Thursday, January 20, 2022

On my conscience: being Yankee Doodle Dandy

 

Auguste Dupin once traced the course of his companion’s thoughts by a series of inductions that attached to the dumbshow of his companion’s expressions - the microworld of steps, frowns, glances, and furrows that, in the nineteenth century, was being explored with absurd confidence by German physiognomists -- until, interrupting that silent monologue, he made some magically relevant comment. The nineteenth century motif: detective as magician, consciousness as a rather easily demystified magic trick - we love it, we love it! The twentieth century, Freud’s, and even ours, with its faith in the murky business of the neural net, has only a broken faith in the coherence and topical unity of the consciousness – after all, if that unity is a fiction, what are we to say of the unity of the consciousness of the scientists themselves? But the unity is, at best, a horizon, a kind of cognitive optimism. 

Dupin’s observant tactic is worth applying even to oneself, occasionally. Although hark at the difference: for instance, I sometimes glare at myself in the mirror, to see how I am bearing up, what I’m looking like, giving myself a wink of complicity, etc., and often find that, puzzlingly, I am frowning. I don’t even know why I am frowning – lately, in this third year of the Pandemic, when systematic racism and its accompaniment, systematic stoopidism, seems rampant in the “free world”, I have been marvelling at the fact that, turn over my life as I may, mostly I do just what I want to do in this mortal sphere. I am not a dandy, yet, due to the material circumstances that surround my particular being – a loving and lovely wife, a boy I am utterly fascinated with, work that I find compelling, the ability, never to be underestimated, to walk out of the apartment, go to a grocery store, and forage to my heart’s content, and the further possibilities inherent in living in the city of Paris, a lifestyle I have craved since I was in the eighth grade in Clarkston, Georgia – I live a dandyish existence indeed. I am the Yankee Doodle dandy or I am nothing. 

So – the frown. Where does it come from? What deeper terrors have so bent my mouth to this characteristic expression? 

To answer this is surely a task for some modern Dupin,  Freudianly informed and hermeneutically suspicious of his own conclusions. Or mine. It is, I fear, this frown, the accompaniment to my thinker – my little neural amusement park. For though I do what I want, I also have a rather dark view of the history of my time, that little piece of the main,  and of my moment. Dark as in Jeremiah’s view of the destiny of Judah, dark as in Ezekial’s view of the priests of Baal. 

Perhaps the frown is… my conscience?


Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Denial style in American politics, from Richard Hofstadter to Cass Sunstein

 


Richard Hofstadter published a famous essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, in the Harpers Monthlyof November, 1964. A year before, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The Republican Party, in 1964, nominated Barry Goldwater for President. For the establishment liberal, the court intellectuals of Kennedy’s Camelot, Goldwater was a Southwestern, ruddy-cheeked repeat of Joe McCarthy (Camelot ignored Bobby Kennedy’s own admiration of Joe McCarthy). Although Goldwater brandished no list of Communists in the State Department at the convention, he did bite out a line that became famous: Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Karl Hess, Goldwater’s speechwriter, came up with that magnificent sentence. Johnson, of course, won overwhelmingly; his campaigned aired tv ads linking Goldwater to nuclear war, implying Goldwater was for it.

Karl Hess had an interesting career post-Goldwater. In an interview once, he summed it up: “I moved in a direction which the FBI chooses to call leftward. What I actually did was go to work as a commercial welder, get arrested for demonstrating against the Indochina war, work with the Black Panthers and teach a course on anarchism.”

Hess’s career choices mark a good shadow line against which to measure Hofstadter’s essay. That essay, to my mind, codified a certain establishmentarian view of postwar American history that continues even to this day, when the Cold War ostensibly lies in ruins behind us. Substitute “Trump” for “Goldwater” in the first paragraph of Hofstadter’s essay and one could easily imagine it being published yesterday in some newspaper opinion page, or in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town, or in the Atlantic, et al.

