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University Diaries

A professor of English describes American University life.

By UD July 25, 2011 7:09 pm UTC

Let's take a look at the controversial cover to Steve Reich's 9/11 composition, WTC 9/11. Why is it controversial? Should it be?

The cover is an iconic photograph from that morning, showing the second plane about to hit. The cd designers have darkened and muddied the image considerably from the pure blue clarity of that September morning.

Indeed they have sepia-toned it, giving it an archival quality. The image seems to say, like the last line of Yvor Winters' poem, At the San Francisco Airport, I am the past, and that is all.

The designers have deepened this sense of pastness by perfectly composing the image. The smoke above and the buildings below create tightly enclosing borders (this event can be 'contained'); the white copy above and below this provide yet more lines of balance and containment. The plane is perfectly poised right in the middle of all of this containment.

If you make 9/11's worst moments a perfectly symmetrical image, manipulate them into orderly balanced beauty, superimpose on them an artist's name -- you give the event the status of something at cross-purposes with the artist's intention. Instead of an enigmatic wound calling out for aesthetic catharsis, 9/11 looks like something that's already been securely assimilated into the long history of massacres. If you can enlist the event into marketing, compose it into perfect harmony, then you seem to be saying that the culture has satisfactorily claimed it, and we don't need cutting-edge artists to jolt us into recognition of it.


Compare Don DeLillo's cover for his 9/11 book, Falling Man. Note that it is above all abstract, and that the author's name appears at the bottom of the image. The abstraction lies in the photo showing both cloudy sky (above the towers, presumably), and two very thin long black parallel lines - again, a representation, a symbolic condensation, of the twin towers. Note also that the image actually begins with the bright blue sky that Reich's image sepia tones away. A truer, more human narrative suggests itself in DeLillo's image - we began with a blue sky and an ordinary day, and then things became dark and cloudy.

Instead of standing grandly above the event, as Reich's name does, DeLillo's lies at the bottom of the parallel lines, as if to say I will now humbly enter those sacred and complex precincts, and I will do my best... His book's non--symmetrical, inchoate image prompts the thought that the writer will plunge into the clouds of 9/11 and attempt to come out of them again with something of intellectual and emotional value.

*********************************
Art is not reality. Art is artifice; it is the transfiguration of the real into something unreal, but something at the same time very powerfully real, in its intellectual and emotional effects. To simply take the iconic 9/11 photograph is to signal - arrogantly? - that your art represents a total capture of the 9/11 reality. It is also to undermine your artistic gesture as art, because the image is archivally documentary, not transformative.

In fact, despite the Big Picture big picture on its cover, Reich's piece itself focuses on small, graspable, human-sized aspects of 9/11. Seth Colter Walls, who has heard the piece, describes its fragments of voices and sounds from that day:

WTC 9/11 opens with the familiar sound of a phone that's been left off the hook, a repeated F note which is ominously matched, in the same rhythm, by the members of the Kronos Quartet. The opening section also features digitally manipulated samples of real-life chatter from NORAD trackers and NYPD first-responders. This is hair-raising material.

But the entire piece, which is all of 15 minutes long, spends less than one-third of its running time playing off these sounds from the day itself. The majority of "WTC 9/11" focuses instead on dealing with the tragedy after the fact. The long second movement is titled "2010," and contains taped testimonies from people who sound as though they are thinking as much about remembrance as about those first frenetic pulses of fear and panic. The process of Jewish mourning, known as Shmira, is evoked in the third movement...

Of the three cover image ideas that Colter Walls offers as more appropriate to the piece, two are of small objects: a telephone, and a small group of mourning women.

Of course they are. As DeLillo writes:

The cellphones, the lost shoes, the handkerchiefs mashed in the faces of running men and women. The box cutters and credit cards. The paper that came streaming out of the towers and drifted across the river to Brooklyn backyards, status reports, résumés, insurance forms. Sheets of paper driven into concrete, according to witnesses. Paper slicing into truck tires, fixed there.

These are among the smaller objects and more marginal stories in the sifted ruins of the day. We need them, even the common tools of the terrorists, to set against the massive spectacle that continues to seem unmanageable, too powerful a thing to set into our frame of practiced response.

...The writer begins in the towers, trying to imagine the moment, desperately. Before politics, before history and religion, there is the primal terror. People falling from the towers hand in hand. This is part of the counternarrative, hands and spirits joining, human beauty in the crush of meshed steel.

In its desertion of every basis for comparison, the event asserts its singularity. There is something empty in the sky. The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space.

By UD July 14, 2011 9:24 pm UTC

The author of the influential book about the sixties, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Oppposition, has died.

The book came out in 1968 -- the heart of the heart of the Woodstock years -- and it sympathetically analyzed the attributes of what Roszak called the disaffiliated young, the dissenting sensibility, the people at warlike odds with the dominant culture.

The dominant culture was essentially the same smooth, affluent, high-tech America we continue to inhabit today. Roszak's term for it - the technocracy - conveyed above all the anti-humanist reduction of individuality, soulfulness, and aspiration to machine- or bureaucracy-enslaved nullity.

It's not that it's unpleasant to enslave yourself to a technocracy; on the contrary, via the process Herbert Marcuse called repressive desublimation, it can be quite pleasant to live amid video games and similar amusements. But it's joyless; it lacks intensity and meaning and dynamism. Bourgeois culture, in the eyes of sixties people, writes Roszak, is "obsessed by greed; its sex life is insipid and prudish; its family patterns are debased; its slavish conformities of dress and grooming are degrading; its mercenary routinization of existence is intolerable; its vision of life is drab and joyless; etc., etc." In the sixties, "disaffiliated youth bail[ed] out on everything industrial progress is supposed to value," and took up instead what Marcuse named the Great Refusal, because of "the need of the young for unrestricted joy."

