Saturday, March 31, 2007

the golden hairs of her armpits...

"Et, lorsque Nana levait les bras, on apercevait, aux feux de la rampe, les poils d’or de ses aisselles."

Nana attaching itself by a hundred strings to a prearranged table of kinships, heredities, transmissions, is the vast crowded epos of the daughter of the people filled with poisoned blood and sacrificed as well as sacrificing on the altar of luxury and lust; the panorama of such a “progress’ as Hogarth would more definitely have named – the progress across the high plateau of pleasure and down the facile descent on the other side.” – Henry James.

Offenbach’s career is neatly divided by 1870. In that year, he had to disappear from France for a while, since he was originally from Germany. The collapse of Napoleon III’s court, and the Second Empire, and the commune, and the establishment of the third republic created, at least for a while, a puritanical atmosphere in which Offenbach’s operas were looked upon as symptoms of decay, if not causative agents in themselves. And of course there was the matter of Offenbach’s connections in the imperial entourage.

Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels not only portray the corruption working through the genealogical tree of one family, but – by implication – the corruption that, on a macro level, brought about Le Debacle – France’s defeat at the hands of a surging Germany. On last page of Nana, in which Zola puts an end to her with that favorite of sentimental novelists, the unmentionable disease, one hears, in the streets, the stir and celebration of the crowds, receiving the news that war has been declared. Madness mirrors madness.

“A red crust, parting from the cheek, invaded the mouth, spread in an abominable smile. And on that horrible and grotesque mask of nothingness, the hair, the beautiful hair, guarding its solar like flames, flowed in a stream of gold. Venus decomposed. It seems that the virus she caught in the sewer, on all those tolerated corpses, this ferment by which she had empoisoned a whole people, had mounted to her face and utterly corrupted it.
The room was empty. A great desperate wind came up from the boulevard and swelled the curtain.
- To Berlin! To Berlin!”

Momento Mori and all that – death being the moralist’s great hat trick.

This, then, is Zola’s judgment on the subversive content of Offenbach’s operas – for subversion buttressed the order by creating a space in which all that was solid melted into money, and money became both a value and the mocker of all value.

Es gab alles, alles! Das hinderte nicht, daß sich die meisten wie Sarcey durch die Operette in ein Traumreich entführt glaubten. Sie träumten selber. Wären sie wach gewesen, so hätten sie (…) die unwahrscheinliche Wirklichkeit ihres Daseins wiedererkannt. – Kracauer

“It had everything, everything! But that didn’t get in the way of the fact that most, like Sarcey [a critic] felt themselves enticed by the operetta into a dreamland. They dreamed themselves. If they had been awake, they would have recognized… the improbably reality of their own existences.”

In European history, there were three occasions, that I can think of, in which the theater really played an important political role: The Marriage of Figaro, The Three Penny Opera, and the two mytho-farces of Offenbach, Orpheus in Hell and Beautiful Helen. In all three instances, a society went to see itself unmasked – and found the spectacle terribly funny. One of the inspirations for Canetti’s Crowds and Power was the opening night of the Three Penny Opera:

“It was the exactest expression of this Berlin. The people were howling up themselves, this was what they were and they were happy about it. Erst kam ihr Fressen, dann kam ihre Moral – nobody could have said it any better, they took it literally… Against the sweet forms of the Viennese operetta, in which the people could calmly find everything that they wished, here was another, which put on a Berliner form, with all its hardness, rascality and banal justifications, that they wanted no less than, and probably more than that sweetness.”

The dreamworlds in which the dreamers become aware of what they are wishing for batter against the constitutive principle of dreaming, at least according to Freudian theory. The dream takes its form from condensation, from the active intervention of the censor on the wish and that glitch in the libido's program: it can't say no. Dreams, in other words, require a latent content, an opacity. This is how the human dreamer humanly dreams. Otherwise, we get … animals. And the movement is, indeed, to the animal here, at least with Zola and Canetti.

That there is censorship outside of dreams, in the state or the corporation, is an important social evidence for the felt notion that art can be subversive in some manner – can corrupt morals or overthrow institutions. But this social evidence is, LI would contend, about the whole art system – no one work operates to subvert faith in the state, the gods, or money. So that rare moment when one work seems to have gathered into itself, by some genius, a real look at ‘what we are and why we are well pleased with ourselves’ – those are definitely worth looking at. Especially as their prestige has been lent, by a multitude of critics, to the drabbest and most commonplace of movies, books, paintings and novels.

