Saturday, November 08, 2008


In my head, I often string together themes and topics that seem disconnected on the surface, inherently unrelated flotsam. And then I nag at them. So, lately, it has been running through my head that Ruwen Ogien’s idea about the synthetic nature of informal moral sanctions; the de-Christianization of Europe in the 18th century; the elevation of love as a life-defining sentiment during the latter half of the same period; and the Enlightenment war against superstition all form a pattern, fall under the empire of the happiness culture I’ve been tracking.

Let’s sort things out a bit. Ogien’s notion of the synthesis between a sanction and a sentiment should give us a sense of the interactional space within which lovers operate. The goal, of course, is to achieve that synthesis – to make it the case that the remark, “I love you’, gears up the sentiment, “I love you” in the person to whom it is addressed. Given the way the interactional space is constituted, its being governed by diffuse sanctions, we can use Ogien’s notion to have some grasp of the material degree of election exercised here – the freedom to love – by looking at the constraints on that election. For instance, do the lovers even know each other? In a society of arranged marriages, they may not until the moment of the marriage. Are they mature? What are the habits they take up with regard to each other and to other possible lovers after they are married? Obviously, a world in which arranged marriages were the norm would display a control over the lovers in terms of hardening the sanctions which made ‘I love you’ binding; yet it is also possible that the arranged norm allows for other love arrangements with other people after the marriage is sealed.

As we all know, the sentimental novel stamped its image, in the latter half of the 18th century, on the lover’s discourse. In the course of doing so, it downgraded ritual in favor of feeling. The legacy of the traditional world of arranged marriages, the rituals centered around marriage, the economics of it, the parental interference with it, became a collateral casualty of the attack on the loveless love bond. Although I should probably say, became a long range collateral casualty – but in any case, one recognizes, here, the kinship between the fashion for sentimentalism in the latter part of the 18th century and the attack on superstition that was mounted in the first half of it, by the first wave of philosophes. If superstition is defined as a rite or act which is performed under the false assumption that it will cause an event, an arranged marriage could easily fall victim to this same critique.

Well, this brings us to the Sorrows of Young Werther and my trying to puzzle out the three circles of his initiation into love.


In 1774, Goethe became a European wide star with the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. In two years, there were two French translations. There were 8 English editions by 1800. Chinese porcelain manufacturers produced dishes with scenes from Werther drawn on them. Goethe himself became a tourist site, an oracle that travelers would go to visit. This, of course, was before Goethe went to Weimar and became a court councilor.

All of this was a puzzle and a vexation to the older generation of German Enlightenment figures, like Lessing and Lichtenberg. Lessing knew K.W. Jerusalem, whose suicide provided Goethe with an all important trouvaille for his book. But it wasn’t just Lessing’s outrage at what he regarded as the misuse of private sorrow – he did not like the ‘sentimentalism’: Do you imagine a roman or a Greek youth would have taken his life in that way and for that reason? They had a quite different protection from the folly [Schwarmerei – enthusiasm] of love. And in Socrates time one would have hardly excused such a ex ‘erotos katoke which spontaneously ti tolman para phusin in a girl. To bring forth such minutely gigantic, comtmptibly admiable, ‘original’ beings was a privilege reserved to Christian education, which is so beautifully able to transform a physiological need into a spiritual perfection.” [Quoted in Boyle, 187 – translation modified].

The last sentence is the true coin of the Voltairian, or materialist, phase of the Enlightenment. It is just the kind of thing one can imagine being said by Prince Andrei’s father, Count Bolkonsky.

Lessing looked at the novel through the suicide that Werther finally commits. LI is reading the novel looking at the scene in which Werther falls in love. In a previous post on Cosi Fan Tutte, I remarked on the way in which substitution among the lovers – an old, fairy tale test – becomes playful, a cause of a certain kind of delight, a tempering of love. It is a test of true love, and its result is that love is resistant to the lure of the truth.

In The Sorrows of Young Werther, the chapter in which Werther falls in love is curiously mediated by three circles.

