Saturday, April 26, 2008

More news from the Kingdom of the Great Fly

One of the amusing things about dancing on the precipice in the era of the Great Fly is that every paranoid vision gains a foothold in reality. Take the food crisis. Let’s see, you combine phenomenal growth in former LDCs, climate changes the fact of which are resisted by the moronic inferno, and the richest country in the world making its primo manufacturing objective the export of packaged debt. And whaddya get? Oh, famine and war, war and famine.

Norman Borlaug has an opinion piece that is sure to be unread and unheeded until, say, next year, when bread is five dollars a loaf. Borlaug is the great Green Revolution agronomist. Let’s just say that the Green Revolution gave us ambiguous results – while the Soviets collectivized their farms, the capitalist world treated its agricultural sector to a form of shock therapy, agroteching their way to global corporate farming monstrosities, and the resulting flight from the peasant pea patch to the barrio and bidonville is going to rule our world for a long time. But that is the way the world food supply went. So, if you are going to ruthlessly exterminate varieties and promote monoculture through the length and breadth of the planet, you better be prepared for the consequences – blights that can quickly wipe out the vulnerable predominant strand. This is where the fun stops in the evolution debate, which isn’t just about whether we should create even dumber American yokels than we are wont to mill out of our schools – natural selection as a fact about the relationship between species and environment can come gunning for you, hypocrite lecteur.

First, a little history:

“WITH food prices soaring throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America, and shortages threatening hunger and political chaos, the time could not be worse for an epidemic of stem rust in the world’s wheat crops. Yet millions of wheat farmers, small and large, face this spreading and deadly crop infection.

The looming catastrophe can be avoided if the world’s wheat scientists pull together to develop a new generation of stem-rust-resistant varieties of wheat. But scientists must quickly turn their attention to replacing almost all of the commercial wheat grown in the world today. This will require a commitment from many nations, especially the United States, which has lately neglected its role as a leader in agricultural science.

Stem rust, the most feared of all wheat diseases, can turn a healthy crop of wheat into a tangled mass of stems that produce little or no grain. The fungus spores travel in the wind, causing the infection to spread quickly. It has caused major famines since the beginning of history. In North America, huge grain losses occurred in 1903 and 1905 and from 1950 to ’54.”

Then a little natural history:

“Today, wheat provides about 20 percent of the food calories for the world’s people. The world wheat harvest now stands at about 600 million metric tons.
In the last decade, global wheat production has not kept pace with rising population, or the increasing per capita demand for wheat products in newly industrializing countries. At the same time, international support for wheat research has declined significantly. And as a consequence, in 2007-08, world wheat stocks (as a percentage of demand) dropped to their lowest level since 1947-48. And prices have steadily climbed to the highest level in 25 years.

The new strains of stem rust, called Ug99 because they were discovered in Uganda in 1999, are much more dangerous than those that, 50 years ago, destroyed as much as 20 percent of the American wheat crop. Today’s lush, high-yielding wheat fields on vast irrigated tracts are ideal environments for the fungus to multiply, so the potential for crop loss is greater than ever.”

And then, of course, the natural history of our Great Fly, that glorious combination of cretinism and short term advantage that we’ve all grown to know and love:

“The Bush administration was initially quick to grasp Ug99’s threat to American wheat production. In 2005, Mike Johanns, then secretary of agriculture, instructed the federal agriculture research service to take the lead in developing an international strategy to deal with stem rust. In 2006, the Agency for International Development mobilized emergency financing to help African and Asian countries accelerate needed wheat research.

But more recently, the administration has begun reversing direction. The State Department is recommending ending American support for the international agricultural research centers that helped start the Green Revolution, including all money for wheat research. And significant financial cuts have been proposed for important research centers, including the Department of Agriculture’s essential rust research laboratory in St. Paul.

This shocking short-sightedness goes against the interests not only of American wheat farmers and consumers but of all humanity. It is tantamount to the United States abandoning its pledge to help halve world hunger by 2015.”

Imagine that – the U.S. breaking a promise!

