“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, December 29, 2007

the naturalistic fallacy in three rounds



(From the Cites obscurs site)

In John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, he says a rather strange thing about happiness:

“I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken _en passant_, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self- consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning.”

The logic of this passage is familiar, even if it is rather baffling. The pursuit of an end, according to Mill, entails the loss of that end, while its non-pursuit entails finding the end. There glimmers, here, the kind of pre-established harmony that Adam Smith identified with the invisible hand – the baker, the butcher and the candlestickmaker all pursue one end, which is the satisfaction of their greed, and enact another, which is the optimal provisioning of society as a whole. And there glimmers here, for those who’ve read their Freud as well as their Smith, a variation of the fort da game – which, remember, is also a way of detouring around an end – bringing Mommy back – to gain an end. “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life, for my sake shall find it. – Jesus’ paradox uses the condition – ‘for my sake’ – to soften the claim – but Mill, a secular man, is willing to embrace this truth unconditionally. This is the real cunning of reason, the glass bead game it plays with the Es.

G. E. Moore, in Principia Ethica, devoted a good part of his chapter on hedonism to refuting Mill’s elaboration of Bentham’s happiness thesis in Utilitarianism. Moore analyzed like an English gentlemen, which meant that statements contained in Mill’s autobiography were out of bounds. Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail, Harry Stimson, Harding’s Secretary of State, famously said as he closed down the first U.S. intelligence agency, the Black Room, which had been set up by Wilson. On the same principle, philosophers don’t read each other’s autobiographies. Rather, they joust only with the salient texts, those with the philosophy label clearly stitched to them.

Moore begins the chapter on hedonism recapitulating the terms of what he called the “naturalism fallacy”:

In this chapter we have to deal with what is perhaps the most famous and the most widely held of all ethical principles—the principle that nothing is good but pleasure. My chief reason for treating of this principle in this place is, as I said, that Hedonism appears in the main to be a form of Naturalistic Ethics: in other words, that pleasure has been so generally held to be the sole good, is almost entirely due to the fact that it has seemed to be somehow involved in the definition of good—to be pointed out by the very meaning of the word. If this is so, then the prevalence of Hedonism has been mainly due to what I have called the naturalistic fallacy—the failure to distinguish clearly that unique and indefinable quality which we mean by good. And that it is so, we have very strong evidence in the fact that, of all hedonistic writers, Prof. Sidgwick alone has clearly recognised that by good we do mean something unanalysable, and has alone been led thereby to emphasise the fact that, if Hedonism be true, its claims to be so must be rested solely on its self-evidence—that we must maintain Pleasure is the sole good to be mere intuition.


Moore then analyzes Mill with this fallacy in mind. Unsurprisingly, he finds that in Utilitarianism, Mill was operating as a semantic rent-seeker – that is, he was covertly using unanalyzed terms – like “desireable”, which Moore saw Mill using in two different senses – on the one hand, as a description of what is desired, and on the other hand, as a synonym for what ought to be desired.

Well, then, the first step by which Mill has attempted to establish his Hedonism is simply fallacious. He has attempted to establish the identity of the good with the desired, by confusing the proper sense of desirable, in which it denotes that which it is good to desire, with the sense which it would bear if it were analogous to such words as visible. If desirable is to be identical with good, then it must bear one sense; and if it is to be identical with desired, then it must bear quite another sense. And yet to Mill’s contention that the desired is necessarily good, it is quite essential that these two senses of desirable should be the same.


Moore then makes two further steps. One is to reverse Mill’s terms regarding pleasure – instead of pleasure being the object of desire, Moore think it makes more sense to call it the motive of desire. This involves a tricky bit of casuistry, and an example that can’t be more clubbish:

For instance, granted that, when I desire my glass of port wine, I have also an idea of the pleasure I expect from it, plainly that pleasure cannot be the only object of my desire; the port wine must be included in my object, else I might be led by my desire to take wormwood instead of wine. If the desire were directed solely towards the pleasure, it could not lead me to take the wine; if it is to take a definite direction, it is absolutely necessary that the idea of the object, from which the pleasure is expected, should also be present and should control my activity. The theory then that what is desired is always and only pleasure must break down: it is impossible to prove that pleasure alone is good, by that line of argument. But, if we substitute for this theory, that other, possibly true, theory, that pleasure is always the cause of desire, then all the plausibility of our ethical doctrine that pleasure alone is good straightaway disappears. For in this case, pleasure is not what I desire, it is not what I want: it is something which I already have, before I can want anything.


