“Studies in a Dying Culture”


by Ralph Dumain
“The escort service of the intellect”

Dedicated to Christopher Caudwell (1907-1937)
(Pseudonym of Christopher St. John Sprigg)
Martyr of the Spanish Civil War

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads
against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the
Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could,
forever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War.

— William Blake, Preface to Milton


“Everybody wants to get into the act!” Even the culture of critique is overloaded, as the dumbing down of America gets more lowdown than anyone imagined possible, and American culture scrapes the dirt way below the bottom of the barrel. Yet no one manages to dig deep enough to undermine this process. The benumbed and demoralized general populace remains uncritical as ever, but what of critical culture? Can critique be reduced to an algorithm? Can critique mystify as well as reveal? Is it possible to escape being overwhelmed by the propaganda environment? How does one climb out from under layers piled upon ideological layers? How to think one’s way out of this morass? How to escape the confines of popular, middlebrow, and academic culture? How to avoid entrapment and stasis, and creatively surmount the limitations of the age? With these thoughts as well as reservations I approach the already bloated blog culture. This cultural crisis is not just a replay of the 1930s, but aside from taking note of discomfiting historical parallels, we can pay tribute to the courageous resistance of the past. Christopher Caudwell’s Studies in a Dying Culture (1938) and Further Studies in a Dying Culture (1949) were my inspiration when I first publicly spoke on this crisis in December 1988, a year that was a turning point for me. My framework has since grown more sophisticated, but the political decline of the USA has now reached crisis proportions. Hence again I borrow Caudwell’s title for my own. (RD—10 July 2006)

Borges Revisited (8):
Still More Poems
Borges Revisited (7):
More Poems Online
Borges Revisited (6):
More Fictions
I Dream Too Much
Rainer Maria Rilke
How Small We Are, How Little We Know
Constantin Brunner (1)
Existential America
August Wilson's Cultural Perspective
Borges Revisited (5)
The Book of Sand (continued)
Borges Revisited (4)
The Book of Sand
Borges Revisited (3)
“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”
Borges Revisited (2)
Ibsen & Hitler?
Anti-Nietzsche (6)

July 2006


“I labour upwards into futurity.”
— William Blake?, 1796
[Keynes, 262]

31 August 2006

Borges Revisited (8):
Still More Poems

Note: The most current and comprehensive anthology of Borges' poetry in English is:

Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman New York: Viking, 1999.

Poems of interest to me include:

Baruch Spinoza [from The Unending Rose], translation by Willis Barnstone, p. 383.

Compare to first poem on Spinoza, translation by Willis Barnstone p. 229. See also Spinoza, translation by Richard Howard, César Rennert; and Spanish original, Spinoza.

París, 1856 [from The Self and the Other], translation by Willis Barnstone, p. 213. [In Spanish, O.C., p. 914.] Homage to Heinrich Heine.

Descartes, translation by Alastair Reed, p. 423.

Melville, p. 377 [further information not at hand.]

Earlier collections in English and Borges' poetry in Spanish are listed at The Garden of Forking Paths. Several of Borges' other volumes in English translation contain poems.

See entry below for Borges poems in English. For poems online in Spanish see Jorge Luis Borges: MENÚ DE POEMAS.

For other links see my earlier entries Borges (2).

Note that many of Borges' poems embody his characteristic themes, e.g. potentially infinite regress of dreams and dreamers.

[—> Borges (9)]

29 August 2006

Borges Revisited (7):
More Poems Online

Some more poems online I forgot to add to my previous lists of links:

Poet: Jorge Luis Borges - All poems of Jorge Luis Borges (PoemHunter.com) (English translations)

[—> Borges (8)]

29 August 2006

Borges Revisited (6):
More Fictions

Here I will highlight fictional pieces of Borges of interest not mentioned in previous entries, using Andrew Hurley's translation of Borges' Collected Fictions (New York: Viking, 1998) as a base. Many of these stories can be found in other Borges volumes as well.

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is among the top half dozen of Borges' stories, perhaps even the most important. Perhaps I will discuss it in a future entry.

The Circular Ruins embodies the themes of duplication, reflection and regress, and the reversal of dream and reality. A man dreams a son, and then worries whether his son will one day discover the nature of his real existence, but the man, facing death, learns that he too is someone else's dream.

The Lottery in Babylon takes the premise of doling out societal rewards and publishments by means of chance to its logical conclusion.

The Library of Babel is the universe for its inhabitants, who develop entire religions, philosophies, sciences, and schools of thought in the attempt to ascertain its laws, patterns and properties.

The Garden of Forking Paths combines espionage, assassination, and the nature of time in a World War II setting.

