a long ramble: the sage and the buffoon

The Buffoon and the Sage – edited version
(From a series of Bush era posts}
This  all goes back, for me, to the eighties, when I used to talk to my friend and prof, Kathleen Higgins, who was writing her first book, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. K.H. had become fascinated by ass fests, one of which is featured in the big Z, and was seeing large echoes in the text from Apuleius’ Golden Ass.

At the time, I didn’t grasp the import of this. Only lately have I begun to connect what she was telling me with my sense of the-muse like power of the ludicrous – which has always operated like the Air Loom gang on the broken winged crow who speaks to you here.

However, I have forgotten (and can’t find the book this morning) whether K.H. mentions Bruno. Nuccio Ordine’s book, Giordano Bruno and the Philosophy of the Ass, was published after K.H.’s book – I do know that.

At the time that I was talking to her about Nietzsche, I was especially drawn – like Krazy Kat to Ignatz’s brick – to one particular moment in Nietzsche’s corpse-us – the beginning number of the Gay Science, in which he says this:

“To laugh at oneself, as one must laugh, in order to laugh out and out of the whole truth – up until now, even the best did not have enough probity, and the most talented had much too little genius! there is, perhaps, a future even for laughter! at that moment when the principle, “the type is everything, one is always none – gets assimilated into mankind and everybody then will always have access to this last liberation and irresponsibility. Perhaps then, laughter will have bonded with wisdom, perhaps then there will only be a “gay science.”

From what we know about Nietzsche, in his private life, he did have a peculiar sense of humor. The first time Franz Overbeck saw Nietzsche after the breakdown, he wrote that “I have seen Nietzsche in certain conditions where it seemed to me – a terrible thought! – that he was faking madness, as if he were glad that it had ended thus.” This, to me, implies that Nietzsche had, in his sane years, a very large appreciation of the practical joke and the dead pan – and would probably have liked Buster Keaton, if he had lived long enough to see the twenties films. In my private list of all stars, many similar jokers crop up – Kurt Tucholsky, Franz Kafka, Georg Grosz, etc. They all appreciated the cruel laughter at the cripple, sliced and diced into the cripple’s laughter at the ludicrous unconsciousness of the sound.

The buffoon and the ass keep turning up together, as though the deck of achetypes that lies, face down, under my electric prestidigitator’s fingers were a crooked pack.
According to Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradion, Apuleius, the author of the Golden Ass (that book of transmutations through which the transcendentally ludicrous is finally given shape and form by Psyche’s quest for Cupid) was, by the fourth century A.D., credited with the translation of the corpus of Hermes Trismegistus. These were the books that were supposedly written before Moses was a pup, and they were wildly popular in the Renaissance. Cosimo de Medici hired Ficino to translate the Greek Corpus Hermeticum in 1462, as the manuscript containing it had turned up by way of a traveling monk, Leonardo da Pistoia - instructing him to interrupt the Plato translation project, as the Corpus Hermeticum was urgent. Cosimo wanted to read the thing before he died. Such was its prestige, such is the greed for ‘secret’ knowledge. By the time of Bruno, a century later, the C.H. had lost something of its allure, vis a vis the regular scholarly world, but had continued to be central to the system of Renaissance magic, which operated in the hidey holes, intersecting, as secret knowledge always seems to, with intelligence agencies and diplomacy.
Bruno, of course, was interested in magic, as were members of Raleigh’s School of Night that he made the acquaintance of in his London sojourn. In the group picture of the founding fathers of the modern era, all lined up like Dutch masters, we usually have Bacon, Galileo and Descartes – Bruno is left out. And the reason that he is left out is that he was just too damned interested in that f-fuckin magic. Yet in reality – that promiscuous bitch, my darling - Bruno can’t be left out. He interests us in this post because, unlike that grave company, Bruno was a buffoon – a necessary joker, the philosopher-buffoon who keeps returning, in some dark orbit according to some dark cycle of its own, to put into disarray the white magic of Bacon, Galileo and Descartes. To throw a few boomerangs around, liven the joint up, and raise, if possible, everybody’s level of anxiety and hope, the two intricately counter-weighted against each other.
Dorothy Waley Singer’s life of Bruno includes this anecdote about Bruno’s childhood:
Bruno gives in his greatest Latin work, the De immenso, [4] a description of an episode in childhood, which made a deep impression on him. His home was in a hamlet just outside Nola, on the lower slopes of Cicada, a foot-hill of the Appenines some twenty miles east of Naples. [5] He tells with affectionate detail of the beauty and fertility of the land around, overlooked from afar by the seemingly stern bare steeps of Vesuvius. One day a suspicion of the deceptiveness of appearances dawned on the boy. Mount Cicada, he tells us, assured him that "brother Vesuvius" was no less beautiful and fertile. So, girding his loins, he climbed the opposite mountain. "Look now," said Brother Vesuvius, "look at Brother Cicada, dark and drear against the sky." The boy assured Vesuvius that such also was his appearance viewed from Cicada. "Thus did his parents [the two mountains] first teach the lad to doubt, and revealed to him how distance changes the face of things." So in after-life he interprets the experience and continues: "In whatever region of the globe I may be, I shall realize that both time and place are similarly distant from me."
I’m interested in the sage since I am at an age - middle age - a lying description because tomorrow, surely, or the next day, biking along, my backbone will be suddenly crushed in a blinding moment by a speeding truck driven by a hit and run drunk, I will see blackness, and then go down to the house of shades – when the sage should become important to me. And yet, to aspire to be a sage is such an obsolete and pathetic wish, the placeholder of that figure is so null and void in this culture, so completely disregarded, so much a joke moniker for some greyhaired keeper of baseball statistics or some fat brownnosing pundit oozing conventional wisdom and cancer, that it can only be a punch line ambition. (Well, so much for this culture, to which I give my middle finger). To my mind, the absence of the sage is not some natural event, but is all about that path through politics and history which the sage and the buffoon shared.

