Friday, November 24, 2023

The ordinary shipping of the mind


“But the moon is not to be judged alone by the quantity of light she sends us, but also by her influence on the earth. No thinker can afford to overlook the influence of the moon any more than the astronomer can. " The moon gravitates towards the earth, and the earth reciprocally towards the moon." This statement of the astronomer would be bald and meaningless, if it were not in fact a symbolical expression of the value of all lunar influence on man. Even the astronomer admits that " the notion of the moon's influence on ter restrial things was confirmed by her manifest effect upon the ocean," but is not the poet who walks by night conscious of a tide in his thought which is to be referred to lunar influence, in which the ocean within him over flows its shores and bathes the dry land ?  Has he not his spring-tides and his neap-tides, the former sometimes combining with the winds of heaven to produce those memorable high tides of the calendar which leave their marks for ages, when all Broad Street is submerged, and incalculable damage is done to the ordinary shipping of the mind.”

Thus, Thoreau in a journal entry. I like to think of the three North Atlantic souls – Thoreau, Emerson, and Kierkegaard – all busily keeping their accounts of the ordinary shipping of the mind in their journals. To radically different effects. In September, 1851, Emerson was experiencing the tussle between his transcendental optimism and the Anti-Fugitive Slave act. “The more formidable mischief will only make the more useful servant. – the will convert the Furies into Muses, and the hells into benefit.” There is something quite ominous in that phrase, the more useful servant. Emerson’s notes in his journals were plucked and embedded in his essays, and the book that he was making – The Conduct of Life – was in the shadow of the furies and the hells.

Kierkegaard in 1851 was in the mood to finish with his earlier “fooling” as a heteronym. In September, he wrote in his journal “for indeed, what is eternally certain that what is extraordinary can only succumb in this world.” Continuing this thought of the extraordinary – which for Emerson would be the figure of the poet – he writes: “ For the extraordinary can only exist unconditionally in a purely spiritual condition, suspended in the pure testimony of the spirit, which means – negatively – that all straightforward signs are dialectical or inverted. For the minor premise of being the extraordinary one is to succumb in this world. And what is straightforward humanly speaking is to want to recognize the relation to God from the fact that things go well for a person, that everything succeeds for a person, or if it does not go well, at least there is hope for the next time. But for the extraordinary person there is no such hope. For him, only one thing is certain: his downfall – if he does not go to what, humanly speaking, is his downfall, then neither was he truly an extraordinary person.”

Kierkegaard’s journaling – in 1851 – makes a strange counterpart to Thoreau’s or to Emerson’s – although Thoreau might well recognize that downfalls and high tides, when the ordinary shipping of the mind is disturbed, are kin. What strikes me is that Kierkegaard so takes up the notion of the cross that he negates any idea of blessing. Or, at least, he makes a subtle, folklorish exchange between curses and blessings. The curse, the downfall, is the blessing – that one is “extraordinary.” But both the cursed and the blessed, however you read them, are going to die.

This, though, is not a fair way of interpreting “succumbing to the World” – by this I think Kierkegaard means “winning” in the world, the bourgeois world.

All of these journals are dealing with, filled with, tiptoeing by, weighted down with dialectical or inverted signs. And perhaps this is in the nature of journals – self-examination produces that ghost which reads itself, reads the ectoplasmic trail it has left all in words that no longer fit in the ghost’s mouth. This might be a holy ghost, an “extraordinary” ghost, or it might be the self at floodtide, or it could tussle against the Fugitive slave act. I think of the angel in Wings of Desire, hearing the crowd of voices plotting, waiting, despairing – the journals opened, the roof off: “Every roof is agreeable to the eye, until it is lifted; then we find tragedy and moaning women, and hard-eyed husbands, and deluges of lethe, and the men ask, `What's the news?' as if the old were so bad.”

Monday, November 20, 2023

Racism, atrocity and the eternal return of the same


I was raised by white parents in the suburbs in the South in the 60s, when apartheid was beginning to crack. These facts in the background – both the apartheid that made enormous room for white people like my folks in the post-war years and the crumbling of apartheid that allowed Northern businesses to move into the south as it became a more normal part of the country – benefited me. What does it mean then if, as in that moment that Nietzsche scripted in The Gay Science, I “affirm” myself within the universe of eternal returns? It means that I am confronted with the problem of what to do about the injustices, the atrocities, in which I am existentially implicated. I, an old white guy, cannot pretend that I am not part of the universal jelly – my tongue, my way of looking, my taste, my money, my food, all of it is unsegregated, cultural and economic appropriation out my bungus.

