Thursday, June 13, 2013

Resurrecting the dead

I’m reading  George Young’s book, The Russian Cosmists. The Cosmists notion of things was heavily influenced by  a man named Nikolai Fedorov, a nineteenth century thinker who thought that the energies of humankind should be directed towards physically resurrecting the dead. Fedorov also was opposed to death in its other forms: metaphysical, social,  and metaphorical. For him, the primary mode of death was disaggregation – hence, he saw in the atomization of society under the influence of capitalist individualism the marks of an apocalypse of death. However, he also saw fusion as a form of death – and thus as vehemently opposed fusing the individual with the mass. His dream was that humanity would finally realize that it was a project with an endpoint: the resurrection of the dead. With death overcome, there would be no need for birth, so life after death would be rather strangely sterile. Because the world would be crowded with the newly resurrected, Fedorov proposed colonizing other planets with humans – an idea that made him popular, in the twentieth century, with certain scientists involved in the Soviet space program.

Being a crank myself, I understand the crankish need to systematize. A… and, as well, the nineteenth century need to systematize, since you couldn’t be a nineteenth century litterateur without adhering to some system that encompassed history and the universe. Given these coordinates, it is not surprising that Fedorov bumped into Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Dostoevsky he never met, but a disciple of Fedorov’s sent the great man various of Fedorov’s text, to which Dostoevsky replied with a wonderful letter, full of sulfur and piss:

“In your account of this thinker, the most essential thing,” Dostoevsky wrote to Fedorov’s disciple, “without a
doubt, is the duty to resurrect the ancestors who lived before. If this duty were fulfilled, then childbirth would cease, and what the Gospels and the Book of Revelation have designated as the first resurrection would begin. But what you have not stated at all in your account is just how you understand this resurrection of ancestors-in just what form
you envision and believe in it. That is, do you understand it somehow mentally or allegorically, like, for example, Renan, who understands it to be something like a total illumination of human consciousness at
the end of the life of mankind, an illumination of such intensity that it will be clear to the mind of those future people how great was, for example, one of their ancestor's influence on mankind, how and in what manner his influence was exerted, and so forth, and of such intensity that the role of every person who lived before will be seen with perfect clarity, his contribution will be divined… or: does your thinker intend this to be taken directly and literally, as religion implies, and that the resurrection will be real, that the abyss that divides us from the spirits of our ancestors will be filled, will be vanquished by vanquished death, and that the dead will be resurrected
not only in our minds, not allegorically, but in fact, in person, actually in bodies. (N.b. Not of course in their present bodies, for when immortality begins, marriage and the birth of children will end, and that alone is testimony that in the first resurrection, designated to be on earth, the bodies will perhaps be like Christ's body in the  fifty days
between his resurrection and ascension?)”

Dostoevsky, of course, rejects the disguised but still petty vanity of Renan (and all the French) for the expansive and semi-insane Russian grandeur of us all being like Christ’s body between his resurrection and ascension, a body mutilated and yet sweet, neither dead nor alive.

However, I like better the account of Fedorov’s relation to Tolstoy. Tolstoy met Fedorov. He was impressed with his ascetic lifestyle – for instance, the fact that he didn’t have a bed. Fedorov was less impressed with Tolstoy.

  ” People who often observed them talking together tell us that when Fedorov spoke, Tolstoy would listen respectfully and nod his agreement, but when Tolstoy spoke Fedorov would usually scowl sternly and shake his head in strong objection. Fedorov was apparently one of the few people who dared tell Tolstoy to his face that he was an utter fool. N. N. Gusev relates that once while walking with Fedorov through the library stacks, Tolstoy looked at the books piled everywhere and remarked: "Ech, they ought to dynamite here!" Fedorov apparently never forgave him for this remark. In another version of what may have been the same incident, Tolstoy said: "So many stupid things are written; it all ought to be burned!" Fedorov, as if stung, seized him by the head. "I've seen many stupid men in the world, but never one like you!" The witness reports that the author of YVtlr and Peace looked shocked, embarrassed, and confused. And once when they were arguing some philosophical point, Tolstoy began to refer to something he had written earlier on the matter under discussion. Fedorov replied: "Very well, but at that time you, Lev Nikolaevich, were not only a distinguished writer, you were an intelligent person as well.”