There’s nothing that makes a person feel more like adopted Alex’s habits in Clockwork Orange than this port wine talk in the works of the Oxbridge philosophy set. After a while, you want to put on your hobnailed boots and crunch the wine glasses underfoot with sadistic glee. But leaving this to one side – Moore definitely has Mill on the ropes here. And now comes a bit of fun – even Oxbridgian philosophers can have fun with a bit of close work in the corner:

But now let us return to consider another of Mill’s arguments for his position that happiness is the sole end of human action. Mill admits, as I have said, that pleasure is not the only thing we actually desire. The desire of virtue, he says, is not as universal, but is as authentic a fact, as the desire of happiness . And again, Money is, in many cases, desired in and for itself . These admissions are, of course, in naked and glaring contradiction with his argument that pleasure is the only thing desirable, because it is the only thing desired. How then does Mill even attempt to avoid this contradiction? His chief argument seems to be that virtue, money and other such objects, when they are thus desired in and for themselves, are desired only as a part of happiness . Now what does this mean? Happiness, as we saw, has been defined by Mill, as pleasure and the absence of pain. Does Mill mean to say that money, these actual coins, which he admits to be desired in and for themselves, are a part either of pleasure or of the absence of pain? Will he maintain that those coins themselves are in my mind, and actually a part of my pleasant feelings? If this is to be said, all words are useless: nothing can possibly be distinguished from anything else; if these two things are not distinct, what on earth is? We shall hear next that this table is really and truly the same thing as this room; that a cab-horse is in fact indistinguishable from St Paul’s Cathedral; that this book of Mill’s which I hold in my hand, because it was his pleasure to produce it, is now and at this moment a part of the happiness which he felt many years ago and which has so long ceased to be. Pray consider a moment what this contemptible nonsense really means. Money, says Mill, is only desirable as a means to happiness. Perhaps so, but what then? Why, says Mill, money is undoubtedly desired for its own sake. Yes, go on, say we. Well, says Mill, if money is desired for its own sake, it must be desirable as an end-in-itself: I have said so myself. Oh, say we, but you have also said just now that it was only desirable as a means. I own I did, says Mill, but I will try to patch up matters, by saying that what is only a means to an end, is the same thing as a part of that end. I daresay the public won’t notice. And the public haven’t noticed. Yet this is certainly what Mill has done. He has broken down the distinction between means and ends, upon the precise observance of which his Hedonism rests. And he has been compelled to do this, because he failed to distinguish end in the sense of what is desirable, from end in the sense of what is desired: a distinction which, nevertheless, both the present argument and his whole book presupposes. This is a consequence of the naturalistic fallacy.


So much for Moore’s fun and games – which is just LI’s way of introing our next post, (we hope), which is about Colin Heydt’s “Mill, Bentham, and Internal Culture.”

Friday, December 28, 2007

Dispatch from Bozoland

In the last post, LI foreswore political commentary. This post will be full of political commentary. Consistency, as Emerson said, is something I’ll cram up your ass if you bring it around here again, got that sport? Or maybe it wasn’t Emerson who said that – that was a marginal note on a Scorcese script. Damn.

Anyway, as I have pointed out and pointed out, the fraud of the GWOT, a fraud at the very root of the Bush administration response to 9/11, was eventually going to blow up in our faces. As we know from every testimony that counts, pre-9/11, the Bushies thought ‘terrorism’ was one of those stupid Clinton obsessions. After 9/11, especially after the nation turned a blind eye to the paniced and clueless president they saw buzzing around the country, the administration still didn’t understand the first thing about Al Qaeda, but they did understand that this was unparalleled opportunity for thievery, for invading countries, and for making political gains. So the laughable Afghan war ended with the press praising President Backbone, and paying no attention to the fact that President Backbone had just let Osama bin Laden go (ah, if only we had tapes of the conversations between PB and his Rove. The idea that OBL would be a Bush yo yo, conveniently caught in 2004, was surely bruited about). Just as they obligingly looked the other way and found a threat in Iraq long before the US mopping up operations against the Taliban went bad in the spring of 2002. Meanwhile, the press obediently took the rhetoric for the fact: and lo, on stone tablets it was writ that the opposition – whether softy Dems or demonstrators against the coming Iraq war – didn’t understand terrorism. This is funny like a cosmic joke. It is so funny we decided, just for grins, to sacrifice more than 675,000 Iraqi lives as a punchline chaser.

