Saturday, December 01, 2007

wife beaters and amazon hooligans

Tracing the rise of the culture of happiness, one can too easily forget the reality of, one can too easily become nostalgic for, the sweetness of life it replaced – the ancien regime, panned with a camera lens suitably vaselined over.

But this nostalgia is shot through with bad faith. Although I am determined to show the price we have paid for the triumph of happiness, I want to make sure to make clear that I am not tracing some vast mistake or horror. It is the dialectician’s curse to be mealy mouthed – but too bad. I’m not going to try to avoid that fate by creating a bunch of rigid oppositions, negation pitted against affirmation, antithesis pre-loaded. Fuck that.

So – on to women. Women as they were routinely treated in the ancien regime. And into the nineteenth century.

Let’s start with Zola, always the most … registering of nineteenth century novelists. He was attacked for his ‘disgraceful’ representation of the working class in L’assommoir – and in a letter in defense of the novel, he surveys the truth of it, touching lightly on two characters, Bijard and Lalie: “Bijard is only one face of alcohol poisoning. One dies of delirium tremens or one becomes a furious madman like Bijard. Bijard is crazy, the kind that the correctional institutions have to often judge. As for Lalie, she completes Nana. The girls, in the bad worker’s households, either succumb to blows or turn bad.”

Here’s a long quote from the death of Lalie, a little different from a Dicken’s death scene.

“She started at the sound of a heavy step on the stairs. Her father noisily pushed open the door. As usual he had drunk too much, and in his eyes blazed the lurid flames kindled by alcohol.
When he saw Lalie lying down he walked to the corner and took up the long whip, from which he slowly unwound the lash.
“This is a good joke!” he said. “The idea of your daring to go to bed at this hour. Come, up with you!”
He snapped the whip over the bed, and the child murmured softly:
“Do not strike me, Papa. I am sure you will be sorry if you do. Do not strike me!”
“Up with you!” he cried. “Up with you!”
Then she answered faintly:
“I cannot, for I am dying.”
Gervaise had snatched the whip from Bijard, who stood with his under jaw dropped, glaring at his daughter. What could the little fool mean? Whoever heard of a child dying like that when she had not even been sick? Oh, she was lying!
“You will see that I am telling you the truth,” she replied. “I did not tell you as long as I could help it. Be kind to me now, Papa, and say good-by as if you loved me.”
Bijard passed his hand over his eyes. She did look very strangely–her face was that of a grown woman. The presence of death in that cramped room sobered him suddenly. He looked around with the air of a man who had been suddenly awakened from a dream. He saw the two little ones clean and happy and the room neat and orderly.
He fell into a chair.
“Dear little mother!” he murmured. “Dear little mother!”

This was all he said, but it was very sweet to Lalie, who had never been spoiled by overpraise. She comforted him. She told him how grieved she was to go away and leave him before she had entirely brought up her children. He would watch over them, would he not? And in her dying voice she gave him some little details in regard to their clothes. He–the alcohol having regained its power–listened with round eyes of wonder.
After a long silence Lalie spoke again:

“We owe four francs and seven sous to the baker. He must be paid. Madame Goudron has an iron that belongs to us; you must not forget it. This evening I was not able to make the soup, but there are bread and cold potatoes.”

As long as she breathed the poor little mite continued to be the mother of the family. She died because her breast was too small to contain so great a heart, and that he lost this precious treasure was entirely her father’s fault. He, wretched creature, had kicked her mother to death and now, just as surely, murdered his daughter.”

This translation stays demurely away from Zola’s text. If you want to know where Celine got it, read Zola. Her's the argotic French for what Bijard really says:

" Ah ! nom de Dieu, c’est trop fort ! nous allons rire !… Les vaches se mettent à la paille en plein midi, maintenant !… Est-ce que tu te moques des paroissiens, sacrée feignante ?… Allons, houp ! décanillons ! "
Il faisait déjà claquer le fouet au-dessus du lit. Mais l’enfant, suppliante, répétait :
" Non, papa, je t’en prie, ne frappe pas… Je te jure que tu aurais du chagrin… Ne frappe pas.
— Veux-tu sauter, gueula-t-il plus fort, ou je te chatouille les côtes !… Veux-tu sauter, bougre de rosse ! "

Which you have to translate into something a lot more gangsta to get the full poetry of it.

In the English 19th century novel, as is well known, there is a certain gap when it comes to sex. But there is another gap when it comes to wifebeating. Edward Shorter, in Women’s Bodies, his gruesome history of the encounter of women with marriage, hospitals and pregnancy in the 18th and 19th century, devotes a section to the thesis that, in the very recent past, wife beating was universal. He recounts a lot of anecdotes (“Johann Storch of Gotha, investigating the cause of a maternal death in 1724, found that the mother had a broken rib, probably ccaused by a kick from her husband sometime during the pregnancy. (Storch thought that the broken rib had made the placenta grow fast to the womb, thus killing her in childbirth.”) He adduces proverbs, ethnographic studies, doctor reports, and occasionally, but just occasionally, a court document. Eugen Weber, in his book on Fin de Siecle France, writes that there must have been many women such as those in L’assommoir, for whom a pleasant dream was often that of not being beaten.

