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Friday, October 24, 2014

against the writer's voice 3

I’ve always thought Foucault missed a trick, in Les Mots et les choses, by not devoting attention to the epistemological position of the term “discovery” in the 17th and 18th century. I don’t think that neglect was negligible, either – it points to one of the oddities of Foucault’s book, which is that it removed the conceptual history he was telling from the trans-Atlantic  context of colonialism that was one of the great material events of his donnee. Not only trans-Atlantic, but Indian and South Asian as well. Restoring “discovery” to its place would both confirm certain of Foucault’s intuitions and shuffle the order of things in interesting ways – it would give us a handle on deconstructing Foucault’s text.  Discovery is writ large not only in the period’s natural philosophy, but in its law, its ‘anthropology”, such as it was, and in the practice of adventure that traverses the disciplines. Discovery did an enormous amount of work at the time, legitimating a trans-Atlantic order that still exists, and that was built on top of the discovery myth.
“Finding” has no such royal pretentions. If discovery is a kingly word, finding is a jack in the pack. It is still related to the basic nature/culture divide, so a part of the raw essence of the discovery ideology, but there is a modesty in finding. It suits the contemporary sciences, where every researcher comes up with a “finding” – ah, the mock humbleness of it all! Natural philosophers, those baroque sages, came up with “discoveries”, a term that is hard to hide in the bureaucracy.
The above  does not exhaust the semiotic career of finding, of course. One of the great childhood activities is finding. Partly this is because children are built on a scale that allows corners and pockets to assume a greater prominence in their world. Partly this is because finding is basic to a number of childhood games – indeed, Freud’s construction of the fort/da game is built upon a relational element, the finding. In a culture that takes the child as an image of the authentic person – all social vices scraped away – finding will have a certain innocent aura.
All of which gets us to finding a voice. As I’ve pointed out, there is something going on here – something that has to do with the psychoanalytic dynamic of denial and projection – when writing, which is a manual-visual activity, a losing of the voice’s share in one’s word, is revamped as a vocal method – as finding one’s voice.
Mark McGurl, in his exhaustive study of the postwar history of American creative writing progams and their massive effect on American literature, pins the term “finding your voice” to the sixties. Mcgurl claims that there is a kind of motor common to the creative writing scene, which has three legs: “show, don’t tell”, “write what you know”, and “finding your voice”. Interestingly, he claims that the first two are cliches that one is unlikely to run into in a real creative writing course, although they still operate as the principles structuring “craft” and ”experience.” By implication, “finding your voice” – which McGurl links to authenticity – is neither a cliché nor a phrase that has been chased out of the classroom.
The creative writing program is a massive phenomenon:
“The handful of creative writing programs that existed in the 1940s had, by 1975, increased to 52 in
number. By 1984 there were some 150 graduate degree programs (offering the M.A., M.F.A, or Ph.D.), and as of 2004 there were more than 350 creative writing programs in the United States, all of them staffed by practicing writers, most of whom, by now, are themselves holders of an advanced degree in creative writing. (If one includes undergraduate degree programs, that number soars to 720.)
McGurl claims that he comes not to praise of dispraise the “Program,” but he leans more towards praise.  Elif Batuman attacked McGurl in the London Review of Books for precisely this bias, since, according to Batuman, if creative writing programs are responsible for contemporary American lit and if that lit sucks, then creative writing must suck. Batuman uses the nice, colonialist comparison of literature from pre-literate tribal societies, with no literary tradition, a condition that she claims has been willfully imposed by modern american novelists on their novels, which is why they suck.

Following the implication in Batuman’s logic, though, would give us a different sense if we think American lit since World War II doesn’t suck – and I’m of that school.

However, Batuman does find the right clue for her case in Mcgurl’s promotion of innocence – of authenticity – which apparently cannot fall into the status of cliché, and which distinguishes American literature, or the general quest of the general authors who write it, since the sixties.

