Friday, August 29, 2014

the mush in France

I read the thumbsucker pieces about the Socialist Party in Le Monde’s Ideas section yesterday, including the manifesto by the 200 Hollande loyalists from the National Assembly. What did I get for my labors? It was like plowing through a swamp of earwax – it was like being gnawed by weasals while trying to escape from melting tundra. It was in other words a completely unenlightening and vaguely disgusting experience, with an avoidance of the issue at hand that would be frightening if it weren’t so yawn-worthily predictable.
Here’s the issue at hand. The PS is at a record level of unpopularity. Thus, the question at hand is what strategic sense it makes to be unpopular and at the same time utterly shed one’s principles, embracing their contradiction – neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, austerian economics and a very public palling around with the malefactors of great wealth. It is one thing to be unpopular because of one’s principles, and quite another to be unpopular and adopt the opposition’s principles. It is, in short, a cretinous strategy.
But it hasn’t been done by the PS alone. Time after time over the past seven years, since the depression began, leftist parties in Europe have abandoned everything they stood for and adopted austerianism. The results of this move are in. The results are: the leftist party is rolled at the general election by the standardbearer for the right, and are even rolled by the populist anti-immigrant anti-European parties, which, while strictly right on race and social matters, adopt a leftist economic stance.
If this were a simple footrace, what the PS is telling its militants is that it is better to run it with a fifty kilo weight tied around your neck.
These observations, which are extremely banal but at least relevant to the issue of the party, are never even touched on by the neo-liberal former Mitterand minister (and former payer of a half million dollar fine in the US for shady business practices), the haughty poli sci prof, and the 200. Instead, they serve up great gobs of rhetoric and re-heated third way malarky, signifying absolutely nothing.

Why would an elite become so braindead that it can’t even gain clarity about its own interests? This is a historical situation that pops up often: think of the 1940 French military strategy, or the 2003 American Iraq occupation strategy. Think of the crash of 2008.  On this scale, the demise of the PS is a minor matter, but it is still gruesomely interesting to watch.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

the parody of socialism in France

The debacle of the French socialist party – which seems well on its way to achieving a place in the museum of extinct parties, next to the Frei Democratische party in Germany – can be explained, in large part, as a phenomenon of the class struggle.
Class struggle! Haven’t we all gone beyond that since Reagan and Thatcher freed the free world?
Well, one would think so as class becomes the absent category in sociology and theory. But its sinking into the collective unconscious doesn’t make it any less so.
The postwar years, from the late forties to the early eighties, saw an almost Hegelian progression: the wage class and its unions triumphed in the construction of the welfare state all over the developed world. That very triumph, however, produced the children who buried the wage class – the technocrats and meritocrats whose natural sympathies were for Capital, not Labor. They looked like business execs and they thought like business execs, and if they climbed through the channels of the Socialist Part (or the SPD or the Labour party), they had no sympathy or understanding for the culture and existences of the wage class. However, in the class system, certain kinds are spinkled at random in the top and the bottom: especially women and gays. In that respect, these technocrats did liquidate that old lefty puritanism and patriarchal attitudes. What was never sprinkled at random in the top was, of course, Africans or arabs, and one notices that they are still not sprinkled in any ratio to their population through the top no matter what flavor the government is.

The triumph of the technocrat type meant, long ago, that the Socialist party, founded as the party of the workers, was progressively hollowing out. The parody of a socialist party that now rules France, with a neo-conservative foreign policy, a neo-liberal economic policy, and a dog-whistle social policy (see the Nouvelle Obs for the story of how the PS muckety mucks are using Najat Vallaud-Belkacem as a dogwhistle to the left, the way George Bush used to appoint evangelicals as a sucker call to the right) will, I assume, come in behind the FN and the UMP in 2017, when, if Hollande’s austerity policies are put in place, unemployment should be reaching around 15 percent – it worked so well for Spain, why not try it for France! The meritocrats who read their Mankiew, their Chicago school economists, and have long ago replaced Marx with Hayek, will not be touched by the unemployment – there is always more room in investment banking for the meritocratic-lings, their darling daughters and sons. Magic Fabius money for everyone! Interestingly, it will be the FN that will surely present a more leftist economic platform, or at least a dirigiste one, and I expect even the UPM will show some concern for the unemployed, rather than basking in the glow of MEDEF.


