Saturday, October 30, 2021

Diaries, letters and novels


Virginia Woolf once began a diary entry by saying that the day had been dreary and that nothing happened. Then she reproached herself: this was no way for a writer to treat even a day on which nothing seemed to happen. She compared such days to trees in winter. The glory of the tree, the leaves, have fallen, and all that is left are bare branches and the trunk. One tends not to see the tree, then. And yet it is in this state that you can most see the tree, its growth against the damage of insect, lightning strike, impoverished soil, and weather – in short, what it had become.

I think that is a rather brilliant comparison, even though writing for others is all about brilliant and hyperreal days, where the criminal is escaping the police, where the adulterous love affair begins to germinate at the party, where Madame Bovary takes poison and spontaneous cumbustion claims the ragman. But the forest in which these events take place is vast, and consists of dreary or happy days where nothing happened, and nobody looked.

I like the fact that Woolf knew that is exactly where she should look.

Given the diary’s chronographic power, there is an obvious allure here for the novelist, ever alert to find among text types in real use – catalogs, memos, or the diary’s cousin, letters – matter with which to incorporate story. In the 18th century, at least, letters – in Les liaisons dangereuses, in Clarissa, in Die Leiden der jungen Werther, in La nouvelle Heloise – were inseparable from plot. But the realistic novel pulled away from the allure of diary and the letter for the main part. The realistic novel, and its multiple permutations, liked to find an escape route marked in the social – hence the image of a mirror carried down a road – where self-reflection and action could pierce through happy days, sad days, and nothing days to give us the larger picture. That picture was heroic – even if the modern hero was not at all the ancient hero. The former was not the founder of the city, but a dweller within it, or a renegade without it. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” – the first sentence of David Copperfield – was emblematic of the realistic novel, which was attached by every social bond to the hero of some type.

The diary and the letter are marked by a different affordance– the affordance of the detail. The detail, in the novel, pulls us in the direction of inertia, and is used as a counter-force to heroic action, which pulls us towards the heroic social position: even Raskolnikov’s, as a repentant murderer. There is a certain narcissism that administers the diary and letter, and that whittles the detail to its proportions. Narcissism, in the Freudian schema, precedes the ego. It is all partial objects and the tentative advance into language, the pulling back to the I from investment in the outer object. In Freud’s essay, Introduction to the Theory of Narcissism, Freud plays with the idea of  hypochondria as having a moment in every form of neurosis – and being itself a kind of neurotic process, shaped by an anxious play  with the erogenous dynamic of the object.  The detail that creeps into the diary – however that detail reveals itself, as conversation recalled, choses vues, a family, love, or job situations  – has this hypochondriac aura. “…. Hypochondria stands in a similar relationship to paraphrenia [schizophrenia} as the other active neuroses stand to hysteria and compulsive disorders, and thus depends on the I libido as the other from the object libido: the hypochondrial fear being the counterpart of the I-libido elevated to neurotic anxiety.”

 A flat materialist  history of the novel and its form might see the diary and letter as simply available text types to make the fiction plausible. But that plausibility, in Freudian terms, is shot through with the socialization of the libido, which provides a hidden dynamic within each form: the direction of the libido in diaries and letters is, on this account, something that is difficult to colonize under the realistic regime, and resists the escape route through the social.  Rather, it exists, with its insistence on the something there of blank days, as a continual temptation and taunt, standing just outside  fiction’s playing field.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Hazlitt's body under the bed


Two images of the artist’s posterity – that shaky successor of the afterlife. Not that, as is generally said in an overview of this type, the afterlife is dead. I think that, on the contrary, the vast majority in all regions of the World still believe in some kind of afterlife. But among the makers of public opinion – the college educated, the managerial, the “creatives” – the afterlife, like a lightbulb left on too long, has gone out.

Yet among that same group, it is easy to get a contest going by, for instance, proposing a list of names of the contemporary philosophers who will be remembered – or artists, or poets, or actors, etc. Being remembered/being the greatest – this is both a parlour game and the serious business of culture, which is not only a matter of social reproduction but of memory reproduction.

