Thursday, May 23, 2024

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!


And watch it all slip away(Por fin se va acabar)Or leave a garden for your kids to play(Jamás van a alcanzar)

 --- The Black Angels, El JardinThe Black Angels, El Jardin

American foreign policy inhabits the same paradox that American domestic policy lives in: what does it mean to be a democracy?

During the Cold War period, the paradox, at least on the foreign policy side, was simplified by the idea that whatever was anti-communist was democratic. This was, of course, technically not true: from Nazi Germany to the Pinochet’s Chili, from Syngman Rhee’s South Korea to Thieu’s South Vietnam, the United States chose authoritarian states over any possible democratic alternative.

This led to millions of deaths around the world.

At the end of the Cold War, however, there was a sense in the American foreign policy establishment that perhaps the U.S. could be an interventionist liberal power. Weighing in on the side of democracy. The last shreds of this solution were dissolved during the Bush regime. Although we rhetorically wanted “democracy” in the occupied state of Iraq, it turns out that we wanted it on our terms, with no interference from the Iraqi population.

We now seem, under Biden, to be reconstructing a Cold War foreign policy that is even more contradictory than the one forged under anti-communism. Here, democracy is the equivalent of being pro-Israel, no matter what Israel does.

The only way any state in the Middle East, or North Africa, or Central Asia can sustain that as a policy if for that state to be firmly under the thumb of a dictator – be it Sisi in Egypt or the House of Saud or Jordan’s “parliamentary” mock democracy. The U.S. policy is entirely dependent, under Biden, on maintaining and strengthening these authoritarian powers.

This is the kind of paradox that will corrode Biden’s message in the current election: the message that this is an election of “democracy” against Trump’s authoritarianism. It is pretty simple to see that this message relies, in Biden’s politics, on a limit: democracy cannot be entrusted to people like, say, the Jordanians. This tacit principle makes a mockery of Biden’s domestic view, that no persons because of race creed or gender should be denied full civil rights.

Meanwhile authoritarians elsewhere have recognized that whether Biden or Trump is elected, they have a friend in Washington. In Europe, the far right has become absolutely loyal to Israel for two reasons: the historical antisemitic psychopathology, out of which these parties spring, had one great success, from the antisemitic point of view: the murder of six million European Jews. That means practically that in a place like the Netherlands, where the Nazis murdered three quarters of the Jewish community, Jews now form only a tiny percentage of the population – around 50,000 in a total population of 17 million. In comparison, the Muslim population – immigrants mostly from Netherland’s colonies – constitute around a million. The Far Right under Geert Wilders, which is the coalition partner in the Netherlands, has decided to use a new tactic – attacking the Moslem population as antisemitic. That the ideological and real ancestors of Wilders collaborated with the Nazis is now easy to apologize for – with a grin, of course. Dutch Jews do have reasons to fear increasing antisemitism among the Islamic population, as that population absorbs the idea that opposing Israel is antisemitism.

In essence, the far-right part of Europe has been given a gift by the right in Israel and its biapartisan allies in the U.S. Thus, a program that was condemned in the 1990s in the war in Yugoslavia – the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims – has now become less criminal, and more understandable. Those Muslims were antisemitic! Thus, nobody blinks when Netanyahu teams up with Orban to demonize the Hungarian Jew Soros.

Bad times are coming, no matter who is elected president in the U.S.

The new economy is simply a ratio


The New Economy that came into being in the nineties names, really, a ratio – that is, the rise in the ratio between price and earnings. Just as the world starts, in the Upanishads, with the first man, Pragapati, floating in a golden egg that he has somehow fertilized himself, so too do we find our plutocrats floating in golden eggs made out of financial instruments which exist solely in order that plutocrats can grow the most enormous golden eggs the world has ever seen.

In an early era – in the Progressive era – the p/e ratio had another name: overcapitalization. And instead of celebrating an economic mechanism whereby speculators are allowed and encouraged to treat themselves to stunning windfalls, the Progessives justly saw overcapitalization as waste and fraud.

