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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR NOVEMBER 2005

November  30,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

For Foucault in these years, however, the heart of Bataille’s achievement was not his theory of revolution, but rather his understanding of erotic transgression. “Perhaps one day,” Foucault speculated in an essay written shortly after Bataille’s death in 1962, the idea of transgression “will seem as decisive for our culture, as much a part of its soil, as the experience of contradiction was at an earlier time for dialectical thought.”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

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November  29,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Like Nietzsche, Bataille throughout his life sang the praises of Dionysian moments of communal effervescence, of reverie and madness, of intoxication and ecstasy—all “moments of excess that stir us to the roots of our being and give us strength enough to allow free rein to our elemental nature.” And like the Marquis de Sade, his other great intellectual hero, he thought that impulses commonly called cruel were central to our elemental nature: the pursuit of an uninhibited eroticism laid bare a deep-seated drive “to destroy,” “to annihilate,” to spoil even the simplest things, and (at the limit) to embrace death in a “torment of orgies,” in a sensuous lust for blood so sanguinary that it welcomed even “the agony of war.”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller
 

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November  28,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Suicide is the ultimate myth,” he goes on to explain: “the ‘Last Judgment’ of the imagination, as the dream is its genesis, its absolute origin. . . . Every suicidal desire is filled by that world in which I would no longer be present here, or there, but everywhere, in every sector: a world transparent to me and signifying its indebtedness to my absolute presence. Suicide is not a way of canceling the world or myself, or the two together, but a way of rediscovering the original moment in which I make myself world. . . . To commit suicide is the ultimate mode of imagining.” To dream one’s death as “the fulfillment of existence” is to imagine, over and over again, “the moment in which life reaches its fullness in a world about to close in.”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller


[N.B.: of course, this adolescent infatuation with suicide has been refuted by Dostoevsky in his magisterial, The Demons (as the title is translated by that premier translating husband-and-wife dynamic duo, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, or The Possessed (as the title was translated by the sentimental Mrs. Grundy . . . errr . . . Constance Garnett). By the bye, the New Yorker a month or so ago had a wonderful article about the different translators of Russian into English. As one might suppose, we should all genuflect before Grandma Garnett since she was the first to try her hand at such translations, which were executed in the same style as the man at the blueberry pie eating contest who finishes his pies first—very messy and slapdash but it’s better than leaving the pie uneaten.]

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November  23,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

The first sentences of “Schopenhauer as Educator” [N.B.: authored by Foucault] lay out Nietzsche’s central theme with a compact eloquence: “A traveler who had visited many countries and peoples and several continents, was asked what trait he had discovered to be common to all men, and replied: a tendency to laziness. Some will think that he might have answered more accurately and truthfully: They are all afraid. They hide behind custom and opinions. Basically, every man knows quite well that, being unique, he is on this earth only once, and that no accident, however unusual, could ever again combine this wonderful diversity into the unity he is. He knows this, but hides it like a bad conscience.”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller

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November  21,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

As his classmates and teachers soon discovered, he was a very odd young man. Though the culture of the school welcomed, indeed demanded, dazzling eccentricity, the violence of his idiosyncrasies quickly set him apart. His dorm room was decorated in the most disquieting fashion, with Goya’s etchings of the victims of war, tortured and tormented, twisted in agony. His behavior was sometimes just as disquieting: one night he was spotted chasing a classmate with a dagger. Even in intellectual debate he was unpredictably aggressive: normally reserved and introverted, the boy from Poitiers, given the occasion, could be bitterly sarcastic and mocking. In a milieu where ideas were routinely wielded like swords in courtly games of combat, Foucault went for the jugular. Honing a rare in-depth knowledge of the Marquis de Sade, he was contemptuous of those who were not adepts. Most of his classmates couldn’t stand him. Others thought he was just crazy.
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller
 

A Calvino Treasury
I’ll say this for him, Jonathan Lethem’s heart is at least in the right place, as demonstrated in his essay on the back page of this week’s New York Times Book Review where he argues for a greater audience for Italo Calvino by the production of a treasury of his greatest “hits.”  I love Calvino myself—if you’ve never heard of him, get ye to a book shop now and purchase his luminous Invisible Cities—but he is a prickly modernist who, although more accessible than most of the specimens from that genus, can still repel the random reader unprepared for his frolicsome works (another good example is Jose Luis Borges who, I think, is also quite enjoyable without the reader being required to undergo a six-month, intensive boot-camp in the drunken wilds of Iowa creative writers’ conferences).