‘Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute vagaries of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident in the extreme rightwing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

This is an almost perfect establishmentarian credo. You could easily draw a line between this and Cass Sunstein, between the politics of Cold war realpolitik and the politics of nudgery. It shifts the notion of class conflict almost completely to the side of one class – the workers – while endowing Capital with a pleasing political colorlessness. It posits a small group as troublemakers, wrapping an old FBI trope in columnar marble, suitable for thinktankery. It makes the small minority of policy-makers into de fact “representatives” of the majority. And it attributes suspiciousness and conspiracy-thinking to an outsider group – while the insider group, implicitly, is dedicated to sweet reason. Of course, by November 1964 Congress had passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which wedged the US into Vietnam. And of course that incident was a lie, one motivated by suspiciousness of the “enemy” and one that threw America, once again, into conflict with the “communist conspiracy” – which was combatted, then, for eight years via massive bombing, shifting and building barbed wire around villages, death squads, and casualty count incentivizing the drafted troops. If we are to see the sixties clearly, Hoftstadter is a pisspoor guide, whereas Karl Hess seems much more levelheaded about assessing America’s cold war history.

Hofstadter goes on to justify his use of paranoid by reference to Webster instead of Freud. It consists of “systematized delusion of persecution and one’s own greatness.” I take this shorthand as more descriptive of the D.C. mindset, and the interlocking culture of media, politics and capital, than I do of the Goldwater rightwing. The U.S. had, by the time Hoftstadter wrote his article, spent at least ten trillion dollars to build up the most dangerous military system in the world. During this buildup the U.S. had sustained and supported numerous coups throughout the world, from Guatemala to Iran, bringing about widespread and continuous violence, all in the name of anti-communism. It had instituted a system of atom bomb tests which meant sending military people into the fallout of atom blasts merely hours, or even minutes, after they happened, and letting radioactive fallout drift over large parts of the Pacific and over the continental U.S. I’m not even going to speak of the Jim Crow regime, or its justification through the pseudo-science of race.

What other country has so instituted paranoia that a considerable and influential think tank-academic sector spends mucho time developing suitable images of America’s “enemies” and celebrates the invigorating power of this orientation? In a recent NYT article about Russia and Ukraine, the bright side of the conflict is seen in these terms:

 “Mr. Putin’s insistence that NATO stop enlargement and remove allied forces from member states bordering Russia would draw a new Iron Curtain across Europe, and that threat has concentrated minds. It may be just what a lagging alliance has needed.

It may be just what a lagging alliance has needed. Repeat that five times. See if it is any less insane the fifth time than the first time. If you find it becoming more and more rational, you might have a job waiting for you at Brookings!

The establishmentarian viewpoint pervades “acceptable” politics from conservative to liberal in the U.S. It is what comes out of the mouths of talk show hosts and serious “experts”. It is the kind of attitude that accepts a figure like John Bolton as a rational ‘dissident’ to that crazy Trump.  I call this the Denial style in American Politics. It is an exhausted style, so often thrown to the mat by reality that it should long ago have given up – but it is always coming out of its corner for the next round. It is, still, nearing its end and dragging us with it. And I say:

Fuck it.

Monday, January 17, 2022

She sings on her own blue guitar - Karen Chamisso

 She sings her own song on the blue guitar

Out of the world of money and pest control
I, the heavenly one, rose up and spoke the truth
Vermin are hidden in Nineveh’s every wall,
And poison works best on the youth
I have learned to bear the mourning of others
And see the termites as unmourning beasts
They have no concept of their mothers
And they make no saddening maddening bleats.
My Daddy told me that my boyfriend Jack
Who technically worked for Dad’s company – and mine –
Was just my way of getting back
At mom and him, and was not at all divine,
just an operator who had the good luck
to stick his hand up the skirt of the boss’s daughter.
I was seventeen - he was my first fuck.
We lay coupled on a bed of insect slaughter
And smoked a spliff, and made our plan
But like any boss’s daughter I soon had my fill.
I’ve since married an acceptable man
And divorced and married another still
And Jack is no doubt with Jill in their house
Somewhere in the metro Hotlanta burbs.
We are all divine – human and louse
But do we ever get what we deserve?
-Karen Chamisso

Sunday, January 16, 2022

whose posterity is it?

 An essay from the late and not so great Willett's Magazine.


 


There’s a popular literary game, which consists of predicting which writers will “endure”. Whenever the waters of clickbait grow still and old, some webzine site will stir it up by playing this old game, asking what names among today’s writers will be counted in a hundred years. Heated arguments will break out: the question of whether the works of Stephan King will be recognized one hundred years from now as the greatest American fiction of our time will elicit heated comments, and there will surely be much knocking of the elites.

Nobody seems to predict that a writer that they don’t like will be recognized in one hundred years. Nor does anybody ask about the institutions that preserve for posterity the reputation of a writer. Instead, these predictions rely on a sort of amorphous popular will, with powers beyond any dreamt up by Rousseau. The general will will judge the quick and the dead. That’s the sense.

