Saturday, September 08, 2007

the triumph of happiness: a tragedy

Running yesterday, I came up with a brilliant title for my little livret on happiness. Check this out: The triumph of happiness: a tragedy. W..well, at least it seemed brilliant at the one mile sweat point.

I meant to organize my notes and begin my essay while I was in Atlanta, but this didn’t happen. While the great midnights sometimes happen in guest bedrooms, or in clinics, or at desks so unfamiliar as not to be invisibly chained with the thousand and one reminders of failure and projects half finished, my great midnights now happen, usually, between eleven a.m. and two p.m. I grow old, I grow old, I will wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Now, in my last two posts, I translated bits of an essay by Stendhal to recall us to a historical factum: that a sharp, or even brilliant observer of the four most developed European societies in 1830 – those of England, France, Italy and Germany – registered a distinct change in the intellectual atmosphere of the time, and connected that change, in the essay, with the advent of a new form of speech a l’allemand – the language of the Critique and of the Phenomenology. At the same time, he began writing a murder story set in a rural area in which industrialization was beginning to emerge.

In the essay, Stendhal’s whiggish philosopher claims to be speaking the language of Cabinas, and of the Civil Code. Nobody reads Cabinas anymore. I certainly don’t. But curious about the connection between Cabinas and Bentham, I went to the OC, and found this interesting passage, in an essay about medical practice:

‘When one is young and without knowledge of the world, the pleasure of doing good is very connected to the recognition that one flatters oneself that one will obtain thereby. But time and experience soon detach by degrees a hope too often disappointed; and one finishes by doing good only for oneself, for the pure satisfaction that attaches to it; for conforming to the general social order, which, it is true, gives us more or less advantages in return. Such is at least the sentiment the the proofs of ingratitude produce quickly enough on those who join reason to soulfulness.For the doctor, the passage is perhaps a little more difficult; the blows are sharper. The pleasure of comforting a suffering being is so sweet! the care that one expends has something so sacred about it! in restoring life, health and happiness to the patient, in rendering him back sound to the objects of his affection, one has associated oneself so closely with his existence! In a word, one feels oneself guilty if one even suspects that an eternal recognition will not be forthcoming that when, in fact, it isn’t forthcoming, one is struck, at first, by astonishment, and swollen with indignation; and the wound to the heart is joined to the confusion and bitter discontent of a first demystification.

However, we have to say, for everybody needs to know this, nothing is more common than that ingratitude. Soon, one takes it as a piece of pure childishness to expect anything else. Far from letting oneself be discouraged by this in his zeal for humanity, the virtuous man no longer expects anything except from himself., recognizing that he is thereby more independent and free.”

Cabanis, here, is outlining a theory of selfishness that resembles interior exile. In fact, the doctor’s progress from the youthful hope of joining glory to virtue to the older and sardonic notion that virtue is a matter for oneself alone, and glory is an aspiration which is not worth the price of disappointment, traces an intellectual reaction to the French revolution. It is important to remember that the figuration of the self does not happen in an empty and unclaimed space, but occurs in a highly charged historical context. In fact, that is true to the point of truism, but unfortunately, like so many truisms, it is mentioned by the intellectual historian and then ignored. Facts aren’t inert, and they aren’t atomic. They are more like stains on a cloth – they spread out, they intersect with each other, they have unpredictable circumferences. So, here, the medical philosophy – and remember that the overlap between medicine and philosophy has been a consistent theme in the materialist line we have traced in earlier posts, from Gassendi to La Mettrie – encodes a self-satisfied selfishness. It is a twist in the moralist’s great theme of amour-propre – for it protects amour-propre, in the end, from any outside test. But any dialectician, any of the newfangled type that Stendhal so despised, would see that this twist is not an endpoint that leads to virtue, but is, instead, a moment in the dissolution of amour-propre into self-interest. Cabanis does have a relationship to Bentham, but the effect of this seemingly more cynical view of virtue is to make obsolete the volupte of the heroic, to sweep away the Reguluses. Stendhal’s fictitious philosopher sets up a challenge not only for eclectic philosophers, but for Stendhal the novelist. And, in effect, Stendhal’s major works show that Cabanis’ ideological defense of public virtue guarded by private indifference to glory is wholly inadequate to cope with the wholesale transformation taking place in economic and emotional customs.

Oh, and here is the all important epigraph for my essay: “Der Mensch strebt nicht nach Glück; nur der Engländer thut das.” – Nietzsche.

