symmetry breaks down and the creature itself appears and disappears, making of the mineral a living function.  The crane, of course, never takes off and flies – it is no crane. But its living function is to symbolize the crane. It is no mirror image of the bird, but a ritualistic image.
Hence, my analogy: between the oragami master and what Lichtenberg does in his Waste books. For there, too, much folding and shapelessness, much seemingly aimless advance, is generated. To call these entries “aphorisms” is to point us a little too firmly away from their waste content. Sometimes Lichtenberg is the master, sometimes not – but I think in Lichtenberg’s most beautiful examples, the final image surprises him. He represents, in a way, both my cluelessness and my guide’s artistry. To think with a pen involves a lot of seemingly unnecessary folding, and even the result, for those without the eye for symbol and silhouette, may seem arbitrary and unsupported.
Okeydokey then. Here’s the translation of one of Lichtenberg’s bits of rubbish in notebook F, 1776-1779, in which highly romantic, even cabalistic metaphors are attached to highly materialistic models. This gives a certain vertiginous feeling to the entry – this is long before the philosophy of mind had developed its controversies and categories. So we can see hints as to a wet mind theory of consciousness – which brings consciousness back to the specific material constitution of the brain, and rejects the cog sci idea that mental functions are indifferent to the material platforms where they are performed – and other hints of an entirely different orientation, in which we imagine other materials making  minds, or souls, still. Overall, though, hangs a metaphysics of the inscribed that sounds almost familiar.     


“Those psychologists that have looked around in the natural sciences have always reasoned more connectedly than the others who began with psychology. The more I compare Hartley’s theory with my experience [David Hartley, the British philosopher who tried to apply Newton’s vibration theory to the nervous system and laid down the foundations for associationism in psychology] the more it confirms itself with me, so entirely does it agree with our other experiences. If we shoot a pea into the sea outside Helvoet [a port of Rotterdam], I would presumably be able to trace the effect of it on the coast of China if the sea were my brain. This effect would however be strongly modified through every other  impression all the other objects make on the sea, through the wind that pushes against it, through the fish and ships that move through it, through the sea caves that break its force on the shore. The form of the surface of a countryside is a history written with natural signs of all its changes,  every grain of sand is a letter, but the language is for the most part unknown to us. On the surface of this earth there are crowds of round bodies with thick roots out of which arise many small ones,  which  live in the air like polyps live in water {the brain, nerves, spine) and hang down their roots like polyps do their limbs.  They sit in a sort of shelter, which serves them as a cover in which they can continue to operate, and are so constituted, that their weakest roots do not have to set themselves on other bodies, while material is through this shelter strained and purified in such a way that its outflow is being continually replaced. These bodies, too, like all others, are continually being altered, and are, as all others, written upon with natural signs that spell out the history of all the changes they have experienced. It is like a tin plate whose scratches and marks tell the tale of all the meals that it has been through. The matter in which they are constituted is of a specific constitution that is originally so soft and almost fluid, yet not capable of taking in all impressions like water; it has more stickiness. And because it records  not only  simultanea, but also of successiva, so will each moment be somewhat fixed, and the body will become ever tougher, so that at last it is less able to register than to express. I the I that writes this has the fortune to have such a body. That’s the way it is. If our soul is a simple substance, why doesn’t it read the changes of the earth as well as of the brain? The brain is not just as incapable of reading impressions of changes as the sea.   (beasts are notably changed through light, perhaps more than other bodies, perhaps through the electrical fluid, it is probable that water does not register the successiva of light). Maybe it is possible to conceive an animal whose brain was the sea, to whom the north wind meant blue and the south wind red. If a simultanea and successiva is enclosed together  in a  body that only records simultanea, or only lets in certain bodies, it would thus only compute certain changes. It is much to be wished, that one here saw something like an intention. To give you a symbolic idea of these alterations just think of a drop of water on which something is reflected or through which a ray is broken, the smallest change in its figure brings about the entire destruction of the image.”   

