Saturday, April 15, 2023

The Underground Reader


There is a certain type of reader – the Jew in Europe, the African-American in the States,etc. – whose relationship to literature, to the great novels, essays and poems, is mediated by the humiliations inflicted even by the so called great writers on the Jew and the African-American, etc. in image and abstract; humiliations that are often casual, often astonishing low points in their writing, byproducts of a certain conformism to social norms, an overlooking or blindness to historical injustices, of the thoughtless acceptance of accumulated capital’s accumulated suffering. Here is a puzzle: the author, that distant and yet intimate source of the text, becomes for the reader a problem of the reader’s own complicity in humiliation: hopeful that the higher liberalism will win out, the reader, this extraterritorial reader, this reader who finds, in the community of readers, that he or she is not included in the general “we” of the gentle reader, finds themselves in an ethical dilemma: are they to accept, even here, the all too familiar relationship of abused to abuser? And we know, we know too well, that abuse is not all lumps, that it is a labyrinth of generosity and violence. Like any of the humiliated and the wounded, the abused reader will take the course of becoming the best close reader – for in a life in which one is dodging blows, the humiliated party has to become, as a matter of survival, a great reader of physiognomy and the smallest signs and tics of the abuser.

One of these readers I am imaging existed in Czarist Russia. He is a figure who appears in the outskirts of Doestoevsky studies – his name is Avraam Uri Kovner. He fled the Jewish community in Czarist Russia when he was a young man, committing himself to the program of positivism, science and enlightenment – from which point of view he severely criticized the piety and practices of the Jews. At the same time, he was proud to be Jewish and he was a biting critic of anti-semites.
As this critic, he modelled himself on Pisarov – the scathing materialist whose essays were never translated, as wholes, in English, but who survives in the Anglosphere as the man who claimed that good pair of shoes had more value than the greatest poem. Yet Kovner had a vast respect for Pisarov’s opposite – Dostoevsky. And as he saw his life spoiled by a crime he committed, he also saw himself rather eerily doubled in the figure of Raskolnikov.
The fait divers goes like this: Kovner took a job at a bank as an accountant. He saw that the bank was making money through the squeezing process of usury and fraud. He also, at this point in his life, In Leonid Grossman’s “Confessions of a Jew”, his account of Kovner, he uses an epigraph from Crime and Punishment to entitle what happened: “that the extraordinary man has a right… to leap over certain obstacles, especially in cases where, for perhaps the fulfilment of an idea that is important for all mankind, this is necessary.” All mankind, of course, is always represented in this extraordinary man – he somehow received their votes.
The story begins like a good Dostoevsky story. In 1871, Kovner found himself on the outs with the Jewish community, for whose newspapers he used to write, and on the outs with the other journals he wrote for, which were being closed, in that year of the Paris commune, as being too radical. Pluse he – oh saints and martyrs@ - wanted to write a novel. I do know that feeling. So he found a lodging in Petersburg. To quote from Kovner’s letter to Dostoevsky:
“In the first months I rented a room in the household of the poor Kanngiesser family… They consisted of a mother, who was a poor widow, the elder daughter and two younger daughters and a son, who was apprenticed as a glovemaker’s assistant. When I learned that they were Jews, I thought about fleeing; but then I saw, that these people were poor and honorable, and I meant a certain income for them, so I stayed out of pity. Later I learned that Sophia Kanngiesser had lost her father four years ago, and that her mother through the course of things had gained some money. In a word, it was horrible misery. I strove with my energy to help them, as much as I could. Sophia could not yet read and write and asked me to teach her. Out of gratitude she, who had never let anyone near her, become affectionate to me. In a word, she fell in love with me.”
