“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

Friday, February 16, 2007

sage and buffoon




I’ve been lining up sages, as you might have noticed. This is because I have a hunch that the sage and the buffoon share a destiny. I’m interested in the sage since I am at an age - middle age - a lying description because tomorrow, surely, or the next day, biking along, my backbone will be suddenly crushed in a blinding moment by a speeding truck driven by a hit and run drunk, I will see blackness, and then go down to the house of shades – when the sage should become important to me. And yet, to aspire to be a sage is such an obsolete and pathetic wish, the placeholder of that figure is so null and void in this culture, so completely disregarded, so much a joke moniker for some greyhaired keeper of baseball statistics or some fat brownnosing pundit oozing conventional wisdom and cancer, that it can only be a punch line ambition. (Well, so much for this culture, to which I give my middle finger). To my mind, the absence of the sage is not some natural event, but is all about that path through politics and history which the sage and the buffoon shared.

And having this obsession, I am naturally draw to Rameau’s nephew. For there the sage – moi – and the buffoon – lui – truly did meet. There are some odd and sinister things in that dialogue.

But this post will be about the backstory, the strange history of this text. While Diderot seems to have started it in the early 1760s, and polished it intermittently up until the mid 1770s, there is no mention of this text in the correspondence. That isn’t like Mr. D. The first we hear about it is after Diderot’s death. Schiller has a copy of the ms., which he gives to Goethe to translate. Goethe translates the ms., and then carelessly tosses it away. How did Schiller get it? Rumor has it that it was given to him by a German officer who came into possession of it in St. Petersburgh. Meanwhile, there is no published French version. Finally one comes out, published by a press run by “Le Vicomte de Saur” and “Le Compte de Saint-Geniès”, who seem to have been like Huckleberry Finn’s Duke and Dauphin. Their version, which they claimed came from an original manuscript, obviously was translated from Goethe. A rival publisher, one Brière, decides to publish a real version, so he applies to Diderot’s daughter, who gives him a manuscript. He publishes it, and in the process loses the ms. There is a flurry of charges and countercharges between the two publishers, but in the end, it looks like we will have to settle for the Brière version – when one Georges Monval, apparently looking for spicy books, comes upon it in the box of a bookseller in 1891. Always remember that, for most people, Diderot is still the author of one of the great fuckbooks, Les Bijoux Indiscrets, about a magic ring that could make a woman’s pussy talk. Anyway, this is the official Rameau we now all read.

In that transit, Rameau had come to the attention of Hegel. Hegel does a good job of pissing around the work in the Phenomenology. As we know, Hegel was a world champion pisser – he marked, with his gargantuan pizzle, all of world history, for instance. We have all dutifully followed him into the pissoir of the system, but we will never quite manipulate an instrument like the Man’s – and nobody else will, either.

We’ll start with Hegel when, in another post, we return to this subject.

among barbarians, do what is proper among barbarians

Li Zhi was a Chinese scholar of the Ming period, a contemporary of Yuan Hongdao, (about whom see LI’s Valentine’s Day post). He grew skeptical of the official Confucian doctrine of the day, and wrote books with titles like “A book for burning” – a title that prophesized the book’s fate. Chronologically, his life roughly parallels Giordano Bruno’s. This is from one of his letters:

“When most people write they strive to enter their subject by pushing into it from the outside; hereas I am already in there and make sorties to the outside, carrying the battle under the walls of the enemy, rummaging in his supplies, turning his own men and horses against him.”

Li is famous for, among other things, an essay entitled “Childlike Mind”. Here’s a quote from that essay:

Once people’s minds have been given over to received opinions and moral principles, what they have ot say is all about these things, and not what would naturally come from their childlike minds. No matter how clever the words, what have they to do with oneself? What else can there be but phony men speaking phony words, doing phony things, writing phony writings? Once the men become phonies, everything becomes phony. Thereafter, if one speaks phony talk to the phonies, the phonies are pleased; if one does phony things as the phonies do, the phonies are pleased; and if one discourses with the phonies through phony writings, the phonies are pleased. Everything is phony, and everyone is pleased.

