Friday, January 13, 2023

another city on the catastrophe bingo card: The killing of the Great Salt Lake

William McNeill, in his environmental history of the 20th century, pointed out that by the 1980s, the most ferocious enemies of the environment were the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the American Republican Party. Long before rightwingers got boners for Putin, they were all about imitating the Communists by creating massive government funding attacks on rivers and soil and swamps and then privatizing the sons of bitches.
In the Soviet Union, the Aral Sea was the great victim of the environmental purge. In the U.S., it has been the Ogallala reservoir – the underground water that feeds the Midwest – and, I learn today, shockingly, the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The numbers in this article are staggering:
“At this point, to reverse the decline, enough water to cover more than 2.5 million acres of land (over 10,000 square kilometers) a foot deep needs to flow back into the lake each year.”
Which is the same as saying we have entered into the final days. The Aral Sea disaster was used for years as an example of the disasters resulting from central planning. Well, welcome to the disasters of laissez faire water usage! Although in truth the state sponsors the use of semi arid or arid land, extensively irrigates it, lets mineral salts leach up through the soil, then finds it it running out of water, and repeats. The Great Salt Lake is now reached the toxic mineral cloud state. In five years, they will be wearing masks in downtown Salt Lake City to go about their business. And none of the Q nuts will protest about that – after all, killing the environment is their interpretation of God’s business.
Our era of spectacle catastrophe is going to love this one.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Karen Chamisso, her blues


How creep and crawl the future seems
to those of us lying in this house of bones:
rules here the authoritarian spine
and its homo erectus, her jungle gym.
Lumbagos dawn on the painstrewn shores
of all the old girls’ Eldorados.
Oh chiropracter with your spurious art
unspell that post-partum spell
cast on my life force, all obscurely!
Joint sprains, muscle sprains and knots
This is what I gots
Rattling the life force in the house of bones.
These holes I put in the unmarrowed bone
And pipes this song, all alone, all alone.

the dumb ox and the mandarin: Ernest Hemingway and Cyril Connolly

 Sartre’s essay about Jules Renard, ultimately dismissing the search for the most economical way of writing a thing as the search for a way of being outside of “intelligence” – the latter classified as giving reflection its expanse and structure as it is construed in the urban tradition, rather than narrowing it to its reflexes as it is construed in the peasant tradition – was written during the phoney war, though published in 1944. At the same time, Cyril Connolly was revising his book, the Enemies of Promise, which was first published in 1938 and re-issued in the revised form in 1949.

Connolly was a member of the “bright young things” generation, like Nancy Mitford, Harold Acton and Evelyn Waugh, but he was always slightly a figure of fun for Mitford and Waugh. The Ambrose Silk figure in Waugh’s phoney war novel, Put out more flags, has definite echoes of Connolly, whose seriousness is disguised by an outward silliness. Like Connolly, who founded and edited the great British magazine of the war years, Horizon, Ambrose Silk busies himself with founding a magazine, the Ivory Tower. Silk’s friend and underminer, the cheerful villain-hero, Basil Seal, has a great time getting into British security and convincing them that the magazine is a nest of Nazi spies, thus leading to the arrest of the writers and the flight of Silk. and, in a grace note at the end of the novel, we see Silk holed up in a small cottage in Ireland, in a revery about the British imperial heroism. But Silk’s great speech, to a drunk Basil Seal and Silk’s much trodden upon publisher, sets the tone of the novel and – secretly, I think – Waugh’s own view of where things were trending:

 “European scholarship has nover lost its monastic character… Chinese scholarship dealt with taste and wisdom, not with memorizing of facts. In China, the man whom we make a don sat for the Imperial examinations and became a bureaucrat. Their scholars were lonely men of few books and fewer pupils, content with a single concubine, a pine tree and the prospect of a stream. Eureopan culture has become conventual; we must make it coenobitic.”

This is a nice parody of Enemies of Promise. Waugh always knew just where to stick the knife in.

The Enemies of Promise is full of summaries of the literature of the twentieth century, and spends much time on the question: how to write a book that lasts a decade. The subject, of course, brings up and loses one in fashion: in the game of who is up and who is down. Because the “memorizing of facts” is cast aside in this game, the whole thing depends on the critic’s impression. Although Connolly doesn’t know it, his book, in 1939 and in 1949, was already an anachronism. Connolly was too much of a bright young thing to see that the Program era was upon us: the incredible expansion of higher education, and with it the annexation of literature by academia.

In the Enemies of Promise, Connolly treats Hemingway, whom he sure is now out of fashion, to a species of reasoning not unlike that laid on Renard by Sartre. Hemingway, too, wrote with a kind of cult of silence – except in his case it was a cult of toughness. Wordiness and toughness were antithetical. To a criticism of his style by Aldous Huxley, Hemingway wrote a reply in Death in the Afternoon, which contains an interesting defence of his own choices in writing:

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. For a writer to put his own intellectual musings, which he might sell for a low price as essays, into the mouths of artificially constructed characters, which are more remunerative when issued as people in a novel, is good economics, perhaps, but does not make literature. People in a novel, not skilfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer’s assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart, and from all there is of him;  If he ever has luck as well as seriousness and gets them out entire they will have more than one dimension and they will last a long time.”

