Sunday, March 18, 2018

Credulity in 18th Century Paris by Arlette Farge

Let there be no mistake: this pursuit of rules and rationalities is not a means of ignoring hate and anger, violence and cruelty, irony and unreason. It would be imposturous to erase men’s fury, and ignorant not to present the situations which produced it, for the failure to take account of deceit and dishonor would be to give way to na├»ve populism. The history of a society is also the history of the clash that exists between its instinct for survival and desire for union and collaboration with its taste for destruction and ashes. The Parisian people of the lived off this clash.

The contours of the population outlined here show it forever on the look-out for what might prove threatening to it and in search of whatever might strengthen it. It was looking for an equilibrium at the heart of the fragility by which it was almost totally defined and its behavior and decisions are indications of its response to a precariousness which permanently threatened its stability.

Not being taken for a fool was one of its passions or rather one of its necessities, and thus the whole of its intelligence was put into not being abused or deceived. From this came its taste for news and gossip; its desire to know and understand; to give things a name; and the speed with which it circulated its information. Behind the effervescence, the bustle and the emotion can be found a seriousness and much understanding. History  owes it to itself to seek out and, without attempting to define it, take hold of this fragile life and thus lend it sense and weight.

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In Paris no one needed an invitation to get together or go off in a group; the natural corollary of living outdoors* was the permanent attraction of whatsoever was happening and whatever presented itself before one’s eyes or ears or called for one’s attention in one way or the other.

Thus the Parisian inhabitant is never indifferent to what is going on around him. The least little novelty is likely to make him pause on his way. Take, for instance, the example of a man who had his head in the air and is looking intently at some object or another. You are bond to see several others stop immediately and turn their eyes in the same direction thinking that they will see whatever he is looking at. Little by little, the crowd will grow, each of them asking the other what they are looking at. All it needs is for one poor canary to escape and perch on a window-sill for the whole street to be blocked by a crowd. The moment he flies from one lamp to the next, shouts and cries will go up on all sides, windows will open and there will be faces at each. The brief and momentary independence of one small bird will become a spectacle of general interest.

If a dog were to be thrown in the river, the banks and bridges would be covered almost immediately with people, some of them concerned about what might happen to it and others saying it must be saved, watching it closely in whatever direction the current happens to take it. This spirit of curiosity is not necessarily lacking in sensitivity; it is not unknown for instance for people to separate two combatants and for men to harangue them so fiercely on the advantages of peace and harmony that they would settle their grievances on the spot. (1)

It is easy and, in fact, customary to interpret this kind of up and run behavior as evidence of the immaturity of the crowd with their taste for the fortuitous and the accidental. Chroniclers, contemporaries, the literati of the period and modern historians have all described these irrational impulses of the crowd and its inability to separate the real from the imaginary, allowing itself to be carried along willy-nilly to whatever speechifying or spectacle might be on offer.

Scientific progress also had a hand in putting all sorts of odd inventions within the bounds of possibility and, whilst religion was becoming less satisfying, there was still the possibility of acts of God with their power to incite or punish,. And so  from time immemorial one has been led to believe that the crowd or common herd has submerged its fears and ignorance by submitting to immature systems of relationships with reality which were no more than pure fancy, thus providing obvious proof of the need for constant control of these potentially dangerous excesses and enthusiasm.

Strangely enough, it was a work by Nicholas Ledoux on the city and urbanization (something of a utopian dream) which expressed another view of these continual gatherings of Parisians and what it was about the daily goings-on that attracted them so much.

For Ledoux, festivities were not so important if everyday life were sweet and pleasant. The real value of the festivity was in the fact that ‘the community had the opportunity to contemplate itself and rejoice in one another.’ It is an approach well worth considering and singling out from some of the other well-worn tracks. What better way of re-appropriating for oneself not only one’s essence but also one’s meaning than by seeing for oneself, and by being oneself the spectacle of one’s perceptions of self and one’s own attempt to make sense of events. The King’s celebrations or punitive events offered the people an opportunity for consensus. The taste for freaks and curiosities (the expressions of the period), evinced different attitudes, among them a desire to offer one’s pronouncements on the significance to the day’s events. Furthermore, there was a feeling that the experience of the many lent sense and meaning to whatever was seen or heard, thus making it possible not only to gain a collective grip on reality but also, and why not, a potential mastery of events such as one need never wait for the meaning to be attributed or suggested by those who knew, controlled, commanded or governed.

This unfailing attraction for the strange and the improbable was referred to in the texts of the period as ‘credulity.’ It was a recurrent theme to be found as much on the pens of justices as in the texts of ministers or writers. The people had to be gullible: this was the basis on which the elites needed to act and react an assessment which they quite often ‘worked on’. Because it was so apparent to everyone, popular credulity was itself the subject of vast analysis. The difficulty of questioning it is that there is a permanent risk of being tricked by the initial position of ‘looking at’ or of the desire to dissect things up into small parcels of meaning. Even if every precaution is taken to distance oneself as much as possible from this position, other risks arise, most notably in the subtle shifts and shades of vocabulary employed and it is this surreptitious betrayal by mean of language that is perhaps even worse.

However, one thing is certain –popular credulity is not an entity in itself; nor does it constitute anything objectively capable of defining, once and for all, the essence of a social group. It is an opinion and that is an entirely different story; it suggests relationship, made by others, between a form of action and a mode of being, but learning unfortunately does not usually preoccupy itself with its own received ides or its stereotypes and archetypal assumptions. That the people were obviously gullible was useful more often than not as a point of departure for other forms of reasoning shored up by this principle, which is no principle at all. That credulity was a form well suited to the intelligence and social arrangements of the aristocracy, for, example, is vey rarely taken into account – or very rarely analyzed in these terms.

