Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dark Waters by Allen C. Shelton

There is no single palace in which memories are stored. Marc Auge uses the image of the shoreline being built up and washed away by the ocean’s currents to capture the dialectics of remembering and forgetting. The waters dissolve everything but the hardest recollections, which are also shaped to its flow. Oblivion, he writes, is a necessary part of remembering.  Freud chooses an architectural metaphor for the way memories cover the past. He calls them screen memories, borrowed from the elaborate dressing screens that were part of middle-class households in the late 19th century, pointing as well to the new cinema of the 20th.

Walter Benjamin’s exile in Paris accentuated his experience of the great hydraulic achievement of the 19th century, the recession of humanness into pools and lakes at the heart of the commodity that Marx described as fetishized; a dreamworld. As Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism “...concern for outward possessions should sit lightly on the shoulders of the saints ‘like a thin cloak which can be thrown off at any time. But fate decried that the cloak should become as hard as steel.” [Although this poetic prophesy at the end of The Protestant Ethic is an abnormality within the larger essay.]

Michael Taussig sees what could be considered the dialectical double to a dreamworld in what he calls a “culture of terror, a space of death” around the rubber plantations in Colombia. Here the magical world of the commodity is placid with the psychedelic root yage.  Benjamin’s glass and iron structures   are exchanged for vines, stories, and the women of the forest. However misty either world is, stories, commodities and broken hearts move inside the arcades and what Joseph Conrad called the heart of darkness.

Freud conceptualized this uncanny place as an underground network of rivers and streams looking to come through the surface at soft spots, forming a liquid Rome. The vertigo of the uncanny occurs when the seemingly solid gives way to liquid – what Benjamin described as seasickness on dry land. Benjamin’s phrase refers to what he considered the unstable quality of Kafka’s prose and its effect on the reader. Whether he felt it away from the book is unclear. Freud identified this sensation, this imminent overpowering wetness and the loss of footing, as the dead coming back to life. This was the foundation of the uncanny. But neither he nor Benjamin could quite face it.

In conventional sociology, C. Wright Mill’s famous concept of “the sociological imagination” articulates the domestication of a Kafka-like narrator:

Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. The sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: what ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions and their powers are limited to the close-up scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieus, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and threats, which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.

The facts of contemporary history are also facts about the success and the failure of individual men and women. When a society is industrialized, a peasant becomes a worker; a feudal lord is liquidated or becomes a businessman. When classes rise or fall, a man is employed or unemployed; when the rate of investment goes up or down, a man takes new heart or goes broke. When wars happen, an insurance salesman becomes a rocket launcher; a store clerk, a radar man; a wife lives alone; a child grows up without a father.

For an instant Mills sounds like Poe in one of his stories dealing with claustrophobia and premature burial, or Kafka’s character lamenting the endless series of hallways and doors separating him from the Law. It’s just for a second.

A commodity is there in the foreground or lurking in the background of any memory I conjure up. But commodities cool off, come out of the market, get stranded in space and time,  virtually die and are collected into memory palaces surrounded with a different kind of liquid from that which floats active commodities; Andre Breton projected the story of a young woman against the flea markets and the community commodity networks of Paris. Her name is Nadja. She is the tragic gift that is heated and cooled into a surrealist bloom. She appears and then disappears into an arid sanatorium as if she were secondhand furniture from an estate sale.

There was so much silence around Patrik Keim’s work and so much noise around him. His works made me want to talk and write. That might be most easily attributed to my own anxieties rather than others’ inability to grasp what Patrik was up to. I started  going to his shows equipped with a pencil and a notebook. I made specific measurements, pacing off the spatial dimensions of his work. This was my introduction to the allegories of space outside my own world. His work shared certain qualities with Benjamin’s Arcades. It was too suffocating, unreadable, and nonhuman. The human bits left behind were superfluous. Patrik’s art was a different kind of thinking machine. It was a cerebral dumpsite. There were few complete sentences generated. It seemed more attuned to producing incoherent groans and the low moans that could have been the noise underneath his own suicide. Why I could hear these sounds was never discussed. Patrik liked me. He never corrected my translations of his work. Others saw him as a genius. I didn’t share that view. I saw Patrik as a material ventriloquist, skillfully displacing his own horror into found objects and at other times skillfully letting loose the horror trapped inside his collected pieces. He normally reassembled already decaying pieces into a larger decaying assemblage. His art is hard and scattered like an archipelago of volcanic Islands in the Pacific. There is no single place in which the memories are stored. There was just the tides and sand. He was where the North Sea touched Alabama.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Jesus by Allen C. Shelton

