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Thursday, October 04, 2007

a stray thesis

One of my stray theses about happiness is that the discourse of happiness suffers from a variant of the pathetic fallacy, as Ruskin called the attempt to instill a mood into a landscape, or to project human feelings, in general, on the inanimate. The variant of this is to project happiness upon fortunate circumstances, as though the circumstances themselves were happy. Since, of course, happiness derives from the experience of those circumstances, we are dealing with a sort of mass hallucination, a doubling of the hedonic focus. Or perhaps I should say a hedonic neurosis. And from this we get an unending and dreary succession of complaints on the same theme: I'm not happy!

To explain what I mean, let me quote history’s eternal dirty old man, Voltaire. Voltaire, as is well known, found the abstract constructions of the doctors of the church ultimately laughable. But he was also wary of the abstract constructions of the materialists, the more radical group of philosophes that came after him. He distrusted their confident assertions about matter. Matter was a shit or a fuck, it was a ball or a pen, it was a building or a street, and when it was organic matter, it worked in a way we don’t understand and did things we didn’t comprehend. He is an old crab, and only old crabs really have the smile of reason on their pusses. In a rather confusing text, a gloss on Diderot’s entry on the passions in the Encyclopedie, Voltaire imagines himself interrogating, first, a doctor of the church.

Tell me this, doctor (I don’t mean medical doctor, who has done something, spent a long time examining the sinosities of the brain, who has researched whether the nerves have a circulating fluid, who has dug in vain in the womb in order to see how a thinking being forms, and who knows everything that can be known of our machine, alas, I mean a doctor in theology). I conjure you in the name of that reason which makes you tremble. Tell me why, having seen your servant make a movement from the left to the right and from the right to the left of the gluteus muscle, that, on the spot your imagination lights up; two erector muscles, coming off of the iskion, give a perpendicular movement to your phallus – its cavernous body fills with blood – you introduce your balanus intra vaginum of your governess, and your balanus tickles suum clitorida giving her, like you, a one or two second pleasure, and from which is born a thinking being, all corrupt with original sin? What is the relation, if you please, between this action and the movement of the gluteus muscle of your gouvernante [sic – maid]? You can read Thomas Aquinus and Scotus and Bonaventure, you will never find anything explaining that incomprehensible mechanism by which the eternal architect directed your ideas, your desires your actions, and had born a little bastard of a priest predestined to damnation for all eternity.

So far, so good. In fact, this connects to Diderot’s entry – which I am planning to use in my essay, so I will be translating it soon for you good and lucky people. Then Voltaire takes on an even odder human behavior.
“The next morning, after having taken your chocolate, your memory retraces the image of the pleasure you tasted yesterday, and you begin anew. Do you believe, my great automaton, that it is that memory that you have in common with animals? Do you know what nerve fibers recall your ideas, and paint in your brain all the voluptuous pleasures of yesterday by a prolonged sentiment which has slept with you and re-awakened with you? The doctor replies according to Thomas Aquinas that all of this is a product of his vegetative soul, his sensitive soul, and his intellectual soul, all through of which compose one soul, which being non-extended evidently acts on the whole extended body.
I spot his embarrassed air, as he stutters out words of the meanings of which he hasn’t the slightest idea. And I say, at last: doctor, if you agree in spite of yourself that you don’t know what a soul is, and that you have spoken your whole life long without understanding it; why don’t you break down an confess it like an honest man? why not conclude that it is necessary to comclude with the physical premonition of doctor Boursier, and in certain spots in Malebranche, and chiefly in that wise Locke, so superior to Malebranche? why don’t you conclude, I say, that your soul is a faculty that God gave you, without telling you the secret of it, as he has given you so many others? learn that many reasoners claim that, properly speaking, there is only the unknown power of the divine Demiurge and his unknown laws which all operate in us? And, to speak frankly, we don’t know what it is all about.”
From which Voltaire concludes, at the end of the essay:

“Poor marionettes of the eternal demiurge, who know neither why nor how an invisible hand makes your parts move, and then throws us in to the mass of others in the box! Let us repeat here, more than ever, with Aristotle: everything is an occult quality.”

There is something about this comic nihilism that reminds me of another grand old dirty old man, Bertrand Russell, who gave up philosophy, for the most part, in the forties, telling people that he’d gone back to Berkeley – and then delighting in dousing enthusiasms in his History of Philosophy. These crabs and their smiles of reason. I wonder if this is where I’m headed?

