Sunday, November 22, 2015

Only Submit

Michel Houellebecq, Submission

. . . The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The melancholy and misanthropic Jacques ("Jakes") possesses the gift of truth-telling that might be the only succor of old age; why delude yourself when you stand on the edge of a vast chasm into which you are about to tumble? Dylan Thomas's "Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight/ Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, /Rage, rage against the dying of the light" captures the rage of the person whose life is receding into memory, but provides at least the comfort of defiance. Aging is frightful, death is terrifying, but how much more terrifying and horrible when one's dying coincides with the passing away of the order of the world, with "civilization" itself? The misreaders of Houellebecq miss this nuance in his work--easy enough to do with a writer who sets out to offend, and does.

Cultural pessimism has a long and distinguished history, beginning with Thucydides and traveling a great arc through the rise and fall of nations and empires--even in the midst of the Enlightenment, the age of optimism and belief in continuous liberal progress, there was Vico to remind us that the  glorious age of humanity had passed with Rome, and that sour-puss Joseph de Maistre, whose reactionary attachment to absolute authority--in an age that embraced personal liberty as the only gospel--anticipated Oswald Spengler and the fascist movements of the twentieth century. (Fascism is the only possible resolution of cultural decadence this side of suicide). But pessimism about the products of a rationality unchecked by religious belief and political hierarchy was routed by both the material and cultural products of enlightened cosmopolitanism. Capitalism appeared to supply proof that reason deployed in the service of material progress would make a paradise of this world; the romantics offered the hope that a purely personal spiritual vision could transcend any use people might have for a providential God; and liberalism--the struggle to extend the promise of democratic empowerment--seemed to fulfill the Western dream of individual autonomy sketched out by Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, and Kant.

  The pillars of modern cultural pessimism--Nietzsche and Thomas Mann and T. S. Eliot--understood that the shucking off of the Old Order, however desirable, must have its cost. In Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche's scathing indictment of bourgeois Christian (and, perforce, hypocritical) morality is so entertaining that the careless reader, inclined to agree with Nietzsche, is likely to miss the undertone of nostalgia that seeps into Nietzsche's aphorisms. With Mann, there can be no mistaking the sense of loss; the long Scholastic arguments that occupy the final third of Magic Mountain both dismiss as superannuated and defend as essential the unifying vision of the Middle Ages--the vision that held Europe together, according to Mann, until the catastrophe of 1914. It became fashionable during the decadent years leading up to the Great War for disillusioned intellectuals, their youthful folly spent, to convert to Catholicism (or Anglicanism), finding in Holy Mother Church the meaning that personal liberty could not supply. The reek of incense and the Latin chants of celibate priests guided many thoughtful but unhappy men and women to the oblivion of Faith.

Among those who made the journey back to the Church was Joris-Karl Huysmans, pictured here as an oblate of the Benedictine order associated with Liguge Abby in Poitiers. Huysmans, a clerical worker in the French ministry, was of course the author of the scandalous A Rebous (Against the Grain, 1884), the literary model for Michel Houellebecq's Submission. Huysmans's literary alter ego, Jean de Esseintes, a decadent Parisian noblemen, a Nietzschean aesthete, a dandy who loathes the hollow pretensions of middle-class life, passes his time in pursuit of ever more esoteric sensual and aesthetic pleasures. The tone and mood of the novel are, to put it mildly, overwrought, self-conscious to the point of neurasthenia--in other words, just like virtually any contemporary memoir: 

"When all was said and done, the future was the same for all, and neither one nor the other class, if they had had a particle of common sense, could possibly have desired it. For the rich, it was, in different surroundings, the same passions, the same vexations, the same sorrows, the same diseases, and likewise the same poor satisfactions, whether these were alcoholic, literary or carnal. There was even a vague compensation for all the sufferings, a kind of rude justice that restored the balance of misery as between the classes, enabling the poor to endure more easily the physical sufferings that broke down more mercilessly the feebler and more emaciated bodies of the rich." (Chapter 13)

A bit too didactic--precisely in the voice (whiny, hectoring, self-absorbed) of Houellebecq's narrator. De Esseintes quotes Baudelaire, grows poisonous flowers, and loads a tortoise's shell up with enough gems to crush the poor beast. He drinks too much and ruins his health; mocks the Church, but in the tone of a jilted lover. Throughout the novel the abiding questions revolve around the problem of meaning--what to make of this comfortable modern life of ours? Now that God is dead, superstition is vanquished, reason is triumphant, and "freedom" has been achieved--what do we do until we die? There appear to be only three options: suicide, political engagement (but with Communism dead this option appears cut off), and submission to one of the three overweening monotheisms available to modern persons. Decadents don't do politics and they generally enjoy something enough to stay alive (sex or food or reading), so what's left is the Temple or Church or, in this case, the Mosque.

Baudelaire, who could well have been Huysmans's model for des Esseintes, smoked opium and drank himself to death, and proclaimed (like Rimbaud) the "derangement of the senses," saw fit to take the sacrament of extreme unction on his deathbed, hoping, perhaps, like Pascal, to hedge his bets. This, I think, is real decadence.

