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Friday, January 15, 2021

the collective fugue


“It is precipitated not by a mechanical breakdown but by the descent of an emotional block . Its gravest form , which science has come to call fugue, embraces three classically dramatic phases.  The first of these is a brief interval of complete dissociation, closely resembling somnambulism. This is eventually followed by a period of lighened oblivion, in which only certain facts and events remain beyond the reach of the victim. The final stage, which may occur spontaneously or as a result of psychiatric manipulatin, is a return to full-functioning consciousness. But, whatever its pattern, an attack of functional amnesia is seldom susceptible to either a ready or a reassuring explanation.”

This is a passage from Berton Rouechés classic article on the fugue, Lost, which was published in 1954 in the New Yorker.  Historians have long  been fascinated by  collective memory, following in the trail first marked out by Maurice Hallwachs in The Collective Frameworks of Memory (1925). We have less of a sense of collective amnesia. That a society could go on a fugue seems an overegging of what has always seemed half concept, half metaphor. Yet surely we see things that seem fugue-like, where the desire to forget leads to mass dissociation.

In Roeché’s essay, a subject he calls Uhlan (a significant last name choice – an Uhlan is a cavalry lanceman, and in the folk memory, a very savage soldier) one day is looking through books at a kiosk when he feels something is different. And then he feels that he doesn’t know his own name or where he is. Roeché was well known for his novelistic sense of the causes and effects of disease – for writing medical histories with such a flair that not only was he read by the New Yorker popular audience, but by doctors seeking to understand the feelings and behaviors of their patients. Uhlen it appears was bereft of his mother from the age of six, and preferred to stay with his aunt than his father. He lost touch with his father at 19.

In Hallwachs’ model of family memory, poor Uhlan was lost before he lost his memory. His account shows a man subject to crippling panic attacks and a sort of overwhelming restlessness. At the time he went into his fugue, he was feeling imprisoned by his job and responsibilities. Previously, he had been able to withdraw from such things, but this time he had family responsibilities that seemed to shut down his escape route. Responsibilities depend, crucially, on memory. The routine is laced with memory reminders - the alarm clock going off, the hour you have to arrive at work, the bills you have to pay, the appointments you must meet. All of these have collective counterparts. As routines break down, as language stops fitting the situation at hand, as plagues bring down thousands a day, as the police shoot people in cold blood and are caught on cameras, as we look in horror at monuments to slavers and genocide, our memories seem to conspire against us - the us who had, at one time, dominance in the mainstream. With that mainstream's race and gender, its favorite tv programs and movies, its notion of a good time. 

Collectively, humans have always needed the escape hatch.  In the fugue state, there is an overwhelming restlessness. It takes on an almost organic quality. To go somewhere is imperative. And this, too, has a collective correlate I think. The collective fugue state crystalizes around issues – escape roots – the more violent the better. There is a sense that the issues have to be resolved, that they define sides, that nobody could not be burdened with the issue. It is, even, irresponsible to question the issue.

In Roeché’s essay, Uhlan eventually wakes up in a bed in Bellevue and remembers who he is. But the collective awakening from fugues is usually bloodier.

Maybe we are in one now.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The curious case of the missing dogs

 Sometimes, a writer finishes his text. Sometimes, the text kicks the ass of the writer so hard that the writer has to stop. This text is one of the latter. It is part of a series of true/fiction Cold War stories that I've been playing around with. With some suggestion from Sebald, some from the classic use of historical fact - from Merimee to Tolstoy - and some from my own dumb curiosity. 

I have substituted, for the protagonist, the first letter of his last name. This is a warning to the reader: character N. is the equivalent to, but not the representation of, the historical personage from whose biography I have ripped these facts. 

The complete work is over on Medium.  

- A

photo is taken in the Bois de Boulogne, January 25, 1937. It is published in Excelsior, a Paris newspaper. Excelsior was in the avant garde of newspapers, trying to combine the photogenic style of Life with the quotidian pace of your usual daily. Its archive is a treasurehouse of photos. This one has a certain dramatic movement. It shows a corpse in a clearing in the bushes. All that remains of the Russian economist N. N.’s “governante”, most likely his housekeeper, from the accounts of other newspapers, stands in her woolen dress at the head of the corpse, and is making some point to the group of detectives who are grouped at the corpse’s side. There’s a rather soggy newspaper at the housekeeper’s feet. In the center of the group of detectives is Commissaire Guillaume, who is bowler hatted. In the background, the trees are bare, wintering. This grouping distinctly resembles certain Renaissance paintings — a pietá for the era of Detective magazine and the gangster.

- Another photo appeared in many papers on January 26, 1937 and afterwards, whenever some event or statement from officials made the murder hot again. It was published on the front page of L’oeuvreLe JournalLe Petit JournalLe Matin, and the Republique among other newspapers. It is an undated portrait photo showing N.’s face. Rimless glasses, a broad bare forehead, a somewhat petulant expression about the mouth, a little moustache.

