Friday, March 07, 2008

Now, dance

LI chatted with our brother on the phone last night. This brother got burned last year in the stock market. Although who didn’t? So he’s letting his buys coast at the moment – the wisest course. As always, in these conversations there comes a moment when D. tells me that I’m always pessimistic. He claims I’ve been pessimistic since 1990 – and that I had to be right once, so that last year, when I told him to get out in the summer after he’d had a good ride on his stocks, I was simply lucky that, for once, pessimism was the correct view.

Well, I always squirm and protest that I’m not a pessimist. I’m sour-castic – an entirely different thing. This means that I always sound pessimistic. But all I mean is – we’re all gonna die!

In actuality, I am a great admirer of the plodding tenaciousness of your average American Joe. So I found this article about the rise and fall of a house building family, the Dunmores, pretty fascinating.

“When George P. Dunmore started his business in Sacramento in the early 1950s, World War II was over and the building boom was on. Over the next several decades his company, Dunmore Construction, along with other respected builders, took the tabula rasa that was California’s Central Valley and etched it with entire neighborhoods filled with well-built ranch houses on trim lawns.

Mr. Dunmore lived through his share of lean years, of course; that is the rhythm of the home construction business. But for the most part, his company prospered. His son Sidney got into the business. And Sidney B. Dunmore’s boys followed him.

But by the time Mr. Dunmore died last October, at age 89, his son Sidney found himself caught in the middle of a real estate collapse. Overextended and pursued by a long line of creditors, the company bearing the family name, Dunmore Homes, was sold to a New York corporation owned by a Sacramento-area mortgage broker for $500, including the assumption of liabilities totaling more than $250 million. Two months later, the new owner filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Code.

A bankruptcy court in Sacramento is left with the task of untangling a web of transactions, affidavits, property transfers, loans and liens that have come to symbolize the real estate crisis not just for Dunmore Homes, but for an entire industry.”

My old man, like George Dunmore, wanted to cash in on the building boom of the fifties. Unfortunately, my old man did not live in sunny California, but in snowy Syracuse, N.Y. Outside Syracuse, really. Back in the days when the Cold War idea of creating living patterns that mirrored the concentric rings on a bombing chart was just getting started. Always the outlier, my old man, he converted the farm that he’d borrowed money from his folks to buy into lots, upon which he erected large houses. Too large, it turned out. These beauties he built on spec, and sold in the end, to the family. My earliest memories are of the sweet work of carpentry. The smell of sawdust, the whine of an electric saw, the pocking sound of hammers and the way a nail will tune itself in the wood to a straight blow. Its work to make your hands bigger; always, no matter how much Lava you use, there’s something under your nails in the evening – grit, tar.

The Dunmores did well for themselves (unlike the Gathmanns) and prospered in what the NYT calls “the go-go years of the California real estate boom.” What curious years they have been!

“Not only was George Dunmore a fair businessman, friends and acquaintances say, but he was an avowed family man as well. Of Mr. Dunmore’s three children, Sidney, now 53, showed the most interest in taking up the family trade. After years of apprenticing under his father, the younger Mr. Dunmore started his own firm, Dunmore Homes.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Dunmore Homes expanded. The company formed more than a dozen subsidiaries throughout the state, with more than two dozen developments, many of them catering to first-time home buyers in need of subprime and nonconventional loans. The company eventually built a total of 22,000 homes.

The region was one of the fastest-growing real estate markets in the country. In Sacramento County, from 2000 to 2005, the median price of homes more than tripled, to $385,000, according to DataQuick Information Systems.”

That’s a lot of board feet. When you have an asset run up like that of the early Bush years, you have to ask – I asked, continually, just drag my blog posts – where the money was coming from. As I’ve said before, the recession that keeps yawning before us (providing the newspapers with a by now very stale conditional for the last three months, that we may be in a recession) is the 3 trillion dollar recession – the difference between wages and borrowing. It would be interesting to know how many of those 22,000 homes became piggy banks for the homeowners, as the offers came in to borrow money against the accelerating value of the house. As my bro said last night, why not? The puritan in me protests that there had to be something wrong with the life of consumer prodigality which characterized the middle class lifestyle in the Bush era. Are we not men? Are we mere locusts? On the other hand, why knock the locusts? The non-puritan part of myself has always taken the grasshopper’s side in the fable of the ant and the grasshopper.

