Saturday, April 07, 2012

a long ramble: the sage and the buffoon

The Buffoon and the Sage – edited version
(From a series of Bush era posts}
This  all goes back, for me, to the eighties, when I used to talk to my friend and prof, Kathleen Higgins, who was writing her first book, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. K.H. had become fascinated by ass fests, one of which is featured in the big Z, and was seeing large echoes in the text from Apuleius’ Golden Ass.

At the time, I didn’t grasp the import of this. Only lately have I begun to connect what she was telling me with my sense of the-muse like power of the ludicrous – which has always operated like the Air Loom gang on the broken winged crow who speaks to you here.

However, I have forgotten (and can’t find the book this morning) whether K.H. mentions Bruno. Nuccio Ordine’s book, Giordano Bruno and the Philosophy of the Ass, was published after K.H.’s book – I do know that.

At the time that I was talking to her about Nietzsche, I was especially drawn – like Krazy Kat to Ignatz’s brick – to one particular moment in Nietzsche’s corpse-us – the beginning number of the Gay Science, in which he says this:

“To laugh at oneself, as one must laugh, in order to laugh out and out of the whole truth – up until now, even the best did not have enough probity, and the most talented had much too little genius! there is, perhaps, a future even for laughter! at that moment when the principle, “the type is everything, one is always none – gets assimilated into mankind and everybody then will always have access to this last liberation and irresponsibility. Perhaps then, laughter will have bonded with wisdom, perhaps then there will only be a “gay science.”

From what we know about Nietzsche, in his private life, he did have a peculiar sense of humor. The first time Franz Overbeck saw Nietzsche after the breakdown, he wrote that “I have seen Nietzsche in certain conditions where it seemed to me – a terrible thought! – that he was faking madness, as if he were glad that it had ended thus.” This, to me, implies that Nietzsche had, in his sane years, a very large appreciation of the practical joke and the dead pan – and would probably have liked Buster Keaton, if he had lived long enough to see the twenties films. In my private list of all stars, many similar jokers crop up – Kurt Tucholsky, Franz Kafka, Georg Grosz, etc. They all appreciated the cruel laughter at the cripple, sliced and diced into the cripple’s laughter at the ludicrous unconsciousness of the sound.

The buffoon and the ass keep turning up together, as though the deck of achetypes that lies, face down, under my electric prestidigitator’s fingers were a crooked pack.
According to Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradion, Apuleius, the author of the Golden Ass (that book of transmutations through which the transcendentally ludicrous is finally given shape and form by Psyche’s quest for Cupid) was, by the fourth century A.D., credited with the translation of the corpus of Hermes Trismegistus. These were the books that were supposedly written before Moses was a pup, and they were wildly popular in the Renaissance. Cosimo de Medici hired Ficino to translate the Greek Corpus Hermeticum in 1462, as the manuscript containing it had turned up by way of a traveling monk, Leonardo da Pistoia - instructing him to interrupt the Plato translation project, as the Corpus Hermeticum was urgent. Cosimo wanted to read the thing before he died. Such was its prestige, such is the greed for ‘secret’ knowledge. By the time of Bruno, a century later, the C.H. had lost something of its allure, vis a vis the regular scholarly world, but had continued to be central to the system of Renaissance magic, which operated in the hidey holes, intersecting, as secret knowledge always seems to, with intelligence agencies and diplomacy.
Bruno, of course, was interested in magic, as were members of Raleigh’s School of Night that he made the acquaintance of in his London sojourn. In the group picture of the founding fathers of the modern era, all lined up like Dutch masters, we usually have Bacon, Galileo and Descartes – Bruno is left out. And the reason that he is left out is that he was just too damned interested in that f-fuckin magic. Yet in reality – that promiscuous bitch, my darling - Bruno can’t be left out. He interests us in this post because, unlike that grave company, Bruno was a buffoon – a necessary joker, the philosopher-buffoon who keeps returning, in some dark orbit according to some dark cycle of its own, to put into disarray the white magic of Bacon, Galileo and Descartes. To throw a few boomerangs around, liven the joint up, and raise, if possible, everybody’s level of anxiety and hope, the two intricately counter-weighted against each other.
Dorothy Waley Singer’s life of Bruno includes this anecdote about Bruno’s childhood:
Bruno gives in his greatest Latin work, the De immenso, [4] a description of an episode in childhood, which made a deep impression on him. His home was in a hamlet just outside Nola, on the lower slopes of Cicada, a foot-hill of the Appenines some twenty miles east of Naples. [5] He tells with affectionate detail of the beauty and fertility of the land around, overlooked from afar by the seemingly stern bare steeps of Vesuvius. One day a suspicion of the deceptiveness of appearances dawned on the boy. Mount Cicada, he tells us, assured him that "brother Vesuvius" was no less beautiful and fertile. So, girding his loins, he climbed the opposite mountain. "Look now," said Brother Vesuvius, "look at Brother Cicada, dark and drear against the sky." The boy assured Vesuvius that such also was his appearance viewed from Cicada. "Thus did his parents [the two mountains] first teach the lad to doubt, and revealed to him how distance changes the face of things." So in after-life he interprets the experience and continues: "In whatever region of the globe I may be, I shall realize that both time and place are similarly distant from me."
I’m interested in the sage since I am at an age - middle age - a lying description because tomorrow, surely, or the next day, biking along, my backbone will be suddenly crushed in a blinding moment by a speeding truck driven by a hit and run drunk, I will see blackness, and then go down to the house of shades – when the sage should become important to me. And yet, to aspire to be a sage is such an obsolete and pathetic wish, the placeholder of that figure is so null and void in this culture, so completely disregarded, so much a joke moniker for some greyhaired keeper of baseball statistics or some fat brownnosing pundit oozing conventional wisdom and cancer, that it can only be a punch line ambition. (Well, so much for this culture, to which I give my middle finger). To my mind, the absence of the sage is not some natural event, but is all about that path through politics and history which the sage and the buffoon shared.

