Saturday, October 14, 2023

Para-history

 

 

In the Wolfgang Promies edition of Lichtenberg’s Sudelbücher, the beginning note in notebook A, which could be the beginning of this “book”, such as it is, reads: “The great art of making small deviations from the truth in order to get to the truth, on which the whole differential calculus is built, is at the same time the foundation of our most brilliant [witzigen] thoughts, where often the whole thing would collapse if we took the point of view of philosophical strictness in relation to the deviations.”

This is a great way to begin a “waste book” that is no book – neither a book of maxims on the order of the French moralists nor a diary nor an essay, but a mix of all three - and it is also a motto for a certain genre that I would call the “para-historical”.

Writers of all types – bloggers, Sunday researchers, journalists, memoirists – “do” history, but do it outside the strict methodologies and judgments of real historians – academic historians. The latter are absolutely necessary, of course, but the para-historian can provide a “brilliant” thought here and there which casts a light on the past. Especially in as much as history is necessarily burdened with factoids – the cops lies that get into a folder in the archive, a politician’s misquote, a partisan’s distortions, etc. Para-historians are, of course, also prone to factoids – often they pass them on as part of a whole agenda. And para-historians have other problems, too: the emphasis on the anecdotal and the downplaying of context, for instance. The attraction to “mysteries” rather than problems. And the parallel attraction to “solutions”.

I’ve spent a good few years writing a series of factoidal stories, parahistories of a sort. Mine cover the Cold war era. Even that term is an unreliable designator – what kind of war is it? If a war exists where none is declared, but rather polities are hostile to each other, than all eras are eras of Cold War. Hostility is the total story. I think, however, that the Cold War, from whatever beginning date you argue for to whatever ending date you argue for, is distinguished by the way in which the hostility of nations is routinized in ideologies that motivate populations to sponsor them: pay for them, fight for them, make others fight for them, etc. From this point of view, the Cold War as a form started in 1789, with the French revolution, and found its perfect counterrevolutionary expression in Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace. Burke’s pamphlet is at the head of a tradition in Anglophony that one can follow even up to now – the premise that no peace, no coexistence is possible with the ideological enemy. This realigns the nation’s interests in an interesting way – for if the ideology of the Other is the enemy, than those within the nation who adhere or lean towards that ideology are also the enemy.

And so I have concentrated on various crimes that have to do with that simple formula, as it complexified and fortified itself over the time, relatively, that I have been alive.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Christ and Degenerate Art


- I direct your attention to inventory no. 16232, a giant wooden Kruzifixus, accused of Judeo-Bolshevism, from the atelier of one L.G. by way of a Museum in Stettin.



- O. I am beginning with an “I”. Begin. Begat. Begone.

- An inventory number implies an inventory. The number of art objects seized by the Nazis between 1933 and 1939 within the German speaking sphere — Anschluss Austria, conquered Czechoslovakia — is still unknown. But 16232 is a large number. Does it really reflect the number of art pieces seized? Inventories don’t necessarily reflect a number line. For instance, zip codes are a form of inventory. In this case, Mario Andreas von Luttichau has studied the matter and concluded that the inventory numbers that were assigned “coincided to some extent with the sequence of works in the exhibition…” — in other words, operated a bit like zip code numbers. Still, as there was only around 630 some works in the Munich museum, the original sequence, which specified the works, must have come from some other sequence — something having to do with their seizure by the Nazi state. More than 16,000 objects, it seems.

- The Nazi state. I write this, I draw back. Is this a subject that will get inside my dreams? There is more than possible. I remember in the sixth grade, my friend Mike showed me a book about Hiroshima. For months I dreamed of naked people in boiling rivers, their skin sliding from their bones. And these were not only nightmares but wet dreams. Naked people, to my sixth grade mind’s eye, naked women. There is no line, no traumatic DMZ, that will keep the images of all the horrors of the world awake from the world asleep, the world of the sleeper. And I begin to be conscious of my intrusion here, looking back on these things, and this crucifix, this crucified one. Many a vodou metaphysician has noticed that the instrument of torture that became a symbol of Christ is, as well, a cross roads. It marks the spot where the devil, or where Papa Legba, can be met at midnight, in the midst of the traffic between the quick and the dead.

- My “I”, lofted above this story, is illegitimate in many respects; but then I remember my citizenship in the Great Cold War. My history, too. My nightmares and wet dreams.

- The inventory number is helpfully supplied by the book accompanying the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition, in 1991, of the “Degenerate Art Exhibit” of 1937. The show as it opened in Munich. The Munich show and its successors — it travelled through the major German cities and those in Austria after the Anschluss, 13 cities in all — was one of the most visited exhibitions of the 20th century, attracting “more than two million people”. The advertising for it was extensive and enticing. “Free admittance. No young people allowed entry.” The papers did front page stories about it whereever it went. Orders from on high? The “show” travelled to Austria, after the Anschluss. A great success.

