“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

Saturday, February 28, 2004


Edith Wharton was twenty five when she and her husband dined out for the first time with Henry James. Wharton recalled her idea of impressing James: “to put on my newest Doucet dress and look my prettiest.” For a lot of critics, this says it all: Wharton is James in a Doucet dress. Wharton herself, who started in the decade after meeting James, was immediately dubbed as his imitator, which must have justly irritated her. Besides which, in the time she was closest to him, around 1905 to 1910, she was not at all an admirer of what she considered the balderdash indirections of his late style.

LI is not at all an admirer of Edith Wharton. Or even, I should say, a detractor. There are certain American writers to whom I feel I owe a debt of reading. Willa Cather, John O’Hara, and Edith Wharton are among my ghostly creditors – even though the debt they would have paid back poses a very Derridian question – is there a debt of reading that is paid by reading? But I will hold off on that for another day. My debt to Wharton has now been at least partially paid. I’ve read The Reef . I say partial payment because I have an idea that this novel is not, like The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, Wharton’s most characteristic piece. Those who know Wharton best, at least, make that claim.

According to Millicent Bell’s tremendously intelligent essay tracing the influences, such as they were, of James upon Wharton, The Reef was the novel in which Wharton finally got it – that is, got what she could get from James, apart from the theme of international rich folk. In Bell’s nice phrase, Wharton replaces the “chaotic compound of points of view” characteristic of her earlier work with “the elaborate working out on all sides of a central situation.” Which means that she carefully plots her incidences and the way they are articulated according to some strong anchoring p.o.v. – the perspectives, in fact, of two characters, George Darrow and Anna Leath. Bell compares the construction, here, to the Golden Bowl: “in neither novel is there a crowd of minor characters to give a sense of social density, a Balzacian perspective of milieu such as James had once aimed for.” But The Reef, according to Bell, was as far as Wharton would take her late Jamesianism. In the novels that came after, she “returned to a form that was more natural to her.” The lesson in perspective, which is the lesson of the master, can now be used to advance Wharton’s own sense of the more crowded, more Balzacian world, as you can use a flashlight to advance in a dark cave.

Perhaps this is why I found The Reef so compulsively readable – I’m a sucker for the late James. I am using Bell’s essay as my critical anchor instead of Anita Brookner’s intro to the Penguin I’m reading, because Brookner’s essay is so ineffably stupid. It is the worst of introductory essays – it is not only stupid in itself, but an invitation to stupidity on the part of the reader. Brookner’s idea is that the modern reader will simply be irritated by Anna Leath’s scruples, since the modern reader has long ago cut all the Gordian knots of sexual ethics. This is not only incredibly smug, with the small world smugness of the upper class British liberal, it isn’t even likely. In 2004, it is very likely that a woman who discovers that the man she is about to marry has slept with the woman her stepson is about to marry would tend towards a lot of mental casuistry. It is as if Brookner prefaced an edition of Oedipus Rex by remarking that, nowadays, Oedipus would simply have been cured by a therapist, or a bracing spell on an electroshock bed. Such thinning down of the text, such formal stupidity, clears the ground for Brookner to give us her soap opera-ish perspective on the book – we don’t like Anna Leath for being a worrier, or George Darrow for being controlling, or Sophy Viner for being a whiner – and hey, who should play them in the Masterpiece Theater version?

However, I have come to praise Edith Wharton, not to bury Anita Brookner. Or rather, to point out a certain thrilling Nietzschian thread in the book.

The drama of the last part of The Reef is all in the way in which Anna Leath alternately accepts and rejects her belief that George Darrow was involved in some kind of intrigue with her daughter’s governess (and fiancé of her stepson), Sophie Viner . The movement between acceptance and recoil is not just about the sexual core of Darrow’s relationship with Viner, but it hangs within the deeper current of her gradually gathering perception that she could only truly know the meaning of that relationship by having led a different kind of life, one in which both the abject and sublime nuances of sex and feeling were available to her as experiences, rather than as the mere content of the rules of social decorum. Ironically, Darrow offers her the chance to have just that experience, and in offering her that chance, illuminates just the poverty of her experience up to this moment. She realizes, through Darrow, how solitary she has really been – even though she has been married, and had a child. As Anna conceives it, her solitude consists in an abnormal chastity of experience. She feels a cumulative want of contact. As she gains a deeper sense of the fact that Darrow’s offer comes only with her acknowledgment, for good and bad, of Darrow’s own sexual experience, she conceives her choice as one that thrusts its options upon her as between pardoning Darrow and remaining loyal to her own total past.