Weber claims that it was the penetration of bourgeois values that made violence against women in the household more shameful as the 19th century went on. According to this view, both the peasant and working classes lagged behind the ‘civilizing process.’ In the twentieth century, Franz Biberkopf, in Berlin Alexanderplatz, who beats his fiancé to death in a scene that seems to as though it were refracted through one of George Grosz’s more lurid paintings, does go to jail for it: four years. And Biberkopf is haunted by that death. As he says, he never meant to murder Ida. (Ironically, or rather not so ironically, come to think of it, Biberkopf’s great defenders are women – he is a semi pimp, and a certain type of indulgent woman does seem to find him, in Berlin, after he gets out of the Tegel prison).

Here’s Ida’s death – one that strips out even the pathos that Zola left in:

All he had taken in his hand was a small wooden cream whipper, for he was training then and had recently wrenched his hand. And with a twice repeated, terrible lunge he had brought this cream-whipper with its wire spiral, in contact with the diaphragm of Ida, who was the second party to the dialogue. Up to that day Ida’s diaphragm had been entirely intact, but that very small person, who was very nice to look at, was herself no longer quite intact – or rather: the man she was supporting, suspected, not without reason, that she was about to give him his walking papers in favor of a man recently arrived from Breslau. The diaphragm of this dainty little girl, at any rate, was not adapted to contact with cream-whippers. At the first blow she cried ouch and no longer called him ‘you dirty bum’, but ‘oh, man,’ instead. The second encounter with the cream-whipper occurred with Franz holding an upright position after a quarter turn to the right on Ida’s part. Whereupon Ida said nothing at all, but merely opened her mouth, puring her lips curiously, and jerked both arms in the air.

What happened to the woman’s diaphragm a second before, involves the laws of statics, elasticity, shock and reistance. The thing is wholly incomprehensible without a knowledge of those laws. We shall therefore have recourse to the following formulae:”

What follows is a formula for the magnitude of the blow impressed by Franz, f = c lim delta v over delta t = cw.

In other words, Ida’s death is absolutely dehumanized, made into a specimen defined by filling in the variables in a formula.

Two cheers for the bourgeoisie, then. If they raped the servant girls, they rarely kicked their wives to death, at least by 1850. However, it would be unfair not to exhibit another tableau showing a typical response to working class women as agents of violence. Camille Mendés, a sensitive sort, a poet, remained in Paris during the Commune and wrote a book about his experience there, entitled: Les 73 journées de la Commune. I can’t believe the echo of Sade is wholly absent from that book. Anyway, Camille was able to observe that thing which shocked the respectable in the 1870s, the amazons-voyous – amazon hoodlums. Women from the working class armed themselves and fought alongside another communard. Mendés compares them to the famouse tricoteuses – the women who knitted while the guillotines fell. Except these were cantinieres – cafeteria workers. Waitresses, you might say. Never underestimate the waitresses!

‘There was not enough men with holes poked in them by bullets or cut up by the machine gun. A strange enthusiasm took hold of the women in their turn, and thus they fell on the field of battle as well, victims of an execrable heroism. Who were these extraordinary beings, who abandoned the household broom and the working woman’s needle for the cartridge? who abandoned their children to go to be killed by the side of their lovers or husbands? Amazon hoodlums magnificent and abject, they held their own with Penthesilia or Theroigne de Mericourt. One saw them pass, carrying canteens, amongst those going into combat; the men are furious, the women are ferocious, nothing moves them, nothing discourages them. A Neuilly, a food and drink seller, wounded in the head, had her wound bandaged and returned to take up her combat post. Another, of the 61st bataillon, bragged of having killed a score of police and three guardians of the peace. At Chatillon, a woman, remaining with a group of national guardsmen, charged her rifle, fired and recharged without ceasing; she was the last to retreat, turning around at every instant to return fire. The woman who dispensed food in the 68th bataillon fell, killed by a mortar blast which broke her ladle and projected it in pieces into her stomach. … Thus, what is the furor that has carried off these furies? Do they know what they are doing, do they understand why they are dying? Yesterday, in a boutique, rue de Montreuil, a woman enters, rifle on her shoulder, blood on the bayonet – shouldn’t you be home cleaning the faces of your brats? said a peaceful bourgeois. A furious altercation broke out; the virago was so carried away that she leaped on her adversary, bit him violently on the neck, then, falling back a few paces, grasped her rifle and was going to fire when suddenly she grew horribly pale, let fall her arm, and collapsed; she was dead, the anger had caused an aneurism to rupture. Such are, at this hour, the women of the people.”