2.

- “Vandalism In Church” reads the headline in the local newspage of the March 4, 1922 Lübeck Volksbote, a socialist newspaper. The gist: a person or persons had penetrated the Lübeck Cathedral (which was latter to be almost destroyed in a British raid on the city in 1942) carrying equipment that included a ladder, a saw, and a rope. They climbed up to the Kruzifixus, which had been installed on the wall above the area that led into the choral space, and sawed off its head. They used a rope to lower the heavy wooden head to the ground and made off with it — packing up their equipment, too. As well, they injured the nimbus and the rays that highlighted the body. Shortly thereafter: “The head was found in a nearby wastepond. Chained to a stone.”

- Begin. Begat. Begone.

- The newspaper reported that before this ultimate act of vandalism, there had been a great deal of controversy and misinformation about the Kruzifixus. The congregation was disturbed by it. The veteran’s groups were disturbed about it. The Blätter, another Lübeck paper, but which leaned to the right, ran some angry columns about it, using the language that was to reappear, in 1933, as the Nazis started gathering up the art they didn’t like and denouncing the art professors, curators, artists and patrons who produced, exhibited and bought it: it was blasphemous, it mocked the German military, it was ugly, it was insane. Jesus was too dead, too tortured, too big, too hideous.

- There was a rumor that the Kruzifixus had won a contest being held by the Church to select a monument for the German war dead. In fact, it had been submitted, but the statue had not been accepted by the monument committee. However, the Lübeck Cathedral’s artistic advisor, a man named Carl George Heise, had advocated for the statue, and had approved L.G.’s plan for it. Consequently, he made it in his atelier in Berlin, working on it for four months. The statue, made out of oak and in giant proportions — the figure was over nine feet high, the cross was even bigger — was originally supposed to be over a plaque listing the names of those in the congregation who had fallen in the war. L.G. intended this greenish, tortured, dead Jesus to reflect the painting of Jesus on the altar created by the Nordic early modern painter, Bernd Notke. Notke’s painting was created around 1500 (it no longer exists, as it was burned in the British raid on Lübeck in 1942 which destroyed the cathedral). The figure also had thin gilded rays emanating from it, and a gilded nimbus above its head.

- Thus we begin. Is this the story of the Kruzifixus? Or the story of L.G.? Or the story of the crossroads upon which the Kruzifixus gave its gallow’s blessing?

3.

- There are at least two tellers of the tale of the Kruzifixus in our time. One, Katrin Engelhardt, gives us the pertinent details in an article entitled “Nailed to the Cross: the mocking [Verhöhnung] of the Kruzifixus of L.G. in the Weimar Republic and under the Nazis”. It was published in a book that is part of a series concerning “entartete Kunst” — degenerate art — and the fate of outlawed art objects under the Nazis. There is an institution that researches this area of modern art history.

- The other teller is Hans Prolingheuer, a former Social Democratic politician who has devoted his post-legislative life to the exploration or explanation of the intersection between the Nazis and the protestant churches. The cross as crossroads, the exchanges between the sacred and the profane, or perhaps the demonic masked that characterized churchman and Gauleiter. Protestant churches, as observers after 1933 remarked, flourished in Berlin after the Nazis generally put Cabaret and all its attendees and showpeople in the KZ. Where once Weimar decadents watched transvestites and discussed (pro and contra) the communist party, there were now invitations to Christian worship for all — — except decadents, socialists, communists, Jews, Gypsies or Defectives. It is a history of great shame, and like all great shames in the post-war period, when the Cultural Bolshevik enemy shapeshifted, it was felt less by those who had participated in it in the thirties, busy now creating a “miracle” economy, than the grandchildren, waking up like Hansel and Gretel and listening as, beyond the wall, the parents speak in whispers of murder. Prolingheuer feels intensely for the Kruzifixus. For Polingheuer, L.G.’s sculpture lies at the center of the ghastly connection between the Stormtroopers — Sturmabteilung — and the Bildstürmer — the iconoclast. The destruction of images, which occurred, as Polingheuer remarks, in the surge of popular piety in the German countryside around Luther’s break with the Church, was a compound of frenzies we have seen before and will see again, a matter of the same sexual angers and salts, of vengeance and profittaking: then, the destruction of witches, heretics, Jews; in 1937, Jews, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals, and other degenerates.

4.

- Begin. Begat. Begone. Words that, as I pronounce them, have a deal of spit in them.