These anecdotes are like parables. I can imagine them being penned by Kafka. But underneath, they do show a lot of common sense – the common sense that runs through the world of the fable, a world that has become a paradox, an inversion of itself, and that common sense, on one level, simply accepts. And so Fedorov rejected Tolstoy’s  provocateur’s  pose.  In a sense, Tolstoy needed Fedorov for just that rejection – which was not a result of shock, but of something more like Fedorov’s intellectual consistency. Fedorov at least made Tolstoy realize something about himself. As he told some interviewer: " Now can't abide me: in first place because I
don't share theory; in the second place, because I love deat.h.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The unbearable

I like to think of degrees of separation, of connecting links, that come about because “the production and consumption of all lands have become cosmopolitan” as a result of the relentless bourgeois search for markets. 

Take, for instance, Pavel Annenkov. It was Annenkov who happened to visit Belinski right as he was reading an ‘extraordinary’ novel, one that, one that, Belinski said, ‘reveals such mysteries and such characters in Russian life as never discussed before.” The novel was Poor Folks, and the novelist Dostoevsky. Pavel Annenkov happened to be in Russia in 1846, which is why a friend of his from Brussels, Karl Marx, was writing him letters there.

Poor Marx, of course, had had to move to Brussels at the prodding of the French police, although in truth it was a strange affair. Why should the wrath of the Prussian government – pressuring the French government – come down on him? He was not even involved in the article that was the cause of his expulsion – an article applauding an assassination attempt on the Prussian king in an exile German journal.

Annenkov and other Russians were attracted to the milieu around Proudhon and Bakunin, It was through this circle that Herzen met – to his later regret- the German poet Hedwegh, Marx’s great friend. Annenkov had attending a meeting of the communists in Brussels. I like to think that Annenkov might have mentioned the names of some of the new Russian writers to Marx – for instance, Gogol.

Marx’s letter to Annenkov is well worth reading – and, for those of us with a keen eye for the intersigne, there is something so very right – so almost uncannily right – in the fact that Annenkov, in this year, is involved as an observer both with the beginning of Dostoevsky’s career and with Marx’s. Annenkov had asked Marx’s opinion about a book written by Proudhon. Remember that Proudhon is, at this time, a European celebrity. Marx – well, he was known by some, and admired greatly by Frederick Engels, but he had trouble focusing.

The letter is here. It is a letter about, among other things, God and money. A subject that Dostoevsky has been attuned to from the first – although we are far from Crime and Punishment as yet.

“Why does M. Proudhon speak of god, of universal reason, of the impersonal reason of humanity, which is never mistaken, which has been, at all times, equal to itself, of which is it enough simply to have the correct consciousness in order to find oneself in the true? Why put on the feeble Hegelianism in order to pose as an esprit fort?
Himself, he gives you the key to the enigma. M. Proudhon sees in history a certain series of social developments; he discovers the progress realized in history; he finds at last that men, taken as individuals, do not know what they have done, have been deceived in their own movement, that is to say, their social development appears at the first view as a distinct, separate thing, independent of their individual development. He does not know how to explain these facts, and the hypothesis of universal reason manifesting itself is all ginned up [est toute trouvée]. Nothing easier than to invent mystical causes, that is to say phrases, where common sense can’t supply any.
But doesn’t M. Proudhon, in avowing that he does not understand anything of the historic development of humanity – and he avows this once he resorts to sonorous words about universal reason, god, etc. – doesn’t he avow implicitly and necessarily that he is incapable of understanding economic developments?”