Thursday, November 29, 2007

cioran 2

If you want to write a great literary essay, here’s what you do. You put the point of the thing, the judgment you are making, as high in the essay as possible. Maybe you start out with an anecdote. Maybe you start out with a quote. But the essayist is in the position of the judge, after the jury has read its verdict. He is in the business of sentencing.

It helps, then, if you work on your sentences. Cioran, a Romanian writing in French, did just that. Here’s the second paragraph in his essay on Joseph de Maistre:

“Towards the end of the last century, in the period when the liberal illusion was strongest, one could give oneself the luxury of calling him a prophet of the past, of considering him something like a relic or an aberrant phenomenon. But for us, in an epoch that has been otherwise demystified, we know that he is ours just to the extent that he was a ‘monster’ and that it is precisely by the odious side of his doctrines that he remains alive, that he is of our time. Even if he was, besides, obsolete, he would nonetheless belong to that family of spirits who age in beauty.”

Cioran’s theme is simple, and everything flows from it: the meeting of a time – our time – and the monstrosity of a doctrine. At the same time, that theme opens up a question which is never directly addressed by Cioran, and which betrays a certain contradiction in his theme: for how is it that one time – ‘ours’ – knows the truth about Maistre while it was disguised for another time – that period of the ‘liberal illusion’? Is it merely the course of events – the wars in Europe, the concentration camps? Or is it that Cioran, without being aware of it, owes the idea that we progress closer to the truth over time precisely to that period of ‘liberal illusion’? Surely the illusion wasn’t that Maistre’s ‘monstrous doctrines’ had never been embodied at any time – for if there was one thing the liberal period was sure of, it was the monstrosity of the middle ages, and of the Spanish inquisition, and in general the atrocities wrought under the ancien regime. The illusion was, then, not that atrocities had been wrought, but that the progress of civilization would extinguish the motive and the means for committing them again.

And on this point Cioran knows better. And Maistre, conceptually, also knew better – hence, his status as a prophet. The reason that Cioran’s essay is not a handrubbingly gleeful promotion of Maistre, as Edmund White claimed, nor a straightforward insult to the thought of Maistre, as his scholarly interpreters have claimed, lies in the fact that, however much Cioran wants to bracket a certain period as one of ‘liberal illusion’, he has to admit that, from the start, that his own theory of history has to include some explanation for how such a period was possible. In the essay, this question migrates to a question about Maistre’s interpretation of the eighteenth century, and its relation to the Revolution. As we saw in our previous post, Cioran comes down for a … liberal interpretation of that century. More liberal, perhaps, than a historian of the time would countenance – Maistre, in his Considerations on France, is right to point out the horrible succession of wars across that century, wars that just involved France. God knows there were others. And we also know that thoughout that century there were little famines in Europe that corresponded to the little ice age. Still, Cioran’s essay is not simply about Maistre, but about the lineage of reaction. Having been, himself, a fervid reactionary in the darkest days of the century – the thirties and the forties – having even broadcast in favor of the coup managed by the Iron Guard in 1940 – Cioran’s essay is also a self-examination. The eighteenth century is a proxy for the liberalism – the politics of literature, as Thomas Mann scornfully called it in his reactionary polemic, Reflections of a Non-political man – that defeated the Nazis in WWII, thus putting an end to at least one of the illiberal illusions: that a totalitarian state relying on total mass mobilization was, at the very least, a stronger state than any of its competitors.

(There are several illusions packed into that theme, so popular among the intellectuals of the far right in the thirties. One of the illusions was that the state relied on mass mobilization, when in fact it relied on buffering the population from the sacrifice involved in mass mobilization. The calls for mass sacrifice from fascist leaders, for discipline, for pain and blood, were as phony as the classical facades of their government building. In the end, Germany did as much as it could to give the civilian population, at least up until 1942, the illusion that victory was a cost free process. Hmm, there is something very familiar about this barking rhetoric of sacrifice and this complacent reality of comfort. Where have I seen that before?).

I’ll continue this in a future post.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

more pig, anyone?

Everybody knows that the deal is rotten
Old black Joe’s still picking cotton
For your ribbons and bows…
Everybody knows.

I just finished reviewing Robert Kuttner’s new book, The Squandering of America. The book is obviously catnip for a liberal like me, but there was something deep in the book that bothered me. I don’t think I quite expressed that bother in the review. Let’s see if I can spell it out here.

Kuttner’s history is a two panel deal. One panel shows the thirty glorious years from 1945 to about 1975. What do we see? The sun shines on managed capitalism. Union strength rises to almost thirty percent of the work force. Social security is joined by medicare and Medicaid – and even, although this has now been buried, a welfare system for the poor. Public investment is made in building interstates, sending jocks to the moon, combating malaria, and the like. Indirectly, the state takes the risk for an enormous expansion of mortgages, and it loans money to middle class kids so that they can go to college.