Submission's plot is fairly straightforward: In the near future (the 2020's) a close election and an alliance with the disillusioned French Socialist Party hands the presidency of France to a presentable representative of the Muslim Brotherhood (no talk of jihad; western business attire). The narrator, a disillusioned professor at the Sorbonne, a specialist in Huysmans, a decadent himself, looks on with cynical disinterest as France quietly accepts Islam as its new religion/ideology--an Islam cloaked in terms of traditional family values (women out of the workforce, back into the nursery), a new Mediterranean empire with Paris as its capital (Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, and the Arab Middle East are quickly admitted to the EU), and an abandonment of secular education (the Sorbonne becomes a center of Islamic scholarship; all professors must pronounce the Shahada). The narrator, a half-hearted atheist, is retired on a generous pension. The trouble is, his life has no meaning. He is alone--his lover has left for Israel, as have many other French Jews--he is friendless, alienated from politics and dismissive of his former life as an intellectual. He still has his prostitutes--there's a generous amount of raw sex sprinkled throughout the book, but it's entirely joyless. Fucking and eating and drinking--like de Esseintes, Houellebecq's narrator finds nothing much to attract him in any pleasure, and mulls over the meaninglessness of life in the style of an angst-ridden teenager, without much belief even in despair. Eventually, after an abortive journey to the scene of his hero's Benedictine monastery in Poitiers, the nameless narrator is offered a chance to return to the Sorbonne, to revive his study of Huysmans, to take up a well-paid academic existence. Is he interested? Not really. But the other attraction, the lure of submission, that is tempting, almost irresistible.  Why think or feel when you can surrender to Creator of the Universe?

Not an especially good book--Houellebecq is more of polemicist than a novelist, and Submission is full of the sort of long speeches on the absurdity of life that are the mainstay of French literature--the book does hold out the attraction of timeliness and painful relevance. It was published in France around the time of the Charlie Hebon massacre; I read it during the weekend surrounding the most recent ISIS atrocities in Paris. It's nonsense to accuse Houellebecq of being "anti-Muslim": he's against everything, religion, academics, women, men, and even the pleasures his characters so mindlessly pursue. He is a nihilist, and for the reviewers at the Times and other publications to wring their hands over his depictions of sodomy and his mockery of religion (Houellebecq has a "twisted outlook on the sacred" according to Adam Gollner of the New Yorker) misses the point. This isn't a book about Islam or even about religion--it's a work of cultural pessimism, a lament for the end of Western civilization, an ending that has been announced often in the past, but never before with as much conviction that this time we're not kidding.

I have two immediate reactions to the criticisms of Houellebecq as (frankly) an unpleasant writer and person: first, when did book reviewers become so complacent about the ideas expressed in novels? The main outlets for cultural opinion in this country appear to have tacitly agreed that no work of fiction that is "offensive" can be taken seriously, no matter how serious its intentions (see my review of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones from October 20th). Second is the fact that the media in which these reviews appear are replete with respectful essays on the trashiest products of Hollywood, the misogynistic music churned out by hip-hop "artists," and the sex-and-violence-laden pulp fiction that graces the New York Times bestseller list every week. Put simply, books and movies and music that make money are treated with respect, no matter how ghastly and immoral their content, while literary fiction, committed to awakening readers' senses to some of the difficult truths of life, are dismissed on moral grounds. (He insults Islam? He's contemptible; but if Houellebecq were a member of the Republican Party he could be running for president). Or perhaps the upside-down values of our age are a sign of our decadence. Kant's "dare to know" has become "don't you dare," as we close our eyes to what is difficult in favor of what affirms our fantasies.

Reading Submission, I kept seeing the benign countenance of Ben Carson in my mind's eye: Carson became Ben Abbes, Houellebecq's Muslim President of France, also a benign-seeming man, whose brand of low-volume politics was pitched exactly right for a France that had (fictionally) tired of the indignities of the contemporary world. Gentle Ben's platitudes, reducing their disguised ideological fervor in the mush of banalities that we seem to prefer. Here's Spengler:

"A Culture is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto-spirtuality of ever-childish humanity and detaches itself, a form from the formless, a bounded and mortal thing from the boundless and enduring. . . It dies when this soul has actualized the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts, states, sciences, and reverts to the proto-soul." (Part III, "Cultures as Organisms)

Spengler doesn't mention this, but it seems clear that the universalizing aspirations of the Enlightenment--a French inclination, born in the wars of Louis XIV and at the heart of the Revolution, systematized by Diderot in the Encyclopedia, and detested by Germans like Herder, Hegel, and Fichte--are what led to the "decline of the West." If Culture at its foundation is a set of spiritual aspirations that generate a particular cultural soul (Europe in its golden Roman and medieval periods), then decadence arrives with the rejection of this universalizing spirit in favor of an atomized individual. All of the great decadents are loners--the flâneur, the solitary poet wandering the countryside in search of lost gods, the despairing intellectual alone in his chateau with his books and tortoises (Huysmans), or the despairing Frenchman pumping himself dry into a woman he's paid for the privilege.  How do we reverse this decline and fall, how do we restore hope if not meaning to the declining West? Find another universal, another great spiritual truth. Ben Carson has the Lord and Houellebecq imagines France with Ben Abba's Allah. Decadence dissolved in the Absolute; Mind in mindlessness; politics in Authority; love in reproduction; thought in blessed ignorance.