So we spent 4 trillion on the GWOT, and we made OBL a video star. It turned out it was harder to yo-yo him than anybody thought, especially as Iraq went south and there was no extra troops available. Funny, dat. The idiot policy in Afghanistan did make the Taliban viable again – and tossing OBL into a country with a considerable, low level network of Islamicist parties and militias, with inside connections in the military and the ISI, was like putting in a plug and play accessory.

The problem that I have, here, is one of vocabulary. I’ve long exhausted the thesaurus for synonyms for stupidity. One wants some word that stretches nation wide to describe the American consciousness in this tawdry, vile decade, but where is that culminating word? How can you describe a people who have their dopey eyes open and watch as they are rooked, as their army is destroyed to make money for a bunch of halfpint corporate desperadoes and the vanity of a catalogue model president, and who still don’t fucking get it? Who allow the press to talk about ‘progress’ in Iraq, when what they mean is that one or another theocratic party has killed enough people to create a local vacuum in which they can peacefully attack, say, women who go to beauty salons?

Ah well. It's bozoland, Jake.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

There wasn't any joint: 2007

LI has been reading over our 2007 posts with some disappointment. In 2007, we were much more verbose and much less witty than in 2006.

The main thematic difference between this year and previous ones is political. From 2001 until about June of 2007, we emitted a constant stream of howls. Notably, about Iraq, and the crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush years. But in June we looked back and realized that, for all the denunciation of the feebs, the psychos, the deepily and creepily murderous D.C. set, it mattered not a wit. When the Democratic majority calmly let itself be immobilized and zombified by the Petro Gun club, displaying the same kind of acumen and forward looking spirit which infused the halcyon days of Bremer’s rule in Iraq, it answered the question that foamed on our lips: can this governing elite be saved? At the moment, grassroots politics in the U.S. is a sick joke, if not completely dead. It consists of what, four vegetarian Quakers? It is scary how dead. The slack jawed peckerwood and the cretinous investment banker, that unlikely duo that always emerges in true coup regimes, have so kicked the ass of the angels of our better nature that they seem down for the count. LI’s animadversions on this situation had become less critique and more the bad habit of a man in middle aged psychological meltdown. Fuck it, and fuck them.

In place of politics, LI’s posts became big, boggy steps on the way to our project – tracing the rise of the happiness culture and its tragic flaws. Plus we mixed in the usual welter of LI’s kinks. The language of the posts became self-dealing, inward looking –and rebarbatively explicative. But what can we do? It is in our nature (as the scorpion said to the frog) to be a village explainer, a crackhead on a cracker barrel.

Looking ahead, we doubt we will avoid picking at the scabs of politics completely. Next year is an election year, and that is always like shootin’ time in the shithead factory, as we get down to that rawest strata of the American Volk, a shared and beloved bozoism, mc-ed by a millionaire press squad compounded of sycophancy and hair oil. Fun for all!

So, this is the bad news. The good news is… well, LI has made some steps in the right direction, that is, as far as our happiness project is concerned. My image for this project is of a subterranean groping forward in a great darkness, the exploration of long lost passages clogged with the marbleized detritus of forgotten civilizations, upon which I can shed some flickering little light. The twentieth century, don’t you know. LI is, at least, an intrepid conceptual spelunker. So intrepid that the further I advance, the more I get the feeling that I’m alone down here, and nobody knows what the fuck I’m talking about.

“I knew a man once did a girl in.
Any man might do a girl in
Any man has to, needs to, wants to
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in
Well he kept her there in a bath
With a gallon of lysol in a bath
...
This went on for a couple of months
Nobody came
And nobody went
But he took in the milk and he paid the rent.
...
But here's what I was going to say.
He didn't know if he was alive
and the girl was dead
He didn't know if the girl was alive
and he was dead
He didn't know if they were both alive
or both were dead
If he was alive then the milkman wasn't
and the rent-collector wasn't
And if they were alive then he was dead.
There wasn't any joint
There wasn't any joint
For when you're alone
When you're alone like he was alone
You're either or neither…”


Okay, so much for confession. And contrition, I think I’ve been contrite. I've apologized, here, god damn it! And also, to be frank, I've written some hot stuff too. But I will do better, people; I vow to be funnier in 2008. Honestly. You’ll see.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Recommend

LI’s advice of the day: if you want to understand what is happening in the markets right now, you will read John Lancaster’s LBR essay.
Sample from the essay: Lancaster is talking to his friend, Tony, an investment broker or something – whatever that means nowadays.