I like Hemingway, while recognizing how much masculinist bullshit lies in comparing prose to “architecture” instead of “interior decoration.” For Whom the Bell Tolls is as Baroque as all fuck, and at the time Hemingway went around saying that he read Donne’s sermons for encouragement.

At the same time, Hemingway obviously had a style – the “dumb ox” style that Wyndham Lewis ranted about. Unlike Jules Renard, Hemingway was not born and raised among peasants. His ancestors came from solid New England stock. But the Midwest of Hemingway’s time, and now, did have its own distinctive silence: American Gothic is its totem. The way in which Hemingway speaks of “bulking up” the novel with a buncha interior decoration to make more money speaks to a very Midwest ethos: the farmer that gives good weight, as opposed to the farmer who waters his stock. The Midwest silence is something I have witnessed. The parents of an old ex-friend of mine were Midwesterners of the American Gothic type, who could sit in a room with people they didn’t know and not say anything, not ask a question, not make a remark. This is the heavy  silence of a million dinner tables in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, where the competition between opening your mouth to speak and opening your mouth to eat was right out there in the open – and the latter was preferred.

This silence, to Connolly, Hemingway’s tell: “It is a style in which the body talks rather than the mind, one admirable for rendering emotions; love, fear, joy of battle, despair, sexual appetite, but impoverished for intellectual purposes. Hemingway is fortunate in possessing a physique which is at home in the world of boxing, bull-fighting and big game shooting, fields closed to most writers and especially to Mandarins; he is supreme in the domain of violence and his opportunity will be to write the great book (and there have been no signs of one so far), about the Spanish war.”

Connolly was not intelligent like Sartre was intelligent: the mandarin and the engaged writer are two very different approaches to literature and even life. But they are in agreement with what Derrida called the White Mythology, made up of oppositions such as that of the mind to the body, emotion to reflection, and their consequent styles. When a Hemingway character is presented so wholly from the outside, to this way of thinking, the inside is drained of its depth. While the writer of fiction doesn’t have to present the thought process going on the inside of the heads of his “characters” – that word Hemingway did not like – the idea is that conversation will carry that burden, that there is a seal, a pact, between the thought and the spoken. When that pact is not honored – when what a character speaks does not give one a picture of what the character thinks, which is where Hemingway’s “toughness” comes in – then the critic, the bearer of the oppositions we enumerated above, reverts to the idea that intelligence has been sacrificed to economy. For gesture and act is dumb, in the double sense: unspeaking and unreflective.

And if gesture and act are not dumb?  

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

potatoes in the Language game: Sartre, Jules Renard and Wittgenstein


In Sartre’s notebooks for the phony war, from 1940, you can see a decision being made: Sartre was going to resist the world falling down around him by being intelligent. Since he was very good at being intelligent, this seemed to him one way, the best way, in which he could resist the war, the defeat and the occupation. It is interesting to compare him here to Wittgenstein, who in this same period was more interested in the way intelligence was way too weak a thing to support the weight of the world.

One of the essays Sartre published in 1944 was mined from his notebooks: The tied up man: some notes on the Journal of Jules Renard. It is a ferocious critique, which puts the question of intelligence front and center. Sartre represents himself as the agent of what James Scott called, in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, the Great Tradition. The Great Tradition emerges in the metropole, and is vehiculized by the state, which sends out its functionaries, teachers, policy makers, and renders the world of the Little Tradition, the rural world, the world of the peasants, legible. In this struggle, the peasant is accorded the virtue of the ruse – metis – while the functionary is accorded the virtue of intelligence, of rationality.

James Scott’s book, published in 1990, is startlingly pertinent to Sartre’s 1944 essay. Sartre’s essay is rooted in Sartre’s perception that Renard’s world view, his search for the most economic and laconic of styles, is rooted in his peasant origins – or at least his origins as a bourgeois from the countryside, from Chitry-les-Mines, located midway between Orleans and Dijon. In Sartre’s notes, and in the essay, he made use of an anecdote that Renard wrote down about a peasant smallholder, Papa Bulot. A servant came to Bulot’s house after his legs were paralyzed.

“The first day, she asked: What can I make that you would like to eat?

-          A potato soup.

The next day she asked, what do you want me to make?

-          A potato soup, I already said.

