Thursday, April 24, 2014

William Burrough's Work by Barry Miles



That summer (1983) at Naropa, Bill was asked by Allen Ginsberg to provide a reading list for his students. He listed more than one hundred books plus “the complete works” of Kafka. Genet, and Fitzgerald. He handed the pages to Allen. Allen was outraged and stamped his feet, accusing Burroughs of simply listing everything he had on his bookshelf.

“What’s this?” he demanded, pointing to Intern by Doctor X.

“That, Allen, is a doctor book. I assure you it’s a very good one.” Bill spoke quietly, as if talking to a recalcitrant student.

“But they can’t read all these,” fumed Allen.

“They are the books I like,” said Bill, pursing his lips.

“Where’s Kerouac?” demanded Allen. William did not reply, just placed his fingers together and pursed his lips some more, biding his time. Allen knew better than to argue and the list was duly photocopied and distributed for Bill’s class.

Burroughs had never thought much of Kerouac’s actual writing, and had always been irritated by Kerouac’s various portrayal’s of him as well as the way that he was lumped together with him by the critics, Allen Ginsberg included, who often assumed that Kerouac was an influence on his work. “I said that he had an influence in encouraging me to write, not an influence on what I wrote . […] So far as our style of work and content, we couldn’t be more opposite. He always said that the first draft was the best. I said, ‘Well, that may work for you, Jack, but it doesn’t work for me.’ I’m used to writing and rewriting things at least three times. It’s just a completely different way of working.”

Burroughs also depended upon his friends to  to assist when it came time for the final draft. James Grauerholz worked long and hard to knock the manuscript of Cities of the Red Night into shape. Allen Ginsberg played an important role in shaping both Junky and Queer, and worked on the early drafts of The Naked Lunch. The Naked Lunch itself was typed and shaped largely by Brion Gysin and Sinclair Beiles while Bill stuck photos of the Peruvian jungle on the wall and shot at them with his air gun. The Soft Machine was assembled and edited entirely by Ginsberg and Gysin while Burroughs was in Tangier, and Ian Sommerville had a lot to do with both The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express. This is how Burroughs always worked.  All Burrough’s major books are fugitive. No fixed text seems possible, each version points up different aspects of Burrough’s vision, and ultimately they have to be seen as one giant multivolume book including all the different versions.
Years of research and work on Cities of the Red Night gave Burroughs six hundred pages of material to use as a starter for The Place of Dead Roads. In April 1984 he told the East Village Eye that the new book was well under way. “The overflow from Dead Roads was about 7-800 pages. I always had material to draw on for the next one. So in a sense the next one is well under way by the time I finish the one I am doing. […] I never know what’s going to happen. I don’t plan the novel out. I don’t even have any idea how this novel I’m writing is going to end or where it’s going from where it is now, or how much of that material will be useable.”

In the last years of his life Burroughs began painting. He had no formal art training, but felt that maybe that was a good thing given his way of approaching art. “There might be something on my mind, I try to just let my hand do it, to see with my hand. And then look at it, see what has happened. I may see quite clearly in there something that I’ve seen recently in a magazine or a newspaper, whatever, emerging. I can’t consciously draw anything. I can’t draw a recognizable chair – it looks like a four-year-old’s.” The initial “killing of the canvas,” making random marks to overcome the tyranny of the white rectangle, provided the subject matter; in among the whorls of paint, a subject emerged. “I don’t know what I’m painting until I see it. In fact I’ve done a lot with my eyes closed. The point was to get started.

It was the ‘surprised recognition” that Burroughs was after. “It applies to any art form. That’s what I try to do in painting. Klee said a painter strives to create something that has an existence apart from him and which could endanger him. Now the most clear proof of something being separate is if it can harm you. […] I do think all writers, many other writers and painters are trying to create something that has an existence apart from themselves. It would literally step out of the picture or the book. So all artists are trying to achieve what some people would say is impossible, that is to create life. Of course, impossible is a meaningless word to me.”

This fits in with Burrough’s cut-in theory: the recognition of connections between phrases suggested by a random process; with his occult experiments with crystal balls; with the random cut-ins on his tape experiments; and with the emerging images from random visual events. “That’s what it’s all about. The way that clear representational objects will emerge from what would seem to be a random procedure.”