Batuman’s intellectual case is strengthened, I think, by the unexamined value given to voice, even though I think McGurl is very much onto something when he connects the discovery of the “finding your voice” trope with the political movements of the sixties. In a clever juxtaposition, McGurl puts together Hirschman’s  Exit Voice and Loyalty, written when Hirschman was at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1964, and Wallace Stegner’s creative writing class at Stanford, which was one of the most influential in the country.  Taking Stegner’s class in the early sixties was Ken Kesey, whose trajectory McGurl follows. Stegner viewed Kesey the way an irritated prof will always view a charismatic students whose very existence offends his sense of propriety – he thought of him as a “smelly beatnik”. In the sixties, odor was definitely a political issue, and smelly here is a place-word indeed. McGurl tries to deduce, from the writings of Kesey and the rise of voice, an ideological correlate of creative writing: the open system. The open system was, inherently, libertarian, and McGurl rightly discerns the conservative dimension in various sixties phenomena – Kesey himself being a Goldwater Republican. In that limited sense, “finding your voice” isn’t necessarily a liberation, except insofar as your idea of liberation is getting Ayn Rand’s message.

However, voice, politically, in the sixties, meant voice from the marginalized – from women, blacks, gays, chicanos, etc.  In that sense, if voice was fatally implicated in the kind of neo-colonialist naivete examined by Derrida in the sixties, it was also a way station to the liberatory activity that brought margins to the center, to quote the old slogan.  Of voice, one can use Goethe’s great phrase about the erroneous and the true:  Der Irrtum verhält sich gegen das Wahre wie der Schlaf gegen das Wachen. Ich habe bemerkt, daß man aus dem Irren sich wie erquickt wieder zu dem Wahren hinwende.” I’d translate that as: Error is related to truth as sleeping is related to waking. I have observered that one can come out of an error all refreshed to turn again towards the true.”

For Goethe, then, the sleep of reason creates  not monsters, but rationalists who appreciate the benefits of  sleep. Good old Goethe! And so it may be with finding your voice: denial grounds liberty.

Of course, one of the victims of that denial is “style”. While good enough for hairdressers, writers, as professionals in the program era, were certainly  being taught to avoid style – conceived as some exterior trickiness. This is of course one of those lame binaries that is continually shooting itself in the foot – for if style is merely poured over substance, the implication is that substance can appear without style, and yet this unstyled substance is a strangely receding thing – it is neither here nor there but always just beyond the horizon. In  the real world, where even the child’s crayoned caption of a picture has a certain identifiable style, datable, comparable, the idea, the imperative, to write without style looks like the  Zen road to nowhere.

It is at this point that voice, happily, comes in.

  