Of course, this novelistic situation was animated not just by love, but by sickness: Sophia suffered from some lung ailment. Everything falls horribly into place. Through an advertisement in a paper he used to write for – Voices – he finds a job in a bank. The job pays fifty rubles a month. For that, Kovner has to suffer the humiliation that the bank’s managerial staff consider him a pity hire and treat him as such. Imagine, Raskolnikov having to count out money and bow his head to a bunch of bank officials out of a novella by Gogol! And all the while the coughing of his girlfriend resounding in his ears. Between the miserable pay, the sickness of his girlfriend, and his earlier dreams of being a great writer, Kovner breaks down. The break comes, of course, after Sophia, gasping for breath, tells him: I can’t live without you! And faints.
How to pay for everything. This is the world of urban capitalism in which Kovner and Dostoevsky live. Dostoevsky became a gambler. Kovner, stepping over the barrier put up by lesser men to impede lesser men, defrauds the bank. As Grossman puts it: “The logic of Raskolnikov, cutting as sharply as a knife, bored through the thoughts of this unhappy reformer and hypnotized him even as that cursed illusion had bewitched the Petersburg student. In both cases the same persuasion that the planning is not a crime. In both cases the same calculation: on one side the senselessly squandered, irredeemably pent up sources of life and action, and on the other side young, fresh powers, that are unnecessarily destroyed, everywhere and in their thousands… In both cases the same moral temptation: isn’t a single, insignificant crime redeemed through thousand of good acts?”
Kovner stole. Kovner fled. Kovner disguised himself. Kovner was caught. Kovner was tried, and condemned. It was in his prison cell that Kovner wrote his first letter to Dostoevsky, challenging him as though he were a character come alive: and lo and behold, Raskolnikov is Jewish. As Kovner wrote: “First of all, I am a Jew – and you are not overly fond of Jews (I will speak about this later, however).”
A masterly, a Dostoevskian parenthesis, that one. A challenge on every level. Which will be carried onward in various of Kovner’s letters, to which Dostoevsky responded, in his ongoing column, Diary of a Writer, with a defence of anti-semitism that Kovner pretty easily tore apart – from the standpoint of being one of Dostoevsky’s great readers. In the response to Kovner’s letter, Dostoevsky indulged in the usual banalities of banking and evil Jews gulling innocent Russians ad nauseum, juxtaposing these passages with Dostoevsky’s ideal of the omni-human. The blatant contradiction was fingered by Kovner, and that must have hurt. But the sting did not wake Dostoevsky out of his anti-semitic trance.
Kovner’s standpoint, his existential point of view as a reader, fascinates me. I am a great reader of Dostoevsky myself. And of T.S. Eliot, and of Ezra Pound. But I am not a Jew, nor a Gypsy, nor black. I’m your standard white American, a mongel mix of German, Welsh and what have you picked up on the emigrant trail. I was patched and pealed in the suburbs of Atlanta, which sprang up in the sixties with an influx of white people from the North, although gradually, over the decades, becoming more multi-cultural, more interesting, less my facial white bread.. Somehow, though, through the years, I became a sensitive – which was the name given in the early twentieth century to certain paranormal freaks, mindreaders and telekinetics. I could, at least, see how the alien reader, the one written out – Jews in Dostoevsky, women in Bellow and Roth, blacks in the bulk of White American literary classics, gays from Shakespeare to Mailer, etc. – will and must stake their claim, and in doing so dive into the “written out” part, play the fool, here, erupt as the obscene and the censorious. This is called wokeness, now, by the readers and writers who pretend that a little hemming and hawing will make, has made it all better. Who want to go back to a suitably bandaged teaching. An exercise in tergiversation unworthy of the culture that is supposedly being defended.
Ah, but this is egotism on my part - how much of a sensitive am I, really? - and not of interest.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