There are two issues here, actually. One is that the posterity of a work is a form of credentialling – that time awards a good quality seal to the lucky genius. Auden, beautifully, captures this, in my opinion, specious idea:

Time, that is intolerant
of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week,
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

Auden, In Memory of W.B.Yeats

Auden wrote that in 1939, and part of him knew that time and the Nazis were definitely not pardoning those who lived by language, but condemning them: hence the aborted careers of scores of poets, novelists, dramatists, essayists and the lot. Time may well condemn to very long, or even perpetual, obscurity those writings that have not stuck, in some way, to the usual institutions, or that emanated from condemned ethnicities or genders.

The other issue is projecting one’s own taste and time on the future. Here, we do have historical evidence, although it is never used by any of those who play the game. It is as if posterity hasn’t been there before us. But it has.

So, how should one go about making predictions about the endurance of written work?

Over the long term, my feeling is that the chance of a prediction being fulfilled, at least for the reasons one says it will be fulfilled, is vanishingly small. Remember, for the medievals, the important Latin poet after Virgil was Statius. Statius. Who even recognizes the name? Ovid, Lucretius, or Catullus just weren’t in the running. Lucretius did not have a very great posterity in the Roman world, and only came into European culture, really, when a manuscript of the Nature of Things was discovered in 1417 in Florence, according to Stephan Greenblatt. So over time, posterity is swallowed up in such unexpected events that we can’t guess. We need a more manageable time sequence to answer the question – we need relatively short term posterity. There needs to be at least certain structures that are generally continuous, as, for instance, an economic structure that is generally the same over time, and a structure of religious belief that is also coherent over time. Even so, there are unpredictable contingencies. The Library of Alexandria burned; Franz Kafka’s manuscripts didn’t, despite his dying request. So it goes. Statius, when all is said and done, had a good run – as good as Shakespeare’s. He’s gone now: even the Loeb Classical library is not all that enthusiastic about The Thebiad.

Given these conditions, we can still see patterns in, say, the last three hundred years. Starting in the 18th century, the literary nexus of publishers, the writers, and the audience started to take a modern shape. Writers could come from anywhere, but readers, and publishers, came mostly from the middle class. There was certainly room for the working class and the upper class, but writers that appealed to a working class audience had to eventually appeal to a middle class audience to endure. Aleida Assmann wrote an essay about this for Representations in 1996: Texts, Traces, Trash: The Changing Media of Cultural Memory . She points out that the mythology of glory, which Burckhardt traces to Dante, and the city state culture of Italy in the fourteenth century, was, for the writer, shaped by the idea of a group who would preserve it, and upon this group was projected contemporary attitudes: true posterity would consist of people like the friends of the poet, gentle people, highborn, with swift minds. It was an almost tactile sense of posterity, posterity with a face. The posterity of the poem was the posterity of the people who read and understood the poem, the educated audience. But in the eighteenth century, the semantic markers shifted. Assman quotes Swift’s preface to the Tale of the Tub to show that the circle was replaced by the seller — the face by the invisible hand, to be slightly anachronistic about it.

One new factor in the manufacture of posterity, in the twentieth century, has been the rise of educational institutions as transmitters of literature in the vulgar tongue. One has to take that into account, as well as the relatively rapid changes that tend to traverse the academy, which is very much a product of capitalism and has been, for the most part, absorbed in the mechanism of vocationalisation. That mechanism, of course, makes sense once we factor in the costs of higher education. In the Anglophone world, the bright Ph.D in English or Comparative Lit might owe as much as 100,000 dollars in student debt, and faces an absolutely pitiless job market. It is no exaggeration to say that the humanities in the U.S. were assassinated by the regime of tuition hikes and the withdrawal of public financing. Education for its own sake, culture for its own sake, it is fair to say, is no longer the major part of the academic mission, and when it is, its teachers feel a nagging guilt. This is because they are betraying their best students – and they know it.

Another factor, one whose effects are unknown – but that I think we can see in the reputation of male writers from the 60s to the 80s – is the changing composition of who counts in posterity. For the longest time, say, a couple thousand years, women hardly counted at all. This fact has a well known bearing on the rarity of women writers, given the institutions that actively worked to suppress women writers. But it has an as yet unstudied effect, as well, on posterity, which has always been in the hands of a massively male dominated circle. Virginia Woolf asked about Shakespeare’s sister – we can ask about Virginia Woolf. Her reputation was, in the hands of the masculinist opinion-makers,  battered as much as possible after her death. She was snobbish. She wasn’t serious. Or her feminism wasn’t serious. Or her pacifism was disgusting. Or she was a lesbian.  In the sixties, Virginia Woolf’s stock was much, much below D.H. Lawrence’s.  

