Sunday, February 18, 2024

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

 


 


When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a City merchant, Joseph Paice, concerning the boy. According to Lucas’s biography of Lamb, Coventry, a bearish plutocrat of the pure 18th century type, said to Price, ““There is a lad that I placed some years since in the Blue Coat school, now on the point of leaving it, and I know not what on earth to do with him.” “Let him have the run of the counting house till something better offers,” said Mr. Paice.” (71)

The conversation of such men was like unto the grinding mechanism of fate, and they shaped Charles Lamb’s entire professional life from that moment on. Or rather, they shaped one of the outstanding facts about Lamb: he made his money as a clerk. He was first with Mr. Paice at the South Sea House, and then went into the accounting department at India House.

Lamb is one of the exemplary clerks of literature. He wrote about it; he lived it; he chafed within it, he knew the chair, desk, and great books where the figures flowed down the page, representing empire and time. He worked in the ruins of one colonial venture – the South Sea House – and in the midst of the short flourishing of another – the India House – during a period in which the merchant class was in need of the science of political economics and was getting it from the likes of James Mill (India House) and David Ricardo (merchant/speculator). In fact, the India House and its successor, the India Colonial office, was a site associated with some of the great Victorian intellectual families – the Mills, the Stephens, the Stracheys. Under its wing, Macaulay sortied out to India and laid the foundation for the application of utilitarianism to law, a work completed by James Fitzjames Stephen.

In a footnote to H.W. Boot’s informative article, Real incomes of the British middle
class, 1760-1850: the experience of clerks at the East India Company (1999), Boot defines the term clerk like this:


“… it conjures up Dickensian images of oppressed men on meagre incomes struggling to
maintain respectability. In fact 'clerk' was a common appellation applied to a large group of occupations ranging from the poorest menial clerk who never earned more than 100 pounds per annum to men who carried the highest administrative and financial responsibilities in government, commerce,and finance. “

Lamb’s first Elia essay is a portrait of the clerks of South Sea house. The characters are, evidently, composites, but the survey of this “Noah’s ark’ of ‘odd fishes’ catches the monumental ritual and economic importance of the desk and the counter, which become symbolic centers of the life story. What the bed is to the libertine, the desk is to the clerk. In each of his profiles, Lamb divides the life into out of office information hobbies (and eating), and in the office propinquities (and eating). As in Bartleby, one notices the strong place of food in the office. Food not only provides the energy for labor power – it provides a sensual outlet to another world, one that is not chained to the desk. In the same way, the hobbies are rather like the larger shadow the clerk casts as he makes his way out into the candlelit hours of his free time. “John Tipp”, for instance, is an amateur musician, and has a life as one, with other amateur musicians. But he also has another life: “But at his desk Tipp was quite another sort of creature. Thence all ideas, that were purely ornamental, were banished. You could not speak of anything romantic without rebuke. Politics were excluded. A newspaper was thought too refined and abstracted.”

The major portion of Lamb’s time as a clerk was spent at the India House. He was received there on April 5, 1792, in the accounting department. At that time, according to Boot, the India House was one of the biggest employers in London, paying 1,730 persons to keep the books, supervise the docks, guard the sheds, etc. In Lamb’s case, he gave a five hundred pound bond and agreed to work there for three years on probation, at the end of which he was to receive a salary, which began at 40 pounds and rose, the next year, to 70. He spent exactly thirty three years there, and was released early, with a handsome retirement, no doubt due to his writing and his celebrity. In one of the great Elia essays, The Superannuated Man, he describes the event of his retirement in terms of time. As a clerk, he had Sundays off: “but Sundays, admirable as the institution of them is for purposes of worship, are for that very
reason the very worst adapted for days of unbending and recreation. In particular, there is a gloom for me attendant upon a city Sunday, a weight in the air. I miss the cheerful cries of London, the music, and the ballad-singers—the buzz and stirring murmur of the streets.”