Well, let’s end this with the beginning from Nana. Zola obviously bases Nana’s first appearance as Venus on Offenbach’s La Belle Helene. Here’s one translation:

“The traditional three knocks were given, and among the returning throng, attendants, laden with pelisses and overcoats, bustled about at a great rate in order to put away people’s things. The clappers applauded the scenery, which represented a grotto on Mount Etna, hollowed out in a silver mine and with sides glittering like new money. In the background Vulcan’s forge glowed like a setting star. Diana, since the second act, had come to a good understanding with the god, who was to pretend that he was on a journey, so as to leave the way clear for Venus and Mars. Then scarcely was Diana alone than Venus made her appearance. A shiver of delight ran round the house. Nana was nude. With quiet audacity she appeared in her nakedness, certain of the sovereign power of her flesh. Some gauze enveloped her, but her rounded shoulders, her Amazonian bosom, her wide hips, which swayed to and fro voluptuously, her whole body, in fact, could be divined, nay discerned, in all its foamlike whiteness of tint beneath the slight fabric she wore. It was Venus rising from the waves with no veil save her tresses. And when Nana lifted her arms the golden hairs in her armpits were observable in the glare of the footlights.”

It is rather funny that even now the translation above, on an etext server in Australia, is censored. After the Amazonian bosom Zola writes: “sa gorge d’amazone dont les pointes roses se tenaient levées et rigides comme des lances” – but the nipple talk was all too much for the English translators all the way up to the sixties. To LI, however, the most important part of this description is the golden hairs of the armpits. Which I will return to, I hope.

Oh, and do go to the Mery Laurent page where I stole my photograph of la belle Helene.

Friday, March 30, 2007

the art in subversion

One must have ideas and tunes that are as genuine as hard cash. – Offenbach

Offenbach has always had heavy fans – Nietzsche, Karl Kraus, Kracauer. Kracauer wrote about Orphee aux enfers, the first Offenbach opera to mock the Gods, that in it Offenbach was calling out to the bourgeoisie:

“Confess that you are just as bored as the gods, and follow the lead that they are giving. What was the lead the gods were giving? They were setting about making a revolution… And so that their anger might be given a thorough contemporary note, the orchestra [strikes] up the Marseillaise, which in the days of the Second Empire was very definitely a revolutionary song. The challenge was plain enough.” (Quoted in Michael Chanon, from Handel to Hendrix)

Of course, boredom is a two edged butter knife, and if we make revolution from boredom, what will we do when we are bored with revolution?

Kracauer, thank god, lived in the days before the verb subvert entered the critical vocabulary like a radical chic diva. LI has read with interest – although not with a complete thoroughness, since it was sometimes hard to keep up with all the threads – Le Colonel Chabert’s many sword fights on her own site and the Parodycenter concerning 300, a movie LI is never going to see, as it sounds infinitely boring, and some David Lynch movies, which we might see, and Baudrillard, who we are bracketing or we will drown in themes. What interests us is the set of assumptions that circulate around the convergence of politics and art. We are interested because we find that, mostly, these discussions make art subservient to politics, which we strongly disagree with, while at the same time pursuing a sort of mock politics through art, which we find, to say the least, a funny way to engage in politics. Not that this is new, of course - these themes are as old as the Second International. Anyway, LCC’s comments reminded us a bit of the problem Zola had with Offenbach. All of which fits into our fait divers theme, in its own odd way.

The beginning of Nana is a rather scathing description of La Belle Helene, which you can see in these youtube clips: here (I love Paris in this clip!) and then follow the thread. Zola called it La Blonde Vénus and he had every reason to begin Nana’s adventures here. Those who love their Zola will recall that Nana was first seen as a little girl with daring eyes who watches her Mom go to bed with her lover, who is renting a room from the family, while her father lies in a drunken stupor in his own vomit on his bedroom. If you read the Penguin translation of Nana, Douglas Parmee, who introduces it, writes Offenbach… “whose witty subversion of the regime Zola quite failed to grasp, viewing him instead, with great distaste, purely as the impudent representative of frothy frivolity.” Subversion, subversion, and the failure to grasp it (or its failure to grasp) being at the heart of the LCC controversy, we thought it might be interesting to ask what about a wholly other era and genre – although one that involves Greeks and their mythology – whether Zola failed to grasp subversion, here, or loathed it in the grasping.

Which is something we will revisit in another post.

how many times do I have to tell you, America?

“A dry wind of the high places in the wilderness toward the
daughter of my people, not to fan, nor to cleanse,

Even a full wind from those places shall come unto me: now
also will I give sentence against them.”

The escalation in all its glory:

“The two men showed up on Tuesday afternoon to evict Suaada Saadoun’s family. One was carrying a shiny black pistol.

Ms. Saadoun was a Sunni Arab living in a Shiite enclave of western Baghdad. A widowed mother of seven, she and her family had been chased out once before. This time, she called American and Kurdish soldiers at a base less than a mile to the east.
The men tried to drive away, but the soldiers had blocked the street. They pulled the men out of the car.