In many ways Burrough’s art was a self-exploratory process. According to Allen Ginsberg, Burrough’s use of sex, for example, was to explore his own sexual position, “rehearsing it over and over again, to sort of take it outside himself, exteriorize it on the page and repeat it over and over again in a mechanical way in different forms until his obsessive neurotic images lose their magnetic, hypnotic attraction or their conditioned attraction and become common-place.”  This is somewhat similar  to  and helps explain Burroughs long-time attraction to Scientology which he explained has a system of therapy called ‘clearing’ in which you ‘run’ traumatic material which they call ‘engrams’ until it loses its emotional connotation through repetitions and is then refilled with neutral memory.”

The role of drugs in Burrough’s life and art cannot be overemphasized. From the mid-forties, when his nostalgie de la boue led him to the criminal circles where he became addicted to morphine, he was involved in the drug subculture. Though not always addicted, he was rarely sober from then on: all his books were written on marijuana, which he used through-out his lifetime, and/or opiates. Despite his frequent claims to the contrary, much of of the original material in The Naked Lunch was written while he was heavily addicted to Eukodol, a form of morphine, and everything written after his return to the United States in 1974 was written on opiates; he switched to the methadone program for the last seventeen years of his life. He also drank a good deal, sometimes lapsing into alcoholism. Drugs were an enormously important part of his life: they were an all-consuming interest and also the subject of most of his writing. He was ambivalent about them, on and off, for and against, for much of his life, but in old age he felt that becoming a junkie was the best thing he ever did, because without it he would not have written The Naked Lunch or encountered the demimonde of underground characters that populate his work.

Burroughs did not live a happy life; he was plagued by loneliness and lack of love, racked with guilt, not just over the death of his wife, but for his neglect of friends and family. But to those in Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent the last years of his life, he was an inspirational presence. He had a lot of advice for young men. He wasn’t a softy but he was really warm and likable. He had an endearing manner and retained his mental agility to the end.



Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Danish Exception by Bo Lidegaard









The genocide of the Jews was not a plan that ran amok but a decisive effort by the Nazi leadership. It was a project that was considered vital for Germany’s survival and essential for the Third Reich’s victory. Therefore it was central both politically and administratively. It was a goal that Hitler and his closest allies did not think they could afford to lose sight of – a goal they pursued with even greater zeal in step with the growing problems at the fronts, and with even greater vigor as the more or less voluntary allies of the Third Reich became less and less enthusiastic about their role in this barbarous endeavor.

In 1996, Daniel Goldhagen published an extensive study of the general public’s knowledge of and involvement in the implementation of the Holocaust. Hitler’s Willing Executioners is a disturbing account because Goldhagen shows how many Germans were implicated in the nefarious project. But it is especially disturbing because it reveals chauvinism’s roots in Germany, and how appallingly widespread the thinking was that led to the mass extermination of fellow citizens. It shows how deeply the problem was rooted in the general population, who allowed themselves to put so much credence in the systematic description of the Jews as a threatening foreign body that they lost their basic compassion and empathy – the starting points for all peaceful coexistence.

Goldhagen makes little mention of the few exceptions where the Holocaust failed – such as Bulgaria and Denmark. His focus is on the general picture and the underlying driving forces, and he concludes: “the destruction of the Jews, once it had become achievable, took priority even over safeguarding Nazism’s very existence.” The extermination continued to the bitter end, long after it was clear that the Third Reich would be defeated.

The German historian Peter Longerich has a somewhat different interpretation. He agrees with many of Goldhagen’s observations, but gives different answers when it comes to what the German population knew – or avoided knowing. In Longerich’s interpretation the Jewish extermination was an open secret. All the elements were commonly known, and anyone had the opportunity to recognize mass murder as the objective, and to know about the scope of the genocide. But that still does not mean that most Germans knew what was going on. Longerich believes that most closed their eyes and ears and shied away from seeing the scale of the criminality, and many protected themselves against the sense that insight entailed responsibility.  It was clear that something was going on, and that everyone suspected the worse. But Longerich’s point is that the majority wanted anything but the transformation of their fears into certain knowledge: “Between knowledge and ignorance, there was a broad gray area marked by rumors and half –truths, fantasy, forced and self-imposed limitations in communication. It lies between not wanting to know and not being able to understand.”