Lawrence Mitchell, in The Speculation Economy, has, I think correctly, seen the first two decades of the 20th century in America as the period in which the limits of American progressive politics – and by extension, the limits of anti-corporationism in the West – were drawn and hardened. By 1920, the attempt to reform the stock market from the root had failed.

The high point of the reform effort came in 1911. In that year, the House of Representatives passed a bill a bill that was narrowly turned down in the Senate, S. 232. S. 232 would not only have required federal incorporation of all interstate businesses. Here’s Mitchell’s description of it:

“It would have replaced traditional state corporate finance law by preventing companies from issuing “new stock” for more than the cash value of their assets, addressing both traditional antitrust concerns and newer worries about the stability of the stock market by preventing overcapitalization. But it would have done much more.

S. 232 was designed to restore industry to its primary role in American business, subjugating finance to its service. It would have directed the proceeds of securities issues to industrial progress by preventing corporations from issuing stock except “for the purpose of enlarging or extending the business of such corporation or for improvements or betterments”, and only with the permission of the Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Corporations would only be permitted to issue stock to finance revenue-generating industrial activities rather than finance the ambitions of sellers and promoters. … S. 232 would have restored the industrial business model to American corporate capitalism and prevented the spread of the finance combination from continuing it dominance of American industry.” (137)

Martin Sklar, in The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, summarized the spirit of the drafts prepared during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration that stood in the background of the bill’s eventual configuration in this way: ‘whenever the amount of outstanding stock should exceed the value of assets, the secretary would require the corporation to call in all stock and issue new stock in lieu thereof in an amount not exceeding the value of assets, and each stockholder would be required to surrender the old stock and receive the new issue in an amount proportionate to the old holdings.”

I’ve already manifested my manifesto for a new Soviet version of 21st century capitalism – one that destroys the corporate form and replaces it with hundreds of thousands of small scale enterprises in flexible cooperative structures. It does not overturn capitalism, but it does radically turn capitalism around. The limitation of both the corporation and the state is a kind of capitalism with a human face – which is much more radical than where ‘socialism’ is at the moment. For this kind of harmony of opposites, of cooperation and competition, to really work, the speculative economy would have to be radically subordinated to production. The pleasure palace of the oligarchs, the four hundred trillion dollar derivatives structure that burdens the earth (even as it actually does not exist – truly, an extreme case of economic neuroses), will have to be burnt to the ground. From a historical point of view, instead of a prescriptive one, however: one has to marvel at what the railroad companies wrought.  Most studies of railroads concentrate on their physical structure, and their role in transport. But if you look at financial history in the U.S., you find that railroads basically invented the modern stock market. By overcapitalizing far beyond the needs of stock and expansion, and by being the model that shaped the constitution of interstate businesses, they forged the stock market as an instrument of overcapitalization that it has since become. In the first decade of the twentieth century, state attorney generals, elected by populists, tried to make railroad companies adhere to their contractual obligations under state law. Well, that took state's rights too far, and was overruled by the Federal government. The Scotus, which piously devolved the rights of women over their own bodies to the states, would shriek with horror if the states took up the right to regulate the interstate commerce that comes through it. There is a limit to every reactionary thing, after all! Common sense, among the plutocrats, has agreed to this. And who are we to tell the rich assholes no?

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

My slang-ophilia - a history


For a writer with the proper equipment – an ear, curiosity enough to kill a dozen cats, and a large capacity for laziness -  Twitter, Tik Tok, blogs and the infinite cesspool of comments on Internet is all, somehow, quicksilver, full of slang mutants that often live have the half-lives of a celebrity goof on a reality tv show but that flash, in their plunge towards death, some signal from the Weltgeist. Some unutterable, utterable sadness.  The slang, the acronyms, the rapid erasures of jargon and slogan, I am in love with them beyond any ideological position.