And having this obsession, I am naturally draw to Rameau’s nephew. For there the sage – moi – and the buffoon – lui – truly did meet. There are some odd and sinister things in that dialogue.

But here I’d like to diverge for the backstory, the strange history of this text. While Diderot seems to have started it in the early 1760s, and polished it intermittently up until the mid 1770s, there is no mention of this text in the correspondence. That isn’t like Mr. D. The first we hear about it is after Diderot’s death. Schiller has a copy of the ms., which he gives to Goethe to translate. Goethe translates the ms., and then carelessly tosses it away. How did Schiller get it? Rumor has it that it was given to him by a German officer who came into possession of it in St. Petersburgh. Meanwhile, there is no published French version. Finally one comes out, published by a press run by “Le Vicomte de Saur” and “Le Compte de Saint-Geniès”, who seem to have been like Huckleberry Finn’s Duke and Dauphin. Their version, which they claimed came from an original manuscript, obviously was translated from Goethe. A rival publisher, one Brière, decides to publish a real version, so he applies to Diderot’s daughter, who gives him a manuscript. He publishes it, and in the process loses the ms. There is a flurry of charges and countercharges between the two publishers, but in the end, it looks like we will have to settle for the Brière version – when one Georges Monval, apparently looking for spicy books, comes upon it in the box of a bookseller in 1891. Always remember that, for most people, Diderot is still the author of one of the great fuckbooks, Les Bijoux Indiscrets, about a magic ring that could make a woman’s pussy talk. Anyway, this is the official Rameau we now all read.

In that transit, Rameau had come to the attention of Hegel. Hegel does a good job of pissing around the work in the Phenomenology. As we know, Hegel was a world champion pisser – he marked, with his gargantuan pizzle, all of world history, for instance. We have all dutifully followed him into the pissoir of the system, but we will never quite manipulate an instrument like the Man’s – and nobody else will, either.
“No matter if the weather is fair or foul, it is my habit to talk a walk, at five in the evening, to the Palais-Royal.” This is how Diderot begins Rameau’s Nephew. With a walk.

For the sage, the regular walk is important. Kant, that indefatigable commenter on all things under the sun, noted the importance of the walk to the scholar in The Conflict of the Faculties under the heading: “On Pathological Feelings that Come from Thinking at Unsuitable Times”. “Thinking – whether in the form of study (reading books) or reflection (meditation and discovery) is a scholar’s food: and when he is wide awake and alone, he cannot live without it. But if he taxes his energy by occupying himself with a specific thought when he is eating or walking, he inflicts two tasks on himself at the same time – on the head and the stomach or on the head and the feet; and in the first place this brings on hypochondria, in the second, vertigo.” In a note, Kant distinguishes (Kant indefatiguably distinguishes – this guy is the very Prince of distinguishers) thinking from what should be occurring in the head of our non-multi-tasker during the walk: ‘When a man of studious habits goes for a walk alone, it is hard for him to refrain from entertaining himself with his own reflections. But if he engages in strenuous thinking during his walk, he will soon be exhausted, whereas if he gives himself over to the free play of imagination, the motion will refresh him – the reports of others whom I asked about this confirm my own experience. If in addition to thinking he also engages in conversation while he is walking, he will be even more fatigues, so that he will soon have to sit down to continue with his play of thought. The purpose of walking in the open air is precisely to keep one’s attention moving from one object to another and so to keep it from becoming fixed on any one object.” The Man in the Crowd might disagree with the prospect of health Kant holds out here, for it is precisely the habit of not becoming fixed on any one object, but on one after another, on the crowd itself, on a multiplication of objects, that has brought the man in Poe’s story down in the world – made him into a human fiend.

