Saturday, June 21, 2008

Trees dreaming: La Bruyère/Carpenter Shih

We looked at the oak tree in the Chuang Tzu (which was assembled from various parts around 100 A.D.) whose spirit preached the great sermon on uselessness in the dream of Carpenter Shih. There’s a quite different tree in La Bruyère’s Characters, which was published anonymously for the first time in 1687, undergoing, afterwards, numerous revisions which critics have read in the light of their idea of La Bruyère’s intention. It is in the section, Des biens de Fortune, which could be translated in various ways: On the good things of the rich, or, on the goods of fortune. Fortuna, here, is the foundation of wealth – which touches on the deep structure of La Bruyere’s Characters, the contrast between social sets – the Town and the Court, for instance. Men and Women.

“How many men resemble those trees, already strong and advanced in age, which one transplants into gardens, where they surprise the eyes of those who see them placed in the pretty spots where they had never seen them grow, and who know neither their commencements nor their progress.”

Barthes wrote that La Bruyère sketched a “cosmogony of classical society” – by which he meant that La Bruyère was after those rules that would allow him to classify types and social groupings. In a sense, Barthes was seeing his own image in La Bruyère – or at least the Barthes of Mythologies. The central sections of the Characters discuss the fortunate, or the rich, the Town and the Court. This is, as it happens, approximately the trajectory of La Bruyère’s own life. He was born in Paris to a member of the financial bourgeoisie, the controller of the rents of Paris; he became treasurer of Caen, which produced a comfortable sinecure without mandating that he would actually have to, well, live in Caen (the French system is still very lenient about where Government officials live, as opposed to the regions or towns that they are supposed to represent, since so many prefer to live in Paris). And then, by way of Bossuet, who introduced him to the Grande Condé, one of the most powerful of the French aristocrats, he took a position as tutor to the Duc de Bourbon, which is how it came about that he mingled with the crowd at Versailles.

The treasurer’s habits linger in The Characters – one has a sense of entries, of debits and credits. This is what Barthes says:

...the regions out of which La Bruyère composes his world are quite analogous to logical classes: every individual (in logic, we would say every x), i.e., every “character”, is defined first of all by a relation of membership in some class or other, the tulip fancier in the class Fashion, the coquette in the class Women, the absent-minded Ménalque in the class Men, etc.; but this is not enough, for the chacters must be distinguished among themselves within one and the same class; La Bruyère therefore performs certain operations of intersection from one class to the next; cross the class of Merit with that of Celibacy and you get a reflection on the stifling function of marriage (Du Merit, no. 25); join Tryphon’s former virtue and his present fortune” the simply coincidence of these two classes affords the image of a certain hypocrisyh (Des biens de fortune, no. 50). Thus the diversity of the regions, which are sometimes social, sometimes psychological, in no way testifies to a rich disorder: confronting the world, La Bruyère does not enumerate absolutely varied elements like the surveyor writers of the next century...”[224 – Howard’s translation]

Keeping Barthes reflection in mind – and it is easy to see this sort of pre-Linnean, Port Royal classicatory system in La Bruyère – one notices two things about La Bruyère’s tree. First, it is a piece of nature of a special type – trees being those things that transform the earth itself into the texture and growth of their being. And second, simply by being transplanted, it becomes a piece of artifice. Like the new man – one of La Bruyère’s coinages for the upstart, the man of fortune – literally, of the fortune of interest taking, of gambling, of marrying wealth – it is a new tree, since the spectator can remember neither its beginning nor its progress. Yet the new tree is not just any tree – it is striking, majestic, it has attained in its natural soil a certain respectable dimension. Like La Bruyère himself, transplanted to the soil of Versailles.

Of these new men like old trees, some could be called adventurers. In the section on the society of the Court, La Bruyère writes about a type that could be more aptly be compared to mushrooms:

Every once in a while there appears in the courts adventurous and bold men, of a free and familiar character, who produce themselves (se produisent eux-memes), protesting that they have in their art the talent that others lack, and who are taken at their word. Nevertheless, they profit from the public error, or the love men have for novelty – they pierce through the crowd and go forward all the way up to the ear of the prince, to whom courtiers see them talking, while the one talking is just happy to be so seen. They have this advantage for the grandees, that they can be suffered without consequence, and dismissed likewise. Thus they disappear simultaneously rich and discredited, while they world that they have just deceived is ready to be deceived by another.”

