Saturday, June 18, 2011

The origin of the new, the origin of the writer

In the preface to his Characters, La Bruyère advises the reader to always keep his title in mind when reading the work. The title (Les Caracteres ou les moeurs de ce siècle) is, as it were, a monitory ghost that haunts every line of the text.

What can we say about that ghost? Firstly, that we are not dealing with character, but with characters. The plural is significant. As we have seen in tracing the etymology and use of character in rhetoric, there is a divergence between character as a stamp on the psyche and the character mask, or the proliferation of many characters. The former is the ground of moral seriousness, and a perpetual reference for the orator or politician; the latter is the ground of farce, and a continual reference for the satirist or dramatist. Secondly, there is that substituting ‘or’. The or here does not give us a disjunction so much as a renaming. La Bruyère’s characters, between them, embody the ‘manners’ of ‘this century’. That distinctive ‘this” roots the book entirely in its time. And yet, it contains no conjectural history. This is not a project like Voltaire’s essay on the Moeurs et les esprits des nations, or Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois. The century, a diachronic reference, is, in fact, made into a synchronic entity, a sort of horizontal stage upon which the characters appear. At the same time, it has another connotation characteristic of moralizing satire – this century is always a fallen time, in comparison to some other time. La Bruyère was one of the partisans of the ancients in the quarrel between the moderns and the ancients, and the silent partner to which ‘this’ century is compared is antiquity, or – most probably – the ideal time of Rome.

And so the title, that monitory spirit, is a framing, within which, firstly, a number of characters are assembled and their traits enumerated, and secondly, within which a historico-mythic claim is made.

That claim is made on behalf of the whole project. La Bruyère, in his preface, consciously locates himself with relation to the moralist tradition. “These are not, besides, maxims that I wanted to write: they are like the laws of morality; and I admit that I don’t have enough authority, enough genius, to play [faire] the legislator.”

But if La Bruyère calls attention himself to his violation of the maxim form, he still sees what he is doing within the general pattern of the orator or public man. That is, he sees his writing, and in fact all true writing, as an attempt to instruct and correct: “The orator and the writer can’t defeat the joy that they have in being applauded; but they ought to blush at themselves if they have only sought, by their discourses or by the writing, to be praised: in addition to the fact that the most sure and the least equivocal is the change of manners and the reformation of those who read or listen to them.” [2 – my translations]

La Bruyère is blindly groping towards the function of the writer, here. It is a tatonnement which goes on to the present day. The writer or orator has a function different from the poet or the philosopher, but what is it? It is here that the Theophrastian tradition of the character seems to come in handy, for it mixes the delight in description with the principle of correction – based on the idea that the writer who holds up a mirror to vice reveals it to the infected person, who can then reform him or herself. It is a peculiarity of La Bruyère’s static mind set to see vice, or the obsessions which mark and distinguish character, as a set that is established in antiquity, and can be applied to this century. But beneath La Bruyère’s sense of the legitimacy conferred by antiquity, there is a strong sense of the contemporaneity of what he is describing. A good example is precisely the character of the writer. In a famous passage in the chapter on Society and conversation, La Bruyère presents a furious attack on the emancipated writer, the modern. Under the name Cydias, he portrays, it is generally agreed, Fontenelle. The energy of the dislike for this kind of writer will not be lost on those, in the eighteenth century, who again and again attack the philosophe. Even at this stage of the early ‘enlightenment’, one sees the motifs of the counter-enlightenment gather.

Cydias is a “bel esprit’ by profession. “He has a sign, a workshop, commissioned works, companions who work under him: he can give you the stanzas he promised you in less than a month… Prose, verse, what do you want? He succeeds equally in either one. Ask him for letters of consolation, or to send to someone absent, he’ll undertake the task. You can take them already completed, enter his shop, you have your choice. He has a friend who has no other task on earth than to promise him at a long date before to a certain world, and to present him in the salons as a rare man with exquisite conversational talents. … Cydias, after clearing his throat, rolls up his sleeves, extends his hand and opens his fingers and gravely pours out his quintessentialized thoughts and his sophistical arguments. … for be it in speaking or in writing, he has in view neither the true nor the false, neither the reasonable nor the ridiculous; his sole goal is to avoid presenting himself in the sense of others, and to be of somebody else’s opinion.”

