Friday, May 16, 2003


Why is it that we don't like James Wood?

He is to fiction criticism in America what Danto is to art criticism, and what Anthony Lane is becoming to film criticism. One knows that he will be wise about contexts, and his dips into the novel he is reviewing will be, if not typical of the book, at least well chosen enough to make his version of the book plausible. But his grand enthusiasm for Saul Bellow seems, frankly, incredible -- he has never written about Bellow in such a way that I would want to read Bellow -- and his grand aversion for Don Delillo seems incredible -- he has never conveyed his allergy to Delillo in such a way that I would want to avoid Delillo -- and on the greats he seems to aim at that tone mixing just a hint of pop memory and desire -- of that great child's desire to go through the book, to eat it up -- that Trilling could sometimes bring off so that his reading actually haunts the writer. It takes some time to read Babel, for instance, after Trilling, because Trilling has interposed his own Babel so strongly, so carnally, between oneself and the stories. 

Wood does a reading of James' high period novels -- The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age -- for the Atlantic. Of these, he only finds What Maisie Knew great. He says little about the Awkward Age. We think he is right about Maise, but very wrong about the Spoils. Awkward Age is not great, but it is very fast, and very enjoyable.

Wood does bring out how much What Maisie Knew depends upon knowing -- and how knowing attaches in unexpected ways to the knower. And he also sees how James is dealing the scene painter -- the laborious Zolas, immersed in the rotten fruit of Les Halles -- a deadly blow by doing much with a minimum of brushwork. For Wood, this is a grievous thing -- he's often expressed his nostalgia for the great 19th century novels, and he still believes that the Tolstoyan standard is the right one for fiction, underneath it all. This isn't an impossible belief -- James was the engineer of the too ready conciliation between fiction and its medium, reading, where you don't really see what you see, but we all know this can have terrible consequences, just like the too visual penchant of film that abuts in the dumb action movie, where all contradictions of character are resolved by contemptuously speeding past them, as though the viewer who expects intelligence to pervade the spectacle were being a gull, an utterly pre-MTV anachronism. This is just stripping our narrative sense, and it doesn't take Adorno to figure out just how compliant such an aesthetic must be with the most reactionary politics.

But we digress. Spoils of Poynton is a little gem in the James oeuvre.

Here is what Wood thinks: "The Spoils of Poynton, a work of real penetration, is marred, I think, by an inadequate sense of the motivations of its heroine, Fleda Vetch."

Wood spells out what he means by this, after canningly canning the plot:

"Fleda, a young woman of considerable insight and intellect, is the new friend of Mrs. Gereth, the owner of Poynton. James got the idea for this novel�what he habitually called the donn�e�at a dinner party; he dined out frequently and used these evenings to truffle for rich stories. His neighbor at the table had told him about a "small and ugly matter" in which a Scottish widow was suing her son over the fine furniture he had inherited, which she would not let him have. Mrs. Gereth, like the Scottish widow, has become embroiled in a struggle with her son, Owen, who is about to marry the vulgar, nouveau riche Mona Brigstock. Under English law, once Owen marries, he and his wife will become master and mistress of Poynton."

"In general, James's characters divide into gentle but weak men; formidable and finally monstrous manipulators (mostly women, but sometimes men); and those whose innocence needs to be protected (sometimes young women, sometimes young men, sometimes children). Mrs. Gereth is one of the manipulators, like Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady and Aunt Maud in The Wings of the Dove. She cannot bear the idea of the brash Mona in charge of her beautiful objets, and determines to act. Her weapon�at first unwitting, and then unwilling�will be young Fleda, whom she takes under her wing. Mrs. Gereth becomes excited when she hears that Owen and Mona have not yet agreed on a date for the wedding, and assumes that something is amiss with this detestable union. She sees that Fleda is attracted to her son, and soon hears that Owen returns the attraction. She decides to use Fleda as a wedge..."

Now, at this point a New Historicist would remember that women in England had only recently had their property rights given equal, or at least less equal, parity with men. Wood can't see why Fleda would find Mrs. Gereth ultimately a person whose fight for her place was worth, if not sympathy, at least pity; and then he cannot see why she would betray her.

We think that Fleda's resolutions are coherent. Fleda is overwhelmed at first by Mrs. Gereth, who, while being a manipulator, is not like Madame Merle. Merle is in love with a man, Mrs. Gereth in love with a position and a life. Her own life. Manipulation arises, in both cases, out of what both characters want, but Mrs. Gereth is a much less evil character. She does not operate against what she thinks would be Fleda's interests; she simply thinks those interests are a tepid version of her own.