Now onto the second panel. In the second panel, we see the thirty dirty years of neo-liberalism. There’s a cloud over the moon, and the wolf howls in the ruins of the middle class subdivision. Union membership falls. Labor’s bargaining power gets weaker and weaker. The one earner household becomes as rare as the Eskimo curlew. Even as the husband and wife both work, their disposable income actually stagnates. The cost of institutional goods – education and health care – soars, and the government massages its statistics about inflation to end run around this fact. A coalition of speculators, big business owners, and the honchos of the political elite agree to essentially de-industrialize the American economy, and this is done by throwing down barriers to free trade – which is an open invitation to American manufacturers to seek out global sites that offer cheaper labor – and by deregulating the financial markets. The benefits of the economy go increasingly to the wealthy, even as productivity goes up.

Now, I do think there is a lot of truth to this two panel picture – I wouldn’t be a liberal if I didn’t! But I wouldn’t be an ex philosophy student if I didn’t notice that juxtaposition is not cause (or perhaps I should say, I’d have to have a lot more faith in Hume than I have). What is missing here is a trend line that found its breaking point in the seventies – I’m talking about you, Mr. Declining-Rate-of-Profit.

Marx would say that the structure of capitalism is such that the Keynesian policy approaches of the thirty glorious years operated like Spanish fly to an old libertine – yes, it helped him get it up at first, but you had to apply more and more of it for less and less result. Less bang for the buck, so to speak. John Kenneth Galbraith, my favorite economist, observed those thirty glorious years from the inside. He contended that American capitalism had entered a mature phase in which the classical model of competition between producers was no longer the major dynamic. In its place, he substituted a model that diversified the levels of competition – long before the Walmart Effect, for instance, Galbraith had traced the A and P effect, that is, the effect on the price system of a entrenched, hegemonic buyer in the marketplace. What Galbraith was saying from the left was actually being put into mathematical lingo by the neo-classical economists from the right – as Mirowski pointed out in Machine Dreams, the shift from the simple, Smithian model of competition to the cyborg model of efficiency was what the fifties were all about.

All of which gets us to the heart of my darkness about Kuttner’s book. The two panel history simply can’t be right. Kuttner’s historical thesis is that the forces of darkness, for some reason, decided in the seventies to counter-attack the forces of light – strong unions, an interventionist state, the structures of managed capitalism – and thus brought about the years of night through sheer politics. But in reality, the economy was in crisis in the seventies. Kuttner would have a better argument if he acknowledged this. He’d have a better argument if he argued that liberalism can’t simply tie itself to GDP growth, because that is going to imperceptibly edge liberalism into a position where policy decisions shift from concern with a just society to policy decisions concerned economic stoking that inevitably promotes more and more unequal outcomes.

Ah, but I am being unclear. It has occurred to me that the solution ‘self-organized’ in the seventies to the stagnation of the American economy was to shift the level of competition to the financial sector. That is, instead of companies competing with each other in an increasingly stagnant marketplace, investors would compete to own those companies. Ownership would be redefined in startling ways, as would the responsibilities of ownership. X company making y and competing with Z would be taken over, stripped of its y making capability, which would be spun off to another company, X1, or it would be merged with Z, or it would be merged with somebody else in a whirl of what you might call epiphenomenal economic activities. And low and behold, new efficiencies would be found – that is, new streams of profit from the ways in which the American firm had been constituted over the decades. A car company, say, would be found to have quietly produced its profit making sector in the loan business – which would then be stripped out, or be used as the investment target for, say, the company’s pension fund, etc., etc. It turned out that firms were, from the financial perspective, rubric cubes.

Now, we all know the down side to this. The upside, however, was that in taking apart and putting together American firms, the investment sector made the U.S. a very attractive spot for foreign investment just as the U.S. lost its hegemony over the global economy. I’m not sure how a liberal economic policy would have accomplished the same result. I am sure that this contributed significantly to the American recovery from the seventies. At the moment, it looks like we have reached the end time for this particular economic regime – a regime that builds in socialism for the rich, as Galbraith once called it. For the more the financial sector was de-regulated, the supposedly ‘smaller’ the government got, the larger became the government’s potential obligations. This is a familiar dilemma – it is the dilemma of third world economies. American exceptionalism is all about the fact that America quietly conformed to a model of state-corporate interaction that resembled, say, Brazil in the sixties. And as the economy became more tiers-mondian, the politics became more coup like.

Which is why the comparison of the American empire to the British empire or the Romans strikes me as so wrong. What America resembles more and more is the Philippines under Marcos. As per my last post, the ethos of looting has spread from the economic models of the late seventies into the very fiber, the blood and ouns, of the sector that has the most control of the American economy – the financial sector. And the government has become an annex to that vast pump and dump shop – hence, the rational irrationality of a stock market that goes wildly up and down on announcements of trivial interest rate action by the Fed. This is the volatility of what is, underneath, an increasingly stagnant market – a market that has reached the logical limit of its possibilities. You can’t slice and dice the pig anymore – even the squeal has been amortized, hedged against, optioned, securitized, pooled and stripped. But there is only so much pig to go around, fellas.