- The week the Kruzifixus was beheaded was a redletter week for the Lübeck intelligentsia. It had been declared Thomas Mann week by the city’s Cultural department. Lübeck’s great son came back to Lübeck — he now lived in Munich — and made a speech at the dedication to the House of the Buddenbrooks. The very house itself, which had been purchased by some patron and dedicated to the great artist.

- Carl Georg Heise was already writing, of inventory number 16232, fourteen years before it was reinstalled for maximum mockery at the entrance to the 1937 exhibition: “One hardly knows what is more significant, the work or its fate.”

- Heise was writing in Genius, the journal he briefly edited. He was writing after the Kruzifixus had been vandalized, which happened a mere month after it was installed in the Lübeck Dom. Heise writes: “Its destruction is a testimony to the increasing difference of feeling between the popular sentiment and the artistic culture of our time. It is a dangerously intensifying situation in which we find ourselves.” Heise also wrote of the deep religious feeling that was expressed in this Crucifixion. The quote was pulled for the Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937 and hung, in a mauled state, on the all next to the Kruzifixus, with a graffiti question mark scrawled over it.

- Carl Georg Heise was a pupil of Aby Warburg. He was not simply an observer of the situation in Lübeck, since he had advocated for the statue as an artistic advisor to the cathedral. He was also the head of the Lübeck Museum of Art and the History of Culture. The post gave him the opportunity to patronize many contemporary artists. In this post, he became one of the great patrons of the sculptor Barlach. “Following… a radio address Barlach gave in January of 1933, protesting the expulsion of Kollwitz and Heirich Mann from the Preussische Akademie, he was forced to give up the house he had built in 1930 in Guestrow, ostensibly because the building permits had been declared null and void and were withdrawn.” Barlach had two works in the Degenerate Art Exhibit.”

- Heise and L.G. “fell from grace” in 1933, after the Nazis seized power.




- A story. In 1933, the official in charge of “culture” was a certain Senator Burgsteller. The Nazis were all about delivering an immediate shock to the cultural system in Germany, and pressured to fire Heise. The Senator left Heise hanging for weeks. Then he agreed to meet with him.

- “My dear Heise, I am sure you must understand why we could not keep you on. It just could not be done. Look here, I need you to help and advise me. As you know, I am no expert in this area, but I have to appoint a successor to you, a man who will carry on in your spirit. Who would you suggest?”

- Heise gave him a list of names.

- “Soon after, he met a man from the Senator’s office, who told him with a grin: don’t you see? Those were the names of candidates I had to cross off the list immediately. (Hellmut Lehman-Haupt).

- Heise must have been there to meet Mann in Lübeck on Thomas Mann week. He’d met Mann in 1921. In 1933, he went to Switzerland to see Mann about emigrating. Mann urged him to stay in Germany, on the assumption that the Nazis would not last forever and an indigenous strain of humanism would then re-emerge. Perhaps Mann thought of Heise when he imagined his humanistic narrator of Doctor Faustus, Serenus Zeitblum.

- Heise asked Mann to write on behalf of art that was being attacked in Germany in 1933. Mann told Heise he was not good with modern art — he was an Ohrmensch — an Earperson.

5.

- The feuillitonists or art critics who might have mocked or grown indignant at the way Germany’s national treasures, all those modern works that were purchased by the progressively inclined curators and directs, were either fired in 1933 and working some other job or in concentration camps or in exile.

- “The wound like a hole out of which a drop of blood falls.” “The giant toes of the feet.” “The impressively overlong legs.”

- In Los Angeles, in the 90s, many of the 615 pieces shown in Munich could not be shown. They had disappeared. That might mean they had been deliberately destroyed. Or it might mean that they had been sold by the network of dealers that sprang up in Europe to take advantage of the Nazi war on Modern Art to acquire and sell pieces. In 1991, archaeologists digging in Berlin, searching for remnants of its distant 14th century past, uncovered a storage room buried underground, among the rubble of some bombardment. In the room were ceramic pieces and a broken statue — Otto Freundlich’s statue, Der neue Mensch, a photograph of which had adorned the cover of “the guide published to accompany the exhibition on tour after it left Munich.” Otto Freundlich’s own ashes disappeared long ago in the Maidenek, in 1943.



6.

- 1937. Note that one of the great landmarks of Nazi cultural policy occurred in a distinctly depressing year for the great hopes of modernism. If we travel, at that date, to Moscow, we can enjoy the beginning of the great Show Trials, in which the cadre of Bolsheviks who participated in and made the Revolution were duly humiliated and, after being found guilty of Capital Crimes, executed. The defendants themselves often pleaded for the most severe sentences.

- The National Socialists had already liquidated as many of the German communist cadre as they could catch — a strategy of pacification that would have a long afterhistory, from Malaysia and Vietnam to Iraq and Guatemala, marking the twentieth century as a movement between Communists killing their enemies (often other Communists) and communists being killed in the name of democracy by the forces and proxies of the Western powers.