The idea that history is happening behind our backs – or, to put it more personally, that our lives are operating behind our backs – verbally echoes a famous moment in Marx’s (posthumously published) German Ideology, which I am going to translate without smoothing out the gnarly structure of the sentences. There’s a reason that the sentences are gnarly: the sense, here, is a sort of Laocoon, in the toils of the snake Ourubos:

“That it [alienation] thus becomes an “unbearable” ["unerträgliche"] power, that is to say, a power, against which one revolutionizes, is integral to the fact that it has produced the mass of mankind both as thoroughly propertyless [“eigentumslos"] and at the same time as in contradiction to a world of wealth and culture spread before them, which both presuppose a great increase of the force of production, a higher level of its development; on the other side, this development of the forces of production (with which already the empirical existence of persons is put on a world historical rather than local footing) is, as well, an absolutely necessary practical pre-supposition, because without it only lack is universalized, and thus with neediness also the struggle for necessities begins again and we have to reconstruct all the old shit [die ganze alte Scheiße sich herstellen müßte] – and because, furthermore, only with this universal development of the forces of production is a universal commerce of people posited; thus on the one side, the phenomenon of the “propertyless masses among all peoples is produced all at the same time (universal competition), each making themselves dependent on the overthrow of the other, and finally the world historical, empirically universal individuals replace the local ones.” 

The complex that is built around “alienation” here goes through certain recognizable steps.

First, we have what I’d call the Frankenstein moment. This is the moment in which the people who are collaborating realize that somehow, without their choosing it, the division of labor has taken on a life of its own. This in itself is an important clue that alienation is unthinkable without division of labor of some kind: between men and women, between adults and children, etc. It appears again and again in Marx’s writing, every time giving us a sense of the social uncanny. The monster, it appears, is alive:

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Beautiful! And hideous. At the same time the system produces the most astonishing beauty – such refinement and cultivation [Bildung] as has never been seen before -- and a wretchedness, and evacuation of life, that has also never been seen before. This evacuation is described in two terms: of unbearability and of propertylessness. Unbearability is, Marx claims at this point, the condition without which the masses won’t revolutionize. In the sixties, when Marx was good and thoroughly Nietzschefied, this moment would give rise to doubts – is it a fact that the bourgeoisie, here, is the great producer, and the proletariat merely the reactive social body? If this were true, of course, it would truly put a spoke in the whole system – for the rising of the proletariat would only create the old filth, the old shit of fighting for survival.

The second moment has to do with located this unbearability in relation to the instantiation of universal history – the world market – in goods and labor that characterizes the modern system of production. Marx never takes back this insight. At the time he is writing the German ideology, very few business enterprises spanned the globe, and the logistics of manufacture, trade and communication are – in spite of his comments in the Communist Manifesto – only at the beginning of their irresistible rise. Certainly, the velocity with which silk moved from Canton to London was faster than the days when it had to go to Manila, then Acapulco, then across Mexico to Veracruz, then to Europe – or through Central Asia to Turkey, through Italy and up through Europe. Marx saw that already, branches of industry in one country would manufacture goods for sale in a far away country – as for example, Chinese ceramics, produced for the European and American market – and that there was a greatly increased commodity and money flow. Marx’s emphasis on this – even when explaining alienation – is another clue that alienation has to do with a vast and seemingly monstrous system that has arisen behind the backs of the worker. Before human beings become the subject of world history, their monster already is. Earlier revolutions against the unbearability of the system of production were as local as the system itself. The transatlantic revolutions might be said to be the first true revolutions - the French revolution, spread across Europe and fought out, in an unexpected way, in Santo Domingo, kept working in the liberation of Latin America and even, one could say, in the 1910 revolution that overthrew the Chinese Imperial court. Marx, in a famous 1881 letter to a Dutch socialist, Domela Nieuwenhuis, wrote: “The general demands of the French bourgeoisie laid down before 1789 were roughly just the same, mutatis mutandis as the first immediate demands of the proletariat are pretty uniformly to-day in all countries with capitalist production.”