Lethem’s suggestion for a Calvino treasury—with, perhaps, a foreword by some ardent fan; now who might that be?; don’t tell me; let me take a guess; is the author’s surname six letters with two vowels, both the same, and the first letter in the name immediately precedes the last letter as recited in the alphabet?—is one that used to be quite popular in the mid-twentieth century when writers seemed to go in and out of style in an alarming manner.  I have such a treasury of the works of Maurice Baring, as introduced by Paul Horgan, titled Maurice Baring Restored. What, you haven’t heard of Maurice Baring?  Well, go here.  He was known primarily for his travel writings, particularly with respect to Russia.  He wrote on lots of other topics, too, and several of his books are still in print.   C is probably the best book to start with.  As you can tell, though, with a giant like Paul Horgan introducing him, Baring was considered a great literary figure who also deserved resurrection.  Oh wait, you don’t know who Paul Horgan is either. Well go here, then.  Whew, all this heavy linking is wearing me out.  Horgan’s masterpiece is Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History.  It won the Pulitzer and I highly recommend it (what more do you need to know?).


So, what does this all mean?  What’s it all about, Alfie?  Well, if a treasury of Maurice Baring’s works introduced by Paul Horgan sank like the proverbial rock, what do you think the chances are for . . . Q.E.D.  Precisely. I t’s a nice thought, Lethem, but trying to get folks interested in the translated writings of a modernist Italian writer like Calvino is a bit like trying to get Americans to develop a taste for Bovril—not impossible, but not bloody likely, either.  Keep up the good work, though, Lethem, your heart’s in the right place.

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November  15,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Death, and its significance, was one of Foucault’s lifelong obsessions. “In the depths of his dream,” he declared in 1954, “what man encounters in his death”—and quite possibly a welcome “fulfillment of his existence.” Thirty years later, already in the grip of his own mortal illness, taking solace from the “desire of death” articulated by the ancient Stoics, he fondly cited Seneca: “Let us hasten to grow old, let us hasten to the appointed time which permits us to rejoin our selves.” Inspired by Bichat, the father of pathological anatomy, Foucault perceived death as the constant companion of life, its “white brightness” always lurking in “the black coffer of the body.” And like Heidegger of Being and Time, he believed that only death, in its culminating conquest, could define the unmistakable singularity—the authenticity—of a human life: “It is in death,” Foucault wrote in 1963, “that the individual becomes at one with himself, escaping from monotonous lives and their leveling effect; in the slow, half-subterranean, but already visible approach of death, the dull, common life at last becomes an individuality; a black border isolates it, and gives it the style of its truth.”
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller
 

Wit-Crit
I think the main reason that literary criticism is viewed as an inferior art to literature itself is not that it’s a necessarily second-order discipline which requires the found literary art-artifact in order to exist.  No, rather, its practitioners, unlike the greatest of literature, just ain’t funny.  Worse, they’re proud of it.  Shakespeare, Dickens, Sterne, Cervantes—laff riots.  Empson, Richards, Leavis, Derrida, de Man, Barthes—ludic riots.  Even when they’re trying to tickle your funny bone, they don’t want to admit it.  They aren’t vulgarly humorous.  Oh, no.  They’re playful, but in a highbrow, intellectual manner.  They’re ludic.  They’re a jongleur for Jung; a frolic for Freud; a farce for Marx.  But, lord forbid, that they should roll around in the earthy mud with Dostoevsky, who, by the bye, was very funny indeed, pace Constance Garnett’s egregious translations to the contrary.  And so, given the Sunday-sermon seriousness of these critics, this attitude of sangfroid, the need to keep a stiff literary upper lip, filters down to the scribblers of the periodic book reviews.