Roszak argued that "the primary purpose of human existence is not to devise ways of piling up ever greater heaps of [technocratic] knowledge, but to discover ways to live from day to day that integrate the whole of our nature by way of yielding nobility of conduct, honest fellowship, and joy." Passion mattered. The pallid pleasures of comfortable technocratic life were contemptible, with its "good music stations and expensive reproductions of the old masters, with shelves of paperback classics and extension courses in comparative religions. Perhaps we go on to dabble in watercolors or the classical guitar, flower arranging or a bit of amateur yoga. Higher education, tamed and integrated into the needs of the technocracy, treats us to magisterial surveys of great art and thought in order that we might learn how not to be boors - as befits a society of imperial affluence."

Against this bourgeois-bohemian prototype, Roszak affirms "the white-hot experience of authentic vision that might transform our lives and, in so doing, set us at warlike odds with the dominant culture. To achieve such a shattering transformation of the personality one poem by Blake, one canvas by Rembrandt, one Buddhist sutra might be enough... were we but opened to the power of the word, the image, the presence before us. When such an upheaval of the personality happens our dissenting young show us the result. They drop out. The multiversity loses them... the society loses them. They go over to the counter culture."

And from there, they change, let us say, not merely themselves, but the culture of technocracy itself.

******************************************

Roszak's unabashed defense of a robust Blakeian romanticism looks mighty naive, especially in light of the misdirection and enervation of countercultural energies. It's routine today for political theorists like Gilles Lipovetsky, writing about the French sixties, to dismiss the counter culture as, at its core, apolitical narcissism:

May '68... gave rise to a peculiar process of political disaffection through its 'revolutionary' legitimation of cultural deviance and alternate lifestyles. The revolution yielded to a euphoria of microscopic, minority subversions: communes, squats, living on the fringes of society, psychedelic drugs... May '68 had made people so wary of the politics of politicians and parties, of programs and ideologies, that militancy came to seem a kind of alienation, a means of avoiding intimacy. By miniaturizing the revolution this movement emptied it of content, rendering it nothing more than a fad subject to the demands of pure individuality.

My most 'sixties' friend recently wrote to me: "I'd be lying if I said a few decades of my life weren't pretty much hijacked by the pursuit of genital-erotic pleasures." Plus he took too many drugs. His disaffiliation ran out of steam.

Think of the Dude - the hopeless stoner in The Big Lebowski. He describes himself as one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement...

But Roszak wasn't as naive as all that. He anticipated, in his book, the possible betrayal of countercultural energies by the "euphoria" of release Lipovetsky describes. He knew that many sixties Americans had been spoiled kids who "grew up to believe that every finger painting they brought home from kindergarten ought to be admired and every problem of high-school life ought to be a family obsession." He knew many of them carried this narcissism into the political arena.

And as keen as Roszak was on personal as well as political experimentation, he totally disapproved of the whole psychedelics scene.


If the counterculture was about "probing the nightmare deeps, trying to get at the tangled roots of conduct and opinion," psychedelics were not the way to get there. Maybe "when rooted in the soil of a mature and cultivated mind," experimental drugging isn't such a bad idea; but most hippies had minds "too small and too young for such psychic adventures... The psychedelic line the disaffected young have chosen to fight on is a false one: there is nothing to be won or lost in the skirmish."

He noted, correctly, that "our society is well on its way toward becoming distressingly drug-dependent." Later, in the 1995 introduction to the reissue of his book, he pointed out that while in the sixties some "psychic disaffiliates took off in search of altered states of consciousness that might generate altered states of society... [t]oday, drugs have become so much the refuge from despair and the staple of organized criminality that it is difficult to appreciate a time when they were seen as an integral part of a political-cultural-spiritual agenda."

Roszak's essential commitment throughout his long writing life was to clear-eyed spiritual investigations into spontaneity, compassion, and authenticity. He liked Paul Goodman's "mystical psychology, whose conception of human nature sides aesthetically and ethically with the non-intellective spontaneity of children and primitives, artists and lovers, those who can lose themselves gracefully in the splendor of the moment." He wanted "a social order built to the human scale [that] permits the free play and variety out of which the unpredictable beauties of men emerge."

By UD June 24, 2011 11:02 pm UTC

There are psychiatrists in our universities who think half the population is mentally ill. There are leading research psychiatrists who believe that anti-psychotic drugs are fine for two-year-olds. Others find the fact that many varieties of expensive, side-effects-ridden anti-depressants seem to be placebos rather than medicine a matter of indifference.

Still others think that receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars every year from drug companies in no way undermines the integrity of their research on those companies' drugs. Nor do they see anything wrong with putting their names on books and articles ghostwritten by those companies.

Most of us outside the psychotropic community know it by its inescapable radio, tv, and print ads nudging us all toward an appraisal of ourselves as clinically depressed. Everywhere we turn, gentle voices whisper that we are not compos mentis. We know little or nothing of studies showing the inefficacy of anti-depressants, the corruption of psychiatric research and practice by the pharmaceutical industry, and the degradation of disease diagnosis into what people now call psychosprawl.