Credulity, as one knows, was far from being the prerogative of a single social group and the kind of peculiar events and curiosities which the people enjoyed so much and which are so complacently related by chroniclers and archivists of the time were in fact central to a complex system of beliefs that were more or less shared by those of different social spheres. It as not really until the eighteenth century that the break with  a common basis of belief took place, thereby marking the appearance of an elitist culture which strove to distinguish itself from the people and the weight of past archaism. It was a rupture which is relatively recent. It is more apparent in its desire to maintain a distance and instigate a definitive separation between the upper and lower ends of the social hierarchy and and more convincing in its strategy for the installation of cultural supremacy than in the actual content of its knowledge. Although cultural unity may have been breaking down, abundant traces remain, clearly measureable in the beliefs and activities of the elites, as well as in their treatises.

Even the Encyclopedie found itself grappling with fascination for tye extraordinary; and not even its reasoned attempts managed to refute what was, and still is, a common vision of the world.

Furthermore, life in the city (particularly between society and the authorities), saw the emergence of a number of variations and combinations as to what ought, and ought not, to be believed. The field of play might include, for instance, phenomena that were purely intended to incite; deliberate construction of events to make them believable; sudden attempts to repress and control what came to be termed ‘sheer fantasy’ where previously it had been considered ‘news’ or novelty; all this helped give ‘credulity’ a number of facets and thus enabled it to engage in a  field of activity which was both productive and destructive and in which the ordinary people and the elites played their part, each echoing the other. For the elites as well as the mob were equally keen partners in their enthusiasms for the extraordinary, the sensational, the ‘scientific’ (or at any rate, the ‘hitherto-unheard-of’) but in the treatises and discourses of the great and mighty responsibility for credulity is assigned to the backward and boorish masses. It was rare for the elite to perceive its own taste for these same items; and when it did, it did so badly. It was even worse a seeing the ambiguous nature of its own conduct in the thick of an event in which its own complicity helped render it an object of credulity.

It is possible to gain some idea of this complexity from some of the famous events of the century and some have already been analyzed from this perspective; one need only think, for example, of the phenomena of mesmerism, or the ecstatics in the cemetery of the church of Saint Medard. There were also some small events that were so insignificant that contemporaries did not think to write about them but which  nevertheless reveal, at a most basic level, an overview of the whole social scene. Because they were so small and unimportant one might believe that they were entirely the upshot of popular emotion and only relevant to that particular type of credulity, but not so – even the least of these rather strange and peculiar little affairs can conceal within it a set of mechanisms which provide a rich picture of the social world as whole with its hierarchies, challenges, disruptions and acts of common faith.

In 1756, the story of a little girl of none and a half- Madeleine Ernault ( claimed by her parents to have been molested and made pregnant by the bar hand at a wine venders)- was to arouse a great deal of astonishment and one can find traces of it in the judicial archives, The story was such that she managed to mobilize around her the police, the aristocracy, the medical bodies and the people. The bizarre nature of the phenomena, the tender years of the child, the occurrence of something that had hitherto been unheard of, and the obvious references to sexuality, all helped set up certain ideas and beliefs and led to the printing of accounts and spread various rumors which were effectively taken in hand by the police. The field of play might well be tiny but in so far as the archives allow us to make sense of it, it was in fact immense. First, there was the event itself- everyone believed it. It was true. Then it turned out to be false. As one follows the route from belief to rumor and then to error, one can see the complex social tangles which shatter the simplistic assertions which so confidently establish a clear divisions between people and elite, rational and irrational, truth and error, news and rumor.

[The women of the neighborhood we the first to detect the lie, long before the elites, including the medical establishment who went on believing long after any birth was to be expected under normal circumstances.]

* For the mass of Parisians there was little privacy. What we would call tenements were crowded, workshops were public spaces,  street vendors ubiquitous, cabarets popular meeting places, festivals and parades common.

(1)L.-S. Mercier, Tableau de Paris, 12 vols. (Amsterdam, 1782-6),  ch. ‘Melange des individus’

Friday, March 9, 2018

In Defense of Critical Thought by Elisabeth Roudinesco

[ In this narrative of the lives and works of these mid-late 20th century French intellectuals Roudinesco winds and unwinds the threads of experiential and conceptual knowledge as they perform together in a kind of dialectic or intrigue, one not existing without the other but in ‘mortal combat’, each seeking to defend its ground against the other  as if on a broad ocean when  the motions  of the tides and the winds run in opposite directions and no smooth sailing can be expected. Biological determination and psychology vs philosophy and science properly understood. One inevitably must begin with Marx, though not Marxism; his insight into the materiality of the concepts, representing the vital force of any mode of human production. She, all the thinkers in her narrative, begin with Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological and A Philosophy of Heroism which established a new paradigm in the French critical tradition. Beginning there, each of the other philosopher’s lives and works represent  different trajectories, different intrigues in the contest between experiential and conceptual knowledge.  Sartre on one end of ‘the spectrum” and I will venture to say Foucault on the other. Althusser the most tragic case, Derrida burdened by the necessity of eulogizing them all. Brothers resisting the ‘ the normal’ as if they were trying to compensate for their absence in the French military resistance to the barbaric beast of fascism. Their heroic struggle to expose the threads of that beast in the micro-politics of Capital as conceived and lived in the post-war world, and to overturn them, for the freedom of the subject. Here I present her Introduction.]