In one crucial point, the Nazi action in Denmark distinguishes itself clearly from all previous raids and actions against Jews initiated elsewhere; in Denmark it took place under the eyes of an immensely indignant and protective society, while the Swedish press delivered live coverage. This is exactly why the Nazis apparatus failed in the case of Denmark.

What ultimately stopped the extermination of Jews on Danish soil was the expressed and entrenched Danish opposition to the project. The many protests from high and low, from church and business, from politicians and state secretaries, confirmed what local Nazi administrators had long known and told Berlin: there was a deeply rooted aversion in the Danish population to the idea of introducing special laws and measures against the Jews. Since 1933 the Danish government had forcefully rejected any attempt to create a divide between Danes based on descent. Rather, those who attacked democracy had been excluded from the national “us,” while the leading politicians succeeded in equating the nation with the values its social order rested upon. This adherence to humanism became a bulwark its social order rested upon. Even cooperation with the occupying power had not undermined the Danish government’s attitude toward the concrete requirements of humanity and love thy neighbor. An unarmed people rebelled against a power with all kinds of tricks, with adventurous artifice and disguise and courage – but first and foremost with solidarity of deep indignation. By completely rejecting the ideas that excluded the Jews from the national “us”, Denmark deprived the Nazis of the fig leaf they needed to justify discrimination and legitimize the deed.

Hannah Arendt, in her 1964 book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann wrote: “politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazi met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds.  They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had  met resistance based on principle, and their ‘toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage.”

Today, Hannah Arendt’s observations can be taken even further, as it is clear that the orders from Berlin were also softened in relation to the Jews in Denmark. It turns out that even leading Nazis in Berlin and Copenhagen needed the local understanding and support that would give the crime an aura of necessity and justice. Without this even the most hardened Nazis shrank back. Public participation was therefore not only a practical condition for the implementation of the project; its support was also a prerequisite for leading Nazis’ daring to set atrocities in motion. Even these experienced Nazis with blood on their hands ( e.g. Eichmann, Himmler, Ribbentrop) could not or would not go all the way alone. Even they depended on the understanding and support of the project, which was absolutely missing in Denmark. Without it they faltered, and extermination of the Jews came to appear as a goal; that had to be weighed against other, more practical considerations.

The leading Nazis’s complicity in making the flight of Denmark’s Jews to Sweden possible suggests they were led by practical considerations. In the Danish context, continued cooperation with the ‘model protectorate’ and maintaining the flow or agricultural and mineral supplies weighed more heavily than the desire to annihilate the Jews.

Senior Nazis involvement was not driven by personal necessity. Hatred of the different was not some primordial force that was unleashed. Rather, it was a political convenience that could be used as needed and in most occupied territories the Nazis followed their interest in pursuing this with disastrous consequences. But without a sounding board- chauvinism and the refusal to transform fears into certain knowledge- the strategy did not work. It could be countered by simple means – even by a country that was defenseless and occupied- by a persistent national  rejection assumption that there was a “Jewish problem” and  politicians who refuse to use suspicion of ‘the other’ as their political tool.

The escape of the Danish Jews happened because they acted on their own initiative when warned of the impending threat against them. The hesitation of the Nazi leadership in Berlin and their officials in Denmark was caused primarily by the expectation of the Danish reaction and its negative ramifications for both the ‘model protectorate’ and the continued shipment of Danish provisions to Germany. But what made this possible, before anything else, was the fact that Danish society as a whole had so quickly, so consistently, and with such determination turned against the very idea underpinning the persecution of their fellow countrymen, and mobilized with utmost unity of purpose to facilitate their rescue. Their attitude and capacity to overcome their fears was anchored in the preceding ten years of anti-totalitarian Danish politics. The miraculous escape of the Danish Jews cannot be fully understood outside that political context.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Juge de Paix at Najac