We've learned to be terribly eco-minded about other forms of ugly and destructive sprawl - urban sprawl in particular, with its uncontrolled, debilitating, resources-gobbling development ever outward. Yet we haven't yet been able to apply smart growth to the precincts of our own minds. Bizarrely, we've been kinder to the cityscape than to our own inscape, to the intimate reaches of our own identities. Into our complex and dynamic brain terrain we've allowed an astounding array of dangerous chemicals.

Some people have done this because they are truly suicidal with despair. Many others have done it because when you live in a You're Clinical echo chamber you begin to believe it. Surely many of the people addicted to prescription pain pills actually believe themselves to be in pain. In a similar way, many of the Americans who have spent years on one and then another and then three other drugs for depression believe themselves to be clinically depressed. And indeed after tampering with their brain chemistry in so serious a way over so many years, they may be right that they have some form of mental disease.

The following possibility seems not to have occurred to them: They experienced long ago a serious sadness that might have passed in time all by itself, or might have benefited from talk therapy, or exercise, or, to be sure, might have lifted with a short pill regime. That sadness, though, has sprawled, transmogrified, and now hardened, into a debilitating lifelong drug dependency.

Other, related possibilities also seem not to have occurred to them. For instance: Having put their five-year-old son on powerful drugs for some fashionable diagnosis (ADD, bipolar disorder), they created a young adult every bit as pill-dependent for life as they are themselves.

Why aren't we learning? Why do we lack the simple vigilance that would arm us against over-diagnosis, over-dosing, within the privacy of our own heads?

Part of it is certainly our carpet-bombing by You're Clinical advertisements and industry-sponsored research results. Part of it is that when you mainstream a behavior - Vycodin-chugging, Prozac-gulping - you make it not only acceptable but sought-after. ("When my neighbor's sad, her doctor gives her Prozac!") Part of it, I think, is the very human tendency to think of ourselves, our thoughts and feelings and personal histories, as special, intense, uniquely sensitive. Why do we so love those memoirs that Joyce Carol Oates calls pathographies? These are not mere biographies, but narratives with an unrelenting focus on everyone's hopeless and disastrous mental frailty. We eat this genre up, can't get enough of it. We seem to feel that dysphoria is charismatic.

What I'm trying to describe here is the perfect psycho-storm: A combination of cynical mental health researchers, hapless physicians under pressure from patients demanding pills, and a pharmaceutical industry as far from dysphoric as it is possible to be.

By UD May 27, 2011 7:04 pm UTC

"I cannot think of another French novel over the past two decades that has generated this much interest, debate, and animosity," wrote Mark Lilla about Michel Houellebecq's novel Elementary Particles ten years ago in the New York Review of Books. The title of Lilla's essay, Night Thoughts, alludes to its conclusion, in which he notes that Houellebecq has written "a very knowing evocation of the night thoughts disturbing the slumber of the French centrist republic today."

Houellebecq evokes in particular, says Lilla, "a world in which love and soul have been abolished," a postmodern landscape of panting consumers jetting from one affluent setting to another in pursuit of material and sexual satisfaction.

Among these erotomanes will be found the "technically competent bureaucrats" who run our "global administrative and economic institutions;" but these people will have lost most of their "human characteristics," being devoted in their private lives mainly to "the cultivation of ... consumption, erotic satisfaction, and sports."

I don't know how much of a sports fan Dominique Strauss-Kahn is, but otherwise, in his combination of managerial competence, champagne socialism, and hebephrenic humping, the former head of the IMF seems to jump directly out of Houellebecq. To paraphrase Lilla, I cannot think of another French person over the last two decades who has generated this much interest, debate, and animosity. And surely this is because Strauss-Kahn's Houellebecqian appetites, culminating in his having possibly sexually attacked a hotel maid, are once again disturbing the slumber of the French.

The big picture here, the nightmare as much as night-thought, involves the national accomplishment of a sort of nervy debauched nihilism, a total cynicism at once secretive and brazen -- in other words, the emergence of confident sophisticated degeneracy as high-functioning French style. Adam Gopnik, in the New Yorker, talks about "what many in Paris see as the 'Italianization' of French life — the descent into what might become an unseemly round of Berlusconian squalor."

Houellebecq's literary distinction is that he doesn't shrink from describing the squalor. He gets right down in there, specifying its origins and traits. A mix of hyper-capitalist individualism and the corruption of '68 energies, the club échangiste culture of which M. and Mme. Strauss-Kahn were reportedly a part dominates the work of Houellebecq. Novel after novel, we're dragged into what one reviewer calls "the brilliantly banal awfulness... of Parisian sex clubs," full of the desperate old and calculating young, places where "concern for the body (health, beauty, sensation, etc.) has been raised to a cultural zenith, only without any corresponding apparatus to give meaning to decline and death."

Not that the French have a monopoly on all the fun. In his memoir, This Wild Darkness, the American novelist Harold Brodkey gets at the same vibe in New York City:

But what happens in a competitive city, among people who are clever imitators, students, really (more or less sedulous apes),is that the paucity of [emotional] authenticity leads to the constant manufacture of what you might call a sore-nerved and sensitive counterfeit sex. Counterfeit sex is a large part of what New York is. People here rebel by means of jealous promiscuity, a jealously restless sense of the possible happiness of others. What we have and live with is the institutionalization of sexual terror and sexual envy.

Michel Houellebecq has so keenly felt the leading edge of his own time's arrow that he seems to have created Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

By UD May 20, 2011 1:18 am UTC

So many men, so many horny greedy self-saboteurs.

