“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 01, 2008

secret societies


Though Balzac saw himself as a romantic legitimist, his real passion was for secret societies. Indeed, the Comedie Humaine is a hive of secret societies, a puzzle palace given over to l'envers de l'histoire. Cousine Bette is, among other things, a sort of equivalent to The Prince in terms of conspiracy. Once the motive is given – Cousine Bette’s resentment over the theft of her Polish sculptor by her relatives, the Hulots – she turns all her resources to overthrowing that family. She has an expert sense of the vices and virtues that render the Hulots so vulnerable, and she sets to work with her trump card – Valerie Marneffe, whose ass will bring down a little private kingdom - all the while sewing and sewing and sewing.

Naturally, Balzac was attracted to the mythography of conspiracy. Among this company, one of the greatest was Joseph Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall.

Hammer-Purgstall is no longer a name to conjure with – I admit! He was an Austrian diplomat during the Napoleonic era, dispatched to Istanbul by the Habsburg court. He traveled in Egypt as well, learned Persian and Arabic, came back and began to publish the manuscripts he’d collected and translated writers like Hafiz – his Divan inspired Goethe’s West-östliche Divan, for instance. He knew Schlegel, he corresponded with the great French orientalists.

And he published a colorful History of the Assassins. It came out in 1818, was translated into English soon afterwards, and insinuated itself – along with the rich, fantastic literature of the illuminati –into the European imaginary. Hammer-Purgstall’s shadow is on Sherlock Holmes stories, on Chesterton’s the Man who was Thursday. It is on Dostoevsky’s the Possessed. He was, of course, just the kind of comrade Balzac had to meet, and Balzac did meet him. He gave Balzac a seal ring from the East.

This is the story Hammer-Purgstall tells about the Assassins in his history.

In the hills of Syria and Persia, the Assassins will build their castles. The castles are attached to pleasure gardens full of flowers and fountains. When the grand master spots some likely lad, he will invite him up to the castle, and ply him with delicious food and drinks. Unbeknownst to the guest, their flavors conceal haschich. The guest will, invariably, fall asleep. The grand master will then have the servants take the guest into the garden. When the guest wakes up, he will be surrounded by the most delicious looking women. There will be music, delicious food, drink, amorous fondling. The youth will be assured that he has, indeed, been transplanted to paradise. Of course, haschich is again hidden in the food and drink. Again, he will fall asleep. He will then be taken into the castle. When he awakens, the grand master will assure him that he has, indeed, received a vision of paradise. All that is left to do is to swear allegiance to the order.

But the order was no simple set of bandits. No, it rested on a philosophy that included elements from Sufiism, Shiism, and folk beliefs. In the assassin view, there are seven speaking prophets with their seven seats were: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Ismail, the son of Jafer. But there were also seven Mute prophets. They began with Sus, and each had twelve apostles. These Mute prophets created a secret tradition that flowed into the knowledge held by the most illuminated assassins. The illumination of the Ismailis – the Assassins – had nine degrees. The first five took in the prophets. The sixth degree took in pagan knowledge – Plato and Aristotle’s teaching. This was the degree of rationality, but it was ‘very tedious” – according to Hammer-Purgstall. “… Only after the acolyte was wholly penetrated with the wisdom of philosophy was he ready to climb to the seventh degree, where he move from Philosophy to Mysticism. This was the actual All-Oneness doctrine, which the Sufis in their works had constructed. In the eighth degree the positive doctrine of religion would be taken up again, which after all the preceding stages would crumble into dust. Now the student had be enlightened as to the ephemerality of all God’s messengers and prophets, the nothingness of heaven and hell, the indifference of all actions, for which there is neither punishment nor reward, neither in this nor in the other world, and so he was then ready for the nineth and last degree, ripe to become a blind instrument of all the passions of power. To believe nothing and to do all things was in two words the sum of this wisdom, which fundamentally negated all religion and morality, and had no other goal, than enacting ambitious plans through pliant ministers. To honor nothing and to dare all, because one held all to be a deceit, and nothing is not to be permitted, these are the best elements of a devilish politics, which without other goal than the satisfaction of the unquenchable longing for power instead of climbing up towards the highest goals – to throw oneself in the abyss, where they are buried, eating themselves, under the ruins of thrones and alters, under the roar of anarchy, under the ruins of the happiness of the people and under the curse of mankind itself.” (36)

One can interestingly compare this with the murderers celebrated by De Quincy, who were less concerned with universal anarchy than art. However, De Quincy did read Hammer-Purgstall, and he does mention the assassins with some admiration.

