Saturday, July 17, 2010


Travel? One need only exist to travel. I go from day to day, as from station to station, in the train of my body or my destiny, leaning over the streets and squares, over people’s faces and gesture, always the same and always different, just like scenery.

‘Any road, this simple Entepfuhl road, will lead you to the end the World.’ But the end of the world, when we go around it full circle, is the same Entepfuhl from which we started. The end of the world, like the beginning, is in fact our concept of the world.” – Pessoa

It is well know that Kant couldn’t be budged. He never saw a city bigger than his Königsberg. His friend, Johann Hamann, did – as did Herder, and Lichtenberg. The philosophe was, usually, a traveler. But in a sense, Kant was one of the great clerks. I admit that it would distort the metaphysics of the Critique of Pure Reason to make it the equivalent of Bartleby’s, I prefer not to – an almost perfect definition of the noumenon! – but there is something definitely going on, here, in the cultural underbrush.

Königsberg was an important city, historically and symbolically, for Prussia. Kant, who like Kafka, later on, loved his travel books, was able, without budging, to experience Russia when the city was occupied for five years during the Seven Years war – a time when Cossacks camped in the countryside and a low intensity struggle broke out in the East Prussian marshes. It was Kurt Stavenhagen who pointed out, in the 40s, the liberation that accompanied Czarin Elizabeth’s troops – in ironic contrast to Friedrich’s enlightened tyranny. Although Kant did not get his wish during this time to be promoted to professor, he apparently enjoyed the company of the Russian officers, along with other townsfolk – Königsberg had a very nice occupation. When it was re-taken, Friedrich refused to step foot in the town.

I don’t have time, today, for more than a quotation. One is Kant’s description of Königsberg from a footnote in the preface to the Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view. The preface concerns worldly knowledge. Kant could be accused of not having any, never having gotten out into the world. This is his reply.

“A great city, the middle point of a kingdom, in which the landscollegia [offices] of the Government itself are found, which has a university (for the cultivation of sciences) and is as well a port for maritime trade, which flourishes on a river that rises out of the interior of the country as well as with bordering various countries of different languages and custom – such a city, as for example Königsberg on the Pregel, may well be taken as a proper place for the expansion of the knowledge of men as even that of the world; where this, even without traveling, can be gained.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

a Begriffsroman

Begriffsgeschichte begins in genius and ends in banality. Although there are times, sweet, rare times, when that order is reversed.

I’ve been pondering two things, lately. One is Kosellek’s Future’s past, which is a history of how the future was conceived in the past – how the horizon of expectation is construed - as well as a meditation on the whole enterprise of a "history of ideas". I’ve been thinking of how it is possible to elaborate a history of the third life, and how to avoid the mistake into which all fall of conceiving history as a series of heads reading a series of books. This, of course, misconceives both head and book. We are talking about the inspired sensorium, and we end up talking about 'influence'. Improvements on this improbable picture often consist of rather vague references to class, by Marxists - who will happily go back to the heads reading books picture when talking about Hegel's 'influence' on Marx, etc.

And by these stages, by this blindness, the angel of Detail is driven from the City of the Mind.

I want the Angel back.

But this is a desire easier to express than to realize. Which brings me to my other topic: a nest of gentlefolk in Rouen: Pierre Corneille, who lived on Rue de la Pie; the family of his sister, the Fontenelles, headed by a solid bourgeois lawyer, who lived nearby, on Rue de Cordier; the Pascals, who lived on Rue des Murs-Saint-Ouen. The Pascals evacuate for Paris in 1639 – why? Because, apparently, Etienne has been frightened by the violence in the countryside. For one must remember the countryside – and Rouen’s dependence on it, and its fear of it. And one must remember the weather. According to the Histoire Sommaire et Chronologique de la Ville de Rouen, there were some extraordinarily cold seasons from 1630 to 1650 in France. Repeatedly, in the spring, icebergs would be spotted, floating down the Seine. Sometimes they were big enough to break bridges. The crops, of course, suffered under the excessive cold, the flooding, and the wars – the continual wars of the Court, for which money had to be pressed out of somebody’s hide.

However, this is a tale for later. Let us leave it that the Pascals fled a Jacquerie led by a mythological Jean Nuds-Pieds, whose name appeared on a poster that appeared on April 11, 1639, in the town of Saint Lo, proclaiming a new order – or, actually, in peasant style, a return to the old order.