Uncle Sam is always a Pal!

Mickey Rat by Robert Armstrong

Sometimes, LI gets a little down. We think that we have no money for medicine. No money for dentistry. Perhaps not enough money to shelter ourselves, or buy food…
But then we perk up. Because, when the chips are down, the Government is always a pal!

For instance, look at the heartening story of Countrywide Financial Corp., Washington Mutual Inc., Hudson City Bancorp Inc. They was feeling all blue this summer. Sup primes were looking sorta disgusting in the old fridge. Some of the CEOs wanted bigger yachts. And their blood felt tired. Yep, they felt tired all over.

So what did they do? What you or I would do! They went to Uncle Sam. They went to the Federal Home Loan Bank. And they said, Uncle Sam, I’d sure, sure appreciate a loan of $163 billion dollars. Pretty please, with a cherry on top?

Uncle Sam is a jolly old soul, a jolly old soul is he. You know that if you or I went to him and asked for a small loan, say 100 million dollars, he’d look us sternly in the eye and say, son, what fur do you want that kinda carryin’ around money? Before he broke into a big grin and gave it to us – cause Uncle Sam’s an easy touch. So this August and September, he said to them boys at Countrywide Financial Corp., Washington Mutual Inc., Hudson City Bancorp Inc, he says: don’t spend it all in one place boys. And sure enough, he comes up with the dough for em! They was awful appreciative, Countrywide Financial Corp., Washington Mutual Inc., and Hudson City Bancorp Inc was, but you know something sorta sad? They might not be able to pay them there loans back. Seems like with everything happening in the world and poor yippy people seemin’ not to have the money for their new, jump to 20% interest loans (yee haw! those were the funninest loans ever loaned to anybody – we all was crying our eyes out, laughin’ so hard, when we handed them things out) – which you know those poor people is inferior little fuckers – why, looks like good old Uncle Sam might have to eat that loan. But don’t you worry about the upper management at them there loanin’ companies. Why, we got us a new system nowadays in the U.S. – it is called elite impunity. Or, more informal like, Scooter rules! Means that if you are rich – and male and white, remember, these rules apply in all fifty states – why, you got a get out of jail free card! And hell, if you put that money from them their loans in hedge funds, why you can pay less tax than them poor fuckers who don’t deserve the houses they bought anyway!

Is this a great country or what?

So... who's gonna be a bad girl,now?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Because I am researching the pessimists at the moment, I’m reading Joseph de Maistre – which is always a pleasure, even if one can’t believe the transformation going on right before your eyes, as Christianity becomes, in de Maistre’s hands, a kind of Satanism presided over by the God of war. Looking around for secondary literature on de Maistre, I was lucky to find a long essay by Cioran that somebody had, no doubt illegally, put up on the web. Cioran rather beautifully understands the programmatic futility of the reactionary temperament, and I am certainly going to use that essay later. But neither de Maistre nor Cioran’s essay is my focus in this post. Rather, it is the variability of critical judgment.

I wanted to see what the reaction to Cioran’s essay was. The essay was translated by Richard Howard in Anathemas and Admirations, so it is available even to your average mono-lingual American academic. I was surprised that so little was said about it. In Edmund White’s review of Anathemas and Admirations, he devoted some precious newspaper space to the essay:

“The other [essay in the book] is a homage to the 19th-century reactionary political philosopher Joseph de Maistre. With hand-rubbing glee Mr. Cioran chortles and quotes Maistre declaring in an insane period: "In all the universe there can be nothing more peaceful, more circumspect, more humane by nature than the tribunal of the Inquisition." Maistre was sent by the King of Sardinia as his Ambassador to St. Petersburg, and Mr. Cioran identifies with his status as emigre: "A thinker is enriched by all that escapes him, all that is taken from him; if he should happen to lose his country, what a windfall! Thus the exile is a thinker in miniature or a circumstantial visionary."

In his reactionary excessiveness Maistre criticized anything new and praised any authority consecrated by time, which he invariably qualified as "divine." Wryly, Mr. Cioran says in an aside, "Applied to war, the adjective seems, at first glance, unfortunate." With characteristic dryness, Mr. Cioran concludes, "Nothing permits us to regard goodness as the major attribute of the divinity."

I fail to see the handrubbing glee in the essay, which, I think, has a definite center – Cioran, like any good aphorist, has an almost supernatural appreciation for the semantic center of a text – in the paragraph that concludes Cioran’s examination of de Maistre’s most operatic pronouncements about the guilt of the philosophes being at the root of the reign of the guillotine:

“To consider the 18th century as the privileged moment, as the incarnation, even, of evil is to toy with aberrations. In what other epoch were injustices denounced with more rigor? A salutary work, of which the Terror was the negation, and not the crowning moment.”

