“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, June 09, 2007

And the winner is...

North, we missed the Belmont. Damn!

Friday, June 08, 2007

bon diable, good Doctor, and very bad author




Julien Offray de La Mettrie is remembered today for his book Man-Machine – and by collectors of curiosa, for his paen to the sex, The Art of Orgasm (L’art de jouir – which is often translated as “come”, which takes the French term, with its sense of a radiant and sumptuous pleasure, a little too brutally out of its semantic field). In his day, he was considered a thoroughly disreputable figure – a doctor, he’d alienated the medical profession by writing satires of famous doctors; a philosopher, he seemed unacquainted with logic and all too willing to take an undignified and mocking tone towards the ancients; and he was unashamed and undisguised in his atheism, or so it seems – the issue of La Mettrie’s atheism is still debated. After his death, a French writer said that his writing read as though he’d written it while drunk. Voltaire, who knew him, said his talk was as like watching fireworks – a minute of startlingly brilliant, followed by ten minutes of boredom. Voltaire met La Mettrie at Frederick the Great’s court. He’d been brought there when his patron, Gramont, died on a battlefield and he was exposed to the malice of the doctors and the Church. Friedrich II was a collector, and he gathered many semi-scandalous names to his court. Lessing wrote that even the King was shocked by Le Mettrie’s anti-Seneque, ou Discours sur le bonheur, and tossed ten copies of it into the fire.

Carlyle quotes two sources in his biography of Frederick about the death of Le Mettrie – a death surely was an inspiration to De Sade latter on, who dramatized so many of de la Mettrie’s themes:

… [At this time there occurred,] with a hideous dash of farce in
it, the death of La Mettrie. Here are Two Accounts, by different
hands,--which represent to us an immensity of babble in the then
Voltaire circle.

LA METTRIE DIES.--Two Accounts: 1. King Friedrich's: to Wilhelmina.
"21st November, 1751. ... We have lost poor La Mettrie. He died for
a piece of fun: ate, out of banter, a whole pheasant-pie; had a
horrible indigestion; took it into his head to have blood let, and
convince the German Doctors that bleeding was good in indigestion.
But it succeeded ill with him: he took a violent fever, which
passed into putrid; and carried him off. He is regretted by all
that knew him. He was gay; BON DIABLE, good Doctor, and very bad
Author: by avoiding to read his Books, one could manage to be well
content with himself." [Ib. xxvii. i. 203.]

2. Voltaire's: to Niece Denis (NOT his first to her): Potsdam, 24th
December, 1751. ... "No end to my astonishment. Milord Tyrconnel,"
always ailing (died here himself), "sends to ask La Mettrie to come
and see him, to cure him or amuse him. The King grudges to part
with his Reader, who makes him laugh. La Mettrie sets out;
arrives at his Patient's just when Madame Tyrconnel is sitting down
to table: he eats and drinks, talks and laughs more than all the
guests; when he has got crammed (EN A JUSQU'AU MENTON), they bring
him a pie, of eagle disguised as pheasant, which had arrived from
the North, plenty of bad lard, pork-hash and ginger in it;
my gentleman eats the whole pie, and dies next day at Lord
Tyrconnel's, assisted by two Doctors," Cothenius and Lieberkuhn,
"whom he used to mock at. ... How I should have liked to ask him,
at the article of death, about that Orange-skin!" [ OEuvres
de Voltaire, lxxiv. 439, 450.]

The ‘orange skin’ reference is to Friedrich saying that you squeezed a man like La Mettrie until you got the juice out of him, as you would an orange. And then you throw away the orange skin.

Of course, there is something mythical and mysterious about this death from eating a pie of disguised meat – to those with ears for the classical reference, one can’t help thinking of Thyestes, whose jealous brother, Atrios, served him a meat pie that Thyestes eagerly swallowed down. Then Atrios informed him that the meat of the pie was a mash made from the bodies of his two sons. Thyestes cursed the House of Atrios, with results well known in tragedy and psychoanalysis. It is to this famous pie-eating that Poe refers in the purloined letter - --“Un dessein si funeste, S'il n'est digne d'Atree, est digne de Thyeste”. Since the Purloined Letter is about substitution, too – in fact, seems to peer at the very nature of substitution, which is, of course, the very nature of myth – one can only ponder the eagle disguised as pheasant. The aristocratic bird disguised as the gourmand’s bird – which brings down the man whose essay on happiness, his attack on the stoic ethos that, since the rediscovery of the stoics in late Renaissance times, had been the hidden credo of the intellectuals, was one of the true scandals of the age. And for us – looking for the separation, the crack, the felure between wisdom and happiness – there is something going on in this substitution of meats in a pie.