Further, he writes: “… the best in literature always came from the childlike mind, and if the childlike mind continued to exist in this way, moral principles would not be practiced, received impressions would not stand up, and the writing of any age, any man, any form, any style, and any language would all be accepted as literature.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that a man who looks forward to the spontaneous society was considered a dangerous man. In fact, after putting away his wife and children – the usual cutting off of family ties of the male Chinese sage – Li published many pamphlets and essays that steadily cut into Confucian doctrine. In the Confucian system, the primary relationship was the parent-child relationship. For Li, the primary relationship was the husband-wife relationship. As his commentator, Theodore de Barry, from whose account of Li in Learning for Oneself: Essays on the Individual in Neo-Confucian thought, I've taken my quotes, says: … on the basis of the irreducibility of the male and female principles represented by yin and yang, Li denies the existence of any first principle at all.” Li’s notions made him object to the whole patriarchal structure of Chinese society. Even though he believed in the traditional gender stereotypes – the female principle being intuitive, the male rational – he wrote in his letters that the distribution of these principles in actual people was indifferent to sex – men and women, in his view, were intellectually equal. However, of all relationships, the one that counted most for Li was friendship – and even that, he believed, was not going to hold out until the end. This threw Li back on loneliness as an object of his supreme meditations – which is, paradoxically, the endpoint that awaits a number of related philosophic doctrines: the epicurian-materialist-libertine line in particular. You can see it in the Greek pre-socratics, in Sade, in Nietzsche – this movement to a solitude in which the self falls ill. The illness is a necessary metaphysical illness, a leaching into the bone of that colorless, odorless gas, thought thinking thought. This is, of course, the whole point – the point is to test the self against the greatest degree of loneliness, and see what happens. In Li’s case, apparently, he combined the hedonism of the libertines (he was by no means a celibate monk) with the idea of going further until, in 1600, in response to his revisionist history of China, a mob gathered and burned his house. Being a man with a witty sense of the title, he had called his history ‘A book to be hidden away.” In 1602, the government acted. The court ordered his books to be burnt. Li was put in prison, and committed suicide by cutting his throat.

“ The noble man accords with his station in life and does not desire to go beyond it.

In a position of wealth and honor he does what is proper to a position of wealth and honor. In a poor and low position, he does what is proper to a poor and low position. Situated among barbarians, he does what is proper among barbarians. In a situation of sorrow and difficulty, he does what is proper in sorrow and difficulty. The noble man can find himself in no situation in which he is not himself.”

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Neither science nor art

What is journalism, anyway? Is it an art? A science? A mixture?

LI has had an overwhelmed feeling – the heart thrashing around in the socks feeling – for the last week about the fucking awful coverage of the Bush administration charges against Iran. That the charges were made by anonymous sources so that they could be echoed by the President is obvious to any sentient being. This is how the White House operates – like a peckerwood junta planning a small town lynching. However, LI is naïve enough to be truly grieved that the Washington Post and the New York Times would cooperate in this business, again.

The form of the newspaper developed in the eighteenth century, which was the high water mark of Baconian science. Jevons, the nineteenth century economist, did not think highly of Bacon, and made an attack on Baconian science in The Principles of Science that damaged Bacon’s reputation for a generation. It is striking that the case against Bacon, as Jevons puts it, is so similar to the case against journalism. In Jevon’s view, Baconian science a., mischaracterizes experiments (‘I take the extreme view of holding that Francis Bacon, although he correctly insisted upon constant reference to experience, had no correct notions as to the logical method by which from particular facts we educe laws of nature), and b., had no sense of pattern – that is, he advocated the indiscriminate accumulation of facts, out of which he supposed we could induce a pattern (“Bacon’s method, as far as we can gather the meaning of the main portions of his writings, would correspond to the process of empirically collecting facts and exhaustively classifying them, to which I alluded. The value of this method may be estimated historically by the fact that it has not been followed by any of the great masters of science.”) Now, LI is not as much of a positivist about the inductive method as Jevons, but we do think that Jevons has hit on the image and practice of science in the eighteenth century in the main. Its sole continuation is in the newspaper. Jevon’s notion of Bacon’s method is, almost literally, what you will read in newspapermen who deal with the meta issue – people like Howard Kurz. The notion of “bias” – of a journalist being liberal or conservative – corresponds to the deeper, Baconian fear of hypothesis. The facts, in news parlance, are supposed to speak for themselves.

Given this fear of bias, journalists by and large are easily driven into being the sewer pipe for whatever nonsense the ruling class dreams up. The trick, the childish but apparently neverfailing trick, is the pretence that the ruling class wetdream is actually the height and depth of centrism. Centrism is the vague substitute for hypothesis for the journalist. And centrism is a felt quality – you feel it when you are: white; male; and make above 100,000 dollars per year. You don’t have to possess any of those three qualities, but if you don’t possess them, you have to mime them.

