I’m a big fan of writers’ note-books (and maxims and aphorisms in general), and I’ve been enjoying Rainer J. Hashe’s new translation of Charles Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare, which also collects Baudelaire’s “Flares” and “Consoling Maxims on Love,” and other fragments and notes and even illustrations—like this self-portrait:
In My Heart Laid Bare, an apodictic work of aphorism, maxim, note, and extended reflection, we encounter a fierce dandy who revolts against utilitarianism: to be useful, Baudelaire gibes, is to be hideous. Yet, contrarily, it is not dissolution that this poète maudit praises or celebrates. Although he rejects Progress, he prizes what he calls true progress, for him moral, the work of the individual alone. The dandy is not disaffected, but a rigorous spectator that burrows into the heart of reality itself; situated at the center of the world, yet hidden from it, this incognito figure tears back the flesh of humanity like a devilish surgeon. Through this act of absorption, observation, and analysis, like Rimbaud’s Supreme Scientist, Baudelaire’s dandy acquires “a subtle understanding of the entire moral mechanism of this world.” Here we have the poet as philosopher king and transvaluator of values; here we have the disciplined flâneur. Baudelaire the keen symptomatologist who escapes “the nightmare of Time” via Pleasure or Work. If Pleasure is consumptive for him, Work is fortifying, that is, not the work of a profession, — curséd thing, — but the work of poiesis. A kind of poetic Marcus Aurelius forging his inner citadel, Baudelaire’s dandy-flâneur does not retreat into a monastic cell,
but situates himself amidst society: poet as vast mirror, poet as thinking kaleidoscope. To Nietzsche, My Heart Laid Bare contains “invaluable psychological observations relating to decadence of the kind in which Schopenhauer’s and Byron’s case has been burned.”
Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling 1. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways 2. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world 3. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus 4 to just ordinary folks, little fellows 5, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets 6. Organic markets, carefully styled “black” 7 by the professionals, spring up everywhere. Scrip, Sterling, Reichsmarks continue to move, severe as classical ballet, inside their antiseptic marble chambers. But out here, down here among the people, the truer currencies come into being. So, Jews are negotiable. Every bit as negotiable as cigarettes, cunt, or Hershey bars. Jews also carry an element of guilt, of future blackmail, which operates, natch, in favor of the professionals. 8
From page 105 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1Gravity’s Rainbow is often (unjustly and unfairly) maligned as a messy, even pointless affair—but here’s our author speaking through the narrator, offering up one of the novel’s points—clearly, without equivocation.
2 Our narrator digs irony though…
3 Entropy is all—but entropy doesn’t make for good capitalism, by which our sly narrator means, Their Capitalism. The adult world needs to be organized, systematized, caused and effected.
Cf. Jack Gibbs’s rant to his erstwhile young students, early in William Gaddis’s 1975 novel of capitalism, J R:
Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .
4 Note the not-so-oblique reference to GR’s theme of stimulus-response (and upending that response).
Not too much earlier in the narrative, dedicated Pavlovian Dr. Edward W.A. Pointsman worries about the end of cause and effect, the rise of entropy:
Will Postwar be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?
6 Pynchon reiterates his thesis.
7 Note that organic (entropic?) markets fall outside of Their System—y’know, Them—the Professionals—these organic (chaotic, necessary) markets must be labeled “black” (preterite?).
Here’s another Dutch propaganda poster:
Page 105 of Gravity’s Rainbow “happens,” more or less, in 1944, in the middle of an extended introduction of Katje Borgesius, a Dutch double agent. (Or is that double Dutch agent?). The propaganda poster above strikes me as overtly racist, but also seems to nod to King Kong (1933, dir. Cooper and Schoedsack). Gravity’s Rainbow is larded with references to King Kong, a sympathetic but powerful force of entropy, a force against the Professionals.