All will be well. Only submit.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

My Seventh Room

Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai

                                      "You can come so far, darling, but no further. Here is my seventh 
                                        room. Here, I want to be alone."

If—as James Wood insists—the gift of literature is to teach us to notice, then read this book and see. Set in Budapest between the wars, Portraits of a Marriage is an astonishingly well-wrought tale about the sometimes byzantine complexity of a marriage and its painful—in this case revelatory—dissolution. Told in three parts, first from the husband’s perspective, then from his wife’s, and finally from his mistress’s, the novel probes the depths of this outwardly unremarkable love triangle with a tenacity and precision that makes one feel positively obtuse, as if one has never considered one’s closest relationships at all. 

Of course that is the purview and triumph of great fiction, its ability to condense and refine experience so as to show us more in a minute than we could grasp (let alone assimilate) in a year. Real as it is (for the authenticity of this vision will shake you), the three portraits that comprise this extraordinary novel are too probing, too accurate, too finely distilled to be real. In their meticulous depictions of the warp and weft of human passions, they feel too real to be real, so real, so familiar, in fact, as to seem strange, exotic, as if they were not the studies of people, after all, but of so many crayfish or squid. 

1930s Budapest was part of the decaying cultural heart of the once-great Hapsburg Empire. As Hungary asserted its independence, political turmoil ensued, followed closely by a precipitous drop in the country’s standard of living, so that the general climate of the decade became increasingly defensive, reactionary, and jingoistic. The smugly stable bourgeois life for which the city was known began to unravel at the seams.

There is a certain human process that is more to be feared, that is worse than anything… It’s the process whereby we become cut off from each other, when we become little more than machines. We live according to stern domestic codes, work to an even stricter code of duty, surrounded by a social order governed by a thoroughgoing strictness that produces orderly forms of amusements, preferences, and affections, so our entire lives become predictable, knowing what time to dress, to take breakfast, to go to work, to make love, to be entertained, to engage in social refinements. There is order everywhere, a mad order. And in the grip of that order life freezes about us, as around an expedition that is prepared for a long journey to lush shores, but finds both sea and land icebound, so that eventually there is no plan, no desire, just cold and immobility. And cold and immobility are the definitions of death.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the inter-war years, Portraits of a Marriage, is a beautiful, deeply gratifying examination of the parallel collapse of a quintessentially bourgeois marriage, of that spell and convention we call love.

Sándor Márai was born in Kassa, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, in 1900. He rose to fame as one of the leading literary novelists in Hungary in the 1930’s. Profoundly anti-Fascist, he survived World War II, but persecution from the Communists drove him from the country in 1948, first to Italy and then to the United States. The author of some 46 books, he was also the first person to review Kafka's work. Márai committed suicide in San Diego in 1989.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Practice of Hell

The Theory and Practice of Hell, Eugen Kogon 

Life and Fate, Vassily Grossman

The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, Antony Beevor

We ourselves, even if we must rise up from the grave,
will deal with those who break the oath I take -
baffle them with disasters, curse their marches,
send them hawks on the left at every crossing -
make their pains recoil upon their heads. 

(The Eumenides, 779-784, Trans. Robert Fagles)

In his brilliant novel Life and Fate, Vassily Grossman--a Jewish journalist who reported from inside Red Army units throughout the war*--explores the events that surrounded the fateful Battle of Stalingrad with an eye for historical detail that reminds one of Tolstoy while at the same time probing the psychology of cruelty. Every one of the hundred or so characters in his sprawling novel of history's greatest battle is a victim of fate; no one escapes the war, the Holocaust, the enforced starvation imposed by Stalin on the Ukraine, the torture chambers of Beria and the NKVD, or the execution squads of the Sonderkommandos. In the Great Leader's mad dystopia every janitor spies on her building's residents, loyal workers turn in their bosses for off-handed criticisms of the regime, and parents casually consider ratting out their own children when they stray from the Party line. For Grossman, the structure of bureaucracies, the requirement of unquestioning obedience, is what makes mass murder possible. The Party, as a fascist organization, has systematically stripped away the concept of a shared humanity, confiscated the "traitors'" government-issued identification cards, turned ordinary men and women into non-persons, and then--what else?-- killed them. As we know from Antony Beevor's study of the Battle of Stalingrad, even in the midst of the June invasion Stalin was busy ordering the deaths of as many members of the Red Army as  the invading Germans were massacring in the one-sided battles of that first summer. Retreat in the Red Army was punishable by death; capture was treasonous; questioning an order, no matter how insane, was the end of an officer's career and likely his life. Stalin ordered the murder over 36,000 officers in the purges of 1937-1938; what occurred in 1941was simply a continuation of the regime's modus operandi.  Beevor informs us that two million Soviet soldiers and an uncounted number of civilians died during the first three weeks of Barbarossa. (p. 28) Here is a number I cannot comprehend, so I scroll through as many photographs of soldiers and civilians as I can find on the internet (there are many). I force myself to look at pictures that will later keep me awake. But still--two million.

