Saturday, April 20, 2019

on sebald's vertigo: an article at Willett's Magazine

In 1821, Stendhal was on his downers. He had fled Italy on the advice of certain authorities, who knew he was in line to being scooped up by the cops because of his association with certain  revolutionaries. His hated father had died – on the bright side – but his inheritance was paltry – on the down side. So he was in Paris, making the rounds of the salons of the opposition, and writing journalism for the English papers from the scoops he’d gather. It was in these conditions, between brilliant banter and nostalgia, between personal penury and the hôtels of the bourgeois grandees, that he  sat down and wrote his first book – which was also the first tryout of his pseudonym (his real name was Henri Beyle). On its publication, Love [De l’amour] was received, even among his friends, as a puzzle or a mystification. In an essay on Stendhal in the London Review of Books, Tim Parks noted that Etienne-Jean Delécluze, in whose salon Beyle met the leading lights of the liberal opposition, “wondered whether the pages might have been bound in the wrong order.” Beyle claimed that the book only sold seventeen copies. The feeling of being wrong-footed by this book is often shared by contemporary readers, who find in the book a confusing mixture of aphorisms, anecdotes, and the dry remains of a treatise on passion within the framework of Beyle’s creaky old master, Cabanis, the inheritor of the enlightenment sensualist tradition that reduced all claims, transcendental or aesthetic, to the hedonic facts of human physiology – that is, to pleasure and pain.  This seems a framework ill suited to Beyle’s attempt to show that love of a certain type – passional love, which seems to find pleasure in its pain, and pain in its pleasure – is the true measure of human elevation, but such is the course he lays out for himself. It even becomes his measure for assessing the level of cultural liberty within the different societies of Europe.
One hundred and sixty nine years later, W.G. Sebald published his first “novel”, Vertigo [Schwindel. Gefühle], also a wrong-footing book in as much as its tone and subdued narrative – if narrative there is – seem contrary to the canons of fiction in our time. The first chapter is entitled “Beyle: or love is a madness most discrete.” Sebald, drawing largely from Love  and other autobiographical writings, constructs a portrait of Beyle  that, behind the reader’s back,  employs certain fictional slights of hand, displacements of fact, distortions of context, amalgamation of incidents, to produce a Beyle who corresponds in some larger recognizable sense to the historical figure, but in the narrower sense corresponds to that figure very much caught in the narrator’s filling in, for his own purposes, of the historical lacuna. His very use of “Beyle” instead of “Stendhal” has a de-familiarizing thrust, in as much as it points to the duplicity of “Stendhal”: one of the affects of a pseudonym is the feeling it gives of making the bearer of the real name something of an imposter, a fake, a counterfeit, a parvenu in the domain of his own fame and reputation.  
Sebald wrote his book in the 1980s – which was a time, not unlike the 1820s, when the predominant political tone was one of restoration, with the power in place (Thatcherism, Reaganism) overtly working against the democratic socialist ideals of the period between 1945 and 1980. The latter had legitimated itself, vaguely, with reference to the ideals of the Atlantic revolutions, and not surprisingly the French Revolution was busy being “re-evaluated” by conservative historians during the 80s, and blamed for all the evils of totalitarianism.  Yet Sebald’s work is usually not connected to this background, but rather to World War II. Born in 1944, Sebald carried with him a certain cloud of melancholy that was all about the Nazi era that he never really experienced, but that marked all the adults around him in the Germany in which he grew up. It was like he was born on the exitus of some black hole. There are accidents you keep looking back on all your life, and understandably, for a European, the meat mangle of World War II is one of those kinds.  This motif pervades one of Sebald’s most important essays, History and Natural History, an essay on the literary description of total destruction…, which was published in 1982 and caused a large and continuing controversy in Germany, because of the weight it put upon the air bombardment of Nazi Germany – which struck some people as an apologetic and nationalist move, even though Sebald was neither a nationalist nor particularly into any school that made Germany a “victim”. In that essay, Sebald asks how one can create an “authentic literary reflection” about the “extreme reality of our time”  – which is a question that is partly answered in his series of novels, beginning with Vertigo.
Can one, then, ask about the “extreme reality” of Sebald’s own time? Read the rest (warning: this is a long motherfucka) here:

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Poem for today

Ask the man all skilllless and off
Upon whose face noiseless time has crept on weather
In what veiny ruin his childhood coughs 
Itself to sleep in wild blue forever
But don’t expect prophecy, amigo:
Though twigs and dirt stick in his beard
The oracles were all shuttered long ago
And God sings lonely in the mockingbird.