He also had vacation: “But besides Sundays I had a day at Easter, and a day at Christmas,with  a full week in the summer to go and air myself in my native fields of Hertfordshire.”

From his letters, one finds that Lamb had more free time than that – but as a composite portrait of the clerk’s life, this is representative.

After his retirement, Lamb describes the experience of freedom – freedom that is not political, but existential: “I was in the condition of a prisoner in the old Bastile, suddenly let loose after a forty years' confinement. I could scarce trust myself with myself. It was like passing out of Time into Eternity—for it is a sort of Eternity for a man to have his Time all to himself. It seemed to me that I had more time on my hands than I could ever manage. From a poor man, poor in Time, I was suddenly lifted up into a vast revenue; I could see no end of my possessions; I wanted some steward, or judicious bailiff, to manage my estates in Time for me.”

Let me depart from Lamb here, and bring into the picture Karl Marx’s writing about the agent of circulation, which has given rise to a lot of controversy among Marxist economists. On the one hand, in Capital II and III, Marx develops his notion of ‘unproductive labor’, by which he simply means those activities that are defined in terms of the circulation of the commodity, bought from the producer, and put on the market to be bought either by a consumer or another merchant or refiner. Marx also throws into the definition of unproductive labor those things appertaining to surveillance, management, etc. There has been a lot of controversy because the principles of the definition of unproductive labor, in Capital, are slightly at variance with the principles laid down in the Manuscript on Surplus Value from the 1860s. I myself think that the division between unproductive and productive labor is confused by taking the static view of it – in the course of time, an unproductive branch of labor can generate a producing infrastructure, while productive labor in some branch can, of course, become extinct, due to its being made obsolete by technology.

However, the reflections on commercial capital and money – Warenhandlungskapital and Handlunggeld – are decisive, and sociologically apt. This segment can be treated as an independent unit in the collective system of circulation. Looked at in terms of social phenomenology, Marx makes this Hermes place – the place of pure metamorphoses in which what happens is, in a sense, that nothing happens. When the producer realizes his surplus value by selling to the middleman, from the proceeds of which he again purchases labor power and material to continue producing, the middleman, the Tiresias of capitalism, has only begun. He has expended his capital, either borrowed or taken from his stock, to buy products wholly for resale. There is evidently no magic in this, and yet, like the producer, in the ideal case, the successful merchant realizes a profit. While the merchant’s employees are exploited just as the factory hands are, the merchant’s employees do not create the kind of  surplus value that comprises productive capital. And although they may be formally exploited just as the worker is, there is a sociological difference that does drive a real divide between them.

About this, there is much to say. But for the moment, notice that for Marx, this commercial segment is subordinate to the true producers, the manufacturers. If the commercial segment becomes too important, accrues too much economic power, the manufacturer can, theoretically, erase the middleman and encroach into the merchant’s territory.

In fact, though, the dream of getting rid of unproductive labor – dreamt most recently by the advocates of the New Economy who projected that the computer maker would simply sell the computer on the internet, the automaker would sell the auto on the internet, etc., etc. in a happy deflationary spiral satisfying both customer and producer – does not happen.

Instead, as many Marxist economists (Sweezy, Moseley, Wollf) have pointed out, on many dimensions the composition of developed capitalist economies shows that unproductive labor – both in terms of surveillance work and in terms of circulation – becomes increasingly important in developed capitalist economies on several dimensions: for instance, in the number of people employed in unproductive labor and the amount of the investment of the GDP in unproductive branches of economic activity. In 1987, Edward Wollf estimated that as much as 40 percent of employees were unproductive laborers.

The peculiar sociological characteristics of this segment impress themselves upon the dynamic of this segment – for it is from this segment that most knowledge work, most representational work, has branched out.