This love of slang: it has a deep history. Before Rabelais, there were the Roman satirists, like Juvenal, and before Juvenal, Aristophanes, and before Aristophanes, the scribes of Egypt. I suppose. According to W. Puck Brecher’s The Aesthetics of Strangeness, the Japanese thematic of kyo, or madness, which generated a whole subculture in 18th and early nineteenth century Japan, was attracted to the eccentric possibilities of slang – which seems to be paralleled by the way obscene slang became politicized under the French Revolution, particularly by the rather disgusting Hebert, the writer of Pere Duchesne, a revolutionary journal that made the word fuck a regicidal weapon. “I am the real Pere Duchesne, foutre” was the slogan of the journal. Hebert became, by one of those odd throws of the dice of history, one of Marie Antoinette’s judges, and in a glorious moment, when he accused her of incest with her boy, she appealed to all the women in attendance to help her – and they rioted.

The charge was withdrawn.

According to Charles Brunet, Hebert’s biography, the newsboys in Paris in the 1790s would sell his journal with the catchphrase, “Il est bougrement en colère aujourd’hui le Père Duchesne!” “He is bleeding angry today, Père Duchesne!” Bloody, of course, used to be more vulgar than it is now.

The love of slang in modernism – its use – was part of a double movement, on the one hand towards erudite reference, on the other hand towards popular culture: Leopold Bloom’s love of Paul de Kock, or Eliot’s love of music hall, on the one hand, the footnotes to the Wasteland on the other. Modernism, whatever it was and is, is a difficult vehicle for straightforward ideological readings. In France, Marcel Schwob, the great friend of Colette and the great admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a famous essay on slang – argot. The connection between class, colonialism and the stranger comes out where it always does, in the metaphoric:

And it isn’t an affair, here, of the slang of the métier, the technical languages that exercize a necessary influence on the names of instruments, or of mechanical procedures ; the slang which we study is the special speech of the dangerous classes of society. An imperious necessity pushes us to produce this language. The words of our language are neither chased after nor tracked. But those of raw speech live approximately with the respresentative of social justice like the miners in Arizona with the Arapahoe Indians. Thus these miners form a young nation, vivacious, which immigrates and colonizes constantly. Slang is like a nation of miners which disembarked on our shores with cargos of immigrants. It is easy to see that these ports of arrival are divided between high society and low. At the low end, are the workers who gather the words and carry them towards the center of language. The terms so introduced are often designated in the dictionaries as « vulgar ».  

The metaphor of the miners and the Arapahoes never quite works, at least in as much as it is supposed to do conceptual work. Slang is the miner; always colonizing, always emigrating, always tearing up the land and water. But in this image, the Arapahoes are the social police – which inverts the usual colonialist hierarchy without making much sense. Schwob moves on to a more illuminating metaphor when he seizes on the miners as emigrants, making, in a sense, in their underground tunnels a movement towards the center of language.

The nearness of slang to “life” is a common trope among the slangophiliacs. Mencken took from Whitman his interest in “Americanisms” and American slang, and quoted Whitman’s wonderful demand for a Real Dictionary:

“The Real Dictionary will give all the words that exist in use, the bad words as well as any. The Real Grammar will be that which declares itself a nucleus of the spirit of the laws, with liberty to all to carry out the spirit of the laws, even by violating them, if necessary. . . . These States are rapidly supplying themselves with new words, called for by new occasions, new facts, new politics, new combinations. Far plentier additions will be needed, and, of course, will be supplied. . . . Many of the slang words are our best; slang words among fighting men, gamblers, thieves, are powerful words. . . . The appetite of the people of These States, in popular speeches and writings, is for unhemmed latitude, coarseness, directness, live epithets, expletives, words of opprobrium, resistance. This I understand because I have the taste myself as large, as largely, as any one.”

