“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, November 06, 2014

Please sir, more Wharton sir, please...

More notes on the House of Mirth

You can’t read the secondary literature on Edith Wharton without bumping into the ghost of Henry James. They both wrote about rich Americans, some of whom spent their time in Europe, so the critics have gathered around this obvious clue and have palpated it to death, rather like the rather dim police inspectors in Sherlock Holmes who fail to make subtle deductions from the more apparently trivial clues with which they are presented, while running off the track when big clues are, by malign design, thrown in their way..
I haven’t waded far enough into the secondary literature to see if anybody has connected Wharton to Oscar Wilde, but as I find traces of Wilde all over The House of Mirth, I think I’m going to  take up the theme and give it a good shaking.
Wharton does a rather neat trick in The House of Mirth – she manages to convincingly create a hybrid of  social comedy and melodrama. The melodrama is the natural aesthetic correlate of the overwhelming emotions, for melodrama is an excessive form,a form for deformation, and in its too muchness it brings a certain paradoxical proportion to the total flavor of those emotions  that swamp the self. These are the blood rushing emotions, the emotions that call metaphorically upon the involuntary surges of the internal organs at work within us, which is why we quickly go to the heart, and secretly go to the genitals, when imagining them. Certainly the melodrama in The House of Mirth is cued to tidal waves, coursing rivers, and all kinds of mounting water action. When Lily Bart, after the humiliation of her scene with Gus Trenor that falls almost in the middle of the book, decides that she will confide in Seldon, the phrase that describes this is perfectly in line with high water :  “the thought of confiding in him became as seductive as the river’s flow to a suicide.”  Flow just is seduction – as the novel makes clear.
But social comedy is a drying thing, and before the rivers flow and the storms crescendo, there are the brilliant setpieces at Bellomont, the most brilliant of which, in its setting, its stage props (ample use being made of cigarettes) and its at times cynical, at times lyrical dialogue, is the conversation between Lawrence Seldon and Lily Bart on the fatal Sunday when she loses her grip on the rich sap she has decided to marry, Percy Gryce. The whole thing is too much like Wilde’s essay dialogues not to be, at some calibrated distance, signifying. For instance, from what text, The House of Mirth or The Decay of Lying,  do these two phrases go? a, If we are all the raw stuff of the cosmic effects, one would rather be the fire that tempers a sword than the fish that dyes a purple cloak; and b, Art itself is really a form of exaggeration; and selection,  which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis.
Notes on Dorian Gray: It is hard to be kind to Dorian Gray. It mixes up the brilliant and the lurid, but the luridness cancels out the brilliance and the brilliance makes the luridness seem ridiculous. Yet, it has survived. It has even become a gothic archetype , partly because it is animated by a very protestant, not to say Puritanical, motif: eternal youth equates to eternal viciousness.  The same thematic adventure is, of course, central to The House of Mirth. It is Lily’s youth that is going. At several points, she looks in the mirror with the same curiosity and fear as Dorian looking at his portrait, and when she sees lines on her face, she worries.
Wilde of course was not even in the same league, as a novelist, with Wharton. Partly that is because he couldn’t foot his novel in the homosexual social circle that the book cries out for – he couldn’t, like Gide, simply seize the permission to do so.The result of  Wharton’s deep sense of the way her own comedy is footed in a social circle she knows down to the design of the wallpaper allows her to move from comedy to melodrama without upsetting the narrative balance of the story. Melodrama, of course, relies, even excessively, upon the conventional – and Lily, for all her flashes of insight, is too conventional for her own good. She is too conventional not to hunt for a rich husband, and too conventional not to reject the offer from Rosedale, the richest man she knows, because he is a Jew. Melodrama also relies on coincidence – but coincidence has an unfairly bad reputation in fiction. In good fiction, coincidence is often a measure of the degrees of the social world in which the characters move – a sort of not always reliable pi.  Without coincidence, there is no measure to that world – and thus, it ceases to act as a world.
The Wildean note in Wharton makes more sense now, when we have opened up all her sealed papers and discovered her erotica, than it might have when Wharton had to come into literature on the arm of her bachelor friend James. It is about time for her to come into literature with a more extended set of references.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The election