It is here that the economic rationality of the classical type – homo oeconomicus – emerged, and plausibly describes the kind of strategies that make up the landscape of commercial metamorphoses. At the same time, it is here, too, that the alienation from the time of one’s life has found expression in the aesthetic sphere – in fact, thematically dominates the aesthetic sphere. This is important in as much as the population of the aesthetic, or cultural industries – driven originally by the necessity of closing the discontinuities that can arise in this segment of circulation when demand lacks or there is an oversupply of goods – overlaps the population that sits at the desks of the counting houses. The media that they have produced is the semiosphere in which all are now bathed, worker, housewife and clerk.

 

 

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The A.M.E delivers its soul: or just say no to crushing Gazan children in the rubble

 

Surprising news from the states! Myself, I thought there were only two gospels there - the gospel of hate and the gospel of prosperity. And that Christianity had faded from the national fabric, never to be seen again. But the Bishops of the A.M.E have actually shown a Christian concern with slaughtering children to the honour of Baal - or in other words, the ongoing genocide in Gaza - and have had the gall to suggest that the U.S. not contribute to tearing apart kids, slaughtering patients in hospitals, and starving to death the general population. Obviously, this is wholly anti-semitic - anti-semitic in the line of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekial. Also anti-semitic, according to the new paragons of Israeli ultranationalism, is the entire liberal culture of diasporic Jews.

 

Out of their own mouths.... No sane or moral person could argue that the murders committed by Hamas justify seven children killed for each person murdered. However, those who argue this obviously have no concern whatsoever with the murdered, and - to use Ezekial's words:

 

"When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.

 

19 Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

 

 

When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling-block before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand.

 

21 Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he is warned; also thou hast delivered thy soul."

 

Ah, the undelivered souls of the "Western alliance". Twittering like mad on all the major media, from the NYT to Fox news. Stumbling blocks all.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Montpellier and my backpack

 I'm in Montpellier - my second fave city in France - and I'm thinking this morning of Joseph Conrad. Joe, as I call him, had a bag lifted from him when he and the family were temporarily living in Montpellier.

My own bag does not contain the manuscript for The Secret Agent, but it did hold a nice red scarf, my favorite, and my red and yellow notebook, into which I had scribbled an amazing maze of notes concerning the three stories I've been trying to write.


I wore this backpack when Adam and I made the usual routine at the Oddyseum, on the outskirts of town. The Oddyseum is Adam's favorite (well, unitl les Halles in Paris grew a Krispy Kream store, which now fills Adam's dreams with fat American donuts), There is an arcade in the cinema - with an excellent Walking dead video game. There's an old fashioned pin ball game, at which Adam is an old hand. And there is an air hockey table. The furniture, basically, of heaven. Plus, the mall has a Frozen Yogurt stand, where for a few euros you can get an amazing amount of toppings, including disgusting multi-color Strumpts, a candy you suddenly cease being able to put in your mouth after the age of fifteen.


Prelude, this, to the experience of putting down all my bags, including the backpack, so that I had a free hand at air hockey. Adam had some bad luck - he usually beats me pretty solidly. The victories must have gone to my head, cause I set down my cool backback and in the aftergame talk I drifted away from the bag. When I drifted back, it was gone. So, if some boy from Montpellier bursts upon the publishing world with a very complex story about Princesse Jacqueline de Broglie, I'm gonna scream PLAGIARISM! and feel very au courant, since plagiarism is everybody's fave subject lately.
But I have a feeling that the booster of my backpack unceremoniously dumped the notebooks in a trashcan.

I feel sorry for the Princesse.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Intersigne: at the crossroads of magic and positivism

 

