David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: August 2005 (page 2 of 2)

Denis Diderot: Rameau’s Nephew

(This etext of Rameau’s Nephew seems to be an adequate translation, and it’s a short piece.)

I’ve sat on this one for a bit because it is such a strange book, and I fear that a lack of context for it could easily lead a reader down the path of a wrong interpretation. Still, what is on the page is a fairly simple story; it’s the implications that are left ambiguous. The “I” who is the narrator encounters “He,” Rameau’s nephew, in the street, and has something of a one-sided conversation with him. “He” is something of a societal con-man, a poor man who has mastered polite conversation to climb his way to various functions and subsidence. Yet he is filled with contempt for those around him; his loves for art, opera, and his dead wife alienate him from the society he inhabits. He is often cynical, yet reveals the highest ideals at several points, and cries at his inability to bring them to life despite obvious intelligence and skill. “I” stands by and issues ultra-idealistic, naive remarks questioning “He,” taking a condescending Panglossian standpoint towards “He”‘s lack of ethics and integrity.

Hegel loved Rameau’s Nephew and declared “He” to be an advancement in consciousness, transcending “I”‘s conventional and unimaginative “honest self” construct. Lionel Trilling drew on Hegel’s interpretation in Sincerity and Authenticity to present a model of human evolution in which we conceived of an “inner self” strictly separate from our external behavior, one we could or could not be “sincere” to. “He”, Trilling says, is one of the earliest examples of the inauethentic self on full display; i.e., the man who forever measures the distance between his thoughts and the actions which he performs in society. Trilling states:

The moral judgement which the dialogue makes upon man in society is not finally rejected but coexists with its contradition, and upon its validity and weight depends the force of the idea that the moral categories may be transcended. And it is the Nephew himself who invokes the moral categories at the same time that he negates them–the moral judgement is grounded upon the cogency of Rameau’s observation of social behaviour and the shamelessness with which he exhibits his own shame.

To paraphrase, Trilling suggests that “He” has taken the first step towards Nietzsche’s analysis of ethics, not by condemning morality but by saying that it is not an authentic performance, so that morality is something that must be done with conscious intent, and may not reflect what a person has in their heart. (It is this position that Alasdair MacIntyre would later identify as the keystone weakness of Enlightenment ethics in his brilliant After Virtue.)

It is the “I” that first interests me. While “He” is hardly coherent in his beliefs, alternating between a Nietzschean destruction of Enlightenment values and a more arbitrary Schopenhauer-esque personal bitterness at the world, “I” does a fairly lousy job of refuting him. “I” is, if anything, less likable and certainly less interesting, and in no way could be said to represent Diderot’s own values. Even at the very end, when “He” declares that he’d rather beg favor than work for a bourgeois life, “I” spits on him, calling him amoral and lazy, all the while displaying the attitude of the well-off fat cat who’s just come from a salon. (The introduction by “I” is particularly obnoxious when read in this light.)

While “He” rants and trumpets himself, “I” offers token opposition, but what is “I”‘s reaction to “He”‘s charge of hypocrisy in the upper classes, attacking the shallow salons and social habits of the perfumed set, accusing them of not knowing good music from bad, and not recognizing life from death? “I” begins to acknowledge the hypocrisy of his own people, but only in parenthetical comments, not in his actual dialogue:

In all this there was much that we all think and on which we all act, but which we leave unsaid. That, indeed, was the most obvious difference between this man and most of those we meet. He owned up to the vices he had and which others have–he was no hypocrite. He was no more abominable than they, and no less. He was simply more open, more consistent, and sometimes more profound in his depravity.

Interesting that “I” excludes himself from this charge. Interesting that shortly after this observation, he once more attacks “He” for lacking exactly this consistency. “He” declares his praise for the cynic Diogenes, who abandoned corrupt society to live in squalor in pursuit of truth. “He” confesses that he likes the benefits of haute couture too much to leave them behind, and “I” viciously attacks him as a cowardly wastrel (with which “He” cheerfully agrees). This inconsistency is too great to be unintentional. “I” is more of a target than “He”: “I” admits “He”‘s points, but only to himself, and does not condemn himself for working within society. But for “He” to take advantage of the corrupt system is a betrayal. “I”‘s interest lies in protecting the notion of fair play within the system that “He” has damned. After all, it’s in “I”‘s best interests.

Diderot’s attack, I think, is the first critique of Enlightenment reformism, the notion that a system can yield intellectual integrity and incremental improvements even as its people are terrible hypocrites. Moreover, it shows one of the system’s brightest exponents (“I”) able to hear and understand criticism of the system while still condemning the messenger. “I” privately admits the strength of “He”‘s critique to himself, yet ends by publicly thrashing “He,” claiming “He” has no credibility. Yet of course, the critic’s credibility was ruined by openly criticizing the system in the first place. By straying from acceptable (hypocritical) speech, “He” loses authority in the very system his unacceptable speech attacks. “I”‘s argument is a more sophisticated variant of “Play by the rules. If you don’t like it, go to Russia.” One look at the Washington press corps today, and the similarities are painful.

K. Dream

I’m watching a new film version of Kafka’s The Castle in a quiet, empty theater. The film is in black and white, and it’s rather grainy, but intentionally so, though possibly from a felicitous combination of low budget and artistic intent. The editing, however, is poor: abrupt cuts between long, static shots.

It’s a loose adaptation. K. is on a beach. In the first scene, he is buried under the sand near the water, only the top half of his head visible above the sand. He raises himself like a seal, throwing an inch of wet sand aside, and drags his detritus-laden body away from the water. We cut to the next scene, where he is now under a large mound of sand, now with only the top of his head visible, poking through the side of the mound. K. is farther away from the water, and in the distance I can see the disarrayed sand from the first scene, near the water. His head shakes and he pushes his head through the mound, and he manages to pull himself through and out of the mound, all the while grimacing and clenching his teeth from the effort. Covered in wet and dry sand, he stumbles away from the collapsed mound. Cut to the next scene, where he is still on the beach, even further away from the water, now lying underneath a large boulder. The stone is vaguely obelisk-shaped, much taller–at least eight feet–than it is wide, and stands straight on one end. Now K. is having a good deal more trouble; his entire head is out of the sand, but his body is trapped under the rock, and he’s making no progress at extricating himself, despite the obvious struggle. I have to feel for him.

In the theater, I think that while this film shares a certain high-contrast visual style with Orson Welles’s film of The Trial, it’s a much more faithful adaptation than Welles’s version. True in spirit, at least. I think that Welles did a masterful job of capturing the claustrophobic, interior spaces of The Trial, but he did not grasp the true depths of the book. I think that the case is the opposite with this film of The Castle: it has no evocative visuals, but it feels more faithful.

(Please see The Dream Factory for more inspired offerings.)

Gabriel Josipovici on Grimm and Kleist

Gabriel Josipovici recently had an article in the TLS on the Brothers Grimm. Aside from being generally fascinating and throwing fairy tales, the Midrash, Kleist, Benjamin, and others into the mix, it has this particular striking passage:

What happened to the Grimm Tales in the course of fifty years of “revision” was that they were transformed from tales told by speakers who were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect) who did not believe in them and therefore added scene-setting, morality and psychology to make them both attractive and meaningful. It also gives us a hint as to why a novelist like Dickens had (and still has) the effect he had on his readers: he was one who knew “how to be a child”. However, it was perhaps Kleist alone among the writers of the century who really grasped what was at issue here. His great novella, Michael Kohlhaas, takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors, and, by and large, nineteenth-century novelists and storytellers took the path of Midrash and romance, still the staple diet of readers of twentieth-century fiction, with neither writers nor readers quite believing what they are doing, but under a strange compulsion to pretend that they do.

[Just now I notice that Steve Mitchelmore at This Space quoted the exact same passage.]

As a lover of Kleist and his iconoclastic position in literary history, I will certainly defend the uniqueness of “Michael Kohlhaas,” a tale of brutal revenge interrupted about two-thirds of the way through by several fairy tale devices. Why is it that Josipovici calls this out as designating an abandoned road of fiction?

First there is the matter of what road was taken. What is the nature of this pantomime compact between writers and readers which Josipovici only mentions briefly? Modern day American fiction has evolved into a sort of psychological shorthand, in which physically descriptive details and moody variations on images have come to point to a shortlist of mutually agreed upon emotions. By definition, none of them are particularly original. A look through Raymond Carver will isolate the basic vocabulary of jealousy, love, sex, family, etc., etc., but the vocabulary has been with us back through Updike and Cheever all the way to the malaise of Sinclair Lewis, the schemata of John Dos Passos, the tough guy tactics of Hemingway, and the decadence of Fitzgerald. (I don’t especially care for any of these authors.) There is an aspect of the fairy tale and the fable to tales that share this vocabulary, because they tell us what we already know–or rather, reiterate what we’ve already heard. The pretense lies in perpetuating the myth that these stock emotions have an emotional veracity transcending their unoriginal artifice.

Robert Musil called a writer embracing this sort of falsity “a consequence of the fact that he had not learned how to think based on the experience of his own imagination, but rather, with the aid of borrowed terms” (“Black Magic”). Josipovici introduces fairy tales and exposition on them (the “Midrash” he speaks of) as a model for this unfortunate state of affairs, where writers are not only complicit with but actively collaborate in the deferral of reality as they write their books, producing not works of their own imagination but simply justificatory annotations to a helpful lie, removing their integrity in the process.

None of this is found in Kleist, certainly, whose particular psychosis drove him well off any conventional use of borrowed terms. Nor do you find it in Hofmannsthal or Alexander Kluge, who both question these things in their own ways. Josipovici implies that it is the willful perpetuation of myth after its collective falsification that makes for bad art, and I think this is a useful, new abstraction.

Update: Lars Spurious and The Mumpsimus have offered extremely thoughtful responses on the issues Josipovici raises. Lars elegantly asks, “How can we be told of what we don’t know?” Matt Cheney says of “Michael Kohlhaas” (in the midst of a detailed examination of the story), “The text becomes a kind of indifferent god, an object that requires neither worship nor doubt, and is impervious to both.”

I agree on both counts. “Michael Kohlhaas” was such a strikingly individual story that I once sought to rework it in a modern context, as it seemed a story beyond its time and beyond reduction, to assign a sense of unknowing awe to what had grown stale and quotidian. I was not able to do so, but the project still holds an appeal to me, for some future time.

Shaviro on Schumpeter

Steve Shaviro has a fantastic entry up on Joseph Schumpeter. I have to go back and reread my copy of Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy before I can respond in more depth, but Shaviro has some great points to make, and the Nietzsche connection he draws is not one I ever would have thought of.

As Shaviro mentions, Schumpeter more than gave Marx his due; he tore up widely-held generalizations about Marx and de-Hegelized him in order to isolate his general socio-economic sensibilities from the ideas of Communism. In that light, his ideas on class structure (independent of class warfare) and its impact on society become, as Schumpeter says, useful to thinkers on the economic left and right alike. Schumpeter at points appears to try to push Marx into a conservative reformist category; he is not convincing on this point, but the vaguely anarcho-capitalist politics that result share a visionary spirit with those of Marx. And like Marx, he distrusts the intellectuals.

Shaviro says that Schumpeter’s prophecy of an increasingly socialized state hasn’t come to pass and will not, because the flaws in capitalism Schumpeter identifies–the death of entrepreneurship, e.g.–are those that are caused by the triumph of capitalism, not its downfall. I’m not so sure. The one thing the radical/conservative Republican revolution has not brought back is smaller government (has there ever been an administration who did?). While people have argued over whether the religious fundamentalist leanings of the administration are real or just posturing (I would say somewhat the latter), there’s no question that the Republicans’ (and often Democrats’) “smaller government” claims are total bullshit, designed to convince people that the money for their tax refunds will be there when it comes time to pay the piper. Instead, there is the increasing consolidation of power under the executive branch, favoritism towards a select set of companies that are cronies of the administration, and a near-total dismissal of states’ rights except on conservative social issues, which is where they get the votes.

It’s not a socialized state per se, but nor is it one that would allow for Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” brought to fruition. Likewise, the administration is devoid of anything that could be reasonably called an intellectual, but it’s full of people that share the same impractical elements that Schumpeter disliked: ideologues. Schumpeter defines intellectuals as “people who wield the power of the spoken and written word. . . [in] the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs.” Shaviro thinks this means folks like him (and I guess myself). Well, I don’t feel any power in my words, but I know some people whose words have great power and who never take responsibility for how they affect practical affairs, and do I need to say who they are? The neocons, the AEI, the Heritage Foundation, Fox News, and the Cabinet themselves. Whether this is capitalism triumphant (Shaviro’s view) or capitalism betrayed (Schumpeter’s view) is more a matter of opinion.

Or Lay Myself Down By Sorrow’s Side

With all my books 2500 miles away, I’m left without the ability to write substantively about Rameau’s Nephew (weird!) and Robert Walser’s The Robber (which, incidentally, has given me the toughest time of finishing it of any short book since Notes from Underground). So I figured I’d loosen the reins a little and wander through the detritus in my head that I usually leave well-covered.

Genealogy of Metaphysics: what was it that caused the shift from the master dichotomy of real/unreal to the slave dichotomy of real/fake? The loss of authority/authenticity in young American authors (see Eggers, Foer) indicates a preoccupation with returning to an imagined time where every utterance was a statement of the real, as opposed to the supposed fakeness that surrounds us that everyone is fed up with. The term “irony,” which once signified a sophisticated sort of social satire that required a certain amount of intelligence to appreciate, has become to devalued to the point where it simply signifies insincerity, the positive referent not being a specific target but simply the mores of society. The “return to sincerity” movement folks are no better since they are acting the part of ignoring what they know to be ever-present: this inauthenticity. In the goal of people to return to a pre-Enlightenment, tradition-directed (to use David Riesmann’s term) society in which one’s words emerge organically from one’s position in society, they forget that this is not especially possible in the greater culture, which in turn speaks of their own disingenuousness. To continue with Riesmann’s terms, it is not legitimate to be fomenting a rebellion in ingenuousness when you are using borrowed terms; you remain other-directed. In Heidegger’s phrasing, they are as unthrown into the world as anyone, but this is the constituent state of post-Enlightenment modernity. Real/fake denotes a qualitative judgment once removed from the matters at hand, a tertiary quality once removed from color and twice removed from shape and form. Real/unreal merely judges ontology, which is to say, treats the former as a gestalt. In the slave irony mentality, the rise of Menippean satire stems from the lack of an authentic culture to critique. When people are divided between faux-authentic personae and a nascent state of mind, satire directed at the personae loses its teeth, as the personae have an impenetrable defense, namely that they are personae. Less-directed Menippean satire pursues the idea behind the real/fake culture itself by repeatedly invalidating it, making the effort more transcendent, but also leaving itself open to the charges that such satire is pointless. It is not pointless so much as it is easily made obsolescent, as it is internalized and melded into that which it satirized. It is built upon faster than any other genre.

A little too much Kenneth Smith there, I think. Another route. There has been too much talk of the fragmentation and delinearization of personality. In the presence of a more global culture than ever before, placing more universal restrictions on the outlines of acceptable thought, why should we look at ourselves as fragmented, or “shattered” as one wag decided to put it? Only because there is a prejudice that a self constructed from bits and pieces of media dreams should somehow hold less integrity than one of the shared prejudices of a close-knit community. So we go “bowling alone”? The idea of the integrity of a mind (or of minds) being corrupted by distant, unresponsive influences is as illusional as the idea that these shared universals will eventually create a group mind on the order of the techno-utopians’ fabled singularity. Without wanting to fall into a trap of evolutionary psychology, the cognitive schema of the mind is probably far more static than people seem to imagine. Which makes those social schemas, of authenticity for example, all the more important, since they are firmly dynamic.

A little memory about times past. When I was 17 or 18, I heard existentialism called an adolescent philosophy. I thought, “How can something so fundamental, something that strips things down to bare reality, be termed adolescent?” But could I have expected myself to answer back when told “Existence prececes essence,” “Existence and essence of what?”, not being able to identify such words as properties rather than implied particulars? Freud’s achievement was in the clear artifice of his schema, rather than in the deceptively fundamentalist appearance of so much recently fashionable social thought. I was suckered like many others. Fiction writers and poets are always the most susceptible to amenable schemas. They are their lingua franca.

All right, that’s enough. I would never publish this if it were for posterity, but the idea of a Coming Attractions is more appealing if you don’t have to live with it in plain sight for the rest of your life.

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