                                      "Churchill presenting Stalin with the 'Sword of Stalingrad', 1943"

Look around your peaceful house and yard (or the view from your apartment window). Then try to imagine this world, evoked so devastatingly by Jonathan Littell:

"If the awful massacres of the East prove one thing, paradoxically, it is the awful, inalterable solidarity of humanity. As brutalized and habituated as they may have become, none of our men could kill a Jewish woman without thinking about his wife, his sister or his mother, or kill a Jewish child without seeing his own children in front of him in the pit. Their reaction, their violence, their alcoholism, the nervous depressions, the suicides, my own own sadness, all that demonstrated that the other exists, exists as an other, as a human, and that no will, no ideology, no amount of stupidity or alcohol can break this bond, tenuous but not indestructible." (The Kindly Ones).

When Littell's novel was published to acclaim in France I was eager to read it. When it was translated by Charlotte Mandell in 2009 (the French edition came out in 2006) the American reviews were mostly negative. Famously panned by both David Gates (whom I respect) and Michiko Kakutani (whose literary taste I don't share) in the Times--"obscene," "disgusting," "hopeless," executed by a sadist," and so forth. I wondered if any of the book's severest critics had ever read a Greek tragedy where sadism, incest, and murder are always on the menu. Or if Ms. Kakutani, upset by the graphic depiction of Holocaust atrocities, had ever read Raul Hilberg or Saul Friedlander's meticulously researched histories of the war in the East. Or seen a Quentin Tarantino film.  The Kindly Ones is deeply upsetting, but Littell's literary intelligence should be apparent to any serious reader. Not only has he told in tedious and banal detail (one thinks of Hannah Arendt's ill-considered subtitle, her story of Eichmann, indeed a banal figure, a character who has a cameo in The Kindly Ones) the horrifying story of the massacres of Jewish, partisan, gypsy, and slavic populations across the Eastern front, and then, when you think you can't take any more, goes on to describe the living hell of Auschwitz, the bureaucratic world of the camps so chillingly rendered by Eugen Kogen in his autobiographical Theory and Practice of Hell.  In other words, Littell provides a graphic account of the Rassenkampf on the Eastern front. But that isn't the whole of it. The Kindly Ones is also a deeply moral story--and I'm surprised that most critics didn't see this--for Maximilien Aue, the monster at the heart of Littell's novel, is the mouthpiece for a story that probes the Hobbesian assumption of a "war of all against all." Few of the monsters of Aue's tale are sadists; most are the "ordinary men" of Christopher Browning's books. Though Aue narrates his tale of horror and genocide after the fact, and while he is by no means a credible witness to his own actions, the novel relates the evolution of human degradation in a way that is not so much credible (for we know it's that) but fated. Aue takes mincing steps toward embracing his corrupt soul, or perhaps, better, his authentic self. He is appalled, sickened, by the first murders he witnesses--he vomits continually, drinks to dull the pain, and engages in a ceaseless rationalizing dialogue that invokes duty, honor, philosophy, and history. But never politics. Aue hasn't a political bone in his body; he never speaks of Hitler except in reporting another officer's opinion of the Fuhrer. Gradually, over hundreds of pages and thousand of murders, Aue is able to rationalize his clerk's role in the unfolding genocide. But even this much wouldn't make The Kindly Ones a great novel--there's sadism enough in contemporary literature. At the heart of The Kindly Ones is something worse than depictions of mass murder, serial sodomy, incest, and matricide--this is a novel that succeeds in negating all of the assumptions of Western rationality and Christian morality. Littell sets out to show us that what took thousands of years to build was destroyed in the ravine of Babi Yar on three September days. Aue might have been a character in Mann's Magic Mountain: an educated German bourgeois who one day finds himself stepping over dead people, delivering the coup de grace.

What is the duty of a writer when faced with monumental historical events? Should fiction release us from the discomfort of history's terrible truths or immerse us in them, forcing us to come to terms with the past, to make sense of it as best we can, and if we can't, well, as Michael Korda put it in his review of Littell, "tough shit:" Should we have to squirm and flinch and feel nauseous ourselves? Has Littell gone "too far"?

"[Littell] isn’t trying to make you feel good about yourself, or feel morally superior to the Germans, or come away from the book with the feeling that anything has been gained or proved by the murder in cold blood of six million people. Most of the people who did it got away with it, like the hero of this novel, and didn’t lose a night’s sleep over it, and the people who were murdered are—dead. Deader than dead, actually, because all over the world there are people who refuse to believe that they were ever killed in the first place, not just among jihadists, or in the Arab mainstream press, or in the tattooed ranks of the Aryan Nation, or Catholic bishops, but also among otherwise respectable people and educators who still don’t get it that perfectly ordinary Germans committed mass murder, then, when the war was over, went home and got on with their lives, and even collected their pensions." (Korda, The Daily Beast)

Neither Littell nor Grossman lets the reader off the hook. After two novels totaling 1700 pages the lesson is that...there is no lesson. "We should learn about the mass murders of the Second World War--in Kiev, in Nanjing, or, for that matter, in Dresden and Hiroshima so that events like these don't happen again." Really? I'm afraid I've lost my faith in history's catechism.