Probably Schwob knew of Whitman, since he was an Anglophile, and Whitman was a reference in the 1890s. The idea that we put the declaration of independence in our mouths anytime we speak shakes off the dead forms of Victorian British English – makes the language live. This battle is always being waged – as for instance in the battle over black English, which gets a going over in the movie American Fiction – although there the direction taken is rather the reverse of what one expects, not a defence of black English but a glance into how it becomes exoticized, commodified and neoliberalated.

Mencken was inclined to think that slang words were invented by some particular someone. And this may be, but slang dies if it is just some cute invention. It is slang because it is taken up, used and evolved. That Jack Doyle, the “keeper of a billiard academy in New York City”, invented hard-boiled may or may not be true, but hard-boiled is a mass event, as slang.  Like jokes, generally, slang is unsigned. As a philologist, one might be interested in the fact that John Marston the Elizabethan playwright invented the word “puffy” – but its manifold use is a matter of reinvention and readjustment. When I was writing my novel, Made a Few Mistakes, I had a character who founded a magazine about strip joints, and I wanted some grasp of stripper slang. I went to Tumblr, which was before it committed suicide and excluded porno, and found many stripper written sites. There I had a whole course in the argot of the metier – for instance, I learned about “rain.” For a writer, the internet is a wonderland -as is a bar, a street argument, and a group of tourists at Notre Dame.

Sometimes, it is all good.



Friday, May 17, 2024

Pain is Other


Buddhism came to Europe and America in the nineteenth century as a series of text, a philological affair, rather than as a set of practices, rituals, prayers, and sacrifices. It came firstly as intellectual history, rather than as history. The intellectual interest in it was charged by the eighteenth century’s rediscovery of idealism – starting with Berkeley and proceeding to Kant’s thing-in-itself, against which all philosophers and physicists have thrown themselves in vain. This, at least, gives us an outline – a semi-fictitious frame – to understand how Buddhist texts were inscribed by European and American thinkers in their own enterprises in the twentieth century. Stephen Spender said that Eliot, at the time of the Wasteland, said that he would have been a Buddhist if not for being stuck, as it were, in his own culture.

Buddhism , or at least its image, in American poetry in the twentieth century is enormously important.

In Europe, Buddhism did not have the same poetic force. It was, however, picked at by philosophers who were at the margins – neither comfortably continental, by which I mean influenced by phenomenology and Marx, nor analytic. Sages.

Cioran was, if anything, a sage. He was a sage of suicide, or rather, of the internal death drive that creates a sort of longing for the end. His journal, which was also a workbook (similar to the operational method of Emerson) is full of cries and whispers and readings. As a Sage, Ciorna was an inveterate gloss-er – it was in picking over the lines and textual bits of others that he could stake a place for his own thought.

I came across this sequence in his journal for 1962:


“What is impermanent is pain ; what is pain is not-itself. What is not-itself is not mine, I am not this, this is not me.» (Samyutta Nikaya)

What is pain is not-itself. It is difficult, it is impossible to be in agreement with Buddhism on this point, this very important point. For us, pain is more it-self  than ever. What a strange religion! It sees pain everywhere and it declares, at the same time, that it is irreal.

I accept pain. I cannot do without it, and I cannot, in the name of pity (like the Buddha) refuse it a metaphysical status. Buddhism assimilates appearance to pain, it even confounds them. In fact, pain is what gives a depth, a reality to appearance.”


I rather agree with Cioran’s response here.

The mention of “pity” brings into focus this objection to the cold metaphysical indifference to pain – to pain as not-itself – because pity does not even get off the ground if pain is, in the end, simply negative, simply the not-self. Here the dialectic applies, for pain as not-itself does not mean not-pain is itself – it means, rather, that all that is pain and all that holds the possibility of pain - all that is sentient - is not. It is the opening wedge of the Great dissolution. Cioran is in the line of twentieth century thinkers – like Unamumo – who insist that the tragic, that seemingly aesthetic category, is at the center of the moral life. I have some sympathy with that, which works against my otherwise happy American pragmatism. Without the tragic, pragmatism becomes, in my view, unhinged. It seeks out – as every philosophical instinct seeks out – an end, an ultimate, and only finds another transaction – which is why pragmatism accords so well with the cash nexus.