Friday, September 07, 2007

After a midnight inspiration - Stendhal, 1829

Stendhal had a very busy year in 1829. He was finishing up his book, Walks in Rome. He was involved, according to his first biographer, R. Colomb, in the conclave that elected Pius VIII. And he had a famous night of inspiration on October 25 – one of those great midnights. It was on such a midnight that Kafka wrote The Judgment. Any writer would give up years for such midnights. They don’t come often. He had read an anecdote in the Gazette des Tribunaux about the attempted murder of a married woman, and it suddenly leaped out at him that this murder was ‘the real thing’. As with James, Stendhal’s inspirations came from anecdotes.

Stendhal, then, is at his intellectual height when he wrote his sardonic article on Transcendental Philosophy. It was published in the Revue de Paris, in response to an attack on Stendhal as a partisan of Helvetius – an old “perruque”, as he puts it. The figure of Louaut, the old Napoleonic conscript crippled by attacks of rheumatism and left to suffer in solitude, is obviously on some level a projection of Stendhal’s own sense of himself. Stendhal copied the article and sent it in a letter to an English friend in December, 1829.

Louaut’s letter is a premise for an analysis of altruism (a word that had yet to be invented by Comte, one of those tedious enthusiasts for “transcendental philosophy”) from a “philosopher of the school of Cabanis.” If Louaut is two degrees of distance from Stendhal, the philosopher is one degree distant. These gradations mark out the essential fiction of the essay.

‘I am the philosopher to whom lieutenant Louaut wrote his letter and, what is a bit more irritating for me, I am of the school of Cabanis: I am making a book on the motives of the actions of men and, as I am not eloquent, nor even a great writer, not counting on my style, I am trying to assemble facts for my book. Having read the story of the action of M. Louaut, I went to see him. How did you do that, I asked him – and we have seen his response: I have only erased a few grammatical faults.

It seems to me to prove marvelously, as the new school says, and in a very wise manner that the motive for human action is very simply the search for pleasure and the fear of pain. A long time ago, Virgil said: each is carried forward by his pleasure: Trahit sua quemque voluptas.

Regulus, returning to Carthage, where horrible tortures awaited him, ceded to the fear of pain. The public contempt of which he would have been the object if he had remained, in violation of his oath, was more painful for him than the cruel death he had to suffer in Carthage.

The search for pleasure is the motive of all men. It would truly be a pleasure for me, and this is what has placed the pen in my hand, to see the new school of eclectic philosophy respond to this. But as I am not eloquent, I wish they would respond to me without eloquence and without beautiful obscure phrases, a l’allemande, but very simply, in small and clear french phrases, as in the style of the Civil Code.

My treatise on the motive for human actions will be, in effect, a supplement to the Civil Code; it will require heroism to publish it. I see from her fifty thousand persons, all tenured, who have a monetary interest to say that I am immoral; they would have said the same of Helvetius and Bentham, the best of men.”

Of course, the question of motivation isn’t answered by Stendhal’s old wig, or whig, for why the fear of public opprobium is more painful than torture does have a deep and disorganizing effect on the thesis. Still, the notion that philosophy should be written in the style of the Civil Code – a notion that Nietzsche, Stendhal’s great reader, picks up on – has had a long and fruitful career.

Finally, let me translate three more paragraphs.

My challenge to the new school, which calls itself eclectic, is, for the moment, only concerned with the explanation of what passed in the soul of lieutenant Louaut during the quarter of an hour preceding his immersion in the Seine.

I value the eloquence and the virtues of the eclectic philosophers, and my estime is so deep, that it triumphs over the distrust I have for any man who is obscure in his language and who is not a fool. Every day we see in life that a man who understands a thing well explains it clearly.

The French born around 1810 feel a lively pleasure, according to me, the child of pride, in going to philosophy talks and going out of them. However, during the talk itself, the pleasure is less lively, they try to understand. How many people have an interest in praising the new philosophy! While waiting for the jesuits to have all the professors hung, the best they can do is to favor german philosophy, a little obscure as it is and often mystical; one might say that all its adherents are obscure for the sake of pleasure…”

I love this, I have to admit. I love the way Stendhal’s fictional philosopher – who exists, so to speak, on a hypothetical level – takes his grand notion of the motive of human action and uses it not only to explain cases, but to explain objections. There is a certain comedy – an old Voltarian comedy – in shifting from everyday action to conceptual explanation. Making theory human abases theory, and the abasement of theory is funny – it is funny when Gargantua makes a student full of macaronic French shit his breeches, and it is funny when the eclectic philosopher’s obscurity is traced not to the obscurity of his object but to the pleasure he takes in being obscure. I could trace a line here from Stendhal to Dostoevsky to Shatov – but I will have mercy on my readers and not.

lieutenant louaut - Stendhal's story

Okay, campers. I promised this a month ago.

