Thursday, September 29, 2022

Brief lives: John Aubrey

Lytton Strachey’s essay on John Aubrey ends with a maxim about biographies that gains from coming from the pen of a man who wrote biographies small – Eminent Victorians – and large – Queen Victoria: “A biography should either be as long as Boswell’s or as short as Aubrey\s. The method of enormous and elaborate accetion which produced the Life of Johnson is excellent no doubt; but, failing that, let us have no half-measures; let us have the pure essentials – a vivid image, on a page or two, without explanations, transitions, commentaries or padding.”
Aubrey’s Brief Lives are an instance of the death of the author as, really, the-death-of-the-author. They were jotted down and left in a pile at his death; they were meant for Aubrey’s own use, but, as well, as research material for that renowned Oxford asshole, Anthony a Wood. Wood, being the grumpy and supercilious man that he was, even managed to censor some of the book by removing forty pages of material – a disappearance that is still bitterly resented by Aubrey fans. Wood, having no fans, has no defenders. Such is the judgment of posterity.
Michael Hunter, in an essay on Aubrey, notices that the fate of the entire Brief Lives has been oddly haunted by bad luck - jinxed. “There was a real Gresham's Law at work here, and things were made worse by an extraordinary episode around 1970, when a complete scholarly edition of Brief Lives, running to over 1,800 pages, was prepared by the Clarendon Press at Oxford but was never published. This was the work of an American scholar, Edward McGehee, and it got as far as page proof, its imminent publication even being announced in the Press's house journal, The Periodical, in spring 1972. In fact, however, the edition was suppressed..”
The idea that either monumental accretion or the essential anecdote can “capture” a life is, as even a biographer would have to admit, delusional. The great gaping holes in biographies are occasionally pointed to by psychoanalytically oriented biographers – there is no excremental chapter in most lives, nor alimentary, nor, for the most part, sexual chapter. How a person combs her hair, brushes her teeth, forgets, is embarrassed, angry, cold, tired – this is novelwork, not biographywork.
“The happiness a shoemaker has in drawing on a fair lady's shoe; I know a man the height of whose ambition was to be apprenticed to his mistress's shoemaker on condition he could do so.” Thus, in one sentence, Sir Thomas Badd is finished – even if, like all Aubrey’s lives, there are always more blanks for filling in. This was part of his method – leaving paper blanks in his lives, which he would then fill in later.
So much depends on an anecdote. The pure essentials are often the grossest accidents. Life is full of Freudian slips, and this is where the story comes in. Aubrey has a great eye for these stories, although perhaps it is more accurate to say that his method of vacuuming up gossip (one of his correspondents called him Mister Gossip) often results in intersections of fate and character that have that “too good” air – surely circumstance cannot be so tidy! For instance, this is Aubrey’s story of the death of Sir Francis Bacon.
“Mr Hobbes told me that the cause of his lordship's death was trying of an experiment: viz, as he was taking the air in a coach with Dr Witherborne (a Scotchman, physician to the king) towards Highgate, snow lay on the ground, and it came into my lord's thoughts, why flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in salt. They were resolved they would try the experiment at once. They alighted out of the coach, and went into a poor woman's house at the bottom of Highgate Hill, and bought a hen, and made the woman gut it, and then stuffed the body with snow, and my lord did help to do it himself. The snow so chilled him, that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not return to his lodgings (I suppose at Gray's Inn), but went to the Earl of Arundel's house at Highgate, where they put him into a good bed warmed with a pan, but it was a damp bed that had not been lain-in about a year before, which gave him such a cold that in two or three days, as I remember he [Mr Hobbes] told me, he died of suffocation.”
Among the deaths of the philosophers, surely this one ranks up there with Socrates’ death by hemlock.
One of Anthony Powell’s lesser known books is his life of Aubrey “and friends”. There are a great number of anecdotes in that book, and they make faster reading than many of the dinners recorded – those endless dinners! – in Dance to the Music of Time. Powell evidently saw a kindred spirit in John Aubrey. He was one of the great seventeenth century worthies – like Sir Thomas Browne and his friend, Robert Hooke – who are, in some odd way, representatives of a very English Dao.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

post-war fascism: it's not mussolini, it is blowing up banks and railroad stations.


The American story about Meloni is this: once upon a time there was Mussolini. Then, there's Meloni! Now for a commercial break.

