Friday, December 17, 2021

Baja by Karen Chamisso



Wrapped in a digestive absence

the citizen of beachtowels opposes

a dead eye to the inanity

of the ocean’s endless flourishes,


as though, perpetual spectator

she already knew the myriad

of plots there - expecting no watery mouth

to pronounce the aggrandizing period.


As – so we are told – the gods to demons

the demons to neuroses are fled

belly down, on her territorial towel

she dreams of sex, food and money instead.





Thursday, December 16, 2021

A tap dance: luck and the unlucky in the land of the free


According to an essay by Arthur Machen (the English ghost story writer who fascinates Javier Marias, the great Spanish novelist), Grimaldi, the most famous clown of Regency England, was performing one night in 1803 in a play called “A Bold Stroke for a Wife” when he was told that there were two men waiting to see him at the stage door that led from the back of the theatre into the street. Grimaldi went to see what they wanted, and confronted two apparent strangers. One was in a white waistcoat, and had evidently been living in the tropics, such was the complexion of his skin. He greeted Grimaldi familiarly. Grimaldi was at a loss as to who this person was until the man unbuttoned his shirt and showed the clown a scar. The man was Grimaldi’s brother John. This was pretty amazing – John had supposedly gone down on a Naval ship years before.

Grimaldi, of course, was overjoyed, and invited the men in. John’s companion demurred – and John, after giving him instructions on when they would meet again in the morning, mounted the stairs with Grimaldi and came into the Green room while his companion disappeared into the London night. Grimaldi still had to complete his part in the play, so he left his brother with another man, a Mr. Wroughten, while he went to do his stage business. John showed Mr. Wroughten that his duffel bag was full of coins, and bragged about his various successes. Grimaldi was in and out of the green room according to his entrances and exits. His idea was that John should come with him, after the play, to see their mother. John asked for her address, which Grimaldi gave, but then he said that they should go together, and that he merely had to change out of his costume in the dressing room.

To quote Machen: “And then the strangeness of it all came with a sudden onset on Grimaldi. "The agitation of his feelings, the suddenness of his brother's return, the good fortune which had attended him in his absence, the gentility of his appearance, and his possession of so much money; all together confused him so that he could scarcely use his hands." He seems to have fallen into the state which the Scots call a "dwam," a manner of waking vision, in which actualities are taken for dreams and the man wonders when he will awake and recognize that he has been amongst the shadows of the night.” It was in this state that Grimaldi returned to the Green room, only to find that his brother had left."

Now here comes the best part of the story, I think – that exponential bit that raises it above the average ghost story. Grimaldi found an actor named Powell in the Green room, and asked if he’d seen John.

"I saw him," he replied, "but a moment ago; he is waiting for you on
the stage. I won't detain you, for he complains that you have been
longer away now than you said you would be."
So Grimaldi hurried to the stage area. John wasn’t there. Another actor was there named Bannister. Bannister asked who Grimaldi was looking for, and after Grimaldi told him he was looking for John, Bannister said:
"Well, and I saw and spoke to him not a minute ago," said Bannister.
"When he left me, he went in that direction (pointing towards the
passage that led towards the stage-door). I should think he had left
the theatre."
So the clown went out of the theater, but he didn’t spot John. The doorkeeper said he’d gone out just a minute before. Grimaldi, out in the street, decided that John had, perhaps, decided to visit an old friend of his who lived close to the theater, Bowley. So he rushed to the Bowley house and knocked, even though it was rather late. Bowley came to the door:
“Mr. Bowley himself opened the door, and was evidently greatly
"I have, indeed, seen your brother," said he. "Good God! I was never
so amazed in all my life."
"Is he here now?" was the anxious inquiry.
"No; but he has not been gone a minute; he cannot have gone many
"Which way?"
"That way--towards Duke Street."”
The clown rushed onwards, then, thinking that his brother was going to see another friend there, a Mr. Bailey. He rattled the door of the house, which was dark, rousing the girl, who spoke to Grimaldi from the window:
“"I tell you again, he is not at home."
"What are you talking about? Who is not at home?"
"Why, Mr. Bailey. I told you so before. What do you keep on knocking for at this time of night?"
In great bewilderment, Grimaldi begged the girl to come downstairs, as he wanted to speak to her, telling her his name. She came down after a short interval.
"I'm sure I beg your pardon, sir," said the maid. "But there was a
gentleman here knocking and ringing very violently not a minute before you came. I told him Mr. Bailey was not at home; and when I heard you at the door I thought It was him, and that he would not go away."