Ahhh, but last week, in the New York Times Book Review, there magically appeared an article brim full with wit: David Orr’s Hit Parade, reviewing Garrison Keillor latest poetry anthology (something about America’s best-loved poems to read at a soapbox derby with orange punch and two old guys sitting on wicker chairs playing the dobro while spitting Chattanooga Chew).  The review also covers a bit of a kafuffle between Messrs. Keillor and Kleinzahler, the latter of which complained that Keillor just ain’t intellectual enough for him.  Well, both of these gasbags are easy targets for Orr—I’ll let you read his review for the various bon mots scattered about his prose like deer droppings.  He does, though, have one of the wittiest lines I’ve ever come across in a book review; and I can’t help but highlight it:

The most obvious problem with "Good Poems for Hard Times" is that it proposes that "the meaning of poetry is to give courage." That is not the meaning of poetry; that is the meaning of Scotch.

Here’s a scotch to you Mr. Orr—may you have a long and lusty crit-wit life.  I’ll be looking forward to your future excursions through the dank and dismal hallways of literary criticism.

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November  14,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

And just as the twilight of French colonialism in Algeria became a testing ground for Sartre’s generation of existentialists, the unexpected vehemence of the student revolt of May ’68, and the various liberation movements that followed—above all, women’s liberation and gay liberation—made Foucault’s work seem of historical moment.
In this charged context it began to reach a global audience. Around the world after 1968, in Italy and Spain, in Germany and Great Britain, in Japan and Brazil, but above all in the United States, countless academics, cloistered on campuses but hungry for the tang of combat, if only in the vicarious form of championing ideas that clashed with prevailing orthodoxies, took up Foucault’s philosophy as their own. As inevitably happens when enthusiastic disciples imitate “a founder of discursivity”—Foucault’s neologism for powerfully original thinkers like himself—what was most startling and singular about his work was soon travestied through thoughtless repetition.
--The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller


[N.B.: Given the recent rioting in France which is comparable to the student revolt of May ’68—although the causes are profoundly different—one wonders if this new bout of violence will also bring forth a new philosophy. Given the antecedent causes, however, one wonders if such a philosophy will resemble some great, shambling beast slouching towards Paris, guided by the Eiffel Tower lit up in the dark night by the homemade bonfires of the dispossessed and disenfranchised who were once embraced through the philosophies of existentialism and post-structuralism.]
 

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November  9,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

‘tis worthy to recollect, how little alteration, in great men, the approaches of death have made.—Vespasian died in a jest upon his close-stool—Galba with a sentence—Septimus Severus in a dispatch—Tiberius in dissimulation, and Caesar Augustus in a compliment.—I hope ‘twas a sincere one—quoth my Uncle Toby.
--‘Twas to his wife,--said my father.
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
 

Shrouded in Lies
Well, while I was waiting for John Banville’s Booker-Prize winning new novel, The Sea (it’s finally come in, by the bye), I picked up his The Shroud, a story concerning a somewhat fictionalized character resembling Paul de Man, the post-lit-crit-nazi-twit.  Like de Man, the novel’s slippery protagonist, Axel Vander, is a Belgium-born pomo star who has a rather nasty literary secret in his distant past. The propulsive force for the plot is embodied in a young, crazy, red-headed Irish scholar manqué, Cass Cleave (how’s that for a cultural cliché—but since Banville is Irish himself, I guess we’ll give him a pass).  Cass inadvertently learns something about Vander’s deep dark secret.  She confronts him—sort of—in the Italian town of Turin (home of you know what).  And hijinx ensue.


This novel slots nicely with Banville’s The Untouchable, which is a story concerning a somewhat fictionalized character resembling Anthony Blunt.  I have not read all of Banville’s oeuvre, so I’m not sure if this is a running theme through his work.  It is curious, though, that he has written two great novels that concern protagonists who are consummate liars and the consequences of such a lifestyle (wealth, fame, success—oh, and moral squalor lightly salted with self-disgust).  In a way, this inverted obsession with the truth, or un-truth, resembles the obsession of another great writer, Henry James.


