Saturday, May 21, 2022

it's a perfect day (you're going to reap just what you sow)


Is the small the image of the large? Is time the image of eternity? Or are we talking about separate domains, here? I woke up this morning feeling like stretching. The rain yesterday had driven away, briefly, the pre-summer heat that was much remarked by the papers. I thought that this morning would be perfect. I thought my life was perfect.  I would make coffee. We would have croissants and coffee. A. would write, Adam would sleep,  and I would read Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning for its perfect first five lines:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,

And the green freedom of a cockatoo

Upon a rug mingle to dissipate

The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

I should say that the last line, which operates as a showrunner for the poem, is not exactly perfectly matched to the complacencies of the peignoir, but then again, an image needs a jar, and we can’t live in complacencies for too long – the small extended becomes not the image of the perfect but the distortion of the perfect, an isolation from the real influxes of labor, time and others that made the peignoir, set the table, grew the coffee beans and oranges, built and named the calendar, and can be unfolded ad infinitum from the smallest social atomie.

Of course, the self, one could argue, the ultra contemporary self, is half papier maché, or half computer screen now that paper’s obsolete, and half sensuality. A tweet, a video, and then it is not simply gone, but its chance is wasted.

But isn’t that the whole American disease? The idea that life is ‘opportunity’. Opportunity, that old devil, which makes us tally up the small as a series of hits and misses. Opportunity costs – what a satanic phrase!

But at least it gets us out of bed.


Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

In any balm or beauty of the earth,

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

Divinity must live within herself:

Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

All pleasures and all pains, remembering

The bough of summer and the winter branch.




Thursday, May 19, 2022

Narcissistic Christianity

 Somewhere, in my head, I am kicking around a thesis about American Christianity - and notably, the way Christianity takes a narcissistic turn in America. Jesus, except as a figurehead, no longer counts - and this devaluation of Jesus, not only as a teacher, but as a person in general, is a very narcissistic gesture. Narcissism as the foundation of the relationship with God - a relationship put explicitly in terms of being a white American in relation to God - creates a certain bizarre cultural formation. How the narcissistic turn came about in Cold War and post-Cold War America, particularly in evangelical circles (accompanied by a certain rightwing Catholic group) is a problem for the historian of religion. Of course, it is a problem for us all, in as much as one of the great war crimes, that of spending trillions on the military, has resulted in a narcissicist Christian nation having thousands of nuclear warheads, billions of gallons of napalm, and so on.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

the man who went out to find fear


In the 00s, that time of Bush and theory blogs, I saw a lot of mentions of weirdness and Thomas Ligotti and Lovecraft and the like, and I paid no attention. I’ve never been a horror movie buff, and though I like Georges Bataille as much as your average American working stiff, I took abjection to be a much more hoity toity thing than Friday the 13th IV or whatever. Give me a meditation on the big toe or give me death! As the old motto goes.  As a kid, I read some weird tales, or so I vaguely remember, but not Lovecraft. And as an older beast, I have pretty much the same reaction to Lovecraft’s prose as Edmund Wilson did, who dissed him in the New Yorker in the1940s for being the kind of writer who imagines the words instead of the thing. In fact, who doesn’t? It is just that some writers imagine, hmm, better words.


However, back in the 00s, I little imagined I would have a boy. I especially didn’t imagine that my boy would adore horror and, at the tender age of nine, become a big Stephen King fan. So I have been trying to backfill, as it were, this tendency with the classics. And here Lovecraft does loom large.


This is the reason I, at an age when, if I was an oak, I’d be about 60 feet high with a great ant and bark culture going on in my middle limbs … even I … am starting to read Lovecraft stories. They aren’t terrible, but they certainly aren’t Poe. They lack, to my mind, a certain glee, the switchknife glee which Poe borrowed from De Quincey and the folklore of American humor, the kind of glee that gets into medical school pranks, but which seems to be utterly foreign to Lovecraft. He is a great man for piling up the blurb words – horrid, ghastly, shocking – in front of nouns, which seems a little defusing to me.


It is, in a way, funny that Lovecraft, for me, is impenetrable, because I know something of his inspirations – for instance, Arthur Machen – and I have a strong appreciation for that strain in German literature that goes out from E.T.A. Hoffman – to Kubin, Meyrink and in a very different strain, Kafka.


What I like in all of these writers is that flicker of gleeful abandonment that one finds, as well, in De Quincey’s Murder as one of the Fine Arts. It is a moment when a certain monological control over the tale, over the listener’s expectations, is violated. We jump across a divide, suddenly. And that moment, so far as I have been able to get through Lovecraft, is banned from the beginning. The typical Lovecraftian device is to make the story posterior to the inauguration of the tale. To me, this is a way of exorcising the liberating, gleeful moment, when the tale, as it were, turns on the teller, and on the listeners.


Lisa Downing, in an interesting essay on the notion of “nightmare” in early nineteenth century France, writes of the way a notion derived, in part, from the medieval supposition that a nightmare is an incubus, a demonic bed partner, was medicalized with certain of the same characteristics – notably breathlessness. The nightmare bed partner literally squeezed the breath out of the dreamer: sex and strangulation intersect. Downing suggests that in Gautier’s fantastic tales, the “points de suspension” operate as a mechanism to suspend breathing. Terror is the squeeze of the incubus.