Cioran, that old reactionary, is good to read against the grain of pragmatism. Interestingly, it is this which makes me suspicious of the American poetic theme of Buddhism. It is all too much in the American grain.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

The case of Ilan Pappe: free speech now, free speech forever.


In the midst of #metoo and black lives matter, Harper’s Magazine felt compelled to defend “free speech”. In a well known manifesto, Harper’s signatories enthusiastically agreed to the following:

 “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters.”

It turns out that what was meant by caustic counter-speech was black face and calling women cunts. What was not meant was, well, defending Gaza’s right to self-defense, or putting in question in any way Israel’s campaign of mass murder that has so far killed, according to U.N. estimates, 7,000 plus children (the UN recently revised its estimates because at least ten thousand casualties are too blown away to categorize. And this does not include the estimated 10,000 buried in the rubble).

So, here we are, with the banning of the conference on Palestine in Berlin, the yanking away of Nancy Fraser’s appointment at a German university because she – a Jew – turns out not to be the right kind of Jew, even signing a petition against Israel’s war in Gaza (by some awkward coincidence, it is estimated that 30 percent of the academics and intellectuals who have been banned or have had their speech interdicted in Germany are Jews. Hmm). And then there is the United States, where snipers are set up at Indiana University to deal with the “dangerous” pro-Palestinian protesters, where pro-Israeli hooligans are allowed unimpeded access to attack pro-Palestinian protesters at UCLA, and so on and so forth.

The latest un-upholding of “the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech” was the detaining of Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian critical of Israel’s policy towards Palestinians, by the FBI at the Detroit airport.

This is his account.

"Did you know that 70 years old professors of history are threatening America' national security?
I arrived on Monday at Detroit airport and was taken for a two hours investigation by the FBI, and my phone was taken as well.
The two men team were not abusive or rude, I should say, but their questions were really out of the world!
am I a Hamas supporter? do I regard the Israeli actions in Gaza a genocide? what is the solution to the "conflict" (seriously this what they asked!)
who are my Arab and Muslim friends in long do I know them, what kind of relationship I have with them.
Is some cases I sent them to my books, and is some cases I answered laconically yes or no...(I was quite exhausted after an 8 hours flight, but this is part of the idea).
They had long phone conversation with someone, the Israelis?,
and after copying everything on my phone allowed me to enter.
I know many of you have fared far worse experience, but after France and Germany denied entry to the Rector of Glasgow university for being a Palestinian...God know what will happen next.
The good news is - actions like this by the USA or European countries taken under pressure from the pro-Israeli lobby or Israel itself smell of sheer panic and desperation in reaction to Israel's becoming very soon a pariah state with all the implications of such a status."

We have yet to hear from the defenders of blackface about Pappe’s detention. Most likely, they are for it. Because he’s "anti-semitic" – although an Israeli Jew. Because Netanyahu and the cops determine, now, who is a Jew and who is an un-Jew.

Creating a false equivalence (Israeli equals Jew) is doing beaucoup service, especially for the right and right-center, which now can enjoy its long history of anti-semitism while claiming, righteously, to support "Jews" - meaning Israelis. It is rather like claiming that Canada and the U.S. are anglo-saxon countries. Which claim, by some coincidence, has been exactly what the right has been pushing for forever.

 Ethnonationalism, no matter where it starts, always ends up doing one thing: killing "minorities". And this, under a supposed liberal Democratic president.

 Another wasted decade. How many can we waste?


Tuesday, May 14, 2024

On forgetting


Any document entitling itself 'on forgetting' ought to start with a dot dot dot.

