“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

Thursday, August 30, 2012

montaigne: sketch and the portrait 2

VII. Montaigne

What was Montaigne’s point in writing his Essais? Although the essays include history, philosophical meditations, literary criticism and something like reportage, Montaigne disclaims any ambition to be a historian, philosopher or poet. He recurs, again and again, to the notion of the self-portrait. Like the painters whose works he saw in Paris when he traveled there, he would paint himself. But he did not take this to mean that he would write his autobiography. Rather, most often, he talks about following his “fantasies”. This movement is in correspondence with a larger theme: that life is continually in motion. This motion is in everything – and Montaigne often seems to want to find stylistic equivalents for it, shocks for his audience. Thus, along with the dignified image of a man painting his own portrait, Montaigne would also describe his work in much lower terms. This is what he writes at the beginning of “On Vanity”: 

“I cannot compose the register of my life by my actions, for fortune has put them too low. I compose it then of my fantasies. It is thus I have seen a gentleman who could only communicate his life by the operations of his stomach: You see him show in his home an order of basins, produced over seven or eight days: this was his study, his discourse. To him, any other kind of talk stank. Here, to put it a bit more civilly, are the excrements of an old spirit: now hard, now soft, and always undigested.”

This passage creates a difference, a moment in reading in which the reader is torn away from the intimacy of his act. A note in the Pleiade edition attributes the anecdote about the gentleman who displays his feces for his guests to a classical source. But the final comparison of the essays to an old man’s scat is Montaigne’s own. The high/low register, here, is, as it were, unfettered from its usual structuring difference: high and low interpenetrate one another, and the hierarchy in which the high has dominion is pronounced, metaphorically, by a shit. This delight in perspectival paradoxes, in making ambiguous the register of the discourse, is  not a unique stylistic discovery of Montaigne’s. The Baroque poets and Protestant ministers are already finding a rhetorical energy in the shocks of mortality, juxtapositions that are meant to induce a religious vertigo – a strong sense of the present as owed entirely to death, against an eternity that is ruled by a deity whose thoughts are entirely unknown. These shocks are all the more charged in that they could be turned to deliver blows  to hierarchy’s projection in the social – to republican, or at least frondeur uses.

It is not to this use of opposites, though, that I want to point us. It is, rather, to something else, something having to do with Montaigne’s intention to write within a rejection of genre,  even at the risk of presenting us with old man’s scat. Eric Auerbach pinpoints something important about the method of Montaigne’s Essays that relates to Montaigne’s sense of the perpetual flux of things:

“Every kind of specialization falsifies the moral picture; it presents us in but one of
our roles; it consciously leaves in darkness broad reaches of our lives and destinies. From a book on Greek grammar or international law the author's personal existence cannot be known, or at best only in those rare cases where his temperament is so strong and idiosyncratic that it breaks through in any manifestation of his life. Montaigne's social and economic circumstances made it easy for him to develop
and preserve his whole self. His needs were met halfway by his period, which had not yet fully developed for the upper classes of society the duty, the technique, and the ethos of specialized work, but on the contrary, under the influence of the oligarchic civilization of antiquity, strove for the most general and most human culture of the individual. Not one of his known contemporaries advanced in this direction so far as he did. Compared with him they are all specialists: theologians, philologists, philosophers, statesmen, physicians, poets, artists; they all present themselves to the world par quelque marque particuliere et estrangiere. Montaigne too, under the pressure of circumstances, was at times lawyer, soldier, politician; he was the mayor of Bordeaux for several years. But he did not give himself over to such activities; he
merely lent himself for a time and subject to recall, and he promised those who laid tasks upon him de resprendre en main, non pas au poulmon et au foye ( 3, 10, p. 438).”

Auerbach’s term, specialization, refers to a broader sweep of divisions of activity than employment. The sociologist Abram de Swan has written about the professionalization and proto-professionalization that affects “experts” and “lay people” as follows:  

The internal process of professionalization creates external effects among ever-widening circles of laymen, who adopt the basic stances and fundamental concepts of the profession as a means of orientation in everyday life: it is a process of proto-professionalizaiton, in which laymen learn to recognize some events as “a case for the lawyer’, others as a ‘suitable case for treatment”, and so on. 

