Saturday, December 10, 2022

the horrific views of Mr. Macaskill


There are very few passages in books that really horrify me. Some of De Sade's writing does, and certainly I am horrified by what is told about horrific mass murders, tortures, etc. But to be truly horrified by an argument is not my usual way of going about things.
So I was brought to a halt in a review of William Macaskill's book, What we owe to cryptocurrency fraudsters, oops, I mean, What we owe to the future. This is that odd philosophy book that had a million dollar publicity campaign behind it - just think how far Wittgenstein would have gotten with a million dollar publicity campaign! But I digress. Here is the passage I could not believe:

"It is very natural and intuitive to think of humans’ impact on wild animal life as a great moral loss. But if we assess the lives of wild animals as being worse than nothing on average, which I think is plausible (though uncertain), then we arrive at the dizzying conclusion that from the perspective of the wild animals themselves, the enormous growth and expansions of Homo sapiens has been a good thing."

It is as if Macaskill had casually  tossed out the idea that maybe the slave trade was a good thing, or the mass murder of Jews had its up side cause out of the concentration camp at Peenemunde came the rocket.

It makes me wonder how Oxford decided that this guy deserved to be the youngest full prof in the philosophy department. But what really gives me cause is that What we owe the future successfully flooded the media zone this summer, without, as far as I can see, anybody saying, you are an abhorrent man with abhorrent views. Or saying anything except, makes ya think, and "has the ear of Silicon Valley mega-minds!"

Friday, December 09, 2022

Why De Quincey matters (ugh)


This could be called why De Quincey matters, except I loathe all those books about why x matters. Too cute, that toy of publishers.
But still...

In one of those weird and brilliant essays in which De Quincey makes the performative case for  opium addiction (if it makes you as great a writer as De Quincey, why not?), “Secret Societies,” De Quincey claimed that at the age of seven (an important age for de Quincey – the age when his father died, and the age when he started dreaming vividly), he was introduced to the literature on secret societies – specifically, the dreaded Illuminati – by a thirty four year old woman. This woman keeps popping up – she pops up in the Confessions too. Her name was Lady Carberry, she was a friend of his mothers, and she floats above De Quincey’s career as a sort of guardian angel – or, devil.  She loaned him Abbe Barruel’s Memoires pour servir a l’histoire du Jacobinisme. Barruel’s book, according to Patrick Bridgewater (De Quincey’s Gothic Masquerade) had an effect on Shelley too. Shelley, the atheist, took heart in the idea of a vast fellowship working to overthrow the tyranny of organized religion. For De Quncey, it was another matter. Barruel’s story had a certain, well, addictive air – it seemed at once something to believe in that would render one both a knower and a marginal - and something that shocked logic.

“But, however much or often I might vault over the limits of propriety, or might seem to challenge both her and the Abbé—all this was but anxiety to reconcile my own secret belief in the Abbé, with the arguments for not believing; it was but the form assumed by my earnest desire to see how the learned gentlemen could be right, whom my intense faith certified beyond all doubt to be so, and whom, equally, my perverse logical recusancy whispered to be continually in the wrong.”
De Quincey was an exemplary early consumer addict: not only for opium, but for books, which he spent inordinate amounts on, pauperizing himself as a result. And the  Abbé was impersonated, or personated, in the four of a four volume series — which made him all the more credible.
De Quincey was particularly and morbidly fascinated by Barruel’s use of a disease metaphor that has perennially clung to the conspiracy discourse: that secret societies were a cancer.
“I had already Latin enough to know that cancer meant a crab; and that the disease so appalling to a child’s imagination, which in English we call a cancer, as soon as it has passed beyond the state of an indolent scirrhous tumour, drew its name from the horrid claws, or spurs, or roots, by which it connected itself with distant points running underground, as it were, baffling detection, and defying radical extirpation.”
The mutation of a secret society into this image, and image credentialled by philology – and who am I to blame this kind of reasoning? – enhanced the satanic prestige of the secret society, the Illuminati, that was working towards the overthrow of the good.
But there is a problem. De Quincey, at seven, asks the right questions: ‘Then, also, when wickedness was so easy, why did people take all this trouble to be wicked? The how and the why were alike incomprehensible to me.” The very “success” of the Illuminati in overthrowing Christianity puts in doubt its method – for it seems a very costly way to achieve a wicked end when we are all so wicked that this is just what we want.
De Quincey, in the age of Q, the Twitter extreme right, the emergence of ridiculous German “nobles” seeking to seize the government, etc. – is a very timely writer. I’ve always found the idea that there is something discrediting in “conspiracy theory” ridiculous: of course people can work in secret to an illegal end. This has been recognized in law and fact. “Conspiracy theory” as a phrase of derogation is used by establishment figures who have blandly accepted and acted on conspiracy theories – such as that of the “worldwide communist conspiracy” (or the Islamicist conspiracy, etc.) – without question. You can’t understand the Cold War or the Post Cold War without tackling the issue of conspiracy, and trying to sort through what conspiracies are correct (for instance, the conspiracy put into practice by the CIA to overthrow governments from Guatemala to Iran) and those that are bogus (an exercise I leave to the reader).