I have noticed that in speaking, I often experience – my age, my it, experiences -a moment of de-concentration. It is as if my mind wanders away from a noun or, especially, a proper name. Forgetting a name is a basic politeness mistake – when I speak to X, if I forget X’s name, some taboo in the tribe of Ego and Id is touched upon. I feel embarrassed, as if I made some blunder, as if flummoxing my part in the ritual. Even though X doesn’t know what is happening under my facial expression, I feel that X is “feeling” me. Projection? Or is this the everyday ESP of our meet and greet that I am boggling. At the same time, I can remember the most esoteric of names – I remember, for instance, Sieur Lahontan, an obscure French explorer. But the name Ruth, or Jack, or Jill, will sometimes, tantalizingly, slip through the gaps.

This leads to one of those aging things: the memory revery. The X encounter might be long gone, the night will be upon us with its star and moonwork, and I will be following the clues, like Sherlock Holmes on a case, that will hopefully lead me to X’s name.


The routes of memory, the stimulus that creates the remembered content – a name, a date, a past certainty – becomes, as you get older, more hazardous to travel down – parallel to your skill at, say, driving a car, which also is a matter of going down routes, streets, judging distances, making turns, stopping at the lights, ignoring certain stimuli, picking up other. The speed of life within me is such that these blanks occur, as if there were suddenly too much light coming through the windshield – or too much darkness. In the heart of too much light, as your eye knows, is the pitchiest pitch. I have lived among words with a self-proclaimed affinity for them, for writing them down, for  taking them and making them do rhythmic and semantic things; when simple names escape me, I wonder if I got my life’s purpose wrong on that long ago day when I decided to become a writer. On the other hand, the scale of these defeats is not large. How often am I going to need the word “risotto”, for instance, a word that somehow keeps disappearing from my lexicon? It is not the key to my heart – I can take or leave risotto.



What we forget, Freud thought, represented forces that make us forget: the vertiginous libido pitted against the brutal death-drive. What an arcade game the human consciousness becomes! This is, perhaps, not a bad image even for the sensualist program, long preceding Freud, in which the senses carry with them anything but certainty about the data they supposedly represent – and yet that wreck of data, that ghost of the world, is what we must cling to, like victims of shipwreck hanging on the spars that still float on the surface, waiting for rescue.

Philosophy is no rescue. I have definitely come to the sage stage in life, or retirement, whatever we want to call it, and I am beginning to suspect that the calmness of the sage is just a mask for the amnesia our biology crafts, its last little trap.


Friday, May 10, 2024

prayer - a portmanteau history



And the most excellent form of prayer is signified by standing, for it is written : « and Pin’has stood up and he prayed», (Talmud, Béra’hot 6b).

Like a poem, a dance, a story, I take prayer to be a form of thought. We identify certain texts, certain rituals, certain utterances as prayers – by which we mean a certain combination of word and gesture that is uttered to certain forces – and in tracing the practice back to the impulse we come to the same nous, the same entanglement of act, desire, and thought, that we see in other forms of our literary quotidien – our irrepressible narration of self and other.


In the early twentieth century, Egyptologists began sorting through and translating a mass of material that came from a site near Thebes, Deir-el-Medina, which contained a large number of papyrus revealing the unique situation of the town during the age of the New Kingdom, about 1200 BC – it was a town of craftsmen, a company town, so to speak. Skilled craftsman in Ancient Egypt were often literate. It was a situation that was used by certain Egyptologists to explore the topic of “personal religion” or “folk piety” – something apart from the great instituted rituals of the court. If, that is, it existed at all.

The research program was in opposition to the more positivist program in the history of religion, which looked at religious ritual as something extremely public. It did not have, or at least for the purpose of study it did not have, any researchable interiority. Prayer, from this point of view, does not require belief. That I talk on the phone to someone else requires no belief on my part about the science that underlies telephony – I don’t have to have any belief about it at all. That a priest in Egypt or in Athens or in Rome prays does not mean that the priest believes something complex about the relation of the person to the entity prayed to. Rather, the prayer is all exteriorized.

