Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bad sex and DIY sex

And now for some bad sex writing:

So am I as the rich, whose blessed key,
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not every hour survey,
For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since, seldom coming in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captain jewels in the carcanet.
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special-blest,
By new unfolding his imprison'd pride.
Blessed are you whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph; being lacked, to hope

Of course, that wasn’t really bad at all. Nor, of course, are the bits entitled “Bad sex writing” by the Prospect, the late Auberon Waugh’s brainchild. The English are a funny people – they will make bared bosoms such a tabloid standard that they become like the quilted sampler and Christmas Turkey, and at the same time complain loudly if some novelist describes the wanton flutings of fellatio, using terms that come to hand – cock, pee-slit, mouth, fingers. Of course, reading Auberon Waugh’s autobiography, one understands where the gingerly, if not psychopathically embarrassed attitude to sucking cock, or fucking, comes from.

However, the gleefulness of, say, the Guardian, who takes up the holy bad sex idea every year, can’t be explained by having Evelyn Waugh for a pater. No, this is the gleefulness of the stupid man who has had a genius inspiration: if you put the word bad before something, it will show that you are superior to it. And hence, your stupidity will be crowned as a form of taste, a certain brilliance, instead of the direct descendent of the fart sound of your giggling youth, back there on the back row. You can pretend that, well, Jane Austen, or somebody, did it better, or that it is much much better to imagine sex than to vulgarly denude the lovers at their play.

So you get things like this and then you get even worse things like this

“There's an assumption that it will involve writing the nuts and bolts, what goes where. Wrong. Try it. "His right hand slipped down her left thigh, as his left hand deftly undid the catch of her bra, and then he whispered in her ear … " – which one? Where's this guy standing? Or is he sitting? Perhaps lying? And what's she doing with her hands, right and left?

Writing about sex can be like a complicated game of Twister. You sit in front of your laptop, trying to work out where everything's going. It's worse than following the instructions for assembling flatpack furniture. Maybe there are some people who are turned on by DIY manuals, but for most of us they have the opposite effect. There are better ways for the writer to seduce the reader.”

The comfy suburban references to Twister and DIY, and the notion that there is something, oh, not so seductive when hands slide up thighs – no, we want a more elevated seduction for the “reader” – are enough to make a cat laugh. Too much, well, specificity, especially when the description of sex is supposed to seduce the reader – not, mind you, get the reader wet, hot, bothered, stiff. And yet of course, this is all utter bullshit, as we swim in currents of sex, sex as come on, in the newspaper world and in the world of the media in general.

Respectability, most rotten of moral codes, still holds sway among the twister game sets and the shopping carts. And behind it is, of course, consumer choice - for really, this is why the sex is so 'bad' - it rather makes a mash of the whole Sex and the city, sex as an accoutrement system. It is bad because it, well, makes sex so unsellable. So DIY.

Or as Rochester put it:
Unhappy cunt, oh comfortless,
From swilling plenty, fallen into distress,
Deprived of all its ornamental hair,
Fed with the empty diet of the air.
Divorced and banished from its dearest duck,
That proselyte to pagan fuck.
Assist ye powers
That bring down monthly flowers,
Come, come away, and in a trice,
Congeal these thoughts of ice.
Comfort my cunt, or give me your advice.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Judas, De Quincey and Lenin: on the worse, the better

The famous phrase, “the worse the better”, is often attributed to Lenin. Supposedly, this is Lenin’s addition to the black book of political strategy, and no doubt in Hell he is discussing it over chess with Old Nick Machiavelli himself.

As far as I can tell, however, the phrase appears in Lenin’s works as a quotation from Plekhanov. In Three Crises, writing in 1917, Lenin sets himself the task of analyzing the revolution thus far – after the fall of the Czar. He remarks that so far, the demonstration, as a political form, has accrued a peculiar importance. And he backs away from the situation to analyze it:

The last, and perhaps the most instructive, conclusion to be drawn from considering the events in their interconnection is that all three crises manifested some form of demonstration that is new in the history of our revolution, a demonstration of a more complicated type in which the movement proceeds in waves, a sudden drop following a rapid rise, revolution and counter-revolution becoming more acute, and the middle elements being eliminated for a more or less extensive period.
In all three crises, the movement took the form of a demonstration. An anti-government demonstration — that would be the most exact, formal description of events. But the fact of the matter is that it was not an ordinary demonstration; it was something considerably more than a demonstration, but less than a revolution. It was an outburst of revolution and counter-revolution together, a sharp, sometimes almost sudden elimination of the middle elements, while the proletarian and bourgeois elements made a stormy appearance.

Contrary to the view that Lenin advocated a strategy of the worse, the better, Lenin was remarking that this strategy was being played out in the Russian revolution. It was a product of the natural history of the revolution, so to speak. The middle elements saw it, precisely, as a strategy because the middle elements did not understand the mechanism of class warfare. Thus, the middle was continually projecting intentions upon the Bolsheviks and the reactionaries, as though both were creating class warfare – when, to Lenin’s mind, the relationship was quite the reverse – class warfare was creating the Bolsheviks and the reactionaries.