My strategy is one of critical affirmation, if that makes any sense. This is not just an individual problem, it is a social problem. A just social order has to be one that has a view of its past, or it will not be a social order at all.

So do I opt for self-condemnation? Do I apologize for Jim Crow? Or do I go beyond these moments in the Eternal Return of R.G.?

This problem keeps coming out of the cracks and biting us. The neolib managers at the end of the neolib era are helpless as these past atrocities are either affirmed by the racist or scoured by the "woke".

In a sense, this is the kind of problem faced by Leibniz’s God. On the one hand, his perfection requires that he affirm himself perfectly, but on the other hand, the creation is full of atrocities, and the devil is abroad. To understand how to bridge this moral conundrum, Leibniz revamped the metaphysical discourse on possibility that had been built by the ancients and the medievals. He thought, in other word, that the greatest possible good was built into every appearance of evil, the paradigm case being, of course, the exercise of free will. In order to shake this out, so to speak, Leibnitz developed a cosmology of com-possibles, with the Good Lord operating as a divine sorting machine, extracting from each endless series of com-possibles the best possible world.

Such a God is a cold-eyed beast.

Voltaire of course saw that atrocity – war, slavery, cruelty on the most personal as well as on the highest social level – could not be overtaken or abolished by any possible future. Voltaire, who had been beaten by thugs hired by an aristocrat to teach him a lesson when he was young, always remembered those blows. Out of them, he built his own version of the Enlightenment. But he never thought that this justified the blows.

This enlightenment view comes close to claiming that atrocity and virtue could be radically separated. The problem with this view is that this radical separation turns regret into vindicativeness, thus increasing the likelihood of future atrocity.

This is from the first chapter of the Dhammapada:

“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"—in those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease.

He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"—in those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.

The world does not know that we must all come to an end here;—but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once.”

Max Mueller’s translation is all too Christian, but I have always taken these verses seriously. The thought of past abuse and its transformation into a fucked up emotional docket that one enacts – this I have seen in my life. This, I think, everybody has seen. And yet here’s the thing: there is no suggestion here that we could do something beyond ceasing our own hatred. That we can turn on those who abuse, rob, defeat, and kill. Or even – the social conditions that make it an advantage to abuse, rob, defeat and kill.

In Voltaire’s satire at its most pointed, civilization becomes a generally systematized brutality, interspersed with a few minuets. This might well be how he saw Frederick the Great’s Germany – Voltaire had a catbird for that performance.

Yet the great atrocity in Candide is a non-human event: the Lisbon earthquake. This projection upon nature of the human, all too human source of pain is something that was spotlighted by Rousseau, who sensibly wrote that the lesson of the Lisbon earthquake isn’t a cosmic lesson about the evil of nature – which is Voltaire’s own Leibnitzianism - but a practical lesson about city planning.

This is what Voltaire wrote about the earthquake in a letter to a friend:

“This is indeed a cruel piece of natural philosophy! We shall find it difficult to discover how the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds-- where a hundred thousand ants, our neighbours, are crushed in a second on our ant-heaps, half, dying undoubtedly in inexpressible agonies, beneath debris from which it was impossible to extricate them, families all over Europe reduced to beggary, and the fortunes of a hundred merchants -- Swiss, like yourself -- swallowed up in the ruins of Lisbon. What a game of chance human life is! What will the preachers say -- especially if the Palace of the Inquisition is left standing! I flatter myself that those reverend fathers, the Inquisitors, will have been crushed just like other people. That ought to teach men not to persecute men: for, while a few sanctimonious humbugs are burning a few fanatics, the earth opens and swallows up all alike. I believe it is our mountains which save us from earthquakes.”

Voltaire went on to write a poem about the earthquake, which generated the response from Rousseau. It is rare that Rousseau gets to play the role of the calm reasoner, but in this case, he did. Rousseau’s letter to Voltaire takes him up on his cosmic despair and the comfortable lifestyle that allows it.

“Have patience, man," Pope and Leibnitz tell me, "your woes are a necessary effect of your nature and of the constitution of the universe. The eternal and beneficent Being who governs the universe wished to protect you. Of all the possible plans, he chose that combining the minimum evil and the maximum good. If it is necessary to say the same thing more bluntly, God has done no better for mankind because (He) can do no better."