I once saw Three Versions of Judas performed as a play. I was intrigued by the permutations of heresy therein.

The above stories and several others cited elsewhere were published in Ficciones (1944), the collection concentrating Borges' most important stories.

The Aleph (1949) contains a number of other of Borges' most celebrated stories. I will mention a few of the most philosophically intriguing not already mentioned elsewhere.

The Immortal explores the logic of immortality showing it to be a horror. There is also the notion of the indistinguishibility of memories as one's lifeline stretches to infinity. And the familiar Borgesian theme of transgression:

This City [of the Immortals], I thought, is so horrific that its mere existence, the mere fact of its having endured—pollutes the past and the future and somehow compromises the stars. So long as this City endures, no one in the world can ever be happy or courageous. [188, author's italics]

The Theologians begins with the heresy of circular time and the sect founded on that notion. The idea of the eternal repetition of all acts engenders unusual theological consequences and persecutions.

The Aleph is another story of a dangerous talismanic object. This story involves death, poetry, and the Aleph—"one of the points in space that contain all points." The narrator gets to see the Aleph in the corner of a basement, and thus gets to see all the places in the world at once, which, until forgetfulness once again sets in, causes him to be indifferent to all further environmental stimuli.

The Maker (1960) includes a one-paragraph piece called On Exactitude in Science. It is about a map as large as the territory it represents, discarded by the descendants of the cartographers who created it, only the remains of which can yet be found in the deserts.

In the foreword to Brodie's Report (1970) Borges outlines his literary and political views, e.g.

My convictions with respect to political matters are well known; I have joined the Conservative Party (which act is a form of skepticism), and no one has ever called me a Communist, a nationalist, an anti-Semite, or a supporter of Hormiga Negra or of Rosas. I believe that in time we will have reached the point where we will deserve to be free of government.

The most interesting story from that collection is Brodie's Report, based on a 'memoir' of contact with a strange tribe dubbed the Yahoos. Noteworthy here is the Yahoos' language.

Their language is complex, and resembles none other that I know. One cannot speak of "parts of speech," as there are no sentences. Each monosyllabic word corresponds to a general idea, which is defined by its context or by facial expressions. The word nrz, for example, suggests a dispersion or spots of one kind or another: it may mean the starry sky, a leopard, a flock of birds, smallpox, something splattered with water or mud, the act of scattering, or the flight that follows a defeat. Hrl, on the other hand, indicates that which is compact, dense, or tightly squeezed together; it may mean the tribe, the trunk of a tree, a stone, a pile of rocks, the act of piling them up, a meeting of the four witch doctors, sexual congress, or a forest. Pronounced in another way, or with other facial expressions, it may mean the opposite. We should not be overly surprised at this: in our own tongue, the verb to cleave means to rend and to adhere. Of course, there are no sentences, even incomplete ones.

The intellectual power of abstraction demanded by such a language suggests to me that the Yahoos, in spite of their barbarity, are not a primitive people but a degenerate one. This conjecture is confirmed by inscriptions which I have discovered up on the tableland. The characters employed in these inscriptions, resembling the runes that our own forebears carved, can no longer be deciphered by the tribe; it is as though the tribe had forgotten the written language and retained only the spoken one. [406]

There are two memorable stories in Borges' last collection of fiction, Shakespeare's Memory. The story Shakespeare's Memory features a German Shakespeare scholar who acquires Shakespeare from another fellow who acquired it from a dying soldier in World War I. The narrator accepts Shakespeare's memory, and is told that it will take awhile for him to remember things. Bits and pieces of Shakespeare's memory come to him at various times, but the experience is not what he had hoped to learn as a curious scholar. He realizes that memory cannot be forced, it must be activated or stimulated so that memories come forth; even Shaespeare did not have full, deliberate access to his own memory. Eventually the narrator is giddily in possession of Shakespeare's memory. He also acquires a vague feeling of guilt—Shakespeare's guilt. He realizes that the life is not the work, and that part of him has become Shakespeare the man not the poet. He also realizes that he lacks the writing talent to write a biographyof Shakespeare, or of himself. The gist of transmuting thought and experience into literature remains a mystery, and the presence of Shakespeare becomes a curse not a joy. The narrator becomes unfocused, and with time the burden of two memories is too much.

The wish of all things, Spinoza says, is to continue to be what they are. The stone wishes to be stone, the tiger, tiger—and I wanted to be Hermann Sörgel again. [514]

He picks up a phone book to pick out a number at random, and finds someone at the other end of the line to accept Shakespeare's memory.

