Poshlust

“Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances, and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, over concern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany’s guilt.” The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma,” “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue” (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports oneJewish name—that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost‘s favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots—all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple—she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.

Interview link.

A Wonder of Reading

In Borges illuminating, “premeditated” study of Kafka, we are deposited–in a fashion Borges’ owns–onto the conclusion that we discover Kafka’s qualities but only because he had written and Max had saved. Kafka’s influence on these earlier works “In other words… would not exist” if Max had obeyed the will or Kafka had not obeyed his will.

When Pontius Pilate was asked to take down the sign above Christ’s head—which read ‘King of the Jews’—he replied quod scripsi scripsi.There was no regret or elusion. But earlier Pilate had looked into the crowd and had washed his hands. Christ was neither his problem nor responsibility. It is a study of contrasts, who is the real Pilate? If he did not allow a single addition or elision then he is a man of towering certainty. If he abdicated his responsibility and washed his hands of the crowds’ decision then, dear, reader, come to the opposite conclusion.

Deciding who he is a question without an answer, but he is a door we have to pass through. He is still alive, having exhausted all infamy, and is a gift that we must accept gratefully. Because he is a gift I cannot refuse I am afraid that my suffering and joys and sufferings, not to mention my other sufferings, will be left for other pages. Other nights will carry the burden of my scribbling life. Tonight is Pontius.

It is a needless observation that Pilate should be damned for his actions but because of his actions he, indirectly, saved the world. Are the world’s sins cleansed forever and for all if Jesus is let go in favor of Barabas? I am not a theologian but Jurgen Moltmann would be a radically different thinker. Perhaps that is a modern point—efficiency and end results always provide retroactive forgiveness to inexcusable means. But I would consider it a small irony if Pilate was damned because he allowed the savior to save the world. Given the omniscience of God he is also a moral point and, thus, we are led back to my first paragraph—what moral point?

I refuse to believe that Pilate is unvarnished evil. He is not Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature and deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”

What Pilate represents to us, today, is not the same moral point he has always represented. Theology always contains an autobiographical element, and an autobiography is always changing. What I see in Pilate is Kafka, but if Kafka had not written then I would have never seen him. What I see in Pilate is also an Eichmann, but if Arendt had not written then I would have never seen him.

For that I thank you, authors, and for you dear reader think of what and how figures change when you look at them through different lenses. For Borges could have, and I am sure he did, gone farther. It is not Kafka that we see in those earlier writers, though he is certainly there. It is ourselves that we see. If Zeno’s paradox against movement is reflected in Kafka’s work and Kafka’s work is reflected in Zeno’s then it is because you choose to insert Kafka’s work into Zeno’s and Zeno’s into Kafka’s. And now, as I write, I am busily inserting Borges and, for that matter, whomever you decided wrote the Gospels.

Functionally, I have become Kafka’s precursor. It is a wonder of reading. In considering Pilate I leave myself behind, for Kafka to pick up after I read him–or perhaps before.

Lolita and Eichmann

Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation.” After two days Eichmann returned it, indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book!” (Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch!)

Eichmann’s reaction is about what I imagined for him. But guessing the officer’s intentions is another matter. There is difficultly imagining anyone offering Lolita for “relaxation.” Eichmann was writing under observation and awaiting a trial that will consign him either to death or prolonged imprisonment—which fate spares him by felling him with a heart attack. If nothing else we can agree that Eichmann did not find many things relaxing. Regardless if he was a delusional madman or simply unthinking: few things are relaxing for someone at that moment writing his (soon to be posthumous) memoirs. Nabokov’s challenging book is not one of them. That much, dear reader, we can assume.

We might speculate other intentions on the part of Eichmann’s guard. Was it a sincere gift? Or was it something of an experiment? Nabokov has never faded from the popular consciousness, but Lolita was certainly closer national recognition in the ’60s. It is probable that the guard knew the book was for the thinking public and imagined that Eichmann constituted some distorted, cruel reimagining of that public (by National Socialism? Germany? Hitler? I leave the agent in that sentence up to you, dear reader).

I can’t help but wonder: might Eichmann’s guard have seen Lolita as a sort of litmus test for radical evil, and wanted to see whether the real-life villain reacted? Was it to see how the novel reacted to him? Imagine his devastation, or glee, if the man who organized transportation for countless innocents approved of Nabokov’s creation.

In a bit of awkward preening in Despair’s foreword, Nabokov recounts the circumstances attending to this first translation of the work. “I asked a rather grumpy Englishman,” says Nabokov, “whose services I obtained [End Page 313] through an agency in Berlin, to read the stuff; he found a few solecisms in the first chapter, but then refused to continue, saying he disapproved of the book; I suspect he wondered if it might not have been a true confession” (Despair, p. xi). Nabokov’s explanation appears to be the one which we will find in nearly all of his later works. If Eichmann approved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? That he disproved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? Too little?

It is possible to imagine that Eichmann’s reaction was intended to act as a mirror. What does the guard see when Humbert is reflected through and off the lens of evil. Did Eichmann see a fellow traveler in Humbert? An alien? What could we say if Eichmann, like so many of us, grasped the novel and refused to let go? I wonder if it would make any difference and whether it should.