Then Grimaldi asked the girl if she had seen the gentleman's face. She had not; she had looked out of the upper-window, and all that she noticed was that the gentleman had a white waistcoat, whence she inferred that he might have come to take her master out to a party.
Back went the amazed and frightened actor to the theatre. There
nothing had been seen of the lost brother; and then Grimaldi began a sort of mad midnight tour of the houses of old friends round the Lane, knocking and ringing people out of their beds and enquiring after his brother. Some of the people thought Grimaldi was mad; and said so. His manner was wild, and nobody had heard of John Grimaldi for fourteen years. They had long given him up as dead.”
And so Grimaldi finally lost the trail of his brother. He went home. He told his mother. She fainted. The next day, and the next, no sign of John. And no sign ever again. Grimaldi pulled some strings to see if John hadn’t been impressed into the Navy that night. He talked to the London police. But never a hide nor hair of the man was discovered. It was as if he’d never been.
This is what Machen says:
“It is an extraordinary tale. It may be true in every particular. But
there are strange circumstances in the history. For example: why
should John knock up his old friend, Mr. Bowley, only to dart away
from his door in a minute's time? Note that minute in advance all
through the chase. It persisted up to Mr. Bailey's house. The
servant-girl there said, "there was a gentleman here knocking and
ringing very violently not a minute before you came." I do not quite
know why; but this fixed period of a minute inspires me with distrust.”
But it is, of course, the minute that makes the tale. That echoing minute behind, that tardiness as a suddenly autonomous and separate domain of time chunked off of secular time, in which you have a chance to “be on time” – as though one were caught in a world of “too late,” with only one possibility – the unlucky one. If one is looking for the “effect” of the Enlightenment, vide our last post, one of them is surely that the ghost story, the uncanny that so fascinated Freud, fills the place in Western culture that the ghost once filled.


“The man made a mess of things. He got all balled up with Christ. He made a white marriage. He had one son die of tuberculosis, the other shoot himself. He only rode his own space once—Moby-Dick. He had to be wild or he was nothing in particular. He had to go fast, like an American, or he was all torpor. Half horse half alligator. – Charles Olson
The writer no more creates writing than the electrician creates electricity. Invisible currents move at their own speed, out there, among unknown elements – and the writer merely captures a bit of that invisible world in the poor conductors available to him, and measures it and deludes others – though not himself – that he made the conductor, the current, the speeds and fluctuations.
New, yes, to our science, but not to that invisible world itself. Nothing is new or old, there.
So … I received a salutary shock, much like that given to Franklin by the key tied on the wet kite string, from the paragraph I wrote at the end of the first part of this thing: my plebian précis of Machen’s glorious image of Grimaldi the clown pursuing the spectre of his brother through the London streets, always a minute or two behind him at every house. I, or somebody like the ghost of I, wrote:

“That echoing minute behind, that tardiness as a suddenly autonomous and separate domain of time chunked off of secular time, in which you have a chance to “be on time” – as though one were caught in a world of “too late,” with only one possibility – the unlucky one. If one is looking for the “effect” of the Enlightenment, vide our last post, one of them is surely that the ghost story, the uncanny that so fascinated Freud, fills the place in Western culture that the ghost once filled.”

Well, I in my royal flesh look at that graf with a little amazement, because – although not precisely worded, I should have been a little less gnomic about the kingdom of heaven, or being on time, and pandemonium, or being late – I now think, too late, always pursuing the further point – that I should have pointed to the root of meritocracy in the schedule, the saint's luck of always being on time -- I should have pointed out how its negation, being late, is not precisely its negation but a sort of parody, a shadow of being on time that infects its victim even when he is on time, so that his on-timeness is always slightly addled, unlucky –anyway, all of this somehow met in that paragraph, and it seemed to be the missing piece I was looking for, or at least one of them, in my project, my life, the life of that ghost I that is somewhat like I, of understanding success and failure in America. In fact, the psychoanalysis of the meritocracy should definitely accord a large place to the uncanny. Anyone who has read Freud’s essay On the Uncanny will see a parallel in Grimaldi’s hopeless bummel.

And thinking of this, I also thought of a line from Olson’s Maximus poem. A line about failure. I’d stored that line up, put it in some notebook, but I couldn’t find it. I looked for it and stumbled across Olson’s essay on Melville.
That essay has, famously, the spaced intensity of poetry. Olson is an essayist along the same lines as Emerson, or Nietzsche –the pendulum is always swinging between the vatic and the vapid. It is a prose that makes large bets. This excites adolescents, and gives those who have outlived all avatars, moderate souls dessicating their way towards retirement, something to jeer at.

What I like best about Olson was how intensely he felt about failure and success in America – how he knew some bone truths about this gristle hearted country. Of course, poets in the fifties and sixties, like novelists, could be successes. Not in the way they are successes now, with the soft shoe act on NPR, the terrible kindergarten readings, all so educated in not dramatizing a line it is funny, the last horrible debris of modernism combined with the complete eclipse, in America, of oratory – an art that only survives, heavily disguised, in hip hop. Successes nevertheless, in the fifties -- Robert Lowell got his face on the cover of a Time magazine. Meanwhile, Olson taught, delivered the mail, and watched the Organization Man, the tranquilized behemoth, bestride the suburbs.

Anyway, Olson’s essay on Melville gets to the elements right away:

"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.
It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman's): exploration."

He also gets a basic fact about the culture, one so disguised that you can only see it historically, at a distance, it so goes against the grain of what you are supposed to feel in this place:

“Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.
To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby-Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.”