The Dunmore saga does not end in a “There will be blood” fashion – no homicide for these folks. It ends, more sensibly, in tax evasion:

“Any builder, even the best-capitalized builders, drank the Kool-Aid and bought too much land and loaded up at the peak,” said Ivy Zelman, a home building industry analyst. Ms. Zelman, who said she had no direct knowledge of Dunmore Homes, said she believed that the company might have taken on “way too much risk and just assumed values would go up.”
“I imagine that’s what they were thinking and didn’t have good disciplines in place.”
John Slaughter, a spokesman for Dunmore Homes who left the company this week, recalled how “so much happened with the mortgage industry, and prices dropping, and all the foreclosures.”
“It got to where we were a private company, competing with the large billion-dollar companies that could continue to reduce prices, and we just couldn’t compete with that,” he said.

In September, Dunmore Homes changed its name to DHI Development and sold its assets for $500 to a New York entity called Dunmore Homes Inc. The new Dunmore Homes is owned by Michael Kane, a Sacramento mortgage broker. He declined to comment.
Mr. Kane got not just the assets, but debts amounting to more than $250 million owed to a lengthy list of creditors that includes banks, contractors, landscapers, electricians, plumbers and paving companies.

Mr. Dunmore’s creditors cried foul over the sale, as well as the bankruptcy court filing in New York, a continent away.

Mr. Dunmore apparently had his reasons for the quick, cheap sale. According to court documents, by declaring his losses in the sale of the business, Mr. Dunmore is due a 2007 tax refund of approximately $11 million — money that he will use to pay off an $11 million obligation to Dunmore Homes.”

My brother might be right about my pessimism, which does blind me to certain truths that we hold self-evident. This is the New World, god damn it. We’ve moved out of the peasant world, with its iron Malthusian laws:

Nuit et jour à tout venant
Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.
--Vous chantiez ? j'en suis fort aise.
Eh bien ! dansez maintenant.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Brer Rabbit and Lycurgus

"'I come atter you, Brer Rabbit,' sez Brer Fox, sezee. 'Dar's gwineter be a party up at Miss Meadows's,' sezee. 'All de gals 'llbe dere, en I promus' dat I'd fetch you. De gals, dey 'lowed dat hit wouldn't be no party 'ceppin' I fotch you,' sez Brer Fox, sezee.

"Den Brer Rabbit say he wuz too sick, en Brer Fox say he wuzzent, en dar dey had it up and down, 'sputin' en contendin'. Brer Rabbit say he can't walk. Brer Fox say he tote 'im. Brer Rabbit say how? Brer Fox say in his arms. Brer Rabbit say he drap 'im. Brer Fox low he won't. Bimeby Brer Rabbit say he go ef Brer Fox tote 'im on his back. Brer Fox say he would. Brer Rabbit say he can't ride widout a saddle. Brer Fox say he git de saddle. Brer Rabbit say he can't set in saddle less he have bridle fer ter hol' by. Brer Fox say he git de bridle. Brer Rabbit say he can't ride widout bline bridle, kaze Brer Fox be shyin' at stumps long de road, en fling 'im off. Brer Fox say he git bline bridle. Den Brer Rabbit say he go. Den Brer Fox say he ride Brer Rabbit mos' up ter Miss Meadows's, en den he could git down en walk de balance er de way. Brer Rabbit 'greed, en den Brer Fox lipt out atter de saddle en de bridle.”

Many a reader of Plutarch’s Lycurgus must have been struck by the resemblance between Sparta’s lawgiver and Br’er Rabbit. At least I was, last night.

In Kautsky’s book on Thomas More’s Utopia, he listed Lycurgus as a fore-runner of socialism. Kautsky said nothing about Brer Rabbit, however. Lycurgus got on the short list because, as Plutarch’s life shows, he imposed an apparently radically egalitarian ideal on the Spartans. Save, of course, for the helots. Myself, I think it is important to see this ideal for what it is: it is animated less by egalitarianism than for a hatred of the effects of wealth.

However, to continue along the traditional lines of telling the story: Lycurgus did create an egalitarian state. The way he did it was Brer Rabbit like. For instance, here is Lycurgus, solving the perennial problem of wealth inequality. First, he solved it for immovables (Henry Maine claims that the primal category of property is into immovables and moveables) by creating a new, equal division of land between all Spartans and all Laconians.

Then he moved onto moveables.