Monday, March 20, 2017

the great Georg Lichtenberg

There are many English translations of selected passages from Georg Lichtenberg’s Sudelbuecher, but unfortunately, there is no complete translation, nothing like the complete and unabridged translation of Leopardi’s Zibaldone that Farrar Straus published in spite of the fact that it was, economically, a bit of a suicide mission. Leopardi, it has to be said, sometimes allowed himself very boring divagations into philology. Lichtenberg, page for page, is less boring.
The NYRB put R.J. Hollingdale on the case in 2010. Good choice. Hollingdale cut his teeth translating Nietzsche, a writer in Lichtenberg’s spirit. Both had a knack for throwing tasty lightning phrases about, which you could sit down with and think about all day. Still, Hollingdale only translated some 1,085 aphorisms, as he chose to call them – not jottings, not throw aways – and the book amounted to 230 pages. Consider that the German suhrkamp edition of Lichtenberg’s Sudelbuecher consists of 948 very closely printed pages, and you can estimate the loss.  
For instance: Hollingsdale’s translation does not include one of Lichtenberg’s last throw aways. It has been translated, but only as part of an essay by Roberto Bolano in Between Parentheses. In the essay, he checks Lichtenberg as “our” philosopher, adding, parenthetically, that “frankly, when I say “we”, I don’t know what I am talking about”. The translation there (which I modify a bit here) goes like this:
“On the night of February 9, 1799 I dreamt that I was on a trip and eating in an inn, or rather a roadside shack, in which a dice game was going on. Across from me sat a well dressed, somewhat dissipated young man, who, heedless of the people sitting around him, was eating his soup in such a way that at every second or third spoonful, he’d throw it into the air, then catch it in the spoon and quietly swallow it.  What makes this dream really peculiar to me is that I made my usual remark to myself, that you couldn’t make this stuff up, you had to see it. (I meant that no novelist could make it up); and yet I was making it up that very second. At the dice game sat a tall, thin woman, knitting. I asked her what stakes could be won and she said nothing; when I asked her if anything could be lost, she said no. The game struck me as very important.”
As Bolano points out, Lichtenberg died 14 days later. There’s only one more entry. It’s rare that anyone’s death – outside of a novel – happens with such expressionistic drama. The man with the spoon, who seems to have been captured from a Brueghel cartoon, in juxtapositon with the knitting woman watching the stakeless game of chance – Bolano calls this the atmosphere of Kafka, and surely it would work in an Ingmar Bergman film. But my impression is that Lichtenberg, the most enlightened of German thinkers, has somehow, here, touched on a chthonic current of myth, opened up a panel to some epic long buried and forgotten.  

Well, I want to translate another bit of Lichtenberg tomorrow. Gotta now turned to more pressing tasks. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