This reading, though, fatally ignores the libidinous pleasure of both conspiring and discovering conspiracy. No history of human doings can afford to ignore human desires, the taxonomy of which lags far behind the practices they promote. And so it is with De Quincey’s gothic conservatism.

“The mysteriousness to me of men becoming partners (and by no means sleeping partners) in a society of which they had never heard, - or, again, of one fellow standing at the beginning of a century, and stretching out his hand as an accomplice towards another fellow standing at the end of it, without either having known of the other’s existence, -- all that did but sharpen the interest of wonder that gathered about the general economy of Secret Societies. Tertullian’s profession of believing things, not in spite of being impossible, but simply because they were impossible, is not the extravagance that most people suppose it. There is a deep truth in it. Many are the things which, in proportion as they attract the highest modes of belief, discover a tendency to repel belief on that part of the scale which is governed by the lower understanding. And here, as so often elsewhere, the axiom with respect to extremes meeting manifests its subtle presence. The highest form of the incredible is sometimes the initial form of the credible.”
 A liberalism that believes it is shed of conspiracy theory is a liberalism of gulls. De Quincey’s essay is an oddly pertinent – perhaps semipiternally pertinent – text.

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

The career or the soundtrack


Q: In everyday life, do you sometimes have the impression of being in a film?

Baudrillard: Yes, particularly in America, to a quite painful degree. If you drive around Los Angeles in a car, or go out into the desert, you are left with an impression that is totally cinematographic, hallucinatory. You are … steeping in a substance which is that of the real, of the hyper-real, of the cinema. This is so even with that foreboding of catastrophe: an enormous truck bowling along a freeway, the frequent allusions to the possibility of catastrophic events, but perhaps that is a scenario I describe to myself.”

-From Baudrillard Live: selected interviews.


LI is of the opinion that post-modernity never happened, that all the features that are supposed to be postmodern – the hyperreal, the self as self-reference, the undermining of epistemic certainties by pure doxic moments (doxa, you Platonists will remember, are the half way real) – that all of this is what happens as we wander about the extended sensorium created by modernism. When Gerald Nerval in Aurelia recounts the l'épanchement du songe dans la vie réelle (the effusion of the dream in real life), the segues and montages and dissolves could be referenced, at best, to paintings and optical instruments like the microscope, telescope, and kaleidoscope, but now the dream is shot through real life in every grocery store and gas station rest room. And as for Nerval’s own version of the occult influence of the ordinary on his life – “I’ve often had this idea that in certain grave moments in life, the exterior world spirit, as such, incarnated itself suddenly in the form of an ordinary person, and acted or attempted to act on us, without that person’s  knowledge or memory” – this is what is meant by the modernist intuition that  everything we touch turns to mythology as the world seems to get more and more rational, and it is that quality, raised to the power of an external system, that is the sensorium of modernity, on all tracks.

I’ve been in that sensorium since I was born, sixty five years ago. At some point in my teen years, I decided that I would never have a career. A career seemed like the kind of thing that I couldn’t fit my person into. Other people can’t fly on planes, or bear outdoor spaces – myself, I had career-ophobia.

But I did want something else, which leads me back to Baudrillard’s comment. Baudrillard was trying to understand America, and kudos for the film to reality to film segue, but what he left out – and what is so much part of the American character, at least for those of my generation, was the  movie music. I did not want a career, but I did want a soundtrack. A soundtrack that would be the objective correlative of whatever I was doing with myself. Here we have a question for psychologists: what is the meaning and history of the life soundtrack? I know many people who definitely have this same sense – and in fact, those are the people who have always fascinated me in my life. There are many things that go into elective affinity – one of them for me is the intuition that a certain person has this soundtrack, lives with it, nourishes it, realizes, obscurely, that it is important. These people are poseurs, and I do love poseurs – it requires a lot of push back against the inertia of the everyday, which, after a while, wears on even Popeye’s muscle. I do think the soundtrack dies, for a lot of people – who knows, perhaps most people – in the twenties. It might be a sign of one’s retarded development in late modern capitalism to retain it, as I do, into middle age.

Myself, I have lived with a soundtrack intermittently. I’ve never quite generated that buzz which for some people means that you can almost hear their soundtrack as you observe them. I haven’t felt very soundtracked, I must say, in the last couple of years, where being married and raising a child take up my best and blest energies.

However, that is not the only reason for my soundtracklessness. The other reason is that I hardly ever drive, and when I do, hardly ever drive alone.

Baudrillard’s response about the West leaves out that very important thing. It is puzzling. He was bent on noticing. But he didn’t notice the  radio. It was in the eighties when he was going out to the American badlands, and apparently he didn’t go out with what I always had in the car: the tape. The mixed tape. Without it – especially in those vast eyeaching spaces that you have to speed through, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Texas – the movie-in-life becomes simply a trance of sleep inducing landscapes.

The way in which a soundtrack was forged from forward motion in an automobile and the right tunes coming from the tape or radio is a nugget of pure Americana. It is where Buffalo Bill and Daniel Boone went to. I have, perhaps, failed to create the soundtrack I envisioned when I was a wee little peeper in suburban Atlanta, but I have tried, goddamn it. This is how the pure products of America go crazy – to some cultic sound.