“Not contented with this, he resolved to make a division of their movables too, that there might be no odious distinction or inequality left amongst them; but finding that it would be very dangerous to go about it openly, he took another course…”

"Co'se Brer Rabbit know de game dat Brer Fox wuz fixin' fer ter play, en he 'termin' fer ter outdo 'im, en by de time he koam his ha'r en twis' his mustarsh, en sorter rig up, yer come Brer Fox, saddle en bridle on, en lookin' ez peart ez a circus pony. He trot up ter de do' en stan' dar pawin' de ground en chompin' de bit same like sho 'nuff hoss, en Brer Rabbit he mount, he did, en dey amble off. Brer Fox can't see behime wid de bline bridle on, but bimeby he feel Brer Rabbit raise one er his foots.
"'W'at you doin' now, Brer Rabbit?' sezee.
"Short'nin' de lef stir'p, Brer Fox,' sezee.
"Bimeby Brer Rabbit raise up de udder foot.
"'W'at you doin' now, Brer Rabbit?' sezee. Pullin' down my pants, Brer Fox,' sezee.
"All de time, bless grashus, honey, Brer Rabbit wer puttin' on his spurrers, en w'en dey got close to Miss Meadows's, whar Brer Rabbit wuz to git off, en Brer Fox made a motion fer ter stan' still, Brer Rabbit slap de spurrers into Brer Fox flanks, en you better b'leeve he got over groun'.

In order, Plutarch claims, to complete his radical egalitarian program, Lycurgus had to attack both the possessions and the private life of the Spartans. The first he did in the following way:

“… he commanded that all gold and silver coin should be called in, and that only a sort of money made of iron should be current, a great weight and quantity of which was but very little worth; so that to lay up twenty or thirty pounds there was required a pretty large closet, and, to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen. With the diffusion of this money, at once a number of vices were banished from Lacedæmon; for who would rob another of such a coin? Who would unjustly detain or take by force, or accept as a bribe, a thing which it was not easy to hide, nor a credit to have, nor indeed of any use to cut in pieces? For when it was just red hot, they quenched it in vinegar, and by that means spoilt it, and made it almost incapable of being worked.
In the next place, he declared an outlawry of all needless and superfluous arts; but here he might almost have spared his proclamation; for they of themselves would have gone after the gold and silver, the money which remained being not so proper payment for curious work; for, being of iron, it was scarcely portable, neither, if they should take the pains to export it, would it pass amongst the other Greeks, who ridiculed it. So there was now no more means of purchasing foreign goods and small wares; merchants sent no shiploads into Laconian ports; no rhetoric-master, no itinerant fortune-teller, no harlot-monger or gold or silversmith, engraver, or jeweler, set foot in a country which had no money; so that luxury, deprived little by little of that which fed and fomented it, wasted to nothing, and died away of itself.”

What Lycurgus is aiming at is luxury –luxury is the vice of inequality, the effect of wealth, the thing that brings in itinerant fortune-tellers, harlot mongers and gold and silver smiths. The attack on wealth is an attack on the effect of wealth. And though it seems to be an attack levied for the sake of equality itself, it turns out that it is a way of clearing out unnatural hierarchies so that natural ones can flourish. The natural ones will be of the healthy and the strong over the weak – the good fuckers and good bearers of children over the degenerates – the silent, or plain speakers over the garrulous – the spending of words being parallel to the spending of money – etc.

In this, Brer Rabbit is different than Lycurgus. Lycurgus is the great deceitful lawmaker, and Brer Rabbit is the great deceitful lawbreaker. Since I’ve been considering the nineteenth century stories concerning the origin of property, I thought I’d put this note aside for later.

The shock of conquest.