To make this point, Wharton uses a really interesting reference to classical culture.

Here is Anna, confronting George in Paris:

“For she was aware, in her own bosom, of sensations so separate from her romantic thoughts of him that she saw her body and soul divided against themselves. She recalled having read somewhere that in ancient Rome the slaves were not allowed to wear a distinctive dress lest they should recognize each other and learn their numbers and their power. So, in herself, she discerned for the first time instincts and desires, which, mute and unmarked, had gone to and fro in the dim passages of her mind, and now hailed each other with a cry of mutiny.”

Wharton reinforces this metaphor a few pages on, after Anna is embraced by George:

“He came nearer, and looked at her, and she went to him. All
her fears seemed to fall from her as he held her. It was a
different feeling from any she had known before: confused
and turbid, as if secret shames and rancours stirred in it,
yet richer, deeper, more enslaving.”

Wharton does some interesting things with Anna, who starts out as a rather insipid widow in a French chateau. The dialectically resplendent image of slaves dressed as freeman whose freedom would depend on recognizing each other as slaves corresponds to Anna’s odd liberation. It is a liberation into a world that isn’t free, a world in which the slaves wear slave costumes and signal to each other with abandon. And it is also a world in which feeling slips away from confidence in feeling. That’s an interior shift that Anna cannot, in the end, quite endure. We wondered, reading these paragraphs, if Wharton had ever read Melville; and in particular, Benito Cereno.

It is always good to keep in mind that Nietzsche, who wrote about slaves, never met any. But any American writer who wanted to could meet them, at least before the Civil War, and could meet ex slaves after the Civil War. For an American, there was no distance between the slave and master relationship and his own history. Slavery was in our blood, and the blood of slaves was in our money. And let's not forget either -- as I did, the first time I wrote this paragraph -- that the American writer could have even been a slave.

Anna’s classical metaphor echoes a bit earlier in the book, too. The book begins with the long episode of George Darrow’s trip to Paris with Sophy Viner. He knows Viner, only vaguely, from the house of a (from all accounts) rather bohemian hostess, for whom she worked as a factotum. Sophy Viner is pretty; she is tough; she wants to be an actress, a desire that in itself marks her, in Darrow’s mind, as “artistic” – i.e. loose. But it is Darrow who seduces her, who holds her in Paris longer than she can even afford to stay there; it is Darrow who takes her to plays. One of the plays is Oedipe. Viner’s reaction to it is premonitory of the role that she will play in Anna and Darrow’s narrative. Darrow is bored with the piece. The couple go out to walk in the intermission, and he expresses his boredom. Sophy, however, can’t believe he isn’t enthralled, and gives him her reason for being enthralled:

“As if the gods were there all the while, just behind them, pulling the strings?" Her hands
were pressed against the railing, her face shining and
darkening under the wing-beats of successive impressions.

Darrow smiled in enjoyment of her pleasure. After all, he
had felt all that, long ago; perhaps it was his own fault,
rather than that of the actors, that the poetry of the play
seemed to have evaporated...But no, he had been right in
judging the performance to be dull and stale: it was simply
his companion's inexperience, her lack of occasions to
compare and estimate, that made her think it brilliant.

"I was afraid you were bored and wanted to come away."

"BORED?" She made a little aggrieved grimace. "You mean
you thought me too ignorant and stupid to appreciate it?"

"No; not that." The hand nearest him still lay on the
railing of the balcony, and he covered it for a moment with
his. As he did so he saw the colour rise and tremble in her

"Tell me just what you think," he said, bending his head a
little, and only half-aware of his words.