Hofmannsthal was well aware of the friendship of Balzac and Hammer-Purgstall. In his dialogue, Over Characters in the Novel and Drama, he stages a dialogue between the two. Hammer-Purgstall is cast as an enthusiast trying to get Balzac to write plays. This leads to some discussion about human beings and novelistic characters. The note struck by Balzac is this: “I have said it – I don’t see humans, I see fates” .

Balzac claims that theater, as he loves it, is embodied by seventeenth century English drama. But he claims he couldn’t write like Shakespeare.

“The reason? The innermost reason? Perhaps I don’t believe that there are characters. Shakespeare believed it. He was a dramatist.

H-P: You don’t believe that there are people? That’s a good one! You have created about six or seven hundred: you’ve put them on their feet! and since then, they exist.

Balzac: I don’t know, whether people can live in drama. Are you aware of what they call “allotropy” in the mineralogical science? The same matter appears twice in the realms of things, in wholly different crystallation forms, wholly unexpected impress [Gepraege]. The dramatic character is an allotropy of the corresponding real one. I have put the event of Lear in Goriot, I put in the chemical process Lear, I am as distant as the sky from the crystallization form Lear. You are, Baron, as all Austrians, a born musician. You are even a learned musicians. Let me tell you, that the characters in a drama are nothing other than contrapuntal necessity. The dramatic character is a narrowing of the real one. What really enchants me, is just his breadth.”

Well, enough for now.

Friday, February 29, 2008

LI is financially chic!

Reading that Sprint is writing off 23 billion dollars, we here at LI got a little jealous. It seems that every organization worth its salt, nowadays, has to write off a few billion dollars. Even the girls selling girl scout cookies at a foldout table near the Randalls up the street have a sign claiming that for each box sold, they will write off a million dollars.

Where, readers will want to know, does LI stand on all of this?

As the finest and chicest of blogs, we have been a little dumbfounded by the pace of the write offs. Still, I think we can come up with 500 million dollars worth of write offs for starters.

For instance, the 100 million for the coffee machines. The office coffee machine broke a week ago, and the office assistant went to get a new one. The office manager meant to write a check for one hundred dollars, but slipped up and added the million. So of course we now have five warehouses stuffed full of coffee machines, plus tons of non-dairy creamer. We are, of course, writing that off.

Then there was the Nestroy business. We brought in a consultant to help us raise our subscription base from 200 to 200,000. The consultant assured our CEO that the youth of America was totally grooving to the plays of J. Nestroy at the moment. Thus, we went out and bought some very expensive writers to write about the Revolution in Kraehwinkel, and we purchased Nestroy today and Nestroy weekly for a comparative song – a thirty million dollar stock swap. So far, we’ve lost 50 million on the deal. No, it isn’t in the billions, but every bit helps.

Then, of course, comes the revision of our 2006 profits. We had originally figured our 2006 profits at 300 million dollars, which allowed us to pay our CEO a hundred million dollar bonus. Revision, however, has revealed that the 300 million was too high – in actuality, we made 17 cents. Actually, we found the 17 cents in our chair, which the consultant had been sitting in. Being sly business men, we made the lock your lips sign to each otehr until the consultant left the room, then quickly pocketed the princely sum. Of course, this profit was cause to award our CEO another 50 million dollars in bonuses, which included a warehouse full of coffee makers.

So, as you can see, we are doing our best, here, at LI to keep up with the times. At the moment, it may seem like a distant dream that we would lose a billion dollars. But just look at the ratings handed out to subprime mortgage companies by Standard and Poor – yes, dreams can come true!