Are these posts really going anywhere, the reader may well ask? And when are we going to get back to Danton’s Death?!!! Goddamn it. Sorry, but first we have to check out La Mettrie’s Discourse on happiness, which caused such offense to people like Diderot. And has been dropped from the canon since.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

not paul berman again!

LI has tried to bite our tongue about the recent rash of Paul Berman. Poison ivy I take, stoically, to be part of summer fun. You will never uproot all of it. But Paul Berman is a skin infection of a different kind. He's a fraud, in our eyes, and not something we want to encounter when turning on the radio. It is hard to write about the man calmly - and calmness is all when you want to stick the knife in deep. There’s nothing like a too eager assassin to muff the job. But since the World radio broadcast insisted on broadcasting an interview about his latest screed in the TNR, my patience is over.

Berman has accrued a lot of media capital over the years by being a conscience. A conscience is such a great thing to cast yourself as. Especially when you can be the conscience not of the powerful, not of the CEOs, not of the plutocracy, but the conscience of dissent - indeed, he's an old Dissenter dinosaur. Being the conscience of dissent means that you get to whack away at, say, the crimes of the Sandanistas as the Reagan administration arms narco thugs in Honduras. It means that you look out at the old and established mafia of CIA ties and Islamic fundamentalism that drove the cold war in the Middle East and you see - liberal softness for Islamic fundamentalism. A conscience means that you reprove unnamed liberals for beamingly looking on as Moslem fundies surgically remove clits, stone women, and generally tread on our freedom to mock, re the famous cartoons of Mohammed - in the age of Guantanamo, Falluja, and Grozney. The age, to put not too fine a point upon it, of Western countries killing lots and lots of Moslems. And Moslems killing not very many westerners. Liberals, as "Conscience" Berman notes with shock, have even dared to criticize heroic women, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, while making poo-pooing sounds at the Bush administration for banning Tariq Ramadan from coming to the U.S. It is amazing what these non-freedom loving liberals will do – up to and including criticizing the U.S. from banning speech by Tariq Ramadan! Freedom of speech means denying freedom of speech for people who secretly don’t believe in freedom of speech. Don’t we all know this? We all know this at TNR. However, those not in that charmed circle of bile and bad faith can only look at these people with amazement.

The best summary of Paul Berman’s argument is here. (You'll have to scroll down several posts).
However, a recent news item from Iraq forcibly reminds us of what an absurd world this is, where arguments about freedom of speech mounted by warmongers who have not had one word to say about the increasing restrictions on freedom of speech in the West as they harp on freedom of speech issues in Islam-ia garner interviews on the World, while the real suppression of freedom of speech in the service of tyranny – occupation by a foreign power – doesn’t even elbow its way into, say, a decent position in the b section of the NYT. .

Mosul Mayor Sacked in Political Cartoon Fuss
Mayor Refused Demand He Close Newspaper that Printed Maliki-Rice Caricature
06/05/2007 6:24 PM ET
By Namir Huran
Mosul, June 5, (VOI)- Ninewa provincial council approved on Tuesday a decision to sack the mayor of Mosul city for not taking measures to close a newspaper that published a caricature picturing US Secrtetary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a senior official in Ninewa province said.

"The Ninewa provincial council approved the decision to sack the Mayor of Mosul city, Aamer Jihad al-Jerjeri, as it found reasons to dismiss him," the Head of the council General Salem al-Hajj Iessa told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).

"The decision was approved unanimously by the district local council," he noted.

A conflict erupted between the mayor and the head of the provincial council last year, when the latter issued a decision obligating the mayor to close "al-Mujtama a-Madani (The Civil Society)" newspaper after publishing a caricature of the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embracing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but the mayor refused to close it, saying it violates press freedom.