Diderot, on the other hand, is going off to the Palais-Royal, a section of Paris built up by the Regent, the Duc D’Orleans, containing shops, restaurants, and a garden. The theater of the Comedie Francaise was there – recently, Palissot’s play, Les Philosophes, which mocked, among others, Diderot, had been put on there – and Café de la Régence was located in the garden. There was a cannon in the garden, too, that was fired by means of the light focused by a large magnifying glass, to announce the hours – the kind of clever toy that delighted the enlightened soul. Mercier, in the Tableau of Paris, devotes a chapter to the Palais-Royal, which he claims is “precisely the spot which Plato would have assigned the captive, in order to retain him without a jailer, and without violence, by the voluntary chains of pleasure…” – which I believe is a distant reference to the myth of the cave. Mercier bemoans the fact that people walk in the Palais Royal when they could have much more philosophical walks in gardens of the Palace of Luxemberg – “Whilst the Palais Royal is crowded with courtesans and libertines, the Luxemburg presents a quiet philosophic walk, and is only frequented by honest citizens with their decent families.” No doubt, the Luxemburg would have been preferred by Kant – but this is the difference between Kant and the French philosophes.

The Café de la Régence, which is where Diderot ends up, meeting by chance the nephew of the famous musician, Rameau, was a famous spot for chess players. The greatest chess player of the time, Philador, played there. Paul Metzner, in his book, Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill and Self Promotion in Paris during the age of revolution devotes a chapter to the chess players of the Café de la Regence. The place was owned by a chess amateur, M. de Kermur, sire de Légal: “For countless years he sat in the same chair and wore the same green coat, taking large quantities of snuff and attracting a crowd with his equally brilliant conversation and combinations. He had already established his reputation as the best in France when Philidor first walked into the Regence in 1740, and he continued playing into the 1780s, his own eighties, without ever having to acknowledge a superior, although he lost at least one match.” Philidor learned how to play blindfold matches from Legal, although the latter did not often do this himself.

Hegel sets the stage for the entrance of the buffoon – as I am calling this figure – by giving us a history of the relationship between the state and the noble spirit, which is the spirit of “heroic” service: (this is the J.N. Findley translation).

“State-power has, therefore, still at this stage no will to oppose the advice, and does not decide between the different opinions as to what is universally the best. It is not yet governmental control, and on that account is in truth not yet real state-power. Individual self-existence, the possession of an individual will that is not yet qua will surrendered, is the inner secretly reserved spiritual principle of the various classes and stations, a spirit which keeps for its own behoof what suits itself best, in spite of its words about the universal best, and tends to make this clap-trap about what is universally the best a substitute for action bringing it about. The sacrifice of existence, which takes place in the case of service, is indeed complete when it goes so far as death. But the endurance of the danger of death which the individual survives, leaves him still a specific kind of existence, and hence a particular self-reference; and this makes the counsel imparted in the interests of the universally best ambiguous and open to suspicion; it really means, in point of fact, retaining the claim to a private opinion of his own, and a separate individual will as against the power of the state. Its relation to the latter is, therefore, still one of discordance; and it possesses the characteristic found in the case of the base type of consciousness — it is ever at the point of breaking out into rebellion.”

In our case, us in these here states, the individual, at least the individual as interviewee, both promotes the risk society and survives it pretty well - as indeed do the soldiers who are privileged to fight for the interviewee. In fact, the win win only breaks down on the margins, with the fought-for - the terrorized/terrorist masses. They are, however, not interviewees, and so have an ambiguous status. Heroic service has become properly commoditized, and thus a new form of reconciliation between state power and the noble spirit becomes possible: state power pretends to be two things, a self-abnegating force that only wants to diminish itself into small government with all its heart and soul, and a universal abstraction representing liberty that requires being able to build enough missiles and host enough armed servicemen to destroy vast tracts of the world – while nobility becomes a mere position filled in by a meritocracy that embodies clap-trap (Geschwätze), which has found a way to make every sacrifice turns into profit in its hands – a miracle much more impressive than the loaves and the fishes.

