Saturday, July 03, 2010

Underneath the skull

There’s a story about Georg Büchner. While he went from Darmstadt, where he was born, to Strasbourg when he was eighteen to study medicine, by law he had to return for his third year of study to Darmstadt, which he did. He returned to his parent’s house. His father was a well known doctor, a figure who took the enlightened side in town politics. The kind of father that, as critics in the 80s saw it, was similar to the liberal fathers who raised the children of the sixties generation that joined the RAF. Enlightened self interest was the limit of their enlightenment, the horizon. This is a story about Georg Büchner, who already had thought about political events in Strasbourg, which was recovering, or part of which was recovering, from the last revolution (and part of which was plotting the next one); and, evidently, he was also thinking about writing. Which he had a knack for, a knock for, a knock in the brain for. And so the twenty year old Georg Büchner sat in his father’s house. He sat at a desk and, to his father’s knowledge, studied anatomy. He scanned anatomical drawings. When his father saw him at his desk, he was studying anatomical tableaux, much to his father's satisfaction. Imagine Dad making time to talk to you. To talk about his early days as a doctor. To talk about what we know now. How exciting. What we will know. A century of progress. But when his father left the room, Georg, apparently, took out the materials he was really working with. The materials that went into the play he was writing. Danton’s Death.

A striking image, na? Under the picture of the skeleton, under the Handbuch of surgery, the book - well, what book? about Danton. And certainly this is a story that has been employed in the many stories, essays and poems about Büchner, who has figured as now the committed artist, and now the very image and form, as Karl Krolow put it, of “left melancholia.” The impress of that skeleton, of the skin and bones and what we know now, the heart intestine brain, on the revolution that proposed to free skin, skeleton, brain, heart and guts from the chain of obsolete custom, the oppressions of obsolete masters.

But an image, too, for the Human Limit. The symbols, the intersignes cast up by history, all the cracked looking glasses of all the servant girls, all the Buck Mulligans. I have, evidently, strayed from the true path of drawing on the literature of boredom to cover the report of good doctor Brierre de Boismont, an essay that exists as a predecessor to all the studies of suicide from all the suicide notes, a term that didn’t exist until the twentieth century. And that elbowed its way into conceptual existence by way of the police file and the forensic psychologist.

It is at the point of this written matter that discourse, the discourse upon which Boismont has been looking with a glance that his maitre, Esquirol, would disparage as a moraliste’s – for as Boismont himself points out, Esquirol was very much in favor of segregating the science of psychology from the essays of the moralistes – begins to take on a more satisfactory pathological coloration. It is not that Boismont quite understands how ordinary ennui, which he characterizes now as a modern development, and now as a universal human factor, it is not that he understands, quite, how it becomes malign.

For he can’t quite say that boredom actually causes some suicides. Oh, he takes the notes and letters he has accumulated and extracts causes of suicide, but it is an exercise which begs the question: is the suicide capable of diagnosing himself? And, in fact, even granting that boredom could be a driver of suicide, or mixed in with the chagrin, the repetition, the endless distancing of the realization of expectations, couldn’t it also be the case that boredom keeps one from suicide? For suicide, as an act, plunges the actor, if successful, into death – which the bored person might regard as quite as boring as life.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Paradise: the most modern thing of all

I sometimes get the feeling that, pursuing my set of themes in this blog, I tend to emit a volcanic eruption of instances and hints that bury the points, instead of doing what I should do, what I, as an editor, am always urging on others: taking the points and putting them, all shiny and new, in the shopwindow.

So let me take hold of the point that has been in travail and woe since I took up Kierkegaard: boredom. The point can be put like this: whereas, in the ancient world, and in the Christian world, the taming of the passions and the life that was liberated from the press of necessity by the discipline of askesis was a holy life, or, at least for the Stoics, a natural one, in the culture of happiness, this life is one constantly beset by boredom. In the worlds ruled over by fate or providence, worlds in which, in the end, there was a celestial balance to bow down to – worlds, that is, under the impress of the limited good – lifting necessity through a purification of the impressions or an impoverishment of the desires did correspond to a true insight about the world. We should remember, as well, that passion was felt, in these worlds, within the system of humors, within the structure of characters and temperaments. Not so, however, in the world in which Chronos, or growth, had displaced all other horizons. Chronos the capitalist, who revolutionized the world through trade and exploitation. This is a world so different in its orientation and instincts that it has been imposed on the disbelieving populaces of the world at the cost of millions of lives. However, in this world, for , at first, the circulating labor class, the non-necessary necessity – boredom – became a real social experience, a sign and a symbol, a puzzle.

As I’ve tried to show, this experience is seized upon by philosophers, writers and psychologists in the first half of the nineteenth century, who all seem to find boredom a very modern affair. And, in fact, in the realm of non-necessary necessity, they revive an old trope – paradise. Boredom is a special concern in paradise, and paradise itself, it turns out, is the most modern thing of all.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...