This idea has had a powerful effect on how scholars have regarded ancient religions. At the same time, another group, more archeologically inclined, have patiently combed through excavations of oracles and burial sites and temples and private houses, finding an enormous number of relics – votive offerings, prayers inscribed on stone or pottery pieces -ostrocon - or parchment or papyrus, such as those from Deir-el-Medina – which indicate “personal piety”, as the Egyptologists put it. The villagers wove dream and spells and supplications together with consumption, work, sex, eating, excretion and death. They lived in a cosmos, an order, in which praying was a normal part. Similarly, the prayer structure accepted intercessors – we have pottery shards dislodged from the graves of loved ones where the message is about asking the dead to intervene with the gods for this or that purpose. Even in death, prayer finds a hierarchy, an ordered approach to the gods.

This tradition in Egyptology eventually spilled over into the study of ancient Greek religion. For much of the twentieth century, the idea that, for instance, the ancient Greeks had a public religion that called for certain practices without involving any particular “personal belief” (just as I can talk on the phone without any particular belief concerning how my voice is transmitted, or how I receive voices in return) was the standard heuristic by which Greek religion, as epitomized in the theses of Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion.




In 1909, Marcel Mauss published Prayer, an anthropological study he never finished. It was published in book form joined to his essay on magic. Magic, superstition and religion are interestingly combined and disjoined in learned culture. Plutarch’s essay on the Epsilon at the oracle of Delphi (there were three large E-s displayed at the temple, one of bronze, one of wood, and one of gold, or gilded with gold) remarks on its meaning, giving various interpretations. The two interesting ones in terms of prayer are: that the   E stands for  if (ei in Greek), with those seeking answers to their problems at the oracle using the logic of if- then to think through the future, or that the E reflects the pattern of prayer: we pray to the god at the temple to help us choose or to choose the future that we want.

Mauss, too, thought of prayer as a way of dealing with the gods, or God. He accorded it a high place, as the uniting center between ritual and myth. Understanding the meaning and function of prayer, Mauss thought, would give us a sense of the “progress” of religion, a progress out of magico-technological view of the gods (who we try to make do our will) to an intellectually richer view of spirituality.

“Religious practices have become for the most part truly individual. The instant, the place, the conditions and the forms of such and such an act depends less and less on social causes. Just as every one acts almost under his own personal responsibility, so to each becomes the creator of his faith. Some protestant sects, for instance the evangelicals, recognize the dogmatic authority of every member of the church. The “interior god” of the most advanced religions is thus also the god of individuals.

These two processes are particularly marked in prayer. It is, even, one of the best agents of this double evolution. Firstly all mechanical, only operating by proferred sounds, it has finished up being completely mental and completely interior. After owing only a small part of itself to thought, it has finished up by being nothing more than thought and effusion of the soul. Strictly collective at first, said in common or at least following forms rigidly fixed by the religious group, sometimes even forbidden to the individual, it has become the domain of the free conversation of the individual with God.”

Mauss’s theory of prayer, though he takes evidence from the Vedas and from various Others, evidently assumes that the evolution of religion is towards a very Christian ideal of religion. Or, at least, a monotheistic ideal.


Prayer, in Mauss’s essay, is a factor in the long history of individuation and interiorization that characterize the “West” – which is further characterized as the vehicle of progress in the world, or among the cultures of the world.