“My friend Tony, however, is sanguine. ‘Sorting out who’s in the shit is going to be a nightmare, but when it all shakes out, all it’ll mean is that credit is a little bit more expensive. That’s a good thing. It had got crazy. It was cheaper for companies to borrow money from other companies than it was for governments. That’s nuts. These things are cyclical, it had all just gone too far and we needed a correction.’
‘So we’ll have to stop running around spending money like drunken sailors,’ I said.
‘Well, drunk sailors tend to be spending their own money,’ Tony said. ‘By contemporary standards they’re quite prudent.’”


Oh, it hurts. It hurts!

Control and Resistance




One day in 1877, the pastor of a town in lower Silesia, Krummhübel, had a talk with a man named Lehnert. Lehnert was twenty seven. He’d served in the army. His father, a wheelwright, was dead. His mother had asked the pastor to have a little counseling session with her son, who’d spent two months in jail for smuggling. Lehnert had been making threats against the Forester, a man named Opitz. The pastor had taught Lehnert when he was a child, and had some affection for him, but he told the young man that frankly, these threats were getting to be too much. Also, he’d heard that Lehnert had been speaking of the ‘republic”, praising ‘happy America’, and seemed to have absorbed some of the radical phrases of the schoolmaster – and this, too, had to stop. Lehnert should stop treating the law as if it was “sinning against him.”

Lehnert defended himself by pointing out that he had been a good soldier. He wasn’t disobedient by nature. But Opitz was jealous of him. He’d been jealous of him when they served in the army. Opitz had made a special effort to deny Lehnart the iron cross. Lehnert had a way of thinking about people like Opitz that reconciled obedience and standing up for oneself:

»Oh, Pastor, you know how it is, and you know, also, that we’re not so bad, I especially not. I was in the army and know, what it means to obey, and no reasonable man can be against obedience. For it keeps everything together. And so does the law, too. But people, Pastor, people, they make the difference, and when one of them is useless, that makes everything bad. I know that, too, from being in the army, and I have to say, and I have it written in my discharge, that I was a good soldier. But it is up to those who have the command, it is up to them, and what different kinds of superiors there are! There you had to appear with your pack on and two hours of exercise in the courtyard, and the sun burns and prickles, and however much you beat yourself up, parade drill is worthless, the sword hilts remain awkward and even if they were right, you have to go this way again and again, you have to go that way again and again, and then a blow under the chin and curses and threats, “I’m gonna throw you into the stock house or jail.” Yes, Pastor, low ranking officers like that – and there are a few – also demand obedience and they find it, but when the time has passed, than you put your leg out and trip em, or you get them into a corner. And those who do that are not against obedience and discipline, they are simply against the low ranking officer. So me, I am not against the law, even if I don’t always obey it, I am simply against this jerk, this man skinner and boozer, Opitz«.

This is from Theodore Fontane’s novel, Quitt. Lehnert is a wheelwright and an occasional smuggler, not a philosopher. He doesn’t explicitly appeal to conventions and codes, but to the ‘way things are’. Historians might baptize the smuggling, and the getting of some sadistic sergeant in a corner where one can beat his face in, as resistance. And the forces of order – the officers, the forester Opitz – as the face of control. Myself, so far in my work on the ‘happiness triumphant’, I’ve been trying to get at the sense people make of their emotions and norms within a capitalist society, or one that is being transformed into a capitalist society without using control and resistance as my fundamental concepts. Anybody who goes to academic talks will get an earful of the word ‘resistance’, as though it possessed an irresistible mesmeric charm – and it does, but I often think the charm is the white magic of identifying, so many years later, and in the comfort of one’s day to day, with the very different day to day of the people one is studying. I wonder if the people who it is used about, those micro-resisters on the resistance frontier, wouldn’t instead come up with a speech much like Lehnert’s – far from being troublemakers, they are enforcing a rule of the game, which is about how far you can go, and how much you enjoy, enforcing the official rules.