However, to return to my point. Even the basic sexual elements, that which will give us pleasure, turns out to be a much more unpredictable experience, constructed from internal mysteries, than we like to admit. Does a beautiful ass move you? A voice? Hair? Hairlessness? We go out in the world, we make experiments, or... more often, we don't. We find a place to settle and we cling to it, because there is a great cost to making experiments. Voltaire, who is making a somewhat different point than my point about the hedonic fallacy, is pointing to the root of it, nevertheless.


Anonymous said...

"Does a beautiful ass move you?"

Not being into bestiality myself, no donkey can inspire in me any more than aesthetic appreciation.

Oh, wait a minute - you may be an American and so unaware of the profound distinction between an ass on which one may sit and the arse without which one cannot sit (or shit, come to that).

Not that there's anything wrong with the American idiom, but as it lends itself less well to the hieratic than to the demotic it leaves the reader with a half formed understanding drawn from the hieratic which gets reset a few lines farther on - very jarring.

Roger Gathmann said...

Ah, Mr. Lawrence, perpetually dissatisfied with my vernacular! from the Netherlands to the RAF to a movement of the gluteus muscles, which is known here in these here states as 'a nice ass'.

However, you are right that the hieratic and the demotic are mixed so as to jar. That, of course, is intentional, as you surely have noticed. I like to freak on the scholarly tone - something Voltaire himself liked to do. I know some people hat jars in a style - Johnson didn't like it in Donne. But I prefer Donne's poetry to Johnson's because it so often yokes together incongruities.

Roger Gathmann said...

cross out "hat" - hate.

northanger said...

before Sir Mix-A-Lot, my sister & i were waiting in line for a movie in Santa Monica years ago. behind us we heard: oh my god becky!...


northanger said...

talk about mixing hieratic & demotic. Mr LI you know that skinny black girl didn't sing that song.

Roger Gathmann said...

Damn, north. You definitely have overshadowed my links today with that Sir Mix-a-lot vid! Hey, I can't go sexually wrong if I'm in the tradition of Voltaire and Sir Mix-a-lot. Or, to quote Sir Mix-a-Lot's seventeenth century predecessor, Robert Herrick

Wheas in silks my Julia goes/
Then, then methinks, how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes/ Next, when I cast mine eyes and see/
That brave vibration each way free/
O how that glittering taketh me!

And you are referring, re the last comment, perhaps, to the C+C link? Yeah, the woman who really did the vocals was Martha Wash. I believe her voice is behind many a lipsynching skinnier babe.

Roger Gathmann said...

Oh, and just to show that I don't simply have a yen for beauteous models fakesinging everybody dance now, here's Les Supremes Dindes, a foursome of secretaries who decided to form a kick ass rock band, but dress as punk receptionists on stage - high heals, fake pearls, goth makeup, guitars. Pretty cool, eh?

Roger Gathmann said...

ps - oh, and maybe I should add that they like to sorta take off their clothes while on stage, to some extent.

northanger said...

ok. you've removed the hieratic foot from your mouth. (what the heck are they singing!).

northanger said...

one of the prettiest poems in the whole of English literature

But there are in it some allusions which are only English, and may need explanation. Herrick is speaking of the young girls, who, in England, love to gather flowers in the field and bring them home to decorate their rooms. It may seem strange to you to read of girls kissing the flowers, but should you ever observe little English girls playing, you would observe that they kiss any inanimate object that gives them pleasure—a picture, a bird, a flower, a pet kitten, or a little dog; for it is the instinctive impulse of affection with western people to touch the lips to anything liked.

northanger said...

doesn't that leaven parable fit in here some place? i love P.M.Lawrence's point about mixing stuff & now you're admitting to yoking incongruities. there's something betty crocker here that needs teasing out.

Roger Gathmann said...

Well, the verses for Parfois go:

Parfois, je sais pas vous mais moi, j'ai envie de faire des trucs,
des actions pas bien, des choses qui faut pas .
Comme tirer la queue du chat, tripoter le kiki du chien,
le petit chouchou de madame Martin.

Envie de faire des trucs qui craignent, comme tuer une musaraigne,
ou se toucher entre les cuisses, devant le commissariat de police.
Envie d'faire des trucs interdits, comme embrasser le mari de Sylvie
ou boire jusqu'à tomber au sol.

Parfois, je sais pas vous mais moi, j'en ai assez des résultats, des remises de compte et tralala.
Envie de faire des trucs pas si bien, comme se ronger les ongles à fond,
donner un coup de pied à quelqu'un et saccager toute une maison.
Envie de faire n'importe quoi, comme se trimbaler à poil,
comme dire "salaud" et "gros chacal" à n'importe qui, à tour de bras.
Envie de ruer dans les drakkards, de faire des chêques sans provision,
de voler la bagnole à Bernard et lui demander une rançon.

