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.

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.

Visiting a Feminist Book Shop

I love bookstores. My love is a simple one. Uncomplicated. There is no bookstore that does not deserve one visit. The thought is in my heart and there is no reason for it. In the small hours of the night when every one is shuttered the world seems colder, sadder and tenuous. Unbalanced. I trace some of these thoughts, more like detritus, to the common thread of my childhood. There were sadder things, certainly. There were events that carried more weight and finality. But nothing competed with the dull ache of not being able to find a good book, in a store, before I had to leave. Before it closed. Such a busy life I led, even as a child, but somehow my departures, as I turn the memories over, are without purpose. I look for a reason. There is none or at least I cannot remember. I like to think there was a reason for all those early departures. When I left I knew the store would close. The world would be a little quieter and yet, without all the hushed tones floating in the air above the stacks, louder. Louder but with less purpose, with less meaning.

In the Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges writes of the Wufniks. “There are on earth, and always were, thirty-six righteous men whose mission is to justify the world before God. They are the Lamed Wufniks. They do not know each other and are very poor. If a man comes to the knowledge that he is a Lamed Wufnik, he immediately dies and somebody else, perhaps in another part of the world, takes his place. Lamed Wufniks are, without knowing it, the secret pillars of the universe. Were it not for them, God would annihilate the whole of mankind. Unawares, they are our saviors.” There is no doubt in my mind that the Wufnikes, as a general rule, are the operators of small bookstores. Independent ones, perhaps, but keeping in line with the canon (“they… are very poor”) the bookstores are not very popular. They are not necessarily well-maintained. I have my own evaluation rubric for a good bookstore. Coincidentally it more or less mimics my rubric for Mexican resturants but that’s a story for another time, dear reader. Good bookstores only have so much energy: they must spend this amount of energy one three things. The first is order. The second is selection. The third is price. In this sense my grading evokes ideas of virtually anything else: quality, quantity, price but adapted for book-buying. To that I say mea culpa. You got me. I still find it useful. The best bookkeepers of these stores are our saviors.  Continue reading

Behind the Comedy of Soul Experts

There is an apocryphal story of Richard Wagner when he made a visit to the southern Italian town of Ravello, where he was shown the gardens of the thousand-year-old Villa Rufolo. The groundskeeper keeper asked, “do not these fantastic gardens ’neath yonder azure sky that blends in such perfect harmony with yonder azure sea closely resemble those fabled gardens of Klingsor where you have set so much of your latest interminable opera, Parsifal? Is not this vision of loveliness your inspiration for Klingsor?” Wagner muttered something in German. “He say,” said Wagner’s translator, “‘How about that?’” How about that, I thought, when I saw Ayaan Hirsi Ali was refused an honorary degree from Brandeis University.

How she must feel after Brandeis University, which had announced plans to award her an honorary degree at its commencement ceremony next month, is beyond me. But when the university changed its mind this last week it was a compelling example of how university’s had ceded their gatekeeping function for the public forum to other parties. I cannot wait for an oblivious work by a Brandeis faculty member lamenting the fall of the university from its perch as purveyor of the intellectual landscape. “She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world,” the university said in a statement. But the school “cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.” The news of this reprehensible insult has gone around the world, turning, as Hirsi Ali herself put it, an intended honor “into a moment of shaming.” Continue reading

Another Look at Albert Camus

Another Look at Albert Camus

The New Republic has taken another look at French philosopher, writer and all-around maestro of the literary arts. One of his books has been recently translated into English, and since everyone who reads the New Republic is at least cordially acquainted with the guy I suppose the staff decided that there was no time like the present to chat about him. Book chat is a marvelous thing.

I give the article props for finally tracking down, in the book, and relating to the readers Camus at his most quotable.

What Camus actually said, in any case, was sharp enough. He told the students: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

I hope you enjoy the read.

Analyzing the ‘You Have Nothing to Hide’ Argument

Analyzing the ‘You Have Nothing to Hide’ Argument

In this short essay, written for a symposium in the San Diego Law Review, Professor Daniel Solove examines the nothing to hide argument.  When asked about government surveillance and data mining, many people respond by declaring: “I’ve got nothing to hide.”  According to the nothing to hide argument, there is no threat to privacy unless the government uncovers unlawful activity, in which case a person has no legitimate justification to claim that it remain private.  The nothing to hide argument and its variants are quite prevalent, and thus are worth addressing.  In this essay, Solove critiques the nothing to hide argument and exposes its faulty underpinnings.

Ham Sandwhich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime

Ham Sandwhich Nation: Due Process When Everything is a Crime

“Though extensive due process protections apply to the investigation of crimes, and to criminal trials, perhaps the most important part of the criminal process — the decision whether to charge a defendant, and with what — is almost entirely discretionary.  Given the plethora of criminal laws and regulations in today’s society, this due process gap allows prosecutors to charge almost anyone they take a deep interest in.  This Essay discusses the problem in the context of recent prosecutorial controversies involving the cases of Aaron Swartz and David Gregory, and offers some suggested remedies, along with a call for further discussion.”