Saturday, June 10, 2023

Nathaniel Mackay's oppositional nostalgia, and mine


The poet Nathaniel Mackay wrote a brilliant, manifesto-like  essay in 1987 entitled “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol” that begins, as most American poetic manifestos do not begin, with a consideration of anthropological fact. Mackay begins with the belief about sound and music – bird music, wind music – of the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea. Kaluli myth – rather like Greek myth – locates the origin of music in the moment in which a human being is transformed into a bird. Philomela of course has left her mark on modern poetry – jug jug to dirty ears/so rudely forced. In the Kaluli case, a boy and his sister are catching crayfish. The boy begs some of the crayfish from his sister. She refuses. He puts a crayfish over his nose, which becomes a red beak. Then he spouts wings and flies away as a muni bird. Rather like the Grimm’s tale, the Juniper Bush, in which the soul of a murdered boy becomes a bird that sings an accusatory song, the muni bird’s song goes: "Your crayfish you didn't give me. I have no sister. I'm hungry . . .”

Mackay begins in Papua because he wants to make a point about the world.


“One easily sees the compatibility of this musical concept of the world, this assertion of the intrinsic symbolicity of the world, with poetry. Yeats's view that the artist "belongs to the invisible life" or Rilke's notion of poets as "bees of the invisible" sits agreeably beside Zuckerkandl's assertion that "because music exists, the tangible and visible cannot be the whole of the given world. The intangible and invisible is itself a part of this world, something we encounter, something to which we respond.” Victor Zuckerkandl is the musicologist whose story of the Kaluli is sampled by Mackay.

Which brings us to the question: isn’t this all just pre-scientific nonsense?

Mackay’s argument, his poetics, begins with the rejection of the overarching positivism that poses that rhetorical question and comfortably answers it with an “of course”. But Mackay doesn’t want to reject that positivism for some reactionary theology. Instead, in a wonderful coinage, Mackay calls for an “oppositional nostalgia.” Mackay’s essay is centered on black music, the orphaned boy’s song, but moves widely among a number of texts, including Toomer’s Cane. “Cane is fueled by an oppositional nostalgia. A precarious vessel possessed of an eloquence coincident with loss, it wants to reach or to keep in touch with an alternate reality as that reality fades.”

My own sense of politics is absolutely in touch with Mackay’s poetics. My mature life has coincided with the fading of all the postwar social democratic institutions. And I have seen the left hamstrung by a rhetoric and conceptual structure that, while useful to the making of those institutions, seems at a loss to defend them. I’ve seen that especially lately in France, where Macron’s killing of the social security system is opposed by the vast majority, which is an opportunity that the left does not know how to take advantage of. But this is an old story, as old as my twenties, the years of Reagan and Thatcher. The reification of revolution only gives us a past to break from. But a larger perspective shows us the need for an oppositional nostalgia – for the reference landscapes of childhood, for instance – those landscapes that have been decayed and attacked by our petrochemical treadmill of production, to the point that they are turning against us.

There are many levels of oppositional nostalgia. I think I have moved within that term, without knowing it, my entire life, and I think I know some of those levels.

Friday, June 09, 2023

The reference landscape and the big fire


It is hard to keep hold of an emergency feeling when the urgency is sliced and diced by the news cycle. We know that the past twenty years have been crucial. We know that once, in the old days at the end of the Cold War, we – we meaning the developed economies of the world – actually acted to prevent the ozone hole from eating us up. And we know since, we have done squat as we watch through our windows, on our nature specials, on our vacations, the world as we know it undergo what fire historian Stephen Pyne calls “the spectacle of unremitting loss.”

As the atmosphere emergency drifts South and West, the focus turns to the usual trivia. Well, naturally. Still, a good time to read Pyne’s essay in Aeon.

 An excerpt:

“I see the world through a pyric prism. In the reforging of Earth, I see fires, especially those burning fossil fuels, as a cause. I see fires, mutating into megafires, as a consequence – and fires everywhere as a catalyst. The Anthropocene is, for me, a Pyrocene, as humanity’s fire practices create the fire-informed equivalent of an ice age. But fire, and even the charred landscapes it can leave in its wake, is more than an issue of human health, busted ecosystems, creaky institutions or bad behaviour. This is also a matter of aesthetics.

This thought came to me during a field trip to the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico in 2014. Three years earlier, the Las Conchas fire, part of a wave train of conflagrations, had blasted across the Pajarito Plateau and into the Los Alamos National Laboratory. When its plume collapsed, the fire sent hot air across forested mesas and through gorges, like the pyroclastic flow from a volcano. The flames culled woods, dappled the forest with blowouts and, in some sites burned down to bare rock, not even blackened stumps remained. Craig Allen, a fire researcher with the US Geological Survey, was our docent, and as we scanned the still-scorched countryside, he described not so much the scene before us as the scene that the fire had taken from him – a vision of the land restored to its precontact state.”

