Friday, July 22, 2022

Our little crew of relativists and scoundrels


I am among the crew of nominalists, relativists and other scoundrels, who think that universals are made, not given. This crew is often accused of being insufficiently condemnatory of the Holocaust and the Gulag – although the people who make these accusations often shuffle their feet when it comes to the genocide in the Trans-Atlantic slavery trade and the wholesale mass slaughter of indigenous people and the theft of their territory. The latter group often wants us to remember the good things about, say, Thomas Jefferson, and not the fact that he lived on a kidnapped and enslaved work force, and chose his mistress, aka raped, among that work force. The idea is you absolutely condemn Hitler and Stalin, on the one hand, and eyeroll about giving America back to the Indian nations, on the other.

Nominalists can be as excited in their denunciations of Auschwitz as anyone else. It is just that they don’t see the invocation of the absolute, here, as doing any real moral work. Not that the vocabulary of absolute denunciation is useless – it might help create a real institutional response to mass murder. So, from the point of view of universal-making, it would be a great idea for there to be some international go-to court to try all torturers, from Saddam Hussein to George Bush. But so far, in spite of the spirit of absolute moral law promoted proudly by the anti-relativist, the real law goes on rewarding the strong and punishing the weak.

In the name of what or who, that is the question.

An Italian politician and  historian, Vittorio Emmanuele Orlando, delivered a remark, quoted in an essay by Sciascia, that rather sums up the Hegelian point of view: “If history is universal, referring to humanity as a total ideal, its vital center is still squeezed into a determined point: this would be, from epoch to epoch, a little territory like Mesopotamia or the Nile Delta, or a city like Athens, Jerusalem or Rome.”

We know by heart the catalogue of cities and territories, and we know that it is not going to include, say, Khanbaliq, or Tenochtitlan, or the longhouses of the Penans. Instead, the standard catalogue is of places where, gradually, the total ideal of humanity developed, although always with the codicil that the grander form was embodied in the smaller scale of a particular story, according to the teller.

Sceptics have long roamed, like dogs - -cynics by nature – outside the walls of this idea. Voltaire’s Micromegas  is a comic expression of the cynic’s doubt, while Blake’s bird with its “world of delight” which we can’t penetrate is a romantic expression of it. The Saturnian in Micromegas complains of having merely 72 senses, but converses very well with otherwise differently constructed beings, while Blake’s bird converses with other birds.   Neither the Saturnian nor the bird, however, claim to embody the universal.

In a sense, I am not opposed to universal-making. In the name of what or who would I oppose it? However, as the universal comes to earth and becomes this or that project, I find my tongue and oppose it now because of a principle of justice, now because of my own moral feelings, now as a member and on behalf of a collective, etc. Human rights, good taste – the nominalist doesn’t doubt that these things hold power, and function as rules. In practical terms, the absolute works the way any superlative works. It is just that the nominalist, Blake’s bird, and Micromegas’s Saturnian are concerned with the way absolutes tend to go wrong. When they go wrong, they are merciless.

That’s when the dogs outside the city begin to howl.  

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Notes on Robert Louis Stevenson


Marcel Schwob, in his essay on Robert Louis Stevenson, makes a claim that may not be true, but is charmingly suggestive:

“One could characterize the difference of the old regime in literature and that of our modern times by the inverse movements of style and orthography. It seems to us that all the writers of the fifteenth and sixteenth century were practitioners of an admirable language, while they wrote the word each in each’s own manner, without worrying about their form. Today, now that the words are fixed and rigid, dressed up in all their correct and polite letters, immutable in their orthography, like the guests at a soiree, they have lost their individualism of color. Those people dressed themselves differently: now the words, like the people, are dressed in black. And they are not very distinguishable. But they are correctly spelled. Languages, like peoples, have been organized in refined society where we have banished all clashing colors.”

It is interesting what a difference a Channel makes. Certain British writers come through, but often in a canon which is disproportionate to the canon’s of the Island’s own canon-makers. The French preferred the clashing colors – DeQuincy to Coleridge, Ruskin to Matthew Arnold, and Stevenson to Henry James. The line that runs through French poetry and prose from Baudelaire to Schwob to Proust was influenced by a line that is considered “minor” in the Great Books tradition. Stevenson, who is as Scots as Scots (his greatest novel, in my view, is The Master of the Ballantrae, and there the Scots tongue is allowed some leaway), became a boy’s writer because he was never a writer of what he called “drama”:  “Drama is the poetry of conduct, romance the poetry of circumstance.” Of course, the poetry of conduct includes women – the great exclues of Stevenson’s novels. This is why, much as I like Stevenson, I feel the missing link when I read a lot of him.

Especially on vacation, one feels the truth in Stevenson’s abiding aesthetic creed, which is that stories arise from places:

“The right kind of thing should fall out in the right kind of place; the right kind of thing should follow; and not only the characters talk aptly and think naturally, but all the circumstances in a tale answer one to another like notes in music.”


Sunday, July 17, 2022

Notes on Nervi 1


We were swimming into the sea, passing the rocks, when Luca was stung by a medusa.

I am liking it here on the Ligurian coast. We are renting a couple of rooms in the E. condominiums in Nervi, which is a small town that got conglomerated into the greater town of Genova after the war.

It is hot. It is, I read, a climate emergency in England. It is also a climate emergency in Paris. If we were there, we’d stay inside during the brunt of the day. But we haven’t rented this place in Nervi to stay inside. We mean to swim, to walk the passagiata, to go get our pesto at the pesto specialty store, to eat pizza at the pizzeria downtown. There’s a large pool at the place where we are renting. Around it, retirees organize themselves on chaises longues and absorb sunlight. So much sunlight. Some are baked so deep it is hard to look at. Other guests have kids. There’s a diving board, but not too high. I impressed Adam by doing a jack knife. Then he worked up the courage to dive, and now it is no big deal.

We started out with our pasty white skins. And now we are getting suitably browned. We liberally splatter sun block on each other. We swim, and then we liberally splatter post sun cream on each other.

I do not wear shorts as a normal thing. I’m way past forty. I have tried to play the dignified older gentleman for a while. My innate goofiness comes through, but I believe in the role. However, I did go out and buy some pastel blue shorts, and now I walk down to the beach or to the pool with those on.

Before Luca got stung, as we were swimming, he told me that he liked Nervi’s combination of resort town and popularism – a clientele that was distinctly middle or working class. He told me he loved the faded resort buildings. Behind us was one – a white structure with a patio on which tables with  blue and white striped umbrellas abounded. It reminded me of the seacoast town scenes in Fellini’s Amorcord. I think Amorcord is my favorite Fellini film. I love the collective life in it, the absurdities.

Luca remembers playing among the craggy boulders here that stick out into the sea. He was a kid. He’d jump from one to another, while his parents walked the passagiata. It looks dangerous to me, jumping around on the boulders.

Still, there are people who spread towels on the boulders, who jump from them into the sea. Umbrellas are put up. A jaunty air becomes general. In the distance, a mountainous crag runs down to the sea. It is bluish, reflecting the water.

Luxury and vulgarity, these are the two cardinal points of the beach utopia.


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