“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, October 23, 2004

Bollettino

LI has been reading, lately, of an early generation that tried to suppress, as it could, a terrorist threat that eventually destroyed their entire society. I mean, of course, the terrorist threat posed by the early Christians, and their persecution by the defenders of that inflation of the status quo known as Empire.

Unfortunately, the edition of Gibbon from which I am getting my unbiased account of the Christian pissants and the Roman mercies is the one e-booked for, I believe, CCEL. This edition contains not one but two sets of notes from defenders of the faith, who ardently gibber contradictions of Gibbon’s calm, implacable destruction of Christian myths of martyrdom. To read it, as I am doing, on an Microsoft Reader means going from a page of main text to a page of footnote, inside of which is nested another footnote, and so on. Thus, Gibbon’s eviscerations, which already punctuate his marmoreal dismissals with extensive and confusing abbreviations of ecclessiastical obscurities, are pursued by the further citing of ecclesiastical authorities by his pygmy Christian commentators, all trying to kick his ankles. It all gets to be too much of a mix.

Virginia Woolf wrote an appreciation of Gibbon that catches a lot of what he does. She notes that the famous style can seem, in the remembrance, monotonous – a rocking horse of predictable phrases, chosen to balance each other out on a principle of decorum that, in prolonged doses, induces sleep. But to return to Gibbon and read him, after that image and experience has been impressed on one’s memory, is to find that he is a sharper writer than you would expect:

“…we forget the style, and are only aware that we are safe in the keeping of a great artist. He is able to make us see what he wants us to see and in the right proportions. Here he compresses; there he
expands. He transposes, emphasizes, omits in the interests of order and
drama. The features of the individual faces are singularly conventionalized. Here are none of those violent gestures and
unmistakable voices that fill the pages of Carlyle and Macaulay with
living human beings who are related to ourselves. There are no Whigs and Tories here; no eternal verities and implacable destinies. Time has cut off those quick reactions that make us love and hate. The innumerable figures are suffused in the equal blue of the far distance.”

Woolf has a weakness for Carlyle that comes from the Stephen family – her father and uncle regarded Carlyle as the Victorian Bwana. But her assessment of the innumerable figures suffused “in the equal blue of the far distance” is exactly right – even if it is the impression over the long haul. For, as Woolf also writes, “Sometimes a
phrase is turned edgewise, so that as it slips with the usual suavity
into its place it leaves a scratch. "He was even destitute of a sense of honour, which so frequently supplies the sense of public virtue."

What we see, in Gibbon, is the construction of that curious thing, Enlightenment Regret. The effect for which Gibbon strove, in his history, was to make the intellectuals of Europe feel the loss brought about by the advent of Christianity as a sort of evening chill, a sort of sunset. This is a whole other thing from casting a skeptical glance at its mysteries. It is, rather, to claim that the effect of Christianity was vastly injurious to the course of civilization, the infusion of an alien fanaticism that poisoned the simple joy of life. Enlightenment regret, given this idea, twists the Christian version of the fall – the West’s original sin was to adopt a creed as ridiculous, undignified, objectionable, and productive of crimes both mental and social as the worship of Jesus Christ.

In order to make his point, Gibbon becomes the apologist for the persecutors of the Christians. It is interesting how he couches this point of view by drawing a contrast between the acts of such cultivated men as Nero and Pliny and the host of ragtag bishops who, three hundred years after the era of martyrdom, instituted their own reigns of terror:

“The total disregard of truth and probability in the representation of these primitive martyrdoms was occasioned by a very natural mistake. The ecclesiastical writers of the fourth or fifth centuries ascribed to the magistrates of Rome the same degree of implacable and unrelenting zeal which filled their own breasts against the heretics or the idolaters of their own times. It is not improbable that some of those persons who were raised to the dignities of the empire, might have imbibed the prejudices of the populace, and that the cruel disposition of others might occasionally be stimulated by motives of avarice or of personal resentment. ^66 But it is certain, and we may appeal to the grateful confessions of the first Christians, that the greatest part of those magistrates who exercised in the provinces the authority of the emperor, or of the senate, and to whose hands alone the jurisdiction of life and death was intrusted, behaved like men of polished manners and liberal education, who respected the rules of justice, and who were conversant with the precepts of philosophy. They frequently declined the odious task of persecution, dismissed the charge with contempt, or suggested to the accused Christian some legal evasion, by which he might elude the severity of the laws. ^67 Whenever they were invested with a discretionary power, ^68 they used it much less for the oppression, than for the relief and benefit of the afflicted church. They were far from condemning all the Christians who were accused before their tribunal, and very far from punishing with death all those who were convicted of an obstinate adherence to the new superstition. Contenting themselves, for the most part, with the milder chastisements of imprisonment, exile, or slavery in the mines, ^69 they left the unhappy victims of their justice some reason to hope, that a prosperous event, the accession, the marriage, or the triumph of an emperor, might speedily restore them, by a general pardon, to their former state. The martyrs, devoted to immediate execution by the Roman magistrates, appear to have been selected from the most opposite extremes. They were either bishops and presbyters, the persons the most distinguished among the Christians by their rank and influence, and whose example might strike terror into the whole sect; ^70 or else they were the meanest and most abject among them, particularly those of the servile condition, whose lives were esteemed of little value, and whose sufferings were viewed by the ancients with too careless an indifference.”

There’s a certain feline cruelty just underneath the surface, here, as the defense of civilization calls for the “milder chastisements” of such things as slavery in the mines. It is part of Gibbon’s irony that the reader faces a dilemma, reading a phrase like that: does Gibbon know what it meant to be a slave in the mines? To be worked to death, in other words, in a dark salt pit? On the other hand, of course, Gibbon did know that the numberless victims of Christianity had endured the salt pits and worse – the devastation of Africa, the silver and gold mines of the New World, the violent persecution of any ray of light that would make for human happiness – a liberal attitude towards sex, a love of material things, science, etc., etc. It is always to be remembered that the Roman world was the greatest slave society every assembled in the West, and that Christianity bore, as its most burning truth, a contradiction to those “sufferings [which were] viewed by the ancients with too careless an indifference.”

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Bollettino

The U.S. is gearing up for major war crimes in Fallujah. Apparently, the Bush administration, seeing that the attacks on Kerry for criticizing the Vietnam War have had an outstanding success, has decided to associate their candidate with their very own Iraq My Lai. Thus, pleasing that segment of the American public that values toughness, especially when it comes to squeezing blood from non-white skin. We are all so proud here at LI.

There isn’t a voice in the American press that is crying out against this. Hell, there hasn’t been a voice crying out against the inhuman and criminal methods developed by the Americans to enforce crowd control in the cities they occupy – random strafing by helicopters and drones, bombing that targets civilians, etc. The sham that Americans came into Iraq to establish democracy has long been exploded, at least in Iraqi eyes. The upcoming My Lai is a gamble. Americans believe that the Iraqis, being of a lesser race, valuable only insofar as they supply God’s white people with oil, are eminently enslaveable. Thus, we have put a part time terrorist, ex Baathist executioner up as puppet ruler of the country, to show what we mean by "democracy," and have pulled the strings so that any atrocity committed by the Americans against Iraqis will receive this quisling's seal of approval. This is known officially as loving freedom. However, the bet that the Iraqis spirit is so generally crushed that they can be ground indifferently into the dust has so far not paid off. We imagine that the upcoming My Lai will cause some kind of explosion in Iraq. It will certainly dwarf the video-ed beheadings of Zarqawi in terms of the scale of the homicide. Another bet: as we grind more meat from Iraqi bones, we will hear the oafish president sing more songs of the freedom loving Iraqi, like an offkey Josephine the Singer. It’s the same ageless rhetorical principle that moved the East Germans to call theirs a Democratic Republic.

Meanwhile, the NYT is catching up with events that happened a year and a half ago with a series of articles by Michael Gordon that merely reproduce themes more strikingly adumbrated by LI last year, in May and June. It is a spectacle: the war the NYT actively worked to provoke being reported on a year and a half late. We are waiting with baited breath for their indepth story revealing that men have landed on the moon.