Here's Aue:

"Why couldn't an SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer have an inner life, desires, passions, just like any other man? There have been hundreds of thousands of us whom you still judge as criminals: among them, as among all human beings, there were ordinary men, of course, but also extraordinary men....I started out within the bounds of my service and then, under the pressure of events, I overstepped these bounds....Those who kill are humans, just as those who are killed, that's what terrible...I tell you, I am just like you!" 

I applaud Littell for not resorting to Nietzschean nonsense--the Superman above others who must fulfill his romantic destiny by killing a bunch of women and children--and for taking the time to make Aue's monstrosity if not credible at least not trivial. Aue devolves from a man into a demon, but must we accept the moral of the story to be something stupid like "There but for fortune go you and I?" We know that many men refused to participate in the aktions. War is hell, but some wars are more hell than others. Beevor argues that a significant proportion of the Wehrmacht's officers posted to Stalingrad were not in sympathy with National Socialist ideology, and yet they knew about, and did not protest, the "reprisals" undertaken against Ukrainian and Soviet civilians, partisans, Slavs, and Jews. Grossman is especially good on this point. Life and Fate is full of men and women who capitulate out of a terrible fear of not doing so. Party members sell their souls to Stalin; Soviet commanders sent thousands of men to their deaths rather than question an order; Germans and Red Army soldiers alike ignored the suffering of civilians. Not life and fate, but life against fate. Here's a lesson: it isn't a fair fight.

Many years ago, when I first began to read serious books, I was hoping to discover a unique form of enjoyment, one that bound my reason to my feelings. As I got older I read serious books in order to "understand" something that I could never pin down. Now, in my late age, I read to be confounded, nothing less. Here are four books to do just that.

*A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, ed. Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, New York, Pantheon Books, 2005.

George Ovitt (10/20/15)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

That Within Us


Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems by Aleš Debeljak

                                              With all, that within them finds Room,
                                              even without
                                                                               Paul Celan

“According to German translator and poet Paul Celan, one of Debeljak’s major influences,” writes translator Andrew Zawacki in his introduction to this intriguing collection, “a poem is always en route, moving ceaselessly toward a possible reception by someone else.” I thought about this idea as I read each of Debeljak’s poems, impressed both by the poems themselves and by the simple fact that I was reading them at all, given that they were originally written in Slovenian by a man whose life experience, whose frame of reference, could hardly be more different than my own. Of course what his poems insist, what all poems (even the cryptic scribblings of his hero Celan) insist, is that we—all of us—have more in common than we know. This is no mere platitude, for we, as humans beings, are also profoundly, even irreconcilably different, depending on our culture, nationality, politics, race, faith, class, creed, education, and particular fate. In my travels around the world, and in my wide-ranging hunger for books, nothing has been made clearer to me than the fact that people, people with the same number of limbs, with the same number of fingers and toes that I have, men and women who fall in love, work hard, raise children, watch television, pray to their god(s), and die, are often radically different in their essential conception of the world—of truth, of beauty, of the nature of reality itself. What the best writers in every language tap are the links within those very real, not-be-neutered  distinctions that make us who we are. See how the content of this poem is both familiar and decidedly, enticingly strange:


You see everything: the breath flies, a teapot
whistling, a cartridge recklessly shot off at daybreak, a pattern
on the wallpaper, the gloom of a concert hall, dusty violins left
in haste on the floor, an inscription in the language of the two

prophets who came to the Slavs, things drowning in infinite
light, a scream tearing suddenly across the sky, gleaming metal,
a column of children and women carrying newborn babies, the scent
of basil in a garden, a trickle of plum juice oozing into the rutted

tracks left by retreating armies. Everything. You see graveyards.
And metastases of white-hot pyres. Here the world we know lets out
Its final gasp. The ancient order of violence is returning to the hearths.
The magic of words is dying out. And a girls’ choir stands in silence.
A trail points east, across a snowy pass. Nothing erases it.
Now you know the bell tolls for you and us.
One feels the weight of history here, a history at once general and localized, discrete. An no wonder: in Debeljak’s homeland the wounds of history are deep:

Debeljak’s earlier poems, composed when his homeland of Slovenia had just emerged form Josep Broz Tito’s reign as Marshal of Yugoslavia, are marked by solitude and acute metaphysical anxiety—not fear per se, but worry that knows no object. This anguish, a fracturing of identity as global as it was personal, seemed to eerily presage the Third Balkan war… The traumas of that conflict’s  ethnic cleansing and sniper-fire, international pussyfooting and eventual disintegration, erupted on the edges of Slovenia in 1991. After centuries of dominance by foreign powers (Hapsburg, Austro-Hungarian, Napoleonic, Axis) and subsequent autonomy within the Socialist Federal republic of Yugoslavia, Slovenia finally gained independence after a Ten Day War…