I’m thinking about these things in relation to an essay by a medievalist, Barbara Rosenwein, “Worrying about Emotions in History”, published in the American Historical Review in Summer, 2002. It is a good overview of the explicit theme of (oh, the ugliness of this word) ‘emotionology’, going from Lucien Febvre’s plea for a history of emotions in 1941. Rosenwein has a critical point to make about the metanarrative going forward from Febvre – and really, she claims, from Huizinga, who Febvre was criticizing in the first version of his essay. That metanarrative makes the common analogy between societies and individuals, seeing history as a process of human growth in which childhood – equated with barbarism, or with the middle ages, or with Naturvolk – is supplanted by maturity. So the childlike spontaneity of emotional expression in the Middle Ages is followed by bourgeois control of emotion, or adulthood, bringing us into the present, where control has become the ‘managed heart’, and organizations reach all the way through to the way we feel. This narrative, Rosenwein claims, groups together two other features: one is the idea that emotions are irrational, and the other is the use of the hydrodynamic model to talk about emotions. Emotions build up, are channeled, explode, are diverted, and so on.

Against this, Rosenwein wants us to see emotions as recent cognitive science sees them. They aren’t irrational. They are part of the way human beings assess situations. They are strategic.

I’m not altogether sure why Rosenwein thinks that the assessment model and the hydrodynamic model are incompatible. The deconstructionist in me thinks that Rosenwein is working in an intellectual situation created by a classically false bind, constructed by the way the term ‘rationality’ is used. This bind generates two strategies – one of which is to use rationality and irrationality as canonical terms denoting the cognitive and the emotional, the other of which takes emotion to be as rational as any other cognitive state without asking whether that doesn’t overthrow the meaning and use of rationality. And the perils of these strategies stem from that moment buried in social rationality which makes the thing depend, ultimately, on an uninvestigated pursuit of happiness. The line which runs through the register keeping apart reason and sentiment is erased at this crucial juncture. The notion of an autonomous rationality, or an autonomous morality, one that will eliminate the passions, will always have this all too human moment. Rosenwein’s notion that emotions are assessment tools and that they have been treated, unscientifically, in a schema derived from the humors, is not without its advantages; yet by capturing the emotions within the paradigm of self-interest, the assessment idea seems, itself, to be invested in an ideology that is anything but scientific. The appeal Rosenwein is really making is to the heuristic of cognitive science, not to the science itself. It is easy to imagine a pluralism that could accommodate both the hydraulic and assessment view of emotions. But the whole affective region seems, in my opinion, to go well beyond both schemas.

Yet I am sympathetic to the larger critique Rosenwein makes of Febvre and Elias: that is, that the supposition that there exists a culture in which the emotions aren’t controlled – a savage or barbarous state – is an illusion. What is happening when the civilized is contrasted with the barbaric in terms of maturity? You find the retrospective tendency to project an image of childhood or parenthood on the past among the Greeks. It is an old, old motif, and it has its advantages. It helps identify the speaker, for instance – either as a master of spontaneity who has put aside the senile presuppositions of the older generations, or as an adult who can appeal to science to settle disputes. And it obviously legitimizes largescale coercion, which is why the idea of indigenous people as children became so popular in the 19th century. Of course, the corollary to coercion is murder, and since murdering children to make them behave has never been popular, the child reverts to the savage when they start charging British troops or bushwhacking French poilus. But as they are, collectively, a child, killing individual members of the collective could be seen, perhaps, as a love tap. This idea cropped up in 2003 among the war fans to explain the ingratitude of the Iraqis. It turns out that they were wounded, in their adolescent sense of honor, by the fact that they couldn’t overturn Saddam Hussein themselves. So they were collectively pouting.

