“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, March 24, 2007

edna st. vincent millay and hart crane

The Werepoet has been glorifying Edna St. Vincent Millay lately .

I’m a latecomer to Millay. In the summer of 2001, I contacted Inside New York to write a review of the Millay bio, Savage Beauty, that came out that season. Then I went to Mexico. I brought the book with me and read it as I did what I did in Mexico, and after a while, Inside NY got pissed with me. Where was the review? So I did it fast, and I wrote way over the word limit, and the editor, justly, said you have screwed the pooch, son.

So I dint make the easy on that, did I? But the bio turned me onto the work. And I fell for Edna. This was unexpected. See, I’d been suckled, or not exactly suckled, more like inducted into poetry in high school through reading the modernist masters. Admittedly, I did not understand Wallace Stevens – but I lapped up Eliot and Pound. When I played tennis with my best friend K. – glorious autumns at the Dekalb County Junior College tennis courts – I used to amuse him by spouting off bits of Gerontion. Patched and peeled in London. I am an old man in an old house. Waiting for rain. I’m not going to look and see if that is right, but it was right back then. Used to amuse the cross country team – I was a sporty little fuck – with the first ten lines of the Wasteland. Etc. My mom had more sentimental tastes in poetry. O captain my captain our fearful trip is done. Sort of thing. Funny thing, I’m her age now, and I, too, get tearful about o captain my captain.

So this wasn’t the kind of upbringing in which Edna st. Vincent Millay would figure as anything but a figure of fun, an uncool leftover. The sexist bias has slowly sloughed off over the years. Now, mind you, I’m not blaming the modernists. I understand how, buried beneath the vesuvius of marmelade out in the sticks, one kicks out – however, I do expect a little retrospective wisdom. I picked up the Library of America edition of Hart Crane, poetry and letters, today, and turned to the index, wondering what he’d say about Millay. Just one notice, in a letter to a friend back where he came from, Ohio. It was disappointing, but not surprising:

“I can come half way with you about Edna Millay – but I fear not much further. She really has genius in a limited sense, and is much better than Sara Teasdale, Marguerite Wilkinson, Lady Speyer, etc. to mention a few drops in the bucket of feminine lushness that form a kind of milky way in the poets firmament of the time (likewise all times), indeed I think she is every bit as good as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. … I can only say that I do not care for Mme Browning. And on top of my dislike for this lady, Tennyson, Thompson, Chatterton, Byron Moore Milton and several more, I have the brassiness to call myself a person of rather catholic admirations.”

Remember, you needed dynamite to become modern, or so it seemed, in 1921. Alas, the purge of poets was less excusable when all the cold war broody critics of the 50scontinued in H.C.’s vein., all those men and women with hornrims and a pessimistic view of human nature and going on portentously about the Great Tradition,

There is a certain funny turn here, since Crane, proclaiming his “esoteric’ taste for Donne, misses the fact that Millay’s street ballad style reaches back to John Tyler the Water Poet and the songs of the levelers and the diggers. Take Recuerdo, for instance. Millay effortlessly does something that Crane strives for in The Bridge:

We were very tired, we were very merry--
We had gone back and forth all night upon the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable--
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on the hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry--
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and the pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

I am only a little baffled by the line about the sun – it seems too easy. But otherwise, how completely elbows out is this poem? And we gave her all our money but the subway fares is so goddam perfect that, I hope, I don’t have to point out its perfection.

Alas, blinded by the need to kick out, Crane couldn’t see this. Plus of course he is the classic Midwestern type who comes to NYC and begins to judge among the quick and the unsophisticated. It is his way of getting an edge.

Why LI Hates the Left (echo echo)

LI has very simple reasons for hating the Left (there should be an echo effect every time that nasty little term is uttered): whenever the Left (echo echo) is part of the title of some essay, the alleged Leftist is surely going to use the occasion to support the war in Iraq, or support stuffing the Washington Consensus down the throat of Latin American, or denounce Chavez, or do variations on the power elite dance that are indistinguishable, in the end, from policies advocated by the Cato Institute (which is, actually, more antiwar than the Left (echo echo)) or the Heritage foundation.

