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Showing posts from June 12, 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

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.

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

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 pla