Auerbach attributes a part of Montaigne systematic, though non-systematized distaste for the professional orientation towards life, whether we represent the professional as a poet or an academic, to the fact that this attitude was such that he could afford it -  he was, as he points out often, the heir of his father, a man who was good with “affairs”. Affairs is the word Montaigne uses to describe the household as an economic unit. He is not himself interested in expanding his economic reach, at least in his own account. That lack of desire to have more is etched deeply into the Essais, and is thematically germane to Montaigne’s contempt for ‘specialization’. Montaigne knew that his nobility was recent, and that his family history was populated with money-makers.  On his mother’s side, his ancestors were, in all probability, Spanish Jews, who originally specialized in the old clothes trade and branched out to other goods once they moved to France. Pierre D’Eyquem, his father, was a noble – he is so denominated in his marriage contract – because his grandfather, Ramon, had purchased the Chateau of Montaigne, which conferred a title of minor nobility. Before that purchase, the Eyquem family had been known primarily for merchandizing wine and dried fish.

So there is a sense in which Montaigne’s debt to his father could only be paid by managing affairs himself. That debt is unpaid. And the activity that would go to make up that debt is even viewed with scorn. This is a ‘fold’ not only in the text of the Essais, but in Montaigne’s own life. Walter Benjamin once wrote that the true dynamic in history is not a matter of cause, but a matter of “debt” – Schuld – meaning, as well, guilt. The past is always a guilty past, a past we owe a debt to. Montaigne’s liberation – what his fantasies have done for him – is to gradually transform his perception of the debt he owes his father into a perception of the debt he owes himself – the debt he owes through the fact that he exists and experiences. This, too, is the result, the physical result, of his parent’s action. It is in the face of these twin debts that Montaigne forms his attitude towards the professional orientation and its social coordinates – broadly, custom, which he saw as logically hostile to the broadness of life. Montaigne often comments that his Essays are attempts to paint himself, to think of himself, to find out what he is; the antithesis of this project is the professionalization of experience. One of the stylistic and thematic peculiarities of the essays is how often Montaigne seems to go out of his way to contradict one assertion with another, one citation with another, one anecdote with another. Montaigne employs the same mode of shock to his own ‘specialty’ – that is, the writing of the essays. The metaphor of painting oneself has an acceptable correlate among the arts – but the metaphor of excrements is a way of making the sense that we touch the author when we touch the book turn into something taboo.

role model liberalism and soap opera

As everyone knows, the best Danish tv program ever was Kingdom (Riget), the Lars van Trier weirdness. And in fact I’d go so far as to say that no other program featuring autistic, dwarfish dishwashers as a Greek chorus to the main events was as good as Lars van Trier’s version of an autistic, dwarfish pair of dishwashers acting as a Greek chorus to the main events in the show. My favorite character in Riget is, of course, the evil Swedish doctor, who comes to the Danish hospital trailing rumors of malpractice in his native Sweden. The show made his denunciations of Denmark a regular feature: as I recall, many episodes ended with him standing on the hospital roof, looking towards Sweden, and showering curses – like a Swedish Mephistopheles – down upon the incorrigibly backwards Danes. “Here is Denmark, excreted from limestone. There is Sweden, chiselled from granite. Danish scum!”  Here’s the Youtube link thatlines up all the curses.

However, Kingdom was a one shot deal. Lately, A. and I have been watching Borgen, another Danish tv series. This one is about a female prime minister – you can see it on Linktv, complete with English subtitles. It is an interesting study in Role Model Liberalism. The prime minister is elected as a moderate – which, in tv land (and in the media) – is the G spot of politics. The idea actually goes back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric –we take social temperaments or positions, we label them as extremes as one type or another, and we then have a mathematical grasp of them, so that we can find the middle. A young man is impetuous, an old man is scared of any change, and a middle aged man is sometimes impetuous, and sometimes scared of change – or prudent. This sociology of types has long been obsolete, but in the media world, it is applied religiously to politics: if the left wants x and the right wants z, why, y must be just what the world is waiting for! This method makes no sense, since it neither diagnoses the political problem nor the solution.  However, it has tremendous fans in the media, in which the people who are ‘opinionmakers’ or tv series directors are paid enormously and want to keep their class positions, but at the same time have identified themselves as representatives of a long tradition of progress. It is the same impulse that keeps geriatric rock n roll bands singing tunes full of old adolescent sneering. 

The show I boggled at was one involving a crisis –the show is set up around the old crisis/solution format – that occurs when the Prime Minister  daringly introduces a law that would force corporations to institute parity between men and women (50-50) on their corporate boards. This is introduced with the implication that here we have the latest in ultra-feminism. That the measure would simply affect say one hundred wealthy women in Denmark is never, quite, brought to the fore. The reason is that this is the feminism of role models, and obviously the writers and producers think that the triumph for some corporate dog is a triumph that can be shared by all women. Just as women could once look at movie stars  and dream a little dream, now they can look at the rich and sassy bread of  corporate heads and feel liberated deep inside.