Cathedral and forest

« Toutes ses figures sont des mots; tous ses groups sont des phrasses ; la difficulte est de les lire. » - Huysman, La cathédrale

The nineteenth century went crazy about architecture. As Haussman went about bulldozing the ancien regime in Paris, the gothic craze and statuemania made Paris streets into a spectacle for stone eyes. Ruskin in England had an influence that it is now difficult to understand: his melding of architectural critique and red Toryism – an aristocratic anarchy, protesting against the industrial age as a huge smudge enveloping human life – was so important to Gandhi that he made the anti-industrial, home cottage message into a program of independence. Viollet-le Duc made the case for restoring the gothic cathedrals of France – and even if restoration here sometimes seems like vampirism, it did succeed in making France aware of its vast fleet of stone spires and towers. Perhaps the last architectural critique with this popular pull was Adolf Loos in Vienna, whose pamphlet about ornament kicked off a functionalist revolution – a sort of anti-statue mania.

The esotericists were as busy with the newly discovered cathedrals. Employing the archeological method – the digging up of old writing systems and the translating of them – the esoteric interpretation of cathedrals was a sort of popular sport among Rosicrucian fans. The standout text in the 20th century is by a pseudonym, whose identity is disputed to this day: Fulcanelli.
Fulcanelli wrote two books: One with the very fullbodied title,  Les Demeures Philosophales Et Le Symbolisme Hermetique Dans Ses Rapports Avec L'Art Sacre Et L'Esoterisme Du Grand-Oeuvre, which I’d translate and truncate as Philosophical dwellings and hermetic symbolism; and the other, The mystery of the cathedrals. The latter was translated into English and published by an organization based in Las Vegas called “The Brotherhood of Life”. This ain’t no Dan Brown mismash, but the real goods, on the Gurdjieff level. Whoever Fulcanelli was, he knew his literature, and he knew the key principle: by indirection find direction out. Whoever he was – the cloud of unknowing around Fulcanelli served its purpose well, in the shadowy channels of “secret knowledge”. He presented himself, in the texts, as an alchemist. Certain occultists – the kind that show up in Gravity’s Rainbow at the White Visitations – claim to have known him.  In the 1920s, philology started to become modernist. Instead of reading poetry as the inspired expression of the poet, one began to read it as a machine in which the standardized parts functioned quite apart from the individual variations of the makers, even as those variations produced the real cultural value of the machines – the machine, as it were, churns out the poet, rather than the other way around. This form of reading, which sometimes seems to be a reading against the grain of the text (the key terms here are irony and ambiguity), was employed as well by the esoterists and alchemists – in fact, surely the New Criticism has certain occult roots. What doesn’t?

Mediapart made fun, today, of the proliferation of Hugo references – although the citations of Hugo are rarer. As one who tried to leap into Notre-Dame de Paris myself, a few years ago, and was defeated about the time the gypsy queen saved the poet, I can understand not digging through that gargoyle strewn text. Huysman, who went from Satanist to Catholic ultra, was converted as much by the cathedral itself, and its messages, as anything in the Gospels. And me? I am not a Christian, but a Spinozist, or perhaps no -ist at all. To me, the cathedrals and the pictures I have seen of Hindu temples in India at the same time are amazingly alike – buildings that are forests. And I believe in forests.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Perennial article about plutocracy and managed capitalism

We've all noticed, those of us denizens of twitter, commenters on newspaper comment spaces and the like, that any time a vague and distant hint arises that the rich in America might be oh, oh, slightly too… rich in some newspaper column, expressed by some leftleaning politico, etc., twitter, comment section, and pundit spaces in the NYT are reliably flooded by screeds against socialism and for the American way.

It makes me long for a snappy way to point out that capitalism was not abolished in the U.S. in the fifties, nor was the Reagan tax cut on the wealthiest the second coming of Adam Smith in the eighties. What is funny about the rabid defense of the wealthy is that I imagine it often comes from the non-wealthy. It isn’t like billionaires are into making comments in comment boxes. Or even, save for Elon Musk and Trump, tweeting themselves - they've got factotums for that.  But what they are defending is, of course, absolutely against their interests. It is the great American paradox: the almost saintly disinterestedness of the American householder in defense of systematic greed.

There are a number of ways to redistribute wealth down. Imagine, for instance, that unions had been strong enough, back in the eighties, to peg earnings to the ratio between upper management and the lowest paid functionaries in a company. Back then, the ratio was about 70 to 1 – today, it averages something like 300 to 1. If the unions had done this and the CEO level had succeeded in extorting the pay packages they had today, we would be living in a utopia in which the merest entry level receptionist would be taking home 150-200 thou. This would be excellent – except of course that corporations would no longer make profits. Instead, they’d be pouring all their cash into paying their workforce. Still, at the 70 to 1 ratio, upper management’s efforts to increase their compensation packets would have significantly pulled the earnings up of the entire workforce.

