Saturday, June 11, 2011

From the files of the autocracy: the philosopher behind the curtain

We have an account of La Bruyère from a contemporary enemy named Vigneul-Marville. V-M took the term “characters” as an apposite plural for La Bruyère’s, who he portrays as having several. The transition from singular to plural, here, is the transition from the morally sound (or the comically obsessed) to the imposter – for it is at this point that the incision of character, its stamp on the body or the psyche, is, as it were, lifted off the counter, and becomes a mask. There is something contagious about the character mask – for instance, even as Vigneul-Marville wrote acidly about La Bruyère’s, he was writing under a pseudonym – his real name was Noël Argonne. In his Melanges, Vigneul-Marville compares La Bruyère to a succession of the great characters of the classical age – to Don Quixote, Socrates, and the Misanthrope. Each is considered from the comic point of view – that is, each is considered an imposture, a usurpation of tone. However, even among these attacks we come upon an anecdote in the Melange that has a certain clarifying Daoist simplicity, one that gives us a clue about La Bruyère and the way that the clerks have always betrayed the Great Tradition of which they are the ornament and reference – for surely La Bruyère must count among the clerks of literature who form a secret Daoist strain in the West. The features of this oppositional, skeptical character form in the absolutist bureaucracies, and of course suffer a great change within the bureaucracies of capitalist circulation, but the knowing listener can hear a distinct note – the kind of pitch struck by Josephine, the Singer of the Mouse Folk – even back in 1680.

This is Vigneul-Marville’s anecdote. At one point in his life, La Bruyère lived in a cramped apartment facing the Ile St. Louis, on the left bank. , as an evidence for, indeed, the manners of the century.
“Nothing is prettier than this character [that of the philosopher], but it must be admitted that without the interposition of an antichamber or cabinet, it was pretty easy to introduce oneself to M. de la Bruyere, before he had an apartment at the Hotel de …. There was only one door to open, and a room close to the sky, separated into two parts by a light curtain. The wind, always a good servant to Philosophers, which ran before of those who entered and returned with the movement of the door, delicately lifted the curtain and let one see the Philosopher, the laughing visage well content to have occasion to distill the elixer of his meditations in the minds and heart of his unexpected guest.”

For Vigneul-Marville, this is the scene of a mock oracle: the lifted curtain, the laughing visage of the philosopher, the gawking admirer. And of course he was writing in the era when, as Fontenelle had explained, the oracles were dead.

But it is a mistake to cut that anecdote out and impose it on the blank counter of our narrative as though it had a face value. For the man behind the curtain was more than the imposter of his enemy’s venom. He was, for instance, a functionary. The son of a Parisian bourgeois, La Bruyère, by education, was destined for the law. Apparently, however, he preferred not to. Instead, inheriting a tidy sum from a deceased bachelor uncle, he purchased into the corrupt system that had developed under Colbert, buying, for 18,000 francs, the sinecure of ‘trésorier de France au bureau des finances de Caen.” This was one of the rotten posts that the Rouen merchant Boisguilbert, in one of the earliest treatises in political economics to distinguish use and exchange value, railed against as a system of robbery. The post was another of the endless rentseeking positions through which money was siphoned from the merchants, peasant and middle landholders to the French court. The treasurer was a sort of money-lender [J. Marchand] who loaned out money at interest to his subordinates, who then sponged the money from the productive class and transferred it up the line, taking out their cut. This was a position that allowed plenty of leisure time to the functionary who had no vocational sense of his function – and La Bruyère had even less sense than most: he made one trip to Caen and then retired to Paris forever, getting his remit in the mail from the Normand bureaucrats who seemed to have objected at first to this obvious malfeasance, and then accepted it to the point that they were surprised, when La Bruyère finally sold the post to somebody else, to have to encounter a real human being who actually moved to Caen in the course of their tax business. (Magne, 1913)

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

the will to powerlessness - a note

A number of forms of knowing crystallize around the notion of character in the early modern era. It is no exaggeration to say that character is at the base of the era’s human ‘sciences’ – Van Delft has called the moraliste discourse ‘the anthropology of the classic age’, and character was at the center of that discourse – but as the human sciences were not institutionalized as such, character traversed what we now separate, as for instance romance and political economy. Thomas Mann, in Magic Mountain, writes with regard to his character, Hans Castorp:

Man lives not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, also that of his epoch and his contemporaries, and even if he may observe the general and impersonal basis of his existence as unconditionally given and self-evident, and be very distant from the idea of criticizing it, as in reality the good Hans Castorp was, yet it is truly possible, that he feels his moral comfort vaguely impaired by its lack.” [My translation, p.58] In fact, Hans Castorp is inheriting the burden of the orator as he was characterized in Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory, which was written at some point before 100 A.D. Quintilian experienced in his own life the downfall of the first lineage of emperors – James Murphy, one of his commentators, claims he returned from Spain to Rome just in time to see the bloody transactions that put an end to the Julian emperors and started the new line, from Vespasien. He flattered Domitian, who instituted a cruel secret police state. And yet, he dreamed in his book of oratory of the civic man: “We are to form, then, the perfect orator, who cannot exist unless as a good man, and we require in him, therefore, not only consummate ability in speaking, but every excellence of mind. 10. For I cannot admit that the principles of moral and honorable conduct are, as some have thought, to be left to the philosophers; since the man who can duly sustain his character as a citizen, who is qualified for the management of public and private affairs, and who can govern communities by his counsels, settle them by means of laws, and improve them by judicial enactments, can certainly be nothing else but an orator. 11. Although I acknowledge, therefore, that I shall adopt some precepts which are contained in the writings of the philosophers, yet I shall maintain, with justice and truth, that they belong to my subject and have a peculiar relation to the art of oratory.” [Watson translation] The orator is, indeed, the contemporary – it is as a contemporary that he absorbs the traditions and moves onto the upper management jobs that run the state.

Yet, the contemporary in Quintilian’s day as well as Hans Castorp’s had to practice the critique of society from a rather precarious position. Already, in the Institutes, the critique is ossified. On the one hand, one forms a man whose opinions should count in the way society is run, and, on the other hand, society is being run on a system that will not stop to consult the good man. His will to power is continually undermined by his will to powerlessness – his tactic of never quite confronting the man, of which an extensive record is left in Western literature and philosophy, even beyond Nietzsche “Great Politics”,(perhaps the most ironic expression in modernity of the will to powerlessness).

Monday, June 06, 2011

La Bruyere's field research - a cautionary note

Van Delft is, I think, right to speak of the moraliste tradition as a sort of classical anthropology. I’m going to use this and other suggestions about Van Delft, but I’d like to note that, as is so often the case with historians of literature, one feels a lack of the feeling for the institutional location of such things as “anthropology” or ‘natural philosophy.” We are used to looking at the texts of the past and thinking that here we have an ‘epistemological field,” or a ‘tradition”, without thinking of the fact that it is a modern institutional characteristic to have combined such ‘research programs’ and education in locatable institutions. La Bruyere, acting as the historiographer of Louis XIV, engaged in one sort of research h activity, and as the writer of the Characters, engaged in another. In the latter, there was a sense – one feels it in the introduction to the characters – that the time for making maxims is passing. And yet of course there is no social science methodology readily available – outside of astrology, and the university courses that lead to the creation of the “civic man”.

But we should try to remember certain facts about education in the 17th century. For one thing, it was not an encircling institution – the government, for one thing, did not control it – rather, it was mostly a matter of the church – and for another thing, it was not connected with the vast capillary system that fell into place during the latter part of the 19th century in France and England, and that has always distinguished the United States as an enlightenment state – the states from the beginning took responsibility for education. For instance, in 1792, in Paris, a city with a population of 600,000 people, there were only 163 “regent” doctors, doctors who had gone through a full course of training, in the city. (Coury, 136) When La Bruyere went to school, he went ‘naturally”, as his biographer Etienne Allaire puts it, to a religious school, because ‘there was no other.” And just as naturally, he attached himself to a noble house – first, the Condé. Intellectual historians have a habit of speaking of, say, the rise of a ‘culture of sociability” by quoting people like La Bruyere or Addison or Lessing without pausing to ask how we are to analyse their claims – without even thinking about the kind of ‘field research’ they did. Partly this is because the very notion of ‘field research’ simply didn’t exist. In speaking of his book, La Bruyere gropes towards the authority that resides in the claims of the moraliste, but he never, of course, even considers statistics as applied to populations and the like – it wasn’t just that the sciences were not there, even the concept of populations wasn’t there. The forms weren’t there. Instead, the forms came out of a humanistic schooling that was prescribed for any educated person – doctors were trained in rhetoric as an essential element in their professional makeup. The remnants of this vast, blasted system lie across the landscape of academia today, for – as is my contention throughout – there is not and never will be a total ‘modernisation’ or a society of ‘rational’ institutions.

(I need to develop this more in The Tears of Homo Economicus)

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...