Friday, September 25, 2020

The mock-confession


The innocent have nothing to confess. Thus, by a social logic founded in both the jurisdictional and the sacred, if you confess, you cannot be innocent.

Foucault traces this logic in Discipline and Punish, going across social spaces in the 18th and 19th century to show how it was implemented – how the disciplinary regime encouraged speaking, telling, confessing, creating great rituals of it. The subject, in the Foucaultian paradigm, confesses, and becomes dependent on confession.

In the 1970s, Foucault turned away from literature. He was no longer writing about Raymond Roussel or Magritte.  A pity, for the complement to his work on the disciplinary society was the rise of the mock-confessional novel.

The roots of this novel type – under which  I would include Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, Hamsun’s Hunger, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Chris Kraus’s I love Dick – are found in the 18th century. Two texts stand out: Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew and Rousseau’s Confessions. The Rousseau text went against the social logic of confession, in as much Rousseau’s account of his corruption, or his various acts of corruption, was pitched against a certain core and impenetrable innocence. It was the latter that enabled Rousseau to write the  Confessions themselves.  His career as a writer was shaped by his experience as an innocent, although it was an innocence that,  in the real world, was continually denied by his actions and situation. While the memoirs of adventurers were quite popular in the eighteenth century, they were shaped as adventure stories, reports akin to the reports of the explorers which had become long established as a European tradition by then. Confession, with its implications – guilt and expiation – was a different kind of thing, and Rousseau was a different kind of adventurer. 

Yet, as he was well aware, confession was shaken by the decline in the old confidence in a Christian world order. In the world presided over by a benign, rational deity, confession held a diminished sacredness. It was on the verge of being wholly taken over by forensics and psychology.

That is the world in which Diderot operated, both as propagandist and analyst. Rameau’s Nephew is a figure who foreshadows the dark side of the dialectic of the enlightenment. His confession is cynical, a game that  springs not from the desire to expiate, but from the gamemaster's desire to brag, to show his tricks. He is the enlightened parasite, and even hints that enlightenment makes possible a whole new world of parasites:

“In all of this, he said lots of the things we all think, and which guide what we do, but which never get said out loud. And here, in truth, we have the most significant difference between my man and most of the people around us. He admitted to the vices he had and which everybody else has, but he wasn’t a hypocrite. He was neither more nor less horrendous than anyone else, he was simply more open, and more logical; and occasionally, he was profound in his depravity. I trembled to think what his child would become with such a master.

The composition of the Nephew of Rameau is as mysterious as everything else about it (it first appeared, in a German translation by Goethe, 30 some years after Diderot’s death). Diderot had been friends with Rousseau, but they had broken up before the Confessions were written. Whether Rousseau influenced Diderot or not, both were responding to some epistemic need abroad in the land for reckoning with the breakup of the old order. 

So much for the confessional side– but why the 'mock'?

Mock genres were also popular in the eighteenth century, especially the mock-heroic. The fashion for the mock-heroic grew out of the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. In a dialectical slight of hand, the conservatives, the defenders of the ancients, in reaction to the moderns, generated a fashion for a very modern variation on satire – cutting the heroic down to scale. This playing with scale is literal in Gulliver’s Travels, and animates some of Pope’s best work, as well as Voltaire’s. The human scale, the conservatives imply, is anti-heroic, just as a fully modern society is anti-heroic. It is this theme that insinuates itself into the Confessional novel, serving as an appropriate devise to allegorize the disenchantment of  a society in which, potentially, the quality of mercy has been well lost – in which emotions found, at best, an expression in commodity accumulation, and at worst, turned inward and created madness.

Mock, according to 19th century etymology, was connected with the gesture of pursing your lips; according to more recent etymologies, it comes from the Germanic word for mutter. Interestingly, the word migrated by one of those fatal associations that are so hard to trace, and so easy, retrospectively, to see,  from derision to imitation. We copy not just out of admiration, but also out of the impulse to caricature. One of the sure jibes of childhood is to simply repeat what someone else says – it becomes a game as the person who is copied tries to get the copier to stop it.

The mock confession, then, has a relation to the confession as the child who imitates someone else in the mocking game has to the person imitated – a weaponized echo.