This was the situation which capitalist production confronted as it, since the age of geographic discoveries, prepared itself for world domination through global trade and manufacture. One should think that this mode of marriage had suited it exceptionally well, and so it also was. And yet – the irony of world history is fathomless – it was capitalism that had to make the decisive breach in it. While it turns all things into commodities, it dissolves all obsolete, ancient relations, substitutes buying and selling, the free contract for inherited morals, historical right – as when the English legal scholar H.S. Maine believed to have made a great discovery when he said that our whole progress against earlier epochs consisted in the fact that we have come from status to contract, form inherited, transcended circumstances to freely contractual ones. Which was of course already in the Communist Manifesto, in so far as it was correct.
– Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Engels is, of course, right to point to the coincidence of views between Marx and Maine, even though there is little evidence that Maine came to his views from reading the Communist Manifesto. Like Marx, Maine rejected out of hand the 18th century’s Robinsonades, the stories of society's birth in the experience of some exemplary, isolated individual. Yet Maine was certainly on the other side of the political spectrum from Marx. Acton wrote, in a letter to Gladstone, that he found Maine to be a commonplace Tory. However, Acton might have been exaggerating Maine’s mediocrity. His star was descending at the time of his death – Thomas Huxley lamented, a decade after it, that Maine was largely neglected. Ford Maddox Ford was so struck by Maine’s expository prose that he exempted him from his general condemnation of the stupid nineteenth century in Britain. Contemporary anthropologists don’t give a lot of credit to Maine’s scholarship in Ancient Law – his friend and foe, James Fitzjames Stephen, claimed that Maine, at the time he wrote Ancient Law, was but dimly acquainted with Roman law, and had merely glanced at the Pandects on the way, so to speak, to the podium.

While these criticisms may be true, it is also true that Ancient Law is a great nineteenth century text, a codex of imperialist mythmaking. Using the theme of the origin of property relations allows Maine to touch on some of the great sore topics of the imperium – for instance, the relationship between violence and property. His use of the Indian village communes (supplemented by his use of the Russian village communes) introduces into the self satisfied Lockian tradition themes that can only distress it, that are outside of its reach. Even so, of course, Maine fit comfortably into the Lockean tradition, and in his real life, as a jurist in India, extended the rights of private property incrementally, thus adding his bit to the great work. Here we touch on one of those moments fraught with tension: Maine is, perhaps, the only real heir of that part of Burke’s philosophy that was expressed in the Hastings trial. He, too, extended his reverence for traditional social arrangements to other societies – notably, of course, India. (It is always India and Ireland for the British). Yet, practically, this was a move stunted by its inability to justify its own standing – for neither Burke nor Maine were opposed to empire. They could only shunt the moment of initial violence to the category that contained special cases. And so, although Maine takes an anti-Millian, anti-utilitarian approach in Ancient Law, one shouldn’t see this opposition as too absolute. Remember, too, that Maine was associated with the whole cast of imperial bureaucrats who responded with unparalleled criminality to the famine of 1879 – which is spelled out by Mike Davis in his book, the Late Victorian Holocaust. So the Burkean and Millian controversy about law in India, and, by extension, the social arrangements of European imperial states, is at the same time exquisitely evasive about the British responsibility for the state of utter misery and impoverishment that resulted in the series of famines in the late nineteenth century – famines which, as we know, could well have been mitigated by timely interventions, but were instead exacerbated by a punitive system of aid that was more attentive to laissez faire ideology than to human catastrophe. I reference Mike Davis because, if you look at histories of the Raj, at least by British authors, you will find references to famine are confined to a page or a paragraph, so as not to interrupt the pageantry.

LI has already anchored our account of the triumph of happiness in the Great Transformation that brought about the dominance of free trade and the industrial system of production. Looking at the intellectual history of the discourse over the emotions (one of the dimensions of which is to ground and legitimate capitalism and the democratic state) , it is striking – it struck, I think, Maine – how the use of “enjoyment’ and ‘use’ are coupled together as the distinctive characteristics of the relation of the holder of property to the property he holds in British law. One has a sense that the telescoping of enjoyment and use by Bentham is suggested by this legal idiom. Maine’s question about the origins of the property relation is, in one way a question about how it came about that property is defined in terms of the exclusive enjoyment of an object by the propertyholder. Chapter 8, which we want to examine, takes up various aspects of the property relation, finds echoes of them (or, sometimes, does not find echoes of them) in ancient law and custom, and beats a trail back to India, its primitive status trumping Rome’s. We’ll start with the notion of res nullius – which, we have noticed, hasn’t attracted a lot of modern attention. However, for us, looking at Maine’s text in terms of imperial legitimacy, res nullius – the notion that the conqueror’s triumph dissolves all property bonds, rendering the objects free for the conqueror to seize – should be looked at as more than a curiosity.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

the croakers want their own index

LI recommends David Leonardt’s column on unemployment in the NYT today. Leonardt has positioned himself as the NYT’s thorough Business columnist – he doesn’t have Gretchen’s instinct for hot stories of corrupt dealing, or Floyd Norris’ air of being a business columnist paterfamilias. Instead, he’s the economic historian of the bunch. In keeping with that rep, he begins with a fascinating story about the man who invented the way we measure unemployment, Carroll Wright, the chief of the Massachusetts Bureau of the Statistics of Labor in 1873 who was convinced that unemployment wasn’t as bad as the newspapers said it was. To “combat” the erroneous picture, “he created the first survey of unemployment.