some notes about grandstanders and Emily Nussbaum

I like a grandstanding critic. Sometimes.
In the postwar era, there were a number of grandstanders. Pauline Kael, though, stood out. A grandstanding critic is one who, while specializing in some department of American flotsam and jetsam – rock n roll, movies, comic books, tv – finds broader and deeper applications for her appreciations and pans. The goal is to give a sense of How We Live Now. Of course, the we is the uppercrust, and that interested segment that forms a suburb of the uppercrust – academics, journalists, that lot. Currently, the heir to Kael at the New Yorker is certainly Emily Nussbaum, who “does” television. I’m tempted to play with that sentence, to bring out its erotic and pornographic double sense, the way Kael would play with innuendo in the titles of her books – I lost it at the Movies, and the like. It is not inappropriate. Movies, as Kael saw, were a promiscuous medium, the select site for the range of our (upper and lower-crust) libidinous projections. But the movies got smaller – literally, they jumped onto discs and we play them at home. TV has evidently usurped the role of our libidinous puppet play, our naked Punch and Judy shows. Nussbaum is well placed to be the premier tv critic of the “golden age”. As everybody calls it.  Tom Carson is a distant contender. Carson, though, moves around too much.
My own taste, I confess, is mostly anti-Kael: I love Bergman, she hates Bergman. Kael felt that Chinatown was an essay in dopy nostalgia, I thought it reinvented the urban detective by making the object of the case the foundation of the city itself. Fuck the Maltese Falcon, it’s Water, my friends! And generally I agree with Renata Adler and Joan Didion, who both enjoyably jumped on Kael. The two were fiercer guards and critics of uppercrust moeurs. In a sense, the battle was between two divas of the ascetic modernist impulse and a sloppy voluptuary. But I have a weakness for the latter as well.
Nussbaum, like Kael, not only enthuses about her favorites, she enlists them in her own crusades. This is what she has done with “Girls”. This is what she has done with Megyn Kelly. I see no merit in “Girls” – I prefer both Sex in the City and Broad City – and I see less than no merit, I see positive political vice, in Megyn Kelly. When Nussbaum described Kelly as a Valkyrie, I don’t think she quite felt all the resonances of that particular comparison – all the Aryan Brothers mythology of it, which Kelly has quite consciously entertained. It is the grandstander’s vice to make cultural generalizations in a vocabulary that encodes fierce dialectical tensions and to never really tease out those tensions. Which is another way of saying that just as Kael often seemed to go off the rails (the most famous example is Last Tango in Paris), Nussbaum, too, sometimes seems to end up in corners that say more about uppercrust blindness than about the American wilds. The wilds, when all is said and done, is where, literally, the energy is expended that the upper crust captures. To be Marxianly vulgar, the wilds must be exploited economically, aesthetically and erotically in order for the uppercrust to function, however dimly it proceeds to do so.
All this verbiage to take me to Nussbaum’s review of “The Feud” and her divergence into a meditation on the parts offfered to aging actresses. Like Jessica Lang and Susan Sarandon, who play Joan Crawford and Betty Davis in “The Feud.” This is a perennially pickable topic, and the Film industry perennially acknowledges it even as it proceeds to pair aged men with 20 something cuties.
At a certain point, however, Nussbaum’s Eloi feminism, her lean-in-ism, gets the best of her. That point is here:
“Feud,” like “Baby Jane,” does occasionally veer into an eerie voyeuristic space, getting off on closeups of wrinkles while defending our right to stare. And yet choosing to be grotesque can be a form of liberation, too. Decades after Davis pulled on a doll’s dress, grotesquerie has been key to modern female comedy, as self-assertion, not self-loathing. Sometimes that means letting one’s face swell up, like Ilana on “Broad City,” drooling from a seafood allergy, or puncturing an eardrum, like Hannah on “Girls.” One of “30 Rock” ’s most magnificent moments had Tina Fey embracing full repulsiveness: on the subway, she became a mentally ill hag, wearing a gray wig and a mole, and hissing, “I’m pregnant with a kitty cat!,” like Baby Jane, Jr. Nothing scares people so much as a woman letting herself go; once you can scare them or make them laugh, you’re in charge.
You’re in charge? I find this an utterly bizarre comment. I can easily walkk out of my apartment to the park four blocks away, where the homeless spend the morning and afternoon, and find mentally ill hags who’ve spent the last millenium outside. And none of them is in charge. In fact, in comparison to them, even the three year old Valkyries who go to the expensive day care school another three blocks on from the park – who are led there in the morning by their Montana avenue mothers and their flocks of nannies – are postively senatorial. The confusion here is between the well compensated actress, who can afford to scare us and make us laugh, and the objective correlative she is imitating. Tina Fey actually is in charge. She is ensconsed in the upper 1 percent. This is not blameworthy, but you can’t generalize about the American wilds and be so utterly blind about class. Another 1 percenter, Lilly Tomlin, has also done the bag lady, but she came up in the politically charged sixties and seventies and never lost her sense of the meaning and meanness of marginality.

Nussbaum’s talent for grandstanding is a gift. However, I wish she would not so often blind herself to the difference between the dancer and the dance. Because she’s never – or at least very rarely - going to say something about the American Wilds this way. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

