“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

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

When LI was on hiatus this summer in Portland, we spent a day hiking with L., our friend and an associate of ex – Microsoft exec, billionaire telecommunications wizard Paul Allen. L., like many of the people who are close to “Paulie,” as she teasingly calls him, is on a program to read the great novels. She was just coming off of Anna Karenina. I told her that the greatest female character in 19th century European lit, as far as I was concerned, was Anna Ozores, the Judge’s wife at the center of La Regenta.

L. had not heard of La Regenta. This didn’t surprise us. LI would never have read La Regenta either, or heard of it, if we didn’t have a habit of trolling the aisles of libraries, our shoulders hunched up like that of an old crow, dreamily pulling tomes off the shelf and looking at first paragraphs, blurbs, pictures of authors, etc. etc. Years ago, when we came upon La Regenta, we were in the mood for a long 19th century novel. At that time, believe it or not, we were living in utter poverty (gasp!), renting a room for a pittance from our friend H. That La Regenta was a long novel was all the reason we needed to check it out and take it home. We have a lovely memory of reading the book in great big gulps: a reel of reading, a continuum, a glide down a slide. We immediately grouped Anna with Nana in terms of overpowering sexiness. But Clarin, unlike Zola, was not in the habit of drooling over his heroine. In fact, Anna is quite intelligent; Nana merely has the intelligence God would have given to any more than usually shrewd member of the 19th century demi-monde. Purge the odor of sex around Nana, and you have an operator, a nineteenth century capitalist of her own extraordinary pussy, whose vital instincts have merged with the utilitarian calculus preferred by the laissez faire economists of the time in much the way any captain of industry’s did. Her industry was orgasm, Carnegie’s was steel. Same diff.

However, we had not returned to the novel since those golden times. L. informed us, a month ago, that the book was out of print. How shocking and stupid of Penguin. We decided, over the holiday, to treat ourselves to the novel once again.

The edition we are reading was put out by University of Georgia Press. Warning: it carries a completely bogus introduction by the translator, John Rutherford. The innocent reader, stumbling into the intro, might flee from the book entirely to escape the babbitry in which Rutherford so abounds. After congratulating Leopoldo Alas, aka Clarin, for having anticipated Freud (it was the fashion, back in the sixties and seventies, to take anything anyone said about sex before Freud to be valuable insofar as it anticipated Freud, or quaint insofar as it disagreed with him – Freud being to sex what Edison was to illumination), Rutherford reaches the very zenith of platitudes with the following sentence: ‘But thanks to its universal themes, psychological insight and technical boldness, it [the novel] has proved itself to be worthy of the attention of modern men and women.’

Oh, what bliss, to be worthy of the attention of modern men and women! The heart sings like a robin… A poisoned robin.

Too much of that kind of thing makes one wonder if the translation is going to be any good. Ignorant of Spanish, we can’t vouch for its accuracy – but it achieves a consistent tone well above the introduction’s heady sampling of Rutherfordism. And there aren’t big mistakes in the English – a state of affairs that is rare, nowadays. It is amazing, the carelessness of publishers who publish translations. This is a subject we have had plenty of reviewing experience of. Ça suffit…

We are happy to note that we hold to our original judgment: La Regenta kicks Anna Karenina’s ass.

The only way to justify this would be to go through the novel at much greater length than we have time for. Instead, let’s excerpt a paragraph.

Here’s the context. Anna Ozores is the daughter of an Italian dressmaker and a petty liberal aristocrat. The seamstress dies, the petty liberal aristocrat gives himself over to the struggle to remake Spain, and then retires in disgust in a small bungalow, having shot his inherited wad. On his death, Anna, who is a scrawny teen in the throes of her first menses, is taken in by her two spinster aunts in Vetusta, a backwards cathedral town. Her aunts intentionally “plump” Anna up – and she cooperates, realizing that her aunts want to make her “eligible.” Since she doesn’t have money, her ‘eligibility’ will have to consist of her blue blood – mention of the dressmaker is under strict rature – and her beauty, which in due time blossoms. Anna is one of those 19th century beauties – poitrine a la Nana, haunches like J-Lo. That Anna has a knack for writing is discovered by the aunts, and firmly suppressed as a vice. And so the aunts put her on the market, so to speak. They catch a millionaire, an ‘American’ who has returned to Vetusta and wants to buy the biggest house and the town beauty. Anna refuses. She is being courted, at this time, by an older man, Don Victor Quintanas. This is the description of her aunt Anuncia’s receiving Anna’s refusal of the millionaire. The scene is set in the dining room. There’s a fire in the fire place – otherwise, the room, one presumes, is not illuminated. The aunts have their little ways to save money:

“But Dona Anuncia needed no more to let loose the basilisk of fury which she carried in her bowels. Her shadow, amidst all the other shadows on the wall, at times resembled that of a gigantic witch; at other times, multiplied by the flickering flames and the old woman’s jerks and contortions, it represented all hell let loose. There were moments when Dona Anuncia’s shadow had three heads on the wall and three or four others on the ceiling, and it seemed that screams and shrieks were coming from all of them, so strident were her vociferations.”