She did not turn her face to his, but began to talk rapidly,
trying to convey something of what she felt. But she was
evidently unused to analyzing her aesthetic emotions, and
the tumultuous rush of the drama seemed to have left her in
a state of panting wonder, as though it had been a storm or
some other natural cataclysm. She had no literary or
historic associations to which to attach her impressions:
her education had evidently not comprised a course in Greek
literature. But she felt what would probably have been
unperceived by many a young lady who had taken a first in
classics: the ineluctable fatality of the tale, the dread
sway in it of the same mysterious "luck" which pulled the
threads of her own small destiny. It was not literature to
her, it was fact: as actual, as near by, as what was
happening to her at the moment and what the next hour held
in store.

We love the way Wharton has set this up. We love the way she comes at us with this pre-emptive notion of luck, since of course her whole plot turns upon a piece of bad luck, a coincidence. And we love the way that destiny, in a slave society, becomes luck, in a free one. And how the atavistic yearning for the rituals of the slave society colonizes our passions, exists in the perpetual underground of the unconscious.

Thursday, February 26, 2004


I wrote yesterday’s post after a fatiguing day sawing down and piling up cedar trees on a ranch – have to earn money any way I can. In any case, the fatigue showed.

Today, I read a quote from some interview with Mel Gibson, who was, indirectly, the subject of my last post. In the interview, Gibson took issue with those people who “blame the Church for the Holocaust.” He had a name for these people: secular Jews.

Unfortunately, in the effort to be evenhanded, and in the even greater effort to be non-controversial, the American media discusses the issue of the Catholic church’s rich Anti-Jewish history with caution. To give you a taste of what “radical” Catholic opinion was like back in the day, go to this site about the Croatian Ustashi. The Ustashi was the Croatian equivalent of the Nazi party. Its roots were clerical, its intellectuals taught at Catholic Universities, and when it came time to build the concentration camps, its priests were right there, blessing the mass slaughter of the Jews and the Serbs.

Here’s a typical excerpt from the Catholic press at that time:

"Up to the birth of Christ, Jewish atavism proved its sinful inclinations toward knavery, its lack of gratitude to God, its ruthless selfishness, its disobedience toward the heads of the state, its anarchism, its love of profit-making through the accumulation of worldly goods by means of corruption, bloodthirstiness, despotism, lasciviousness and homosexuality, incorrigible stubbornness and haughtiness ... Having realized all this, we dare to conclude that the Jews have always been destructive regardless of whether they governed themselves or were governed by others. The Jews will never change, because according to the laws of psychology their national soul cannot change for the better as long as the human race continues to exist."

I didn’t see the interview with Gibson, but it would have been nice if the interviewer was educated enough to ask revealing questions. My guess is that there was no mention, in the interview, of the Jasenovac Concentration Camp. It was here that the dirty spirit of one hundred fifty years of Catholic invective against the Jews finally came to fruition. A Franciscan, Miroslav Filipovic, was put in charge of the camp. The rules were a bit different than what one would expect from a follower of St. Francis of Assisi. Filopivic later claimed, in a probable understatement, that he’d ordered the killing of about 40,000 people at the camp. If you are in the mood for it, here’s the testimony of one of the survivors of the camp. Much has been made of the fifteen minutes of whipping time in Gibson’s film. Compare it to the tender mercies of Father Devil, as he was known:

Fra Filipovic's] voice had an almost feminine quality which was in contrast with his physical stature and the coarseness of his face... I was hardly seated, and as I sank into my sad thoughts, I heard the orders "Fall in - Fall in!"
...Old Ilija, an Ustasha, appeared in the threshold of the hut, a revolver in one hand and in the other, a lash... Before us passed six men, their hands tied before their backs with chains. The Ustashi had their revolvers loaded and aimed. Fra Sotona walked over and approached our group.
"Where is our new doctor?" I knew he meant me.
"He is here," someone replied. He came a little nearer, looking at me with an insolent, ironic, bizarre manner.
"Come here, doctor," he said, "to the front row, so that you will be able to see our surgery being performed without anesthetic. All our patients are quite satisfied. No sighs, nor groans can be heard. Over there are the head and neck specialists, and we have need of no more than two instruments for our operations."
And Fra Sotona caressed his revolver with one hand and his knife with the other ... Looking at these victims who, in a few moments would be in another world, fear written on each face, no one could penetrate the depth of their moral abyss. They silently watched the gathering crowd of more pitiful people, more condemned people like themselves.
Fra Filipovic approached a group of them. Two shots rang out, two victims collapsed, who began to twitch with pain, blood surging from their heads intermingling with the brain of one or the eyes of the other.
'Finish off the rest!' cried Filipovic to the executioner as he put his revolver away. “