Hegel supposes that the noble self, defining itself by a mortal sacrifice and thereby preserving itself, is genealogically precedent to the alienation of the self that is the condition of the rise of state power:

“It comes thereby to be actually what it is implicitly — the identical unity of self with its opposed self. In this way, by the inner withdrawn and secret spiritual principle, the self as such, coming forward and abrogating itself, the state-power becomes ipso facto raised into a proper self of its own; without this estrangement of self the deeds of honour, the actions of the noble type of consciousness, and the counsels which its insight reveals, would continue to maintain the ambiguous character which, as we saw, kept that secret reserve of private intention and self-will, in spite of its overt pretensions.” In this way we come to language in the age of the self-divided self – and to Rameau’s nephew.

In Ashton’s The History of Gambling in England there is a piece of small history that Ivan Karamazov would call an allegory. Yes,  there is something about this story of drunken hanging that reminds me of the paired destiny of the buffoon and the sage, this thread that I have been following – into my own asshole, certain cruel readers might say. No – into even drier gulches of history than that.

"The Annual Register about this time supplies us with several gambling anecdotes, the following being almost incredible: 15th April, 1812 – “On Wednesday evening an extraordinary investigation took place at Bow Street. Croker, the officer, was passing along the Haampstead road, when he observed, at a short distance before him, two men on a wall, and , directly after, saw the tallest of them, a stout man, about six feet high, hanging by his neck, from a lamp post attached to the wall, being that instant tied up and turned off by the short man. This unexpected and extraordinary sight astonished the officer; he made up to the spot with all speed; and, just after he arrived there the tall man, who had been hanged, fell to the ground, the handkechief, with which he had been suspended, having given way. Croker produced his staff, said he was an officer, and demanded to know of the other man the cause of such conduct. In the meantime, the man who had been hanged recovered, got up, and, on Croker’s interfering, gave him a violent blow on the nose, which nearly knocked him backwards. The short man was endeavouring to make offl however, the officer procured assistance, and both were brout to the office, when the account they gave was that they worked on the canals. They had been together on Wednesday afternoon, tossed up for money, and afterwards for clothes; the tall man who was hanged,won the other’s jacket, trousers and shoes; they then tossed up which should hang the other, and the short one won the toss. They got upon the wall, the one to submit, and the other to hang him on the lamp iron. They both agreed to this statement. The tall one, who would have been hanged, said, if he had won the toss, he would have hanged the other. He said he then felt the effects of his hanging in the neck, and his eyes were so much swelled he saw double. The magistrates expressed their horror and disgust, and ordered the man who had been hanged to find bail for the violent and unjustifiable assault on the officer, and the short one for hanging the other. Not having bail, they were committed to Bridewell for trial.”

If the short man and the tall man weren’t named Estragon and Vladimir, fate missed a trick.

Surely it is odd that LI is railing, in these posts, against the buffoon, when this is the same LI that claims to be lead, as if by supernatural light of the muse of ludicrousness, through the shadow of the valley of the moronic inferno I call my own country, my life and times. However, what I want to know is why, of the sage and the buffoon, the moi and the lui of Rameau’s nephew, only the buffoon made it into the present – and how it came about that the sage has been so utterly throttled by circumstances. What was the toss about? What were the stakes? How did they meet (illmet) and how did they part (one alone)? So, these are the questions, which I’m laying out like a deck of cards in this game of solitaire.

The key to the conversation of Rameau’s nephew is shamelessness – that most dialectical of attitudes. Shamelessness not only assumes shame, but it also assumes innocence – but only as a supreme lie. The lie of innocence is embodied in the peculiar way in which Rameau’s nephew not only speaks, but pantomimes – as if word and act were indivisible, which is indeed how a child has to learn to speak. It is later that we ignore the act of the tongue. Yet the charm of the pantomime is fully intended – Rameau’s nephew is nothing if not intentional in all things, even as he is described as being self-contradictory and a ball of contradictions. Shamelessness has become his strategy – just as it is the strategy of Sade’s fuckers. Shamelessness, vanity and flattery are the circuit of acts and attitudes in which Rameau has his existence, and they collectively have a political value. One that is fairly new. The ideology of the old right, the legitimist or the Tory, is about tradition and order – but the new right, that represented by Rameau, is about provocation. What takes shape here is a foretaste of the system that dominates us now, the mixture of shamelessness and outrage by which we drift over the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and howl at, say, the nasty language of a television infotainment news guy.  To use the U.S. for one example – but the same thing happens in Italy, in France, in the U.K.

“Let’s be clear. There is simple ass kissing, and there is metaphorical ass kissing.” –Rameau.