Here is Mrs. Gereth getting down to brass tacks with Fleda:

Why, Fleda, it isn�t a crime, don�t you know that?� cried the delighted woman. �When I was a girl I was always in love, and not always with such nice people as Owen. I didn�t behave as well as you; compared with you I think I must have been odious. But if you�re proud and reserved it�s your own affair; I�m proud too, though I�m not reserved � that�s what spoils it."

Thursday, May 15, 2003


We recently expressed a wish to see to what baroque tergiversations Hitchens would be forced in justifying the usurpation of power in Iraq by one of Henry the K's minions -- since Hitchens credibility is wrapped up in being anti Henry the K. This isn't mere ideology, it is his bread and butter -- it allows a news organization to present him as a man of the left as he spouts reactionary slogans, making it seem as if we are getting that magic thing, balance, and making Hitchens an irresistable sell. Well, he hasn't gotten to it yet, but he does have a hilarious column about Chalabi, his bud, in Slate. He goes to the very bottom of the barrel in this one: in supporting his friend, he even becomes (gasp!) modest about his own abilities. Those abilities have to do with understanding bank fraud. Pauvre H. apparently finds it a matter of some difficulty, not just for himself but for all of humanity (hence, the modesty is transitory). This is truly creamy stuff:

"Yet every journalist feels compelled to state, as a matter of record, that Ahmad Chalabi was once convicted (by a very bizarre special court in the kingdom of Jordan) of embezzling money from a bank that was partly controlled by Iraq. I am not an accountant, and I admit that I don't know what happened at the Bank of Petra in 1972. I am not sure, after exhaustive inquiries, that I know anybody who really does know. But I do know what happened at the Iraqi Central Bank a few weeks ago, and I don't have to be an accountant or auditor to understand it. As with everything else, it is the sheer ruthless criminality of the ancien r�gime that staggers the mind and makes some people flinch and change the subject."

Welll, if he knows what happened there, do tell -- there are at least a dozen versions of the story, some of which have Uday piling billions of dollars into trucks, and some of which don't.

We do like the phrase, "exhaustive inquiries." Ah, he searched the Net one night. As always, when Hitchens practices to deceive, he is so clumsy that one feels he might as well not. Apparently his exhaustive inquiries never took him in the direction of the LA Times for May 10th, where he could have found partial solace for his learned ignorance in re: Chalabi.

The man is a hoot.

In a previous post, I recommended checking out the New Yorker profile of Zizek. In this season's Critical Inquiry there's a heated joust between Zizeck and Harpham. I must admit, as is often the case, I only read one side: Zizek's defense of himself as, to quote Harpham, a "symptom." In the course of doing so, he quotes this beautiful line from Deleuze, which is especially apropos at this moment:

�There�s no democratic state that�s not compromised to the very core by its part in generating human misery.�

We would almost like to make that a motto, but it would be unfair to the serpentine weight of the phrase -- serpentine because the weight of it is redistributed in unexpected ways as one repeats it.

However, in keeping with one version of the phrase, let's talk kingship.

It seems that the Pentagon mini-Metterniches are lusting to do for the rightful heir to the Peacock throne -- that's right, his solemnity, Prince Reza Pahlavi -- what they have done, so abundantly, for Ahmad Chalabi -- provide him with a little uniform, a little stipend, and a cohort of blackshirts.

Well, since we are lusting to restore ancient kingdoms, why don't we act on an abuse that we can cure right here at home? I mean the unlawful annexation of Hawaii, of course. LI is presently engaged in writing a review of Van Tilburg's biography of Katherine Routledge, the Easter Island anthropologist, so we've been interested in all things 19th century and Polynesian. There's a nice article about the downfall of the Hawaiian kingdom in Counter Punch.

And there is an Hawaiian independence movement. It has a nice collection of articles about the abuse to which Hawaii has been subject since the wily Yankees illegally annexed the place, way back in the 1890s. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it long ago, in the South Sea Letters, speaking of a native Hawaiian who was marooned by his captain in the Marquesas (back in the old whaling days, Captains often marooned crew members in order not to pay them), and had petered out in Samoa, longing for home: "I wonder what he would think if he could be carried there indeed, and see the modern town of Honolulu brisk with traffic, and the palace with its guards, and the great hotel, and Mr. Berger's band with their unifroms and outlandish instruments; or what he would think to see the brown faces grown so few and the whtie so many; and this father's land sold fro planting sugar, and his father's house quite perished, or perhaps the last of them struck leprous and immured between the surf and the cliffs on Molokai. So simply, even in the South Sea islands, and so sadly, the changes come."

