“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 01, 2005

Give them stones

“In Wilhelm Meister (Part I, Chapter XV), Goethe, on the basis of his own personal experiences, describes his hero's emotions in the humble surroundings of Marianne's little room as compared with the stateliness and order of his own home. "It seemed to him when he had here to remove her stays in order to reach the harpsichord, there to lay her skirt on the bed before he could seat himself, when she herself with unembarrassed frankness would make no attempt to conceal from him many natural acts which people are accustomed to hide from others out of decency—it seemed to him, I say, that he became bound to her by invisible bands." We are told of Wordsworth (Findlay's Recollections of De Quincey, p. 36) that he read Wilhelm Meister till "he came to the scene where the hero, in his mistress's bedroom, becomes sentimental over her dirty towels, etc., which struck him with such disgust that he flung the book out of his hand, would never look at it again, and declared that surely no English lady would ever read such a work." I have, however, heard a woman of high intellectual distinction refer to the peculiar truth and beauty of this very passage.” – Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex.

Reading over our last few posts, we’ve been struck – unpleasantly – by our easy usurpation of a trope that we once ridiculed in Christopher Hitchens – the use of disgust as a substitute for argument. Myself, I can’t read Wordsworth’s reaction to Goethe’s “dirty towels” without wanting to smack some intimations of mortality into the Lake Poet. The vice of wanting to leave out that between which we are born (inter fæces et urinam nascimur, as the ancient Christians liked to put it) did nothing good for English literature. And it probably does nothing good for political commentary.

On the other hand, with faeces et urinam running rampant in D.C., it would be wrong to repress the preliminary shudder before getting down to brass tackinesses.

What is a writer to do? Especially one who is basically powerless, and whose sense of the power worth having, that power vested in language, has turned cruelly against him – after all, by that standard, my powerlessness is not only a failure to achieve a position in life, it is a failure of the skill upon which I’ve staked my dignity. It is only when I raise my voice to the highest pitch that I discover that it is the reedy voice of a cockroach. I am essentially vermin.

Brecht said that humans learn as much from catastrophe as laboratory rabbits learn about biology. This phrase is rich in implications, one of which might be that just as there is a science that registers the rabbit in a certain order that is beyond the rabbit’s capacity to understand, so, too, there is a science, or at least an art, to catastrophe. Biology isn’t expressed in any one biologist, and catastrophe isn’t expressed in any one powerbroker. Rather, the artists of catastrophe exist in a community that works to make sure that the conditions of catastrophe bear down with a crushing weight on its victims. The members of that community don’t recognize themselves as artists of catastrophe at all, perhaps, but only in terms of the individual roles that, individually, seem to be about anything other than catastrophe: they are about petroleum, they are about chemicals, they are about tax policy.

So – to continue in the vein of disgust for a minute – our attacks on individuals here or there, our clever commentary on this or that political event, always seems to be just at a tangent to the real thing, to the catastrophe that is actually happening before our eyes.

Well, so much for our self-critical moment.

Now, to resume sniping.
Surely somebody should notice the parallel between the Bush administration’s criminal slowness to respond to the disaster in New Orleans and the Democratic Party leadership’s criminal slowness to respond to the disaster in Iraq? The two cases reveal a certain underlying attitude of D.C. contempt for the opinions of cockroaches like me, and a collective and superb deafness when we raise our reedy voices. I was particularly struck with this by reading two things this morning. One of them was the horrific description of life in Baghdad at the moment in the NYT:

“Over the past year, insurgents have come to control large swaths of western Baghdad, including Khadra, the area where Mrs. Abdul-Razzaq lives with her husband, Monkath, and their two boys, ages 9 and 12, in a spacious two-story house. Their bedroom window looks out on elevated highways that are the main arteries into the capital from the north and west, where insurgents have built up no-go zones.

Four times in recent months Mrs. Abdul-Razzaq has seen men, sometimes in masks, tramping across her outer lawn, lifting rocket-propelled grenade launchers to their shoulders. Once, several men shot at an American convoy from behind a funeral tent near her house. American troops often come to look for attackers. They have searched her house six times.

Southwest in Amariya, the area that borders the dangerous airport road, street battles between insurgents and the Iraqi police have been so intense that the two main grocery stores were badly damaged and have closed. Residents must now find food elsewhere.”

The other was this Ur-D.C. discussion on the TPM site of the “strategy’ of the Democratic party. It has that Chertoff note – detached, inhuman, complicit:

“From my talks around town I derive the impression that the current Democratic Party position on Iraq is to start saying that the Administration only has three more months within which to demonstrate that it is wise to "stay the course" in Iraq.
As I understand this position, it reflects in part the members' focus on the various appropriations packages and other bills struggling toward resolution before adjournment perhaps before Thanksgiving. They don't want to do much on Iraq this fall, or even in the winter.”

Reed’s post started the usual comment flurry: indignant readers are countered by the Chertoff-ian pragmatists, who assure them that the Democrats, having followed the triumphant path of Daschle so successfully in 2002, are going to do it again.

Adamantine hearts, these people. But not vermin – oh no, those D.C. voices will be heard. In fact, they will be shoved down our throats. as they have been for the past four years, on the principle that when your children cry out for bread, you should give them stones.

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