One of France’s most lauded mock-confessional novels is hardly known to Anglophonia: Le Bavard, or the Talker, by Rene-Louis des Fôrets. It is so unknown that it hasn’t been translated, in spite of the fact that its admirers included George Bataille and Maurice Blanchot. Blanchot wrote an essay about it, which has oddly enough been translated  (it is included in Friendship) – so non-French readers can read about a  novel that has never been translated into English.  Blanchot’s essay is written in that prose of his, which sometimes leads to a teasing high – the reader seems to be attuned, enthrallingly, to  the sound of existentialism shattering in a thousand St. Germain apartments in the mid twentieth century evening – and sometimes leads to a nose clogging sense that all the Ciceronean abstraction is not leading us anywhere.  In my opinion, Blanchot goes wrong as soon as he treats literature as one block, separate from the talk in the streets and the inventory work of the critics – his a-historicizing gesture.  In this way, Blanchot overlooks the book’s enrollment in the line of the mock-confession, though he references it:  

“The book is entitled Le Bavard (The Talker), which could have been the title of a bit by Le Bruyère, but the novel is not the portrait of the Talker. Nor are we in the presence of one of those characters in Dostoevsky, inveterate talkers who, in their desire to make provocatory confidences, give themselves away at every moment for who they are in order to shut up all the better, even if the extenuating force of Notes from the Underground often emerges anew here. We may be tempted, as well, looking for some connection, to evoke the movement which traverses the work of Michel Leiris and in particular that page of The Age of Man where the writer finds no other source for his penchant to confess than in the refusal of saying nothing, showing that the most irresponsible utterance, that which knows no limits and no purpose, originates in its own impossibility.”

One wonders why Blanchot lifts these examples up, only to dismiss them. In particular, Leiris does give a clue, in his book, about the confessional mode – that mode that is a particular form of utterance – by calling it a catharsis.  Surely this is at the heart of the mock confession – the social failure of catharsis in a society in which mercy has been replaced by the bureaucracy of punishment.

The Talker (Le Bavard has also been translated as the Chatterer, and one could suggest other names – the Man who couldn’t shut up, for instance – but being a talker, in English, often means someone who says a lot and means little) is a small novel of three chapters. The first chapter establishes the tone and the curious lack of content. The narrator tells us things about himself, his habits, and establishes a rapport with his audience of reader/listeners, without telling us some critical facts: what he does, where he comes from, where he lives. Novelistic density is sacrificed for another kind of density – that of psychological observation. And yet that psychological observation is hedged about with caveats, and a sort of reaction, on the narrator’s part, to the hostility held, he assumes, by his listeners/readers. This is not at all the kind of tale told to people of like kind, as in one of Conrad’s novels. Just as the narrator – who opens the novel by looking in the mirror and proceeding to analyze that gesture, rather than tell us what he sees in the mirror, i.e. physically describe himself – substitutes elaborate and defensive reflection for the usual fictional “showing”, so too he attributes to his audience a sort of ambient enmity that seems closer to paranoia than some anchored relationship taht we would expect in a novel of confession: say taht of a prisoner to his guard, etc.

Within this cloud of too much and not enough knowing, the narrator recounts his first and second “crisis” –  moments when he felt a Tourette’s like impulse to talk. Characteristically, the firsr crisis occurred when there was nobody around. He was stretched out on a beach. Characteristically, too, what he actually said, or didn’t say is not represented in the book. The narrator’s account accrues, oddly, around a hole – the talk of the talker.  If is as if the phenomenology of discourse – the aboutness – has been cut adrift. This is a book that doesn’t need quotation marks, even though it is a book about talking. The second crisis occurs in a low dive, to which  the narrator, half drunk, is taken by some friends. The friends, of course, are portrayed as actually hostile to him – rather like the “friends” of the narrator in Notes from the Underground. In the dive, the narrator spots a beautiful woman dancing with a clownish, red haired man. The woman is, the narrator implies, a sex worker of some sort. The narrator butts in, dances with the woman, then buys her a drink, while her redhaired friend fumes a few tables away. And then the narrator is carried away by another Tourette-like impulse, and talks and talks to the dancer. His talking attracts a bit of a crowd, which is mostly hostile to his more and more cynical tone. Again, though, though we have an elaborate analysis of the scene, there is a hole at the center – the hole of what the narrator actually said. At the end of the monologue, the woman gets up, goes to another table, and starts laughing loudly – apparently at the narrator.

In chapter two, the narrator flees the low dive, humiliated. After threading a labyrinth of streets, he ends up in a park, where he is beaten by the red haired man, who has followed him. He awakens from his concussion in the snow of the park, and hears a chorus of schoolkids from the yard behind the wall that abuts on the park. The sound leads to something close to an epiphany. 

In chapter three – spoiler – the narrator claims that none of this ever happened. The readers - now treated as a hostile group, just outside the narrator's circle - have been tricked. And whether they like it or not, the narrator doesn't care. The end.

There is a tendency among readers of The Talker to take the third chapter as true – but in actuality, there is no more reason to believe the third chapter than to believe the first one. What is true is the tonal logic – The Talker is a move to a sort of meta-mock confession. It is as if Hamsun’s unnamed narrator, or Dostoevsky’s unnamed narrator from Notes, took everything back in the end. Although in neither case would we be utterly surprised. 

