from the other shore

My friend R., M.’s husband, is skeptical of my book. Unfortunately, at one point I described my project as “against happiness” – which is true in a complicated sense. Still, R. quotes that back at me – he has a good ear for the ridiculous things I say. And that phrase certainly goes against R.’s New Left politics.

On New Years Eve, we were all in Malinalco. Chepe has a country house there. I’d previously been down there in 2005. It is a compound of three houses – one is Chepe and Tania’s house, one is a guest house, and one is the house that Tania’s mother lives in. It is a perfect place for long, wordy afternoons, as though cut from a Tom Stoppard play. We all drink, smoke and snack, waiting for dinner, which will be the trout M. bought from the market about half a mile away. The kids throw each other into the cold swimming pool behind Tania’s mother’s house – we can hear them shriek. Friends and relatives show up, say hi, disappear.

M., in the hammock, complains to me that the beginning of the Sorrows of Werther, which she is thinking of teaching to her students this semester on my recommendation, is too lachrymose. Why did I suggest it? I make a few suggestions as to what is historically important in Werther. R. interjects that Werther is not new – that the treatment of love ending in suicide is prefigured in the medieval romance literature, as Denis de Rougemont shows. And he says, Werther is a jerk.

M. says she isn’t going to teach her class that her husband thinks Werther is a jerk. Who cares if R. thinks Werther is a jerk?

Tatiana draws up a chair. She enjoys the fuss R., M. and I are making. She doesn’t say much, but smokes and watches. I reply that there is something different happening in Werther than, say, in the Arthurian romances. One has to have a sense for how history enters the system of the passions. That, I say, has to do with the synthesis between a sentiment, a situation, and a sanction – I reference Durkheim and Ogien. It is in the forging of these syntheses, in the interstices, that we can make a history of the passions possible. So, in particular, we should take the household demographic situation of Europe in the 18th century, which is much different than in the eleventh century, and use it as a reference for understanding how certain syntheses produce sentiments. In particular, with the love-choice marriage, the question arises whether love is the kind of thing described by a longer synthesis, or whether shorter, intense syntheses are at its base.

But R. is not convinced by this, and insists that Werther nevertheless represents an old, Christian thematic of coupling love with death. And that, he says, is a reiteration of an old familiar nihilism, which buffers all the old institutions. What he demands, he says, by way of Marx, Nietzsche and Deleuze, is not my syntheses, which all fall under the notion of the negation of the negation, but an affirmation of an affirmation – love affirmed as it is, in life. We have to get past the clutter of guilt and shame that have been built around the life processes.

My problem with this, I say, is that it is the wrong way to start the investigation. Our material should first be seen as it is, as it is performed, materialized in performance. Whether I reject the coupling of life and death or not, as a social phenomena, the thematic exists. I’m more interested in how to account for it so that I can see how it changes.

I don’t disagree with you from the view of the historian, R. says.

At this point, a couple appears in the yard, coming from Tania’s mother’s house. Hola, everybody says. I say, we are talking about love and happiness. Tatiana laughs.

ps - my review of Patrick Tyler's history of U.S. foreign relations with the Middle East since Eisenhower was published today here.