So: looking at the truly awful reporting about Iran in the last seven days, one is struck by how easy it is, given the Baconian presuppositions of the journalist, to go forward into pure fiction. Take the example of the supposed arms acquired, somehow, by the militias from Iran, and then acquired, somehow, by anonymous army officers. To understand this fact within a pattern, one should ask, firstly, more general questions about the acquisition of arms on all sides. This simple question, however, isn’t asked at all. It is one thing that (granting the truth of the dubious evidence for a moment), Iran is sending weapons into Iraq, and it is another thing if Iran as well as Saudi Arabia and other Sunni gulf states is sending weapons into Iraq. If our own little democratic, freedom lovin’ ally, Saudi Arabia is doing it (the same Saudi Arabia whose sandy hindquarters were recently licked, so copiously and deliciously, by Tony Blair, the poodle Tartuffe), we have a different sense of arms flow into Iraq. We have a larger pattern. Similarly, there is the problem that the Iraqi government, which is, or at least which we pretend to think is, sovereign in Iraq is allied to the Iranian government. Now, even from a Baconian point of view, these two parameters should be included in the reporting about Iran’s arms. They aren’t. They are, in fact, rigidly excluded. Thus, not only do we have newspapers operating with an antiquated scientific methodology, but even by the terms of that methodology, they are failing.

There are many reasons that newspapers are struggling nowadays, but one of them, surely, is the unconscious perception that newspapers simply don’t have a methodology to do what they do. They don’t have a sense of pattern, they don’t have a sense of hypothesis, they don’t have a sense of experiment, they don’t see the connection between questions, they don’t construct coherent and cohesive scenes of inquiry, and they serve as the most abject and servile means of power in its grossest and most malignant incarnation, all the while claiming an innocence at some distance from the swollen recompense accorded its most unscrupulous representatives.

This isn’t good.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

LI's five fold valentine's day wish to you all





Yuan Hongdao was a district magistrate in Wu County, with a rank near 7b, in the reign of the Wanli Emperor, at about the same time that Shakespeare was writing his plays. He was intimately involved with the examination process. The exams concentrated on the classics. I came across a citation from Yuan Hongdao on a French blog, Le Lorgnon mélancolique which made me curious about him:

Everything that touches on literature is very difficult to understand.

Those who do not have the talent don’t understand it; those who do understand exactly as little. Those who have culture don’t understand it; those who do have culture understand exactly as little. Those who have talent and culture, but a superficial character and a narrow chest, don’t understand it either.


So I looked up Yuan Hongdao and found this nice article about him. Just as I suspected, he was one of the clerks of literature, a Pessoa of the Late Ming period. He cultivated the art of perspective – that watch for the beautiful moment – but the burdens of his job, his routines, not only dulled his sensibilities but made him question the very existence of the beautiful moment. Yuan Hongdao is known to us from his letters. Even more than poems, letters are in a direct relation to both the beautiful moment and its terrible erosion, and erosion the aesthete can feel undermining him, but seems helpless to arrest. Campbell, the author of the article, is sometimes impatient with his subject, quoting this typical weary sigh, sent to his brother:

“ I passed through the area around [Mt. Heng] whilst inspecting flood damage and had time merely to ascend the heights, with no leisure to appreciate the beauty of the place. Alas, the green paddy fields of yesterday have become the white crested waves of today, and bemoaning the situation with the local elders, how could I find the time to doff my magistrate’s robes and act out the affairs of the true man of taste (zuo renjian fengya shi klmnop)? This occasion alone is enough to reveal the real suffering of the common minor official!” Not a word here about the plight of the common people whose livelihood had been destroyed and whose well-being Yuan Hongdao was responsible for!”

