Gorging on the Drugs of Solitude

It’s a quote by E. M. Cioran from A Short History of Decay. “I gorge myself on all the drugs of solitude; those of the world were too weak to make me forget it. Having killed the prophet in me, how could I still have a place among men?” His prose is a reflection of what he wants. At once a tide going out, sweeping up and out all the precious and precocious structures we’ve built on the shore.

“You imagine, in the name of faith, that you are conquering yourself; in fact, you seek to perpetuate it in eternity, this earthly duration being insufficient for you… The megalomania of monasteries exceeds all that the sumptuous fevers of palaces ever imagined.”

And some more.

“I have sought for the geography of Nothingness, of unknown seas and another sun — pure of the scandal of life-bearing rays — I have sought for the rocking of a skeptical ocean in which islands and axioms are drowned, the vast liquid narcotic, tepid and sweet and tired of knowledge.

Even the skeptic, in love with his doubts, turns out to be a fanatic of skepticism. Man is the dogmatic being par excellence; and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them

One deception triumphs: there results a religion, a doctrine, or a myth — and a host of adepts; another fails; then it is only a divagation, a theory, or a fiction. Only inert things add nothing to what they are: a stone does not lie; it interests no one — whereas life indefatigably invents: life is the novel of matter.

The true believer is scarcely to be distinguished from the madman; but his madness is legal, acknowledged; he would end up in an asylum if his aberrations were pure of all faith. But God covers them, legitimizes them.

And how could modesty be a virtue of temples, when a decrepit old woman who imagines Infinity within reach raises herself by prayer to a level of audacity to which no tyrant has ever laid claim?

You imagine, in the name of faith, that you are conquering yourself; in fact, you seek to perpetuate it in eternity, this earthly duration being insufficient for you… The megalomania of monasteries exceeds all that the sumptuous fevers of palaces ever imagined.

Me… I want to wallow in my mortality. I want to remain normal.

If we put in one pan the evil the “pure” have poured out upon the world, and in the other the evil that has come from men without principles and without scruples, the scale would tip toward the first.

A conformist, I live, I try to live, by imitation, by respect for the rules of the game, by horror of originality… It is because we are all impostors that we endure each other. The man who does not consent to lie will see the earth shrink under his feet: we arebiologically obliged to the false.”

I ramble on in the style of an essayist who freely associates one remembered quotation, or fragment of an idea with another until it becomes time to stop. Of Vladimir Nabokov Arendt writes in 1962: “There is something in [him] which I greatly dislike. As though he wanted to show you all the time how intelligent he is. And as though he thinks of himself in terms of ‘more intelligent than.’ There is something vulgar in his refinement.”

Cioran seems like an error of Clio’s. Deposited in a world that he was already too old for. By the second day he was infinitely tired of it. But here he is. It’s a cold wind that flows across his work but in some perverse sense, after I’ve read and digested his aphoristic essays that always have me reaching for a highlighter, I can’t help but feel more alive.  It is disturbing, surprising.

I suppose, in some sense, this is a book review. I don’t know if that is accurate. But I would encourage you, dear reader, to pick up the book. It seems to be one of those books that never fail to spruce up my otherwise colorless writing.

Quotes on a Theme

As you know, dear reader, I am a squirrel. I am forever saving a few choice quotes for that special day. The day will not arrive. But here are some of my favorite morsels.

I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alon the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. 

Then we have a bit of Italo Calvino.

He said: “It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us.”

And Polo said: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension; seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Primo Levi.

… The canto of Ulysses, Who knows how or why it comes into my mind. But we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour. If Jean is intelligent he will understand. He will understand – today I feel capable of so much.

… Who is Dante? What is Comedy? That curious sensation of novelty which one feels if one tries to explain briefly what is the Divine Comedy. How the Inferno is divided up, what are its punishments. How the Inferno is divided up, what are its punishments. Virgil is Reason, Beatric is Theology. Jean pays great attention, and I begin slowly and accurately: …

Dante Alighieri and, incidentally, T. S. Eliot.

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Just Eliot, this time.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Maya Angelou, a Signpost in the Land of Forgetting

There was a recent article I flipped through. I worried, wrongly, that it was intentional clickbait.

