Friday, January 08, 2010

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.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

second tableau

Second tableau: Baudelaire, after presenting the laughter in relation to the Fall of man, goes on to divide it, as a form of art, into two kinds: the significatively comic and the absolutely comic. The ghost of Madame de Stael’s distinction between humor and gaiety knocks at the window here – and following de Stael, Baudelaire relates his two different types of comedy to different national types, with the English and Germans being the masters of absolute comedy, or the grotesque, and the French being inclined to the significatively comic – the gaiety, as de Stael would say, of a society in which conversation is cultivated. “The absolutely comic is much nearer nature, presents itself under one genus, and is the kind of thing that wants to be grasped by intuition. There is only one verification of the grotesque, it is laughter, and the laugh submits to it; in the face of the significative comic, it isn’t forbidden to laugh after it is done – this doesn’t argue against its value; it is a question of the rapidity of the analysis.”

Given this distinction and these geographical coordinates, Baudelaire chooses to discuss, under the German grotesque, Hoffman – and under the British grotesque, a pantomime he observed in Paris. It seems to have been a sort of live punch and judy show, except in this one, punch avoids the guillotine, not the hangman.

Which leads us to this utterly astonishing passage. It concerns the prologue of the pantomime:

“The principle persons of the play, Pierrot, Cassandre, Harlequinn, Colombine, Leandre, are in front of the public, very gentle and tranquil. They are almost reasonable and don’t differ all that much from the brave members of the audience. The miraculous breath that will make them move so extraordinarily has not yet been blown on their brains. Some japes of Pierrot only give a pale image of what he will soon be doing. The rivalry of Harlequin and Leandre has just been declared. A fairy gets interested in Halequin: she is the eternal protector of mortals who are in love and poor. She promises him her protection, and to show him what this means then and there, she waves, with a mysterious and authoritative gesture, her wand in the air.

As soon as she stirs that stick, dizziness makes its entrance, dizziness circulates in the air. One breathes in the dizziness; it is dizziness that fills the lungs and renews the blood in the ventricle.

What is dizziness? It is the absolutely comic: it sweeps up every being. Leandre, Pierrot, Cassandre all make extraordinary gestures, which clearly show that they feel introduced by main force into a totally new existence. They don’t look irritated – they are old troopers of great disasters and the tumultuous destiny that awaits them, like someone who spits in his hands and rubs them together before doing some remarkable act. They mill about with their upraised arms, resembling windmills tortured by a storm. This, doubtlessly, loosens their joints, which they will certainly need later. All this operates under the accompaniment of great bursts of laughter, full of a vast contentment; then they jump one over the other, and, their agility and aptitude duly noted, there follows a blinding bouquet of kicks, punches and slaps that make an artillery’s racket and light; but all of this without any anger. All of their gestures, their cries, their facial expressions say: the fairy wills it, destiny precipitates us, I will not worry: Go! Run! Leap! And thus they leap out into the fantastic work, which, properly speaking, only then begins, that is, on the frontier of the miraculous.”

This must be read in French for the full affect – I translate in the same spirit of submission that the pantomime figures play their tricks, as the fairy wills it.

Southern California Death Trip

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