Secular Jews make such fusses about such things, being, well, secular, and Jews, and all. Unsightly.

Perhaps, you will say, this is just some peculiarity of Croat Catholicism. Surely the Vatican eventually responded. This is true. They responded after the war. At the highest levels, they systematically smuggled Catholic war criminals out of Europe, so they could escape imprisonment by the Allies. Many of them went to Argentina. The effect was delayed, but the years of the Dirty War showed that packing these people off on the rat lines did make a difference.

Looking elsewhere, we find another state run by a Clerical Nazi Party – the Slovak Republic. Here, a Father Tiso became head of state, supported of course directly by the Nazi party. Catholic historians, who look around for evidence that the Vatican opposed the mass killing of the Jews, often cite the letters sent from the Vatican to Tiso about the deportation of Slovak Jews to the death camps. Indeed, this happened in 1944, and there is a nice, comprehensive account at the Catholic Information Network site . The Holy See protested the deportation of Slovak Jews from a labor camp at Sered to Bergen Belsen. This protest was seconded by Father Tiso.

But before we bestow the ADL man of the year award to Father Tiso, it is necessary to see what other action was taken by his government in relation to Slovak Jews.
- in 1939, on the accession of Father Tiso’s party to power in Slovakia, Jews were forbidden from certain professions.
- In 1940, with the cooperation of Eichman, who advised the Tiso administration, Jews were singled out for the yellow star. They were also committed to labor camps. Expropriation of the wealth of the Jewish Slovak community commenced.

You will not find the Holy See intervening to protest these measures.
The truth is, the Holy See never embraced and actively opposed, most of the time, the exterminationist agenda. The pre World War II Church was, indeed, anti-Jew (a word I prefer to the milky anti-Semitic), but wanted that prejudice embodied in certain cultural and legal restrictions on Jews, not in such things as labor camps or yellow stars. Given that the church’s agenda was to hold onto this prejudice, but to fight the de-humanization and murder of Jews, the Vatican did battle, by its own lights, with the Nazis. The fascisms of Tiso and the Ustashi were of a virulence that was not mainstream. The more decorous notions of order promoted by Catholic thinkers like Eliot are probably closer to the Catholic norm, with their complaint about the modernizing, atheistical strain in society that can be laid at the feet of the Jew.
There. If I was going to place Mel Gibson on the anti-Jew meter, he isn’t even close to Father Tiso. He is, however, typical of the American form of bigotry, which is more about blackballing from clubs, and jokes about Jews with the right listeners. And of course there’s his Dad, who is further in the direction of Father Tiso. These bigots can be recognized by the bristly defensiveness that emerges when they are called about their bigotry. There isn’t, really, any mystery here.

Oh, but before I finish this post with my oh so sophisticated dismissal of Gibson’s anti-Jewism, let me link to this account of a more disgusting and dangerous variant. It isn’t as if Father Tiso’s spirit is dead.

We especially liked the response of the current Slovak charge d’affairs regarding the laws restricting Jews in the professions. This is ur-Gibsonism:

“While he acknowledges that there was anti-Semitism in Slovakia during the wartime period, he argues that some of the first laws targeting Jews, specifically the ones restricting the number of Jewish lawyers and doctors, were not altogether anti-Semitic.
"I'm saying that particular one was not solely anti-Semitic," he says. "I think that one was based on the social justice of trying to get other people into those professions over and above the one minority.’”