The contact – a term which has displaced the old Eurocentric term, “discovery”, but which has still not found its poetic bearings. The warmer climate has been thought of in terms of mounting ocean levels, and it is that. But so far are we from the trees that have sustained us, that we don’t see the fires mounting up, just for us.

"Lord Krishna said: The universe (or human body) may be compared to an eternal tree that has its origin (or root) in the Supreme Being and its branches below in the cosmos. The Vedic hymns are the leaves of this tree. One who understands this tree is a knower of the Vedas. (15.01)

The branches of this eternal tree are spread all over the cosmos. The tree is nourished by the energy of material Nature; sense pleasures are its sprouts; and its roots of ego and desires stretch below in the human world causing Karmic bondage."

Werner Sombart,  an early twentieth century historian of capitalism – a man of the right, I should say – saw how the trees were necessary for the ships that formed the logistical core of imperialism and trade up until the late nineteenth century. Da steht ein Baum – well, Rilke’s Orpheus was smarter than he knew. Marx’s economic enlightenment came about when he discovered changes in the laws on gleaning wood in the land around Koeln. The Russian novelists depict feckless landholders whose wealth is measured by the forests that they sell to entrepreneurs. Set the Dead souls to one side, it was the trees from Russia that went into the great liberal era in Europe.

Another excerpt from Pyne's essay:

"Yet I wondered what my grandchildren might see if they were present. I recalled a comment by Bertrand Russell who said that what most people mean when they speak of returning to nature is really a desire to return to the world they knew as a child (or, I would add, the world they knew when they came of age). What existed then seems natural. Whatever comes next – new species, new habits, new machines – seems intrusive, disturbing and alien.

That childhood world – what we might call our ‘reference landscape’ – is the marker by which we measure the present and coming world. It’s how we judge the new world as welcoming or hostile, lovely or marred. A reference landscape might be personal, but it might also be shared by a society or nation. When the world itself is being overturned, personal grief can become intergenerational."

Our reference landscapes are coming apart. Russell, a product of the nineteenth century industrialized Britain that produced, among other things, the first diagnosis of allergy, had a reference landscape that was already radically different from that of his eighteenth century ancestors.  I think of Shelley's reference landscape and how the seeds, in the coming storms, will be all burned to a crisp:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,

Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Thursday, June 08, 2023

Cain's papers


Few writers have seen their best sentences become their death sentences. Morris Markey, though, was one of those few.

Lawrence Morris Markey. He is best known, if known at all, as an early New Yorker writer. He wrote novels too – about Dixie. His wife was related to Margaret Mitchell, but he married her before the latter became the author of Gone With The Wind. That must have peeved him – he’d been the one to leave Atlanta behind and make it in New York and the big time. The big time dwindled in Hollywood, in Holiday Magazine, in writing radio spots.

As well, while Mitchell went in for 19th century prose, Markey’s reporting on murders, vagabands and riff raff was very much Neue Sachlichkeit, the American version.

Markey is associated with two engrossing articles about murders, some of which are still recycled for the mystery and the podcastery in them. One was the murder of Starr Faithfull, whose body was tossed up on the shore of Long Beach, Long Island on June 8, 1931. The other murder, also of a flapper, was of Dot King, who was found murdered in her “love nest” on the 15th of March, 1923. Both murders have generated books and websites.

The second paragraph of the Mysterious Death of Starr Faithfull  begins as follows:

“It lies within the very nature of a mystery story that it must be told backward. The only possible beginning is the corpse. And then things are learned and told about the corpse and the creature that existed before it became a corpse…”

Did I say that Morris Markey and James Cain were friends?

Of course, the corpse is definitely a given, but it need never be discovered, or it can be discovered within the elastic schedule of the writer’s telling.

However, I rather like it, gruesomely, that Morris Markey, who left an imprint on the Cold Blood genre, was a creature who left a mystery with his corpse himself, one that the coroner left open: suicide, accident or murder.

On July 12, 1950, the Atlanta Constitution published a story that began: “Gunshot kills L.M.Markey, ex-Atlantan: Lawrence Morris Markey, 51, former Atlanta newspepr reporter, died Monday night of a gunshot wound in his home in Halifax, Virginia.”

And thus, the corpse with the small .22 entrance wound behind its ear.

In the Constitution story, Markey was found “in a downstairs hall and that a .22 caliber rifle lay nearby, one cartridge fired from it.” It doesn’t tell us if a relative of Margaret Mitchell was in the house.

The coroner relied in his account on the testimonies of those in the house, but he must not have relied entirely, since he does leave the case open. A question mark that could be seen as an accusation against someone in the household.