  • The posthumous life of the murder of N. has become a variant in one of the great binary structures that define Cold War mythology. Depending on who one’s favorite candidate for the murderer is, his name figures in two series of victims. One series consists of Eugen Miller, Rudolf Klement, Walter Krivinsky, General Koutiepov, and Ignaz Reiss. This is the Comintern series. Another, opposing series consists of Laetitia Toureaux, Carlo and Nello Rosselli, and Marx Dormoy. This is the fascist series. Left/Right, powerful absolutes. There are other names one could add to the first chain — for instance, Juliet Stuart Poyntz, or Leon Trotski. To the second chain one could add Maurice Juif and Jean Zay. The first series haunted the Cold War liberals; its shades attended parties with the Partisan Review notables and went to Cultural Conferences where, it was decided, Communism was the God that failed. The second series ended up in court in 1947–1948, in the Palais de Justice in Paris, where it was called the trial of the Cagoule — the nickname for the underground, extreme-right group of terrorists that operated in France from 1936 to 1938. More properly the Comité secret d’action révolutionnaire (C.S.A.R.), or as they called themselves, Organisation secrète d’action révolutionnaire nationale. Cagoule means hood, and the word comes, vaguely, from the initiation ceremony, which involved a black hood and an oath that bound the life of the oathtaker to the organization. The ferocity of the ceremony was devised by F. — who in this narrative murdered the Russian economist N.

- The postwar trial was not, by all accounts, a satisfactory reckoning; strings were pulled and the bloodiest perpetrators fled abroad — for instance, F. — to other lives and names. Many of the accused were out of prison in less than a year. One of them, in fact, went on to rise to the head of a huge international corporation, L’Oreal, successfully navigating the postwar world until, at the end of his career, attention was suddenly focused on his anti-semitic salad days. The burning of Paris’s synagogues. Under the approving eye of the German occupiers.

- After the postwar excitement of the purges, the collaborators, the lovers of German soldiers with their shaved heads, the affair was buried under the non-gaze of the turned backs of the French establishment, generally.

- N.’s corpse is one of the facts in our universe of facts, we hold this truth to be self-evident. As for everything else about the scene, from January 1937 until now, self-evidence has not been the order of the day. The blurring began with the first newspaper reports, with their conflicting details (mostly small) and their heavy implications about who did this (a bigger and bigger argument), and none of this was really cleared up.

- There were witnesses: one, M. Theophile Levoeuf — sometimes misspelled Leveuf or Le Veuf. The ligature is often bobbled. Use your search spelling accordingly. Two, M. Mallet. A cantonnier. That is, a roadworker, streetsweeper, repairer of the trails in the park, general presence in the streets of this part of Autueil. He’d been operating on Rue Michel-Ange, he’d often swept the sidewalk in front of 28 Rue Michel-Ange, “a pavilion” that went for at least 24,000 francs in rent per annum (the corpulent corpse it appeared, lived well, on an income estimated at “300,000 francs” per year). Three, the people who fled when the cops arrived, which always happens. Four, the anonymous sources feeding info to the police, or to private investigation agencies, blackmailers, informants, whisperers, who play it back to interested parties and the press. A political assassination is what we have here, with the attendant confusions, both real and designed. Agendas out the ass.

- Mr Levoeuf, January 25, 1937, 10:20 a.m. The weather is — as all accounts agree — “glacial”. Mr. Levoeuf, an unemployed accountant, living at 25, Rue Le Marois (the addresses in this story are, oddly, of a specificity…) is making for the bus stop near the gate to the Bois de Boulogne park, the Porte de Prince, across from the Roland-Garos stadium. “The witness crossed paths with an elegant, corpulent man with a still young face, under a crown of white hair, dressed in a beige tweed jacket and gray flannel pants, accompanied by two dogs, a white fox terrier and an auburn haired spaniel.”

- The clock is ticking.

- M. Levoeuf moves forward. Somewhere on the street the roadworker, M. Mallet, is busying himself with his usual observations of the neighborhood. M. Mallet, we suspect, was the kind of man who had a drink with the cops now and then. Had a second source of income, perhaps. His tips, their tips. As we will learn from the papers in the days ahead, M. Mallet is no ordinary streetsweeper, but a man of parts in his own way. He spent time, in his youth, in a Russian speaking milieu. He prides himself on accents, and can tell proper French from sloppy French, a Slavic accent. What an appropriate streetsweeper for the Russian economist N.’s street!

- M. Levoeuf is now at an angle from the gate into the park. He can look over the barrier into the park. ‘The gate of the Princes, which gives access to the woods, faces the street of the same name. The place where the body fell is thirty meters to the left of the [walking] path, which is to say, seen from the gate, slightly to the left of the line going perpendicular to the gate. Levoeuf… was on the side not of the woods, but on the opposite side, near the busstop where he was waiting to attend to his “business”. The distance between these points is 150 meters.”

- Does M. Levoeuf have any idea that his face, with a black beret, his everygull’s face, is going to be on the front page of many of Paris’s papers tomorrow? He does not. Did his friends goof about it with him? Or did he have friends? We know little about the life of this unemployed accountant at the beginning of 1937. After the difficult year, 1936. Year that Leon Blum was elected, on the Left. The Popular Front. Year of the strikes, the reforms. The civil war breaks out in Spain. But M. Levoeuf is a minder of his own business, from the brief bit of his life that surfaces in the paper. So when he sees the man with the dogs and another man arguing, it doesn’t attract his attention. Maybe they are exercise partners. Not M. Levoeuf’s world, frankly. This is Autueil, where the residents have the big francs, and perhaps M. Levoeuf is even here this morning to dream a little about becoming, one day, a success and getting a villa or apartment here.