Monday, October 20, 2014

against the writer's voice 2

In an article entitled “Writing, an essay” in the December 1907 Harper’s Magazine, Edward Martin, who was at that time a periodicals writer, later becoming the first editor of Life Magazine, counseled readers to watch for the conversational tone of the author in writing. “In good writing there is the sound of the writer’s voice,” Martin tells us, and goes on to adduce, of all people, Milton in Paradise Lost (whose voice, if Martin was paying attention, is miles away from the voice he assumed in “Animadversions upon the Remonstrant’s Defense against Smectymnuus” – or if not miles away, at least in a different neighborhood.  Of course, Martin’s sentence has crept forward through the twentieth century and become a hydra headed monster, with a slithering tongue in every book nook, but back in 1907 the ‘writer’s voice” was not a commonplace. A few years after Martin published his essay, Henry James started writing prefaces for the standard edition of his works: the prefaces, collectively, were gathered together under the title ‘The Art of the Novel” because they collectively formed a sort of unique ocassion, an ars poetica by a major American writer. The only other book to which it can be compared for extensive knowledge of the novel and intelligence concerning same is EM Forster’s Aspects of Fiction.  In these prefaces, James never uses the phrase, the writer’s voice – although he often  speaks about voices. Voice is crucial to the novelist, but they are centrally, structurally outside the novelist. In a typical passage, writing about The Reverberator –not one of Jame’s best known novellas – he writes:
“After which perhaps too vertiginous explanatory flight I feel that I drop indeed to the very concrrete and comparatively trival origin of my story – short, that is, of some competent critical attribution of triviality all around. I am afraid, at any rate, that with this reminiscence I  but watch my grease spot (for I cling to the homely metaphor) engagingly extend its bounds. Who shall  say thus – and I have put the vain question but too often before – where the associational nimbus of the all but lost, of the miraculously recovered, chapter of experience shall absolutely fade and stop? That would be possible only were experience a chessboard of sharp black and white squares. Taking one of these for a convenient plot, I have but to see my particle of suggestion lurk in its breast, and then but to repeat in thhis connexion the act of picking it up, for the whole of the rest of the connexion straightway to loom  into life, its parts all clinging together and pleading with a collective friendly voice, that I can’t pretend to resist: “Oh, but we too, you know; what were we but of the experience?” Which comes to scarce more than saying indeed, no doubt, that nothing more complicates and overloads the act of retrospect than to let on’s imagination itself work backward as part of the business.”
James’ image of the anecdote or the threads and themes of the story pleading, having a voice, goes back to the classical source of the voice as an inspiration, an externality, to the entranced poet, the overcome rhetor, or the living argument in the Socratic dialogues. Even when James comes close to Martin’s sense of the “writer’s voice”, the voice still retains that necessary externality – as for instance, when James writes of the “human rumble” of Picadilly that  it and other London neighborhoods “speak to me almost only with the voice, the thousand voices, of Dickens.”
To explain how the writer’s voice supplanted the voice of the written, the voice of the suggestion, the conversation, the place and its genius -  how in fact it became the writer’s ‘self’ that was in question in James’ “grease spot” – is to track the rise of what Cyril Connolly calls, in The Enemies of Promise, the “vernacular style” as opposed to the mandarin one in modern Anglophone lit. Interestingly, Connolly associates the conversational with the mandarin style, full of complex sentences in the folds of which one finds the interjective energy of conversation. Vernacular, with its flatness, takes its cues first from newpaper reporting – with a leveling that is less conversational than photographic.
However, the writer’s voice, in Martin’s sense, was still not quite something one found in oneself. Milton found it in the Bible and in the poets and the modernist poets like William Carlos Williams found it in the mouths of the patients he visited in Rutherford New Jersey (Williams, coming from a bi-lingual  household, Spanish and English, wasn’t tricked by the convention that American English was English). In a sense, what these people were doing was finding a way of tearing down the rhetorical scrim that kept them from hearing these voices.
In 1984, another writer, Eudora Welty, published a book of essays, or lectures, on writing, or perhaps more precisely, on writing and her life: One  Writer’s Beginnings. It was a Harvard University Press book, and it made the NYT bestsellers list, the first Harvard Press book to do so.  Only one of Welty’s previous books had gone that high. Since 1984, it might have sold more than any of her short story collections or novels.
One of the divisions is called “Finding a Voice”, which would seem to make it cousin to the kind of cliché that I am trying to swat, here.  If this is so, I’m in bad straits, opposing the great Eudora Welty. Here I was having a good time battering Edward Martin, who nobody cares about any more, poor soul. But Welty? Surely the sappiness I have been seeing in the conjunctions of “finding” and “writer’s voice” is redeemed if the great Welty puts herself behind it.
So how do I get out of these straits? Eventually I think I need to to backtrack a little to reflect on the geneology of “voice”. There is an ideological line of descent I have so far ignored, and that is the idea of a people or a group having a “voice.” Like all things in modernity, the “voice” begins in politics and ends up in art. It ends up in ways I sympathize with. I think crossed the border in American literature sometimes in the 1920s, with the Southern “renaissance”. So let’s put that in the background and see what “finding a voice” is about.