Now I’m going out to buy some cookies – the LI kitchen is all out! Hmm, how much money does this check give me, anyway?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

in the golden egg (2)

All eggs – Prajapati’s, Humpty Dumpty’s – crack. Far from being the kind of thing all the king’s horses and all the king’s men should deplore, cracking is the perfection of the egg, its designed endpoint. The milkfed days of Philip Lord Chandos were, apparently – or so his account would make us believe – appointed to lead him from glorious estate to glorious estate as he became a grandee of great learning. And thus he’d put one foot and then the other out of the egg. But it is a fact that some eggs fail. And it is a fact that promising minds are easily culled and spoiled, that entrance into real life is entrance into a bureaucratic labyrinth in which the many branches are all equally tedious, that energy is delight only as long as the divide between promise and attainment seems eminently surmountable. Hands, necks, cheeks wither. The great work, the grand instauration, the New Atlantis becomes a great mill, to which one finds oneself chained, one day, much like any other slave.

Or… perhaps in a horrible moment, all mental energies collapse, and the egg dies within.

“But, my honorable friend, even earthly concepts escape me in the same manner. How am I supposed to try to describe these rare mental pains to you, this elevation of the fruited branch above my outstretched hand, this retraction of the murmuring water before my thirsty lips?

In brief, my case is like this: the ability to think or speak consecutively over an object, something, has been completely lost to me.”

LI, in middle age, knows a lot about this in particular. The imbecile gaps are longer; living as I do, mostly in solitude, I don’t have to face them as much as, perhaps, other, more normal people do, except when I’m around people and actually have to say something. I used to be a ready speaker, and can still tap mechanically into the old flow, but how easily the references, the memories, the names will suddenly fly out of my head at unbidden moments! I noticed at the Bob-fest, when I was around people who I used to be around in my late twenties, that there was some control over the tearing of the web (which is how I think of this, the homunculus spider in my head weaving, over the seemingly endless time I’ve been alive, its complex, dreadfully dusty webs). It didn’t happen as often. Ah, blind habit friend of human kind! On the other hand, I know that surely the next time I have lunch with, say, my friend S., that the web will be torn. I’ll babble along when suddenly the web will tear off and fall in the dark – inside my head, of course – and I’ll have that magic, frightening aphasic moment, when the name-world become unfamiliar. S.’s name, mine, whatever stupid thing I am talking about, even the whole path that lead me to become a babbler.

Intimations of Alzheimer’s, maybe. But Alzheimer’s simply names a badly understood disease, maybe not even one disease. Rather, in the aphasic moment, what spreads out irresistibly is the embarrassment that takes in my entire life. And the need to keep running it. The need to keep the diligent, unsteady spider weaving. It is as if at the center of the whole project was some covered up glitch. I can taste the poisonous, acrid flavor of this moment on my tongue.

Although I’m not going to exaggerate – this isn’t the kind of thing that makes you slit your wrist with a butter knife in the intervals. It is the kind of thing you don’t talk about with anyone.

in the golden egg (1)


Hugo Hofmannsthal published The Letter (which is almost always translated into English as The Letter from Lord Chandos) in 1903. In turn of the century Vienna, Hofmannsthal, as a young lyric poet, had become the object of a more numerous and public cult than the one (more famous now) surrounding Stefan Georg. And, unlike Georg or Rilke, he was politically and religiously orthodox – a good Catholic, a supporter of the Habsburg order. Herman Broch, in his essay on Hofmannsthal, says that “on the triad of life, dream and death rests the symphonic structure of Hofmannsthal’s complete opus” – which should remind us of Klimt, and the whole Jugendstyl aesthetic of fin de siecle Vienna. It is a mistake to assume that these aesthetes, with their intense interest in hedonism, were somehow opposed to the sexual ‘repression’ of bourgeois Habsburg society, since, in fact, the latter never operated as a machine for repression. And so it was with Hofmannsthal – as his enemy Kraus liked to observe, he was certainly a man of the status quo.

However, he was also certainly a language man. Hofmannsthal seemed preternaturally gifted with phrases in his early poetry.

This is why the Letter created quite a shock.