I think it is a sign of the times that Lawrence’s posterity has taken a huge hit since then. If we were to take a survey now among the literati, it would be a good bet that Woolf would come out before Lawrence. This would have surprised the English critics of the 1950s. F.R. Leavis, the editor of the enormously influential Scrutiny review, campaigned hard against her, excluding her from the Great Tradition. For Leavis, the great English novelist of the 20th century was clearly D.H. Lawrence. The Leavisian antagonism against Woolf is shared by many of the common sense English critics up to this day. As James Wood has observed, what connects Leavis, John Bayley, and John Carey – all influential English literary critics  – was an abhorrence for all things Bloomsbury, and especially Woolf. I’d add Christopher Ricks to that number. Frank Kermode, a literary politician if ever there was one, caught something in the air in 1978 when he wrote that Woolf seemed to be coming into her own again. And, in an unconsciously sexist phrase, he gave away the side that opposed Woolf:

There are even attempts to develop, from some of her remarks, a theory of androgyny, founded in her reading of Coleridge; Roger Poole, sympathetic to feminism, nevertheless makes some sturdy qualifications here, and one is glad of them, for a bass voice strengthens the chorus.

Ah, those bass voices….

Certainly she is taught more than Lawrence in the U.S. In my own opinion, Woolf is a more interesting writer than Lawrence, more of an artist: Lawrence would simply have been incapable of the formal pleasures of To the Lighthouse or Jacob’s Room. Woolf, as The Years shows, was perfectly capable of the multi-generational epic so adored by the bluff and morally hearty school of critics. However, I don’t know how to “rank” them against each other besides making such observations. The need for the ranking exercise stems partly from the classroom, and even in that locus, to my perception, there is a failure to teach canon-making – the critical intelligence that the student can bring to his or her own experience of literature, art, films, etc., with, always, the codicil that other intelligences may come to other conclusions.  The entertainment industry, on the other hand, is fully aware of this fact, which is why it is profligate with ranking exercises, while it prizes only one: earnings.  One of the reasons that ranking has a slightly masculinist air to it is that it invites the same kind of hierarchical projection we see in other places in the patriarchy, and the same kind of boxing matches in which what is at stake is as much the ego of the critic as the worth of the artist. 

However, this observation may be my quirk. Posterity, up to now, has ranked us whether we want it to or not. Since the late nineteenth century, we have developed a certain feeling for the statistical, a sixth sense for frequencies, as we find ourselves in nets of them: polled, counted, interviewed, surveyed, etc. To return to the Woolf vs. Lawrence matchup:  Lawrence scholars have been complaining for decades about the lack of interest in the great D.H., but perhaps this is a reaction to Lawrence being pushed, by English critics, as the greatest, the novelist up there with Joyce, Proust, Mann, etc. The whole crew.  Whereas even with the discouraging word in the years immediately after her death, Woolf always sold. The interest of academics and the larger circle of literati in Woolf has not, really, been a ranking movement – there’s no Leavis out there for Virginia Woolf. It seems somehow tasteless, a misunderstanding of Woolf’s own sensibility, to get all frothy about the greatest.

This, possibly, tells us something deeper about the very idea of posterity, its claim on the living. If there is a future beyond our coming climate change deaths, I think it is fair to say that the next hundred years will see a take off in the posterity of certain writers who were, by gender or race, not considered previously by all the white guys. At the same time, there may be a reconsideration of the whole meaning of lasting a hundred, two hundred, years. 

2.

So here’s a concrete question. Given these circumstances, what chance does, say, Stephen King have to be remembered to future generations? And what chance do the brilliant mandarins, the literary novelists, have? To pose the question wholly in one category of literature – in poetry, I suppose, the same question could counterpoise Marilyn Hacker and, say, Li’l Kim, or John Ashberry and Bob Dylan.