This week has featured Strauss-Kahn and the Sperminator, but spectacular flame-out among America's and Europe's richest, most attractive, most powerful men has many fathers - so many that some commentators have gone back to atavistic explanations, as if civilization never happened, and our governors, senators, and presidents need to be reperceived as primordial slime.

Between that baseline approach and its opposite -- these men are too highly evolved; the relentless civilizational demands upon them make their need for instinctual outlets correspondingly intense -- lies a motley of boudoir philosophies, ideas as promiscuous as their objects of contemplation.

But let's consider one of the more promising explanatory lines.

The dynamics of power [writes Jonah Lehrer] can profoundly influence how we think. When we climb the ladder of status, our inner arguments get warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. We deserve what we want. And how dare they resist. Don’t they know who we are?

We deserve what we want. And we want a lot. Wanting a lot was the early catalyst for our now-problematic, anti-humanizing success. We dreamed bigger than other people; those dreams satisfied, we drove further, for more dreams and more satisfaction. We're talking Gatsby's green light here. The satisfaction of money for Bernard Madoff, who says his scheme happened because once he felt the power of his own wealth he couldn't stop himself; the satisfaction of libertinage for Tiger Woods...

We want more and more because, according to the hedonic treadmill theory, "as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, [yet this increase of money and desires] results in no permanent gain in happiness." You keep thinking it will make you happier; you keep thinking Why the hell else did I scheme and strain to get rich and powerful and attractive if not for an increase in personal happiness? So meanwhile where's the personal happiness? I'm the same miserable jerk I was before all of this started.

I'll have to keep jumping chambermaids...

********************************

Woody Allen (a veteran of twisted longings) and the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips talk a lot of sense on this issue. They agree that human beings seem to be two horrid things at once: We're constituted to be restless, constantly dissatisfied with where we are, constantly imagining a somehow attainable bower of bliss; and we're constituted to be self-destructive in regard to the happiness that does come our way. As Phillips says in an interview:

There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. Freud is saying there is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.

You might understand the ultimately absolutely cretinous risk-taking of DSK in this regard: After awhile, it's not so much hedonic treading as it is this weird wanting-to-fail, a kind of revenge - exacted upon ourselves and others - against the failure of the infuriatingly recurrent hedonic scheme itself.

Woody Allen dissects this vengeful disillusionment with our hedonic drives:

You become disillusioned when you think it through, and even if you don't relinquish the fantasy, you become a little depressed because it can't be affected. You're living here, trapped in the reality of the moment. For movies it's great! In movies, you can create the past as you want to see it. But I do think that's the sad note in my [latest] movie, that everybody doesn't want to be where they are. Everybody imagines there's something better, because you can imagine something better but there isn't anything better. That's the problem.

... In the end, [as] in [my earlier film,] Stardust Memories, we all get flushed. The beautiful ones, the accomplished ones, the Einsteins, the Shakespeares, the homeless guys in the street with the wine bottles, all end up in the same grave. So, I have a very dim view of things, but I think about them, and I do feel that I've come to the conclusion that the artist can not justify life or come up with a cogent reason as to why life is meaningful, but the artist can provide you with a cold glass of water on a hot day.

Phillips, talking about the therapeutic limitations of psychoanalysis, puts the same sad idea like this:

"It's like [Beckett's play] Endgame: 'We're on Earth. There's no cure for that.'" ...[A]nalysis can show there is no cure for childhood, but may help one deal with that seemingly unbearable truth. "There may be useful reconsiderations and redescriptions, but you really did have those parents, you really did make of it what you made of it, you really did have those siblings, really did grow up in that economic climate. These are all hard difficult facts. Redescribed, they can be modified, things can evolve. But it isn't magic."

We recognize the same harsh wisdom in Phillip Larkin's poem, Continuing to Live:

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.
And what's the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear...

Cold comfort to that fool, Strauss-Kahn, I know: But this is the best Beckettian outcome on offer: Self-knowledge regarding the very specific contingencies of his prison-house.

Theodore Roethke, whose birthday this weekend will be celebrated in his hometown of Saginaw, summed up a lot of this in the following ditty:

The Reckoning

 

All profits disappear: the gain
Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum;
And now grim digits of old pain
Return to litter up our home.

We hunt the cause of ruin, add,
Subtract, and put ourselves in pawn;
For all our scratching on the pad,
We cannot trace the error down.

What we are seeking is a fare
One way, a chance to be secure:
The lack that keeps us what we are,
The penny that usurps the poor.

By UD March 1, 2011 6:34 pm UTC

A week that features Bernard Madoff denouncing people for being greedy, and Moammar Gaddafi delivering a sermon on love, can only be encompassed by a return to that ur-text of our time, Ubu the King.


Ubu's first performance, in Paris, in 1896, touched off a battle in the audience between people who couldn't get enough of fat, savage, moronic Ubu, and people outraged that anyone could have conceived, let alone staged, such an obscenity. A travesty in the key of Macbeth, Ubu Roi celebrates the stinky scheming regicide Pere Ubu, and his equally stinky wife, Mere Ubu. Mere gets the idea to kill the king:

Who's stopping you from slaughtering the whole family and putting yourself in their place? ... You could increase your fortune indefinitely, have sausages whenever you liked, and ride through the streets in a carriage.

Ubu explains his plot:

We should simply poison the King by sticking some arsenic in his lunch. When he starts stuffing himself he'll fall down dead, and then I'll be King.

Once he's "killed the King good and proper," Ubu taxes the hell out of the people and gives nothing in return because "I want to get rich, and I won't part with a sou." When challenged on ethical grounds, he says "Isn't it just as good to have wrong on your side as it is to have right?"