And having this obsession, I am naturally draw to Rameau’s nephew. For there the sage – moi – and the buffoon – lui – truly did meet. There are some odd and sinister things in that dialogue.

But here I’d like to diverge for the backstory, the strange history of this text. While Diderot seems to have started it in the early 1760s, and polished it intermittently up until the mid 1770s, there is no mention of this text in the correspondence. That isn’t like Mr. D. The first we hear about it is after Diderot’s death. Schiller has a copy of the ms., which he gives to Goethe to translate. Goethe translates the ms., and then carelessly tosses it away. How did Schiller get it? Rumor has it that it was given to him by a German officer who came into possession of it in St. Petersburgh. Meanwhile, there is no published French version. Finally one comes out, published by a press run by “Le Vicomte de Saur” and “Le Compte de Saint-Geniès”, who seem to have been like Huckleberry Finn’s Duke and Dauphin. Their version, which they claimed came from an original manuscript, obviously was translated from Goethe. A rival publisher, one Brière, decides to publish a real version, so he applies to Diderot’s daughter, who gives him a manuscript. He publishes it, and in the process loses the ms. There is a flurry of charges and countercharges between the two publishers, but in the end, it looks like we will have to settle for the Brière version – when one Georges Monval, apparently looking for spicy books, comes upon it in the box of a bookseller in 1891. Always remember that, for most people, Diderot is still the author of one of the great fuckbooks, Les Bijoux Indiscrets, about a magic ring that could make a woman’s pussy talk. Anyway, this is the official Rameau we now all read.

In that transit, Rameau had come to the attention of Hegel. Hegel does a good job of pissing around the work in the Phenomenology. As we know, Hegel was a world champion pisser – he marked, with his gargantuan pizzle, all of world history, for instance. We have all dutifully followed him into the pissoir of the system, but we will never quite manipulate an instrument like the Man’s – and nobody else will, either.
“No matter if the weather is fair or foul, it is my habit to talk a walk, at five in the evening, to the Palais-Royal.” This is how Diderot begins Rameau’s Nephew. With a walk.

For the sage, the regular walk is important. Kant, that indefatigable commenter on all things under the sun, noted the importance of the walk to the scholar in The Conflict of the Faculties under the heading: “On Pathological Feelings that Come from Thinking at Unsuitable Times”. “Thinking – whether in the form of study (reading books) or reflection (meditation and discovery) is a scholar’s food: and when he is wide awake and alone, he cannot live without it. But if he taxes his energy by occupying himself with a specific thought when he is eating or walking, he inflicts two tasks on himself at the same time – on the head and the stomach or on the head and the feet; and in the first place this brings on hypochondria, in the second, vertigo.” In a note, Kant distinguishes (Kant indefatiguably distinguishes – this guy is the very Prince of distinguishers) thinking from what should be occurring in the head of our non-multi-tasker during the walk: ‘When a man of studious habits goes for a walk alone, it is hard for him to refrain from entertaining himself with his own reflections. But if he engages in strenuous thinking during his walk, he will soon be exhausted, whereas if he gives himself over to the free play of imagination, the motion will refresh him – the reports of others whom I asked about this confirm my own experience. If in addition to thinking he also engages in conversation while he is walking, he will be even more fatigues, so that he will soon have to sit down to continue with his play of thought. The purpose of walking in the open air is precisely to keep one’s attention moving from one object to another and so to keep it from becoming fixed on any one object.” The Man in the Crowd might disagree with the prospect of health Kant holds out here, for it is precisely the habit of not becoming fixed on any one object, but on one after another, on the crowd itself, on a multiplication of objects, that has brought the man in Poe’s story down in the world – made him into a human fiend.

