Friday, November 10, 2023

Mere anecdotes, the historian said, and ordered another port


Of Borges’ 1935 book, The Universal History of Infamy, the best things are: a, the title, and b., the preface, a glorious meditation on the baroque which has had many repercussions in Latin American lit and historiography.

The stories themselves, though, are a bit thin.

Still, it is a title to dream about. Infamy has filled our eyes and ears so often, since it was written, that we are all becoming a bit nearsighted and deaf. In a sense, these fictions – inspired, I think, by a French tradition going from Nerval to Marcel Schwab, of which the English equivalent is Pater’s Imaginary portraits – have also inspired, or at least communicated secretly (secret communications are the plumbing of culture, vases communicants indeed) with the vein of microhistory that revived the discipline in the 70s and 80s. One dreams of, say, a Universal history of survivors, a Universal history of double agents, etc. And yet, the universal here is pointillist – it is a matter of extending the anecdote.

Lionel Gossman wrote what I believe is one of the great essays on the anecdote, “Anecdote and History”, which appeared in the 2003 journal, History and Theory. After a preface, Gossman gets down to thesis business with a very deft hand:

“The relation of the epic and dramatic genres, and the implications, in terms of ideology or Weltanschauung, of narrative versus dramatic representation of the world, have been a major topic of reflection on literature since Antiquity. As  anecdotes, as I now believe, may favor either--they may reduce complex situations to simple, sharply defined dramatic structures, but they may also, if more rarely, prise closed dramatic structures open by perforating them with holes of novelistic contingency-a brief discussion of this topic is in order.”

Gossman references Barthes’s essay on faits divers, in which, Barthes claimed, disproportion becomes the rhetorical dynamic – which, if we want to extend our range of references, always a fun thing, we could bring back to Borges’ essay on the baroque.

Grossman uses the etymology of anecdote to show how the thing's semantic charge changed over time. Anekdoka was, apparently, the title of Procopius's Secret History. As it was translated into European languages, anecdote took on the meaning of unpublished, and the secondary meaning of secret history. Anybody who has read Procopius's history knows how salacious the book is: the vague reputation for tasty salacity became attached to anecdotes. Voltaire, according to Grossman, exhibited extreme contempt for the genre. In particular, the anecdote disturbed Voltaire's notion of what history -- the history of historians -- was all about. Although Grossman doesn't exactly show this outright, Voltaire's agenda, as a historian, was to rescue it from the collectioneering science of the antiquarians. For Voltaire, history's moral bound was defined by scale: history was an account of great events. Of course, Voltaire's perspectivism nuanced his idea of great events. Not every king or noble was great. The social hierarchy did not define greatness, but it did tone it.

In this way, Voltaire, far from being the grinning undertaker of the ancien regime, was its great and final ideologue. Grossman quotes an interesting review of Rousseau's Confessions that, while not penned by Voltaire, reflected the Voltairian vision:


Voltaire’s mostly negative judgment of anecdotes was also determined, however, by the same classical, fundamentally conservative esthetics (and politics) that later led the editors of the Annee Litteraire to condemn Rousseau’s Confessions as an act of literary arrogance and presumption. “Where would we be now,” they protested in 1782, “if every one arrogated to himself the right to write and print everything that concerns him personally and that he enjoys recalling?”

The genealogy of the phrase, “my truth”, which became a byword in the social media America of the 00s, goes back a long way


We don't believe that Voltaire's position can fairly be called conservative. But otherwise, this is a highly revealing sentence.

 According to Grossman, by the end of the eighteenth century the transition from secret history to symptomatic event was being slowly achieved -- felt, in fact, in the etymological sinews of the language. Grossman concentrates on some important figures, and quotes a marvelous anecdote of Chamfort's:


"As early as the last third of the eighteenth century some of Chamfort’s anecdotes appear to have had such symptomatic value. A story about the Duke of Hamilton, for instance - who,being drunk one night, heedlessly killed a waiter at an inn, and when confronted with the fact by the horrified innkeeper, calmly replied: “Add it to the bill” - seems intended as more than an allegory of the general indifference of the rich and powerful to the poor and powerless; it is also symptomatic of the personage described, the Duke of Hamilton, and, beyond him perhaps, of the social relations of a particular historical moment, that of the ancien regime."