Unfortunately, when you don’t have powerful unions, you have to rely on the countervailing powers of the state. You have to work, then, to raise the taxation on the upper tier considerably. You have to do this not only because you need to pay for public investments, but because there is a macro good to great income equality. For one thing, it discourages economic activity that is, in reality, mere churning. Looking at the mortgage mess, one can see more and more clearly how the fantastic, Pirenesian structure of false economic activity has worked since 2001. It has allocated money not to the most productive, but to the most churnful. For another thing, more equality now means more equality latter. As the gap widens between the resources of the rich and the not-rich, it becomes exactly what we socially reproduce. Those non-rich who, for instance, decided that the death tax, otherwise know as the estate tax, was just terribly unfair to their children actually screwed their children terribly, because they are not leaving the kids fortunes, whereas the fortunate few are – thus aggravating the already unfair structure that separates rich from non-rich children. The cost of abolishing the estate tax is borne by the non-rich in such areas as trying to get their kids into top schools and the like.

But what most impresses me about expropriating a good share of the wealth of the wealthy is its environmental impact. As anybody with the eyes to see can see, the last twenty years have been years of great GDP growth in many countries. In fact, the whole Tom Friedman-esque economy is oriented towards steroiding GDP. Why? Because if you are going to have increasing inequality, growth is the way that the middle income sector – the vastly more numerous non-rich – can, at least, maintain their lifestyles. But GDP growth could also be called the Diminishing Environmental Return. DER is the natural result of overexploiting a system that is limited in many ways. Put up a zillion towers for cell phones, and you can say bye bye to songbird populations – make your McMansions of tropical wood, and strew them with the kind of wiring that gives you 24/7 instaconnectoinstamaticinstatubelivegirlsxxxxpronomatic action, and you can say bye bye to the environment of Sumatra. Down the intertubes it goes. It is an incredible waste of resources, which is the total result of the elite decision to grossly exacerbate the wealthiest’s share of the wealth. With a greater equality of income, of course, GDP doesn’t have to grow as fast. The drift of our current society into endless war, endless stupidity, an endlessly degraded public sector, the unwinding of all those hard fought democratic gains of the last one hundred years, is the direct result of a simple arithmetic ratio. To repair this – to go back to the managed capitalism, as Kuttner calls it, of the past – isn’t socialism – it is the self interest of the vast mass of American citizens.

Unfortunately, all of these arguments keep coming up against the odd argument that the rich "earn" their wealth. And the answer is always - no, in capitalism, wealth is created by the producers, i.e. the workers. 
Which is why arguments that tend to go to sports stars or musicians are really besides the point. The same amount of work and ingenuity can be valued by the "market" - or by the various devices by which one gets into the market - in wildly differing ways. Ayn Rand's Fountainhead was refused by a number of publishers, and she was about to let it go into the desk drawer, when some editor at Bobbs Merrill decided he'd fight to get his company to publish the book. Unpublished or published, it was the same book. What we call earning is a social act. It is, of course, not a one to one act. I may eat my spinach by myself - the eating and digestion are individual. But I never earn money by myself - it is an infinitely mediated act.
All of which is a philosophical point that is besides the point. If a countervailing power to plutocracy exists within a state that can cause the levying of a heavy, heavy tax on the wealthy - it should do so pronto. There is no enjoyment people get from money they aren't using to live on - the enjoyment is in the power it gives them. And the power it gives their children and allies. Fine. In the power struggle, the vast majority can use democracy to severely limit that power.
The economic effects of this we can observe empirically. Is it really the case that a high marginal tax rate on the wealthy keeps the wealthy from fullfilling the roles that they are lauded for - investing and managing? Will the middle class or the working class or the poor be hurt because the wealthy are divested of a considerable part of their wealth? Empirically, the answer is obviously no. The only argument the wealthy have is that the economy grows quicker when they are allowed to retain their wealth. I think this is a very poor argument.
Robert Reich has an excellent idea: instituting a 70 percent marginal tax on those incomes over a million per year. Do it! This, too, will become full of holes - and the holes will have to be plugged up. Taxation is not a one time only process. But there is ample proof that a high tax rate does work on expropriating wealth from the wealthy. It is for this reason, of course, that the wealthy oppose it. 


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...