Friday, July 13, 2018

Trump - a name that gets harder to say with each passing day.

Well, my prediction predictably came true. 

On July 10 I wrote on facebook, "Given that Trump jerks off at the thought of betraying a friend, a supporter, or a woman - especially a woman - I think he will interrupt the schedule of his UK tour to see Boris Johnson and give him support. Or, if that proves impossible, express his support at a press conference or, best, in some joint meeting with May. It is pretty easy to see how the sadistic tension would build up in this depraved man until he could not resist it."

Even a peanut such as myself could see that 55 years of unblemished misogyny and a delight in betrayal were in the cards for this visit. That May didn't see this astonishes me. Politicians are so stupid. 
Today, the Sun is publishing an interview in which he says Johnson would make a "great prime minister," warned that if it isn't hard Brexit the special trade deal with the UK - upon which May was fixing delusive hopes, at least in public - is off, attacked the Mayor of London for being the wrong color, and encouraged ethnic cleansing in Europe before it is too late, what with all the migrants and such. What a vile man! I've had hemorrhoids with more ethics. May was an idiot to invite him for a state visit. Up side is, Melania got to wear a gown and see the queen. That's it for her. Now she can disappear again for a month. I dont really care. Do U?

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Poetry and the ordinary: the politics of the lyric

Ferdinand Kürnberger has achieved a paltry kind of fame in the English speaking world for a phrase that Wittgenstein chose as the motto of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “...whatever we know, and have not simply heard among the rumbles and the roars, can be said in three words.”  In Austria, it is a bit different: Kürnberger claimed to have invented the feuilleton in Vienna, and he wasn’t lying. He was one of the revolutionaries in 1848, was arrested in Germany in 1849, spent years then in exile, coming back to Vienna and becoming a popular writer of essays in the 1860s, opposing both the liberal left and the monarchist right. Out of his pocket, so to speak, sprang the whole lineage of Vienna wits – from Altenberg to Friedell to Polgar to Kraus to, in part, Musil and Wittgenstein. Certain of these names are known, others are the joy of specialists. All of them traded in names and references that grow dimmer and more obscure the further one moves from Schulerstrasse, the Viennese street where many of the great newspapers were located. The wit, with its characteristic trick of catching the stupidity of some cliche in midflight, its joy in citing and glossing, its half-swallowed Viennese German, its tag-ends of poetry, loses its impact, its  color, further afield, like flowers that doesn’t transplant.