The dialogue between Diderot and Rameau’s nephew seems, like a normal conversation, to touch on one thing and then another. The theme of it, though, keeps returning to Rameau – how he lives, and how he lives with himself. Rameau is a flatterer, a backbiter, a crook (escroc), a go-between, a lover of good food and riches. But he is also endowed with good taste, or at least steady, classical taste – he doesn’t delude himself about the quality of Voltaire’s work, but he does comfort himself with the badness of the worst of Voltaire's moral character. To illustrate his world, he tells several anecdotes. Now,the curious thing about these anecdotes is that they operate as a test. It gradually becomes clear that there is a competition, a game, going on between Diderot, the moi in the dialogue, and Rameau, the lui.

What is this game?

It is a test we all go through as kids: the test of disgust. The test, as it happens on the playground, consists of being told something disgusting, or being the witness of something disgusting, and not giving vent to any sentiment, any shrinking, any shame. LI is not, by the way, trying to disparage this particular sequence of our common education. There is something that pisses me off about people who are too particular, too grossed out about blood and shit and the whole general stink of life – the full diaper, the squashed cockroach.

So let's not load the dice. I have zigzagged against the buffoon, but this swerve should be seen within a dialectical history of the disappearance of the sage. Look at this as a plea for the counterbalance, as well as an indictment for social murder.

Perhaps there is something in this playground test that is particularly male – although I’m cautious about this kind of gender generalization. In William Miller’s anatomy of disgust, he quotes the case of the wild boy of Aveyron, reported by Doctor Itard: ‘The well documented early nineteenth century wild boy of Aveyron had no sense of pure and impure, was extraordinarily filthy, was not “toilet trained”, and clearly disgusted Jean Itard, the doctor who supervised him and to whom we owe our knowledge of the case. Itard’s evidence, however, is not without some problems. Although the boy would sniff like an animal at everything no matter how malodorous, he would not eat everything. “A dead canary was given him, and in an instant he stripped off its feathers, great and small, tore it open with his nails, smelt it, and threw it away” The boy was not exactly omnivorous. He was initially willing to eat a canary, but this particular canary had an unappetizing odor. Certain odors might indeed have disgusted him, although his aversion might have been more simply constituted, that is, it might have given rise to no thoughts of contamination and pollution. We would surely like to know how he felt about his hands after discarding the bird.” Contamination [Ansteckung] is, in fact, the word Hegel uses to speak of one moment in the struggle of Enlightenment – borne by an intelligence that is founded on universal principles, and yet confronts, as an individual, the belief of the masses – as it carries out its social strategy of stripping belief from its supports: “The communication of the pure intelligence [Einsicht – understanding] is thus comparable to that of a scent in an unresisting atmosphere. It is a penetrating contamination, which does nothing at first to call attention to itself against the indifferent element, in which it insinuates itself, and thus cannot be guarded against. Only when the contamination has spread is it something for the consciousness, that had carelessly permitted it.”

Thus, in one sense the Nephew of Rameau recapitulates a primal, playground scene, the moment in which shame and shamelessness engage in a ritual contest. However, there are limits to a test that is so structured that victory must go to the shameless. These limits are embodied in the moment that the surrounding silence, the spectatorial silence, the silence of accommodation, is broken. The ‘consciousness’ – which in this passage in Hegel is embodied in the institutions of the state, the church, and the third power of the bourgeoisie – finally reacts. In so reacting, they claim dominion over shame itself. But the Café de la Regence lies, for a moment, outside of those institutions. While the pure intelligence of chess (a use of virtuosity about which Diderot was doubtful) is being played around our pair, the game of shamelessness procedes without witnesses, so to speak, allowing Rameau to bare not only himself, but the shamemaking institutions themselves, and the political strategy they have taken against the ‘contamination’ of the enlightenment philosophes. This is the beginning of a wobble – that wobble which, in the history of the pairing of the buffoon and the sage, will eventually turn the buffoon against the sage and, at the same time, seem to ordain the sage’s place for the buffoon. Diderot represents both himself as the philosophe, being half jokingly led through this trial (and getting in his own strokes as well) and the common sense, the massed, silent witness, which is the aftermath that supposedly belongs to the writer – although the trajectory of the manuscript of the Nephew of Rameau provides an ironic commentary on that writerly certainty. As Jacques D. once wrote, in an essay on Poe’s Purloined Letter, another story about the competition between shame and shamelessness – about provocation as an instrument of power - "a letter can always not arrive at its destination".