What is the crowd that the adventurer pierces? It is composed not just of individuals, but of customs – it is the whole coagulated weight of tradition, of old means of making fortunes, of family, of land. La Bruyère is, of course, as a moralist, opposed to these men of a free and familiar character. But the credit and the debit of them are hard to sum up. In his discourse before the Academy, La Bruyère made it clear that he belonged to the party of the ancients instead of the moderns – the latter being led by Perrault and Fontenelle. The adventurer is certainly a modern – his character embodies the modern in its lack of standing, its familiarity, the hazard in which it stands.

This is why the adventurer’s underground bond to the libertine is so strong. The transplanted tree is not an adventurer – La Bruyère’s description of the tree emphasizes its original majesty, and it is not the trees fault if it is transplanted, as it stayed still the whole time. It was a passenger. The adventurer, according to La Bruyère, does not stand still, but starts forward and doesn’t stop until he reaches the prince’s ear. However, we believe the allegorical qualities of the tree exceed La Bruyère’s meaning, especially if we consider that the adventurer might move and yet be immobile. And it is from that spot that the adventurer looks out and sees – that nature is not ancient. Nature is modern. It is the most modern of phenomena.

Here, of course, we are pushing the text. But let’s go with our thought. What is modern about nature? What is modern is that God is so hidden now that he might not exist. And that leaves nature as the only limit left on the human. That, briefly, was the modernity of the natural. It flares up, we think, in the libertine moment – and never as a wholly unified scheme, never as, finally, a hypercognizable passionate structure spread across the social structure – but as a set of hints. Collectively, this is what the “sweetness” of the ancien regime was about. It was the moment after God, but before Man. It failed finally to arrange itself with a social whole undergoing drastic and irremediable changes. Those changes, the great transformation of the market based industrial system, found their legitimacy in the notion that there was no human limit. This was the revolution of happiness. It was at this moment that nature lost its standing, and there commenced a competition for a certain metaphysical position of priority between God (who no longer represented a human limit, but rather a sacralized cosmic human all too human wish fulfillment) and Man. And thus, the human limit went down the amnesia hole.

So, our question is this: what would the spirit of Carpenter Shih useless oak tree converse about if it were dreamt by La Bruyère’s transplanted tree?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Good Texas posture

I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t understand Texas – especially Yankees. That’s why I was so happy to run into this YouTube video, yesterday, showing a typical Texas rite de passage. As my friend, Mr. Lumpenprof, can tell you, this is the way we do things down here - and boy howdy, there’s no funner way to make sure kids grow up standing straight and tall – we do hate bad posture in the Lone Star State! This kind of thing happens all the time on these lazy summer days in my neighborhood – you hear kids giggling, their mothers crying for them to stand still, and occasionally howls of pain – I always smile and think, somebody wasn’t listening to Mom!

What Texans have a hard time understanding is that Yankees just don’t have these fun childhood games. I don’t know, but I think this is the reason Yankees are so weird!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Simmel's big adventure

Simmel’s essay on adventure begins by considering the “double-sidedness” of events in a life. On the one hand, events fall into a pattern in relationship to one another, so that one can talk of a life as a whole and mean a unified thing – on the other hand, events have their own center of gravity, and can be defined in terms of their own potential for pleasure or pain. To use an example not mentioned by Simmel, but getting at what he means: Famously, Kant had a regular habit of taking a certain stroll each day in Königsberg. It was famous as a regular habit – it was an example of some craving for order in Kant’s life, which some have read into his work. Now, one walk was, intentionally, much like the other – and yet, they all formed a distinct sub-system in Kant’s life of Kant’s walks.

In ordinary life, we often talk about what we are “like”. If I lose, say, my wallet, I may say, I always leave it on the table. In so saying, I’m observing myself anthropologically – this is what the tribe of me is like. It has these rituals, these obsessions, these returning points. At the same time, there are rituals and obsessions I am not so aware of. I fall in love, say, with a certain type of woman. For instance, I always find myself in relationships with brunettes who have issues with their father. How does my radar pick out these women? Why is it the same process? Here, things aren’t so obvious. Freud speaks of “fate” in the love life. Of course, fates preside over other things beside the destinies of our dicks and pussies. La Bruyere, for instance, outlines the characteristic of a man who is always losing things, bumping into people, misreading signs, mistaking his own house for somebody else's and somebody else's for his own. We might think that this state of confusion, in the extreme, is evidence of some pathological disturbance of the brain. However, there are a number of habits one "falls" into in one's life, resolves not to continue with, and still - falls into again.