- As an unemployed bookkeeper, he is probably not on the side of the factory worker. Petit bourgeois, this guy. These distinctions count in 1937. The headlines in the great dailies are about Stalin’s show trials, with the fantastic confessions of the great group that once made the Russian revolution. One of the accused was a friend of the man in the park, L’Humanité -the Communist newspaper — thunders that they are traitors all. Le Jour, on the right, goes in for the irony of quotation marks: The accused Trotskyists of Moscow continue their “spontaneous confessions”. LeVoeuf is likely more interested in the Petit Parisien story about the soccer match Sunday at Roland-Garros: “The Austrians squarely beat France.” Being unemployed, though, does M. LeVoeuf even give the newsvender 30 centimes for a paper, or does he simply forage among the newspapers left behind on benches and bus seats?

- M. Levoeuf is taken out of whatever daydream he is nourishing by the sight of the conclusion to the dispute in the park. “The two men appear to be boxing!” “Suddenly one of them collapses”.

- One account of what happened at some point between 10:30 and 11: “The witness heard no cry, no shot. Two small dogs walk around the fallen man, barking furiously. M. Levoeuf hurries to where the pugilist lay. He found the corpulent man, comfortably clothed in a beige tweed sweater and flannel pants, with expensive moccasins, extended, face down. He leaned over, wanting to help the wounded victim. He turned him on his back. But he saw, with horror, that the blood was escaping in abundance from a gash in his left cheek. A red spot was growing larger and larger on the gray wool vest of the victim. M. Levoeuf saw instantly that the man was dead. He cried for help. A park guard came, stopped for a moment, stupefied, and said he knew the man.” (Le Journal, January 26, 1937).

- Or: perhaps: “In his clenched hand he [the victim] still held the two leashes of his dog. The two dogs were there, a spaniel and a fox terrier, at the foot of the master, two poor beasts who understood nothing of what had just happened, whose worried looks seem to await an order.” (le Petit Journal, Jan. 26, 1937)

- Or perhaps: “the dogs were howling” (Le Jour, Jan. 26, 1937). Or perhaps: M. Levoeuf had “a difficult time separating the dogs, a fox terrier and a German shepherd [sic], who vigorously defended the remains of their master as he approached.”(Petit Parisien, Jan. 26, 1937). Or perhaps, as Candide, a weekly, reported later, after Levoeuf turned the body over, and saw the man was dead, “at that moment a road mender was passing by with his cart. Levoeuf hailed him and asked him to remain by the body, while he himself, stopping a car, went to find a guard.” (Candide, Feb. 25, 1937).

See the rest here. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

False flags - the 2020 strategy of tension


I'm sorta interested in the false flagging, by rightwing groups, of leftwing groups. It has been a common thread in rightwing extremism since at least the 1930s, and flowered into the strategy of tension in Italy in the 1970s. The explosion that destroyed the Bologna railroad station and killed 85 people in 1980 was plotted by extreme righwing groups with the intent that the government and media would blame the left. There has been a long struggle in Italy to hold the neo-fascist perpetrators responsible. In the U.S., the strategy of tension has fallen into the hands of clueless militia members and the like. However, aided by high officials in the Trump administration and rightwing cops, this will eventually work some pissant masterpiece of a massacre here. Starting with the famous "umbrella man" who tried to provoke a looting riot during the protests in Minnesota this summer - who turned out to be connected to a white supremicist group, as was suspected by protesters at the time - to the Boogaloo bois who killed two cops in Oakland with the intent of throwing blame on the protesters to the man who firebombed a police station in Minnesota who, in contact with the Oakland killers, was trying to throw the blame on the BLM - a mini strategy of tension has been going on, favored by conservative media. The intersection between rightwing media and these groups is essential.

The strategy of tension rarely works to achieve the intended coup. In the 30s, the C.S.A.R., a right wing French group, tried to pull this off to overthrow the Popular Front government and failed. However, many of the members of this group got a fantasy chance to do their business once the Nazis occupied France. The people who supervised the blowing up of the synagogues of Paris were ex C.S.A.R. members. After the war, they were given light punishments, and went on to important places in French society - one of them, Mitterand's boyhood friend, Jacques Correze, eventually became the CEO of L'oreal, which was for a while your perfume company to meet all your anti-semitic needs - so heavily did their employee force depend on former collaborators.
That the Washington Times has printed that there were no antifa people among the Capitol incursion group is a real blow for the time being. But the lie that it was really antifa is being shaped right now, and will eventually come out of Donald Trump's mouth.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Against Healing!

Susan Sontag, I think of you!