But as I am comparing the happiness culture to something like the ancien regime’s ‘sweetness of life’, I have to ask if I’m not falling prey to the same old myth.
Even though Lenherdt is Fontane’s creation, I believe the case he makes does, in fact, reflect a process of reasoning – or, if you will, of tacit reasoning – about the control exerted from on high by the masses who were, in one way or another, objects of that control. They sought to control back, but for every rare anarchist who succeeded in winging a King, there were thousands and thousands of Lenherdt’s, shooting the middle men in the dark forest. Lenherdt knew why the rules were there; he found reasons to make exceptions, in his case, to the rules, but was perfectly willing to bear the consequences if caught; but he also had a sense of fairness about being caught. If the middlemen enjoyed their power too much – when we meet Opitz, Fontane takes care to describe the way he puts his iron cross on a ribbon that is just large enough to make the cross sway when he moves, thus showing how, even on the most trivial level, Opitz is a showy man – then they weren’t being fair.

Fontane’s story is set before railroad connections made Krummhübel a resort town for skiers and hikers in the Riesengebirge. Nabokov, for instance, skied in that area in the 1920s. And after World War II, after the Germans had rounded up the Jews of Krummhübel and sent them off to the camps, the Poles took Silesia and expelled the German population. Krummhübel is no longer a city on a map.

All those larger events, stage noises off, all of those deadly futures…

Monday, December 24, 2007

io saturnalia

Io Saturnalia

This is supposedly the cry on the lips of the slaves and plebes during the celebration of everybody’s favorite holiday dedicated to Saturn. Saturnalia is connected by ties of carnival and reversal to Matronalia, when the mistresses feasted the slaves, according to Livy. This is what Frazer says in The Golden Bough:



“WE have seen that many peoples have been used to observe an annual period of license, when the customary restraints of law and morality are thrown aside, when the whole population give themselves up to extravagant mirth and jollity, and when the darker passions find a vent which would never be allowed them in the more staid and sober course of ordinary life. Such outbursts of the pent-up forces of human nature, too often degenerating into wild orgies of lust and crime, occur most commonly at the end of the year, and are frequently associated, as I have had occasion to point out, with one or other of the agricultural seasons, especially with the time of sowing or of harvest. Now, of all these periods of license the one which is best known and which in modern language has given its name to the rest, is the Saturnalia. This famous festival fell in December, the last month of the Roman year, and was popularly supposed to commemorate the merry reign of Saturn, the god of sowing and of husbandry, who lived on earth long ago as a righteous and beneficent king of Italy, drew the rude and scattered dwellers on the mountains together, taught them to till the ground, gave them laws, and ruled in peace. His reign was the fabled Golden Age: the earth brought forth abundantly: no sound of war or discord troubled the happy world: no baleful love of lucre worked like poison in the blood of the industrious and contented peasantry. Slavery and private property were alike unknown: all men had all things in common. At last the good god, the kindly king, vanished suddenly; but his memory was cherished to distant ages, shrines were reared in his honour, and many hills and high places in Italy bore his name. Yet the bright tradition of his reign was crossed by a dark shadow: his altars are said to have been stained with the blood of human victims, for whom a more merciful age afterwards substituted effigies.”

That’s your progress right there, friend – effigies for human victims. Ho ho! And were it only so today! Unfortunately, effigies have given way to simulacra, as in watching people die on tv (it’s not true! they don’t exist!).

Ovid bemoaned what had happened to Saturnalia – or so says J. W. Binns in his book on Ovid, which analyzes an odd passage in the the Ars Amatoria, or Art of Love. It is a lovely and mysterious passage:

“Anyone who supposes that the observation of the seasons is the object only of those only who till the fields or sail the seas is mistaken. Just as you cannot entrust the seed to the treacherous soil at any season, or the curved ships to the dark ocean, so it is not always safe to be ever hunting for dainty girls; often, doing the same thing will be improved by doing it in a timely fashion. If it is her birthday that comes, or the merry Kalends, which joins Venus’s month and the month of Mars; or if the Circus shall be adorned, not with statues, as it was in the old days, but displaying items as though taken from the treasure troves of kings, delay your project; then ugly storms and the Pleiades prevail; then, the tender Kids are sinking below the horizon. Stay at home, then. anyone who trusts to the deep can, with difficulty, barely grasp the shipwrecked fragments of his dismantled bark. You may make a beginning on the day on which tearful Allia was stained with the blood of the Latian wounds; on the day, too, when the festival recurs, observed each seventh day by the Jews of Palestine, a day not suited for the transaction of business. You should view your girl-friend’s birthday with the utmost dread, and any occasion when a present is due must be accounted a black day.”