Parfois, je sais pas vous mais moi, je me sens à la limite du normal
p't'être que ça arrive aux oiseaux ou à une autre marque d'animal,
d'aimer tourner en rond dans un carré, numéro 3 du jeu de l'oie,
j'attend le dé pour avancer.
Envie de secouer la nappe, renverser tout, les verres cassés.
Les gens par terre ramassent les pions, se blessent les doigts et ils m'en veulent.
Je partirais dans une voiture, y'aurait les clefs, y'aurait l'essence,
j'aiderais le soleil à se coucher dans le grand pré...

Pretty much - sometimes I want to do naughty and bad things, like pull cat's tails, kick doggies, put my finger in between my thighs in front of a policeman, etc., etc.

northanger said...

ou se toucher entre les cuisses, devant le commissariat de police
really Mr LI. is that with the glittering ribbon on or off?

Anonymous said...

The thing is, you overdo the jarring. Aristotle somewhere remarks that the art involves building a bridge between the familiar and the novel, not overdoing either. Without the new, no point; without the old, nowhere to start, no Archimedean "place to stand" from which to move the world. Merely to mash things up becomes - if taken to the logical conclusion - "any fool can play upon the word".

Let me be specific about the defects of the American prescriptive approach as compared with the British descriptive approach. Humpty Dumpty's "who shall be master" creates a write-only form of communication, leaving Humpty Dumpty in splendid isolation. I'm not talking of mere verbal infelicities, but of muddying communication. An American once said "any noun can be verbed", proving his point but missing the larger point that although all things are lawful not all things are edifying. I have read American novels in which "tear", the ambiguous noun, was used to create an ambiguous verb despite the availability of a perfectly good verb, "weep" (did you see the meaning before I wrote "weep"?). The effect was to lose me in a morass until the end of the sentence or even paragraph had given enough context to resolve the misunderstanding. It is not for nothing that Americans are sometimes described as "just Germans who speak English"; lacking the means of deferring comprehension by putting all the verbs at the end, they achieve the same effect in other ways (I've even seen such things as "he would have... if he would have...", when the two parts would have been clearer if "he would have... if he had..." had been used).

Such things need not be. Even the demotic can be used with art, although the apparent freedom of free verse or of Hemingway's prose deceives the artless into fancying that hidden art is no art. I use "art", of course, as a term of art to include everything the artist does to get his art out, not merely the creativity. For the rest of us - the chains of form are also a crutch. What stops the eagle soaring, say in a sonnet, also lifts the schoolboy out of the mud. You have to know the rules to know when to break them. The obedience of fools, and that.

Roger Gathmann said...

Mr. Lawrence, usually, even if I disagree with your conclusion, I can understand your reasoning, but here I think your reasoning is deficient. You are confusing, to use the Saussurian distinction, parole with langue. The American language is neither right nor wrong, but is rather the given. I find it as vain and foolish to take a stand as an individual - parole - and decide that I will just use 'ass', for instance, in ways different from my countrymen - and that I will say arse, something I've never said, except jokingly, in my life - to foolishly confuse the extent of my linguistic power. It doesn't promote understanding, which is your objection, it simply deviates from the Australian variant of English. If I were Australian, I'd say arse, for the good reason that other Australians say arse.

That doesn't mean one can't vary one's speech, use idioms and ideolects that are used by a minority, and in general freak the language - but this liberty isn't some gimcrack thing, composed of eccentricities, but a musical thing, a variation on tunes in which the tunes are, nevertheless, recognizable underneath different emphases and additions.

I notice that the OED finds tear as an intransitive verb back in 1430 - "I bigan to tere and to weepe and to sigh" - but the use became obsolete in England - it looks to me like it was Northern British - while it revived in the US (Of the eyes: To shed or emit tears. Now chiefly N. Amer.) However, the OED can only find two current citations for tear as an intransitive verb alone. My sense is that American language users generally add 'up' to tear - "I teared up", rather than "I teared" - which may be a borrowing from "tear up" from OED's v1 tear. Your complaint seems to be that there should be no verb that has more than one sense, but that simply isn't how English works, or has ever worked, and I don't see why one should even want it to work that way. When an Australian speaks of a sealed road, I, as an american, am left at a loss, but I can easily find out what sealed means in Australia, and I don't expect the Australian to use paved - why should I?

northanger said...

one of the best comments i've heard in a long time, from Neal Katyal on Countdown last night. the issue is Tortured Logic & whether it can obtain "actionable intelligence" & the massive classification of information. at the end Olbermann asks whether we're at the stage of political science fiction where the government has been usurped & freedoms are already gone. Katyal responds, "Well, would we even be able to know that question? The problem is they've classified perhaps even that Keith".