Advisors caution Ubu, who's killing property owners and taking their houses and land, that he's "too bloodthirsty."

Huh! I'm getting rich! I'm going to have MY list of MY property read. Clerk, read MY list of MY property.

As the remaining nobles of the kingdom are slaughtered in front of him, Ubu tells the executioner, "Hurry up quicker, I want to make some laws now."

Ubu explains his political program:

I've changed the government and I've had it put in the paper that all the existing taxes must be paid twice, and those that I shall impose later must be paid three times. With this system I shall soon have made my fortune, and then I'll kill everybody and go away.

He explains his philosophy of life:

Disembrain them, killen them, cut their earens off, seize their cash and drink yourself to death.

Cowardly ("Soldier: Courage, Pere Ubu! Pere Ubu: Hell! I'm doing it in my breeches."), physically disgusting, morally cretinous, Ubu has a vast nonsensical unstoppable linguistic energy. He understands language's deep structure:

I have it on the highest authority: Omnis a Deo scientia, which means: omnis, all; a Deo, knowledge; scientia, comes from God. That's the explanation of the phenomenon.

Thinking he's been shot, he shouts:

Ow! Ouch! I'm wounded, I'm holed, I'm perforated, I'm administered, I'm interred!
When one of his men dies, Ubu delivers a eulogy:

As the poppy and the dandelion in the flower of their age are scythed by the pitiless scythe of the pitiless scyther who pitilessly scythes their pitiful mugs, so little Rensky has played the role of the poppy...

-------------------------------------------------

Jarry's Ubu, pursued by the king's avenging army, escapes across the border to plot more greed and slaughter. Yet the cultural punch of Ubu has proven inescapable: There's Pere Ubu, the experimental band, and Ubu Productions. We couldn't have had the robotic self-presentations of David Bowie and Klaus Nomi without him. The word ubuesque has become part of French political discourse, and, more broadly, the word ubu has assumed the same universally absurd value as dada, though with an added dollop of violence.

Indeed it's his bestial greed and beaming butchery that give Pere Ubu a leg up on the passive Vladimirs and Estragons of the world. Maybe Ubu is Godot, the leader for whom those losers wait. Vlad, Estragon, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern - these characters are us, out there in the audience, getting ripped off and then killed by Ubu/Godot.

Ubu gestures toward the peculiar charisma of our most notable postmodern thought-leaders, our authorities on greed, love, and Living (surely Martha, only recently released back into the community, has a small place here): Weird, without remorse, swaddled in their bright baby clothes, romping over the global Romper Room.

Bernie: Up to the moment of his arrest, a respected trustee of Yeshiva University.

Moammar: The founder, with his son, of what people are now calling the Libyan School of Economics.

_______________________________

Dead from self-neglect in his thirties, Alfred Jarry had just enough energy to eke out his masterpiece. He died of the same disgust that birthed Ubu.

By UD February 27, 2011 10:34 pm UTC

I'd like to reflect on a couple of passages from Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics.

Modernization would render the classical concept of tyranny obsolete, [it was said,] and as nations outside Europe modernized, they too would enter the post-tyrannical future. We now know how wrong this was. The harems and food-tasters of ancient times are indeed gone but their places have been taken by propaganda ministers and revolutionary guards, drug barons and Swiss bankers. The tyrant has survived.

What's most curious to this observer of the intellectuals-and-the-Gaddafis debacle, is the many ways in which the big-time intellectuals who sipped tea with Gaddafi seem to have tried to believe something that they could see, with the sharpest possible clarity, could not be true.

Robert Putnam accepted his "standard consulting fee" and sat down for a little give and take with "a tyrant and ... megalomaniac" who looked "like the aging Mick Jagger." Why did he do that? Why did he lend his prestige to a man he knew was a tyrant? To be sure, "Two months later I was invited back to a public roundtable in Libya, but by then I had concluded that the whole exercise was a public-relations stunt, and I declined." Why did he go in the first place?

Anthony Giddens also took tea with Gaddafi and left with an image of him weightily "ruminating upon the relevance of his political thinking to current times." A deep thinker, Gaddafi, and, under the mass of curls, a real democrat.

Then there's the still-brazening-it-out Benjamin Barber, who went way past tea time with the regime until he finally resigned from their charitable foundation a couple of days ago. As my colleague Marc Lynch wrote to Barber years ago, in response to one of Barber's newspaper pieces praising Gaddafi:

You presented some very interesting ideas about Libya in your Washington Post op-ed. I found particularly interesting your ideas about Col. Qaddafi’s experiments with direct democracy and efficient government. I know just the person you should talk to about these ideas – a brave journalist exposing official corruption in Libya by the name of Dhayf al-Gazzal. Be careful shaking his hand, though, because about a year and a half ago he had his fingers cut off before his body was riddled with bullets and abandoned in the desert. Hey, wasn’t that right around the time you were having such pleasant chats about direct democracy and the Green Book with the flexible and adaptive Colonel? How embarrassing! Anyway, since he’s dead, he might not be as vivacious a conversationalist as Col. Qaddafi. But I’m sure he’d be fascinated by your notions of Qaddafi’s enlightened rule and might even have some notes.

**************************************

Todd Gitlin recalls the salient quotation from an earlier era:

H. G. Wells visited Stalin in 1934 and chatted with him about the theory of socialism, noting that though he’d only just touched down in Moscow, “I have already seen the happy faces of healthy men and women and I know that something very considerable is being done here.”