Mosul, a Sunni city, is 402 km north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Darwinian blowback

In the past fifty years, there have been enough national wars of liberation against a technologically superior occupier that we can see a distinct Darwinian pattern emerge. The resistance always consists of varied groups. The groups range, tactically, from the moderate to the extreme. The moderate group is characterized by a sensitivity to civilian casualties and a willingness to find other than military solutions to the occupation. The extreme group is relatively insensitive to civilian casualties and doubtful that any other than a military solution will end the occupation. It should be emphasized that these definitions are about tactics. Thus, the most conservative mujahadeen groups in the Afghanistan war count as the most extreme, and the most nationalist and rigid faction of the North Vietnamese communist party count as the most extreme.

Now, in any mass killing of living organisms, Darwinian laws of selection are going to apply. The case of the Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan are exemplary insofar as these occupations (which involved, in both cases, puppet governments) were so long and so fiercely fought, with the occupying power using conventional weapons in an unrestrained manner. What was obvious by the end of both the Vietnam war and the war in Afghanistan is that the occupying power had essentially selected out the moderates. They are softer targets precisely because they are more afraid of civilian death and make themselves more open to compromise. That openness makes them easier, for instance, to spot – and if you mount a mass assassination movement, as the U.S. did in South Vietnam with the Phoenix program, you can count on this to achieve your objective. In the internal politics between, say, the NVA and the NLF in South Vietnam, there was disagreement about what policies the NLF embraced. In the beginning, Ho was serious about the peaceful struggle for unification, but Diem’s ability to repress the party and its allies in the South made that a dead end. But by the end of the war, the strongest surviving players were those most committed to a militarily achieved reunification – and they got it in 1975.

In Vietnam’s case, luckily, the dynamic was such that the most extreme players had to contend, in North Vietnam itself, with a spectrum of other views in the party. To put it in terms consistent with my Darwinian metaphor – the occupiers did not own the whole landscape. Part of the landscape was owned by the North Vietnamese, which put a counterpressure on the Darwinian selection to the most extreme resistors. Thus, the very tactics the U.S. used to pursue the war made the continuance of the strategy of armed reunification inevitable. The Americans, in effect, eliminated all those who might negotiate with them. The end of the war brought about a lot of hardship to those who had supported the South Vietnamese government, but the period of revenge was not especially brutal – less so, in many ways, than the American revolution, which of course concluded with the brief British plan of freeing the slaves collapsing, and the slave order once again re-established in the South.

In Afghanistan, on the other hand, there was no safe and sovereign place from which the resistance to the Russians could operate. Where the resistance had refuge – in Pakistan – they were not sovereign. Here, Darwinian blowback was much fiercer. The Soviets, like the Americans, were hindered by few rules. Like the Americans, they attacked civilian and military alike. Like the Americans, the Soviets were particularly eager to pacify the villages by picking out the rebels. And like the Americans, the Soviets unconsciously acted as a force of selection, tilting the landscape to the most extreme resistors.

This is what is happening in Iraq at the moment. Those who, echoing Bush, tell us that withdrawal will lead to a bloodbath not only ignore the fact that the bloodbath is happening now – they ignore the fact that it is the occupation, operating with grim Darwinian efficiency, that is preparing the blood bath to come.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

if nature makes you a hog, vaunt yourself in the muck

“The truth and virtue says La Mettrie, are “existences that have value only insofar as they are service to someone who possesses them… But lacking such and such a virtue, such and such a truth, will science and societies suffer? Let that be so, but if I don’t garner any advantages from them, I will suffer. Thus, is it for me or for others that reason orders me to be happy?” This is his commentary on Fontenelle’s phrase: If I had my hand full of truths, I’d beware of opening it.” Le Mettrie is, on this point, clearer and more frank than Helvetius. Besides, he doesn’t deny any more than the latter that the elevated instincts carry man towards a conduct that is, apparently, disinterested; but, according to him, men are made variously, and they must conform to their nature: “if nature makes you a hog, vaunt yourself in the muck, like hogs do; for you are incapable of enjoying a more elevated happiness.” – Guyau, Le Morale d’Epicure.

Plutarch saw the Epicureans as the enemy, and wrote an essay against them - ‘Against Colotes, the Disciple and Favorite of Epicurus” – which preserves certain of Epicurus’ writings and sayings. One of them, which is quoted with the imputation that Epicurus was conceited, was a sentence from Epicurus’s letter to Idomeneus, in which Epicurus thanks Idomeneus for sending him fruits to feed his – Epicurus’ - ‘sacred body’. The paradoxes thicken here, of course – for how can there be a sacred dimension if the Gods exist in supreme indifference to man? And how can there be a body at all that is ‘mine’ when it is actually a collection of atoms, as little mine as the drops in a river would form something distinct from the river?