Wednesday, April 04, 2012


Doing research on early twentieth century newspapers, I came across a feuilleton in the Figaro from one of the most famous fin de siecle reporters, Jules Huret. Huret is known today by a few specialists for the fact that he practically invented the scenography of the interview with the artist (Royer, 1986); his subjects included Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Sarah Bernhardt, Giusseppi Verdi, and Kipling, among others – a veritable who’s who of the fin de siecle’s bright lights. In 1909, he made one of his innumerable reporting trips, this time to Germany, and wrote a series about the place for his newspaper.

What attracted my attention was his visit to the pencil factory.

Huret was obviously keen to share with his French audience his impression of the transformation of the German economy from one of small ateliers to large industrial complexes. Getting to Nuremburg, he discovered that the town contained 23 pencil factories. He decided to visit the most famous of them: Johan Faber’s.

“The Faber factory counts 1,000 workers. Almost everything is made, naturally, by machine. Under a vast hangar crowned by six lightning rods, a mountain of cedar logs are left to dry, as big around as one hundred year old oak, entire linden trees, and Swedish birch; and piles of small planks which are distributed on cutting blocks. An exquisitely balsamic odor emanates from the cedar wood. One breathes, everywhere, the perfume of the sawdust. All the buildings are covered with red ash. Nothing other than the powder of cedar, the house receives in its atelier nearly 15,000 kilograms each year. This dust is resold to the makers of etheric oils, to perfumers who exploit it for the mixtures of various perfumes. Under the hangar, the cedar reserve alone amounts to 2 million.

Powerful American saws work on the enormous coniferous trunks. Sometimes, dramatic surprises happen to the workers; great snakes are discovered in the crevices of the trees where they have taken refuge and sleep; scorpions and rare insects are daily taken from the tropical forests.

The cedar is a wood which grows quickly and is quite humid. This is why is it easy to work with. Those of Ceylon and Australia, too hard, are worthless for pencils.  Here, they prefer the ones from California. It has been tried to transplant them to Germany, but they don’t develop and turn out too hard.
How pretty a new pencil is, red and glistening! When I was small, I took a sensual pleasure in touching them, in sniffing them, in sharpening them, in biting and chewing on them. Today, still, the idea that I could someday run short of pencils vaguely discomforts me, and I always have some in reserve. And here they are by the thousands, or what am I saying, by the millions! One makes 15,000 packets daily, here, which is 2 million, 160,000. My joy is great and I am tranquilised.

I never asked myself how they make pencils. This is how: flat small planks of dry or tender wood pass under shaping machines that, in one blow, round them up on one side like chocolate bars and on the other drill out a series of small gullies, six per plank, so that two of those planks juxtaposed, after one has inserted in the gully a small stick of lead mixed with a strong glue, makes six pencils which are then separated by the help of another machine. It then remains only to polish them, to color them, varnish them, and stamp them with the brand name of the factory. All this is done by very specialized machines, save for the gilding of the stamp, which demands female hands. The pure gold which serves for the stamps mounts to about 40,000 francs per year, without counting the copper and aluminum which serves for the inferior quality.
I saw there all kinds of pencils and pens imaginable. They even make special pencils for surgeons, who draw on the skin, and others that can write on glass and even on metal.

Certain pencils are so hard that they hardly erode at all, They are worth 50 to 60 centimes. There are 15 degrees of hardness. The softest are destined for Russia, which only uses these.”

Indeed, Huret’s description took me to Russia, and to one Russian in particular: Vladimir Nabokov. In what I’d call Nabokov’s most beautiful book, Speak Memory, he gives a special notice to a Faber Pencil in the very first chapter. This one came from Treuman’s, a shop which is described all at once on page in a telescoping parenthesis of passerby’s prose:  “(writing implements, bronze baubles, playing cards)”. The Pencil is, originally, part of a fever dream – and if the society from which the dollop of the dream descends is meant to remind us of  Nabokov’s ultra-rich childhood home, worthy of mention in a Figaro article and, indeed, competitive with Proust’s childhood, the fever of that dream points us in the direction of Nabokov’s antithesis, his Dr. Moriarity – Dostoevsky – whose characters tend to come down with fevers so often that his collected works could be considered something like an epidemic.  Sick, dreaming of his mother, Nabokov – an infant in this chapter - sees her in a waking dream pick up a wrapped package from Treuman’s, sees her footman carrying the package (“which looked to me like a pencil”), is astonished that “she did not carry so small an object herself”, and then sees her in person, entering his room:

“In her arms she held a big parcel. It had been, in my vision, greatly reduced in size—perhaps, because I subliminally corrected what logic warned me might still be the dreaded remnants of delirium’s dilating world. Now the object proved to be a giant polygonal Faber pencil, four feet long and correspondingly thick. It had been hanging as a showpiece in the shop’s window, and she presumed I had coveted it, as I coveted all things that were not quite purchasable. The shopman had been obliged to ring up an agent, a “Doctor” Libner (as if the transaction possessed indeed some pathological import). For an awful moment, I wondered whether the point was made of real graphite. It was. And some years later I satisfied myself, by drilling a hole in the side, that the lead went right through the whole length—a perfect case of art for art’s sake on the part of Faber and Dr. Libner since the pencil was far too big for use and, indeed, was not meant to be used.” 