Must homefront reading

Must homefront reading about our brilliant war in Afghanistan, or reasons to never forget and never forgive.
I especially thrilled to this portion:
"Gopal, a Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor reporter, investigates, for example, a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, had identified two sites as likely “al-Qaeda compounds.” It sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.
As Gopal explains, however, the American team did not attack al-Qaeda or even the Taliban. They attacked the offices of two district governors, both of whom were opponents of the Taliban. They shot the guards, handcuffed one district governor in his bed and executed him, scooped up twenty-six prisoners, sent in AC-130 gunships to blow up most of what remained, and left a calling card behind in the wreckage saying “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.” Weeks later, having tortured the prisoners, they released them with apologies. It turned out in this case, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan “ally” had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated. In Gopal’s words:
The toll…: twenty-one pro-American leaders and their employees dead, twenty-six taken prisoner, and a few who could not be accounted for. Not one member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda was among the victims. Instead, in a single thirty-minute stretch the United States had managed to eradicate both of Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies."
Ah, but we didn't saw the head of the governor off on video, so all is well! Only terrorists do that. I saw the first show of Homeland 4 last night and this sawing of heads off is what the show uses to separate the bad guys (arabs) from the good guys (mostly white americans). The latter only whack the innocent in the traditional way, god damn it. So lets belly  up to the bar and lay down another trillion for the next Middle Eastern war. We did such a bang up job on the last couple of them.
What a jolly 13 year war it has been, boys and girls.
Fade out to the tune of I fought the war but the war won.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

against the "writer's voice" 1


Of all the commonplaces that deserve to be treated briskly with the business end a baseball bat, the “writer’s voice” might not rank up there on everybody’s list. It ranks up on mine, though, perhaps because it combines the half truth of the cliché with the snobbish mysticism of the sentimentalist, which is a thing I can't abide.
I am surrounded, all day, by reading and writing – texts to edit (as a freelancer), texts to write, books to read. After A. goes to work and Adam goes to school, this is the world I fall into. There’s one thing about it: it is silent. No page speaks to me, not the one I read, not the one I write. I’ve been doing freelance full time since 2003, and – as any freelancer will admit – the missing element is the human voice. Any voice. I go out to coffee shops sometimes to catch the human voice – the person telling his girlfriend, “he has five go-to conversations”. The old man telling the other old man, “the deal, when you do the math, brings in 9 percent a year – but I want 90.” The woman explaining to her friend,” they have a secret society and they chose who wins. So it doesn’t matter how you vote, cause they goin chose the winner.” 
Historians of reading speculate that silent reading was uncommon in the ancient world. Our first description of a man reading silently comes in Augustine’s Confessions, where he wrote about meeting Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan:
« When he read his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud."
It is impressive that Augustine goes to such length to describe an act of reading which, today, would pass utterly unnoticed – today, it is reading aloud that is unusual enough that it is usually staged in some way – as the parent reading to the child, or the author giving a reading to an audience. Texts at that time were mostly bare of punctuation, and of course the convenient form of the book, which allows one to read and write in the margins or on a notebook or when eating, etc., was still uninvented. As Jesper Svenbro has pointed out, we have examples in Aristophenes play The Knight s of silent reading, which takes us back to 400 B.C., but everything we read about rhetoric or poetics from the ancients, and everything we know about the technology of the « page » points to a culture that saw the text as a medium for the voice, a transitional object, even if a cumbersome one, something come down from clay tablets and stone walls to lodge on papyrus or vellum – a change no doubt as shocking to the unconscious as the change from metal to paper currency. 
But here is the thing for me now. When I write, I am not « finding my voice » - rather, phenomenologically, I am losing it. The transitional object has changed. If there is a voice, here, it is in the special sense of some kind of speaking in my head. The breath that made Aristotle speak of the voice as having ‘soul’ is reduced to the barest possible pulse, an electic discharge on the microscale – or so the scientists say. To me, it is like a voice. I walk down the street or sit at a table and I am turned towards these words that seem almost said before I put them down on a surface.
This is one sense in which the « finding your voice » trope actually inverses the process of writing.
There’s another, stronger sense in which « finding your voice » is exactly what doesn’t happen for me in writing, since I write very much for that moment of loss, of voluntary disarmament. I dislike being the captive of my voice. I would much rather be a mockingbird than a nightingale, a thief of voices rather than a developer of my own. It’s mimic joys I’m after.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

