Saturday, September 12, 2009

The tree of death


Les mouches, from les Mouchards.

“In defense of Brissot, it should be remembered that "spying" for the police could take the form of reporting on the mood of certain sections or milieux of the city rather than betraying friends. Spies, often called mouches (a term apparently derived from the name of the no- torious sixteenth-century agent Antoine Mouchy), buzzed like flies around the cafes and public places where gossip was to be gathered.”

In Robert Darnton’s essay about whether Brissot was, as his Jacobin enemies claimed, a police spy, Darnton weighs the evidence and concludes that probably he was. In that parenthesis he affirms a doubtful etymology. It is an interesting case study, this etymology. Voltaire spread the idea that Mouchy, who was not an agent, but a theologian/inquisitor, gave birth to the many maggoted mouchards, or spies – mouches being the word for fly – that buzzed around and gathered information for the police. Abbe Coblet, in the nineteenth century, should have put a stop to this etymological myth. He showed that the mouchard and the mouche were pure Picardy inventions, coming from the found of the French language. Even those who’d doubted the Mouchy etymology had claimed that in Latin, the word musca, fly, was used for police spies. But as Coblet points out, there is a world of difference between those who trap the words you speak and those who trap you. The musca was a gossip, the mouche was a spy whose delicate task it was not only to report the news to the police, but often to “encourage” the news.

Mouchy lived in the sixteenth century, when the religious wars started a whole new era in the secret history, or history of secrets, that exist under our history. It is a sewer of betrayal and tears, and it feeds the tree of death – the gibbet or the guillotine.

Nemesis lives in the sewers.

The other side of the happiness culture is the culture of fear. We cannot dispense with or minimize fear and its production when trying to get a sense of the human limit.

According to V.A.C. Gatrell’s The Hanging Tree, some 30,000 people were condemned to death in England and Wales between 1770 and 1830. 7,000, he estimates, were actually executed. This compares favorably with the estimated 73,000 executed between 1530 and 1630 – the secret religious war – but very badly with the number hung between 1701 and 1750. In the 1820s, Gatrell says, the hanged break down like this: two thirds were hung for property crimes, a fifth for murder, a twentieth for attempted murder, and the same percent for rape and sodomy. By the strange fruit of the tree shall ye know them. As Gatrell points out, while capital punishment was becoming extremely rare in Prussia, Russia, Scotland and Ireland, in England and Wales, it was enjoying a golden age.

Let’s end this post with a quote from George Cruikshank:

“At that time I resided in Dorset Street Salisbury Square Fleet Street and had occasion to go early one morning to a house near the Bank of England and in returning home between eight and nine o clock down Ludgate Hill and seeing a number of persons looking up the Old Bailey I looked that way myself and saw several human beings hanging on the gibbet opposite Newgate prison and to my horror two of these were women and upon inquiring what these women had been hung for was informed that it was for passing forged one pound notes The fact that a poor woman could be put to death for such a minor offence had a great effect upon me and I at that moment determined if possible to put a stop to this shocking destruction of life for merely obtaining a few shillings by fraud and well knowing the habits of the low class of society in London I felt quite sure that in very many cases the rascals who forged the notes induced these poor ignorant women to go into the gin shops to get something to drink and thus pass the notes and hand them the change.”

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

a traveller in a wood

Both Gilles Deleuze and Stephen Gould had trouble with structures that were perfectly tree-like. The central trunk of a theme, and then subsidiary branches, diminishing towards the top. Gould objected to the old tree of evolution, which put man on the very top of the tree (although his superiority consisted in coming down from the tree altogether – and yet, in dreams, yes, he wants to be at the top). Deleuze objected to universal history erecting its tree on every shore of every ocean, Europe, or the West, on top, encouraging the other branches to follow – and in the meantime, boosting their fruit. Such were the problematic trees.

