Saturday, December 24, 2022

Gerard Macé


Gerard Macé, as far as I can tell, is an unknown in the Anglophone world. He is, on the other hand, revered in French literary circles. In France, there is a certain line of poetics that goes from the French moraliste tradition through prose poetry into an expanded field of the aphorism – the aphorism as insight and lyric – which doesn’t quite have an equivalent in the Anglosphere. Thus, a poet like Georges Perros, whose  series Papiers collées is one of the important twentieth century texts, was not translated, and then in a selection,  into English until 2021 -

I prefer Macé to Perros, but both writers are best understood against the background of the moraliste tradition. It is a tradition which was seized and remade by Nietzsche in the 19th century, The poetics of Emerson and Thoreau are both recognizably shaped by the moralistes of the 17th century, plus of course the enormous weight of the sermon.

I came across this bit in Macé’s The map of the empire – simple thoughts 2:

“The liquid element is the closest one to the Dao, which teaches us that we must forget water if we want to swim well. In the same way, we have to forget words to write well, which is not the same as being unconscious of them. But let them come instead of looking for them, and choosing them as thought they were posing before us.”

Now, you either like this kind of thing or you don’t. Myself, I’m a fan. Jules Renard, in his journal – a strong influence on this tradition – records the remark of a friend that he saw, in Renard’s work, a lot of fallen leaves, but no tree. The lack of a masterwork – some central novel or poem – is the starting point for the 20th and 21st century moraliste. Proust stands as the counter-example – the one writer who, after the pastiche and the essays, actually created a masterwork about a man who aspires to write a masterwork.

Proust is an example of Macé’s writer: the one who forgets words. It is a highly specific form of forgetting. The critic, you might say, is the bad conscience who only remembers words. But this would make the dialectical game all too simple, don’t you think?

Friday, December 23, 2022

The doormen of genius (aren't we all?)


The great wheel of circulation is altogether different from the goods which are circulated by means of it. The revenue of the society consists altogether in those goods, and not in the wheel which circulates them. – Adam Smith


Georg  Simmel, in the Philosophy of Money, is very clear about the structure of the modern history of capitalism – it is  about the lengthening of the means – the lengthening of the instrumental interval – to ends. Marx, as well,  pointed out again and again – that capitalism becomes a global second nature that conceals the system of production under the great wheel of circulation. But this lengthening of means leads to a shortening of time – this is the Alice in Wonderland paradox for all of us, living on the other side of the mirror.  For Shylock and Bassanio, a bet on cargo would take months to come to some end – but for Sam Bankman Fried, billions of  dollars attached to pseudo currency  can be bet and lost in the course of a week, dissolving the meteoric rise of a financial adventurer, felled by a cursor and a tweet.

 The sugar I put in my coffee today came Saint Louis, a company that refines and distributes sugar derived from beets cultivated in Europe, while the coffee came from Peru. Both were purchased at the U  down the street. The logistical network by which both products could be refined, packaged, trucked to stores and finally end up consumed on my table is only intermittently visible to anyone – it is visible in the truck that unloads the packages and the store clerks who stock it – it is visible to the rural proles who harvest the beans, picturesquely dressed in colorful and characteristic clothing and smiling (according to the image on the package) (although in reality probably wearing tee shirts that say Harvard or Hard Rock Café or something similar and blue jeans, part of the vast dump of tee shirts throughout the undeveloped economies), and visible as digits displayed on a screen to accountants at the company and stock market traders. All of which means that as Simmel’s teleological series are lengthening, they are also producing the appearance of temporal shortening – they are faster. The faster they are, the more they are lengthened – this is one of the paradoxes of capitalism.

It is a paradox that, as well, impinges on the novelistic representation of what Polanyi called the  Great Transformation, from in-kind to monetized economies, with their proliferation of fictive properties. Lukacs, in the Theory of the Novel, speaks a little mysteriously of the various regimes of “distance” between the hero and the meaning of life in the epic, the tragedy, and the novel. This distance is, I think, an expression of the teleological chains that Simmel saw on the surface of life in a fully monetized society. For the epic and the tragic hero, the quest is to understand the sense of life in the face of fate – the world here consists of large, or one might say, royal contingencies. But for the novelistic hero, fate doesn’t have the same totalizing meaning – it has, instead, a dispersing meaning.