The survey asked town assessors to estimate the number of local people out of work. Wright, however, added a crucial qualification. He wanted the assessors to count only adult men who “really want employment,” according to the historian Alexander Keyssar. By doing this, Wright said he understood that he was excluding a large number of men who would have liked to work if they could have found a job that paid as much as they
had been earning before.

Just as Wright hoped, his results were encouraging. Officially, there were only 22,000 unemployed in Massachusetts, less than one-tenth as many as one widely circulated (and patently wrong) guess had suggested. Wright announced that his “intelligent canvas” had proven the “croakers” wrong.”

The croakers have been down ever since – we croak that the reserve army of the unemployed is cynically manipulated to lower wages. Croak! We croak that the unemployment figures, like inflation figures, have been fine tuned by a combine of neo-classical economists and conservative politicians to churn out mind-numbingly bogus figures. Croak!
Which brings us up to the present:

“Over the last few decades, there has been an enormous increase in the number of people who fall into the no man’s land of the labor market that Carroll Wright created 130 years ago. These people are not employed, but they also don’t fit the government’s definition of the unemployed — those who “do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior four weeks, and are currently available for work.”

Consider this: the average unemployment rate in this decade, just above 5 percent, has been lower than in any decade since the 1960s. Yet the percentage of prime-age men (those 25 to 54 years old) who are not working has been higher than in any decade since World War II. In January, almost 13 percent of prime-age men did not hold a job, up from 11 percent in 1998, 11 percent in 1988, 9 percent in 1978 and just 6 percent in 1968.

Even prime-age women, who flooded into the work force in the 1970s and 1980s, aren’t working at quite the same rate they were when this decade began. About 27 percent of them don’t hold a job today, up from 25 percent in early 2000.”

It is a mad world, my masters. The croakers have still not penetrated the gated community in which dwell the pretty media princes and princesses. But outside that community, something is stirring. Us croakers have long been aware of an existential malaise, as we fight for our lives in our individual ratholes and receive reports about a world of sugar plum fairies in sugar plum McMansions, reports that are totally void of any hint that this magic world in which the dogs have all eaten the dogs and now want their desserts is not all the world there is.

the fall of the house of LI

I can feel, as I type this, the wind creaking in the shingles, the moon staring malevolently down, and the curse of the ancient house of UFOB creeping into the LI office like the mummy’s last cough. Because tonight, well, we went to the caucus, we v-v-voted for Obama, and we even signed up to be an alternate delegate to the county convention. Oh no, I see the fatal shadow of the raven on the wall!

So, we’ve cast ourselves into the whole shilly shally of White House Idol. The convention was held at the middle school a couple of blocks from here. About five hundred people showed up, including my worst enemy in the world. We nodded at each other – the WEIW and I no longer threaten bodily harm to each other. The flames have been banked. About 425 Obama people sat on one side of the room, and the rest were Clinton supporters on the other side. I was with the group that encompassed the cool young college crowd and the prosperous homeowners whose housing prices have regularly increased 25 percent a year in my Tarrytown neighborhood. I was staring at the aggrieved Clintonites. They were chunkier, less lively, and even those who did seem to be well employed seemed shabbier. They were obviously my people. This, I admit, has puzzled me through the last four months – my peckerwood genes tell me that Hillary has a lock on the vote of people like me: the losers. The through the cracks folks. To join the winning side makes me feel a bit like… a traitor.

Afterwards, I talked with a couple of Clintonites. Two women in their mid to late thirties who had this bearing I always respect, that down to earth, healthy, outrage outworn, lefty attitude. They didn’t say a lot – a young Obama precinct captain was bantering with them, and couldn’t resist asking whether Clinton didn’t seem to dance around answers during the debates. They didn’t think so. I didn’t ask, why did your candidate sign up for the war – because I doubt these two women were for the war, and they would have had to come up with some bs for it, and that would simply be painful. Oh well, it will be a slow end.

