Saturday, May 22, 2021

What then is useful to the bee: a poem by Karen Chamisso


“Honeysuckle. So named because of the old

but entirely erroneous idea that bees extracted

honey therefrom. The honeysuckle is useless to

the bee.”


What, then, is useful to the bee?

My world,  penned in by human pride

Allows me to see as I see

Through the two eyes on either side


Of one nose – unlike the bee

Who sports two eyes for domestic tasks

And three ocelli

To make impressionistic tracks


Among the flowering vegetation –

What can I know

About such kinds of navigation

About what it’s like to go


About, laughing up your sleeve

At the honeysuckle’s vain imposture?

I don’t even bring in the sheeves.

I lay on my sheets as useless as an oyster.




Friday, May 21, 2021

The American blat


Ferdinand Lundberg, in 1939, wrote a book about the sixty wealthiest families in America. He made the audacious claim that these families collectively owned and directed most of America’s wealth – her industrial capacity, her speculative/financial sector, her raw materials. He names the families and engages in the tedious geneological work of showing how marriage and strategic alliances maintain and expand fortunes that have their roots, many of them, in the 19th century. He goes there from the first sentence in the book, which proclaims: “The United States is owned and dominated today by a hierarchy of its sixty richest families, buttressed by no more than ninety families of lesser wealth.” He claims that behind the de jure democratic form of government is a de facto government, “absolutist and plutocratic.”

 Now, it is a difficult business, tracking family fortunes. For one thing, “family” is a misleading category. Lundberg’s families are really more like the famous modern Russian clans, blat. Numbers of families and associates are held together in a web of mutual interests, which one can generally call after the family name of those who founded it. Thus, to use Lundberg’s first family, the Rockefellers, we can see that a Carnegie marrying a Rockefeller (a scion of one of the branches), which occurred when J. Stillman Rockefeller married Nancy C. S. Carnegie, grandniece of Andrew. Lundberg, incidentally, is a deadeye for those middle names. Where does “Stillman” come from? It comes from James Stillman, whose daughter married a Rockefeller. Stillman was the founder of National City Bank, now known as Citibank.

 Corporations as fronts for blat are an understudied subject of capitalist culture in America. Scratch the self-made description in Forbes, and you will find some blat money flowing. Famously, General Motors began on Du Pont money. An actual Du Pont was the CEO of GM in the 1920s, but a company doesn’t have to have such a direct connection to be, well, connected. The Ames family fortune helped found General Electric. Apple Corporation was shepherded through its early years by the Nautilus Fund, connected to Eaton Vance, one of the first mutual funds in the U.S., based in Boston. You can find the branches of a number of Brahmin families in looking through the Eatons and the Vances. Their life stories are all edited in the newspapers after the sixties, when it was no longer cool to show, so evidently, the source of the money that sent one to prep school and then to Princeton.

If Lundberg is right, then American historians have truly missed the boat. It would be like historians of 15th century France ignoring the nobility and misunderstood the form of French government. In other words, historians have treated the United States as though it were permanently the country Tocqueville described, but it is really, since Tocqueville’s time, the country of magnates and their sons and daughters that Henry James wrote about.





Thursday, May 20, 2021

On method: advice from the puppeteer

 In Kleist's essay, On the Marionette Theater, Kleist presents a dialogue between himself and a marionette master concerning theater and the relation of the marionette to the human actor. The master voices the idea that even human actors display their souls not in their voices but in the bodies and their movements.

"Just look at that girl who dances Daphne", he went on. "Pursued by Apollo, she turns to look at him. At this moment her soul appears to be in the small of her back. As she bends, she look as if she's going to break, like a naiad after the school of Bernini. Or take that young fellow who dances Paris when he's standing among the three goddesses and offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located (and it's a frightful thing to see) in his elbow."
These examples are not neutral - they gather and explode in his next passage:
" Misconceptions like this are unavoidable," he said, " now that we've eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back."
That methodological circumnavigation, in search of the back door to paradise, is how the older hermeneutics, the taking of allegory seriously, the gnostic pickings at the lock of Biblical verses projected to the world at large, survived in the culture of bourgeois capitalism. Without paradise, or without scenting some paradise now closed to us, it becomes pointless, out of joint, a mere deathrattle from an automaton.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

TSE and me

 Everybody has his or her year of genius, a yar in which neurons configure into revelations. For some it is at age five, for others, at age 65. Everything becomes a portal. You see your life globally. You see your life in a grain of sand or a raindrop. And you see, in a brilliant flash, the alien, strange, other-than-you life of the grain of sand or the raindrop.