In Illness as Metaphor, when she went after the “anti-intellectual pieties and a facile compassion all too triumphant in contemporary medicine and psychiatry”, she was well aware of the insertion of a illness metaphoric in politics too. In fact, one of the prized sentences in American political rhetoric is Abraham Lincoln’s use of a battlefield injury metaphor, “binding our wounds” – subtexting the Jesus story – to describe the national process of unification. Lincoln, like Bismark, helped forge a new, modern state. It was noticed early on that Bismark’s German was, like Lincoln’s English, a thing of folk poetry. But instead of using the metaphor of injuries (which presupposes the more extensive field of the “body politic”), Bismark was more inclined to peasant metaphors and similes, where the state is pictured as a plough horse, or “putting Germany in the saddle”.
Lincoln’s metaphors are often celebrated, seldom subject to the critical examination we should give to classic texts. What, after all, did “binding up the wounds” of the Civil War mean?
That meaning, in terms of Lincoln’s life, was of course fated not to be. Lincoln swerved a lot. It is hard to know whether he would have swerved towards the Sumner side of radical Reconstruction, which would have built a different America, or the course taken by the Northern bourgeoisie, who threw African-Americans on the pile – there’s a metaphor for ya! – and healed right whitely. But the healing metaphor was on its legs and since then has done a lot of work. Much of it in support of anti-intellectual pieties and compromises with oppression that normalized and spread oppression.
Lindsey Graham, a straw stuffed non-entity who, as Senator of South Carolina, has succeeded in impressing other non-entities, political reporters mainly for center-lib publications, just used the healing metaphor in the way it is always used – to creep around a gross act of oppression and violence.
“As President @realDonaldTrumpstated last night, it is time to heal and move on. If Speaker Pelosi pushes impeachm ent in the last days of the Trump presidency it will do more harm than good.I’m hopeful President-elect Biden sees the damage that would be done from such action.”
Time to heal. We’ve had so many healing moments! Sparing Jeff Davis and General Lee hanging. Sparing the Confederate leaders. Sparing the Jim Crow enforcers. Sparing every eminence, every rich man or woman who ever violated a federal law or salted away criminal proceeds in an offshore account. We’ve healed ourselves into a jolly little corner, where Aryan Nation Cosplayers accompanied by thugs looking to kill a couple of hate figures or two, Pelosi, a coupla Dems, those bitches, mainly, and peeing on the carpet as they went, and killing a cop – all of this is just healable fun and games. The price of healing is put off, and put off. That is, the price paid by comfortable white folks. The price is quite evident on the streets of Columbus Ohio, Ferguson Missouri, in the cancer gulch in Louisiana, in Kenosha, in Louisville, in every metro in this great healed Republic of ours.
But there comes a time to ask a question: what is the difference between healing and the disease?

Friday, January 08, 2021

The Aryan Nation revolution will be televised

 Blow after blow, the Trumpkins must be coming down from their high. Frist "Mr. Trump", as the NYT has taken to calling him - which is a sign that he really is expelled from the countrfy club - made a video in which he said his beloved Patriots were naughty naughty to try to take over the capitol and burn the electoral college ballots. Apparently, his aides said he could be prosecuted. Then the WSJ editorial board, which is close to God - that is, the God of the Right, Rupert Murdoch - said Trump should be impeached. A rare conjunction of AOC and the WSJ! So, shockingly, the fallback story that this was just an antifa false flag is shredded from the top, although I'd guess 90 percent of Trumpsters will soon be assuring all and sundry that the Capitol takeover was a Democratic Party plot. Then it appears the "protestors", as the NYT persistently calls the Aryan Nation gang that took over the Capitol, did kill a cop.

On the plus side, we know that the hearts of every police union president in America is with the Aryan nation and their preznit. So, same as it ever was.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

On balance


 While the aesthetic sphere is full of objects corresponding to the sense  of sight or of hearing, there are no objects directly correlating to the the sense of balance. Dance and sports are the closest we get. Roger Caillois was clever in noticing the role of dizziness in certain kinds of games, which he categorized under the rubric ilynx. Caillois was not a systematic thinker; he was also a Cold War liberal of the very anti-marxist type. These two facts have to be held in mind when reading Jacques Ehrman’s terrific attack on Caillois in “Homo Ludens revisited” (1968), which holds a special place in the history of deconstruction in America.  Ehrman’s attack must have sounded like Martian in 1968, while now it is part of our lingo:

“For finally, if the status of "ordinary life," of "reality," is not thrown into question in the very movement of thought given over to play, the theoretical, logical, and anthropological bases on which this thinking is based can only be extremely precarious and contestable. In other words, we are criticizing these authors chiefly and most seriously for considering "reality," the "real," as a given component of the problem, as a referent needing no discussion, as a matter of course, neutral and objective.”

Still, given the limitations of Caillois ideological adherence to the White Mythology, it is also true that Caillois provides the elements for throwing into question – that is, getting dizzied by – the “very moment of thought given over to play.” Ehrman’s thesis has still not inflected our official historiography, which looks towards vast economic forces, or a high concept notion of politics, as its objects, and leaves aside such things as drugs, inebriation, sport, etc. as minor concerns. You will find much more about drugs and drug smuggling in journalistic history accounts than you will find in any recent academic history of, for example, Cold War America, thus separating “ordinary life” from the “extraordinary” life of the historical process.

The meeting of ordinary life and extraordinary life in the governance of our somatic chemical structure does, I think, go back to how an official sense of balance is maintained and idealized in the moral sphere. Ilynx is not easily exorcized, and it pops up in philosophy too – that very peculiar discourse of extraordinary life. Marx’s notion, or non-notion, of revolution plays an illynx like role in his larger framing of modernity.  Nietzsche’s notion of the “eternal return of the same” – that reactionary version of revolution – is, I think, a form of vertigo, of getting lost in time and space, in as much as time and space are themselves lost, never original, always copied.

Emile Cioran, in the Twilight of Thoughts, writes about vertigo as an existential expression of the most radical doubt. I think vertigo is an important, maybe a governing condition in Cioran’s work. For Cioran, the verticality of the human animal is primary to that animal’s domestication – it precedes language. Vertigo is thus a strike against the empire of the human.