In the German Ideology, the interweaving of the high level of the forces of production and their global scale leaves its impress on the chance of success of communism:

“Without this, 1, communism would be able to exist only as that of one locality; 2, the powers of commerce themselves could not have been developed yet as universal, and thus unbearable powers, they would have remained domestically-superstitiously “circumstances” ["Umstände"], and every expansion of commerce would negate local communism.”

To summarize: the  moment in which the monster opens its eye – in which man’s creation, to speak in Frankenstein’s terms, seems to operate behind man’s back, and subject man to its will – is the moment in which, rightly viewed, a whole series of developments falls into place. This moment – which is a moment, I would say, in the ‘becoming unbearable’ of social conditions, and thus is intimately entangled with the history it sees – is the condition for understanding what the forces of production have wrought.
 Alienation comes from those forces: alienation is their monster.

At the end of Marx’s letter to Annenkov – which is obviously connected to the work he is doing, at that time, which resulted in the section of the German ideology that presents a broad outline of capitalism as the heir to universal history -  Marx makes an observation about Proudhon’s theory as an expression of the class views of a group he knew well, since they constituted the Communist League – the petit-bourgeois.

“The petit-bourgeois, in an advanced society and by the necessity of its status, is made up of one part socialist, and one part economist, that is to say, he is awed by the magnificence of the high bourgeoisie and sympathizes with the griefs of the people. He is at the same time bourgeois and people. He prides himself, in the depths of his consciousness [dans son for intérieur de sa conscience] to be impartial, to have discovered the right balance, which he has the pretention to distinguish from the golden mean [juste milieu]. Such a petit-bourgeois divinizes the contradiction, for contradiction is the basis of his being. He is only a social contradiction put into motion. He has to justify by theory what he is in practice, and M. Proudhon has the merit of being the scientific interpreter of the French petite-bourgeoisie française, which is a real merit, because the petite-bourgeoisie will be an integral party of all the social revolutions that are in preparation.”

The petit bourgeois (raise your hands in the air if you are a member!) was not, as Marx supposed then, a transitional class type in the spread of capitalism. The petit bourgeoisie has become instead a dominant element, populating the ever expanding sphere of circulation. To probe the soul of that element is the task of literature. Lets end this with another quote. This one is from Gerard Cornio’s Figure of the Double in European literature. For Cornio, Balzac’s Rastignac and Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov are doublets, and both encounter doubles in their lives:

‘Raskolnikove is also placed at the crossing, at the crossroads of doubles, but between [this pair] reigns incompatibility: Raskolnikov cannot, like Rastignac, accommodate himself to social and moral contradictions, accommodate himself through his personel consumption, he has to chose, to cut, to make choices which are sacrifices.”