Fay Wray look, 57; Fay Wray, 57, 179, 275; “You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” 179; “headlights burning like the eyes of” 247; “the black scapeape we cast down like Lucifer,” 275; Mitchell Prettyplace book about, 275; “Giant ape” 276; “the Fist of the Ape,” 277; “orangutan on wheels,” 282; taking a shit, 368; “The figures darkened and deformed, resembling apes” 483; “a troupe of performing chimpanzees” 496; “on the tit with no motor skills,” 578; “Negroid apes,” 586; “that sacrificial ape,” 664; “a gigantic black ape,” 688; Carl Denham, 689; poem based on King Kong, 689; See also: actors/directors film/cinema references;
The Kong-figure in the Dutch propaganda poster seems to wear the petasos (winged hat) and wield the caduceus of Hermes or Mercury—god of thieves. But also god of the market, of commerce, merchandise, all things mercenary.
From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984):
8 The passage as a whole, which emphasizes war as a conduit for the techne of the market (or do I have that backwards? should I note the market of techne?) echoes an earlier passage. From page 81:
It was widely believed in those days that behind the War—all the death, savagery, and destruction—lay the Führer-principle. But if personalities could be replaced by abstractions of power, if techniques developed by the corporations could be brought to bear, might not nations live rationally? One of the dearest Postwar hopes: that there should be no room for a terrible disease like charisma.
I do not like books. I believe I have the smallest library of any literary man in London, and I have no wish to increase it. I keep my books at the British Museum and at Mudie’s, and it makes me very angry if anyone gives me one for my private library. I once heard two ladies disputing in a railway carriage as to whether one of them had or had not been wasting money. “I spent it in books,” said the accused, “and it’s not wasting money to buy books.” “Indeed, my dear, I think it is,” was the rejoinder, and in practice I agree with it. Webster’s Dictionary, Whitaker’s Almanack, and Bradshaw’s Railway Guide should be sufficient for any ordinary library; it will be time enough to go beyond these when the mass of useful and entertaining matter which they provide has been mastered. Nevertheless, I admit that sometimes, if not particularly busy, I stop at a second-hand bookstall and turn over a book or two from mere force of habit.
I know not what made me pick up a copy of Æschylus—of course in an English version—or rather I know not what made Æschylus take up with me, for he took me rather than I him; but no sooner had he got me than he began puzzling me, as he has done any time this forty years, to know wherein his transcendent merit can be supposed to lie. To me he is, like the greater number of classics in all ages and countries, a literary Struldbrug, rather than a true ambrosia-fed immortal. There are true immortals, but they are few and far between; most classics are as great impostors dead as they were when living, and while posing as gods are, five-sevenths of them, only Struldbrugs. It comforts me to remember that Aristophanes liked Æschylus no better than I do. True, he praises him by comparison with Sophocles and Euripides, but he only does so that he may run down these last more effectively. Aristophanes is a safe man to follow, nor do I see why it should not be as correct to laugh with him as to pull a long face with the Greek Professors; but this is neither here nor there, for no one really cares about Æschylus; the more interesting question is how he contrived to make so many people for so many years pretend to care about him.
Perhaps he married somebody’s daughter. If a man would get hold of the public ear, he must pay, marry, or fight. I have never understood that Æschylus was a man of means, and the fighters do not write poetry, so I suppose he must have married a theatrical manager’s daughter, and got his plays brought out that way. The ear of any age or country is like its land, air, and water; it seems limitless but is really limited, and is already in the keeping of those who naturally enough will have no squatting on such valuable property. It is written and talked up to as closely as the means of subsistence are bred up to by a teeming population. There is not a square inch of it but is in private hands, and he who would freehold any part of it must do so by purchase, marriage, or fighting, in the usual way—and fighting gives the longest, safest tenure. The public itself has hardly more voice in the question who shall have its ear, than the land has in choosing its owners. It is farmed as those who own it think most profitable to themselves, and small blame to them; nevertheless, it has a residuum of mulishness which the land has not, and does sometimes dispossess its tenants. It is in this residuum that those who fight place their hope and trust.