Take a gander at a magazine like Dissent (or, if you have a stronger stomach, Democratiya – which by the way, what fucking dick came up with that title? do those people entirely lack a sense of humor?). The current online issue offers for your entertainment and progressive reading pleasure an article analyzing the Mexican elections (you guessed it – Lopez Obrador is an authoritarian, the future is in markets, there was no election fraud, blah blah blah) by Angel Jaramillo – a New School student specializing in (o Lord, take me now!) Leo Strauss.

There is also the editor’s intro to Dissent, which begins by pointing out, through the wisdom of a poll conducted by CNN, that the elections (ritual expression of gratitude for the Dems win) don’t represent some leftward tending by the electorate. Heaven forbid. The Left (echo echo) stands firmly committed to a third way that triangulates from the really conservative feelings of the vast majority of the population – and if the vast majority starts expressing a yen for lefty-liberal programs, it will certainly mess up the triangulation.

And then the editor (one Mitchell Cohen) proceeds to shovel this poop:

“Some of the toughest questions will concern foreign policy. Consider Iran’s aggressive ambitions. Here is a militant theocracy pursuing nuclear weapons, calling for genocide against a member of the UN, and seeking hegemony in a rattled region. It’s rattled, in part, thanks to disheartening U.S. policy. The United States has a long record of stumbling when it comes to Iran. Think of Washington’s support for the 1953 coup. Remember the utter incompetence of Jimmy Carter’s policies. In this issue we publish a remarkable speech made in Tehran by Joschka Fischer, Germany’s ex–foreign minister. He presents the stakes with candor. In addition, we feature a symposium on Iran and the West. The problems raised in the symposium have frightening implications. People on the left need to be thoughtful and not clichéd in approaching them. See Fred Halliday’s critical article on the romance of some leftists with Islamic extremists—the jihadism of fools. Not that there are wise holy wars.”

Then there is Halliday’s article. I hope he did a twofer with this one - it would fit so well with our comrades over at Telos! I'd go into it, but how much stupidity do I have to suffer for the sake of my readers? Okay, begin with muttering about widespread approval on the Left (hiss hiss – this is the bad left that cheers for the wolf instead of Red Riding Hood, the one that is being rescued by the good left, the Halliday-Cohen-Hitchens left, calling out to all comrades at sea) of the 9/11 attacks. Then the usual humanitarian intervention, Halliday fighting, of course, the fourth world war from an ultra Marxy perspective! It will be a killing field, boys, but fifty years from now, women will be freed from the veil. Mention Iran as a theocracy. That's a good one. That will show em. A dictatorship no less. And so, in the manner of the beloved Soviet Union before him, Halliday and his ilk temporarily form a popular front with the Cheney daughters.

Your average radio talkshow bigneck can do a better job with these threads and pieces than Halliday, but such is the sum of that thing called Dissent. Irving Howe, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you... oo oo oo.

My suggestion is: the LEFT (echo echo) should slit its throat with a big rusty razor. Basta! I know just how Robespierre felt. But have no fear, fearless Leftyites, you will be propped up for decades for your usefulness in creating a counterfeit ideology to flood the market. Case in point: look at, or weep over, the tender Saturday profile of the insufferable Kenan Makiya, the man who who wrote that the the bombs being dropped by American aircraft on Baghdad was "music to his ears" in 2003, as he wrestles with the demons of Iraq in the dangerous precincts of Cambridge, Mass. He is ... doing an analysis! I shiver and shake, thinking of the radical things that might come out of that! But let's see, I'll look in my crystal ball for a moment and find - everything he believed before the invasion was right! he was let down by the people. That's what I'd bet. Hitchens just reviewed his own support for the war and found it was right, too. I was so nervous - I thought he might think he screwed the pooch. So reassuring.

And so it goes, Leftyism serving the war culture in every way.

