“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, June 12, 2004

News

Somebody came to the site this week and -- deciding that I knew a language or two besides English -- contracted with me to do translation work.

This is good. This is not enough. My fault, really. LI's little advert for the RWG Editing service is real, and we should point to it periodically. Check it out. I'm even going to be overcoming my habitual sloth and using the code my friend D. sent me to make the page Mozilla friendly, so that those who are using a better browser can actually use my little drop down table to see some of my work. In the meantime, I discovered, amusingly enough, that some institute in Florida that calls itself the Vargas Llosa Org has stolen one of the reviews I wrote for Newsday. Here is the link.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Bollettino
Napoleon once remarked that that, if he had been king, he would have thrown Beaumarchais in prison for writing the Noces de Figaro. “The Marriage of Figaro is already the revolution in action.”

Astute of Napoleon to notice – and symptomatic of the tyrant’s syndrome of mistaking the symbol for the fact. The conditions that would precede the revolution in action were happening in the countryside; repressing the symbol becomes, itself, a symbol of the essential narcissism of the court. Figaros in the fields were already claiming equality with his absentee owners by the admittedly less artistic means of putting their houses to the torch. By the time that kind of censorship is needed, it is already too late for that kind of censorship.

If the Bourbons had been treated to a collective lobotomy, you might get something like the Sauds. This family arose from wretched origins, captured power through deceit and mass murder, and has kept it the way a pirate captain keeps order on a ship: by the timely distribution of spoil. This isn't to say that the American embrace of the family wasn't a very clever move. In the post war period, it seemed like an obvious move. Having frozen our relationship to Saudi Arabia to what it was in 1957, however, we have become, so to speak, inadaptive to the Middle Eastern landscape. It is rather like betting on the dinosaurs. We now have two unpalatable alternatives in Saudi Arabia -- supporting the Sauds, which is unviable in the long run, or supporting their overthrow, which is unviable in the short run.

In the aftermath of 9/11, there were several articles exchanged between right wing think tanks about the dispensability of the Sauds. While think tankers were confidently asserting that we didn’t need the dirty oil of the Sauds, Bush was doing what he could to help the ruling family get through the storm of blame that would ensue when it finally sank in that the 9/11 atrocity was committed mainly by Saudis, financed by Saudis, and had its root causes in the politics of Saudi Arabia. The think tankers put out white papers with such silly ‘facts” as the one they loved, about how the U.S. received only 17 percent of its oil, or some such figure, from Saudi Arabia. Thus, if the country went off line, we would only have to make up for a 17 percent loss, right? As though the 83 percent of the rest wouldn’t create a massive competition in other oil fields for the more than 70 percent of overseas oil we need annually. The think tankers, for all their commitment to capitalism, have an oddly naïve view of it. If the price of gas shoots up to 10 dollars a gallon, do they really think the president, of whatever party, is going to endure the fallout? In fact, the Sauds did the usual favor to the American regime du jour, and in the aftermath of 9/11, kept the price of oil down. The quid pro quo was sustained.

There were two articles this weekend in the British press about the coming revolution in Saudi Arabia. It has been predicted over and over that the Saud family is falling, but so far they have enjoyed a very vivacious decrepitude. They always have the outlet of massacring Shiites to relieve tension in the kingdom. But the Kingdom's problems just keep ticking away. In the nineties, the Saud family quietly replaced the officers in the air force after the discovery of numerous conspiracies to overthrow the royals. Saudi Arabia usually stifles news of internal dissent, and international papers, who are happy to spotlight problems elsewhere – say, the dictatorial aspects of Chavez’s presidency in Venezuala – have obliged the Saudis by pretty much ignoring conditions within the Kingdom. But it is going to be hard to ignore those conditions when they start involving dead Americans, as in the murder two days ago of an American security contractor; or when they involve attacks on the infrastructure. It is the latter which just might provide the biggest surprise in the election season here, bigger even then the capture, if capture is possible, of Osama bin Laden. The Sunday Times published a piece by Tony Allen-Mills that begins with a scenario taken from Baer’s book on Saudi Arabia – an attack on Ras Tanura, the largest oil terminal in the world.