This is all only speculation. In Arendt’s account, she congratulates Eichmann for his indignation and moves on to other matters. In any event, given Eichmann’s radical conventionality one could hardly imagine him liking—or even very well understanding—much of the book. As Eichmann himself avowed, during his adult life he had read only two books, one of them being Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. He preferred newspapers. I don’t know what that says about the New York Times.

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.

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.

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

They Have One Book

Some days I think it would be terribly romantic if I became someone of one book. Assuming I don’t succumb to my romantic dreams about being an alcoholic I’d be a grouch, but a well-loved one. I would always carry that one well-loved book with it’s tired pages. In this daydream I imagine myself like some sort of latter day Jonathan Edwards. But instead of the Bible it is Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Perhaps the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance and you all are unbalanced chakrahs in the hands of an angry God world. Perhaps it could be some Third Wave Feminist pink handbook or Mao’s red one. The book is not as important as the habits and the accomplishments. I’d be the Robert Graves of Aztec literature. Or the Robert Graves of Robert Graves–his works can sustain and even flourish with multiple readings.

Aquinas created the aphorism ‘a man of one book,’ or so I believe. Wikipedia confirms which is almost a reassurance. What I would like, and perhaps I should store this seed away for future efforts, is a book like Robert Merton’s. But instead of tracing the phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ I trace ‘a man of one book’ used in the appropriate context. That would be scholarship of the most frivolous and fun kind.

Isaiah Berlin, in his frothy essay about Russian literature, had this to say about the phrase: “[Aquinas’s] words are generally quoted today in disparagement of the man whose mental horizons are limited to one book. Aquinas, however, meant that a man who has thoroughly mastered one good book can be dangerous as an opponent. The Greek poet Archilochus meant something like this when he said that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The metaphor glitters. I love it. I would be the best hedgehog the world had ever known! Or so I reassure myself.

A few people have attempted to become a man of one book (how interesting is it that I have not found a woman or two to soften this list? Not very, as my ‘research’ skills are not without their blindspots but worth mentioning). Michael Dirda owned, at last count, nearly twenty books by or about E. F. Benson as well as a few by the brother Robert Benson. E. B. White carried Walden around everywhere he went. The grandmother in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had the letters of Madame de Sevigne. Even Alexander the Great never left Asia without Homer’s tome, bejeweled with the conquests of nations.  Samuel Johnson admonished novice writers to devote themselves to Addison’s essays. There’s that well-worn anecdote that Francis Bacon always chatted about Aeschylus, almost obsessively, and his writings make him a first ballot ‘man of one book’ shoe-in. John Wesley also claimed to be a man of one book.

An interesting note: the scholarship that surrounds Wesley is, in brief, a rough mimic of the popular and academic esteem one gathered (or missed) by being a ‘man of one book.’ He was loved when he was a man of one book, the Bible, during the early scholarship but as that idea became more archaic to those who care about his reputation (or, to be honest, those who know about him at all) scholarship has changed accordingly. It’s a prime instance where there was one set of agreed on facts that were “papered over and a new set of agreed-upon facts were hurried into place.”  If I ever write a book about the phrase, I think he would be a nice pinnacle.

Perhaps I’m already someone of one book, or at least one author. I manage to throw Vidal’s name out therefrequently. But it would be another animal entirely if I peppered my posts, not to mention daily chats, with Augustine’s Confessions, or Georg Misch’s impossibly well researched History of Autobiography in Antiquity and–wait for the gasp–its two volumes. If I’m honest, and I had to commit myself to one book, I would attempt it with Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

“That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truth and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truth in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truth that made the people grotesques.”

The most enjoyable aspect would be the great irony of becoming a character in Anderson’s book. My one truth would be the bookwarning me away from letting a single group of truths monopolize my attention.

Even still I wouldn’t mind reading one book to death. I just never have. As it is I don’t know if I’m much better than those that have. Christopher Howe, over at the Guardian, has a long list of reasons for why it’s never a problem to have too many books. Who is he trying to convince himself except for himself? When I scan my books there are not any convincing, or even defensible, reasons for why I should not read every one of the forlorn friends. This book is for a more patient me, I assure myself, than the one that woke up today. I pick up and read the back cover of another. This one I quickly put down. Poetry! I am too patient for poetry. I want the meaning to bite me in the ass. Another book is about the English—bah! Too frumpy. Another is about peasants. I have no time for the working class.

Perhaps this worrying forgets why I read in the first place. To Professor Borges his message was always that the study of literature is about appreciation, not context or theory much less romantic ideas about how my universe would revolve around some mulch and ink. “Reading should be a form of happiness.”

The Allure of the Map

The Allure of the Map

I enjoy Borges a lot. He gets a reference.

Some days I wake up from a dream where I’m Borges but then, as I get started on my day, I realize I am in one of his books. At that point it becomes a nightmare. I never woke up but just woke up into another dream. It’s almost as if I’m trying to make a dream as intricate and confusing but as beautifully balanced as Borges was.

I wish I could explain it better but I thought I’d share.