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A harlot high and low

Véronique Nahoum-Grappe, a French ethnologist who studies intoxication – among other things – begins her essay, The ungovernable gratuitousness: dizziness behaviors, with a story:

“Among the numerous favelas of Rio de Janeiro, those urbanized zones where the material precariousness is only equaled by the sociological stigmatization, the favela Rocihne is better platted than the others, situated on the elevated flank of a hill and overlooking certain rich sections of town. The poor can thus see the rich from up above, which brings about laughter and jokes on their part, but also all across the town, according to Esther Barberosa, a brazillian sociologist. To see from [d’en haut] up high those who see you from a height [de haut] is not an indifferent fact, in spite of the derisory gratuitousness of such a revenge. From the moment that the base of the ladder occupies an elevated position, the metaphor of the reversed world, in an illusory way, but nevertheless physical, as on a roller coaster, can incite social laughter.”

Well, as anybody who knows LI can plainly tell, this beginning, and the very subject of this essay, wins my heart straightaway. Evidently Nahoum-Grappe is not afraid of the insights of Caillois and Bataille – nor of the derisory gratuitousness that, in spite of everything, is the invisible order that we all obey.

The ‘behaviors of dizziness’ are rarely the subject of investigation in themselves. A commentor on my last post, Roger Mexico, mentioned the fact the Paul de Man analyzed the same passage in Baudelaire’ Essence of Laughter as I did, and came to another conclusion about the dizziness induced by the fairy’s wand: that this was the dizziness of irony. De Man is on good textual ground, as we know that irony was a much developed romantic trope, a sort of countervailing power against Sturm und Drang sentiment – and Baudelaire definitely mentions Germany as the home of the absolute comic.

But I want to pull that vertigo in another direction, since we are lifted a little too far, in de Man’s interpretation, from Satan, fairies, and Punch and Judy – not to mention Harlequin. And even in Germany, there is something more to say – or rather there are other texts to point at. For instance, one can look at Marx’s forties texts, among other young Hegelians, and see a certain delight in recoding Hegel by turning him upside down. Inversion – Verkehrung – after all, is a sort of encounter of logic and pantomime.

“We are interested here in the cause of the most candid of these laughs, to wit, the pure infantile fact of being up high, above, looking over a space defined as a possible unity. The important point is this position of the body truly imagined, in this particular topic, and one can replace the words ‘truly’ with the word ‘physically’, or even consciously, for the ‘truth’ about what happens up high lodges in the kinaesthetic sensation.”

We all know this scene. The baby is held aloft. The baby is taken firmly, but not so that the grip pinches, up, up from the cradle, the crib, up up past the breast, the face, up up high. The baby is held above her Mother’s head. Her Father’s head. Up above the adult head, who gazes up at this business, all smiles, too, for the baby, that tiny instance of a human, that human second hand that has clocked merely the first second in human time, and who, if things go right, will perform an incredible feat over the next couple of years – of growing four, five times its weight, and will keep on going - is now higher than the adults who have already been there, once, a fact that they deduce more than remember.

And so must I have been held up. Surely.

And now – well, here’s what happened last year, what typically happened. I went to a friend’s place in Mexico City. This friend had moved into a rather swank apartment, near the presidential palace as a matter of fact. The kind of place with its own private elevator. Up, up we went, and then we got off at the twelfth floor – I believe. Some incredible height about the street. And here was a very large window to advertise that fact. And here was a balcony. With a table. Where I had a drink with my friend. And we chatted.

But in my mind, I was not wholly chatting with my friend. I was also holding myself in my chair, because it seemed to me that if I didn’t hold myself in my chair, I would get up, I would jump, I would leap over the incredibly fragile looking bit of a half wall that enclosed the patio, and I would drop down down down to splatter on the road. I knew that some mysterious force was operating on me, and what I felt like was, I felt like lying down. This is my response to being up over the city street, in a sky scraper. Indeed, the long, beautiful window with the long, beautiful view struck me, from the moment I first set foot in the apartment, as a monster. My enemy.

Yet, though I am afraid of heights, I like to creep slowly towards precipices.

This, of course, is a minor macula in the mental life of a minor man. But it has made me acutely aware of high and low. And is it simply a coincidence that I, in life as well, chose the low, and attack the high? Choose poverty, and bark at wealth? Choose low life through which to light my candle of high culture and wend my way through a labyrinth of gutters, to what end I can’t even tell you?

High and low, high and low. I pick at those cardinal points compulsively, and have done so my whole life. Mouth and anus, food and shit, words and dirt – oh the Swedenborgian light that shines out my disgruntled but ever faithful asshole, my Sancho on this long journey!

Well, for those of us who know the signs, it is not surprising that, in this context, Nahoum-Grappe quotes from the work of a young man in the 1930s, in the grasp of the interior experience:

“I don’t know if I stopped, in the middle of the street, masking my delirium under an umbrella. Perhaps I jumped (this is without doubt an illusion): I was convulsively illuminated, I laughed, I imagine, in running.”

