Friday, October 20, 2023

Why read the classics? On Calvino's answer

Calvino begins his essay, Why read the Classics, by defining them in terms of a characteristic phrase: “I am re-reading x” The classics are haunted, as it were, by re-reading. We re-read in the classroom to answer questions (a site Calvino, I think mistakenly, throws out of consideration – an awful lot of reading is tied to the classroom, and it often seems that when we re-read on our own, the ghost of a classroom desk trails behind us, with its pencil groove and its slight, metallic smell – mixed in my case with the smell of a brown bag and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in wax paper ). We re-read outside of the classroom because, a, we are defensive about not having read,and want to make it known that we, too, have already read, and b, (the meat of Calvino’s theme), even when reading the first time, the classic imposes it scale on us, one that suggests an infinity of re-readings. When reading a classic, we cannot “escape” its design. In this sense, the classic is the opposite of escapist literature. We read that to get “lost”, by which we mean ‘lost’ from our everyday routines, our ordinary world, the one outside the book. It isn’t that we do not get lost in the classics – but it is a different kind of lost. It is all about disorientation and fate. Freud, in his essay on the uncanny, tells a story about getting lost in Rome, and finding that, over and over again, he has taken the wrong roads, which keep leading him back to a doubtful neighborhood. A neighborhood, we assume, that is a redlight district. Thus, in one sense, from the perspective of the super-ego Freud is lost, but, from another, more chthonic perspective, that of the libido, he is following the line of his fate.
This is the lostness experienced inside the classic. We are uncomfortably aware of some exterior intentionality that we have somehow swallowed – we are possessed.
Of course, the classics of high modernism show an acute awareness of the other kind of lostness. Leopold Bloom is a great admirer of Paul de Kock, a nineteenth century author of lubricious fare. And the lostness in the popular novel that is a rush – we read it all at once –is mimicked in prose that gushes with consciousness – in Ulysses, in To the Lighthouse, in Sound and the Fury, among others. And yet that enactment of being lost, carried away, is highly stylized – it is in fact just the kind of thing you don’t find in a popular novel. These moments are, as well, re-readable – in fact, if there are degrees in the infinity of re-reading in which the classic lives, they are even more re-readable than more conventional prose.
Oddly, Calvino misses a trick by confining the notion of re-reading to the classic text and not comparing it to oral ones – for there are stories that we tell about ourselves that we seem to tell over and over again. Years and years ago, I visited Monterray, Mexico, with a friend. I have found myself telling the story of that visit to dozens of people since. I’m not sure why that story has stuck with me so much, but as I tell the story, it becomes more and more devoid of living memory and more and more full of intentionality – of rhetorical memory, if you will. I have other stories like that as well. I think most people have a canon of stories they tell about themselves – their own classics. But in contrast to the re-telling that these stories seem to compel, there is a certain shyness about telling the same story twice. We are frankly embarrassed to be caught telling the same story twice. It is boring. Or it shows some fatal lack of memory – one should remember that X person has already heard the story.
And this gives us another clue to the nature of classics: they are eerily unembarrassed. They are not embarrassed about incest, about patricide and matricide, about dimemberment, and rape, about suicide – all the stories tumble out. They are even not embarrassed about boredom.
This is what sets the contemporary taste on edge about the classics. There is nothing more dismissive than the phrase, “that’s boring.” In a sense, the fear of boredom and the fear of age are connected in the ordinary norms of our everyday life. Youth sticks in the windpipe of the middle aged, they can’t cough it up or swallow it. And boredom is especially something to be fled. In both cases, the organic reality – that we age, and that there are large necessary patches of boredom in our lives if we actually do anything – are subject to a repression that expresses itself in the aesthetic sphere – a sphere that we tend both to diminish (it is only entertainment) and present in social situations to the exclusion of anything else. In the classics, boredom is intended. This seems utterly mad to those of us weaned on the entertainment industry’s quest to never, ever bore. Of course, that quest is itself mad – it dulls, and it excludes re-reading, which runs counter to surprise and sensation. The intentional boredom in the classic doesn’t entail that we will always re-read the boring patches and be bored – it does entail that the possibility not only exists, but is embraced. In the Library of Babel, there are an infinite number of boring texts, and texts that are even more boring, interpreting these boring texts. A classic that bored completely would not be re-read – but one that interested completely , that dispelled boredom, would not be re-read either, for it would have been trapped in its own successfully dealt with suspense, just as a good joke is trapped by its punchline. To repeat a good joke after telling it violates the rule of good jokes, and to re-read an entertainment violates the rule of entertainments. But the ideal entertainment is impossible - something within it will tend, however shyly, to the status of re-readability. Our favorite reads, even if they are Harlequin romances or porno fan fics, can not expel that classic instance.

