the art of the lickspittle

“A party of us were together one day – we’d been drinking, it’s true – and suddenly some one made the suggestion that each one of us, without leaving the table, should tell something he had done, something that he himself honestly considered the worst of all the evil actions of his life. But it was to be done honestly, that was the point, that it was to be honest, no lying.” – The Idiot

Dostoevsky is perhaps the greatest artist of the ugly story, the shameless and shameful anecdote. There are so many of them in his novels, and of course, Notes from under the floorboards is one big ugly story. It is obvious that Dostoevsky himself considers that he picked up the genre from the French. One usually thinks of Rousseau’s Confessions. Perhaps that is literally the source of the ‘game”, but, in broader historic terms, Rousseau’s Confessions emerge from a whole sub-genre of ugly stories. I could, perhaps, trace the psychology of these stories to the moralistes. But then I’d be here all fucking day, right? Rameau is, if nothing else, a fount of ugly stories. Of which, let me transcribe two.

The first story is funny, in a way. And the bones of it are definitely La Rochefoucauld. It is not about Rameau himself, but – like many stories – the telling of it sticks in a peculiar way to both the teller and the hearer - it creates a secret bond, the kind of bond that is pointed to, negatively, by the phrase, "I don't want to hear this." To hear is to have, to be entrusted with, to share and have a share in. In the Idiot, when Ferdyshtchenko suggests the game at Nastasya Fillipovna’s birthday party, the intent is a general degradation of all present, and for reasons intrinsic to that moment, it is what Nastasya needs to break out of the situation she finds herself in. But here is the thing - it is a degradation within the bounds of a game. It is the guise of the game that makes it acceptable, or makes it acceptable, at least, to suggest it. As a game, of course, it isn’t serious. But like the best games – like Russian Roulette – its non-seriousness penetrates what is serious, making the serious look shabby and shallow and suspect. As we’ve pointed out before, there is a game like, a ritual aspect to the dialogue between Diderot and Rameau. Here, then, is Rameau’s story.

It is about one Bouret. Fermier général Etienne-Michel Bouret – a tax gatherer. A man whose wealth allowed him to hope for social advancement in the complicated court circles of Louis XV. But there is a price to pay for not being born in the right class, there is always the price of birth. There is now, don’t kid yourself. Bouret, then, determines to win the affection of the keeper of Seals. This is a story that, with variations, could be applied to the Georgetown circles in D.C. at the moment, or – actually, to corporate achievers, going through the ranks, in any Fortune 400 corporate office. Variations of this happened at Enron. But let's get on with it, right?

I’m going to quote from the Penguin translation, as I don’t feel up to translating the whole bit at the moment. But I will make a few modifications:

Lui: “But if this role is amusing at first, and you find a certain amount of pleasure in laughing up your sleeve at the stupidity of the people you are hoodwinking, it ends up by losing its point, and besides, after a certain number of inventions you are forced to repeat yourself. Ingenuity and art have their limits. Only God and one or two rare geniuses can have a career that broadens out as they go along. Bouret is one such, perhaps. Some of his tricks really strike me, yes, even me, as sublime. The little dog, the Book of Happiness, the torches along the Versailles road, these are things which leave me dumbfounded and humiliated. Enough to put you off the profession.21
I: What do you mean about the little dog?
He: [What planet are you from]? What, you don’t really know how that rare man set about [scaring a little dog away from himself and attaching it to the Keeper of the Seals, who had taken a fancy to it?]
I: No, I confess I don’t.
He: All the better. It is one of the finest things ever conceived; the whole of Europe was thrilled by it, and there isn’t a single courtier it hasn’t made envious. You are not without sagacity: let’s see how you would have set about it. Remember that Bouret was loved by his dog. Bear in mind that the strange attire of the Minister terrified the little creature. Think that he only had one week to overcome the difficulties. You must understand all the conditions of the problem so as to appreciate the merits of the solution. Well!
I: Well, I have to admit that in that line the simplest things would catch me out.
He: Listen (he said, giving me a little tap on the shoulder – [he is chummy]), listen and admire! He had a mask made like the face of the Keeper of the Seals, he borrowed the tatter’s ample robe from a footman. He put the mask over his own face. He slipped on the robe. He called the dog, caressed it and gave it a biscuit. Then, suddenly changing his attire, he was no longer the Keeper of the Seals but Bouret, and he called his dog and whipped it. In less than two or three days of this routine, carried on from morning till night, the dog learned to run away from Bouret the Farmer-General and run up to Bouret the Keeper of the Seals. But I am too good natured. You are a layman and don’t deserve to be told about the miracles going on under your very nose.”

There are so many beautiful bits here (LI said, tapping you familiarly on the shoulder). For instance, the way the problem of brownnosing is laid out like a chess problem, just like the chess games going on around Diderot and Rameau. And the admiration demanded for something abject, something inhuman, something truly, in every way, shitty. To be willing to go to such lengths of humiliation in order to curry favor – the history of those humiliations will, of course, rise up again, ghosts that will torment the perpetrator. One can only assuage one’s own wounded pride by such success that one can enjoy the abasement of others – that endless chain. While much is said about masculine aggression contributing to that curious eagerness for war, there is also the revenge for the thousand humiliations that have to be crossed in order to get to be fermier general, or undersecretary of Intelligence in the Department of Defense – and that mass accumulation of humiliations among a group that considers itself the most powerful, the most just, the most benign grouping in history – ah, those are the boys to order the next bombing. The violence in this group is never pure, it is always muddied by obscure memories of toadying, the ingrown rancor. In another century, Bouret is Foley, Bouret is the gay evangelical preacher who gets the 100 percent heterosexual grade at evangelical redemption camp. Giving up the little doggie just for just a little taste of the highest level of cocaine - fame, power, acceptance by the guys who count. Being made. Ah, the bliss of it, the entire bliss.

The next story I reserve for the next post.


amie said…
LI, that Diderot passage is truly something!
It's one thing to bemoan that the system is stacked, or that 'meritocracy' sometimes might just involve something unsavory; one might even expose a few bad apples and shudder at them as would at someone cheating at a card game (in
an exclusive club). But as you know, such 'critiques', however 'laudable', do not really break up the game, in fact the game requires them in order to continue to function through it's 'crises'.

It's a whole other thing to point out that the figures in the game have soiled undies, and this is not an aberration tolerated by the game but its very requirement, and that much of the game is precisely about a rinse/spin cycle to clean these ineffacable stains and present a pristine figure.

Is it surprising then that the true sages, the one's who expose and refuse to accept l'immonde come across as buffoons?

(It's not by chance that the passage involves the "keeper of seals"?)
roger said…
I hadn't thought about the keeper of the seals. I'll have to look up to see about that person.

Don't you think the whole scene with Bouret sounds like something out of Fellini's Casanova? There is some core automatism about it - the mask, the feeling that this is, somehow, a puppet show or a dance of automata.