Thursday, January 06, 2022

On writing and obsession


As a writer, I have as little talent for staying on topic as a Mexican jumping bean. This rather subverts my essays in generalization. I get philosophical, I get argumentative, I get distracted, I head straight for the wrong goalposts.

However, as a writer, it must be said that there in one great thing about obsession: you don’t really have to worry too much about staying on topic – you will inevitably find your way back to the topics of your particular cancer. You will inevitably bump against the shore you are seeking, which will, unexpectedly, appear in Shakespeare, or a news story, or a burst of static on the radio. This is a good thing, until it becomes a very bad thing.

The OED claims that obsession derives from the latin for sit opposite (ob -session). It is interestingly different from possession, with the idea that some devil is within the self, taking control. Obsession is the devil sitting outside the self, but fronting the self, always there in one’s line of vision. In Freud’s vocabulary, obsession is paired with compulsion, compulsive thinking – Zwangsvorstellung. That pairs it, ultimately, with possession. Obsession, I’d contend, contains a space that possession abolishes. Which is why I think writers need not fear cultivating obsession, but should fear the devil’s leap from the other side into one’s self. Or is this some unalterable sequence in the structure of obsession? And isn’t there something about “sitting opposite” that reminds one of the caricature of the therapeutic situation?

Being obsessed with obsession today, I turned to psychoanalysis. This is from a recent paper on obsessional neuroses:

“Obsessive neurosis manifests itself through conjuration rites, obsessing symptoms, and permanent mental rumination, in which scruples and doubts interfere with action. It was the French psychiatrist Jules Falret (1824-1902) who used the term obsession to highlight the fact that the subject is affected by pathological ideas and a guilt that obsesses and persecutes him, to the point of being pejoratively compared to a living dead.” (Ronaldo Chicre Araujo, Welerson Silva Carneiro and Gabriel da Costa Duriguetto).

That doesn’t sound good. However, it does sound, to an extent, helpful: in as much as writing, here,  is a substitute act, a succedaneum for power – power being the act in full, outside the text. As if, my inner Derrida sneers. Figuratively attacking one’s enemies is a rather voodooish thing – sticking pins into figures.

I can’t imagine writing without obsession. Like any neurotic, I cling to my wrecks – don’t take them away from me! It does make me wonder if there is literature beyond obsession. My question of the day.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

The spirit of the 1619 Project


The spirit of a historiography that kicked over the Cold War consensus about America (United States of)  was codified in the 1619 project, which is why the latter drew such fire from such members of the old guard as Sean Wilentz. Wilentz goes on at length with his problems with the post-liberal framework in his review of two new books on the American Revolution and the antebellum American state in the NYRB. The critique is deftly summed up here:


“Two ambitious new studies, Liberty Is Sweet by Woody Holton on the Revolution and American Republics by Alan Taylor on the decades that led to the Civil War, examine far more than the history of American slavery and racism. Both take up the array of political and social transformations that shaped the nation’s growth from an aspiring republic hugging the eastern seaboard to a boisterous, even bellicose capitalist democracy that spanned the North American continent. Yet both books advance claims in accord with interpretations of white supremacy as the driving force of American history. Holton and Taylor are serious scholars, and given the larger stakes involved, the reliability of their conclusions on these matters assumes importance in debates that go far beyond the academy.


So much in this paragraph, and in Wilentz’s critique, depends upon the definitive article! Substitute ‘a’ for ‘the’ in the phrase “interpretations of white supremacy as the driving force of American history’ and you have the real stress of the 1619 project, which is about making a judgment call about the degree to which the white supremacist ideology, or assumption, was a driver of American history. The drivers should explain how a rigged up framework holding together thirteen British colonies actually functioned to expand its domain across the continent and assert itself as a nation. It should explain how the ethnic cleansing of the native nations contributed to this expansion; how slavery functioned to furnish the economic foundations of the nation; how Civil War and emancipation failed signally to dissolve white supremacy; and how these various compounding inequalities coexisted with a notion of the nation as the “leader of the Free World’ in the 20th and 21st century. Among other things…


Wilentz follows in the traces of a liberal centrist interpretation of American history that was strongly inflected by the Cold War and its Manichean anti-communism. In this version, America was uniquely freedom-striving – its Revolution, unlike the French Revolution, was uniquely moderate and led to no totalitarian monstrosity. This was the American Revolution as Hannah Arendt saw it, and was used for left-baiting purposes by a generation of French anti-communists, like  Francois Furet, both to attack the French Revolution (and by implication, the Russian one) and to legitimate the neo-liberal turn towards limiting government “intervention” in the economy.


I’m wholeheartedly for the spirit of the 1619 project, and look forward to its expansion to account for twentieth century American history. In particular, it is striking, to me, that here we can close the gap between  American foreign and domestic policy – a gap that has called into being a separation of intellectual labor that misses the big, syncretic picture.  For instance – to give an amateur’s pov – I’d like to see how white supremacy drove one of Woodrow Wilson’s progressive era programs: the idea of the right to “self-determination’ of a people, aka ethnic group, which Wilson successfully interjected into the negotiations at Versailles at the end of WWI.