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Plots and secrecy

When I used to review novels for Publishers Weekly, the form was dictated partly by the editorial limitation of space: I had 250 to 300 words to operate in. Conventionally, the review would either start out with or end with some elaboration of an adjective – basically, blurb territory. Then would come characters and plot – or telling what the novel was about. If I could find the room, I might refer to the writer’s reputation.
Now, this procedure relies heavily on the idea that a novel is about a plot, and that a plot is something that one can extract from the text that ‘moves’ the events and characters in the novel forward. Even if the novel varies “forward” – even if it is arranged chronologically so that it looks backwards, or it mixes up narrative patches that are in the past or future of the narrative’s present – the plot is the thing that makes the novel. The plot is to the novel what the plays are to a game – a plot encloses, in a determined field, the chances that the narrative rehearses in its serial plot-parts. If an orphan goes out one foggy afternoon to visit the tomb of his dead mother and discovers an escaped convict among the graves   which happens in the first chapter of Great Expectations – I expect that this will have a bearing on the entire action of the book, an action which involves numerous small actions over the course of twenty some years. The action, the plot, is a great maker of pertinence, that very English virtue that Grice made into a fundamental part of conversational implicature.
There is, of course, another meaning of plot, which refers not to the implicate order of fiction, but to the conspiracies or plans of human beings in secret coordination, one with the other, to bring about some event. A plot in this sense hinges very much on secrecy.
The plots of fiction and the plots of non-fiction have a way of converging – in fact, the latter seems, sometimes, to have almost swallowed the former, as though none of the stunted rituals of modern life present the interest to the reader that is associated with plotting in secret.
In The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode brings together the narrative motive and secrecy as though, in reality, the plots of non-fiction have always been the secret sharers of the plots of fiction.  He usefully uses the notion of insiders and outsiders. A secret creates an immediate divide between those who share it and those who don’t. I itch to put the term “sharing” under scrutiny, here, since it seems to stand outside of the dominant exchange system and point to other systems of wealth and power – but I am more interested, here, in the categories of insider and outsider with relation to the form of narration.
Kermode takes the Gospels as an exemplary narrative. It is an inspired choice. From the perspective of secrets, the Gospels make the very strongest claims for the privilege of the insider. It is not that the Gospels unfold a conspiracy, although certainly some conspiring goes on to do Jesus to death. But the real secret, here, is in the double life of Jesus – on the one hand, a small time carpenter’s son, on the other hand, the beloved son of God. To understand the plot requires not only knowing that Jesus believed that he was the son of God, but believing it oneself. It requires metanoia, conversion.
Not only does the insider understand the plot, but if the insider is correct, the outsider can never understand the plot until he or she becomes an insider. The ritual of becoming an insider is not simply a matter of cognition, but of a special kind of semi-cognitive thing: belief. The belief comes not from the head – with its cognitive gearing – but from the heart – which understands that feeling is not subordinate to the world, but quite the reverse. And if this is true – death, where is thy sting?
To get away from the pull of the Gospel, Kermode’s point about secrecy and narrative is made in more general terms in a later essay published in Critical Inquiry: Secrets and Narrative Sequence.
“My immediate purpose is to make acceptable a simple proposition: we may like to think, for our purposes, of narrative as the product of two intertwined processes, the presentation of a fable and its progressive interpretation (which of course alters it). The first process tends towards clarity and propriety (“refined common sense”), the second towards secrecy, toward distortions which cover secrets.”

This does seem like refined common sense. And yet it shakes off, way too thoroughly, the insider/outsider categories that Kermode was using in the Genesis of Secrecy. I think that shaking off points to a retreat to a classically ahistorical project: salvaging the presentation of the fable. As though the presentation came all in a block. After which – and the after here signals, again, a certain ideal temporality, not an empirical one but a conceptual temporality – we find interpretation.

I’m thinking about this common sense presentation of the two elements of fiction at the moment because I’m writing a fiction. One of my readers asked me, when I sent her the fourteenth chapter, to write her a plot outline, because she has been receiving the chapters over time, as I write them, and she wanted not to have to go back to previous chapters to see what was going on. So I wrote the plot outline, and I was mildly surprised to see that the plot I wrote was, in a sense, impossible to infer from the chapters so far, which encompass more than half the book.

I have harbored Dadaist dreams of writing a novel which would have one surface plot for the reader and another for the author – and perhaps another outside of both the reader and the author. In this book, the plot that the reader thinks binds together the book is not the real plot, but incidental to the real plot, as it is understood and put together by the author. However, why not strain at that pitiable thing, the author? What if the real plot of the book is not understood by the author as well? As in the myth of Bellerophon, where a messenger carries a letter which, unbeknownst to him, requests that the receiver kill the messenger, perhaps the author of the plot could be considered a blind messenger, delivering a different plot from the one he or she knew? After all, there is a large degree of blindness in the world.

In a sense, such a novel would be an anti-gospel, because it would be closed, ultimately, to any access to its secret. The insider, here, would be defined by the fact that the secret he holds could not be shared. This would turn the world of the plot in a sense upside down. I don’t quite know how this kind of plot could even be constructed – a plot that resisted ever being known.

Surely, this is the great modernist temptation.  

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...