In other words, the modern writer, or bel esprit, is a manufactures and prides himself on being always new. To novelty, everything is sacrificed. Such is Cydias’ – and Fontenelle’s – modernity. To sum up: “In a word he is a composite of the pedant and the precious, made for being admired by the bourgoisie and in the provinces, in whom, nevertheless, one can discover nothing of greatness save for his great opinion of himself.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

instinctive manicheanism

One is always having to remind oneself, in trying to do intellectual history, that the enunciative situation of a writer, from whence flow the texts one is continually pursuing, analyzing, using as evidence, is no mere scene dressing which easily melts in the background as we get down to the nitty gritty. It is nitty gritty all the way through. The enunciative situation is a nexus of institutionalized and non-institutionalized spaces that one forgets at one’s peril.

But even if we do try to be good historical materialists, there awaits the peril inhering in assuming a few Manichean categories to explain it all: public/private, or state sphere/private sphere, etc. I want to introduce categories as character, adventure, the total social fact, the encircling institution, the circulation agent, the writer as clerk, to snatch the real – or perhaps I should say, the everyday - from out of our instinctive Manicheanism.

Monday, June 13, 2011

dogs all the way down

Who let the dogs out?

Reading this post from Andrew Gelman, I was reminded of certain of Chamfort’s anecdotes about ancien regime society in France. For instance, this one:

“Do you know why, M. said to me, one has more integrity in France in one’s youth and just up to thirty years than past that age? It is because, after that age with us, one is undeceived – for with us one must be the hammer or the anvil; one sees clearly that the vices under which the nation trembles are irremediable. Up to then, one resembled a dog which defends the dinner of its master from the other dogs; after that age, one is like that same dog, who takes his part with the others.”

This has the stamp of the cynicism characteristic of the end of the regime. But at the end of our regime, the old democracies, giving way rapidly to plutocracies of the vilest type, one has to amend the fable, for the guard dogs in the American republic, incredibly enough, simply switch from defending the master to defending the pack of dog thieves. Their reward is to think that they are somehow, by being dogs, like the dog thieves.

Of course, they are encouraged in this belief by a rather rotten, financial unstable, but still necessary print propaganda machine. Time Magazine, through thick and thin, has assured us that the pack of dogs are the finest fellows in the world, all sprung from log cabins and making their millions by the sweat of their brows. Thus, as Gelman quotes a story in Time assuring us credulous outsider dogs who hold the mag in our earnest little paws that the top layer is made up of smarties and the most industrious:

“[Sam] Lessin is the poster boy for today's Times story on Facebook "talent acquisitions." Facebook spent several million dollars to buy Lessin's, only to shut it down and put Lessin to work on internal projects. To the Times, Lessin is an example of how "the best talent" fetches tons of money these days. "Engineers are worth half a million to one million," a Facebook executive told the paper.”

Gelman provides this gentle little corrective:

We'll let you in on a few things the Times left out: Lessin is not an engineer, but a Harvard social studies major and a former Bain consultant. His file-sharing startup was an also-ran competitor to the much more popular Dropbox, and was funded by a chum from Lessin's very rich childhood. Lessin's wealthy investment banker dad provided Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg crucial access to venture capitalists in Facebook's early days. And Lessin had made a habit of wining and dining with Facebook executives for years before he finally scored a deal, including at a famous party he threw at his father's vacation home in Cyprus with girlfriend and Wall Street Journal tech reporter Jessica Vascellaro. (Lessin is well connected in media, too.) . .
It is almost Horatio Alger time in Bush-Obama America – you too can rise from the bottom if you only manage to get the keys to your dad’s vacation home in Cyprus!
However, as in ancien regime France, where Chamfort felt the undercurrents and eventually transformed himself from a disabused observer of the nobility to a very fine revolutionary writer proposing their at least collective decapitation, in ancien regime America one feels that the currents underneath are gathering against the plutocratic orgy at the top. There was a remarkable Gallup poll released a couple of weeks ago and touted by the right that showed that only 47 percent of the American people supported heavy taxation of the rich to produce an unspecified ‘redistribution’ of the wealth. I was astonished – almost half the country would support the most radical measure I can think of. Specify that ‘redistribution’ – say, instead, heavy taxes for ‘deficit reduction’ – and the numbers go way up. Pew shows that more than 40 percent of the Republicans support that. In spite of the money poured into position management (the news networks, the think tanks, the media in general), the screws are shaking loose of the machine.
Such moments are unpredictable. In 2008, the electorate thought that they were voting for change from one or the other candidate. Instead, they were voting for the continuity of Bush’s policies, with a little Romneycare thrown in for good measure – a policy that is in many ways less helpful than Bush’s much more expensive pill bill. A Republican treasury secretary and a Republican Defense secretary have been the pillars of our ‘bi-partisan’ policy. A Republican Fed chief can look back with satisfaction on a policy of loaning over 6 trillion dollars to the wealthiest Americans at 0.025 percent interest (a fact I enjoy pondering so much that I would like to include it in everything I write to the day I die) and leveraging a stock boom and a commodity futures greedorama. Which act was disguised behind TARP, so that comparatively few Americans realize how TARP was dwarfed by the free money policy. And those who do realize it are assured, in infinitely patronizing tones, that the Fed and the Obama administration only took the painful course of making the rich much, much richer because it was good for all of us – otherwise, it is laissez faire all the way!
The dogs, with their Cyprus summer homes and their Harvard pedigrees, will fight for the gigantic scraps of an economy that is still a world historical wonder for a while, while the middle class squabbles because some among them, after working twenty to forty years as public employees, actually get the pensions they were promised twenty to forty years ago. Unfair! It is squabbling dogs all the way down. But I’m thinking some of the dogs are suspecting there is no master at the table, and that the top dogs are, well, weaker than they look. Oh, let that moment come!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