Meanwhile, back in the the District of Columbian Ass-licking, the Washington Post article about the food riots is, of course, larded with the usual praise of the Great Fly – I am rather surprised that the Post hasn’t yet started calling him The Father of the People:

But administration officials and legislative aides acknowledge
that they have only recently begun to focus on the severity of the problem, and humanitarian groups fear that assistance from the United States, which already supplies about half of the world's total food aid, may come too late to provide much benefit in the near term.

The mounting crisis, which has unseated Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Édouard Alexis and prompted riots throughout the developing world, provides a particular challenge for President Bush during his final months in office. Although Bush has received many positive reviews for his initiatives to combat HIV-AIDS and malaria, he is hobbled by dismal approval ratings and bitter relations with a Democratic Congress during a presidential election year.”

Oh, the positive reviews on issues having nothing whatsoever to do with food! Surely they could have larded it with better ass licking than that, however. I would have suggested something like: “Although Bush has received many positive reviews on the massive size of his dick, a priapus that promises plentiful rainfall and prosperity for all Christian Americans…”

We live in Great Times, times of the fulfilment of prophecy, when the ludicrous and the murderous have merged into one soul destroying blob. So excellent!

We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we
had no eyes: we stumble at noon day as in the night; we are in
desolate places as dead men. Isaiah 59:10

Beauty tips

LI is very interested in beauty. We are a beauty maven. The whole thing, the aesthetic, the striving for it, the failing, the study of it. Hell, at the moment we are working part time copyediting the fashion issue of a magazine, so we are rubbing our nose in the manufacture of it, right down to the ColorU blush in Lilac. Yet, whenever we see calls to bring beauty back into the study of literature or art, it seems like the machine starts out all over again. First, the lament that somehow – through theory or through identity politics – they’ve guillotined beauty and are cavorting in her shambles. Then of course there is the appeal to the canonical and emotional power of beauty. That it soothes the wild beasts and the undergraduate at the same time. And then the whole train of associations are dragged into it – as we see in this article on teaching beauty by Jennifer Green-Lewis and Margaret Soltan at Inside Higher Education. It begins with an anecdote about the idiosyncratic veneration all readers give to certain of their favorite texts.

“When his turn came to speak at Norman Mailer’s recent memorial service in New York, the novelist Don DeLillo began by simply holding up his creased and worn 50-year-old copy of Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead.

All lovers of literature understand the nature of DeLillo’s gesture; they understand that behind the little paperback that he lifted for the audience to see lay years of private aesthetic pleasure in its pages — from the college student marveling at its prose to the venerated author of Underworld marveling at the same thumbed passages. That’s the sort of writer Mailer was, DeLillo meant to say: He wrote novels you’re never finished with; and the scuffs and scratches and stains you put in them over the years add up to the archaeology of your own literary life.”

This isn’t a bad start. Unfortunately, instead of asking about that contrast between scuffs and scratches and the glamorous spell cast by immersion in a work, by which the work becomes immersed in the reader – the praying mantis work of reading – we are, instead, taken by steps from attentiveness to the soul – and then the soul becomes the launching pad for the usual, quasi-religious complaint:

Who would ever enter a classroom and invite their students to consider the beauty of a work because, as Nicolas Malebranche puts it, “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul"? The word “soul” doesn’t get much exercise in English departments any more, and neither do concepts associated with it — inspiration, consolation, communality, transcendence, love. What do these have to do nowadays with the study of literature? In our public neglect of such concepts in favor of the political and the material, our answer is clear: nothing.
“Of course, literature professors who graduated from English departments in the past 30 years can defend their neglect of matters related to the soul, since in their studies no one talked much about these things either. An English professor recalls the facile “contingency” arguments of her day, which did so much to undermine judgments of aesthetic value: “I felt I had to hide or smuggle in my humanist convictions about ‘what sustains people’ — my faith for example in some quality of shared humanity that makes literary experience meaningful.... I was writing about [James] Joyce’s insights into the touching human need to bury, burn, or otherwise take care of the bodies of the dead — an impulse that is universal, however differently loss and the communal response to it are experienced across cultures. I was afraid I’d be attacked for ‘essentializing’ — for supposing that there are features, shared across cultures, that constitute the essence of being human.”

