“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

Friday, January 01, 2010

my darling was naked, and knowing my heart...


Aristotle’s schemata of tropes gave us the sight-lines for comedy – the pain that is not pain, the ugliness that is a lure rather than a repulsion, the play between the height and the depth, all constructed from the point of view that comedy is ultimate determined by the audience that enjoys it – an audience that is ultimately base, or common qua audience. There is obviously going to be a problem with comedy from the point of view that identifies pleasure and pain as opposites, feelings that take polar positions on a continuum. Similarly with the point of view that identifies the beautiful, and the high, as the desirable, against the ugly, and the low, as the repulsive.

These tropes don’t reappear in Baudelaire’s essay under Aristotle’s signature. In fact, the essay begins with a question of signature – Baudelaire has read ‘somewhere’ the phrase, la sage ne rit qu’en tremblant. This is a maxim that Baudelaire develops, but doesn’t sign – and yet, he dare not attribute it to another writer. It is an instance – and what writer has not felt like this – of deja-ecrit – in which, just as in deja-vu, one has the feeling that one has seen the thing one is writing down before. To have seen it is to have read it, and to have read it means someone has written it. Something has gone wrong, though – there’s a small deviation in the author’s authority, for neither the writer nor anyone that the writer knows wrote the sentence, exactly.
In an essay in which Satan and temptastion quickly come to the forefront, this deja-ecrit is not external to the system of the text. Rather, the uncertainty of it as a maxim – a pronouncement that gains its truth content from the authority of the experience of the speaker, out of whose mouth it came. Laughter, which also comes out of the mouth, and also seems to hover outside of the speech acts that we sign – is, then, first approached from a quote of a phrase spoken by no one person.

Baudelaire proposes to give us the essence of laughter, but we very quickly see that, in fact, there are at least two kinds of laughter, and a diachronic and geographic politics of laughter. What is it about the ‘modern’ - a magical term for Baudelaire – that has produced the predominent form of laughter – the laughter of pride?

The modern is explicitly posed, by Baudelaire, as a term opposed to the pre-modern or a-modern – the non-European, or the Ancient. At the center of the modern is Satan – for Baudelaire as well as Gogol. Although Gogol’s term, posh’lust, was, of course, not known to Baudelaire, they are both working with the same insight into the ‘real’ – that is, the insight that the routinization of the ‘real,’ or banality, is evil at its core. Evil – mal – is of course as much a preoccupation of Baudelaire’s as of Gogol’s, while the routine – production itself – is a preoccupation of Marx’s.

I have not yet quoted – translated – from the essay, because it would be too powerful to quote before we get these remarks out of the way. To pretend that I can quote anything, and that it is all the same, and that I will apply my little apparatus to draw out the themes, study the development, etc. – well, I think that is simply false. I know incantation, I know enchantment when I see it. There’s a myth about hypnosis – that one can plant a post-hynotic suggestion. Well, reading the Essence of Laughter certainly leaves me feeling that – I must change my life.

So I’m not going to pretend that this is any text.

One final remark: In The Essence of Laughter, Baudelaire’s arguments keep falling under the sway of his tableaux – there are a number in this essay that could easily be prose poems, including one that, I think, is one of his greatest prose poems. Logos, enchanted by mythos, dances. We could – and will – apply to this fact about the formal structuring of the essay the points raised by its themes – which is the kind of gesture that infuriates a certain kind of philosopher, who insists on maintaining a rigid separation of levels in analyzing discourse.

ps - I'll add this today:

“In the earthly paradise (be it supposed in the past or to come, memory or prophecy, like the theologians or like the socialists), in the earthly paradise, that is to say in surroundings where it seems to man that all created things are good, joy would not be in laughter. No pain afflicts him, his face would be simple and homogeneous, and the laughter that now agitates the nations would no longer deform the traits of the face. Laughter and tears will not make themselves visible in the paradise of bliss.” [ne peuvent pas se faire voir dans le paradis de delices.]

Baudelaire’s essay on laughter contains, as I have said, a number of tableaux that do not quite serve wholly as examples, which is how images and situations are put in the service of explanation by philosophy – but rather as a kind of hieroglyph, symbols made out of a combination of elements that are, themselves, already symbolic. The hieroglyph is, of course, read, but – especially in an alphabetic culture – something in it resists the transparency of reading. Or to put it in a nineteenth century vocabulary, form, here, never completely absorbs function. There’s an excess of vision, if you will, encoded in the hieroglyph.

Myself, I want to draw out two of those tableaux.