Of course, both wrote in the shadow of the flaming Christmas trees, Yggdrasil, of the great echt deutsch Christmases remembered by Sebald, ah the advent calendars with the pictures of ss men, ah the chocolate swastiksa, the address by Rudolf Hoess with the family gathered around the tree, all hope and purity upon which were hung, as ornaments, the fates of the peoples, Jews, Gypsies, Ukranians, Serbs, burning away until Goethe’s death cry rang out – more light! – and so it was, so it was, trees of flame lighting up all the cities, Hamburg, Hannover, Leipzig, Dresden, all must celebrate Christmas and the tree, all must be part of the communal ash, all must sacrifice. Gunter Grass knew what he was doing when he made Santa the Gasman in the Tin Drum.

Still – the human limit is arboreal. Two trees stand in this wood – the tree of happiness and the tree of this world. Branch enjambs with branch. By 1815, the planting is dome. Comes the growing.

And me, the chronicler of this two tree forest that grows over the face of the world – I’ve gone from trunk to branch and root to twig, tree drunk, sap blessed. As the artificial paradise is laid down (and what is paradise without the tree?), those in the branches experience the most curious feeling of ilinx – as though the world were not under the trees at all, but somewhere in a crook of the branches. This is the effect of the artificial paradise, and it is compared by all who resist it – from Marx to Tolstoy to G.B. Shaw, among so many others – to intoxication, vertigo, opium poisoning.

I have a long way to go. The branches are so thickly clustered that I can’t see the stars.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Further notes on solitude

... I started out last month positing a tentative binary – individualism vs. solitude – that I took from Rousseau. It seemed to me then that Rousseau could not bring together his view of civil society founded on a fundamental equality and his view of the continuing dependence of women The contradiction imploded in his narratives. And the move, late in Rousseau’s life, to elevate solitude seems to me to be a political move, or hold the seeds of a politics. Contra Todorov, Rousseau did not represent his solitude as an exception. It was, potentially, the right to solitude, the development of solitude, that provides us with a whole new view of the relationship between the self and society. Solitude is a social development.

This made me wonder about the right to solitude of women. Solitude, as I am trying to understand it, is not the right of the property holder who can shut the door on the public sphere and stay at home. That kind of privacy does fit with an emerging individualism. But solitude has aspects that are strikingly different from the ideal individual of the individualist ethos.

I’ve held solitude on the margins, so to speak, as I’ve been looking at the culture of respectability, and the question of the condition of England – that is, why England’s greater political freedom was embedded in a palpable moral narrowness, as Herzen, among many other foreign observers, noted. A longstanding story about Britain claims that it was the first developed country to develop a strong, modern sense of privacy. Privacy, self-improvement, order were the hallmarks of respectability. De Stael, for one, attributed the English excellence in the novel to the greater role played in England by the private life. To her, the novel introduces epic proportions into the bedroom and the study, so to speak.

Now, are these rooms of someone’s own the equivalent of solitude?
This is where my binary should help me a bit. I want to associate solitude with extremes, with limit cases – with the sublime that Edgeworth condemns. The extremes are either the retreat from enlightenment to the archaic, or the leap over the enlightenment to the revolutionary. The equal right to solitude, from the point of view of the culture of respectability, muddies the divisions between the public and private sphere. It brings the question of equality, which is the question of justice, into the dimension of how we are to live, here, on our beds, in our chairs, as well as in our work, in our laundry tubs, offices, mines. A right to solitude, rather than a right to property, would give us a much different political discourse, and a much different sense of where politics is going on, and what it is for.

Can solitude bear this weight?

The England de Stael sees in 1793 and in 1814 was, perhaps, passing through its most European phase. It isn’t surprising that German philosophy, sentimentalism, and romantic poetry were creating a cult of solitude, making it one of the central motifs of romantic poetry. Peter Conrad’s in a brilliant essay I need to discuss has claimed that the movement in English literature is to pastoralize epic themes, to release the poem from the heroic in order to celebrate the private. But I think this use of the private, like de Stael’s, is a way of drawing a division between the public and private sphere that goes against the grain of solitude.

In fact, as the modernists of the nineteenth century came to recognize, solitude is more naturally connected with the crowd – as Hoffmann, Poe and Baudelaire saw.

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 ...