In his biography of James Cain, Morris Markey holds a considerable place. Markey introduced Cain to Harold Ross at the New Yorker.  When Helen Markey called him up and told him Morris was dead, and invited him to the funeral, Cain went. Oddly “Helen had not said how Markey died, and it was not until Cain reached Petersburg and bought a Richmond paper that he learned Morris had been shot.”

Truly, here’s the set up for a short story. Cain, the author of Double Indemnity, goes to Halifax Virginia and spends a few days snooping about, hearing stories about the death of his friend. Cain heard the tale from Morris’s brother, Marvin Markey.

“On the day before his death… Sue [his daughter] had driven to a store and along the way had seen four little puppies on the side of the road, where somebody had abandoned them. Deciding they should have a merciful end, she took them hom, got out the family .22, and shot them. When she went to bury them, she left the .22 in the hall.”

The family agreed that Morris, drinking and depressed, had jammed the gun against his head from behind and shot himself, presumably to make it look less like a suicide and more like an accident. Insurance reasons. But it made it look like somebody shot him from behind.

Cain, according to Hoopes, wrote this all down in a letter he sent to Laurence Stallings, a mutual friend.

And, to make a true mystery writer’s death  true mystery, the letter has not, as far as I know, been published. It is among Cain’s papers.

Which is a potential title, no? Cain’s papers.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Lead dogs: Kriegszittern and the post-war


Kafka being an expert on work related accidents was called upon, in World War I, to use his talents in Prague’s Temporary Psychiatric Hospital for shell shocked soldiers. He wrote a publicity sheet for the Hospital that rather disconcerts his biographer, Reiner Stach.  Far from Kafka the response of the Dadaists, which was to spit on the war. Instead, this is how the sheet begins: “Fellow Countrymen!  The World War, in which all human misery is concentrated, is also a war of nerves, more so than ay previous war. And in this war of nerves, all too many suffer defeat. Just as the intensive operation of machinery during the last few decades’ peacetime jeopardized, far more than ever before, the nervous system of those so employed, giving rise to nervous disturbances and disorders, the enormous increase in the mechanical aspect of contemporary warfare has caused the most serious risks and suffering for the nerves of our fighting men.”


This is written for a good purpose, because returning shell shocked soldiers – the famous Kriegszitterer – were definitely in need of care. But it is clothed in the average middle class patriotism of a good Kakanian citizen. Nothing here leads one to doubt the systems at play – they are the given.


Of course, at the same time Kafka’s feeling about these systems flowed into such stories as the Penal Colony, where the functionaries of the system that destroys its victims themselves submit to its machinery – but only, note, because there was some bug in the machine, some fault.


It is interesting to contrast the end of World War I and the end of World War II. In the second case, the end led to what the French call the “thirty glorious years” – a Keynesian capitalism subtended by extensive social democratic institutions, which were funded, the latter, by heavy taxes on the wealthiest. The former ended with a vast global spirt of liberalism – in the U.S., taxes on the wealthy were halved, and regulations were loosened, while in Britain and France, the movement was to gold standards and financialization of capital.

The currents of the collective psyche are murky. Contemporaries can dive in there, but they come back with doubtful impressions. It is even worse diving into the collective psyche of eras past. However, I do wonder if, after bombing had extended the trauma to civilian populations, the fauna of the urban postwar in the twenties – the crippled, the Kriegszitterer spastically selling pencils on street corners, the literally defaced, all of which became part of ordinary life without really pushing society into a more pacifistic and socialistic system – I wonder if the memory of this worked on the good people streaming away from the onset of the Soviets, cleaning up the rubble in Berlin and London, figuring out the balance of treachery and resistance in Paris, etc.  – I wonder if this memory worked as a powerful incentive to the social insurance put in place in the late forties and fifties. The fate of the mustard gassed veteran from World War I was now no stranger to the firebombed or V2-ed citizen of any European urb.


The shell shocked did not only include veterans – in Germany, in particular, it led to an art of shock, of outrage that included in its scope not only the leaders but the led, the frustratingly led. The led who never woke up, who spoke in an already outmoded feudal trance.  There’s a poem of Kurt Tucholsky that has this spirit of outrage in it – Lead dogs. Actually, Tucholsky’s entire work contains this demon of outrage, but this one is short and sweet.  It was published under one of his pseudonyms, Theobold Tiger, in the Weltbuehne in 1921.



Clever dogs lead the tip tapping blind through the streets

Knowing how to find the right ways, scent and seek.

Once, you sightless, others lead you for four and a half years.

They growled and howled and made living men fear.


Once, blind ones, wolves led you into filthy pits,  

Put you in chains and foddered you with bits.

They ran away when it all collapsed. Following their bloody feasts

they skipped over the border with the liability round their necks   . . .