Surely “essentializing” — a poor choice of word for an acknowledgment of shared humanity — is necessary in the imaginative work involved in recognizing the existence of someone else. As Iris Murdoch argues, that recognition is difficult and demands a leap into the sort of empathy which the imaginative demands of literature encourage. When Murdoch expresses her admiration for T.E. Lawrence because he “let the agonizing complexities of situations twist [his] heart instead of tying his hands,” she reminds us that the real-world value of great and complex art can accustom us to the intricate and often painful ambiguities of the world.”

I can’t resist a side note here – Theophile de Viau, in his Apology, uses the pretty funny verb “quintessentializing.” With which I am well pleased. But to proceed…

This notion of the theory mafia that roamed the halls of academe when I was a grad student – yes, I was a member of Derrida’s Hells Angels in the 80s – would be funny. Except that I had a recent communication, with a professor I am editing, who told me that though my suggestions on how to make her argument tighter were excellent, they would involve “theory” – and, she added, anything that smacks of “theory” now gets you sorted into the non-tenure file. I’m not sure that she wasn’t exaggerating a bit. Still, more than one source has confirmed a backlash against theory in the humanities lately. But as Green-Lewis and Soltan’s article shows, without the constant barking of the theoretical guard dogs, there is an intolerable backsliding into quasi-Victorian malarkey. Which, of course, has nothing to do with beauty. One could well find beauty a universal factor in human societies without finding beauty universal – if that means that some set of objects or styles is universally considered beautiful. This is because the discourse of beauty that, for instance, connects it to the universal is easy to trace to historic conditions. And those same conditions tell us that beauty for the modernists, far from being this soul satisfying moment of universal communion, was considered the result of the most extreme contingency and alienation. For a modernist lineage coming out of Baudelaire and running through the Surrealists, Bataille, pop art, etc., beauty is inseparable from alienation. Here is where I, at least, would begin to talk about beauty – how it transmigrated into an art that hungered for alienation the way the fragment hungers for the whole. It is one of the notable things about surrealism, by the way, that it was quickly adapted by an international group of poets, painters and writers. It was seen to express the landscape of the end of the colonialist period – the twenties and thirties – by Chinese, Turkish and Antillaise poets, Spanish film makers, etc., etc. However, to tell this story about beauty would mean telling a story about transformations, losses, and what the individual attention cannot hold. To block this, Green-Lewis and Soltan bring in the soul.

If they had not so composed their piece as to create that local opposition between theory (which is anti-beauty) and appreciation (pro-beauty) which marks a very limited discourse on beauty, their views on teaching beauty would become much sharper:

“Critics of aesthetics tend to dismiss the “better world” orientation that often accompanies a serious interest in beauty as sentimental, religious, and naïve, an indulgent distraction from the hard truths of our time. But they are mistaken in this dismissal. The ability to establish strong personal agency, and then project certain futures, certain human potentialities, as novelists often do, and the ability to enter into and respond emotionally to those projections, as strong readers do, is a realistic and mature way of expressing faith in the possibility of humanity’s capacity to improve itself.

Dmitri Tymocko, in describing Beethoven’s brilliance, evokes precisely this disposition of passion and reason: “[We] can have tremendous, Beethovenian passions without losing all sense of our own limitation. (As one can have powerful political convictions while still recognizing that reasonable people may disagree.) Beethoven himself may not have achieved the perfect synthesis of these two, complementary qualities. But the evidence of both his music and his life suggests that he tried. Passionate maturity, neither resignation nor moderation nor fanaticism: that, perhaps, is what is truly

The display of “passionate maturity” may be in fact the best that we could ever hope for in our teaching of literature. The centrality of aesthetic experience in the struggle toward adaptation to a world forever changed by the particular political traumas of our time, and in the struggle toward the creation of a more humane world, means that professors of literature have in fact a special, even extraordinary, responsibility. In conveying the fullness of powerful aesthetic gestures, they must convey more than the form and content of particular poems, plays, and novels. They must embody in their very mode of teaching the paradox of passionate control which so often characterizes the greatest works of art; and they must embody the moral value for each individual of this dynamic act of balance.”

