Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Two ugly men


Two of the great ancient sages were notoriously ugly: Aesop and Socrates.

In both cases, the ugliness was a disguise – the sage as a clown, the clown as omen. Gerard Mace, in his essay on Aesop in Vies anterieurs, begins by recounting his encounter with a streetcorner beggar and storyteller – his Aesop. “ The Aesop that I knew did not at all ressemble the big lipped Moor that La Fontaine evokes in one of his stories, but it is true that Aesop became ugly, because the legend needed it, many centuries after he lived. For posthumous life is as badly assured as the first one ; one continues to change masters and reputation as one changes face as one grows older.”

What was the « besoin » of legends that made Aesop ugly? Perhaps it was the same necessity that gave Socrates an ugly face – the fabulous proximity of the sage and the buffoon.

To my mind, there is something ominous, or omened, in the fact that the French revolution was, as it were, driven by ugly men. Danton, the awkward giant, Marat, the scabrous writer, perpetually in his bath, and Mirabeau. Mirabeau, the pockmarked pornographer, a man of the underground – literally if the legend is true that he hid in the sewers when he was being searched for by the police, caught some skin disease which ruined his youthful beauty, and emerged a different man. “No one knows the omnipotence of my ugliness, » Mirabeau said once. “When I shake my terrible mug, there is no one who would dare to interrupt me.”

Sade was attuned to that close proximity of the buffoon and the sage – and yet, it was, as well, an abyss.

Mirabeau's experience reminds me of the one philosophe who hid, as it were, behind the Revolution, ghostwriting speeches and chansons - Chamfort. The man who puzzled Nietzsche, that reactionary - how could Chamfort, one of the great writers of maxims, have been a revolutionary?

In the Hippias Minor, Socrates challenges Hippias, a vain sophist, over the matter of who is the better man: Achilles or Odysseus. Hippias holds that Achilles was the truest, strongest and best of the Greeks, while Odysseus was the wiliest – polytropos – or the falsest, the most cunning, the most deceptive. But Socrates, surprisingly enough, comes up with an argument to show that either both Achilles and Odysseus are mixtures of the good and the false, or that – if Achilles lies and deceptions come about involuntarily, whereas Odysseus voluntarily takes on the deceivers role, as Hippias maintains – that Odysseus must be the better man. This is the end of the dialogue:

Socrates: Is not justice either a sort of power or knowledge, or both ? Or must not justice inevitably be one or other of these ?

Hippias : Yes.

Socrates : Then injustice is a power of the soul, the more powerful soul is the more just, is it not ? For we found, my friend, that such a soul was better.

Hippias : Yes, we did.

Socrates : And what if it be knowledge ? Is not the wiser soul more just, and the more ignorant more unjust ?

Hippias : Yes.

Socrates : And what if it be both ? Is not the soul which has both, power and knowledge, more just, and the more ignorant more unjust ? Is that not inevitably the case ?

Hippias : It appears to be.

Socrates : This more powerful and wiser soul, then, was found to be better and to have more power to do both good and disgraceful acts in every kind of action was it not ?

[376a] Hippias : Yes.

Socrates : Whenever, then, it does disgraceful acts, it does them voluntarily, by reason of power and art ; and these, either one or both of them, are attributes of justice.

Hippias : So it seems.

Socrates : And doing injustice is doing evil acts, and not doing injustice is doing good acts.

Hippias : Yes.

Socrates : Will not, then, the more powerful and better soul, when it does injustice, do it voluntarily, and the bad soul involuntarily ?

Hippias : Apparently.

Socrates : Is not, then, a good man he who has a good soul, and a bad man he who has a bad one ?

Hippias : Yes.

Socrates : It is, then, in the nature of the good man to do injustice voluntarily, and of the bad man to do it involuntarily, that is, if the good man has a good soul.

Hippias : But surely he has.

Socrates : Then he who voluntarily errs and does disgraceful and unjust acts, Hippias, if there be such a man, would be no other than the good man.”

 Socrates pulls himself up short, here. How could he come to this conclusion? It is as if the Socratic method had revealed a little too distinctly its daemonic side. But out of this little snatch of dialogue, in a dialogue that never receives very much attention, we see the outlines of the philosophe buffoon. Who emerges in Sade, in the French revolution, and in our modernity: Bataille’s monster, the one’s who test the experience-limit heralded by Foucault.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Woolf as essayist


Few novelists have a great gift for the essay. Usually the essays of the professional novelist, the Martin Amis type, have a between-work air. Among the Brits, the great essayist-novelists are Lawrence, Woolf and Pritchett. I have been in love with Jimmy Joyce since highschool, and consider Ulysses the summit – but he was no essayist. Nor is this a gift distributed largely among great poets. Wallace Stevens’ essays are read only in as much as they refer to the real work. Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop wrote beaucoup prose, but it, similarly, is parasitic to the work.


