“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

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Calasso's perpetual war

Continuing the line of thought from our last post….

There’s an essay by Arthur Machen about a spiritualist who surprises himself by successfully conjuring up a dead spirit. Looking at the vision he has been pursuing, the spiritualist feels a hand go through him, which does not press his physical organs so much as it squeezes something unknown – his very soul. This contact proves to be so overwhelming that the spiritualist never again tries to conjure up a spirit.

Well, LI can’t claim to have experienced anything that grotesquely metaphysical when we read Roberto Calasso’s essay, Perpetual War, but we did feel contacted. The essay is about Kraus’ “The Last Days of Mankind.” This is a five hundred page play, an epic theater event never, actually, staged. Kraus wrote it during World War I, and read from it in lecture halls. Elias Canetti, among others, has described the fevered atmosphere that surrounded Kraus in the twenties at those readings.

Calasso’s essay does a number of brilliant things. For instance, Calasso shows how a modern version of stupidity intersects with the modern project of building an all encompassing war culture. Bêtise was the obsession of three modern authors in particular – its anti-evangelists: Flaubert, Leon Bloy, and Kraus. Readers of LI will recognize these as the patron saints of this site, although we maintain a more extensive hagiology – we throw in Peguy, the Shaw of the prefaces, Nietzsche, Marx and Engels (in their political journalism). In particular, Engels phrase, “the official legend,” which I find so much more useful than the term “ideology” to talk about the system of modern unintelligence. The official legend is where the marriage of betise and war is officially sealed. While it is official in the sense that the same picked over phrases from it occur over and over in the mouths of officials, pundits, soldiers, clerks, farmers, etc., it is never codified in one place or another. It isn’t a constitution or a law. The official legend not only brings about and justifies wars, but it tells us how to think about them, and how to pretend that our peaces are different from wars. According to the official legend, wars are subordinate to states, and derived from them. You have a state, which is a separate, substantial thing – emblematically, a human body. A leviathan, or a behemoth. And then you have war, which is something that may afflict a state, the way a fever or the measles afflicts the human body. Randolph Bourne’s phrase, which plays with this idea, actually leads us out of the nets of the official legend: war is the health of the state. Health is not derived from the body – it describes the normal state of the body. The normal state of the modern state is war.

Of the three grand inquisitors of modern betise, Kraus was the one who saw most systematically, and attacked with language St. John of Patmos might have whistled at. This is how Calasso puts it: “The epiphany that dazzled Kraus is the same one tht made Flaubert’s last years compulsive and feverish: the prodigious eruption of la betise as the beginning of a new era, an era paved and cemented with it once any kind of alkahest or universal solvent had disappeared. This appalling event, from whose light most people averted their eyes, was obsessively followed and properly recorded primarily by three writers: Flaubert, Kraus, and Leon Bloy. To them we gratefully turn as pioneers of a new science, the only one where we can follow the treacherous waverings of that uninterrupted experiment-without-experimenter that is world history.”

Calasso doesn’t strictly date the West’s official legend – it is not something of which you can say, now it is here, or now it is there. But it has symbols you can date. Calasso choses the symbol of the “blood tax” – the draft – suggested in the French revolution and fully operational in the Napoleonic wars. The draft indicates what the new state will be composed of: ‘human materials,’ as Napoleon’s strategists called them. The AEC, in the plutonium experiments it performed on patients in hospitals in Rochester and Chicago, labelled them “human products.” And, in a memo of great philosophic acuity, speaking of the downwinders, the inhabitants of towns in Utah and Nevada that were sprinkled continually with radioactive fallout from the above ground bomb tests, the AEC called them a “low use population.” The low use population, that atomized mass of human product, are known, on official occasions when the lights in the sky are the results of fireworks rather than beta particle emissions, as We the people – and such sweet people too! If you read interviews with the downwinders, interspersed with the usual stories – the tongue cancer, the boy born with extruded organs and no legs, the cancer that goes from house to house in places like St. George, Utah, and systematically eliminates the young – leukemia – and the old (like, forty to fifty years old) with variously sited cancers, and produces immune deficiency and diabetes 1 and muscular disorders and sterility and the oddly born lambs and foals, you will find inhabitants who might be nursing their last tumors saying things like, we had to do the tests because the Russians did the tests. Sinking on the good ship cancer, the human product gave heartfelt thanks to the captain. Or, to speed the film up to today’s exiting news, 37% gave President Bush good or excellent marks on his presidency.

Human product or human materials, the names have an effect. Just as God’s real name is supposedly part of the essence and power of divinity, the low use population’s real name is part of the essence and power of its anti-divinity – its essence, which is shit. But do not underestimate shit! It can be drafted, taxed, and driven to the polling booth to enthusiastically vote for its own demise. As Calasso points out, the most menacing phrase in the Last Days of Mankind is “Clusters form.”

“These two little words discretely accompany us in the stage directions from the very first page, the second line to bew exact. They swell like poisonous clouds for hundreds of pages and strike us at the end… when they are spoken by the Faultfinder [Noergler, Kraus’s stand-in] to designate the throng of bystanders who want to have their pictures taken alongside the corpse of the hanged Battisti, while the jovial hangman looks on. Groups are not expressions of democratic spontaneity. Their origin is much older. Groups always form around a corpse. When there is no corpse, that place always evokes the many corpses that have been there and the many yet to appear.”