I had invented exercises to awaken the antique memory; I had now to seek others to erase it. One of many was the study of the mythology of William Blake, that rebellious disciple of Swedenborg. I found it to be less complex than merely complicated. [515]

Only Bach could compete with Shakespeare. At the end the narrator is back to his own triviliaties, but occasionally unsettling, fleeting memories come to him.

This is the final story of the volume.

The other most striking story in this final collection is Blue Tigers. The tiger is a familiar figure in Borges' work; he immediately mentions Blake. The narrator is a logician and teaches Spinoza. His love of tigers draws him to check out the existence of a blue tiger reported in the news, and so he voyages to a remote Hindu village in the jungle in India. At first the villagers are frightened by his interest, but when they realize he is talking about the animal, they are relieved. There are several false sightings. The villagers balk when the narrator wishes to climb a certain mountain, so he does it by himself at night. He doesn't find the blue tiger, but he finds some curious stones the same blue color as the tiger of his dreams. He pockets some of these stones, and returns to his hut. He gets a ticklish sensation the next day when he pulls the stones out of his pocket. He knows that the stones have somehow multiplied; there are more there than he picked up. But he is unable to count them. Their number keeps changing. Spinoza's axioms cannot help him. He tosses the stones out the window. The headman of the village confronts him, knowing that the stones come from the mountain and not the village, but out of fear he refuses to touch them. The narrator picks them up, to the astonishment of the villagers.

Upon reflection, he realizes that the existence of fantastic beings is a relative triviliaty; but a violation of the laws of logic and mathematics is unthinkable (500). His dreams exemplify his fear that God is irrational. As the possessor of the 'blue tigers', as the stones are dubbed by the villagers, he becomes a somewhat sacred though fearful figure to them. He returns home, but he cannot get any piece, obsessed by these miraculous stones, and begins to shun his friends and performs experiments on the stones. Their mysterious appearances and disappearances defy the laws of mathematics, but the narrator persists in seeking out order in these aberrant occurrences. His elaborate statistical record-keeping does not help, as the standard arithmetical operations do not apply. As he handles 'the stones that destroyed the science of mathematics' he thinks of ancient Greek ciphers originating in stones and the meaning of the word 'calculus'. The problem proves insoluble, and the stones become a constant torment. "I came to fear that they would contaminate other things—particularly the fingers that insisted upon handling them."

After a sleepless night, he enters a mosque and on impulse prays to Allah to be relieved of his burden. A beggar appears, and insists on being given all the stones, not just one. The narrator drops the whole uncountable pile into the beggar's hand, after warning him that "my alms may be a curse." The beggar is not concerned, for he declares himself a sinner:

I do not yet know what your gift to me is, but mine to you is an awesome one. You may keep your days and nights, and keep wisdom, habits, the world." [503]

This is one of Borges' last stories, and it recapitulates almost off of his constant themes, but rather than being stale, it is exceptional. The contrast between common superstition (the blue tiger) and this far more disturbing phenomenon (blue tigers) is brilliant. The overworked Borgesian theme of metaphysical anxiety linked to a talismanic object, transgression of the order of things, and an intolerable violation of rationality, is fabulized in a novel fashion. What an excellent way for the master to wrap up his career.

[—> Borges (7)]
[—> Borges (5)]

28 August 2006

I Dream Too Much

“The desire of Man being Infinite the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite” — William Blake, There is No Natural Religion

Though I had no idea until now, this is actually the title of a famous song by Jerome Kern and a film. My introduction to this song was at an incredibly intense concert by the Sun Ra Arkestra at the Kilimanjaro in Washington DC at the end of the 1980s. As far I can determine, Sun Ra's only officially released recording of this song is on the album Reflections in Blue (1986 / 1993).

For my experience of Sun Ra, see:

The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society: Meaning, Method & the Young Hegelians

For other remarks on Sun Ra, see my essays:

The Theory & Practice of John Coltrane

Ishmael Reed, William Blake, and the '60s According to Shamoon Zamir

In my annotations to 'Anthony Braxton: The Third Millennial Interview with Mike Heffley': Extracts, with Commentary, I remark:

I hope that Braxton is aware of how different he, a Chicagoan, is from Sun Ra, who was a product of the deep South, and that the mystical perspective does not block his understanding of the process of modernization.

Sun Ra web site:

SATURN: Sun Ra and the Arkestra

See also this revealing interview:

Sun Ra- Space is the Place: INTERVIEW WITH JOHN F. SZWED by Billy Bob Hargus (August 1997)

Szwed is the author of the definitive (to date) biography of Sun Ra. The flavor of Ra's reactionary political views can be tasted in this interview.