“For life, gravity means: the absence of any present sense, the indissoluble enclosure in senseless causal connections, the withering in fruitless nearness to earth and farness from heaven, the having to endure in not being able to liberate oneself from the irons of simple brutal materiality from that which for the best immanent forces of life is the continual goal of overcoming: expressed with the value concept of form – triviality.”

Baudelaire said that Balzac’s novels are distinguished from the usual novel of moeurs by the fact that Balzac’s delight in the massive triviality of material circumstances transforms them into signs and symbols of genius: “All his personages are endowed with a vital ardor by which he is himself animated. All his fictions are as profoundly colored as dreams. From the summit of the aristocracy to the plebes at the bottom, all the actors of his Comedy are more eager for life, more active and clever in struggle, more angelic in devotion, than the comedy of the real world shows them to us. In brief, each, with Balzac, even the doormen, have genius.”

Baudelaire is a very surefooted critic. Wilde obviously copies Baudelaire here in his famous essay on the Decay of Lying, and Wilde was as cunning as a jewel thief when it came to copping the shiny bits of his predecessors. But though I am sure that Baudelaire is correct about the excess in Balzac, I am not sure that this excess did not flow back into life – or rather, I am not sure that Balzac was not simply being prophetic. Proust thought so – thought that the aristocracy absorbed Balzac’s aristocrats into the norms of their own behavior. The transmission, here, was obviously through a literacy and taste that one might not suppose in the doormen. But could it be… could it be that the burden of trivia itself imposed a struggle upon them such that the result, under the Great Transformation, in the midst of teleological chains that were both lengthening and shortening – in an Alice in Wonderland world – was that genius became a job requirement of the doormen of Paris, London or New York? In comparison to the Sganarelles and Figaros of the old order, at least.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

False friends


Every student of French or German is familiar with the phrase “false friends.” False friends are those words one comes across that look enough like some English word that the unwise student will assume that they mean the same thing. For instance, the French verb, blesser, which means wound, and the English verb bless, which means to wish something good.

The idea that false friends operate only across language lines, however, strikes me as a limitation on a very useful concept. I think that false friends operate within different subgroups with different jargons within one language. Look at how the word “woke” or the term “cancel culture” has shifted between subgroups.  When you see a “debate” between the right and the left in America, it is often like hearing one group of people using “bless[er]” to mean injure and another group meaning to wish a benediction on. Of course, often – and this is a common rightwing tactic – the use of the term will be intentionally mangled, so that the debate (a puzzlingly idolized idea on the right, ever since the right was all about “debating” the Iraq invasion back in the early 00s, which involved debaters who spoke no Arabic and had the thinnest of notions about what Iraq actually was) is poisoned at the root. This is, of course, one of the diseases to which conversation will always be heir. False friends show up in every sphere. We live in an era that especially relies on false friends to make social media happen, and to create both anger and passivity among the masses. An angry passivity – is this what we want?

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The romantic nations: state versus culture

 I have a theory about the “romantic nations”. Those were nations that were first imagined into existence by the poets and philosophers of the 19th century. Italy and Germany are examples, as if Hungary and Poland. The nation-states that formed in the period between the 16th and 19th century – the United Kingdom, France, Spain, the United States, among others – were formed not on the principle of privileging a certain ethos, but rather on principles in which monarchy, reason and religion were the operative notions. Germany,Italy, and Hungary. on the other hand, were dreamed into existence by philosophers and writers (Fichte for instance; Leopardi; Kossuth), and the long struggle for nationhood was promoted by the idea of a certain people and language having primacy, creating a home. The late romantic nations like Ireland and, finally, Israel, were shaped by the same forces.

In all these cases, you can detect a cycle: the nation exists as a culture before it exists as a nation; as a nation, it increasingly legitimates itself by an appeal to the superiority of its people; and in the final phase, the nation as an entity actually attacks its culture and what it stood for.
Israel was the result of the amazing flowering of Jewish culture in 19th and early 20th century Europe. You cannot think of any aspect of modernity that was not touched by that culture. Zionism was, originally, infused with the idea that this culture – liberal, erudite, tolerant – could found a nation.
But the seeds for the destruction, or at least the wholesale attack, on that culture are laid by the success of the nation project. We know what fascism meant in Italy and Germany. In Israel, that 19th century Jewish culture, and its ideals, are despised by the leaders in power, who find much more kinship with the violently and vilely anti-semitic rulers of Saudi Arabia than with, say, the great Jewish tradition that it otherwise calls on when, for example, the National Library in Israel claims Kafka’s papers as part of the “heritage” of Israel.