"overdo the jarring".

i do recall a sense of "jarring" when first watching the rape scene in Boys Don't Cry, which the director, Kimberly Peirce, said was intentional. that link provides an interesting discussion about how far you are allowed to go to tell a story. especially a story about feminine experience, pleasure & orgasm (cf, IT). what happened to Brandon Teena is "jarring". is there a distinction between describing the "jarring" & using "jarring" elements for effect? you cannot overdo the first. so if Mr LI is "overdoing the jarring" then he's dealing with "jarring" elements to prove a point. in that case P.M., i see your point. but what is Mr LI really trying to accomplish here?

northanger said...

roger, interesting TEAR trivia: Ruskin quotes a stanza from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Maud as an "exquisite" example of pathetic fallacy (There has fallen a splendid tear).

found a few things googling Voltaire and abstract constructions, {1} The Enlightenment's Crusade Against Reason & {2} Freedom and Religion in Kant and His Immediate Successors, here's a bit from the 2nd:

p297. ...they came up with an abstract I think and its objective counterpart, that is, the abstract conception of an object in general, all at once. Both of these ideas, though perhaps defining the conditions of intelligibility in general, have no direct connections with actual experience. And the task was thereby posed of bringing this abstract construction to bear upon the content of the latter—a task that proved just as intractable as the task of establishing, in Locke's and Hume's model of the mind, the supposed conformity of a subject to its intended object.70

Hegel, in other words, accepts the charges of formalism raised against Kant and Fichte by common sense. According to his diagnosis of the situation, however, his two predecessors had made themselves vulnerable to these charges because, in distinguishing by way of abstract reflection between form and content while defining in principle the structure of the whole experience, they had allowed the two, form and content, to fall side by side as two finite externally related quantities. They thus allowed the content to escape the comprehension of the concept, thereby abandoning it to the realm of empirical abstractions and pragmatic rules.71 In this, they were still conforming, paradoxically, to commonsense modes of thought.72 And according to Hegel, it was on the issue of 'happiness' that one could most clearly see the ambiguous relation that connected the idealism of Kant and Fichte with these modes of thought typical of Aufklärung. The culture of the Aufklärung manifested its Protestant spirit because of the importance that it placed on subjectivity. But it conceived this subjectivity positively, in the context of an assumed objective order of things that can be apprehended empirically. Accordingly, personal happiness was identified with natural perfection attained through reason. Because of the optimism that characterized the culture, the evils that de facto affect the human situation were glossed over in a metaphysical theory that made this world the best of all possible worlds. It idealized reality in fact, without recognizing that what it deemed real was in fact the product of abstraction and bore no visible connection with actual experience. In other words, it unwittingly absolutized the finite. Faith (Spalding's kind, we should gloss, fueled by natural optimism) was brought in for the precise purpose of bridging the gap between abstraction and reality.73 This did not prevent wags such as Voltaire from ridiculing both the metaphysical theory and the faith summoned on its behalf. Now, in Kant's and Fichte's type of abstraction, the optimism of the metaphysicians gives place to a somber moral view in which anything that has to do with nature, happiness included, becomes in principle suspect. In Fichte's book, the litanies of evils afflicting the human race that were only good sense when coming from Voltaire—ad hominem attacks directed at the abstract optimism of the philosophers—such litanies become instead universal statements about 'fallen nature'. "It is just what the Germans generally boast about," Hegel comments ironically. "They take a French aperçu and develop it; then they return it improved, put in its proper light, thoroughly worked out and scientifically formulated."74 Even in this more somber view of things, however, happiness is still required, and faith is again brought in to do the job. This is quite a different faith than that of the Aufklärung.

Roger Gathmann said...

North, speaking of jarring and rape and film, did you catch the story - I caught it on NPR - about the Kiterunner? It is almost too sadly symbolic of our current disorders.
From the Washington Post:

"Last year, filmmakers came to the Afghan capital and, intent on bringing the story to the screen, auditioned 5,000 youngsters for starring roles. They plucked two local boys from obscurity and cast them as Amir, the privileged child who is the movie's narrator, and Hassan, his loyal, if underprivileged, companion.

For Zekeria Ebrahim, an eager and affable schoolboy with cheerful brown eyes, playing the role of Amir brought poignant reminders of his own past. Sitting cross-legged on his family's living room floor this week, he recounted his unscripted crying when acting in a scene about the loss of his character's mother, and explaining to the film crew how his own father had been killed in a rocket attack in Kabul just before his birth.