Instead, we read post after post, obituary after tribute, calling her a “pimp” and saying she had “an unsuccessful stint as a prostitute.” The most detailed accounts currently online are making sure to emphasize that she spent a “brief stint,” a “short time” in the sex industry, so as to, without explicit words, solidify the shame they believe she should have felt, the shame we should feel as well. The media uses inflammatory terms to get clicks and to emphasize the terrible and shameful secret that was, in actuality, never a secret at all.

Much to my chagrin it was a useful post.

Like many writers who have signed up with a systematic way of thinking about the world, Ms. Marie’s worldview consists of all external political or social data. The data is filtered through a grid of suspicion: Things are not what they seem. These ‘things’ reveal their true meaning only when decoded in accordance with the knowledge of the initiated. At that point, dear reader, the data (and author) make complete sense and everything falls into place in a universal scheme. What her particular worldview is does us little good, but keep the thought in mind.

‘The Erasure?’ I thought. The article arouses suspicion. Since there is hardly a shared conception of the departed author, I’m a little surprised at the audacity. Sadly, audacity seems more laziness than significance in this instance. When an idea seems to tremble and treble under its own inanity, I will always add an article–or several–to make it seem more significant. The idea of the blogger at the WordPress working at the table. So ominous. Keep it in mind, dear reader, because I am similarly lazy.

But enough of this entertainment. To the substance of the argument: we have forgotten that Maya Angelou was a sex worker. True but the author can go deeper. She can implicate herself. Specifically, if we have forgotten it–if we need to be reminded about its erasure–it is only because we have not read what Angelou has written. That is my interest in this article. Admitting an erasure is an erasure itself. If I wrote a post about the erasure, the forgetting, of Mark Twain’s time as a riverboat captain–the sine qua non to understanding Mark Twain’s work–there is no distinguishable line between furthering and preventing.

In some sense, talking about the erasure of someone’s life is roughly comparable to describing Ulysses as an old soldier on his way back from the war who encounters a few problem en route. Not false, but hopelessly inadequate.

To add an sharper point to this discussion, what is the reason (notice the article) for why we do not chat, somewhat amicably, about the departed author’s thoughts on sucking cock for money? Ms. Marie has this to say “It comes to this: there is no way, in the minds of most people, to have worked as a prostitute and not be ashamed of it.” True, perhaps, but what people–exactly? It is an interesting question that, I think, has hard answers.

One answer, a simple one, requires the premise that a blog post needs to be written. So she chooses an easy target. I’m doing the same thing now. She chooses the ‘public.’ Spoiler, this is not her writing.

The public is not a people, it is not a generation, it is not a simultaneity, it is not a community, it is not a society, it is not an association, it is not those particular men over there, because all these exist because they are concrete and real; however, no single individual who belongs to the public has any real commitment; some times during the day he belongs to the public, namely, in those times in which he is nothing; in those times that he is a particular person, he does not belong to the public. Consisting of such individuals, who as individuals are nothing, the public becomes a huge something, a nothing, an abstract desert and emptiness, which is everything and nothing. . . Our Present Age

At the risk of sounding absurdly academic, if Ms. Marie holds the view of Ms. Angelou as post-erasure, we need should possess a view of post-posterasure. By this I mean that if her identity has been so successfully uprooted her old distinctions ‘people’ can no longer remember, why should they need to feel anything in favoring a return to a reality? Why, we should ask dear reader, should we keep forgetting? What does it have to do with the ‘public?’ Or any sort of system of thought? We should remember, not because of ideology or some sort of greater purpose but because, simply, that is what she wrote about. Therefore, we should read it. If we do not it is because of our own fault, not the public’s. Not some system of thought that has systematic power over our conception. If we enjoy an author and we do not remember it, especially if there are blog posts about how great we are for managing to remember something the author wrote, then there is no finger pointing.

More importantly it seems a bit bizarre to assign the problem to other people, in some other category. If her erasure is anyone’s fault it is her own. It is my own. Most of all it is the fault of those who loved her: for every individual that praised her for what she was (black, woman, ect) then, if for only reasons of personal integrity, they should have embraced her use as a pricey sex toy. I doubt we’ll see that but we should live that precept out in our own lives. Make people feel uncomfortable. It’d be honest.

Unreadable Excursions Into the Higher Drivel

There was a bit of the New Yorker that I read. It, like most outlets, quibbled and fretted over the inclusion of Trigger Warnings.