It is hard to imagine France without a left, but apparently this is what is happening. We have to call the European project a complete success in that regard – reinstating the gold standard in the form of the Euro, it was the product and generator of the unbounded rule of speculative capital. You can try to vote against that rule: you will fail.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

on a passage in Nabokov 1

I was licked into shape by the Cold War. It was my mother and my father, and I am still a piece of it as I advance towards my death in a world that is no longer moored to it. Vast upheavels have the effecct of making their survivors posthumous people, carrying about obsolete maps and concerned with dead issues – themselves a sort of dead issue. For this reason I follow lines of thought or seize on details that that seem pointless or defunct to those who are under a certain age, and have grown up with a certain set of post Berlin Wall references, and who have never dreamed, as children, of atom bombs dropping from the sky. Similarly, I find it difficult to understand the events and idees recues of the present, I have difficulty being “contemporary” – I have to translate them, clumsily, into their historic “place”, dissolving them so utterly into their causes that I entirely lose their effects – I understand them to death, and don’t understand them at all.
I think of  Nabokov as a supremely cold war writer, or rather, as a writer whose reputation is inseperable from the cold war, just as Orwell’s was. When Bend Sinister was published by Time Life in 1964, with a special forward by Nabokov, the connection was made explicit – here was a more another allegorical attack on totalitarianism, ie the Soviet Union – although, as the “editors of Time Life” note in the preface, there is a lot of word play in the book that even they hadn’t noticed at first.
The cold war atmosphere comes comes across particularly when you read the non-fiction – which is studded with opinions delivered in Nabokov’s best Des Esseintes style, something that at first seems striking – like someone insisting that artificial flowers are better than real ones – and that eventually become an instance of how the manic pursuit of good taste eventually destroys the very foundation of taste, substituting a game of more sophisticated than thou – a game for feebs. This aestheticism was something that seemed very familiar in the fifties, when Nabokov first started becoming known in America. Michael Wood once wrote of how, in Speak Memory, Nabokov’s elegy to “Sirin” – a Russian émigré writer who happened to be Nabokov’s pseudonym – has a certain beauty in its place: “Remember that Nabokov wrote this passage in English, in America, in 1950, having left Europe ten years before. So, it is an elegy for a lost self, a Nabokov who was once called Sirin and who once wrote in Russian, and who did truly vanish "as strangely as he had come." But there is a further delicacy. When Nabokov wrote these words, he was an obscure American writer, still making his way in American letters. 

Nabokov, in 1950, was actually a rather coddled émigré, teaching at Harvard and friends with the American mandarin of mandarins, Edmund Wilson. His opinions were reliably anti-communist, a stance that he wrapped up in aesthetics – he basically considered anything to the left of his father’s classical liberalism to be posh’lust, which he expressed in a Paris Review interview by saying that mentioning Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Vietnam in the same breath is “seditious posh’lust” – thus perhaps reinflating the czarist notion of  sedition for the last time. In the introduction to the lectures on Russian writers, he claims that no writers of any note flourished under the Soviets, and quotes Gladkov as a typical Soviet writer – thus throwing Isaac Babel and Yuri Olesha, among others, under the truck. 