all the young dudes carry the news


When the left cut its throat in the eighties, the mainstream media analysis was that the left had outlived its purpose. Walls were coming down, and the story went like this: after an unpleasant interregnum during which the liberal interdiction on state interference in the economy was universally despised and contravened – bringing about those natural moral scolds, inflation and the decline of productivity – the old values robustly reasserted themselves. They took on the entrancing form, too, of a revolt for freedom, which couldn’t help but entrance the kids. We were now primed to resume our world historical broadcast from the place it had been interrupted in the Gilded Age, and this time we’ d democratize the Gilded age, as whole populations would become investors. The state would move aside, confining its role to a provider of morally uplifting action movie reality shows hosted on various military theaters around the world. As in a high concept movie, the State, a bad guy domestically, would turn out to be a hero abroad, always intervening for the sake of humanitarianism, and thus making the bystanders – the populations of those military theaters – eternal grateful as the troops marched down the streets of their neighborhood or village.
This story explained the left’s demise in terms of a milk toast Hegelianism devoid of Marxist taint – the spirit of history would become a sort of CEO Holy Ghost again. History was all about ideas. It was ideas that made history.
This was a story that, after some initial hesitation, the leaders of the leftier parties throughout the old developed countries  rather started to like. Freed from the obligation of having to represent the worker – or, God knows, listen to one – the party leadership  decided to switch constituencies. The leadership became even more friendly with the New Economy tycoons, who bloomed as the financial sector took on an imperial heft. At the same time, the Left was digesting the lessons of the great Civil Rights movements of the sixties, reshaping itself in an image of the progressive bourgeoisie of the new Gilded Age.
Two oppressed groups in particular were championed: women (gay or straight) and gays. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these two groups are seeded across the class spectrum. They are as likely to be represented in the ownership class as in the wage earner class. This is not the case, however, with races. It is much less likely for an African American in the U.S., for example, to be represented in the ownership class, whether staight or gay, male or female. By a sort of unconscious natural selection, where the leftist parties broke with their old constituencies, the working class, they also broke, as was in the nature of the economic structure, with the oppressed ethnic groups or races. However, it was easy to absorb the Civil Rights leadership into the ownership or managerial class, so to the leftist establishment it looked like they were realizing the entire agenda of the Civil Rights movement, even as, behind their back, they were at least compliant in the big story of the new Gilded Age – the criminalization of the unfavored racial or ethnic groups.  This, as it happens, was also the story in the old Gilded Age, at least in the States, as the Reconstruction gave way to the Reconciliation and Jim Crow was preceded by that crude but efficient modality of surveillance, prison.  In other countries, such as Britain and France, this process worked a bit differently, outside the “homeland”, among the colonized, where the necessity to destroy the resistance of the native and to lure into compliance the native elite also used prisons in a mix of processes – the major one being the monetizing of the economy – that had a different shape than the American one.
This, by the way, is not a sneaky ploy to identify racism with class struggle. I simply want to understaned the effect of the latter in reproducing new forms of the former. Another story could be told about the processes in the “interregnum” in which white dominated organized labor and the state operated in tandem to create a regime of discrimination against select races and ethnic groups. There’s a certain nostalgia on the part of older lefty survivors for the fifties and forties – why can’t we, for instance, mount infrastructural projects and employ people like in the old days? This ignores one of the major effects of those projects, which were directed broadly against racial communities.  The old slogan – they built white man’s roads through the black man’s home – was true about that time, whether or not the  “man” sticks out here like a sore thumb. The destruction of urban neighborhoods through urban renewal and highways was not a just a “bug”.

Revolutionary changes in the political form of a society don’t have to exert themselves in sudden and overt events – however, they will lead, in time, to changes in the socio-economic from of a society. There’s no substructure superstructure, there are only sifting sands, and the houses built thereupon. So here we are.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

amnesia - don't go to the two minute hate without it!