 Here, too, the weight and illumination of the past:


Banks, flags, ships, holidays, cock fights, epaulets,
copper engravings of English horses, dead guards
and elite divisions. All this slides by. Disappears
like talk during an afternoon slumber.—

Face it. Arrival and desolate scenes are the same thing.
Instead of a planted tree an d pages of a will only a name
remains, which someone enters in a dictionary. Nothing
more. Oh, perhaps someone for a moment remembers

the metamorphosis from pale to purple: like old times with
lords. Otherwise it is really nothing.—Rip the crumpled
carnation off the chest, lean over the geometric granite
cubes, exhale. Now. Like those in the Stammheim Prison.

Finally, a mediation:

        The Émigré Writer on the Dragon Bridge

An open suitcase, they used to say,
hides destinies unknown out here:
from hotel to the central station and farther,
through the many years of wind, the passengers
touch Orion above, looking for comfort
in rituals down here, in a sleep countryside,
a consolation  they no longer get
from photographs and books about
the lives their ancestors led. The everyday
favor could now be a prayer, a cup of herbal tea,
patience with endless explanations,
and a silent handshake when language will not obey,
like scattered coins, or a ceiling so low
it suffocates, big things putting fear
in little souls. From the the south,
an alluring heat brings whiffs of memory,
for everyone, of course, is guiltiest
when love’s at stake.
The one thing they still hunger for
rises without a sound from the waiting-rooms
and chairs too stiff for mercy,
and hangs, deceptively, like haze above
a fence which groans and splits beneath him
and allows him, for a second only, to rise—
why would he be an exception?—
before he vanishes in the river’s waves
which swell against the banks and over,
taking with them the suitcases, carrying off
the books, toward a delta,  a false reprieve,
a song that’s poorly sung.

                                           Ljubljana, summer 1994

Aleš Debeljak is a poet, literary essayist, cultural critic, and translator. Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems is published by Persea Books.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Handshake

James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

Immanuel Wallerstein, Centrist Liberalism Triumphant


Since the French Revolution, as Immanuel Wallerstein demonstrates in volume IV of his history of the modern world system, the central ideological concern of the liberal classes--never mind  their party affiliation or nation--has been to silence voices of dissent from the left and to preclude significant democratic movements; to hold power by doling out token economic benefits to the working and disenfranchised classes; to push their nations into wars that underwrite a form of atavistic national unity, and to unleash the propaganda powers of the modern media in defense of the status quo. Stated this blandly, Wallerstein's vision of modernity looks a bit like crude Marxism or a paranoid delusion (some of his right-wing critics have thought as much), but the argument as a whole, supported by a lifetime of reading, is convincing. I demur on the point of working-class ineptitude; it was never that easy for the liberal classes to dupe the workers, as the history of labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrates. State-sanctioned violence, rather than propaganda or economic carrots begrudgingly doled out (Ford's $5 daily wage) preserved power for the ruling classes, and if there were any genuine risk of working-class solidarity, then a pointless Great War would focus the minds of the masses, provide a smoke-screen for rounding up the radicals, and provide a tidy profit for the corporate sector as a bonus.

I bring up this bit of esoteric political history only to frame what I want to say about Pope Francis, the picture above, and a passage from one of my favorite poems--one worth rereading just now.

I confess to being deeply moved by that Jesuit hand bearing the ring of Peter, by the glimpse of white cassock and pellegrina, the pectoral cross, the fascia--medieval symbols of transcendent power, weighted with traditions of infallibility, celibacy (a man forever betrothed to God), and sanctity--grasping the outstretched hand of an inmate in Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold prison. An honest and sad and achingly moving reaching across social roles and moral boundaries in a moment of simple humanity.

The history of liberalism found in Wallerstein's books is largely a history of fear--fear of the loss of authority, fear of the loss of the material prerogatives--deference, wealth, and permissible cruelty--that have accompanied worldly power since the first bully arose to be primus inter pares. The notion of freedom, so central to the liberal creed, could only be freedom for some and of only a very particular kind. An anonymous arm reaching (as I imagine it) through a cell door--an ironic symbol of the prisons built for us by a politics that has promised freedom and delivered, for most, only servitude.

Here's Auden, lines on the day the Second World War began:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

My students, with their unlined faces (so unlike Wystan's!), prefer the "realism" of Machiavelli and Hobbes to the "romantic notions" of Rousseau and Rawls. Maybe they're right. But there's still that handshake, a simple gesture made more powerful by the absence of faces: a man of God and a man perhaps not. If we can't love one another--and it appears we cannot--we can at least learn that ideas seem empty when in fact they are empty.

Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages...

"Ironic points of light." In his moving work The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone quotes Emile Durkheim:  "The believer who has communicated with his god is not merely a man who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a person who is stronger. He feels within himself more force, either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them."