Anecdotes, if one has a genius for the selection and allegorization for them, as Chamfort did, become symptoms – of a larger whole, a diseased culture or historical tranche. The problem lies in that particular genius, which is nourished by a culture that still treasures conversation and the heroism of wit. Those who have no wit – the heathen raging outside the cenacle, or the entirety of the Silicon Valley brotherhood, and their partners, the CEOS presiding over universities – fear and despise it.

I'm thinking about anecdote and Cold War history as I've been delving into newspapers and journalist historians to create my own Universal History of Infamy, subsection the long Cold War.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

The curious monster Albert Speer


Among the more curious phenomena of the Cold War liberal era, nothing is curioser than the elevation of Albert Speer. I was looking through the archive of the NYRB and came upon a review of one of Speer’s minor screeds by Norman Stone in 1982 that was mindboggling in its, shall we say, charity. Of course, the Paperclip current in the Western alliance always p.r.-ed the Nazis that it appropriated. Werner Von Braun went from the S.S. commander of one of the worst of the concentration camps, at Peenemuende, to a figure close to Walt Disney’s tickerbell – a magical fun figure who impressarioed our trip to the moon! But Albert Speer was actually tried at Nuremberg. Of course, he made an impression because he was not a gross, fat hog, but a neat, trim techno figure who said he was guilty – although as a codicil he added that he was guilty, but not of anything that he'd done. After he got out of prison, his autobiographies became best sellers on the NYT list. And he became a celebrity.

Anyway, to Norman Stone. Here’s the two grafs: “When Albert Speer died last September in London, his obituarists were, generally, kind. True, he had been Hitler’s friend, favorite architect, and arms minister. But after 1945 he had been consistently and dignifiedly repentant. He served his two decades’ imprisonment after Nuremberg with great fortitude. His memoirs of the Hitler era, Inside the Third Reich, and his Spandau Diaries, which recorded how he survived twenty years’ imprisonment, have achieved classic status. Speer was also very anxious to help journalists and historians. He was always being interviewed, often at great inconvenience to himself.

It was characteristic of him that he should have died in the course of one such venture. Although he was seventyfive, and not in good health, he agreed to travel from his country home in the Algäu to London for a television interview with the BBC. It was also characteristic, may it be said in passing, that he would not accept a fee for this. The money was to be paid to a charity which he supported—as he did with a considerable proportion of his royalties.”

He was a regular Florence Nightengale, save for running a slave empire that starved, beat, and tortured hundreds of thousands of people to death. In a post-Cold War piece about Speer in NYRB in a review for 2015 by Martin Filler we get a crucial bit of information about Speer’s last trip to England that puts perhaps a different light on the subject:

“A more kindly view of Speer’s accomplishments is unlikely ever to prevail after the publication of the British-Canadian historian Martin Kitchen’s brilliant and devastating new biography of this manipulative monster. With a mountain of new research gleaned from sources previously unavailable, overlooked, or disregarded, Kitchen lays out a case so airtight that one marvels anew how Speer survived the Nuremberg trials with his neck intact, given that ten of his codefendants were hanged for their misdeeds (some arguably on a smaller scale than his own).

Instead, in the Spandau fortress he gardened for up to six hours a day and inveigled employees to smuggle in rare Bordeaux, foie gras, and caviar, and smuggle out manuscripts and directives to his best friend and business manager. In 1966 he exited a rich man, his war-profiteering fortune amazingly intact. As an international celebrity author he further cashed in on his notoriety during the remaining fifteen years of freedom he highly enjoyed. This Faustian figure died of a stroke at seventy-six in London, where he had gone for a BBC–TV interview, after a midday rendezvous at his hotel with a beautiful young woman.”

Surely, though, the beautiful young woman was a charity case!

