Saturday, October 08, 2022

The death of the author, the life of the misprint


(Cartoon from Punch)

In the Summer Critical Quarterly, Chris Townsend has published an article that almost directly targets a person like myself – a person who loves to chase through old newspapers and current biographies and pop history books, looking for the errant factoid, the misspelled name, the comedian as, indeed, the added or subtracted letter, messing up names and causing vast comedies of misrecognition among the minor players of history. Forgive me for being obscure – I am writing a story, at the moment, about J., a woman whose head was supposedly shaved in the Liberation because she had collaborated with the Nazis. It is a story that is extremely minor, save for J.’s family relationship with Winston Churchill – a very stretched and tiny one – and her walkon role among the Anglo French glitterati of the thirties and forties.

As I have plumbed what plums there are in her story, I find her misrecognized in dozens of texts, and the story of what she did or didn’t do almost impossible to say for sure. In the breath of stories told at the high table and over cocktails, bits of history or fictionary leap out. It is as if the clinamen of fiction edges the direction of history one way or another.
I’m going on, here. But to return to Chris Townsend’s article: it is an examination of the way a line in Wordsworth’s poem “A slumber did my spirit seal” – precisely that line – has had a frolic of its own, as it gets perpetually misprinted as “a slumber did my spirit steal”. That “t”, like an imp, keeps climbing into that line.
“‘A slumber did my spirit steal, /I had no human fears.’ Given that Wordsworth’s celebrated lyric is suspended in its entirety above this essay, there is a decent chance that you, reader, will have noticed the typographical error in that opening quotation: a slumber did my spirit steal. Then again, perhaps not. Exactly that typo, or misquotation, or mishearing, or misremembering, has proven to be a surprisingly pervasive one, and the poem has been accidentally made into one about stealing by readers both relatively unfamiliar with Wordsworth and those very familiar indeed.”
Among those very familiar indeed is Richard Holmes, who inserted the “t”. So did E.M. Forster (whose name I have often reduced, when writing, to Foster, as though he were the descendent of the man who wrote “Way down upon the Suwannee River”, which I also often misspell). In fact, Forster wrote (with Derridian karma forcing his hand), ‘it does not matter who wrote “A slumber did my spirit steal”’ – surely daring fate as much as the ancient Mariner did when he shot the albatross.
In some essay or another, Gore Vidal made fun of the fact that F.Scott Fitzgerald’s manuscripts are full of spelling mistake, as if the second grade lesson that good writing is good spelling was the law and the prophets. I’ve always been sympathetic to Fitzgerald, being a bad speller myself – C on the report card when I was in fifth grade. In contrast to the A in reading – what happened there? Partly this is because I have always kept reading and music close together – the words sound off in my head – and the musical version of “salmon”, for instance, is not exactly replicated in that devilish “l”.

As Townsend points out, the Oxford Companion to English literature went with the “t” over four editions, from 1932 to 1967, reminding us that one of the “companions” of Jesus was no true friend and sold him out for a bag full of steal. And by a false kiss sealed the deal.

Even, even (sob) Rene Wellek misquoted the poem, in a polemic against all those deconstructors destroying literary studies. That is the thing about polemic – it falls under a charm that inevitably makes one commit the same error that one is decrying.

I don’t know whether that spelling C was the decisive event that decided my whole paraphiliac career of looking for errors in others’ texts, or being fascinated by the game of “Chinese whispers” – as it was once called – because to my mind it is the very model of information transfer. But I am so so glad when I meet fellow obsessives. We all sit in the back of the class and make fun of Miss X when she hands back our pop spelling quizzes.

Friday, October 07, 2022

Voltaire and commercial society


Voltaire’s history of the reign of Louis XV begins with a study of the system of John Law, seen from the point of view of the civilizing process – or at least the domesticating process. Voltaire is at pains to put Law’s bubble in the context of the “habit of obedience” ingrained in the French under the reign of Louis XIV, comparing the troubles that the latter Louis faced, in his regency, from an upstart aristocracy, with the mildness faced by the regent, the Duc D’Orleans, even in the exercise of truly autocratic power. Out of the disempowerment of the nobility brought about by autocracy of the Sun King, Voltaire spotted another power on the rise, which would maintain a social order by the somewhat paradoxical support of those whose political power was abridged by it.  This passage should be underlined by those looking for the genealogical ancestors of Marx’s sociology of capitalism:

“Finally, Law’s famous system, which seemed that it must ruin the regency and the state, actually sustained, in effect, both one and the other by consequences nobody had foreseen. The cupidity that it awoke in all conditions of the population, from the basest upt to magistrates, bishops and princes, turned away the attention of all minds from the public welfare, and from all political and ambitious views, in filling them with the fear of losing and the avidity of gaining. It was a new and prodigious game, where all citizens wagered one against the other. The obsessed players hardly quit their cards in order to trouble the government. And so it happened, by a prestige of which the hidden mechanisms could not be seen except by the finest and most practiced eyes, that a chimerical system gave birth to a real commerce, and played the midwife to the rebirth of the Indian company, established in the past by the celebrated Colbert, and ruined by the wars. In the end, if there were many private fortunes destroyed, at least the nation become more commercial and richer. This system enlightened minds, as the civil wars, in the past, had sharpened braveries. It was an epidemic sickness which spread itself in France, Holland and England. It merits the attention of posterity, for here it was not a question of the political interest of one or two princes that sent shockwaves through the nations; rather, the people themselves hurried into this madness which enriched some families, and reduced others to beggary.”

Voltaire sees this as a madness, but it is now a norm. The rise of the financial industry in all its branches is a sort of surprising result of industrial society. In defiance of the economist’s fetish of “efficiency”, the very size of finance in contemporary capitalist society is a marker of vast inefficiencies, of rent-seeking for its own sake.

Because most economists work for the man, though – the financial man – or hope to, this little insight is lost in the footnotes. We don’t want to bring to the floor the fact that our form of capitalism is, by its own standards, a vastly inefficient machine. That would discourage the poky and the plunky – the little ones who have to be taught to identify with the plutocrats.

Thursday, October 06, 2022

The Third Wish


A. says I am obsessed. She keeps catching me watching Hurricane Ian related videos on YouTube, or Twitter, or Tik Tok. The amazing footage of the waves rolling down the main street in Naples, or the water rising against the window of a house in Fort Myers. The from-the-air footage of drones, or planes, or helicopters. The waters receding, leaving that enormous ring around the shore of houses reduced to gunk. The piling up of everything one had on the sidewalk.

I am obsessed. I understand the hurricane and tornado chasers. The longing and fear that come together in some apocalyptic act, which passes – as all apocalypses in America pass – with aftermaths of junk piled by the street. Our enduring symbol of … what? The pioneer spirit? William Carlos Williams missed an important moment in the American poetic when he passed over junk piled by the side of the street. The rent is way passed due, the billcollectors and the sheriff, in that enduring tandem, are wheeling away the moveables and fixing the lock on the door. In this case, the billcollectors and the sheriff are celestial.
It is my nightmare, and I can’t resist watching it play over and over. The water that claims everything you have, the wind that lifts the roof off the building. I’ve built a thin surface of normality over this mad panic expectation. The third wish is, always, secretly, the death wish.

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

And here's our old friend, the reindeer


I’ve been reading one of Calasso’s last big books – The Celestial Hunter. As is often the case with Calasso, I am struck not just by the “shock of recognition”, but by the shock of deja-ecrit. The theme of this book – the dive into the period 20 thousand years ago when God saw that the world was good and the people in it saw that the world and the animals and the trees and the spirits were immensely bigger than they were – is more than congenial to me. It touches on an obsession of mine, which springs from having read books about the cave paintings and being fascinated by Chauvet (which I have “seen”, in as much as seeing it is going to a cave that is the simulacra of it). Long ago, in 2006, I wrote a review of a book by Greg Curtis, a man who edited Texas Monthly and then just suddenly decided to follow his spirit and write  a book about cave painting, I wrote, in part:


“Reading it, we were struck like by 100 000 volts that during the Upper Paleolithic – that wonderful time when there were, max, 150 000 people in Europe, and life was good for around twenty thousand years - the cave artists generally didn’t draw or paint or engrave people. There were your stray vulvas, the masked bird man, many hand prints, but generally – no people. Instead, there were mammoths. There were lions. There were rhinos and horses. Oddly, much fewer reindeer, even though reindeer meat was the spam of the Paleolithic – it was always poached reindeer for breakfast, fricasseed reindeer for lunch, and reindeer pudding for dinner. We are often told how to evolution stories about this or that human habit, but in reality, the way those how to stories are formed is that evo psychologists extrapolate back from ‘primitive people’ of today to those wandering around 200,000 years ago. However, this habit is in serious disconnect from archeologists, who have long held that ethnography of people today, in no matter what state of society they live in, is essentially unhelpful when trying to reconstruct the way the inhabits of the Eurasia 30,000 years ago lived. It is impossible not to imagine back using our PBS/National Geographic images, but what tribe do we know of that doesn’t draw people? Deleuze and Guattari talk of the special faciality of the West – this seems right, on all accounts – but to show so little interest in people when one has mastered perspective, and the expressive character of animals? That seems quite significant. But of what? Well, this is where speculation is dumb, but irresistible.”