“We are certainly living in strange times. The commemoration of great events, great men, great intellectual achievements, and great victories never stops;  we’ve had the year of Rimbaud, the year of Victor Hugo, the year of Jules Verne. And yet, never have the revisionist attacks on the foundation of every discipline, every doctrine, every emancipatory adventure enjoyed such prestige. Feminism, socialism, and psychoanalysis are violently rejected, and Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche are pronounced dead, along with every other critique of the norm. All we are entitled to do, it would seem, is to take stock and draw up assessments, as though the distance that every intellectual enterprise requires amounted to no more than a vast ledger full of entries for things and people - or rather people who have become things.

I am not thinking just of Holocaust denial, which has been outlawed among professional historians, although its influence persists in semi-secrecy. Instead what I have in mind are those ordinary revisionisms that tend, for example, to put Vichy and the Resistance on the same footing, because of the “necessity” to relativize heroism, and the drive to oppugn the idea of rebellion. Another example is the clever reinterpretation of textual evidence to make Salvador Allende into a racist, an anti-Semite, and a eugenicist, for the purpose of denigrating the putative founding myths of socialism around the world.

As for philosophy, while its place in the educational curriculum of the schools and universities is threatened by all those who judge its useless, outmoded, to Greek, too German, and impossible to put a price on or fit into a scientistic pigeonhole (in sum, too subversive), the drive to “philosophize” or “to learn to think for oneself” is expanding outside the institutions of state, embracing Plato, Socrates, the pre-Socratics materialists, the Latins, the moderns, the post-moderns, the old and new moderns, the new and old reactionaries. There is a gap between the academicism that is returning in force to official schooling and the massive demand for “living” teaching outside the universities, and this gap continues to grow wider in a world haunted by fear of the loss of identity, boundaries, and national particularisms.

Feature stories in our periodicals and newspapers almost all convey a catastrophic outlook: the end of history, the end of ideology, the end of towering individuals, the end of thought, the end of mankind, the end of everything. Jean-Paul Sartre? – for or against? Raymond Aron –for or against? Would it suit you better to be in the right with the former as against the later, or vice versa? Should we take a blowtorch to May 1968 and its ideas, its thinkers, and their writings, seen now as  incomprehensible, elitist, dangerous and antidemocratic? Have the protagonists of the revolution in behavior and mentality all become little bourgeois capitalist pleasure seekers without faith or principles, or haven't they ?

Everywhere the same questions, and everywhere the same answers, all claiming to bear witness to a new malaise of civilization. The father has vanished, but why not the mother? Isn’t the mother really just a father, in the end, and the father the mother? Why do young people not think anything? What are children so unbearable? Is it because of Francoise Dolto, or television, or pornography, or comic books? And leading thinkers, what has become of them? Are they dead, or gestating, or hibernating? Or are they on the road to extinction?

And women: are they capable of supervising male workers on the same basis as men are? Of thinking like men, of being philosophers? Do they have the same brain, the same neurons, the same emotions, the same criminal instincts? Was Christ the lover of Mary Magdalene, and if so, does that mean that the Christian religion is sexuality split between a hidden feminine pole and a dominant masculine one?

Has France become decadent? Are you for Spinoza, Darwin, Galileo, or against? Are you partial to the United States? Wasn’t Heidegger a Nazi. Was Michael Foucault the precursor of Bin Laden, Gilles Deleuze a drug addict, Jacques Derrida a deconstructed guru? Was Napoleon really so different from Hitler? State the similarities, proffer your thoughts, assess your knowledge, speak for yourself.

Whom do you prefer; who are the puniest figures, the greatest ones, the most mediocre, the biggest charlatans, the most criminal? Classify, rank, calculate, measure, put a price on, normalize: this is the absolute nadir of contemporary interrogation, endlessly imposing itself in the name of a bogus modernity  that undermines every form of critical intelligence grounded in the analysis of the complexity of things and persons.

Never has sexuality been so untrammeled, and never has science progressed so far in the exploration of the body and the brain. Yet never has psychological suffering been more intense: solitude, use of mind-altering drugs, boredom, fatigue, dieting, obesity, the medicalization of every second of existence. The freedom of self, so necessary, and won at a cost of so much struggle during the twentieth century, seems to have turned back into a demand for puritanical restraint. As for social suffering, it is increasingly harder to bear because it seems to be constantly on the rise, against a background of youth unemployment and tragic factory closings.

Set free from the shackles of morality, sex is experienced not as the correlate of desire, but as a performance, as gymnastics, as hygiene for organs that can only lead to deathly lassitude. How does one climax, and bring one’s partner to climax. What is the ideal size of the vagina, the correct lengthy of the penis? How often? How many partners in a lifetime, in a week, in a single day, minute by minute? Never has the psychology of conditioning, of sexological or partner-swapping alienation been so overpowering as it is today. So much so that by now we are seeing a surge in complaints of every kind. The more individuals are promised happiness and the ideal of security, the more their unhappiness persists, the steeper the risk profile grows, and the more the victims of unkept promises revolt against those who have betrayed them.

 It would seem impossible not to detect, in this curious psychologization of existence that has gripped society and that is contributing to the rise of de-politicalization, the most insidious expression of what Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze called “little everyday fascism,” intimate, desired, longed-for, admitted, and celebrated by the very individual who is both its protagonist and  its victim. A little fascism, which of course has nothing to do with the great fascist systems, since it slips inside each individual without his realizing it, without ever calling into question the sacrosanct principles of the rights of man , of humanism, of democracy. 