Surely some budding Sartre should somewhere should write a Naissance d'un guachiste as a matching set with Naissance d'un chef. The first phase would be the ultra phase. Capitalism must be overthrown. The rhetoric in this phase is all ruddy and bloody, the demands, oh, how they pile up! Our lefty is in full imperative mode. He knows that the people united will never be defeated. Phase two, of course, is the upward trajectory. The invites to write articles. Here, our lefty is mr. strategist. Ah, how he casts his sharp eye upon the field of forces! phase three is the NGO or the Academic post. Now comes the era of taking the temperature of the Left. He is continually sticking a thermometer in its, or his, ass, and reporting on the important numbers. By this time, of course, Left is his brand. But it turns out that not overthrowing capitalism right away has had advantages. The credit card, the tenure track, the kids' schooling. So time for phase four, which is democracy - or democratiya, for by this time the Leftist has lost any sense of humor, and finds the least hint of irony to be a bad sign - cynicism afoot and like that. Now he can bring his immense credentials, the threat he once posed to the whole capitalist system, to the crying need for human rights in some place that has to be at least two thousand miles from where he lives - and the rhetoric swells with the accustomed absolutes! But the battle now is against comrades who are allied with fascists - say it ain't so! but sadly, it is. All those comrades with the poster up of Mohammad Atta - oh, they may seem invisible, they may seem non-existent, but comrades, they swarm in the night!

And so on. As a career track move, I highly recommend Leftyism to the budding student out there. It pays richly, both in the moral butter one can swim in in the twenties, and the fat of the land one gets to enjoy later on.

But me? This is why I hate the Left (echo echo).

Friday, March 23, 2007

A troop of baboons in hummers

John Dupre, in an nifty little takedown of the use of rational expectations theory as the master key to all the social sciences in Human Nature and the Limits of Science, noted the convergence of the ideology of the theory with the ideology of evolutionary psychology – both emanating from a conservative view of human nature, the one derived from Adam Smith’s notion that we are designed to truck and barter, the other finding justificatory fables in nature for social hierarchies which, in reality, we see dissolve all of the time.

There’s a nice article by Amanda Rees that explores the primatology behind evolutionary psychology in the Fall issue of the History of Science. As anybody knows who has read comments threads on feminist sites, or any site that ventures into that classic boobish trope, men vs. women (why do women do this? why do men do that?), sooner or later the male as hunter and sperm sprinkler will emerge – extra points for the comedic effect of those whose only experience of being a hunter is buying hamburger in a grocery store trying to analogize working in an office with spearchucking on the savannah.

So where did the images come from? Rees points to the influential work of Sherwood Washburn and Irven Devore, who, in the fifties, studied and filmed baboons. Why baboons? Not because human beings have a close dna kinship. Such taxonomies were undreamt of in the fifties, anyway.

“Baboon social structure and ecology resembled the conditions thought to be characteristic of early man: both species lived in relatively large social groups, including related and unrelated animals of both sexes and all ages; both species had come down from the trees, abandoning the forest for the open savannah. Baboon life, it was thought, was likely therefore to mirror the experiences of early humans. Baboons too would have to learn to manage the tensions inherent in group life when that group includes individuals of different status and conflicting needs, and they would have to face the challenges of life on the plains. Forest primates had the option of disappearing into the trees to escape predators: animals in the open, like early humans, must have developed different defence mechanisms.”

Rees notes the presuppositions in Washburn and Devore’s work:

“When the baboon group moves from one place to another, they suggested, troop members were distributed in such a way as to give the greatest protection to the most vulnerable members. In their own words,
As the troop moves, the less dominant adult males, and perhaps a large juvenile or two occupy the van. Females and more of the older juveniles follow, and in the centre of the troop are the females with infants, the young juveniles, and the most dominant males. The back of the troop is a mirror image of its front, with
the less dominant males at the rear. Thus, without any fixed or formal order, the arrangement of the troop is such that the females and young are protected at the center.”

As they also stressed in a later publication, this arrangement provides maximum protection for the weaker members — approaching predators would be met by large, aggressive adult males on both the troop’s periphery and in the centre, before they could reach the vulnerable animals at the troop’s heart. This model not only reflected the ‘man-the-hunter’ model that dominated anthropology at that time — casting, as
it did, the males as the primary sources through which group integrity was derived and maintained — but it was also based on the assumption that it was possible to identify a single primate pattern (essential if one was to be able to generalize from primate to human behaviour), an assumption that derived from the search for species typical behaviour that was central to classical ethology, one of primatology’s
parental disciplines.”