Diderot, on the other hand, is going off to the Palais-Royal, a section of Paris built up by the Regent, the Duc D’Orleans, containing shops, restaurants, and a garden. The theater of the Comedie Francaise was there – recently, Palissot’s play, Les Philosophes, which mocked, among others, Diderot, had been put on there – and Café de la Régence was located in the garden. There was a cannon in the garden, too, that was fired by means of the light focused by a large magnifying glass, to announce the hours – the kind of clever toy that delighted the enlightened soul. Mercier, in the Tableau of Paris, devotes a chapter to the Palais-Royal, which he claims is “precisely the spot which Plato would have assigned the captive, in order to retain him without a jailer, and without violence, by the voluntary chains of pleasure…” – which I believe is a distant reference to the myth of the cave. Mercier bemoans the fact that people walk in the Palais Royal when they could have much more philosophical walks in gardens of the Palace of Luxemberg – “Whilst the Palais Royal is crowded with courtesans and libertines, the Luxemburg presents a quiet philosophic walk, and is only frequented by honest citizens with their decent families.” No doubt, the Luxemburg would have been preferred by Kant – but this is the difference between Kant and the French philosophes.

The Café de la Régence, which is where Diderot ends up, meeting by chance the nephew of the famous musician, Rameau, was a famous spot for chess players. The greatest chess player of the time, Philador, played there. Paul Metzner, in his book, Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill and Self Promotion in Paris during the age of revolution devotes a chapter to the chess players of the Café de la Regence. The place was owned by a chess amateur, M. de Kermur, sire de Légal: “For countless years he sat in the same chair and wore the same green coat, taking large quantities of snuff and attracting a crowd with his equally brilliant conversation and combinations. He had already established his reputation as the best in France when Philidor first walked into the Regence in 1740, and he continued playing into the 1780s, his own eighties, without ever having to acknowledge a superior, although he lost at least one match.” Philidor learned how to play blindfold matches from Legal, although the latter did not often do this himself.

Hegel sets the stage for the entrance of the buffoon – as I am calling this figure – by giving us a history of the relationship between the state and the noble spirit, which is the spirit of “heroic” service: (this is the J.N. Findley translation).

“State-power has, therefore, still at this stage no will to oppose the advice, and does not decide between the different opinions as to what is universally the best. It is not yet governmental control, and on that account is in truth not yet real state-power. Individual self-existence, the possession of an individual will that is not yet qua will surrendered, is the inner secretly reserved spiritual principle of the various classes and stations, a spirit which keeps for its own behoof what suits itself best, in spite of its words about the universal best, and tends to make this clap-trap about what is universally the best a substitute for action bringing it about. The sacrifice of existence, which takes place in the case of service, is indeed complete when it goes so far as death. But the endurance of the danger of death which the individual survives, leaves him still a specific kind of existence, and hence a particular self-reference; and this makes the counsel imparted in the interests of the universally best ambiguous and open to suspicion; it really means, in point of fact, retaining the claim to a private opinion of his own, and a separate individual will as against the power of the state. Its relation to the latter is, therefore, still one of discordance; and it possesses the characteristic found in the case of the base type of consciousness — it is ever at the point of breaking out into rebellion.”

In our case, us in these here states, the individual, at least the individual as interviewee, both promotes the risk society and survives it pretty well - as indeed do the soldiers who are privileged to fight for the interviewee. In fact, the win win only breaks down on the margins, with the fought-for - the terrorized/terrorist masses. They are, however, not interviewees, and so have an ambiguous status. Heroic service has become properly commoditized, and thus a new form of reconciliation between state power and the noble spirit becomes possible: state power pretends to be two things, a self-abnegating force that only wants to diminish itself into small government with all its heart and soul, and a universal abstraction representing liberty that requires being able to build enough missiles and host enough armed servicemen to destroy vast tracts of the world – while nobility becomes a mere position filled in by a meritocracy that embodies clap-trap (Geschwätze), which has found a way to make every sacrifice turns into profit in its hands – a miracle much more impressive than the loaves and the fishes.