And Olson gets the polarity right. It also gets the mythic names right. The polarity is Melville and Poe:

“He had the tradition in him, deep, in his brain, his words, the salt beat of his blood. He had the sea of himself in a vigorous, stricken way, as Poe the street. It enabled him to draw up from Shakespeare. It made Noah, and Moses, contemporary to him. History was ritual and repetition when Melville's imagination was at its own proper beat.”

The names are strewn through the text (John Henry, for instance, is there) like so much phosphorescence. Here’s an instance of it:
“This Ahab had gone wild. The object of his attention was something unconscionably big and white. He had become a specialist: he had all space concentrated into the form of a whale called Moby-Dick. And he assailed it as Columbus an ocean, LaSalle a continent, the Donner Party their winter Pass.”
That the polarity and the names are all of the peculiar dialectic of success and failure – the way failure searches through the street for its lost other, is killed on the Texas coast and cannibalized in the Sierra Nevada and comes out of that innocent (I’ve always loved that one of the survivors of the Donner Party opened a restaurant in Sacremento – the most American of stories!) – is where you have to begin to look at the whole odd structure of petrified luck and its worship in these here States.
"Whitman we have called our greatest voice because he gave us hope. Melville is the truer man. He lived intensely his people's wrong, their guilt. But he remembered the first dream. The White Whale is more accurate than Leaves of Grass. Because it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root."

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

What will you give me for the extinction of mankind? Bids start at 600 trillion dollars...


In Catastrophe: Risk and Response, Richard Posner, the most coldblooded judge since the eponymous Judge in Blood Meridian, considered the economics and law of human catastrophes. It was reviewed in Slate in 2004, from which I take this precis of one of his thought experiments.


“Consider the possibility that atomic particles, colliding in a powerful accelerator such as Brookhaven Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, could reassemble themselves into a compressed object called a stranglet that would destroy the world. Posner sets out to "monetize" the costs and benefits of this "extremely unlikely" disaster. He estimates "the cost of extinction of the human race" at $600 trillion and the annual probability of such a disaster at 1 in 10 million.”


The six hundred trillion dollar figure is so absurd that it is … almost touching.  For that 600 trillion dollars, by the Escher-like economics favored by Posner, is equal to zero dollars. In as much as dollars exist as units of exchange, when exchangers don’t exist, the value of the dollar becomes meaningless. However, Posner, who can imagine a world devoid of humans, can’t imagine a world in which money has no value whatsoever. Money, for ideologues of Posner’s type, is something like light – a universal element. This is why the 600 trillion – a sum that has been refined by that other mad economist, Nordhaus, in his insane calculations concerning global climate change – exists as a kind of limit of economics – a philosophical and theological limit.


There is about this sum the whiff of the omnipotence paradox, of which the emblematic problem is this: can God  create a rock that he couldn’t lift? The paradox was discussed by George Mavrodes and Wade Savage in the 1960s. Here’s Savage’s critique:


“if "God is omnipotent" is necessarily true-as Mavrodes must claim for his solution to work- then his assumption that God exists begs the question of the para doxical argument. For what the argument really tries to establish is that the existence of an omnipotent being is logically impossible. Fourth, the claim that inability to perform a self-contradictory task is no limitation on the agent is not entirely uncontroversial. Descartes suggested that an omnipotent God must be able to perform such self-contradictory tasks as making a mountain without a valley and arrang-ing that the sum of one and two is not three. No doubt Mavrodes and Descartes have different theories about the nature of contradictions; but that is part of the controversy.”


The whole point of the omnipotence paradox is to let us see what it is we are saying when we say that God is an omnipotent being. This, of course, is not the way God is thought of in many cultures and times – but it is how God came to be thought of by Christian and other thinkers, all of whom, Nietzsche thought, are part of the “platonic” line. As Savage points out, the stone that both exemplifies and limits the omnipotence of God has implications for what is logically signified by omnipotence: “The essence of the argument is that an omnipotent being must be able to perform this task and yet cannot perform the task.” Which, although Savage doesn’t say it, is at the heart of the Christian doctrine – God become man makes itself vulnerable – mortal. Logic is an airy thing, but there is death at the end of it, as any other human enterprise.


Although Posner is as blind as any economist, his six hundred trillion dollar calculation is about the death of money; money as a mortal thing suddenly becomes a very human thing. The worthless dollar, like the stone that God can’t lift or the Son of God dying on the cross, is a story about a material carrier that has suddenly lost all significance.

It is from this point of view that the six hundred trillion dollars becomes  a sort of black hole: the hole into which the Holocene disappeared. No wonder the issue of climate change is pervaded by a sense of the apocalypse. Our evaluations of it, from the point of view of the system of evaluations that gives me the price of my house or of a loaf of bread, goes haywire. This is why I like to think of that mythical, mystical 600 trillion dollars as a sort of being sitting on our shoulders – our planetary momento mori. It is as plain as the Jehovah’s writing on the walls of the King of Babylon, but in a script our most learned calculators of script can’t read. The merest bird of some dying species, though, can read it easily.   



  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...