Saturday, June 26, 2010

an allegory

In a greek myth, Atalante, when merely an infant, had been left to die on a mountainside by her father, Iasos. Instead of dying, she was suckled by a bear, and became a renowned huntress. Iasos took her back, but he insisted that she marry. A woman suckled by a bear was, naturally, averse to bowing her head to a husband, so she made it a condition that she would only accept a man who beat her in a foot race. If her suitor lost, he was put to death. Hippomenes, who wanted to run that race but feared the inevitable result if he relied on his own speed, prayed to Aphrodite to help him. Aphrodite, rather offended at Atalanta’s attitude, gave her worshipper Hippomenes three golden apples, which he cleverly threw into Atalanta’s way as the race proceeded. And as she stooped to gather each apple, he increased his lead over her until he won.

A well known and worn tale, this. And of course, there are many allegories and morals that have been launched from that race. However, there is one allegory that I think has never been drawn from it, which is the allegory of punctuation. For it seems to me that writing, too, is a race. First the words race ahead of the writer, and then they race ahead of the reader. The writer, of course, wants the reader to remain behind the word until the very end – at which point the reader must burst ahead, win the race and close the book.

Punctuation is not quite words. The conventions for punctuating have come about quite slowly in the European languages, and they differ from one language to another. Punctuation corresponds to two things – sense and sound. To the race going on in the brain, and the race going on in the lungs. All races are the same in this respect – all racers race in their brains and lungs. The period, of course, being a full stop, is not like a golden apple, but is, theoretically, a pause in the entire race. But the comma, ah, the comma is a golden apple – it is thrown out by the writer, or by the writer’s substitute, the words, with the intent of slowing down the pursuer-reader. Indeed, these apples have an even greater power over the reader than Hippomenes’ apples, for it turns out that the course isn’t laid out before the race, and that the track over which the race takes place is made, in a sense, by the race. Instead of an oval in a stadium, the course goes jutting out at angles and makes inversions, and curlicues, and in general can't be said to make a figure. This is largely due to the power of the comma.

The comma, one could say, is the most powerful of all the tricks up the sleeve of the racer. That the race generally comes to the event barechested makes no difference.

Interestingly, the work that Canetti, or Viza Canetti, called the first “modern’ work of literature, Lenz, by Georg Büchner, is distinguished by its commas. The commas stand in not only for periods, but for whole phrases. Lenz, in the text, rambles madly in the mountains, until he finds an interval of peace, and then of course he’s mad again. This could be represented as madness had been represented before, with the whole panoply of descriptions furnishing our background, or our soliloquy. But Lenz’s madness is, I think, most represented by the comma. It is the commas that thrust the text ever forward, that work the lungs and puzzle the brain not with angles, but with leaps, with intervals that are simply cut out, that make this a very strange race. In fact, the reader will never win this race, because the words will simply stop, and the stopping point is not the finish line. Of course, Büchner was not the first romantic to discover the power of the fragment; Novalis was there long before him, as was Schlegel. He was, however, the first to discover that the fragment could be used against the affirming, the ever so humane, period. There is, of course, a cruelty in using commas to so abridge and so accelerate the supposed sentence. It makes our bodies, as readers, align to a different rhythm. Later, this rhythm, this amphetemined motion, will be taken up by Joyce, Faulkner, Cela, Garcia Marquez, etc.

Hippomenes forgot to properly thank Aphrodite for her gift. Aphrodite allowed Rhea to turn both runners into lions, which she yoked to her chariot. Rhea is the wife of Chronos – time itself. Reader, make your own inferences.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

the creep's version of intellectual history: Paul Berman

In the National Interest, David Rieff has a nice takedown of Paul Berman’s new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals. And yet… it is a takedown that continues the ‘conversation’, so to speak. But there are certain conversations that are still born from the beginning. Paul Berman, who has somehow established himself as a “historian” of Islamicist ideology, is so completely off base that he provides a nice study in how to do intellectual history wrongly.

How do you do it wrongly? Well, you take the intellectual history of a movement that has grown over the last sixty years and you snip out – all the pertinent history over the last sixty years. What you are left with is a comic book, in which the main thing is who agrees with the Nazis, and who didn’t.

Well, what a pretty issue! In Berman’s history, the line moves directly from the Mufti of Jerusalem in the 40s to Osama bin Laden – and so direct is this line that it doesn’t wait for, say, the massive support for fundamentalist Islam and its premiere state, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, given by another state, the United States, followed by Western Europe, and involving a colorful cast of characters who make up the entirety of contemporary Middle Eastern history, beginning with Nassar. In this history, U.S. policy – and the desire for cheap gasoline – drops off the screen entirely. So if, for instance, it was U.S. policy to put in power the son of a very notorious Nazi sympathizer – I’m looking at you, Pahlavi family – this goes into the wastebasket of history – as opposed to, of course, Tariq Ramadan, whose father was (gasp!) a Nazi sympathizer. Roll over Eisenhower and tell Kermit Roosevelt the news!

(I can’t resist a blast from the past. In 1976, John Campbell, in Foreign Policy, told the fairy tale of Iran in a delightful way, echoing the blank Berman so assiduously preserves in his own fairy tale:

Its [Iran’s] rulers yielded when they had no choice, remaining ever sensitive to the
forms of sovereignty and always seeking to assert national rights and interests. Such an instance was the Anglo-Russian occupation of the country in World War II, which forced tbe abdication of Reza Shah, the founder of the modern Iranian state, in favor of his son, Mobammed Reza, but also brought pledges to respect Iran's sovereignty and to end the occupation after the war, pledges with which the United States was later associated.

