Saturday, March 06, 2004



So I come home.

So I come home and I am already unhappy. So I come home and I already know that once again, four weeks after I sent the invoices to these various places I’ve worked at, there will be no check in the box for me. So I come home, and I have a rash, a poison ivy rash, because I worked pulling out weeds and tangled up vines and rogue lantana and shit for my man, and there must have been poison ivy among the mix, and though a rash on my arms is take-able, I’ll lose a little sleep, yes, with the desire to scratch, the bad thing is that this poison ivy rash has somehow got on my dick, which hasn’t happened to me before, how it got there I’d rather not think, although actually, the hand to dick thing peeing at the hamburger place after pulling up the weeds must have done it, not that I am so unaware that I usually don’t wash before I pull it out when I suspect I might have been around poison ivy, but I must have. So I come home and I’m walking home wondering the usual wonder in my head, that money whisper, how am I going to make it, how am I going to make it. So I come home and there is a green notice on the door, last thing I need, very last thing. So it is from the electric company, I sent them sixty but no, the electric company has lately been putting its thumb on the deadbeats and the poor, and I have had to fight with them every month. So I come home and see this and burst into tears, because with the poison ivy on my dick and the no money in the mailbox and the no future that I can see spreading out, one more year, before me of fighting with the electric company and pulling weeds and not getting paid for my work all so that I can survive in this little efficiency like a fly dying in a bottle, I am not happy. So I am not at all happy and crying and dialing the number printed on the green ticket, and of course the number takes me to a fucking forever menu of choices, one of which, the disconnect or problems with the bill, is my choice of choices. So I’d like to disconnect. So I’d like to disconnect permanently. So I wait, and I wait, and I wait, and I’m pacing and crying and cussing the electric company, and time goes rudely by, fifteen minutes. So I finally hear a voice at the other end, coming through the receiver I’ve put down, and I take the receiver up and I get into our shit, the electric company’s and mine. So I begin by noting the rudeness of the wait, and how typical that rudeness is, and how I’ve paid sixty, and the man at the other end is how I have to pay one hundred sixty more, I have to pay the whole bill, no way I can pay the whole fucking bill, sir watch the language, this is the back and forth, this is the discourse coming out of our mouths, this is the shit we are getting into. So I am I don’t fucking care about my language, I don’t have one hundred sixty, do you want to suck my blood, do you want me to die, I can maybe come up with twenty, fucking twenty, and he is you are late on your payment plan so you have to pay the whole thing. So I am yelling now, and he is do you want to speak to my supervisor, and I am yeah, let’s do that, knowing that that was going to happen, it always happens. So I am not feeling strong, or good, or able here, and the phone gives me the disinterest and fake-y music, classical music, for another five ten minute interval, corrupting whatever that music was into the usual corporate doorstop that they stuff in my ear, if my ear was attached to a guy dumb enough to be pressing the phone for all that length of time. So the other guy finally comes on, and exhaustion has set in, and he offers me a deal – in a week, if I can come up with forty two dollars, I can actually keep my electric service until next month. So of course I’m grateful, I mean how long has it been since I’ve had any marrow whatsoever in my spine, I bend over, I kiss ass, I would kiss so much ass if ass was presented, and I say to the guy, I say, tell the gentleman I was talking to that I apologize for the language. So I say that. So tonight I feel exactly as though I’d been excreted into my worst nightmare of a world, there are acidic threads, there are balls of fat, there is a world of brown before my eyes like I'm drowning in browns down toilet crytic halls, and what I want to know is how do they do it? So how do they off themselves, these Wall Street guys, the ones that have everything and then the bad bet comes in and the stock is worthless and they fling themselves from high windows, or the gas in the garage, or maybe take out the family. So how do they get the courage to do that, and why have I never even held a serious knife to my veins, in spite of my stock having been worthless in every department in every sad sexual existential monetary human way for five to ten years at least, at least, at least...

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Liberty and Virtue! When! oh When will your Ennemies cease to exist and or to persecute!
Our Country will be envied, our Liberty will be envied, our Virtues will be envied. Deep and subtle systems of Corruption hard to prove, impossible to detect, will be practised to sap and undermine Us and the few who penetrate them will be called suspicious, envious, restless turbulent ambitious -- will be hated unpopular and unhappy
But a Succession of these Men must be preserved, for these are the salt of the Earth. Without these the World would be worse than it is. Is not this after all the noblest Ambition. Such Ambition is Virtue. Cato will never be Consull but Catos Ambition was sublimer than Caesars, and his Glory and even his Catastrophy more desirable.
--John Adams

Well, it is Kerry in the one corner, and deep and subtle systems of Corruption hard to prove in the other. Except those systems aren’t really impossible to detect – we know all about Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. As for Kerry, his vote to give the Prez power to declare war on Iraq shows that he’s given his heart to Corruption before. This is the point the Dean people make, and they are right.