Both we and the Cadets were blamed for the April 20-21 movement — for intransigence, extremes, and for aggravating the situation. The Bolsheviks were even accused (absurd as it may be) of the firing on Nevsky. When the movement was over, however, those same S.R.s and Mensheviks, in their joint, official organ, Izvestia, wrote that the "popular movement" had "swept away the imperialists, Milyukov, etc.", i.e., they praised the movement!! Isn’t that typical? Doesn’t it show very clearly that the petty bourgeoisie do not understand the workings, the meaning, of the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie?
The objective situation is this. The vast majority of the country’s population is petty-bourgeois by its living conditions and more so by its ideas. But big capital rules the country, primarily through banks and syndicates. There is an urban proletariat in this country, mature enough to go its own way, but not yet able to draw at once the majority of the semi-proletarians to its side. From this fundamental, class fact follows the inevitability of such crises as the three we are now examining, as well as their forms.

Let me admit that I, like Lenin, find class warfare to be operating here before either side becomes conscious of itself; the sides come into existence to express the warfare. However, once they come into existence, they quickly develop a semi-autonomy in which, of course, they try to dominate the field of possible political routines. This is why, even though they come into existence as the expression of class warfare, they remain in existence as the expression of political warfare.

But my interest here is really in that caught middle. That middle of paranoid dreamers. For, whatever the truth about Lenin’s real thoughts, the idea that Leninism follows a strategy of the worse, the better is a very attractive reading of Leninism from the middle viewpoint. I’d claim that it is a reading that precedes the Russian revolution. In fact, I’d like to claim that we can see the seed of the idea in an essay De Quincey wrote about Judas Iscariot.

This essay is best known through a reference to it in Borges’ ficciones. Borges explains De Quincey’s point briefly before moving on to the beautiful heresy of a Swede named Runeberg, who, contemplating the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, came to the conclusion that Judas was, in reality, the true god-man:

“God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible - all the way to the abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas.”

Runeberg’s theory is, in one sense, the final chapter, the logical conclusion of the middle’s paranoid dream. It is a dream that finds a Judas under every rock.

De Quincey, one of the world’s great dreamers, dreams of a Judas who looks much like the Lenin imago of all the Old Cold War boys. His Judas is one of Burke’s “theorizers” – the treasurer of the disciples, the shrewdest among this naïve group, but upon whom “had not yet dawned the true grandeur of the Christian scheme.”

Believing therefore as Judas did and perhaps had reason to do that Christ contemplated the establishment of a temporal kingdom -- the restoration in fact of David's throne; believing also that all the conditions towards the realisation of such a scheme met and centred in the person of Christ, what was it that upon any solution intelligible to Judas neutralised so grand a scheme of promise? Simply and obviously to a man with the views of Judas, it was the character of Christ himself, sublimely over gifted for purposes of speculation, but like Shakspere's great creation of Prince Hamlet not correspondingly endowed for the business of action and the clamorous emergencies of life. Indecision and doubt, such was the interpretation of Judas, crept over the faculties of the Divine Man as often as he was summoned away from his own natural Sabbath of heavenly contemplation to the gross necessities of action. It became important therefore according to the views adopted by Judas that his master should be precipitated into action by a force from without and thrown into the centre of some popular movement such as, once beginning to revolve, could not afterwards be suspended or checked. Christ must be compromised before doubts could have time to form. It is by no means improbable that this may have been the theory of Judas.

This outline of Judas’s relation to Christ sounds remarkably like the relationship of Pyotr Verkhovensky to Stavrogin. It also sounds like the kind of conspiratorial dream that entranced De Quincey, whose own dreams, massive opiate structures, seemed like conspiracies themselves, to whose inward meanings De Quincey had no privileged access, always the small man just outside the glass.

But to return to Lenin’s point, we should ask: why would De Quincey represent a middle that was being crushed? Wasn’t he living in the golden summer of equipoise, the Victorian age?

De Quincey wrote his essay in the Victorian age, but his sensibility, by his own account, was formed in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic age. Older than Hazlitt, he never gave himself to the revolutionary cause. He was a reactionary from the cradle – a romantic reactionary. It was not the Middle’s triumph that he saw, but the long twilight struggle with a growing, secretive mass of revolutionary societies that would do anything to undermine the middle. His politics were the precise correlate of his dreams, which were illuminated, from the inside, by symbols that seem to be stolen from the future.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Let's talk about Leskov and making love

Leskov is the neglected 19th century Russian writer. Surely he links Gogol to Bely. Surely Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk is one of the finest stories ever written. You don’t believe me? Read this paragraph. Katerina Lvovna, the Lady Macbeth, and her lover, her husband’s servant, Sergei, well known as the village Don Juan, are discussing the imminent arrival of the husband, who has been away on business. The discussion takes place in the back yard, “on a carpet spread under an apple-tree in blossom.” At first the two have tea, then Sergei pouts, then Katerina pouts, then they make up.

“An old clerk who slept in the shed heard through his sound sleep how the silence of the night was broken by whispering and soft laughter, as though mischievous children were conferring together how best to make fun of an old man; then came roars of laughter and merriment as though saucy mermaids were tickling somebody. All this came from where Katerina Lvovna, bathed in moonlight and rolling on the soft carpet, played and frolicked with her husband's young clerk. And the white flowers kept falling, falling, from the old apple-tree until at last they ceased to fall. In the meantime the short summer night had passed, the moon hid itself behind the steep, high roofs of the warehouses and stared more and more wanly at the earth; from the kitchen roof came a piercing feline duet; this was followed by spitting and angry snorts after which two or three tom-cats crashed noisily from the roof on to a heap of boards nearby.”