One has to remember that Washburn and Devore are working at the height of the Cold war, when troops of the analogues to baboons – humans – were being planified into cars that drove on highways (in which the weak were crushed) that made possible suburbs that possibly dispersed the urban target from the potential missile hit. It was a man’s man’s man’s baboon world, and those who could not be attracted to buttocks that were inflamed with the right red white and blue as they worked at SAC – or the Soviet colors, as they worked at the Semipalatinsk Test Site – were not members of the order. Oddly enough, female primatologists found a different order indeed. Washburn and Devore’s student, Rowell, found something different: “Rowell’s work on forest baboons in Uganda found no sign of the typical pattern of troop movement: instead, she noted that when danger threatened, the troop’s response was “precipitate flight, with the big males well to the front and the last animals usually the females carrying the heavy babies”. Well, we can’t have deadbeat and cowardly Dad’s in the geneology, can we?

Rees’ account ends without primatology crystallizing around one paradigm. It includes the saga of Sarah Hrdy’s observations of infanticide, and how these were denied – which has become a little parable in primatology, much like Galileo’s condemnation by the Inquisition projected an aura of heroism on physics – but it turns out that infanticide is still a much more disputed event, in its meaning and evolutionary function, than the heroic story would make out.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

what the world needs now is... more about Joseph Joubert!

“God is God; the world is a place; matter is an appearance; the body is the mold of the soul; life is a beginning.

All being come from little, and it would only take a little for them to have come from nothing. An oak comes from a gland, a man from a drop of water. And in that gland, in that drop of water, how much superfluity! Every seed occupies only one point. The too much contains the enough; the former is the necessary place for the latter, and its indispensable food, at least in the beginning. The enough must suffer nothing in itself; [Nul ne doit le souffrir en soi] but it is necessary to love it in the world; for nowhere would there be enough nothingness, if there had not always been a little too much of each thing in each space.” – Joubert

LI’s animadversions about Blanchot, in yesterday’s post – the humble pointing out of a codicil that was wrong here, and perhaps not enough attention paid to this point here, cher maitre – received a couple of emails yesterday boxing our ears. Now, our point wasn’t really to diss Blanchot – honestly, while LI may be a puffed up idol of his own bad self, we aren’t so puffed up that we think the battle of LI against Blanchot, like the battle of Baal with Jehovah, would end in anything other than our complete route and desolation. Our suggestion is merely that Joubert’s project for a great book is, in the end, not a Mallarmeene project, and that perhaps there is reason to look at the function of literature within various lives not as a thing segregated or sacrificed for, but as an unpredictable force in a social set up in which rumor has a large place.

There is much in Joubert that suggests a turn to Pascal, especially in the use of conceptual analysis as a sort of fable – that is, a story with a moral point. The implicit nihilism of conceptual analysis – its way of dethroning traditional glories – beauty, large views, principalities and powers, the noble – becomes the way of ascesis, science here, serving as the puppet of theology, to re-coin a phrase. In Joubert’s case, conceptual analysis is always about atomizing the large, and then atomizing the atoms, until you have, on the one hand, the hardly anything at all, and on the other hand, a sort of potential immensity – God, in other words. The way this comes out in Joubert is oddly similar to passages in the Upanishads.

But the turn to Pascal is sorted through the very non-Pascalian history Joubert lived through.

“It is just by the face that one is oneself. The body shows the sex more than the person; the species more than the individual.

Below the head, the shoulders and the chest begins the animal, or that part of the body where the soul ought not to please itself.

There is, in the face, something luminous, which isn’t found in the other parts of the body.“



So far, in my sketch of the poisonous relation of Joubert and Restif de la Bretonne, I’ve cast Restif’s wife, Agnes Lebegue, in the shadows. But Agnes deserves better – poor woman, she never got it during her lifetime. There is a word that is frequently used about the way Restif treated her – avilissement. To make something or someone vile. Restif’s fame, which rested on his neurotic (and premeditated) confessing, makes Agnes’ fate peculiarly horrible. If she had lovers, that fact was exploited by Restif immediately. As we have seen, he even wrote a book about her entitled The Cheating Wife. As the estimable Beaunier puts it, she was “not that “whore’ [catin] who Restif too much insulted.” Restif and Agnes endured a lot of poverty before Joubert ever met them. Agnes kept the family going, sometimes, by her work as a seamstress making fashionable clothes. Sometimes, she moved back to Joigny, her village, and sold hats.