Monday, December 05, 2022

loaded dice


What is happiness is an old and still pertinent question. I devoted a lot of time to this question in the 00s, when I was trying to write a book about what I called the Human Limit – the notion, overthrown in the Early Modern Age in much of Europe, that there was some limit as to what humans could do to the world. To my mind, the overthrow of that notion – the notion of fate, of nemesis, of some God with a balance in her hand – was made, I thought, under the banner of happiness – the idea that happiness, or well being, was not only the point of the individual life, but the shared premise of the preferred political and social order.

The weird notions of longtermism derive, philosophically, I think, from one encoding of this notion of happiness. Because, in the end, happiness was justificative but not self-explanatory, the move was to simplify it: to make it a quantitative proposition. Thus, more of the x that “made you happy” was a good, so we should have more x, more and more. This eventually translated into happiness is more stuff. This leads to the low ball sci fi fantasies of the Oxford longtermist dudes.

So, a little philosophical riff.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle takes a stab at illustrating happiness, and then defines it using the method one uses to describe organisms – he sorts through its various constituent parts. This being long before functional accounts of organisms, there isn’t any attempt to show the necessary connection of these parts or how their coordination brings about happiness. On the other hand, though in some ways a rather wild analysis, much of what Aristotle says has been adopted by economists to talk about well being. Happiness, regarded from the outside, then, and reduced to its most typical circumstances, looks something like to Aristotle:
“It may be said that every individual man and all men in common aim at a certain end which determines what they choose and what they avoid. This end, to sum it up briefly, is happiness and its constituents. Let us, then, by way of illustration only, ascertain what is in general the nature of happiness, and what are the elements of its constituent parts. For all advice to do things or not to do them is concerned with happiness and with the things that make for or against it; whatever creates or increases happiness or some part of happiness, we ought to do; whatever destroys or hampers happiness, or gives rise to its opposite, we ought not to do.
We may define happiness as prosperity combined with virtue; or as independence of life; or as the secure enjoyment of the maximum of pleasure; or as a good condition of property and body, together with the power of guarding one's property and body and making use of them. That happiness is one or more of these things, pretty well everybody agrees.
From this definition of happiness it follows that its constituent parts are: -- good birth, plenty of friends, good friends, wealth, good children, plenty of children, a happy old age, also such bodily excellences as health, beauty, strength, large stature, athletic powers, together with fame, honour, good luck, and virtue. A man cannot fail to be completely independent if he possesses these internal and these external goods; for besides these there are no others to have. (Goods of the soul and of the body are internal. Good birth, friends, money, and honour are external.) Further, we think that he should possess resources and luck, in order to make his life really secure.”

Further in the Rhetoric, Aristotle elaborates – for instance, that wealth would consist of having plenty of coin and slaves. This concantenation has served as a useful guide to the limits of conceptual talk about happiness, but not a very good guide to its cause, or as an explanation, really, of the feeling of happiness and the use of happiness to describe these states. In other words, why should we call any of this happiness?

Philosophers who study the classics often come in here and say, “happiness” is a poor translation for eudaemonia. I’m not sure what numinous other elements are contained in “eudamonia” that make the translation as happiness, which is one of the most common in the European languages, so bad. In fact, when people talk about living a “happy” life, I think eudamonia is what is meant. 

In Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslateables, the entry on happiness emphasizes the etymological relationship to chance, of good “hap”.

“In almost all European languages, then, happiness is synonymous with luck or good fortune, the advantages we receive by chance. German, however, with the difference between Glück and Glückseligkeit, seeks to strengthen ( in the tradition of Aristotle’s distinction between eutuchia and eudaimonia ) an opposition between the moral goal ( “happiness” that pertains to the innermost spiritual life ) and favorable contingency.”
Can we load the dice: that might be the great modern question.

Hume elaborated a critique of Aristotle’s hierarchical notion of happiness and its attachment to certain conventional circumstances, in his essay, the Skeptic, that may well have been what Tolstoy was thinking of when he famously wrote, in Anna Karenin, that all happy families are alike. Hume’s skeptic claims:

“The inference upon the whole is, that it is not from the value or worth of the object, which any person pursues, that we can determine his enjoyment, but merely from the passion with which he pursues it, and the success which he meets with in his pursuit. Objects have absolutely no worth or value in themselves. They derive their worth merely from the passion. If that be strong, and steady, and successful, the person is happy. It cannot reasonably be doubted, but a little miss, dressed in a new gown for a dancing-school ball, receives as compleat enjoyment as the greatest orator, who triumphs in the spendor of his eloquence, while he governs the passions and resolutions of a numerous assembly.”
Hume’s comparison of the little miss and the orator is alive in the debate today about the relationship between wealth and happiness – which is a debate that is not very loud, and is pursued idly, but that does have to do with the very reason we feel we have to keep the treadmill of production going. Although distantly – long ago the governing class decided that the happiness or unhappiness produced by economic growth would have no relevance to the question of economic growth. It was a good that overshadowed all merely individual inconveniences. It was the ultimate in loaded dice.
Only now is a consciousness of the price of economic growth coming into focus.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

A Long Sunday Read

 One of Foucault’s most ingenious lightning strokes comes at the beginning of the essay with a name like a telegram from the Hotel Abyss: Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. It was published in 1971, and it had a large effect in the world of scholarship – diffusing a p.o.v. through philosophy, literature and finally history departments worldwide.