How can one do justice to a paragraph like this? Already, we have in the back of our mind a notion of trees, fruit, a man and a woman in a garden. We begin first with old age and we end with the squabbling of cats in heat. At the very center of the paragraph is a superfluity. The white flowers do not merely fall – they “kept falling, falling”. What role is played by this extra “falling”? In a sense, that extra “falling”, that luxurious fall of the blossoms, that impossible shower of blossoms on the lovers, is linked more to the sin, the fall, the sex, the series of betrayals that mark the story, than any description of copulation. Fucking and falling, falling – what happens here is both sense and music. It is in the music, the repetition of falling, that the fantastic, the saucy mermaids, beast and human, are released. Shklovsky, in The Theory of Prose, writes:

“Art is not a march set to music, but rather a walking dance to be experienced or, more accurately, a movement of the body, whose very essence is to be experienced through the senses.”

This satisfies me a bit – but only a bit, because is it true that the whole body moves? Does not this falling move the tongue? To write prose – to really write prose – is to feel a distant but distinct sensation in your tongue. Some, doubtlessly, write prose outloud – although we are so used to reading in silence that, when a movie shows a writer writing, he never writes out loud. To present what is written, the soundtrack imposes a voice-over. A more imaginative film director might simply supply what happens when, deep in the tongue, a quiver is felt. The words would be sounds, heard as though from underground, and not fall into the distinct semantic shape that is so confidently assumed by the voice. There would be an entangled murmur. This is the wind that blows over the page, and blows, even, over the page on the computer screen. And what does the tongue do, on this night when the apple blossoms are falling, falling? The tongue and the lips of the lovers touch, taste each other, like saucy mermaids they tickle each other. They lean upon the stronger sensation, but that sensation, that culminating chord of sex, is coaxed out of the smaller sensations, the pick up sticks of touches, touches. The extra fall is the real fall – there is this luxury in loving, or rather in making love, in the heartfelt surface of love, where all is sense and nonsense at once.

ps - of course, I know that the falling, falling is English, but - as a reviewer in the Slavic and Eastern European Journal recently noted of a new translation of Lady Macbeth - Leskov's prose is saturated with repetitions - which are silently erased in the new translation. So I stand by the larger spirit of prose that I am invoking, here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

the zona salutes our heros of freedom on the tenth anniversary of the fall of the wall

Via Felix Salmon, I notice that today is a day to be celebrated. No, not Veterans Day. Ten years ago today, the wall came tumbling down – that horrible wall between commercial and investment banks. Two brave freedom fighters, Larry Summers and Senator Phil Gramm, led the charge for freedom, free enterprise, under the heart stirring slogan, “government is not the solution”. The next year, these two mousketeers of market equilibrium, the ownership society, and making the credit flow (at up to 30 percent per annum) like water for the poor! also brought down the horrendous regulations on mortgage lenders that strangled them like Laocoon’s sons were strangled by the sea snake.

Let it not be said that the struggle wasn’t tough. They faced a woman! O typical, broody women – this one, Brooksley Born, was simply an economic illiterate. Far from wanting to set us free – all of us, every last member of the country club – she nattered on about how collapsing the distinction between investment banks and commercial banks, backing up commercial banks with U.S. money, and allowing investment banks to play trillion dollar games with derivatives was somehow – this is the kind of naïve, housewife vocabulary she used… wrong. Women just don’t understand the important things, so luckily she was railroaded, and it turned out good for everybody! The Rolling Stones has a where are they now survey that does your heart good:

"Today marks a decade since the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era safeguard that prohibited the commingling of commercial and investment banks. The deregulation gave rise to all-in-one financial behemoths like Citi, ushered in the too-big-to-fail era, and nearly toppled the global financial system.

The hubris expressed during the signing ceremony at the Old Executive Office Building ten years ago today will make you throw up in your mouth a little."

Dickenson reports on the bipartisanship shown at a ceremony in which both Clinton and Phil Gramm got to speak. Gramm’s words, in particular, pierce my heart with arrows of great joy:

In the 1930s, at the trough of the Depression, when Glass-Steagall became law, it was believed that government was the answer. It was believed that stability and growth came from government overriding the functioning of free markets. We are here today to repeal Glass-Steagall because we have learned that government is not the answer. We have learned that freedom and competition are the answers. We have learned that we promote economic growth, and we promote stability, by having competition and freedom. I am proud to be here because this is an important bill. It is a deregulatory bill. I believe that that is the wave of the future. And I am awfully proud to have been part of making it a reality. (Applause.)

And, as Dickenson reports, Gramm has ridden the wave of the future into making millions at UBS bank. A bank that deigned to let the government be the answer just a teensy weensy bit last year, when it got a 52.9 billion dollar government bailout. Noblesse oblige!

Others at the ceremony have benefited enormously from freedom freedom freedom too! Larry Summers we all know and love. But how about Gary Gensler, then treasury undersecretary, now head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission – Brooksley Born, with her sheer ignorance of economics (defined as the science of putting as much money as possible into the pockets of the people who have as little morals as possible), was certainly not going to be invited back under King Summers! Another personage mentioned by Dickenson was a woman – cause, heck, some of the ladies do get with the program. Look at that there Wendy Gramm, the distinguished Senator's wife, who did so much for Enron. This one, another undersecretary of the Treasury, Linda Robertson, distinguished herself with an outstanding trajectory through the naughties, first as an Enron lobbyist (o frabjous day!), and now a senior advisor at the Fed!