Martha Nussbaum takes Epicurus’ phrase to be referring specifically to something sacred about Epicurus – the sacred body being the center of a hero cult. Thus, it is identified with one particular body, and says nothing about other human bodies. In this way, Epicurus’ remarks about his body are similar to Jesus’ remarks about his body – it was the body of the hero, the divinity, that was sacred.

Let’s say that Nussbaum is right. When a particular body has been singled out as something sacred, we have, of course, a charismatic moment. In a sense, the whole positional economy tends towards the charismatic – it is the absolute level of positioning, the good that cannot be traded. But it can be shared – by symbolic cannibalism, by sex, by the word. That sharing is a sacrifice – the absolute sacrifice of the sacred is to annihilate itself on the altar of the sacred, and thus renew itself – in a triumph of romance over logic. But that avenue is blocked for the Epicurean. Which is why I’d hypothesize – boldly – that the sacredness is connected or coordinated with the Epicurean notion of pleasure.

Whether or not this has any validity in the ancient context, in the seventeenth century context, in which Epicurus served as both a counter to the ascetism of the Church and a counter to the dualism of Descartes, the libertin legitimated volupté by claiming that it had its root in Epicurus’ thought. Volupté, for Bayle, for instance, was a sort of philosophical calming of desires – la beatitude de l’homme consiste à etre à son aise. Here is the forerunner of bourgeois comfort, which already had its art in thousands of Dutch paintings. Bayle refuted the idea that Epicureanism would mean having impure commerce with women, gluttony, intoxication. Rather, the Epicurean struggles against the unruly passions. That form of ascesis clears Epicure, in Bayle’s view, of the scandals associated with ‘volupté”.

However, sixty years later, Le Mettrie is already writing about acting as a pig if it is your nature to act as a pig. We are already moving from the dawn of embourgeoisement to the ethics of Pere Karamazov. Volupté is not as simple as it seems.

the withdrawal project blog starts

I've started the Withdrawal blog - the first step in the Withdrawal project. I hope to transfer all the posts on LI about Iraq - there must be three hundred of them at least - to the Withdrawal blog. Then I'm going to include much more inclusive links. Finally, the blog will then be open to those who want to contribute posts. They'll merely have to ask me for the password.

It is a small step. The Withdrawal project is certainly not about starting another fucking blog, but it needs a base. I haven't yet started the search for a power point pro. I need to put up some notices. Remember, readers, to send me suggestions.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

emblems: There is a Fate beyond us

One of Tennyson’s poems describes the story of Persephone and Demeter. The beginning of the poem has that sensuous, Poussin-like beauty that was Tennyson’s greatest gift:

“Faint as a climate-changing bird that flies
All night across the darkness, and at dawn
Falls on the threshold of her native land,
And can no more, thou camest, O my child,
Led upward by the God of ghosts and dreams,
Who laid thee at Eleusis, dazed and dumb
With passing thro’ at once from state to state,
Until I brought thee hither, that the day,
When here thy hands let fall the gather’d flower,
Might break thro’ clouded memories once again
On thy lost self. A sudden nightingale
Saw thee, and flash’d into a frolic of song
And welcome; and a gleam as of the moon,
When first she peers along the tremulous deep,
Fled wavering o’er thy face, and chased away
That shadow of a likeness to the king
Of shadows, thy dark mate. Persephone!
Queen of the dead no more–my child! Thine eyes
Again were human-godlike, and the Sun
Burst from a swimming fleece of winter gray,
And robed thee in his day from head to feet–
‘Mother!’ and I was folded in thine arms.”

I put these verses here as an emblematic mark, an allegorical pattern to brood over, under which I aim to discuss the disunion of wisdom and happiness, a halving that has effects in more dimensions than the innocent householder might imagine. The path is full of emblems. The grid is full of omissions. There are zeros on the wire. The history that leads to the cultural exile of the sage is a part of the history of happiness and how the honey has soured in American mouths. In a sense, what LI is doing here is simply ripping off what Yeats’ did in the Vision – finding masks for a personal dissent, which becomes cosmic only as it merges private to public images in a single sweeping flame, and allows that flame to burn through all persona. Let the flame wear the masks.