Are we to think that beauty is delimited by the “better future” that emanates from the ‘form and content of of particular poems, plays, and novels”? This seems to me to seriously understate the nostalgia in beauty. As for the dynamic act of balance, I’m not sure what exactly that means, here, but I think it entails a very narrow kind of aesthetic practice.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Chabert is back

LI is psyched to see that Le Colonel Chabert is back at her post, after one of her mysterious disappearances from the blogging world - no doubt, she was in deep confab with the Illuminati. LCC's last round was a full scale attack on the 68 French philosophes, like LI's patron saint, Derrida - and you might think it curious that I have any affection for that. But, at least in the world of philosophy, Heraclitus's words apply: polemos panton men pater esti, war is the father of all things. Most of the philosophes are dead now, and depend on us for their continued existence. How sad it would be if that existence consisted of tedious and bureaucratic applications of them to fill in, like a sort of all purpose tar, the crevasses in tenure track papers, continually churning! Far better the fierce response, the sortie from out of the underbrush! And not, either, of the dismissive, Brian Leiter variety, which is all about sheer ignorance - that's not a sortie, that's the tax collector.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

the apology of Theophile

LI had more fun with our Theophile post than we’ve had in a good while. Thank you, Amie.

Now, let’s place Theophile de Viau in context, and get on to the marvelous public letter he wrote Louis XIII – in a tone, and with a frankness, that would certainly have been unthinkable fifty years later.

Scholars would place Theophile de Viau in the French Renaissance period. He’s a contemporary of Robert Herrick – of the Cavalier poets. He started out in life with an excellent education – he learned Greek, Spanish, Italian and English at his school, Saumer, and he gained a smattering of the new sciences – or natural magic, as Bacon referred to them. Being relatively wealthy, when he came to Paris, as he confesses in his letters, he fell into vice. Although nowadays he is celebrated as a Gay litterateur – by people who simply sort through history, look for the assfucking, not literature, and pluck out the assfucker – his debauches were, as far as we know from his own words, with women, although Tallement repeats a story that he seduced a boy he was tutoring, and there are enough rumors about Theophile that the hasty searchers for Gay avatars aren’t wholly wrong. But he was not Marlowe – or at least not in this sense. There is a boldness, a recklessness in Theophile that does remind one of Marlowe, though. As Claire Gaudiami has pointed out, for instance [The Cabaret Poetry of Théophile de Viau: Texts and Traditions, 43-5], an 1618 poem, Elegie de M. de C., contains cosmological speculation about the materiality of the soul – composed of the four elements, governed by the stars – and its finitude, on the lines of Vanini, who was burned at the stake in 1619 in Toulouse. And like Marlowe, the record of his banishments, arrests and connections is a strange one – he certainly had influence with King Louis XIII, and the Duke of Buckingham was instrumental in getting him out of some jams – and we do know, following the sodomite trail, that the Duke of Buckingham was rumored to be not only a sodomite, but a corruptor of Prince Charles, and certainly a favorite of King James, famous for his taste in pretty boys. It was this atmosphere that made the Victorians, always eager to find good protestant martyrs to the intolerance of superstition and the Catholic Church, shy away from him. And, of course, it is what makes him wildly attractive to us. Mad, bad and dangerous to know – isn’t this the stuff of our heroes?

So here he is, poet and backdoor man, courtier, connector, the rich man’s son who flees from his debtors, the cabaret poet, to use Gaudiami’s term, the beaux esprit, to use the sneering phrase of his great accuser, the Jesuit Voisin.

Mon esprit, plein d’amour et plein de liberté
Sans fard et sans respect t’escrit la verité.

So, there you have the man who wrote the poem in my last post, more or less.
Which brings us to one of the odder ‘human documents’ of the seventeenth century, Theophile’s Apologie, a letter he wrote the King about his arrest and trial for – well, it is part of his complaint that it was never quite clear what his crime was.
It is an odd document because it mixes a tone of courtly flattery and servility (worthy of an op ed piece in the Washington Post) with the recounting of incidents in a tone that is recognizably modern. That is, recognizably conscious of its modernity – for that is what is modern. Just that. And so the tone in the letter has an intimacy, breaks down the barriers of politesse, with an unusual assurance, as if the way Theophile was writing was just the way everybody wrote. With all the assumption that intimacy, of a sort that did not exist between a husband and wife or a father and son in the seventeenth century, could exist between the writer and the reader – who is, of course, the King. Less invisible than in Velasquez’ Las Meninas, and yet not wholly visible. Well, here is Theophile’s account of his arrest.

