Friday, January 30, 2015

a minor apocalypse

Death does tend to jog my memory. When the decease of Konwicki, the Polish writer, was announced in the Times, I thought that now would be a good time to read A Minor Apocalypse. Re-read, except for the fact that when  I read it, I didn’t finish it. This is because… well, it was too good. There are books that make me envious, and then there are books that overwhelm me. Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow obviously belong in the latter category. But the books in the first category are as rare, and a little more difficult to define. They are usually written in a way that I would like to write, or at least one of the ways, but they seem to have completely filled that way of writing up. Thus, the envy. I can read, say, Delillo and know that I can copy Delillo to an extent – that he is working in a quarter of literature that I recognize and could move in myself. But Konwicki seems to have discovered the perfect way to write the kind of novel that usually is pretty bad – the novel about not being able to write the novel. Of course, I take off my hat to Flaubert and Proust for doing it right, but I am talking about a less monumental version of that odd quest – the quest, so to speak, for sterility.
In Konwicki’s book, this old modernist trope is combined with a new one – one that is both contemporary and not: political suicide. In the sixties and up through the eighties, the idea was basically to kill oneself in protest. Thus, the monks in Vietnam burned themselves, as did some anti-Vietnam war protesters. The IRA prisoners starved themselves to death.
Interesting moment, since it has been succeeded by a more militant form of suicide in which one blows oneself and other people up. The one form of suicide seems, at least, highly refined, whereas the other seems barbarous. However, the suicides in the sixties to eighties period were characterized most of all by ineffectuality. Whereas we don’t know what we will see, looking back at the militant form of suicide. I have a feeling it, too, will be ineffectual, plus bloodier.
Konwicki’s book is set… well, it is part of the play of the book that you don’t know when it is set. The narrator can’t get the real date out of anybody. One imagines it is set around the time of General Jarezelski’s coup, in 1981. I wonder how many people remember that coup outside of Poland? It was one of those earthshaking events that has been buried in the general amnesia devoted to the latter half of the Cold war. The narrator, who is having a Konwicki-like crisis over the whole dignity and value of the novel – who is, in other words, perpetually writing third drafts – is visited by representatives of a self-appointed group of dissidents who tell him that it has been decided that he should set fire to himself to protest the oppressiveness of the regime.
Of course, he doesn’t jump at this chance, but objects. The two men who announce the decision to him point out that he doesn’t really write, but that he still has a certain celebrity. When the narrator objects that there are other more celebrated Polish artists, like a certain filmmaker – obviously Wadja – the two reply that this filmmaker is too celebrated, and is still working. No, a dead end like the narrator is best. There is some woody allen like dialogue here:
“After all, you’ve always been obsessed with death,” shipered Hubert hoarsly. “ I never treated your complex as a literary mannerism. You’re intimate with death, you shouldn’t be afraid of it. You have prepared yourself, and us, for your    death most carefully. What were you thinking about before we arrived?”
“You see. It’s at your side. All you have to do is reach out.”
This is an excellent premise for a ramble around Warsaw and around the brain of the narrator.  This is, to me, at the center of the novel world – the ramble. From Don Quixote to Leopold Bloom, it is rambling that really gets the novel’s juices going.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Toddlers in the new world

