Saturday, June 16, 2018

angels do dance on the heads of pins


Egon Friedell is perhaps less famous for his writing than for having committed suicide as the SS pushed in his door in Vienna in 1938. He was a feullitonist - which we now call "creative non-fiction", a term which sounds like it was made up by a bored bureaucrat - and a generalist, a flaneur philosopher, an amateur. How I love amateurs! He did take on a huge task – writing the history of the Neuzeit, of modernity itself - that makes him hard to, well, encompass. I confess I haven't read the five volumes of this. But he was also one of the Viennese wits – the greatest of whom was Karl Kraus - who understood that the secret of language was flair. Although Kraus would probably thrown heaps of scorn on that notion - for him, the secret of language was ethics.
The flavor of that kind of wit is shown in this aphorism.

“Materialism. I once wrote the following: Man is an eternal God-seeker. Whatever else one may say about him is secondary. Everything that he does and undertakes flows out of this source.
But the printer printed this: Man is an eternal Gold-seeker… This error was really and truly from the devil; and not only the devil, but the special devil who controls not only printing but the writing, and not only the writing but the brain of the writer, and not only the brain but the soul, but the whole world. In brief, the tragedy of this erratum was – that it wasn’t one.”

Isn’t that lovely? In fact, this erratum crystalizes the whole of that Marxism that Walter Benjamin (and myself, the merest pipsqueak next to Walter, but still), Ernst Bloch, and a not insignificant segment of the interwar Left proposed with the appropriate indirection. The sentence as written and the erratum as printed are both, in this view, true. And yet, of course, they negate each other.

How very very Viennese to make this point, this juncture of negative theology and dialectical materialism, come down to one letter interjected by the printer’s devil! For angels really do dance on the heads of pins – it is the whole point of angels to do so.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A Pisgah view of Marianne Moore

Elizabeth Bishop summed up a deal of poetry when she wrote this sentence in an essay about Marianne Moore: “It is annoying to have to keep saying that things are like other things, even though there seems to be no help for it.”
Tapping into that annoyance – playing with it, exasperating it, flaunting it, exhausting it – seems like the modernist project. Or maybe it seems like the project of Marianne Moore, who was a modernist as well as an eccentric. Or perhaps she would claim she was centric, had a sense of centers in a world that was full of the cockeyed and the unbalanced, a world of people who would neither properly see what they made nor what they destroyed, but was given to interminable futzing around.
I’ve been going through Marianne Moore’s Collected Poems, and, shamefully perhaps, I’m finding I like her first versions of her poems better than her second versions. She was a notorious suppressor and changer.
It pleases me that Marianne Moore, in contrast with the bigots who are the big names of American 20th century poetry – Eliot, Pound, Stevens – did not throw in her lot with bigotry. At least as much as one could refrain from throwing in one’s lot with bigotry when bigotry has built so much that we live and move among, when it butters the pathway of every white American middle class life still. So in her Virginia Brittanica poem, I was pleased to meet these lines:
The slowmoving glossy, tall
quick cavalcade
of buckeye-brown surprising
jumpers, the contrasting work-mule and
show-mule & witch-cross door & “strong sweet prison”
are part of what
has come about, in the Black
idiom, from advancing backward
in a circle; from taking The Potomac
cowbirdlike; and on
The Chickahominy
establishing the Negro, opportunely brought, to strength-
en protest against
tyranny.”
Of course, Moore’s preserved faith in Lincoln’s Republican Party ethos has its twists. The phrase “opportunely brought” for instance, which surely refers to the recruitment of black soldiers in the Civil War, has a backreference to the original bringing that leaves an ambiguity in the mouth. Opportunely for whom? To be fair, this is the central moral problem around which the poem, with all its beauty, stalks. And what is this “cowbirdlike”? Yet I like best the reference to advancing backwards in a circle. Because the poem itself is about that advance that is also retreat, that invasion that is also native. There’s a delicate footing between plants – Moore’s sort of inhabited observation, as Elizabeth Bishop noticed, makes description a sort of narration, a sort of biography in miniature – and peoples, between natives and invaders, between those who colonized and those brought over to make the colony, as the naturals are driven back, taken from. Moore is very good at this kind of thing, but I find I really have to read her poems twice just to know where I was going – and that of course is what writing is, for a poet, it is going somewhere, even if that means advancing backwards in a circle.
I love this sly stanza – or not exactly a stanza, borrowing out of poetics the words for Moore’s units is a way of wrong-footing yourself – that tells so much about the South I know.
Terrapin
meat and crested spoon
feed the mistress of French
plum-and-turquoise-piped chaise-longue;
of brass-knobbed slat front-door and
everywhere open
shaded house on Indian-
named Virginian
streams, in counties named for English lords.
“Indian named Virginian steams, in counties named for English lords” – such is the balance, or lack of balance, in this hard country with the soft accent, the meanness and the courtesy.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Unamuno's nervous tic

Deleuze missed a trick in his book, The Fold. 

Although ultra appreciative of the philosophical anecdote, Deleuze apparently did not know about Unamuno.

Unamuno was an inveterate folder of paper. Here's an anecdote from one of his obituaries:

In the course of a visit that Andre Corthis made to Unamuno in Salamanca, she saw, perched on the edge of the bottle of ink on his desk, a vulture made of paper that was so finely folded with such delicate art that she couldn't withhold her admiration. 

"I made that," he said.

And Miguel de Unamuno explained that he had a mania for folding things, it was his favorite distraction. While siting in his chair giving his courses, his fingers never ceased making little objects or animals out of paper. A science that he humorously called cocotology."

I like to think that Unamuno, the committed anti-fascist, the man who was expelled from Spain in a military plane under one dictator and who denouced Franco at the end of his life, made a specialty of folding small bits of paper. There is something very... sweet about that. I would like to think that Paul Valery had, as well, some very cute nervous tic.