The pencil, which inverses the proportions of sickness and health (shrunk in the hallucination to normal size, and enlarged in reality to an hallucinatory extent) is as much the symbol of Russian art as the cracked servant’s looking glass into which Buck Mulligan was gazing around the time the pencil was purchased was, per Stephen Daedus, the symbol of Irish art. In fact, it was an era, this turn of the century, in search of symbols of art. Just as Huret is fascinated by something ultra about the making of the pencil –something that brought the artisan’s craft ethos to the factory, something so satisfactory about the fit of the lead to the pencil, those small, grooved gutters, that sawdust that coats the factory walls, that odor of cedar – so, too, Nabokov is pleased by that touch of the unnecessary – the pencil in the giant display pencil – which is a case of art for art’s sake sprung from industry.

And what is that art? It is not the art of fevers, but of specificity. In Nabokov’s lecture on Dostoevsky, he approaches Notes from the Underground (a ‘stupid” translation of the title, N. preferred notes from a mousehole), by noting that the mouseman’s book is composed entirely of soliloquies in front of a phantom audience (which is a form, incidentally, pinched for Lolita). And he writes, with evident disapproval:

Throughout this part the mouseman, the narrator, keeps turning to an audience of persons who seem to be amateur philosophers, newspaper readers, and what he calls normal people. These ghostly gentlemen are supposed to be jeering at him, while he is supposed to thwart their mockery and denunciations by the
shifts, the doubling back, and various other tricks of his supposedly remarkable intellect. This imaginary audience helps to keep the ball of his hysterical inquiry rolling, an inquiry into the state of his own crumbling soul. It will be noticed that  references are made to topical events of the day in the middle of the 1860s. The topicality, however, is vague and has no structural power. Tolstoy uses newspapers too—but he does this with marvelous art when, for example, in the beginning off Anna Karenin he not only characterizes Oblonski by the kind of information Oblonski likes to follow in the morning paper but also fixes with delightful historical or pseudo-historical precision a certain point in space and time. In Dostoevski we have generalities substituted for specific traits.”

The last sentence is supposed to come down with crushing force on poor Dostoevsky, much as a the rubber of the eraser attached to American pencils comes down on the false word or phrase and rubs it away, transforming sense- or nonsense –into a pile of dirty pink crumbs.

Pencils are not only writing instruments, they are the writing instruments of childhood. Huret’s description of sniffing and chewing on pencils must have reminded his readers – as it reminded me – of the tooth gashes one would leave in the pencil that one played with as the teacher talked in the front of class, little secret crescents – or the crescents left in the wood by pressing one’s fingernail into it. Nabokov’s big pencil is both in continuity with the childhood culture of the pencil and, well, bigger – although drilling into the pencil is, after all, the ultimate child’s gesture, even if Nabokov struck art at the end of his drilling.

Finally, reading Huret’s account today, one thinks, as well, of the tremendous maw of human desire into which so many trees have disappeared. And the dust, the perfume that enchanted Huret – is the same dust that, breathed in by those workers, day and night, doomed a percentage of them to silicosis – a fact that Ludwig Hirt, a German doctor, had already documented in the 1870s. Huret finishes his up his tour of the pencil factories by going to a graphite factory and watching the pencil leads being manufactured. He exits, covered in black soot. It doesn’t occur to him that the soot he was covered in penetrates into the lungs – but it does. And this is where Nabokov’s view of the pencil swerves to avoid a reality – about both art and pencils. Fredson Bowers, in his introduction to Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Writers, remarks that Nabokov could not abide “social criticism”: “In the classroom lectures the social element in Turgenev is deplored, that in Dostoevsky  is ridiculed, but Gorki’s works are savaged.”  But this critical stance leads to an incorrigibly childish canon of good taste – as though the poems were written by magic scepters, rather than implements made by human beings, and exacting a price-  in energy, in grace, in time and trouble, in mortality – which enters art by the front door. The opponent of art is not social criticism; the opponent of art is denial. Stripping denial of its power is what separates art from mere sublimation.  The pencil is, indeed,  childhood’s thing, but it is a thing that is wrenched, at amazing sacrifice, from out of the raucous adult world.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Barthesian adagio: reading and looking

--- Georges Dambier
Among academics, it has now become common to use the term “read” when speaking of pictures.