However, although the allure of the Clinton side was powerful, it was, of course, ultimately the Clinton side. As in Hillary Clinton. As in all the old shit. So I was there as the caucusers dwindled down to sixty or so, signed on as an alternate delegate for reasons I don’t understand, and went home.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Every which way: IT comes to America


IT and a monkey are comin’ to America. (I think the monkey is an homage to a forgotten Clint Eastwood hit of the seventies. Or maybe it is just a monkey). She has kindly left her schedule on her site, here. We’d urge any LI readers in Los Angeles, SF, NYC or Ithaca, New York to contact her to make arrangements to ply her with food and drink (and peanuts for her monkey, if it likes that kind of thing).

Property and hierarchy

Sir Henry Maine makes an interesting remark – interesting for the observer of emotional customs who also happens to be interested in the history of commodity fictions – in his lectures on Ancient Law to the effect that, to one looking at Roman law in the nineteenth century, under the influence of Bentham, it might seem as though that ancient law was constructed according to some notion of the happiness of the greatest number:

“The Roman theory guided men’s efforts in the same direction as the theory put into shape by the Englishman; its practical results were not widely different from those which would have been attained by a sect of law-reformers who maintained a steady pursuit of the general good of the community. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose it a conscious anticipation of Bentham’s principles. The happiness of mankind is, no doubt, sometimes assigned, both in the popular and in the legal literature of the Romans, as the proper object of remedial legislation, but it is very remarkable how few and faint are the testimonies to this principle compared with the tributes which are constantly offered to the overshadowing claims of the Law of Nature. It was not to anything resembling philanthropy but to their sense of simplicity and harmony – of what they significantly termed ‘elegance’ – that the Roman jurisconsults freely surrendered themselves.” (79)

Like most legal philosophers of the 19th century in Britain, Henry Maine was impressed by the anthropological knowledge that could apparently be gleaned from the Sanskrit documents that had started coming into Europe by way of the Asiatic society – William Jones and the like. He also – like James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Macaulay, Stephen Fitzjames Stephen and many others – worked in India or in the Indian office. India had a massive effect upon the way these people viewed the upward course of civilization, which was not simply a phrase or a hobby, but the framework for the entire imperial enterprise. They did not simply find their antiquarian interest aroused by tracing myths or concepts back to India, but found in the myth of ancient India which they gradually wove an addendum to, or a corrective to, the Edinburgh Enlightenment notion of progress. On the one hand, you had a middle class (to use Engel’s term for the English managers of capital) that had created and depended upon a structural loosening of the positional market – and on the other hand, as the middle class solidified its gains, you had a model of a society - ancient Indian society – which, with its rules that supposedly threw the symbols of a caste system over every facet of everyday life, indicated the depth of hierarchy not just as a political fact, but as a primal social principle.

So let’s move to the eighth chapter of Ancient Laws, shall we?

In the meantime, here's some Têtes Raides! and a cute claymation doggie.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

secret societies

Though Balzac saw himself as a romantic legitimist, his real passion was for secret societies. Indeed, the Comedie Humaine is a hive of secret societies, a puzzle palace given over to l'envers de l'histoire. Cousine Bette is, among other things, a sort of equivalent to The Prince in terms of conspiracy. Once the motive is given – Cousine Bette’s resentment over the theft of her Polish sculptor by her relatives, the Hulots – she turns all her resources to overthrowing that family. She has an expert sense of the vices and virtues that render the Hulots so vulnerable, and she sets to work with her trump card – Valerie Marneffe, whose ass will bring down a little private kingdom - all the while sewing and sewing and sewing.

Naturally, Balzac was attracted to the mythography of conspiracy. Among this company, one of the greatest was Joseph Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall.

Hammer-Purgstall is no longer a name to conjure with – I admit! He was an Austrian diplomat during the Napoleonic era, dispatched to Istanbul by the Habsburg court. He traveled in Egypt as well, learned Persian and Arabic, came back and began to publish the manuscripts he’d collected and translated writers like Hafiz – his Divan inspired Goethe’s West-östliche Divan, for instance. He knew Schlegel, he corresponded with the great French orientalists.

And he published a colorful History of the Assassins. It came out in 1818, was translated into English soon afterwards, and insinuated itself – along with the rich, fantastic literature of the illuminati –into the European imaginary. Hammer-Purgstall’s shadow is on Sherlock Holmes stories, on Chesterton’s the Man who was Thursday. It is on Dostoevsky’s the Possessed. He was, of course, just the kind of comrade Balzac had to meet, and Balzac did meet him. He gave Balzac a seal ring from the East.