Many of the op-eds and articles on trigger warnings published this week have argued on behalf of the sanctity of the relationship between the reader and the text. For the most part, I have agreed with them. A trigger warning reduces a work of art down to what amounts to plot points. If a novel like José Saramago’s “Blindness” succeeds because it sews up small yet essential pockets of human normalcy against a horrific backdrop, a preëmptive label like “Trigger Warning: Violence and internment” strips it down to one idea.

I relayed these thoughts to Brodsky, along with the anecdote about my professor and “Lolita.” “What a delight it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and still have the book not be about sexual violence to you!” she said. “Why is the depersonalized, apolitical reading the one we should fight for?”

For those well-versed in the neo-orthodoxies of the new, illiberal liberalism the next paragraph writes itself. Immediately reference the author’s own non-WASP background. Dodge. Evade.

I admit, this was an angle I had not yet considered, and I recalled the severe annoyance I’d felt in college seminars and coffeehouse conversations whenever a white person would say a bit too ringingly that a book written by a person of color somehow “transcended race,” as if that was the highest compliment that could be paid to a work written by one of us poor, striving minorities.

Let us ignore, for a moment, an Asian-American from California talking with any authority on America’s race questions–because the only fun there is unintentional irony, and not much irony at that. Such a contrived point about the quintessential ‘white person’ making a reckless statement. I wince. Recall Heine’s prophetic observation about Marx and his peers: “These revolutionary doctors and their pitilessly determined disciples are the only men in Germany who have any life; and it is to them, I fear, that the future belongs.” I recall it daily. In name of tolerance we have a man, ostensibly a ‘man of letters,’ immediately contrite. The disciples of political correctness have another victory. He should have doubled-down. Where is Gore Vidal, James Baldwin or Joan Didion when we need them?

There is an excellent rebuttal begging to be made to Brodsky on Lolita. “What a tragedy it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and have the book be only about sexual violence to you!” Brodsky has the benefit of owning a worldview that allows her to converse at length and authority on novels that she has never read.  Or if she has read them without understanding them. Give Brodsky credit, dear reader, for explicitly announcing her intention. Books should be edited for political reasons. For her reasons. Art can take a backseat. I hate the sensibility, I admire the honesty. Like an ancient Essene, or a modern Jain, she strives for irreproachable correctness in every action. But her zeal is more admirable because it is more exigent than their’s. The tenets of her creed are not eternal, but submit to the shifting caprices of Midwestern colleges and a few outposts along the coasts. If I had half as much dedication…

What I worry about is reduction. I can summarize with the lapidary phrase “Everything flows” the philosophy of Heraclitus. But what a weak reading. It consigns him to purgatory–remembered but hardly celebrated.

Take, for a moment, this synthesis by Borges.

Nils Runeberg proposes the opposite motive: a hyperbolic and even unlimited asceticism. The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, vilifies and mortifies his flesh; Judas did the same with his spirit. He renounced honor, morality, peace and kingdom of heaven, just as others, less heroically, renounce pleasure. With terrible lucidity he premeditated his sins. In adultery there is usually tenderness and abnegation; in homicide, courage; in profanity and blasphemy, a certain satanic luster. Judas chose those sins untouched by any virtue: violation of trust and betrayal. He acted with enormous humility, he believed himself unworthy of being good.

Think of the reading that began with Trigger Warning: Regicide. Or Theocide. Or Homicide. Much more consider the word conspiracy. Should that also be included and if it were consider the new meanings. Consider what has been lost. The word changes the meaning of the paragraph. Trigger warnings are edits. They are alterations of the text. It is only a difference of degrees, rather than a change of principle, between removing words. When I add a word I necessarily remove meaning, and relationships, just as if I took a word out. Some, either through stultifying or stupefying ignorance, dodge this last conclusion. Brodsky does not. For that I admire her. Be honest about writing profanities.

Notice the remarkable alacrity with which the poverty, and that is the only word I have for it, of past works will have been officially forgotten and paved over, such that deep social difference is denied or homogenized and even the most recent and contested past is available only in this nostalgic plastic reproduction carefully bracketed by authorities. In an perverse sense this, I believe, is the only way the current of thought is credible. It is the sign on the highway of forgetting. We’re all happy, except me because I am never happy, to travel on it. It may be an inauthentic journey. It may lead us to some disturbing areas. But it is an inauthenticity that is, as it were, authentically created. This effort at forgetting is not contrived. There are several people, hundreds if not thousands of people, that are sincere about forgetting.