Here is the news hook: “The murders of 22 foreigners -one of them a Briton whose body was tied to a car and dragged through the streets by his attackers -provoked an instant spike in oil prices and forced western governments to re-examine their contingency plans.
The prospect of a catastrophic interruption of oil supplies from the world's largest producer is once again haunting the West.”

The NYT reported last week that there was a Saudi radio discussion about when and where one could mutilate the body of one’s enemy in Saudi Arabia a couple of weeks ago. As the Times noted, even the most anti-American imams in Iraq condemned the mutilation of the American contractors in Fallujah. But this isn’t the way Saudi’s ‘theologians’ think of the problem.

Perhaps the Figaro moment was that odd hostage crisis last week. As Allen-Mills describes it:

“Others argue that such speculation is unduly alarmist; that Al-Qaeda is a spent force, the oilfields are well-defended, and that Crown Prince Abdullah and senior members of his family remain unshakably in charge.

That was certainly Abdullah's message after Saudi commandos stormed the Oasis compound last Sunday and freed 50 hostages held by a small group of gunmen.

"Security forces will, God willing, deal with them and others like them by force," the country's de-facto ruler announced. Yesterday a religious edict was issued calling on all Saudis to "inform on anyone planning an act of sabotage".

"But that was not the message conveyed by the bizarre ending to the siege at al-Khobar, where hundreds of Saudi police and commandos surrounded the compound yet somehow allowed all but one of the terrorists to escape. Suspicion of collusion between terrorists and security forces continues to undermine western confidence in the regime.”

The other article, by the Independent’s Mark Hollingsworth, focused less on worst case scenarios than on Saudi Arabia’s financial power. For those who think the U.S. can simply shrug off that power, there were some interesting facts and figures.

“The Saudis also keep an estimated $1trillion (pounds 550bn) on deposit in US banks and another $1trillion or so in the stock market. If they were to suddenly withdraw their investments, it would have a catastrophic impact on the US economy.”
LI thinks we will look back at the Bush response to 9/11 with puzzlement. How could we be so clueless as to have gone to war with Iraq, rather than engaging Al Qaeda? While Osama is both alive and well in a Pakistan that has proven, this spring, that it doesn’t have the strength to dislodge the terrorists, the real threat to the U.S. is growing in a Saudi Arabia where Osama has become a folk hero. While Al Qaeda’s point man for Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Moqrin, crows about the latest attacks on foreigners in the country, the Saud’s keep up their policy of bribery to the tune of subsidizing the thousands of Saud “princes” to the tune of 19,000 dollars per month. Meanwhile, the Saud underclass gets nothing.

The revolution is in action already in the oil fields. We are heading for the falls, captain.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Bollettino

Well, my post about elites seems doomed to perpetual postponement. First Reagan dies, which I had to lament; then there was Schlegel to explain; and lately I’ve been getting epistles from my friend T. honing in with an evil eye on two sentences from the essay of Chaouli’s I quoted. The offending passage reads: “The line of reasoning I propose assumes that romanticism, far from furthering a mutual implication of art and politics (or art and religion, or art and philosophy), promotes their differentiation. With romanticism, art (and not politics, religion, or philosophy) increasingly decides what art should be.”

To which my friend, knowing that I was slyly inching towards some beret headed affirmation of the autonomy of art myself, the dangerous doctrine of art for the sake of art, made the following crabby but just remarks:

the “for the sake of" is in my craw (wherever that is)....either (i) the artist knows for what it is that the item is executed and such knowledge is not articulated in any way save for the item executed - this in the sense of 'I have been to the promised land and return with this mere indication of what is the bounty to be had there'; and perhaps (ii) I am merely a vessel for that which generally flows - in the sense of 'I have no choice but to make that which is made merely through my hands'. Each in its own way a narcissism which is ever reproached for it lack of accountability (read: dichotomously claiming authorship and messengership). "For the sake of" as a justification beyond formal terms of evaluation (yes, I'm thinking of Clem Greenberg) and/or execution.”