Two images, then; The first is from Diderot, who staked out a strong pro-posterity position. He claimed, in a series of letters to an artist named Falconet, that posterity acted as the great motive to the artists. It is, when one considers it, an odd claim for a man whose own work was so often written under a pseudonym or distributed in such an underground fashion that one of his key works – Rameau’s Nephew – first appeared in a German translation by Goethe some forty years after Diderot’s death. Yet perhaps not so odd, for Diderot’s image of posthumous fame is a firm twist on the notion of the name being handed down for generations.

« Because it is  sweet to hear, during the night, a flute concert that is performing some distance away, and of which there is carried to my ear only some stray sounds that my imagination, aided by the fineness of my hearing, succeeds in piecing together, out of which it makes a coherent song that charms it all the more in that it is partly its own work – I believe that concerts which are performed in closer quarters also have their value. But my friend, can you believe it ? I think it is not the latter but the former that are the most intoxicating.”

Diderot was surely aware, when he wrote that, of the work of putting together fragments of ancient texts that grounded the contemporary knowledge of ancient culture. The image, however, is startling in its frank pleasure in way contemporary reading “makes up its own song” from these fragments. Posterity, here, is transformed from the image of the monument that has long been associated with it – the imperial power that demands homage from future generations. The keyword of the Enlightenment, Roberto Calasso has contended, is “sweet” – using a remark by Tallyrand as the key to 18th century culture: Nobody born after the French revolution will ever know the sweetness of that time.

I can accept Diderot’s image of posterity in that spirit. Posterity, the afterlife, is not thrust upon us, but comes as an intermittent music that we are either entranced by and add to or that passes us by.

The second image is more romantic, or even, to use a detestable “post” word, post-romantic. Or more accurately, it images the “creative” in the new world that has substituted industry for the patronage upon which artists used to rely – for good and ill.  Hazlitt, who depended for his existence on the press, was among those who Carlyle disdainfully called a “thing for writing articles” – count on Carlyle for the contemptuous epitaph. The thing died in a lodging house in 1830, having lived into the era of consensus among the Tories and the Whigs that saw Britain, after Napoleon’s defeat, as the great imperial upholder of wealth and liberty. For Hazlitt, of course, it was a great era of toad-eating.

So there he was, and there he died, in Mrs. Stapledon’s Frith Street lodgings. Mrs. Stapledon’s ideas of posterity were, no doubt, orthodox Anglican or at least Methodist. But her idea of the Jetz was much more practical. Hazlitt died owing her rent, and she sold off his effects to even the account. However, she was not unfeeling. She bought a box for his corpse. And, when showing his rooms to potential renters, she hid it under his bed. When his friends came by, she hauled it out, and they gazed their fill on his remains. Then they commissioned a death mask, and the hat went round, and Hazlitt was even buried.

Still – the body of the writer in a box under his bed while potential renters poked through his stuff and measured his windows for new curtains – what an irresistible situation in which to imagine the writer’s afterlife! Did Kafka ever read about Hazlitt? I guess it doesn’t matter. Kafka intuited that situations like this must exist, and that they formed a sort of labyrinth under the official culture.

Monday, October 25, 2021

A morning prayer - poem by Karen Chamisso



The perfection of the egg is to break just so

Otherwise, a rotting comes slo mo


Over its potential and its peepers

Which we can weep over, jeepers creepers.


For humans, for chickens, for sharks in the sea

All eggs must crack for future eggs to be.


Yet this is not how my eggs were broken

For breakfast in Decatur when I was a girl.


It was Leila, who with a firm abortionist’s tap

Could break egg and spill without the sap


Of the yolk being broke – it went into the bowl

Clean and without fragments of the shell


Which was always my awkwardness when I tried

Not that I was planning on cooking fried


Or scrambly, or making a cake.

I just wanted an egg to break.


 Leila’s job was as important as any other

Said no less an authority than my mother


(Mama was not like some of her friends

Who treated the help as means and not ends).


O Leila, from the bosom of your God above

Still my shaking morning fingers, and let me love


At least enough not to spill the vodka or tabasco

And in this magic potion spill the egg just so.

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 ...