In 1829, Stendhal wrote a pieced entitled “Transcendental philosophy”. In a note under the title, he wrote that the phrase was a ‘pleasantry”, and that he valued clarity too much to begin with an obscurity. Which, of course, clues us in: Stendhal was ever the child of the Revolution, which meant the child of Rousseau and Helvetius. Hegel, for him, was a mystagogue.

The piece consists of a letter written by an old conscript of the Emperor’s armies, the son of a fisherman who swam, when he was younger, like a fish. He includes this revelation in the first paragraph for a reason: he has a story to tell about swimming.
Here’s how it goes:

“The other day, I was walking towards the Jena bridge, on the side of the champ de Mars. There was a heavy wind, making waves on the Seine and reminding me of the sea. I was following a little boat filled with sand up to the brim, which was attempting to traverse the last arch of the bridge. Suddenly it flipped; I saw the boatman try to swim, but he was doing pretty badly. “That clumsy fool is going to drown,” I said to myself. I had some notion of throwing myself in the water. But I am forty seven years old and inclined to rheumatism; and the cold was stinging. ‘Someone will dive in from the other shore,” I thought. I looked in spite of myself. The man re-emerged on the surface and started screaming. I walked away immediately. ‘That would be too insane,” I said to myself. When I will be nailed to my bed with a severe attack of rheumatism, who is going to come and look after me? who will even think of me? I will be alone, dying of troubles just as I did last year. Why did this animal decide to imitate a sailor when he didn’t know how to swim? Besides, he had filled his boat way too full…” I could have been about fifty paces from the Seine. I still hear the screams of the boatman, drowning and imploring for help. I hurried up. “Devil take him!” I said to myself. And I began to think of other things. Suddenly I said to myself: “Lieutenant Louant (my name), you are a b…d; in a quarter of an hour that man will be drowned, and you will remember his screams all your life. B…d, B…d, said the part of prudence, that’s an easy thing to say, and how about the sixty seven days that you suffered your rheumatic attack last year, forced to stay in bed?” “oh, devil take him. He should have learned to swim if he was going to direct a boat.” I marched quickly towards the Military School. Suddenly a voice told me: “Lieutenant Louaut, you are a coward! This word made me jump. “Ah, this is serious,’ I said to myself. And I began to run back to the Seine. In coming to the bank, I threw off my coat, boats and pants in a moment. I was the happiest of men. “No, Louant is not a coward! no, no!” I told myself out loud. In fact, I saved the man, without a problem, who would have drowned except for me. I had him taken to a warm bed, he soon regain his faculty of speech. Then I started to fear for myself. I had myself put into a warm bed, and I had my whole body rubbed with eau de vie and flannels. But in vain, all of this did nothing – the rheumatism began again. in truth, however, not as severe as the year before. I wasn’t too sick. The devil of it is that nobody came to see me, I began to get seriously bored. After having thought of marriage as I do when I’m bored, I began to reflect on the motives that made me commit my “heroic action”, as the Constitutional put it in their story.

What made me do this beautiful thing? for heroic is too strong. My God, it was the fear of contempt. It was that voice that told me: Lieutenant Louaut, you are a coward. What really struck me was that the voice, that time, didn’t use the “tu”. No, it was the formal “you” that was a coward. When I understood that I could save the drowning man, that became a duty for me. I would have despised myself if I hadn’t thrown myself in the water, just as much as I would have if, in Brienne, in 1814, my captain told me: Forward, Louaut! climb up on the upper deck, and I had amused myself by remaining below. Such is, monsieur, the story you asked for, or, as you say, the analysis, etc., etc.”

Thursday, September 06, 2007

zazie dans la banlieue

Well, I’m back chez the shambles I call home. Of course, my suitcase is out there on its own, in that black hole called American Airlines, but I hope with all my pea pickin’ heart that I get the fucking thing at some point in the near future.