I have chosen to render homage to six French philosophers - Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, and Derrida – whose work is known and discussed throughout the world, and who, despite their divergences, their disputes, and the impulses they shared, had this in common: they all confronted, in a critical fashion, not just the question of political engagement (meaning a philosophy of freedom) but also the Freudian concept of the unconscious (meaning the philosophy of structure). They all commanded a literary style, and they were all passionate about art and literature.

This confrontation was inscribed in their works and their lives, and that is why it is fitting to bring them together here. The all refused, at the price of what I would call a passage through a tempest, to serve the project to normalize the human being – a project that, in its most experimental version, is no more than an ideology of submission in the service of barbarity. Each of them published his oeuvre in an age before television and other media had the importance they have now in the transmission of knowledge, and two of them, Deleuze and Derrida, laid the basis for new ways of thinking about the logic of the modern media.

Far from commemorating their former glory or devoting myself nostalgically to a simple recapitulation of their works, I have tried, by making the thought of some operate through the thought of others, and by highlighting some of the leading moments of French intellectual life in the second half of the twentieth century, to show that only the critical acceptance of a heritage makes it possible to think for oneself and to invent the thought of the future, a thought for better times, a thought that refuses to submit, a thought unfaithful out of necessity.

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Georges Canguilhem, the man who challenged authority in the most radical fashion was the same man who, in his classroom require the greatest submission from his students, as he imparted knowledge to them in a manner seemingly remote from liberty. He never advocated the sort of pedagogy that puts student and teacher on the same level, and he never yielded to the temptations of false freedom of speech. His students at Toulouse were inculcated with a sense of order, logic and discipline: no notebooks, no pencils, a refusal even to allow certain expressions to be uttered. The normal method was for students to take lecture notes, thus fixing the knowledge to be transmitted in permanent form; Canguilhem preferred them to assemble flexible archives, grouped into thematic dossiers adaptable modules. In order to exercise the critical faculty of his pupils and train them to develop an intelligent memory, he forced them to write down and submit summaries of what they had heard in class after an hour of attentive listening during which they took no notes. The summaries were neither returned nor commented upon.

Canguilhem came to regard psychology, to the extent that it is the discipline of behavior, adaptation and conditioning, as a school of submission and of the suppression of liberty. For just as he had always rejected the thought of Taine and that of the adepts of theory about native soil, race and environment, he likewise abhorred any approach to mankind that aimed to reduce the spirit to a thing, the psyche to physiological determinism, thought to a reflex; in sum, the human being as an insect.. . A ‘thing’ without essence and without object, psychology thus came down in his eyes to nothing more than a technology at the service of a corporation, itself under the sway of judges, censors, and educators whose function was the instrumentalization of man by man . . .he perceived a danger taking place – that the subjection of the noble disciplines (medicine, biology, physiology, philosophy, literature etc.) to a model of instrumentalization of the spirit and the psyche, which might in the long term transform the teachers and professors of the French republic into psycho-pedagogues more concerned with aiding students in distress than forming elites in the service of an  ideal of liberty. In is view this model also threatened, given the formidable expansion of the study of psychology in the democratic countries, to contaminate the whole of the social edifice, to the point where the business of managing interpersonal relationships would supplant all forms of political and intellectual commitment.. . he jubilantly renounced all those who, from Piaget to Chomsky, had dreamed of making thought an empty space, to the point of imagining that a machine might be capable of writing A la recherche du temps perdu,  write its own autobiography or auto-critique.  He thus donned the mantle of the founder of a philosophy without the subject, sounding a summons to all men of good will, in the name of the unity of philosophy, in which Cartesians and Spinozist would be united – that is, partisans and adversaries of the philosophy of consciousness and the philosophy of commitment – against what might well be called the most liberticide branch of psychology- without uttering the word “cognitivism’- which did not come into widespread use in France until 1981- the ultimi barabarorum ( the most recent barbarity to appear).

Foucault  was even more violent, denouncing ‘the indignity of power, from infamous sovereignty down to ridiculous authority.” Like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who also posed questions regarding the limits of reason, but with different gestures, Foucault sought to trouble the order of the world, to force its obscure parts, its disorder, its heterogeneity to well up out of the apparent sovereignty of order. He took part resolutely in the conceptual adventure, making the conceptuality proper to the human sciences as an object of passion upon which an entire generation, formed in the secularized and republican university system, was invited to reflect in a critical fashion.

For Foucault, as for Derrida and Deleuze, it was imperative to continually question such ideals as the rights of man, humanism, and democracy, so as to uncover, at the very core of that which presents itself as the most refined expression of Western culture, the traces of a dark force – or sometimes just the traces of that little, everyday, nondescript fascism – that never ceases to threaten their fragile equilibrium.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Rollande's Colas Breugnon by Georg Lukacs

In Romain Rolande’s own words Colas Breugnon is a kind of interlude between his large epic and dramatic cycles, a secondary line, an episode in his total production; it is cheerful and life-affirming, even though its story is full of sad, indeed tragic events – like that of Anatole France’s Rotisserie de la Reine Pedauque. This tension and the triumph of life that springs from it is the decisive thing: here the old life-affirming, epicurean materialism, the great tradition of the French humanist breaks through. The historical theme is not accidental because, with the action taking place in the time of the Regency under the young Louis XIII, it expressed the continuity of this attitude to life among the French people.

Indeed Romain Rolland intends much more than an uninterrupted historical development. The outlook of this great humanist, his belief in the eternity of human feelings and passions goes beyond continuity. “Bonhomme vit encore”(Fellowship still lives) he writes as the motto to this novel, and in the preface where he gives his reasons for publishing the work unchanged (it had been completed just before the imperialist World War) he says that the grandsons of Colas Bruegnon , the heroes and victims of the bloody epic of the World War, had proved to the world how right this motto was.