The laziness of the American press is not only about what they call the "post-fascist" party in Italy, Fratelli d'Italia, in the present, but the past of its progenitor, the MSI, with its ties to the CIA in the sixties and seventies, its ambition for a Greek like junta, its coup attempt, the Golpo Borghese, headed by Prince Junio Valerio Borghese ( a man whose skin was saved by James Angleton at the end of WWII, who saw in Borghese the kind of anti-Bolshevik strongman he liked), and their involvement in the "years of lead" - an involvement that cost the lives of hundreds of people. This far right terrorism got no play in the American press, because it contradicted the story that the real terrorists were those far lefties, and the story below that, which was the Communist Party of Italy was a threat to the whole system.

I wrote a long story about the intertwining of European fascists, American intelligence, and struggles in the Portuguese colonies in Africa - which were, oddly and not so oddly, in synch with rightwing terrorism in Italy. Here's a link to my story, Crossed Lives. When I wrote it last year, I did not expect it to be pertinent this year. So it goes.
Crossed Lives.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Antisemitism and the French intellectuals - 1920-1945

 In an article in Combat in 1938, the far right critic Thierry Maulnier made a stab at analyzing antisemitism. Unlike, say, Sartre's essay ten years later, Maulnier's does not start out from the premise that it is a deadly bigotry, but instead is a search for "reasonable antisemitism". He finally comes up with a core program founded on resistance to the "disproportionate power" of the Jews and their "irreducible heterogreneity".

It would be nice to think that Maulnier represented an aberration, an eccentric violence, like Celine's.
This isn't the case. In the first half of the twentieth century, a depressing number of intellectuals in France were raving antisemites. Maulnier was, in particular, in dialogue with Charles Maurras. Maurras is pretty much forgotten now, but in his day he had an influence in France and in the Anglophone world - he was considered a master by T.S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis's aesthetics definitely runs in parallel - an anti-modernist modernism. Albert Thibaudet, the great critic for the NRF, devoted almost a whole book to him in a series he called "Thirty Years of French Life" -published in the 1920s.
Thibaudet was a French liberal/social democrat. He has a cool way of showing how absurd Maurras's "philosophy" was - for instance, Maurras's insistence that the Bible is a "Jewish" book - and thus evil - while Christianity is a good thing in as much as it remains Catholic and monarchical. That Thibaudet felt Maurras was important enough to write a book about shows us how out of whack French intellectual culture was. .
It is depressingly the case that many of the minor but revered figures of the time turn out to be antisemites. Alain, whose small essays - Propos - were Pleiadized in two thick volumes, and whose teaching was legendary - Simone Weil was his pupil - is the latest case. Fifty years after his death, his journal for the thirties and forties was published, and it is full of admiration for Hitler and antisemitic shit.
Jean Grenier, Camus's teacher, published his journal of the war years and one finds a steady stream of observations about people who he considers "isrealite" (a word with a distinctly yellow star tinge), and not a word about the massacres of Jews, their transport to the camps, the theft of their property, the blowing up of the synagogues, etc. The man missed the mass murder under his very nose, but he does complain about shortages of meat.
The period's racists, except for Celine, have faded into the background, but their project of rationalizing hatred did result in arguments that are plastic enough to extend, today, to "illegal immigrants" in the U.S. and "moslems" in Europe.
One shouldn't extrapolate from the far right to public policies in France in the 1920s and 30s. France then was exemplary in accepting immigrants - 150,000 Yiddish speaking immigrants fled from pograms in Central Europe to France in the 20s, and around 80,000 from German speaking countries in the 30s. They were part of a massive movement of peoples - some 500,000 from Italy, 200,000 from Spain, hundreds of thousands of Poles. At one point in the thirties nearly a fourth of the population of Paris was from another country.
It was a cruel turn that this population was trapped when the Germans decisively defeated the French in 1940.
As Europe turns right - as for instance in Italy today, with the triumph of the right-far right - we should remember this history. Cause it is coming to get us. It was always crazy that the Cold Warriors played with the fascists - the fascist party in Italy, responsible for blowing up the Bologna train station in 1980 and the Milan bank in 1969 was in contact with the CIA, which at that time had very good relations with the Greek Junta - and they have come back in relation with the present rightwing ruler of Russia. It is as if we can't get over some collective neurosis.

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...