- 1937. The degenerate art exhibition was, in its own way, a show trial, and the object was to liquidate a certain kind of modernity in which the 1917 revolution figured. A modernity identified with negativity, squalor, critique, the “dérèglement de tous les sens” and a splendour that refused to share an ethos with heroism.

- Heroism had gone mad on the Western and Eastern Fronts. How much of a hero is the cow that is dragged up the chute to the slaughterhouse?

- Yet the Stalinist turn in Moscow, or the Nazi frenzy in Munich, was caught in the perpetual loop of exaggeration and denunciation that gives it its temperamental being, its trademark attitude. Thus it followed a zombie logic of mimicry. I mean that the Degenerate Art exhibition exhibited many of the tricks and traits of the great Dada installations, and used shock for its own purposes. For instance, the bizarre, swooping scripts on the wall pointing out and denouncing the pieces. Or “the juxtaposition of works of degenerate art by Karl Schmidt Rottluff and Amedeo Modigliani and photographs of facial deformities”. Or photographs of drawings and paintings by the mentally ill. All of which were, indeed, sources of inspiration. The muses live in jails, in asylums, on the street. And what does that mean for us, who do not?



- Who, as a footnote to this representational violence, were to be liquidated physically in the 38 to 40 period. All those muses. The defectives, to whom the doctors and nurses applied the needle. And of course after the Jews, Gypsies, Bolsheviks, Slavs, etc.

- The Dadaist assault was trained on the bourgeois spectator’s perceptual privacy, as though perception itself was a piece of property, a sort of lawn fronting the frockcoated peeper at the pics. The Dadaist glee was imitated, in all unconsciousness, by the organizers (Ziegler, Willrich, Hansen, Hoffman). What could be more Dada than to hang artworks crookedly on the wall? “A photograph of Hitler standing before the Dada Wall at a preview of the exhibition… reveals that the works by Schwitters, Kandinsky and Klee were originally hung crookedly on the wall.”

- In the Camps, all privacy was systematically taken from the inmate. No more of that. In the Degenerate Art exhibition, there was a sense that these works were being tortured for the benefit of the great German Aryan public. It was a pity, really, that nobody thought of putting in a shrieking sound system. The predecessor of the Exhibition, put on by the Nazis in 1934, had called itself a “house of horrors.” Carnivalesque dystopia.



7.

- Begone.

- From the “Administrative Report concerning the Hanseatic city of Lübeck from 1937 to 1952”: “Even more dramatic was the struggle to save the Cathedral… The fire leaped from the museum up the socalled Bishop’s tower of the Cathedral and spread from here through the whole church “ship”… Even the strengthened manpower in place could not control the fire.

- “On March 29, 1942, at around 10:30 a.m. the Northtower, which had stood until then, collapsed, breaking in the middle, and about 2 p.m. the South tower followed. Lübeck was again stripped of a landmark and one of its most valuable cultural monuments.” (Hans Brunswig, 1978)

- Begat. Ended. Turn out the lights, muses from the wards, the camps, the trains. Defectives. Human experiments. Horror shows of all kinds. Turn out the lights. Turn out the lights. Repeat, infinitely.

Monday, October 09, 2023

William James, Effective Altruism, and Sam Bankman-Fried

There is a passage in William James’ essay, The Moral Philosopher – which, by the way, is an excellent analysis of that species we now call the “pundit” or the opinion writer – which sums up the delusion called “effective altruism” and even predicts its course, from the principles it begins with:

 

“A look at another peculiarity of the ethical universe, as we find it, will still further show us the philosopher's perplexities. As a purely theoretic problem, namely, the casuistic question would hardly ever come up at all. If the ethical philosopher were only asking after the best imaginable system of goods; he would indeed have an easy task; for all demands as such are prima facie respectable, and the best simply imaginary world would be one in which every demand was gratified as soon as made. Such a world would, however, have to have a physical constitution entirely different from that of the one which we inhabit. It would need not only a space, but a time, "of n-﷓dimensions," to include all the acts and experiences incompatible with one another here below, which would then go on in conjunction﷓-such as spending our money, yet growing rich; taking our holiday, yet getting ahead with our work; shooting and fishing, yet doing no hurt to the beasts; gaining no end of experience, yet keeping our youthful freshness of heart; and the like. There can be no question that such a system of things, however brought about, would be the absolutely ideal system; and that if a philosopher could create universes a priori, and provide all the mechanical conditions, that is the sort of universe which he should unhesitatingly create.”

This is the set of motives that drove that EA excrescence, FTX, and its creator and monster, Sam Bankman-Fried. Frankenstein becomes his own monster, in a variant of Mary Shelley’s cautionary romance.


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 ...