LI has always been an urban guy. Right, we did our Thoreau time in Pecos New Mexico, but the horror the horror of heating the place – a house that originally aspired to be a restaurant, developing an odd allergy to insulation along the way – and the distance I had to drive, me and my tithe of CO2 for the fifty mile roundtrip into Santa Fe to support my unpublished masterpieces, plus of course the curse of the House of Usher that seemed to dog me, D. and H. as we fumbled through the outlier lifestyle of artists, will keep me from ever repeating that mistake. Probably that sentence will bring down all kinds of curses on my head, by the way. The sacrifices I make to amuse, god damn it!

But mainly, from the sprout time, I was attuned to urban locales, and desirous of draining the drop of burbia in my blood. What happened in the last twenty years, however, is that burbia invaded the inner city. I have lived in many an area where the prostitute bloomed on the corner by night and the crackhead loaded up in the apartment complex just up the block 24/7. Places where the corpses were always being discovered and filmed to send a frisson up the spines of the watchers of the local newsshows. Being a liberal sort, at one time I thought it was unfair that the poor had to bear this shit, this lousy policing, this breakdown in services. However, I was not being very foresighted. As soon as they drove the sisters of mercy and the rocks in their pockets type out, the riskless symbol pushers came pouring in – of course, displacing us. And they created that ineffable boutique blandness they all love. Dark corners, the wild west, the rough and tumble lifestyle – that has been shoved out of valuable city property and distributed elsewhere. In Austin, it is the North and Southeast, and perenially the East – although we all know they have the East in their fucking range. So living restfully in Gwinnett is now not that much different from living in Austin. Less clubs, admittedly. Although when I said that to my brother D2, as we were paddling kayaks around the Stone Mountain Lake, he claimed that the roadhouses in Gwinnett were simply discrete. And – after a night of drinking we did go to a fine Gwinnett establishment promising, for a five dollar cover charge, bikinis, which was, it turned out, more like a wan hope. It is an old dodge, the Royal Nonsuch with swimwear. There was, instead, a buncha pool tables and a bartender who was, unconsciously, all about the way the Atlanta area has broken open – she was a Romanian exile in Italy, come to the States for a lark, and briefly marooned in a roadhouse near the county line. She would have been a complete exotic twenty five years ago, but now – when the major Clarkston Georgia grocery store advertises a Hallal deli – she blends into the scene comnpletely.

So, that’s the end of Zazie dans la banlieu. I will now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Monday, September 03, 2007

lawn 2: last hydromulching season at marenbad

Lawn 2

Myself, I was a grassman a long time ago. I got a job in Shreveport with an alcoholic Jehovah’s Witness landscaper, a man with a permanent keg in his kitchen, a warehouse full of fire ant infested sod. However, where my man was really 20th century was the pride and joy of his small business, the hydromulch truck.

Now, I’d done landscaping time before, in Atlanta. Back in the pre-Reagan era, landscaping was the post-hippy job to have. My first day on the crew, I hopped into the pickup, which was loaded up in back with push mowers, blowers, rakes and shovels, and the guy at the wheel casually rolled up a doobie and offered me a hit. A fine way to take in the glories of the unfurling Atlanta morning. Yes, in those days LI would actually spring out of bed at, like, six thirty or something to get to work before eight. Clearly, now, I can see this as a form of abuse, although one alas that has still not been organized and baptized in the DSM-IV. Fuck rosy fingered aurora, give me an extra hour of sleep (so often, nowadays, a compensation for the two hours of bed time in which the mind just doesn’t fucking shut down, like some bar run by a man with no respect for the blue laws). I’m aware that around the country there are many afflicted who have to get up at six thirty or even earlier to drive to work. Brothers and sisters, how often I have wished to take you in my arms as the chick takes her chickens, and urge a more sensible schedule! No economy is worth this somatic perversion! However, such was my dewiness back in those days that I actually welcomed the early morning stuff.

So I had been a grassman of a kind, before I worked under my man in Shreveport, but I’d never been an extreme grassman. To be an extreme grassman, you have to man a hydromulch machine and spray the countryside with the odd combination of seed, fertilizer and dyed fiber mulch, which is the element anchoring our seed and fertilizer combo to the soil. The truck was a cumbersome thing to drive, since the machine was pretty huge. I can’t remember how many hoses we had, We took on a lot of state jobs – one spring we just hudromulched a vast housing project. At other times my man would round up a crew for me to command, for apartment jobs. Your rapid whack the grass, edge the hedges, clip and collect job. I was, of course, a little martinet to my charges. Whenever I get a little authority, it goes right to my head and I make an appalling jackass out of myself. Evidently, the American system isn’t totally fucked, as – by the wisdom of the invisible hand and the power invested in Bushonomics - I am very rarely given any authority.