The lead in the Guardian reads:

“This morning, ministers will sit round the cabinet table to hear Mr Blair and the defence secretary Geoff Hoon recommend that some 650 British soldiers should be moved from the south of Iraq to the centre of the country in order to free up American forces for an expected assault on Falluja and other centres of armed Arab resistance. This is a big decision for our country, for a variety of reasons, and it is right that the whole cabinet should be involved in it. Ministers will need to ask themselves very frankly whether the threatened onslaught against Falluja is an operation in which Britain should be involved, especially in the light of the disastrous and bloody attack on the town earlier this year. They will need to ask, too, whether the United States, with 130,000 troops already in the field, and tens of thousands others able to be flown in at short notice, really seeks British support for military reasons or for political ones. They will need to ask what the consequences of this move will be for the redeployed troops, who will now be at much greater risk of injury and death, as well as for the inevitably depleted forces left behind to maintain the peace around Basra.”

LI is being a little harsh on the Americans and their co-conspirators, the Brits. At least the Americans haven’t dropped poison gas on Fallujah, or at least not yet. Surely if that decision is taken, however, the U.S. media, courageous to the last, will investigate it – a year or two years later.

“Sometimes the Quarrel between two Princes is to which of them shall dispossess a third of his Dominions, where neither of them pretend to any Right. Sometimes one Prince quarreleth with another, for Fear the other should quarrel with him. Sometimes a War is entered upon, because the Enemy is too strong, and sometimes because he is too weak. Sometimes our Neighbours want the Things which we have, or have the Things which we want; and we both fight, till they take ours or give us theirs. It is a very justifiable Cause of War to invade a Country after the People have been wasted by Famine, destroyed by Pestilence, or embroiled by Factions among themselves. It is justifiable to enter into War against our nearest Ally, when one of his Towns lies convenient for us, or a Territory of Land, that would render our Dominions round and compleat. If a Prince sends Forces into a Nation where the People are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to Death, and make Slaves of the rest, in order to civilize and reduce them from their barbarous Way of Living. It is a very kingly, honourable, and frequent Practice, when one Prince desires the Assistance of another to secure him against an Invasion, that the Assistant, when he hath driven out the Invader, should seize on the Dominions himself, and kill, imprison or banish the Prince he came to relieve. Alliance by Blood or Marriage, is a frequent Cause of War between Princes; and the nearer the Kindred is, the greater is their Disposition to quarrel: Poor Nations are hungry, and rich Nations are proud; and Pride and Hunger will ever be at variance. For those Reasons, the Trade of a Soldier is held the most honourable of all others: Because a Soldier is a Yahoo hired to kill in cold Blood as many of his own Species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Bollettino

In LI’s opinion, most prizes are so much hackwork, and the most honest ones are still for pickles or pies in some shady Ozark ville. Still, our ears rather perked when the National Book Award nominees were announced. Last year, the award prostituted itself by lavishing unnecessary trumpery on Stephen King with all the aim of the float of some bankrupt krewe. This year, the award decided to repent with gruel and stale bread and nominated five writers who seemed more like names on some Iowa state creative writing scholarship more than the five writers who wrote the best American novels last year. These obscurities will not, alas, be lit by the giving of the award. Novels are not poetry – obscurity is not prized, in the novel writing field, as a piece of authenticity. Since we make a living reviewing, and read an average of one hundred new novels per annum (“these are the chains I forged in life…”), we have a pretty good chance of reading at least one of the candidates per year. This year, we had not read one of them.

And, by the descriptions we’ve read of the book, we doubt we will try to read one of them.

Happily, there is the much more interesting Booker. This year’s award actually went to literary merit – although you wouldn’t know it by the NYT story:

“Tale of Gay Life in Britain Wins a Top Literary Prize

"The Line of Beauty," Alan Hollinghurst's lavish novel about a young gay man negotiating the confusions, delights and horrors of life in Thatcherite Britain in the mid-1980's, won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday night, defeating David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas," which had been widely considered the favorite to win.”