Netanyahu embodies the rabid nationalism that, by its very logic, must attack the culture of the enlightenment - the culture that enfranchised Jews throughout Europe and the States. This is the connection between Netanyahu and the anti-semitic ultra right. It will only get stronger. And the alienation that liberal Jewish culture is and will experience will have a strong flavor of deja-vu. We have seen this assortment of forces before. In Europe, it is fascism. In the U.S., we can call it the neo-Confederacy, or, if you like, Calhoun-ism.

The principle of the nation state was, up until the 1840s, I’d say, almost never identified with some ethnic group, rather than with a royal family, or a religion. The Atlantic revolutions identified something different, what Rousseau called the popular will. But that will was not identical to being, say, White male and protestant – even though the U.S. was, of course, founded by White Males who were predominantly protestant and often slave owners.
The romantic state, as I’d call it, changed this formula by up-fronting ethnic identity. Germans for Germany, Italians for Italy, etc. Yet this formula was by no means unproblematic. First, there were definitely Germans outside of Germany – the state Bismark made – and there were definitely Germans who weren’t ethnically German inside of Germany. Secondly, the same wave that resulted in the founding of these states resulted in some quasi-democratic form of governance – a Reichstag or Parliament – which gave non-ethnics certain rights to political expression and pathways to governance.
We know how the story went in Europe.
In the U.S., the person who did the most to amplify and internationalize the “self-determination” talk was Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, Wilsonian language is still used when the claim is that Jews – or Palestinians, or Hutus, or Japanese, etc. – have a “right” to self-determination. Although the fact that Wilson was a racist president, which was repressed by the old, liberal mainstream view of American history is now out in the open, we don’t see how that racism permeated his internatlonal outlook. But the man who thought Birth of a Nation was a historically accurate film was the same man who thought ethnicities had special rights. Through the Wilsonian lens, the founding of the U.S. was especially a matter of White Christians. The Pat Buchanan/Trump view of American history is a direct descendent of the Wilsonian ideology.
The romantic nation-state seems to follow an inexhorable logic, in which the very liberatory culture that accompanied the founding of the state is sooner or later alienated from the power establishment that runs the state. That power establishment, in turn, begins to attack that liberatory culture as anti-German, or anti-Italian, or anti-American – or anti-Jewish, or anti-Palestinian. Not to get all Hegelian here, but the history of the last two centuries does seem to show that there is a logic here, or at least, that the structuration leads to similar results.

This all seems obvious to me. But maybe it isn’t obvious to everybody. I don’t know.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

On Humming


Oliver Sacks’ The man who mistook his wife for a hat is, I think, one of the best short story collections of the 1980s – a decade that dove into short stories. These stories are diagnostically true, as far as that goes, but they are mostly true as  stories. The ancestors of these stories of neurological and other disorders are to be found not only in, say, the case histories of Charcot, but as well in the short stories of Chekhov.

The first story has haunted me since I read it way back when the book came out. It is about a musician who has a curious impairment of vision in which big gaps in his responses to visual stimuli open up, while at the same time he is able to get about his daily life.

“When the examination was over, Mrs. P. called us to the table, where there was coffee and a delicious spread of little cakes. Hungrily, hummingly, Dr. P. started ont eh cakes. Swiftly, fluently, unthinkingly, melodiously, he pulled the plates towards him and took this and that, in a great gurgling stream, an edible song of food, until, suddenly, there cam an interruption: a loud, peremptory rat-tat-tat at the door.”

It is this moment that gives us the diagnostic clue of Dr. P’s curious behavior. Sacks asks the musician’s wife about this, and she tells him that Dr. P. “does everything singing to himself.” He moves, it seems, in an aural or musical landscape that closely maps the visual world in which he finds himself – but the world must be organized so that the music can guide him to where things are and what to do with them.

I have been thinking of Dr. P. this week for a simple reason. Lately, for no reason I can think of, I find myself humming.

Now, I am a man who sings to himself. I’ve been doing that forever. When I ride a bike, I will sing long Dylan or Leonard Cohen songs to myself. When I cook in the kitchen, I sing along, often wandering off the lyrics, to the Black Angels or Nick Cave. I have a pretty good songbook in my head.

But I am not a man who hums to himself. I associate that man with my grandfather, my father’s father, who seemed to hum bits of some grand symphony of hum, one that spanned decades. His humming was part of his resting, his watching of tv, his trying to do home repairs when he was 88 or so, etc. There was a humming aura around Granddaddy, and though I loved the guy, I received the strong impression, when I was a kid, that I did not want to grow into being Granddaddy – that I wanted anything but.