Geneology is gray : it is meticulous and patiently documentary. It works on parchment that is tangled , scratched and often re-written.

Paul Ree was wrong, like the English, to describe linear geneses – to organize, for instance, all the history of morality under the tutelage of utility ; as if the words had kept hold of their sense, the desires their direction, the ideas their logic ; as if this world of things said and willed had not known invasions, struggles, rapine, masks, ruses. It is this standpoint that serves as an indispensable resource for geneology : to note down the singularity of events, outside of any monotone finality; to spy them there where one expects them the least, and in what passes for not having a history – sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; to grasp their return, not in order to trace the slow arc of an evolution, but in order to discover different scenes where they have played different roles; to even define their lacuna, the moments where the event didn’t happen (Plato in Syracuse did not become Mohammed, etc.).




This kind of history rejects, at least temporarily, one of the great functions of history: retrospective legitimation. To tell a history of progress in which the teller is at the enlightened endpoint, to in a sense miniaturize history to make it seem as though it finally makes sense in some point of time, passes through the needle’s eye of the present moment, such is the object, here, of Nietzsche’s, and by association, Foucault’s great rejection: rather, one plunges into the depths with such a respect for the depths that the depths define themselves. One doesn’t, to use a minor example, speak of the “scientists” of the seventeenth century, but use the terms that were used about them and that “they” generated: natural philosophers, for instance. Where we use the term “science”, the natural philosophers often used the term “art”. In Boyle’s Skeptical Chymist, for instance, the word science is used once, in a translation from a French text, to describe chemistry, whereas Boyle uses the word “Art” for chemistry – by which he means “practical” chemistry – much more often. We can reach in and “clean up” Boyle to make up an account of the history of chemistry, but to do this means silently disentangling that semantic and social compound from Boyle’s own pragmatics. Science, which for us “moderns” means some conjunction of empirical laboratory practice and abstract theorizing may well look  back on impulses in Boyle’s work, but this is not the only “history” in which Boyle can feature. 

However, the Foucauldian moment, at least as it effected the public consciousness of history, no longer has its grip on the public face of history. As Neoliberalism moved into a new, globalist stage in the 90s, the old Whiggish version of history, with its claim to “realism” – history that crowns the teller and the teller’s age as the global achievement towards which all history strains – came back. It came back riding, at first, on the end of history – the fad that came after the fall of Soviet communism – and then as the retrospective justification for what I’d call the right wing of neoliberalism – where it found its propagandist in figures like Stephen Pinker. Certain incidents – notably, 9/11 – made the governing class less shy about its colonialist subtext – that is, that Europe and the White West are the heirs of history, with the troops and drones to match.

Against this preface, I propose doing a little literary number. W.G. Sebald’ is not usually considered in this particular political context. Yet Sebald’s writing definitely falls under the heyday of neoliberalism. I want to take a moment in Vertigo and do some serious gloss work, you all.

Vertigo is a novel of sorts, Sebald’s first, published in 1990. It is divided up between events that happened to the narrator in the 1980s and events that happened to Stendhal (in the first chapter) and Kafka (in the third chapter). I’m interested in the first chapter, since what is happening to Stendhal, whose interior career, his mode of thought and feeling, was formed in the Napoleonic period, and was lived out in the reactionary aftermath, seems in some ways to shadow what was happening to intellectuals in the Thatcherite eighties, whose interior careers were formed in the revolutionary sixties and seventies, and were being played out in an unexpected turn of the times – a backwards movement, a most definite ricorsi.


In 1821, Stendhal was on his downers. He had fled Italy on the advice of certain authorities, who knew he was in line to being scooped up by the cops because of his association with certain  revolutionaries. His hated father had died – on the bright side – but his inheritance was paltry – on the down side. So he was in Paris, making the rounds of the salons of the opposition, and writing journalism for the English papers from the scoops he’d gather. It was in these conditions, between brilliant banter and nostalgia, between personal penury and the hôtels of the bourgeois grandees, that he  sat down and wrote his first book – which was also the first tryout of his pseudonym (his real name was Henri Beyle). On its publication, Love [De l’amour] was received, even among his friends, as a puzzle or a mystification. In an essay on Stendhal in the London Review of Books, Tim Parks noted that Etienne-Jean Delécluze, in whose salon Beyle met the leading lights of the liberal opposition, “wondered whether the pages might have been bound in the wrong order.” Beyle claimed that the book only sold seventeen copies. The feeling of being wrong-footed by this book is often shared by contemporary readers, who find in the book a confusing mixture of aphorisms, anecdotes, and the dry remains of a treatise on passion within the framework of Beyle’s creaky old master, Cabanis, the inheritor of the enlightenment sensualist tradition that reduced all claims, transcendental or aesthetic, to the hedonic facts of human physiology – that is, to pleasure and pain.  This seems a framework ill suited to Beyle’s attempt to show that love of a certain type – passional love, which seems to find pleasure in its pain, and pain in its pleasure – is the true measure of human elevation, but such is the course he lays out for himself. It even becomes his measure for assessing the level of cultural liberty within the different societies of Europe.

