Friday, May 08, 2020

America the defective

Reading the comfortable neo-liberal comments that overflow the NYT opinion page and twitter, that are obviously pronounced at dinner tables and in emails that contain (attached) the latest "marvelous column by Tom Friedman, who nails it" - all of which are about Trump the barbarian and none of which are about America the defective - I am reminded of a sentence of Montesquieu's: "When Sylla wished to give liberty to Rome, Rome could no longer receive it, having only a feeble remnant of virtue left. And as it had always even less, instead of waking up after Caesar, Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, Nero, Domitian, it was ever more the slave; all blows were directed against the tyrant, none against the tyranny."

New England, 1886


Her little life lay on the bed
Concentrate as that sword
Intent, edged, unsheathed
Prophesized by the Lord
Not to bring peace but more life
Than any outside her closed door
And she interred like a knife
In the kitchen’s silverware drawer.
She awaited her chance for the attack
To be bloodied under his touch
From which there’d be no going back
- but it never came to much.
Her papers were put away
Her dresses were folded up
Her brother was heard to say
She was strange even as a pup.
- Karen Chamisso

Monday, May 04, 2020

the poet


“… the fact that the film presents extreme closeups
Of the genitals in function” made
All the stags grin monomaniacal. One became
a poet and taught the trade. In the flicker
Of his stag film eyes
what was I and I
- genitals in function in extreme closeup
underneath my underneath.
“But I guess they’re really young, and they always look beautiful”
Somebody said to somebody as I carried the party
Home on my back, like Aeneas carrying his daddy.
- Karen Chamisso

The "we" of stupidity


Robert Musil once gave a famous talke entitled “On stupidity” [Ueber Dummheit]. The title is doublesided, at once about a topic and a citation of a previous talk entitle On stupidity given given by a Dr. Johan E. Erdmann, a Hegelian philosopher, in 1866. Erdmann developed a theory of stupidity in this talk that is articulated around the metaphor of the keyhole. The stupid person, in this metaphor, sees things through a keyhole, and from this vision generalizes without limit. Thus, the stupid person sees something about sickness – or reads it in a newspaper – and immediately generalizes what he has seen. Stupidity, in Erdmann’s view, is a curious amalgam of narrowness and absolutism.

“… one’s own I would be the only keyhole, through which he looks into the stocked hall that we name the world. Stupidity is thus to be defined as the spiritual circumstance in which the particular itself and its relationship to itself figures as the single mesure of truth and value, in short: everything is judged according to its own particularity.”

Erdmann appeals to his intuition: surely one could statistically pick out the stupid person through an enumeration of the times certain expressions (always instead of often, all instead of many, and “we” [Man] instead of I) crop up in this person’s speech. Paradoxically, the egotism – the self assertion without self-consciousness – is expressed not by the “I”, which indicates partiality, but the “we”, which indicates absoluteness.

Musil’s talk was given in 1937 – an ominous year in Austria. Already, Austria was ruled by a quasi-Fascist government. The strong labor movement of the 20s had been bloodily quashed. Those who could feel how things were going were searching for tickets out. Musil places his talk in a curious non-genre – it is neither scientific nor artistic. It is speculative, and not generalizable. In short, it is essayistic, a bounding and rebounding between opposites.

In 1937, it was not “clever” to call up, by name, the stupid or the powers of the stupid. This plays a role in Musil’s essay:

“… it can be dumb, to praise oneself as clever, but it is not always clever, as well, to maintain a reputation as stupid. Nothing here allows us to generalize; or rather, the single generalization that seems to apply, must be, that it is cleverest to allow oneself to be remarked in this world as little as possible! And really, this line under all wisdom has been drawn often. Yet more often is half-use or symbolic-representative use made of this misanthropic conclusion, and then it leads our observation into the circle of the commandments against pride and yet more expansive commandments, without letting us leave the realm of dumbness and cleverness completely.”

In 1937, the wisest were becoming aware that there are moments when exiting history turns out to be impossible, and being unremarked does not matter when being remarked is not the question: only being on the list is the question.

There has been a number of literary studies about the emergence of “betise” as a modernistic theme – Roberto Calasso has noticed a lineage between Flaubert, Leon Bloy, and Karl Kraus on the subject. 

Certainly, Erdmann’s essay seems to echo traits in the paper media world, as seen by Kraus: a narrowing “we” that promotes received ideas as eternal truths. Flaubert and Bloy both associated stupidity with the bourgeoisie, the privileged audience of the press. There is another story about the rise of the paper press that is just the opposite – about the broadening of the “information flow”, the globalization that comes with the newspaper. The newspaper embodied a whole new temporal dominant: that of simultaneity. Its very layout made, say, the marriage of a princess and the sex murders of an insane criminal coexist on the front page, which gives us a very different sense of time than the traditional chronicle, where the social hierarchy is reflected in the flow of the narrative.

I would speculate that the history of stupidity in the modern era – from the nineteenth century until now, the era of capitalism – is marked by the separation of the fool from the stupid. The fool – that figure in Erasmus and Shakespeare – is, supremely, a trickster. Being a fool is a vast joke, as well as a form of what you might call transgressive simplicity: it is represented by the fool in King Lear. One of the marks of Lear’s fallen state is that he can be effected by what his fool says – as the fool shrewdly remarks.
That trickster function continues on into the era of mass circulation papers, but is very much on the margin. From the margin, what the fool sees is the power of stupidity, in which the media is complicit. Or perhaps one might say, in which the media is caught up. For Kraus, that meant that all times were end-times – because all times were filled in by stories and comments by the press, by “Zeit-ung”, which was a debasement of Zeit [“time”] itself. 

In the kind of logical paradox that Musil knotted over, this state of perpetual alarm disarmed him before the rise of Hitler, about whom he had “nothing to say.” There are dead-ends everywhere: even in calling out stupidity.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...