Saturday, May 27, 2017

De Quincey: our goth

- You like structure, right? Says the woman in the line ahead of me at the grocery store, laying down a fistful of coupons.

I, like her, like structure. But I like it not only for what it does, but for presenting itself to be undone. The first stage could be called realistic – the second stage is definitely gothic, in the broadest sense. There’s living structure, and there’s the undead. There’s Johnson, and there’s De Quincey.
De Quincey, in English literature, introduced the gothic moment into essay and autobiography. He reinvented the most gothic thing of all, the murder story: where the usual Newgate version was sensationalist and moralizing, De Quincey parodied the moralizing and introduced an element of suspense that we now consider to be natural to the genre. Suspense is inherently anti-mythic – myth, with all its dramas, follows a program its audience already knows.

However, unlike the creators of Frankenstein and Dracula, DeQuincey’s place in the Gothic tradition has not gained him the kind of recognitionhe deserves.  It is always nice to seehim get a little publicity, as he  did inthe last issue of the London Review of Bs, in a review of a new biography byNicholas Spicer. – Warning: invidious comparison ahead – The NYRB featured a review of a biography of another “gothic” writer, Wilkie Collins, by Robert Gottlieb that was sort of astonishing, in that Gottlieb apparently thinks Dorothy Sayers is the last person who wrote about detective novels. It is like Gottlieb wandered out of the club, noticed it was later than 1940, and wandered back into the club to write a gentlemanly review. Sometimes the NYRB is so old that it is actually older than its founding, in the  1960s, when it was young. I distinctly heard some snoring in the back row of some of the sentences in the Gottlieb review.

But to return to our onions: Spicer is good about what a horrific family life the De Quincey’s endured. It wasn’t just opium – it was the poverty. As in the life of Karl Marx, money, in De Quincey’s life, or the lack of it, was an ever present menace.   

“As the debts piled up behind them, the family lurched close to utter destitution. De Quincey was repeatedly ‘put to the horn’, a practice native to Edinburgh, whereby a debtor was publicly denounced and made eligible for arrest. In October 1832, he was briefly imprisoned and only avoided further arrests by taking refuge in the Sanctuary of Holyrood, out of the reach of his creditors. Margaret was often ill and De Quincey suffered continually from the effects of his addiction and his attempts to break it – typically, periods of constipation alternating with debilitating bouts of diarrhoea. He sold or pawned everything he could, including most of his books. Two days before the birth of his eighth child, he filed for Cessio Bonorum, a kind of bankruptcy proceedings. In September 1833, his three-year-old son, Julius, died: he had to flee the child’s wake to give the slip to a creditor who’d discovered his whereabouts, "

Like the sound of this? It’s the ardent dream of Trumpians everwhere to make this kind of thing more common. But I digress…

 Spicer has some great comments about De Quincey’s rhetoric, his bizarrie, which was what captured Baudelaire’s admiration (Baudelaire translated De Quincey) as well as, evidently, Poe’s – Poe uses a similarly mix of essayistic seriousness an parody.  Spicer is right here:
“Making fun of others, he idealises himself, but, whether consciously or not, his writing always presses at the limits of seriousness, where solemnity cracks up in a snort of poorly supressed hilarity. His style tips his grander effects into self-parody.
Spicer doesn’t like De Quincey’s sentimentality, or his romantic flights; and it is true that De Quincey tends to weep at his own misfortunes, and endow himself with an irritated sensibility that is easy to read as mere rationalization. But we can’t take De Quincey in pieces to really appreciate him. It is that pressing towards the non-serious, the blind spot in our hierarchized sense of occassions, in which all these things find their necessity. Spicer quotes a lovely bit from De Quincey’s essay on astronomy.

"Lindop recounts an exchange between De Quincey and Pringle Nichol, professor of astronomy at Glasgow University, in which De Quincey confessed himself baffled by the professor’s attachment to the consequences of observable fact. De Quincey’s imagination had taken flight in an essay inspired by a particular theory of the nebula, which the professor pointed out had been disproved by subsequent astronomical findings: ‘Nichol apparently misunderstood the case as though it required a real phenomenon for its basis,’ he wrote."

The  essayist’s contract is with truth – but truth as essai, truth as partial – and even more than that, truth as always partial, never, in the end, forming a whole. Truth as something ultimately more fundamental than the law of non-contradiction. Truth as non-serious.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

styles of saying nothing: the new york times editorial

I open to the NYT site today and find this thing that looks like a sentence under EDITORIAL: 
 -- Too much indulgence in impeachment notions could prove to be a distraction.

There are reasons to think of it as a sentence. For instance, it does have a subject – which is, sort of, ‘indulgence’, or more comprehensively, ‘impeachment notions’  – and it does have a verb, ‘be’, set resolutely in the conditional  - under ‘could’ – and modified like the cough of a high priced lawyer – which is the role played by ‘prove’  - and finally it slips out of the side exit in a finagling  bit of murk – ‘a distraction’.

Such are its parts. Its gestalt is what interests me. Just as margarine is a chemical imitation of butter that can pretty much function as butter functions – you can spread it on toast, you can melt it in a heated pan – but misses one of those functions – that of tasting like butter – so, too, this sentence misses out somewhere in the sensory scale. If you came upon this sentence in laboratory conditions, detached from its source, and were forced to guess its source, I’d wager that you’d say, this must be from an editorial. Because editorials are constructed of these weirdly margarine like phrases. They avoid attachment to any living  subject (a lacuna that is usually filled in with a “we” that, far from being inclusive, operates to exclude as marginal any living creatures outside the special zone of the editorial office), and they never go straight to their objects, bur rather sidle to them through the equivalent of hmms and haws. Except that even a hmm or a haw is throaty – it is a creation of phlegm and hesitation – whereas these hesitations seem detached from any bodily function.  The “could prove to be” litigiously melts down the “are” into an absolute vacancy, in which any statement is true. If we are hit be a meteor tomorrow, it would be true If impeachment never comes in the more normal course of human events, it would be true. If impeachment happens, it would still be true.
Partly this omni-veridical (and omni-empty) 'could prove to be' hangs, essentially, on the oddness of the object –a distraction. Distractions don’t just get up and crawl through the physical world – they require attention. Which in turn requires a brain, or a collectivity of brains. To put these brains in time and space – to frankly situate them in history – seems to be an exercise that exhaustis the sentence before it is even halfway to its target. This is not a string of words that will ever turn over and actually express itself in a human, oh too human way.  

We all are familiar with that ultra American thing – an attraction. As in coming attractions, the slogan of the movie trailer. A distraction is the negative of an attraction, and perhaps we can envision it as a Zen movie trailer, showing nothing.  But… this can’t be right, for then distraction would lead to concentration, at least in all the ascetic  traditions  I am aware of. Instead, these coming distractions are notions of … coming attractions.

This style of saying nothing seriously has a history that is intertwined with the history of liberalism in modernity. That history, in turn, is entwined with the history of critique – both in the reactionary vein, and in the revolutionary one. I myself rather like, stylistically,  both ends   of the spectrum of critique, but I am also aware that critique doesn’t seem to have made a dent in this anonymous, liberal elitist style of saying conditional nothings seriously, in order that nothing serious really happen.     

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...