One hundred and sixty nine years later, W.G. Sebald published his first “novel”, Vertigo [Schwindel. Gefühle], also a wrong-footing book in as much as its tone and subdued narrative – if narrative there is – seem contrary to the canons of fiction in our time. The first chapter is entitled “Beyle: or love is a madness most discrete.” Sebald, drawing largely from Love  and other autobiographical writings, constructs a portrait of Beyle  that, behind the reader’s back,  employs certain fictional slights of hand, displacements of fact, distortions of context, amalgamation of incidents, to produce a Beyle who corresponds in some larger recognizable sense to the historical figure, but in the narrower sense corresponds to that figure very much caught in the narrator’s filling in, for his own purposes, of the historical lacuna. His very use of “Beyle” instead of “Stendhal” has a de-familiarizing thrust, in as much as it points to the duplicity of “Stendhal”: one of the affects of a pseudonym is the feeling it gives of making the bearer of the real name something of an imposter, a fake, a counterfeit, a parvenu in the domain of his own fame and reputation.  

Sebald wrote his book in the 1980s – which was a time, not unlike the 1820s, when the predominant political tone was one of restoration, with the power in place (Thatcherism, Reaganism) overtly working against the democratic socialist ideals of the period between 1945 and 1980. The latter had legitimated itself, vaguely, with reference to the ideals of the Atlantic revolutions, and not surprisingly the French Revolution was busy being “re-evaluated” by conservative historians during the 80s, and blamed for all the evils of totalitarianism.  Yet Sebald’s work is usually not connected to this background, but rather to World War II. Born in 1944, Sebald carried with him a certain cloud of melancholy that was all about the Nazi era that he never really experienced, but that marked all the adults around him in the Germany in which he grew up. It was like he was born on the exitus of some black hole. There are accidents you keep looking back on all your life, and understandably, for a European, the meat mangle of World War II is one of those kinds.  This motif pervades one of Sebald’s most important essays, History and Natural History, an essay on the literary description of total destruction…, which was published in 1982 and caused a large and continuing controversy in Germany, because of the weight it put upon the air bombardment of Nazi Germany – which struck some people as an apologetic and nationalist move, even though Sebald was neither a nationalist nor particularly into any school that made Germany a “victim”. In that essay, Sebald asks how one can create an “authentic literary reflection” about the “extreme reality of our time”  – which is a question that is partly answered in his series of novels, beginning with Vertigo.

Can one, then, ask about the “extreme reality” of Sebald’s own time? In particular, the appearance of his novels coincide with the triumph of shock doctrine economics, to borrow Naomi Klein’s phrase, and the certainty, among the influential makers of public opinion, that there was “no alternative”.  It would be surprising, given Sebald’s history-drenched consciousness, if this phenomenon did not find expression on some plane of his text.

Vertigo is a novel composed of two essay-like chapters – the first on Beyle, the third on Kafka – and two autobiographical chapters – one on the narrator in Venice in the early eighties, one on a trip back to his hometown in Bavaria that takes place in 1987.  It mentions no current events – neither Reagan nor Thatcher nor Kohl are mentioned in the book. And yet there is, I think, a certain current in the book, a certain undertone in the writing, that does deal, indirectly, poetically, with the advent of the shock therapy society.   

The passage that made me think of these things – and think of Beyle himself, who in 1821 had already developed his distinctive moody liberalism that would attract admirers as different as Nietzsche and Leon Blum – pretends to retell an anecdote about Beyle that must surely be in his journals or autobiographic writings, or in Love. Here’s the passage:

The narrative begins in Bologna, where the heat was so unbearable – in the early July of a year we cannot date precisely – that Beyle and Mme Gherardi decided to spend a few weeks breathing the fresher air of the mountains. Resting by day and travelling by night, they crossed the hilly country of Emilia-Romagna and the Mantuan marshes, shrouded in sulphurous vapours, and on the morning of the third day arrived in Desenzano on Lake Garda. Never in his entire life, writes Beyle, had the beauty and solitude of those waters made so profound an impression on him. Because of the oppressive heat, he and Mme Gherardi spent the evenings in a barque out on the lake, observing, during hours of unforgettable tranquillity, the most extraordinary gradations of colour as night fell. It was on one of those evenings, Beyle writes, that they talked of the pursuit of happiness. Mme Gherardi maintained that love, like most other blessings of civilisation, was a chimaera which we desire the more, the further removed we are from Nature. Insofar as we seek Nature solely in another body, we become cut off from Her; for love, she declared, is a passion that pays its debts in a coin of its own minting, and thus a purely notional transaction which one no more needs for one’s fulfilment than one needs the instrument for trimming goose-quills that he, Beyle, had bought in Modena. Or do you imagine (thus, according to Beyle, she continued) that Petrarch was unhappy merely because he never knew the taste of coffee?”