Colas Breugnon, then, is conceived by his author not only as ason of his time, a time long past, but also an eternal type. And –which is decisive – a type representative of French popular life. With Anatole France the epicurean wisdom and blithe affirmation of life “despite everything” was the intellectual property of a declassed intellectual of the eighteenth century. Romain Rolande’s outlook has deeper roots in the people. To be sure Colas Breugnon, the artist craftsman also feeds his spirit and outlook on literature, but his his wisdom is essentially more native, more directly drawn from life, from popular life.

Here lies the imperishable beauty of this work, which makes it a unique product of our time. Romain Rolande nowhere idealizes his hero. In fact he deliberately sets a whole series of negative features in the foreground: a tendency to loaf, a certain laxness and negligence about life, etc. .  Colas is not modelled to perfection: his faults and merits correspond in no way to those images which, at different times and on different sides have been used to glorify the French people.

But if Romain Rollande refuses to throw a false gloss over the French people in keeping with those traditions, he is even more strongly opposed to those modern literary trends which seek to provide a natural picture of the people by stressing human brutality; even though they would make “circumstances” responsible for this. Romain Rollande’s portrait of a popular hero is throughout blunt and robust. But inseparable from these qualities, which have more to them than their form suggests, is the hero’s human genuineness, subtlety and tenderness in his relations to people, his simple and shrewd decisiveness which in moments of real trial and danger soars into true heroism, heroic steadfastness. Certain scenes are hardly to be equaled in any other writer of the present: the hero’s encounter and farewell to the sweetheart of his youth, from whom we learn the humorous and moving story of their love, his farewell to his efficient, prosaic wife with who he has lived all his life in humorous discord. One has to go back to Gottfried Keller’s scenes of popular life to find the equal of this popular humanism. . .

The historical novels of the German anti-Fascist writers give us the poetry of the struggle for humanness and culture, against reaction and barbarism; but as yet this poetry is still abstract, not fed by real popular forces. It  is quite different in Romain Rollande. We have already stressed the lofty ad vital poetry of popular life in this novel. This, however,  rests on a conscious aloofness from the political struggles of the time portrayed, an aloofness which has been raised into a philosophy. Not that Colas Breugnon and his author do not take sides in these struggles. But the position they do take is one of blunt plebeian mistrust, repudiating both contending parties of the age, the Catholics as well as the Protestants. Romain Rollande has his hero say; ‘One party is worth as much as the other; the better one is not even worth the rope with which it ought to be hanged. What do we care whether this or that good-for-nothing plays his knavish tricks at court”?” And even more clearly at another point : “God protect us from the protectors! We are quite capable of protecting ourselves. Poor sheep!  If it was only a question of defending ourselves against the wolf, we’d soon know what to do. But who will protect us against the shepherd?” Romain Rollande not only has his hero state this view repeatedly, but shows by striking examples through the course of the story how right the plebeians of the time were to distrust both sides in this way and how they attempted to translate their mistrust into deeds, now slyly, now boldly. . . .

Walter Scott by Georg Lukacs

[Many summaries and critical analysis of this book are available on line, for example :]

“In Scott’s life-work we find marvelous scenes and characters from the life of the serfs and the free peasants, from the fortune’s of society’s outlaws, the smugglers, robbers, professional soldiers, deserters and so on. Yet it is in his unforgettable portrayal of the survivals of gentile society, of the Scottish clans where to poetry of his portrayal of past life chiefly lies. Here in material and subject-matter alone, there is present such a powerful element of the heroic period of mankind, that Scott’s novel’s at their height do indeed approach the old epics. Scott is a giant discoverer and awakener of this long vanished past. It is true that the eighteenth century already loved and enjoyed the poetry of primitive life. And in the wave of enthusiasm for Homer, in Homer’s ousting of Virgil as the model, there is undoubtedly a dawning of awareness of this infant period of mankind. Important thinkers such as Ferguson even saw a relationship between Homeric heroes and the American Indians. Nevertheless this predilection remained abstract and moralizing in quality. Scott was the first actually to bring this period to life, by introducing us into the everyday life of the clans, by portraying on this real basis both the exceptional and unequalled human greatness of this primitive order as well as the inner necessity of its tragic downfall.

In this way, by bringing to life those objective poetic principles which really underlie the poetry of popular life and history, Scott became the great poet of past ages, the really popular portrayer of history. Heine understood this quality and saw, too, that the strength of Scott’s writing lay precisely in this presentation of popular life, in the fact that the official big events and great historical figures were not given a central place. He says: ‘Walter Scott’s novels  sometimes reproduce the spirit of English history much more faithfully than Hume.’ The important historians and philosophers of this period , Thierry and Hegel, aspire to a similar interpretation of history. But with them it goes no further than a demand, a theoretical pronouncement of this necessity. For in the field of theory and historiography only historical materialism is capable of intellectually unearthing the basis of history, of showing what the childhood of mankind was really like. But what in Morgan, Marx and Engels was worked out and proved with theoretical and historical clarity, lives, moves and has its being poetically in the best historical novels of Scott. For this reason Heine very rightly stresses this side of Scott, his popular side: ‘Strange whim of the people! They demand their history from the hand of the poet and not from the hand of the historian. They demand not a faithful report of bare facts, but those facts dissolved back into the original poetry whence they came.’

