“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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The backwards oarsman

It was, I think, about six months after Adam learned to walk that he began to experiment with walking backwards. Walking backwards goes against our social bodily image, which aligns our face with our motion. For just that reason, it ends up, for a child, in the realm of play. Since learning to walk backwards, Adam indulges in it not so frequently, but always with a giggle and a sideglance at his parents, because he feels he is doing something a bit naughty.

The image of the oarsman that I’ve excavated from Montaigne and from Pliny exerts, to my mind,  a marvelous poetic power as a model that tells us something about the course of a life or a history partly because it stands in suprising contrast to  our rooted association of facial direction and forward motion. Of course, the sightless oarsman is looking, but only at what recedes behind him.

In considering this image, one has to recall, as well, the socio-economic system in which the slave oarsmen in Pliny’s time, or the oarsmen plying their gabare in Bordeaux in Montaigne’s time, were placed. Bordeaux, in Montaigne’s time, was the scene of a economic expansion in trade as the port infrastructure was put in place and the gabare who brought down dyes and wine and timber in their flat bottomed boats were found in several places in the logistical chain, either bringing in materials to be made into manufactures to sell or taking those products, the wine and the dyes out to ships who disembarked them in other areas of europe, most notably Great Britain and the Netherlands. The blind oarsmen were, in this sense, at the base of the fortune of Montaigne’s own extended family, much more than any invisible hand, in as much as his extended family was involved in finance and trade. The historian who has most profoundly studied the merchant marine culture in Bordeaux in the 16th century, Jacques Bernard, has noted the absense of a professional corporation for the gens de mer, although this does not preclude a tight professional culture of sailors and oarsmen – the kind of community that recent historians have discovered, or suppose they have discovered, among pirates. The oarsmen themselves were all contract laborers. Whether facing towards the port or away from it, their share of the proceeds was minimal.
John Florio’s translation of the word “l’utile” in Montaigne’s title is “profit” – on profit and honesty.  The recent interpretations of the essay are a battle ground over the question of whether Montaigne, like Machiavelli and certain humanists, puts profit – the public good – over honesty – or honor, the moral code. It has been read in this way by certain influential scholars, such as Quentin Skinner and Jean Starobinski. They have been criticised for abridging and distorting the arguments in the text by Robert J.Collins, whose essay on the text is a very close reading. Myself, I find the text interesting for developing a sort of anthropology of violence, in which the violation of norms is caught in a certain ritual that both allows the violation and pays for it with a sacrifice – the kind of thing dear to the heart of Rene Girand. Thus, the essay is chock full of the usual Montaigne anecdotes from ancient and contemporary history, which are used to vary the entitling theme – that of profit and honesty. Of course, Montaigne is notorious for the way the variations in his themes sometimes seem to escape them altogether. But I think Collins is right to suppose that Montaigne was using, here, as elsewhere, a conversational form (“I speak to the paper like I speak to the first person who comes along”) that, like all good conversations, loses itself in order to carry out the task of bringing to light the unconscious as well as conscious aspects of a theme. Pertinence is not lost, but enriched, in the process. And so it is here, where the violation of truthtelling, of fairness, of justice, of kindness, of friendship, of family loyalties, which are all countenanced by the reference to what profits the state – what is necessary for the public good – are instanced only from the viewpoint that they unleash a countering moment of sacrifice that engulfs those who have been the mechanics of injustice. In the secret police state, the secret policeman has every reason to believe he is next – that at least was Stalin’s policy, and it was, as well, the policy of various Roman tyrants and French kings.
Of course, to attend to the sacrifice instead of to the “progress” made by a state that has successfully profited from these instances of atrocity might be thought to be an inversion of the oarsman’s duty – which is only to keep looking backwards and moving us forwards. The image, I think, is inseperable from these historical dilemmas, which is why I think the most interesting heirs of the motif are those who are most anxious about the whole notion of progress.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