“After the interrogation, which contained no accusation, M. de Conmartin assured me that I was dead. I responded that the king was just and that I was innocent. And then he ordered me to taken to Saint-Quentin, after which he took his leave to join the constable, who he had quit in order to help the priests capture me. They tied great ropes around me all over and put me on a feeble, limping horse, which made me run more risks than all the witnesses of my hearings. The spectacle of the execution of some famous criminal never attracted the crowd that I drew to my imprisonment. All of a sudden I am in the holding area, then thrust into a hole in which the ceiling itself was underground. I lay down, still dressed, and draped with irons so rude and weighty that the marks and pains of them remain in my limbs. The walls sweated with humidity; I, with fear.”

Theophile’s first play used motifs from Gongora. Although Don Quixotte wasn’t translated into French until after Theophile died, I don’t think it is so unlikely that he might have read the first volume of it. Louis XIII’s wife was Spanish, Theophile could speak the language – am I stretching to see the intrusion of a new prose style, a cross section of the vernacular of the peasant and the new learning, in this image of a man on a limping horse, surrounded by priests, trussed up like a pig? “The walls sweated with humidity; I, with fear.” It is going to take a long time for English prose to get close to this kind of statement of fact.

Notes for a future study of insanity among the governing class

PARIS — The Credit Suisse Group, the Swiss banking giant, on Thursday reported a first-quarter loss nearly three times worse than analysts had expected as it wrote down $5.3 billion in soured investments.
The bank, based in Zurich, reported a net loss of 2.15 billion Swiss francs, or $2.1 billion, in the first quarter, compared with net income of 2.8 billion francs a year earlier.
“On balance, I was quite pleased” with the results, said Peter Thorne, an analyst with Helvea in London. “In this market, if an investment bank doesn’t report $20 billion of write-downs, you tend to be quite relieved.”

It is no surprise to LI that a system in which inequality of wealth has sharpened as much as it has in the U.S. would spawn a whole new kind of fantasy and reality in the press and the public discourse. So I suppose it comes as no surprise that the Daily Mail - a British tabloid - has a sharper article about inflation than you will read in, say, the NYT. The Daily Mail decided to create its own basket of goods and use them as an index of inflation, and of course what they discover, once you wipe away the wonderful fall in prices of plasma tv, is that inflation as it should be studied - you know, how much extra is coming out of the pocket of your average household income - is a lot higher than anything government reports can account for. Although I must admit, I did admire the butter prices over there in Britain:

"A pack of English butter is up by 36p to 94p..."

Wow, about $1.80 for butter!

PS - Our far flung correspondent, Mr. T., refers us to this article, which tells us - where all the bees went! You will notice that the Floridian beekeeper at the center of the article is doing more productive work for you and me and the earth than all the hedge fund traders put together. Naturally, then, he lives on charity.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I'd never seen anything like it in the State of Texas

I love a millionaire --

The congressional investigation of the credit agencies that looked over the pool of steroidish securities that were pumped into the financial industry and gave them all triple A ratings starts today. The biggest of those agencies is Moody’s:

“Over the last decade, Moody’s and its two principal competitors, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch, played this game to perfection — putting what amounted to gold seals on mortgage securities that investors swept up with increasing élan. For the rating agencies, this business was extremely lucrative. Their profits surged, Moody’s in particular: it went public, saw its stock increase sixfold and its earnings grow by 900 percent.

By providing the mortgage industry with an entree to Wall Street, the agencies also transformed what had been among the sleepiest corners of finance. No longer did mortgage banks have to wait 10 or 20 or 30 years to get their money back from homeowners. Now they sold their loans into securitized pools and — their capital thus replenished — wrote new loans at a much quicker pace.

Mortgage volume surged; in 2006, it topped $2.5 trillion. Also, many more mortgages were issued to risky subprime borrowers. Almost all of those subprime loans ended up in securitized pools; indeed, the reason banks were willing to issue so many risky loans is that they could fob them off on Wall Street.”