Thursday, October 19, 2023

The character puzzle


While doing her fieldwork among the Makassar, a people living on the peninsula of  Sulawesi, Indonesia who are ‘renowned” for their seafaring and fishing skill, Birgit Roettger-Roessler noticed that her informants were uneasy when asked to tell about themselves, and when they did, they told her narratively thin stories about what they did – not why they did it, or what they felt. On the other hand, she found that the Makassar enjoyed gossiping about each other. Roettger-Roessler was disappointed by this state of affairs at first, as the standard notion in the eighties, when she did her fieldwork, was that first person accounts were  more reliable –more authentic. Gossip, however, is, she presumes, the stock that fills up many an ethnographer’s notebook.

However, as she reflected on this curious situation (reflections she goes over in her article, Autobiography in Question. On Self Presentation and Life Description in an Indonesian Society) she noticed that other anthropologists also reported that first-person autobiographical accounts were difficult to get from informants all over the South Pacific, and in Africa. And she concludes, as other anthropologists were also concluding at the time, that there is something very “Western” about first person life stories. This is a large  conclusion pinned to a small reference: St. Augustine’s Confessions.

“I began to comprehend that I had fallen victim to my own cultural bias. Proceeding from Western cultural peculiarities I had assumed autobiographical narrating as known in the West to be a universal phenomenon. In contrast, the genre of autobiographical narrative seems to be strongly tied to a specific form of self-consciousness which is defined not only in terms of space, but also in terms of time. By taking Augustine's "Confessions" as a landmark in the development of this literary genre, the literary historian Gusdorf (1980: 33) correlates the evolution of the conscious awareness of the singularity of each individual - as a necessary precondition for autobiographical narration - with the tradition of self-examination in Christian ascetism. He defines (1980: 29) the genre of autobiography as "... a late phenomenon in Western culture, coming at the moment when the Christian contribution was grafted onto classical traditions. Moreover, it would seem that autobiography is not to be found outside of our own cultural area . . .."5

“Nevertheless, it may be stated that life history until the present has been conceived of by anthro- pologists and other social scientists as constituting a universal narrative genre.”

This reference is, I think, itself very Western – the uneasy mixture of this reference to a book that is, indeed, highlighted within some specific institutions in those parts of Europe that once constituted “Christendom” and, as well, to a tradition of ascetism that may have spread across the vast peasant masses who actually constituted that Christendom. It was certainly the case that, for centuries, the Church presented a vehicle for social mobility that was like no other in the rigidly hierarchized societies of the West. And that social mobility depended, in part, on learning how to talk about oneself – and others. How to self-represent.

The oral historian, Alessandro Portelli, wrote a book about oral histories that begins with an orally passed down “error” concerning the death of an industrial worker in a clash with the police. That worker, Luigi Trastulli, died in 1949 as a matter of hard fact, protesting against Italy joining NATO: yet in the stories passed down about him in Terni, where he lived, his death is placed, instead, in 1952, during a long and violent strike. The fact has its reasons – but so does error. Portelli quotes Benjamin’s sentence about Proust: For an experienced event is finite- at any rate, confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, because it is key to everything that happened before and after it."

I wonder whether if what Birgit Roettger-Roessler found among the Makassar was really that different from the difficulties with self-accounting among those people in the “West” – the vast majority, outside of the cities and castles, in the villages and farms – that form the city person’s image of the peasant. The idiocy of rural life is that “idios” is everywhere and nowhere.  When Portelli went to Terni with his tape recorder and started talking to people there, he found a situation not unlike that of the anthropologist in Sulawesi. The idea that the Other is Other to some European I too quickly passes over how composite, how edited, how rarified that European I is in Europe itself - and how Europeans, like the colonized Other, were subject to massive surveillance and pedagogical efforts to turn them into these “sovereign subjects”.

As without, so within – my golden rule.

 Roettger-Roessler’s work with the Makassar eventually forced her to consider the notes she was putting in her fieldwork journal, where it turned out that there were plenty of life-histories at second hand. The Makassar gossiped. They also would tell about themselves in certain triangulated situations – in ordinary conversation, for instance. And especially in gossip.

Against the autobiographical I – the I that now is perpetually caffeinated and “excited” about job opportunities, or a new cosmetic, or yoga, or whatever, the Yankee I in its decay – there is the enduring social practice of the “character”.  It is interesting that character no longer carries any conceptual weight in an anthropological discourse that literally begins as a discourse about ethos, about character.