The two minute hate used to be so easy! The soviets! Drug cartels! Saddam Hussein! Alas, now the two minute hate needs footnotes. Take our latest hate. We hate ISIS! And the NYT, with proper indignation, has watched as Turkey has refused to relieve our brave allies who are being besieged by ISIS on the Turkish border. So we can have a good two minute hate against Turkey too.
But what’s this? In the town of Kobani, who are the heroic freedom fighters who so bravely defend everything we love against the headchoppers? Why, it is the PKK. Now, it is a funny thing, but while the US wants Turkey to ally with the PKK, if a US citizen allied with the PKK, they’d go to jail or Guantanamo. Why? Well, hate compagneros, the PKK, before last week, were on the list of evil terrorists, next to al qaeda. The PKK has a nasty habit of doing things like kidnapping German citizens in retaliation for the Germans banning the PKK as a terrorist organization. Now, usually, the two minute hate frowns on the kidnapping of Westerners – and by god, blonde ones at that.
So it is a bit of a puzzle. The best way out of the puzzle is just to forget that yesterday, PKK were Marxist terrorists, who had admitted in court to killing civilians, kidnapping, dealing in narcotics and the rest of it – and concentrate on the fact that they are now freedom fighters in our struggle against ISIS, Syria, and Iran, for peace and justice for all.
Oh, one other fact to forget – the PKK used to be allied with the new Hitler, Assad, in Syria. Luckily, they are now freedom fighters for democacy, but that was the company they used to keep when they were worse than the Khmer Rouge.

Amnesia is an essential part of the DC foreign policy establishment kit. Don’t go to your two minute hate without it! Luckily, the NYT, in its wisdom, is leaving out the juicy bits about the PKK, as it would muddy the waters in our war to the death with ISIS.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Henry James and Aphrodite