In 1597, Yuan was reprieved of his duties, at his requests. He packed up his wives and concubines, confiding them to a friend, and set out upon a sentimental journey:

Accompanied by his friend Tao Wangling, then back in Shanyin
on leave from his post in the Hanlin Academy, Yuan Hongdao visited West Lake, the sacred site par excellence, for the first time, to sit drinking in Lake Heart Pavilion as the autumnal rains washed the lake red with peach blossoms. He paid calls upon the celebrated monk Zhuhong ¥_ (1535-1615) at his Cloud Perch Monastery. In Wuxi, he sat for hours in the evenings, wearied by a day with his books or out on some excursion or another, listening to Old Storyteller Zhu recite episodes from the Shuihu zhuan [Water Margin]. In Guiji he sought out the “ true” site of the famed Orchid Pavilion where, more than a thousand years earlier, in 353, Wang Xizhi (307-65), the greatest of all calligraphers, had brushed his immortal “ Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection” .He boated upon Mirror Lake, tasted the famed watermellow of Lake Xiang, and climbed Yellow Mountain. Sitting one evening in his friend Tao Wangling’s study in Shanyin he came across a tattered edition of the poetry of the eccentric poet and playwright Xu Wei ¦§ (1521-93); he later immortalised this moment in a biography of this man that served as something of a literary manifesto.

LI could get lost in this itinerary! Anyway, I will end this post with the Yuan Hongdao’s vision of earthly paradise – which, of course, is my valentine wish to you, my readers. This is from a letter to his maternal uncle:

Your way of life, my revered sir, is a rich and satisfying one, for you lack nothing it appears and your days and years pass by with all the splendour of a flower. What joys you can speak of. To my mind, however, the true joys of the world are but fivefold, and of this you must be aware. To see withone’s eyes all the most sensuous sights of the world, to hear with one’s ears all its most beauteous sounds, to taste all the world’s greatest delicacies and to join in all the most interesting conversations; this is the first of the true joys afforded us.

Within one’s hall, to have food-laden vessels arrayed in the front and music being played in the background; to have one’s tables crowded with guests and the shoes of men and women scattered everywhere; for the smoke of the lanterns to rise to the heavens and for jewellery to be strewn across the floor; when one’s money is exhausted one sells off one’s fields; this is the second joy.

To have secreted in one’s book trunks ten thousand volumes, all of
which are rare and precious; to have a studio built besides one’s residence and to invite into this studio a dozen or so true friends and to appoint as master ofthem someone with the extraordinary insight of a Sima Qian, a Luo Guanzhong or a Guan Hanqing;40 to then divide them into groups and to have each group compose a book , the prose of which will be far removed from the faults perpetrated by those pedantic Confucian scholars of the Tang and Song dynasties and to have recently completed some masterpiece of the age; this is the third joy.

To buy a junk worth a thousand taels; to invite on to this junk a musical troupe along with a courtesan and a concubine or two and a couple of idle travellers; to have a floating home and mansions afloat; to be able to forget the approach of old age; this is the fourth joy.

If one were to indulge oneself in this manner and to this degree, however, before a decade had passed by one would find one’s money exhausted and one’s fields sold. But then, in a state of total penury and living hand to mouth, to ply the brothels with one’s begging bowl in hand, to share one’s meals with the orphaned and the infirm, to live off the favour of one’s friends and relatives, all without the slightest pang of shame; this is the fifth great joy."

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Freud reads the NYT, then uses it to wipe his ass

In one of Hitchens’ recent apologias for warmongering in Slate magazine ( badly written pieces displaying the inglorious dream logic of a cartoon bully, Popeye’s Brutus, a surface incoherence governed by a deeper, unifying desire – which makes them all the more useful in indicting the belligerent mentality for its sham moral posturing and its real sadism), he wrote: “In many … people's minds, too, there is the unspoken assumption that what the United States does in Iraq is a fully determined action, whereas what other people do is simply a consequence of that action, with no independent or autonomous "agency" of its own.”

This is, actually, not just in many “people’s minds” – this is the structure of the imperialist, racist and class based framework within which the reporting on President Backbone’s vanity war has been presented. This weekend, devoted to upping the ante on confronting Iran, is typical. The anonymous briefing given to reporters about the weapons flowing in from Iran to Iraq was so amateur that it received the deadest of bounces among the American public – and of course, in the rest of the world, there was no gasp of horror, just polite titters at the peckerwood hijinks of those running this here hyperpower. I exclude of course Blair’s perpetual, shameful Echo, as who pays attention to Blair?

However, the astonishing thing about the reports is that not one of the conduits of White House misinformation – the newspaper reporters, the editors, the recyclers of news for tv, etc. – has felt any need to ask what the Iraqis think about Iran’s weapons, or about Iran in general. It isn’t that the Iraqis are victims, “without agency” – they simply don’t exist as anything but props for the Americans, and that goes all the way down.