I went on to outline my speculative position:  the cave art of 25,000 years ago, with its relative  absence of the human, marks the time when – just perhaps – humans did not assume they would prevail. They did not even assume they were superior, since of course they knew – the horse was superior for speed, the lion and tiger and bear was superior for strength, the bird for flight, and so on.

There wasn’t - I would speculate, in this scene still dotted with other hominid candidates for most likely to survive - the sense that homo sapiens was superior in any department at all.

Calasso’s book is more sophisticated than my speculation, but it shares the sense that “man” was level with “nature” – in fact, that split between the humans and nature was inconceivable because neither category in the modern sense existed. Enemy and friend, transformation and death, hunting and eating existed. “When it began, the hunt was not a person who pursued an animal. It was a being who pursued an other being. No one could say with certainty who was who. The pursued animal could be a transformed man, or a god, or simply an animal, or a spirit or a something dead.”

And so it was I think through most of the Holocene. This recent change of earth time – the Anthropocene – was prefigured when a divide, a borderline was built, in heads and hearts and fields. Did that border have to thicken into plastic strewn oceans and the kind of yuck that we can see in pictures of the aftermath of Hurricane Ian? I don’t believe it. What is strange about the anthopocene story is that we have a story from science that would make sense to the cavepainters – that we are brothers and sisters of other animal tribes, that there is nothing called “nature” that causes anything, that everything has a material unity that we can play with but never overstep, that metamorphosis is life.

Sunday, October 02, 2022

The fascist franchise


On September 11, 1936, two bombs exploded in Paris, one in front of the Conferation du patronat francais, the other in front of the building housing an association for metallurgy on 45 Rue des Boissieres.

On December 12, 1969, a bomb exploed  in the Banca dell'Agricultura on Milan's Piazza Fontana that left seventeen dead and eighty-eight injured.

On January 6, 2021, a mob stormed the Congress in Washington, trying to annul the results of the 2020 election in the United States.

What unites these events is that they were all committed by far right groups, and the first two were committed, we know now, as part of a strategy to create a seemingly “leftwing” terrorism that would justify a coup d’etat. In the case of the Trumpists, there was a considerable campaign, after the attack on the capital was made, to blame the so-called anti-fa.

It is interesting to consider the success, or at least partial success, of  this false flag strategy. In Italy, the blaming of right wing acts of terror on the left was covered for months by the police and the prosecutors, until the entire story connecting left wing anarchists or communists to the bomb broke down. In its place, the police and prosecutors found a trail that led to the real perpetrators – who were either not prosecuted or let out of jail on technicalities by the higher courts. In France, the group of people behind the Cagoule – the people who financed it, the people who were in the know about it – all found homes in the Petain government under the occupation. As for the members of the Cagoule, some came back and fought against the Germans – such was their interpretation of the mix of anti-semitism and nationalism of their creed – while some collaborated with the Germans, adopting Hitler as a path to “cleaning” France of Jews and Communists and degenerates, blah blah.

As for the mob of patriot boys and blah blah, they can look forward to a court system seeded with far right figures, including the highest court in the U.S.

History, in as much as history is biased by the media of the time studied, has been kind to the neo-fascists. That fascism was the reigning power in 1970 of three of the main Mediterranean countries – Greece, Spain and Portugal – and that many on the international anti-communist front, including many Americans, some of them having posts in the CIA and Army, thought that the danger of the Italian Communist party called for “extreme measures” – made it geopolitically logical that Italy, too, would have a coup and a neo-fascist government. As it turned out, fascist doctrine was not as pervasive in the  Italian army and security branches as it was in Greece, where many of the “colonels” of the Junta had tasted their first blood under the Nazi occupation, as collaborators (although changing sides to the British and Americans in 1945, and becoming vital to the American side in the Greek civil war that pitted the communists against the forces of “freedom.”

I am a bit startled that this history has gone into the crapper, and the only reference that is made when the fascist party wins in Italy is to Mussolini. There is a reason for this: referring to the Cold War would definitely mess up the Manicheanism between freedom and communist tyranny, which is the paradigm favored by the older generation of Cold War scholars.

There’s a sort of Freudian rule about covering up the fascist part of the anti-communist alliance: it is the rule of the return of the repressed. The repressed were never, looking back, very repressed. And they are now at the door.

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...