The first, which falls under the paradisial theme in the essay, concerns one of the odder falls from grace in literature. It is not, though, unprecedented – Baudelaire was a reader of Choderlos de Laclos, and knew the famous chapter, in Liasons Dangereuses, in which the Vicomte de Valmont recounts his conquest of Cecile by means of laughter:

“The little person is a laugh-er: and to promote her gaiety, I bethought myself, in our entr’acts, to tell her all the scandalous adventures that passed through my head, and to render them more piquantes and to fix her attention more closely, I put them on her mother’s account, and I amused myself by ornamenting her with vices and ridiculousness.”

Baudelaire’s Eve falls due to a caricature which, Baudelaire further supposes, is connected to “those times there” – to the time of royalty. This Eve is, for those who know their Baudelaire, irresistibly evocative of Jeanne Duval. Biographers of Baudelaire – I’m thinking in particular of Joanne Richardson – use the testimony of Baudelaire’s contemporaries to give us a picture of Duval – and in so doing, they strangely ignore the crudeness of the testimonies. We do know that Baudelaire made an immense sacrifice for Jeanne – he sacrificed another woman for her, his mother. Madame Aupick could not understand why Charles lived with Jeanne, what “hold” she had on him, and absolutely refused to see Jeanne.

Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, Madame Aupick’s views have tended to be adopted by Baudelaire’s biographers.

So much for personal detail. Baudelaire illustrates what he takes to be the relationship between laughter and innocence – in the cosmic sense, an innocence that finds all created things good – by imagining a first encounter with the alluring ugliness of caricature.

“Permit me a poetic supposition which will serve to verify the justice of these assertions, which many people will no doubt find spotted with the apriori of mysticism. Lets try, since the comic is a damnable element of a diabolical origin, to put it in an encounter with an absolutely primitive soul and coming out, so to speak, from the very hands of nature. Take for example the great and typical figure of Virginie, who perfectly symbolizes absolute purity and naivete. Virginie arrives in Paris still moist from the ocean fogs, and gilded by the tropical sun, her eyes full of the great primitive images of the waves, mountains and forests. She falls here into a civilization full of excessive, mephitic turbulence, she – all impregnated with the pure and rich smells of the Indies – she, attached to humanity by her family and love, by her mother and her lover, Paul, as angelic as she is, and whose sex is, so to speak, not distinguishable from hers in the unappeaseable ardors of a love that doesn’t know itself. God, she knew in the church of Pamplemousse, a little church, modest and puny, and in the immobility of the tropical azure, and in the immortal music of the forests and torrents. Certainly, Virginie is very intelligent, but a few images and a few memories are enough for her, just as a few books will do for the Sage. Thus, one day Virginie encounters, by chance, innocently, in the Palais-Royale, in the pane of glass of a glazier, on a table, in a public place, a caricature! A caricature that is appetizing for us, swollen with bitterness and rancor, appropriate to a bored and perspicacious civilization. Lets imagine a goodly farce of boxers, some brittanic enormity, full of clotted blood and seasons with some monstrous goddams; or, if this smiles better on your curious imagination, lets suppose that before virginal Virginia’s eye there spreads some charming and agitated impurity, a Gavarni of those times, and of the best, some insulting satire against royal folly, some plastic diatribe against the Parc-aux-Cerfs, or he down in the mud precedents of a favorite, or the nocturnal escapades of the proverbial Austrian. The caricature is double: the design and the idea, the violent design, the biting and veiled ideea; a painful complication of elements for a naïf spirit, accustomed to understand by sheer intuition things as simple as it. Virginie has seen: now she looks. Why? She is looking at the unknown. Besides, she hardly understands what it means or what its use is. However, do you see, suddenly the wings unfold, there is the trembling of a soul that veils itself and wishes to get away? The angel has felt that the scandal is there. And, truly, I say unto ye, that if she has understood or not understood, there remains in her some impression of a certain malaise, something that resembles fear. Without doubt, if Virginie remains in Paris and becomes enlightened [la science lui vienen], she will learn to laugh [le rire lui viendra]; we will see why. But, for the moment, we, the analyst and critic, who dare not, certainly, claim that our intelligence is superior to Virginie, observe the fear and suffering of the immaculate angel before the caricature.”

I’ll translate the second tableau tomorrow.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year countdown!

Although friend of LI, Amie, strongly recommended that we go out and shake our rump this New Year’s, LI has that whole snail feeling goin' on this holiday season. We long for a shell, and a place to fold our antlers. So instead of going out and about, we will do the traditional ten songs, plus review the last year, etc. and as follows, indent, bullet point.

Obviously, LI became much less fun this year. In the old blogging days, which you will no doubt recite exciting stories of around the campfire to your grandchildren, back in aught eight, aught seven, we mixed up posts of eccentric, bizarre scholarship, meditations a la Pessoa if Pessoa had been a Texas puissant, and our usual political jeremiads – which was fun and edifying and much like a real tv show, if they had one about Nervous Breakdowns – Neurotic Survivor, say. ( Five characters, no med-pacs for a week!) I felt that everyone would enjoy scapegrace scholarship and confessions of deep personal inadequacy – since this worked for the Ancient Mariner – and it worked well enough.