Or perhaps Æschylus squared the leading critics of his time. When one comes to think of it, he must have done so, for how is it conceivable that such plays should have had such runs if he had not? I met a lady one year in Switzerland who had some parrots that always travelled with her and were the idols of her life. These parrots would not let anyone read aloud in their presence, unless they heard their own names introduced from time to time. If these were freely interpolated into the text they would remain as still as stones, for they thought the reading was about themselves. If it was not about them it could not be allowed. The leaders of literature are like these parrots; they do not look at what a man writes, nor if they did would they understand it much better than the parrots do; but they like the sound of their own names, and if these are freely interpolated in a tone they take as friendly, they may even give ear to an outsider. Otherwise they will scream him off if they can.
Goethe says somewhere that man is not without a vein of veneration. To satisfy this impulse to venerate, even in those who have no sense for what is really worthy, substitutes are provided in the shape of princes and princely families, nobles, titles, orders, and money-bags.
* * * * *
Vague longing and boredom are close akin.
* * * * *
When a man is dead, we envy him no more; and we only half envy him when he is old.
* * * * *
Misanthropy and love of solitude are convertible ideas.
* * * * *
In chess, the object of the game, namely, to checkmate one’s opponent, is of arbitrary adoption; of the possible means of attaining it, there is a great number; and according as we make a prudent use of them, we arrive at our goal. We enter on the game of our own choice.
Nor is it otherwise with human life, only that here the entrance is not of our choosing, but is forced on us; and the object, which is to live and exist, seems, indeed, at times as though it were of arbitrary adoption, and that we could, if necessary, relinquish it. Nevertheless it is, in the strict sense of the word, a natural object; that is to say, we cannot relinquish it without giving up existence itself. If we regard our existence as the work of some arbitrary power outside us, we must, indeed, admire the cunning by which that creative mind has succeeded in making us place so much value on an object which is only momentary and must of necessity be laid aside very soon, and which we see, moreover, on reflection, to be altogether vanity—in making, I say, this object so dear to us that we eagerly exert all our strength in working at it; although we knew that as soon as the game is over, the object will exist for us no longer, and that, on the whole, we cannot say what it is that makes it so attractive. Nay, it seems to be an object as arbitrarily adopted as that of checkmating our opponent’s king; and, nevertheless, we are always intent on the means of attaining it, and think and brood over nothing else. It is clear that the reason of it is that our intellect is only capable of looking outside, and has no power at all of looking within; and, since this is so, we have come to the conclusion that we must make the best of it.
This page is from the same notebook where Joyce headed a page he titled “Rhetoric”; the notes in the books seem to suggest the notebook is part of the preparatory material for Ulysses. From the National Library of Ireland, which probably doesn’t want me posting their material like this.
This page is from a notebook that contains some of Joyce’s preparatory notes for Ulysses—there are notes for characters (“Stephen,” “Simon,” “Leopold,” etc.) as well as lists (“Books,” “Recipes”) and general ideas (“Theosophy”). This particular page, “Rhetoric,” seems to be part of the material that went into the “Aeolus” chapter of Ulysses, which plays with the windiness of rhetorical figures. From the National Library of Ireland, via UbuWeb.
New in trade paperback next week from Picador,Reborn collects the early private writings of Susan Sontag, beginning in 1947 when she was just fourteen. The book begins with the following salvo from 1947: “I believe: (a) That there is no personal god or life after death.” If the phrase seems awfully definitive for such a young person to write, its terse tone is repeatedly undercut in other places in Sontag’s early journals, like when she asks “What does the expression ‘in his cups’ mean?” (he’s drunk, sweetheart). There’s also something almost cute about her entry from 12/19/48: “There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read–Here are just a few.” I feel the same way myself. She goes on to list over 20 authors and titles, including Faulkner’s Sanctuary and Dostoyevsky’s Diary of a Writer. Sontag’s immediate, visceral, and sometimes raw reactions to whatever she’s reading, hearing, and watching, make up a good bulk of Reborn, and there’s something fun, if inessential, to know that she read Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza and James’s Portrait of a Lady in January of 1950.