The story goes on to tell us that the L. of B. is about Gays. It is, as we were saying, about gays. Did we mention it was about gays? And, in conclusion, it is about gays.

Undoubtedly, as with all of Hollinghurst’s novels, gay desire – gay gay gay – is the predominate template. One doubts, however, that your average Jane Austin novel would be described as being about straight life during the Napoleonic era. The reason to read Hollinghurst is that he is an incredibly beautiful writer. What you wouldn’t know, from the headline, is that the book is as much about class and money as it is about gay life.

About here I was planning on quoting one randomly selected exquisite paragraph, only to discover that my copy was gone. I dimly remember giving it to someone – but who? In any case, we’d urge you to read Nicholson Baker’s essay on Hollinghurst in The Size of Thoughts if you want to come to critical/appreciative grips with the writer – or just read The Line of Beauty for yourself. Oh, did we add that it is about gays? Gay sex takes place abundantly in its pages. Gay. Sex. Gay. Or as the NYT puts it, in a “can you believe it” sigh of a sign-off:

“Speaking to reporters after the announcement, Mr. Smith, [the spokesman for the judges] a member of Parliament, said the winning book's focus on gay life had not figured in the judges' discussions as they considered it for the prize.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Bollettino

“On September 15,1883, Dr. Hippolyte Bernheim (1840–1919), professor on the faculty of medicine at Nancy, France, reported the following experiment in post-hypnotic suggestion:

I instructed S that he would come back and see me after thirteen days at ten in the morning. Awake, he remembered nothing. On the thirteenth day, at ten in the morning, he was present . . . He told me that he had not had this idea during the preceding days. He did not know that he was supposed to come. The idea presented itself to his mind only at the moment at which he was required to execute it. (Bernheim,1883–1884, pp. 555–556)”

So begins a fascinating article in this Spring’s Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences with the Hollywood friendly title “THIRTEEN DAYS: JOSEPH DELBOEUF VERSUS PIERRE JANET ON THE NATURE OF HYPNOTIC SUGGESTION by Andre Leblanc.

Hypnotism – that unspeakable seduction of all the guardians of the subject’s boundaries – was very much in the air in the 1880s. The proletariat in Western Europe was becoming restless. A small detachment of the intelligentsia – journalists, autodidacts, the like – were dreaming of bombings and assassinations. The abolition of slavery was, according to the positivists as well as the Blakean prophets, all about breaking the mind forged manacles of mankind, and that image of slavery as a stage of history that had been positively negated seemed to prove that the political economy of capitalism was the expression of freedom – even if the more advanced avatars of inequality were adducing Darwinian reasons for the inferiority of one class and the material superiority of another. Still, how about the coal miners in Germinal?

The very existence of such a thing as a post-hypnotic suggestion implied that the mind’s struggle with its manacles had an unexpectedly tentacular and shadowy side. If the political economy had substituted self-interest for the libido, and if Victorians wove that substitution into its manners, the repressed was returning, oh so faintly, all along the line in the 1880s. Those who had eyes to see wrote novels. Nana was afoot in France, and George Du Maurier’s Trilby was about to be unleashed in England.

Leblanc’s article is about a controversy that occurred when Paul Janet questioned the whole notion of a post hypnotic suggestion. Where, Janet wanted to know, would such a thing be stored in the consciousness? Janet’s nephew, Pierre, who is better known to the intellectual historian, came up with one answer:

“Pierre Janet (1886) proposed the existence of a dissociated consciousness that remembered the suggestion and kept track of time without the main consciousness being aware of it. This was the origin of his concept of dissociation, which has become so prominent in recent years with the epidemic of multiple personality disorder, renamed dissociative identity disorder in 1994.”


Bernheim and Delboeuf had a different idea. They believed that the consciousness lapsed, periodically, falling into a dream-like state (perhaps for nano-seconds) in which the post-hypnotic suggestion was revived. As Leblanc puts it, while Bernheim suggested that there were alternations between consciousness and unconsciousness, Janet held that they ran concurrently.

