Friday, July 31, 2020

The colonized and the exiled

Normally, histories of Europe talk about colonialism in terms of a mother country, or center, and a periphery. But in actuality, the periphery was located in Europe itself. It was located in Europe’s peasantry. Colonialism and the agricultural revolution in Europe are parts of the same process – the process that gave us capitalism and, more generally, the process of production that has become the norm, either achieved or striven for, across ideologies, for the last century.
The doubling of the European and the American savage is the secret heart of the noble savage myth. While conventional histories attribute the noble savage idea, wrongly, to Rousseau, and attribute the savagery solely to the Indians, in actuality the topos was as much about the European peasant, about the laws and norms concerning the forest and the field, which is what Europe largely was, as much as America, up through the 17th century in England and France. And of course all through the 19th century for much of Prussia and Austro-Hungary, Italy and Spain. The peasant was always considered a savage by the city intellectual – Engels called them simply stupid, idiots, clowns (a word for rustic in the 16th century, from, one school holds, colōnus “farmer, settler – from which comes, of course, colony) - and in Vienna, around 1900, intellectuals would say things like Vienna lives in the 20th century while Galician peasants live in the fifteenth.
I’ve been thinking about this as I’m reading Claudio Magris excellent study of Joseph Roth and the culture of exiles from the Ostjuden. It is from Magris book that I learned that Roth, who was born in a shtetl, wrote an impassioned study in 1927, Juden auf Wanderschaft, of the culture and immigration of Jews from the shtetl. It begins with thunderously excommunicating introduction that reminds me very much of the Black power high notes of the 1960s:
“This book waives all applause and approval, but also even the contradictions and criticism of those who disregard, disrespect, hate and persecute the Eastern European Jews. It is not turned to those Western Europeans who, out of the fact that they were born to elevators and toilets, deduce the right to make bad jokes about Romanian lice, Galician bedbugs, and Russian fleas. This book waives as well the “objective” reader, who with his cheap and sour good intentions squints at the East and its inhabitants from the shaky towers of Western civilization; lamenting, out of pure humanity, the lack of good sewage and out of fear of infection wants to imprison the poor immigrants in barracks, leaving the solution of a social problem to mass death. This book will not be read by those who deny their own father or grandfather, who through chance escaped from the barracks. This book is not written for a reader who will take it badly of the author that he treated the object of his study with love instead of “scientific empiricism”, which is another name for boredom. “
The kickass and risky gambit of telling off your reader from the first sentence – that is how you know you are reading a writer for whom books and molotov cocktails are interchangeable. Or at least, who knows that this is one circuit of exchange.
Magris’s book, which in French is Loin d’ou, hasn’t, I think, been translated from Italian to English. Too bad. It prods a thickly covered historical lacuna: under the murder of the European Jews there was a culture that we miss more and more today, a culture in which the dialectic between the prophet – the magghid – and modernity’s “symbol workers” was seeded with ways of thinking through an escape from the ruthless cruelty of the modern treadmill of production. This too was murdered.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

notes on le carre

I read a lot of early or mid John Le Carre novels this month. Vacation, what? An interesting experience. At the back of the reader's mind is a little hole, a leak, a sense of the futility of all the excitement of finding the mole, of placing the agent, of playing the game. It had, in the end, nothing whatever to do with the end of the Soviet Union. It did, of course, end the lives of many people, and in a more general sense - as the vast price for actually making anti-communism a state activity -produced millions of casualty, besides distorting beyond repair the fragile hopes of a post WW2 social democratic order. George Smiley, that hidebound reactionary with the cheating wife, is not so much a tragic figure as a puzzling one: why waste his intelligence to become an intelligent agent? There is, in the books, not one shred of the idea that the British government is a democracy - these people could be working for Franco, or Pinochet, save for the clubbish glass of sherry or two.
In a sense, the spy novel handled by a fine writer - Le Carre goes in and out of frequency as a fine writer, but Tinker Tailor Spy still kicks ass - is a comment on meritocracy and its downfalls. The "merit" is a value judgment made by those who are already in positions of power and wealth, or rather transmitted through every media and in every institution by those who have accepted the criteria that legitimates those who already have power and wealth. In other words, you have a very conservative sense of order, which compromises with the egalitarianism of social democracy by making the social churn in that order seem like the healthy result of liberating the individual character, instead of the social condition which fiercely protects upper class prerogative and condemns those who violate a certain narrow protocol.
Of course, this is neither how those novels were produced or received. Le Carre is famously anti-American, or at least looks down on the States, but he has swallowed the most fatuously American idea on earth, that communism is evil - and when he plays the existential card with Smiley, it is all about Smiley getting tired of the "game", i.e. the old weltschmerz of the radical right that the West is too decadent not to succumb to evil communism.
This isn't quite fair - Smiley is also famously cuckolded by his wife Ann, who seems to have made up for the democratic deficit in the book by sleeping with the entire population of the UK. Le Carre is pretty bad with female characters who still have a sex life - he's good with women who have retired and retreated to the bottle, a certain kind of dissolute "aunt" figure, but otherwise this is a world antithetical to women.
I've not yet found an American Le Carre - a spy novelist with a real artist's view of the spyworld. Although Ross Thomas, from the few novels I've read, might be a competitor. Gore Vidal once wrote that E. Howard Hunt, the Watergate figure (and William Buckley's best friend - when Buckley worked in the CIA, he was under Hunt) was a good spy novelist. Maybe I'll look there.

Monday, July 27, 2020

my canon - a poem by Karen Chamisso

My canon
What’s Uh huh Uh Huh
Among all the best that has been said and thought?
In what canon
Is it to be sought?
That’s the way (uh huh uh huh)
ran up my leg and up my spine
as I bumped it out at club Limelight
in 1989.
It led me (I like it) to a sweet fuck
If not to something worse
at least from Mama’s point of view
and perhaps Wordsworth’s.
It was already a funny tune
from the age of Kitsch (uh huh uh huh)
But it melted my honey right enough
with some Georgia Tech bubba.
I’ve forgotten the particulars
(it’s the essences we remember)
- all I know is that my canon
has many different members.
- Karen Chamisso

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...