We repeat: this poetry is objectively bound up with the necessary downfall of gentile society. We experience in the various novels of Scott the individual stages of this downfall in all its historical concreteness and differentiation. Scott did not- in the pedantic sense of Gustav Freytag’s Ahenen ( Our Forefathers)- wish to make a coherent cycle of his novels. But in regard to the fate of the clans this great historical connection, the inexorable necessity of their tragedy emerges into colossal relief - if only because their fortunes always spring from a living interaction with the social-historical world around tem. They are never presented independently or in isolation, but always in the context of a general crisis of Scottish or English-Scottish popular life. The chain of these crisis extends from the first great struggles between the rising Scottish middle class and the nobility, from Royalty’s attempt to use these struggles in strengthening central power (The Fair Maid of Perth – end of the fourteenth century) to the last attempt of the Stuarts to turn back the clock of history, to restore outdated Absolutism in an already far advanced capitalist England (Rob Roy- end of the eighteenth century).

The clans are, of historical necessity, always the exploited, the cheated, the deceived. Their very heroic qualities which stem from the primitiveness of their social being, make them to toy of the humanly far inferior representatives of the ruling powers of the given stage of civilization. What Engels shows scientifically, namely how civilization achieves things beyond the powers of old gentile society, this Scott portrays. In particular, he portrays the contrast in the human sphere, which Engels stresses in his analysis of this inevitable collapse of gentile society in the face of civilization: “but it achieved them by setting in motion the lowest instincts and passions in man and developing them at the expense of all his other abilities.”

AS soon as absolute monarchy appears as a force within the class struggles of feudalism, it ruthlessly exploits the unimportant feuds of the clans, turning them into mutual massacre. The mutual extermination of all the able-bodied men of two clans which forms the action of the first of the above-named novels is admittedly a crude and exceptional case of this and only Scott’s great art is able to extract it from the typical. But Scott can do this only because, on a spontaneous, more isolated and episodic scale, the inability of the clans to defend their common interests against nobility or bourgeoisie and the dissipation of all their energies in the local insularity of such petty struggles are an inevitable result of the basis of clan life. The body guard of the French King, Louis XI, already consists of member of the old clans who have been more or less forcibly scattered and thrown off their own resources (Quentin  Durward). And the parties in the later civil wars, Parliament as well as the Stuarts, are already ruthlessly and extensively exploiting the courageous, devoted clan warrior as cannon fodder for political ends totally foreign to the clans (A Legend of Montrose, Waverly, Rob Roy.)

With the suppression of the uprising of 1745 –which is depicted in Waverly – the real downfall of gentile society begins, says Engels. Several decades later (in Rob Roy) we see the clans already in a state of complete economic dissolution. One character in the novel, the shrewd merchant and bailiff of Glasgow, Jarvie, clearly sees that it has become a matter of economic necessity for the clans to wage their desperate and hopeless battles on behalf of the Stuarts. They are no longer able to maintain themselves on the basis of their primitive economy. They possess a surplus population, permanently armed and well-seasoned who cannot be put to any normal use, who must resort to plunder and pillage, and for whom an uprising of this kind is the only way out of a hopeless situation. Thus we have here and element odd dissolution, the beginning of class-uprooting which were as yet absent from the clan picture of Waverley. . .

[The dissolution of gentile society in Scotland was already in full swing by 1745. Historically, it is doubtful that  ‘clan governance’ was ever a stable mode of production in the regions of northern England and Scotland since  the time of the Norman Conquest. There were always disparate elements that  hardly conformed to the ‘nostalgic image’ of old gentile society which by 1745 had in many respects already become a mere caricature  of itself. At any rate, bands of ‘outlaws, the smugglers, robbers, professional soldiers, deserters and so on’  were already a presence in the borderlands at the time of Henry the Eighth, when the term ‘red-neck’ first came into use.  James the first enlisted  members of these bands to settle Northern Ireland beginning in 1601. The question is ‘wither gentile society?” It did not simply disappear  into the dark pages of history but was transformed into a form of society and culture the traces of which can still be found in the present day; still representing a  ‘regressive’ and reactionary component in American society (beginning with the mass migrations after 1745- though certainly  before that) that has both been served and served the bourgeois, centralizing American Polity in diverse ways, heroically as well as progressively.]

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Five Percenters by Michael Mohammad Knight

Though building on a unique cosmology and legendary characters, Allah positioned himself as anti-religion. Known as a High Scientist during his time in the mosque, he later discouraged high science in favor of "city science". Many Gods take a practical look at their divinity; the word God to both Fard and the Father, in I Majestic's interpretation, "has no religious context here, it's not claiming to be an astral being" The Five Percenters would respond to anarchism's ethos of "no gods, no masters", with I God, I Master. For a black man to call himself God means that he will take responsibility, as the Father of Civilization , to lift himself up in the here and now- as opposed to waiting for a mystery to solve his problems or reward him in the afterlife...

I thought of Allah and the Desert Fathers that came before him: Father Divine, Noble Drew Ali, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. They were all born in the south and came north as young men in search of a better tomorrow, but found the American Dream to be a mystery god: an empty promise that took blind faith and gave only hard times.

There really is a devil, and like the Lost-Found Muslim Lesson No 1 says, he does keep you from his social equality. The bloodsucking Ten percenters, peddlers of the Mystery God, rule the Eighty-five Percent with priests, imams, ministers, mullahs and theologians, trained experts in phantoms, selling what cannot be seen. An old man who has only been an MTA bus driver all his life cannot stand up in a mosque and give khutbah on what he learned while struggling in the city and supporting a family. It's not enough, he has to go to Al-Azar, perfect his Arabiyya, master tajwid, eat up the medieval scholars, fill his head with fiqh and learn all the schools of thought. But in the new Mecca of Harlem, he can come to the front of the Harriet Tubman's auditorium in his MTA work jacket and he's God as is.'