In the 18th century, there was a craze for Constitutions. Rousseau wrote an outline of one for Poland, and Boswell, of all people, had influenced the Corsican constitution. And of course then came the Americans and the French, who linked constitution making to revolution.
The idea of decreeing legislation has become, since, a normal feature of streetcorner and water fountain intellectual life, at least in the States. People, such as myself, who have never successfully organized lunch or an ant farm (when I was a kid, I’d always end up either starving to death the latter or drowing the poor ants in too much sugar water), are undettered by their failures and make and proselytize revolutionary legislative suggestions all the time. Unfortunately, the organizers, if they are good, are usually on the side of the organizations, ie the status quo. There they are rewarded for profiting the heads of those organizations, or the set of them – the establishment.
Now that the dust has settled and we have an American Congress that will make the largest threat to the US – global warming – worse, while claiming the threat posed by ISIS requires major Pentagon trillions – a Congress that will gladly pass Obama’s Pacific Trade treaty, with its many and odious gifts to big business – a Congress that will, in other words, not do much – it is a good time to look back over what I think, for lack of a better name, is the Bush era, a 13 year old phenomenon. In the first phase, when Bush proper was president, it was of course reckless and negligent. However, it was politically astute – it was able to use even the worst evidence of its incompetence, for instance the highly preventable 9/11 attack, to gain more power. Most of the signal events of the Obama end of the era – the withdrawal from Iraq, the continuing and astonishing sums given to the Pentagon, the surveillance, the rescue of Wall street and the hardening of the culture of impunity that spares the rich and the powerful any punishment for whatever they do – were either hatched in the Bush era or bear the stylistic trademarks of that era. The one Obama addition, Romneycare, was hatched by the Heritage Foundation long ago as the alternative to Clinton’s healthcare bill, advocated by Newt Gingrich, and realized in Massachussetts by Romney. This is not exactly a Marxist pedigree.
The ACA, like social security and medicare, are liberal schemes that the Democratic party designed. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way these schemes were put on the shoulders of the 80 percent of the wealth and income bracket who have the fewest assets and the lowest pay. The top 20 percent, meanwhile, which owns something like 90 percent of the financial assets in this country, were massively rescued by the Bush-Obama team. It is an oddity of our politics that the neo-liberals do not at all see this, and are frankly puzzled how people can “vote against their own interests”. Myself, I don’t think they do. Before the Great recession, if a Gop hothead promised to end social security and cut taxes, the voters who elected him could be pretty sure he wasn’t going to end social security but that he would have a chance, in the compromise machine of DC, to cut taxes. Though the taxes he cut would be mainly those of the wealthy, some of the cuts would go to the 80 percent. Meanwhile, the Dems, responsibly talking about securing social security for the future, meant by that either cutting benefits or raising taxes on the 80 percent – since the not so secret secret about social security is that it is paid for by the most regressive federal tax.
The Dem establishment is firmly in the top 20 percent, households that make at least 250 thou a year. And they have designed politicies exquisitely calibrated to not disturb this group. But a liberalism that doesn’t disturb this group is no liberalism at all. Just as camels can’t go though the eye of the needle, in the Kingdom of Heaven you can’t cater to the wealthy while being totally oriented to the welfare of the rest.
Now, it might seem puzzling that the upper 20 percent aren’t more grateful to the neo-liberal Dems. But this isn’t really surprising – the art of the deal, the code by which this group lives and dies, requires an aggressive dealer. The more concessions the other side gives, the more they can give. You don’t do a deal by compromising your side from the outset.
The US is really no different from France, or the UK, or Canada. The non-communist left, born in the Great depression, was led into the golden years by organizers who were richly rewarded for their acts. Those rewards, and the decay of labor power, brought about a brutal disconnect between the political elite and the people they were supposedly leading, the people whose side they were supposedly on. 
In the first eight years of the Bush era, the philosopher kings were the loudmouthed imperialists, the Hitchenses, the Niall Fergusons, the Weekly Standard crewe. In the next six years, under Obama, the philosopher king appears to be Cass Sunstein, whose concept of “nudgery” codifies everything about these years – the sense of noblesse oblige by the political elite, the sense that the 80 percent are too dumb to understand their own interests, and the ridiculous presentation of their case as if it is in response to the “devastating critique” of the Mommy state by libertarians. In fact, of course, nudgery exposes most people to the unchained power of the corporations, while the power that the 80 percent might have to, for instance, send an email without being snooped on by the state is, because because,. Something we really have to abridge for the near future.  Meanwhile, the 20 percent, who apparently know all about their interests, have to be  treated like the too big to fail group they are.

That is pretty much how I see this ultimately not so important election. When Obama was elected in 2008, I thought our long national nightmare was over. Now I think that the nightmare has so saturated everyday life that it isn't a nightmare anymore - it is just how we live.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

the wall fell: so what?

So, the end of history, most thumbsuckers think, is itself at an end. What's the damages, bartender? Well, this summing up of what happened to the Communist countries after the fall of the wall is a pretty stunning piece of work. I'm not convinced that all information can be given by GDP growth, but still: only ten percent of the countries in the post-Communist sector have actually converged with the developed world.
Ukraine, according to Milanovic's figures, will take fifty more years to achieve the standard of living of the Communist era. Hmm. I especially like it that Milanovic, perhaps because he's a rusty remnant of the old Soviet system, actually values culture.
"Let me just focus on one often overlooked fact. It is most strikingly illustrated with respect to Russia. Russia, probably for the first time since the early 1800s, has gone through a quarter of a century without leaving any trace on the international world of arts, literature, philosophy or science. One does not need to mention Russia’s “Silver Age” of the early 1900s, nor a number of writers who, often in the opposition to the regime, produced some of the best literature of the 20th century (Akhmatova, Pasternak, Grossman, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn, Zinoviev); one does not need even to dwell on scientific progress, indeed limited to the military or military-used production, in the USSR, to realize that nothing similar happened in the past 25 years, which is indeed a sufficiently long period to draw conclusions. Capitalism was not kind to Russia’s arts and sciences."
I was discussing contemporary Russian lit with a Russian professor a couple of weeks ago, and he seconds this conclusion. Myself, I'd put Mikhail Shishkin up among the great writers Milanovic cites. Who else? There has been a Limonovization of Russian literature, that's true. In a round table on Russian literature in the Global context published in the estimable Russian Studies in Literature last year, the contributors were all, unanimously, glum about the fate of Russian writers in the said global context - no Nobel prize for you all! A prof from the University of Colorado I think summed up the scene in the States very well: the last Russian writer to make a stir among the readership was Vassily Grossman.Not exactly current. In one field where the Soviets ruled, linguistics, or the part of linguistics having to do with semiotics, most stuff that I read is very derivative of what went before - the University of Tartu's Sign Systems Studies, for instance, hasn't advanced beyond Lotman as far as I can see, and Russian Studies in Literature is exemplary in digging through Bakhtin, and bringing to light the literature, some of it fallen through the cracks, but new theory, or work?