This passage rather shocked me, since I had apparently overlooked it when reading Stendhal’s book Its conjunction of Petrarch and the cup of coffee, I thought, was brilliant: Petrarch, whose 15th century humanism made him the first quintessentially modern European figure in, at least, traditional intellectual history; Petrarch, Stendhal’s predecessor in exploring the great vexing question of contradiction in love; Petrarch, the humanist and scourge of corruption – on the one side. And on the other coffee, unknown to the Europe of Petrarch’s time; coffee, the commerce of which became a symbol for the global reach of the dominant commercial power exercised by the great European states; coffee, that liquid that generated the coffeehouse, which in turn, in some hyperbolic accounts, generated the whole space of bourgeois public opinion. Between the two, a temporal differential. Between the two, the question of whether happiness is really increased by our technology, commerce, and consumerism. For the vexing question of happiness which Petrarch’s coffee poses to the Whiggish historian – the man, almost always a man, who believes the world is getting better and better under the capitalist world order – is how to compare the contemporary happiness supposedly unleashed in the human breast by our world of commodities with the past happiness of people who were absolutely ignorant of, and thus free from, that system of commodities.

Love begins with one formulation of the theory of crystallizationand ends with another formulation that rather complicates the story. The story is based on an incident. The salt miners in Hallein, near Salzburg in Austria, throw a dead branch into the depths of the mine. Then, after a certain period, they haul it up again, and the leafless branch is encrusted, like a diadem, with beautiful, diamond-like salt crystals. Stendhal compares this process to the process of love. The image of the Other is, as it were, thrown into the depths of the consciousness, and then hauled up to the surface, and seen as radiant and beautiful in spite of the fact that the real Other is still that dead branch under the crystals – or perhaps, on a more optimistic reading, the reality of the dead branch itself is all of these sequences, from life to the underworld to a fantastic other life. It is, in any case, an eerie allegory – unheimlich. Following the logic of repetition Freud later saw as an essential moment of the unheimlich, the second formulation of the crystallization forms a second story, as if the first one had not already been told. In this formulation, Madame Gherardi, or Ghita, plays a major role – it is she who accompanies Beyle to the mine, and it is she who becomes the object of crystallization for a young officer in Beyle’s group. Here, again, as Sebald emphasizes, one thing substitutes for another  – for the tone of the telling indicates that it is Beyle and not the officer who is under Madame Gherardi’s spell. 


The question of the real comes up in an unexpected way in Sebald’s staging of Beyle’s encounter on that lake. It is startling to realize, once one has done some surface investigation of Beyle’s life, that Sebald has de-materialized Madame Gherardi – made her, as he says, a phantom, or a fiction of Stendhal’s:

“There is reason to suspect that Beyle used her name as a cipher for various lovers such as Adèle Rebuffel, Angéline Bereyter and not least for Métilde Dembowski, and that Mme Gherardi, whose life would easily furnish a whole novel, as Beyle writes at one point, never really existed, despite all the documentary evidence, and was merely a phantom, albeit one to whom Beyle remained true for decades.”

However, this is an odd case to make: Madame Gherardi of Brescia was so much not the phantom that she was General Murat’s mistress, just as Beyle was attached to General Murat’s command. This was well known at the time – so much so that Napoleon alludes to it in a letter to the General. She was referred to in Stendhal’s journal, by name, in connection with the “game” of crystallization – an extraordinary length to go if, indeed, Stendhal were in the business, here, of creating a mystification, since the journal was private writing. She was well enough known to be mentioned by other memoirists of the period, especially for the scandal she caused when, as a married woman, she traveled to Paris to be with her lover, Murat. This is not of course to say that Sebald is “wrong,” or made a mistake, but simply to say that he has taken a hint from certain of Stendhal’s biographers, who certainly take the Mme Gherardi figure in Love for a kind of fiction behind which Stendhal hides other women (an assumption that is a little strange, since the Murat scandal would certainly be known to readers in Paris in 1821) – and have used it to push a certain combination of literary devices to create a fiction. In making Mme Gherardi a “phantom”, the calm, essayistic tone, the Auerbachian assurance of the scene on the lake, trembles with some gothic motif underneath, some suppressed violence. But whose violence?  

Sebald’s second move in his recasting and fictionalizing Love is to report this dialogue, these murmurs in the oncoming dark on Lake Garda, as though it were transposed from Beyle’s book. Instead, Sebald has put, into the phantasmatic Mme Gherardi’s mouth, words that are spoken not in dialogue, and not by Mme Gherardi (who is given dialogue in Beyle’s book), but maxims written by Beyle. The fragments section of his book, from which this dialogue is taken, with a little rewiring, is firmly in the moraliste tradition, the tradition of Pascal’s Pensees and La Bruyere.  What Mme Gherardi says is a mashup of two fragments, 140 and part of 145. The reconstruction of these maxims is another step in creating a certain ghostliness – a certain fog – which lies around the entire picture of Beyle.  

But what of Madame Gherardi’s comment itself? How are we to parse it? What does love being a currency that pays its debts in its own money have to do with Petrarch and coffee? It is best, I think, to divide the comment in two, for both parts set up a triangle between the recent history of Europe in Stendhal’s time, the value of the passions in a world seemingly devoted to money, or utility, and Beyle as one of Sebald’s oddmen – men who are out of even, literary men at the margins of the greater shifts and turns of the social forces in Europe.