I saw Sun Ra more than once in Washington, more than once even at the Kilimanjaro (I think). All of my memories pertain (I think) to the aforementioned concert. I did not touch one molecule of any intoxicating substance; the music alone put me into a trance for the next day or two. I had an amusing conversation with Pat Patrick while peeing next to him in the men's room. The Arkestra, in addition to repertoire more familiar to me, performed some old tunes from the big band era, including a song featuring the words 'let's go slumming', and a song I did not know was an old standard—'I Dream Too Much'. Something about the music—wistful I think it was—combined with the title (the only lyric I retained) haunted me. The feeling I got had nothing to do with male-female romance; it was something fundamentally existential, aspiration for the unbounded. Yeah, I'm out there, baby—I dream too much.

[—> The Jazz Avant-Garde (3)]
[—> The Jazz Avant-Garde (2): Music and the Avant Garde]

25 August 2006

Rainer Maria Rilke

See The Rainer Maria Rilke Archive for poems, quotes, and bibliography.

See Rainer Maria Rilke on Being and the Transitory for one of my favorite quotes.

24 August 2006

How Small We Are, How Little We Know

One of my all-time favorite films seems to be largely forgotten; it has never been released on video (though unofficial recordings exist) and no longer shows up on network television like it used to: The Adding Machine (1969), starring Milo O'Shea and Phyllis Diller, based on the play by Elmer Rice.

Ever since I first saw this film on television I'm been haunted by the closing song, which rounds out the satirical existential theme. I've discovered I'm not the only one so moved: Uncle Phaedrus answered a query from another interested party. The title of the song remains unknown, and a recording cannot be found. The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film and Television and screenonline credit The Adding Machine theme to Charlie Chaplin. Josef Locke wrote and recorded (Decca 1969 and on an at least one album [now on CD], The World of Josef Locke Today) a song titled "How Small We Are, How Little We Know." Robert Goulet recorded a song with this title (Both Sides Now, 1969). There is also a recording by the Johnny Mann Singers (LST7587). There is also a song with this title by Earl Wilson. Any relation of these songs to one another and to The Adding Machine theme remains unknown to me. Phaedrus found these song lyrics, untitled and uncredited, on a now-vanished web site. I reproduce the lyrics below and thank Phaedrus for his legwork. I don't recall all the lyrics of the song, but I remember enough to identify this as The Adding Machine closing theme. I remember the simple yet plaintive melody, and I have sung it from time to time.

We laugh, we cry,
We live, we die,
and when we're gone
the world goes on.
We love, we hate,
We learn too late
how small we are,
how little we know

We hear, we touch,
we talk too much
of things we have
no knowledge of.
We see, we feel,
yet can't conceal
how small we are,
how little we know.

See how the time
moves swiftly by,
we don't know how,
we don't know why.
We reach so high
and fall so low
the more we learn,
the less we know.

Too soon the time
to go will come,
too late the will
to carry on.
And so we leave,
too much undone,
how small we are,
how little we know.

24 August 2006

Constantin Brunner (1)

In my essay William Blake in the Universe of Knowledge: Philosophy, Genres, & Critical Method, I related my experience of reading a book several years previously:

I thought objective idealism was nonsense, and I could not understand what made it plausible, and then I read an obscure book called The Philosophy of Spinoza and Brunner by Walter Bernard (New York: Spinoza Institute of America, 1934), which set it all out brilliantly (including the superiority of Hegel to Kant), and once I gained a glimmer of the precious secrets of objective idealism, I laughed and laughed! How exquisitely tautological.

My memory of how I became acquainted with Constantin Brunner's thought is vague, but it is likely that I learned about him via one of the books of the Chicago Surrealists, possibly Arsenal 4.

His major work in English translation is: Science, Spirit, Superstition: A New Enquiry into Human Thought. London: Allen & Unwin, 1968.

In January 2005 I was cited in the constantinbrunner.info blog by its editor, Barrett Pashak. Apparently, the acquaintance of a North American with Brunner's work is a rarity.

Note also a series of exchanges about Brunner, me and my Autodidact Project on William F. Vallicella's Maverick Philosopher site.

Note the home page for the Brunner site. A good place to begin an overview of Brunner's perspective is the Constantin Brunner Primer.

The Brunner extracts on the site did not thrill me. The extracts from The Tyranny of Hate give very little useful information for understanding the deadly phenomenon of anti-Semitism. Our Christ reveals much of Brunner's way of thinking, which admits a fair degree of nonsense. The central problem is that his metaphysical mode of reasoning does not admit of real history.

Above all, there are two human races, differing inwardly: the Spiritual Élite and the multitude.

The suggestion that history is to be explained metaphysically as a conflict between the elite and the multitude is useless.