So much for the fact that in country club, there’s no such thing as failure. Turning now to another product of the naughties, a liberal hawk who seemed to be consulted about Iraq every other day in the NYT, and who wrote numerous articles gravely sussing out the situation for the New York Review of Books, Peter Galbraith: Peter had a big day today. We learned that as he was ‘advising’ the Kurds and helping free the ever more free Iraqis, devising a constitition that enshrined humanity and federalism, particularily federalism, in our colony, he was also – an eager American and a go getter! – devising a little oil advisory company. And his work is paying off, as – through an absolute coincidence having to do with the provisions he helped put into the Iraqi constitution – he stands to gain 100 million dollars. Not bad! The country club breeds strong men – o, and sometimes the ladies too! – who have the guts to shed their own blood, figuratively, seat, figuratively, and tears, ever so figuratively, while all around are, well, being blown up, driven from their homes or tortured to death. The half a million Iraqi dead, and the two million refugees, may seem like a big thing today – but we are talking 100 million big ones, baby!
Interestingly, the NYT article said not word one of the way he was vetted for writing numerous op eds in the NYT editorial section. Was his byline, officer, Porcupine Group? Did they tell us this was a, to put a nasty word on it, war profiteer? No. Admittedly, his last name helped. Actually, I admit it kills me a little – I love his father and brother, and the one time I interviewed Peter, he seemed most obliging.
Hark, later in the day, an editorial note did appear:

On Thursday, a news article in The Times reported on the ties between Peter W. Galbraith, a former United States ambassador, and a Norwegian oil company that operates in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. According to the Times article, Mr. Galbraith "received rights to an enormous stake in at least one of Kurdistan's oil fields in the spring of 2004.
Since that time, Mr. Galbraith has written several opinion articles for the Op-Ed page in support of Kurdish independence and security. These articles should have disclosed to readers that Mr. Galbraith could benefit financially from an independent Kurdistan that would not have to share oil revenues with Iraq.
Like other writers for the Op-Ed page, Mr. Galbraith signed a contract that obligated him to disclose his financial interests in the subjects of his articles. Had editors been aware of Mr. Galbraith's financial stake, the Op-Ed page would have insisted on disclosure or not published his articles.”

Which is placed below his Galbraith’s stirring call to have American soldiers fight and die to protect his investments:

“Seeing as we cannot maintain the peace in Iraq, we have but one overriding interest there today — to keep Al Qaeda from creating a base from which it can plot attacks on the United States. Thus we need to have troops nearby prepared to re-engage in case the Sunni Arabs prove unable to provide for their own security against the foreign jihadists.

This would be best accomplished by placing a small “over the horizon” force in Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan is among the most pro-American societies in the world and its government would welcome our military presence, not the least because it would help protect Kurds from Arab Iraqis who resent their close cooperation with the United States during the 2003 war. American soldiers on the ground might also ease the escalating tension between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey, which is threatening to send its troops across the border in search of Turkish Kurd terrorists using Iraq as a haven.”

Oh. Peter Galbraith was one of Kerry's main advisors about Iraq in 2004. Bipartisanship, that is what this is all about - a handshake among oligarchs across the aisle not to take their eye off the ball - no matter how many lives it costs. The ball, of course, is their predatory wealth.

But such is life in an empire run by a corrupt and blind oligarchy. Bad for you, and bad for your children – even if you live on the other side of the world.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A writer's secret

The lives of certain writers seem to be radiate out from anecdotes that only make sense on an anagogical reading, framed by a theology of the unknown God. Kafka and Gogol are supreme exemplars of this type.

In Donald Frame's The Creation of Nikolai Gogol, he writes that the opening of The Selected Passages from correspondence with Friends - a work that always been considered not only the worst thing Gogol ever wrote, but a sort of catastrophe, as though Gogol had gone senile -- Gogol said "he had prepared as a posthumous gift to his fellow countrymen ... 'the best of all things that my pen has produced... My composition entitled, 'A Farewell Tale'. It would reveal to them 'if only in part the strict secret of my life and the most sacred heavenly music of that secret.' He was reserving publication, he explained in a footnote, because what would have significance after a writer's death has no sense during his lifetime. "A Farewell Tale" was apparently never written - and Dostoevsky did not hesitate to brand Gogol's references to it as vran'yo (prevarication). Gogol, he suggested here and elsewhere, was an early version of his underground man. It was 'that same underground man which made Gogol, in a solemn testament, speak of a final tale which had sung itself out in his soul - and which in reality did not exist at all." Dostoevsky goes on to suggest that when Gogol began writing his testament he may not even have known he was about to mention a 'final tale.'

Dostoevsky's suggestion is in itself a masterpiece. And what writer, meditating on fiction, does not sometimes shudder at the childishness of make believe, the shamefulness of daydreaming, judged from the height of maturity? But that undermining of everything is countered by another - the moment you promise to tell the truth - only then do you see that the truly juvenile, shameful, and impossible task is complying with this promise. Even making the promise, which is made and has to be made everyday by every sentient, sane human being, is, when considered from the writer's perspective, a farce. The more solemn it is, the more whimsical it is. There's every chance that you will die tonight before you can even begin tomorrow to do what you promised yesterday. Not only that, but who made yesterday's promise? A person in such and such circumstances. That person no longer exists, in as much as those circumstances have shifted. Nail the promise by swearing on a book, swearing before a courtroom or a minister, and it turns from a wish into the most ludicrous lie that you have to surround, like a spoiled child, with infinite distractions. It is then that the unconscious, everybody's devil's advocate, will make other promises suddenly come into your mind. You grab your pen and you write one of them down - ah, this is just how to continue, to lend the right atmosphere to things! Now the words begin to flow!