1923

If this were were a Tuesday we would have a 2-1 chance of being less solitary on our green garden seat, where laziness and no work has tempted us to remain chatting or somnolent since breakfast time. A couple, at least, of small round tin tables would be set in the shade of the acacia trees, and peasants in sable dress – black boots, black trousers, black blouses, black hats, black beards, black eyes - would be seated drinking coffee from long glasses, or beer –enlivened by a dose of carbolic acid gas in Potato’s bottling establishment over the road –or red wine which is brought in casks from vineyards lying twenty miles to the south. The country reckons little of those strange aperatifs of the French town-dweller, those drinks of daring hue and astonishing taste which are used either to appetize or to minimize the results of appetizing; like the device of an impecunious young man who used to calm his tailor’s clamors for settlement by ordering more clothes. At one of the tables of funereally clad peasants a jaundiced-faced townsman, dressed in straw hat, tail coats and trousers of black and white check, would be talking earnestly and with authority. The peasants are litigants, the townsman a barrister. They would be waiting, we would be waiting, for the juge de paix. Najac is a chef-lieu-de canton, we have our fortnightly courts.

The juge de paix comes presently, round about half-past ten, walking with the jerky decision of celebrity. He looks not unlike Monsieur Poincare, but it is a Monsieur Poincare drawn by Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland, and the aggressive eyebrows of the French first minister are here pruned into gentleness. We all get up an follow him in a ragged procession to the corner of the triangular place and thence downhill a dozen buildings to the Mairie. The juge de paix is not quite the equivalent of our Justice of the Peace, he is more domestic: nor does he handle crime. Judge of the peace indeed he is not:  he is a human olive branch; his crest is a dove; his very questions – curious, naïve legal questions, French equivalents for the famous “Who is Connie Gilchrist?” – have a coo in them.

Maupassant has immortalized the juge de paix in Le Cas de Madame Luneau and Tribunaux Rustique. To an English reader these rustic comedies of law may appear exaggerations, yet although Maupassant died thirty years ago, and although in these thirty years the world has made unbelievable advances, our juge de paix might well have taken lessons from those invented by the French novelist. The judge’s opening in Tribunaux Rustiques,  “Madame Bascule, articulez vos griefs,” would seem to us at first glance written for farce had our juge de paix not used the identical phrase often enough: so, too, the judge’s exaggerated simplicity in La cas de Madame Luneau.

“HIPPOLOYTE: Je m'eclaire, monsieur le juge. Or, qu'elle voulait un enfant et qu'elle me demandait ma participation. Je ne fis pas de difficultes, et elle me promit cent francs. . .
“LE JUGE DE PAIX: Je ne vous comprends pas du tout. Vous dites qu'elle voulait un enfant? Comment?  Quel genre d'enfant? Un enfant pour l'adopter?
“HIPPOLYTE: Non, monsieur le juge, un neuf
‘LE JUGE DE PAIX:  Qu'entendez vous par ces mots: 'Un neuf?”

As a general rule the juge de paix does not hold that serious angle to the law which we would consider correct in an English magistrate. To some extent the judge seems to take both the law he is administering as well as the pleader as a kind of joke; he is like a humorous master settling a difference between a cook and a housemaid, neither of whom  he is willing to loose. Contrasting with this humor, sometimes tart on the part of the judge, is the ceremony of the court in which these rough-handed litigants – some of who can only speak in patois, losing themselves in long-winded explanations – are dubbed officially le Sieur Lachose or le Sieur Untel; and the judge sometimes uses these pretentious sounding titles to whip up his satire.

To add to the strange quality of these village courts of justice is the passionate eloquence of the barristers. These are two as a rule, brought at some expense from Francheville, one a stolid rustic sort of a man who does generally confine himself top a blunt exposition of his clients case: the other, the most admired, the tail-coated, rather jaundiced individual before mentioned. He has a gift for pathos – and bathos too. Eloquence in France is a serious affair. The oration of Sergeant Buzfuz for Mrs. Bardell pales before some of the jaundiced barrister’s copia verborum dealing with the matter of a branch illegally cut from a tree or a gate left swinging open from malice: to hear him on the depredations of an errant goat was to be flooded with as much emotion as would have served many an actor for Mark Anthony weeping over the body of Caesar.