However, oddly enough, this election, we don’t care. We think that Bush has to be pushed out. Kerry’s the man to do it. All his vices – his pomposity, his flip flops, his vanity – have been changed into virtues in this campaign. They have made him seem serious, seem to hew to the radical center, seem presidential. It is easy for a presidential candidate to seem more presidential than a man who utters phrases like “bring it on” when asked about our war dead. Bush habitually speaks like someone’s retarded child trying to hold the picture of Jesus right side up as he reads his Sunday School book report. Contra the asinine spin purveyed by Todd Purdem in today’s NYT(“Mr. Bush has shown himself to be a sharp, disciplined, resourceful political infighter when his back is against the wall. "No more Mr. Nice Guy" may now be the phrase of the day.”), Mr. Bush has had the luck never to really campaign with his back against the wall. As a class clown, it was hard not to like him against Al Gore’s imitation of a smug class valedictorian. As Mr. Mission Accomplished, I think he will amply exploit his opportunities to look ridiculous. It is a matter of the Dems seeing through the media spin to the man. If they do, they will nail this campaign.

Behind the campaign, however, there is the sickly state of the State. The Economist published a pretty harsh article last week entitled “The Phoney Recovery.” In it, they skewered, with their conservative economic sense, the ‘biggest credit bubble in history.” In other words, our economy, circa 2001-2004.

We loved these two grafs – and by the way, the romance with Greenspan seems to be on its last legs:

“Although concerned about budget deficits, Mr Greenspan argued this week that the recent surge in household debt is relatively harmless for the very reason that it has been accompanied by big gains in household assets. According to such an interpretation, the drop in household saving, to only 1.5% of personal income in December, is no cause for alarm: households no longer need to save, because rising wealth in shares and homes will do it for them.

The snag is that the "wealth" being built up is partly phoney. In a recent report, the Bank of England argued that rising house prices do not create genuine wealth in aggregate. Those who have yet to buy a home suffer a loss of purchasing power, so rising prices redistribute wealth, they do not create it. More serious is that the price of homes or shares can fall, while debts are fixed in value. In the long run, the only way to create genuine wealth is to consume less than income, and to invest in real income-creating assets.”

In other words, like everybody’s favorite Oscar movie this year, Americans are opting for the hobbit economy. Build those hobbit houses and mortgage those hobbit houses and sing those Celtic songs, boys, cause the jobs ain’t coming back. Or something equally elvish.

The article also contrasts the most startling evidence, to our mind, for the effect of trying to maintain an economy with the most unequal distribution of wealth since the thirties with a burden of entitlements that were accrued for a very different economy from the forties through the nineties.
“Strikingly, although GDP has grown by a robust 4.3% over the past year, wage income rose by barely 1% in real terms. According to Kurt Richebacher, an independent economist who publishes a monthly newsletter, wages and salaries have, on average, increased by 9% in real terms in the first two years of previous post-war recoveries, but have been almost flat over the past two years, thanks to the sickly jobs market.”
We think the last phrase is a bit misleading. It isn’t only the sickly jobs market, it is that wages in jobs, for the employed, are pretty much at a standstill. In other periods of globablisation, the tremendous wealth amassed by the top 1 percent has been redistributed, by the force of unions and a militant working and middle class, downward. Not this time. So the reserve army of the unemployed can’t be the entire cause of the flatness of wage increases.


The thriller as history

The news that France is dealing with a mysterious AZF – a group or an individual – who is threatening to put ten bombs on ten train tracks resembles a less than A list Frederic Forsyth novel. Here’s a translation of Liberation’s sidebar article about one aspect of the incident:

“The mysterious group AZF that is attempting to blackmail the minister of the Interior with a bomb – with proofs at hand and an actual bomb laid on the Paris-Toulouse line on February 21, on the level of the viaduc of Rocherollers, near Limoges – put in place a system of communication with the investigators of one branch of the national police that operated uniquely with personal ads in Liberation.
The investigators have found themselves constrained to obey the instructions put into place by the blackmailers, a sort of terrorism against the commons, meaning that they had to organize their rendez-vous and contacts by way of the personals of Liberation, become the involuntary support of this merchandise since mid February. One of these personal announcements went as follows: “My big wolf, don’t take any unnecessary risks; the sooner the better. Give me your instructions, Suzy.”


