David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: June 2012

Novalis: Monologue

The excellent piece on Novalis in this week’s TLS quoted a bit of his brilliant Monolog, and it’s short enough I figured I’d just post the whole thing here:

Speaking and writing is a crazy state of affairs really; true conversation is just a game with words. It is amazing, the absurd error people make of imagining they are speaking for the sake of things; no one knows the essential thing about language, that it is concerned only with itself. That is why it is such a marvellous and fruitful mystery – for if someone merely speaks for the sake of speaking, he utters the most splendid, original truths. But if he wants to talk about something definite, the whims of language make him say the most ridiculous false stuff. Hence the hatred that so many serious people have for language. They notice its waywardness, but they do not notice that the babbling they scorn is the infinitely serious side of language. If it were only possible to make people understand that it is the same with language as it is with mathematical formulae – they constitute a world in itself – their play is self-sufficient, they express nothing but their own marvellous nature, and this is the very reason why they are so expressive, why they are the mirror to the strange play of relationships among things. Only their freedom makes them members of nature, only in their free movements does the world-soul express itself and make of them a delicate measure and a ground-plan of things. And so it is with language – the man who has a fine feeling for its tempo, its fingering, its musical spirit, who can hear with his inward ear the fine effects of its inner nature and raises his voice or hand accordingly, he shall surely be a prophet; on the other hand the man who knows how to write truths like this, but lacks a feeling and an ear for language, will find language making a game of him, and will become a mockery to men, as Cassandra was to the Trojans. And though I believe that with these words I have delineated the nature and office of poetry as clearly as I can, all the same I know that no one can understand it, and what I have said is quite foolish because I wanted to say it, and that is no way for poetry to come about. But what if I were compelled to speak? What if this urge to speak were the mark of the inspiration of language, the working of language within me? And my will only wanted to do what I had to do? Could this in the end, without my knowing or believing, be poetry? Could it make a mystery comprehensible to language? If so, would I be a writer by vocation, for after all, a writer is only someone inspired by language?

Novalis, “Monologue” (1798), tr. Joyce Crick

This, together with Kleist’s “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking”, make the deconstructionists seem rather late to their own game.

The artistic complement to Novalis here is Paul Klee, whose drawings inspired by The Novices of Sais capture some of what Novalis is saying. This one is called “Demony”:

The Turin Horse

BERNHARD: Because everything’s in ruins. Everything’s been degraded, but I could say that they’ve ruined and degraded everything. Because this is not some kind of cataclysm, coming about with so-called innocent human aid. On the contrary, it’s about man’s own judgement, his own judgement over his own self, which of course God has a hand in, or dare I say takes part in. And whatever he takes part in is the most ghastly creation that you can imagine. Because, you see, the world has been debased. So it doesn’t matter what I say, because everything has been debased that they’ve acquired. and since they’ve acquired everything in a sneaky, underhand fight, they’ve debased everything. Because whatever they touch-and they touch everything-they’ve debased. This is the way it was until the final victory. Until the trimphant end. Acquire, debase, debase, acquire. Or I can put it differently if you like. To touch, debase and thereby acquire, or touch, acquire and thereby debase. It’s been going on like this for centuries, on, on and on. This and only this, sometimes on the sly, sometimes rudely, sometimes gently, sometimes brutally, but it has been going on and on. Yet only in one way, like a rat attack from ambush. Becouse for this perfect victory, it was also essential that the other side, everything that’s excellent, great in some way and noble, should not engage in any kind of fight. There shouldn’t be any kind of struggle, just the sudden disappearance of one side, meaning the disappearance of the excellent, the great, the noble. So that by now these winning winners who attack from ambush rule earth, and there isn’t a single tiny nook where one can hide something from them, because everything they can lay their hands on is theirs. Even things we think they can’t reach – but they do reach – are also theirs. Because the sky is already theirs and all our dreams. Theirs is the moment, nature, infinite silence. Even immortality is theirs, you understand? Everything, everything is lost forever! And those many noble, great and excellent just stood there, if I can put it that way. They stopped at this point, and had to understand, and had to accept, that there is neither god nor gods. And the excellent, the great and the noble had to understand and accept this right from the beginning. But of course, they were quite incapable of understanding it. They believed it and accepted it but they didn’t understand it. They just stood there, bewildered, but not resigned, until something – that spark from the brain – finally enlightened them. And all at once they realized, that there is neither god nor gods. All at once they saw that there is neither good nor bad. Then they saw and understood that if this was so, then they themselves do not exist either! You see, I reckon this may have been the moment when we can say that they were extinguished, they burnt out. Extinguished and burnt out like the fire left to smoulder in the meadow. One was a constant loser, the other was the constant winner. Defeat, victory, defeat, victory, and one day – here in the neighbourhood – I had to realize, and I did realize, that I was mistaken, I was truly mistaken when I thought that there has never been and could never be any kind of change here on earth. Because, believe me, I know now that this change has indeed taken place.