You say you wanna revolution - so stuff it up your ass


Liberation today has four or five pages about the situation of the opposition in France. Le Pen's fascists are gaining in the polls, the left, on the other hand, is doing their crumbling act. Macron's Apres moi le deluge is going to bear fruit, at this rate, in a French government much like Italy's. Fascism. In our screwy post cold war view of history, fascism was defeated in 1945. But actually, the U.S. helped fascism survive into the seventies, and it had a strong presence all around the Meditteranean the 60s, with Greece, Spain, Portugal and Turkey all having more or less fascist governments. Adenauer's government full of the far right or worse. One notices that this was also the time of the revival of the Left - in Germany and in France in the seventies - and the second wave of economic reforms that made life better for the working class majority.

Everybody has their diagnosis. Mine, to be brief, is that the "left" is caught in the rhetoric that successfully created a number of social democratic institutions from the 30s to the 80s. That rhetoric was heavy on change, revolution, and an avant gardiste position. In the face of neoliberalism, however, which as easily assimilated "revolution" to its lingo as its billionaires assimilated "revolutionary avant garde art" for their private collections or storage houses in Switzerland - it is time for the left to appeal to what has been gained. In short, to slip the yoke of the rhetoric of revolution and speak of maintaining the heritage of social democracy that has made life better for all. Not good enough for all, not equal enough given the current rebarbative circumstances, but a past to fight for, a heritage of hope instead of slavery and oppression. To extend this point to the frivolous "anti-woke"/woke" dichotomy - I think the woke culture, which I am absolutely for, needs to work on how to deal with massive shame. That shame is a lively thing - that shame is all over the current economic system, and the favoritism of an upper mostly white class that make it so blandly and blindly evil in the lives of the majority of people. Having never properly understood the shame of slavery in the U.S., having never really mourned it, the U.S. political system is stuck with shame in its gullet. The moment of shame and the moment of legacy - the legacy of resistance, of building up social democracy, of what was gained in the post-war period - are dialectically joined. This is the reason conservatives are so avid to destroy discussions around the 1619 project, or african-american history teaching in general. In France, the same elements are in the mix. The left - Nupes, the ecolo and socialist groups, etc. - have to present both a conservative program of retaining what we, the vast majority, have - for instance, the social security system - and what we need to preserve it - expanding it to serve all the people in france, immigrants and non-immigrants (who are often two generations, or even one, away from some immigrant ancestor). The forces of shame and glory - a glory that isn't reactionary, but progressive - have to be evoked constantly. Let the neolibs keep their "revolution". Make them eat it.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Jesus, Salome and playing the dozens

Yesterday, it being Easter, we read the account of Jesus’s resurrection in Mark. Mark is not my favorite gospel, but I like the rawness. I like the side references to witnesses, as though Jesus was seen as a fait divers, a story in True Detective.  Mark’s is truly the tabloid gospel, and it has a tabloid ending, complete with various provincial, cultish promises by the risen Jesus. For instance, that you can take up snakes and they won’t bite you – which is not exactly the most useful quality one can imagine –  that you can heal the sick and cast out demons – which is again a nice thing, but not exactly cosmically important - and that anyone who doesn’t believe is condemned. On the whole, Mark’s story seems to just miss the occasion.
This time, I read the names of the women who come to the tomb and find the rock rolled away and realised how strange they are. “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.” In the King James version, which has the sound, the vibe for me, the sentence reads: “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
When I was a boy in my Southern Baptist bible school, I dutifully learned that there was twelve disciples. They are painted by Leonardo, they are proverbially twelve in our phrase and fable, and I did not think about it. Of course, more aware of gender as I hope we all are, we know that the actual count is at least 15, as the above women should  also be counted as disciples. They seem to have ventured more, in following Jesus from Galilee, since wandering women were, in an Eastern Mediterranean society like Judea, viewed with an evil eye.
Salome, according to a study of 247 recorded names of Jewish women in Palestine in the century around Jesus’s life, was the name of 61 women, and Mary was the name of 58 – almost half of the women, then. But this Salome – not to be confused with the dancer so beloved of the decadents – is a floating signifier in the mythos. There is some tradition that she is Jesus’s stepsister, if you buy the story that Joseph was married and had kids before, as a widower, he met Jesus’s mother, Mary. Others call her Mary’s sister, which would make her Jesus’s aunt.
She is given some odd lines in the apocryphal writings. The oddest is in the Gospel of Thomas: “Jesus said, "Two will repose on a couch: one will die, one will live. Salome said, "Who are you, O man? Like a stranger (?) you have gotten upon my couch and you have eaten from my table." Jesus said to her, "It is I who come from that which is integrated. I was given (some) of the things of my father." <. . .> "I am your female disciple." <. . .> "Therefore I say that such a person, once integrated, will become full of light; but such a person, once divided will become full of darkness.” This passage, admittedly, sounds like the first draft of some Leonard Cohen song. It probably has to do with the notion of the androgyn, the overcomer of the sexes – a right pertinent person in this age of persecuting the transsexual. Lets just say that the Gnostic Jesus would not have approved of the latter.
Clement cites some text which some scholars believe was originally in some version of Mark. This is another enigmatic dialogue. The banter between Salome and Jesus has a certain screwball comedy speed, as if they were doing the dozens:
“Salome asked the Lord: “How long shall people die?” He answered: “As long as you women bear children.” Salome said: “I did well then in not bearing.” The Lord answered and said: “Eat every herb, but that which is bitter do not eat.”
This, I suppose, makes a little more sense when projected against the dictum that there is no giving or taking of husbands and wives in the Kingdom of Heaven.  But it makes most sense if we suppose that by this part of the road movie, Jesus and Salome have a question and answer patter down. “As long as you women bear children” seems less magisterial than wisecracking, and Salome’s answer, mutatis mutandis, would def find a place in a Preston Sturges’s Lady Eve.
I’m playing the rimshot here. Hope all had a happy Easter.