The standard reference in twentieth century writing on characters in literature is E.M. Forster’s division of characters into round and flat ones, elaborated in Aspects of the Novel (1927) with the same exemplary application of Cambridge method as that by which Ansell, in The Longest Journey, proves that there is a cow in the room. That is, distinctions are made, flare up in a burst of illumination, hold for an instant, are manipulated, and then retreat back to the dark. In the case of character, however, Forster is speaking in character as a novelist, and he wants to approach character as a technician: the point is that character enters narrative as a devise to be manipulated, worked on a grand scale and on a  miniature one, and is ultimately  in the hands of the reader, which is where the fun of the novel is. Readers, then, as well as novelists need a lesson in character, and this requires a lesson in distinguishing degrees, or types, of character.  Forster relates his flat characters explicitly related to the comedy of ‘humor’ in the 17th century, and he writes that they are “sometimes called types, sometimes called caricatures” – the calling here being done by the critics.  Round characters, on the other hand, have complexities that lie “under the surface”. Forster’s roundness is actually three dimensionality, and round characters have perspectival depth.

The distinction between flat and round is very much a pictorial reference, made explicit in the idea of “caricature”. In fact, in the early modern re-appearance of character, the Theophrastian ‘character’ and the Aristotelian “ethos”, which come down in two different lineages, could be and were figured under the metaphor of the sketch and the portrait. Both have different values. Both thematized character in different ways.

The neglect of character as a devise in both print culture and oral culture at the present moment, and the moralization or weaponization of “character” as a rightwing trope, is a puzzle that is all about our present moment.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Borges and the Total Library


One of Borges’ sweetest traits is his fidelity to the reading of his adolescence

       When a writer like Umberto Eco, who is a scholar of the highest level as well, references, say, Leibniz, one can take that reference for the visible mark left by Eco going through the master’s texts, G.I. Gerhardt’s edition of the Philosophische Schriften, pursued in Latin, French and German as far as need be. 

     When Borges, in the famous essay, The Total Library, refers to Leibniz, however, you know the reference was sifted through a book of popular science and philosophy: Dr. Theodor Wolff’s Der Wettlauf mit der Schildkröte. Gelöste und ungelöste Probleme – The race with the Tortoise. Wolff was a journalist, a writer on culture – although mostly at a journalistic distance. He is distantly of the same kind, although less systematic, as for instance Egon Friedell, or in the American context, Isaac Asimov, or the great Will and Ariel Durant. Another German writer, surely from Borges’s teen years, Kurd Lasswitz – a more Asimovian writer – is also mentioned, with some enthusiasm.

      Borges published the article in 1939, in an Argentina marked by anti-semitism and fascist-ophilia. There was a political undercurrent to the reference to Wolff.

      Theodor Wolff was a famous columnist in the German newspapers, and the editor of one of the great Berlin papers, the Tagblatt. He was also Jewish. Fleeing Germany after the Hitler takeover, he first went to Switzerland, where he was denied a visa, and then to France – which in the 30s did not put a lot of barriers up to the emigration of the German Jews, in contrast to the U.S. Unfortunately for us all, and fatally for Wolff, France fell to the Germans in 1940. Wolff during his period of exile was careful not to call attention to himself by criticizing the Third Reich. “With Eric Kaestner he was of the opinion that you could stop a snowball, but not an avalanche.” [From the Theodor Wolff website] The Italians arrested him in Nice in 1943 and handed him to the Gestapo. From whence he went to Drancy for transport to the camps, but was spared Auschwitz: he died in the Jewish hospital in Berlin: imagine the “care” in the Jewish hospital in Berlin.

      In 1939, Wolff, living in Nice and working on his memoirs, doubtless had no idea that an obscure Argentine writer was quoting him, and by quoting him, lifting him into the sphere of a different audience and a different posterity. Even though his posterity in Germany, after the war, was lined with articles and a biography, for here was a classical liberal assimilated Jew that the Adenauer era could point to with pride.

      I’ve tried to find Wolff’s text, but in that vast mass of texts – less library than maelstrom – offered by the Internet, this one text seems to be frustratingly absent. In Borges’ essay, as has been noted by Jonathan Basile in Tar for Mortar: “The Library of Babel” and the Dream of Totality, Wolff’s work is in some ways mixed up with the essay-story, The Universal Library, by Kurd Lasswitz. A story in a dialogue, the kind of philosophical conte that Brges’s own work was akin to – Borges loved the story as an oral product that travelled from one person to another, as in the beginning of The Intruder:

 “People say (but this is unlikely) that the story was first told by Eduardo, the younger of the Nelsons, at the wake of his elder brother, Crisian, who died in his sleep sometime back in the nineties out in the district of Moron. The fact is that someone got it from someone else during the course of that drawn-out and now dim night, between one sip of mate and the next, and told it to Santiago Dabove, from whom I heard it. Years later, in Turdera, where the story took place, I heard it again.”