Well, T. had caught me. I was hoping to sneak through this without running into that cursed slogan. I agree with my friend that it is a wretched idea, and replied:

“… But here is what I was thinking. Politicians and artists appear, historically, about the same time in the early modern period. Their appearance is all about social folds unknown in the medieval period, such that a man could seek power independently of his rank -- like Walpole or Ben Franklin -- just as a man could write or paint or compose independently of his institutional patronage.
Okay, now what you say about for the sake of sticking in your craw -- well, it sticks in the craw of every artist, partly because it is a misplaced generalization. Art is not for the sake of art, but for the sake of this or that artwork. It eradicates, in other words, the punctum -- the now of the artwork, within the confines of which one works -- in favor of the universal -- where there is no confining, and no work, and no fun.
But that is also not entirely true. Art absorbs art. Now when you make the choices i and ii, I think: hmm, does the artist know? I like the ineffability of the known object -- it is the earth, it is promised, and don't bother me with the contracts and the lawyers -- but I keep thinking, knowing about art is not the business of the artist, but the critic or the philosopher.”

That’s a shifty reply, I admit it. My move – to highlight the cognitive side of the word “know” – is not completely above board.

T., as a matter of fact, had a premonition of my move, and wrote me back:

“…not what the artist knows, but what the artist does (thinking, at this very moment, of Twombly's pencil marks on pigment adjacent to raw canvas). “

This discussion made me wonder about the phrase art for art’s sake, which I vaguely attributed to Gautier. I looked it up and found, on this site, some interesting background:



“The expression,” the site claims, “of art for the sake of art appears for the first time in Frence in 1818, in series of lectures by Victor Cousin, entitled ‘on the foundation of the absolute ideas of the true, the beautiful and the good.”

A few paragraphs down, we come to Gautier:

But it is the preface to the novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin (1834) that appears to be the first manifesto of the art for the sake of art school. Of course, a flagrant desire to shock the bourgeois is no stranger to Gautier’s attitude, with the “multiple love affairs of the diva, Madeleine de Maupin (Garnier: 1930,. p. 42). But at the same time he wants to vindicate his opposition to certain moralizing clichés of romanticism. Gautier reproaches the “moral journalists” with their hypocrisy, for, on the one hand, contemporary literature has nothing approaching the licentiousness of certain comedies of Moliere and Marivaux, and, on the other hand, “Books follow the morals of the time and the morals don’t follow the books.” But he really gets indignant at the utilitarian critics who ask, “what purpose does this book serve?” : There is nothing really beautiful that can serve anything else, for everything that is useful is ugly, being the expression of some need, and the needs of men are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor and infirm nature. The most useful place in the house is the bathroom. ( « Il n’y a de » vraiment beau que ce qui ne peut servir ; tout ce qui est utile est laid, car c’est l’expression de quelque besoin, et ceux de l’homme sont ignobles et dégoûtants, comme sa pauvre et infirme nature. – L’endroit le plus utile de la maison, ce sont les latrines » (p. 28).”



Perhaps it is an appropriate fate that the apostle of such a high brow doctrine should be generally known, in this country, as one of the fathers of the Mummy story – Gautier’s Novel (or Romance) of the Mummy was one of the first uses of the mummy returns motif in the 19th century. This site, with its story of the typically arrogant English amateurs entertaining Victorian audiences by ‘unrolling” mummies in front of them, ought to contextualize Gautier’s orientalism. I never found the Mummy a frightful creature when I was a boy. But I’ve always found the decay of the human body frightful. The Mummy, all trussed up with bandages like the cartoon of some Dagwood in the hospital, seemed terminally silly. It would be hard to mistake this genre for anything remotely highbrow – although I admit that I haven’t read the novel. I’m going to, though – it occurred to me that I should read at least one of Gautier’s novels. I’ve downloaded it – as you can too, gentle reader, here .