But this nest of gentlefolks extends over time. Taking Fontenelle as my central figure, I can also trace other connections all the way up to Leprince Beaumont, in the 1730s. For instance, the brothers Jacques and Guillaume Scott, who at some point arrive in Rouen (from Scotland? They are, at least, protestant) and start some kind of business. Exactly what that business is remains a mystery – M. Bouquet, who wrote about them in the Journal de Rouen in the 1860s, at first described them as makers and sellers of vinegar. Vinegar was sold by peddlers on foot, in Paris, and presumably in Rouen. The descendents of the family must have found that description not to their taste, so M. Bouquet retracted his statement in a later article. For us, the important thing is that Guillaume grew wealthy enough to buy himself into the nobility. His son married a woman with a famous name: Rambouillet. Marguerite was the daughter of Mme de la Sabliere, whose Hotel Rambouillet hosted a famous literary set in Paris that included, most famously, La Fontaine. She was also interested in philosophy, and a friend made her a book to guide her through the philosophy of Gassendi. We are, we are in the heart of the heart of it all. But the heart is distributed, the heart is here, and then it is here. To the confusion of literary historians since, Mme de la Sabliere was also named Marguerite, which has led to many errors – the Lamartines of history – in accounts about La Fontaine and about Fontenelle. Guillaume, by that time, had bought a property in a small village outside of Rouen, Mésangère, and Marguerite Scott went by the more grandiloquent name of Madame de la Mésangère. Guillaume had the discretion to die when his widow was still young, twenty four, in 1682.

And this happened – we know from a future biography of Fontenelle by Thomas Le Cat, a Rouen doctor who happened to write for a magazine edited by another Rouennaise, Marie LePrince de Beaumont, in the eighteenth century.

Apparently Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle returned to Rouen in the 1680s, after having spent some time trying to make it as a writer in Paris, and lived in his father’s house at the Rue de Cordier – although he could have spent time, as well, in his father’s two houses in the country, in the forest of La Feuillie.

While contemplating his options, the Fontenelle apparently made himself at home in Marguerite de la Mésangère’s house on Rue de Gros-Horloge, which was quite famous in its day. And it is here that he read her the book he was working on – a dialogue concerning astronomy entitled Entretien sur la pluralité des mondes. Her servant happened to be in the room, and at the description of the woman in this dialogue, she smiled. Which disconcerted Marguerite de la Mésangère – she was a widow with a reputation, and did not want to be gossiped about because of Fontenelle’s book. So he changed certain cues in the text – for instance, the color of the female character’s hair. As well as making certain changes to disguise the garden in which the discussion takes place, which was the Parc at Mésangère.

So – in what Begriffsgeschichte is the smile of that chamber maid captured?

There’s more to the story for me. Fontenelle was not a huge fan of the country, and in his essay on the eclogue, he made cutting remarks about the baseness of peasant life. Yet he wrote a few – for Marguerite de la Mésangère – and carved them in her beech trees in the great Parc.

I’ve been thinking of how this must go into my book, and how the only way to include a discourse on astronomy and the smile of a chamber maid and the verses carved into the beech trees of a Normandy estate and the posters of the mysterious Jean Nuds-Pieds and the horrible winters, which were not so horrible, perhaps, to a boy in Rouen, imagine his hand helf firmly in the gloved hand of his father as they both watch repairs being made on the bridge, and the ice skaters on the river, and the warning issued by the Jesuits that school boys were appearing with mysterious sorcery tracts and the rumors of discontent and Fontenelle’s father’s stories of the violence of the Fronde (his brother in law, Pierre Corneille, had taken the King’s side, and been rewarded) is to give myself up to the capacious embrace of a fiction that truly enters the banal and the heavenly, that forges for itself keys, that becomes a Begriffsroman, that feels the looming presence of the forest at the birth of l’esprit geometrique and the long retreat of the woods – not the retreat of the gods, so much as their revolution – during Fontenelle’s long, long life.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

La Belle et La Bête

As Sophie Allera points out in her excellent casebook on La Belle et La Bête, editorial scrupulousness has never been a priority among those who publish fairy tales or other matter intended for children. And thus small changes percolate, coming up from under the surface like bubbles in a child’s fizzy drink, evolving new words from misprints, upsetting the rattletrap apparatus of punctuation, and of course suffering from the heavy hand of what is tellable to children and what is not, a set of norms that has changed even in my time. Thus, the story that appeared in La Magasin des enfants in 1756, an apparent transformation, itself, of the beast of the 300 some page baroque novel by Madame de Villeneuve, is not only about metamophosis (and it is in shapeshifting that one encounters at least one of the gods, as I pointed out in my last post), but is its product. What would Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont (who has so disappeared to history, until recently, that you can read accounts in which she is airily described as an aristocrat) have thought about all this? There was an older view of LePrince de Beaumont in which she figured as nearly protestant – after all, Rouen, where she was born, was a stronghold of Jansenism, and she did move to England after annulling her marriage to her husband, a supposedly notorious libertine. She was known in her time for her indefatigable pen – and though, as Restif de la Bretonne pointed out, Voltaire borrowed from La Belle for the ‘denouement d’un de ses plus agreeable ouvrages’ (Le Taureau Blanc), his remarks about her are typically dismissive – he wrote of “one Madame de Beaumont-le-prince who makes a type of catechism for you ladies”.