A common trope. I could draw a straight line from the enlightenment regard for prayer to Mauss’s essay. In the philosophe culture, prayer held a special place: it was a kind of rational exaltation, the sublime of reason. Both Voltaire and Rousseau took prayer to have a special civic and rational place, addressing the God discovered by reason and removing the dross of superstition clinging to the deity.  Voltaire in particular had a perspectival view of the cosmos, in which immensity figured as the check to all merely human – and immensely small – customs and vanities. In the Treatise on Tolerance, we find this rather magnificent relic of French rhetoric:

« Tu ne nous as point donné un cœur pour nous haïr, et des mains pour nous égorger ; fais que nous nous aidions mutuellement à supporter le fardeau d’une vie pénible et passagère ; que les petites différences entre les vêtements qui couvrent nos débiles corps, entre tous nos langages insuffisants, entre tous nos usages ridicules, entre toutes nos lois imparfaites, entre toutes nos opinions insensées, entre toutes nos conditions si disproportionnées à nos yeux, et si égales devant toi ; que toutes ces petites nuances qui distinguent les atomes appelés hommes ne soient pas des signaux de haine et de persécution ; que ceux qui allument des cierges en plein midi pour te célébrer supporte ceux qui se contentent de la lumière de ton soleil ; que ceux qui couvrent leur robe d’une toile blanche pour dire qu’il faut t’aimer ne détestent pas ceux qui disent la même chose sous un manteau de laine noire ; qu’il soit égal de t’adorer dans un jargon formé d’une ancienne langue, ou dans un jargon plus nouveau ; que ceux dont l’habit est teint en rouge ou en violet, qui dominent sur une petite parcelle d’un petit tas de boue de ce monde, et qui possèdent quelques fragments arrondis d’un certain métal, jouissent sans orgueil de ce qu’ils appellent grandeur et richesse, et que les autres les voient sans envie : car tu sais qu’il n’y a dans ces vanités ni envier, ni de quoi s’enorgueillir. »

“You did not give us a heart so that we could hate each other, nor hands so we could slit each other’s throats; help us to help each other endure the burden of this painful and brief life; may the tiny differences between the clothes which cover our feeble bodies, between our inadequate languages, between our ridiculous customs, between all our imperfect laws, our absurd opinions, between all our circumstances, so disproportionate in our eyes and yet so equal before yours; may all these tiny variations which differentiate the atoms called humans not be the triggers of hatred and persecution; may those who light candles at midday in adoration of you learn to tolerate those who simply bask in the light of your sun; may those who wrap a white cloth round their robes to express the command to love you not hate those who say the same thing under a coat of black wool; may it be equally acceptable to adore you in the jargon of an ancient language or of a more recent one; may those whose clothes are dyed red or violet and who rule over a small plot on a little heap of the mud of this world, and who happen to possess some rounded pieces of a certain metal, enjoy what they call greatness and riches without pride, and may others view them without envy: for you know that there is nothing to envy or boast about in these vanities.”

The translation is by Caroline Warmen, who led a collective of Oxford students to translate a number of French texts from the 18th century.

Although the philosophe concept of the deity excluded a non-rational deity – one that appears in three guises, for instance, as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – the romantic agony was already knocking on the door. The sublime of reason found its true object in freedom, that most dialectical of concepts. God, from Sade to Nietzsche, was never again so immense and so rational.

In a sense, a line could be drawn, in this history of prayer, back to the defining prayer of the Gospels. Jesus’s disciples are all very anxious to learn how to pray. This is already a symptom of the great Eastern Mediterranean culture of personal piety. Jesus obliges, and in doing so separates prayer from the public. It is a radical gesture, making prayer and the lyric self converge: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

The radical nature of this critique of prayer – and of public religion – is, indeed, one of the great Enlightenment gestures. Although Voltaire might well have dismissed Jesus as a peasant, another savage outside the circle, in positioning prayer outside the temple and making it a message in plain words, Jesus was instituting a revolution in prayer – one that was doomed, of course, to failure in the institutions built under his name.

Yet there is much to say for the hypocrites. When prayer becomes associated with the lyric self, it confronts its communicative limits. And in the elite culture which picked up on the philosophe critique of religion (as an instrument in the creation of homo economicus),  prayer began to disappear as a form of thought, an impulse, a text.

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