It is evidence of Kraus’ prophetic sensibility that he could have foreseen those pictures that flooded Nazi Germany during the first, good part of the war – soldiers sending home pics of rabbis used as ponies, little Jewish kids strung up in a wood, the hustle of warmly coated German soldiers under them, protecting the Reich, all of the news from the front. And, indeed, news from the front in Iraq follows this pattern – but no in real time video, with a sound track from Elvis, mercenaries having fun shooting through the windows of Iraqi cars and such, with the official law between the provisional government of Iraq and the Liberating Powers such that no force in Iraq could touch the Pentagon’s contractors.

In the official legend, circa 2006, virtue and vice depend on an exact matching of the ideal corpse-set to the dictatorship and Islamofascism, and, on the other side, to liberation – with the difference being that the corpses produced by liberatory activity, when alive, ardently desired their own splattering, evisceration, or simple bullet through the head termination. The liberation’s corpses are much like the cartoon animals you see on billboards for restaurants in Texas – smiling chickens and pigs, chuckling broadly about their stun gun and chain saw futures. They are not only aware of their own sweet and delicious meat – they want to be eaten.

To get Jenseits der Bloedsinn is no easy thing. The method adopted by the inquisitors is that of extensive quotation. As Calasso points out, perhaps half of The Last Days of Mankind consists simply of quotes. To put the written or spoken in quotation marks was Kraus’ way of damning it. In the passage that analyzes this, Calasso, to my mind, reaches a point of true sublimity. I’ll end this gloomy post with this amazing passage:

“But at the same time, since his name is hidden behind the figure of a comic character (the Faultfinder), his words are a voice that no longer belongs to him and that guarantees the life of this nonstop spectacle. Their function is like that of the blade used by Chuang-tzu’s perfect butcher, who for nineteen years used the same knife to quarter thousands of oxen. The blade never lost its edge because “I let it go through only where it can” – in the imperceptible empty interstices. And Prince Wen-hui answers the butcher: Thank you, you have taught me how to prolong one’s life, by using it only for what does not consume it.”

5 comments:

roger said...

Ah, me. I wrote this in an enthusiastic fit and typed it up from the hastily scribbled page, and only tonight, going back to it, did I see several gross errors -- misplaced words, iffy constructions -- that I had to edit. Such is life -- and I was hoping to hatch a truly beautiful raven's egg here!

Amie said...

LI, i'd pretty much exceeded my downers for the day early on today, so had reasonable qualms checking out LI, but just want to say thanks for a truly fine post.
not to pick bones, but i do have a question re the calasso quote you end with - which is amazing and had me running to find the text.
which is this - baldly and badly put - how about about a thought to the chickens, those poor beasts feeling/feeding the blade?
is human stupidity - savagery - unrelated to its 'relation' with animals, les bêtes?
can one put such a relation in terms of stupidity - bêtisse - or incompetence?
i'm pretty darn sure you know about this better than me, but is not the industrial age also one of a frighteningly efficient, competent management of this relation, and also one that denies the relation?

(stop. third glass of wine. but, you mention Peguy! isn't Clio great?)

roger said...

Amie, am I that much of a doomsayer? Oh dear. Lately, I am. I admit it. The happy go lucky posts I've been meaning to write seem to come out as sick humor.

Anyway, re the bestial relation of man to beast. Certainly, in one way the further people get from the material production of animal foodstuffs, according to 19th century sources, the 'smarter' they become -- hence phases like rural idiocy by Marx (who was echoing an earlier remark about rural stupidity by Engels). And -- though this doesn't answer your question, it only opens it -- I am sure that one of the great, enveloping things that we are blind to just because it is so great and enveloping is the end of peasant culture, which was the human norm for four thousand, five thousand years, no? And now we have- according to Fast Food Nation -- these vast heartland meat factories staffed by immigrants where all the cattle go -- no more excellent, magical butchers. But this isn't a subject I know very well...

I'm a city boy.
Re Peguy, it strikes me that parallel to the quotation effect in Kraus is the repetition effect in Peguy. I don't remember if Deleuze puts it like this, but the repetition is a bit like auto-quotation, isn't it?

Amie said...

LI, sorry for my previous garbled comment. rest assured, compared to the real downers these days, LI is a veritable ray of sunshine!
i think you're right about Kraus and Peguy, auto-quotation and repetition. which would also link up nicely with Flaubert and B&P.
i hadn't thought of Deleuze in this context, but now that you mention him, i do seem to recall that Deleuze writes about B&P in the context of bêtise, somewhere in D&R?

roger said...

Yup. That's where he writes about Peguy.

Hey, thinking about it, although I am a city dweller by choice, the old man, at one time long ago, did make money raising and slaughtering chickens. To tell you the truth, while against factory farming in terms of the pure torture of the beasts, I'm no vegan. I rented a film a couple of weeks ago by the German director who did Cache - Haneke? -- and the plot of it supposedly revolved around a "shocking" film of a pig being slaughtered. The film wasn't shocking at all, except that instead of slitting the throat they used a special pistol I'd never seen used to kill pigs. It made me wonder about the blood, though.

My bro raised a pig for 4 h, so I have heard second hand about this.

It is like the scene in Roger and Me with the rabbit being killed and cleaned. That kind of thing just doesn't bother me, but it bugs me a bit that people who wolf down meat every day show such delicacy in such matters.