‘Terror”. “Horror.” That is the crux of my problem with Lovecraft, who is never very terrifying. Movies and cable tv, with their visual obtrusiveness, are better at creating terror – but rarely create glee. The gleeful serial killer or monster – Joker, the Riddler – are of course meant to be gleeful, they pay homage to glee, and sometimes (“why so serious?”) succeed, but mostly the characters are below that necessary level. One exception is Patrick Bateman in Mary Herron’s American Psycho, whose gleeful abandon gives the tone to the whole movie, and – to me – justifies the horror trope of ending the story on that cliche ambiguity: nightmare or reality? Which neatly closes the circle of the horrid or weird, bringing it back to the sensation of being suffocated in one’s sleep.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The oracles are not dead

In his History of Oracles, one of the major texts of the early Enlightenment, Bernard de Fontenelle proposed applyng a sort of Efficient Markets thesis to God:
“For I conceive that God only speaks to man to supplement the weakness of their knowledge, which is not sufficient for their needs, and that everything that he doesn’t say is of such a kind that they can learn it themselves or it is not necessary that they know it. Thus, if the oracles were given by evil demons, God would have taught us this in order to stop us from believing that it was God himself doing this, and that there was something divine in false religions.”
Like the efficient market thesis, which claims that all current information is reflected in the prices of financial commodities, God, in Fontenelle’s view, only gives out information to humans if they need it – having endowed them with reason for all their other information needs. Efficiency is the most secular of concepts, for it quickly purges any disturbance in the community of discourse, whether that is God or evil demons.
But if we upset the whole notion of efficiency, or decide that efficiency is not co-extensive with rationality, but that the latter must encompass our passions, then the oracles return. They return as poetry.
But not just the word itself – the great poets in their lives seem surrounded by a cloud of meanings and symbols that they cannot escape.
Or so I have been thinking, thinking about Baudelaire. In 1864 Baudelaire, seriously ill with the syphilis that was already effecting him, made a trip to Belgium to make money as a lecturer, of all things. We have the testimony of a Belgian writer, Camille Lemmonier, about Baudelaire’s conference about Theophile Gautier, who he called, with some depth of irony that may not even have been irony, “my master”.
The lecture was to be given to the Cercle Litteraire et artistique.

“Le Cercle littéraire et artistique occupied the gothic palace across from the Hôtel de Ville. Its rude and historic architecture, since renovated as a jewel of great price, a shrine exquisitely ornamented, sheltered at the time some businesses selling grain and others selling birds. All the ground floor and the basements had been given to them. This was one of the activities of the Grand Place. But the stage floor was reserved for the Cercle. One climbed onto the porch, then went up a steep staircase. A door opened, which was that of the conference room. It was there that Baudelaire was supposed to speak. »

Already, the idea that Baudelaire was giving a talk on Gautier in a run down building, the ground floor of which was devoted to grains and the wares of bird catchers – Baudelaire, some of whose greatest poems – The Albatross, The Swan – made exactly that correspondence between the poet and the captured bird – is too too suggestive. Lemmonier, a young writer, was late for the conference. He thought that everybody would be there, all the writers of Brussels, all the fans of poetry.

“I glided into the room. It is still, after all these years, a subject of stupor for me, the solitude of that great vessel where I feared to be able to find a place and which, even up to the shadows of the rear of the room, showed lines of unoccupied benches. Baudelaire spoke, that evening, to twenty auditors…”

He spoke for some time, fulfilling his contract, without a doubt.

“At the end of an hour, the poverty of the audience became still more rarified, who judged that the vacuum around the magician of the Word could be emptied out even more. There only remained two benches – which were lightened in their turn. Some backs slumped with sleepiness and incomprehension. Perhaps those who remained were moved by charity. Perhaps they remained like a passerby who accompanies a solitary coffin into a cemetery. Perhaps, as well, they were the doormen and the officials of the building, who were constrained to remain at their posts by a ceremonial duty.”

Where Baudelaire went became Baudelairian – it was his curse, his mystique, his afterlife. Benjamin references Lemonnier’s essay a number of times in the Passages and reads into it the idea that the audience couldn’t believe that Baudelaire was heaping praise on Gautier, thinking that he would reveal, in the end, by some sarcasm, the hoax. I am not sure about this reading. I wonder if the audience even knew who Baudelaire was – although the trial of Fleurs de Mal for obscenity might have made his name known even in Brussels. Lemonnier was young and hip: he knew of both Baudelaire and Gautier. But the whole scene in the floor above the birdcatchers, in the dark and damp building, ends as a sort of foreshadowing of Kafka’s The Trial.

« The poet didn’t seem to notice the desertion that left him speaking alone between high, dimly illuminated walls. A last word swelled out like a yell : I salute Théophile Gautier, my maître, the great poet of the century.” And his rigid figure bowed forward: he made three bows as though before a real audience. Rapidly a door closed. Then the night guardian took away the lamp. I was the last to remain as the night closed in, the night where, without echo, the voice of this father of the Church of literature had risen up and then been snuffed out.”

That’s a great ending. One almost expects Baudelaire, the morning after, to be taken by two guards out to a quarry in the Brussels suburbs. There he’d be stripped of his suit, stretched out on the ground, and while one of the guards held him down, the other would thrust a butcher knife deep in his heart and turn it there thrice, while Baudelaire would say “like a dog”, as though the shame of it would outlive him.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...