“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, August 23, 2008

A factory for making universals in the bowels of the folk consciousness

In Brown’s book on Cosi fan Tutte, which is a treasure trove of quotations, there is a passage from Jonathan Miller [who LI once shared a drink with, ho ho] explaining how he envisions the opera, and particularly the role of Don Alfonso. It is Alfonso who begins the action with a bet: he bets Ferrando and Guglielmo, two soldiers, cento zecchini, that he can prove their fiances can be seduced in a day. It is simply a matter of rearranging the tableau – by a simple ploy, he has the two announce they are going away, then has them disguise themselves and has each soldier woo the other’s fiance. A recto, we have Despina, the maid who tries to convince Fiordiligi and Dorabella that all men are essentially fickle, especially soldiers. Miller views all of this in the light of Don Alfonso’s fundamental motive:

“I have always seen him as a genuine eighteenth-century philosopher, a mixture of Diderot and Voltaire, and this means that the opera then becomes an experiment with human nature. In the first scene, to show him as a philosopher and not a joker, I had him appear at a table covered with books and classical references – the drawings of Sir William Hamilton’s Neapolitan Collections, some of Galvani’s early experiments on animal electricity, and thee might be a mesmeric tub in his room. He is interested in all these scientific and intellectual developments of the Enlightenment. The view that ultimately all human beings are the same because all individuals partake in the nature of Man is an eighteenth century idea. It follows that if there is any escape from a basic human nature it is achieved only by acknowledging those parts of oneself that cannot be altered.”

Diderot and Voltaire would not have recognized that the choice was between being either a philosopher or a joker – but this aside – and I bracket it now only to make a promise that I will come back to it later, because it is of the utmost importance to see how Mozart deals with such assumptions about the codes of seriousness - there is a lot of sense in Miller’s notion. One can’t help noticing that this is an opera that deals with another world of seduction than Don Juan’s. Don Juan’s was limited by hell on one side and marriage on the other. He traverses that world as an adventurer, believing in neither estate – and yet, by his behavior, by the life defining importance he grants these limits even as he opposes them, showing them a kind of respect. The libertine of the 17th century was taking a bet him or herself – Pascal’s bet – but the notion that hellfire might wait at the end of it was not something one could easily put off when the whole weight of the order in which one had been raised depended on that assumption. Which, in turn, was nested in a system of assumptions about spirits, nature, and human beings.

There’s no question of hell in Cosi fan Tutte, although about spirits ...

Friday, August 22, 2008

boy's world

Roberto Calasso has an amazing eye for the damning quotation. He is, after all, an admirer of Karl Kraus. In The Ruin of Kasch, he devotes a chapter to the ‘anti-romantic child”, Bentham. I read that chapter yesterday, and immediately recognized that it was about the U.S., circa 2000-2008.

Here are some Bentham quotes, taken from Halevy’s book about the Utilitarians;

“Directly or indirectly, well being, in one shape or another, or in several shapes, or all shapes taken together, is the subject of every thought, and the object of every action, on the part of every known Being who is, at the same time, a sensitive and thinking being.”

“Money is the instrument of measuring the quantity of pain or pleasure. Those who ar not satisfied with the accuracy of this instrument must find some other.”

“The only common measure the nature of things affords is money.”

These statements have a familiar ring to the American ear. Surely we just heard them. Wasn’t somebody on the radio, on the news, in the office, at a restaurant just saying that? The notion that money is the measure of all things has long been common to libertarians and economists. Markets in everything is the recent title of a book particularly recommended on the economic blog circuit.

But it isn’t the debasement of this kind of thinking that interests me, or even its impossibility – Market is a term that just aches to be taken apart, since it has many meanings and is used in a wholly senseless way to cover the whole of the life of exchange. We actually live in an economy with huge market gaps, and the title market is given as an honorific to aggregate activities, such as looking for a job, that really don’t correspond to being in a market at all. The job market and the banana market are much, much different things.

But let us leave that aside. As I say, it isn’t the debasing and painfully stupid reduction of pleasure and pain to money so much as the cultural effect of the moneyist attitude which interests me. Calasso juxtaposes these phrases of Bentham with this marvelous paragraph:

“John Stuart Mill – the first guinea pig to receive a strictly Benthamite education, one based entirely on the criterion of usefulness – did not react with sumptuous delirium, as Judge Schreber would in an analogous situation. On the contrary, he managed to write a magnanimous essay on Bentham. A genuine respect and lucidity guide Mill’s words, which involuntarily reveal more than what they say on the surface. First, he offers us the most fitting definition of the Master, presenting him as “the great subversive” and, in particular, as the “chief subversive thinker of an age which has lost all that they could subvert.” Bentham was the first living tabula rasa, a stolid and insolent child who could nave no doubts because he had no experience – and would never acquire any. “He had niether an internal experience, nor external; the quiet, even tenor of his life, and his healthiness of mind, conspired to exclude him from both. He never knew prosperity and adversity, passion nor satiety. He never had even the experience which sickness gives; he lived from childhood to the age of eighty-five in boyish health. He knew no dejection, no heaviness of heart. He never felt life a sore and a weary burthen. He was a boy to the last. Self-consciousness that daemon of the men of genius of our time, from Wordsworth to Byron, from Goethe to Chateaubriand, and to whcih this age owes so much of both its cheerful and its mournful wisdom, never was awakened in him. How much of human nature slumbered in him he knew not, neither can we know. He had never beenb made alive to the unseen influences which were acting on himself, nor consequently on his fellow creatures.”