Obviously, Alas is fusing, here, a memory of Goya’s Caprichios and a motif out of European folklore to create this scene – but how brilliantly it succeeds! LI has found that arguments are extremely hard to depict in fiction. As any rookie knows, modifications of “said’ are always rather iffy – yelled, vociferated, sarcastically observed, shrieked, cried – the lexicon is there, but the effects fall short of the intensity one wishes to convey, as though one were playing the keys of a piano in which the wires had been cut. The shadow play, here, supplies a context that does everything: merges the economics of marriage to a primal scene of cannibalism; caps the whole extended metaphor of plumping Anna up – a metaphor that creates, on one end, sympathy for a woman who is, after all, simply eating, and on the other end, transforms the cooks into monsters; and finally, it gives us a sense of just how close Anna is to that soap bubble film separating perception from hallucination. This quality is at the heart of her poetic talent. It is also at the heart of her downfall.

We could go on…

Just one other thing. We’ve mentioned this before – in fact, one of our first posts, back in 01, was about this. The relation between time and suspense in novels has never really been spelled out to our satisfaction. A novel in which a man is depicted borrowing money has installed a timer in its code – the timer is the debt. Time will be measured by the debt coming due. Time spatializes itself in the actions of the indebted man – the axe he finds to get rid of the pawnbroker from whom he has borrowed sums, the marriage he intends with the rich merchant’s daughter, etc., etc. There are all sorts of timers in the novel’s code. Here we see metaphor acting as a timer – the plumping out process has to end, for one thing – Anna can’t become too fat. She has to achieve a healthy avoidupois. For another, since this is a plumping up, the timer is running on the aunts. Eventually, they have to make good on their side of the metaphor – they have to become the monsters that plump up humans, that feed on human flesh. It is an agricultural metaphor, indicating an agricultural original sin – the slaughtering of the fed beast. Since feeding is, after all, a gift, one of the great founding gifts of society, to feed and then to slaughter is a contradiction that sets in motion a whole exculpatory ethic.

We could go on…



Bollettino

LI recommends the new weblog, The Loom, by a science writer, Carl Zimmer. We especially recommend this piece on William Hamilton, who is one of LI’s favorite intellectuals of the last fifty years. Zimmer reports that Hamilton, who died (as Zimmer does not distract himself to explain, died -- beginning of excursus -- while trying to find support for the thesis about AIDs propounded by Ed Hooper in The River – a thesis that has been ‘disproven’ only to the extent that Hooper’s extended point, which is that AIDS was actually activated by a polio serum, is probably wrong – but that it was spread by that serum remains, to our mind, a startlingly good thesis – end of excursus) in 2000, had been working on a theory about why leaves turn red and yellow in the fall. The larger details of the theory are here.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Bollettino

"The IMAGINATION, then, I consider as primary, or secondary. The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human PERCEPTION, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of CREATION in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its cogency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates,in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still, at all event, it struggles to idealize and to unify." -- Coleridge

A week ago, my best bud and alter ego, D., sent me a news item from the NYT. The item was about Sharon’s speech. The speech didn’t surprise me. Sharon proposed that the Wall would be the basis for a line between Israel and Palestine. There was nothing unexpected in this, if you know Sharon’s history. D. was indignant, to the extent he ever gets indignant.

This, too, wasn’t unexpected. All my lefty friends at one time or another get indignant about Israel. When Israel bombs a refugee camp and kills Palestinian kids, they get red thinking about what a criminal state it is. When Palestinian kids blow up Israeli kids, they get suddenly rational: it is only a matter of the just struggle for the liberation of Palestine, blah blah blah.

I have experienced the other side too, from people who seem to think that the Palestinians should conveniently vanish, like the Cherokees or the Tasmanians. A couple of years ago, in L.A. I was having lunch with two friends, and one of them began a long rant about what a pissy character Yassar Arafat is, and how he bungled the chance for peace in 2000. Etc. The guy’s gripe was the idea of Return – that Arafat supported the right to return of Palestinians who were evicted from their land. This would make more sense if Israel didn’t also have an extensive policy giving French or Russian or Greenland Jews a right to Return – and dumping them in settlements on Palestinian land.