 But even if you subtracted the fiction from  Lawrence, Woolf and Pritchett, their essays would enroll them among the great writers.

Woolf in her essays retains her novelist’s gift for describing the body – in fact, her description of, say, Hazlitt is of a more concentrated, pictorial strain than she usually devotes to the characters in her novels, who go from the voice to the body. Her Hazlitt (in her essay on Hazlitt in the Common Reader, series 2) comes out of his own works as a posture, a stance,  a character. He is a shoe-gazer, your typical emo, with a genius for his particular division of life, which inserts itself with some difficulty into the usual intellectual divisions of labor. For he is neither philosopher nor literary critic nor pamphleteer, although he has parts of all three.  Plus Woolf catches that something reminiscent of the incel. This is there in Hazlett, but there is something a touch, well, snobbish here,  Woolf passing on that class contempt from which Hazlitt suffered in his life and afterlife:


“We see him as Coleridge saw him, ‘brow- hanging, shoe-contemplative, strange’. He comes shuffling into the room, he looks nobody straight in the face, he shakes hands with the fin of a fish; occasionally he darts a malignant glance from his comer. ‘His manners are 99 in 100 singularly repulsive’, Coleridge said. Yet now and again his face lit up with intellectual beauty, and his manner became radiant with sympathy and understanding. Soon, too, as we read on, we become familiar with the whole gamut of his grudges and his grievances. He lived, one gathers, mostly at inns. No woman’s form graced his board.”


This is the kind of thing that reminds us that Virginia Woolf was, first and foremost, a Stephen, the daughter of Leslie Stephen of the National Biography,  the heiress of a line that incorporated  the collective memory of the whole tribe of allowable writers – a kind of noblesse de clercs. All of the romantics suffered, from the point of view of the  high bourgeois Victorian vision, from “unfortunate” sex lives – from the incestuous Byron to, what was worse, the declasse Hazlitt. The Hazlett of Liber Amoris, the closest English lit gets to Rousseau’s Confessions, damned him by describing a passion for a servant – the kind of thing no aspiring functionary in the literary world could tolerate. Byron, at least, ran off with women with titles, and Shelley with a wealthy man’s daughter. But a servant in a boarding house – well, it was all very well to do it, but then to write a book about one’s unsuccessful courtship of same – well, that went beyond scandal into tawdriness.


Leslie Stephen wrote his own essay on Hazlitt, which shares certain judgments with his daughter. Especially about Hazlitt’s penchant for indelicacy:


“Indeed he takes the public into his confidence with a facility which we cannot easily forgive. Biographers of late have been guilty of flagrant violations of the unwritten code which should protect the privacies of social life from the intrusions of public curiosity. But the most unscrupulous of biographers would hardly have dared to tear aside the veil so audaciously as Hazlitt, in one conspicuous instance at least, chose to do for himself. His idol Rousseau had indeed gone further ; but when Rousseau told the story of his youth, it was at least seen through a long perspective of years, and his own personality might seem to be scarcely interested. Hazlitt chose, in the strange book called the "New Pygmalion," or "Liber Amoris," to invite the British public at large to look on at a strange tragi- comedy, of which the last scene was scarcely finished.”


That Hazlitt must, indisputably, be included among the romantic generation’s worthies was a problem for those who wanted to merge literature and respectability.


Woolf did not – although a part of her was always returning to her father’s voice.  Interestingly, in Woolf’s essay, she mentions that Hazlitt was  the object of malignant persecution--Blackwood's reviewers called him "pimply Hazlitt", though his cheek was pale as alabaster.”


The pimple shows up in another of Woolf’s views, although one that was not put down in an essay. Rather, it first appears in her diary entry about reading Joyce’s Ulysses  which she had take up out of a certain duty to the modern novel – and a certain envy of the competition: “I . . . have been amused, stimulated, charmed interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters–to the end of the Cemetery scene; & then puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” The pimples move from the undergraduate to a serving boy in her letter to Lytton Strachey: “Never did I read such tosh. As for the first 2 chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th–merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges.” In fact, all of Woolf’s criticisms about Joyce are swaddled in the kind of snobbishness that anti-Woolfians can’t forgive.


 Joyce’s origins – about which Woolf knew little, except that they were Irish and had never been mentioned in the National Biography series edited by her father – figure overwhelmingly in her response to the book.


I think that Yeats’ line about the art that arises from one’s struggle with one’s self applies in particular to Woolf, who struggled with the masculinist ideology of the Stephen type which was definitely in her head, an illness,  and with class feelings that were entangled with the masculinist ideology as well, which she worked out to her satisfaction (and mine – but I think I am in minority in that opinion) in Three Guineas.  It is what made her the most complete literatus of the canonical writers of the English 20th century.

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