“Everything that is not inert must, in different degrees, support itself. And how much more must man, who only accomplishes his destiny inventing certitudes and only maintains his position by the tonic of illusions. But he who begins to face himself, who slips into the transparency of his own position, who is a man only through the indulgences of his memory, can he still call upon the traditional support, his animal verticality, can he still hold himself up when he is no longer himself?”

For Cioran, the fall into time is really a fall, a threat to the backbone, a passage down and down the dark well.  In Cioran’s opinion, a romantic anarchic one, all of history is an injury to the sense of balance.


Which brings me to an instance of balance finding itself. I saw this. I saw it this Sunday, in Parc Royal, when Adam showed me how he could ride a bike. He had tried bike riding last year in Montpellier, but he never made it past the stage  of his parents holding him up. This year, after ardently wishing for a bicycle, one appeared under, or not really under but leaning next to, the Christmas tree. We took him out to Parc Picasso, one cold Thursday, and went racing about with him. It was A. who figured out that the perfect thing was to hold onto the back of his coat while he pedalled along, his little helmet slopping jauntily over to one side. She would let go for ten seconds, twenty. Then, catching up, hold again. Saturday, I did not go with them to the Parc. And as I was sitting at home, pretending to work, I received a video from A. It showed Adam biking by himself. Biking all around the course in the Parc Royal! I was filled with a parent bird feeling. The nestling spread its wings. The vacant air became a living thing. The boy, 8 years old, attached to a metal frame and two wheels, found his balance Tao. Joy filled the world.

The part that is left out by the thinkers of vertigo.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Le bateau ivre, part 2 by Karen Chamisso


 Mickey Mouse came to the new world

with his ancient paraphernalia

- a cauldron, a wand

boosted from the paleolithic.


The wilderness was full of strange forces

that Mickey could bind, but not understand.

Chop down all the trees, all of them

boil the Indians in the cauldron.


Around our tables we eat

good food, a peasant dream of calories.

Steamboat Willy takes the river down

to sell his slaves at all the river towns.


Will he ever be forgiven

for his innocence, that mouse?

He’s gone now. Died in a quagmire

of his own devising.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

My Emily Dickinson

 When I first started reading Emily Dickinson in high school in the 1970s, she seemed to be either a tame poet, good for holiday cards, or a morose poet of the kind satirized by Mark Twain in Huck Finn, Emmiline Grangerford, with her creepy sub-Poe fascination with funerals. She was the farthest thing from the wilder shore of Walt Whitman, I thought.

I read Dickinson as she was edited and domesticated, starting with her first posthumous editors, her brother’s lover, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. It was only in the 60s that the wilder shore of Dickinson’s poetry started to emerge, beginning with the complete edition of her poems edited by Thomas H. Johnson in 1960. Crucially, Johnson restored the dashes to the poems – which are to the poems what the axe was to Lizzie Borden. The dash, that punctuation interruptus, gave the poems back their sanguinary impulse. We could finally read Dickinson.
It is perhaps appropriate that it took one hundred years. I’ve been reading the Christane Miller edition(the poems “as Dickinson wrote them”) and the great book by Susan Howe – My Emily Dickinson. Howe’s book is in that rare vein of poet’s books – Williams In the American Grain, Zukofsky’s Apollinaire, Olson’s Melville – that shifts your vision. For Howe, Dickinson was the most radical poet of the 19th century. To make a comparison she doesn’t make – just as Georg Buchner seemed to invent the theater of the 1920s in the plays he wrote in the 1830s, so, too, Dickinson seems to have invented the lyric difficulty we associate with the poets of the end of modernism – poets as different as John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich - around the time of the American civil war.
Howe adroitly inserts Jonathan Edwards into Dickinson’s intellectual background, and Emily Bronte as her true contemporary. One poet she doesn’t mention is Lord Byron.
Thomas Moore’s edition of Byron’s Letters and Journals was published in the U.S. in the 1840s. The letters were defanged, but the journals retained Byron’s characteristic skipping dash, for instance: “While you are under the influence of passions, you only feel, but cannot describe them, — any more than, when in action, you could turn round and tell the story to your next neighbour! When all is over, — all, all, and irrevocable, — trust to memory — she is then but too faithful.” Byron’s dashes, unlike Dickinson’s, have an aristocratic disdain for the mere plebe assemblies of rote classroom English. Dickinson, though, if she read Moore’s edition, would certainly have seen how they could work.
Of course, Dickinson was a pretty radical DIY type of poet, and may well have done without prompts. But I would love some genealogy of the dashes, on the lines of the way Guy Davenport, in his essay on Cummings in Every Force Evolves a Form, saw how Cummings saw the opportunity in the way Greek verses, as for instance Sapho’s, were published with scholarly apparatus in the Loeb Library editions.
"And when these early poems, none of which has survived entire but exist on torn, rotted, ratgnawn papyrus or parchment, are set in type for the modern student of Greek, such as Edward Estlin Cummings, Greek major at Harvard (1911-1916), the text is a frail scatter of lacunae, conjectures, brackets, and parentheses. They look, in fact, very like an E. E. Cummings poem. His eccentric margins, capricious word divisions, vagrant punctuation, tmeses, and promiscuously embracing parentheses, can be traced to the scholarly trappings which a Greek poem wears on a textbook page. Cummings' playfulness in writing a word like "l(oo)k"-a pair of eyes looking from inside the word – must have been generated by the way scholars restore missing letters in botched texts, a Greek l[oo]k, where the 1 and k are legible on a papyrus, there's space for two letters between them, and an editor has inserted a conjectural
I think Dickinson unleashed is such a different spirit from Dickinson leashed that to read her poems in the normalized editions is not to see her at all. Compare:
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