In a conference on his friend, Villiers de l’isle-Adam, Mallarme speaks of “an exceptional story at the extremity of which is a tomb.”
This story, for Mallarme, is typical both in its subject and in the “outsider” place of its author: it is “an enlargement of the Shadow”. The story is called L’intersigne.
The Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, in La Légende de la Mort (1893), used a similar reference to the Shadow to define intersignes: Comme l’ombre projetée en avant de ce qui doit arrive – “as a shadow projected in front of what must arrive”. Intersignes, in Breton popular culture, are coincidences or strange events that advertised a coming death. “Intersignes announce death. But the person to whom the intersigne is manifested is rarely the person threatened by death.” The person to whom the intersigne is manifested possesses a gift, but not one that can be obtained by teaching. You must have the “gift of seeing”. “Within this privileged category, those who are ranked first are those “who have passed through holy ground and have come out of it before being baptised.” For instance, a baby who is carried over the ground of a cemetery before being baptised will have the gift of an expanded sight. “Those who deny intersignes receive as many as those who have the gift. They deny them uniquely because they don’t know how to see nor understand them; and they don’t want to understand, at all, nor see anything of the other life.”


Villiers de l’Isle-Adam wrote his story, Intersigne, in 1867. It was eventually included in the collection, Cruel Stories, in 1883, with some editorial changes. Villiers was a native Breton, and evidently had received his knowledge of the phenomenon orally.


It is a “weird” tale of  Xavier de la V…,  who feels suddenly compelled to visit his friend in Brittany, l’abbe Maucombe, who lives in a remote parish of Saint-Maur. Xavier de la V., as we later learn, has every reason to stay in Paris, since he is in the midst of an important law suit. But he feels physically compelled to visit Maucombe, who he has not seen for years. He uses the excuse of hunting. Maucombe and his housekeeper welcome V., who finds himself afflicted with an almost epileptic case of vision – he sees the house, his room, even his friend, for brief moments, in a state of extreme estrangement.
« Is this really the house that I saw just a moment ago ? What age denounces to me, now, the long fissures between pale leaves ?  - this building had a strange air - the tiles illuminated by the rays of the agony of the evening burned with an intense light - the hospitable portal invited me with its three steps; but, in concentrating my attention on these grey stones, I saw that some had been polished, and that traces of letters chiselled in them still remained, and I saw that they came from the neighboring cemetery – whose black crosses appeared to me on one side, about a hundred steps away. And the house seemed changed to the point of giving me the creeps, while the lugubrious echoes of the hammer-knocker, that I let fall, echoed, in my trance, in the interior of this place like the vibrations of a funeral bell. “
Part of the genius of this story is the relation between text and title, Intersigne, a strange word to the reader. It is never explained, never even mentioned in the text. It rides the text, rather, as a sort of fate or curse. The title is felt in the story that V. tells, but is never literally within that story. Which, in short, is that V. has been, in effect, summoned to L’abbe Maucombe’s abode in order to see these things, in these moments; and to have a dream, or vision, of a priest handing him a coat. The dream is realized – L’abbe Maucombe accompanies V., who the day after his arrival wants to flee the house (it is here that we learn that he is in the midst of an important lawsuit), out to the road leading him back to the nearest village, where V. has left his coat – and,due to the rain, lends him his, L’abbe Maucombe’s, own coat. A coat that, as V. learns at the end, that accompanied the priest on his journey to the holy land and “touched the Tomb.”
He learns at the end, too, of course, from a letter, that L’abbe Maucombe died two days after his visit, from a cold caught in the rain of the day he accompanied V. to the road. V. was, in effect, not only the see-er of the death, but its proximate cause.