Now, Israel doesn’t excite my passions in quite this way. I see, on the left, the displacement of the Palestinians provoking tears and fellow travelers, martyrs that put themselves in the path of bulldozers, etc. etc. Where is the indignation about, say, the Arabization of Kirkuk, or the slave raids on Southern Sudanese Christian tribes? To mention only two examples. These, apparently, are indignations best left to specialists. On the right, of course, there has been this odd conjunction between the traditional anti-semitic Christians and the neo-cons. To criticize Israel, or not even Israel, but Sharon’s Israel, is to commit the blood crime of anti-semitism.

We can all get indignant, one way or another, about Israel.

I’ve written about Israel before. My position is well known. It is crystal, ahem, clear. It is, uh (where’d I put those notes?) the position of conscience (hey, did you hear the one about the rabbi, the rabbit and the priest? Oh, another time…) of an independent intellectual proud … did I say proud? Conscience, yeah I said conscience. Okay, drum roll please…

Okay, I don’t have a position about Israel. I have several, and some contradict each other.

That Israel unjustly drove out the Palestinians, or many Palestinians, seems beyond a doubt. That this founding act of violence was succeeded by the creation of a viable state seems beyond a doubt. There are many things to like about Israel. Other states have engulfed aid in amounts as huge as Israel’s, and the aid has basically swollen bank accounts in Switzerland. Israel, perhaps because the original founders preserved the old Socialist ethics, never went that route. All things being equal, Tel Aviv should be, to the Middle East, what Beirut was to it in the fifties – the financial center of the world. This is due, in part, to Israel bombing the shit out of Beirut in the eighties. And so it goes, ethical/dialectical tic tac toe.

I don’t think a treaty will bring peace to Israel or Palestine, although it will be a start. Rather, a more essential change has to happen.

That Israel, unlike other states in the post-colonial world, was expressly the product of the same European romantic nationalism that produced Germany and Italy (and failed to produce Scotland and Corsica) is the heart of the fascination of the place, and its current dilemma.

Bracket the violence. Bracket the struggle between Israel and Palestine. Even if you have a strong Marxist belief that the essence of the state emerges from struggle, it is still distinct from that struggle. What I think has been lost, in the talk of peace treaties and suicide bombers, is the question: what is Israel?

In 1949, Israel was pretty clearly the homeland of the Jews. But is that true in 2003? Is Israel forever identical to the homeland of the Jews?

There’s a story in the NYT today that presents this question under the guise of comedy. There is a small tribe in India that apparently embraced Judaism in the twentieth century. Their own story is that they are descendents of a lost tribe. So there is an organization, Amishav, who sponsor them. The Indians are dumped in Palestinian territories and given lessons in Hebrew. Between bouts of incomprehensible teaching, there is always kosher curry.

This is funny. It is also cruelly sad.

The reality of Israel is that its success as a state has distanced it from its status as a symbolic object. As a state, Israel is populated by Israelis, not Jews. But that state is still dependent on its symbolism – dependent on a world wide Jewish community’s feeling for Israel as a homeland of the Jews. A homeland that that world wide community, in the U.S., France, Canada, Italy, etc., has no intention, by and large, of moving to.

In other words, Israel, the state, wears a mask. The mask is that Israel is the homeland of the Jews. The mask is suffocating the state.

Masks and Powers, a well known essay by Africanist Elizabeth Tonkin, fleshes out this metaphor in a fruitful way.

Tonkin goes to the quote from Coleridge I’ve given at the head of this post to distinguish two levels of the imagination. Corresponding to those levels, there are two kinds of analyses of masks. Her analysis of masks is connected to her field work in Africa, where the mask connects up to ancestral spirits. The mask event, as she calls it, requires that there be a sense of the dead captured by the mask; that there be a position open in the semantic field for the non-masked; and that the dead have power:

Here is a fascinating passage. Note -- Tonkin capitalizes Mask to mean something like a mask with a spirit:

"Every Mask is part of an event, which can only be intelligible when understood as a performance with complex interactions between Masks and non-maskers. Indigenous explanations show that these are seen either as the actions of power or as the actions needed for its production. Power, all reporters agree, resides in the Mask (and often also in the mask on its own). The Mask is the exponent of power, which is manifested in all its actions – not just those which may be deemed instrumental exerting ‘social control’ to express power is to make power."