Sunday, February 29, 2004


Edith Wharton was twenty five when she and her husband dined out for the first time with Henry James. Wharton recalled her idea of impressing James: “to put on my newest Doucet dress and look my prettiest.” For a lot of critics, this says it all: Wharton is James in a Doucet dress. Wharton herself, who started in the decade after meeting James, was immediately dubbed as his imitator, which must have justly irritated her. Besides which, in the time she was closest to him, around 1905 to 1910, she was not at all an admirer of what she considered the balderdash indirections of his late style.

LI is not at all an admirer of Edith Wharton. Or even, I should say, a detractor. There are certain American writers to whom I feel I owe a debt of reading. Willa Cather, John O’Hara, and Edith Wharton are among my ghostly creditors – even though the debt they would have paid back poses a very Derridian question – is there a debt of reading that is paid by reading? But I will hold off on that for another day. My debt to Wharton has now been at least partially paid. I’ve read The Reef . I say partial payment because I have an idea that this novel is not, like The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, Wharton’s most characteristic piece. Those who know Wharton best, at least, make that claim.

According to Millicent Bell’s tremendously intelligent essay tracing the influences, such as they were, of James upon Wharton, The Reef was the novel in which Wharton finally got it – that is, got what she could get from James, apart from the theme of international rich folk. In Bell’s nice phrase, Wharton replaces the “chaotic compound of points of view” characteristic of her earlier work with “the elaborate working out on all sides of a central situation.” Which means that she carefully plots her incidences and the way they are articulated according to some strong anchoring p.o.v. – the perspectives, in fact, of two characters, George Darrow and Anna Leath. Bell compares the construction, here, to the Golden Bowl: “in neither novel is there a crowd of minor characters to give a sense of social density, a Balzacian perspective of milieu such as James had once aimed for.” But The Reef, according to Bell, was as far as Wharton would take her late Jamesianism. In the novels that came after, she “returned to a form that was more natural to her.” The lesson in perspective, which is the lesson of the master, can now be used to advance Wharton’s own sense of the more crowded, more Balzacian world, as you can use a flashlight to advance in a dark cave.

Perhaps this is why I found The Reef so compulsively readable – I’m a sucker for the late James. I am using Bell’s essay as my critical anchor instead of Anita Brookner’s intro to the Penguin I’m reading, because Brookner’s essay is so ineffably stupid. It is the worst of introductory essays – it is not only stupid in itself, but an invitation to stupidity on the part of the reader. Brookner’s idea is that the modern reader will simply be irritated by Anna Leath’s scruples, since the modern reader has long ago cut all the Gordian knots of sexual ethics. This is not only incredibly smug, with the small world smugness of the upper class British liberal, it isn’t even likely. In 2004, it is very likely that a woman who discovers that the man she is about to marry has slept with the woman her stepson is about to marry would tend towards a lot of mental casuistry. It is as if Brookner prefaced an edition of Oedipus Rex by remarking that, nowadays, Oedipus would simply have been cured by a therapist, or a bracing spell on an electroshock bed. Such thinning down of the text, such formal stupidity, clears the ground for Brookner to give us her soap opera-ish perspective on the book – we don’t like Anna Leath for being a worrier, or George Darrow for being controlling, or Sophy Viner for being a whiner – and hey, who should play them in the Masterpiece Theater version?

However, I have come to praise Edith Wharton, not to bury Anita Brookner. Or rather, to point out a certain thrilling Nietzschian thread in the book.

The drama of the last part of The Reef is all in the way in which Anna Leath alternately accepts and rejects her belief that George Darrow was involved in some kind of intrigue with her daughter’s governess (and fiancé of her stepson), Sophie Viner . The movement between acceptance and recoil is not just about the sexual core of Darrow’s relationship with Viner, but it hangs within the deeper current of her gradually gathering perception that she could only truly know the meaning of that relationship by having led a different kind of life, one in which both the abject and sublime nuances of sex and feeling were available to her as experiences, rather than as the mere content of the rules of social decorum. Ironically, Darrow offers her the chance to have just that experience, and in offering her that chance, illuminates just the poverty of her experience up to this moment. She realizes, through Darrow, how solitary she has really been – even though she has been married, and had a child. As Anna conceives it, her solitude consists in an abnormal chastity of experience. She feels a cumulative want of contact. As she gains a deeper sense of the fact that Darrow’s offer comes only with her acknowledgment, for good and bad, of Darrow’s own sexual experience, she conceives her choice as one that thrusts its options upon her as between pardoning Darrow and remaining loyal to her own total past.