2.
The term intersigne drifts through a certain literature of folklore and parapsychology, and ends up in some interesting places. The philologist and scholar Louis Massignon, who started out as a Christian mystic and ended as an Islamic one, uses it in a few places in his works to designate a mystically charged coincidence. In Massignon’s work, the intersigne is not just an event of some kind prefiguring a death – it is a name for all significant coincidences – correlation without seeming cause. The notion of cause is not, of course, abandoned – rather the causes aren’t seen, because the witnesses lack the gift of seeing. This gives the mystic a neatly outlined historical place – the mystic can sense in the coincidences that present themselves in symbolic circumstances the overall causes – either the work of God, or the work of some transcendental pattern.
Things get interesting, to me, when the intersigne is taken up as a methodological prompt by Roberto Calasso in his great, reactionary book, the Ruin of Kasch. This is a historical “fiction” that adopts the intersigne as the structure underlying the message, which is a very 1980s, end of the Cold War message: our evils stem from the French revolution. It is a de Maistre hopscotch from the guillotining of Marie Antoinette to the Cambodian genocide of Pol Pot.
Of course, Calasso can’t be entirely reduced to the anti-modern paradigm. Like de Maistre, he is full of paradoxes and special information – he is a great knower of the Upanishads and ancient Greek texts, as well as pockets of European, and especially French, history. Like Carlo Ginzberg, he is fascinated by the savage within the European persona. Almost always when the term “the West” is employed, it refers not to the vast mass of urban and rural peasants and their beliefs, but a very minority group of power brokers, adventurers, scholars and writers. This is a highly distorted picture of the many cultures within Eurasia, from Danish sheepherders to Sicilian sulfur miners. What is said about the Nahautl – for instance, the belief that humans can transform into animals – could be said for respectable bourgeois living in Normandy in the 17th century.
In this sense, the fall of the ancien regime was a colonialist project, with the colonized now being the peasant, the shepherd, the tinker and the tailor, ruthlessly enrolled in rationalism’s project. Or Capital’s – although Calasso takes a very reactionary view of Marx.
I love the passage where Calasso shows his hand, embracing a methodology that is reminiscent of Benjamin’s methodology in the passages, through Adorno’s eyes: at the crossroads of magic and positivism.
“A gnostic history, which we lack, is largely made up of “intersignes” (as Massingon called them), unusual warnings, coincidences (as historians call them, to avoid them), erratic forms, buried relics, physiognomic marks, constellations latent in the sky of thought.”
A gnostic history, a jigsaw puzzle, a frolic of dialectical materialism.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The pessimists: on Antoine Compagnon's Les Anti-modernes

 In Antoine Compagnon’s marvelous and encyclopedic Les Antimodernes (which rustles with excellent quotations – among its other virtues. For reasons I cannot fathom, it has not been translated into English. Some university press better get on the stick!), he attempts to construct an anatomy of reaction. To this end, he posits a number of figures, constellation-creating themes. One is counter-revolution, one is counter-Enlightenment. And then: :”The third figure of antimodernity, which is a moral figure after the historical and philosophical ones, is pessimism, under whatever name one wants to give it: despair, melancholy, mourning, spleen or ‘mal de siècle.’”

I know this devil well – who, living as I have over the decades from the 1960s to now, has not felt the urgent touch of spleen. Yet constitutionally, I am, as ever, a spoiled child. I rarely wake up feeling sad, bad, or in mourning – I usually wake up with a very childish sense that this is gonna be a good day.


Compagnon’s book is subtitled, rather surprisingly, From Joseph de Maistre to Roland Barthes, with the inclusion of Barthes being a little controversial nuance, much noticed in the reviews in France. Thus, it is a historical text, an intellectual history, that deals with the anti-modern as a post- revolutionary phenomenon. His touchstone in the book is Chateaubriand, from whose work he has mined an endless array of quotations – this is a book overflowing with apt and memorable quotations, in this respect reminding me of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s eccentric book about Edmund Burke, The Great Melody. There is a reason for this: the reactionary tends towards the maxim, the conclusion converged upon by the wise. Judgement is the rhetorical tool of reaction par excellence. American liberalism has its credo in the often heard phrase: don't be judgemental. And it is no use telling the liberal that this phrase is itself judgemental, and not in a good way: it dismisses the judgemental without understanding or in any way measuring its considerable sentimental force. If I had a car and thus was in the market for a bumpersticker, I would buy one that says: Apophansis will get ya if you don't watch out! Which might say everything about why I lack bot a car and a bumper sticker. Hmm.