Now what does your poem tell me? "Suffer forever unfortunate one. If a God created you, He is doubtlessly all powerful and could have prevented all your woes. Don't ever hope that your woes will end, because you would never know why you exist, if it is not to suffer and die...."

I do not see how one can search for the source of moral evil anywhere but in man.... Moreover ... the majority of our physical misfortunes are also our work. Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature that there brought together twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock. But many obstinately remained . . . to expose themselves to additional earth tremors because what they would have had to leave behind was worth more than what they could carry away. How many unfortunates perished in this disaster through the desire to fetch their clothing, papers, or money? . .”

I’m with Rousseau. In other words, the movement in Voltaire, between disbelieving that we could build a world in which we regret nothing to believing that we could only build, if we were fortunate, tiny nests in which regret was held at bay – is an altogether too unambitious Enlightenment.

History is a wash, but I got mine – that is no righteous attitude.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike

How many rainy days have I lived through in my life? I’d guesstimate more than 2 thousand. Not days of perpetual cloudburst, which are rare, but days of off and on drippiness, of drizzle and low clouds, of looking out the window and saying, “It’s raining again?”
All those days. Yet what do I know about rain?
Know, here, is an ambiguous word, reflecting both acquaintance, a poetics of familiarity, and logic, or the science of geography. From the point of view of the latter, rain is an effect of the complex atmospheric system, composed of one form of matter, and in no way organized by its own intelligence or life. The smallest microbe has the advantage of self-organization and reproductive capacity over the largest cyclone. But from the point of view of familiarity, this doesn’t seem right. From my acquaintance with rain, it seems, if not wilful, at least on the order of other non-domestic beasts and plants. It is above all the negative of shelter.
Bachelard, in the Poetics of Space, makes the good point that “every truly inhabited space comports the essence of the notion of the house (maison).” It is the old janus-faced house/home card. Rain seems to be, to a city dweller such as myself, something to get out of. And those who cannot get out of the rain – the homeless – are not just soaked – they are rain-cursed. The heat of summer is, perhaps, more fatal to the homeless, especially now, as summers grow exponentially more threatening. But in older people – such as myself – who adapted to a weather system that we have drunkenly tossed in the garbage can, the rain, soaking you, is a truer measure of misery.
This is rain as a dark art. But within the house, with the rain coming down outside the window, the rain is also a blessing. It has often been noticed that the God of the Pentateuch is not only the God who spoke from the fire to Moses, but the God whose power to bring rain is of the essence to the community. In Deuteronomy, the contrast is made between the fertile Nile, where the water is, as it were, from the very landscape, and the promised land, where the water is a matter of precipitation. We think of the ancient civilizations as riverine, oriented to rivers, taking their water from rivers, but there are other communities where the rain takes the place of the river.
In Paris, of course, the river has long become more décor than godhead – although the occasional floods disabuse us of the notion that the river is “tamed”. But it is the rain that makes us think of water as something wild. Wild in the city sense, like pigeons, not wild like predators in the jungle. I watch the rain and smile: the city needs refreshing. Or I watch the rains in November, which in conjunction with the time change makes everything dark early, and I have a seasonal down.
Still, I rarely feel the rain. My most dramatic rain experience was in Austin, Texas. It was the year I dropped out of grad school and everything seemed to go wrong – one of those years. They come to even the most bourgeois among us. Anyway, for reasons I don’t remember, I had to go to Northern Austin, which back then was where the city petered out into wastelands and car parks. The clouds burst as I was walking along – I think I was lost, at least that is how it is in my memory – and I got utterly drenched. All the petty miseries of my life were in that drenching. I was a mini-Ahab walking along a highway over which cars were speeding and splashing. I received my fair share of splashing as well.
Here, rain was not a blessing but an injustice. The unfairness of life – which is basically being without a home/house – was a palpable, wet thing.
That memory has dimmed, but not vanished – and I think of it this November, as tents go up on the banks of the Seine, where the homeless are encamped, or on the square of the Hotel de Ville, or in the alleys near the Republique. The homeless seem much more present now – and from what I read, this is especially true of the States – than they were five years ago, in the pre-Covid days.
Rain should be a blessing. That’s my politics.


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