How did "to read" become the go-to term wheneven the scholar approaches the picture (drawing, painting, photo, film, etc.) ? I imagine part of the answer was the great busting of the White Mythology that happened in the sixties and seventies. The White Mythology put, on one side, cultures with writing, against cultures without writing. This opposition, however, seemed oddly oblivious to the wholly different writing systems we know about and the evidence – from pictographs to tattoos – that the line was always blurry everywhere; and that it was politically charged with all the acids of colonialism, sexism, racism, and other of the devil's helpers. At the same time, the busters of the White Mythology were busting ‘presence’. In the domain of visual culture, this meant junking the idea that one sees a picture in one glance. Just as the printed page might not, itself, move, but is constructed with the idea that the eye ‘moves’ over it, so, too, the picture encodes a mobility that the eye follows, if it sees anything at all. And in that relationship of the immobile that is coded for mobility to a mobility – the act of reading – that is hooked up to an immobility – the reader, whose ideal reading posture is immobile – we get the idea that visual culture is meant to be read. Doctors read x rays, moviegoers read the expressions on actors’ faces, and we all read pictures. Although one could ask, here, whether the busting up of presence is not reinstating an old Aristotelian idea of motion and time that reintroduces presence on another level. But I'm too old to ask that question.

The upshot is, I’m happy with all this, up to a point. But I also like to listen to the ordinary angel of language, and that angel persists in speaking of “looking”: I looked at a picture, I watched a movie. This is what makes me think that more is going on, here, than the afteraffects of the busting of the White Mythology – which is otherwise unbruised in our geopolitics and economics, in our newspapers and Sunday supplements. In other words, when “looking” is systematically displaced by “reading”, I suspect that some nuance, some ‘difference’, has become roadkill.

What is that difference? The ordinary angel of language has an ally, here, in Roland Barthes. Barthes was one of the great busters of the White Mythology, but he was also an escape artist – he spent the first part of his career, on his own account, devising beautiful semiological tricks and interpretive traps, and the second part escaping from them. The m.o. of the second career of Barthes was the discovery of desire. Or, perhaps, the discovery of perversion. In On Reading (1976), Barthes claims that the moment of pertinence, the moment in which a domain of knowledge is organized according to certain purposive principles (which are not veridical, but implicative – that is, they organize the field according to a structuring relevance), is lacking when we come to the discipline of reading. Reading is im-pertinent – it operates in a structure as the structure's perversion, following a subtle, masochistic routine.

And this puts its finger on what I suspect is being run over in the substitution of reading for looking, for this use of reading is anything but impertinent. It is identifying and registering. It represses its im-pertinence – it represses the voyeurism of the look, and the masochist in the structure. It lacks the final courage of its own surrenders, and in this way is easily recuperated by the White Mythology – which is the grandest of all recuperators in history, Mr. Three Card Monte florishing Hegel's Logic.

I’ll end this by quoting Barthes from this essay, which has been slightly misrepresented, in Richard Howard’s translation, by substituting “non-pertinence” for Barthes’s im-pertinence. I like Howard, but a translator should not step on the jokes of his subject, if he can help it.

“This difficulty in finding a pertinence, from which to found a coherent Analysis of reading, we can think that we are responsible for it, by our lack of genius. But we can also suppose that im-pertinence is in some way congenital to reading: something statutorily comes to confuse the objects and the levels of reading, and in this way puts in check not only all research on a pertinence in the Analysis of reading, but even, perhaps, of the very concept of pertinence (for the same adventure seems currently to be happening to linguistics and narratology). This something, I believe I can name it (in a manner that is otherwise rather banal): it is Desire. It is because every reading is penetrated with Desire (or Disgust) that Anagnosology [a general theory of reading, from the Greek, anagnôsco – R.] is difficult, perhaps impossible – and in any case may just accomplish itself there where we least expect it, or at least there were we don’t exactly expect it: by a (recent) tradition, we expect it on the side of structure; and we are no doubt partly right: every reading occurs in the interior of a structure (be it a multiple or open one), and not in the supposedly free space of a supposed spontaneity: there is no “natural”, “savage” reading: reading does not exceed the structure; it submits to it: it has need of it, it respects it; but it perverts it. Reading will be the gesture of a body (for, understand well, one reads with one’s body) that in the same movement poses and perverts its order: an interior supplement of perversion.”

Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...