That was a very, very cruel thing to mention. In what he said about Gogol, Dostoevsky spilled every writer's secret. Bastard.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tolstoy's three deaths

Tolstoy’s story, “Three Deaths” (1858), has been condescended to by his greatest critics. This is what Bakhtin wrote:

“This work, not large in size but nevertheless tri-leveled, is very characteristic of Tolstoy’s monologic manner.

Three deaths are portrayed in the story – the deaths of a rich noblewoman, a coachman, and a tree. But in this work Tolstoy presents death as a stage of life, as a stage illuminating that life, as the optimal point for understanding and evaluating that life in its entirety. Thus one could say that his story in fact portrays three lives totally finalized in their meaning and in their value. And in Tolstoy’s story all three lives, and the levels defined by them, are internally self enclosed and do not know each other. There is no more than a purely external pragmatic connection between them, necessary for the compositional and thematic unity of the story.”

Shkhlovsii contrasted the story with what he and the formalists regarded as the exemplary Tolstoy story, Kholstomer, about the death of a horse.

“The young Tolstoi was rather naïve in the way he constructed his parallel structures. Inn order to work out the theme of “dying”, that is, in order to illustrate it, Tolstoi felt it necessary in ‘The Three Deaths” to carry out three subthemes: the death of the mistress of the house, the death of the peasant, and the death of the tree. The three parts of the story are connected by a specific motivation: the peasant is the lady’s coachman, and the tree is chopped down to serve as a cross on the peasant’s grave.”

Bakhtin, of course, is setting up his game, with Tolstoy on the one side and Dostoevsky, that great unfinalizer, on the other. Dostoevsky’s characters, with their open, dialogic natures, may die, but cannot be summed up. Their emblematic moments tend to end badly. The body of saintly Father Zosima, in The Brothers Karamazov, gives off a vile smell of decay. In the Devils, Stepan Verkhovensky actually stops being a clown and a stooge at the end, and becomes a tragic Lear. Whereas, in Bakhtin’s view, Tolstoy’s finalized characters all end, like Ivan Illych, tied up in the sack. The three deaths, in Three deaths, conform to this pattern, in his view. What’s in death’s sack is what life is.

Shkhlovskii, perhaps Tolstoy’s greatest critic and much more sympathetic to what Tolstoy is doing, looks at Three Deaths as a sort of sketch for Tolstoy’s better work, in which the device of which he is a master, ostranie – estrangement, making strange – and the devices he has inherited from the folk tale and skaz deeply structure the overall vision. Estrangement is surely a thrust against finalization. Tolstoy, on this reading, is like Ezekial, down in the valley of the bones: “And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.” It is not for him to say yeah or nay to the Lord’s question.

Or, to take another stab at answering Bakhtin – yes, he is correct that Tolstoy does look at his characters from the ‘optimal’ pont of death; but this is not the same thing as finalizing them. Death is, of course, a leveler in Three Deaths. The very title, with its quantitative modifier, projects a certain radical equality into the story, the equality of the scythe that lops off the stalks of wheat regardless of their height. In the Christian sense, death is a tremendous leveler – for he who is first in the social world is still last, in that he will die. Death is not simply loss to others – it is an imminent, shaping loss to oneself, which is already in the midst of every gain. Ultimately, this is the reason death is on the side of making strange – if and when it becomes familiar, all the social ties are snapped.

Tolstoy’s contemporaries – particularly Grigor’ev - noted the accusatory force in the title. But Tolstoy, as a writer, threw them off, and still disconcerts us, because, for all his sense of death, he is a great describer of the animal life. His descriptions are not cold disavowals of sensual pleasure – Tolstoy obviously enjoys strong tastes, strong excitements, white bosoms, military glory, and physical strength. One has a sense that he is blindsiding the reader by being at once so intensely attuned to the sensual thrill and so aware of its annulment in death. This comes out most strongly when he writes about the life of women, who he can’t help but judge from his sensualist’s view, and who he then turns around and blames for arousing this feeling in him. It is the familiar demonic gesture of patriarchy, but made, here, with Tolstoy’s narrative genius. Still, the general point, whether it is the death of the petty aristocratic woman in Three Deaths or the death of Ivan Illych is that the sensual pleasures in which the happiness of life consists are, from the point of view of the absolute loss of death, nothing at all. Everything is built, every labour is made, in order to gain these sensual moments – and they are all naught.

But the latter is not an easy thought to keep in mind, as, after all, it may not be true. For death too can be looked at from the sensual moment – and from that moment, what is it? O Lord thou knowest – that is, it is an unknown for the individual, but one thing is known -- it is merely the end of me. There’s a great communist element in sensual enjoyment, and life is not a possession at the nerve ends, at the skin, in the mouth and stomach, coming out of the ass. It is something like a flood, a broad sweep, which tugs and carries the lonely and deluded me, who thinks he is doing all the work .