As compared to this:

Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile the winds
To a heart in port, —
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
This is of course one of the famous poems. The referential strangeness – rowing in Eden? – is subdued, I’d claim, in the second version, just as the Wild Nights, a repetition that is divided by a repelling dash to create a sort of negative identity, is annealed in the double exclamation marks of the more conventional, the more romantic exclamation of the second version. The placement of the exclamation marks in the second version – and the erasure of the exclamation marks in the second stanza - seems, similarly, to take us to the stylistics of romantic poetry, rather than the asperities that Howe sees in the Puritan doctrine underneath the lines, asperities that tossing away the Chart makes more vivid.

I haven’t yet gotten to the point that I could say “my Emily Dickinson” – but Howe is definitely an aid.

Monday, December 28, 2020

On not wanting to be like X


There is an attitude that is at the base of great English comedy, from Twelfth Night to Wodehouse. It is the moment when judgment – moral or aesthetic – shifts to the register of competition. To judge that a thing is bad is a philosophical task, but in the novel of real life, we more often judge that a person is bad. We more often think, that is, about how we don’t want to be or function like X, and create a negative figure out of that moment of negative choice. Those are the figures, in essence, that we compete with. And often, the badness of the figure becomes stronger than the reasons we hold an act or a function to be bad. Out of this comes snobbery and wounded dignity. The latter emerges from the moment in which we are squeezed between the figure that represents ‘how we don’t want to be’ and something that upsets our judgment about how we don’t want to be. I don’t want to be a liberal academic, or a poser, or a fan of country music, or a supporter of  Donald Trump, etc., etc. translates into a satisfying comparison with liberal academics, posers, fans of country music, supporters of Donald Trump, etc. At least I am not X: This is the moral stance of the contemporary hero.

Sketching out this aspect of moral life, it points to a problem in the way sociologists mapping out our positive identifications as a primary property of the modern subject. That’s an idealistic stance. Dis-identification is just as important.

It might seem like the logical endpoint of “how we don’t want to be” is enmity. But the origin of the enemy is in combat, and there is always something mortal about enemies. You wish your enemies dead. Your enemies wish you dead. Whereas dis-identification is more about edging away from people, and the horror that it wishes to avoid most is: being surrounded by. Being surrounded by Republicans. Being surrounded by anti-war types. Being surrounded by lefties, righties, pinkos, rednecks, yahoos, jerkoffs, feminazis, dittoheads. Whatever. To be surrounded by cuts off the ability to edge away. Terrifyingly, to an outsider, one can be identified with the crowd of ‘how we don’t want to be.’

This is where English comic writers come in – where in French literature, the thousand meannesses of everyday life are treated as though they have a certain grandeur – think of Lisbeth’s revenge in Cousine Bette – since the French have a genius for enmity, in English writers, those meannesses are filtered through the comedy of wounded dignity or snobbery, since the English genius is for edging away. Dickens, of course, is the first writer who comes to mind.  In lesser novelists this comes out more directly.  E.F. Benson’s Mapp novels, for instance, all fasten delightfully on the town of Tilling, a sort of suburb for the aspiring, and here meanness, hypocrisy, invidious comparison and snobbery are very foundations of village life and the source of the thousand and one differences between a general mask of amiability and a sudden and brutal dislike lurking just below the surface, and most apt to emerge during a game of bridge. Tilling is a town of retirees, mostly, on limited incomes, but with high social standing. And of course it is picturesque, a tourist spot, and the perfect place to make the most of a limited income.

I should say that there is another English tradition that is closer to the French, and it extends from Ben Jonson to Evelyn Waugh. In this tradition, the humor of edging away is treated as a weakness, and the claws are on display. The perfect novel of this type is Waugh’s Handful of Dust, which ends, logically, with the savaging of Dickens. Waugh’s unapologetic snobbery was called “dark humor”, which simply means that it dispenses with the key ingredient of English humor, the comedy of edging away, for the comedy of the brutality of circumstances. One can’t imagine a Wodehouse novel featuring a man prisoner sawing off the head of a prison chaplain, as happens in Decline and Fall. Or Wodehouse giving a funerary send off, all piss Pater,  to one of that novel’s great characers, the teacher/scoundrel/pedophile, Grimes:

“But later, thinking things over as he ate peacefully, one by one, the oysters that had been provided as a 'relish' for his supper, Paul knew that Grimes was not dead. Lord Tangent was dead; Mr Prendergast was dead; the time would even come for Paul Pennyfeather; but Grimes, Paul at last realized, was of the immortals. He was a life force. Sentenced to death in Flanders, he popped up in Wales; drowned in Wales, he emerged in South America; engulfed in the dark mystery of Egdon Mire, he would rise again somewhere at some time, shaking from his limbs the musty integuments of the tomb. Surely he had followed in the Bacchic train of distant Arcady, and played on the reeds of myth by forgotten streams, and taught the childish satyrs the art of love? Had he not suffered unscathed the fearful dooms of all the offended gods of all the histories—fire, brimstone and yawning earthquakes, plague and pestilence? Had he not stood, like the Pompeian sentry, while the Citadels of the Plain fell to ruin about his ears? Had he not, like some grease-caked Channel-swimmer, breasted the waves of the Deluge? Had he not moved unseen when darkness covered the waters?