Myself, I see every connection between that high “liberal” project and Wilson’s view of domestic American history, in which the essence of the United States was a white protestant elite. As we know from Wilson’s domestic policies, he was in full retreat from Theodore Roosevelt’s very moderate policy of civil rights for African Americans – in line with a Republican Party tradition -  symbolized by Roosevelt’s reception, in the White House, of  Booker T. Washington. Roosevelt himself was your standard Social Darwinist, convinced of Negro “inferiority’, but as so often with Roosevelt, his timidly radical gestures echoed much more loudly than his personal conservatism. With Wilson, the idea of African-American inferiority was infused much more emphatically in his policies – as in his purging the Civil Service rolls of black Americans. I think this background has been somewhat neglected in its effects on American foreign policy and, specifically, in its junction with a radical ethno-centric ideology in Europe that doomed such multi-ethnic entities as the Austro-Hungarian empire. The notions of self-determination and its shadow side, the notion of some superiority of the chosen ethnic group, was not Wilson’s creation – but the spread of the idea, its legitimacy as a basis for a new world order, owed a lot to Wilson. Wilsonian liberalism in the academic world – with Princeton as its capitol – still flourishes, and still lacks an overarching historical account.


I’m a piker in these matters, but I would love to read some such account.

Monday, January 03, 2022

a slow weirdo drives a car

  I’ve been recovering from jetlag that last few days. As well, I’ve been recovering from another, less named lag – which comes from having driven about in a car intensely for a month, and suddenly stopping.

I rather liked it, at first. We get to Georgia, we rent a car, I’m at the wheel, oh momma! But the day by day sitting in that seat and making with the acceleration and the braking and the lane changing and the lights, it began to wear on me. I felt like a much used pencil point – I leaked out my lead. Hmm, that sounds phallic, don’t it?
Anyway, I was going through some journal entries from years ago, in California, when I also drove a bit, and found this account of hobbling about in the aftermath of an operation I had on my leg. It puts together the world of the slow and the world of the speedy in terms that I can’t improve upon.
“One of my fave sequences in one of my fave films, Bella Tarr’s Satantango, concerns the village doctor. We watch him get drunk in his home, fall down in an apparent stupor, and then get up – after which comes the sequence, which consists of nothing more than him walking to the village inn to get more liquor. The thing about it is, the camera follows him in real time. Since he is old, obese, and intoxicated, that means that the camera watches him make an at most quarter mile jog in about fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes! When I first saw this, I couldn’t believe it – I couldn’t believe Tarr would dare an audience to basically install itself in the speed and sensibility of one of the members of the slow cohort of the population – those users of walkers, those hobblers down sidewalks or the aisles of grocery stores, those old or impaired. Normally, we’d get a bit of slow hobbling and cut then to the doctor approaching the inn. We’d get in other words what we expect in the terms of the speedy cohort, the ones with cars, the ones who run, the ones who stride, walking their dogs, or over the beach, radiating the get it now ethos.
Well, at the moment, I have fallen out of the speedy cohort. Get it now? I can barely keep up with the drunken doctor in the flick. My little monster wound, as I affectionately refer to it, keeps me limited to a stately, or if you like, arthritic pace. Of course, I’m supposed to sit around the house, or lie around, and mostly I’m obedient, but it drives me a bit nuts not to be able to go the four blocks up Wilshire to my usual coffee shop. Of course, I do go a bit – I pick up Adam from his school, a trip which, in all, is about eight blocks. And I go those blocks slowly.
The doctor in Satanstango lives in a village where, aside from a few cars and tractors, the fastest things are dogs and horses. Not a metropole. I live in Santa Monica, which, as in all American cities, cars are the primary entities. Humans are down on the scale. I take a grim, slow person’s satisfaction, now, in crossing the street, holding back that anxious car driver who wants that three seconds – gotta have that three seconds! And is probably cursing me in his or her driver’s seat. Good. I’ve discovered that with slowness comes no spiritual insight, but a certain bitterness, a fuck you attitude. This is evidently not good from the point of view of the Mahatma and Jesus Christ. But let the Mahatma and Jesus Christ walk across the street while a black BMW inhabited by somehow who has never missed a lunch or not gotten what they wanted in their entire fucking life glowers at them. It is … trying.”
I read this now from the other side of the speed gap. Or at least from zooming down Lawrenceville Highway in the morning, with a slight impatience every time I notice a school bus in my lane up ahead. Damn, gotta slow down. Gotta take that needle from 55 to 30. As our civilization and its works goes down – and we are assured by every Netflix post apocalypse film that this is a matter of a few years – how will we remember these speeds? In fact, I’m guessing we won’t remember them – speed like this can be felt, navigated, and managed by the human being, but not really well imagined, and thus, not really well remembered. I imagine few people can remember the feeling of 60 mph when they are lying in their comfy beds – but we can well remember hobbling slowly. Our biology is not adapted to our quotidian. And aint that a bitch

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...