dangerous tears

 One of the most cited witticisms of Oscar Wilde concerned the climactic sentimental scene in the Old Curiosity Shop when Little Nell dies.  Wilde said that  “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing”. The remark  became a sort of benchmark for the change from Victorian to modernist attitudes towards the presentation of sentiment.  Dickens readers in 1850, of course, felt differently about Little Nell.  There’s a famous story that a crowd in New York awaited the ship carrying the last bit of the serialisation of the Old Curiosity Shop demanding the fate of little Nell, and when they heard she died, they burst into mass tears.
However, at some point in the 70s or 80s, I think, the tide began to run against Wilde’s attitude.  Little Nell again came into her own as the modernist anti-sentimentality itself became suspect, was uncovered as a sort of masculinist gesture meant to impose a bogus stoicism that made  a great show of covering wounds to the ego in silence in order to have us all bow to those wounds.   And so Little Nell, that abused child, who begins Dickens’  novel by repulsing the repulsive Quilp, who lusts after her, changed into a very trendy figure. 
The politics of tears go back a long way in a certain “western” tradition. According to Darja Erker, a classics scholar, women’s tears in ancient Rome aroused peculiar fears. The repression of women’s emotional lives in public was part of the repression of women’s political role in the republic. However, the ritual of mourning was an exception to this regime of censure. Here, tears fell in public.  
When the family “admits” or recognizes (agnoscere) the death of one of its members, it becomes impure, and is provisionally separated from the rest of society. During the  feriae denicales, time stops for the members of the family, who are polluted by the death. After the period of marginalisation, the family reintegrates into the life of the civitas due to the banquet celebrated by the tomb.  (lautum novemdiale) The marked characteristics of the funeral ritual are displacements, or inversions of normal behavior, symbolic of the period of marginality.
The participants in the funeral ritual don’t wear their normal clothes, they neglect their hygene and reverse the practices governing eating together. These rituals express a temporal alteration of social values. In regard to this,  John Scheid borrows the words of Servius for characterizing the funeral service as a ritual of inversion: contraria facere. Similarly, when the time of the annual feast of the dead  (Parentalia) came around, magistrates marked the presence of a pollution incompatible with their public functions in not wearing their insignia.
Tears preside over the world of inversion.  And this has always had a frightening potential. Perhaps it is for this reason that modern scholars make much more of the carnivalesque, where laughter reigns, than the world of mourning, with its own characteristic revolt against hierarchy. It is the case in America that the tears of a man are celebrated, in the political sphere, while the tears of a woman are mocked.   
Myself, I grew up in a period, the seventies, when public crying was briefly, and in some social sets, non-taboo.  Also, I’m a crybaby. Thus, I knew last night, when we were heading towards the Arc Cinema to see Moonlight (at last!) that I’d probably leak like a faucet.  And I did.  I was redfaced and gasping by the end.  Typical for me. I always embarrass myself  this way.
Through the scrim of tears, I did notice the influence of Douglas Sirk, the… the Leonardo da Vinci of the weepy, the Picasso, the Newton and Einstein. Especially in the final scene between Chiron and his mother I felt some breeze from the beating wings of Imitation of Life,  one of my favorite films, and Sirk’s masterpiece.

Chelsea Clinton, in a much mocked interview with the NYT (in their By the Book series) said “I avoid most fiction in which children are harmed or seriously threatened in any way.” I understand her impulse.  But her criteria would ban all fairy tales, definitely all Hans Christian Anderson, much of Dickens, and much literature since, including most  YA literature. I’m reading Sandra Newman’s apocalyptic sci fi novel, Ice Cream Star, right now, and the toll on children in the plot is heavy. In Moonlight, the threat to Chiron as a child drives the entire movie. I wonder if the gesture of avoidance, here, is tied to old, old taboos about tears in public – a censoring of the atrocities that are a normal part of function of the everyday machine- you know the one, the thing that produces streets, cars, tv, the paycheck, and the death of the holocene. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Ode to melatonin