“If anything happens to us, they’re the ones responsible,” said Ms. Saadoun, 49, a burly, boisterous woman in a black robe and lavender-blue head scarf.

The Americans shoved the men into a Humvee. Neighbors clapped and cheered as if their soccer team had just won a title.

The next morning, Ms. Saadoun was shot dead while walking by a bakery in the local market.”

No amount of salty water, or of blood, or of bile, will ever be enough to clean the stain of this war from this fuckin generation. The sentence has been given about America. The arrogance that cheerfulness once balanced has become unbalanced, while the cheerfulness has become, increasingly, the manic expression of a national carbs and proteins overload; the mad lust for power that showed itself in winds, indeed, winds full of fallout, budgets full of death, sixty years of them, webs of filth woven across the face of the continent, and the children of lynch parties voting in those who proposed lynching on a wider scale, world class lynchings, this is the Old Found Land where the milk soured on our tongues.

What is to be done, then?

I was more than happy to see the Democrats pass an appropriation bill with a pull out date. But as LI has said before, the demand for an immediate pull out shouldn’t hypnotize those who demand it into paying no attention to the occupation as it is – which, in effect, has happened. Year by year, the occupation has been allowed to drift by, in America, while the conversation revolves around the beginning of the invasion and the putative future pullout. No cry for justice, for a ceasefire, for peace.

LI hopes that those who read this site do read the Iraqi bloggers. On March 19, Treasure of Baghdad published an excellent survey of Iraqi bloggers asking about the state of the war. One of the respondents stood out, in my mind: Zeyad, from Healing Iraq. Even though I think his response depends, too much, on a rule enforcing mechanism that doesn’t exist, he floats two crucial ideas: amnesty and reconciliation, which need to be part of a ceasefire process (which will, in fact, recognize that the rule enforcing mechanisms that now exist – government, militia, insurgent – must come to a point where they can create the rule enforcing mechanism – the state – in Iraq. The state does not exist in Iraq right now - since a real state can't depend on a foreign power to enforce its writ, or allow that power to dictate its policies).

“What was your opinion when the US decided to invade Iraq in 2003?
I was supportive of the war. I was living a meaningless life of despair under Saddam's regime and I naiively believed that the U.S. was sincere and had a viable plan to improve our lives and bring us "freedom and democracy." I was mistaken, of course, and those terms only bring a wry smile to my face now.
It has been four years since the invasion. Has your opinion changed since then? Why?
My opinion started gradually changing not long after the invasion. It was a combination of reasons: The U.S. mishandling of the war, the destruction and the looting, the vengeful steps taken against a large portion of the population by both the U.S. and returning exiles, the growing insurgency, the empowerment of Islamic fundamentalists, the establishment of a political system based on sectarian and ethnic quotas, building security forces that are more loyal to sectarian warlords than the state, the sectarian violence, the huge toll on Iraqi lives, the massive and underreported refugee crisis, the displacement and breakup of families, the division of once harmonious communities, the mistrust between Iraqis, etc.
Whom do you blame for the insecurity in Iraq? Why?
It is very popular these days to blame the victim, but I believe that everyone shares some of the blame. The U.S., the international community, the U.N., Iraqi politicians, power-hungry clerics, the Iraqi people, the former regime, Iran, Saudi Arabia. Instead of assigning blame, I think it is better to work out solutions.
What do you think should be done to quell the violence there?
1- The U.S. should immediately work with regional countries (including Syria and Iran, yes) and the international community to broker an agreement between the warring factions to find agreeable methods on sharing power, wealth and resources. The current government can continue to operate meanwhile as a caretaker government until such an agreement is reached. Corrupt politicians who want to work from London or Teheran should be relieved of their positions.
2- An unconditional amnesty should be offered for all militant groups and militias in the country. An effective campaign to completely disarm the population should follow immediately. Militias and paramilitary forces, including the small private militias of politicians and religious leaders, should be disbanded. No exceptions. No "red lines." No excuses.
3- Former Ba'athists, bureaucrats, and military officers should be pardoned and brought back into the fold as part of a country-wide national reconciliation effort. The Iraqi security forces that the U.S. has recruited should be investigated thoroughly and purged. Reintroducing military conscription could be a solution to limit the infiltration of rogue elements that do not work for the state.
4- Then, schedule a new date for parliamentary elections with direct international supervision. No sectarian or ethnic slates should be allowed. No clerics should be allowed to give spiritual "blessings" for any candidates or lists. A new constitution should be written after that. Postpone all contentious issues until after that. No sneaky U.S.-sponsored privatization and oil laws should be passed until that period.
5- The U.S. should clearly announce a timetable for withdrawal of its troops. No excuses.

Do you think the US should withdraw its forces from Iraq now or not? Why?