Everyday is the Renaissance for Adam – everyday it is a new world of words and thoughts. I’ve noticed that it isn’t only Adam – so far, at least, my adoring parental eyes can see. I used to bring Adam to school and deposit him in his classroom and his classmates, when they noticed me, would confine themselves to saying Daddy – this being a generic name for any adult male with infant. Now they all say things, among which is the name Adam.
This is rich talk too, among the richest Adam’s tongue will  ever hoist, since each new word is a new coast,  which one needs to approach with some respect for crosscurrents and possible native arrows – even if if the best strategy is maximum bluster, as if you have been here before. That’s the ticket for  impressing the lurking natives, those grownups who made up this world. For instance, a couple of days ago I was doing what I must love to do, since I do it so often – looking for my fucking cell phone. I am a real talented cell phone loser, a pro, so there I was, putting my hand under the cushions on the sofa, going through the toys in the toybox, etc. While doing this, I asked Adam where my phone was. I wasn’t really asking him for an answer, but more just voicing my frustration. Much to my surprise, he seemed to say behind you, Daddy. And since then, he has used the word behind several times.
Until that moment, I thought Adam’s sole directional concept was up. Up is used a lot around here. Up in the chair, up in the bed, up in the sky is the moon! Look up, see the plane! Down doesn’t figure as often, although get down from the table! Has been uttered on ocassion. However, up and down are still more verb-related than direction-related. Behind, on the other hand, is a leap towards front, back, on the side, over there, here, North South East West left right – our lords and masters, which march us endlessly around as adults. Human adults can be defined not so much as thinking but as sorting animals, and directional words are great and necessary helps.
Being in the true grip of inspiration (whether this comes from his neurons or his neighbors around the table in the classroom is an exercise I leave up to the neuroscientist), Adam doesn’t like being left out of adult conversation, which, in spite of all odds (Adam’s bedtime schedule, our bedtime schedule) still occurs around here, and so, after watching his parents exchange polysyllabic utterance, he will sometimes launch himself into his part of the dialogue. Mostly, this is a simulacra of what his parents have been doing, which contains some eighty percent filler in terms of sounds, a defensive measure to keep from being interrupted. This, of course, he will do, as we all do, for the rest of his um like yeah verbal life, but not so blatantly. In this spill of sounds certain words will stick out, most notably basketball, basketball court, basketball shirt and noisy dinosaurs.
I can see myself in my son. I, too, have never been a minimalist. I’m in the talking game for the glory. I get it.
Andrew Field, in his biography of Djuna Barnes, writes of the discontent of American modernist writers in the 20s with American (read white, upper middle class) talk. It was so flat! I can see where they are coming from. It is still the case that our factories of WASPitude, schools and colleges and universities, teach their products to channel any excess of speech into acceptable channels: feeling speak, uplift, business and political talk, and parties. Later parties will be replaced by other extracurricular material, like babies and vacation. When I am in line at the Whole foods in Santa Monica, here, eavesdropping on what is being said by the presumably well off and educated young folks who are in the line ahead of me, it is amazing how little is said,and with what economy. Compared to the language of the street people, rich (often rancidly so, admittedly, as so much is stewed in the liquor of schizophrenia or addiction), there is a startling lack of color. The modernists were undoubtedly comparing the American custom to the Brits. The first time I ever visited London and, looking for an address I’d been given, asked help from a passerby, the woman pointed to a building and said go in the direction of that building with the unsightly row of chimney pots. I couldn’t imagine an American throwing in the “unsightly”. It just wouldn’t occur. If it did occur, it is a good bet that the American to whom this was said would think: what a weirdo.

I guess in some ways I want Adam to be more rhetorically florid than is the norm in America. But then – I imagine most of his verbal life will be in french. Which is a whole other thing… 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Canetti's fantasy

n a book of aphorisms and little essays entitled All the squandered admiration, Elias Canetti sketches a revenge fantasy, or revolution fantasy, that any person who leans in a certain political direction, the direction that is oddly defined by both anarchy and communism, must have had at one point or another. Here's my translation.
It pains me that there will never be an uprising of the beasts against us, the patient beasts, the cow, the sheep, all the livestock which falls into our hands and cannot escape.
I can imagine how the rebellion breaks out in a slaughterhouse and from there overwhelms a whole city. How men, women, children, the aged are all pitilessly tramplled to death; how the beasts overrun the streets and tracks, break down the gates and doors, and in their anger go whelming up to the very highest floors of houses, just as, underground, the subway cars are crushed by thousands of steers running wild, the sheep with suddenly sharp teeth ripping into us. .
I am somewhat relieved when one particular steer puts to miserable flight that hero, the bullfighter, and the whole bloodthirsty arena too. But an insurgency of the lesser, softer victims, the sheep, the cow, would suit me better. I don’t like to think that this will never happen, and that we will never have to tremble before them, before just these beings.”

Monday, January 26, 2015

the victory in greece

Daniel at Crooked Timber has penned the ultimate City kissoff to the victory of Syriza in Greece. In the course of patronizing the poor thieving Greeks, he also strikes back at the idea that the EU policymakers are stupid - like, they don't know that Greece can never pay back its debt. They know!

Stupidity is always armed with good reasons. The stupidity that plunged the U.S. into Iraq was full of people who said, at the time, the WMD and then later said, nobody believed there was WMD, obviously we were going in for x, y or z reason. Similarly, letting Lehman default was defended at the time as a wonderful warning to the banking system, and afterwards as who knew the international financial system was a ponzi scheme? One of the great stupidities of the EU is the idea that more is better – hence, the acceptance of players who are little more than medium size cities in the real scheme of things, like Latvia. This produces the ultimately stupid organization: too big to fail and too big to manage. We leave the realms of stupid groupthink, here, and enter the realm of truly badly constructed institutional structures. If it were simply a matter of Greece, I’d say that the EU had an overwhelming hand. But it isn’t simply a matter of Greece. If the EU lowers the boom, I don’t think this will say, to the voters in Italy and Spain and Portugal, oh oh, better do as the boss says. I think it will say, we are fucked either way, so why not fuck them back? The Anglo prejudice that all people everywhere will muddle through and settle on the lower rung lifestyle so that the EU project of banks first can keep marching gloriously onward seems to me a misjudgment on every level – here, as always, politics is not separable from economics. Thomas Friedman’s “golden straightjacket” theory, which seems to be what Daniel is endorsing, will, I think not work, and not just cause I don’t want it to work. It won’t work because it doesn’t involve the gradual diminishment of the lifestyle of the vast majority – as in the US – but the sudden and catastrophic diminishment, with no outlet except, as in Latvia, mass migration.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...