Catharsis in the mock-confession will never reach a satisfying conclusion, we will never be pure, because purity is just a way of kidding ourselves. In modernity, we can no longer rely on any absolute division between the pure and the impure. We all confess. 






Ms. M.M. visits Wallace Stevens - Karen Chamisso


When Ms. M.M. visited Wallace Stevens

At his office building where there were

“eleven or twelve white marble columns along the façade”

(her famous precision on parade

but not too much – there’s the fatal “or”

to remind us of what poetry is for

and of what good manners requires as well)

and a wide window, otherwise indescribable

letting the banal Connecticut sunlight through.

No doubt Mr. Stevens had a lot to do

But he did show M.M. his secretarial pool


where the actuarial tools

were applied, and procedures for getting reimbursed

if your property had been cursed

by fire, theft, or a smell in the air.

The girls all smiled. “They aren’t bothered with strikes there;

the girls at the Hartford have it nice.” 

Said Ms. M. M. – do her words take a slice?

Or were they just words, and thus  meant quite sincerely?

Then it was over as begun, over merely.


Neither one showed the other the truth

- that they were monsters, monsters on the loose.




Thursday, September 24, 2020

two cheers for cancel culture

 From the now defunct willetts site:

Cancel culture was born on October 18, 1924, when a pamphlet was thrust upon the world entitled: A Cadaver. The subject of the pamphlet was Anatole France, a Nobel prize winning author whose death, on October 12, 1924, was announced on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: Anatole France Great Author dies … Author of “Thais” and “Le Jongleur de Notre Dame” Classed as Leader of Modern Stylists”. The writers of A Cadaver (Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, etc.) were having none of this. The pamphlet was a surrealist action of the most violent and definitive kind. Breton classed Anatole France with the “cops”, and wrote: “With Anatole France, a little human servility goes out the door.” Eluard, under the heading, An Old man Like the Others,  wrote mockingly to France: “The harmony, ah, the harmony, the knot of your tie, my dear corpse, your brain on the side, everything arranged beautifully in the coffin and the tears that are so sweet, aren’t they?” But it was Louis Aragon who really ripped poor Anatole France’s corpse another asshole. Under the heading: “Have you ever slapped a dead man?” Aragon attacked the whole idea, the stink and the shallowness of “beautiful writing”, and wrote: “I declare that every admirer of Anatole France is a degraded being.” It is polemic in the highest ranting style:

What flatters you in him, what makes him sacred, please leave me in peace, is not even the talent, which is arguable, but the vileness, which permits the first louse that comes along to exclaim : How is it that I never thought of this before !

And, the peroration:

“Today I am in the center of that mildew, Paris, where the sun is pale, where the wind entrusts its horror and its inertia to the smokestacks. All around me I see a dirty, poor busy-ness, the movement of the universe where all greatness becomes an object of derision. The breath of my interlocutor is poisoned by ignorance. In France, they say, everything ends up as a song. Let he who dies in the heart of the general beatitude go up in smoke in his turn! There is little that remains of a man. It is even more revolting to imagine that one, who was, in any case, a man. On certain days, I dream of an eraser that could wipe out all of this human stain.”

This is how you do cancellation, my droogs.

In this case, the surrealists succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. By 1930, literary lights like Blaise Cendrars were claiming that France was “boring,” and Andre Gide put in the boot by saying that his oeuvre was “not considerable”. Yet when he was alive, Anatole France held a position in the overlapping worlds of literature, culture and politics that was similar to that held by, for instance, Saul Bellow in the U.S. It is hard to imagine Saul Bellow being spit on to this enormous extent when he died…

Except that Bellow did, in a sense, imagine it. Bellow sampled his own heckling by students in 1968 by working up a similar scene in Mr. Sammler’s planet:

“A man in Levi's, thick-bearded but possibly young, a figure of compact distortion, was standing shouting at him.

"Hey! Old Man!"

In the silence, Mr. Sammler drew down his tinted spectacles, seeing this person with his effective eye.

"Old Man! You quoted Orwell before."


"You quoted him to say that British radicals were all protected by the Royal Navy? Did Orwell say that British radicals were protected by the Royal Navy?"

"Yes, I believe he did say that."

"That's a lot of shit."

Sammler could not speak.

"Orwell was a fink. He was a sick counterrevolutionary. It's good he died when he did. And what you are saying is shit." Turning to the audience, extending violent arms and raising his palms like a Greek dancer, he said, "Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He's dead. He can't come."