Now, outside of Texas, Moody is just a name – but inside of Texas, it is the name of one of the great crazy Texas families. There is something delightfully ludicrous in the fact that Moody’s makes its money by selling its sound judgment, given that the Moody family is better known for inhouse squabbling, jailed siblings, and sex scandals. The Moody family is inseparable from their scene: Galveston. There are people who have been to New Orleans. And they’ve been to France. And so they think they know the world. Ho ho ho, if you haven’t been to Galveston, you are still a little wet behind the ears in this world.

Famously, Galveston stopped on September 8, 1900, when the great hurricane hit, which plucked out 8,000 people – out of 32,000 – and killed em dead.
Galveston was the richest city in Texas at the time, as you can see by simply going there and strolling among the mansions. Many of those old mansions remain – they were built to survive about anything except the neglect in which they have now dwindled for a century. But even so – even as Houston took over, as it was going to do anyway, as the most important port in Texas – Galveston still had wealthy families. It was fabulously located, for instance, to become one of the great smuggling cities in the Prohibition era. Like New Orleans, Galveston thrived on vice – gambling and prostitution. And it had the Moody family.

The Moody family started out in the cotton trade, then went into insuring cotton merchants, and then went into insurance. They diversified into other industries – hotels, for instance. In the twenties, they about controlled the island – built the one skyscraper in Galveston, bought the paper, rolled in money from the increase in business brought about by oil. And the family proper began to act like the second coming of the Borgias. One of the really great, spoiled Moody’s back then was Shearn Moody – his wife a showgirl, himself a playboy and a good hater. Running the newspaper gave him plenty of space to vent, which he like to do about various and sundry enemies. Here’s a quote from Cartwright’s book on Galveston about Shearn Moody:

“At the peak of the Depression, the Moodys were making money hand over fist, much of it from repossessions. Shearn Moody filled his home on Cedar Lawn Circle with linens, silver and china that had once belonged to creditors [sic]. Conrad Hilton, who managed the Moody hotel chain in the early 1930s, once described Shearn Moody as the kind of man who liked the Depression” “People are desperate for money,” Shearn had told Hilton. “It’s the time to drive a good bargain.”

Shearn Moody was almost to a tee the kind of millionaire portrayed in There will be blood. Here’s another anecdote. Hilton had lost his hotel to the Moodys when they foreclosed on him, but they offered him a deal – merger with the Moody hotel chain, which he would manage:

“But Hilton instinctively mistrusted the younger Moody. He couldn’t forget the remark Shearn had made about the Depression – or the passion with which Shearn regarded his enemies. Shearn absolutely doted on his enemies: he was addicted to them. When Hilton asked Shearn why it was that nine out of ten men who did business with him ended up as enemies, Shearn replied coldly: “Because that’s the way I like it. I’d like it even better if it was ninety-nine out of a hundred.”

Shearn Moody died before his father, so it was due to the old man that the family money ended up in a tax dodge. However, it wasn’t just the tax dodge that was attractive about the Moody Foundation – it was also the fact that the Old Man’s daughter and his grandchildren would be left forever dependent on this organization he had built. Which is how we segue into the colorful life of Shearn Moody, Jr. Shearn Jr spent his young adulthood establishing a reputation as a great 60s partier. Famously, his bedroom had a door which opened on a slide that you could use to go down to the pool. Here’s an anecdote about Shearn Jr.:

“During the 1960s, the ranch was infamous for its wild parties. Billy Furr, a frind of Bobby Moody, remembered that when he walked throught he front door on one occasion he was greeted by a naked woman who asked him to sign the guestbook. “Then I looked around the room,” Furr said, “and realized there were several dozen naked men and women standing around. Somebody told me they were the cast of the San Francisco Ballet. I never found out if that was true or not, but I’d never seen anything like it in the State of Texas.”

Shearn Jr. had many adventures, some that involved Watergate – he claimed he was targeted by Nixon for dirty tricks as he was a Democratic party funder – and some involving a possible assassination threat to George Wallace, and some involving penguins that were imported for the swimming pool, and some involving money that landed Shearn Jr. in jail for a bit.

This is the Moody family, whose company rates your mortgage pools, America. Don’t that beat all, now. Us Texans are gonna be the death of this country yet!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Everything is fucked up, I'm dying of the pox

In 1619, a collection of poems by different authors was published in Paris under the title: Parnasse satyrique. The star poet in the group was Théophile de Viau. The poem he published went like this:

Par le sieur Theophille

Philis tout est f…tu je meurs de la verolle
Elle exerce sur moi sa dernière rigueur :
Mon V. baisse la teste et n'a point de vigueur
un ulcére puant a gasté ma parole.