Sunday, December 27, 2020



Love come out, I said, and fight

I’ve got the gloves, I’ve learned the pace

- Honey child, I’ll uncork my right

And land you on your bitchass face.


The cutgal in my corner heart

Said, that bitch is for the taking

Follow my plan from the start

And we’ll see who’s faking.


Straight up, take her every blow

And bury it in your body.

And by round ten she’ll start to show

She’s grown old and flabby.


The bell went off:  I was fifteen

And then it  rang every year or so.

Although at thirty, in between

2 lovers, I almost fell to her strongest blow


And  almost lost it to an opened vein.

At last at forty, the strategy

Paid off. Tired, limping with pain

Love fell, leaving me on my mattress free.


I turned to bow to the cheering crowd

- but they had long left and the silence was loud.

- Karen Chamisso

Monday, December 21, 2020

Rip John LeCarré

This summer I re-read a lot of John LeCarré novels from his prime years – the 1960s and 1970s – and read a few from his decline – the 2000s. The George Smiley epic, even if you already know how it turns out, does everything right, suspense and clue wise. The ones in the 2000s, though, show the machine is rusty – the suspense is eminently leavable – it is the kind of novel you dogear on page 154 and never return to. The fate of all too many summer novels.
LeCarré is a spy novelist, which means he is a political novelist. The period he achieved his peak in was also a peak and terrible time for Western Intelligence agencies. From Guatemala to Indonesia, from Malaysia to Kenya, Western Intelligence agencies tortured, bribed, trained fascists and generally oversaw misery on an unprecedented scale – Indonesia alone witnessed half a million dead. On the other side, nothing that the Intelligence agencies did , with all their vast holdings of dark money and networks, dented in any way the Soviet empire. They systematically misinterpreted the Soviet empire, feeding that information to politicians. Their real success was helping to establish a sort of franchise colonialism, where National Security States operated as colonial governors to keep erring populations in line.
Yet this focus on what they did outside of their native realms should not be allowed to obscure what they did inside those realms. Inside the realms, they operated to institutionalize a hard, solid limit to left politics in the “democracies’. Socialism and the M6 were inherently incompatible – hence the slapstick attempts at overthrowing Labour governments mounted by Intelligence officers. Similarly, Intelligence agencies in France and Italy were always involved at the edges with far right groups that, at least in Italy, posed a real threat of coup d’etat. In Greece, of course, they succeeded for a time.
The great fright of Capital in the 30s – that militant labor would achieve its goal of evening up the power of decision between Capital and Labor – was quashed for thirty years, until, in the 1980s, the labor movements had “no alternative”.
This is where I’d locate LeCarré. JFK of course preferred James Bond, since JFK was bred to both despise and envy the British dandy. But the cold war liberal, the people who were more inclined to take their cues from “serious” cinema like Seven Days in May, saw in LeCarre’s books the moral struggle they could identify with. The weariness of the white man’s burden, the betrayals and traps that were the price of preserving our freedom – it was all there. But that recognition of moral struggle was not, was never, moral “equivalency”. There could be no such thing when one side – our side – was good, and the other side was evil. Our side was for freedom and free trade, their side was for slave labor camps and central planning. Ah, we know the drill – or those of us old enough to have experienced the Cold War.
From my perspective, George Smiley and company are successful as cliffhangers, but as inlets of moral struggle, they don’t pass the grade. The planting and rescuing of spies, the moles and their hunters, all seem engaged in trivial pursuits. What is striking is how parallel these secret organizations are to the terrorist organizations, the Red Brigades, the RAF, which emerged in Europe in the 70s. Both were compelled, by the logic of their organization into secret cells, to put their energies increasingly into self maintenance. The Red Army Brigade, for instance, began as an organization that was going to take on the only partially de-Nazified German state, and quickly evolved into an organization concerned with freeing its members from state prisons, or fleeing the state’s gaze. The M6 as a secret service fighting the Soviets was a massive failure, never really disrupting the Soviets at all – but it quickly became, as LeCarré’s novels show, a self-involved organization that basically chased its tail and spends inordinate amounts of time trying to rescue its lost agents – agents that were out ‘in the Cold’. Most unmilitary. It is the rare army that choses to coordinate its battle plan with where the enemy has taken prisoners of its soldiers. That’s simply an absurd way to fight.
This, I think, is the inadvertent lesson of the LeCarré spy novel. The reading of which makes it clear that we have to find another reason, a non-military and political reason, for the phenomenal growth of intelligence services since 1945.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

A ticklish situtation: me and clever Hans


“A well regarded psychologist once wrote down the proposition: ... for the animals are not capable of smiling and laughing.” – Robert Musil, Can a horse laugh?

When I was a kid, I was subject to a peculiar syndrome. Kids all laugh, of course – or at least this is true in the normal course of events, social and neurological. And I laughed, too. But unlike most of my friends, I was sometimes truly overcome by laughter. A joke, or something that I found funny, if nobody else did, would sometimes set off an almost epileptic series of laughs. I would begin to choke on laughing, and then that I was laughing and choking would itself seem funny. Soon I was panting between laughs, crying, walking around, rolling on the floor. I could not stop myself. Every time I did, every time I was able to make myself pause, something would happen – my parents or my friends would say something, or I would, fatally, think something – and I’d be off again. This didn’t happen all of the time, thank God, but it happened enough that I got a reputation for being an easy laugher. My friends, sometimes to target me, in a teasing way, would tell me a joke at the wrong time – like when I was drinking milk in the school cafeteria – which would have a disastrous effect on me.