Simmel speaks of events and their meanings in themselves and in relationship to the whole of life. Which can also move in the other direction:

“Events which, regarded in themselves, representing simply their own meaning, may be similar to each other, may be, according to their relationship to the whole of life, extremely divergent.”

Simmel’s definition of adventure is on the basis of this relationship of the parts of life to the whole course of life:

“When, of two experiences, each of which offer contents that are not so different from one another, one is felt as an adventure, and the other isn’t – so it is that thise difference of relationship to the whole of our live is that by which the one accrues this meaning that is denied to the other.
And this is really the form of adventure on the most general level: that it falls out of the connections of life.”

That falling out of the Zusammenhange – the “hanging together” of our life isn’t to be confused, according to Simmel, with all unusual events. One shouldn’t confuse the odd moment with the adventure. Rather, adventure stands against the whole grain of our life. There is a thread that spans our lives – Simmel uses a vocabulary that returns us to the “spinning” of the fates – and unifies it. Adventure follows a different course:

While it falls out of the connections of our life, it falls – as will be gradually explained – at the same time, with this movement, back inot it, a foreign body [ein Fremdkörper]in our existence, which yet is somehow bound up with the center.
The exterior part [Ausserhalb] is, if even on a great and unusual detour, a form of the inner part. [Innerhalb]

As always in Simmel, there is a lot of sexy suggestion here, which clouds one’s questions – especially about the latent conflict between a thread spanning a life and a center. One recognizes the logic of the supplement here – an excess in affirming a proposition has the effect of making it less clear, rather than more clear.

Simmel’s ‘proof’ of this theory about adventure is that, when we remember these mutations in our life, they seem dreamlike. Why would the memory set up an equivalence, as it were, between a dream and an adventure? Because it is responding to the logic of the exterior/interior binary. Dreams, which are so exterior to our waking life that we cannot see them as playing any causal role in that life, are so interior that we share them with nobody else. Introjected – Melanie Klein’s word – wasn’t available in 1912 for Simmel, but something similar is going on.

“The more “adventurous” an adventure is, the more purely it satisfies its concept, the “dreamier” it becomes in our memory. And so far does it often distance itself from the central point of the I and the course of the whole of life consolidated around it, that it is easy to think of an adventure as if somebody else had experienced it.”

These traits – which are expressed, Simmel says, in the sharpness of beginning and ending which defines the adventures in our life, as opposed to other episodes – make adventures an “island” in our life. These traits too call up another in the chain of signifiers that are suggested by the dream – that is, the artwork. Adventurers are like artists in that the adventure, like the artwork, lies both outside of and deep within the whole of a life. It lies outside of and deep within from the perspective of memory – while the perspective that unfolds during the course of the adventure is one of presentness – this is why the adventurer is deeply “unhistoric”. That present is neither caused by the past nor oriented towards the future.

To illustrate this, Simmel uses the example of Casanova. What he says should be put in relationship to Moliere’s Dom Juan, who, as I have pointed out, was always proposing marriage – to propose marriage was his compulsion, as he explains it to Sganarelle, just as Alexander the Great’s was conquest. A reading of the play, like Kierkegaard’s, that regards the marriage mania as a mask for the real seduction underneath takes the conjunction of marriage and seduction too easily.

This is Simmel on Casanova:

“An extremely characteristic testimony to this [the lack of a sense of the future] is what Casanova, as can be seen in his memoirs, so oftin in the course of his erotic adventurous life seriously aimed at – to marry the woman of the momen he loved.
By his disposition and way of life, there was nothing more contradictory, nothing more innerly and outerly unthinkable for Casanova.

Casanova was not only a notable knower of men, but was maifestly a rare knower of himself; and though he was obliged to say that he couldn’t have held out in a marriage more than fourteen days, and that the most miserable consequences would inevitably attend this step – the intoxication of the moment so caught him up (by which I mean to lay more emphasis on the moment than the intoxication) that it swallowed up the future perspective, so to speak, hide and hair.”

the adventurer

If you look up the sociology of adventure, you will soon find that there is little or none. Astonishingly, it seems to hold no interest, in itself, for the sociologist. With one exception – a classic essay by Simmel. When, otherwise, the subject comes up, the sociologist views adventure in the same spirit as the tourist agency: as a category in the leisure field, requiring a guide, hotel accomodations, showers at the end of it, cameras, and flights to and fro.