OHLSDORFER: Come off it, that’s rubbish.

The Turin Horse

Yes, they really did give him the name Bernhard. He even looks a bit like Thomas Bernhard. Perhaps his words are to not to be taken as the thoughts of Bela Tarr or Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

Cargo 200: Blurred Spaces

Russian director Aleksey Balabanov is a fascinating and discomfiting filmmaker, responsible for one of the very few successful Kafka adaptations, The Castle, to which Balabanov boldly appended his own ending. Technically brilliant, Balabanov is generally enigmatic about what he is doing and how he does it. I took a look at his extremely unnerving Cargo 200, a loose adaptation of Faulkner’s Sanctuary, to try to figure it out.



Something awful is going to happen to the girl. This is the Soviet Union in 1984. This is not a nice time, and these are not nice people. The veneer of civilization, this professor of atheism, this friendly colonel, these dancing teens: they are all part of a paper-thin mask. Director Aleksey Balabanov will pull it off soon enough. This is Balabanov and he is dark.

The movie is beautiful. Everything is dilapidated and falling apart, but there’s still a deep palette and the geometry of the scenes is proportionate. There is a neo-classicism here, a desire to recreate aspects of the past without subverting them. Overlaying that is the horror, as though immaculate Greek sculptures were made to violate each other and commit heinous acts. Craft is being deployed orthogonally to content.

The horror is not happening yet, though. Things are calm. The movie goes on, and people are suspicious, and still the horror does not start.

This is an American story. Balabanov took the plot from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, though Balabanov claims it’s a true story. In that ugly novel the young girl fell in with motley bootleggers and was kidnapped and raped by a sociopath named Popeye. The plot is still here. But Cargo 200 is slower than Sanctuary. And everything feels different. It lacks the sordid atmosphere of Sanctuary. This is not the South. This is not anarchy and lawlessness. This is dread, absurdity, oppression, and war. This is not Mississippi in 1929, it is the Soviet Union in 1984.

The government is everywhere. But what is the government? Andropov is dead. The Soviet Union is at war in Afghanistan. Soldiers are coming back home in boxes. The code for these coffins is “Cargo 200.”

[continued at Quarterly Conversation]


Absolutism in the French Enlightenment

This letter is from the June 8 TLS, in response to a review of Jonathan Israel’s Democratic Enlightenment. It’s a far more substantive review than Darin MacMahon’s silly dismissal, but it makes the ubiquitous mistake of attributing a predominantly absolutist streak to the French Enlightenment.

As yet another inauspicious attempt to correct this received idea, I post the letter here:

Sir, – Jeremy Jennings is not quite correct to say that the philosophes firmly stood behind “one true morality [applying] to all the inhabitants of the globe” (in his review of Jonathan Israel’s Democratic Enlightenment, May 25). While Helvétius, d’Holbach and La Mettrie had significant universalist tendencies, Montesquieu and Diderot did not. Diderot explored cultural pluralism in Supplément au Voyage à Bougainville and the aptly titled Réfutation d’Helvétius, and remained sceptical towards all forms of absolutism, including liberal absolutism. Both Montesquieu and Diderot’s empiricist, anthropological explorations influenced Johann Herder’s similarly pluralistic attitudes in his Spinozist world view. Montesquieu and Diderot were a far greater influence on French Revolutionary figures; Helvétius and d’Holbach’s universalism ironically manifested itself only later in utilitarianism and Marxism.

As I have argued (TLS, May 6, 2011), there is a strong supporting case for Israel’s division between an early rational revolution and an irrational, fundamentalist revolution of terror during the Jacobin period. Only after the fall of the philosophe-inflected Girondins does one see a burgeoning vision of an irrationalist “one true morality” in Marat, Danton and Robespierre. Robespierre himself was an avowed devotee of Rousseau, and his influence is seen in the striking abandonment of liberty and atheism that the Jacobins pursued, as when he established a Deist Cult of the Supreme Being intended as the new French state religion.

If there was one absolute to which the philosophes adhered as a whole, it was that of liberté: not an absolute moral value, but a basic human right.


Alas, both neo-Jacobins and neo-Burkeans have helped reinforced the misconception that such deep skeptics as Diderot, D’Alembert, and Isabelle de Charrière were foaming-at-the-mouth imperialist Panglossians.

I advocate this heuristic: the more a philosopher bemoans the absolutism of some past ideology or movement, the more likely that philosopher is an absolutist.

“We Are All Anonymous” Video

Thanks to Punkcast, video is now available of the Triple Canopy discussion with Gabriella ColemanJames Grimmelmann, and me, discussing Anonymity as Culture and Our Weirdness is Free. Thanks to all involved for making it a great event. I had fun.

Normal posting to resume shortly after a short jaunt abroad.

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