This year, we took another route. We put all the personal essay material, plus the political nihilism, on another blog, News From The Zona, We even won a prize there! But LI itself has been the dumping ground for my Human Limit material. Now, we have tried to be as pretty as pussy about the whole thing, since otherwise, why do it? But it has made for a less, let’s say, antic site. All too often the posts come so loaded down with internal references and nuances that they assume the unapproachability of the wedding cake – which is, of all cakes, the one least made for eating.

We hope that those who miss the old LI – painting stripes on himself and baring his bum – are happy with the NFTZ site. On LI, it will be wedding cakes. Sorry, sorry, sorry! But we can’t give up putting up ten songs on LI!

This was not a year where we fell in love with a new singer, like Santi White. Rather, we fell in love with some old singers. For instance, Victor Tsoi.

1. Gruppa Krovi – we now feel that this song is an old chum. We even like the version by Anastasia Prikhodko, but we can’t quite swallow her neo-nazi connections.

2. Capital by Lyapis Trubetskoy – we rather loved this song. We loved the vid. Who can resist a song that mixes Marx, Disneyland and Vishnu?

3. We also fell in love, this year, with Les Rita Mitsouko. Why did it take so long? Who knows. Amie sent us this unbelievably cute link - and the music that was sort of a constant accompaniment the last couple months has been this one.

4. Okay, I had a weakness this year for Atlas Sound. So, bite me. Adolescent melancholy, be my muse!

5. I also had a weakness for Ladytron. This isn’t my favorite Ladytron, but I love that Bulgarian intro! And this is a more kickass song.

6. It was very much a Mekons year.


7. And what would the New Year’s be without Turkish music, that flows straight from my heart? Mogollar - Selvi boylum al yazmalim

8. Sexy Sushi – who gives me hope for the future! Enfant de putain – salope ta mere
9. Then there was the new Metric album - from which there's the great refrain in Sick Muse
10. And of course, an old song, Rumpshaker

Happiest of new years to y'all! Thanks!
PS - Amie suggested an Iranian song in the comments, and here's an appropriate one for the beginning of this year. Abjeez.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

“Those grimaces called laughter”

As I write this, at Whole Foods, a couple of women sitting near me are exchanging life stories, very much not an unual occurrence here, and especially at the ruminative end of the year. One of the women – a pleasant, rather beaky face, black hair cut in a shag that spreads out in wings by each ear, a voice that lingers a bit too long in the nose for it to have learned that trick in Central Texas, about forty – finishes her story and laughs. “And that’s why you get divorced,” she says. The other - shorter, frankly less interesting, surely more together then her friend, who ,coming out with those slightly lopsided raven’s wings, has been reflecting on her life – the other laughs too.

What is so funny?

Such a short question, such a long shadow. The question of what to make of “ce monstreux phenomene”. For it is monstrous in every sense – it shows, it demonstrates, rather than says – it reveals an automatism of the face, that organ/sign, as if the human body were here ruled by a different power, something other than the consciousness – it is – or at least, tradition says it is – a creation of man, and not a trait shared by the animals – and thus, is, to some slight extent, in competition with God. More than that, laughter and tears are liminal phenomena that must be put aside, explained as codicils, if we truly believe in the separation of pain and pleasure – that separation which defines feelings and emotions in terms of the negative and the positive. Yes, we can well imagine the android that cries, when receiving the instruction, be sad, and laughs when receiving the instruction, be happy – but the android that cries when happy, or laughs when sad, that android dreams of electric sheep. The instructions, at this point, have been taken out of the control of the instructor.

Surely such a phenomenon should attract attention. And, in Baudelaire’s essay on the Essence of Laughter, it receives it – in fact, that essay brings into play elements we have long been working with, from the class determination of a certain tone – the humorous tone, the comic – in philosophy to a mysterious and utterly enchanting tableau of vertige. In the deepest part of the essay, we come to a moment in which one feels an opportunity form – for an instance – and then fly away.

But first, we should foreground our work, here.

We go back, dutifully, always, we go back to the Greeks. Aristotle made the connections, gave us the themes, that have ever after been at work like the tailors in the Emperor’s new clothes – except where those tailors were swindlers, the invisible clothes that get passed down – hand me downs – here are themes, mythemes even. Aristotle evidently did not feel it was worth his while to write a lot about comedy – but what he wrote was sufficient to introduce a couple of semantif oppositions. One is the opposition between the high and the low, interpreted in terms of social position. Comedy is the preference of those in the low position. It is born low. Another opposition is confused in comedy – as we pointed out. This is the opposition between pleasure and pain. Aristotle, in the poetics, later explains how we can take pleasure in the pain of tragedy by purging ourselves of that pain – in comedy, however, the pain is mock pain – the laugh which creases the face borrows the rictus of pain to express pleasure. And this borrowing is inscribed into the architecture of the comic mask. And finally, there is the opposition between the beautiful and the ugly – which is correlated with the opposition between the high and the low:

“As we have said, comedy is an imitation of baser men. These are characterized not by every kind of vice but specifically by the "ridiculous," which is a subdivision of the category of "de- formity." What we mean by "the ridiculous" is some error or ugliness that is painless and has no harmful effects. The example that comes immediately to mind is the comic mask, which is ugly and distorted but causes no pain.”