The U.S. should at least set a timetable for withdrawal but not after the above steps are made. The occupation can not go on forever, because it is obvious that its presence is fueling further chaos and violence. Military solutions have proven their futility.

Do you think the war was worth it? Why?

It will not be readily obvious if the war was worth it or not. The toll in lives has been enormous so far. Future generations will be scarred forever as a result of this war, and they are the ones who are supposed to make a change for the better.”

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Dominique Kalifa

Okay, we’ve seen Barthes, we’ve seen Mallarme, is it time yet to go to the concession stand and buy the kids peanuts, and what does this have to do with our Bush era beeswax anyway, honey?

Let’s turn, shall we, he said medically, to this essay by Dominique Kalifa, a French historian very interested in the symbiotic relationship between crime and the press. Kalifa pushes back to the 1830s the “mediatic era”, seeing three things come together then: a cheap, mass circulation press; second, a press in which more can be printed (the initiative comes here from the editor Gervais Charpentier, who lead his« révolution » in 1838. Thanks to the technical possibilities opened by the mechanical presses, he created a new format, the so called « in-18 jésus » (18,3 x 11,5 cm), which permitted the offer of much more text for a price reduced by half: 3,50 francs au lieu de 7. The totality of bookstores were constrained to align themselves, engaging from than on, little by little, in the path which lead to the cheap book). And finally, another technical innovation, the illustration, where engravings, vignettes and lithographs became more and more numerous, doing their working on the writing of the text itself.”

Kalifa then jumps to the 1860s, the decade of decay (and as I’ve pointed out before, Louis Napoleon’s era holds eerie resemblances to our own – down to the coup that began it all. Henri Rochefort said, about Napoleon II, that there was a curious enthusiasm for him in prisons, among thieves. I do wonder if thieves or conmen look at Bush as a brother). Napoleon II began lifting censorship rules on the press. Thus, more radical press popped up and like that. The working class got to speak out and like that. But a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution.

“But the initiatives of the 1860s were not limited only to the universe of reading. Modernisation touched the world of spectacles (spectacle I translated, in that Mallarme piece, as side show), which entered into the industrial regime under the Second Empire. This is the case of the café-concert, which is structured in a hierarchised network of programs and venues, and it is also that of theater, of which the production diversified, attaining in 1867 an exceptional level of grosses. In the remodeled, hausmannized city, a new social spectacle outlines itself, the strolls of loiterers, the rushes on the boulevards or the refluxes of the crowd coming out of the department stores in which is specified that public taste for reality that the cinema is going to soon capture. But the most significant expample is without doubt that of the 1867 l'Exposition universelle, which welcomed to Paris 11 million visitors, the double of that of 1855. It is besides there, in that curious enterprise which conjoins social pedagogy and industrial exhibition, mixes commercial, political and aesthetic functions, where W. Benjamin wanted to see the christening of the spectactle industry.”

Which brings us up to the case of Tropmann, the famous murder whose crimes and execution were considered symbolic of the sinister atmosphere of Second Empire decay and corruption. And which we consider to be among the most significant of private murders for merging the political and the sensational in a way that was felt, even then, to be new.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

side show act, interrupted

We all work to one effect, some willingly, and with a rational
apprehension of what we do: others without any such knowledge.
As I think Heraclitus in a place speaketh of them that sleep,
that even they do work in their kind, and do confer to the general
operations of the world. One man therefore doth co-operate after
one sort, and another after another sort; but even he that doth murmur,
and to his power doth resist and hinder; even he as much as any
doth co-operate. – Marcus Aurelius

LI was going to directly plow into our Barthes quote – in the post before the last post – to suss out this “immanence” and the strangely intimate world of the news as it is sliced, diced, produced, and repeated on the tv news broadcast that forms the basis for your average American householder’s feel for the world outside of the perimeter. And also the world at the urban center, the fear of the black planet world. Our idea is that the ‘idiocy’ at play in the defense of the Iraq war as something that could best be described in terms of American crime – and not any old American crime, but the crime associated with black metropoles – is a kiss away from the forms and figures of the newscast, from the mentality shaped by those news casts.