Masks events collect around rites of passage. As Tonkin puts it, they are metaphors-in-action, “transform[ing] events themselves of mediat[ing] between structures.” Mauss, the thinker with whom Tonkin is in dialogue in this piece, claimed that the mask was the genealogical precursor of the soul concept. Mauss was impressed by the connection between masking and the dead – that the spirits of the dead are re-produced, reborn, in the mask. Tonkin questions the generalizability of Mauss’ insight, but she, too, affirms the connection between the mask and the dead.

These remarks point to the violent energy contained in the mask of the Jewish homeland. The dead, here, are the dead of the holocaust. There’s no getting around that. But there is also no getting around the fact that the mask, perpetuating a rite de passage, an intermediate structure by which the dead are escaped, has taken over the face of the living. This, in our opinion, is the real loss to Israel of being led -- held captive, entranced -- by one of the great spirits of the Mask: Sharon.

We have other things to say about this topic, but we’ve maundered on, typically, too long.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Bollettino

It’s rare to find every ideological position LI is allergic to on display in one article, but the NYT Magazine’s John Tierney comes close. The utopian conservative dream of an Iraq that is democratic (but without elections), that is prosperous (without a social net, and with a seventy percent unemployment rate), and that is, above all, privatized to the gills – this is what the Douglas Feiths and Paul Wolfowitzes of the world have been working towards.

The heroic unit in the piece is a business family led by Nader and Wathiq Hindo who have come back from exile in the States to make potloads in Iraq. That you can make potloads always seems to astonish American journalists, but it would be a familiar situation to anyone who lived through the liberalization of the economy in any Latin American country. While most of the country, which wipes the baby’s ass, mends the roads, serves the chickpeas, and so on, struggles under the twin burdens of unemployment and inflation, the segment of the country in whom Americans find their own lifestyle mirrored suddenly can afford vacations and digital toys, as the money floods in, either from immense foreign loans or from the sales of public properties -- sales that always go awry. In this case, it is a much juicier cash stream, direct from our government. Nothing is as sweet as 165 billion of Federal money. And so the Hindo family has attached itself, diverting a little stream to its own businesses. Voila, wealth.

Discovering these mirror Americans, the journalist typically emits tears of joy in the Washington Post, or NYT – and five years later there is a running series of backstories about collapsing governments and World Bank loans.
The crucial grafs are on the fifth page of the piece. Tierney quotes an obvious favorite, Zakaria, who has been a staunch defender of holding elections in places like Iraq in the year 2121, or some such time, after the healthful wash of free enterprise ideology has rooted out the dissatisfied and given everyone a cell phone for Christmas. Here, we think, is the heart of the American case, and the American dilemma:

''Iraq's civil society is so weak and decimated that there's a great danger of a new state abusing its power,'' says Larry Diamond, a political scientist at the Hoover Institution and co-editor of the journal Democracy. He, Zakaria and other experts say it would be better to wait at least two or three years, or ideally as long as five, before holding national elections. Such a delay is probably impractical, but it would suit at least one bourgeois family in Baghdad.

During a rare moment off from their many enterprises, Nader and his parents sit around the conference table at their office debating when Iraq should hold national elections.

''Maybe in a couple of years,'' Nader says. ''We need Iraqi administrators to guarantee stability and contracts and property rights, but until we develop parties that are based on ideas instead of religion or ethnicity, we should hold off on elections.''

''Five years,'' his father says. ''That's enough time for a new generation to go through college.''

''Never,'' Nader's mother says, and it's hard at first to tell if she's kidding.

''Well, someday,'' Nidhal says, ''but I can't imagine when. People here have been through so much turmoil they're just not ready to vote.''

The “Never” obviously startles Tierney. The mirror Americans seem so … American. The maids, the rubber plants, the SUVs, the English, the jokes, the M.B.A.s, it all seems so refreshingly familiar and then… and then they emit some opinion that sounds like something some German businessman in 1938 would say about needing a strong hand to crack down on the Bolsheviks and Jews. There’s that small, telling crack in the mirror.

But isn't that why the Tierneys are there? The whole goal of mainstream American journalism is to make sure we don’t see the cracks in the mirror, even if the journalist can't quite hide it, that eerie sensation that the cracks make on him or her. And so, what better reference with which to finish off this post than Freud, god bless him, who explained the dialectically necessary return of the repressed in one of his great essays, Die Unheimliche. Read it -- in English, children, in English -- here.