History used to be my least favorite subject in grade school. Now it’s interesting to me. But I still don’t understand exactly what it is. An autobiography is when a person writes the story of her own life. A biography is when a person writes the story of someone else’s life. It would be hmm if U.S. History were the truth about the United States written by America herself.
(Although “America” encompasses an area far greater than “the U.S.” alone, let us hold the two terms as synonymous, for the sake of corruption.)
But would such an account be trustworthy? It’s not as though, when you sit down to write your superego’s story, the dishonest part of your mind simply goes to sleep. If I were to write an autobiography, it would be chock full of lies, I assure you.
Assuming post-modernity has not become something else yet, I say: Ours is an age of ellipsis and disjunction. I hate to admit it (for I value upheaval, and this shows how thoroughly I am a child of my time), but I don’t care much for narrative. Not that I’ve anything against it; it just doesn’t move me. The first among my dictionary’s definitions of history is “A narrative of events; a story.” Ultimately the English word can be traced back to the Greek historein, which means “to inquire.” Now that’s more like it – I am keen on inquiry.
Lately I’ve been puzzling over this subject, because my sweetheart’s sibling is in town, and she has a seven-year-old son whom she’s homeschooling, and when I asked “What’s your favorite subject?” both parent and offspring answered in unison: “History.”
I’ve been warned that if we don’t remember the past, we’ll be forced to repeat it. But I think that one only gets to repeat the bad parts of the past. At least I would not assert that my ignorance of the exploits of Napoleon shall cause me to become Napoleon’s second coming. Yet nobody would disagree that each trial and tribulation undergone by every world leader now falls on my head.
As a subject, history attracted him most, largely because there was always something wrong with it.
That sentence is from The Golden Age by Gore Vidal. I just opened its pages yesterday, and now that I’m going back and forth between reading a little there and writing a little here, I realize how juicy Vidal’s perspective is on this subject…
the United States… All in all, an odd sort of nation whose true history might prove to be uncommonly interesting if one were ever able to excavate it from under so many other long-lost nations. Troy upon Troy upon Troy, some with, some without Helen, but all once afire with wrath.
For Helen died, Helen was buried, Helen returneth to dust, the dust is earth, and from earth we extract fossil-fuel. Is this to consider too curiously?
Anyway, it was the following observation from an article by David Swanson that piqued my interest in Vidal’s former bestseller:
Not a single [corporate] newspaper has ever, to my knowledge, printed a serious straightforward analysis of how President Franklin D. Roosevelt maneuvered the United States into World War II. Yet Vidal’s novel – presented as fiction, yet resting entirely on documented facts – recounts the story with total honesty, and somehow the genre used or the author’s pedigree or his literary skill or the length of the book (too many pages for senior editors to be bothered with) grants him a license to tell the truth.
For the record, I’ve always thought of F.D.R. as a decent guy, even a hero, because of his role in realizing the programs of the New Deal. (I like everything that I understand about those programs, and I would rather see them perfected than destroyed.) Yet now I recoil after learning about his implementation of internment camps and his scheming for war. But I suppose that no individual is of entirely unmixed essence, all good or all bad.
Except God. God is all good and all bad.
Who cares about God? Only the antinomians. And who cares about this blog? Only the hyperboreans. (You are not wrong: some of that follows. I aim for dubious and end up clever, as throughout the rest of this entry. I’m in a sad bad glad mad mood.) Therefore I will fill the lines of this paper with excerpts from more of the books that I have been reading.
What movies have I seen lately? Just the documentary Shoah (1985) directed by Claude Lanzmann.
Now here’s a question from Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty (translated by Arthur Goldhammer), the solution to which was revealed by my mortal advent:
where does luck end and where do effort and merit begin?
I planned to read only the first couple chapters and then to abandon Piketty’s tome; but I was intrigued enough to continue, and now I’m at the end. Given its subject matter (labor economics, wealth and income distribution), I’m surprised how well-written and fascinating I find it.
The duce of any other rule have I to govern myself by in this affair—and if I had one—as I do all things out of all rule—I would twist it and tear it to pieces, and throw it into the fire when I had done—Am I warm? I am, and the cause demands it—a pretty story! is a man to follow rules—or rules to follow him?
That’s from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Volume IV, Chapter X: “my chapter upon chapters, which I hold to be the best chapter in my whole work…”
Between copying this Sterne quote and whatever happens to follow, I received a visit from my brother- and sister-in-law. They’re in town because their dad is in the hospital recovering from a surgery. They came over last night and talked with me and my sweetheart for a couple hours. At one point my sister-in-law picked up the book of Picasso prints from the coffee table and casually paged through it. She stopped at the 1929 painting Grand nu au fauteuil rouge and said, “I don’t understand why anyone paints naked people; maybe I’m a prude, but when I see stuff like this, I flip right past it.” And then she demanded of me, “Why do YOU think that nudes are important in art?” And I said, “Well I don’t think that anything is important in art (which is primarily why I’m interested in art), but I assume that rich people from pre-photography eras commissioned paintings of youthful models for the same reason that rich people from our photo-finish present ogle what you call pornography. Why shouldn’t art excite desire? I think John Milton felt allured by Eve when he created her in Paradise Lost.”
There is nothing more to report. When my sweetheart texted her dad afterwards to say that she hopes he is healing well, his response was: “I am praying for you and Bryan.”