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Bollettino

A few notes on Schlegel

Chaoli’s article, as we said, takes off from a reply made by Friedrich Schlegel to an essay, On Perpeutal Peace, written by Kant. The translation of the essay is here:
It is interesting that the phrase of Kant’s that attracted Schlegel’s attention, Die bürgerliche Verfassung in jedem Staate soll republikanisch seyn, is translated as The Civil Constitution of Every State Should Be Republican." This disguises the force of bürgerliche, even though civil is a pretty good equivalent, since it derives from civus, OF the city. . However, there is a definite overtone of the concept of class – the class of the city’s worthies, to use the older English term - in the word that is rather lacking in its English equivalent. The citizen is not simply an inhabitant – which the American reader, product of the struggle for universal suffrage, might unthinkingly assume.

Schlegel is not well known to American readers. He isn’t, frankly, that well known to LI. But we’ve been reading up on him. He and his brother, August, formed part of the nucleus of German romantics. He was twice married, the second time, after a long cohabitation, to Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter. Schlegel was responsible for the turn towards India in German intellectual culture. He was an Orientalist. He was also the critic whose conception of Greek drama was attacked later, by Nietzsche, in the Birth of Tragedy.

Such is his outline. We looked up a famous putdown of Schlegel by Heine, in his book, The Romantic School. Here is what Heine has to say: “ .. I have to mention here [in the second volume of his book] that many French people have complained about how I have treated the Schlegels, (mainly August Wilhelm), with rather acrid words. But I think such complaints betray a lack of exacter acquaintance with German literary history. The French mainly know A.W. Schlegel from his place in the works of Madame de Staël, his noble defender. Most recognize only his name. The name sounds in the memory as something honorably famous, rather like the name Osiris, about whom we only know, that he was a wonderfully queer kind of God, honored in Egypt. What other curious similarities there might be between A.W. Schlegel and Osiris are little known to my French readers.

Since I once belonged to the academic scholars of the old school, one might consider that I should show some forbearance to them. However, did A.W. Schlegel show any mercy to old Bürger, his literary father? No. He dealt with him according to his own uses and traditions. Because in literature, just as in the woods inhabited by the North American savages, the fathers are murdered by the sons, as soon as they get old and weak.
I’ve already observed in a previous chapter that Friedrich Schlegel was more significant than August. In fact, the latter only fed on the ideas of his brother, and only understood the art of working through them. Fr. Schlegel was a deep thinking man. He knew all the glories of the past, and he felt all the pains of the present. But he had no conception of the holiness of these pains and their necessity for the future healing of the world. He saw the sun set and blinked tearfully at the place where it set and complained bitterly over the spreading darkness of night, but failed to spot the new dawn reddening on the opposite horizon. Fr. Schlegel once called the historian an “inverted prophet”. This phrase is the best description for he himself. He hated the present, was shocked by the future, and only exercized his revelatory vision on the past, which he loved. Poor Fr. Schlegel never saw that the pains of our time are the pains of rebirth; he mistook them for the agonies of death. Out of this fear of death he flew into the tottering ruins of the Catholic Church, which was, when all is said and done, the best place of refuge for a man of his sentiments. All things considered, he was full of the kind of animal spirits that should have made him bolder in life, but he finally decided these were sinful, and as sins, could only be repented. So this is the impulse that drove the writer of “Lucinde” inexorably towards Catholicism. Lucinde is a novel, and outside of his poems and one drama on the Spanish model, Alarkos, it is the single original work of art he left behind him. Recently, the honorable Schleiermacher has published a few enthusiastic letters about Lucinde. There are even critics who praise this novel as a masterpiece, and who prophecize, that someday it will be valued as one of the great books in the German canon. By order of the government one should take these people and treat them as they treat prophets in Russia, who prophecize some public catastrophe: they put them in prison until the time that their predictions come true. No, the gods will protect our literature from this particular piece of bad news. Just as Schlegel’s novel is currently neglected, it is fated to be condemned in the future, for the same reason: because of its trivial lasciviousness.