What was this dream-like state? For Bernheim it was synonymous with the highest state of conscious concentration: “… we do precisely the same thing whenever we concentrate on recalling something or on creating a deep impression. The sensation disappears when we scatter our attention onto several objects at a time but immediately
reappears when we refocus our concentration. “The hypnotic state is not an abnormal state,” Bernheim added. “It does not create new functions or extraordinary phenomena . . . it exaggerates in favor of a new psychic modality the normal suggestibility that we all possess
to a certain degree. . .” (1886a, p. 103).”

All of these Proustian doctor types hung around Salpêtrière. like characters in one of De Sade’s less sexually charged contes, experimenting on hysterics. Delboeuf’s theory of altenration depended on the amnesia experienced during hypnosis being available to the waking state. His theory was that hypnosis was no different, in this regard, than sleep – just as we forget dreams due to the phase shift form one set of circumstances to a radically different one, so, too, the hypnotic subject forgets the hypnosis. To prove it, he found, inevitably, a subject to work on:

“Delboeuf first demonstrated his theory with Blanche Wittman, the star subject of the Salpêtrière. He and Charles Féré (1852–1907), one of Charcot’s pupils, abruptly woke Wittman in the middle of a hypnotic hallucination in which she was frantically attempting to extinguish her scarf that had caught fire. “On seeing her scarf intact,” Delboeuf wrote, “she wore the physiognomy of a person emerging from a distant dream and cried (the moment was solemn for me, and her words engraved themselves indelibly in my mind): “My God! It was a dream that I had! It’s strange. That is the first time that I remember what I did while a somnambule. It’s strange. I remember absolutely everything”

This, by the way, is a method we would urge on the Pentagon, which seems to be crowded with this century’s equivalent of Salpêtrière’s hysterics – namely, the neocons.

Janet disagreed with B & D He redid the experiment with poor Blanche, and proved to his own satisfaction that “…it was a priori impossible to remember one’s somnambulic state while awake. As far as he was concerned, amnesia upon waking is a characteristic trait of somnambulism and if this trait is lacking, it is because the somnambulism never occurred:”

As the debate between Janet and B & D went on, Delboef began to change his mind about the reality of hypnosis. Gradually, he began to think that hypnosis was a game enacted between the doctor and the patient. The patient’s apparent obedience to suggestion was rooted, in actuality, in a deep desire to please the doctor.

Post hypnotic suggestion, of course, suggests a refined version of the ring of Gyges. Instead of ring with the power to make one invisible, the ability to implant a suggestion in someone else’s head seems to make it possible for a person to do things without being a bodily actor. Since Gyges used his ring to rob, rape, and usurp, couldn’t hypnosis lead to criminal activity?

“When Paul Janet first raised the problem of post-hypnotic suggestion in August 1884, he severely criticized Bernheim, the country physician Ambroise A. Liébeault (1823–1904) and the law professor Jules Liégeois (1833–1908)—all from Nancy—for failing to show that their hypnotic subjects were either hysterics or afflicted with some other nervous condition. This was the first round in the famous war between Nancy and the Salpêtrière. Paul Janet’s paper was based on an earlier critique of a paper by Liégeois in the Séances et Travaux de l’Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in the spring of 1884.11 Liégeois’ paper presented hypnotic experiments in which subjects had obeyed criminal suggestions and urged that existing laws be revised to protect hypnotic subjects from being blamed for crimes engineered by unscrupulous hypnotists. This paper launched another well-known debate over whether or not subjects could be made to obey criminal suggestions (Gauld, 1992, pp. 494–503; Laurence & Perry, 1992; Plas, 1989). It so happens that Liégeois’ most formidable opponent was none other than Delboeuf. The problem of post-hypnotic suggestion is therefore intimately related to the problem of criminal suggestion, and as we shall see, Delboeuf went on to develop an extremely subtle analysis of the problem of simulation that plagued them both.”

For how that argument turns out, LI’s readers will have to read the article.