I find the 1982 date for the Norman Stone review telling and sad. It was the beginning of  Reagan/Thatcherophonia, and all was as it should be in Chile, Brazil, Argentina and other countries where a Speer like fascism, with hints of anti-semitism but nothing gross, were in the air. In many ways, the Cold Warriors picked and chose their lessons from the 1933-1938 era of Hitler’s rule. The cleaning out of the commies. The infusion of money to the military. The getting rid of degeneracy. What’s not to like? Speer was their guy, a man who would understand the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian – a much vaunted difference in the Reagan era, floated by Jean Kirkpatrick and her buddies to general hurrahs.

When Norman Stone died, his obituary in the Herald of Scotland began:

“PROFESSOR Norman Stone, who has died aged 78, was an historian of conservative instincts and unconventional temperament who courted wider notice, and occasional notoriety, as a newspaper columnist and advisor to Margaret Thatcher.”

Color me unsurprised.

II've always thought Joachim Fest sorta let the cat out of the bag in the Cold War assessment of the Nazis. In the preface to his biography of Hitler: “If Hitler had succumbed to an assassination or an accident at the end of 1938, few would hesitate to call him one of the greatest of German statesmen, the consummator of German history." The right wing sweet spot was the pre-1938 Hitler - who resembles Pinochet or Rhee or any number of anti-communist strongmen. Fest's biography was published in the very year Pinochet seized power, 1973. Ah, coincidences.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

On The Wasteland: a biography of a poem by Matthew Hollis


I walked into the Blackwood bookstore in Cambridge with A. and Adam. Adam was looking for a copy of Killers of the Flower Moon – at age eleven, he has decided to expand his cinephilia by reading the books that provide sources for movies he has seen. Hence, Adam trudging around with a biography of Oppenheimer that weighs as much as he does.

I was pleased to see, in the stacks on the table of recommended books, Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: a biography of a poem. I’ve been reading it in a spirit somewhat like Adam reading Killers of the Flower Moon – this is a book about the source of one of the great delights of my life. Eliot’s poems ran into me when I was in high school, and I even memorized them, or at least some of them. The Waste Land is a poem and a banner – at Oxford in the Twenties, I’ve read, the crowd Evelyn Waugh ran with would recite the poem through a loudspeaker as they drove in some car through the town – such pranks! I would recite bits of it to my tennis playing buds in high school. They didn’t mind – my role in high school was to be an intellectual poseur. The problem was that it was distracting to hear tags from the Waste Land when you were trying to close up to the net.

“I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

That sounded so satisfactory echoing among the tennis courts behind the main building of Dekalb Junior College. The College bears another name now, and who knows if the courts are still there. Ashes to ashes – such is my nostalgia for adolescence.

Hollis is very cool and confident about the sometime unprepossessing Tom and Viv act. Eliot, in this period, had still a ways to go before he decided to put a perpetual stick up his butt and call it religion or Christian civilization or whatever. How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot indeed. Half the book is about placing Eliot in that year in which he wrote the poem – and then, in writing the poem, Hollis does not overlook what a community effort it was, from Vivien’s suggestions to Pound’s. Pound’s were made just as Ezra himself was getting alarmed by Eliot’s increasingly moralizing criticism – the kind of criticism that latter claimed, for instance, that the important thing about Baudelaire was that he was Christian.

Hollis summarizes Pound’s response to the moralizing:

“He attributed to Eliot a remark that ‘the greatest poets have been concerned with moral values’, but that wasn’t exactly what had been said: Eliot had written of poetry, not poets, and of morality, not moral values. Nevertheless, Eliot’s article had prised open a discursive door that Pound would kick wide. ‘This red-herring is justifiable on the grounds of extreme mental or physical exhaustion,’ he announced in the Little Review, but justifiable on no other.5 The greatest poets have equally been concerned with eating breakfast and taking a walk and … Eliot’s statement, in other words, described nothing of significance.”

That’s rather my feeling, too. Poetry is pleasure, not a course of mineral salts. It is pleasure even in pain – that oddest of human feelings.



olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...