Wednesday, May 14, 2003


Interestingly enough, this is the second week of non-news about why, exactly, the Pentagon has to rent its Iraqi exile group from SAIC. The lack of curiosity in the media is understandable -- after all, a NYT reporter might have plagiarized a story about the DC sniper and even made up some details while sipping lattes on the East Side, and a fertilizer salesman might have cut up and eaten his wife in California -- or something like that. Much more riveting...

However, indefatiguable LI has managed to sift out some interesting SAIC stuff -- most notably the notorious and now extinguished partnership between SAIC and Venezuala's state owned Petroleum company -- which, as you will remember, was the leader in the strike/coup/whatever it was against Chavez last year. There are a lot of Venezualan commentators who believe that the synergy between PDVSA and SAIC was like that between Lucifer and others of the fallen angel hosts. SAIC no longer features their partnership with PDVSA on their website. However, Americas magazine does mention SAIC in an article about the strike that concludes:

"The Uruguayan weekly Brecha reports that PDVSA�s computer systems are under the control of a joint venture that includes a U.S.-based multinational with strong ties to the U.S. military and the CIA. Intesa, which handles PDVSA�s data processing, is a joint venture set up in 1999 between PDVSA and Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), whose $2 billion annual income comes mostly from contracts with U.S. military and intelligence agencies. SAIC�s directors and administrators include former defense secretaries William Perry and Melvin Laird; former central intelligence directors John Deutch and Robert Gates; and former National Security Agency (NSA) director Adm. Bobby Ray Inman."

However, those touchy Latin Americans are always so suspicious of American can-do. Why should Iraqis hold any such suspicions about our evident good intentions?
Notes from former colonial ventures

There's a delightful anecdote in Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians concerning 'Chinese" Gordon. Gordon was named governor of the Sudan by the Egypt's ruler, who had become so enmeshed in English debts and advice that he was slowly ceding the country to English rule. Now Gordon, like many a good Defense Department undersecretary in our own time, was a pious man. In fact, he was an eccentrically pious man, who read the Bible constantly, looking a little too aggressively for God's personal messages to him to be quite compos mentis in the opinion of his colleagues. Piety and narcissism are so often mirror images of one another. In any case, here's Strachey's account of Gordon's first intimation of the lay of the land in Sudan:

"He took over his new duties early in 1874, and it was not long
before he had a first hint of disillusionment. On his way up the
Nile, he was received in state at Khartoum by the Egyptian
Governor-- General of the Sudan, his immediate official superior.

The function ended in a prolonged banquet, followed by a mixed
ballet of soldiers and completely naked young women, who danced
in a circle, beat time with their feet, and accompanied their
gestures with a curious sound of clucking. At last the Austrian
Consul, overcome by the exhilaration of the scene, flung himself
in a frenzy among the dancers; the Governor-General, shouting
with delight, seemed about to follow suit, when Gordon abruptly
left the room, and the party broke up in confusion."

One feels, here, that there must be some distant spiritual likeness between Gordon and our own Iraqi proconsul. Poor Smilin' Jay never quite got why the Shi'ites were so� intransigent. He obviously rather liked the way Chalabi wore a suit, talked English, and could provide him with a decent drink, after he descended from his heavily guarded car, at the Hunter's Club. But the rest of those people! And the tiresome complaints about electricity, as if they were going to do anything with it when it was turned on except scheme under electric lightbulbs against all the good that America was prepared to do their godforsaken country! No wonder Smilin' Jay hated to forage out from Saddam's palace.

In the meantime, one sees the Gladstonian reflex kick in among American and British liberals. Gladstone, you will remember, was vaguely against the empire, while Disraeli was an ardent imperialist -- but somehow the Empire got much bigger under Gladstone. The opportunity to put a central bureaucracy to work governing people for their own good was simply too irresistable. Gladstone's ghost haunts the suggestion of Hugo Young, in the Guardian, that the American forces remain for the foreseeable future in control of Iraq, and the op-ed in the NYT today by a Suzanne Nossel

"The law of occupation is useful for Iraq mainly because it establishes clear lines of accountability for putting the country back on its feet. The first duty of an occupier is to establish a system of "direct administration" over the occupied population. In doing so, the United States will put itself on the line for success or failure in a way that retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner's ill-defined mandate scrupulously avoided. If Baghdad's citizenry still suffers from spotty electricity, rotten garbage on street corners and poorly equipped hospitals, there will be no doubt where fault lies.