So these half submerged memories flooded up in me last week as I proposed to my bro that I’d do his lawn.

Which will be continued if I feel like it, And hey, to all LI readers, happy boss day! I will soon be back in Austin, and will cut the throat of these thrilling tales from the burbs.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

lawn 1

In Michael Pollen’s memoir, Second Nature: A Gardner’s Education, which is an account of his experience gardening in an old bit of Housatanic Valley farm he and his wife bought in the eighties, while they were living in Manhattan, begins with the ur-suburban experience of lawn mowing….

At least, ur-suburban for a certain generation. LI’s old man was a farmer wantabee from the day the farm he owned, outside of Syracuse, New York, arm wrestled him into bankruptcy, two out of three falls. Fate shoved him into the heating and air field, and the rest was history – actually, a history that placed him and his family, Yankees, in the suburbs of a Dixie city during the sixties, when the South was breaking out of its apartheid slumbers, and large numbers of Yankees were changing the demographic. So, coming home from another day of dealing with idiots who hadn’t checked the pressure on the lines, miscalculated roof tonnage for their units, or had otherwise fucked up, as was the wont of the whole world besides my Pop (a trait LI has, unfortunately, inherited in spades, although luckily countered by my Mom’s serenity of the long term, which I have also inherited0), he would take comfort in watering, fertilizing, edging, weeding and in other ways pampering the lawn. Like so many places in suburban Atlanta, our subdivision was created by drawing a thin veil of red clay and rock over a former woods-cum-garbage-dump – the woods as a garbage dump being one of the primal modes of contact between the American householder and a buncha trees – and thus was not a promising soil from which to coax dwarf plums, or to transplant friendly Yankee deciduous, like redleaf maple. Yet transplant my old man did. Transplant, actually, a whole generation of landscapers did. From kudzu to pittis porum, the natural history of northern Georgia was remade to the extent that mere humans with bulldozers, nurseries, fertilizers and pesticides could remake it.

Michael Pollen’s father was, apparently, that well known blight in the neighborhood, the guy who DID NOT MOW HIS LAWN. Our neighbor, Mr. Fox, suffered from a similar defect, and his lawn became a terrorist refuge – for indeed, dandelions and crabgrass, to my old man, evoked emotions of horror and anger much like those evoked by the Taliban creeping in from Waziristan in our fresh faced doughboys in the valleys of Afghanistan.

Here’s Pollan:

“The summer he [Pollan’s father] stopped mowing altogether, I felt the hot breath of a tyrannical majority for the first time. Nobody would say anything, but you heard it anyway: wo your lawn. Cars would slow down as they drove by our house. Porbably some of the drivers were merely curious: they saw the unmowed lawn and wondered if someone had left in a hurry or died. But others drove by in a manner that was unmistakeably expressive, slowing down as they drew near and then hitting the gas angrily as they passed – this was pithy driving, the sort of move that is second nature to Klansmen.”

After getting the message, Pollan’s father did a rather American thing – he took his lawnmower out into the tall grass and simply mowed his initials into it. “…as soon as he finished writing them, he wheeled the lawn mower back to the garage, never to start it up again.”
With this family history, it is no wonder Pollan is conscious of lawns. He has written about grass in The Botany of Desire as a sort of parasite on humankind. In Second Nature, he writes, rewriting his NYT article :

Nowhere in the world are lawns as prized as in America. In little more than a century, we’ve rolled a green mantle of it across the content, with scant thought to the local conditions or expense. American has some 50,000 square miles of lawn under cultiation, on which we spend an estimated 30 billion a year- this according to the Lawn Institute, a Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, outfit devoted to publicizing the benefits of turf to Americans (surely a case of preaching to the converted). Like the interstate highway system, like fast-food chains, like television, the lawn has served to unify the American landscape; it is what makes the suburbs of Cleveland and Tucson, the streets of Eugene and Tampa, look more alike than not. According to Ann Leighton, the late historian of gardens, America has made essentially one important contribution to world garden design: the cusotom of “uniting the front lawns of however many houses there may be on both sides of a street to present an untroubled aspect of expansive green to the passerby.” France has its formal, geometric gardens, England its picturesque parks, and America this unbounded democratic river of manicured lawn along which we array our houses.”

Biden's foreign policy: let's bet everything on authoritarianism!

  And watch it all slip away (Por fin se va acabar) Or leave a garden for your kids to play (Jamás van a alcanzar)  --- The Black Angels, El...