But then we said to ourselves: what’s with the fuckin’ directness, LI? Don’t you always say, by indirection I will find direction out? Or something like that, you mumbly old prick? LI likes to diversify meetings of the editorial board with a little insult, to break up the monotony of there being only one editor. I’m cracking myself up here, folks. I’ll be in Omaha on the 5th, and then a two week engagement at the Bismark, North Dakota Holiday Inn with the Dakota Polka Nation. …

Instead, I’m going to cut from Barthes to Mallarme. There’s a cut for ya. Mallarme was fascinated by the fait divers, which was blooming in the late and degenerate last decade of the farce Napoleon. The ‘interrupted side show’, as I am going to translate the following piece of prose, figures in his final collection, Divagations, subsumed under the title of Grands faits divers. Translating Mallarme is a classic mug’s game. It can’t be done, it destroys the destruction wrought on the French language in the French – for like any good modernist prose, Mallarme’s works by wrecking. How, for instance, to reproduce Mallarme’ habitual inversion of the order of anaphora, so that the “this” referred to comes after its anaphoric marking. Like I am supposed to know what this would sound like in English! I’m a babbler here meself. But I found this piece to have, a, on odd match with the line from Marcus Aurelius, and b., something to do with the notion of the brief, intense episode that catches fire with its own elements and burns itself out.

An interrupted side show act.
How far is civilization from procuring the joys attributable to that estate! One has to be astonished, for example, that there does not exist an association between dreamers sojourning in every great city to support a newspaper which would take note of events in the proper light of the dream. Reality is an artifice, made for sticking the middle intellect between the mirages of a fact; but it reposes for that very reason on some universal entente: let’s see if it is not, in the ideal, a necessary aspect, evident, simple, which serves the type. I wish, for myself alone, to write as it struck my poet’s gaze, an anecdote in the state it was in before reporters divulged it to the crowds prepared to assign to each thing its common character.
The little theater of PRODIGALITES adds to the exhibition of a living cousin of Atta Troll or of Martin its classic fairy pantomime the Beast and the Genie; I have, in order to recognize the invitation of a double ticket some ending up yesterday at my place, posed my hat in the vacant auditorium in the seat next to me, an absence of friends testifying to the general taste for avoiding this naïve spectacle. What happens before my eyes? Nothing, save that: from amidst the evasive palenesses of muslin finding shelter on twenty pedestals in architecture imitative of Baghdad there jumps out a smile and open arms to the sad weight of a bear: while the hero, a clown, evoker of these sylphids and their guardian, in his high silver nudity, rallied the animal with our superiority. What a break, to enjoy like the crowd the myth, all banality added, and without anyone sitting nearby to whom to pour out these reflections; to see the ordinary and splendid eve of the act discovered on the ramp by my research saturated with fantasies or symbols. A stranger to the many reminiscences of evenings like this, the brand newest of accidents! suscitated my attention: one of the numerous salves of applause distributed according to the enthusiasm for the illustration before us of the authentic privilege of man, having just, broken by what? ceased all at once, with a fixed fracas of glory at its peak, unable to expand itself. All ears, when what was needed was all eyes. At the puppet’s gesture, a bent palm in the air opening five fingers, I understood that he had brilliantly captured all sympathies by the air of trapping on the wing something, the figure (and that is all) of the facility which one is taken by an idea; and that moved by the light breeze caused by the gesture, the bear rhythmically and gently rose up, questioned that exploit, one claw posed on the ribbons of the human shoulder. No one breathed, so much did this situation pose some grave consequences for the honor of the race: what was going to happen? The other paw fell, supple, against an arm extended along the silver suit; and one sees, a couple united in some secret understanding, how an inferior man, beefy, good natured, standing on two hairy, slightly apart legs, squeezes to learn here the practices of genius, and his black muzzled cranium only gets halfway there, the butt of his brilliant and supernatural brother: but who, himself! lifting up, the mad mouth of a vagueness, a terrible head moving by a visible string a golden paper fly in the horror of true denials. An act of a clarity transcending the vast sawdust strewn stage, with this gift, proper to art, of lasting for a long time: in order to make it complete in its entirety I let tacitly stream out of the rejection from the Polar regions a forbidden discourse, without letting myself be put off by the probably fatal attitude taken by the mime, repository of our pride. “Be good enough (this was the sense) to not lack the charity to explain to me the virtue of this atmosphere of splendor, of dust and voices, where you have taught me to move. My request, my pressing request, is simply that you don’t seem, in an anguish that is not only faked, to be able to respond to it; o subtle older brother, throw yourself on the regions of wisdom, to me, still dressed for an informal stay in the caves where I replunge, in the night of humble epochs, my latent force, in order for me to free you. Let us authenticate, by this narrow hug, before the multitude sitting here to this end, the pact of our reconciliation.” The absence of any breath united to space, in what an absolute spot I lived through one of those dramas of astral history electing, in order to produce itself, this modest theater! the crowd was effaced, all, in the emblem of its spiritual situation magnifying the scene: modern dispenser of ecstasy, only, with the impartiality of an elementary thing, the gas, up in the ceiling of the auditorium, continuing a luminous expectant sound.
The charm was broken: this is when a piece of meat, nude, brutal, traversed my vision directed from the wings, in advance by some moments on the recompense, the mysteriousness of the ordinary after these scenes. A substitute rag bleeding by the bear who, instincts that were anterior to a higher curiosity with which the stage lights had endowed him now rediscovered, fell on his four paws and, as though the silence has carried one away, went to sniff it in the stuffed animal march of his kind, in order to sink his teeth into it, this prey. A sigh, almost exempt of deception, soothed incomprehensibly the assembly: of which the lorgnettes, by rows, searched, glinting with their refined lenses, the game of that splendid imbecile evaporated in his fear; but they see an abject meal preferred perhaps by the animal to the same thing that he had needed to do at first to our image, in order to taste it. The curtain, hesitating up to now in the worry of increasing the danger or the emotion, suddenly let fall its daily round of prices and common places. I got up like everybody else, in order to breath outside, astonished not to have felt, again, the same genre of impression as my fellows, but serene: for my way of seeing, after all, had been superior, and even true.”