"Rather than a muddy division of responsibilities among the United Nations, local authorities and coalition forces, an official occupation makes clear that the buck stops with the United States and Britain. The proposed division of labor, wherein the United Nations' special representative will fulfill specific roles under a British-American umbrella, protects against what happened in Somalia, where the United Nations was blamed for American misjudgments."

Ah, that muddying of responsibility. Obviously, the Iraqis, who are being represented by ESP by Pentagon undersecretaries and their various defense industry cronies, need to know that they have only one occupier -- it makes the servants so much more pliable. It is a situation parallel to the British-French governance of Egypt, which -- in order to keep the Egyptian people up to snuff about who their masters were -- phased into British governance of Egypt for about eighty years, to the advantage of the Briitsh.
The reluctant assumption of imperial power is again beckoning to the always latent liberal instinct for gaining control of people's lives in order to make them better -- in other words, to boss them around. And, of course, that reluctance leads to profit -- but only, of course, in the name of virtue. So the US is proposing, for Iraq's own good, to seize control of the oil industry and use it, as the US sees fit, to rebuild the country -- paying out the money, of course, to US contractors.

Isn't it wonderful when there's such synergy between good intentions and campaign contributers! It makes us all glow, rosily, here at LI.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003


There's been some Iraqis restlessness about the switches in their democratic, freely chosen rulers. Imagine! The ingratitude! Massoud Barzani, the Kurd leader, is quoted by the NYT as expressing a wee bit of concern about the apparent US goal of maintaining Iraq as a vaccum into which we inject our intentions. And:

"He also expressed concern about Mr. Bremer's longtime association with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, whom the Kurds blame for their betrayal in the intelligence wars between Iran and Iraq three decades ago."

A point that goes right over the massed heads of the American media, who are performing the Mobius maneuver in the wake of the Blair revelations at NYT, trying to see what they ate for breakfast a week ago.

LI says: who cares?

On other fronts: LA Times, which has consistently been more on the mark about Iraq than any other major newspaper, ran a large article about Ahmad Chalabi's wonderful adventure in the Jordanian banking system Sunday. It is definitely worth reading.

The New Yorker ran a profile of Zizek last week. We asked our friend T. about it, who is a big citer of Zizek. He reports:

"...its a rather campy version of the persona that doesn't really bring-out, exactly, the guy's sense of humor and what humor DOES, psycho-socially and rhetorically. Also missed the best example of an aspect of Zizek's "style" - the essay in "Enjoy Your Symptom!" on the films of Roberto Rossilini - Zizek had never seen a film by RR (along the lines of his comment that there are many movies that he hates, but provide a good theory about any one of them and he will assert that he loved it all along). Additionally, I think that there might be a factual error in the article: "...the number of people who are equipped to discuss the works of Jacques Lacan rivals the number of those who are fluent in Slovenian..."
Anyway, read it."

And finally, we are going to comment later this week on the British Imperialism fiesta hosted by Boston U., which is a round-table about Niall Ferguson in which the Great Ferguson himself participated.

Monday, May 12, 2003


The mandate of heaven is a cruel and capricious spirit. Take Smilin' Jay Garner. About a month ago, Iraqis everywhere awoke after a night of bad dreams and thought, collectively, gee we'd like this non-Arab speaking weapons salesman to be the absolute Jefe of our brand spankin' new country! We don't want electricity, garbage pickup, safety from robbery, or those stinkin' museums and libraries -- we want a well protected ministry of oil! we want every exile group, as long as it is led by Ahmad Chalabi, to be supplied with American arms! And we want to give them their choice of residence in the wealthy side of Baghdad! And we want hands off Garner to preside over it all! These messages, ectoplasmically and extrasensorally delivered to the very heartland of Iraq -- Washington D.C. -- were not ignored. Smilin' Jay made a triumphant tour of the country. To reassure the Iraqi people, Smilin' Jay even tried to institute a continuity of style with the previous regime: just like Saddam, he disappeared into the presidential palace and was seen rarely thereafter in public.

But alas. The Iraqi people woke up, liberated and democratic, a week ago after a night of pleasant dreams (oh, the tax cuts that danced like sugar plumbs in their heads!) and decided no, Smilin' Jay wasn't the embodiment of Iraqi history. That honor goes, instead, to Kissinger Associates l. Paul Bremer III!

His Thirdness, being blessed by Henry Kissinger, is preparing us for a delicious treat: the high squeals of Christopher Hitchens, who has to maintain his cred by dissing Kissinger - otherwise, he's just another rightwinger in the rat pack - while tergiversating madly to rationalize our pyrate rule in Iraq. This should be good.