Sunday, August 24, 2014

the nose

“But these evils are notorious and confessed; even they also whose felicity men stare at and admire, besides their splendour and the sharpness of their light, will, with their appendant sorrows, wring a tear from the most resolved eye; for not only the winter is full of storms and cold and darkness, but the beauteous spring hath blasts and sharp frosts; the fruitful teeming summer is melted with heat, and burnt with the kisses of the sun, her friend, and choked with dust; and the rich autumn is full of sickness; and we are weary of that which we enjoy, because sorrow is its biggest portion; and when we remember, that upon the fairest face is placed one of the worst sinks of the body, the nose, we may use it not only as a mortification to the pride of beauty, but as an allay to the fairest outside of condition which any of the sons and daughters of Adam do posses.”
Jeremy Taylor’s Rules and Exercizes of Holy Dying was one of the 17th century’s bestsellers; through the nineteenth century, it was a prime example of raree, cadenced prose that crawled into the sentences of Johnson, Coleridge, Emerson and many others. Oh that seventeenth century rag, faint bits of which we still dance to today.
Taylor’s notion of the nose as a sink of the body and a monument to our mortification is the place where I start with noses, a subject that has been forced upon me over the last two weeks, as I’ve been dripping from it, or suffering from its drying up, or in general living a little too familiarly with, like a prisoner trapped within my sinuses and unable to think of anything else. e.
Of course, poor Jeremy Taylor must have witnessed a good many colds in Golden Grove, the house in South Wales where he wrote the Holy Dying. The book is inspired by the death of his wife, Phoebe, in 1651. Who knows, perhaps she died of a disease that had recently started entering the vocabulary of the English: influenza, named for the influence of the stars that was thought to incubate the disease. In his death sermon on his patroness, Lady Carbery, who died at around the same time, Taylor mentions that many new diseases had appeared lately, and many old ones had changed in circumstances and symptoms, which showed some awareness of the disease landscape around him. So who knows how prominently noses figured in Taylor’s life in 1651, when he wrote his greatest work, or how irritated he was at their running.
On the other side of the channel, we have another religious man, an infinitely greater thinker, Blaise Pascal, who also left a famous remark about noses: Pensee no 29 - “Le nez de Cléopâtre, s'il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé *  Pascal wrote down three versions of this thought, but all of them agree that it was the size of  Cleopatra’s schnozzle, and not its cuteness, its diminuity, its slightness, that made the face a regal beauty. Thus, Pascal enrolls himself among the truly rare connoisseurs of excess in the nose, or at least more splendor than you get down the slope of some nose-changed blonde extra. An essay by Paul Strapper in 1879 pointed out that we really don’t know the dimensions of Cleopatra’s nose anyway. But Strapper, undetered by the fact that we really have no guide to Cleopatra’s body, imagines it anyway, seeing her as an imperfect beauty, and thus a modern one, since we appreciate the disruption of the line, the flaw, as integral to our vision of beauty  – one that supposes a mercurial mind in a feu follet body. This doesn’t seem to be Pascal’s idea, but at the same time, he surely thought about the fact that the nose he was using as a monument for the mortification of human vanity was large, or at least regal, and not short, or demure.
The seventeenth century seemed to have been especially interested in noses and legendary nose figures. Cyrano de Bergerac was a seventeenth century libertine.The legend of his nose became a fixture of 19th century literature after Cyrano’s work was rediscovered by Nodier – and it might not have been an obsession of his contemporaries. Theophile Gautier, in an essay on Cyrano in his Grotesques, wrote that the Voyage to the Moon and the nose were Cyrano’s great works, one of art and the other of nature . Gautier described it as a mountain comparable to the Himalayas, or as a tapir’s trunk.  This is sheer nose trumpeting, or thumbing one’s nose at fact in favor of funny.
The eighteenth century, as far as noses went, was long on farce. One of the great nose writers is Laurence Sterne, of course, who ransacked the connection between the nose and the penis until he owned it. However, myself, I’m interested in another nose man whose marriage could have formed the basis for another kind of Tristam Shandy. Lord Elgin, who stole much Greek statuary for the British in the early nineteenth century, lost his wife to his nose – or rather, his lack of one. It seems that Elgin contracted some horrible disease in the Middle East that ate his nose. His wife, according to testimony at their divorce trial, then lost all interest  in her husband, and took up with a neighbor who, presumably, had a nose: a Mr. Robert Ferguson.
Byron, of course, made up a gossipy couplet about Elgin:
Noseless himself, he brings home noseless blocks
To show what time has done and what… the pox.
And so we reach what I consider the height of the nose in literature if not life: the nineteenth century, and Gogol’s The Nose. Here, finally, the outer coat of the nose develops an interior interest, a soul – a sinus of a soul. Nabokov, who is often so concerned to be clever, as a critic, that he fails to be interesting, wrote one good critical book – a study of Gogol. Nabokov, among other interesting things, contends that the nose figures majorly in Russian talk – there are hundreds of proverbial sayings that employ the nose. “The point to be noted is that from the very start the nose as such was a funny thing to his mind (as to all Russians).”
The humorousness of the nose leads us away from the mortification it marks, perhaps – or perhaps that mortification finds its true beauty here. But myself, blowing my nose in a wild trumpet solo lasting ten days, have a hard time seeing the comedy here – or rather, I am desensitized to what I know is a ticklish subject. The cold forces us inside the nose, and there – as is similar, in popular sentimentality, with the clown – all is tears. Furthermore, of course, this is my nose, the nose of a man who, having achieved 56 years of nosewearing activity, must acknowledge its rougeur and scaliness, at times – the results of too much sun and too much booze, or at least beer. So even when I am not forced into a stricter intimacy with my nose than I want, I view it with a bit of dismay. There it is, staring back at me in the mirror, and making it very difficult for me to shave over my upper lip,
Yet I have to give the nose some credit. Surely the inner sound of writing – the thing that I go by to get me from a to z – goes much much better when the nose, whatever its outer look, is comfortable inside. That inner noise is something I become partially deaf to when I have a cold, which is why I stop writing.

I write this as, hopefully, the epitaph on the gravestone atop my former cold, and to celebrate the faint re-awakening to my  inner tintinabulation. My nose is almost back! 

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...