Gitlin notices, too, something intriguing about the aging of intellectual stars - men like Barber and Giddens:

[Giddens'] early work was no-nonsense, Weber-inflected sociology, but as he rose, he grew both more sweeping and puffier. I never could understand why his signature notion of “structuration” was taken as a major achievement when it was so vapid and tautological — promoting the incontrovertible notion that “”social structures are both constituted by human agency, and yet at the same time are the very medium of this constitution.”

More sweeping and puffier: This has been the shared fate of Giddens, Barber, Gaddafi, and Mick Jagger. Trolling an indulgent world in search of legitimacy, or the legacy thing, or retirement money, they do get themselves into holes...

And speaking of tautological: As Lilla notes, tyrants are tyrants, however sophisticated they may be in the use of Swiss bank accounts. Why don't these smart people see that? Why won't they see that?

Lilla again:

Reforming a tyranny may not be within our power, but the exercise of intellectual self-control always is. That is why the first responsibility of a philosopher who finds himself surrounded by political and intellectual corruption may be to withdraw.

Not corruption of any sort, of course; you're supposed to withdraw when you find yourself surrounded by wild, rampant, bloody corruption, the sort of corruption only possible under raw tyranny.


*****************************

The kindest thing you can say about aging intellectuals drawn to the political desert is that they don't seem to be motivated, like the subjects of Lilla's book, by ideology. Vanity, rather.

By UD February 10, 2011 1:02 pm UTC

I had glancing, and wounding, encounters with Christopher Lasch in the early 'eighties. He was a close friend of an old boyfriend of mine, and when I moved to Rochester, New York, I went with an introduction to Lasch from the boyfriend. "I've told Kit you're there," he'd said to me. "Give him a call. He's expecting it."

Yet although I taught part-time at Lasch's university - the University of Rochester - I didn't call. Lasch seemed a pretty cold fish, and I didn't want to be on the receiving end of that. Rochester, a city I was eager to leave within weeks of settling there, was chilly enough.

But we were both members of a faculty discussion group (I can't recall the subject of our discussions; they took place at various faculty homes, including the beautiful farmhouse of Perez Zagorin), so we eventually met.

During our first social exchange, I mentioned to Lasch that I also taught part-time at a rather parochial local college whose students weren't very impressive, but that the experience was "good for me."

"Well," Lasch hit back, eyes cold, "that's one way of looking at it."

Meaning Talk about the culture of narcissism! Why not think about whether it's good for your students, instead of thinking about yourself all the time?
But I didn't mean good for me in that way at all.

Maybe I didn't phrase it as well as I might have. I didn't mean Who cares about the students; I'm getting some teaching experience out of it for my resume.I meant nothing like that at all.

Young and nervous, I let stand his cruel comeback. But it rankled that he'd done nothing to sense what I might have meant. That he'd tackled me with a Calvinist something or other within minutes of my opening my mouth. Narcissist, get thee hence!

Hence I got. I watched and listened to Lasch during those faculty discussions from a safe distance.
What I saw in him made me realize that while I might have been nervous, Lasch was really, really nervous. The highest among the high-strung academics I'd encountered, he pulled on one cigarette after another, twisted his body about, kept his attractive features tight and grim, and said very smart things.

The very smart things didn't surprise me. Hadn't I just read and reread, with great excitement, The Culture of Narcissism? In my dog-eared, scrawled on, hardback copy, I'd underlined cultivate a protective shallowness in emotional relations.... the standards that would condemn crime or cruelty derive from religion, compassion, or the kind of reason that rejects purely instrumental applications; and none of these outmoded forms of thought or feeling has any logical place in a society based on commodity production.... [the narcissist] would willingly exchange his self-consciousness for oblivion and his freedom to create new roles for some form of external dictation, the more arbitrary the better... (Looking at this last underlined passage, I can see the connection between my interest then in Lasch and in Don DeLillo now.)

I adored reading what Dale Vree calls "Kit's underlying opposition to self-indulgent individualism." But here I was, in Lasch's personal space, and it turned out it wasn't underlying - it was right at you. And it wasn't opposition. It was disgust.

*******************************************

What if I'd said, in that first encounter with Christopher Lasch, not that teaching at the parochial college was good for me, but that my teaching there, I hoped, was good for the students?

Equally coldly, I suppose, he'd have slapped me down with progressivism, sentimentality, therapeutic thinking....

There was, in other words, nowhere to go with Lasch. Or for Lasch. He was the quintessential intellectual neurotic, stuck always between a rock and hard place. In a nasty review of one of Lasch's books, Arthur Schlesinger (who Lasch attacked in the book) wrote:

With imperturbable skill, [Lasch] draws from the evidence whatever conclusion his thesis needs. An intellectual who rejects society has surrendered to one form of neurosis, one who takes part, another.

As Lasch's biographer, Eric Miller, writes, "Had he dared to move closer, to place himself eye to eye with his subjects, he might have seen more ambiguity and been more forgiving of error. But instead of particular humans he found only containers of 'consciousness' and banal compromise." Andrew Delbanco goes farther. Lasch "not only understood himself to be living in a time of darkness [but] seemed to take a shady delight in describing it."

Humans were, to be precise, frightened, unworthy consciousness-containers, in flight from fundamental human realities: "The battle between nature and culture inheres in the very fact of culture and is irreconcilable," he wrote. "... The human mind [is] the product of an unrelenting struggle between instinct and culture, [making] the miseries of existence [unavoidable]." Liberal progressivism founds itself on a consoling lie about how the battle might be won and miseries overcome; it fails to maintain a "painful awareness of the tension between our unlimited aspirations and our limited understanding, between our original intimations of immortality and our fallen state, between oneness and separation..."