Making information widely accessible should not be a bad thing; but as Muslims often complain that reading the Qur'an in a language other than the original Arabic will sacrifice its meaning, the 120 gives up its heart when translated to hypertext.

Shared on a playground or prison yard, the degrees become living things. I received my 120 on a hallway floor in the St. Nicholas House. The lightening was dim, the walls tagged with graffiti, my teacher stoned but still holding a lineage to his own teacher, who went back to his teacher and his teacher and so on through the unbroken trees of transmission drawn in the Sun of Man to the First Born, to the Father, To Malcolm and the mosque and the Muslims on back to Elijah Muhammad himself on Feb. 20,1934, answering questions as they were given to him by Master Fard.

The lines of the teachers and students all begin at that same original source and are cousins to one another. On the project floor with a document soft in a way that paper gets when it is old, the creases becoming tears, stained with coffee and scented with the same oils that Muslims put on their Qur'ans, I became a link in one chain. In contrast, a computer screen offers only dead words, an experience about as real as sitting on your couch to watch Muharram self-flagellations from Tehran on the Discovery Channel.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Duel by Joseph Roth

Back then, before the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passerby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.

For a long time, the deaths of the regimental surgeon and Count Tattenbach stirred the emotions of the officers and troops of the lancer regiment and also the civilian population. The deceased were buried according to the prescribed military and religious rites. Beyond their own ranks none of the officers had breathed a word about the manner of deaths, but somehow the news had traveled through the small garrison that both men had fallen victim to their strict code of honor. And it was as if the forehead of every surviving officer now bore the mark of a close, violent death, and for the shopkeepers and craftsmen in the small town the foreign gentlemen had become even more foreign. The officers went about like incomprehensible worshipers of some remote and pitiless deity, but also like its gaudily clad and splendidly adorned sacrificial animals. People stared after them, shaking their heads. Thy even felt sorry for them. They had lots of privileges, the people told one another. They can strut around with sabers and attract women, and the Kaiser takes care of them personally as if they were his own sons. And yet before you can even bat an eyelash, one of them insults another, and the offense has to be washed away with blood!

So the men they were talking about were not truly to be envied. Even Captain Taittinger, who was rumored to have participated in several fatal duels in other regiments, altered his normal behavior. While the loud-mouthed and flippant were now silent and subdued,  strange uneasiness to hold of the usually soft-spoken, sweet-toothed, and haggard rittmaster. He could no longer spend hours siting alone behind the glass door of the little pastry shop, devouring pastries or else wordlessly playing chess or dominoes with himself or with the colonel. Taittinger was now afraid of solitude. He literally clung to the other men. If no fellow officer was nearby, he would enter a shop to buy something he did not need. He would stand there for a long time, chatting with the storekeeper about useless and silly things, unable to make up his mind to leave – unless  he spotted some casual acquaintance passing by outside, whereupon Taittinger would instantly pounce on him. That was how greatly the world had changed. The officers’ club remained empty. They stopped their convivial outings to Frau Resi’s establishment. The orderlies had little to do, If an officer ordered a drink, he would look at the glass and muse that it was the very one from which Tattenbach had drunk just a couple of days ago. They still told the old jokes, but they no longer guffawed loudly; at most, they smiled. Lieutenant Trotta was seen only on duty.

It was as if a swift magical hand had washed the twinge of youth from Carl Joseph’s face. No similar lieutenant could have been found entire Imperial and Royal Army. He felt he had to do something extraordinary now, but nothing extraordinary could be found far and wide. Needless to say, he was to leave the regiment and join another. But he looked about for some difficult task. He was realty looking for some self-imposed penance. He could never have put into words, but we may say that he was unspeakably afflicted by the thought of having been a tool in the hands of misfortune.

It was in this state of mind that he informed his father about the outcome of the duel and announced his unavoidable transfer to a different regiment. Although he was entitled to a brief furlough on this occasion, he concealed this from his father, for he was afraid to face him. But as it turned out, he underestimated the old man. For the district captain, that model of a civil servant, was well aware of military customs. And strangely enough, as could be read between the lines, he also seemed to know how to deal with his son’s sorrow and confusion. For the district captain’s answer went as follows:

Dear Son,
     Thank you for your precise account and your confidence. The fate  your comrades met touches me deeply. They died a death that befits men of honor.

In my day, duels were more frequent and honor far more precious than life. In my day, officers, it seems to me, were also made of sterner stuff. You are an officer, my son, and the grandson of the Hero of Solferino. You will know how to cope with your innocent and involuntary involvement in this tragic affair. Naturally you are sorry to leave the regiment, but you will still be serving our Kaiser in any regiment, anywhere in the army.
                                                              Your father,
                                                              Franz von Trotta
P.S. As for your two-week furlough, to which you are entitled with your transfer, you may spend it as you wish, either in my home or, even better, in your new garrison town, so that you may more easily familiarize yourself with your new situation.

Lieutenant Trotta read the letter not without a sense of shame. His father had guessed everything. I the lieutenant’s eyes, the district captain’s image grew to almost fearful magnitude. Indeed, it soon equaled his grandfather’s. And if the lieutenant had previously been afraid of facing the old man, it was now impossible to spend his furlough at home. Later, later, when I get my regular furlough, thought the lieutenant, who was made of less stern stuff than the lieutenants of the district captain’s youth. . .
                              *                             *                            *  

.  .  . The third day brought orders to retreat, and the battalion formed to march off. Both officers and men were disappointed. It was rumored that an entire dragoon regiment had been wiped out nine miles east. Supposedly Cossacks had invaded the country. Silent and grumpy, the Austrians marched west. They soon realized that no one had prepared for there the retreat, for they came upon a confused donnybrook of the most disparate military branches at highway crossings and in villages and small towns. Innumerable and conflicting directives poured from army headquarters.