The council chamber has a large green baize-covered table at which the councilors of the village seat themselves solemnly and do their simple best to retard progress. Here generally one can find Raymond asleep, his bulging forehead couched upon a pile of municipal literature, snoring away his 2000 francs per annum. The chamber of justice is small and white-washed. A railing divides it in two, on the far side of which is the judge’s table, also green covered, raised on a dais. To his left a lower table serves the clerk of the court by whose side a couple of chairs seat the barristers, who here plead without robes or bands. Nor does the judge himself mount signs of office, he sits rather plumply rubicund, half bored, half sardonic, with a large wen just appearing where his hair is thinning. There are chairs, half a dozen or so, at the disposal of an audience, but usually there is no audience. The litigants gather on the landing of the Mairie, and creep bashfully as their names are called by the greffier.

“Le Sieur Anselm Chose contre Madame Paulette Maschin, “ etc.

The litigants are of several varieties. There is the chronic plaintiff, usually a woman; there is the chronic defendant, usually a man. Both are egoists, the first too conscious of her neighbor’s vices, the second too unconscious of his neighbor’s rights. A type of the first was remarkable enough to be worthy of notice. She was an ex-nun who had left her convent to marry, but who has remained a devotional bigot. She was a lank, lean woman, with a pallid face ridged like plough land and two black pearls of eyes. She crossed herself whenever she passed the Hotel Sestrol because Raymond had said in jest that he and his family were atheists; but not Christian charity disturbed her conscience. She snapped into law at the slightest pretext, the terror of her neighbors.


Both types of litigants are well known to the juge de paix, who greets them with a rough grunt something like that of a hoarse pig:

“Euh, euh! Qu'est-ce que vous ronge cette fois-ci.”

There is the litigant who talks as though there can be no question on the other side, and the litigant who hardly dares to state his own case; there is the amicable litigant who can be seen drinking with his opponent before entering the Mairie and who has another drink with him to toasty the decision whichever way it may be; there is the sly litigant who tries clownishly to hide the essential facts, but who is almost invariably brought to book with acid comments by monsieur le juge; there is the hysterical witness; the silent witness; the loquacious. To all the judge is a sort of legal Father O’Flynn, sometimes forced to translate his decisions into patois when his suitors cannot understand the French. But often the litigants who do know French are unable to understand the legal form of the judge’s summing up and stand silent, perplexed and gaping at the bar until the greffier chases them on to the landing; where they still hang about wondering how things have actually been decided between them.

The more serious village affairs do not come before the juge de paiz, they go to the tribunal at Francheville. Sometimes, however, the judge is an echo of the Francheville court, for instance, in the case of assault, the victim pleads for damages in the village after the aggressor has been punished officially in town. Thus the aggressor  pays double law expenses. Yet murder did come to us, both present and past. A girl of eighteen, turned out by her uncle, having given birth all alone hidden in a hayloft, strangled her illegitimate child. The baker was furious. He waved his thin fingers under the nose of Potato ( a local bottler, the blacksmith’s brother)who being fat, was inclined to leniency. The baker, who had smashed a comrade’s foot for a careless insult, was self-righteously indignant with this half-distraught baby killer.

“We must finish with these self-taken liberties,” he coughed hoarsely. “No pity. Off with her head.”

But she was acquitted. The French look with what appears to the English a lenient eye upon murder. Murder they seem to consider a crime only in dastardly cases. Give murder an epithet, tag it on to some perturbation of spirit, and the slayer escapes. Love, jealousy, hate, anger, fear, political passion, or even commercial interest, are held to be spiritual cyclones which acting on normal humanity can whirl it outside itself –beside himself, as we say – and so a crime committed outside of humanity is considered almost outside the law.

A curious feature of psychology this, that these French who are so primitively mosaic in their politics – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – should have travelled so far away from that boasted basis of human security, a life for a life. They do not hold that a misdeed committed in individual frenzy is to be balanced by another misdeed committed in communal revenge; they do not hold that for murder, the last unpardonable theft, restitution can be made by a forfeiture in kind. Still, we must think the French very lenient in murder. It was a question of café debate whether Landru, the modern Bluebeard, would not get off. A barrister, playing with his eloquence upon the heart-strings of a jury –which one must confess often seems to carry emotionalism beyond the limits of even a farce- has released how many assassins back into society. It is true that murder rarely becomes a habit. But we remember a satirical article in a French paper proving the only person one might not murder with impunity to be a total stranger, since no sentimental excuse could be found for murdering him. .  .