Liberalism's exhortation toward greater individualism, personal experimentation, and autonomy is a trap: "Hedonism, self-expression, doing your own thing, dancing in the streets, drugs, and sex are a formula for political impotence and a new despotism, in which a highly educated elite through its mastery of the technological secrets of a modern society rule over an indolent population which has traded self-government for self-expression." When we lose the deep ground of our being, when we give up that dark interminable struggle, we become trivial, easily dominated.

*********************************************

Well, I took a shady delight in reading all of this. I was excited by the Culture of Narcissism, and by other beautifully, angrily written Lasch works. I was excited by Christopher Lasch for the same reason my sister Frances is excited by the songs of Morrissey. Aesthetically pleasing negativism - nihilism? - is sexy, clarifying. It seems to be getting at buried truths, or getting at the essentially twisted nature of existence, and it is a stirring thing to feel that you too are getting at some of that, or to feel that a literary or musical or intellectual artist has been able to unearth and express and shape dark material you've felt in a subliminal, inchoate way. All great artists of the underworld give you warrant for thinking more deeply, and against the grain; they legitimate your wilder speculations, and encourage you in them.

Lasch, says Dale Vree in a memoir, "was a manly man." I know what he means in my own way, which is to say that I found Lasch sexually attractive because what a woman - this woman, at least - saw, in his brusque dismissals, his physical intensity, his scowl, his eyes' harsh appraisal, his existentialist's cigarettes, was of course the dark Romantic hero of fiction and life: Heathcliff, Ted Hughes... Lasch could sermonize all he wanted against sex, but any woman with eyes in her head could see what a sexual man he was. How unsurprising that the visceral struggle between instinct and repression would form the basis of his philosophy, and that, as he wrote to one of his doctors at the end of his life, "I ... have tried to live with intensity, passion..."

By UD January 5, 2011 6:29 pm UTC

In his short memoir, The Memory Chalet, dictated at the end of his life as he lay immobilized from motor neuron disease, the historian Tony Judt three times uses the word solipsism. It's a curious and exotic word, and its repeated use in Judt's brief final statement to the world conveys both his deepest fear about the future of politics, and his horror at his own locked-in condition. It's as if the fatal illness he contracted were the physical manifestation of his worst nightmare about our withdrawal from the public realm in postmodern culture. As he writes in another late work, Ill Fares the Land:

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears natural today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatisation and the private sector; the growing disparities of rich and poor. And, above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: Uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.

"The thin veneer of civilization," he says in The Memory Chalet, "rests upon what may well be an illusory faith in our common humanity." Without at least a shaky conviction of that commonality, we are lost.

Yet it is a mark of the realism of his farewell letter that Judt's own existence, as he remembers it, reveals no straightforward progress toward greater and greater commonality. Instead, he describes, starting at a very young age, one flawed effort after another, on his part, toward solidarity - kibbutz Zionism, '68 radicalism... Repeatedly his passion for common life and just causes (a passion rooted in his memories of shared sacrifice and moral seriousness in post-war London), draws him toward particular groups; repeatedly, with more and more nuance, he comes to know the limitations of ideological collectives. Of kibbutz life, he writes:

[C]ollective self-government... does not make you either more sophisticated or more tolerant of others. Indeed, to the extent that it contributes to an extraordinary smugness of self-regard, it actually reinforces the worst kind of ethnic solipsism.

Judt recalls leaving the kibbutz whenever he could and going to Haifa, where he "star[ed] wistfully from the dock at the passenger ferries bound for Famagusta, Izmir, Brindisi, and other cosmopolitan destinations." He was beginning to move toward what he became - a "universal social democrat" - for whom all forms of identity politics, inside and outside the academy, were anathema. "Fierce unconditional loyalties - to a country, a God, an idea, or a man - have come to terrify me."

Always, in the manner of George Orwell, Judt propels himself in the direction of greater clarity about the empirical realm. He fixes his attention on what is in front of his nose. Or slightly peripheral to it: Of himself and his fellow soixante-huitards, he writes, "Had we cared a little more about the fate of ideas we tossed around so glibly we might have paid greater attention to the actions and opinions of those who had been brought up in their shadow." Judt's attention, that is, came to be diverted more and more from Paris to Warsaw, Prague, Budapest.

Indeed his human rights activities in Central and Eastern Europe "cured me forever of the methodological solipsism of the postmodern academy." Like Richard Rorty, Judt detested what he regarded as the smug and often politically passive obscurantism of many of the radical critical theorists of his day. He believed that '68 posturing had become academic posturing.

Helping him always to perceive things better were the teachers Judt praises throughout The Memory Chalet, like the professor who

broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect. That is teaching.

In place of what he (in his third use of the word) calls "communitarian solipsism," Judt defends "a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling," an always restless, never complacent, analytical rigor about one's deepest commitments.

******************************************

Yet The Memory Chalet would not be what it is - one of the best intellectual autobiographies of its time - were it not for Judt's insistence, even in his final days, on taking a stand against his own enforced solipsism, his personal decline into privatization. A frozen figure drawing air from a tube, an object of pity and curiosity and some degree of fear, Tony Judt gave major lectures and lengthy interviews from his wheelchair. He must have been just as aware of the discomfort and anxiety his presence generated as was another locked-in writer, Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly:

[As] soon as I direct my one eye toward [other people in a rehab unit, they] turn away, feeling the sudden need to study the ceiling smoke detector.