Oh the age of boys. We are living in the full tide of it, for the Great Moderation, as the economists love to call it, which has become the Great Corruption under the ever vigilant eye of the Great Fly, has put the boys as firmly on our back as the Old Man of the Sea was on Sinbad’s. Anybody who is alive to these Benthamite strains will recognize that the same boys-will-be-boys atmosphere that heralded the runup to the war in Iraq (a war prefigured in the sales for Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six, Endwar, Ghostrecon, and all the other flotsam and jetsam of the boy unconscious) became the blood and ouns of the Bush boom. What James Galbraith calls the Predator state requires a mentality so stripped of any other measure than money and the immediate lulls of wellbeing that it can’t even recognize experience anymore. How to do this? One has to look at the whole system – the schooling, the media, the office atmosphere, the suburbs. One has to look at it the way one looks at processed meat – in these slaughter houses they cut away the imagination, all unnecessary emotional registers, and most of all, the very idea of the negative capacity – which is, like, so gross and negative! To catch the end result of this shallowness, one has to read, say, the Freakonomics blog over a long period of time. Or attend, listen, to the yearning burning love for Bush himself – remembering that the secret of the action movie is not the movie itself, but the action figures one sells concurrently. Bush is our most perfect national doll. He is a perfect doll for boys, and the boys are sore disappointed in him. Cause, as we know, America is Boy’s Life writ large.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

And where's my nobel prize???

Limited Inc – you might think our little suggestions fall dead from our pages. From my mouth to God’s deaf ear, as they say. But notice this, from our March 20, 2008 post:

“What the Government should do is place all securities under the sweeping powers of the same kind of agency that regulates drugs. And, just as drugs are tested for their real effects and approved with regulatory strings, securities too should be subject to testing (which would be in the nature of simulations) and approved, if found not to have malign side effects and found to be useful, only with their own regulatory strings. The ‘shadow’ financial system, as Roubini calls it, has become a giant ectoplasm of iffy puts and options, in a system that really has already developed the vehicles it needs for investment, thank you very much. And, as we have seen, Alien turns to the nanny state as soon as the downside whacks it. Thrust the fuckers into the light. Regulation now, regulation forever.”

And notice this, in today’s WSJ:
“Joseph Stiglitz, a professor of economics at Columbia University who won the Nobel in 2001, suggested misguided innovation itself caused the current turmoil. Noting that homeowners’ most important risk assessment is the likelihood that they can retain their home amid market volatility, Stiglitz said, “these are the problems [financial markets] should have created products to match. But they created risks, and now we’re bearing the consequences of this so-called innovation.”
There were some areas of agreement. The standards that gauge how much capital banks should hold — called Basel II for the Swiss city in which they were developed — focus too tightly on managing daily risk and not enough on handling crises. “What happens most of the time is not important,” said Scholes, noting the current financial turmoil comes on the heels of the dot-com bubble’s bursting and the Asian financial crisis of the early 1990s. “We have to learn how to handle the shocks when they occur.”
One idea that might prevent a repeat of the turmoil: a commission that would vet financial products before their release, akin the Food and Drug Administration’s evaluation of drugs before they’re released to the market. McFadden suggested, “we may need a financial-instrument administration that tests the robustness of financial instruments and approves only the uses where they can do no harm.”

I came across this quote at Marginal Revolution, the libertarian blog run out of George Mason university's economics department, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries. The bloggers denounced it as a terrible idea. If the crank libertarians are opposed to it, it must be good!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dove son? che loco è questo?

LI has been thinking that what I need to do, if I am to satisfy the armies of periodizers that inhabit my nightmares, is to go from showing how the conditions for the change in the attitude towards happiness came together in the seventeenth and eighteenth century (this is what all these themes over the past half a year have been about, captain!) to showing how happiness became a norm. That is, showing how it ended up filling three places normatively - as a feeling; as a judgment over the life order (or a judgment over lifestyles); and as a justification for political and economic arrangements. So far, I’ve been trying to show that those spaces haven’t always been connected by happiness. That this threefold social phenomena isn’t simply a matter of one feeling taking over from a previous dominant one. That the three places condition each other; and that in the wake of the slow vanishing of the human limit, there was play room for a number of affective political structures. Most notably, that of volupté. I’ve liked the often quoted phrase of Tallyrand’s said about the “sweetness” of life in the ancien regime, since that seems to point to something that is not a happiness norm, but that still held down this space between the desacralizing of the life order and the absence of a normative sense of happiness as the final legitimating end of social arrangements.