The juge de paix at Najac does not touch on such grave matters as these. He travels from canton to canton, an affable, slightly pompous, slightly sardonic, peace-maker, an ambulating olive branch dipped in vinegar.

“Exposez vos griefs,” says monsieur le juge

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Shape of Time by George Kubler





George Alexander Kubler (26 July 1912 - 3 October 1996) was an American art historian and among the foremost scholars on the art of Pre-Columbian America and Ibero-American Art. This book was published in 1962 by Yale University.

I include this brief selection in my blog because it describes (though it does not directly refer to) in fairly certain terms the premise of the Deconstructive Project (e.g. the works of Jacques Derrida) and of Continental Philosophy as it might be compared to the American Analytic and Pragmatic philosophical traditions. What he says should at least provoke a note of suspicion with respect to  convictions and conventions of popular history as agonizingly displayed on a daily basis by our benighted political classes and their lapdogs in the media; and perhaps serve as an encouragement to humility for those of us struggling to, as it were, turn the tide of current affairs.

Le passe ne sert qu'a connaitre l'actualité. Mais l'actualité m'echappe. Qu'est-ce que c'est donc que l'actualite?

[The past only serves to know the news. But the news escapes me. What therefore is  actuality?]

For years this question – the final and capital question of his life- obsessed my teacher Henri Focillon, especially during the black days from 1940 to 1943 when he died in New Haven.  The question has been with me ever since, and I am now no closer to the solution of the riddle, unless it be to suggest that the answer is a negation.

Actuality is when the lighthouse is dark between flashes: it is the instant between the ticks of a watch: it is a void interval slipping forever through time: the rupture between the past and future: the gap at the poles of the revolving magnetic field, infinitesimally small but ultimately real.  It is the interchronic pause when nothing is happening. It is the void between events.

Yet the instant of actuality is all we ever can know directly. The rest of the time emerges only in signals relayed to us at this instant by innumerable stages and by unexpected bearers. One may ask why these old signals- stored like kinetic energy  until the moment of notice when the mass descends along some portion of its path to the center of the gravitational system- are not actual.

 The nature of a signal is that its message is neither here or now, but there and then. If it is a signal it is past action, no longer embraced by the “now” of present being. The perception of the signal happens “now,” but its impulse and transmission happened “then.” In any event, the present instant is the plane upon which the signals of all being are projected. No other plane of duration gather us up universally into the same instant of becoming.

Our signals from the past are very weak, and our means for recovering their meaning are most imperfect. Weakest and least clear of all are those signals coming from the initial and terminal moment of any sequence in happening, for we are unclear about our ideas of a coherent portion of time. The beginnings are much hazier than the endings, where at least the catastrophic action of external events can be determined. The segmentation of history is still an arbitrary and conventional matter, governed by no verifiable conception of historical entities and their duration. Now and in the past, most of the time the majority of people live by borrowed ideas and upon traditional accumulations, yet at every moment the fabric is being undone and a new one is woven to replace the old, while from time to time the whole pattern shakes and quivers, settling into new shapes and figures. These processes of change are all mysterious uncharted regions where the traveler soon loses directions and stumbles into darkness. The clues to guide us are very few indeed: perhaps the jottings and sketches of architects and artists, put down in the heat of imagining a form or the manuscript brouillons of poets and musicians, crisscrossed with erasures and corrections, are the hazy coastlines of this dark continent of the “now,” where the impress of the future is received by the past.

To other animals who live more by instinct than do humans, the instant of actuality must seem far less brief. The rule of instinct is automatic, offering fewer choices than intelligence, with circuits that close and open unselectively.  In this duration choice is so rarely present that the trajectory from past to future describes a straight line rather than the infinitely bifurcation system of human experience. The ruminant or the insect must live time as an extended present which endures as long as the individual life, while for us, the single life contained an infinity of present instants, each with its innumerable open choices in volition and in action.