Compagnon uncovers pessimism as the god or afternoon demon at the intersection between the psychological and the “historical”. Here, character forms around the sense of the modern, or contemporary – which is condemned within the present as a decline. This sense of decline is felt both by the reactionary – which measures the decline from the Revolution – and the leftist – who measures the decline in terms of the counter-revolution that followed the Revolution. The persona of the latter was drawn by Flaubert in L’education sentimentale, embodied in the math teacher, Sénécal. For the leftist, the possibilities “opened” by the Revolution, the possibility of liberation, has been foreclosed by the forces of reaction, which have taken hostage the contemporary moment. The leftist is a pessimist by the logic of optimism. Nathaniel Mackay coined the wonderful phrase, oppositional nostalgia, for the dilemma of progressive pessimism. Whereas the anti-modern has to deal with a sense that the entire world, the entire order, has been either irreversibly perverted or lost. The anti-modern lays claim to nostalgia as its own intellectual property. But, as Compagnon points out, the reactionary is implicated in a dialectic that continually throws him into the company of his enemies – for didn’t Rousseau, the arch-devil, begin with a nostalgia for the savage, who is born “without chains”? Whereas the reactionary’s nostalgia is a precisely for chains – the chains of tradition, the chains that will bind those who are, in the reactionaries eyes, born for chains. The great mass of people.


The term “pessimism” was not “au courant” during Baudelaire’s time: “We find, only two occurrences of the term pessimism and tow of pessimiste in the Tresor de la langue francaise between 1800 and 1850, but 129 of pessimism and 47 of pessimist between 1851 and 1900, then the word rapidly vanishes.”
Compagnon points out that Schopenauer was in vogue in Paris during the fin de siècle; the same could be said of Vienna, a city which is not within the geography of Compagnon’s book. Schopenhauer’s literary influence extends to the kind of philosophy of culture that is not practiced by academic philosophers. It is the province of the great reactionary outlaws: Nietzsche, Weininger, and Spengler. Pessimism, for all of them, was a personal escape hatch from history – allowing them to develop their own myths of history.
Pessimism, even if it “rapidly vanished” after 1900, did kill optimism as an intellectually respectable position. In a dialectical pirouette that is amusing, optimism is now a forced gesture of that most reactionary set, the Steven Pinker/”race realist” crowd, which uses it as a club to enforce a program of Western (white male) supremacy. It’s an essentially loveless optimism.
Love is, I think, the great absent in the anti-modern tradition Compagnon outlines. Love is a dangerous force. To anyone raised, as I was, on the Bible School gospels, the oddest thing about the reactionary embrace of Christianity is that it takes the heart out of it. There is no love here. There are only absolute reasons to condemn. Hell, for the reactionary Christian, is a very rich concept; heaven, on the other hand, is simply a reward, a sort of retirement package for the successful moral entrepreneur. Of the anti-modernes that Compagnon deals with, only Baudelaire, I think, had any notion of love, and thus of heaven – even if it was a cracked love, a love, ultimately, of his mother, the mother stolen from him by his stepfather. It was love like wormwood, but the image of love remained with him, made him a poet of a glimpsed, a transient, utopia:
…. Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m'a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l'éternité ?
Ailleurs, bien loin d'ici ! trop tard ! jamais peut-être !
Car j'ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
O toi que j'eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais !

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Poem by Karen Chamisso

 

 

In the wisecracker's Bible
sez the man with the plan
no sucker gets an even break.
Shall we “ripen our regard” and see
Judas hanging from a tree?
The “pain of the body is but the body of pain.”
Loss, and loss again
is coin's knowledge, and what I have to go on.
The shiver of the second hand
advancing Alice to the fat throne
and Little Boy Blue
to the enormous anonymity of the chopper
has shadowed my magnus opus:
written in invisible ink,
call it: the art of ending.
Judas should have read the fine print.
Poor little greenie.
Karen Chamisso

Monday, February 05, 2024

paper in the clenched fist: the waste books

 