The Lost Encyclopedia

An encyclopedia compiled at the order of Yongle, the third emperor of the Luminous Dynasty, which became known as Yongle da dian (The Great Work of Yongle), Yongle being the reign-title of the Emperor. The manuscript of 22,877 sections bound in 11,095 volumes was completed in 1408; two more copies were made in 1567. Like most work beyond 100 pages it is, and was, mostly banalities. The paper proposing and confirming the existence of the double helix was one page long.

The original and one copy were destroyed in Nanjing while the other copy, kept in Hanlin Academy in Peking, was apparently already incomplete when the Academy was destroyed by fire during the Boxer uprising in 1900. A few lost volumes of the encyclopedia are now scattered in libraries in China.

Yongle was flawed. Fang Xiaoru, the former Emperor’s former tutor was but one causality in a disturbingly fervent purging of the Chinese power structure. A common cultural ‘kicker’ to the classic threat of execution was the execution of you and your family, your family’s families, your family’s families’ families and so on. Threatened with execution of all nine degrees of his kinship, he fatuously replied “Never mind nine! Go with ten!” and – alone in Chinese history – he was sentenced to execution of 10 degrees of kinship: along with his entire family, every former student or peer of Fang Xiaoru that the Yongle Emperor’s agents could find was also killed. It was said that as he died, cut in half at the waist, Fang used his own blood to write the character “usurper.” In 1420, Yongle ordered 2,800 ladies-in-waiting to a slow slicing death, and watched.

I wonder. We see history through a glass, darkly. But I still wonder. That these two operations should originate in one person and be in some way his attributes satisfies and at the same time disturbs me. To investigate the emotion is the purpose of this note.

There is a historical answer. There is always, it seems, a historical answer. Born as Zhu Di there was but a light chance he would become Emperor. That he did forced a primitive calculus to the forefront: kill those, and there were many, who would kill him or die. That he did not die from poison or rebellion is commentary enough on his effectiveness. Creating books is a common enough task, though his largess is unprecedented. The concept, however, is tame or nearly so. But behind the concept is reality. Reality, in these circumstances, is deafening.

It is worthwhile to consider that erecting the encyclopedia and burning the families were not simultaneous acts. Imagine, dear reader, what image we receive if the Emperor began by destroying and then resigned himself to preserving, or that of a disillusioned king who destroyed what he had previously and meticulously cataloged. Both conjectures are dramatic, but they lack, as far as I know, any basis in history.

Shi-shan Henry Tsai relates the foreword, ostensibly written by the Emperor, “The reader can now follow the phonetic order to search for words, then follow the words to search for events, and as soon as he opens the volumes, there is nothing that can hide from him.” My emphasis. Too true, I thought. This information favors another interpretation. Perhaps the encyclopedia was a metaphor. What was written in the encyclopedia was the not just present, or even a part of it. Perhaps the encyclopedia was a future. A future where everything was but a reflection of one man. Not merely a future of what is officially condoned, but a future that would always remember. Perhaps those who worshiped the past had to be sentenced away from the present for the project to work. Because the present was a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the encyclopedia. Perhaps the past was a challenge and the Emperor Yongle thought “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Yongle cataloged his empire because he knew that it perishable and destroyed the people because he understood that that they were in some way a cancellation of the present and future–that they were imperishable. Or thought that they were imperishable.

The tenacious encyclopedia “which at this moment, and at all moments, teases about lands I shall never see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered the most reverent of nations to burn its past while creating a future; it is plausible that this idea moves us in itself apart from the conjectures it allows.”

Thoughts Under an Indolent Sun

There is no point to this piece, dear reader, so you should politely excuse yourself now.

I completed reading a novel by Alberto Moravia, Boredom. He is an author who embodies the modern-day author whose work has only one common requirement: the work cannot stand alone. The body of work needs to be taken in as a whole, instead of one artifact speaking for the man. Whether this is good or bad is up to you, dear reader, to decide. But the orientation of the novelist is not readily legible without acknowledging that fact and, even, placing him at the headwaters–along with Italo Svevo–of the Italian untouchables. Untouched by war, untouched by compassion and untouched by Italian upheaval following 1945. Boredom stands alone, but only weakly. His quality grows as you read him. But unlike modern writers he is not modern, and thus the typicality of his work is instead prophetic. He wrote what he could. The rest would be left up to others, perhaps those like Calvino, perhaps not. For that I admire him whereas some modern writers, given everything, still refrain.