This is all the more astonishing in that adventurers certainly have existed. Adventurers brought down the Inca empire. Adventurers founded the Jamestown colony. Legitimists called Napoleon an adventurer for good reason – the same thing could be said for Garibaldi. So why the lack of interest? Perhaps it is because adventure, from the serious social science point of view, seems to have the irritating ability to turn the monumental into the ludicrous: it is continually shaking hands with the Commandantore. And, for the social scientist, there is a line: the truth must, in the end, be serious. It simply can’t be ludicrous. That would be an insult to all the founding positivist family.

The adventurer, the politician, the artist, the scholar/virtuoso – they are all types that appear in the Renaissance. They are related insofar as they all have complex and conflicting relationships with the system of patronage.

Of them all, the adventurer is the hardest, perhaps, to grasp, since it is difficult to say just what his object is. The politician aims at power, the artist at art, the virtuoso at knowledge, and the adventurer at experience – yet that seems much too vast and vague an object (although why it is vaster and vaguer than knowledge or power is a good question). Michael Nerlich, a literary critic, observes in The Ideology of Adventure that adventure is first used as an economic term: "Godfrey's selection of examples of aventure in his Dictionnaire de l’ancienne langue francaise is, to be sure, one-sided, but it is of particular interest to us because his examples are almost exclusively of legal or economic meanings, with the first examples going all the way back to the late thirteenth century. Alongside the meaning of “output, earnings, income” ... the word aventure also occurs with the meaning of ‘catch, booty or harvest...” And later ... “Despite all the theories about ‘eventus, etc., I believe that this is the original meaning, sicne it is difficult to see why an ad-ventura would have had to be invented when eventus already covered the meaning.”

Nechlin gives us this meaning with the note that it is controversial, and seems to infuriate some medievalists, who do not like the idea that the adventure of the knight on his quest is a thing of booty. In the same way, Kierkegaard strenuously objects to Moliere’s Dom Juan being endebted – dealing with money is, to Kierkegaard, a fall from the infinite adventure of seduction.

In a future post, we are going to analyse Simmel’s essay on adventure, in which, we think, certain ... interesting choices are made in the contrast between normality – the real world, of labor – and the island world of adventure.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Devil Speaks

We share our mothers' health
It is what we've been dealt
What's in it for me?

As much as I hate to admit it, the MSM (I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead) roaring triumphantly about the Great Fly’s last European tour, are absolutely correct. It is not just the lack of demonstrations, which is the a subsurface phenomenon (I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.) It is attributed to boredom with the Fly, but it is, instead, a monument to the decade’s tyranny, to the criminal oligarchies that have created, out of their unbelievable greed and lack of imagination, and their lock on the discourse, a veritable desert of democracy, systematically exhausting the more populous opposition that can never seem to elect a representative who will resist the bastards, who will put an end to their works, all those who thirst after bloodshed and more bloodshed: the writers of editorials, the funders of think tanks, the bad seed produced in the monstermaking laboratories of the corporation and the university, dumbing us down to the nub for seven glorious televised years (I know thy works).

Behold, what has happened in the EU this spring to the Great Fly’s fellow flies: the European financial sector proved that it was stupider and viler, even, than the Americans, losing even more money – and of course being immediately succored by emergency billions by all the governments involved, no questions asked (And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind); after eight years of non-action that have ingrained a habit of adopting to natural disasters, of resignation in the face of the refusal to change the most wasteful and destructive system of production ever foisted upon the planet (And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within), the first intimations of the second global change – the looming food crisis – appear on the horizon, to the non-action of committee’s resolved to “do something”; and, to top it off, as a direct result of the neo-colonialist adventure of the Fly in the Middle East, oil has skyrocketed in price (And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof) so that throughout Europe there is fear about inflation, strikes, and slowdowns. Normally such a situation would be an open opportunity for a political figure to come forward and say – enough! Such a figure would, traditionally, have come from the center-left. A program that would ease the inflation fears writes itself – how easy it would be to say, abolish all sanctions on Iran and let’s have normal relations with that country. Such a course would have the effect of immediately collapsing the speculative side of the oil run up – for that is a security premium. But it is as if an invisible hand had struck them all dumb (And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof). And so, the EU leadership can continue to pursue a vanity policy, a policy that is against peace and national self interest at once, a remarkable convergence, a policy in which, flies themselves, they can please the Great Fly. They can pat each other on the exoskeleton for a job well done.