There is a certain kind of book that doesn’t have a genre label per se; it falls somewhere between the essay and the treatise; like the the essay, it concentrates on some line of thought aroused by a situation or an idea, although it claims the right to break off at any moment and diverge into some other topic; like the treatise, it is unafraid of abstraction and generalization, although it is wary of universals and likes to consider difference as a positive moment, an unassimilable energy. Some of its authors call their books novels, others fragments, others reflections. Often, the authors are not the collectors of the totality of the book – a job that devolves on the editors. The fragments of classical texts produced, in the literary culture of the seventeenth century, a paradigm for the moralist who first seized on this diffuse genre. Pascal’s Pensees, for instance, are often considered to be a sketch for a book that Pascal meant someday to write – but what if Pascal intended to produce exactly this fragmentary text? Other instances: the Scratch books of Lichtenberg, Rozanov’s Fallen Leaves, Pessoa’s various Books of Disquiet, Ludwig Hohl’s Notizen, Nietzsche’s extensive Nachlass.
A leading theme, here, is the scratching, the hastily scribble gloss, the note one finds in one’s pocket and throws out. Man is a thinking reed – a reed broken off and filled with ink. Waste paper is paper that has been used and lost its use, and perhaps aggressively wadded up. Every wadded up piece of paper is a shadow of a clenched fist, after all. It is paper on the way to the waste paper basket, carrying words that have lost their use. That is the social situation of these books – they are caught somewhere between the desk and the garbage. At least, in the imagination.
The waste book has a strong relation with the philosophical novel – and certain of the latter, such as Paul Valery’s M. Teste, go over the line. Perhaps the reason is that ideas in themselves – ideas in their natural setting – have as limited a place in modern life as mice have in modern homes. They are an accidental, corner feature of life. Even in jobs like research scientist or professor, “having ideas” is not in the job description – at best, creativity squeezes in there, but playing well with others, getting good grades, and producing acres of watertreading non-waste articles for journals is what counts.
Ideas are for losers. Or they are viewed, in the 101 classroom, as emanations of heads. Heads having ideas, which often “influence” other heads having ideas, discuss in 400 words or less.
A mostly forgotten waste book by Antonio Machado, with the title Juan Mairena, should be better known in the Angophone world. Ben Belitt translated it back in 1963, but that edition has long gone out of print. The French edition is published by Anatolia: editions du rocher, who also publish the translations of Rozanov.
Juan Mairena is one of Machado’s “complementaries”. As Pessoa’s critics have pointed out, Machado’s “heteronyms” – Mairena and his teacher, Abel Martin – don’t have the rowdy independence of Pessoa’s personas. But Belitt’s notion that they cast light on Machado as a poet, a light he could not cast in his own name, is a good one. In his foreword, Machado writes that Mairena was “a poet, philosopher and rhetorician, born in Seville in 1865 and buried in Casariego de Tapia in 1909” A nineteenth century man, although is conversations, notes and lectures are evidently saturated with Machado’s own experience after 1909, including his stint attending the lectures of Bergson in Paris in 1910.
Here’s a translation of the French translation of one of Juan de Mairena’s entries. This entry, with its Alice in Wonderland logic, expresses the spirit of the waste book, as opposed to the fictions and factions of the other literary branches.
“One says that there is no rule without an exception. Is that really the case? Myself, I don’t dare affirm it. In any case, if that confirmation contains a partial truth, it must be a truth of fact, the reason for which can’t be fully satisfied. Every exception, one adds, confirms the rule. This does not seem so evident; however, it is more acceptable, from the logical point of view. For if all exceptions belong to a rule, if there is an exception, there is a rule, and he who thinks exception thinks of a rule. This already constitutes a truth of reason, that is to say, a truism, a simple tautology which teaches us nothing. We can’t be satisfied with stopping here. So, let’s be more subtle…
1. If every exception confirms the rule, a rule without an exception would be a non-confirmed rule, although by no means a non-rule.
2. A rule with exceptions will always be stronger than a rule without exceptions, which will lack an exception to have itself confirmed.
3. A rule will be more of a rule the richer it is in exceptions.
4. The ideal rule will be composed of nothing but exceptions.”

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...