The Letter is presented as a reply to a letter written by Francis Bacon to Philip Lord Chandos. Bacon is concerned that Philip Lord Chandos, a promising young maker of poems and masques, had fallen silent. Lord Chandos writes that such have been the changes he has undergone that “he hardly knows if I am the same person to whom you have directed your precious letter”. He goes on to ask if he was the same person as the twenty three year old who, in Venice, under the stony boughs of the grand piazza, lived half in a dream of the books to come – for instance, sketches of the realm of Henry the Eighth, or a mythography of the ancient myths, or a collection of apothegmata as Julius Caesar would have written them, a sort of jumble of dialogues, curious knowledge and sayings not unlike Bacon’s own Natural History or New Organon.

“To be brief: all of being appeared as one great unity to me, who existed in a sort of continuous intoxication: the mental and physical world seemed to image no opposites to me, just as little as the world of court and the world of animals, art and un-art, loneliness and society; in all I felt Nature, in the confusions of madness as much as in the extremest refinements of a Spanish ceremonial, in the boorishness of a young peasant not less than in the sweetest allegory; and in all nature I felt myself; when I in my hunting cap absorbed the foaming, warm milk that an unkept person milked out of a beautiful, soft eyed cow’s udder into a wooden bucket, it was the same to me as I was sitting in the built in window cove of my studio, sucking out of folios the sweet and foaming nurture of the mind. The one was as the other; one did not yield to the other, neither in terms of dreamy, super-earthly nature nor in physical force, and so it continued through the whole breadth of life, right hand, left hand. Everywhere I was in the middle, never was I conscious of a mere semblance. Or it seemed to me that everything was an allegory and every creature a key to another, and I felt myself to be the man who was able to seize their heads one after the other and unlock with them as much of the other as could be unlocked.”

Well, now, - if you have been a philosophy student or a lyric poet and not had this feeling, than you are highly in need of an ego. Having a full sense of what you possess when you are young gives you these buttery, milky moments of feeling, as though the crosspatch world has been waiting those dark dark eons just to encounter the revelatory moment of the tearing of the seals which has happened in your head. You are the angel of the Lord. Or you are Krishna, a god man who was pretty conversant, himself, with the ways of milkmaids. At least, so it was with me at twenty one, a fuckin’ mooncalf if there ever was one, but a common enough exhibit of the syndromes of the hyperborean consciousness. Lord Chandos is a recognizable type, the child of the century – his avatars are in Balzac, in Lermontov, in Tolstoy. The modernist moment is marked by the struggle to be impersonal – to deliver oneself from the milky moment – and that struggle requires some terrible sacrifices of ego for an uncertain outcome. One outcome is the Flaubertian artist. Another outcome is… well, as it is described in the Letter.

Perhaps it is a mistake, even, to confine this to the modernist moment, or at least to pretend that the modernist moment isn’t structured according to the precepts of a broader mythology. Wasn’t Prajapati found lying in a golden egg, the first man, Purusa? The egg is both his bearer and his product – for it was born, itself, of Prajapati’s union with Vac, or speech. Laurie Paton, in Authority, Anxiety and Canon, took the story of the Golden Egg and writes this:

“In my reconstruction of the two-phase process of creation, based on several accounts in the Brahmanas, Prajapati and Vac both participate in each stage. The division between the first and second stages of the cosmogonic process is demarcated in certain accounts by the measure of time, generally the period of a year. In the first stage the creator Prajapai has a desire to reproduce and unites with his consort Vac. The Vac with which Prajapati unites at this stage is the unexpressed, transcendent level of speech that is generally identified with the primordial waters. Prajapati implants his seed in the waters of Vac and the seed becomes an egg, which represents the totality of the universe in yet undifferentiated form. In the second stage of creation a child, representing the ‘second self’ of Prajapati, is born and speaks. This speech, which represents the second phase of Vac, is the expressed, covalized speech by means of which the creator introduces distinctions in the originally distinctionless totality of creation represented by the egg, dividing it into the three worlds and manifesting various types of beings.” (43)

What the Letter records is an egg inward collapse. For on the brink of becoming an Elizabethan sage, Chandos found himself becoming something else entirely.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Buckley, r.i.p

The only American conservative I have any regard for just died – William Buckley.