Touchingly, the affair between Joubert and Agnes began – and we have the proof in the letters Restif stole from his wife and published – in literature. This wasn’t Paolo and Francesca, however. Rather, Agnes claims to have been annihilated by the cares of marriage, the continual needlework, the racking poverty. “Dear friends,” she writes – supposedly to both Joubert and Fontanes – “you have opened my soul; you have shown me that I have the faculty of thought, of writing! I will consecrate to you the firstborn of that precious faculty.” Which she proceeded to do, daily – Joubert advised her to improve her style by writing him a daily letter. She is exaggerating, however, Joubert’s effect on her. In fact, when Restif met her she was a writer. Restif systematically denigrated the productions of her pen, just as he systematically exaggerated her ‘fredaines’ – her love affairs. When Restif published her letters, he was, in a way, finally publishing her writing – but in order to truly put the mindfuck in, he added to the letters comments denigrating him, her husband, while changing the addressee to make it look like she was writing to several lovers at once, thus making her out to be the kind of Marquise de Merteuil.

In fact, things had reached the point between Restif and Agnes that Agnes left the household. Joubert connected her to a lawyer, Stigmatin de Lamarque, not only to take care of the possible divorce, but to deal with the rumors, and the passing around of the manuscript of The Cheating Wife. However, the couple still had daughters. Evidently, Agnes still spent time in the apartment in Paris. Which is how, one night, Agnes, alone in her room, is intruded upon by her raging husband [“my hand, gesticulating, touched her hair two or three times,” as he put it, in a self justifying retrospective]. At the end of that night, she gave up. She wanted peace. She would give up Joubert.

But Restif won’t. He declares war on Joubert. He even declares war on the man with the false fingers, La Reyniere, who – in this battle – had taken Restif’s side against his wife. La Reyniere’s crime was to counsel against publishing The Cheating Wife.

“The end of the Cheating Wife is an astonishing thing. It had to be finished. Restif imagines, for an epilogue and apotheosis, the death of Restif. M. Marivert writes to Madame Marivert. [two characters in the book] He has come to Paris: “I came to see our friend. I found the two sisters in tears: he had just passed away. …” Madame Jeandevert (Agnes) gave out heavy signs of grief; an instant afterwards, she had a dry eye and a serene air. Thus, it is necessary that this crime be punished. And Restif narrates the death of his widow, the burial of his widow.
Morality: “This work is an arsenal for the defense of some persons actually living…” And those persons, it is only Restif, who, dead and buried, admits that he lives still. “Finally, it was necessary to make … the Milpourmils and the Nairesons [Milpourmil is the name of a friend of Joubert, Naireson is Joubert] ashamed, in showing them nakedly the woman for whom they sacrificed the friendship they had vowed to her husband.”

Joubert certainly found that even in the little apartment, the little circle about a little writer, there was enough superfluous emotion to explode in his face. There is a letter from his friend Fontanes, who is in London, at the end of the year 1785, responding to a question from Joubert, who wanted to know if, as Restif said, his novel, Paysan Perverti, were a bestseller in England. Fontanes assures him he hasn’t found the novel in the bookshops.

LI wonders why Joubert asked that question. We have a theory.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Ceasefire in Iraq now

Zeyad at healing iraq has pictures of what is in the garbage in Baghdad. Take a look.

The most important thing that can happen in Iraq is a ceasefire - because the violence will have no military end. The enemy will never be thoroughly killed. And of course, we don't even know who the enemy is, although if I was Iraqi, I would suspect that foreign power that invaded four years ago. An American escalation simply tests the fungibility of violence. The main thing is to stop it.

We are headlining this post with the traditional lefty imperative, such as you shout during demonstrations, thus demonstrating to all and sundry the disconnect between the infinite resources of language and the powerlessness of the demonstrator. Everybody is happy about that. At the moment, however, the tantrum has become the standard verbal form for ... well, peace love and understanding. That rather condemns the current state of the civilization, don't it?

The current state of civilization...

Let's spend no more money ripping apart thousands of Iraqi bodies, or continuing to promote the structure that helps Iraqi groups to rip each other apart. How is that for a long slogan?

what maurice blanchot never told you...

LI has been thinking about life and letters.