morning reflections on Gwinnett County

There are cities that are written into life – I was just living in one of the most extraordinary of them, Paris. Natalia Ginzburg once remarked that Turin and Pavese were one – that walking in the city that always smelled of soot and train stations was, in a sense, walking in Pavese’s state of mind.

In Atlanta, they are celebrating the 75th year of Gone with the Wind, but it is impossible to think of Margaret Mitchell when strolling through downtown Atlanta – although it is a different story perhaps with Buckhead, with its fad for white columns. In Gwinnett County, where I write this, there is no organizing principle. Forget a novelist or poet – this expanse of land lacks even a defining mapmaker. Housing developments, shopping centers and roads that name themselves after already existing roads and under false premises wander impudently into necks of the cut down woods are the norm, here. So are churches. Chaos, it turns out, is imminently Christian. Gwinnett County is the kind of place that counters the “Jimmy Carter” bestowed as an honorific on this or that piece of Georgia roadway (for the logical reason that Carter is Georgia’s one and only president) with a Ronald Reagan Highway, which then generates a plethora of Presidential shopping centers. To write Gwinnett county, the poet requires a large magic marker, and a tank full of gas in his Cherokee.

There is something odd about all this, or so I am thinking this morning. When the New World was new to the old World settler, that settler brought not only his pair of eyes but his names and promptly set to work – first with his “New”, then with the names he thought he heard coming out of the mouths of the people who were already here. But it is difficult to learn a man’s language as you are shoving him forward with blows from a blunderbuss, so the Indian words were hit or miss, a very distant approximation of the songlines that once ran in the wilderness. Gwinnett, that odd looking word, came not from some Welsh savage but from Button Gwinnett, Georgia’s signer of the Declaration. According to his biographer, William Montgomery, Button Gwinnett’s name was a fake. Button was probably Bolton, and we have simply misread his signature. As for Gwinnett, his assiduous researches – at least in 1913 – turned up no Gwinnett in England. Interestingly, it turned up a character named Gwinnett, who figures in a text by Richard Steele. As for where he hailed from – it was certainly not the territory I can see out my window. As Montgomery found, Button Gwinnett’s property is as shaky as his name – did he first appear in Charleston as a merchant in the 1770s? Or was it Savannah? Did he own property on St. Catherine’s island? The man came out of the mist. The man came out of the Transatlantic mangle, he came out of pirates and imposters, he came out of the Age of Reason and was the second signer of the Declaration of Independence, but with his ridiculous paucity of credentials, he would never have been issued a license by the Georgia Department of Drivers Services in Gwinnett County, and his signature would surely never have graced a single legal document in our age of infinitely backed up legal documents. The lady at the counter in Lawrenceville would have told him, firmly, that he had to go over his checklist and find at least a paystub. And to top it all off, Gwinnett found a way to die of a gunshot wound in the Revolution without firing a shot at the British – he died in a duel with another Georgia politcian.

I find this lost soul, by one of the iron laws of cartographic poetry, the perfectly appropriate symbol of this county.

Southern California Death Trip

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