Jesus said unto them: You have a subtle way of rejecting divine action in order to uphold your religious habits! For Moses said, “Honor your parents; and anyone who fails to do so shall die the death.” But you declare to your kinfolk, “Whatever support you get from me is Corban” (that is: a sacred gift) – thus you no longer bother to love your family: by your so-called faith, you obscure the wisdom of God. (Mark 7:9-11)
But back to nudity. Everyone talks about Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). NO! I strongly prefer The Conformist (1970). The latter is genuinely erotic, whereas the former is… no more than what it is.
And I watched the long “director’s cut” of Nymphomaniac (2013) expecting to be shocked and offended, but I ended up thinking that it’s just a decent movie. I don’t know if Lars von Trier himself coined the phrase “depression trilogy” to label his work from 2009–2013, but I’ve seen the other two titles from that series and was properly shocked and offended by Antichrist, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone, while I loved Melancholia best. Still, my absolute favorite of von Trier’s work is Dogville (2003). That film is the U.S.A. to me. It’s one of a handful of the greatest films I will ever see released in my lifetime.
But if you’re the type of person who deliberately snubs any work of art that you hear being praised highly, then ignore me: don’t snub Dogville, I beg this of you. It is imperative for all of us to align our tastes and opinions, otherwise the canon that we happy few create and uphold will melt into a big pile of mush like the Internet.
This next passage is from John Ruskin’s appreciation of the poet Sir Walter Scott.
Throughout all his work there is no evidence of any purpose but to while away the hour. His life had no other object than the pleasure of the instant, and the establishing of a family name. All his thoughts were, in their outcome and end, less than nothing, and vanity.
I like this because I think that it applies equally well to my own writings (available in two attractive paperbacks whose covers, believe it or not, I designed myself: Vol. 1 and Vol. 2). To tell the truth even at the risk of sounding immodest, my compositions are among a handful of the greatest works that I’ll ever see published in my lifetime.
…This is a Book
Whose verses are indeclinable and distinct.
That’s from Ahmed Ali’s translation of the beginning of the Quran’s eleventh Surah. And here are two lines from Michael Hamburger’s translation of one of Goethe’s sonnets, “Natur und Kunst”:
Who seeks great gain leaves easy gain behind.
None proves a master but by limitation…
This idea is central to my concerns right now, because I’m haunted by my control-freak superego, which keeps demanding replays of the recent family-conversation, in hopes of mastering it: obsessing over the “easy gains” lost… What’s the solution, how do I give my inner world what it wants without upsetting the outer world? Can I make peace with my daemon while at once harmonizing with extended family, via limitation? If so, I must reign in my furor, empty out, act average… I want to earn the chance to lead by example rather than by way of argument. But why must every talk with my in-laws, even when it’s genteel like this recent one, require recovery as if it had been a battle? Because they were raised in a fundamentalist church that I despise (I hate the doctrines, not the people); so when we sit down together and exchange thoughts, theirs often pierce into me like poisoned arrows, although I know that they do not intend any affront: they’re simply unaware that any world exists beyond their cultural dome. Something ancient has been thawed from a block of ice, yet I can’t tell if they or I am the caveman. Or it’s like when a dolphin tries to get fresh with a giant lifeguard. In his infamous Anxiety of Influence, the critic-as-artist Harold Bloom uses the Greek-rooted term kenosis as the third of six “revisionary ratios”:
I take the word from St. Paul, where it means the humbling or emptying-out of Jesus by himself, when he accepts reduction from divine to human status.
That’s from the book’s introduction. Now here’s an excerpt from its third part, where Bloom quotes the passage (2:3-8) from the apostle’s letter to the saints at Philippi – if it’s not too homely a fall, I hope to descend from its poetic or theological treatment and apply this wisdom instead to my evening conversations:
We need to stop thinking of any poet as an autonomous ego, however solipsistic the strongest of poets may be. Every poet is a being caught up in a dialectical relationship (transference, repetition, error, communication) with another poet or poets. In the archetypal kenosis, St. Paul found a pattern that no poet whatever could bear to emulate, as poet:
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death…
But after some time of focusing on this goal, I start to question why I’m so set on avoiding conflict. This humbleness and humility – is it much different than forfeiting the match? (Why a fracas rather than a dance?) Do I no longer crave the thrill of agony? There was a time when I enjoyed arguing from the position of “the Devils party.” But I think The Way is getting dull: so dull that it’s nearing full-circle to attraction again. As technological innovations alter the exterior of everything, the interior clutches fast to the tried-and-true. Neither entices me naturally; that means I can force a self-conversion, just how you would change the placing of your piece on a game board. There are no nerves connecting one to one’s standpoint anymore. Can a solipsist be undone by everyone else’s indifference? This makes sense. That’s why the old time religion is good enough for me.
Now listen. What is conversation.
Conversation is only interesting if nobody hears.
That’s from The Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind by Gertrude Stein. I desperately crave access to the misunderstandings that people have made of what they’ve misheard me refrain from saying when they weren’t listening:
…I want that information very much today,
Can’t have it, and this makes me angry.
These and the lines that follow are from John Ashbery’s poem “Wet Casements.” I was hoping that by writing, both in general and here in this journal today, I could solve my problem, my bleat of “I want, I want!” always lacking possession…
I shall use my anger to build a bridge like that
Of Avignon, on which people may dance for the feeling
Of dancing on a bridge.
And I’m left with longing. But it’s better this way, if the toggle is between satiety and infinity (“Enough! or Too much”), and the mind is never satisfied. I side with the mind, always: with immortality… Emily Dickinson gives the benediction:
Satisfaction – is the Agent
Of satiety –
Want – a quiet Commissary
To Possess, is past the instant
We achieve the Joy –