As we said in the last post, Maurice Blanchot and Paul Auster both wrote about Joseph Joubert in terms of the solitary writer, the man who goes back to the beginning, over and over again: dreaming of the great book that never comes. What comes, instead, is fragments that point towards that book, fragments that may, in the end, actually be that book, or as much of that book as there can be, in the same way that the man who sits before the gate of the law in Kafka's story discovers, in the end, that the gate was just for him, which in a sense is a triumph of the man over law - or, perhaps, is another trick of the law, erecting an impenetrable portal. This is one of the heroic images of writing, with the heroism arising within the writing itself, rather than being impressed upon the writing from the outside – as, for instance, in the heroism of Byron or Shelley or Hugo. And, as we all know, Derrida pitched his tent there, on the notion of a marked and surveyed boundary between the life and the letter, to demonstrate the oddity of it, and its incapacity to account for itself.

Blanchot in particular is a partisan of the fragment, and enlisted on his side Joubert as the kind of self effacing figure for whom the fragment is both the torture and the goal of writing. In The Book to Come he writes:

“It seems that the real experience (l'expérience proper) of the work remain incommunicable, the vision by which it begins, the kind of off the pathness it provokes, and the queer relations it establishes between the man we can meet every day and who precisely writes a journal of himself and that other being we see lifting itself up behind every great work, of that work and for the writing of it.”

However, Joubert’s case is, if anything, I’d say, a countercase to that of Blanchot's ideal writer. For Joubert, as Blanchot and Auster inexplicably do not mention, saw himself pretty much depicted in a hastily written book by Restif de la Bretonne. The book, “The cheating wife”, was written and published while Joubert was having an affair with poor Agnes, Restif’s much abused wife. The book was so close to the man we can meet every day that it included fragments of letters from Joubert to Agnes (and vice versa) that Restif had procured, using his oldest daughter to steal them from his wife, who at that point had moved out of the menage. To these letters Restif added his own malicious comments and insertions. Not only that, but he gave the Agnes figure in the book another lover - making it seem that Agnes had not only cuckolded himself, but Joubert. The scarifying experience of seeing oneself denounced as a parasite, a libertine, a housebreaker and a cuckold, with one’s love letters flaunted about by an accusing husband, might just have something to do with Joubert’s notion of the power held by the written word.

So: to take up the threads of this thing, as they are recorded by the ever excellent André Beaunier in La Jeunesse de Joubert. It is 1785. Joubert and his best friend, Louis de Fontanes, are now members of the extended circle around Restif. One thing to note about Joubert – he easily makes friends with the powerful. For Matthew Arnold, in the 19th century, this is a mark of his essential soundness – for, of course, Arnold has a pretty benevolent view of the class of worthies. But it is not altogether clear how Joubert makes these connections. In any case, he has made a connection to one of the era’s leading eccentrics. As we have noted, Restif saw his existence as a vast occasion for confession. He had a genius for vulgarity, for every type of perversion – even though he often set himself up as the enemy of perversion. Hence, the quarrel with Sade. He was a famous walker – like Diderot, it was his habit, come rain or come shine, to see what was up in the cafes of Paris. Finally, he was what we would now call a graffiti artist. It was his pride to write upon the stones of the Ile de France. He would write slogans on those stones, commemorate the great events in his life. Mes Inscriptions – this is what he called them. They were talismanic parts of his life. Later, in breaking with Joubert, one of his angriest accusations is that Joubert went and erased some of the inscriptions. Beaunier considers the evidence, and thinks it may be plausible that Agnes sent her lover to erase certain of Restif’s inscriptions, specifically the ones that proclaimed her a whore.

Already I hope you are getting a sense that Joubert’s education in the writer’s life, here, is much different from that life that is in ascent behind the great work. It is hard to find a form of writing more mixing of the life and the work than graffiti, especially as it singles out a certain person for insult.

As you will remember, Restif – perhaps to impress his young companion, perhaps because, like Father Karamazov, Restif was so debauched that his speech became a delicious species of perversity – told Fontanes a story about his accidental incest. Coming to his senses, latter, Restif realized that this story could send him to the Bastille – Restif’s nightmare – if related to the authorities. Restif began to suspect that Fontanes was planning on doing just that. Certainly he thought Fontanes had communicated the story to Joubert, and Joubert to his wife, Agnes. Now, Agnes did have two daughters with Restif, and Beaunier speculates that Joubert might have decided, on the basis of Fontanes’ story, that Agnes should know the danger posed to them by Restif.