Now, in another strange blurring of fiction and reality, the filmmakers -- who shot the movie in China because of security concerns in Afghanistan -- have delayed the planned Nov. 2 release of "The Kite Runner" by six weeks while working to get Zekeria and the other child star, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, out of the country.

The move follows warnings that the two boys could face reprisal attacks over a scene in which Hassan, played by Ahmad Khan, is raped by an ethnic Pashtun thug. The incident is crucial to the plot, because Amir witnesses the assault on his friend -- whose father is a servant to Amir's wealthier family -- and does not intercede. The episode plagues Amir with guilt and leads to his search for atonement as an adult.

Abdul Latif Ahmadi, president of Afghan Film, the state-run film company, said he and many others repeatedly warned "The Kite Runner" filmmakers, including producer E. Bennett Walsh and director Marc Forster, that that scene could provoke dangerous problems among religiously conservative Afghans, who might find it insulting. Such outbursts followed the release of the Indian movie "Kabul Express" last January, Ahmadi said. Parts of that film were considered demeaning to ethnic Hazaras, prompting death threats against the film's producer and an Afghan actor who fled the country.

"This is the mentality of the people in Afghanistan," which has a 28 percent literacy rate, Ahmadi explained. "People don't realize that it's not true. When they watch a film, they accept it -- it's real, why did they do it?"

Ahmadi and Nabi Tanha, 34, a veteran Afghan film star who plays Hassan's father, Ali, said the moviemakers had promised to cut the scene, but didn't."

northanger said...

yes, i've heard about Kite Runner. there's an online petition to remove the rape scene. maybe Kite Runner is a good example illustrating P.M.'s points: this writer thinks the book "describes life and political events of Afghanistan in a way that can appeal to the American perception of how life must have been, or is, in Afghanistan". during a reading of Hosseini's new book, this writer describes audience reaction of a woman getting a c-section w/o anesthesia. how do you determine when or if something "jarring" muddies communication?

two different groups, two different reactions, responding to...fiction.

northanger said...

can't help thinking you're a lot like Crash, Mr LI....

I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curveball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent over-rated crap. I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe they're ought to be a Constitutional Amendment outlawing astro turf in the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft core pornography, open your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet-kisses that last three days.


The central belief in the Church is the pursuit of Slack, which generally stands for the sense of freedom, independence, and original thinking that comes when you achieve your personal goals. The Church states that we are all born with Original Slack, but that Slack has been stolen from us by a worldwide conspiracy of normal people, or "pinks". The Church encourages originality and frowns on actions seen as pinkness, which happens when one bows down to authority and the accepted limits of society. Popular Church phrases supporting these goals are "Give Me Slack or KILL ME!", "The SubGenius Must Have Slack" and "Fuck 'Em If They Can't Take A Joke."

The Linux distribution Slackware is named for Slack. [2] The card game Chez Geek uses Slack to keep score; the object of the game is to accumulate Slack counters until one player wins by reaching his or her Slack Goal.

"Slack" has a Marxist explanation: once capitalism has thoroughly "rationalised" using electronic technology, there will be no slack as the wage paid to labor is in real terms driven down to the level of the reproduction of labor. Since the product of labor is taken away from labor in alienation, people naturally are alienated from the real conditions of life and feel they have no slack, no extra energy to do other than reproduce daily existence. The Church of the Subgenius, like any other religion, promises exit from this intolerable situation.

Anonymous said...

North, you are on a tear!
Oops, Mr. Lawrence might find such a phrase unclear or ambiguous, another instance of the damn "american" idiom?
I probably shouldn't even comment tonight, what with having had lots of wine while trying to get things - and myself - prepared for a voyage to my "homeland", but

I want to say to LI that his "jar-ring" writing, does not seem to me to be at the expense of clarity. O hell, forgive me for saying this LI, but you're a poet! It is poets who have a sense of idioms and clarity and ...tears.

Even poets who write in English:

Thus let your streams o'erflow your springs,
Till eyes and tears be the same things ;
And each the other's difference bears,
These weeping eyes, those seeing tears.

Roger Gathmann said...

Amie, have some excellent and memorable adventures in Paris! I notice that James Turrell is featured for a Nuit blanches. I do like James Turrell - the one time I met him, in Santa Fe, he seemed like a sweet enough guy. Anyway, if you do it and he is there, do try to meet him.

northanger said...

have a wonderful trip, Amie.