      This is perhaps a kind of paradox – in a story about the total library, which concerns, in maniac detail, print and alphabets, the story itself is first told, leaps into the world through the tongue and the teeth and pronunciation and the ear – a library of oral tales underneath the library of printed ones. A library, this second of the tales told, that is especially dear to a blind old man. A library that escapes the Total library. Although who can say, now that we record everything, if that evasive oral library is not being dragged in to our library-panoptican of the registered signal?

Sunday, October 15, 2023

From a notebook entry about Kafka


When Josef K. was around twenty two, his last year at the university, he discovered the existence of a secret society which counted certain students and even professors among its adherents. In fact, it didn’t resemble other secret societies. It was very difficult for certain people to become members. Many, who ardently wanted to become a member, never succeeded. Others, by contrast, became members without trying, or even knowing that they had become members of this society. One was never, besides, totally sure of being a member. There were many who believed they belonged to it and weren’t, in fact, members at all, or were members in name only. However much they had been initiated, they were less part of the society than many who didn’t even have the slightest knowledge of the existence of the society. In fact, the former had undergone the tests of a false initiation, the rituals of which were as codified as those of a true initiation: the false initiation was designed to put off the scent those who were unworthy of being initiated, but who had somehow found out about the secret society. But even the most authentic members, those who had reached the most elevated places in this society, did not know whether their initiation was authentic or not. This was a secret that could not be revealed. It could happen that a member attained, due to a series of authentic initiations, a real rank, and that consequently, without being warned or in any way becoming objects of the confidence of those who supposedly knew these things, they would be instructed to initiate others under the belief that they, being authentic initiates, were licensed to oversee authentic initiations, only to actually oversee false initiations.

Thus, it became the subject of innumerable conversations among the membership whether it was better to be admitted to a lesser but real level in the hierarchy or to occupy an exalted position, but an illusory one, that is, one contaminated with a false initiation somewhere along the path to that high position. In any case, no one was sure of the solidity of their level, and from this arose the ambiguities that surrounded the legitimacy of orders or suggestions issued within the secret society by those who supposedly ran the society.

And, in fact, the situation was even more complicated than this relatively simple divide between false and true initiations make it seem. Certain postulants were admitted to the highest levels without undertaking any tests. Others were invested with offices and powers that they did not even know about, since they could not be told. Who, after all, was certain enough of his or her own rank to tell them? And, frankly, there was no need to be a postulant: certain elevated officers didn’t even know the secret society existed, even though these officers had to be respected if they issued a command.

The powers of the superior members were unlimited; they carried in themselves, in their own presence, a kind of emanation of the secret society as a whole. This emanation had strange powers. For instance, just being in the presence of one of these people was enough to transform an banal meeting or encounter – say, the encounter defined by going up to the counter of a coffee bar and ordering a latte – into a meeting of the secret society. Similarly it could transform a birthday party or a concert into a meeting of the society. From that time afterwards, all the humans present at such occasions became living links within the society to other members. In this way, the extent of the secret society was enormous, and if power corresponded simply to extension, than the secret society was certainly the most powerful secret society that ever existed, at least in this society.

However high the level of the initiation, it was never permitted to inform the initiate of the purpose pursued by the secret society. But there have always been, given the principles governing initiation, and the promiscuity that comes with size, some initiates who were actually informers or traitors, and it was from these that the rumor took root that the goal of the society was to keep its purpose secret. As these informers and traitors could, actually, have been double agents, there has been discussion about, and even papers written to prove, that the purpose of the society was actually guarded by having traitors and informers broadcast the purpose of the society.

Josef K. was horrified to learn that this secret society was so large and so manifold, and even more to learn that he might, without knowing it, be a member of the society, and even a powerful member at that. The latter possibility implicated him in making others, say, those attending a birthday party he attended, members of the secret society; he pondered whether, morally, he had a duty to call up the people at various parties he had attended and warn them that they might, by being in contact with him, been recruited into this secret society. On the other hand, calling people up like this could be construed as betraying the secrets of the society, and this posed the question as to whether he had the moral right to do this.

Such was his position after the day he lost his ticket to the metro, which was the first link in the confusing and contradictory chain of circumstances that put him in contact with the secret society, whose existence until then he had been unaware of.


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