And so the story will rest until my next post…

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

joubert and a troubled family: a story

“The world was made like a spider’s web: God pulled it out of his breast, and by his will he carded the filaments, unrolled them, and strung them up. What we call nothingness is his invisible fullness; his power is a ball of thread, but a substantial ball, containing an inexhaustible whole, which divides itself at every moment, in remaining always entire. In order to create the world, he needed merely a grain of matter; for all that we see, that mass which terrifies us, is nothing but a grain that eternity created and put to work. By its ductility, by the hollow that it punched and the art of the worker, it offers, in the decorations that came out of it, a sort of immensity. Everything seems full to us, everything is empty; or, better, everything is hollow. The elements themselves are hollow; God alone is full. But where was this grain of matter? It was in the breast of God, as it remains.” - Joubert.

Joseph Joubert - as I pointed out in the last post - wrote in such a way - as though he had to begin at the very beginning - that the mad, especially, can understand him. Which is simply to say that he wrote alone. This can and has been exaggerated. Blanchot, in particular, represented Joubert as a writer in the geneology of the great solitaries – of Kafka writing the Judgment and watching the dawn come up, of Proust in the famous and overfamous cork lined room. In reality, Joubert was one of the circle around… well, around the people we have been mentioning during the last couple of weeks. Around Restif de la Bretonne, for one, who was the friend of our friend, Grimod de Reyniere, the man with the postiche droigts – artificial fingers. An essay about Restif by Gerard de Nerval rescued his reputation, or at least sealed it, in the nineteenth century.

Restif met Joubert in 1783. Joubert was impressed by the always harried anti-pornographer. We have his notes to Restif’s “The last adventure of a forty five year old man” – and what adventure can us middle aged types hope for but a love affair?

Except things quickly took a different turn in 1783. Joubert was young. Restif’s wife, Agnes, was in her forties. At some point Joubert and his friend found a new apartment in Paris, and… unbeknownst to Restif … paid for it with Restif’s own money. Or at least Agnes’. There does seem to be a tradition among French writers of the older woman. Rousseau. Balzac. Joubert falls into this pattern, too. At first, the little things. A dinner invitation to Restif’s table for Joubert and his friend, Fontanes. On the part of Restif – except, oddly, he didn’t know about it. Agnes is happy to see them, though. And little gifts. Clothing. Food.

And so a picture is assembled. There is Restif’s family, who live on the money Restif makes by, basically, exhausting his secrets – he is a compulsive confessor. As Nerval latter notes, Restif is invited to the houses of the great to read, or perform, his confessions – a sort of ancien regime Spaulding Gray – but the great are surprised by the fact that, sooner or later, they become part of the confessions. The spider web reaches out, but remains always itself, entire. Here is the young, thoughtful Joubert, who Restif tells people is working on the ‘metaphysics of language.’ Here’s Agnes, whose bienfaits are a little excessive. Here are the family friends, like the man with the clawlike hands. Americans have so little sense of history that they are always thinking they have discovered things that happened in the 18th century: thus, the fascination with the personal matter that is divulged on blogs, showing, supposedly, an exhibitionism never before seen. Well, this was Restif’s bread and butter. He finds a letter to his wife from Joubert, and, changing it slightly, he publishes it. Restif isn’t a man who exactly welcomes being cuckolded, but he knows good copy when he sees it.

One should remember – Restif, moving in the circles of the philosophes, and writing semi-erotic literature, always was – or believed himself to be – a step away from the Bastille. As he begins to see the connection between Joubert and Agnes, he begins to get paranoid about further, political betrayals.

Restif has some reasonable fears. According to Beaunier, one evening, after dinner, strolling with Fontanes, “Restif recounted that a lot of things had happened to him in his life, and notably this: he had had during his youth a mistress. Having forgotten her for fifteen years, he reencountered her and didn’t recognize here. That woman had a daughter, Zephire, extremely pretty, who already lived ‘in disorder’. Restif fell in love with her, dreamed of marrying her and provisionally made her his mistress. “There was never such a love before.” Zephire dies. And Restif found out – the world is so small – that Zephire, his adored mistress, was his daughter. As he was completely depraved, he added, speaking to Fontanes, “that apparently the paternal tenderness amalgamated in his heart with physical love, making, in this mixture, a delicious sentiment.” Fontanes, visibly, did not like this anecdote.”

Well, I will get return to this later.