A little awkward, this sort of talk. Since religion has been co-opted by the resentful (does any Christian actually read the New Testament anymore?) it has become unfashionable to quote anything from Durkheim or even the bits of M.L. King that remind us he was a Baptist minister first and an activist second. But what Cone puts at the center of his theological book isn't God or the Cross--the very same one worn by Francis in that Philly jail--but the struggle for empowerment in a world that has been tidily arranged to convince us that we have no power, except maybe in our choice of smartphone and wardrobe. "In stupor." Yes, that feels right. And yet, there's that handshake--a gesture, but not only that: a reaching across a great divide of power and powerlessness.  Look at it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Sorry Scheme of Things

The Heart’s Desire by Nahid Rachlin

                                                             Ah, Love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire
                                                             To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
                                                             Would not we shatter to bits—and then
                                                             Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

                                                                                    Omar Khayyám

The Iran-Iraq War lasted from September of 1980 to August of 1988, making it the longest conventional war of the 2oth Century. The death toll was staggering: more than a half a million Iranian and Iraqi soldiers were killed, and at least that many civilians, not to mention the millions of dollars in economic and structural damage incurred by both sides—and for what? Not only was there no winner in the war, and thereby no reparations, but there was no appreciable change in either the much-disputed national borders or the regional status quo. Yet the war was significant—gravely, even monstrously, so. In fact, of all the consequences of that bitter and miserable little war, arguably the most important, at least the most far-reaching in it implications, was the aggressive, nakedly mercenary role of the United States in staking its claim in the region. If you remember, long before we toppled Saddam Hussein in the name of Justice and Democracy, in the name of Women’s Rights and World Peace, he was one of our closest allies and friends. Indeed it is likely that he would never have attacked the newly minted Islamic Republic of Iran in the first place had it not been for his assurance of U.S. economic and military support, support only recently transferred to him and his megalomaniacal vision for the Middle East after the U.S.’s former henchman and regional toady, the Shah of Iran, was violently overthrown by his own people. While I risk of overstating the case, it is hard for me not to trace the bulk of the region’s current instability (the rise of Al Queda, the bombing of the World Trade Center, the U.S invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S invasion of Iraq, the rise of ISIS, the Syrian Civil War, and the desperate flight of Syrian refugees) to this, this iniquitous and barefaced ploy.

Nahid Rachlin’s novel, The Heart’s Desire, is set in Iran, in Teheran, immediately following the Iran-Iraq war when the country lies in ruins, the people are despondent, and anti-American sentiment runs high. 

everything in Iran  was touched by the tragedy of the prolonged eight-year war between Iran and its neighbor Iraq, which had ended only months ago. Though the fighting had gone on mainly around the western border, bombs had left their marks everywhere—you couldn’t miss the charred window frames and boarded-up doors, the families camping in quiet backstreets, soldiers passing by on crutches. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians, many of them mere teenage boys…had been killed and wounded in the war. Black flags hanging on almost every door designated that someone in the household had been martyred. On the main square was a fountain with dark red water surging up from it.

Filtered principally through the life and intelligence of an American woman, Jennifer Sahary, who has traveled to the newly opened Iran with her Iranian husband and their young son to visit his family and friends, as well as to give her husband the chance to take stock of himself in own beleaguered land. While partly the story of her husband’s struggles to come to terms with his guilt and longing for having left his homeland for a life in the United States, the novel is first and foremost about Jennifer’s own disillusionment as an American about Iran, about the husband she loves, and about the deep-seeded differences that divide them.      

Nahid Rachlin is an Iranian-American who had written numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including Crowd of Sorrows, Foreigner: A Novel, Veils: Short Stories, Married To a Stranger, Jumping over Fire, and Persian Girls: A Memoir.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, September 14, 2015

Ghost Writers and New Lives

Summer in Baden-Baden, Leonid Tsypkin

Vita Nuova, Dante Alighieri 

Like many other readers, I enjoy novels about writers--Flaubert's Parrot comes to mind, as well as Philip Roth's Ghost Writer--and also non-fiction works that take as their subject not the quotidian lives of those who scribble but the ineffable magic of making art from language: Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking is one such, as is Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Sarah Bakewell's How to Live is not so much a life of Montaigne as an exploration of his ideas; Sebald writes about Stendhal in a similarly oblique way in Vertigo, and Jay Parini's Benjamin's Crossing is about the last days of Walter Benjamin and is rich in psychological detail (ditto Parini's The Last Station). And then there are the books that aren't directly about writers but about the authors of the books as they reflect on the lives of authors--a little meta- I admit, but a brilliant form of literary expression if you can pull it off. Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life and Nicholson Baker's U and I are examples, as is Tsypkin's wonderful Summer in Baden-Baden, a novel about both Tsypkin and the Dostoevskys (Fyodor and Anna Grigoryevna). Tsypkin has used the Master's sojourn in Germany--his gambling, his tempestuous relations with his wife, his obsession with and revulsion toward literature--as a mirror reflecting his own life and, in particular, his journey to Petersburg that culminates in a visit to the house in which Dostoevsky died. The novel doesn't move from one story to another, from Baden-Baden to Petersburg, but folds two narratives into one another--Tsypkin's life as a dissident within the USSR overlaps and embraces Dostoyevsky's exile in Germany, an exile that is as much spiritual as physical. The brilliance of the novel lies in its seamless entangling of two literary lives, in Tsypkin's reprising the life of the Master as if it were a facet of his own. Joseph Frank's great biography of Dostoevsky (I've read only the one-volume abridgment) makes plain enough the pain out of which Dostoevsky fashioned his art--his time in the house of the dead, his epilepsy, his addictions--to writing and gambling, or perhaps to writing as gambling--his ambivalent passion for Anna Grigoryevna, his self-imposed exile. What Tsypkin does admirably is to reassemble in coherent fashion the fragments of Dostoevsky's outer and inner lives in such a way as to make his genius seem a function of his biography rather than a triumph over it.