So: if I quote this verse that begins with a migratory bird falling exhausted on the threshold, begins with the cost of the rhythms of nature, the infinite victimage, Lasalle's pendulum universe in all its parts askew, unbalanced – it is to put in place a mythical background to the disunion I’m tracing. And no, it is no father son affair. It strikes me that the decay of the sage and the triumph of an increasingly alien happiness is connected, by a multitude of subtle implications – to the disunion of Persephone and Demeter. For those of you not hip to the hop re this myth, here’s the drastic recap:


Persephone was playing with her friends, the daughters of Oceanus, gathering flowers in a Sicilian field, when she saw – as it says in the Homeric hymn to Demeter – “Earth with its wide roads gaped/and then over the Nysian field the lord and All-receiver,/the many-named son of Kronos, sprang out upon her with his immortal horses” – and that was it. She was gone in that moment, gone infinitely, in a sense – gone to the essence of gone, gone to the dead. Tennyson’s poem takes up the traditional narrative of her mother Demeter’s wandering as she roams the earth, in mourning, looking for her missing daughter. Here, Demeter comes upon the fates:

“On three gray heads beneath a gleaming rift.
‘Where’? and I heard one voice from all the three
‘We know not, for we spin the lives of men,
And not of Gods, and know not why we spin!
There is a Fate beyond us.’ Nothing knew.”

Well, the Fate beyond fate is extremely interesting to LI. We will come back to that later. Anyway, Demeter finally found out what happened to her daughter when she was sent a vision:

“… the God of dreams, who heard my cry,
Drew from thyself the likeness of thyself
Without thy knowledge, and thy shadow past
Before me, crying ‘The Bright one in the highest
Is brother of the Dark one in the lowest,
And Bright and Dark have sworn that I, the child
Of thee, the great Earth-Mother, thee, the Power
That lifts her buried life from gloom to bloom,
Should be for ever and for evermore
The Bride of Darkness.’”

In response to this rape, Demeter cursed the earth until Persephone was allowed to return to the earth for nine months of the year. The other three months are winter. Or so it goes in Tennyson's poem, a variant of that old myth.

To snap the allegory together, here: the sterility under which the earth groaned when Demeter learned of the rape of her daughter is the image of the sterility under which the Earth groans now, as a form of happiness ripped from all contexts, and especially its coupling with wisdom, reigns serenely over the highways, byways, shopping centers and fishless oceans – the fucked out world of late capitalism. While it is a mad and eccentric vector into the heart of our current disorders, LI’s obsession with the expulsion of the sage isn’t totally dimwitted.

Well, tomorrow’s post will be about the vexed problem of how to translate ‘volupté’.

Monday, June 04, 2007

the pursuit of unhappiness is fundamental to liberty

“Thus, let us carefully keep the thirst for immortality within us from drying up; better to suffer gloriously in a great circle, than to be pierced by a thousand pins in some obscure corner of the world.” – Herault de Sechelles.

In following the figure of Epicure, and the notion of epicurean materialism, LI is following a thought that we have played with for some time. It is that the pursuit of happiness has distorted the civilizing metric that really counts, which is of the quality of one’s unhappiness. Only after a certain level of material comfort is achieved does the question of doing without that comfort take on a deliberate cast. To break the spell of that collection of habits that went into primitive accumulation requires having reached a point at which one can turn around – a point at which inversion is possible. To quote Buchner’s letter again: “The word must is one of the curses with which Mankind is baptized. The saying: It must needs be that offenses come; but woe to him by whom the offense cometh” is terrifying. What is it in us that lies, murders, steals? I no longer care to pursue this thought.” The must is stamped on that struggle to accumulate – it is stamped on the material economy. It is also stamped on the positional economy – and the place where the two meet is that which, in us, “lies, murders, steals”.

An essay by Pierre Hadot, “There Are Nowadays Professors of Philosophy, but not Philosophers,” picks up on the Epicurean strain in Thoreau’s Walden, especially in the account of the encroachment of labor, the habits of a utilitarian servility, upon the ‘vital heat' of the human.