The summary of Brunner's doctrine emphasizes that which is least useful in him. The concept of the spiritual elite is rather silly—superstitious in fact—as superstitious as the metaphysical interpretation of history and the place of Judaism and Christianity in it—as superstitious and ridiculous as all symbolic and spiritual (geistig) interpretations of history (whether religious in the fundamentalist or in the liberal sense). It explains little of how critical thought emerges out of the mass of received ideas, among the intelligentsia as well among the more gifted of the lower classes, and how this may be enabled in different eras under different conditions and in different stages of social development and scientific knowledge.

Pashak's historical explanation in Brunner and Postmodernism suffers from the same metaphysical schematism.

André Breton praised Brunner, and here is Pashak's take on Brunner and surrealism. Of Brunner's tripartite division of the faculties, I was originally intrigued by the concept of the Analogon, the faculty responsible for superstitious thinking, including religion, a travesty of the spirit, and it was the memory of this concept that triggered this current exploration. Pashak disagrees with Breton's interpretation. Note this striking assertion:

In art, the Analogon can only serve as a tool for creating and understanding satire. [emphasis mine]

This induced me to wonder how this notion might apply to the work of Jorge Luis Borges.

I also thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, particularly the verse 'the deep truth is imageless'.

Perhaps more could be done to illustrate the negative influence of the Analogon, given the inability of any society—especially contemporary civilization in its degenerating phase—to transcend the vorstellung it takes for its self-understanding?

Now I'm taking up Brunner's Science, Spirit, Superstition. It is one of the cleverist systems of idealism known to man. I'm finding it extremely objectionable. There are two aspects of Brunner's thought I remain curious about: Spinoza and the Analogon.

[—> October Reading Review (1)]
[—> My Yiddishe Spinoza]

23 August 2006

Existential America

Out on Highway 61: Existentialism in America by T.H. Adamowski.
Review of: George Cotkin, Existential America.

This is a noteworthy in-depth review. I read the book almost a year ago. It is a history of existentialist thought and sensibility in America. I finally learned just why I should despise Kierkegaard (his influence was entirely reactionary), and I understand better why C.L.R. James was contemptuous of postwar American intellectuals. Especially interesting is the chapter on the popularity of Camus among '60s activists, and the surprisingly lesser popularity of Sartre. These folks used the notion of 'absurdity' to propel them to action, not to throw in the towel. (Robert Moses of Mississippi Freedom Summer fame was inspired by Camus, among many others.) I think a deeper analysis of the function of these ideas in relation to social being and self-understanding is indicated.

23 August 2006

August Wilson's Cultural Perspective

If the abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets...But a voice
Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless;
For what would it avail to bid thee gaze
On the revolving world? What to bid speak
Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change? To these
All things are subject but eternal Love.

     — Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Prometheus Unbound," 2.4

It's been several years since I saw August Wilson's play "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was an impressive piece and it struck me that there were layers of symbolic meaning below the surface that merited analysis. I haven't seen anything else by Wilson except for a scene or two (on TV) from "The Piano Lesson" (with Charles S. Dutton).

A recent discussion prompted me to look up some material on Wilson online. I found a page of August Wilson quotes. It doesn't give complete bibliographical references, so I'm taking these on trust for the meantime. I find myself understanding of many of these quotes, but others make me sad, because I think the changing times are going to destroy the tradition Wilson sought to preserve, for better or worse.

I cannot but be struck by how much Wilson is a product of a vanishing generation, and that there has occurred an historical break which has rendered much of his perspective obsolete beyond its representation of a past now geriatric and soon to expire and so not expressive of current reality or prospective. History will continue to be relevant, but I don't think as living tradition. Consider these assertions:

[...] In my own work, what I hope to do is to "place" the tradition of black American culture, to demonstrate its ability to sustain us. We have a ground that is specific, that is peculiarly ours, that we can stand on, which gives us a world view, to look at the world and to comment on it. I'm just trying to place the world of that culture on stage and to demonstrate its existence and maybe also indicate some directions toward which we as a people might possibly move. [...]

If there ever was a collective world view (which is always an exaggeration but perhaps not too far afield in specific historical circumstances), it was a product of slavery and apartheid, and I suspect it is dissolving into a number of factions that will soon cease to reference the same experienced reality, and I doubt it can give much guidance for the future.

[...] "I am trying to write plays that contain the sum total of black culture in America, and its difference from white culture. Once you put in the daily rituals of black life, the plays start to get richer and bigger. You're creating a whole world in the process of telling your story, of writing this character. Once you place him down in his environment, you have to write about his whole philosophical approach to life. And then you can uncover, from a black perspective, the universalities of life." [...]

Interesting. But I don't think portraying the sum total of black culture is possible any more, at least not since, say, 1980. There's a generational rollover that seems to have rendered this impossible. And this is not even to mention the nonconformists who cannot be pigeonholed —the invisible among the invisible.

