Tuesday, November 24, 2009

cowardice of the great

Behind Proust’s essay on Sainte Beuve and Baudelaire, one feels the whole experience of the Dreyfus affair, which taught Proust an unforgettable lesson: how much depends upon the cowardice of the great. It is this insight that drove the alienated liberals towards socialism at the end of the nineteenth century. In Sainte Beuve’s treatment of Baudelaire, Proust saw an emblem of the system of relations that put the imagination at the service of the platitude, and the platitude at the service of maintaining, at any price, one’s place in the artificial paradise.

Of course, the essay has capacities, pockets, unexplored frontiers that can’t be reduced to the above thesis. But to understand the peculiar immersion of the artificial paradise – the swallowed commodity that swallows the user (as we restlessly toss and turn in the golden egg) – I want to use Proust’s essay as the torch that lights my way into the vault.

Proust’s problem in the essay is not just to untangle Sainte Beuve’s relationship to Baudelaire – his maddening assumption of superiority, his strategy of deferring the moment of writing about the poet until it is too late, the Cheshire cat language he uses that at one point makes Proust cry out: “quelle vieille bête ou quelle vieille canaille…” like Charlus in the final stages of exasperation – his problem, the deeper problem, is to untangle Baudelaire’s relationship to Sainte Beuve: the unfailing politeness, the sincere delight he took in any scraps thrown him by “l'oncle Beuve.”

These are tangled ties, knots within Gordian knots. The screw turns. Proust’s solution is extremely beautiful.

Comme le ciel de la théologie catholique qui se compose de plusieurs ciels superposés, notre personne, dont l'apparence que lui donne notre corps avec sa tête qui circonscrit à une petite boule notre pensée, notre personne morale se compose de plusieurs personnes superposées. Cela est peut-être plus sensible encore pour les poètes qui ont un ciel de plus, un ciel intermédiaire entre le ciel de leur génie, et celui de leur intelligence, de leur bonté, de leur finesse journalières, c'est leur prose. Quand Musset écrit ses Contes, on sent encore à ce je ne sais quoi par moments le frémissement, le soyeux, le prêt à s'envoler des ailes qui ne se soulèveront pas. C'est ce qu'on a du reste dit beaucoup mieux :

Même quand l'oiseau marche, on sent qu'il a des ailes.

(Like the heaven of Catholic theology, which is composed of many superposed heavens, our person, with the appearance given it by our body with its head, which confines our thought to a small bowl, our moral person is composed of many superposed persons. This is perhaps more felt in the case of poets, who have an extra heaven, an intermediary heaven between that of their genius and that of their intelligence, that of their generosity, of their daily canniness, which is their prose. When Musset writes his Stories, one senses again this unknown momentary quality in the quavering, the sleekness, the unfolding of wings that do not extend in flight. Which, besides, is said much better: Même quand l'oiseau marche, on sent qu'il a des ailes.) (my translation)

This is as central an idea to Proust, I think, as the idea of the eternal return was to Nietzsche – and was evoked by the same long experience of the cowardice of the great. Saint Beuve for Baudelaire, Wagner for Nietzsche, and, in Proust’s case, the collective cowardice of the establishment, including the literary establishment – the Daudets, for instance – in the Dreyfus case.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Urban renewal

Owen has written a very suave piece in the Guardian about the London suburbs. There’s a show at the London Transport Museum, Suburbia, which hails the synergy (if not conspiracy) between the advancement of the London subway system and the development of London’s outer ring. As Owen puts it, dapperly:

“The exhibition alludes to the fact that London's private transport companies were the sponsors and often the creators of suburbia, extending their lines into open country, promoting the glories of the countryside, and then developing it out of existence.”

Ah, the displaced rural nymphs. Myself, even as a boy loose in the suburbs of Atlanta, it amused me that the apartment complexes of Dekalb county would invariably give themselves names evocative of the stuff they had just bulldozed over in order to offer the 2bd 1bth for a reasonable 1970s price of 200 or 300 per month. Oakwood Trail. Sweetwater Acres.

The exhibit's enthusiasm for suburbia apparently wanes after the sweet collaboration between transport and land developers was rudely interrupted by nationalization: “After 1945, however, there were no more speculative incursions of London Transport into the countryside.” And the ductus of desire changes, too – the car comes in, and the city is no longer something one wants to be within reasonable distance of, but something to escape.

I wonder how the firebombing of London figured in that change?