Here is a nice quote from the Paris Review, which interviewed him: “Writers, like all artists, are concerned to represent reality, to create a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself. They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work. What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself. A writer survives despite his beliefs. Lawrence will be read whatever one thinks of his notions on sex. Dante is read in the Soviet Union.” The Art of Fiction VI: Alberto Moravia. Paris Review, (6), 16-37.

What a restricted view of agency! We cannot help but read Dante, Lawrence and Moravia. What an interesting thought. Continue reading

Choosing What Books to Keep

Choosing What Books to Keep

The novelist Nicholson Baker is perhaps the most vocal critic of deaccessioning in libraries, first in 1996, in a much-discussed exposé of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) published in The New Yorker, and then in a book called Double Fold. Concerned initially about the disappearance of card catalogs and the way that enthusiasm for information technologies was damaging the traditional culture of libraries, he sued the San Francisco Public Library for access to their old card catalog, which had been replaced by an electronic one as the library moved into a new building. What he discovered went far beyond the issue of paper versus electronic cataloging. He found that there were many books noted in the card catalog that no longer existed in the library. Between the time the SFPL left its old main building and the time it moved into its high-tech, built-for-the-future, and supposedly more roomy new one with its electronic card catalog, somewhere between a hundred thousand and a quarter of a million books were removed from the collection.

This was weeding on a scale—and in a time frame—that suggested reckless destruction more than considered selection. Many books that existed in no other copies, many books arguably with historic value, had been simply thrown away and buried in landfill. Partly this had been done because the new library, while boasting great architectural flourishes and lots of architectural space, did not have enough shelf space. Partly it had been done because the current librarian had a view of what books belonged in the collection that differed from that of previous librarians. He saw the library as serving the general reader, as opposed to researchers and literary professionals, arguing that with the Berkeley and Stanford university libraries nearby, there was no lack of research libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area. He conceived of the SFPL rather as a library for a current urban population and therefore saw an opportunity to pare its collections radically.

Some Thoughts on Myths

The angels are two days and two nights older than we: the Lord created them on the fourth day, and from their high balcony between the recently invented sun and the first moon they scanned the infant earth, barely more than a few wheat fields and some orchards beside the waters. These primitive angels were stars. For the Hebrews, the concepts of angel and star merged effortlessly: I will select, from among many, the passage of the Book of Job (38:7) in which the Lord spoke out of the whirlwind and recalled the beginning of the world, “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Quite apparently, these sons of God and singing stars are the same as the angels. Isaiah, too (14:12), calls the fallen angel “the morning star.”

Borges incorporated countless myths into his writing: knowing old stories, and retrieving and reworking them, brought about conclusions radically different from rational inquiry. By that I mean there is nothing logically necessary about stars, Semitic myths and the Hebrew Bible in particular that creates his story. In that sense he is similar to Joyce rather than Kafka–he was the ultimate synthesizer. His labyrinths are borrowed from history. Kafka produced the motifs for our new age, Borges loved the last era’s. Our point of departure requires a few caveats. Myths are not lies or delusions: they are, in that glittering phrase of Roland Barthes’, inflections. Myths still exist all around us, and while many are antiquated the vast majority still have a vitality.

Yes, dear reader, we still have myths and we still have our cathedrals. I think that social media is almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object. In those cathedrals instead of celebrating a child’s hand that does not know how to die or is forced to live (e.g. A Hand Grows from the Grave by A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz, A Hand Grows from the Grave: Three Legends from Mecklenburg  by Karl Bartsch ect) but something equally informative. Say, that if you are (1) unattractive, (2) stubborn, (3) egotistical and (4) nerdy you are automatically intelligent.

Look at how Steve Wozniak was fat and stubborn in his youth and how the casting in the Jobs movie was perfectly accurate for a computer nerd, which was sarcasm dear reader. Look at the chubby Bill Gates jumping over a chair, our contemporary construction of ‘nerd:’  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TCxE0bWQeQ . Then there is this familiar television host. I cannot help but notice, especially in the case of Wozniak, how reality is bent to our myth. Wozniak, somehow, gains thirty pounds. Myths are still all around us. The only thing that has changed is that they are incorporated into shiny new cathedrals that are publicly traded.

Continue reading