The first part, with its comparison of love to money brought into the frame certain events that resonated in the early 18th century – as the inflation of the French revolutionary era had a massive effect on the events of the Napoleonic era and the restoration. Keeping our double focus, the period in which Sebald is writing is also one determined economically, in part, by the great inflation of the 70s. The link between love and a currency losing its purchasing power as prices go up, a currency that is not linked to any substance, also binds together Beyle’s time and Sebald’s. To see this, we have to take a little course in economic history: just as the abrogation of the Bretton Woods accord by Nixon sank, once and for all, the gold standard and the regulatory structure around foreign exchange, so, too, in the 1790s, did the French revolutionary government clip the link between currency and gold in the creation and promotion of the assignat. These were supposedly papers that were assigned value as shares of the nationalized properties of the monarchy and the church, which had been seized by the state. But the Revolutionary government took a printing machine approach to them, flooding the nation, and Europe, with the things. James Buchan, in Frozen Desire, devotes an elegant chapter to this episode in modern state finance.

…the revolutionary paper moneys seem to drive the revolution on. In the career of these pieces of paper, one sees condensed the idealism of 1790,the chaos of war and invasion, the massacre of Salpetriere and the triumph of Valmy, the guillotine in the Place de la Revoliution, the quaint New Age months and years and weights and measures and festivals of the Supreme Being, St. Just’s pastoral fantasies on the eve of Thermidor, the despotism of Buonaparte and the communism of Babeuf and finally Balzac’s profiteering nouveau riches.

Such, then, is the sweep of Gherardi’s comparison. It insinuates into love, as a passion, a certain frightening revolutionary power, one that sweeps away the usual foundations of the “reality” of one’s unit of exchange, one’s wage, one’s promise, ones final, revocable body, and puts in its place a foundation forged out of expropriation and idealism – a shaky structure, that cannot, such is Gherardi’s conservative point, last.

There is another point in Gherardi’s argument – or her tease, from Stendhal’s point of view, or Sebald’s sense of that point of view. It arises out of the conservative critique of love’s sustainability and goes to another level, a level that allows us to ask what progress itself is for – what the good of it is.   


In the art, literature, philosophy and social sciences of the nineteenth century, a terrific amount of rationalization revolved around – found its justification in – a central paradigm of progress, whether to acclaim it (the classical liberal response) or to stand back in horror from it (a response shared by reactionaries and certain socialists). When Beyle takes the possibility of “passional love” as the measure of cultural liberty in European societies, he is not merely being too clever: he is beginning a critique of cultural narrowness – of a moralistic straightjacketing of people – that took as its paradigm case, in the 19th century, the moral condition of public life in the U.K., and took as its theme the paradox that the most democratically constituted state, politically, was the one with the most restricted cultural scene. Alexander Herzen, in exile in London, wrote damningly of the lack of personal breathing space in English society in his essay on Robert Owen, which Tolstoy greatly admired; so did Gauguin’s mother, the radical feminist Flora Tristan, who was scathing about the cultural segregation of women in Victorian London. Inside Britain, this criticism was taken up by one of the great Victorian sages: John Stuart Mill.

John Stuart Mill, who was born in 1806 – when Stendhal was 23 – is an interesting figure to compare to Beyle. Mill, in his maturity, tried to reconcile with the Liberalism of Victorian England, for which he was a great advocate, with the values of the French Revolution, which Beyle, a generation younger, experienced as the very spirit of Napoleon’s continental system. Unlike Beyle, Mill not only adored his father, but made it one of his life’s tasks to defend the utilitarianism that James Mill, in tandem with his friend and teacher, Jeremy Bentham, developed. Bentham’s utilitarianism was connected, root and branch, to the eighteenth century sensualist metaphysic – the very school from which Beyle learned his worldview – making Mill and Beyle, with their two very different characters, philosophical cousins.

Mill suffered a nervous breakdown when he was twenty. He read himself into this breakdown, under the strain of the books his father assigned to him as part of his education; he then read himself out of it, through a therapeutic immersion in Wordsworth’s poetry. Mill was forever after grateful to Wordsworth, and – given his training in systematic thinking – felt that poetry was a data point insufficiently considered by the ethos of his father. Famously, Bentham had said that from the point of view of utilitarianism, there was no difference between poetry and pushpin. That is, the pleasure you got from one and the pleasure you got from the other was essentially cut from the same cloth. All pleasures were equal qua pleasure. This was a crucial political economic point: if pleasures were somehow innately heterogenous, you couldn’t quantify over them and produce simple social calculations. If some pleasures were different, the world of utility would then be insufficient to guide all social policy.

Mill dealt with this problem in a more general spirit in his essays on Bentham and Coleridge, and in a more systematic spirit in Utilitarianism. Nobody at the time or later felt that his solution was elegant, or even, in the terms he presented it, defensible; yet everybody feels there is an intuition at the bottom of it that must be dealt with:

“Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.” 