If Thoreau thus leaves to live in the woods, this is evidently not only for maintaining his vital heat in the most economical way possible, but it is that he wants “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”11 “I wanted to live deep,” he writes, “and suck out all the marrow of life [. . .].”12 And among these essential acts of life, there is the pleasure of perceiving the world through all his senses. It is to this that, in the woods, Thoreau directs the largest part of his time. One never grows tired of rereading the sensual beginning of the chapter titled “Solitude”: “This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the
stony shore of the pond in my shirtsleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, ... all the elements are unusually congenial to me. [...] Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath; yet, like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled.”13 In this chapter Thoreau wants, moreover, to show that, even alone, he is never alone, because he is aware (conscience) of communing with nature: “I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself.” “The most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object [. . .].”14 Hence he perceives in the sound itself of raindrops, “an infinite and unaccountable
friendliness.”15 Each little pine needle treats him as a friend, and he feels something
related to him in the most desolate and terrifying scenes of Nature. “Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?”16 Thus, the perception of the world extends itself into a sort of cosmic consciousness.17

All that I have written until now bears a remarkable analogy to Epicurean philosophy, but also to certain aspects of Stoicism. Firstly, we find again in Epicureanism this critique of the manner in which men habitually live that we encountered in the first pages of Walden. “Human beings,” says Lucretius, “never cease to labor vainly and fruitlessly, consuming their lives in groundless cares [. . .].”18

For the Epicureans of whom Cicero speaks, men are unhappy due to immense and hollow desires for riches, glory, and domination. “They are especially tormented when they realize, too late, that they pursued wealth or power or possessions or honour to no avail, and have failed to obtain any of the pleasures whose prospect drove them to endure a variety of great suffering.”19

Salvation (Le Salut) rests, for Epicurus, in the distinction between desires that are natural and necessary and that are related to the conservation of life; desires that are only natural, like sexual pleasure; and desires that are neither natural nor necessary, like [those for] wealth.20 Satisfaction of the first21 suffices, in principle, to assure man a stable pleasure and therefore happiness. This amounts to saying that, for Epicurus, philosophy consists essentially, as for Thoreau, in knowing how to conserve one’s vital heat in a wiser way than other men. With a certain desire for provocation analogous to the one of Thoreau, one Epicurean sentence in effect declares: “The cry of the flesh: not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold. Whoever enjoys this state and hopes to continue enjoying it can rival even God himself in happiness.”22 Happiness is, therefore, easy to attain: “Thanks be given to blessed nature,” one Epicurean sentence says, “which makes necessary things easily achievable, and those things which are difficult to achieve unnecessary.”23 “Everything easy to procure is natural while everything difficult to obtain is superfluous.”24


The American counter truth to the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness is Thoreau’s invocation of living deliberately. Living deliberately is perennially in the worse position, however, since to live deliberately in an intense positional market either sets one up for failure or detachment from reality – a detachment that is either bogus (as with spiritualist movements and self help) or passionately irrelevant (which so often seems to be the mocking double of academic theory). These are the conditions under which the sage has been purged from our culture. To ask about these conditions is to ask about happiness itself, and its decay from an ideal to a spiel.

Which is why I am going on and on about Danton’s Death and Epicurus. In case you were wondering.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

antoine de lasalle: an enlightenment eccentric



When Lukacs uses the phrase, epicurean materialism, to talk about the nature of the Dantonist resistance to Robespierre in Büchner’s play, he is following a theme which was taken up in the 19th century not only by Marx, but by the historians of the French revolution and of the enlightenment.

Emile Dard’s biography of Herault de Sechelles (1903), for instance, is titled “An epicurean under the terror.” When Büchner’s Robespierre denounces the wealthy and the refers to people who ‘used to live in garrets and now roll around in carriages and sin with former marquesses and baronesses’, he is referring – except for the garret – to hedonists like Herault, who was followed about, as he performed his revolutionary duties, including creating a constitution that gave foreigners the right to vote, by a few aristocratic groupies. And Robespierre’s denunciation of ‘vice” and those who ‘declare war on God and property” as a way of secretly supporting the King – whether they know it or not – he is sounding an old Left theme that has become perennial - the warning against the decadent life style - but that had peculiar resonances in the Revolutionary period, when the carry over from the 1780s was so sexualized. Mirabeau, for instance, was famous for his rather famous erotica before he was famous as the revolution's first great orator. The disabused spirit of the young bucks around Danton was simply an extension of the final moment of the Enlightenment – which, contra the philosophy crowd, was codified not in Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, but in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Herault moved in the Valois circle, which met in the Palais Royale, and included Laclos as well as Tallyrand, Sieyes, and others. As Dard puts it, Herault, on his sofa, would become enthusiastic for justice, 'the sole passion that could inflame the sceptics, on the condition that it did not disturb their leisure."