This is the story Hammer-Purgstall tells about the Assassins in his history.

In the hills of Syria and Persia, the Assassins will build their castles. The castles are attached to pleasure gardens full of flowers and fountains. When the grand master spots some likely lad, he will invite him up to the castle, and ply him with delicious food and drinks. Unbeknownst to the guest, their flavors conceal haschich. The guest will, invariably, fall asleep. The grand master will then have the servants take the guest into the garden. When the guest wakes up, he will be surrounded by the most delicious looking women. There will be music, delicious food, drink, amorous fondling. The youth will be assured that he has, indeed, been transplanted to paradise. Of course, haschich is again hidden in the food and drink. Again, he will fall asleep. He will then be taken into the castle. When he awakens, the grand master will assure him that he has, indeed, received a vision of paradise. All that is left to do is to swear allegiance to the order.

But the order was no simple set of bandits. No, it rested on a philosophy that included elements from Sufiism, Shiism, and folk beliefs. In the assassin view, there are seven speaking prophets with their seven seats were: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Ismail, the son of Jafer. But there were also seven Mute prophets. They began with Sus, and each had twelve apostles. These Mute prophets created a secret tradition that flowed into the knowledge held by the most illuminated assassins. The illumination of the Ismailis – the Assassins – had nine degrees. The first five took in the prophets. The sixth degree took in pagan knowledge – Plato and Aristotle’s teaching. This was the degree of rationality, but it was ‘very tedious” – according to Hammer-Purgstall. “… Only after the acolyte was wholly penetrated with the wisdom of philosophy was he ready to climb to the seventh degree, where he move from Philosophy to Mysticism. This was the actual All-Oneness doctrine, which the Sufis in their works had constructed. In the eighth degree the positive doctrine of religion would be taken up again, which after all the preceding stages would crumble into dust. Now the student had be enlightened as to the ephemerality of all God’s messengers and prophets, the nothingness of heaven and hell, the indifference of all actions, for which there is neither punishment nor reward, neither in this nor in the other world, and so he was then ready for the nineth and last degree, ripe to become a blind instrument of all the passions of power. To believe nothing and to do all things was in two words the sum of this wisdom, which fundamentally negated all religion and morality, and had no other goal, than enacting ambitious plans through pliant ministers. To honor nothing and to dare all, because one held all to be a deceit, and nothing is not to be permitted, these are the best elements of a devilish politics, which without other goal than the satisfaction of the unquenchable longing for power instead of climbing up towards the highest goals – to throw oneself in the abyss, where they are buried, eating themselves, under the ruins of thrones and alters, under the roar of anarchy, under the ruins of the happiness of the people and under the curse of mankind itself.” (36)

One can interestingly compare this with the murderers celebrated by De Quincy, who were less concerned with universal anarchy than art. However, De Quincy did read Hammer-Purgstall, and he does mention the assassins with some admiration.

Hofmannsthal was well aware of the friendship of Balzac and Hammer-Purgstall. In his dialogue, Over Characters in the Novel and Drama, he stages a dialogue between the two. Hammer-Purgstall is cast as an enthusiast trying to get Balzac to write plays. This leads to some discussion about human beings and novelistic characters. The note struck by Balzac is this: “I have said it – I don’t see humans, I see fates” .

Balzac claims that theater, as he loves it, is embodied by seventeenth century English drama. But he claims he couldn’t write like Shakespeare.

“The reason? The innermost reason? Perhaps I don’t believe that there are characters. Shakespeare believed it. He was a dramatist.

H-P: You don’t believe that there are people? That’s a good one! You have created about six or seven hundred: you’ve put them on their feet! and since then, they exist.

Balzac: I don’t know, whether people can live in drama. Are you aware of what they call “allotropy” in the mineralogical science? The same matter appears twice in the realms of things, in wholly different crystallation forms, wholly unexpected impress [Gepraege]. The dramatic character is an allotropy of the corresponding real one. I have put the event of Lear in Goriot, I put in the chemical process Lear, I am as distant as the sky from the crystallization form Lear. You are, Baron, as all Austrians, a born musician. You are even a learned musicians. Let me tell you, that the characters in a drama are nothing other than contrapuntal necessity. The dramatic character is a narrowing of the real one. What really enchants me, is just his breadth.”

Well, enough for now.

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...