J'ai sué trante jours, j'ai vomi de la colle
Jamais de si grand maux n'eurent tant de longueur
L'esprit le plus constant fut mort à ma langueur,
Et mon afficlition n'a rien qui la console.

Mes amis plus secrets ne m'osent approcher,
Moi-même cet estat je ne m'ose toucher
Philis le mal me vient de vous avoir foutue.

Mon dieu je me repans d'avoir si mal vescu :
Et si vostre couroux a ce coup ne me tuë
Je ne fais vuex désormais de ne …tre qu'en cul.

The translation goes like this:

“Philis, everything is f..ed up; I’m dying of the pox
which has me strictly bound in the last throes;
My D..k hangs its head, is on the rocks
and a stinking sore spoils my attempts at prose.

For thirty days I’ve sweated, vomited up bowls
I’ve never seen a sickness last like this!
my exhaustion would have killed firmer souls
and my affliction brings me no consoling bliss.

My most secret friends dare not approach me.
I don’t even dare to touch myself in this stew –
And all this Philis, comes from ..cking you.

My god, I repent of having lived so badly!
And if your anger doesn’t kill me with this blast
I swear that from now on, I’ll only in the ass.”

(Sorry for my distortions – wanted to see if I could find a few appropriate rhymes, though of course my rough draft scans like a hog in heat).

I’m interested in Théophile as one of the early freethinkers who are separated by a degree or two from Gassendi. He is also, famously, one of the regrets of French literature – what if the French baroque had been allowed to flower, much as the English Jacobin writers were? There is a view, first expressed I believe by the romantics, that the imposition of rules of literary bienseance emptied French poetry of what Theophile called the “natural”. And that old fight isn’t worth fighting.

More interesting is that Théophile was put on trial for this poem, and nearly had the same fate doled out to him as to the Protestant printer, Etienne Dolet - who is, or should be, to translators what the skull is to the contemplating monk – for Dolet, poor guy, trying to convey a bit of Plato in French, translated a line in the Apology Apres le mort tu ne seras plus rien de tout, instead of tu ne seras plus, and so – for that rien - was burned at the stake. That is one way to ensure literalism!

There’s an amusing gloss on the enterprising use of ellipses and acronyms in obscene poems in Joan E. DeJean’s The Reinvention of Obscenity, who claims that the startling thing about Theophile’s poem was the ‘cul’ – a vite as a V. or a foutre as a …tre was, in a sense, a bow to the common dignity, but that ass, stuck at the very end of the poem, it was practically mooning the authorities. I love these discussions that are close readings of readings – the third life’s life. They are so Nabokovian. DeJean introduces the topic like this:

“These four-letter words, primary obscenities, stand out as the principle mark of this basdy poetry’s sexual transgressiveness. With one exception, cul (ass), which was to become key in Theophile’s case, they are never written out. Instead, in an act of self censorship that initially may have helped save the volumes from official prosecution, the words were abbreviated in various ways, and different types of punctuation were inserted to stand as a visual mark representing the suppressed content. This punctuation is the typographical equivalent of the fig leaves that began appearing in Renaissance engravings to veil male and female genitalia without fully hiding the contours.

The typographical fig leaves are, however, less efficient than their visual counterparts. A leaf painted on a representation of a human body means that the viewer, even though he or she obviously knows what presumably is there behyind the cover-up, is nevertheless denied the right to see the offending sexual characteristics. In the case of a text, however, a reader – and there is no reason to imagine that seventeenth century readers were any more conscious of these textual barriers than are their counterparts today – simply replaces the missing letters without a thought, so much so that he or she is immediately unaware that anything has been left out. This is truly the zero degree of censorship. Since, however, it obviously served an important function, I will consider it for a moment more.”