Even for those who enjoy the obliquities, dark passages, and the meanings buried with a shovel of Henry James’ late style, The American Scene is a trial. The sentences here are so hedged that sometimes the meaning they are drifting towards – driving towards would be too vulgar, as it was just the kind of thing Americans were always, shockingly, doing, driving here, driving there - seems to have entirely escaped them. This, one feels, is not an entirely peaceful enterprise – there is something altogether aggressive about passages in which murkiness seems to abound for its own sake.
Here’s an example:
“Who, for that matter, shall speak, who shall begin to speak, of the alacrity with which, in the New England scene (to confine ourselves for the moment only to that), the eye and the fancy take to the water? - take to it often for relief and security, the corrective it supplies to the danger of the common. The case is rare when it is not better than the other elements of the picture, even if these be at their best ; and its strength is in the fact that the common has, for the most part, to stop short at its brink ; no water being intrinsically less distinguished, save when it is dirty, than any other. By a fortunate circumstance, moreover, are not the objects usually afloat on American lakes and rivers, to say nothing of bays and sounds, almost always white and wonderful, high-piled, characteristic, fantastic things, begotten of the native conditions and shining in the native light ? Let my question, however, not embroider too extravagantly my mere sense of driving presently, though after nightfall, and in the public conveyance, into a village that gave out, through the dusk, something of the sense of a flourishing Swiss village of the tourist season, as one recalls old Alpine associations : the swing of the coach, the cold, high air, the scattered hotels and their lighted windows, the loitering people who might be celebrated climbers or celebrated guides, the resonance of the bridge as one crossed, the gleam of the swift river under the lamps. My village had no happy name; it was, crudely speaking, but Jackson, N.H., just as the swift river that, later on, in the morning light, to the immediate vision, easily surpassed everything else, was only the river of the Wildcat – a superiority strictly comparative.”
The end of my passage is not the end of the paragraph, so it might well go unnoticed that the final phrase is a bit out of whack as regards to sense. For what could possibly be the opposite of a superiority that was strictly comparative? One that arise absolutely, jettisoning comparison and wrapping itself Hegelianly in itself? It would seem that the river shares, with all things mortal, that fall from superiorities without comparison. Why would James want it otherwise?  
This is in a paragraph in the early part of the book, and what it tells us, to be naked about it, is that James went to a New Hampshire resort. Why Jackson should be a name that required a certain crudeness to pronounce – in contrast to, say, London, England – is a matter of those distinctions that James is always making in his own breast, where they make sense, but very rarely explaining to the world outside that consciousness when he produces them as somehow enlightening to his theme – as though the reader would only betray his own native crudeness by asking.
William James, in a letter to his brother written in 1887, speaking about his New Hampshire house – which one imagineswas the object towards which Henry James, in 1907, was striving - wrote  teasingly about the James’ strained sensibility with regard to the crude: “With house provided, two or three hundred dollars a year will support a man comfortably enough at Tamworth Iron works, which is the name of our township. But, enough! My vulgarity makes you shudder…” In one way, Henry James’ American Scene is just a long shudder, evoked by the American things William James rather loved.
Here I think is a key to the aggression of the style, which is an argument, or rather, the performance of an argument, against pragmatism and the world view that, for Henry James, it represented. Pragmatic prose, which tests itself –its truth - against its use in the world, would tend to plane away and break up the sentences and congeries of reference with which James loads up the books of his last period. Of course, by this time James was writing with a secretary, and the note of the oral, of the dictated, which overflows the orderly stops of the written had seeped into the written, which consequently swelled with modifications, irrelevancies, sudden and seemingly off topic references, and the kind of obiter dicta that, examined in the cruel light of logic, was not quite sound. In a sense, if pragmatic prose installed that collegiate thing, the “test”, as the supreme ritual to which all writing must bow, James fought back by pressing on the original notion of the test, which was of bodily strength, or muscular accident, and sought to create overwhelming effects. In the society where all things are put to pragmatic text, the old is doomed to be cleared away, and even the new is constructed to be taken down and replaced at the first profitable opportunity. For Henry James, the creative side of creative destruction is a little too heartless, a little too dumb to understand or sympathize with the destroyed, and in that falls below the value of the latter, which so often understands all too well the motives and feelings of its destroyer.
Of course, there is more than a note of this in William James’ work, too – he was scathing about the Chatauqua culture, and wrote an essay deploring American nervousness in the same decade that his brother wrote The American Scene, where that nervousness was portrayed as an all-devouring monster.
But although Henry James’ book displays a gigantic distaste for what the country in which he was born had become (a distaste that sometimes plunges into crude xenophobia and latent anti-semitism in the famous passages about immigrants in New York), there is also a moment, a rather startling moment, when James displays something else, something that is coordinate with another thing going on in 1907 in the world of art – the re-evaluation of the primitive.
In the Boston chapter, after James makes a point of the fact that the couples he sees strolling around Beacon Hill on Sunday are speaking Italian (and the point is not meant to underline some beautiful cultivation of the American mind that embraces the opportunity to exercise the language of Dante in the heights of Boston, but rather to hint at the the degradation of the American stock via the immigrant from Naples), he almost makes up for the drop into suburban prejudice by contemplating, in the Museum of Fine Arts then on Copley Square, one of the statues in the collection that is also an immigrant to the New World:
“It is of the nature of objects doomed to show distinction that they virtually make a desert round them, and peace reigned unbroken, I usually noted, in the two or three Museum rooms that harbour a small but deeply-interesting and steadily-growing collection of fragments of the antique. Here the restless analyst found work to his hand only too much ; and indeed in presence of the gem of the series, of the perhaps just too conscious grace of a certain little wasted and dim-eyed head of Aphrodite, he felt that his function should simply give way, in common decency, to that of the sonneteer. For it is an impression by itself, and I think quite worth the Atlantic voyage, to catch in the American light the very fact of the genius of Greece. There are things we don't know, feelings not to be foretold, till we have had that experience which I commend to the raffiné of almost any other clime. I should say to him that he has not seen a fine Greek thing till he has seen it in America. It is of course on the face of it the most merciless case of transplanting - the mere moral of which, nevertheless, for application, becomes by no means flagrant. The little Aphrodite, with her connections, her antecedents and references exhibiting the maximum of breakage, is no doubt as lonely a jewel  as ever strayed out of its setting ; yet what does one quickly recognize but that the intrinsic lustre will have, so far as that may be possible, doubled ? She has lost her background, the divine creature has lost her company, and is keeping, in a manner, the strangest ; but so far from having lost an iota of her power, she has gained unspeakably more, since what she essentially stands for she here stands for alone, rising ineffably to the occasion. She has in short, by her single presence, as yet, annexed an empire, and there are strange glimmers of moments when, as I have spoken of her consciousness, the very knowledge of this seems to lurk in the depth of her beauty. Where was she ever more, where was she ever so much, a goddess and who knows but that, being thus divine, she forsees the time when, as she has “moved over,” the place of her actual whereabouts will have become one of her shrines? Objects doomed to distinction make round them a desert, I have said – but that is only for any cross confidence in other matters. For confidence in them they make a garden, and that is why I felt this quarter of the Boston Art Museum bloom under the indescribably dim eyes, with delicate flowers.”
To catch in the American light the genius of Greece – this is a sentence worthy of one of the modernists; but since James has been presenting himself here more in the guise of the Ancient American Mariner, come to port and finding crudeness, vulgarity and impatience dealing deathblows to the country from which so long ago he had embarked,  I don’t just want to annex it to the movement that found what was most ancient to be what was most new – the paleolithic  sculpture, the first epic, etc.
Lautreamont, who Henry James doubtless never read, had already written of the beauty - comparative, it must be said – of the “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” Henry James did not present himself as the kind of writer who was bent on seeing the sublime in the abject, or the marvel in the junkheap, but the juxtaposition of this Aphrodite with the American light, and the curious idea that this immigrant, in a nation whose immigrants have been given a baleful stare by Henry James, will gain in the move over, does make us pause. First, because we tend to forget, in the authority that James lends his judgements, that he himself has moved over, he himself is an immigrant in an England in which the American accent is suspect. And second, because if all there was to Henry James was a protest against American vulgarity, he could stand in line – who hasn’t protested against that? It is, in fact, the most vulgar thing in the world.
But the superiority in whose name he is protesting is not that of any established order that he could really point to. In all of James’ novels set in Europe and Great Britain, it is clear that the characters, even as they lounge in the country homes,  are surrounded by a Dickensian squalor that supports those country homes. This is not just there in the foreground of Princess Casamissama, but it is on the edges of all his great novels – it is the region into which Kate Croy, in the first chapter of Wings of the Dove, proposes to plunge, and in plunging drown herself, when she goes to visit her father, a man who is basically a class conman, a pretender – a stinker.