The estranging shock in Three Deaths is that the final death counts as much as the death of the noblewoman or the peasant:

“The ax rang more and more frequently; the white chips, full of sap, were scattered upon the dewy grass, and a slight cracking was heard beneath the blows. The tree trembled with all its body, leaned over, and quickly straightened itself, shuddering with fear on its base. For an instant all was still, then once more the tree bent over; a crash was heard in its trunk; and, tearing the thicket, and dragging down the branches, it plunged toward the damp earth. The noise of the ax and of footsteps ceased. The warbler uttered a cry, and flew higher. The branch which she grazed with her wings shook for an instant, and then came to rest like all the others their foliage. The trees, more joyously than ever, extended their motionless branches over the new space that had been made in their midst. The first sunbeams, breaking through the cloud, gleamed in the sky, and shone along the earth and heavens. The mist, in billows, began to float along the hollows; the dew, gleaming, played on the green foliage; translucent white clouds hurried along their azure path. The birds hopped about in the thicket, and, as if beside themselves, voiced their happiness; the juicy leaves joyfully and contentedly whispered on the tree-tops; and the branches of the living trees slowly and majestically waved over the dead and fallen tree.”

Although Bakhtin writes of this death as external to the other two, it isn’t quite true – the axe rings out because of a promise that the noblewoman’s coachman made to the dying peasant, in exchange for that peasant’s new boots. The promise was to put a cross on his grave, and the tree is to be measured and cut up into that cross. And the smallest reflection will tell you that one couldn’t just go out and cut down a tree in Russia – those trees were property, and they were being felled to feed industry The indebted nobility in Russian novels are always selling forested land. There’s a cash nexus connecting tree, peasant and noblewoman – as Stiva, Anna Karenina’s brother, well knew.

Of course, Bakhtin is right that the tree’s death – a silent fall, which briefly disturbs the birds, which go back to their singing, just as the trees spread their branches in the sun – gains its artistic power from being in contrast with, paralleled by exterior to, the peevish end of the noblewoman and the humble end of the peasant. Here again, things are arranged in such a way that we have two paths we can follow to Lady Shirkinskaya’s death. One would go through Tolstoy’s usual, incredible irritation with women. Their voices, their pleas, their bodies – everything irritates him. And that irritation trembles through the death scene like a barely suppressed anger:

“The sick woman dropped her head in token of assent. "O God! Pardon me, a sinner," she whispered.The cousin went out, and beckoned to the confessor. "She is an angel," she said to the husband, with tears in her eyes. The husband wept. The priest went into the sick room; the old lady still remained unconscious, and in the room beyond all was perfectly quiet. At the end of five minutes the confessor came out, and, taking off his stole, arranged his hair."Thanks be to the Lord, she is calmer now," said he. "She wishes to see you."The cousin and the husband went to the sick room. The invalid, gently weeping, was gazing at the images. "I congratulate you, my love," said the husband."Thank you. How well I feel now! What ineffable joy I experience!" said the sick woman, and a faint smile played over her thin lips. "How merciful God is! Is He not? He is merciful and omnipotent!"And again with an eager prayer she turned her tearful eyes toward the holy images.Then suddenly something seemed to occur to her mind. She beckoned to her husband."You are never willing to do what I desire," said she, in a weak and querulous voice.The husband, stretching his neck, listened to her submissively."What is it, my love?""How many times I have told you that these doctors don't know anything! There are simple women doctors; they make cures. That's what the good father said. ... A shopkeeper .... Send for him." ..."For whom, my love?" "Good heavens! You can never understand me." And the dying woman frowned, and closed her eyes.”

On the other hand, the artist in Tolstoy – which sees what the person doesn’t want to see, and writes it down – has already noted the weakness of the husband, his trust in doctors, his indecisiveness. If the woman is querulous, what is this but an almost physical flailing, like that of some drowning person who is being pulled down by the person who is supposed to be saving her? Trapped by her sex – for traveling to Italy, which she thinks will be good for her lungs, is out of the question if her husband doesn’t accompany her, whereas surely, the other way around, he would have gone without his wife without hesitation – she beats everything about her with her tongue. Unlike her husband, she is not, superstitiously, tied up in a belief in doctors – which has more to do with class than with science.

The peasant Feodor’s death, which connects Lady Shirkinskaya’s to the tree’s, occurs on a stove in a hut. And its real effect is not the death itself, but the fact that, dying, the peasant has no use for his new boots, and trades them to the coachman, Seryosha, for the promise of burial and a monument.

I love this part of the story:

"You take the boots, Seryoha," said he, conquering the cough, and getting his breath a little. "Only, do you hear, buy me a stone when I am dead," he added hoarsely."Thank you, uncle; then I will take them, and as for the stone, -- yei-yei! -- I will buy you one."There, children, you are witnesses," the sick man was able to articulate, and then once more he bent over and began to choke."All right, we have heard," said one of the drivers. "But run, Seryoha, or else the starosta will be after you again. You know Lady Shirkinskaya is sick."Seryoha quickly pulled off his ragged, unwieldy boots, and flung them under the bench. Uncle Feodor's new ones fitted his feet exactly, and the young driver could not keep his eyes off them as he went to the carriage. "Ek! What splendid boots! Here's some grease," called another driver with the grease-pot in his hand, as Seryoha mounted to his box and gathered up the reins. "Get them for nothing?" "So you're jealous, are you?" cried Seryoha, lifting up and tucking around his legs the tails of his overcoat. "Off with you, my darlings," he cried to the horses, cracking his knout; and the coach and barouche, with their occupants, trunks, and other belongings, were hidden in the thick autumnal mist, and rapidly whirled away over the wet road. “