De Maistre coterie of modern sympathizers recognized, more accurately, the weight of the judgment on de Maistre that Cioran unfolds. Cara Camcastle, for instance, in The More Moderate Side of Joseph de Maistre, writes:

Cioran claimed that Maistre became like his ruthless and extreme enemies the Jacobins; his books are not boring to read because they are penetrated by an invigorating rage. he spirit of the Revolution and the Terror that he relentlessly attacked has penetrated, and been assimilated into, his own thought. THis statement is as constructive as saying that a physician who is caring for the sick during an epidemic should be treated as a persona non grata since he may have become as virulent and dangerout to human beings as the illness he is combating because he has come to understand the illness too well.” (53)

The comparison between Maistre and a physician is, to say the least, strange – if one were to really make that comparison, Maistre is more like a physician who insists on bloodletting as the cure for plague, and denounces science as satanic for saying otherwise. But at least it gives one a sense that there is not a lot of handrubbing glee in Cioran’s essay.

Cioran did not, it seems, hide his fascist past - but he wasn't exactly eager to write about it either. The essay on Maistre, written in 1957, has a certain intimate tone, as though Cioran is talking to himself through Maistre - and that may be due to the fact that Maistre's heady embrace of the worst human institutions might have seemed, to Cioran, to mirror his own madness in the thirties and forties – a political trajectory amply documented by Marta Petreu in a recent book. Carlin Romano wrote a story about this for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“For Petreu, Cioran's life and work look less majestic. To this brilliantly thorough philosophy professor at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, the slippery "fanatic without convictions" (as Cioran later dubbed himself) is the older, probably repentant successor to the messianic firebrand who applied Spengler's philosophy of cultural development to 1930s Romania with unparalleled brutality and fervor.
In November 1933, Cioran won a Humboldt doctoral grant to Berlin, where he quickly became a fan of Hitler. "I am absolutely enthralled by the political order they've set up here," he wrote to his friend Mircea Eliade, the future historian of religion, whose 1930s fascism and anti-Semitism also emerged most prominently after his death. "Some of our friends," Cioran advised pal Petru Comarnescu, "will believe that I've turned Hitlerist out of sheer opportunism. The truth is that I agree with many of the things I've seen here."

Nazism, Cioran wrote, possessed "greatness." Germans had a "need for a Führer," and Hitlerism constituted "a destiny for Germany." Cioran supported a similar dictatorship for his country and believed that "only terror, brutality, and endless anxiety are likely to bring about a change in Romania. All Romanians should be arrested and beaten to a pulp; this is the only way a shallow nation could make a name for itself." "Hitler's merit," insisted the young voice of vitalist barbarism, "consists in depriving his nation of a critical spirit."

That kind of hyperbole marked Cioran's style throughout his career. In The Transfiguration of Romania and his 1930s journalism, it contributed to bombastic bursts of fascism.”

Romano’s idea that the aphorism is equivalent to the hyperbole is common; however, it isn't right. It certainly doen’t apply to Cioran, who is writing in a world in which the camps and more camps were the reality, while the missiles and more missiles were being constructed by the two great powers left. More interesting, however, from the perspective of Cioran’s own fascism, is the way in which his essay on Maistre digs with doglike persistance at the very foundations of the fascist dream. Joseph Frank, reviewing Petreu’s book and another, by Laignel-Lavastine, in the New Republic, concludes his essay with a long passage about Cioran - and I'll conclude this post with a quote from that long passage

The most complicated case of all was Cioran, whose later writings are shot through with passages that may be read as implicit expressions of regret for his earlier convictions, but who never seemed able to repudiate them publicly. He was much more forthright in his correspondence and in private conversation. In a letter to a friend, Cioran declared in 1971 that "when I contemplate certain of my past infatuations, I am brought up short: I don't understand. What madness!" This would certainly seem to indicate their rejection on his part. In conversation with the author of a book about the commandant of Auschwitz, he said: "What Germany did amounts to a damnation of mankind."

There can be no question that, unlike Eliade, the issue of his previous fascism and anti-Semitism tormented the complicated, involuted, self-questioning Cioran, whose thought was always directed toward undermining all of mankind's certainties, including his own. The analysis of the postwar Cioran given here is the most complex and controversial in Laignel-Lavastine's book. He is depicted as both evading any overt responsibility for his past and also, "unlike Eliade," weighed down by feelings "inseparable from a desire for expiation and a sense of diffuse guilt … [an] 'oppressive sensation' with which he admits sometimes awakening in the morning, 'as if I bore the weight of a thousand crimes.'"