Role model liberalism used to be called tokenism and other dirty names, in the radical sixties,  but it has gradually crept into the very texture and weave of the contemporary liberal or progressive ethos, and not only in America. Of course, the crisis in the show was averted when finally, the prime minister and the CEO of Denmark’s biggest corporation face off and she gets him to yield – cause he’s a very human curmudgeonly CEO. Of course – no caricatures of Mr. Moneybags in the era of  Role model liberalism!

Luckily, the show realizes that role model liberalism is incorrigibly dull –thus, the real juice   in it all tends to the standard soap opera themes that are our real role models for getting into and out of trouble in the prison  of ordinary life : will the p.m.’s husband adjust to her new fame? Will the spokesman have an affair with the Labour Minister? Role model  liberalism dissolves, at the crucial points, into the older appetites. I like the older appetites a great deal, but I feel like raining curses on Denmark whenever the moderate political solution raises its ugly head in the program.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

character: between representation and cause

Character, unlike the soul, or the person, or the self, has never settled its ontological accounts, so that it can be said to exist in the “world” or in the “representation of the world”.

Seventeenth century character books were written in the shadow of the ut pictura poesis – which gains its legitimacy not just in the tradition of the humors, but in the tradition of the portrait. Plutarch, at the beginning of his life of Alexander, makes the association between the picture and the character explicit:

“For it is not Histories that I am writing, but Lives; and in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles when thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities.  Accordingly, just as painters get the likenesses in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men, and by means of these to portray the life of each, leaving to others the description of their great contests.” [B. Perrin, translation]

The association of the character with the sketch, the picture and the mask pulls the concept into the domain of representation, and it is here that “Alexander” can become a character in an anecdote or a life. The association of character with expression, with what is under the surface, with virtue and vice, pulls it into the domain of the self, the person, the soul – and, most importantly, of cause. It is here that character can impose itself in history, for it is not simply the character Alexander, but the character of Alexander, that is exposed in his Life. In the first association of character we can see the roots of the notion of alienation – an imprisonment in obsessions, routines, repetitions, humors. Self-representation, then, does have a causal status in as much as it causes  others to act in a certain way to the imprisoned character, and the prison grows more impenetrable as the character precedes to write itself into this script. In the second, character is something outside of the prison, something recognizing, something that stands, emblematically, before the good and the bad, the act and the habit. In its second guise, character can be ‘acted upon’, trained. Character, here, is linked to education – in the humanist tradition, in a text like Montaigne’s The ‘institution’ [education] of children’, character is the central object of all teaching.

It is the conceptual fate of character that it should have these two analytically distinct poles, and that historically, as they coalesce in the semantic space of “character”, they bleed into one another.

The way character has come to straddle these realms of being makes it hard to imagine (for an "us", a Westerner, a paleface, a member in good standing of the artificial paradise) a culture with a semantic table of fundamental elements that wouldn’t have a word for, or a notion of, character.

Conceptual history, armed

In his Begriffsgeschichte – The history of concepts – Reinhardt Koselleck pays homage to a predecessor in the field of understanding intellectual history emically: Richard Koebner. The homage is also a parable. Koebner began, in the twenties, by looking at the medieval period in Köln, writing a book entitled 'Anfängen des Gemeinwesens der Stadt Köln”. In the book, Koebner examined what 12 century burgers of Cologne could have meant when they used such terms as “urbs” or “civitas”. But, as Koselleck points out, Koebner didn’t think as much about what a 1920s German might mean by “Gemeinwesens” – community. “In retrospect, today’s reader might of course stumble over the fact that Koebner used as his highest thematic concept for the republican conception of the city, “Volksgemeinschaft” (community of the people), not really a concept derived from the sources, but a modern concept of the 19th and 20th century that he projected onto the high middle ages. He was thinking primarily on the legal factor that a republican city state would allot equal rights to citizens. We may be certain that Koebner, twelve years later, as he was forced to emigrate to Palestine, would no longer have used the concept of ‘Volksgemeinschaft”. For it was just this concept that, extended under evidently racist criteria, served as the battle cry to exclude Jews from the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’. If yu like, Koebner was one of the early victims of this semantic displacement, that allowed and evoked the death of hundreds of thousands of German citizens and millions of innocent people. Koebner must have remarked upon this as he emigrated from Breslau to Jerusalem in 1934.” [58]

Koebner, then, is a case not only of a historian who honed the methods of the history of concepts, but was also a victim of a ‘displacement’ of concepts – of meaning. Intellectual history may seem to have no claws, but – Koselleck is saying – this is a delusion. There are no tamed beasts in history.