Why should actuality forever escape our grasp? The universe has  a finite velocity which limits not only the spread of its events, but also the speed of our perceptions. The moment of actuality slips too fast by the slow, coarse net of our senses. The galaxy whose light I see now may have ceased to exist millenia ago, and by the same token men cannot fully sense any event cosmic storm which we all the present, and which perpetually rages throughout creation.

In my own present, a thousand concerns of active business lie unattended while I write these words. The instant admits only one action while the rest of possibility lies unrealized. Actuality is the eye of the storm: it is a diamond with an infinitesimal perforation through which the ingots and billets of present possibility are drawn into past events. The emptiness of actuality can be estimated by the possibilities that fail to attain realization in any instant: only when they are few can actuality seem full.


Historical knowledge consists of transmissions in which the sender, the signal, and the receiver all are variable elements affecting the stability of the message. Since the receiver of a signal becomes its sender in the normal course of historical transmission (e.g. the discoverer of a document usually is its editor), we may treat receivers and senders together under the heading of relays. Each relay is the occasion of some deformation in the original signal. Certain details seem insignificant and they are dropped in the relay; others have an importance conferred by their relationship to events occurring in the moment of the relay, and so they are exaggerated. One relay may wish for reasons of temperament to stress the traditional aspects of a signal; another will emphasize their novelty. Even the historian subjects his evidence to these strains, although he strives to recover the pristine signal.

Each relay willingly or unwillingly deforms the signal according to his own historical position. The relay transmits a composite signal, composed only in part of the message as it was received, and in part of impulses contributed by the relay itself. Historical recall never can be complete nor can it be even entirely correct, because of the successive relays that deform the message.

The conditions of the transmission of signals nevertheless are not so defective that historical knowledge is impossible. Actual events always excite strong feelings, which the initial,  message usually records. A series of relays may result in the gradual disappearance of the animus excited by the event. The most hated despot is the live despot: the ancient despot is only a case history. In addition, many objective residues or tools of the historian’s activity, such as chronological tables of events, cannot easily be deformed. Other examples are the persistence of certain religious expressions through long periods and under great deforming pressures. The rejuvenation of myths is a case in point: when an ancient version becomes unintelligibly obsolete a new version, recast in contemporary terms, performs the same old explanatory purposes.

The essential condition of historical knowledge is that the event should be within range, that some signal should prove past existence. Ancient time contains vast durations without signals of any kind that we can now receive. Even the events of then past few hours are sparsely documented, when we consider the ratio of events to their documentation. Prior to 3000 B.C. the texture of transmitted duration disintegrates more and more the farther we go back. Though finite, the total number of historical signals greatly exceeds the capacity of any individual or group   to interpret all the signals in all their meaning. A principle aim of the historian therefore is to condense the multiplicity and the redundancy of his signals by  using various schemes of classification that will spare us the tedium of reliving the sequence in all its instantaneous confusion .  .

For the most part the craft of history is concerned with the elaboration of credible messages upon the simple foundations afforded by primary signals- meaning evidence closest to the event itself- though this may require a great expense of energy for its detection and interpretation (e.g. an archeologist tracing a buried floor level with his assistants spends about the same energy upon reading the signal as the original builders put into the floor in the first instance). More complex messages have widely varying degrees of credibility. Some are fantasies existing in the minds of the interpreters alone. Others are rough approximations to the historical truth, such as those reasonable explanations of myths called euhemerist (holding that many mythological tales can be attributed to historical persons and events, the accounts of which have become altered and exaggerated over time.)

Still other complex messages are probably stimulated by special primary signals of which our understanding is incomplete. These ( such as is found in Spengler and other hypothesis proposed under the rubric of ‘social Darwinism) arise from extended durations and from large units of geography and population; they are complex, dimly perceived signals which have little to do with historical narrative. Only certain new statistical methods come near to detection . . .

The survival of antiquity has perhaps commanded the attention of historians mainly because the classical tradition has been superseded, because it is no longer a live water; because we are now outside it, and not inside it. We care no longer borne by it as in a current upon the sea: it is visible to us from a distance and in perspective only as a major part of the topography of history. By the same token we cannot clearly descry the contours of the great currents of our own time: we are too much inside the streams of contemporary happening to chart their flow and volume. We are confronted with inner and outer historical surfaces. Of these only the outer surfaces of the completed past are accessible to historical knowledge