Monday, March 19, 2007

an audience of madmen


Ensor, les bons juges

I am not dying this year and may not even die the next year. Waiting for death year in and year out, I am growing restless. While death does not come, woes are approaching. Yet those woes are not approaching fast enough! – Li Chih (Li Zhi)

“You would even have agents, inspectors, who would send back to their houses those people who did not have the grimace of happiness stamped upon their lips.” – Baudelaire

LI likes to think that this blog follows certain secret themes, and that I invent those themes. I am the master. But any being that follows is, in one respect at least, not the master – viz, that it follows. This is not merely a play on rhetorical convention, as that random master who wakes up to his throat being cut by his footman, his maid, his garbageman, any of that lower level host, finds out in the end.

So I have been following a theme recently that is not even strong enough to be a theme. That is, strong enough to be subject to the truth table, where they strap down themes and take out their hearts and weigh them. From Wittgenstein to the Egyptian book of the dead, you know, is only a wink.

Well, that was my thought: all that we touch turns into mythology.

And into this I wanted to bring Gerard de Nerval, who, more than most, was hyperconscious of the mythological touch – he was the Midas of it among poets. And that brought me to Baudelaire, and that brought me to Baudelaire kicking the shit out of Jules Janin in a letter he never sent, and that I promised to publish.

But then I thought – hmm. Perhaps there is a whole geneology, one of those secret genealogies, who have had the thought, everything we touch turns to mythology. In their own ways.

Which made me think of the French writer Joseph Joubert, whose fans include Matthew Arnold, Maurice Blanchot, and Paul Auster, who translated him.

Well, here’s an anecdote from the essay by Paul Auster about Joubert. The translation was recently republished by NYRB books. But it first came out from North Point Press in 1983. Well, it didn’t exactly have a noble run – 800 copies were sold. But Auster loaned it to his friend, David Reed, an artist who had a friend in Bellevue. Reed left it with this friend: ‘Two or three weeks later, when the friend was finally released, he called David to apologize for not returning the book. After he read it, he said, he had given it to another patient. That patient had passed it on to yet another patient, and little by little Joubert had made his way around the ward. Interest in the book became so keen that groups of patients would gather in the day room to read passages out loud to one another and discuss them.”

There is nothing more flattering to a writer than an appreciative group of madmen. The mystery of the writer and the audience is second to the ways of the woman with the man, etc. Anyway, there is a rather hard to translate bit from Joubert about the presque rien that I’m going to translate in my next post for you lucky inmates.

Ceasefire in Iraq Now

Northanger left a comment in my last post (i think this is the first time i've ever heard anyone use the word "ceasefire" for the Iraq war) that made me ashamed. I haven’t paid the attention to the War that I normally do. At least, I haven’t been writing the war posts. This is due to fatigue. But let’s say a few things here.

- I have no doubt that there will be American troops in Iraq in 2009.
- While it is a good idea to demand the unrealistic – withdrawal of American troops now – there should be a broadening of unrealistic demands. As I’ve said over and over, in LI’s view, politics is about setting conditions. Or at least, the kind of politics LI can do. Movement politics.
- The unrealism is wholly political, and has nothing to do with American or Iraqi 'security'. The political elite in this country have a death grip on their favorite mistake. See the Washington Post editorial yesterday on Iraq. There is no one way to break that death grip. But it is important to see that the reality of it consists in its absolute refusal to face reality.
- And as important as withdrawing the troops is the demand for a ceasefire.
- A ceasefire would be about two things. First, freezing in place the current state of Iraq. Government troops would not try to oust Sunni insurgents in Anbar. American soldiers would not move into any more neighborhoods in Baghdad or elsewhere. Negotiations with only two conditions: no aggressive moves, and self-policing, should begin. All participants (unfortunately but realistically, this would even include Americans) should be invited to make their cases. Self policing would be an opportunity for all forces, insurgent, shi’ite militia, government police, to purge the ranks of criminals.
- Finally, the government should be willing to consider major changes to its organization. The clearly illegal constitution shouldn’t, in other words, get in the way of real peace talks.

There are plenty of things to criticize about the specifics of the ceasefire as outlined above, but none of them vitiate the need for a ceasefire. A ceasefire would, actually, condition an American exit. I don’t see an exit without one. It would allow the Iraqis, who overwhelmingly want the Americans to leave, to get their wish.