Wednesday, February 25, 2004


I was out drinking with some friends the other day when the topic of Mel Gibson’s Jesus film came up. Now, I had experienced for myself Gibson’s dim religious wattage in the forgettable Signs, and from what I’d read about the Gibson movie, beyond the anti-jewish bits, it looked to me like the clunkiest Hollywood realism – which consists of an almost fetishistic appreciation of the artifacts peculiar to a historical epoch or situation, vitiated by the emplacement of the most physically unlikely specimen of California health -- the blond, dazzlingly toothed actor or actress -- in the midst of it. There was an article in the NYT about what Jesus looked like, a little froth on the Gibson publicity circuit, and the man who wrote it, who was mounting his own meticulously detailed Jesus bio-pic, was adamant that he must be a wiry peasant, about 5’3” – no Hollywood charmer.

Well, we wonder about the 5’3” – although we do concede the point that a man who wanders on foot the length and breadth of Judea is probably going to be wiry. It is hard to think of a man as fat as, say, Nero, as a messiah. For one thing, he was no pedestrian. Jesus was a pedestrian – how is that for a bumper sticker?

Anyway, my drinking friends were all going out to see the movie. One of them was interested to hear that I did not consider Jesus to be the son of God, and she remarked that she couldn’t imagine living without God. To which I made some conciliatory remarks about how I consider God to be what we are made of, and what everything else is made of. A goofy enough theology to get by when you don’t want to be pressed on the point. Another of my friends told about seeing a special about the movie – everybody seems to have seen a special about the movie – that showed how they manufactured a crucifixion, complete with a nail entering a hand. Hmm. My impulse was to say, how awful – the crucifixion as F/X shocks even me. But then I thought that this was par for the course as far as my reactions are concerned – only someone for whom religion is a matter of beautiful pictures and poetry would be discomforted by such tackiness. Tackiness, as Flannery O’Connor knew, was no bar to religious ecstasy.

For those interested in the portrayal of Christ, there’s an essay on the birth of the paradigmatic connection between image, power, and religion in this season’s American Journal of Philology, written by a Francis James. It is entitled Living Icons: Tracing a motif in verbal and visual representation from the second to the fourth centuries C.E. It is James’ contention that images – as in portraits, descriptions of persons with an emphasis on their visual aspect, instead of a stereotypical reference to the fact that they had a visual aspect – comes into textual play in these centuries. Not coincidentally, they come into play in terms of lives of holy men and Byzantine emperors. And they not only come into play, but they refer to their own quality of visualizing by making reference to painted or sculpted images. So an emperor, like Constantius, can be described entering into a town in triumph by referring to the way he looks like a painted image, and the way he looks like a painted image is referred to, consciously, by the way he is stiff, the way he glances with dignity at the crowds, etc., etc.

Here’s a graf from the article:

Thus it appears that it was the writers of the Second Sophistic who
specifically developed ekphrasis as a description of works of art, and in
so doing they explored and exploited the relation between word and
image for their own literary purposes. The author of the Philostratean
Imagines, arguably the most powerful work of ekphrasis in antiquity,
presents a tour of an entire gallery—possibly real, possibly imaginary12—
signaling a new departure in which viewer and object enter into a complex
reciprocally assimilating relationship. In Imagines the reader becomes
the viewer in the gallery. Preoccupied with “looking” at the pictures
and the learned interpretations of the docent character, the reader is
absorbed into the text and forgets that he or she is a reader. The acts of
reading and viewing are compounded, their boundaries blurred.13 Similarly,
and also from the late second or early third century C.E., Longus’s
novel Daphnis and Chloe purports to be an immense ekphrasis.14 The
distinction and conotation of verbal and visual representation was being
deliberately and artistically pursued at the very cutting edge of Roman
imperial high culture.

Indeed, the face is, as Deleuze puts it in Mille Plateaux, a social machine.

In an odd way, living without TV has cut me off from this machinery in its most frenzied historical phase. I am dying outside history, getting my images filtered through the constraints on the bandwidth of my computer. They are all, essentially, fuzzy. This is probably a good thing.