Of course, one should remember that Ovid was running with a rich crowd, which ultimately doomed him, and he surely was often stretched for presents. Binns remarks that the Circus statues used to be bought and given on Saturnalia until more rich stuffs replaced those simple tokens. Yes, Virginia, commercialization precedes Christmas.

On Saturnalia, we moderns should recall our sexpol forebears. This year, I’m remembering Otto Gross – who, like every soul that has crossed the Styx and left behind memorabilia, has a website consecrated to him. For those who can navigate the German, I’d recommend the essay, Die Kommunistische Grundidee in der Paradiessymbolik. Gross supposes that the Paleolithic times were when men and women first discovered alphabetical writing and painting and dance and lots of hot hot hot sex, and then came the era of repression for about four thousand years. But the Russian revolution signaled goodbye to all that:

The highest ideas of humankind have been reached by that primitive time over to the future. We contemporaries have become aware of them as things of the coming day, and of our will; the ancients felt them still as memories. As the value of the oldest human generation, that of the golden first time period, Ovid in architectonically simple measures outlined the ideal program of the furthest future:

“Vindice nullo
sponte sua sine lege bonum…”

(“Golden was that first age which unconstrained
With heart and soul, obedient to no law,
Gave honor to good faith and righteousness,
No punishment they knew, no fear…”)


So, anyway: what are the top ten songs you should have on hand for this Saturnalia? Here’s LI’s list.

1. Li’l Kim, How Many Licks? Bittersweet year for Kimberly. I admire her for standing up, going to prison, not squealing. But I can tell something more has been drained to the Man – since getting out, Li’l Kim has been letting her celebrity loa ride her too too much. Myself, I think she needs to have a heart to heart with Roxanne Shanté.
2. Brazilian Girls, Pussy Pussy Pussy Marijuana.Inspiration for the whole family! “Pussy pussy pussy/I hear the angels sing…”
3. Lords of Acid Gimme Gimme. You are going to have a Saturnalia party without LoA? I don’t think so. I love the way this video, too, makes sex seem much nastier than it could possibly be in reality. The bunny rabbit is a nice touch.
4. Lady Bitch Ray Du bist Krank (Frau Dr. Bitch Ray! Frau Dr. Bitch Ray! Bitte umgehend in die Notaufnahme!) This has been a good year for Reyhan Şahi. She probably received a thousand death threats; she starred on Spiegel TV, though the bastards censored her; and now she’s become a regular on talk shows about sex in Germany. Rappers in Germany have accused her of simply ripping off Lil Kim, but she is on a totally other channel. Li’l Kim is a royalist. She isn’t called the Queen Bee for nothing. Lady Bitch Ray is an anarchist. She revels in the tease of it all.
5. Hanin Elias Tie me to the Wall You say yes every time/you want to destroy what I create. - I love those lines
6. Scissor Sisters Filthy Gorgeous. An especially sentimental hymn to the season.
7. Miss Kittin. Frank Sinatra. The kind of song that would make Nick Tosches foam at the mouth. But fuck it, it’s Saturnalia!
8. Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg 69 année érotique. Sorry, sometimes one has to bow to the inevitable. Serge Gainsbourg is to Saturnalia as Bing Crosby is to Christmas, no?
9. TLC. If I was your girlfriend. I’m supposed to resist TLC singing Prince songs? Who the fuck do you think I am?
10. Dandy Warhols Every day should be a holiday.

Happy Saturnalia, People! Pour some wine out, tomorrow, to honor the forces under the earth.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Sepulchral Cry

Dickens was famous for his long walks. When, in 1845, he was writing Cricket on the Hearth for the magazine he’d started, he started feeling unwell. He knew the writing wasn’t up to his usual standard. Plus, as his biographer John Forster explained, one of his pet ravens died “unexpectedly before the kitchen fire. ‘He kept his eye to the last upon the meat as it roasted, and suddenly turned over on his back with a sepulchral cry of Cuckoo!’” Also, his Christmas story was at a deadlock. Dickens began in fact to feel a little like his raven. In a letter to Forster he wrote: “I have been so very unwell this morning, with a giddiness, and headache, and botheration of one sort or another that I didn’t get up till noon: and shunning Fleet-Street… am going for a country walk, in the course of which you will find me, if you feel disposed to come away in the carriage that goes to you with this…. There is much I should like to discuss, if you can manage it. It’s the loss of my walks, I suppose; but I am as giddy as if I were drunk, and can hardly see.”