For there is a blank on the political map of the EU as well as the U.S.A. At one time, that part of the map was occupied by the center-left. But it was rotten. It bred a rotten leadership. It fed itself on rotten and incestuous verbiage. It was full of chancers, and they saw their chance as consisting of monopolizing the left space while moving to a reactionary position, taking with it the century of the left’s apparatus, its tacit knowledge, its social capital. There’s a scene in Goodfellas where the Mafia take over a restaurant and systematically loot it until, with the building that is left, they lick up the last dime by torching it for the insurance money. That’s exactly the role played by the Blairs, the Jospins, the Schroeders (And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. 2 And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer).

Well – by a happy coincidence, I’m editing a book at the moment that has to do, partly, with Ibn Arabi, a Sufi master who wrote in the 12th century in Spain. He’s the subject of a famous book by Henry Corbin. According to Corbin, in the 12th century, Averroes rejected the very existence of the intermediate world. This was the world of angels, the world of inspirations. From this rejection, according to Corbin, stemmed the Grand Mal, the drying up of our notion of the world of scents and messages. I wonder.

I wonder if the angels have been loosed. They were never the rubbery water babies of Middle Class America’s Hallmark unconscious. They were never cuddly – they were never even bearable. And the angelic hosts now deal in oil. (And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.) And so they’ve begun the great work – oh drive it up! Oh drive that price up and crack the Great Fly’s shell! Oh to see a real justice dealt out, an eye for country, an eye for a surgical bombing, an eye for an occupation, an eye for the theft of a nation’s wealth, an eye for the exile of 2 million people, an eye for the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad! Strew the land with the abandoned metal integuments of the death dealing auto! Don’t spare the poor (I know thy works), don’t spare the greedy (I know thy works), don’t spare the rightthinking lefty mumbler (I know thy works). For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?

... Hmm, such is the fantasy. Luckily, LI is not going to fall for the devil’s own hysterica passio. A saner voice cries: too many eyes have already paid for too many eyes, until a tower of them has mounted up to the sky – and it is the worst sight in the world.

Only, sometimes one must give vent to the devil’s voice, that mixes truth and lies.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

keeping up with Brit

Sunday at LI is time to reflect on world historical events... as they effect Britney Spears. Spears, of course, is presently operating under a ruse that is as deep and brilliant as ever a mousketeer dreamed. In the early 90s, moral panic indicted every parent as an abuser, probably in thrall to Satan. Not a kindercare worker, for four bucks an hour, could make the rounds but that some California D.A. was preparing to put her on the stand for bestiality, coprophagy, and refusing to follow etiquette when taking down a U.S. flag. Our moral purge over – like all American purges, it left a satisfying ten thousand or so to rot in prison for no reason – we now can morally gorge again. Thus, the Kingdom of the Great Fly is now dotted with Purity Parties, a concept that perfectly marries gated community narcissism to the revanchist hatred of pussy that festers in the soul of the American hero – the hero who D.H. Lawrence recognized: “But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

Brit, who, like St. Paul, is all things to all people, is satisfying the American urge for the 24/7 Dad – the Pharaonic Dad, the incestuous Dad – by allowing her father to operate as her duenna as she goes through the complex structures of the Party Girl Life. This item in the Dallas News provided a lot of reflection:

“Britney Spears' mom, Lynne, has book coming out
02:58 PM CDT on Friday, June 13, 2008,,, news services

Two books involving Britney Spears are in the pipeline. Her mom Lynne Spears' tome, with the toothsome title Through the Storm: A Real Story of Fame and Family in a Tabloid World, is set for a fall release from publisher Thomas Nelson. It was put on hold after her younger daughter, Jamie Lynn, got pregnant.
According to the New York Post, reporter Ian Halperin plans to pitch Stalking Britney: Under Siege With Britney Spears to publishers next week. It's expected to be a more lurid account of the troubled popster.

In other Britney info:

Brit is in Las Vegas for the Father's Day weekend with her dad, Jamie. Her ex, Kevin Federline, is there, too, to accept "father of the year" honors from the Privé nightclub.”

Father of the Fuckin’ Year!!! It is at times like these that the whole universe groans in travail, at the edge of an infinite moronic inferno.

In eldest time, e'er mortals writ or read,
E'er Pallas issued from the Thund'rer's head,
Dulness o'er all possess'd her antient right,
Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night: 10
Fate in their dotage this fair idiot gave,
Gross as her sire, and as her mother grave,
Laborious, heavy, busy, bold, and blind,
She rul'd, in native Anarchy, the mind.

Still her old empire to confirm, she tries, 15
For born a Goddess, Dulness never dies.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...