Hegel supposes that the noble self, defining itself by a mortal sacrifice and thereby preserving itself, is genealogically precedent to the alienation of the self that is the condition of the rise of state power:

“It comes thereby to be actually what it is implicitly — the identical unity of self with its opposed self. In this way, by the inner withdrawn and secret spiritual principle, the self as such, coming forward and abrogating itself, the state-power becomes ipso facto raised into a proper self of its own; without this estrangement of self the deeds of honour, the actions of the noble type of consciousness, and the counsels which its insight reveals, would continue to maintain the ambiguous character which, as we saw, kept that secret reserve of private intention and self-will, in spite of its overt pretensions.” In this way we come to language in the age of the self-divided self – and to Rameau’s nephew.

In Ashton’s The History of Gambling in England there is a piece of small history that Ivan Karamazov would call an allegory. Yes,  there is something about this story of drunken hanging that reminds me of the paired destiny of the buffoon and the sage, this thread that I have been following – into my own asshole, certain cruel readers might say. No – into even drier gulches of history than that.

"The Annual Register about this time supplies us with several gambling anecdotes, the following being almost incredible: 15th April, 1812 – “On Wednesday evening an extraordinary investigation took place at Bow Street. Croker, the officer, was passing along the Haampstead road, when he observed, at a short distance before him, two men on a wall, and , directly after, saw the tallest of them, a stout man, about six feet high, hanging by his neck, from a lamp post attached to the wall, being that instant tied up and turned off by the short man. This unexpected and extraordinary sight astonished the officer; he made up to the spot with all speed; and, just after he arrived there the tall man, who had been hanged, fell to the ground, the handkechief, with which he had been suspended, having given way. Croker produced his staff, said he was an officer, and demanded to know of the other man the cause of such conduct. In the meantime, the man who had been hanged recovered, got up, and, on Croker’s interfering, gave him a violent blow on the nose, which nearly knocked him backwards. The short man was endeavouring to make offl however, the officer procured assistance, and both were brout to the office, when the account they gave was that they worked on the canals. They had been together on Wednesday afternoon, tossed up for money, and afterwards for clothes; the tall man who was hanged,won the other’s jacket, trousers and shoes; they then tossed up which should hang the other, and the short one won the toss. They got upon the wall, the one to submit, and the other to hang him on the lamp iron. They both agreed to this statement. The tall one, who would have been hanged, said, if he had won the toss, he would have hanged the other. He said he then felt the effects of his hanging in the neck, and his eyes were so much swelled he saw double. The magistrates expressed their horror and disgust, and ordered the man who had been hanged to find bail for the violent and unjustifiable assault on the officer, and the short one for hanging the other. Not having bail, they were committed to Bridewell for trial.”

If the short man and the tall man weren’t named Estragon and Vladimir, fate missed a trick.

Surely it is odd that LI is railing, in these posts, against the buffoon, when this is the same LI that claims to be lead, as if by supernatural light of the muse of ludicrousness, through the shadow of the valley of the moronic inferno I call my own country, my life and times. However, what I want to know is why, of the sage and the buffoon, the moi and the lui of Rameau’s nephew, only the buffoon made it into the present – and how it came about that the sage has been so utterly throttled by circumstances. What was the toss about? What were the stakes? How did they meet (illmet) and how did they part (one alone)? So, these are the questions, which I’m laying out like a deck of cards in this game of solitaire.

The key to the conversation of Rameau’s nephew is shamelessness – that most dialectical of attitudes. Shamelessness not only assumes shame, but it also assumes innocence – but only as a supreme lie. The lie of innocence is embodied in the peculiar way in which Rameau’s nephew not only speaks, but pantomimes – as if word and act were indivisible, which is indeed how a child has to learn to speak. It is later that we ignore the act of the tongue. Yet the charm of the pantomime is fully intended – Rameau’s nephew is nothing if not intentional in all things, even as he is described as being self-contradictory and a ball of contradictions. Shamelessness has become his strategy – just as it is the strategy of Sade’s fuckers. Shamelessness, vanity and flattery are the circuit of acts and attitudes in which Rameau has his existence, and they collectively have a political value. One that is fairly new. The ideology of the old right, the legitimist or the Tory, is about tradition and order – but the new right, that represented by Rameau, is about provocation. What takes shape here is a foretaste of the system that dominates us now, the mixture of shamelessness and outrage by which we drift over the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and howl at, say, the nasty language of a television infotainment news guy.  To use the U.S. for one example – but the same thing happens in Italy, in France, in the U.K.