backwards progress. Montaigne's image

Comparisons, it was anciently thought, were among the royal tools of thought, along with logic. One of the interesting thing about comparisons is how, buried beneath them, we find coincidences, intersections on the plane of concept or image. And the comparison is all the more powerful in that, like a coincidence, it produces a cognitive shock, a crossroads surprise. The shock, if the comparison goes off well, will be transmitted to the object we began with. It will seem not only as if we have given an explanation, but we have given a surplus of explanation.
It is here that comparison runs into trouble, for, like coincidence, it seems tangled in superstition. Enlightenment begins, perhaps, with a suspicion of the surplus of explanatory value. Ancient  enlightenment – the sceptics and epicurians who came after Aristotle – recognized that comparison did too much work. It is as if an occult power, a dark force, planned that meeting of concepts or images or situations. The enlightenment state of mind is always allergic to occult forces. These are, after all, things that plunge us into taking a magical view of history. And yet, if the Enlightenment wants to have a history itself, if it works towards “progress”, it is always itself subject to a self-subverting contradiction, the projection of some force that makes for history as a progress. Which is just to say that enlightenment itself often does not resist the temptation to seek out destinies and fates, and tarries with an image of history as a sort of white magic.
This is one side of comparison. Another side is its absorption, over time, into the literal, the long march from connotation to denotation. Coincidence, here, is routinized, or overlooked so often as to seem no coincidence at all.
I want to look at a brilliant comparison in Montaigne’s essay, “On the useful and the honorable” – which Florio translates as the Profitable and the Honest. This essay begins the third book, which was published four years before Montaigne’s death, in 1592. The third book has a certain retrospective splendour, rather in the manner of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – one feels that Montaigne, like Prospero, is about to break his rod and drown his books, as the last voyage approaches. On the useful and the honorable (de l’utile et l’honnête) mingles memories or summings up from Montaigne’s public career with a reflection on the division between what it is useful to do for the state – what profits the prince, or one’s ambitions - and what it is honest, moral, honorable to do from the perspective of the private individual.
The image and comparison I have in mind arises in the context of a characteristic moment of self-accounting, with its to-and-fro motion:
“What was required by my position, I furnished, but in the most private way possible. As a child I was plunged into it up to my ears. And I succeeded well enough, but I have often, in good time, disengaged myself from it. I have since avoided meddling in public affairs, rarely accepting to do so and never requesting it. Holding my back turned to ambition. If not like rowers who advance, thus, backwards. Nevertheless, being embarked, I find myself less obliged to my resolution than to my good fortune. There are, indeed, paths less inimicable to my taste, and more adapted to my temperament, by which, if my fortune had called me in the past to public service and advancement in the opinion of the world, I know I would have bypassed all the arguments of my reason and followed it.”
The to and fro is held together here, I think, by that discrete glimpse of rowers advancing with their back turned. It is an image of progress that surely has a double root in Montaigne’s own experience and in the classical authors.
For a man who saw the world as constantly dissolving one hard element into another, Montaigne was very phobic about water, much prefering solid land, and even the bumpiness of coaches, to the waves. Nevertheless, he did travel, sometimes, by water. In a gabare, a flat bottomed boat that was poled or rowed. There was one that went from Bordeaux to Blaye, a village on the Garonne that was a point of contention in the guerilla war between the Catholics and the Protestants when Montaigne was mayor of Bordeaux. Indeed, advance has an emphatic military meaning as well as one that indicates a certain directed movement. The symbolism of the rower who, facing backwards, advances the boat must have suggested itself to Montaigne hundreds of times. But perhaps he was also inspired by an essay of Plutarch’s which was thematically akin to this essay: If it is true that we should live a hidden life.
“The oarsmen, turned towards the stern, chase after the catch by the action that they impress on the oars in a sense contrary to the direction of the vessel. Something similar happens to those who give us such precepts: they hurry after fame in pretending to turn their back on it.”
I have been revolving this image in my head, and it grows more interesting the more I think about it. Here fate, fame, progress, and a strange reversal of how we think of human progress all come together. I think there is a long European history of this image, and I, being in an Auerbachian mood, am going to chase after it a bit more.