Friday, October 06, 2023

michael lewis agonistes


I have long liked Michael Lewis for one thing: the long essay he wrote after Hurricane Katrina about coming back to New Orleans. In that essay, he defended Nola from the foxification, that is, the racist demonization, that excused the inexcusable U.S. neglect of one of the world's great cities.

So, I felt I owe him one. Well, now the debt is paid. He "embeds' himself with SBF - already a vile and emptyheaded move for a reporter - and then gives us a portrait of a true privileged monster, a man who mistakes intelligence for the mastery of a few video games. A man with no ethics, no organization, and an insatiable greed. Who is his "hero". Whose innoncence, as he put it on Sixty minutes, is a thing he wants to communicate to the jury.

Michael Lewis is not, of course, the only one. The NYT coverage of SBF has leaned over backwards to tell his tale. This is a story of backstage image management that could only be explained by the fact that the parents of the involved know the media honchos who run the presses. But even with favorable NYT coverage - starting back from when they gave him a chance to "share" his story on their stage for some event after FTX fell apart - they are, reluctantly, covering the unfolding of eyewitnessed detail that pretty much sinks the image of Sam Effective Altruism Bankrobber-Fried. Lewis seems as clueless about cryptocurrency platforms as many people of his generation are about the Nigerian email scam.
Pathetic and so so typical.

The thing about that 60 minutes interview that is little commented is how bad the interviewer - Jon Wertheim - is. Whe Lewis says FTX collapsed because of a bank run situation, Wertheim should have stopped him and said FTX was not at all like a bank. A
bank is legally entitled to loan the money you deposit out. The FTX platform
was more like a safety deposit box. You are charged a fee for having the box,
but if the company actually opens the box and uses your stuff, that is called
theft. Pretty simple distinction. That Wertheim apparently knows NOTHING about
FTX makes me wonder - what is the use of television interviews? The NYT had a
story about the average age of network tv viewers now being like 65 - my age. I
think this is partly because tv viewers of a certain generation just got used
to this flatheadedness. But one of the wonderful things about social media and
cable is: this kind of bunk calls out to be de-bunked.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Who is Hamlet to him, or him to Hamlet?

The vogue for Hamlet in the 1920s is, I think, of piece with the culture of the 1920s: the wounded modernity of it all, from the Jazz age drinkers in New York city speakeasies to the characters in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counterpoint, etc. World War I showed the great and unspeakable harm of yoking together advanced technology and the senile intellection of the ruling class. The 1920s were despised, later, by people like Wyndham Lewis and reactionaries of all kinds partly due to its unstable mixture of deep mourning and sexual release.
Which was the perfect mood in which to read The Waste Land, or to compose it.
Eliot was producing a lot in the twenties, in order to supplement an income from the bank he worked at that would have been more than ample for another middle manager (500 pounds a year). But Tom and Viv pursued lifestyles that made more money a necessity. Besides, the Eliot of the time was overflowing with ideas. Which is why his essay on Hamlet, the one in which he deplored such mooks as Goethe for misunderstanding the whole failure of the thing, was, on the one hand, so outrageous, and on the other hand, was as close as his criticism came to his art. The Hamlet that he hammered at was all fragments and failure – Shakespeare’s Wasteland.
“Few critics have ever admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. And Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art.3 The kind of criticism that Goethe and Coleridge produced, in writing of Hamlet, is the most mis leading kind possible. For they both possessed unquestionable critical insight, and both make their critical aberrations the more plausible by the substitution – of their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s – which their creative gift effects. We should be thankful that Walter Pater did not fix his attention on the play.”
What an astonishing last phrase! Eliot latter omitted this essay from some collection of his essays because it was so impertinent. Highhatting Goethe, Coleridge and Pater in one driveby is a display of sharp elbows that must have made the Edwardian sages, those still around, gasp.
The whole essay is full of other gasp-making passages. For instance, this one, on how clumsy Shakespeare bobbled his source, the (lost) Hamlet of Kyd, which was no doubt a real revenger play and no fooling around. “In the final play of Shakespeare, on the other hand, there is a motive which is more important than that of revenge, and which explicitly “blunts” the latter; the delay in revenge is unexplained on grounds of necessity or expediency; and the effect of the “madness” is not to lull but to arouse the king’s suspicion. The alteration is not complete enough, however, to be convincing.”
So much for those who think that the madness theme is all the more convincing for posing the question: what if a madman plays at being a madman, not realizing that he is truly mad? A question at the heart of early modern European literature – Hamlet, meet Don Quixote. This fold in the play made Hamlet a precursor of romanticism, and romanticism was something that the Eliot at this point, with his Maurrassian leanings, wanted rooted out – for reasons not unlike that of his old pal, Wyndham Lewis.
Lewis-like shock effects key passages like this one: “So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others. Of all the plays it is the longest and is possibly the one on which Shakespeare spent most pains; and yet he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed.”
Sloppy Shakespeare, not able to cut and mend. Like, perhaps, Eliot in the midst of his first draft of the Wasteland? I love the “most certainly” of the artistic failure. There the teacher is, turning back the paper that little Will had worked so hard on. Alas, failure – and F!
“And probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the “Mona Lisa” of literature.”
Of course, the unconscious movement from dissing Pater – who thank God never wrote on Hamlet – to dissing Pater’s painting, his poem, the Mona Lisa – makes the essay all the more interesting as a good old St. Louis stomping. Behind the clerical fussiness there’s the riverside hustler. Eliot makes it clear that there are the cool people, who know what artistic success is, and the hoi polloi, who want the “interesting” – the crossword puzzle, the latest murder, Hamlet.
Eliot doesn’t mention Joyce. Lewis, who shared Eliot’s impersonality of the poet thesis at this time, would certainly have included some dig at J.J. – after all, the “character” of Hamlet figures as a major key in Ulysses. As Stephen might reply to Eliot’s irritated and irritating essay: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
It is in the Hamlet essay that Eliot lets loose upon the world (to his later dismay) the term “objective correlative.” Apparently he can’t find any in Hamlet. “The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.”
It must be said that the “objective correlative” has a certain critical inevitability. Using it to beat up Hamlet, though, gives us a dramatic situation in which the critical emotion is “most certainly” in excess of the facts as they appear. Behind these facts, and this bitching, is Eliot coming into the hard realization – which he made into a worldview – that his was not a synthesizing mind, but a collaging one. Fragments were his poetry. And in his reduction of Hamlet to fragments, he gave himself a pretty good precedent.

Monday, October 02, 2023

philosophy as worry


Philosophers are all rather proud of Aristotle’s notion that philosophy begins in “wonder” – it seems such a superior birth, so disinterested, so aristocratically outside the tangle of pleb emotions.


For these reasons, that origin story has, for the most part, been more interpreted than questioned.


It is, of course, hard to get clear on these things, which depend on self-reporting. Stories that one tells about oneself are, prima facie, self-interested.


Myself, my “philosophical” thinking has its roots more in worry than in wonder. Worry about the dark. Worry about abandonment.  Worry about money. Worry about sex. Worry about the parents, the kids, the growing old, the decline of empire, boredom, and the absence of the hosts of promised angels after you graduate from whatever it is you are graduating from.


Worry, of course, is socially gendered female. Worry is the knitting, it is mom, not stoic dad, wondering on the lawn.


Questions can be treated as innocent grammatical instruments. Science, y’all! But questions are where worry goes in language.  They are large things, the question – they have room for more than anxiety. But from my plebe view, wonder is simply the advance man of worry, the spokesmodel, worry as influencer.  


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...