It is a long regard, going back to my teen years. Not that Buckley has been a force on the right since the eighties. He was as alien to the Bush right as he was to the liberalism of the Great Society era. The right's utter intellectual collapse must have pained him - he always believed that the alliance between rich drones and highly stupid people was redeemed by tone. He had wit and literacy. You can search high and low for that in the National Review of the past decade, but you'll search in vain. The last controversial utterance from the old man was that Iraq was a big fuck up, which was greeted with the embarrassed silence the heirs reserve for the batty grandpa, peeing in his recliner.

And so is extinguished the last dying claim of conservatism to truth, beauty or logic. I'm not sure if I should quote Yeats, at this point - or Pope's the Dunciad.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

scribble scribble scribble, mr. gathman

It might still not seem clear why LI’s relentless pursuit of the triumph of happiness should have lead us to talk about social animals. As our friend Alan said a couple of weeks ago, our posts about happiness fail to represent any principle of order. We leap around like the jester Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn, stripes painted across our ass, now going here, now there.

Now, primo, partly the problem is due to the flightiness of LI’s mind. Partly it is due to the fact that we are doing this as an historien du Dimanche. No license or position outside the text assuages the readers doubts about the catholicity of our choice of topics. In essence, LI is claiming that there is a topical hole, here, however much the successors of Lucien Febvre have claimed to make the sensibilities the object of historical study. And so we beat about in that hole, looking for themes.

Segundo, topics are generated by actual enchainments within social facts. It is, for instance, a social fact that the early modern era treated the passions as thought they were properties of a certain ‘animality’ in the human makeup. This trope goes back a long way in folk psychology and the writing of the scholars. You find it cropping up among the philosophers of the enlightenment – Kant’s the royal example, with his strong notion that the passions are at once something not quite human and all too human. The sensual interest is an animal interest. The non-sensual interest is – freedom. Fit for men, those creatures who can disburden themselves of the soiled rags of their animal impulses.

Finally, tercero, if we see changes in the way animals are conceptualized in the nineteenth century, our instinct – which is that of a solid ‘birds flock together’ man – is that probably, we’ll see changes in the way emotions and feelings are conceptualized that will mirror their former concept kin. And if the opposite of the sensual interest is freedom and freedom is the political legitimator par excellence – and if, in a pantomime that reverses such talk, freedom in the economic sphere is to let your sensual interest dictate without impediment – well, this too has to have an impact on the way society becomes the object for a host of sciences.


These notes I shore against the book to come. Onward, then, to Hofmannsthal’s The Letter.

Monday, February 25, 2008

And this bird you'll never chaaaaiiiinnnnnn!

What can one say about Alabama? LI spent his molting years in an Atlanta suburb, learning to appreciate poetry, masturbation, and a correctly set up tennis serve – the usual adolescence. The old man worked, for a while, as a consultant on big HVAC jobs throughout the Southeast, so he was often posted to Birmingham. I have a vague memory of going with him to the town, which, back then, was a ironman’s heaven, a coaldust place, with a big statue of Vulcan on one of the many city hills. It was Orc city back then.

Georgians consider ourselves at least semi-civilized, and sniff a great deal at the whole idea of Bama. That’s where the wild west really begins – sullen cotton farmers settling sinister black rivers. Of course, that isn’t true – Alabama isn’t the analphabetic, rickets plagued place of my childhood mythology. For instance, there’s Tuskegee University, which was a steady light in the Dixie darkness for decades. Mencken wasn’t kidding when he claimed that the South of his time – 1917 – was the Sahara of the Bozart:

“Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of fat farms, shoddy cities and paralyzed cerebrums: one could throw in France, Germany and Italy, and still have room for the British Isles. And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the “progress” it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert. There are single acres in Europe that house more first-rate men than all the states south of the Potomac.”

Mencken goes on to fling the kitchen sink at Dixie, and then the chairs, the curtains, the lamps, and anything else that he can get his hands on. And he was still short of the astonishing thing about the South, which is not that there are a lot of ignorant people there, but that no place on earth is one’s ignorance more aggressively adored – there is, in Southern tradition, a love for stupidity for its own sake that can only truly be appreciated by those who’ve lived down among the peckerwoods and swapped fleas with em. And if there is one state in which that love is condensed and made into an essence, it is Alabama. There’s a reason George Wallace came from Alabama. There’s a reason Lynyrd Skinner wrote that the “Governor was true.”