It is on behalf of another order that James, or at least the better spirit in James, recoils in the American Scene. In this order, there is a chance for both naiveté and refinement – there is a chance, that is, for the civilization of sensibility in which his characters, down to the telegraph clerks, move, alert for every nuance in the Other, and to that extent giving the Other the ultimate tribute of possessing nuance, rather than being wired for the better deal. Although the mood in The American Scene seems to write finis to the possibility of such a civilization flourishing in a society that so agressively sells all that it has – for there is nothing that turns naiveté so quickly into a crafty strategy like the cult of sales and its attendent, the cult of the celebrity – the Aphrodite moment proposes something else, something at the end of the creative destruction that has written Henry James so largely, or so he thought, out of the script. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

history without years

There’s a certain magical attachment in history to years. A year serves not only as an organizing principle, but also as a spell – it gathers around itself a host of connotations, and soon comes to stand for those connotations. Yet, what would history be like if you knocked out the years, days, weeks, centuries? How would we show, for instance, change? In one sense, philosophical history does just that – it rejects the mathematical symbols of chronology as accidents of historical structure. These are the crutches of the historian, according to the philosophical historian. Instead, a philosophical history will find its before-after structure in the actual substance of history. In the case of the most famous philosophical history, Hegel’s, a before and after, a movement, is only given by the conceptual figures that arise and interact in themselves. To introduce a date, here, is to introduce a limit on the movement of the absolute. A limit which, moreover, from the side of the absolute, seems to be merely a superstition, the result of a ceremony of labeling founded on the arbitrary.