The third day she asked and received the same answer. Then she understood. From that day on, she made potato soup and didn’t ask about it. “

For Sartre, this dialogue was as revelatory as, to take a text being written at the same time – Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations -  the orders shouted between builders at the beginning of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. In a sense, I am not bringing in Wittgenstein as an odd philosophical ricochet. Sartre begins his essay on Renard with the sentence: “He created the literature of silence.” Which, for those who’ve read Wittgenstein and remember his most famous maxim from the Tractatus (“that of  which one cannot speak, one must thereof be silent”), has an echo beyond Sartre’s references to French literature. Which makes it all the more interesting that, for Sartre, there is a social background here. To quote Sartre’s notebook: The most sense possible in words, the most sense possible in the phrase, in the articulation. The thing produced here is a supersaturation of sense. Everything crystallizes. Each phrase is a silence closed around itself and supersaturated. And the most curious thing is that Renard, in furious pursuit of saying things with the least words, has absolutely nothing to say.”

The last sentence sums up his critique of Renard, who like Papa Bulot is a paralyzed prisoner in the house of language, who says once and only one time that he wants potato soup, and wants it forever. (Oddly, this brings to mind one of Bela Tarr’s movies, The Horse of Turin, in which peasants eating of potatoes is pretty much the only drama in the whole movie).

Well, I’ve gone on a bit of a ricochet spree here, and I want to finish up with Cyril Connolly’s comments on Hemingway in The Enemies of Promise -via Aldous Huxley’s criticism of Hemingway and Hemingway’s reply to Huxley. But that is for another day.

Monday, January 09, 2023

simmel, paradise and the purposive jam


George Simmel’s Philosophy of Money is a hard book to go straight through. I’ve never done so. Simmel has a unique meandering style, which gave rise, I think, to the various early twentieth century philosophical styles: Lukacs and Buber in particular. I can see Simmel through certain of Heidegger’s early works.  Simmel has a way of going on abstractly, and the reader goes hum hum hum, on the verge of sleep or headache, and then suddenly out of nowhere some image will emerge, some passage will coalesce, and it all seems… important and poetic and non-humlike. . Rather like Hegel in the high  styling Phenomenology of Spirit. Talk about that wild mercury sound.

One of those passages occurs In a subsection of the book’s first section on value. It is entitled, in German,   “The economy as distancing (through effort, renunciation, sacrifice) and the simultaneous overcoming of the same)”. You can see why David Frisby, in the standard translation, settles for “Economic activity establishes distances and overcomes them.” Still, leaving out the “gleichzeitige” is a little troubling.

The passage comes after Simmel’s consideration of the aesthetic value of an object, in which the object, as it were, sheds its use value and is appreciated for itself.

“I have chosen the above example because the objectifying effect of what I have called ‘distance’ is particularly clear when it is a question of distance in time. The process is, of course, intensive and qualitative, so that any quantitative designation in terms of distance is more or less symbolic. The same effect can be brought about by a number of other factors, as I have already mentioned: for example, by the scarcity of an object, by the difficulties of acquisition, by the necessity of renunciation. Even though in these economically important instances the signicance of the objects remains a significance for us and so dependent upon our appreciation, the decisive change is that the objects confront us after these developments a independent powers, as a world of substances and forces that determine by their own qualities whether and to what extent they will satisfy our needs and which demand effort and hardship before they will surrender to us. Only if the question of renunciation arises – renunciation of a feeling that really matters – is it necessary to direct attention to the object itself. The situation, which is represented in a stylized form by the concept of Paradise, in which subject and object, desire and satisfaction are not yet divided from each other – a situation that is not restricted to a specific historical epoch, but which appears everywhere in varying degrees – is destined to disintegrate, but also to attain a new reconciliation. The purpose of establishing distance is that is should be overcome.”

There you have it, ladies and germs – the key to all the mythologies!

I jest.

Simmel was impressed with the way our actions tend towards purposes that are define steps that are not reached by any single step, but by a series. Each step has its own subordinate  purposiveness, each step absorbs our energy, and thus each step on the journey is, as it were, a journey in itself, with all the weariness that traversal entails. Elsewhere Simmel writes: “Indeed, it is a common experience for those who finish a long task, say, writing a book or even simply an article, to feel a letdown at the end of the process, as one is simultaneously freed from exerting one’s energy and attention to the matter at hand and at the same time left with a sort of unguided and unstructured moment.” The moment is not a vacation – it is a crowning, a finish, an ending. And yet it doesn’t give one anything to do.

But of course there is more to Simmel’s point than this. Much of the modern life-story is taken up with long-term projects of consumption towards some end. College students, for example, are encouraged from the very beginning to aim at some degree, which is in turn seen as the key to a job. And yet, as the degree is years off, it would be difficult to make a calculation to understand just how much time and energy one should spend on each step. Not that something like this doesn’t happen – a computer science student in an elective English literature class is very often a study in someone who has calculated exactly how little time needs to be spent on a subject that is only a lightly weighted means to his end. Of course, this student intersects with a teacher whose purpose is, in fact, exactly to teach that English literature class. Modern life is full of what we might call purposive jams – like traffic jams, they consist of people who, jostling one another, are going different places but find themselves within the limits of the same narrow situation.

Sometimes purposive jams become more intrusive. They thrust themselves on our attention. I would guess that we are passing through a massive purposive jam right now. Each propelled, for good or evil, by some idea of paradise.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...