As in the case of Eliade, Cioran's past sometimes came back to haunt him. Paul Celan, the great German poet of Romanian origin whose parents died in a Romanian camp and who had himself been deported to a labor camp, was also living in Paris and translated one of Cioran's works, Precis de decomposition (A Short History of Decay), into German in 1953. The two saw each other from time to time, and Cioran came to the poet's aid when Celan was fighting off accusations of plagiarism. Yet when a Romanian critic on his way through Paris laid out the particulars of Cioran's past, Celan refused to have anything more to do with him. Despite this break, Cioran was deeply disturbed when he heard of the poet's suicide. It is suggested that this relationship with a Jewish writer may also have been meant as the same sort of "cover" that Eliade exploited so successfully; but there is nothing to support such a suspicion except that, when Cioran was once asked whether he knew Celine, he mentioned Celan instead. One has the feeling here that, despite her own evident intention to be as fair as possible in stressing Cioran's "ambivalence," Laignel-Lavastine is pushing matters too far.

The same problem arises when she comes to Cioran's attitude toward the Jews. When, for example, a new edition of his most anti-Semitic book, The Transfiguration of Romania, was published in Romania, he insisted that the chapter on the Jews be eliminated, along with a number of remarks about them scattered through the text: "I completely renounce a very large part [of the book] which stems from the prejudices of the past, and I consider as inadmissible certain remarks about the Jews," he wrote to a friend. Nothing could be more explicit. Even more, in one of his later French books he included a section on the Jews called "Un peuple de solitaires" ("A Solitary People") that was hailed as philo-Semitic. But Laignel-Lavastine believes this to be an illusion, because on comparing this text with what Cioran had written years ago, she finds that the image now given of the Jewish people and their history is much the same as that provided earlier--except that what had been evaluated negatively in the past is now given a glowingly positive spin. Moreover, Cioran continually identifies his own situation with that of the Jews, writing that "their drama [that of the Jews] is mine." In 1970 he mused that "I lacked an essential condition fully to realize myself: to be Jewish."

This obsessive self-identification with the Jews is interpreted as "the reversed expression of the same psycho-pathological phenomenon" that had earlier led to Cioran's worst excesses. Perhaps so; but to glorify the Jews instead of vilifying them surely indicates some sort of change. Also, the objection is made that while Cioran often expresses regret about his errors of the past, he never does so except in general terms, without attempting to explain why they are now rejected. For Laignel-Lavastine, Cioran's tantalizingly ambiguous relation to his past is hardly a genuine attempt to come to terms with the practical consequences of the ideas he once espoused and still, on occasion, seemed to toy with in a rhetorically half-amused fashion. She wonders whether, as was the case with Eliade, he was merely "translating into an acceptable language ideological motifs and attitudes [that are] ideologically disqualified in the West." Petreu is much more affirmative on this issue, and cites someone who visited Cioran during his last days, when he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease: "From his hospital bed, desperately trying to overcome the symptoms of his disease, Cioran stumblingly told his guest: 'I … am not … an … anti- … Semite.'"

Let me add my personal testimony at this point. During my years in Paris I met Cioran and saw him on a number of occasions, and we had a good many conversations (particularly but not exclusively about Russian literature, in which he took a passionate interest). Whatever the twists and turns of his troubled conscience, the brilliantly sardonic, self-mocking, and fascinating personality that I knew could not have been a conscious manipulator who would set out deliberately to deceive."

Deception is the privileged instrument of the exile – as Humbert Humbert knew. The movement from anti-semitism to philo-semitism is a movement within the pure stupidity of projection, as far as I can tell – philosophical anthropology as the production of coloring books for pissants. But enough Rezeption. I’ll write about the Maistre essay soon.

Monday, November 26, 2007

the ontogenesis of the critic

When LI was a child, we were particularly prone to nightmares.

I developed a remedy for the nightmares that would wake me up in a fright. I would compose a happy ending scenario – often involving shooting a bad guy – with which to go back to sleep. I don’t know how common this is – obviously, if you are small, need sleep, and are at the same time afraid to go to sleep, you need to develop some method to negotiate between those two enormous pulls, panic and metabolism. I am not one of nature’s insomniacs, like Nabokov – before the age of thirty, I don’t recall having much of a problem getting to sleep. Now, of course, I sometimes have whole weeks of insomnia, in which I experience vast patches of shallow or no sleep interspersed by blurry days of a tiredness that haunts me like a guilty conscience until I decide to give into it – at which point it disperses, leaving me wide awake and facing the horror of another night. I know intimately the moment of cock crow, when Hamlet’s father flees back to hell, the garbage truck shakes the dumpsters, and the cars bearing people from various night shifts ease back into the parking lot with an oddly muted sound, as though the cars were on tiptoe. The quickly stifled bits of radio or music that come out of the windows. The sound of the door slamming, and the sound of footsteps.

But outside of the shadow of insomnia, I am still bothered, perhaps more than most people, with nightmares. Last night, for instance, the Nosferatu lookalike who carved up a woman in my dreams and stalked me and a friend (who I didn’t really know – the man in my dream was as familiar as a film star, but I didn’t know his name), had a good time spooking me. Eventually, as the Nosferatu looking man came at me with a gun and had me good and cornered, I woke up. Just enough to know that I had to go back to sleep with another dream plan. In that plan, I jumped Nosferatu from behind, or did something – the events get cloudy here. But I cheated the nightmare’s ending.