Circle no. 1 is outside of Werther. He sees it as a “charming play” that appears to him when he enters Lotte’s house:

“ In the front anteroom, all six children from eleven to two milled about a girl with a beautiful form, of middle height, who wore a simple white dress, with pink bows on the sleeves and breast. She held a loaf of black bread and cut the small ones in the ring about her each a piece according to the proportion appropriate to their age and appetite, and gave it to each with such friendliness, and each call out so naturally thanks, while reaching upwards with their small hands, before it was cut, and now satisfied with their evening bread, either sprang back or after his quiet character were allowed to go to the gate, in order to see the strangers and the coach that was to carry Lotte away.” Here are the elements of the scene: a circle, a distribution, substitution. The children form the circle, Lotte at the center distributes bread, the slices fall into the hands of the children by a rule of thumb having to do with age and appetite, which rule of thumb governs the substitutions that can be made.

In circle no. 2, Werther is part of the circle. Then there is the circle of the ball itself. It is in dancing with Lotte that Werther both falls in love and receives the warning – a repetition of a warning he has forgotten – that she is engaged. The dance has no central distributor, but Werther’s feeling, aroused by this time, makes of Lotte’s position as his partner, or her dancing with someone else, the sign that Lotte still distributes. The rule is that partner switch – they substitute among each other. But Werther remarks that if he were Lotte’s husband, he wouldn’t stand for this rule – in other words, substitution has become, for him, the enemy of love.

It is circle no. 3 that is the oddest of the circles in this initiation to obsession. In order to divert the guests at the ball from the lightning storm that has broken outside – the hostess invites the guests to a room upstairs, where Charlotte quickly has everyone arrange their chairs into a circle:

“We will play counting,” she said. Now, pay attention. I will go in a circle from right to left, and you also will count out in a ring, each one saying the number, that comes next, and it has to go like a wildfire, and whoever stops, or makes a mistake, will earn a slap [an earpulling] and so on up to one thousand. And now it was comic to watch. She went with an extended arm about the circle. One the first began, the neighbor, two, three the following person and so on. Then she began to move faster, always faster. Then it happened, pow, a slap to the ear, and over the laughter, the following one also, pow, and always faster. I myself earned two slaps on the mouth, and believed, with inner satisfaction, that they were stronger than those doled out to the others. A general laughter and enthusiasm ended the game before one thousand had been counted out.” [GW 1899 19 35-36]

Substitution in its purest form is the number system. But as a pure form, it is also rather boring and childish, strikingly so. In fact, the game is conducted as a sort of return to infancy – the numbers are spoken so quickly that they lose their verbal distinctness, and the slaps that are distributed by Charlotte are like the slaps one gives a child: that is, they penetrate the adult space in such a way as to make the receiver like a child. At the same time, Charlotte, who made up the childish game, is seen as a child herself, whirling around the circle of seated adults. And what is one to make of Werther’s inner satisfaction? He is, consciously, like the child with the larger appetite, getting the bigger portion.

Thursday, November 06, 2008


Let’s throw out a few names for the Secretary of the Treasury.

LI was startled that Larry Summers is even being considered. Obama owes his election to women, and it is not a good idea to repay this debt by making Summers his first appointment. The other mention is Timothy F. Geithner, who has been the strongman in the current financial crisis. The names floated immediately to the top in the Post – and I think I can be confident that Summer’s friends had something to do with that.

But how about some more unorthodox candidates:

For instance, how about Esther Duflo, MIT prof and head of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab? Admittedly, there might be a nationality problem. I’m not sure if she is still French or not – and she is below forty. However, she was named among the top one hundred public intellectuals in the world by Foreign Policy mag. Here’s a q and a with her. Now, perhaps she would be better as the head of the World Bank. But I like her expertise in poverty reduction, and her commitment to testing models against applications – which would be common sense anywhere else but in economics.

How about the economist who is supposedly Obama’s advisor on trade issues, Laura D’Andrea Tyson? She is infinitely preferable in terms of her acquaintance with healthcare economics – which is going to be a big issue for the Obama administration. Tyson is actually on the short list, and she seems to be a much more liberal – in the sense of Galbraithian liberal - economist than such as Summers.

How about Teresa Ghilarducci? The New School economist has written a book about what is wrong with 401(k)s that has already driven conservatives insane – her testimony in October spawned an outbreak of ideological rash, for instance, here. They are, of course, right to be worried – the entanglement of the working class with our investor overlords is the very heart of conservative politics. Taking back retirement would revolutionize the politics of this country.

And finally – on this roll call of what you will notice are all progressive women economists and hotshots – Jane D’Arista of the Financial Markets Center and an expert on the regulation of said markets, former chief economists for the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who was recently celebrated here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I wouldn't stop there...