Which is why Alabama has turned out to be, much to my surprise, a precursor state in the Bush era. The stupidity-lite of the Bushies, their promotion of ignorance for ignorance sake, has very southern roots. Even Alabama roots. Stealing the election of 2000 in Florida did not begin with Election 2000 in Florida – it began with the Dixie wide attempt, through the nineties, to disenfranchise black males through mass jailing and the use of punitive laws that keep ex felons from voting. It is an old Dixie trick. Alabama, of course, led the way.

However, as we know in these good old states, an astonishing, public crime committed on the black population will rouse not a whimper of protest from the liberal media,. They are, after all, busy encouraging free trade and such. What has happened in Alabama lately even beats the old records – namely, the railroading of the one popular Democratic figure in the state, Don Siegelman, by Karl Rove, a man with deep, greasy roots in Alabama.

Harper’s blogger Scott Horton has tracked this primitive process, which bears comparison with the way Central Asian former Soviet Republics deal with the opposition, with astonishment. And little encouragement from the mainstream media. Finally, though, 60 minutes ran a segment about it. And – it was censored in Alabama! The tv stations in the Peckerwood Kazakhistan are apparently controlled by the usual bevy of corporate criminals, aka friends of the Bushes, and they just suffered an inexplicable outage when the 60 minutes film was a-rollin’. Fancy that!

I’ve wondered when Horton’s reporting was going to get some traction. I’m hoping the time has come. We’ll see.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ugolino

This is the account in the Florentine Chronicle

“In that time the Count Ugolino being lord of Pisa, for the bad treatment that he used towards them, the people rose up in anger, coming with force and great uproar to the Archbishop Ruggiero Ubaldini, crying out: “Death! Death!” They took him and threw him in prison with two of his sons and two grandchildren, making them die of hunger in prison…Then Guido, Count of Montefeltro, commanded that Count Ugolino and his sons and two grandchildren never more be given food to eat, and thus they died wretchedly of hunger all five. These were the Count Ugolino and Uguccione, Brigata, Anselmuccio and Guelfo, and it was found that the one had eaten the flesh of the other, and finally the last rites were denied to them and all five in one morning were dragged dead from prison. This Count Ugolino was a man of such cruelty that he made the people of Pisa die of famine while at the same time having great abundance of grain, to such an extent that it cost seven pounds to buy a measure of grain in Pisa; then finally he himself died of hunger with all his family.”

Count Ugolino has had a famous afterlife. Dante came across him in the ninth – the lowest – circle of hell. His head was fixed to the top of another head – one that he chewed, as a dog chews a bone.

Dante interrupts him to ask his tale, and the head lifts itself from its bloody gnawwork to give his name and the name of the head he chews upon – Archbishop Ruggieri –

“That I, trusting in him, was put in prison/
through his evil machinations, where I died,/
this much I surely do not have to tell you.

What you could not have known, however, is/
the inhuman circumstances of my death.
Now listen, then decide if he has wronged me!


Ugolino’s story, in Dante’s version, is not as much about Ugolino’s stored up grain as it is about the deeper hunger – a hunger for something bloodier than grain – in the barely sublimated hunt of politics. Shelley translated this part of the story:

Now had the loophole of that dungeon, still
Which bears the name of Famine's Tower from me,
And where 'tis fit that many another will

Be doomed to linger in captivity,
Shown through its narrow opening in my cell _5
'Moon after moon slow waning', when a sleep,

'That of the future burst the veil, in dream
Visited me. It was a slumber deep
And evil; for I saw, or I did seem'

To see, 'that' tyrant Lord his revels keep
The leader of the cruel hunt to them,
Chasing the wolf and wolf-cubs up the steep

Ascent, that from 'the Pisan is the screen'
Of 'Lucca'; with him Gualandi came,
Sismondi, and Lanfranchi, 'bloodhounds lean, _15

Trained to the sport and eager for the game
Wide ranging in his front;' but soon were seen
Though by so short a course, with 'spirits tame,'

The father and 'his whelps' to flag at once,
And then the sharp fangs gored their bosoms deep. _20
Ere morn I roused myself, and heard my sons,

For they were with me, moaning in their sleep,
And begging bread. Ah, for those darling ones!
Right cruel art thou, if thou dost not weep


(Notice that these images of lean dogs were used by Shelley in his political poetry – especially in the Masque of Anarchy, where ‘seven bloodhounds” follow Castlereagh.