Over the years, I stopped having these fits of laughter – for the most part. I have had them a few times since I got married. For instance, last night. We were playing a dice tic tac toe game with Adam. And arguing about rules. Games are fun, but arguing about rules is divine. I’ve always thought, which is why few people volunteer to play games with me. Anyway, one thing led to another and that we were arguing about the O or the X seemed funny to me, and then funnier, and then the funniest thing that ever happened, and I could not stop laughing. Luckily, I was not eating. This went on for five to ten minutes, alarming my wife and delighting Adam.

Perhaps I was laughing at the whole year.

In the Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, Robert Musil collected a lot of his ephemera – and Musil’s ephemera is worth the collected works of most authors. One of the essays is about a laughter and the beast – the beast in question being a horse. This was in the days before World War I – “since the war, horses have stopped laughing”.  According to Musil’s biographer, Corino, in August 1913 Robert and his wife, Martha, took their honeymoon in Italy. The countryside was very close to Rome at that date – Italy was where Europeans from France and Germany went to enjoy a vacation from modernity, which of course made all the Italian futurists spit. The horse in question was a workhorse – no pony, and no battle or police horse, but a fine young beast on a fine sunny day. Musil observes that horses, who have four “shoulders” and so four armpits, are approximately twice as susceptible as human beings to being tickled in these vital areas. A boy was petting the horse, “... this horse seemed to have a particularly sensitive spot on the innerside of the shoulder, and everytime when it was touched there, it could not keep from laughing.”

The boy, of course, decided to stroke it just there with the grooming comb, and predictably the horse tried to get out of being tickled: it wiggled away, and it tried to butt the boy away with i “its nose, but it was no use.

I recognize this tickle situation – who doesn’t? “And when he came close to the armpit with the comb, the horse could no longer stand it: he turned on his legs, his whole body shuddered and he drew his lips back from his teeth, as far as he could. He acted, for several seconds, exactly as a person does who one tickles so much that he can no longer laugh.”

The mysterious connection between the tickle and the laugh – the pleasant torture of the whole thing – is a strong element in our natural histories, I think. It extends from sex, with its masochistic properties,  to the whole general humor that makes up “being happy” or “being unhappy.”

p.s. Musil, according to Corino, was a school friend of the psychologist Oskar Pfungst, best known for his work on “clever Hans”, a horse who could supposedly add numbers and distinguish colors. Pfungst showed that Hans were really just responding to unconscious signs made by his owner – which, in my opinion, is much more impressive than adding up 2 plus 2, although it leads only to Houyhnhnm sociability instead of accounting.

Friday, December 18, 2020

A few kind words about pretension


Is there anything to be said for pretension?

Simon During’s thumbnail review of Lisa Robertson’s Baudelaire Fractal used the word pretentious, and then semi-takes it back: “Because it’s not only pretentious, it’s jaunty too which undercuts the abstract flim flam.” (see on Facebook)

There is nothing more damning, in money culture, than pretension. Just as there was nothing more damning, in the culture of the nobility, than the Pretender – claiming an inherited office to which one has no bloodtie. Pretend comes from the Latin world for stretch – to stretch before, to hold something out. “Stretching”, here, is cutely caught up in an Americanism – the stretcher. To tell a stretcher is to exaggerate, or even lie. It is a word I associate with Mark Twain – there’s a sort of unconscious etymological narrative in Huckleberry Finn that makes the stretcher a fundamental part of the tale, which includes a Pretender – a false claimant to the French throne. A flim flam man.

When examining the semantics of the truth in ordinary language, few philosophers pause to consider stretching. As any child knows, though, you can take a realistic representation – a picture, say – and stretch it to make it funnier. When I was a kid, we would get silly putty, which came in a little plastic egg, and stretch it out over a comic book picture. Then we would peel it off and the picture would be imprinted on the putty. And then you’d have some fun stretching it.

Now here’s a toy for you mimesis freaks out there.

Pretension and stretching are bound at the hip. Jesus, in a Wittgensteinian mood, once asked: Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? The answer, in nature, is nobody – but social stature is a different matter all together. We frantically devise measures for that – from who has the longest yacht to who has the most publications. Within these systems, there develops quite a horror of stretching, which messes up ranking. And without ranking in neo-liberal culture, what do we have?

Yet if we are ever to get anywhere as aesthetic beings – and no matter how the money culture tries, it can’t reduce the aesthetic completely to the price system – we have to have some stretch in us. We have to pretend. We have to have pretensions. The critic, who also has to have pretentions, feeds on cutting down the pretensions of others – and in fact the critic represents our general tendency, in our small circles, to whack away at those who get too big for themselves, who stretch – but too much whacking and the field is bare. I immediately grow suspicious when I hear something described as pretentious, since I know of the innumerable things that are not pretentious that clutter our sensoriums day and night (I’m leaving, as a tip to the pretenders, here, the “s” on sensoriums – I’m def not writing sensoria!). And I know that there is an army out there waiting to pounce on poetry and art and leave a big dump on it – their grumus merdae. So I grow wary around that “pretentious” word.

Those who never stretch will shrink in the end, is my feeling.  Crying: I’m melting! I’m melting!