Why, our anthropologist wants to know, did Bataille leap – and why do we leap for joy? Even if he didn’t.

“Between the leap and vertigo [vertige – dizziness], there is a double affinity. “It is when I faint [defaille] that I jump”, Bataille tells us, tying the leap to the one who feels himself fall in the bouncing up of an excessive joy. But the jump is also the resume of the vertiginous experience, be it under the form of little leaps or under that of a supreme élan, in an emptiness. Between what pushes towards the height and the threat of a fall is situated the suspence, that infinitesimal but decisive tension, the precise place of vertiginous kinaesthesia.”

Well, I’ll stop here. The rest – well, the rest is the leap in this post, and must be taken as the kind of claims that rush through your head when you are falling…

Because I have meant this theme, this thread, this slo mo conceptual tantrum, to indicate something that can’t be true – that use follows delirium – and yet that also seems to be true when we base ourselves in the world of these psychoactive products. That the artificial paradise wasn’t just poured out, so much concrete and asphalt, over the bones of the peasants, but the peasants had an afterlife, to the surprise of the builders, atop that concrete and asphalt. That it is no accident that the Morrdspiel of the small commodities is still in our ear, entangled with all the larger Mordspiels. That it is the décor we can’t do without, and that is, of course, killing us. That, as a French sociologists, Cauzenave, once pointed out, our machines – as they go faster – are machines to produce vertigo. That we have turned transportation itself into a psychoactive drug. That joy riding is the secret sharer of the traffic jam. That the happiness culture strains and groans to contain a system that is larger than it. That we have replaced Nemesis with what we think are our highly controlled and rational experiments with ilinx. That I suspect we haven’t. I suspect. I.


Anonymous said…
LI, I love the quotes from Véronique Nahoum-Grappe, whom I'm ashamed to say I've never read, but very glad you now introduced me to. The references to Georges Bataille are very striking, which I'm not going to, but rather to something else that struck me. While reading her write about the favelas on the heights bordering Rio, I was immediately reminded of Belleville and Paris. And of inversions and overturning.

Belleville on the hill overlooking the city. In 1848 and 1871, among the last barricades to fall were in Belleville. The people of Belleville paid for their point of view, for wanting to turn the world upside down.

Sans doute, mon amour, on n’a pas eu de chance
Il y avait la guerre
Et nous avions vingt ans
L’hiver de 70 fut hiver de souffrance
Et pire est la misère
En ce nouveau printemps...
Les lilas vont fleurir les hauteurs de Belleville

Roger Gathmann said…
That's a beautiful link.
I can't claim to be intimately acquainted with Véronique Nahoum-Grappe! I found her while searching for the ethnography of intoxication - about which subject there is - astonishingly! - little real work. It is all either medical work, or assigned to criminal history.

I admire the fact that Nahoum-Grappe actually revels in her Bataille quote - which is not the kind of thing to get one credit in the discipline, of course. Too "speculative". Too "mystical".

And so, the dizziness that one might feel, mentally, about a thought, or about sex - it is pushed to the margin as so much unimportant dross. A gratuitousness.

To get back to Baudelaire's interpreter, de Man, for a second - this is why, on the one hand, I think he is quite right to bring out the trope of irony at work in Baudelaire's essay, but at the same time I suspect that this 'elevation' of a literary trope too hastily and too neatly takes care of vertige. I know that I am voicing a common complaint - that de Man depoliticizes his texts. On the other hand, the political interpretation also, characteristically, marginalizes the vertiginous.
Anonymous said…
LI, glad you liked the link! I hope my previous comments didn't appear as dismissive of de Man's reading of Baudelaire. I think de Man's bringing up irony is far from wrong, and I think he does so, in a way, precisely to question and criticize and even mock "happiness culture". But let my try and reformulate my earlier comments and my resistance(s) to his reading.

Much of de Man's reading of l'essence du rire is structured on self-reflective consciousness, which is hardly wrong. (Interestingly, in the preface to the republication of the essay in Blindness and Insight, de Man mentions this as one of the essay's limitations.) Anyway, this structuring principle goes hand in hand with something else that is quite strange - the reduction and marginalizing of theatre. More than once, de Man refers to "mimetic representation" only to dismiss it, send it off-stage. The dismissal of theater is a dismissal of mimesis. In keeping with an entire tradition, de Man seems to suggest mimesis is "mere" imitation, and as such secondary, servile, inauthentic, etc. So then one has the traditional oppositions and limits: inside/outside, high/low, authentic/inauthentic, etc. And one might begin to wonder if irony for all it's "explosiveness" and "vertigo" is not something that is on the "side" of order and stability and an attempt to limit and master, set right side up and set aside, the vertigo of mimesis - and of laughter and vulgarity.

Now, in Baudelaire's essay, the least one can say is that it is a question of theater and mimesis and mime. Indeed, he even mentions "fear and suffering" while writing about the comic; the reference to theater and Aristotle's poetics is patent.