To make this point, Wharton uses a really interesting reference to classical culture.

Here is Anna, confronting George in Paris:

“For she was aware, in her own bosom, of sensations so separate from her romantic thoughts of him that she saw her body and soul divided against themselves. She recalled having read somewhere that in ancient Rome the slaves were not allowed to wear a distinctive dress lest they should recognize each other and learn their numbers and their power. So, in herself, she discerned for the first time instincts and desires, which, mute and unmarked, had gone to and fro in the dim passages of her mind, and now hailed each other with a cry of mutiny.”

Wharton reinforces this metaphor a few pages on, after Anna is embraced by George:

“He came nearer, and looked at her, and she went to him. All
her fears seemed to fall from her as he held her. It was a
different feeling from any she had known before: confused
and turbid, as if secret shames and rancours stirred in it,
yet richer, deeper, more enslaving.”

Wharton does some interesting things with Anna, who starts out as a rather insipid widow in a French chateau. The dialectically resplendent image of slaves dressed as freeman whose freedom would depend on recognizing each other as slaves corresponds to Anna’s odd liberation. It is a liberation into a world that isn’t free, a world in which the slaves wear slave costumes and signal to each other with abandon. And it is also a world in which feeling slips away from confidence in feeling. That’s an interior shift that Anna cannot, in the end, quite endure. We wondered, reading these paragraphs, if Wharton had ever read Melville; and in particular, Benito Cereno.

It is always good to keep in mind that Nietzsche, who wrote about slaves, never met any. But any American writer who wanted to could meet them, at least before the Civil War, and could meet ex slaves after the Civil War. For an American, there was no distance between the slave and master relationship and his own history. Slavery was in our blood, and the blood of slaves was in our money. And let's not forget either -- as I did, the first time I wrote this paragraph -- that the American writer could have even been a slave.

Anna’s classical metaphor echoes a bit earlier in the book, too. The book begins with the long episode of George Darrow’s trip to Paris with Sophy Viner. He knows Viner, only vaguely, from the house of a (from all accounts) rather bohemian hostess, for whom she worked as a factotum. Sophy Viner is pretty; she is tough; she wants to be an actress, a desire that in itself marks her, in Darrow’s mind, as “artistic” – i.e. loose. But it is Darrow who seduces her, who holds her in Paris longer than she can even afford to stay there; it is Darrow who takes her to plays. One of the plays is Oedipe. Viner’s reaction to it is premonitory of the role that she will play in Anna and Darrow’s narrative. Darrow is bored with the piece. The couple go out to walk in the intermission, and he expresses his boredom. Sophy, however, can’t believe he isn’t enthralled, and gives him her reason for being enthralled:

“As if the gods were there all the while, just behind them, pulling the strings?" Her hands
were pressed against the railing, her face shining and
darkening under the wing-beats of successive impressions.

Darrow smiled in enjoyment of her pleasure. After all, he
had felt all that, long ago; perhaps it was his own fault,
rather than that of the actors, that the poetry of the play
seemed to have evaporated...But no, he had been right in
judging the performance to be dull and stale: it was simply
his companion's inexperience, her lack of occasions to
compare and estimate, that made her think it brilliant.

"I was afraid you were bored and wanted to come away."

"BORED?" She made a little aggrieved grimace. "You mean
you thought me too ignorant and stupid to appreciate it?"

"No; not that." The hand nearest him still lay on the
railing of the balcony, and he covered it for a moment with
his. As he did so he saw the colour rise and tremble in her

"Tell me just what you think," he said, bending his head a
little, and only half-aware of his words.

She did not turn her face to his, but began to talk rapidly,
trying to convey something of what she felt. But she was
evidently unused to analyzing her aesthetic emotions, and
the tumultuous rush of the drama seemed to have left her in
a state of panting wonder, as though it had been a storm or
some other natural cataclysm. She had no literary or
historic associations to which to attach her impressions:
her education had evidently not comprised a course in Greek
literature. But she felt what would probably have been
unperceived by many a young lady who had taken a first in
classics: the ineluctable fatality of the tale, the dread
sway in it of the same mysterious "luck" which pulled the
threads of her own small destiny. It was not literature to
her, it was fact: as actual, as near by, as what was
happening to her at the moment and what the next hour held
in store.

We love the way Wharton has set this up. We love the way she comes at us with this pre-emptive notion of luck, since of course her whole plot turns upon a piece of bad luck, a coincidence. And we love the way that destiny, in a slave society, becomes luck, in a free one. And how the atavistic yearning for the rituals of the slave society colonizes our passions, exists in the perpetual underground of the unconscious.

Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...