My last post presented a case for Hermes as the god that Calasso neglects in his mention of the forgetting of the gods in 18th century France, and for dilating a bit on the paradox of the introduction, at the same time, of the modern and the fairy tale, a theme I return to from time to time. Allera writes: “This book proposes simply to show that, as obscurely distant as are the sources of La Belle et la Bête, it was a tale of the Enlightenment, of which the properly literary fortune begin in France under Louis XV, when it knew many printed versions that placed it at the center of aesthetic debates.”

In her comments to my last post, Amie pretty much said what I am going to say here. However, this is Sunday morning, when “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” are allowed – as well as, I suppose, complacencies in the reading of la Belle et la Bête. Take not away my redundancies! For surely, in an easy entretien, they are no crime.

I’ve read somewhere – was it in Barthes? That the eighteenth century was the last time that a writer could put pen to paper and placidly expect to write well. This may be more nostalgic than true – it is certain that the eighteenth century produced enough dull sermons that if you plunged into them, the splendor of the dying l’age classique might seem a bit rusty. However, it is certainly true that Leprince de Beaumont’s story is so beautifully written, in a sort of sweep, that one is hardly aware of it at all. I’ve thought about this even more since watching Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête – which also has a mythic sweep, even though, at every moment, one is aware of Cocteau. In a sense, though - to give Calasso credit – there is a higher awareness of myth as myth in the high modernism of the twentieth century. The ethnography of the last hundred years has been absorbed by the artist. There is a moment of pure plot in the Beaumont version after the merchant has been condemned to death by the beast for stealing a rose (with that marvelous piece of dialogue, that Cocteau retains, in which the beast, responding to the merchant’s plea of monseigneur, pardon me, cries, I am not monseigneur, I am the Beast; I don’t like compliments. Cocteau has the beast repeat this as the merchant forgets himself and calls him monseigneur again – and this, against the background of the beasts of the twentieth century, and so much vain pleading in the prisons of the GPU and the Gestapo, makes absolute sense) – yes, anyway, after that terrific scene, Beaumont backtracks:

“The good man did not plan to sacrifice one of his daughters to this vile beast, but he thought, at least, I will have the pleasure of embracing them one more time. He thus swore to return, and the beast told him he could leave when he wished: but he added, I don’t want you to return home emptyhanded. Return to the room in which you slept, you will find a great empty strongbox, you can put as much as you want into it, I’ll have it brought to you.”

This is an essential plot point – for that strongbox contains the fortune that redeems the merchant and his bad daughters. But Cocteau – as I say, more mythic in this instance - annuls this moment. Rather, the merchant is ordered to depart immediately. And not having any wealth, his daughters do not marry a beautiful man and a man full of esprit – the negative complements of the Beast.

Beaumont’s narrative, here, reaches out to the novel and conte – it is indeed a fairy tale of Enlightenment. Belle, for instance, is a reader – and unlike the prudish Furies of respectability who will later seed fairy tales with sad encouragements to female piety and stupidity by warning girls away from reading, Belle is given to us as a girl who is all the better for her reading. This attaches our story, by that most Marchen-like of bonds, the invisible thread, to Beaumont. According to her biographer, Genevieve Artigas-Menant, in the first issue of the journal that Beaumont edited from London, she commented on herself:

In 1750, at 39, having lived in London for two years, this French woman of Rouen published a monthly journal of forty pages from the printing house of François Changuion, Juvenal’s head, near Fountain Court in the Strand. The announcement that opened the first number in January exhibited a humorous portrait of the “author female” who confesses that she would rather “write a book, including the preface, and even, if it comes to that, a dedicatory epistle, than place a ribbon”, adding: It is my decided incapacity for that sublime science which forced me to go out and find less elevated occupations.”

Already the humorous inflection, which betrays the negative impress of respectability and all its demonic voices, voices more powerful than the beast. Surely Beaumont is in the lineage that extends to Jane Austin and beyond.

But one last remark about the Cocteau version of Beaumont’s story. While in Beaumont, the beast’s animal nature is reflected by the sigh, the rending sigh he gives each time he asks for Belle’s hand, and is refused, the two hundred years that had passed had brought about an understanding of the genius of details. Cocteau takes the animal and gives him animal traits – and it is here that, I must admit, the movie is superior. When the Beast laps up water, and goes on all fours loping across the field – here myth and detail, myth and rationality, are joined. Not for Cocteau a beast who can hoist a glass of wine.

But both versions join together in the end. When the Beast is transformed into a prince, in Beaumont’s tale – as Cocteau notes in his diary of the movie – Belle, for a second, looks around for the beast. It is the beast she has learned to ‘estime’, not this prince. Belle, to the end, is a woman of the soundest instincts.

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...