It occurred to me a few months ago that I had better get started on my long-postponed project of rereading those books that have meant the most to me--not all of them classics, but each one significant in marking out a period of my life, or, if that's too grandiose, then let's leave it at this: books I've carried with me through a lifetime of being the sort of person who carries around books and throws away everything else. Carried them because I meant to read them again "someday." And, at last, "someday" has arrived. For no special reason I've started this project with Dante's beautiful Vita Nuova--a hymn to his muse Beatrice Portinari and to the making of poems--and C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, one of the half-dozen works of literary criticism that isn't a chore to read and which is a perfect companion to Dante. Lewis's book teaches us how to read medieval and Renaissance poets; Dante teaches us how to read Dante--or perhaps how to misread him.  I reread my 1973 Mark Musa edition, with its no-nonsense literal versions both of the canzoni and the prose excursuses through which Dante not only prepares us with scanty biographical tidbits for his poems, but in which he explains, as a coy philosopher might, the progress of his Platonic-Christian love for the maiden Beatrice, on whom he laid eyes (if at all) exactly three times, and yet "she seemed to be the daughter not of a mortal but of a god,"as Dante describes her, reworking Homer. It was Boccaccio who identified the married (to one of the banking Bardis, according to my old guidebook to Florence's churches) Beatrice with Dante's sacred muse, his companion from Purgatory to Paradise, and the inspiration for his "book of memory," as Dante called the Vita Nuova. Thoroughly "medieval," that is, rooted in the neo-Platonic and Augustinian epistemology of the fourteenth century, Dante's love poems in the VN surely remind one of Symposium, with its yearning for erotic transcendence, but also of the medieval romans (of Chretien de Troyes) or, more intimately, of the Lais of Marie de France. But Dante is an original, and no comparison can do justice to the richness of his imagery, his mastery of the rhetorical tropes that defined late medieval poetry, or the alternating repression/confinement and overflowing of his emotions.

The first time Dante is addressed by Beatrice he nearly swoons. He records the event in detail: "It was precisely the ninth hour of that day, three o'clock in the afternoon, when her sweet voice came to me. Since this was the first time her words had ever been directed to me, I became so ecstatic that, like a drunken man, I turned away from everyone and sought the loneliness of my room, where I began thinking of this most gracious lady, and, thinking of her, I fell into a sweet sleep, and a marvelous vision appeared to me."

This is conventional. Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, allegedly written while its author was in prison, awaiting execution, also falls into a dream, but his "Lady" isn't a teenage beauty but Philosophy/Wisdom herself, summoned to bolster Boethius's justifiably waning faith in God's sense of fair play.  (Still the best book on the theodicy question btw).

Dante, who has only just now "taught himself the art of writing poetry"--as if!--sets out to write a sonnet for his lady, the first of thirty-two sonnets, canzoni, and a single ballad that make up the poetic matter of the Vita Nuova. The first sonnet has always been one of my favorites, especially the arresting image of stanza two:

Joyous, Love seemed to me, holding my heart
within his hand, and in his arms he had
my lady, loosely wrapped in folds, asleep.
He woke her then, and gently fed to her
the burning heart; she ate it, terrified.
And then I saw him disappear in tears.

[Poi la svegliava, e d'esto core ardendo
lei paventosa umilmente pascea. 
Appresso gir lo ne vedea piangendo.]

"Ardent," is right, but "burning" is better; and she ate his heart, not in terror, but with humility (umilmente pascea) as if, let's face it, she were eating sacramental bread and wine. In his gloss Dante mentions how the meaning of this poem was not clear to anyone at first, but is now clear even to the unlearned. The Vita Nuova isn't only about a rebirth in love, but about death--including, in the final sections, the death and transfiguration of Beatrice. This Beatrice, real or no, turned out to be a gold mine for Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets--swirling clouds of dust and soul-stuff, eternal love, chaste longing. Gustave Dore does a fine job of capturing the overwrought frenzy of pure love, in the same vein as Bernini's St. Theresa.

"After I wrote this sonnet there came to me a miraculous vision in which I saw things that made me resolve to say no more about this blessed one until I would be capable of writing about her in a nobler way."

Poems and glosses, prayer and prophecy.

George Ovitt (9/14/15)