Most of these orders pertained t the evacuation of villages and towns and the treatment of pro-Russian Ukrainians, clerics and spies. Hast court martials in villages passed hasty sentences.  Secret informers delivered unverifiable reports on peasants, Orthodox priests, teachers, photographers, officials. There was no time. The army had to retreat quickly but also punish the traders swiftly. And while ambulances, baggage, columns, field artillery, dragoons, riflemen, and infantrists formed abrupt and helpless clusters on sodden roads, while courier galloped to a fro, while inhabitants of small towns fled westward in endless throngs, surrounded by white terror, loaded down with red-and-while featherbeds, gray sacks, brown furniture, and blue kerosene lamps, the shots of hasty executioners carrying out hasty sentence rang from the church squares of hamlets and villagers, and the somber rolls of drums accompanied the monotonous decisions of the judges, and the wives of the victims lay shrieking for mercy before the mud-caked boots of the officers, and red and silver flames burst from huts and barns, stables and hayricks. The Austrian army’s war had begun with court-martials. For days on end genuine and supposed traitors hung from trees on church squats to terrify the living.

The  living, however, had fled far and wide.  Fires surrounded the corpses dangling in the trees, and the leaves were already cracking, and the fire was more powerful than the steady gray drizzle heralding bloody autumn. The old bark of ancient trees slowly charred, tiny, silvery, swelling parks crept up along the fissures like fiery worms, reaching the foliage, and the green leaves curled, turned red, then black, then gray; the ropes broke, and the corpses plunged to the ground, their faces black, their bodies unscathed.

One day the soldiers stopped at the village of Krutyny. They arrived in the afternoon, they were supposed to continue west-ward in the morning, before sunrise. By now the steady wide-spread rain  had paused and the late-September sun had wove a benevolent silvery light across the vast fields, which were still filled with grain, the living bread that would never be eaten. Gossamer drifted very slowly through the air. Even the crows and ravens kept still, inveigled by the fleeting peace of this day and with no hope of finding the expected carrion.

The officers hadn’t taken off their clothes for a week. Their boots were waterlogged, their feet swollen, their knees stiff, their calves sore, their backs couldn’t bend. They were billeted in huts. They  tried  to fish dry clothes out of the trunks and wash at meager wells. In the clear, still night, with the abandoned and forgotten dogs in scattered farmyards howling in fear and hunger, the  lieutenant couldn’t sleep and he left the hut where he was quartered. He walked down the long street towards the church spire, which loomed against the stars with its twofold Greek cross. The church with its shingle roof stood in the middle of the small churchyard, surrounded by slanting wooden crosses that seemed to caper in the nocturnal light,.  Outside the huge gray wide-open gates of the graveyard three corpses were dangling, a bearded priest flanked by two young peasants in sandy-yellow smocks, with coarse plaited raffia shoes on their unstirring feet. The black cassock of the priest hung down to his shoes so that they struck the circles of his priestly garment like dumb clappers in a deaf-and-dumb bell; they seemed to be tolling without evoking a sound . .  . he thought he recognized some of his own soldiers in these three victims. These were the faces of the peasants he drilled every day. The priest’s black, fanning beard reminded him of Onufrij . . . .

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Reflections on this Blog

I can't work under the restraints of the rules against plagiarism,under the needs and necessities of an academic performance, the reflective 'stops' and awkward attributive designs which for me that involves. Not that I don't deploy them on occasions because after all I wouldn't want anyone to think that everything I say or write is 'original' , that I owe nothing to anybody else when, in fact, I owe everything to them, even that which is most intimate and personal, seemingly drawn from the deepest recesses of my own experience. I just have a extremely difficult time disentangling the threads of what I know and feel, why I know and feel what I do as it is without burdening myself with the huge and complex project of identifying the sources of those thoughts and feelings in a formal structure that finally discounts the concept and ideas I'm juggling except as they might 'be possessed' like any other material commodity in life.
This attitude is reflected in my blog, the site of my primary intellectual effort, which paradoxically tries above all to restrain the expression my 'personal opinions' and simply present the 'findings' of the authors of book I read in their own words, albeit condensed, rearranged and focused on certain points which are of interest to me more or less in a random fashion, that is, without any fully formed intent to make an argument that encompasses a concept of the totality of the life- past and present- we live today, as might be the case in a novel or an essay in the fullest possible sense of that literary form. I'm just not up to it. I have to content myself with presenting multiplicities and in popular forums like Facebook and twitter, moments of reaction to what others say in the negative mode of perception, which I recognize can be over-bearing and selfish but there is no help for it but to withdraw and remain silent.
I do make an effort to turn my blog into something more than it is. For instance, I have undertaken a project to index its contents to a more detailed degree than the search mechanism of Blogspot makes available, I have been pushing aspects of The Critical Tradition. This would be for for a constructive purpose but the job is interminable and I doubt there is enough time nor do I possess the capacity to develop these resources where I could use them to establish myself as an 'original author', an existential impossibility as I see it currently.Every attempt I have made in the past has turned to ashes. I look back on those efforts with contempt and shame. I have no desire to reproduce the like. I'd just be wasting my time in self-flagellation. I am satisfied to live and work with my own obvious limitations.
I am where the North Sea touches Alabama