“Let’s be clear. There is simple ass kissing, and there is metaphorical ass kissing.” –Rameau.

The dialogue between Diderot and Rameau’s nephew seems, like a normal conversation, to touch on one thing and then another. The theme of it, though, keeps returning to Rameau – how he lives, and how he lives with himself. Rameau is a flatterer, a backbiter, a crook (escroc), a go-between, a lover of good food and riches. But he is also endowed with good taste, or at least steady, classical taste – he doesn’t delude himself about the quality of Voltaire’s work, but he does comfort himself with the badness of the worst of Voltaire's moral character. To illustrate his world, he tells several anecdotes. Now,the curious thing about these anecdotes is that they operate as a test. It gradually becomes clear that there is a competition, a game, going on between Diderot, the moi in the dialogue, and Rameau, the lui.

What is this game?

It is a test we all go through as kids: the test of disgust. The test, as it happens on the playground, consists of being told something disgusting, or being the witness of something disgusting, and not giving vent to any sentiment, any shrinking, any shame. LI is not, by the way, trying to disparage this particular sequence of our common education. There is something that pisses me off about people who are too particular, too grossed out about blood and shit and the whole general stink of life – the full diaper, the squashed cockroach.

So let's not load the dice. I have zigzagged against the buffoon, but this swerve should be seen within a dialectical history of the disappearance of the sage. Look at this as a plea for the counterbalance, as well as an indictment for social murder.

Perhaps there is something in this playground test that is particularly male – although I’m cautious about this kind of gender generalization. In William Miller’s anatomy of disgust, he quotes the case of the wild boy of Aveyron, reported by Doctor Itard: ‘The well documented early nineteenth century wild boy of Aveyron had no sense of pure and impure, was extraordinarily filthy, was not “toilet trained”, and clearly disgusted Jean Itard, the doctor who supervised him and to whom we owe our knowledge of the case. Itard’s evidence, however, is not without some problems. Although the boy would sniff like an animal at everything no matter how malodorous, he would not eat everything. “A dead canary was given him, and in an instant he stripped off its feathers, great and small, tore it open with his nails, smelt it, and threw it away” The boy was not exactly omnivorous. He was initially willing to eat a canary, but this particular canary had an unappetizing odor. Certain odors might indeed have disgusted him, although his aversion might have been more simply constituted, that is, it might have given rise to no thoughts of contamination and pollution. We would surely like to know how he felt about his hands after discarding the bird.” Contamination [Ansteckung] is, in fact, the word Hegel uses to speak of one moment in the struggle of Enlightenment – borne by an intelligence that is founded on universal principles, and yet confronts, as an individual, the belief of the masses – as it carries out its social strategy of stripping belief from its supports: “The communication of the pure intelligence [Einsicht – understanding] is thus comparable to that of a scent in an unresisting atmosphere. It is a penetrating contamination, which does nothing at first to call attention to itself against the indifferent element, in which it insinuates itself, and thus cannot be guarded against. Only when the contamination has spread is it something for the consciousness, that had carelessly permitted it.”

Thus, in one sense the Nephew of Rameau recapitulates a primal, playground scene, the moment in which shame and shamelessness engage in a ritual contest. However, there are limits to a test that is so structured that victory must go to the shameless. These limits are embodied in the moment that the surrounding silence, the spectatorial silence, the silence of accommodation, is broken. The ‘consciousness’ – which in this passage in Hegel is embodied in the institutions of the state, the church, and the third power of the bourgeoisie – finally reacts. In so reacting, they claim dominion over shame itself. But the Café de la Regence lies, for a moment, outside of those institutions. While the pure intelligence of chess (a use of virtuosity about which Diderot was doubtful) is being played around our pair, the game of shamelessness procedes without witnesses, so to speak, allowing Rameau to bare not only himself, but the shamemaking institutions themselves, and the political strategy they have taken against the ‘contamination’ of the enlightenment philosophes. This is the beginning of a wobble – that wobble which, in the history of the pairing of the buffoon and the sage, will eventually turn the buffoon against the sage and, at the same time, seem to ordain the sage’s place for the buffoon. Diderot represents both himself as the philosophe, being half jokingly led through this trial (and getting in his own strokes as well) and the common sense, the massed, silent witness, which is the aftermath that supposedly belongs to the writer – although the trajectory of the manuscript of the Nephew of Rameau provides an ironic commentary on that writerly certainty. As Jacques D. once wrote, in an essay on Poe’s Purloined Letter, another story about the competition between shame and shamelessness – about provocation as an instrument of power - "a letter can always not arrive at its destination".