How would such a life be lived? Well, I can’t really do better than point to a quartet of Mozart’s operas: Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, and Die Zauberflöte.

In reading Bruce Allan Brown’s book about Cosi fan tutte, I came across the name Johann Pezzl – probably a very well known name to Mozart fans. Myself, I hadn’t heard of him before. Pezzl was a fellow mason and an inveterate scribbler, briefly one of Joseph II’s spies (another instance of the adventurer), and the producer of a number of popular books about Vienna. There are some wonderful quotes from Pezzl in Brown’s book – alas, I haven’t been able to find Pezzl’s Skizze von Wien, although I have found a copy of Neue Skizze von Wien.

I don’t have much time this week, but I want to do a little Pezzl quoting. And I wanted to link to this great production of Cosi fan tutte. Act two, scene 16 in particular seems to gather together so many of the themes I have been treating that it makes gives me the interpreter’s vertigo. You will notice that Despina speaks swabian – Mesmer’s language – and tartar – the language of Catherine’s Siberian Shaman:

Come comandano
Dunque parliamo:
So il greco e l'arabo,
So il turco e il vandalo;
Lo svevo e il tartaro
So ancor parlar

Monday, August 18, 2008

Three stories about Gerhard Van Swieten, an enlightenment doctor

Everybody knows
that baby's got no clothes

Story one. Van Swieten was the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa’s personal physician. In 1740, Maria Theresa asked his advice about a terribly personal matter. She’d been married three years by then, and had no children. Van Swieten delivered the following famous prescription: “Praeteria censeo, vulvam Sacratissimae Majestatis, ante coitum, diutius esse titilandam.” That is, Maria Theresa should have her clitoris stimulated before coitus. It worked. Her shy husband Francis I tried it, and Maria Theresa went on to get pregnant a lot.

Such is the story recounted by Jonathan Margolis in O: the intimate history of orgasm. The story is almost certainly false. Van Swieten did not meet Maria Theresa until after treating her sister in 1744 – he probably came to Vienna in that year or a year later. By this time, Maria Theresa had had several children. Her first child was born before 1740, incidentally. Margolis did not, however, simply make up his facts. He’s repeating an old gynecologist’s tale. It was introduced into English by the indefatigable sexologist, Havelock Ellis, who know doubt took it from the indefatigable German sexologist, Iwan Bloch (1908). Bloch, in turn, might have taken it from several sources. It is odd that it had currency among German medical men, as biographies of Van Swieten were abundant enough that there was plenty of evidence that it couldn’t have happened. Interestingly, however, the latin prescription always appears with the story, although not always in the same wording. Bloch’s version is “titillatio clitoridis”, and he throws out the supporting story about Maria Theresa’s infertility. The story is the kind of thing that is repeated without being cited – I found one version in which Swieten urges Maria Theresa to stimulate her clitoris with a feather, for instance. Why would such a story gain such a confident currency? Wouldn’t it seem, at first glance, that no participant – neither Van Swieten nor Maria Theresa – would have any motive for setting such a consultation down on paper? That this story moves by itself is, I would say, putting on my best Freudian spectacles, evidence that it operates like a sort of dream in the collective male unconscious. The empress already is an irritant – a woman in power. The Herr doctor (to whom is ascribed, for no very good reason, powers of insight into sexuality that nothing in van Swieten’s career justifies) lords it over her, however, for she has one point, one little bud, of weakness – that royal clitoris – and of course he sees that the whole problem radiates from there.

It is rather amusing that as the story drifts along, it allots narrative places to all participants, depending on the season and ideological flavor of the month. Margolis, for instance, makes up a sexually naive husband, Prince Francis Stephen of Lorraine, to go with this story.

Story 2. Van Swieten was Empress Maria Theresa’s personal physician. She appointed him the head librarian of the court library. Being a product of enlightened Holland, a pupil of Boerhave, and an enemy of superstition, Van Swieten investigated the library and found it stuffed with alchemical, hermetic, spiritualist and astrological treatises. He had them all gathered up and burned, in spite of the howls of protests of all the hermetically inclined in Vienna.
This, too, is false. Although this story was reported in Van Swieten’s first biography, the Abbe Rautenstrauch, and it does reflect Van Swieten’s attitude towards ‘superstitious” garbage. At the time Rautenstrauch published his biography, this passage was protested by one of Van Swieten’s children, but his protests passed unheeded, and the act passed into the positivist legends of the 19th century. However, in 1906, the journal Janus published an article in which it published letters from Van Swieten showing that this action never happened.