Carefully, your dog quivers at the end of his lead.

His look is faithful, ears cocked, watchful for your need.


You, blind men! None, none, of your puffed up, pimped up

Leaders stands so human and high before God as your pup!





Monday, June 05, 2023

Beggars and billionaires


The beggar and the billionaire bookend neoliberal culture. During the era of the social democratic exception, from the mid forties to roughly the eighties, homelessness – and vagabondage – fell considerably. Not that this was an unmitigated good – from the mental asylum to the housing project, coercion, violence, despair and underfunding were endemic. But the effect of state cuts to welfare and to the general withdrawal of the state from housing, mental health care, and retirement funding had effects that were seen throughout the developed economies.  In Les gens de rien: l’histoire de la grande pauvreté dans le France du XXe siecle, Andre Guesclen traces the decline of vagabondage and homelessness during the thirty glorious years and their return at the end of the century. The same story was told, in 1991, by Joel Blau in The Visible Poor.

The visible poor, an excellent title.

I have a media knowledge of billionaires. How could I not. They populate telenovelas, like Succession, are featured extensively in the business and political press, have groupies and fans, and in general are all around us as parts of the celebrity phantom tribe we think we have a relationship with.

I have an experiential knowledge of beggars. Beggars are not the stars of popular telenovelas, are not extensively interviewed or featured in the business and political press, are not influencers on Instagram or in any way part of the celebrity phantom tribe. But for any urban dweller, they are ghosts of another sort, flesh and blood ghosts. They sleep on doorsteps or in tents or in sleeping bags or in improvised nests of trash. They prostrate themselves in pedestrian heavy areas, with plastic or paper cups by their sides for the stray coin. They choose their spots – outside grocery stores or by ATMs – where, by some perhaps shared convention, they know that people have loose change  on them. They get drunk, or they get stoned. They preach, or they scrawl signs, they favor parks, they tell stories of hunger on subway trains and trams.

On the whole, my experience with beggars is much like anyone else’s. That is, if they anyone else has some money somewhere. Sometimes I give, more often I don’t. I have a sort of tally in my head, and if I haven’t given for a while, I give more. Never a lot. Mostly I say no, no thanks, sorry, etc. No, no thanks, sorry, etc. constitutes, for the most part, the conversation between the beggar and the non-beggar population.

A couple days ago I tossed out my “non” to a man accosting me on Rue Charlot. However, he aimed a few words at my back that made me turn around. I don’t remember what they were. I approached him. He was a short black man of beggar’s age – that is, anywhere from 30 on up. Living rough has a way of erasing the middle class marks of age and registering new ones. This man had a hat. He held in his hand a booklet of some sort. As I came closer, he showed me what it was: song sheets. And he explained that he was a singer, that he sang for his money, but that he was too tired to sing today.

I gave him some Euros, and went on. A singer.

Where the media culture does feature the beggar, and there in abundance, is in poetry. In song, Gypsy Davy still steals the wife of the landowner. The hobo rides the rails, and Beau Jangles will dance for you in worn out shoes.

Why song and poetry has the beggar in its heart, and not the billionaire, is of some interest. Song and poetry is as servile as other media – it has long celebrated kings and warriors. But it has never celebrated the bourgeoisie. Other supposedly non-poetic objects – a note about plums on a table, a bright particular chameleon – have roused the poetic consciousness, but the bourgeoisie have been turned over and over by novelists, who found them dramatic in exact proportion to the scandals that de-bourgeois-fy them, and been ignored, mostly, by the poets. True, the sitcom is the glory of the bourgeoisie, and that is no mean thing in the history of art. However, I don’t quite know how to measure this.

Beggars have attracted some  attention on tv, but mainly in shows that are framed around the police. The Wire, even, is framed around the police – although I remember seeing the first shows of the first season of the Wire and crying, because finally, finally people in a housing project were being seen. The visible poor were being made visible. Of course, they were visible as part of a larger plot, but still.

That singing beggar rang a lot of bells for me. We live near a park named for a singer and songwriter, Beranger, whose songs were sung by beggars on the street in 19th century Paris. Baudelaire, who lived around here  (it is hard to find a spot in Paris that is not near where Baudelaire, a most homeless man, lived for a while), wrote a poem that is still unloved and very analysed, La Mendiante rousse, about a redhaired beggar clothed in rags that barely covered her – much as, today, beggars in real desperation sometimes clothe themselves in such plastic sheeting as you find at construction sites, a costume that parodies the gaudiest bride’s gown.

Blanche fille aux cheveux roux,
Dont la robe par ses trous
Laisse voir la pauvreté
Et la beauté.

The poverty and the beauty. A combination we have lost. Bo Jangles is deader than a doornail.



  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...