The reason I’m mentioning him is that he wrote an essay on Poetry and Freedom in 1848 that has something to say today.
The issue, for Kürnberger, was that no poet in recent times could be called the “poet of freedom.” Such poets were, of course, common in the Romantic era. Byron, Shelley, Herder, Schiller, all were lauded in terms of a vision of liberty that ran like a fever under the skin of their poems.
Kürnberger is interested, though, in the fact that this freedom was not a present condition for these poets. They were not singing of liberty that they had, but rather, of liberty that they dreamed of. His question is: can there be a poetry of freedom?
He starts by pointing out the general poetic nullity of the current generation, and asks whether there is something about the generation that has caused it. “How could an entire generation, a, shall we say, forceful, clever generation be suddenly cut off from all poetic means? Believe that who will – I won’t. But if I don’t doubt the ability of persons, then I must necessarily doubt the ability of the thing. And thus arises, on these grounds, my sacrilegious question: Can freedom be the object of poetry, or not?”
This is a question that had occured of course to the intellectual right. De Maistre, of course, would say that freedom – as the liberals see it – divorced man from God, and collapsed the very possibility of poetry. Tocqueville, less to the right, would say that poetry requires hierarchy. But on the left, and I would put Kürnberger on the left, the only person who was really asking this question of the 1848 generation was Herzen, in Russia. Indeed, for Herzen, it put poetry itself in question.
Kürnberger makes his argument with this sense of the politics of the question in mind:
“To pose this question is perhaps the most original part of the act, while to answer with no! requires something less. Then the deduction is simple enough. What is the stuff of poetry? The affect, the passion, the pathos. But is this stuff in Freedom? No, for we shouldn’t delude ourselves as we have clearly long enough done. Freedom is totally and simply nothing positive.”
This is a conclusion that definitely seems to put Kürnberger on the side of the liberal tradition – on the side, for instance, of John Stuart Mill, who also worried about the flatness of a world that was free. These are the intellectual predecessors of Isaiah Berlin’s famous Cold War thesis.
Kürnberger then makes another deduction: that the romantic idea that poetry and freedom are connected derived not from something in Freedom, but in the condition of not being free. The blues can’t be sung, authentically, by a man with a nice cushion in his savings account. Similarly, when poetry yearns for Freedom, the yearning arises from the pain of slavery.
This leads to a passage that is quite interesting about the objects of poetry – remember, of course, this is 1848, and we are on the cusp of Baudelaire’s revolution in poetic practice - or Whitman's.
“Slavery is a sickness, freedom is health. Sickness awakens sounds in the deepest part of the breast, nature itself helps out with cries of pain, dread, complaints, sighs and groans... Health is something indifferent, and so is freedom, a thing, that is self-explanatory – only its loss is felt, but not its existence. Laocoon and his sons, martyred by the snakes, are in a setting of Pathos, are stuff for poetry; free them from this circumstance and they become three quite ordinary guys.”
This, it strikes me, is a rather flat response to Laocoon – they are after all figures in a myth, in a world of possibilities where the gods can strike them down. The ordinary, here, does too much work – as does the analogy with health. Freedom is the health of the ordinary – the metaphors click click, but they lead us away from what freedom is: the possibility of leading an ordinary life. Which is not a negative thing, but a positive description, albeit one that shifts the conceptual work from freedom to “the ordinary”.
This shift is, I think, essential to the shift in a romantic poetry of freedom to a modern poetry of freedom.
“The case for the truth, that the common goods of life cannot be the object of poetry, has been made by nobody more strongly than the singers of freedom; I can call on their own words, but turn them around against them. Was it in the young political school of poetry in Germany not discreditable to sing the moonlight, the murmuring stream, the fluting nightingale, the fields and woods and meadows? Those meadows, yes. As Heine put it, a German can sing for a span of thirty years or more the little plat behind the house of his birth, where his mother dried his undershirts. Momentarily these things utilitarian decorations of life become poetic again when an imprisoned Duke behind thick iron bars yearns for a piece of sky blue, or a flower from the fields, or in all seriousness pairses the meadow where his mother dried her washing. Already we would find it a bit more doubtful if he lamented the loss of his gold and silver, his expensive banquets or his game of cards; what is most valuable can have for the prisoner now no value, for, on the contrary, what is most royal is what was, to him, earlier, most ordinary. Now I ask the political poet whether they were right when they sang the song of freedom under the censorship? Without doubt they would answer yes, as I myself would answer. But it follows that they would not be in their poetic right when they sang the song of freedom under the realm of freedom. There are only two cases to this dilemma. Either freedom is something inordinately costly, which means its loss would not be sung, just as an elegy to a lost diamong would be a prosaic thing; or freedom is something totally simple, nakedly human, generally necessary, and then its possession will not be sung by poetry either, for a hymn to a piece of bread is a prosaic thing.”
I find this a rather fascinating text, to read against the narrative logic of various notions: that of poetry and prose, that of the ordinary, that of the meaning of freedom, that of the possibility of freedom’s loss as lending a suspicious pathos to freedom’s song. The diamond or the bread is, of course, taken up extensively in prose. But our daily bread was also taken up, throughout the Christian tradition, in a poem that all knew: the Lord’s prayer. To match the ordinary became the task of the poet under the liberal order – which led a poet like Baudelaire one way, and a poet like Whitman another way. Meanwhile, the prose of the world was rolled out – literally, by the industrialized printing press – where it found its way to the ordinary as an adventure.