Monday, October 18, 2004

Bollettino

Our motto in Iraq

Finally, the U.S. has come up for a motto for its splendid little bloodletting in Iraq. In a story about the after-effects of trying to dislodge a murderous thug in Najaf, on the behest of a murderous thug in Baghdad, we came across the verbal stylings of one Carrie Batson:

“Capt. Carrie Batson, a spokeswoman for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said that the pace of payments for injuries, death and damage had picked up and that more than $1 million had been given out. "We will pay for damage, death, injury caused by us," she said.”

There it is: We will pay for damage, death, injury caused by us. Incisive, isn’t it, with just that hint of being against frivolous lawsuits which we know is the hallmark of the Bush interregnum.

Meanwhile, history is moving with lightning speed in the frivolous war. We no longer read headlines about Chalabi, our former man in Iraq, who has been making advances to Moktada al-Sadr. Oddly enough, Chalabi is now trying to find a place as a representative of the overwhelming anti-American feeling in Iraq. Trust a con man to change with the wind.


Juan Cole
recently had an interesting account of the current state of play in Iraq. It is the default in the Ameerican press that the U.S. represents the spread of freedom and dignity in Iraq -- a default that has so far resisted reality. Item: Freedom and dignity currently appear to be best served by reviving – Saddam’s secret police. There is no low point for the Bush regime – there is always a lower coming up ahead. Cole’s post begins with a report about who is arresting whom in Baghdad, taken from Middle East Online:

“Brig. Gen. Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, the head of the Iraqi secret police, has charged 27 employees in the Iranian embassy in Baghdad with espionage and sabotage. He blames them for the assassination of over a dozen members of the Iraqi secret police in the past month. He claims to have seized from "safehouses" Persian documents that show that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its militia, the Badr Corps, served as Iranian agents in helping with the assassinations.”

That the U.S. is stirring up the old Baathist anti-Iranian faction might be the most criminal thing done by the freedom loving occupiers yet. Especially as the last time Iran and Iraq fought, the casualty rate went to a half a million. Of course, not being American lives, they don’t really count, except on certain photo op occasions. So it is that the Americans will dig up a mass grave and show proper shock that this is how Saddam did things, and then quietly re-animate Saddam’s secret police, a move entirely consistent with the past bios of the Pentagon pumphouse gang. Meanwhile, these things go on beneath a vow of silence on the part of the major media, which spends its time publishing pieces by reporters lamenting that they can't get out in the country anymore, due to the risk of being scooped up and beheaded, or blown up, or simply shot. None of these pieces, of course, draw the obvious conclusion that maybe, if you accept being embedded with the forces of an invading army at the beginning of a war, you will be seen as synechdotes of that army as the war proceeds. However, it is funny that the press corps can't bestir itself to inquire about Shabwani – especially if, as Cole contends, he’s being groomed as second puppet in command, in case Allawi succumbs to the mortar laced atmosphere of freedom and security that currently swathes Baghdad.

“Shahwani is an old-time Baath officer. In 1990 he broke with Saddam, who is said to have killed three of Shahwani's children in revenge. Shahwani came out of Iraq and to join US efforts to overthrow the dictator. This summer, he was appointed head of the Mukhabarat or Iraqi secret police, which the US Central Intelligence Agency is rebuilding with $3 billion. Shahwani is alleged to be a long-time CIA asset who is being groomed as a replacement for caretaker Prime Minister Iyad Allawi should the latter be assassinated.”

LI used to comment extensively on Chalabi’s friend, Christopher Hitchens (who has fallen strangely silent about the man he called brother in his last book), but it is rather like shooting fish in a barrel anymore. It is one thing to adopt the politics of Robert Novak, and quite another thing to start writing like him. Unfortunately, Hitchens not only changed his philosophy, but exchanged the texture of his prose for a lifetime supply of old ham. Usually, the style is the true politics, the Ariadne’s thread that leads one through the maze. Hitchens snipped his thread – more’s the pity. However, we did read with interest the recent “debate’ between Hitchens and Tariq Ali on Democracy Now, partly because we just finished, with maximum dissatisfaction, Ali’s screed, Bush in Babylon. We will talk more about that debate in another post.



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