As I have observed earlier, James is concerned with the implications of the code of the gentleman and the lady, which is based on a few simple rules, one of them being the near absolute fidelity to the truth (I say near absolute, because when it comes to protecting the honor of a lady, this code may—although, even here, truth quite possible will trump—allow for some dissembling, at least by omission).  In The Portrait of a Lady, his portrait of the novel’s heroine, Isabel Archer, is finished when she lies and is no longer, in his eyes, anyway, a lady.  Other of his works, such as The Europeans, end on a note where one of the major characters lies and thus resolves the dilemma of whether he or she is worthy to join the exalted ranks of gentlemen and ladies (uhhh, nooo, you’ll need to go back to start and grovel before that brutish Swabian potentate).  Given Banville's similar concern with the theme of truth, as well as his magisterial wielding of the English language—the almost effete fastidious of placing each word, no matter how obscure, just so in the rich, loamy soil of his grammatical garden—makes Banville a possible latter-day successor to Henry James.  I know, I know, James is Ozymandias.  He has no successors.  You are meant to look upon his works, you mighty, and despair!  Not so fast.

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November  4,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Tell me, ye learned, shall we for ever be adding so much to the bulk—so little to the stock?
Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?
Are we for ever to be twisting, and untwisting the same rope? for ever in the same track—for ever at the same pace?
Shall we be destined to the days of eternity, on holy-days, as well as working-days, to be shewing the relics of learning, as monks do the relics of their saints—without working one—one single miracle with them?
--Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

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November  2,  2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Then he heard singing from the German section. He found he knew the tune well, though the man was singing in German. Perhaps he was singing now in an ironical frame of mind, for the song was ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’. Silent night, holy night. The song of that first, far-off friendly Christmas truce in ’14. It was not a night that was holy. Or was it? The voice was as simple as the river, it seemed to Willie. It came from the throat of a man who might have seen horrors, made horrors befall the opposing armies. There was something of the end of the world, or rather, he meant, the end of the war in the song. The end of the world. The end of many worlds. Silent night, holy night. And indeed the shepherds were in their hut and their flocks were scattered round about in these lovely woods. But were there any wolves in the upshot? Or just sheep against sheep? Silent night, holy night. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.
--A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry
 

Lost at Sea
The New York Times chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, in her latest review,  doesn’t care much for this year’s Booker Prize winner, John Banville’s The Sea.  It had too many tough words which made it sound “pretentious.”  Oh, and it had only a little dribble of a plot.


There are certain authors—Joyce and Faulkner come to mind—who serve as a Rorschach blot test of one’s own shortcomings.  Trust me, dear reader, if you don’t care for these writers (too obscure; too non-linear; too, too many odd words) then congratulations, you just qualified for the American literature aisle.  Go directly to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and do not pass go.  Of course, Ms. Kakutani loves Franzen (she does note, though, that Franzen would have benefited enormously from a strict editing job—pot meet kettle).


Amusingly, Ms. Kakutani’s curt dismissal of Mr. Banville’s latest has led to yet another NYT article about how a lot of important critics don’t care much for this novel (one certainly would not want to leave the impression that Ms. Kakutani is some kind of bookwoods bumpkin).  Oh, and The Sea hasn’t sold well, either (a mere 9,100 copies have been purchased—and yes, I’ve bought one of them but it still hasn’t been delivered yet because it’s U.S. publication date is November 1). Well, of all the nerve to give the Booker Prize to some obscure wordsmith when one can pick up Zadie Smith’s latest book, On Beauty, at any airport newsstand (before you throw stones at me,, calm down, I’ve got a copy of her book, too, and it’s in the queue to be read).  Apparently, the Booker Prize judges need some ol’ fashuned educazhun concerning the critical elements for making up a prize winner. Danielle Steele, call your agent, you wuz robbed!

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