Monday, December 28, 2009

some remarks on banality and realism

'Le Sage ne rit qu'en tremblant' - Baudelaire

When we read Belinski claim, in his Views on Russian Literature in 1847, that Gogol ‘based his art exclusively on real life, eschewing all ideals” – and see him opposing Gogol’s ‘natural’ literature to the school of ‘rhetorical literature’ – we rub our eyes. Gogol, the man who wrote the Nose, the Overcoat, and Dead Souls – based his art exclusively on real life?

“Herein lies the great service rendered by Gogol, and this is what men of the old schoool impute to him as a great crime against the laws of art. In this way he completely changed the prevailing view on art itself. The Old and threadbare definition of poetry as ‘nature beautified’ may be applied at a stretch to the works of any of the Russian poets; but this cannot be done in regard to the works of Gogol. Another definition of art fits them – art as the representation of reality in all its fidelity. Here the crux of the matter is types, the ideal being understood not as an adornment (consequently a falsehood) but as the relations in which the author places the types he creates in conformity with the idea which his work is intended to develop.” [Art in Theory, 357]

This is curious to us, who read Gogol after the revolution brought about by the symbolists, for whom Gogol was an especial favorite - in as much as he reinvented rhetoric, joyed in it, was, in all respects, an excessive writer. But it is not the divide between rhetoric and realism that concerns me so much as the rhetoric of realism itself. What the symbolists did was discover – not that Gogol was a fantasist – but that the realism of the realists was actually banality. The category of the real almost always turns out to be too big – it is a black hole of a concept - everything that approaches it gets swallowed, and who knows where it will reappear? But Gogol’s expertise in understanding the man who lies in bed until 11, or the comments that may be made, almost endlessly, about the wheel of a troika – Gogol, whose barbers discover, to their horror, that they have somehow cut off and brought home the noses of their clients – this is the Gogol who has found a whole dimension of modern life within which we continually struggle. But it wasn’t simply the discovery of the communication between the banal and the fantastic – it was, as much, the discovery that at its heart, the banal is evil. Yes, it isn’t the banality of evil, but the evil of banality that has driven the catastrophe of the modern. And on such soil, all social formations will tend to be variations of the grotesque.

Or to put it another way…

Well, to put it in several other ways. Our themes – the windfallen wood and the dead souls, both viewed as property – and the theme before – of addiction and the deathplay of psychoactive commodities – seem, we admit it, rather baggy. And we admit that the general imposition of our system of interpretation – which seeks out the general effect of the culture of happiness as a derivative of micro and macroscopic transformations of the human limit – seems sometimes as black and as hole-ish as realism. Isn’t there something subjective about the choice and treatment of materials, too? At one point in Dead Souls, Gogol is about to tell his readers what his women characters are thinking when, as he says, his quill positively stops on the page, as though it were made of lead. The task of revealing the thoughts of the ladies is too much for the poor bachelor author – it crushes him!

As well it should. I, who have thrust my hand into the pie backed by generations and in millions of mind, might do well to hesitate, rather than insist on pulling out plums. But I am not Gogol, nor worthy to put the sandals on his feet.

When Georges Bataille went on the attack against sur-realism – which, in spite of its affinity for the unconscious and automatic writing, continued, at its core, to believe that the real could be an –ism – he took up the cause of the big toe and the laugh. He took up, in other words, for the banal.

I have convoked these spirits, and now I need to shoulder through them.
Years ago, in 2008, to be exact, I wrote a series about chains. I recently re-read it, and discovered I’d made a small mistake in that series, which looms large to me, as I think about dead souls and the making of property – I quoted a passage about Roman law in William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities that I misinterpreted – although I blame Mr. Smith for his imprecision. I said that the creditor in Roman law was called an addictus – but this is wrong. It is the bondsman or woman, the one sold for debt, who was called an addictus – and though I am not superstitious about etymology, the Wiccan Marxist in me trembles a bit as I link the addict to the addictus, and the addictus to the live souls of the serf or the tree branch, and the dead souls to the chained troop of them conjured up, in the town of N., by speculation involving Chichikov’s purchases. I tremble as I laugh. All’s fair in love and metonomy.