There is a tale, a semiotic tale, to tell about boots, gloves, and other things that fit in Tolstoy. Of course, the peasants of Russia were dependent on the cottage industry of boot and shoemakers – no mass produced footwear for them. Boots that fit, well made boots, were naturally beautiful in the eyes of Seryosha. But this joy in a thing fitting is written all over Tolstoy’s work. There’s a reversible semiotic here – the fit of things – for instance, boots that fit the feet – and the grip of things. Good guns, whips, and handles of all kind please Tolstoy. And he likes to see the fit and grip of things in action. When Levin, in Anna Karenina, puts on the ice skates and effortlessly slides over the frozen pond, losing himself in the shapes he makes, this is the ecstasy of fitting. To slip into a groove and fill it and have power over it – this is a part of the sensual life that Tolstoy goes out to. A charge or raid, a dance in a ballroom – movements within a groove, a set pattern, crafted to the power of the mover, were intrinsically beautiful to him.

But of course the boots are Feodor’s boots, and him giving the boots up is a sign of his approaching death. Fitting takes a cruel turn here. What Tolstoy does not like in women is their lack of a tactile sense of grip and fit. Not that this is true of all women – but remember Tolstoy’s greatest heroine, Anna Karinina, dies on a railroad track – dies squashed lying on a thing that is engineered to the most precise fit.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

catch 22 in the Zona

Zeks in the Zona, sweating to pay the rent and the mortgage, have had some wonderful reading matter tossed to them this week as they sit before their Zek tvs and watch blue pills (it’s a blue pill!), cars and weak beer dance through the collective dream. For instance, they could have read the wonderful tale from Bloombergs about the supposed “negotiations” over the AIG payout last November. O zeks, do you remember how the Darwinian weeding out of the weak, so beloved of neo-classical economists, unfurled in its natural course back then? Well, of course you don’t, because Darwinian weeding out of the weak is only for the weak! The wealthy don’t have that extra 500 million sitting around to spend it all on dancing girls, no sir. Sometimes, you buy a legislature. Sometimes, you buy a Treasury department. And always, you have the Fed at your back as your friend, with whom you can discuss the finer points of Ayn Rand's philosophy.

But the Fed is subject to its own moods. Although our secretary of the Treasury, Tim Geithner, might look like a weasel, evidently he was feeling more like Santa Claus, all jolly and fat and charitable last November. And so, remarkably, were his friends, the loveable crew of Santa’s helpers that sit on the board of the NY branch of the Fed – upstanding citizens like Stephen Freedman, former chairman of Goldman Sachs but, as we all know well, a patriot and a hero first and foremost, and our beloved Jamie Dimon, a busy man who not only helps direct Fed policy, but also manages JP Morgan – noblesse oblige, you know.

Now, these beauties were confronted with that little problem of AIG last November. A pesky thing. Oh, 150 billion were out there somewhere, being mulched. And the Fed was supposed to devise a rescue plan!

Because this was serious. It wasn’t like, say, this story, from a recent NYT piece about runaways:

“She ran away from her group home in Medford, Ore., and spent weeks sleeping in parks and under bridges. Finally, Nicole Clark, 14 years old, grew so desperate that she accepted a young man’s offer of a place to stay. The price would come later.
They had sex, and he soon became her boyfriend. Then one day he threatened to kick her out if she did not have sex with several of his friends in exchange for money.”

Another tale of the bad choices of the poor! Why, it might break your heart – or cause you to turn the newspaper page – but really, it would just be made infinitely worse if the state intervened to prop up lifestyles like this through yucky welfare. And no doubt this 14 year old doesn’t have the IQ, the smarts, that our heavenly bunch of NY Fed benchwarmers have. They are the cream of the crop, no doubt. So, let us say salut to Nicole and good luck surviving in Zona America, and come back to our exciting tale of the rescue of AIG’s counterparties!

“Beginning late in the week of Nov. 3, the New York Fed, led by PresidentTimothy Geithner, took over negotiations with the banks from AIG, together with the Treasury Department and Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s Federal Reserve. Geithner’s team circulated a draft term sheet outlining how the New York Fed wanted to deal with the swaps -- insurance-like contracts that backed soured collateralized-debt obligations.

Part of a sentence in the document was crossed out. It contained a blank space that was intended to show the amount of the haircut the banks would take, according to people who saw the term sheet. After less than a week of private negotiations with the banks, the New York Fed instructed AIG to pay them par, or 100 cents on the dollar. The content of its deliberations has never been made public.
The New York Fed’s decision to pay the banks in full cost AIG -- and thus American taxpayers -- at least $13 billion. That’s 40 percent of the $32.5 billion AIG paid to retire the swaps. Under the agreement, the government and its taxpayers became owners of the dubious CDOs, whose face value was $62 billion and for which AIG paid the market price of $29.6 billion. The CDOs were shunted into a Fed-run entity called Maiden Lane III.”

It surely was gracious of the Fed to do that. Why, otherwise those counterparties – like, say, Goldman Sachs – might have been left a little temporarily improvident. Luckily, they would never have been forced to have sex with their “boyfriend’s” friends for money. They are too busy creating the wealth that the rest of us Zeks enjoy, God bless em!