Postwar Iran had reason to be grateful to the United States. American diplomatic support made it possible to get rid of the Soviet occupation forces after they had outstayed their welcome and fostered a separatist revolution in Iran's northern province of Azerbaijan [Editorial note: a policy that is now being followed by, surprise, the Americans]. And America's differences with Britain over the handling of the crisis that followed nationalization of tbe Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by the government of Mohammed Mosaddeq in the early 1950s enabled Iran to come out of the crisis with a new deal on oil, altbough Mosaddeq himself disappeared from the political scene.” This was written in 1976, when it was standard Cold War practice to mock the Soviets for re-writing their history. The nicest touch here – among so many - is Mosaddeq “disappearing.” In the American historical vernacular, disappearance always marks Manifest Destiny – the Indians, in this version of history, are always conveniently disappearing as the settlers “appear.’ Disappearance hearts Uncle Sam!)

Intellectual history has its place, but there is a reason that, among historians, it is regarded as fingerpainting for the senile. There is the large question of cause – a question that poor historians, those who are, let us say, averse to research, sluff off by referring vaguely to ‘influence’. However, Berman is not even a poor intellectual historian. There’s no indication that he has ever done any investigation whatsoever into the last sixty years of Middle Eastern history on any level more difficult that reading some columns in the Figaro. He proceeds, laughably enough, as though he were equipped with the razor sharp analysis of the trained Marxist, and yet he seemingly has no idea about such simple issues as money – where it comes from, who it goes to, and like that. Even a sixties simpleton with Berman’s connections could, if he wanted to, send some student flunky to study the popular periodicals of the 80s – you know, the decade in which Berman agonized over supporting the contras. It was a truly dialectical decision! In that decade, in fact, the U.S. and the House of Saud were as one in forging a truly wonderful anticommunist coalition that – as it happened – was based, from the latter’s point of view, on spreading a certain Islamic sect that rejoiced in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and was looked upon with approval by European powers (always willing to do anything for gas) as the money ‘appeared’ for mosque building. For instance, the Moslem World League, a Saudi organization, headquartered in Paris (the home, now, of so many “new philosophers” fighting against the scourge of fundamentalism – soldiers enrolling for a war thirty years late) dispersed, according to its own record, 4.5 million francs, between 1979-1983, for the building and repair of mosques. [Nielson, 18] Ah, a small but tidy sum, that. How much was really dispensed – by who, through what routes – is probably difficult to trace, although surely the records are there not only in Riyadh, but in the archives of the CIA and the French DGSE. A very important thing, mosque building – many a neo-con, back then, was ready to lay down, in a figurative fashion of course, his life for the freedom of Moslems in the Soviet Union and in Afghanistan to worship their God – it was heartbreaking what the communists were doing, and how about Stalin? - and found the mosques a most reassuring way of taking back a young generation into the anti-atheist, anti-materialist fold.

There is nothing more rotten and hypocritical than an empire covering its ass. It employs, for this purpose, a certain kind of intellectual – whose credentials are enhanced by an early 20s bout of radicalism. All the better – as they bloat and grope through their subsequent careers, they get extra points for the signs they once painted at that protest in was it 1967? But they are, in general, creeps. Nothing but creeps. Berman, purveyor of a creep version of intellectual history that pleases the crewe at TNR and the NYT magazine, is just the kind of walking absurdity who one expects to see in a corrupt era of imperial overreach and decline.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Our present

There’s a charming story in Jennifer Burns’ biography of Ayn Rand, “Goddess of the Market”. In the dark days of the New Deal, when Roosevelt was collectivizing the U.S. economy, Rand’s first books obtained for her a circle of admirers heavily salted with the various Babbits and small business owners who’d been abused by the first generation of American naturalists. Among them, one, a letterhead manufacturer, wrote to her that her novel, We the Living, had aroused him to the depths of his being: “ ‘I thought I was one of the few who was really awake. I thought I knew and appreciated what we have, but now I know that I was at least half asleep.” Midway through the novel, Emery paused to inspect his full refrigerator, newly grateful for the bounty contained therein.”

I am not exaggerating when I say that I paused, after this paragraph, and distinctly heard the ghost of Flaubert screaming in pained laughter. Homais, of course, is eternal.

And yet… Surely our letterhead manufacturer was not wrong to inspect his refrigerator searching for clues to his way of life. Where he may have erred, however, is in thinking that Rand’s wavering historical light would have explained that bounty in any way. Rand would not have understood the collaborations – the mixture of state purposes and corporate logic – that provided the framework for the generation of refrigerants that were invented after WWI, nor would she have understood just how much of the railroad system that brought beef and veggies to Ohio in midwinter had been created out of government grants of land that it possessed by main force – and that it was beginning to support with the boldest socialistic ploy of the era, the price supports for farmers, which, combined with the engineering of the U.S. water supply, was instrumental in dropping U.S. food prices – as well as in creating nationwide corn obesity.

All of which, in some ways, doesn’t matter. The great Enlightenment ideal of prosperity reaching down into the ranks of the lowest and the most humble has been realized to an astonishing degree in developed 20th century economies – and as it is realized, a strange thing has happened. As populations get richer, they get both more timid and more savage – they feel ever more vulnerable, and are made ever less able to understand the narrative that leads to the refrigerator; they lose all sense of sacrifices that lead to long term collective benefits, which requires a historical narrative, and they operate on short term fantasies that are ceaselessly reinforced by the stream of media that fills their days. Liberty, republican virtue, culture, science – the accompaniments, according to the Enlightenment thinkers, of opulence – slowly lose their capacity to arouse any feeling whatsoever. Like a monster, an engulfing private life, rising up from the refrigerator and the Rand epic, creates a sort of public viciousness – fed by the sweetmeats of bourgeois living.

Mr. Emery, in his own way, saw the future. Our present is now filled with Emerys, and they weigh upon us like a nightmare.