All the revolutionaries of the 20th century are rusty, and what can we learn from them? Sure, I have a soft spot in my heart for Lenin, who died way too soon, and who, I think, could have led the Soviet Union into the path of being a normal socialist country And Gandhi’s success is undoubted, even if it is picked to pieces, now, by rightwing Hindu nationalists.

Still, we have the longer perspective. We can see their beginnings and their ends. Their time has waned.

Except for one man: Martin Luther King, Jr. Last night I got to bed at three, and I am tired as I write this, having had five hours sleep, so perhaps I am sentimental. Obama’s campaign, either consciously or unconsciously, took its cues from King. The same long patience. The same attention to the goal. The same shaking off of abuse, of the frivolity of hatred, which, even if it kills, can never be anything but frivolous, in bad faith, repulsive to the hater himself.

Last night was a reminder that King changed the U.S. – that you certainly don’t have to be a president to change this country.

If yesterday’s list of Youtube items was a dirge; today’s link is to this. I was ten when MLK was murdered.

I was ten…

"And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!"

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

obama day!

For Obama day, some music links:

Invasion so succexy – Metric

Did you ever think about suicide? – Hanin Elias, War

This is a message to persons unknown
Persons in hiding. Persons unknown
Survival in silence
Isn't good enough no more
Keeping your mouth shut head in the sand
Terrorists and saboteurs
Each and every one of us
Hiding in shadows persons unknown – Poison Girls

I got a letter from the government the other day – Tricky, Black Steel

Monsieur le president/ou est mon argent? – Vive la fete,

Je suis un ouvrier/ expulsez moi – Tetes raides

Monsieur le president – il faut que je vous dira - Le deserteur, Joan Baez

We had a communist in the family/ I had to wear a mask – Forest Families, the Knife

I swear to god I want to slit my wrists and end this bullshit – Suicidal Thoughts, Biggie Smalls

Ağladıkça – Ahmet Kaya

Keskin Biçak - Sezen Aksu

Sunday, November 02, 2008

News from the Zona

An excellent article in the NYT
on the little worldwide web woven within the Greenspan system that is now going down a stitch here, down a stitch there – you in the corner can’t have your retirement, and you in the other corner can’t have your education. The vast game of tag in which you, my friends, my friends, are It – now, try to run for cover!

The article takes up a move by a Wisconsin school district to take advantage of what it was assured was easy money in the highflying world of international finance:

“Mr. Noack told the Whitefish Bay board that investing in the global economy carried few risks, according to the tape.

“What’s the best investment? It’s called a collateralized debt obligation,” or a C.D.O., Mr. Noack said. He described it as a collection of bonds from 105 of the most reputable companies that would pay the school board a small return every quarter.

“We’re being very conservative,” Mr. Noack told the board, composed of lawyers, salesmen and a homemaker who lived in the affluent Milwaukee suburb.

Soon, Whitefish Bay and the four other districts borrowed $165 million from Depfa and contributed $35 million of their own money to purchase three C.D.O.’s sold by the Royal Bank of Canada, which had a relationship with Mr. Noack’s company.
But Mr. Noack’s explanation of a C.D.O. was very wrong. Mr. Noack, who through his lawyer declined to comment, had attended only a two-hour training session on C.D.O.’s, he told a friend.”

It is a lovely story, full of the pathos that will tug at your heartstrings or at least make you violently ill. It is a story that will replace our celebrity breakdown stories in the next year, assuredly. The word, lately – amongst all the financial columnists – has been “bottom”. A Melvillian word, a word from the infantile word, a word from sex games – bottom bottom bottom. Has the stock market bottomed? Is the bottom coming up? It turns out that a little word like that can land like a giant flyswatter in the country that elected the Giant Fly as Pres, oh so many years ago it seems, and much crushing will be involved.
Well, last word I’ll leave to the article:

“In Mrs. Velvikis’s classroom at Grewenow Elementary in Kenosha, students have recently completed a lesson in which each first grader contributed a vegetable to a common vat of “stone soup.” The project — based on a children’s book — teaches the benefits of working together. The schools have learned that when everyone works together, they can also all starve.”

PS - And I should link to myself, right? This is my review of a recent book on Iran. Many will jump down my throat about it.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...