Like Christopher Hitchens, whose bald head and sallow skin from chemo are anything but hidden as he remains as public an intellectual as ever, Judt stayed in the game. Like Anatole Broyard, who in his own dying memoir, Intoxicated by my Illness, is haunted by Gregor Samsa, who "dies like an insect," Judt writes that his "cockroach-like existence is cumulatively intolerable... 'Cockroach' is of course an allusion to Kafka's Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into an insect. The point of the story is as much the responses and incomprehension of his family as it it the account of his own sensations, and it is hard to resist the thought that even the best-meaning and most generously thoughtful friend or relative cannot hope to understand the sense of isolation and imprisonment that this disease imposes upon its victims."

Privatization again, then; yet, as Broyard goes on to say:

To die is to be no longer human, to be dehumanized - and I think that language, speech, stories, or narratives are the most effective way to keep our humanity alive. To remain silent is literally to close down the shop of one's humanity.

The stories Judt tells - of his youth in England, his love of trains, his discovery of Indian food - are narratives that keep him - his human particularity - permanently alive. He tells these stories very beautifully, in the way of someone who loves prose, speaks many languages, and recognizes that "communication is as [vital] to the republic" as it is to himself. Take this bit of prose-poetry from The Memory Chalet, in which Judt describes an outdoor scene in Cambridge:

There were boathouses, houseboats, the occasional tug, abandoned skiffs rotting gently into the mud...

Put it into poetry and it's poetry:

There were boathouses, houseboats,
The occasional tug,
Abandoned skiffs rotting gently into the mud...

*********************************************************

All of this, I think, goes to explain why, in the epigraph to his dying memoir, This Wild Darkness, Harold Brodkey writes: "I don't see the point of privacy."

By UD December 14, 2010 10:38 pm UTC

Emile Durkheim, the great French sociologist, tells us that there are four kinds of suicide. None of the four really gets at the sort of suicide Bernard Madoff's son committed. New ways of life create new paths to death.

Durkheims' anomic and egoistic forms are related, having to do with a person's failure to assimilate psychologically and morally into his or her culture. Think of characters like Saul Bellow's dangling man, Albert Camus' stranger, and Herman Melville's Bartleby the scrivener.

Altruistic suicides kill - or more properly, sacrifice - themselves on behalf of the higher good of the culture. They are the precise opposite of the first two types.

Fatalistic suicides occur among people in prisons and prison societies - North Korea; Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago - whose degrading conditions make death preferable to life.

The three suicides, now including that of his son, which Bernard Madoff has caused (there may be more, but only three have been written about in the press) differ from these types of suicide. Madoff suicides don't feature alienated, deracinated, degraded people. They involve a sense of hopeless entrapment, and/or a sense of unbearable shame.

William Foxton, a brave and decent man who invested his personal fortune with Madoff, killed himself, his son said in Britain's The Telegraph, because he was "distraught after losing his family's entire savings in the Ponzi investment scam." He could not live with himself, could not forgive himself for having ruined his family's life.

According to the New York Times, 'In a note to his brother written shortly before his death, [Rene-Thierry Magonde] la Villehuchet [an investor heavily involved with Madoff who lost more than a billion dollars of his own and his clients' money] said that he needed to be held accountable for the losses, his brother said. “If you ruin your friends, your clients, you have to face the consequences,” Bertrand said, explaining what his brother believed.'

Although these suicides have echoes of altruism to them, they are not really altruistic, since they did nothing to make the lives of their survivors better. They are intimately punitive and self-loathing acts, done, it seems, with a conscience-stricken, stoical belief that you are carrying out, on your own body, a sort of higher justice. If you can't make things right financially for your family and others, you can at least redress what you regard as the moral balance.

Mark Madoff, who hanged himself in his apartment with his dog's leash, was simply trapped. Suicide, he presumably felt, was his only way out.

A man who worked closely with his father for his entire working life and who probably knew something about the crimes being committed, Mark Madoff correctly perceived that the rest of his existence amounted to lies, lawsuits, ridicule, and contempt. His wife changed her last name, and the last names of their children, but Mark Madoff himself refused to do this. Was it bravado? Fatalism? A belief that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and therefore had no need to disavow his given name? Did he still love his father, and the mother to whom he had not spoken in years? And if he loved them, did he feel that jettisoning their name would cause them grief?

Mark Madoff had the misfortune of coming from a crime family. Bernard Madoff's parents were small-time financial crooks; Bernard Madoff was a big-time financial crook. So the entrapment that ultimately killed Mark Madoff started at birth. Did he wonder, as his father paid him almost thirty million dollars a year, whether his remarkable good fortune could really last? Was he ever afraid, ever tempted to escape from his very wealthy, very sketchy, family? Surely he knew that Harry Markopolos was out there for years telling anyone who'd listen that his father was a massive crook...

Greed and love and entitlement and the thrill of playing the market -- we can only speculate about what kept Mark Madoff on the path to suicide. But one thing we can be sure of -- his suicide wasn't Durkheim's modern, but New York City's postmodern, suicide: A grotesquely imbalanced spectacle, an almost psychotic admixture, of worldwide financial leverage and the pathetic tug of an animal's leash.

Rest assured that one particular body will never be added to the Madoff body count. New York Magazine, last June, described Bernard Madoff, in prison, enjoying the life of a rock star.

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