 Certain subjects fill me with a wild and passionate interest, even if I have no specialist insight into them. One is laterality – the literature of the left/right dichotomy is, to my mind, full of the kind of insight that one could spend a lifetime meditating upon. A genuine classic in this field, Chris McManus’s Right Hand, Left Hand, is the modern equivalent of the Anatomy of Melancholy – it starts off, unashamedly, galloping in all directions, and yet by the end, you have a strong sense of the wierdness of Left and Right in nature and culture. The other subject which always interests me is sleep. The anti-sleep bias that arose in the Enlightenment – the curtailment of our freedom to sleep, which parallels the development of industrial society, the curious yoking together of knowledge and waking – makes sleep a troubled locus in our badman times. In my opinion, Freudian theory is resisted as much because of its emphasis on sleep as for its emphasis on sex. Anti-Freudians commonly dismiss dreams as junk, without ever pondering the fact that scientists might be biased against a human situation that rules out science. The dreaming scientist, while he or she dreams, is no scientist, but, like the rest of us, an argonaut, traveling under strange compulsions. Hence the pretence that sleep is a sort of annex or footnote to humanity. Jonathan Cray’s recent book about the current “war” aganst sleep, 24/7, contains some alarming information about the US Military’s effort to create a force of soldiers who never sleep. DARPA, the agency that was involved in studying forest fire scenarios in Vietnam – burn down the jungle and win the war! – is studying the chemical processes in the brains of certain migrating birds that let these birds go for days without sleeping. Isn’t that precious?
Which brings us to the best long read in this weekend’s NYT, Richard Freedman’s exploration of sleep, depression, mania, melatonin and the reason traveling East from, say, California to France exposes the traveler to mania, while traveling from France to California makes you more vulnerable to depression. In between, Freedman plays variations on the theme of Jet Lag, and why it is important to exercise more when you have a midlife crisis. 
In my opinion, the circadian rhythm produces a basic unconscious effect that comes through more clearly in Magic Mountain than in The Interpretation of Dreams – although the latter conditions the former, obviously. All those patients laying out on their balconies, sun-curing, and all the time slipping away. I am one of those people who somehow let massive blocks of time get away from me. For instance, I can’t believe that we will soon be returning to live in France from Santa Monica. We have been here almost four years, and I can believe it when I look at Adam – but otherwise, everything seems so recent to me. I have a Jet Lag soul, perhaps. I do nothing very quickly, and that is why I am so poor on tasks like driving the getaway car for revolutionary bank robbers and such (kidding, mr. FBI man! You know I love ya!). I’m not a quick draw.
And I love melatonin. It has to be in my top five bodily secretions. If that is what it is.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

A poem

Reading the review of Elizabeth Bishop's latest biography made me pretty ... sad for her, if that is the emotion. Indignant. The cruelties that can fill out a life are astonishing. And here's a poem about it, which I'll call the Abusers, even though 'abuse' strikes me as an abstract, euphemizing term for something as material as chewing.
We know them now – some knew them then –
Their hands so smooth, their zippers open
Bishop’s Uncle George, Woolf’s step brother Gerald, 
In the dirty labyrinth of home, biography traces these
Stravrogins, hangmen of the kid
Whose limp body dangles under a lifetime’s lid
Better, you say, that a rock were tied around their necks?
But it never was. Wrecks produce wrecks
While they smiled, serving dinner, above heaped plates
Like some impenetrable masculine fate
They stuck their knives into the shepherd pie
Thinking themselves the boys that made the little girl cry.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

a voter strategy that worked until it didnt

I've long had a theory that the GOP and the neolib Dems benefit from the fact that GOP voters, for the most part, can get their moral rocks off voting against the gov. in the confidence that what they will receive is a bit of a tax break - and continued service from the Gov, since the opposition Dems will see to that. Thus, Social Security and Medicare are safe. That was not a bad strategy for GOP voters - and Trump seemed to reaffirm it when he promised the continued service from the Gov. Now the shit is coming down, and the Dems are finally weak enough that the GOP can do what it wants without any check or balance. In consequence, you can superimpose, over those maps showing the Red counties - which were in rural or exurban areas of the country - another map, showing where the burden of cuts are going to fall. Guess what? The bleeding will start with them. The strategy doesn't work if there is too much GOP-ery - then the moral stance agin the Guvmint becomes a practical sink or swim deal.
When I use the word strategy, here, I should make it clear that it is a strategy the way natural selection is a strategy - it is not the intention of the voters individually, but the environing pattern they react to and shape as a group,
So why didn't the Dems pick on this in 2016? a recent Vox article about HRC's ads, to which a major portion of campaign funds were allotted, tells the sad tale. HRC ran on a platform that was full of incredibly popular programs. She could have trounced Trump in every policy category. But her campaign team thought they were on the Apprentice set, and didn't go with icky policy stuff. Cause who really cares if you can afford childcare or healthcare? This is still echoed in the pundit chamber with remarks about how dumb your average American is. Cause we are all for democracy, we who went to the Ivies, but come on! Those dummies always need our nudgin'.