[...] "I chose the blues as my aesthetic," Wilson told Playbill in 1996. "I don't do any research other than listen to the blues. That tells me everything I need to know, and I go from there. I create worlds out of the ideas and the attitudes and the material in the blues. I think the blues are the best literature that blacks have. It is an expression of our people and our response to the world. I don't write about the blues; I'm not influenced by the blues. I am the blues." [...]

This saddens me, because the blues could not possibly tell anyone everything they need to know and in any case it reflects earlier times, not the present. Something has changed decisively, and I don't believe anyone who claims that this could be true for our time and for the future. How one bridges the gap between past and future is a more difficult problem now that at any time in history; it requires some deep thinking not forthcoming in a shallow society. Furthermore, I claim that a public discourse is lacking that would capture the depth of what must be understood about social reality now, and furthermore, I'm guessing that nobody really cares to plumb this depth, and that all but a handful of scattered individuals are numbed against doing so.

The historical sea-change of the past quarter century is rendering the cultural concerns of the baby boomers as well as the surviving children of the Great Depression obsolete, just as it has bequeathed a legacy of superficiality and false values to the young (not that many of the old values weren't rotten, or pretty much the same as the new). This historical break is more complete than any in American history, perhaps more so than even the gap between the Depression generation and the Boomers. I'm one who believes in the importance of history, but historical consciousness is neither nostalgia nor tradition, and its relationship to identity formation in this day and age is tenuous.

Speaking of which, I want to quote the objectionable elements of Wilson's cultural ideology described in Frederick August Kittel's biography.

He told the Chicago Tribune that "by not developing their own tradition, a more African response to the world, [African Americans] lost their sense of identity."

This Afrocentric nonsense is not going to help anybody. Identity is a product of history, not cultural essences. But this is worse:

Joe Turner expresses Wilson's belief that blacks would have been stronger if they had not migrated from country to city, since they came from agrarian roots in Africa.

This is horse*@#%! Richard Wright (and all Northerners) would beg to differ. I've heard comparable sentiments expressed by middle class Southern blacks (the women being the most insufferable) who are as proud of being Southerners as any Confederate-flag-flying cracker. On the irreconcilable hostility between North and South, I take the side of the North and urbanism against reactionary rural nostalgia.

Historical consciousness is something else altogether than traditionalism (whether it be of a strictly Afro-American or of an Afrocentric nature) and it is vital for very different reasons than for brainwashing people with an ersatz identity that no longer fits their reality.

23 August 2006

Borges Revisited (5)
The Book of Sand (continued)

"The Mirror and the Mask" embodies a common Borgesian theme: the sense of transgression in the act of creation and the quest for perfection. There is a dialogue between the King of Ireland and his court poet. The poet has managed to compose the perfect ode but is afraid to recite it. The king urges him to do so.

The bard recited the poem. It consisted of a single line.

Not venturing to repeat it aloud, the poet and his king savored it as if it were a secret prayer or a blasphemy. The king was as awestricken and overcome as the bard. The two looked at each other, very pale.

And further on, the Bard says:

"[. . .] I felt I had committed a sin, perhaps one the Holy Ghost does not forgive."

"The one we two now share, the king said in a whisper. "The sin of having known Beauty, which is a sin forbidden to men. Now it behooves us to expiate it. [. . .]"

And finally:

Of the poet, we know that he killed himself upon leaving the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar wandering the length and breadth of Ireland—which was once his kingdom—and that he has never repeated the poem. (79)

The king's fate reminds me of don Alejandro Glencoe selling off his ranch in "The Congress".

"Undr" contains familiar Borgesian ingredients—an obscure ms, exotic lore, a chance encounter, a background of violence, a Nordic setting, a dagger, and the perfect song and the perfect lyric. Saved from death by a fello poet after hearing the Word, the narrator undergoes many adventures, briefly summarized, and he meets up with the bard many years later. The bard picks up his harp, utters one word—'undr', meaning 'wonder', and evokes the narrator's lifetime of memories.

"Utopia of a Tired Man" is another of those weird chance encounters, this time with a man who recounts a strange utopian vision. Some peculiar Borgesisms:

"[. . .] Facts matter to no one anymore. They are mere points of departure for invention and reasoning. In our schools we are taught doubt adn teh art of forgetting— above all, the forgetting of what is personal and local. We live in time, which is successive, but we try to live sub specie aeternitatis. Of the past we retain a few names, which language tends to lose. We shun pointless details. We have neither dates nor history. Nor have we statistics. [. . .]" (91)

The stranger, recounting his past, refers to nations as 'collective ghosts' and 'platonic entities' (92). Politicians and bureaucrats and publications were considered real, supplanting the realities they represented. "Esse est percipi (to be is to be photographed) was the beginning, middle, and end of our singular idea of the world." The stranger continues to recount his current utopic existence, which ends with the voluntary cessation of life.