that dog don't hunt... the right way, sir

Sometimes the liberal bloggers remind us of so many untrained coon hounds out on the hunt, baying for anything – skunk, squirrel or sparrow – except coon. So it seems at least with the Berube post over at Crooked Timber and the resulting comments rush, in which LI elbowed into the queue, hollerin’ for a stake.

Now to my mind there’s one and only one coon in the hunt: the war culture. Since the whole thing started on the level of a feud between Cockburn and Berube on the credentials of Berube’s anti-war stance (about which Cockburn is wrong, apparently) this was probably a rush that was gonna go wrong from the beginning. And in fact Cockburn’s fucking point, at the beginning of his article, doesn’t get a look: “Pick almost any date on the calendar and it’ll turn out that the US either started a war, ended a war, perpetrated a massacre or sent its UN Ambassador into the Security Council to declare to issue an ultimatum. It’s like driving across the American West. “Historic marker, 1 mile”, the sign says. A minute later you pull over and find yourself standing on dead Indians. “On this spot, in 1879 Major T and a troop of US cavalry “

So the point is the American normalization of the war culture, and its effects. But in the liberal anti-war coon hunt, the whole notion that it is somewhat crooked and downright fucked that the U.S. spends the sums it does on war, engages in so many wars, encircles the globe with its troops, and keeps trying to jimmy the rules so that its missiles dominate this planet with the threat of cruel annihilation goes and sits on a log and has a beer while we all bark all over the woods. In place of an honest discussion of the war culture there is always a discussion of the perfect war, the one we all like to imagine where nobody can say it isn’t right and good and just the thing to do. It’s the Beach Boy’s immortal hit, wouldn’t it be nice if we were married, except not about marriage, but about war. This alluring possibility remains, of course, a little abstract, and none of the participants or promoters have the slightest inclination to actually get into one of these dreamy wars or even look at the gross pictures of people fucked up by it – the scoriated torsos, extruded eyes, the wriggly spill of bowels in lovely pixel.

I’ve been reading Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore this week. The preface was written in 1962. By this time, Wilson was in his mandarin autumn. He’d been there in 1932, voting communist. He’d been there in the fifties, swatting down Agatha Christie in the New Yorker book section. At this point he could take a long squint at the course of American history, and he saw: wow, a lot of war. And the abiding delusion that all these wars were forced upon a peaceseeking Columbia – even, as some senator said before we invaded Mexico in 1845, it was the non-aggressiveness of the Mexicans that had forced our hand. Wilson disposes of the question of right and wrong with an image that he boosts, perhaps unconsciously, from the beginning of Dreiser’s the Financier. “In a recent Walt Disney film showing life at the bottom of the sea, a primitive organism called a sea slug is seen gobbling up a smaller organism through a large orifice at the end of its body; confronted with another sea slug of only a slightly lesser size, it ingurgitates that, too.” Wilson sees the repression of the Southern states, the war against Mexico, the first World War, etc. – all the way up to the recent hostility to Castro – as part of the same blind pattern of expansion. With that idea, he sees Lincoln as a figure like Bismark and Lenin. He ends the intro with a survey of the harm done by the cold war to our fundamental liberties. It is a nice thorough job.

The liberal in me protests, though, against the sea slug. Surely we can put that god damn sea slug on a vegetarian diet, dip that orifice into... g-green technology! or some damn thing if we really try. Although the realist thinks that, most likely, the slug is in a phase of fatal overstretch that will set much harsher limits to its very ability to continue this insane thirst for lesser sea slugs.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

iraq and the world of the fait-divers

LI often wonders about a particular form of the defense of the Iraq war that we come across in comments threads, and that seems pretty common the margins of conservative political talk. The defense goes like this: Iraq is mostly peaceful, and the violence there is no greater than violence in a major U.S. metropolis. The metropolis chosen is, of course, always predominantly black. Here’s an example from last week’s news:

During an interview Monday with WILS-AM in Lansing, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, said the returning troops he has talked with "indicate to me that 80 to 85 percent, in a conservative fashion, of (Iraq) is reasonably under control, at least as well as Detroit or Chicago or any of our other big cities. That's an encouraging sign."
Program host Jack Ebling remarked, "I've never heard Iraq compared to Detroit before."

