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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A sense for traces

I'm going to try to tear my appalled attention away from Haiti, and begin a new thread about Goethe's Faust, book II. As Thomas Mann wrote in his essay, Goethe and Tolstoi, Goethe was a man of the 18th century whose Spuersinn - sense of traces - foresaw the 19th: "the whole social-economic development of the 19th century, the industrialization of the old cultural and agricultural lands, the domination of the machine, the rise of organized labor, the class conflicts, democracy, socialism, Americanism even, along with the sum total of intellectual and educational consequences that organically come out of these changes.” In Mann's Doktor Faustus the narrator, Zeitblum, remarks that it wasn't until the end of World War I that the ancien regime - a way of thinking stretching back to the 14th century - finally collapsed. In this respect, the "Spursinne" for what I'd call the advent of the artificial paradise has to be put in relation to the fact that, for the great mass of people even in the 'advanced' countries like France and Germany, it touched them only at the edges.

To return, for a moment, to the scenes that we can't get out of our head of Haiti - the place that created the sugar and rum wealth of France and, by extension, Europe, the land that received, like a giant maw, hundreds of thousands of black bodies and swallowed them in the 18th century, ate them up, chewed up 500,000 - to see the earthquake knock down the artificial paradise is to see how it adheres to our skin and bones, how we only move within it, even those of us who are on the edge of it, and how, destroyed, it destroys us.

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