Don’t expect, of course, to get a definitive sense of who Sontag was, let alone a narrative account of her life here. Subtitled Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, Reborn veers closer to the “notebook” side of things. The book certainly doesn’t feel like its 320 pages, mostly because it’s comprised of lists, notes, half-poems, and half-ideas–with the occasional major insight or life-changing moment thrown in in an almost alarmingly casual tone. Check the following consecutive entries:
Excellently staged performance of Don Giovanni last night (City Center). Today, a wonderful opportunity was offered me–to do some research work for a soc[iology] instructor named Philip Rieff, who is working on, among other things, a reader in the sociology of politics + religion. At last the chance to really involve myself in one area with competent guidance.
Last night, or was it early this (Sat.) morning?–I am engaged to Philip Rieff.
If there’s more to this episode in Sontag’s journal, her son David Rieff, the book’s editor, has chosen to elide it (although he has included that, as early as 12/19/56, if his mother is to be believed, he knew “the difference between a sarcophagus and an esophagus”). In an introduction loaded with much hemming and hawing, Rieff acknowledges the rawness of his mother’s private diaries, noting that they were written only for Sontag herself, who had no intention of publishing them. (Rieff’s decision to publish them is an issue of control: Sontag had sold her all of her writing and papers to UCLA and Rieff felt that assuming an editorial role might protect his mother to some extent). And, as one would expect of the notes of a young college student, nothing here is even remotely polished: like the adolescent who so easily denies an afterlife, many of Sontag’s notes and thoughts come across as callow, or at least not on par with the intellectual who gave us On Photographyand “Notes on ‘Camp.'” A note from 1/2/58 comes across as painfully emo: “How to make my sadness more than a lament for feeling? How to feel? How to burn? How to make anguish metaphysical?” Not that these are unserious questions, but methinks someone’s been hitting the Kierkegaard a bit too hard. When Sontag the diarist steps in–that is to say, the diarist who reflects honestly, as opposed to the academic pulling philosophical poses–we get brusque honesty full of pathos. In a note from 1960, after briefly discussing how her mother’s conflict-aversion led to “the idea that honesty equaled cruelty,” Sontag drops this shocker: “No matter what I have said, my life, my actions say that I have not loved the truth, that I have not wanted the truth.” While I don’t particularly demand self-reflection, this kind of honesty is both rare and affecting coming from an academic.
But why should we expect Sontag’s private journals to be more than they are? It’s more fun to read Reborn elliptically, picking it up and putting it down, browsing through Sontag’s lists of movies, quotes from Rilke and Blake, and various thought-experiments. From 11/4/57:
“Try whiskey. To find a voice. To speak.
Instead of talking.
[ . . . ]
Are the Jews played out? I am proud of being Jewish. Of what?
[ . . . ]
Orc–imaginary mailed beast, dragon, ogre, named after a sea-monster killed by Orlando, in Ariosto’s Orlando Furious
Whiskey, Jews, Orcs–great stuff.
We’ll conclude with one of our favorite moments in the book, which is simply a list of words. In one of the few contextual notes Rieff concedes, he notes that all her life, “SS made lists of words into which she occasionally inserted a person’s name or a brief observation.” The list is from the fall of 1949:
Have you heard the gossip? Apparently, this past Friday, a certain young lady engaged in, as the French say (forgive me for being indelicate here) a ménage à trois. My ex-boyfriend was one of the participants, and, after the escapade, she reported that his sexual appendage was, well, smaller than average (he had a very small dick). Well, of course such spiteful calumny greatly agitated the young man, and, as for me, well, I must admit some measure of apathy (and perhaps distaste) for the whole matter. The young lady involved in the threesome had a boyfriend, and this young man has now turned his romantic–perhaps amorous–attentions in my direction; however, I declined his advances.”