So, the idea that I am suddenly humming alarms me. And it alarms me even more that I am humming hums – there’s no tune, no song nor etude, in this humming. It feeds on its own buzz.

In the story of Dr. P., there’s a wonderful moment. Dr. P. had been a painter in his youth, and on the walls of his house there were hung paintings he’d done from that period onto his late maturity. They began as realistic depictions. “Finally, in the last paintings, the canvasses became nonsense, or nonsense to me – mere chaotic lines and blotches of paint.”  For Sacks, the paintings “was a tragic pathological exhibit, which belonged to neurology, not art.”

Sacks, of course, knows that art belongs to neurology – it is our home, it is the earth we will never escape from, disregarding the longtermist, transhumanist dream that our plutocrat overlords will become digital androids, half man, half silicon chip. My humming and my non-humming both belong to neurology. But I hope not pathological neurology.

It is too early for me to become a hummer, Lord!

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Doors windows beginnings endings

It is after we get a little bit bigger and stop playing with LEGOS and building blocks that we accept as a fact that you can’t build a house out of doors and windows. Such a house is an absurdity! Even the least little hovel, even a tent with a mere flap for a door, should have an enclosed space beyond that flap; the whole point of the flap or door is to lead into the enclosed space. The whole point of a window is to break the monotonous grip of a room, its fist around you. But the room doesn’t exist for the window! That would be carrying the revolution too far.
And yet, even though this is the wisdom we absorb as surely as the hair starts to sprout on various parts of our bodies after we are children, still, when we start building an article, a story, a poem, a thesis, a dissertation, a novel, etc., how often do we find that the rule of doors and houses is damn difficult to follow. Indeed, there is a certain type of critic since Aristotle which likes to judge the house exclusively by the back door – does it open out onto good fortune and a marriage? Or does it open onto suicide, the daughter hanging by the rope in the tomb, the self-blinded, exiled king? Yes, that back door, the gentlemen of the press – and the producers in Hollywood – tend to hang around it.
Peguy, that maddest of all reactionaries, Deleuze’s nominee for the Catholic Kierkegaard, wrote a long essay, Clio, in which Clio herself, the muse of history, speaks. She speaks, of course, in riddles and repetitions. The repetitions in Peguy’s prose make you rub your eyes. You wonder if some mishap in the editing synapse, some editing epilepsy, is going on, as sentences and phrases keep repeating themselves. But you eventually get it that this is intended to some end, that this glossolalia is bound for glory. Anyway, after recounting the sins of her father Zeus, that ur-absent father, busy fucking, raping and raging out there in the wilds, she adds that his one truly virtuous attribute is to the god of doors – that whereever there is a door, there is the godhead.

“All that he has, my poor father, and he never perhaps suspect it, was not his force, of which he was so proud; it was not that power that he considered with so much pride; he didn’t suspect it perhaps that his single saving grace, my friend, was that he was the God of doors and the threshold of doors, that there was not a shipwrecked wretch on the sea, stretch out supplicating hands, towards some distant trireme, glanced in the fall of the waves, it is that a shipwrecked write on the earth does not stretch out his supplicating hands, it is that not a sailing bark does not sink unprotected, not a fugitive, not an outloaw, not an exile, not a phugas, not an exsul, not a miserable wretch, not a blind person, Homer, Oedipus, and Priam at the feet of Achilles, and Ulysses at the knees of Nausicaa, not a shipwrecked wretch knocking at the threshold of a door…[imagine here a page full of similar improbable instances encompassing more and more territory and time] that not a door opens to a stranger without him being there to preside, that not a door closes without his majesty, by a sacrilege, is wounded.”

This is a high elevation, indeed, of doors. A plea for doors, and, continuing my homology between doors and the beginnings and ends of texts, a plea for the divinity of those threshholds. Myself, though, I think inviting the stranger in – which of course must be done by every storyteller and constructor of Lego creations – does not mean ignoring the devils that also preside at front and back doors, and judge the whole encounter, the hospitality to the stranger, the stranger’s havoc and woe, on whether someone comes out the back door in the end, with her problems resolved.
Sometimes, in fact I would say most times, the house collapses. What I like is the structured collapse. I just by boobytrap standards, not Aristotle’s.

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...