Sunday, April 09, 2023

Marat and the underground


Création difforme de la société, Fille sourde de cette mère aveugle. Lie de ce pressoir, Marat c’est le mal souffert devenu le mal vengeur… "
- Victor Hugo

Of all those revolutionary lives in the 1790s, Marat's has the most symbolic narrative arc -- a hider in the sewers, a brief triumph over his enemies, the moderate Girondists, a death in the bathtub, apotheosis in David's famous picture. Its symbolic perfection is exploited both by those who find Marat a saint and those who find him an ogre. To Taine, he was obviously insane with delusions of gradeur – le delire ambitieux. To his Marxist biographer, Earnest Belfort Bax, he was, as he entitled himself, the “people’s friend,” although untutored in the ways of class – a transitional figure, in short, which nineteenth century Marxists loved the way Darwinians loved fossils of mammoths and pygmy horses. I think he is a prototype of that essentially modern figure, the Underground Man. After all, he literally did hide underground – in Paris’ sewers, waiting out a hunt mounted for him by the police. While hiding from the police is nothing new, there is something very interesting about Marat’s legendary descent into the sewer. He himself exploited it for its mythic resonances – as though he foresaw the romantic aura that would attach to it in the nineteenth century.
On November 2, 1792, Marat writes:

“Freres et amis, c’est d’un souterrain que je vous addresse mes reclamations. Le devoir de conserver, pour la defense de la patrie, des jours qui me sont enfin devenus a charge, peut seul me determiner a m’enterrer de nouveau tout vivant pour me soustraire au poignard des laches assassins qui me poursuivent sans relache.”

[Brothers and friends, I am sending you these protests from the underground [literally – from an underground tunnel]. The duty to preserve myself for the defense of my country, with the days that I have left, are the only reasons that have determined me to bury myself once gain, alive, in order to remove myself from the dagger of cowardly assassins who pursue me without letup.]

 This is unbelievably stirring, if you have the right historic sense for it. On a popular level, this is the release of a voice that will be exploited throughout the nineteenth century, in novel after novel. This is the Comte de Monte Cristo. This is the attitude of Les Miserables – or part of the mix of elements Hugo put into that novel. The more sinister undertone, in English novels, is borrowed by such covert master villains as Holmes’ great antagonist, Moriarity. And that voice will continue on in the twentieth century in film and comics, the dividing line between the hidden hero and hidden villain expressing the new moral uncertainties of politics in the age of capitalism – which is also, intrinsically, the age of contesting capitalism. In fact, Marat’s enemies didn’t believe a word of the underground story. “We know that Marat was in England, in consultation with Pitt, when it was believed he was hidden in the underground in Paris,” wrote Fantin des Oudards in 1801 – when the denigration of all Marat stood for had been going on for some time. To be in the underground could mean that you were anywhere – only the Shadow knows.

When Marat defended himself against the attacks of the Gironde in the convention, he stood up, shouted for silence, and told the assembled members: “one cannot hold an accused man under the knife like you do! Do you want to cut my throat? Cut my throat, then!

It was always knives and blades with Marat. In a famous passage in a pamphlet he composed, Are we done for, he wrote that France must lop the heads of five or six hundred traitors to be free. From this figure arose a legend, spread by Michelet, that Marat had demanded one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, or finally two hundred thousand and seventy heads. In Dostoevsky’s Russia, the figure settled on, the proverbial figure, was one hundred thousand heads. Belinski, the liberal radical critic of the czarist regime, spoke of his thirst for a form of Marat’s justice in Russia – a retrospectively sinister phrase, much picked over in the Cold War. Marat himself, in his fight with the partisans of Manon Roland, lost the first round. His head was demanded by soldiers roaming the streets of Paris. A huge caricature of Marat, hanging from a noose, was hung up outside the café of the Palais Royale, and the man himself went into hiding – in, legend has it, some cave, some catacomb.

The ugly men of the Revolution! Mirabeau with his skin disease, Marat with his, Robespierre – in caricature, always depicted with a greenish skin. Michelet wrote of Marat as a non-human monster:  

“That yellow thing, green in his closes, his bulging grey eyes yellow… A kind of batracian, to which genre he surely belongs, and not to the human race. From what swamp did this shocking creature come to us?” Of course, one must know of Michelet’s feminism, his peculiar feminism, to see how the man slain in his bath by Charlotte Corday would call to everything in Michelet’s nature.

Nevertheless, this combination of monstrosity, irritation and the underground plants itself in the European culture of the late nineteenth century with a rare aesthetic force. A model of social rage.

I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man. Something is wrong with my liver.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...