For me, that age was approximately fourteen. 1972, 1973 – ninth grade. In the summer between the eighth and ninth grade, I made a fair amount of pocket change, for a kid, bagging ice for my Dad. Dad owned an ice company, due to, well, the absurdity that ruled like a broken mirror’s curse over my Dad. The company went belly up in, I believe, 1975.
For me, this money meant I could buy three things that helped nudge along my revelatory neuronal path: a television set, which I took into my room, a couple of Dylan albums, my first – Bringing it all back Home and Highway 61 – and a subscription to William Buckley’s National Review, then at the height of its intellectual powers. The tv made me independent of my family’s preference for Network programs. I, on the other hand, tuned into public tv, and was thus initiated, via a series of Bergman films and a series on World Cinema hosted by Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin, into the higher civilization of film, where despair was common and an occasional naked woman was to be seen – which was a big plus for a 14 year old.
The Dylan albums are self-explanatory, love em or hate em.
And the National Review was perfect for my self-fashioning as a little conservative. But they were even more than fantastic for my self-fashioning in general, since the standard of the writers in the general section was high, although tending towards the ultra-right – let’s hear it for Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, folks! – and the arts and manners and books section had writers like Guy Davenport and the crazy and now obscure novelist, D. Keith Mano.
Davenport’s review of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era is an oddly important document for me – it was published in May 1972, and I still remember the names, the strange names in it: Apollinaire, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound. I had my nose against the shop window of the higher civilization that I knew existed outside of Clarkston Georgia. I have recently been looking through the correspondence between Davenport and Kenner, and enjoying a nostalgic thrill from the names of that time. Frank Meyer, who remembers Frank Meyer? Only old old movement people – the conservative movement, not the SDS.
I remember some of my eighth and ninth grade teachers, lovely people. But this is not, alas, the story of a stripling being taken under the wing of some wise English teacher. That would have been nice and Hollywoodish, but instead, I was taken under the wings of the Clarkston High School Library and the Decatur Library. It was at this time that the library stepped up for me, not as a place to find a picture book for a book report, but as this fantastic paradise where I could pick the fruit for free.
I discovered Dostoevsky, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein. I discovered Joyce – the Dubliners and the Portrait of an Artist. I discovered “modern” art, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Duchamp, etc. If I went back to the art books today, I’d probably smile at how bad the photographic reproductions were, but for me at the time, this was all amazing.
As well, I discovered poetry. Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, those were my ticket beyond the shop window, aforementioned.
Eliot, I swallowed whole. He’s been my symbiot since. Knock Prufrock and the Wasteland out of me and you might as well kick me to the curb, because much of what makes me the me that is typing this would be lost.
Eliot of course went along with my young conservative styling, the nostalgia I imbibed from all those National Reviews. As I got over my genius year, I drifted far, far away from young conservativism, but I still liked Eliot’s elegant, elegiac sense of our modern decay – desolation row.
When I went to college, Eliot’s grip on the humanities, ie the literature departments, was loosening. It was becoming clearer that subjecting all poetry to critical techniques that work for a few metaphysical poets might be a mistake. The canon of the right ones – Herbert, Donne – and the wrong uns – Shelley, Tennyson – was breaking down.
What if “the existing monuments: did not “form an ideal order among themselves?” What if the monuments were more like kaleidoscopes? What if romanticism wasn’t some horrid blotch? Maybe trading a sour Christian order in which the vast majority was kept in ignorance and fear for the “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” was not a bad deal?
Eliot’s is an odd fate. Here was a man who refused to tread the path he could easily have tread. He could have ended up teaching at Columbia, like Lionel Trilling, instead of being a bank employee on the verge of a nervous breakdown. From which he went not into academia, but into publishing, become a Faber and Faber man. Yet, especially after WWII, and especially in certain American universities, Eliot’s critical stance was embedded in the orthodoxy of literature as a discipline.
That was never going to last. The explosive growth of higher education was moving the great unwashed – such as me – into the classroom. That unwashed was, at first, eager for the washing – and then began to consider that perhaps the washing should go the other way around.
For me, my genius age had some dire and dreadful consequences. It put me on the course of imitating my heroes and never adapting to the discipline of classroom specialization. My reading, even in college, was done under the precepts of idiosyncratic programs I made up for myself, in my head. This made me, in essence, an amateur. An autodidact. A crank. Modernism, as a literary phenomenon, is gloriously, incorrigibly crankish. It embraces Poe in Baudelaire or Mallarme’s translation. It veers with Pound towards Frobenius. It pretends with Wittgenstein to have never read the canonical philsophers.
The crank in me is always making up its own paradigms, which fail, because paradigms, by definition, are common and not idiosyncratic things. Idiosyncratic things are tics. Thus, my genius year and my life as a loser – or, more generously, as a crank – are tied together. This became evident to me when I was in grad school. All the dreaming about garrets when I was fourteen was not good for me.
I think the crankish side of TSE – the man who liked to put on purple lipstick when he went out, from time to time – was taken out of him by his disciples, who were succeeded by people who identified Eliot with his disciples and said: no thanks. I no longer pay much attention to Eliot’s idea of the canon - William Carlos Williams is now in the captain’s tower in my head. But I’m infinitely grateful to him. I’m faithful to the crank I met at fourteen.
The poetry. The poetry. That is the main thing.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...