This is from the BBC Middle Eastern monitoring service:

“London, Al-Sharq al-Awsat - The Iraqi Government has stated that there is a clear US stand towards Iran and this stand does not necessarily agree with the Iraqi Government's view and stand. Maryam al-Rayyis, the prime minister's adviser for foreign relations, said the Iraqi Government and people have deep respect for neighbouring countries, among them Iran.

Speaking to "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" by telephone to comment on the US accusations against Iran, Al-Rayyis said: "We should separate between the Iraqi Government's stand towards Iran and the American one. The Iraqi Government does not want to be a party in the conflict between this and that country." She added that the Iraqi constitution was clear about this through articles stipulating that Iraq would not be a door or an arena to conflicts between other countries. She noted however that the new security plan "is one for imposing the law" that stipulated "there will be no party exempted from this plan, including neighbouring countries, if any of these countries proves to be involved in the Iraqi affair and undermining its security." The prime minister's adviser then said she was expecting the Iraqi Government's comment on the American statements to be issued later.”

This is about the only statement I can find on Factiva concerning the Iraqi government response to America’s masked accusations. But the Irish Times at least notes that, yes, there is an actual reality in Iraq apart from American fantasy. This is what it looks like:

“Two of the three main Shia fundamentalist factions, Mr Maliki's Dawa party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), are closely tied to Tehran.

As anonymous US officials made their allegations about Iranian involvement with Iraqi insurgents, Mr Maliki's predecessor and Dawa party chief, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was in Tehran for celebrations of the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Following a meeting with Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Dr Jaafari expressed regret over the arrest of Iranian diplomats and military officers by US forces. Two envoys were detained last December, one of them in the SCIRI compound in Baghdad, and five in the Kurdish city of Irbil in January.

SCIRI was founded by Tehran and its Badr Corps militia was recruited, trained and armed by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani, Iraq's president, has also had longstanding ties with Tehran. Dr Jaafari said the Iraqi government is trying to secure the release of the Iranians.

Nassar al-Rubaie, a spokesman for the third and largest Shia faction, the movement headed by independent cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, declared that the Sadrists have never received backing from Tehran. The Sadrists are, in fact, rivals of Iran's partners, Dawa and SCIRI, and adopt an anti-Iranian stance.”

The failure of the Americans in the Middle East was as predictable as the failure of Xerxes to tame the sea - it was the pitting of barefaced imbecility against reality, with reality sweeping the floor, three out of three falls, 3100 American dead, 300-600 thousand Iraqi dead, four million Iraqi refugees. Even in dream logic, you cannot wish for two mutually negating things at once. As Freud shows, the unconscious gets around simple negation by conflating desires - and Freud's thesis is still the best guideline for reading an American newspaper, as every day presents another uplifting story of wealth founded on exploitation dreams its own moral election. America is the land of calvinists at the Playboy Mansion. But American foreign policy under President Backbone has been infantile even by these standards in its contradictory presuppositions, confident that an American public that periodically throws itself into panics about UFO abductions and Satanic cults would follow along, the children behind the pied piper.

I think the children are tired, now.

Monday, February 12, 2007

art and provocation

LI has strong and stubborn ideas concerning certain subjects of which, in reality, we are abysmally ignorant. One of those subjects is tv. LI has always thought that the influence of tv is vastly exaggerated. But even so, this article by Jane Kramer about “24” was a bit of a shock. Apparently, “24” is a Fox show centering on a fictitious Homeland security unit, and the gimmick is that it occurs in real time:

“The show’s appeal, however, lies less in its violence than in its giddily literal rendering of a classic thriller trope: the “ticking time bomb” plot. Each hour-long episode represents an hour in the life of the characters, and every minute that passes onscreen brings the United States a minute closer to doomsday. (Surnow came up with this concept, which he calls the show’s “trick.”) As many as half a dozen interlocking stories unfold simultaneously—frequently on a split screen—and a digital clock appears before and after every commercial break, marking each second with an ominous clang. The result is a riveting sensation of narrative velocity.
Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, admitted, “Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.” According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of the forthcoming book “Torture and Democracy,” the conceit of the ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” written during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. The book’s hero, after beating a female Arab dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who has examined the available records of the conflict, told me that the story has no basis in fact. In his view, the story line of “Les Centurions” provided French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture than the racist explanations supplied by others (such as the notion that the Algerians, inherently simpleminded, understood only brute force). Lartéguy’s scenario exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies—that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.”