I sometimes wonder if this habit betrays the salient characteristics of a born critic. Helpless to direct the narrative in which I am caught, I nevertheless have the power, at a certain point, to get out of it and go back into it – there is a little back door in my dreams. I am not even sure that the ending of the dreams that I contrive are really dreams – they may not have the true sleep seal on them, but exist more in the twilight between waking and sleeping thoughts. But they are often followed by another dream – and sometimes, the next dream is also a nightmare, but of a significantly lesser degree of virulence.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

army of vestals - taxonomy 2

I am going to have to deal with Fourier in my happiness project. Fourier, more than any other utopian thinker, dealt seriously with the enlightenment vision of happiness as the key criterion for the political order. Rather than the nebulous pursuit of happiness, Fourier felt that one could build an environment that embodied the particular ruling passions of particular subjects. Building on the base of the three basic passional types (the papillone, - or the going from activity to activity; the cabalist, or the creation of intrigues; and the composite, or the enthusiast) which he felt differentiated people, he imagined a dizzying structure, like Leibniz’s pyramid at the end of the Theodicy – Fourier called it a phalanstery - in which each monad is inhabited by different types whose ruling passions finally find corresponding expression in the best of all possible mini-worlds. The primary types – defined by their ruling passions - multiply in the passional series as they are modified by different attributes at different levels.

Fourier has had an odd afterlife. He was cleaned up and classified by Engels as a romantic socialist. He was the inspiring spirit behind America’s utopian experiments in the 1840s, and favored by Horace Greeley, the same newspaper man who practically founded the Republican Party. He was discovered by Breton as a pre-cursor of the surrealists. And he became one of Roland Barthes great references.

Now, those who study him closely usually have to confront the question as to whether he was, uh, a bit touched in the head. For instance, he seemed to believe that his utopia would stimulate human evolution to the extent that we would, in due time, grow a helpful other hand – a sort of tail, or archibras, as he called it. Also, anticipating the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper by one hundred fifty years, he believed that the oceans might well, in the course of the amelioration of all things, turn into lemonade, and that lions and sharks would give way to anti-lions and anti-sharks, just right for snuggling up to people. Today’s NYT magazine article about bears shows that in this, at least, Fourier is proving correct.

After Fourier died, his followers were divided on what to do with his elaborate sexual doctrines. But these same doctrines became the center of the cult of Fourier after he was rediscovered by the surrealists. And, in truth, they are central to Fourier’s immense plan – for the whole point here is to devise an optimal system of attractions. Thus, for instance, Fourier recognizes that there are two divisions of people who can be classified under the term “Vestality” who are attracted to constancy in the love relationship, and seven divisions of people who are attracted to inconstancy. Fourier imagines a vast industrial army composed of Vestal and Vestale – young men and women – who, when they lose their virginity, are cycled into another group. Fourier constrasts his organized sex acts with the terrible custom of marriage.

For assembling an army, it is enough to publish a table of the quadrilles of virginity that each phalange sends; then those who are declared male and female claimants can not avoid following all the claimants into the army, where they must decide the choice, which is done secretly, without the scandalous publicity that is disseminated among us at marriage ceremonies, where one tells a whole village that, on such and such a day, a libertine, an old rogue, is going to deflower a young innocent. One has to be born in Civilization in order to endure the aspect of those indecent customs that one calls wedding nights… after vile intrigues, after being pimped by the notary and various marriage brokers, one is going to enchain for life two individuals who will perhaps not be able to stand each other at the end of two months.

Compare this to the phalange:

In the combined Order, the celebrations relative to first love will only be given after the union is consummated.

But of course things are never that simple. There are virgin men and virgin women who decide to have sex without announcement – or who become attracted to inconstancy. Of course, there are orders for these people to go into – the Bacchants and the Bacchantes. Who have the function to go out each morning to the pavilion where hundreds of virgins are sleeping and ‘relieve the wounded, that is to say the claimant men and women who find themselves so lead in consequence of secret unions during the night.”

As you can tell just by those two brief quotes, Fourier, among other things, made up his own language to talk about his Fourier world. Actually, to use a word that is now common in the art world, it would be best to talk about Fourier as an ‘outsider’ utopian. His elaborate schemes have some resemblance to Henry Darger’s immense fantasy world, In the Realms of the Unreal, in which the Vivian girls have to go from planet to planet leading the Child Slave rebellion – although of course I don’t mean that Darger was at all influenced by Fourier. Rather, the passion for creating immense, sexually resonant worlds is common to both men.

Fourier is an immense subject. This post is just a brief note to follow up on my response to IT’s criticism of pornographic taxonomy – which is to say the use of Fourier’s taxonomy is to make us doubt the claim to cognitive neutrality, to a sort of asexual position, of those who make the taxonomies that mark up our world, way beyond porn.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...