Story 3. Van Swieten was the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa’s personal physician. In 1755, a report reached the court that bodies had been disinterred from a cemetery and burned in Olmütz because of the local belief that they were vampires. Maria Theresa appointed Van Swieten to investigate. In 1756, the court produced a against the vampire belief and forbidding these kinds of practices.

This story is true. Van Swieten is not only known, in a shadowy way, in sexology, but has become quite the villain in popular books about vampirism, where he is depicted as a hidebound reactionary. However, that picture is just the reverse of the one promoted in Enlightenment Europe, where Van Swieten’s book against the vampire belief was absorbed into the Voltairian battle against popular belief, with its consequent persecution of “witches” and “sorcerers”.

For a great blog on Habsburg vampires, go to magia posthuma.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The return of the pannier

This Sunday, forget Bill Keller’s frothing at the mouth about Westerners “kowtowing” to Beijing – not only is McCain bringing back Teddy Roosevelt but the whole glorious vocabulary of his time, which is like steak tartar in the mouth of our adorable, bloodthirsty MSM-ists! – and make a beeline to Caroline Weber’s article, The Belle Curve. There are those who have criticized LI’s obsession with the 18th century – but apparently we were simply mindmelding with today’s hottest fashion designers:

But every now and then, a trend comes along whose sheer, unalloyed improbability startles even fashion’s strictest devotees. A case in point: the return this season of the amplified hip. From panniers at Louis Vuitton and Charles Nolan to crinolines at Alexander McQueen to peplums at Chanel, the fall/winter looks encourage women to channel PJ Harvey, who in ‘‘Sheela-Na-Gig’’ sang of her shapely charms: ‘‘I’ve been trying to show you over and over / Look at these, my child-bearing hips.’’ Incongruous as it may seem in an industry better known as an enemy than as a friend of female curves, today’s designers are bringing back the hourglass shape in all its bulging, bottom-heavy splendor.”

That’s right – panniers are back!

“At 18th-century Versailles, the panniered skirts of female court costume reached such vast widths that women had to enter rooms sideways. So great was the fear of getting stuck in doorways that young noblewomen trained for their first day at court with an exacting old gentleman who donned a ‘‘ridiculous, billowing skirt’’ of his own to lead the tutorial, according to the memoirs of the Marquise de la Tour du Pin. But one woman’s challenge is another woman’s opportunity. Just imagine the figure you’ll cut wedging your way onto a crowded N train in your new McQueen tutu. ‘‘Stand clear of the closing doors, please!’’ As the subway doors jam against your layers of stiffened tulle, all eyes will — I guarantee it — be on you. That’s what they call making an entrance.”

LI likes a jaunty skirt, but McQueen’s fall line doesn’t understand that billowing and jauntiness aren’t the same thing. Although we give McQueen a lot of points for that much commented upon gray mohair jacket dress worn by Rihanna in Elle. This is how McQueen explains his fall collection:

"I've got a 600-year-old elm tree in my garden," he said, "and I made up this story of a girl who lives in it and comes out of the darkness to meet a prince and become a queen." After a trip to India, the designer worked like a fiend for months in his studio, with images of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and the Indian Empire running through his mind. They were transformed into ballerina-length multi-flounced dance dresses, each more insanely exquisite than the last: A miraculous red-feather-fronted number turned to burst into a froth of creamy frills in back; another came covered in baby-fine knitted lace; a third had a pair of peacocks—again fashioned from cutout black lace—with their tail feathers fanning out over ivory tulle petticoats.

Interspersed were rigorously cut military tailcoats with taut pants detailed with military frogging, and slim brocade and cloque pantsuits with crisp white high-necked shirts. Then there was a stately parade of imperial-red and velvet jackets bedecked with millions of dollars' worth of antique Indian diadems and diamond neckpieces, and yet more incredible rich Empire-line saris and wispy dishabille transparencies. These were followed by a sequence of gold-encrusted, ermine-coated glory, echoing the heyday of Norman Hartnell and Hardy Aimes' fifties British couture as worn by Elizabeth II.

Whatever had triggered this new lease of inspired design, it went further than the mere rendition of fanciful costume for the sake of telling a story. Importantly, McQueen finally found it in himself to quash the confining, uptight carapace that had held back former collections, replacing it with a new sense of lightness and femininity.”

Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and the Indian Empire, did you say? I’m sorry: that’s a no go. As for the fifties British couture worn by Elizabeth II, where are my vials of wrath? I had them here a second ago...

One nice thing about this new trend is that Ysa Ferrer was obviously prescient, last year, in her mix of French Maid and Pompidour waif, as per To Bi or Not To Bi. It is a puzzle to LI that Ysa just doesn’t export to this country. I’ll never understand Americans.