At the time Mr. Sammler’s Planet came out, George Orwell had already assumed a rank at the top of the pantheon of brave “truth-tellers”, so the cancellation of Sammler and of Orwell together in one taunt – such a bearded and testosteroned one too! - was loaded with voltage. Of course, Bellow’s characters are always haunted by a ghost at the heel, taunting them with the idea that they are only ham actors, all of their beautiful thoughts only occasions for various big wig louses to say, how had I never thought of that before! Charley Citrine has Von Humboldt Fleisher, and Herzog of course is in flight from Valentine Gersbach. But in this gallery Sammler is special, since his cancellation moment is so entirely public, and so entirely on terms that Bellow felt were the only real terms – such was Bellow’s problem with women. 

Twitter has become, for the media establishment, what the heavily bearded young man was for Artur Sammler – an emblem of the end of the world in sheer barbarism and blasphemy and insulting of George Orwell. Of course, in the media establishment, it is very hard to get canceled. Noam Chomsky managed to do it by criticizing American foreign policy after the Vietnam war, when the wound was healed and all bien-pensant American “thought leaders” agreed that America had the most adorable and charming plans for the rest of the world (and was only being misunderstood as it spent trillions on the military and put these plans into effect by invading Panama City here, helping the stray Salvadorean death squad there, droning (accidentally!) some Yemeni wedding over in the corner, and so on). Otherwise, you will never find the deck chairs changing very much on the opinion pages of the great dailies, nor will you find Meet the Press or that ilk of tv inviting on anybody ‘foreign” or really anybody except its usual quota of great white male politicos and pundits. Even when a figure, like Mark Halperin, is discovered to be a serial groper and goes down, his media friends have a hard, hard time letting him go – as do his friends in both party establishments – and they keep campaigning to uncancel that pitiful mook.

Of course, the media establishment does not extend this courtesy to the rest of toiling humanity. The NYT business page looks on with equanimity when a corporation, stuffed to the gills with cash, decides a mass layoff is just what they need. You will never hear the words “cancel culture” applied in such cases. Rather, it is a matter of cash flow. When Uber recently “downsized” its work force, this is how the New York Times reported it:

“In response, Mr. Khosrowshahi has shaken up Uber’s top ranks and tried to cut costs. After cutting jobs in the marketing team in July, he instituted a monthlong hiring freeze and instructed executives to re-evaluate the size of their teams. In addition, he pushed out top executives, including his chief operating officer and chief marketing officer. Uber’s board has also undergone some turnover.”

When, on the other hand, a twitter user made a joke about Bret Stephens being a bedbug, the NYT not only permitted Stephens to write a whole column about it in which the great Stephens compared himself to all those who suffered at Auschwitz, but various member of the media, who gathered around Bari Weiss at her recent coming out party, sniffed loudly about the de-platformin’, generally wrong-headed youth, spiritual descendants of Louis Aragon, louts all:

MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, who has frequently hosted Weiss on her morning show, deplored “cancel culture.” “On a regular basis,” she said, “people say to me, ‘I wouldn’t say that in public.’ As soon as people start to retreat and not share their views, it’s bad for society and culture.” – from Boris Kachka, New York magazine

Times, admittedly, have changed since an Anatole France could be celebrated as a master “stylist” on the front pages of great American newspapers. Bourgeois society’s need for intellectual legitimation – for a certain protective, brainy smugness – is now supplied by a legion of pop scientists, mostly white, male, and willing to consider the tough questions: such as, why does nature shower white males (such as me) with such genius and brilliance and money? And the answer they come up with is – it must be the genes! The function, though, is the same. Anatole France, it must be said, was not as much of a smug idiot as our current iterations of Steven Pinker. His reputation went into a tailspin, but one has to say that a man who could attract kudos from such various sources as Edmund Wilson, who devoted a chapter of Axel’s Castle to him, Ford Maddox Ford, who named Conrad, James and France as the great novelists of his younger days, and Kenneth Burke, was not a total loser. Proust took certain elements from France’s life and made him into the character Bergotte, which is, sadly (for France, at least), how he is best remembered in the Anglophone world. 

Still: hooray for the surrealists! And hurray for the twitter mob! There is something so, well, right about Stephanie Ruhle’s friends whispering their sweet little bigotries in her ear and then admitting that they are afraid to say them in public. Not, of course, that they won’t – to the chauffeur, to the maid, to the clerk at the store, or to any unfortunate who serves them at a restaurant, over and over again.

The hallmark of cancel culture is the fact that the firing, the layoff, so admired in America – Trump is, literally, president because he starred in a reality show that was all about firing people – has now been seized by the fired. They are, as it were, firing back. Louis Aragon, at least the Louis Aragon who, as a mere cricket, shit on all the literary bigwigs, would be pleased.



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 ...