"The Disk" is Odin's Disk, a one-sided disk object by the narrator, who is willing to kill for it. This is a constant theme of Borges—a chance encounter, a talismanic object that upsets the order of the universe.

"The Book of Sand" is the second most compelling story in the book, exceeded only by "The Congress." The narrator possesses a collection of rare Bibles and is willing to make a trade with a caller who has brought him The Book of Sand, a strange holy book that has an infinite number of pages. Once acquiring the book, the narrator becomes obsessed with it, becomes a hermit and shuts out the outside world. The book becomes a nightmare—'monstrous', he calls it.

I felt that the book was a nightmarish object, an obscene thing that affronted and tainted reality itself. (122)

He is afraid of the possible consequences of burning an infinite book, so he hides it deep within the Argentine National Library.

[—> Borges (6)]

15 August 2006

Borges Revisited (4)
The Book of Sand

Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. New York: Dutton, 1977. Originally published as El libro de arena in 1975.

The most important story is this collection, and one of Borges' most important works, is, without doubt, "The Congress." I have just written a preliminary analysis and study guide:

On “The Congress” by Jorge Luis Borges: Observations and Questions

Of the other stories in the book, a snippet of dialogue in "The Other" supplies the key to Borges' world view.

"The Night of the Gifts" begins with Borges' customary metaphysical preoccupation:

It was many years ago in the old Confitería del Águila, on Florida Street up around Piedad, that we heard this story. The problem of knowledge was being discussed. Someone invoked the platonic theory that we have already seen everything in a previous world, so that to know is to know again. My father, I believe, said that Bacon had written that if to learn is to remember, not to know is in fact to have forgotten. Another person, a man getting on in years, who was probably a bit lost in metaphysics, decided to enter in. Speaking slowly and deliberately, this is what he told us:

Frankly, I don't understand all this talk of platonic archetypes. Nobody remembers the first time he saw the color yellow or black, or the first time he tasted a certain fruit—maybe because he was small then and had no way of knowing he was initiating a very long series. Of course, there are other first times that no one forgets. I can tell you what a certain night of my life gave me, one I often recall—the night of the thirtieth of April, 1874. (67)

Upon which follows a curious incident packed with local color.

[—> Borges (5)]
[—> Borges (3)]

14 August 2006

Borges Revisited (3)
“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”

Sarlo addresses the question of originality. My perspective is different. While this critic concludes that originality is nonexistent, I'm tempted to draw the opposite conclusion: a verbatim recreation of Don Quixote is nonetheless an original, consonant with my original remarks on reinventing the wheel.

I brought this up in the context of a local discussion of originality in April 2005. I wrote a few short pieces on the subject; begin with:

The Philosophy of Originality: Vignettes

See also:

'Originality' art quotations

[—> Borges (4)]
[—> Borges (2)]

13 August 2006

Borges Revisited (2)

New Borges links on my site:

Borges stories online:

Borges poems online:

  • The Art of Poetry
  • Adam Cast Forth
  • History of the Night

Other poems of interest:

  • Chess
  • The Golem
  • The Other Tiger
  • The Moon

Borges quote of the day:

"It's possible, but not interesting," Lönnrot answered. "You will reply that reality hasn't the slightest need to be of interest. And I'll answer you that reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but that hypothesis may not . . ."    — "Death and the Compass"

A letter signed Baruch Spinoza makes its way into "Death and the Compass."

"Funes the Memorious" involves inter alia Funes' alteration of language, as if outdoing Locke's thought experiments with language, for Funes remembered not only each individual object, but each experience of it.

The symbolic duplication of the universe is a constant menace in Borges' oeuvre. "Parable of the Palace" is one brief such illustration. The doubling of the act of creation threatens the disappearance of the cosmos. The creator or interloper in the secrets of the cosmos, as he approaches the grasp of Everything, vanishes as an individual, becoming no-one and no-thing. This theme is repeated ofttimes in Borges' work; one such example is "From Someone to No One." In "Everything and Nothing", the individual Shakespeare is unable to assume a fixed identity: God, observing his creation, tells him He is the same.

[—> Borges (3)]
[—> Borges (1)]

8 August 2006

Ibsen & Hitler?

Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich by Steven F. Sage

"Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen had a huge following in 1920s Germany. Among his admirers was Adolf Hitler. Sage, a former research fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, argues that Hitler's speeches, writings, and even his master plan for the Third Reich appropriated ideas from Ibsen's dramas, especially Emperor and Galilean, An Enemy of the People, and The Master Builder."