On the evidence of genre alone, gothic and horror writers have a pretty good survival rate. At least three or four writers of gothic novels in the eighteenth century are still in print, and still found on the shelves of medium sized public libraries, as well as being assigned in classes and being made into films (the addition of media technologies has a major impact on posterity, I should note: printing did everything for, say, Lucretius, while it did little for Statius). Books by Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, and William Beckworth are still in print, as are those by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Sheridan La Fanu from the nineteeth century. That is just in English culture – there is also, of course, Theodore Gautier (author of the original Mummy story) and Gaston Leroux; there is ETA Hoffman and Meyrink.

One strong driver of reputation is that a book generates a character. Frankenstein, or Dracula, or, the Mummy, or – going towards another genre – a Sherlock Holmes overshadows the works in which they were represented. King has not, I believe, created that kind of character, unlike, say, Ann Rice. Furthermore, King is proudest of his thousand page works. One thing about gothic and mystery fiction is that it is generally either small or medium sized. As it gets more literary, however, the larger size helps. Hugo’s Notre Dame with the hunchback is a Stephen King sized novel.

Again, though, one can’t just bet on this recipe. Film, which now plays a major role in the posterity management of fiction, is very stagily centered around character; yet that is simply to say that it is stagily centered about the star. Hector Lector is a famous character who, I feel, may be fading into obscurity, but is still remembered as a character, and he is taken from a Thomas Harris novel that nobody predicts a long posterity for (although who knows?). In that sense, Hector Lector might well outlive his bookish source entirely. Who remembers a single book by George Du Maurier? And yet his mesmerist, Svengali, entered popular lore. On the other hand, the process goes into reverse with films, too. Who remembers the name of the character played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining? Rather, one remembers Jack Nicholson. Or at least that’s what I do.

Posterity for a mandarin depends a lot on networking, on circle-making. It isn’t necessary to be part of the establishment, but it is helpful, if one is on the outs with the establishment, to create a counter-establishment. Compare, for instance, the posthumous fates of D.H. Lawrence and John Cowper Powys – both writers of big novels, both of a philosophical bent, both obsessed with sex. Powys has his fans – Steiner called the Glastonbury Romance one of the three great books of the twentieth century. But really, Powys never made a counter-establishment. He became quaint – that is, he was on the outs with the conventions of the modern novel, but he never had a following that theorized that extra-territoriality. Lawrence, however, was the establishment rebel par excellence. There’s nothing like breaking decisively with Bertrand Russell to show that 1, you are a rebel, and 2, you know Bertrand Russell.

Now, my comments so far have not been about the quality of these writers at all. My notes have been about posterity as an effect not of the popular will, nor of quality, but of social forces.

Certain American novelists I like best – Gaddis, for instance, and McCarthy – are, I think, not destined for a long posterity. Gaddis is like George Meredith – he is eccentric enough as a writer that he attracts only a passionate few. But Meredith was able to produce one or two conventional novels, like the Ordeal of Richard Feveral. Gaddis only produced prodigies: The Recognitions, J.R. One hundred years from now, I have my doubts these novels will be much read. But that says nothing, to me, about their intrinsic quality. As for McCarthy, Cormac McCarthy, the case is trickier. I can see his later novels, which to me are much worse than his earlier ones, enduring. But his difficult works, Suttree, Blood Meridian, and some of the shorter early ones, are too negative, and, though movie like in their own ways, not movie like in Hollywood ways.  Of course, this is where the educational institutions come in, creating the substructure of posterity. Joyce seems to be the limit case for these institutions, but it could well be that McCarthy would join Faulkner on the curriculum. I wonder.

3.

There is an enlightenment moment in the posterity imago – it consists in assuming that the world will not end. This was quite a radical thing in the thirteenth century. I wonder if it isn’t still a radical thing. I’ve recently talked to two people, from opposite sides of the political spectrum, both of whom assured me that the world was going to undergo a disaster in the next one hundred years. In fact, the expectation that the world is going to end seems so deeply etched in the Western template that it might be impossible to erase. In this sense, too, the prediction of the posterity of one’s favorite author is generally made without any attention to how posterity works. It is, in other words, a combination of incredible optimism and a severely narrow sociological viewpoint. Like heaven, purgatory and hell, posterity, that secular afterlife, is on the rocks. Time is much more indifferent than even Auden imagined. Yet I still can’t believe that. The incredible indifference to climate change on the part of our governing class shows that we can not trust them, any longer, with posterity. Posterity, in the future, I think, has to be oppositional, or it won’t be at all. We have to take it from them, take it back from them. In the long run, we aren’t all dead. 

 

 


Lawrence's Etruscans

  I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence. Then… Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellie...