Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Better lies

The inimitable Kurt Vonnegut:

One of my favourite ministers was a guy named Bob Nicholson. He looked like Joseph Cotton, and he was a bachelor Episcopalian priest up on Cape Cod. Every time one of his parishioners died, he went all to pieces. He was outraged by death. So it was up to his congregation and the relatives of the deceased to patch him up, get him pumped up on Christianity sufficiently to get through the funeral service. I liked that very much: nothing he was going to say in the standard Episcopalian funeral oration was going to satisfy him. He needed better lies.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The unreal individual

RD Laing:

The "unreal man" learnt to cry when he was amused, and to smile when he was sad. He frowned his approval, and applauded his displeasure. "All that you can see is not me," he says to himself. But only in and through all that we do see can he be anyone (in reality). If these actions are not his real self, he is irreal; wholly symbolical and imaginary; a purely virtual, potential, imaginary person, a "mythical" man, nothing "really."

Mrs Trellis writes

We've had a letter from a Mrs Trellis in North Wales. She's very sorry.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Nietzsche's explanation of nihilism

From Keith Ansell-Pearson, Nietzsche contra Rousseau


Nihilism is not to be construed as the cause of decadence but as its logical result: 'Every fruitful and powerful movement of humanity has also created at the same time a nihilistic movement.' It is in this context that we can appreciate Nietzsche’s insight that the high points of culture do not coincide with those of civilization. From a moral point of view the great moments of culture are always times of corruption and decadence; similarly, the periods when the taming of the human animal is required and enforced are times when the boldest and most spiritual natures are not tolerated.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Frank Zappa and censorship

Here's an interesting story recounted in A Fiction of the Past by Dominick Cavallo:

Frank Zappa, when releasing his Only in it for the money album in 1968, discovered that his record label, MGM, had, without his knowledge, removed three lines from the song Let's make the water turn black. The lines were:

And I still remember Mama,
With her apron and her pa.
Feeding all the boys at Ed's Cafe.

Zappa didn't understand what could be offensive about those lines. He eventually discovered the reason:

Years later I learned that an MGM executive was convinced that the word 'pad' referred to a sanitary napkin. He became obsessed with the idea that a waitress somewhere was feeding sanitary napkins to people in a restaurant, and demanded (in violation of our contract) that it be removed.


Weird huh? But isn't it always the way with people who presume to know best, who aim to protect us from depravity. So often, the depravity they decry exists only in their own imaginations.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Juan Munoz retrospective



Back from my visit to the Juan Munoz retrospective at Tate Modern. Fascinating stuff.

Munoz's concentration on 'otherness', on being outside, looking in, mirrors some of the preoccupations I have in my writing, my feeling of disconnection. Thus, his intallations seem deeply resonant to me. What I liked most, though, was that through the isolation, even danger in his work, there is still tremendous hope. Witness the laughing faces in the dozens of men standing in groups or alone in Conversation Piece, or the happy face of the man/boy sitting, looking in on an empty room like a voyeur, with us, behind him, also complicit in his act.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Juan Munoz at Tate Modern



Going to the Juan Munoz retrospective at Tate Modern this weekend. Can't wait. Also going to the Wallace Collection which, for some reason, the candidates in this week's Apprentice thought must be something to do with canal boats...

Expect some Juan related posts imminently...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Max Nordau on degeneration

Max Nordau, writing in 1892, said:
Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and pronounced lunatics; they are often authors and artists. These, however, manifest the same mental characteristics, and for the most part the same somatic features, as the members of the above-mentioned anthropological family, who satisfy their unhealthy impulses with the knife of the assassin or the bomb of the dynamiter, instead of with pen and pencil.

Some among these degenerates in literature, musica, and painting have in recent years come into extraordinary prominence, and are revered by numerous admirers as creators of a new art, and heralds of the coming century.

It is this last phrase, 'heralds of the coming century' which gives away the shrill hystericism of this claim. It harks back to the millennialist cults of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, certain that Armageddon was approaching and that the new century would be the harbinger of all doom.

This is, I suppose, the logical (or illogical) conclusion of Rousseau's attack on the arts and sciences, as though artists were in some way responsible for the ills of society. Nordau concludes his piece with:
The art and poetry of tomorrow, in all essential points, will be the art and poetry of today and yesterday, and the spasmodic seeking for new forms is nothing more than hysterical vanity, the freaks of strolling players and charlatanism.

This was at the time Nietzsche was deducing that peaks of artistic endeavour tend to coincide with times of high decadence and social corruption - although, of course, he was coming to an altogether different conclusion from Nordau's and felt such decadence should be embraced. But from whichever perspective, the question is one of cause and effect; or at least it would be, if one wished to ask such a question?

But, increasingly, I wonder why we might.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Nietzsche and the nature of time

For Nietzsche, the problem Rousseau has posed concerning the fate of civilization and the condition of modern humanity is really a problem about history and the nature of time. The problem of humanity lies in its failure to establish a genuine relationship to the past. Time, whose essence lies in the moment, is intractable. The human will cannot break the inexorable moment – the becoming – of time, but only watch as an innocent bystander and see itself become a victim of the play of time. This leads the human will to seek revenge on life in a futile effort to break time’s spell and logic. We cannot will backwards and thus punish life, ourselves, and others, simply because we cannot undo what has been done. The problem we are faced with as modern human beings constituted by a historical consciousness is that of how to achieve a genuine relationship to the past by becoming authentically historical (even if that means, paradoxically, learning how to become unhistorical). For Nietzsche the human being can only overcome the spirit of revenge which informs its attitude towards life by learning how to affirm the very timeliness of time which consists in learning to affirm the moment (Augenblick). To affirm the moment is to affirm the innocence of becoming, which means that we neither justify the present in terms of some promised, but ill-defined, future, nor justify the past in terms of the present by which, from the vantage point of a post-historical position, we justify all that has been because we dream that it has necessarily led to our present ‘superior’ position.

Keith Ansell-Pearson. Nietzsche contra Rousseau: a study of Nietzsche’s moral and political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 3-4

Monday, April 07, 2008

Rousseau and Kant on learning

At first glance, Kant’s Answer to the question: what is enlightenment appears opposite to Rousseau's views as stated in the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. Kant states:
"Have the courage to use you own understanding!" – that is the motto of the enlightenment.

Rousseau, certainly by the time of Reveries of a solitary walker, was of the opinion that civilisation could best be served by reverie, by solitary meditation, studying for studying's sake. In studying botany, for example, he eschewed any medicinal purpose. He did not want:
the colour of the meadows, the brilliance of the flowers... soured by the idea of human ailments… fevers, stones, gout and epilepsy. [1]

Both Kant and Rousseau think it is in man's nature to choose to be led. Kant says:
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance..., nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians.

Rousseau agreed that men will submit to a higher authority. Indeed, in his views on education, he was of the opinion that they must.
Kant says:
Rules and formulas, those mechanical aids to the rational use, or rather misuse, of his natural gifts, are the shackles of a permanent immaturity.

Campbell and Scott note of Rousseau's philosophy:
[Rousseau's] remark that such individuals [those who should be allowed to study the sciences] must "feel the strength to walk alone" suggests that it is less their genius than their independence from popular trends and opinions that enables them to pursue sciences without corruption. [2]

Rousseau himself says, of Bacon, Descartes and Newton, they:
had themselves no teachers. What guide indeed could have taken them so far as their sublime genius directed them? [3]

This is perhaps where Rousseau and Kant part, however. Kant is saying that all men should aspire to such freedom to learn and he believed it possible, albeit only slowly. Rousseau, however, felt such study should be reserved for those of genius. For the rest, he thought:
As for us, ordinary men, on whom Heaven has not been pleased to bestow such great talents; as we are not destined to reap such glory, let us remain in our obscurity... Why should we build our happiness on the opinions of others, when we can find it in our own hearts. [4]

Ultimately, although there are similarities in the outlook of the two men, Kant's view of education was essentially positive, and Rousseau's negative. Kant concludes What is enlightenment by saying:
I have focused on religious matters in setting out my main point concerning enlightenment, i.e., man's emergence from self-imposed immaturity, first because our rulers have no interest in assuming the role of their subjects' guardians with respect to the arts and sciences, and secondly because that form of immaturity is both the most pernicious and disgraceful of all.

Rousseau, on the other hand, asks rhetorical questions which implicitly blame the arts and sciences for the corruption of man and the seekers of knowledge for their impertinence in trespassing on forbidden territory:
But if the progress of the arts and sciences had added nothing to our real happiness; if it has corrupted our morals, and if that corruption has vitiated our taste, what are we to think of the herd of text-book authors, who have removed those impediments which nature purposely laid in the way to the Temple of the Muses, in order to guard its approach and try the powers of those who might be tempted to seek knowledge? [5]


[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Reveries of a solitary walker, 7, p107-8
[2] Sally Howard Campbell and John T. Scott. Rousseau’s politic argument in the Discourses on the Sciences and Arts. American Journal of Political Science, vol 49, No 4, (Oct 2005), p 824
[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Discourse on the arts and sciences, p 141
[4] Ibid, p 142
[5] Ibid, p 140

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The language of war

I've recently read two books about wars in the US which are very, very different. Firstly, an American classic, The Red Badge of Courage, which was widely admired for its realism and gritty prose. Indeed, it gives graphic descriptions of war. For example:

The youth, in his leapings, saw, as through a mist, a picture of four or five men stretched upon the ground or writhing upon their knees with bowed heads as if they had been stricken by bolts from the sky. Tottering among them was the rival color bearer, whom the youth saw had been bitten vitally by the bullets of the last formidable volley. He perceived this man fighting a last struggle, the struggle of one whose legs are grasped by demons. It was a ghastly battle. Over his face was the bleach of death, but set upon it was the dark and hard lines of desperate purpose. With this terrible grin of resolution he hugged his precious flag to him and was stumbling and staggering in his design to go the way that led to safety for it.

But his wounds always made it seem that his feet were retarded, held, and he fought a grim fight, as with invisible ghouls fastened greedily upon his limbs. Those in advance of the scampering blue men, howling cheers, leaped at the fence. The despair of the lost was in his eyes as he glanced back at them.

The youth's friend went over the obstruction in a tumbling heap and sprang at the flag as a panther at prey. He pulled at it and, wrenching it free, swung up its red brilliancy with a mad cry of exultation even as the color bearer, gasping, lurched over in a final throe and, stiffening convulsively, turned his dead face to the ground. There was much blood upon the grass blades.


Yes, it's stirring stuff, and frightening in its way. But, in the end, the novel glorifies war, turns the main's exploits into something heroic. How much better if that novel had stopped in the first half, when the fear of cowardice was still on him, before the rush to death was glorified.

Secondly, Cormac McCarthy's Blood meridian, which I've written about before. Now this conjures up the hell of warfare. There is no escape from this:

Already you could see through the dust on the ponies’ hides the painted chevrons and the hands and rising suns and birds and fish of every device like the shade of old work through sizing on a canvas and now too you could hear above the pounding of unshod hooves the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones, and some among the company had begun to saw back on their mounts and some to mill in confusion when up from the offside of those ponies there rose a fabled horde of mounted lancers and archers bearing shields bedight with bits of broken mirrorglass that cast a thousand unpieced suns against the eyes of their enemies. A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of unifrom still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat work backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and [end p. 52] grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Oh my god, said the sergeant.

That "Oh my god" is breathtaking, terrifying. Magnificent.