Which brings me to an eccentric philosophe mentioned by Emile Dard, a “savage” philosopher/ traveler named Antoine de Lasalle. Antoine de Lasalle was quite a character. Dard gives a sketch of the man – as a youth, he had sailed to America with the cod fishing fleet (“clumsy at hunting and fishing, despised by his rude companions, to whom he asked, for instance, if there did not exist three sexes in nature” ) and then an explorer of Asia, he came back to Paris (where he set up as a professor of Arabic), he wrote metaphysical tomes which were published thanks to Herault’s financing, in which he explained that he could shrink the important truths of metaphysics into a two word phrase: “Tout vibre” – everything vibrates. The universe was a pendulum composed of an infinity of smaller pendulums –“From which we get the aspect that we observe: an immense field of battle on which all beings, divided into two enemy lines, are the champions; the general battle is composed of an infinite number of particular combats, where the winners and losers succeed each other in a duel that is never finished.”

This double movement – towards an infinite vastness composed of smaller and equally infinite vastnesses – is a sort of Epicurean twist on Pascal’s infinities. Of course, it puts into question the place of God. God obviously did not make this pendulum for man.

Lasalle, who LI was unaware of before coming across his name in Dard’s book, was, like Rousseau, a great walker. His morality, which is derived entirely from his materialism, is an odd thing entirely. Here’s a passage from the beautifully named Méchanique morale: ou essai sur l'art de perfectionner et d'employer ses organes … : ”a sure means to lose happiness is to search for it everywhere; it is here and not there, it is in us, where it is in no part, no where… Thus, man is the softest of all the great beasts, the softness of his substance is for him the cause and the sign of a need to change; he is born perfectable, he perfections himself only by reflection, but these are changes that awaken the faculty of thought, which sharpens its instrument, and furnishes the best material; man is almost the only animal that can travel without hazard (impunement): man is thus a traveler-born; moreover, strangers are well received everywhere, as long as they don’t stay too long; as long as you are new, everything is great, nothing is more perfect than the man who came yesterday and leaves tomorrow; but if you hang around, they will soon get tired of you. Well, then, it is wise to pass one’s life as a stranger, a novelty and caressed as such…”

More to come in another post.

the withdrawal project blog

LI cut off all our hair yesterday, to get prepared to be a peace soldier – and although it looks a little mange-y, what the hell. There is something startling about seeing the pale, dead skin under your hair…

So I am thinking I am going to take LimitedInc’s Iraq and war posts in the next week or so and transfer them to a new blog for the Withdrawal project. And then I will compartmentalize. Years ago, I started LimitedInc as an art project, and I had the crazy idea that I could use the blog as a venue for denunciations of the war that would resonate with the other elements in the project. But there is a downside to this: it limited the number of people who would read the anti-war stuff, because it was mixed in with material of no interest to a large group of people. That was fine with me – I wanted this to be outsider art from the beginning – but it is time to recognize that the anti-war stuff, if it isn’t going to continue to be an indulgence, needs its own place. My next post, for instance, is going to be about Enlightenment eccentric Antoine de Lasalle, Herault Sechelles, and the epicurean tradition – and that has zero resonance with the most of the audience that is truly riveted by the war and singed every day by America’s occupation of Iraq.

When I get the Withdrawalproject blog set up, I’m going to distribute the password to anybody who wants to contribute to it. As with all Withdrawal Project components, the only rule, at the moment, is to agree to the policy of zero American soldiers in Iraq in 2009. I have to make that a snazzier one liner, by the way. January 2009 is the deadline, but I don’t want to create such a narrow deadline that the movement automatically loses if – as is very likely – there are soldiers there in January, 2009. Withdrawal is withdrawal – if one loses the timetable battle, it doesn’t vitiate the fact that the soldiers shouldn’t be there, and that we should be pressing to get them all, every one of them, out.

I’ve been reading a lot about past social movements, and I wondering whether the Withdrawal project’s lack of a strict to do list – sign your name to this petition, give money to this organization – is a positive (as I think) or an invitation to entropy. To be goofy about it, I want the Withdrawal project to awaken an antiwar Kundalini – a physical and spiritual energy. And I suspect that petitions and donations are ways of putting that energy into a deep, deep sleep. But I may be totally fucked up on this.