Laughter is vulgar. And its vertigo might just not be only about self consciousness but a nakedness. And you know Baudelaire's "privileged example" of vulgarity - a harlot high and low - is woman.

Roger Gathmann said…
North - Nora Jones and Santigold? I was hoping it would be Santigold singing Nora... oh well.
Roger Gathmann said…
Amie, this is suggestive, but not entirely clear to me: "The dismissal of theater is a dismissal of mimesis." You are right to locate the impulse of the Baudelarian tableau, I think, in popular theater - although Baudelaire, here, is talking about three different 'populations' - the French, the German and the British (which is where I see de Stael's influence), and careful to say that the popular traits in one, trasplanted into France, become unpopular - which was the fate of the British pantomime, a fate B. bemoaned. Incidentally, doesn't this trope remind you of Artaud's response to Javanese shadow theater?

These populations, then, don't exist in terms of complete substitution one for the other - something remains out.

Now, it is at this point that I like to think we are dealing with Baudelaire le momo - who is continually coming upon the tropics, the colonies, the non-European, in the heart of Paris (which changes, as we know, more than the heart of mortal). IN particular, Baudelaire is putting himself forward as a sort of medium for the claims of the absolute comic - and in this he is a sort of other side of Virginie, who has a zero degree of the comic.

Now, it is that alien status that makes one wonder - as you say - about the easy unity and dismissal of mimesis, especially as we are dealing with pantomime - which depends, on the one hand, on a semiotic of sensible signs shared between the actors and the audience, and, on the other hand, speeds it up - makes it vertiginous. It is when all the characters raise their arms - exactly at that point - that I am most enchanted. That's the moment of suspense, in Nahoum-Grappe's terms. That mimicry of dizziness - I think of it as standing not for irony, but for cutting lose of all ironies, for dissolving in the moment's hocus pocus. What reflects, what self reflects, in vertigo?

Well, this is too ragged a comment - I need to do one more post about the rest of the Vertige article. Maybe I can make myself clearer.
Anonymous said…
LI, my previous comment wasn't very clear, more suggestion and provocation than analysis, sorry about that as I've been really appreciating your Baudelaire and vertige posts and don't want to entirely sidetrack them with my comments. But I would like to add a little as your previous comment goes to a couple of things that I was trying to get at by bringing up mimesis. What you say of the moment of suspense, of dizziness which is not irony but the limit where it fails and dissolves in the moment is what I was getting at in speaking of vertigo and nakedness. Some would call this "mystical", which makes me laugh.

I agree with you that Baudelaire is constantly coming across the the foreign in the native, and not just the European. A matter, as you say, of "alien status". it is also a matter of mimesis, which is not just about authenticity and inauthenticity (as de Man seems to suggest) but of the proper and the improper, the foreign and the native, of identity and identification, appropriation and assimilation.

You know of the recent "debate" in fair France on "national identity", proposed by Sarkozy whose model of republican virtue is more Louis Bonaparte than Robespierre. As you know, mimesis involves the pharmakon and also the pharmakos, and this "debate" is about the pharmakos.

Sorry, I've not been very clear in this comment either I fear, but can I just leave you with a Baudelaire quote, from his project for an epilogue to the 1861 edition of Fleurs du mal.

Tes dômes de métal qu'enflamme le soleil,
Tes reines de Théâtre aux voix enchanteresses,
Tes toscins, tes canons, orchestre assourdissant,
Tes magiques pavés dressés en forteresses,
Tes petits orateurs, aux enflures baroques
Prêchant l'amour, et puis tes égouts pleins de sang,
S'engouffrant dans l'Enfer comme des Orénoques


Roger Gathmann said…
Amie, more on mimesis in the vertigo 2 post.
Tom Matrullo said…
I'm familiar with the feeling of being "drawn to the precipice" - it's also the central temptation of Paradise Regained. Not offering to make us and Jesus parallel, but it is curious that the impulse reappears in that theological context.

Other thing: For Baudelaire, the laughter of Melmoth was another example of the absolu. It's a kind of moral delirium - think, e.g., if you as Melmoth were to witness what is happening in Haiti - and it triggered, with a kind of ineluctable impulsion, riotous laughter. Not very social.
Roger Gathmann said…
Very interesting comment, Tom. What has amazed me so far about Haiti is how little it seems to have penetrated into the social life I see around. For instance, on facebook, where I have a lot of academic friends, there is an almost uncanny absence of any comment about Haiti. I take that as a sort of countrywide sample. I'm frankly amazed - there was much more talk about Michael Jackson's death! I have come to feel like a madman for keeping up a constant jabber about it.

Melmouth's laughter is the laughter of the damned - the ones who have already plunged - I guess. I am guessing. I will have to think about how it fits the absolu, but I think there is a connection, here, between the demonic rictus of the gargoyle, the caricature, and the laughter of Melmouth.