Walberg responded: "Well, in fact, in many places it's as safe and cared for as Detroit or Harvey, Illinois, or some other places that have trouble with armed violence that takes place on occasion."

Detroit and Chicago had higher rates of murder, assault, robbery, burglary and car theft than the nation as a whole in 2005, according to FBI statistics. Harvey is an economically depressed suburb of Chicago with about 30,000 residents — about 80 percent of whom are black, the same proportion as in Detroit.”

Walberg was born in Chicago, grew up on the city's south side and is an ordained minister. He is in his first term in the U.S. House, serving a district that includes Branch, Eaton, Hillsdale, Jackson and Lenawee counties, and parts of Calhoun and Washtenaw counties.

The district in south central Michigan is 90.1 percent white and 5.7 percent black, with other races and mixed-race persons comprising the remainder, according to 2000 U.S. Census data.

Walberg spokesman Matt Lahr said in a statement that the congressman "frequently shares sentiments expressed to him by the soldiers and veterans he meets at Walter Reed Hospital or the (Veterans Affairs) hospital in Battle Creek.
"These soldiers have expressed optimism to the congressman about the safety and security of the majority of Iraq. There are still major challenges in Iraq, especially in the Anbar province and Sadr City," said Lahr, who declined to respond to the comments from the Detroit mayor's office.”

LI gets impatient with this sort of thing, since it is so obviously bogus. To take a simple example ... No. Countering an argument like this, as I was about to do, is pointless. It is the non-argumentive character of the argument that is the whole point. The thread is so obviously pointless that one begins to wonder about the long term mental effects of fallout, and whether they weren’t a lot more severe than we were ever told.

But here’s a thought. Maybe the answer is given by an old essay of Roland Barthes. Instead of the isotopes in the milk solution, that is.

Perhaps this comparison, which seems to willfully isolate the speaker from the reality of war in any sense, is the result of conditioning. After all, the Walbergs out there grew up turning on the news at ten and watching a fifteen minutes of murder stories, mostly, with the rest of the time devoted to sports and weather. In other words, they grew up in the world of the faits-divers.

Which gets us to Roland Barthes’ essay on the fait-divers. In order to explain the structure of the fait-divers, Barthes makes an initial move that I am not entirely happy with – but that does work towards the point he is making. He compares the story of a murder to the story of a political assassination. I am not entirely happy with that comparison, because I think it inscribes a certain class hierarchy, in terms of what is and what is not serious, into a supposedly neutral distinction between narrative types. On the other hand, it does seem to work – and it does explain the isolating effect given by the comparison of Iraq to Detroit. The effect is two-fold: it both points at the isolation of the speaker and it tries to enforce a certain isolation, a certain political passivity, on the hearer.

But let’s not jump the gun here. Here’s Barthes:

The difference appears as soon as we compare our two murders. In the first (the assassination) the event (the murder) necessarily refers to an extensive situation outside itself, previous to and around it: “politics”; such news cannot be understood immediately, it can be defined only in relation to a knowledge external to the event, which is political knowledge, however confused; in short, a murder esacpes the fait-divers whenever it is exogenous, proceeding from an already known world; we might then say that it has no sufficient structure of its own, for it is never anything but the manifest term of an implicit structure which pre-exists it: there is no political news without duration, for politics is a transtemrpoaral category; this is true, moreover, of all news proceeding from a named horizon, from an anterior time: it can never constitute faits-divers; in terms of literature, such items are fragments of novels, insofar as every novel is itself an extensive knowledge of which nay event occurring within it is nothing but a simple variable.

Thus an assassination is always, by definition, partial information; the fait-divers, on the contrary, is total news, or more precisely, immanent; it contains all its knowledge in itself; no need to know anything about the world in order to consume a fait-divers; it refers formally to nothing but itself; of course its content is not alien to the world: disasters, murders, rapes, accidents, thefts, all this refers to man, to his history, his alienation, his hallucinations, his dreams, his fears: an ideology and psychoanaysis of the fait-divers are possible, but they would concern a world of which knowledge is never anything but intellectual, analytical, elaborated at second-hand by the person who speaks of the fait-divers, not by the person who consumes it; on the level of reading, everything is given within the fait-divers; its circumstances, its causes, its past, its outcome; without duration and without context, it constitutes an immediate, total being which refers, fformally at least, to nothing implicit; in this it is related to the short story and the tale, and no longer to the novel. It is its immanence which defines the fait-divers.1

… whatever its content’s density, astonishment, horror, or poverty, the fait-divers begins only where the news divides and thereby involves the certainty of a relation; the brevity of the utterance or the importance of the information, elsewhere a guarantee of unity, can never efface the articulated character of the fait-divers: five million dead in Peru? The hoorr is total, the sentence is simple; yet the notable, here, is already the relation between the dead and a number. Granted, a structure is always articulated; but here the articulation is internal to the immediate narrative, whereas in political news, for example, it is transferred outside the discourse to an implicit context.