“All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.”)


Ugolino’s suffering is, then, first of a public thing, revealed in a dream, and then shrinking in an instant to himself and his children, who die like this:

They wept aloud, and little Anselm mine,
Said--'twas my youngest, dearest little one,--
"What ails thee, father? Why look so at thine?"

In all that day, and all the following night,
I wept not, nor replied; but when to shine
Upon the world, not us, came forth the light

Of the new sun, and thwart my prison thrown
Gleamed through its narrow chink, a doleful sight,
'Three faces, each the reflex of my own,

Were imaged by its faint and ghastly ray;'
Then I, of either hand unto the bone,
Gnawed, in my agony; and thinking they

Twas done from sudden pangs, in their excess,
All of a sudden raise themselves, and say,
"Father! our woes, so great, were yet the less

Would you but eat of us,--twas 'you who clad
Our bodies in these weeds of wretchedness;
Despoil them'."



The fourth day dawned, and when the new sun shone,
Outstretched himself before me as it rose
My Gaddo, saying, "Help, father! hast thou none

For thine own child--is there no help from thee?"
He died--there at my feet--and one by one,
I saw them fall, plainly as you see me.

Between the fifth and sixth day, ere twas dawn,
I found 'myself blind-groping o'er the three.'
Three days I called them after they were gone.

Famine of grief can get the mastery.”


It is at this famous and controversial line that Shelley breaks off. Borges, in The False Problem of Ugolino, claims that the earliest commenters took Ugolino to be saying that fasting did more than grief to kill Ugolino, and not confessing to having despoiled the flesh of his dead children. Borges backs up to consider the way Ugolino represents his children as offering their father their flesh:

“I suspect that this utterance must cause a growing discomfort in its admirers. De Sanctis … ponders the unexpected conjunction of heterogeneous images; D’Ovidio concedes that “this gallant and epigrammatic expression of a filial impulse is almost beyond criticism.” For my part, I consider this one of the few false notes in the Commedia. I consider it less worthy of Dante than of Malvezzi’s pen or Gracian’s veneration. Dante, I tell myself, could not have helped but feel its falseness, which is certainly aggravated by the almost choral way in which all four children simultaneously tender the famished feast. Someone might suggest that what we are faced with here is a lie, made up after the fact by Ugolino to justify (or insinuate) his crime.”

But Borges does not make the leap one might expect from his notion that Ugolino is lying – or is being made to lie. The two notions, of course, imply very different forces - on the one hand, the implication is that Ugolino did commit the crime of cannibalism, and on the other, the implication is that he is being falsely implicated as hinting that he committed the crime of cannibalism. Borges believes that Dante’s choice, here, is to arouse our suspicion without sating it with a definite answer. Borges takes this as a lesson in the form of art, as opposed to the substance of life:

“In real time, in history, whenever a man is confronted with several alternatives, he choses one and eliminates and loses the others. Such is not the case in the ambiguous time of art, which is similar to that of hope and oblivion. In that time, Hamlet is sane and is mad. In the darkness of his Tower of Hunger, Ugolino devours and does not devour the beloved corpses, and this undulating imprecision, this uncertainty, is the strange matter of which he is made.”

LI can travel with Borges so far on this argument, but we are much less sure that the strange matter of art is so different from the common matter of life. For it is part of life that we remember, and tell what we remember. And it is part of memory that we edit. We inexorably edit. Our lives aren’t lived in hard focus or in close up – they continually turn out to be softfocused, full of distracted pans, and the alternatives chosen are often, it seems, chosen unconsciously, or made up as the alternatives of the moment afterwards, after sloth, routine, and the contingencies of success or failure impel us to recarve the past. I don’t know if Borges had read about Schroedinger when he wrote this essay – if not, he stumbled on a Schroedinger-like situation without benefit of physics.

Oops. LI really meant to direct this post back to the predator – prey relationship discussed in the Queneau post. And we’ve gone completely astray. Sorry.