The Washington Post recorded L. Paul's historic maiden speech in Iraq. Here's what he said:

"It's a wonderful challenge to help the Iraqi people basically reclaim their country from a despotic regime," Bremer said in a tarmac interview minutes after his plane landed in Basra.
He spent a short while in the southern city before flying to Baghdad, where the civilian reconstruction agency is headquartered.

Asked whether he was, in effect, directing a U.S. plan to colonize Iraq, Bremer said: "The coalition did not come to colonize Iraq. We came to overthrow a despotic regime. That we have done. Now our job is to turn and help the Iraqi people regain control of their own destiny."

A wonderful challenge? Isn't this the neutral language of the over-coached CEO, plotting the downsizing of his company? Whatever else you say about the pirates of yore, at least there was some steel in their yeahs and nays. Here's an anecdote about Blackbeard:

"One night, drinking in his cabin with Hands, the pilot, and another man, Blackbeard, without any provocation, privately draws out a small pair of pistols, and cocks them under the table. Which being perceived by the man, he withdrew and went upon deck, leaving Hands, the pilot, and the Captain together. When the pistols were ready, he blew out the candle and crossing his hands, discharged them at his company. Hands, the master, was shot through the knee and lamed for life; the other pistol did no execution. Being asked the meaning of this, he only answered by damning them, That if he did not now and then kill one of them, they would forget who he was."

Surely L. Paul should consider Teach's way of disposing of extra associates. It would at least add a colorful anecdote to our colorless pillaging expedition.

LI recommends an essay, Anecdote and History by Lionel Grossman in this spring's History and Theory. Grossman uses the etymology of anecdote to show how the thing's semantic charge changed over time. Anekdoka was, apparently, the title of Procopius's Secret History. As it was translated into European languages, anecdote took on the meaning of unpublished, and the secondary meaning of secret history. Anybody who has read Procopius's history knows how salacious the book is: the vague reputation for tasty salacity became attached to anecdotes. Voltaire, according to Grossman, exhibited extreme contempt for the genre. In particular, the anecdote disturbed Voltaire's notion of what history -- the history of historians -- was all about. Although Grossman doesn't exactly show this outright, Voltaire's agenda, as a historian, was to rescue it from the collectioneering science of the antiquarians. For Voltaire, history's moral bound was defined by scale: history was an account of great events. Of course, Voltaire's perspectivism nuanced his idea of great events. Not every king or noble was great. The social hierarchy did not define greatness, but it did tone it.

In this way, Voltaire, far from being the grinning undertaker of the ancien regime, was its great and final ideologue. Grossman quotes, in this respect, an interesting review of Rousseau's Confessions that, while not penned by Voltaire, reflected the Voltairian vision:

Voltaire�s mostly negative judgment of anecdotes was also determined, however, by the same classical, fundamentally conservative esthetics (and politics) that later led the editors of the Ann�e Litt�raire to condemn Rousseau�s Confessions as an act of literary arrogance and presumption. �Where would we be now,� they protested in 1782, �if every one arrogated to himself the right to write and print everything that concerns him personally and that he enjoys recalling?�

We don't believe that Voltaire's position can fairly be called conservative. But otherwise, this is a highly revealing sentence.

According to Grossman, by the end of the eighteenth century the transition from secret history to symptomatic event was being slowly achieved -- felt, in fact, in the etymological sinews of the language. Grossman concentrates on some important figures, and quotes a marvelous anecdote of Chamfort's:

"As early as the last third of
the eighteenth century some of Chamfort�s anecdotes appear to have had such symptomatic value. A story about the Duke of Hamilton, for instance�who,being drunk one night, heedlessly killed a waiter at an inn, and when confronted with the fact by the horri.ed innkeeper, calmly replied: �Add it to the bill��
seems intended as more than an allegory of the general indifference of the rich and powerful to the poor and powerless; it is also symptomatic of the personage described, the Duke of Hamilton, and�beyond him perhaps�of the social relations of a particular historical moment, that of the ancien r�gime."

Since the romantics, we have all been imbued with the idea that the essence of history is secret -- that secret histories are the truer ones. Gnosticism is thus revived among us. LI is tempted by that belief himself. Nick Tosches wrote, somewhere, that the history of this country is the history of a number of handshakes between men in dark corners of restaurants and clubs. Or he wrote something like that. Well, we think that the handshakes can be as public as the front page -- that the secret and the overt are usually not so separate, and that the best hiding place is behind the universal indifference to what doesn't disturb one's own repose for the next week.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...