Pleasure itself (and, by inference, pain) cannot, apparently, endogenously produce this hierarchy – instead, Mill makes an empirical move and goes to exogenous factors to both claim that this is a hierarchy (of higher and lower happiness) derived from the experience of experts (who are tacitly defined in terms of their cultural knowledge) and to inscribe this hierarchy in his social philosophy. Unfortunately for Mill, this makes his two happinesses seem less, rather than more, legitimate, forms of wishful thinking against Bentham’s hardheaded dogmatism. In terms of Mill’s own work, one can see, behind this passage, a project that goes back to his essays on Bentham and Coleridge. It is the Coleridge essay, especially, that shows the reach of Mill’s mind and his attitudinal difference vis-a-vis his more downright predecessors. Choosing Coleridge for the topic of an essay is a surprising choice: Coleridge was the enemy of his party. Coleridge was reaction. And he was even a bit of a turncoat, since, in his youth, Coleridge had sympathized with the French Revolution. Yet Mill recognized that beyond these qualities, Coleridge was also a brilliant opponent, the great theorist of reaction. In a clarifying passage, Mill brings this together with the critique of the ideology of progress:

One “observer” is forcibly stuck by the multiplication of physical comforts; the advancement and diffusion of knowledge; the decay of superstition; the facilities of mutual intercourse; the softening of manners; the decline of war and personal conflict; the progressive limitation of the tyranny of the strong over the weak; the great works accomplished throughout the globe by the co-operation of multitudes: and he becomes that very common character, the worshipper of “‘our enlightened age.” Another fixes his attention, not upon the value of these advantages, but upon the high price which is paid for them; the relaxation of individual energy and courage; the loss of proud and self-relying independence; the slavery of so large a portion of mankind to artificial wants; their effeminate shrinking from ‘even” the shadow of pain; the dull unexciting monotony of their lives, and the passionless insipidity, and absence of any marked individuality, in their characters…


One can see, in the critique of progress, an incipient critique of the cultural narrowness of a purely commercial society. Mill’s response was to embrace an eclecticism that synthesized the conservative defense of culture, as he found it in Coleridge, and the Benthamite defense of social policy based on utility.  It is a problem similar to that faced by Stendhal: to remain faithful to a rationality founded on the sensualist materialism of the 18th century with the revolutionary sentiment derived, stylistically, from Rousseau. In Stendhal’s work, that revolutionary moment, which dissolves all previous irrational structures, only to get routinized in the Civil Code, goes underground – goes into the depths of the salt mines – and emerges in the erotic. But it is a funny liberation that is promised here, one that authenticates itself by ending badly, or perhaps I should say, twistedly – without the satisfaction that it promised. Beyle’s “yes” is to a lovelife that is the eternal return of the same problem.


Sebald presents himself – as the narrator, with all the distance and funnybusiness that involves – as incorrigibly melancholic throughout the period of the eighties. That melancholia is linked, by allusion and juxtaposition, to the thwarted, the intentionally irrational, love lives of Stendhal and Kafka. But as Foucault so rightly says, emotion is not an ahistorical constant. It too is experienced within the everydayness formed within the culture’s past and present and expectations. The image of Petrarch’s coffee is, I think, more resonant for Sebald, who was witnessing the Thatcherite turn towards the deeper invasion of capitalist norms on the private life, than it may have been for Stendhal – which is perhaps why he dispossesses Stendhal of the thought, and gives it to a de-materialized woman who, in the end, does not become either Stendhal’s lover. Her comment is dialectically complex: on the one hand, it is a defense of the unique individual’s liberty – restoring the decisional character of the passions. It reclaims an intentionality that Stendhal’s crystalisation obscures in myth. On the other hand, it also puts into doubt the notion that there is such a thing as retrospective legitimation: a move against the Whiggish idea that the accumulation of commodities is the endpoint of history. The political economist pretends to value neutrality, but is deeply loyal to a certain ideal of happiness that levels people – that creates happy consuming machines, instead of unhappy or happy spirits.

It is this leveling that, I think, is the key to Sebald’s unhappiness in Vertigo – or to the level of unhappiness. It is not an unhappiness that is opposed to happiness, but instead, one that seeks out a happiness that it could be opposed to, a happiness that springs from… well, it is hard to say what. Writing? Love? Or the exhilaration of disaster? Mill’s reasons for dividing pleasure into a higher and lower state are rooted in a utilitarianism that is in contradiction to them – but this doesn’t mean that happiness is all of a piece, that happinesses are interchangeable. Which of course creates an enigma for a social order founded on the pursuit of happiness: for perhaps the happiness of one person is not only not shared by another, but actually causes the latter pain: happiness, in other words, can be loosened from solidarity to such an extent that giving pain to the Other, exterminating the Other, can become a collective goal. 

Sebald terminates Vertigo with a paraphrase of Samuel Pepys account of the Great Fire of London. Surely he was reading about the Great Fire because he was pondering the burning of the German cities in the great air war of the 40s, which in Sebald’s view had been, if not hidden, at least not really assumed the proportions of the disaster it was in the literature of the major German post-war writers, as if the trauma of it was beyond them, or as if the incomparably more extensive Nazi mass murder had made it seem, in comparison, justified. 

We saw the fire grow. It was not bright, it was a gruesome, evil, bloody flame, sweeping, before the wind, through all the City. Pigeons lay destroyed upon the pavements, in hundreds, their feathers singed and burned. A crowd of looters roams through Lincoln’s Inn. The churches, houses, the woodwork and the building stones, ablaze at once. The churchyard yews ignited, each one a lighted torch, a shower of sparks now tumbling to the ground. And Bishop Braybrooke’s grave is opened up, his body disinterred. Is this the end of time? A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, throughout the air. The powder house exploded. We flee onto the water. The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire. And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.

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...