And so she does. LI will return to Theophile’s trial, and then to some of his amazing prose pieces.

honeyed drops of spiritual delight

“They don’t enter into their system by the door, they enter in by the window…” Bayle, article on Epicurus

My sometimes commenter, Chuckie K., asked a very good question about my last Bayle post, which, you will recall, ended with a question about whether belief guides behavior. To which Mr. K. said: “Today I'll ask a real question. Is this, "if belief makes no difference to your behavior" this question, or is "if belief does not always completely determine significant behavior'"

Well, that’s a good, hard question, and a hatcher of other hard questions – for instance, do beliefs stand in some apologetic relation to behavior? Do we seek out beliefs to excuse our desires? In fact, defending Epicurus, Bayle opts for the idea that we could, that it is possible, to construct our beliefs according to the facts as we see them, regardless of what we would want to be the case:

The doctrine that rejects the providence of God, and the immortality of the soul, steals an infinity of consolations from man. Plutarch proves this solidly, that after having read what he exposed, one cannot be sufficiently astonished at the power that our first impression of certain objects have on our mind. The first idea that presents itself to those who wish to exam the state of irreligion that it is about the world’s idea of a happy liberty in which one satisfies all one’s desires without any fear, without any remorse. This idea is so rooted in the soul, and so occupies its capacity, that if someone wants to tell us that the estate of a pious man is incomparably [better], in the way of temporal advantages, to that of an epicurean, we would reject it as an absurd lie. And yet this so called lie has on its side a crowd of strong reasons, as Plutarch makes us see. The good faith of this author in this part of the dispute seems to me to be considerable, in as much as he must have known how much his reasons disculpate epicureanism; for it is certain that in denying the providence of God and the immortality of the soul, one is deprived of a thousand sweetnesses and a thousand consolations; it isn’t by motives of interest, by amour proper, by attachment to volupté, that Epicurus chose the philosophical hypothesis that he taught. He would have chosen another, if he was driven by those motives. “

So one way we could come at the question of belief is to ask about the building of systems of belief. And in fact, Pierre Force’s interpretation of Bayle is not about this or that stray belief – my belief, for instance, that the red light sign will be obeyed by the slowing, oncoming car as I walk across the street in front of it – but rather these vaster temples of belief, which are about the ways the world is made. In Mr. D’s modification of Force’s assertion – “belief does not always completely determine significant behavior” – is the liberal hope here. On the one hand, belief does not so determine behavior that there is no space of tolerance possible between two opposing, absolute beliefs – and on the other hand, that it determines it enough that there is some use in having these vast beliefs.

But notice that the liberal path is fraught with peril. It can never be emphasized enough that the enlightenment leads not only to Kant, Jefferson, and my Republican grandparents, but that it also leads through Sade to Bazarov to… Patty Hearst. Or perhaps I should say that these romantic figures express, with exaggerated gestures, the nihilistic fall of the belief in belief – the belief that anything, and thus nothing, is true or valuable. This nihilism even eats at the aura of seriousness surrounding belief, taking away the shame of going from, say, Maoism to Southern Baptist Fundamentalism by way of alternative medicines and your recovered memory of a UFO abduction.

In the sense that I take nihilism, rather than discipline a la Foucault, as a privileged vantage point to see what is happening in the Enlightenment, I guess you could say that LI is just your typical canned Nietzschian. And of course I need to make the links a lot clearer here – but I do want to… to gesture to what is in the background for these small circles, in the seventeenth century, who began purposefully relating all human endeavor to volupté.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Advice for Britney

LI, making a play for information domination on the Britney issue, has been bluesing about the People story that Brit is going to be starring, again, on some forgettable tv sit com. What is up with this? I know what is up. The artiste in the mouseketeer is being callously starnapped back into the profit stream by her pa - and are we, spectators all, expected to put up with this abhorrent strangling of Britney’s desires in, so to speak, their cradle? No wonder she is bored with her life! My advice – are you listening, Ms. Spears? - is to read about Patty Hearst, or at least listen to this Stereo Total song about Patty Hearst, romantic terrorist. And remember, Tania was never an exceptional earner – you could kick that bitch around the block! You have more revolutionary potential in your little finger than she ever had. Take back your kids, boot your dad, go to Vegas and act like Frank Sinatra to your heart’s content – which means applying the maxim that has an eternal currency among the great celebrity elite (in the VIP area), to wit, to be famous is so nice/suck my dick, lick my ass.

Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...