There’s a nice paper by Peter Galison entitled “War against the Center” that takes up the issue of de-centering – suburbs in the fifties to de-centered information networks – or the Internet – in the sixties through the nineties - and the everpresent shadow of the bomb:

“Here I would like to point toward an architectural dispersion rather less abstract than that celebrated by a generalized zeitgeist, by a shift in an economic base "reflected" in the cultural superstructure, by an epochal postwar taste change toward suburban life, or by an entropic flow away from an ordered city core. No doubt such intellectual, pragmatic, aesthetic, and stochastic drives did contribute to the pressure driving dense city cores outward. But today I want to begin elsewhere. Not in 1973 with the oil crisis and subsequent economic upheaval, nor with the social upheavals or deconstructivist literary-theoretical work of the 1960s. Nor, for that matter, will I start with the Internet, though I will come back to it. Instead I will address bombs: the bombs of the long war that, in a certain sense, began in the 1930s, accelerated after the Nazi seizure of power, continued across the end of World War II, through the cold war, and even past the fall of the Soviet Union into the present unsettled moment.”

Galison wrote this before 9/11 – the last sentence is just a feeling, an ache in the global bones.

Galison focuses on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey stationed in East Anglia during the war. This bureaucracy was making a sort of immense stress map of the German population, economy, and military machine. They were making this map not to travel it, but to delink it, burning building by burning building. “Appropriately enough, Franklin d'Olier, president of Prudential Insurance, ran the whole of the Survey- the greatest damage-assessment program in history.” One of the major figures in it was Paul Baran, a Marxist economist. One of the minor - W.H. Auden. Although Auden did know Central Europe.

It is in the game between the USBS and Speer’s Reichsministerium für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion – and game theory was, of course, being developed at this time by Neumann with the Cowles commission back in the U.S. – that we come to the endgame of modernism – if we take modernism as really dead. What the USBS discovered was that bombing was not like pulling out a plug. In the end, German industry survived: "even in the case of a very concentrated industry very heavy and continuous attack must be made, since otherwise the enemy, if he can survive the initial shock, will be able to take successful countermeasures. “

While this might not seem like poetry, it became the good news of the Cold War period. Countermeasures – o the heavenly sound of it – meant resurrection and survival. To build the factory with specs that included the potential attack, this became the holy grail. To disperse the community from the heart of the firestorm – to decentralize communications – to randomize hubs. Such were the commands in the voice of the Pharaonic god, whose pyramid was a pentagon. What is synthesized can be decomposed, each tributary traced back to its source, each source mapped for anti-aircraft gun emplacements, each operation given instructions on the pattern of destruction expected.

Oddly, the Germans – so good at systematically going through the records to decimate Jews – did not seem to understand the science of destruction on this scale. In Gravity’s Rainbow, that is one of the overriding mysteries – why make random strikes with V2s? Surely they were trying to hit something. Deluded, like bad action movie directors, by special effects, the Luftwaffe treated bombing as a Wagnerian spectacle.

“Autumn is a funny time to be bombed. It is the hopeful start of the home year. It is not a time when exalted feeling runs high. Autumn used to stop you sighing after Ewigkeit and make you feel how much you liked just now. You felt rooted deeply – and loved your roots. Even in Britain it was Thanksgiving time. Autumn used to be a protracted feast of Saint Cosy: the hearth meant a great deal, the mothballs were shaken out of fur coats, the children went back to school, the blue misty evenings drew in. In the country, in the city squares was the tang of weedfires, the brisk rustle of leaves being swept up. This year, leaves are swept up with a tinkle of glass in them.” [Elizabeth Bowen]

The Wagnerian spectacle fizzled out in that tinkle of glass. But the future, definitely, was being forged in fire. For after the war was over, the war wasn’t over:

“Bombing the Axis economy and dispersing the American one were reflections of one another. When Charles E. Wilson, director of the Office of Defense Mobilization, came before the National Security Resources Board of the President's Executive Office, he needed an expert on how to disperse industry. To the captains of industry assembled for a 1951 hearing, Wilson sought to justify his strictures about splitting plants by ten or twenty miles. "Mr. Gorrie brought me a real expert on that. I call him a real expert because he was one of the men who had done bombing in the industrial arena of Germany, and cer- tainly he convinced me that 10 or 20 miles provides reasonable safety."25 Bombers braced for bombs.”

Galison’s point is that the history of architecture and urbanism in the post-war period should not simply fasten onto architects, or fashions. Rather, they should study the final Survey of the Strategic Bombing Survey – because, in the fifties, everybody else was.

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 ...