Well, no, the insecurity is that liberal societies are historically founded on sheer racism. Of course, while Kramer’s article does raise the hysteria level for a liberal like me, the description of what the show does is reassuringly ridiculous:

“The show’s villains usually inflict the more gruesome tortures: their victims are hung on hooks, like carcasses in a butcher shop; poked with smoking-hot scalpels; or abraded with sanding machines. In many episodes, however, heroic American officials act as tormentors, even though torture is illegal under U.S. law. (The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which took on the force of federal law when it was ratified by the Senate in 1994, specifies that “no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”) In one episode, a fictional President commands a member of his Secret Service to torture a suspected traitor: his national-security adviser. The victim is jolted with defibrillator paddles while his feet are submerged in a tub filled with water. As the voltage is turned up, the President, who is depicted as a scrupulous leader, watches the suspect suffer on a video feed. The viewer, who knows that the adviser is guilty and harbors secrets, becomes complicit in hoping that the torture works. A few minutes before the suspect gives in, the President utters the show’s credo, “Everyone breaks eventually.” (Virtually the sole exception to this rule is Jack Bauer. The current season begins with Bauer being released from a Chinese prison, after two years of ceaseless torture; his back is scarred and his hands are burnt, but a Communist official who transfers Bauer to U.S. custody says that he “never broke his silence.”)”

The show, of course, gets the onlooker wrong – it should make our torture voyeur the Vice President. The whole family of the odious shithead who presently fills that office are, apparently, big fans of the show. Does this fuckin surprise anybody?

The collaboration between the reactionary state and the resentful artist has a long and fatal history. It is the history of provocation. Oddly, I don’t think there is a history of this concept – although there should be. Although the elements of it go way back to the Egyptians, no doubt, I’d nominate Les Philosophes, a play by a man named Palissot that debuted in 1760, as the first modern provocation.

LI has been trying to trace the career of the Philosopher buffoon from Bruno to Rameau’s nephew to some figures in Dostoevsky. Reading Rameau’s nephew again, I came up, again, against that curious figure, the now forgotten Charles Palissot de Montenoy. The philosopher buffoon is not, after all, simply a hero, but a literary figure which, like all literary figures, finds unpredictable niches in the epigenetic media landscape. Shit, did I just write that? Well, leave it, and let somebody else figure out what that means.

Satire, of course, has always had a deep anti-intellectual bias. Burke must have given some thought to Swift’s Island of Laputa when he wrote his Reflexions on the French Revolution, given the way he displays a Swiftian contempt for the “theorists” who would try to re-engineer society. But Palissot’s genius was of the type that we can recognize in the up and coming muscular liberal or neo-con in D.C. First, attach yourself to a powerful patron with a complete lack of pride, bootlicking enthusiastically (see Fred Barnes vis a vis the Bush administration). Then, employ the arts of the class clown to make a name for yourself. Kick the weak, recycling old and tired clichés, launch various coy slanders, and – when all else fails – attack someone’s lack of patriotism.

Palissot must have seemed like a divine instrument to the forces of reaction back in the day. He was precocious, defending a thesis on theology at the age of 13. He was envious. He had an extraordinary regard for bigwigs – in his memoirs, he is obviously enraptured by the praise given to his comedy, Les Philosophes, by Frederick the Great – a king no less!

Palissot was obviously a man who needed a patron, and he found one in the Duc de Choiseul, France’s foreign minister. He first made a name for himself, after several mediocre pieces, with a play entitled the Circle, commissioned especially (oh heaven) for a party given to honor Stanislas, King of Poland in Nancy. This was the first time Palissot attempted to imitate Moliere. Having the usual heavyhanded taste of the reactionary humorist, Palissot thought the occasion was just right for making fun of Voltaire’s mistress, Mme du Chatelet, who had recently died. Mme du Chatelet was one of France’s premier mathematicians too – a learned woman! Just the thing to bark at. Alas, the play was considered to be in extremely bad taste – even royalty didn’t like it. Palissot went to the extent of writing a defense of the play to the king – and to the police chief of Nancy. The defense consisted of the fact that the elite, in Moliere’s time, were not offended by Moliere's plays. This is, of course, the alpha and omega of right wing humor – do not offend the powerful. That is, unless you have a patron you can rely on.

Then came Les Philosophes. “No play between Tartuffe and Figaro excited such passionate joy and such malicious pleasure,” according to the theatre historian Charles Lenient. There is an story Palissot told one of Napoleon’s officers – Palissot lived through the revolution and through Napoleon’s reign – that the only reward he got for his play was a smile, a mere smile, from Madame de Pompidour. Such are the rewards of the bootlickers.