I attended a book talk by the author Sunday evening. He cited John Hinckley, the Unabomber, and John Wilkes Booth as examples of the 'mimetic syndrome'. I asked him how he could explain the Second World War and the Holocaust as Hitler acting out an imitation of Ibsen, as Hitler was not just another lone nut but a commander of a huge political, industrial, and military apparatus, and thus his irrational subjectivity had to interact with a myriad of huge objective factors in the world. I won't record Sage's full response, though he did say Hitler started out very much as a lone nut.

To get a better answer, I read the final chapter of Sage's book, chapter 15, "Discovering the Ur-Script." Sage summarizes the curve of scholarship on Hitler and Nazism, claiming that earlier focus on Hitler gave way to study of secondary figures and organizational analyses, displacing attention to Hitler as the prime mover (pp. 312-315). 'Hitler denial' became a trend. There were two schools of Holocaust Studies: 'intentionalism' vs. 'functionalism'. The Holocaust Museum purposefully downplays Hitler, to avoid glamorizing him, and doesn't foster Hitler research. (315-6). But Hitler totally dominated the Nazi regime. He was treated as its virtual equivalent by Allied analysts. One historian claimed: no Hitler, no Holocaust. Note Sage's conclusion: If Hitler were a cog in the machine, it wouldn't matter what scripts he acted out. But if Hitler was the prime mover, the inference is unbearable: "It appears that what set the world aflame was a theatrical production by an unbridled lunatic." (317)

In his talk and in his book, he described his own discovery process, how he was led towards such startling considerations. The Ibsen connection, by the way, is not so shocking. His progressive tendencies notwithstanding, Ibsen's heroic individualism, his snarling at the hypocrises of a social order that deserves destruction, owes a historical debt to Kierkegaard and resonates with Nietzsche, and thus it's not too much of a stretch to see how Ibsen (also admired by the vitalist and Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw) could be incorporated into the irrationalist tradition, the romantic rebellion against bourgeois mediocrity, and ultimately fascism.

Yet, while the historical documentation might exonerate the book from cheesy sensationalism, reading the conclusion, I find it difficult to believe that a professional historian could settle for this level of historical explanation, as I told the author himself. While the association of dictators with irrationalism is hardly a rare occurrence, there seems to be something exceptional about Hitler, as compared even with other fascist dictators like Mussolini, or for that matter, dictatorships built on entirely different social foundations, as in the case of Stalin. Yet there must be a more comprehensive explanation that integrates individual personality with sociological analysis, perhaps on the model of Isaac Deutscher's Stalin. Neither a 'great man' theory of history nor an impersonal account of social forces alone adequately characterizes the wielding of power, but the latter gives context to the former in the way the former cannot do for the latter. Hitler's disregard for pragmatic calculation based upon realistic assessment of objective conditions—that is, his immersion in his own fantasy world—is exceptional, but an explanation for how such an individual can function on such a large scale cannot be reduced to the theatrical staging of an individual psychodrama. Hitler was sufficiently irrational and reckless to the point where others plotted his assassination, but in any case, the process by which power becomes so concentrated in one individual that he cannot be deposed no matter what he does, cannot be explained by individual charisma. There is a social mechanism at work. We can be grateful to Sage for his historical documentation, but must regret once again the exploitation of the Nazi genocide that once again turns history into mysticism, holding us in thrall to incomprehensible social forces, leaving us helpless to engage those forces at work today.

"The Intellectuals and the Workers" by Karl Kautsky (1903)

6 August 2006

Anti-Nietzsche (6)

I have added three very important articles from New Left Review to my Anti-Nietzsche Bibliography. See Bull, Landa (1999), and Thomas under 'Essays'. All argue that Nietzsche's right-wing politics are not merely a negligible or potentially embarrassing sideshow, but constitute the underlying motivational force of his entire philosophy, and that the French poststructuralists have deceived us in sanitizing Nietzsche for the left. More ammunition to answer the question: 'Why Marx and Not Nietzsche?'.

See also Houlgate and Waite under 'Miscellaneous Books'.

[—> Anti-Nietzsche (5)]


On this site:

Christopher Caudwell: Selected Bibliography

Emergence Blog

The Frankfurt School: Philosophy in Relation to Social Theory, Cultural Theory, Science, and Interdisciplinary Research.
Phase 1: Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse in the 1930s.
Study Group Syllabus

Ideology Study Guide

Irony, Humor, & Cynicism Study Guide

Links to Philosophical & Related Web Sites
(also critical thinking links)

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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