1. Certain faits-divers are developed over several days; this does not violate their constitutive immanence, for they still imply an extremely short memory.

I’ll have more to say on this in my next post

a medical question

Democrat Proposes Making Withdrawal Date Secret
Only Congress, White House and Iraqi Government Would Know Plan
- Headline, Washington Post

I'm pretty sure repeated bouts of convulsive, sardonic laughter have been implicated in lung cancer. So, if the good citizens of Mississippi can take AJ Reynolds for ten billion or so, do you think LI can sue WAPO for, say, 100,000 plus a gift card at the good for a lifetime supply of xanax?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

edna st. vincent millay and hart crane

The Werepoet has been glorifying Edna St. Vincent Millay lately .

I’m a latecomer to Millay. In the summer of 2001, I contacted Inside New York to write a review of the Millay bio, Savage Beauty, that came out that season. Then I went to Mexico. I brought the book with me and read it as I did what I did in Mexico, and after a while, Inside NY got pissed with me. Where was the review? So I did it fast, and I wrote way over the word limit, and the editor, justly, said you have screwed the pooch, son.

So I dint make the easy on that, did I? But the bio turned me onto the work. And I fell for Edna. This was unexpected. See, I’d been suckled, or not exactly suckled, more like inducted into poetry in high school through reading the modernist masters. Admittedly, I did not understand Wallace Stevens – but I lapped up Eliot and Pound. When I played tennis with my best friend K. – glorious autumns at the Dekalb County Junior College tennis courts – I used to amuse him by spouting off bits of Gerontion. Patched and peeled in London. I am an old man in an old house. Waiting for rain. I’m not going to look and see if that is right, but it was right back then. Used to amuse the cross country team – I was a sporty little fuck – with the first ten lines of the Wasteland. Etc. My mom had more sentimental tastes in poetry. O captain my captain our fearful trip is done. Sort of thing. Funny thing, I’m her age now, and I, too, get tearful about o captain my captain.

So this wasn’t the kind of upbringing in which Edna st. Vincent Millay would figure as anything but a figure of fun, an uncool leftover. The sexist bias has slowly sloughed off over the years. Now, mind you, I’m not blaming the modernists. I understand how, buried beneath the vesuvius of marmelade out in the sticks, one kicks out – however, I do expect a little retrospective wisdom. I picked up the Library of America edition of Hart Crane, poetry and letters, today, and turned to the index, wondering what he’d say about Millay. Just one notice, in a letter to a friend back where he came from, Ohio. It was disappointing, but not surprising:

“I can come half way with you about Edna Millay – but I fear not much further. She really has genius in a limited sense, and is much better than Sara Teasdale, Marguerite Wilkinson, Lady Speyer, etc. to mention a few drops in the bucket of feminine lushness that form a kind of milky way in the poets firmament of the time (likewise all times), indeed I think she is every bit as good as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. … I can only say that I do not care for Mme Browning. And on top of my dislike for this lady, Tennyson, Thompson, Chatterton, Byron Moore Milton and several more, I have the brassiness to call myself a person of rather catholic admirations.”

Remember, you needed dynamite to become modern, or so it seemed, in 1921. Alas, the purge of poets was less excusable when all the cold war broody critics of the 50scontinued in H.C.’s vein., all those men and women with hornrims and a pessimistic view of human nature and going on portentously about the Great Tradition,

There is a certain funny turn here, since Crane, proclaiming his “esoteric’ taste for Donne, misses the fact that Millay’s street ballad style reaches back to John Tyler the Water Poet and the songs of the levelers and the diggers. Take Recuerdo, for instance. Millay effortlessly does something that Crane strives for in The Bridge:

We were very tired, we were very merry--
We had gone back and forth all night upon the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable--
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on the hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry--
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and the pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

I am only a little baffled by the line about the sun – it seems too easy. But otherwise, how completely elbows out is this poem? And we gave her all our money but the subway fares is so goddam perfect that, I hope, I don’t have to point out its perfection.

Alas, blinded by the need to kick out, Crane couldn’t see this. Plus of course he is the classic Midwestern type who comes to NYC and begins to judge among the quick and the unsophisticated. It is his way of getting an edge.

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...