The machinations behind getting the play put on by such a major troupe as a Comedie Francaise signaled that the play was not an ordinary play – it was a state sponsored provocation. The use of the arts to send political messages, persecute dissidents, punish factions – it is here in a nutshell, and it will be used again, in Stalin’s Russia, in Mao’s China, and in the U.S., where the tv network, Fox, that puts on “24”, now has put provocation into the media cycle, where it will quickly devalue.

Palissot outlived all the philosophes; in the age of Napoleon, he began to view himself as an illustrious enlightenment sage himself, and a protector of all things 18th century. The sports of the Napoleonic era didn’t quite know what to make of the crazy old coot. LI finds this latter part of Palissot’s life a sort of parody on the recent craze, among the warmongering set, for the Enlightenment. At least some more educated warmongers, like Gertrude Himmelfarb, has actually read, with mounting horror, what those philosophes wrote, which is why she wrote a book disputing the French pre-eminence in the Enlightenment (her argument isn’t so much revisionist as petulant). From romantic third world-ism to attacks on family, church and the war, Enlightenment writing is just the sort of stuff so richly denounced by the New Criterion, National Review, and Weekly Standard, issue after issue.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Iran scarecrow

LI's readers should check out Jonathan Schwarz's putdown of the insane Michael Gordon article in the NYT yesterday. Schwarz applies himself, as Gordon's editor should have, to the sources that Gordon is quoting, since Gordon is making a little two thousand year regression to a time when citing an oracle was the height of the scientific method. Since then, we got us some of that civilization - except sometimes, as in warmongering articles from the NYT.

And - to give us spirit for the long long long long war - do read Nicholas Hoffman's bracing column in the NY Observer. Like many journalists of good will, Hoffman has seen the sheer, well, you can only call it bravery of the American public as we face this truly terrifying threat of terrorist just walzing in, carting their four hundred pound suitcases full of nuclear material that any tom, dick or harry with a copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a screwdriver and an old Playboy can turn into a ticking bomb that you'd really have to torture a terrorist suspect within an inch of his life to find. But we have answered President Backbone's call to glory with a stoicism that will go down in the history books:

George W. Bush says he won’t raise taxes to pay for his war. “I strongly oppose that. If that’s the kind of sacrifice people are talking about, I’m not for it because raising taxes will hurt this growing economy,” he explained. “And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life’s moving on, that they’re able to make a living and send their kids to
college and put more money on the table.”

By those standards, Mr. Bush’s war has been a success for some New Yorkers. E. Stanley O’Neal, Merrill Lynch’s chief executive, did his best, in conformity with the President’s wishes, to put more money on the table by having been paid $48 million last year, up from $37 million the year before, a sum so small it
might have caused the President distress.

Another man who will be able to report to the President that he has been able to make enough of a living to put more money on the table and pay any college tuition which might be owing is Lloyd C. Blankfein of the Goldman Sachs Group, who brought home $53 million last year. All together, Wall Street’s five
biggest outfits were able to relieve President Bush’s mind by telling him that their top people were paid $60 billion in 2006. Doubtless the President, as soon as he was apprised of the news, flashed the joyful tidings to the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. No piece of news could be better calculated to stimulate
our soldiers and Marines to fight harder and make greater sacrifices for the cause for which they and Messrs. O’Neal and Blankfein, each in their own way, struggle in common.

In accordance with Mr. Bush’s wish that most of us move on from the war and give it as little thought as possible, even as a few of us fight it, a man named Stephen A. Schwarzman will celebrate his 60th birthday on Feb. 13. Mr. Schwarzman is a billionaire who, in deference to the President’s urgings, has
been spending the years since the two airplanes were driven into the World Trade Center making money hand over fist. If you are going to sacrifice for your country, there are few more deeply satisfying ways of doing it.

To mark his six lucrative decades on earth, Mr. Schwarzman is renting the Park Avenue society armory, where he and some 1,500 guests will do what rich people do on such occasions. The featured entertainer performing for the occasion will, it is said, be paid $1 million for his night’s work. If the other expenditures are commensurate, Mr. Schwarzman will have laid out $15 million before his head hits the pillow that night, content that, as his President wishes, his “life’s moving on”—and right nicely, one cannot forbear to add.