So what happened, you might be thinking?

“The deal contributed to the more than $14 billion that over 18 months was handed to Goldman Sachs, whose former chairman, Stephen Friedman, was chairman of the board of directors of the New York Fed when the decision was made. Friedman, 71, resigned in May, days after it was disclosed by the Wall Street Journal that he had bought more than 50,000 shares of Goldman Sachs stock following the takeover of AIG. He declined to comment for this article.
In his resignation letter, Friedman said his continued role as chairman had been mischaracterized as improper. Goldman Sachs spokesman Michael DuVally declined to comment.
AIG paid Societe General $16.5 billion, Deutsche Bank $8.5 billion and Merrill Lynch $6.2 billion.”

Now, for those of you who like a little implication with your news, this story is all the more interesting for the clash between the Fed’s version of this transaction and GS’s version. According to the Fed, expecting AIG’s counterparties to take a haircut of 40 percent was impossible, since this would have driven them to the wall:

“Far more money was wasted in paying the banks for their swaps, says Donn Vickrey of financial research firm Gradient Analytics Inc. “In cases like this, the outcome is always along the lines of 50, 60 or 70 cents on the dollar,” Vickrey says.
A spokeswoman for Geithner, now secretary of the Treasury Department, declined to comment. Jack Gutt, a spokesman for the New York Fed, also had no comment.
One reason par was paid was because some counterparties insisted on being paid in full and the New York Fed did not want to negotiate separate deals, says a person close to the transaction. “Some of those banks needed 100 cents on the dollar or they risked failure,” Vickrey says.”

Yet, after pocketing its 12.9 billion, GS has consistently maintained that it didn’t need it. Gee, you think they might then have given it to, say, fourteen year old Nicole – but no, what GS means is that they had counterparties to their counterparties at AIG who, in November of 2008, would have gladly forked out the 12.9 billion to them.

This is truly a story of miracles, a holiday story for the whole family! Much like that Jimmy Stewart one, if we purged the Stewart character and made the hero, oh, some GS ex exec on a Fed branch board. A much better hero all the way around!

The Fed has noticed that their story, per Bloomberg, makes a mockery of GS’s story – and not just a mockery. It is actually against the law for a company to lie about such things at news conferences, as this, for one thing, distorts stock prices. Some sleepy NY attorney general could actually investigate, although the likelihood of anybody investigating is pretty close to zero. Still, newspapers could rattle these cages. So stories have to be aligned. This is from the Washington Post, Friday:

“New York Fed officials explained that the main reason creditors were willing for a time to accept less than full reimbursement was their fear of an AIG bankruptcy. The government's rescue of the company removed that threat and left the company with virtually no way to wrestle concessions from the banks.
"In its negotiations with its counterparties, AIG just didn't have the same bargaining power that it did with the Federal Reserve standing in the background," said Thomas C. Baxter, New York Fed's general counsel. "The only sensible outcome was to give them what they were legally entitled to."

And then there is this:

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. “Is Orr crazy?”
“He sure is,” Doc Daneeka said.
“Can you ground him?”
“I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.”
“Then why doesn’t he ask you to?”
“Because he’s crazy,” Doc Daneeka said. “He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he’s had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
“That’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
“That’s all. Let him ask me.”
“And then you can ground him?” Yossarian asked.
“No. Then I can’t ground him.”
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

Well, our zek might be puzzled by these events, and even begin to think that something isn’t right. And he would no doubt be confounded further by the history of Citibank, as processed by today’s NYT article about the four times it has had to be rescued by the Government.

This paragraph sets up a nice contrast between apparatchik and zek in this crazy world of small government lovin’ Wall Street, where capitalism is king!

“As a result, the government has handed Citigroup $45 billion under the Troubled Asset Relief Program over the last year. Through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a major bank regulator, the government has also agreed to back roughly $300 billion in soured assets that sit on Citigroup’s books. Even as other troubled institutions recently curtailed their use of another F.D.I.C. program that backs new debt issued by banks, Citigroup has continued to tap the arrangement.

Citigroup is also one of only two TARP recipients so desperate for capital that they’ve swapped government-issued shares into common stock, diluting existing shareholders. (GMAC, the troubled auto lender that may receive another government infusion, is the other.)

While Citigroup has written down tens of billions of dollars’ worth of mortgages on its books, there are looming problems in its huge credit card portfolio. Of the company’s $1.2 trillion in credit commitments outstanding in the second quarter, $873 billion were credit card lines. A measure of the bank’s efforts to wrestle that problem to the ground is the interest it charges customers: in October, Citigroup raised interest rates on some credit card holders to 29.99 percent.”

30 percent interest. That’s some interest! And in fact, before the law was reformed in the golden days of Reagan, it was charged mainly by men whose assistants carried lead pipes and exacted in-kind late fees. But just as drug dealers, those unheralded entrepreneurs, created business m.o.s that have become standard for big pharma – see your doctor about the blue pill! – so, too, the mafia’s defunct – like e.e. cumming’s buffalo bill. The frontier has been passed and trampled into the ground, and debt slavery, once considered the scourge of peasants, is now just good business. Interest helps us get an x ray of power in America – banks get loans at 2 percent, I believe it is at present, with which they can buy T-notes paying 3 to 4 percent, or loan out money to zeks at 30 - you know how it goes. It’s a meritocracy, baby.

With a few catches.