Of course, it is under the loss of freedom, the absolute loss of the ordinary, that Mandelstam did write about diamonds: the Mandelstam who even protested the execution without trial of bankers, not confining himself, like a good little intellectual, to worrying about the right to dissent of writers in the writer’s union. This is a good place to stop.
I drink to military asters, to all that they've scolded me for,
To a noble fur coat, to asthma, to a bilious Petersburg day,
To the music of Savoy pine trees, to benzine in the Champs Elysee
To roses in the Rolls Royce, to oil paintings in Paris’s painted alleys
I drink to the waves of the Biscay, to cream in Alpine jugs
To the ruddy arrogance of British girls, and quinine from the colonies
I drink, but I haven’t decided... what will I choose?
Sparkling Asti-Spumante, or Chateauneuf-de-Pape?

Sunday, July 08, 2018

what to do tomorrow? and the next day? Male anguish

The larger effects of sexism appear in curious places.
Take the inexorable eight hour day.
In the nineties, an historian, Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, interviewed workers – mostly retired workers – who had participated in a famous experiment in shorter work time. The Kellogg cereal company in 1930 adopted the six hour day as the standard, raising the wages of the workers to compensate. Hunnicutt’s research resulted in a book: Kellogg’s Six Hour Day. Interesting material there.
The plant was unionized in 1940, and the workers were polled. Most of them voted to keep the six hour day, although some departments voted for the eight hour day. After schedules were scrambled during the war years, Kellogg’s returned to the six hour day.
“In mid-1946, employees reaffirmed their commitment to the short workday, with 87 percent of women and 71 percent of men voting for six hours.” Yet in ten years, the vote had totally shifted. A majority of men voted to bring back the eight hour day; only departments in which women were the majority retained the six hour day.
Hunnicutt’s interviews suggested that the change came about due to two factors. One was a change in the way management administered the work force, with the decline of the line boss as yeller and coercer and the rise of the “coach” model of management. In conjunction with this was the use of the suggestion, floated by the management and agreed to by the male work force, that there was something feminine, or sissy, about the six hour day. As Roger Whaples summarizes the argument in his review:
 Management began to denigrate and “feminize” shorter hours. National union officials were very willing to trade shorter hours for offers of hourly wage increases. But most importantly many workers,especially male employees, seem to have changed their tastes. They became embarrassed by the short hours that they were working–shorterthan the shifts worked by men at other local jobs. They changed their rhetoric, down-playing the freedom that leisure gave, and asserting that they were “unable to afford” a six-hour shift, that longer hours were needed to “‘keep the wolf from the door,’ ‘feed the family,’ and ‘put bread on the table'” (p.140). …  Ultimately, most men during the 1950s needed little convincing that eight-hours and higher pay were preferable. Six-hour workdays wouldn’t let them keep up with the Joneses and many men did not receive much enjoyment from their marginal leisure hours. “Like management, senior male workers were concerned about the loss of status and control.”
It is interesting that these factors were not in question, or were not as disturbing to men, in the 30s. Why?
I think this minor incident points to larger changes in male, specifically American white male, attitudes in the Cold War period. What has happened now, in America’s Rotten Age, is not the result of one presidential election. These currents were set in motion a long time ago. On the one hand, the U.S. has long had a stronger feminist tradition than its European co-evals, with attitudes going back to the post-Civil War period of Daisy Miller. On the other hand, a reactionary male imago has been the constant cohort of this liberatory tendency. It is a cohort made up of feed-backs, such as the lack of any respect for the humanities, which feeds back into an entertainment industry that has long ago exhausted the limits of shock (either of violent death or of industrialized fucking), which feeds back into a sort of loss in the nature/technology interface, etc.
I’ve been spending my whole life thinking that the reactionary male imago was on its last legs, but it looks like it will long, long outlast my last legs.  

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...