LI does not have a raven, more’s the pity. But, alas, our monitor, a sturdy, old fashioned thing that was about as big as a small truck and had a tv tube in its guts looked at us yesterday, just as we were making some furious comment in the comments block of some soi disant liberal blogger who’d written a miserable, flaking post for the Dems, and said Cuckoo, in effect, and reduced itself to a swirling mass of incomprehensible lines, framed with darkness – which is the death state of a computer monitor. This, of course, made me as giddy as though I were drunk. Visions of penury flashed through my brain. I have three editing jobs I need to do, plus I have to write the column. So I immediately called up my brother and poured out my woe, and that saintly sibling told me that he was planning on buying me a combined Christmas present/birthday present, and it might as well be something as boring as a computer monitor – although he did urge me, if any money was left, to spend the rest of it in a titty bar. Always looking out for me, my bro.

So I set out for the nearest place I could get a computer monitor on short notice, which is the Office Depot on South Lamar. One of the problems with not having a car is that you have to plan your larger purchases with one eye on the bus schedule. But I was full of panic and woe, and had no time for buses. I decided to hoof it – it is only about five miles from my apartment – and so I did. Whenever things go wrong in my life, I have a special set of brain cells devoted, day and night, to condemning me in the harshest terms imaginable. It is sort of an anti-erotic day dream. Although it is a puzzle to me why it is so easy for great vials of self-hatred to pour out just when I need self-flattery, so it has always been. My chief thought was that I was like some odious fly, clinging to the surface of life. This isn’t really a bad thought – I am like some fly, clinging to my little in this world. If I could get rid of my dependence on a computer I would be a freer man. My dream is to be so free that I can walk out into the Sonoran desert and never come back – this vision does not include a laptop. But the chances are I will never be so free that I can walk out into the Sonoran desert and never come back. Although I did walk quite fiercely down South Lamar. This calmed me a bit, and then I looked over the monitors and noticed that, of course, none of them looked like the big racky tv sets of yore – we are in the age of the thin monitor, and good for us. So I selected one, and eventually attracted the attention of the only clerk in the store who seemed to know about computers, and he turned it on, and of course the store model I was looking at, of the ten to fifteen on display, was the only one that didn’t work. Naturally. I had somehow, waking up yesterday, slipped into a bad luck zone, and all I could do was bow my head. So I purchased something in the same line, except nineteen inches, got a keyboard to go along with it – as my old keyboard has been having a hard time with the letter ‘w’ for a long time, and I supposed this was the time to toss the thing – and loaded up, made my way through what I now noticed was racy cold gusts to a bus stop. Just as I got there, the bus pulled up and the bus driver proceeded to hector me for not signaling him. I was in no mood to disagree, so I said I was sorry several times, and shuffled with my packages towards a seat.

It was the usual Narrenshiff. The bus driver’s dressing me down seemed to have attracted some favorable notice from the passengers; as I settled in my seat, the woman in the seat in front of me, who was knitting away on a scarf, made some commiserating comment about all my packages. Then the man across from her began to rail and laugh, and it was soon evident that he was talking to his mother. Alas, his mother wasn’t there – in fact, I’d bet she is no longer on this planet. But his conversation with himself, which included descriptions of all the passengers, went on pretty loudly until he abruptly got up, as the bus pulled up at a stop, said damn, there’s my parole officer, and descended, much to the common relief . After he got off, the men who were seated around the woman knitting began to go what are you making there and wow, you don’t look at your needles, and she launched into a long explanation of knitting, touching on its anti-stress qualities, the ability to watch tv whilst engaged therein, learningit, ease of, interspersed with remarks about her abused childhood, ADD, drug use and prisons. Everybody nodded, everybody also had forms of ADD, and everybody wished they, too, could knit, although as one man said, he was too violent to be trusted with long knitting needles for any length of time. I felt calmed down by this woman’s speech about knitting, too. It was just what I needed to hear. It was like a five mile therapy session, at the end of which the bus went on another route than the one I expected it to take and I had to get out and sit at another bus stop with my packages as the day came to a chilly end and I mastered the final shreds of my self loathing and thought about dinner.

Die Gedanken sind frei.