Where the North Sea Touches Alabama

After the miracle of the loaves and fishes Jesus sent the disciples on ahead. They would meet at the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They embarked on a fishing boat. Several had been fishermen before following Jesus. A storm came up. The waves were rolling. During the fourth watch of the night Jesus came walking toward them on the surface of the water. Those who saw him thought he was a ghost: on whether the ghost of Jesus or someone else, the Scriptures are silent. Peter called out, “If it is you ,Lord, call me.” He gestured for Peter to meet him on the water.  Peter climbed out of the boat and onto the dark water. Peter’s faith held him for a moment before he wavered and he began to sink underneath the waves. Jesus reached for his hand (Mathew 14:22-33). In the gospel account there are no obvious sea monsters. There is no indication that the boat’s mast and the cross Jesus would be crucified on may have been made of the same kind of wood. Both Jesus and Peter were to be crucified: Jesus on a hill and Peter upside down.

Lazarus was alive again and would die again presumably, though how this second death would unfold is still impossible to decipher. An absolute zero of biographical details is recorded in the Scriptures. Would his second death be more composed since he had glimpsed the other side, like falling asleep or more like freezing to death or drowning, shivering and gulping?

At the last moment before Simon Peter’s death, would the dizziness and vertigo from hanging upside down and looking up at the sky recall for him the rolling of the waves and the same dark sky that he saw sinking beneath the water as he was drowning on dry land?

In the conventional histories of Jesus, the attention is focused on Jesus. The post he is nailed to is omitted. He is the axial point on the map on which everything turns. How deeply the post he is nailed to is screwed into the ground isn’t mentioned. The vultures lazily soaring overhead against the blue sky escape notice. The flies in the wounds aren’t colored in or counted. Various other human actors are noted. The name of the hill is given. But details on the map are scarce.

Bridget of Sweden in a vision enumerated 5,490 wounds on the body of Christ.. When Jesus appeared to Thomas, all these were completely healed except the wound in his abdomen where the centurion’s spear had been thrust. This is where Thomas’s hand was fated to appear. But this miracle was for Thomas alone. Whether the wounds will turn miraculous in my lifetime is uncertain, despite the claims of Jesus’s imminent return

Jesus was a superorganism, not a single entity. A tree was cut down, split with wedges and hammers, shaped with an axe, stuffed into a gaping hole, and then packed with iron rids with rock and dirt to hold it upright. Some commentators see the pole as a descendant from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden. A beetle was crushed underfoot. Sparrows scattered into the air. A mole’s head was splintered. Jesus is the head of one big screw that turns deep into the landscape. A rough-cut pine cross is sinking into the mountain like a splinter into a fat thumb. The whole valley aches with the vibrations on it.

There is talk about appearances of Jesus, miraculous healings, and demonic infestations, reports of satanic rites in the hills that reach all the way to the State police. Charismatic revivals sweep through the local churches.

Among all the tiny pieces of paper scattered across the floor was the memento from my grandmother – the Sunday school lesson she had written on the back of a check listing how all the apostles had met their end. It was a bloody list. Mathew died in Ethiopia. He was killed by the sword. Mark made it to Alexandria to be dragged by horses through the streets. Luke was hanged in Greece. John was boiled in oil but survived. Then he was exiled to a prison in Patmos. Later he was freed and died an old man in Turkey. James was thrown from the southeast corner of the Temple a hundred feet to the ground. Then he was beaten with a fuller’s brush. James, son of Zebedee, was beheaded at Jerusalem. Bartholomew was whipped to death in Armenia. Jude was shot with arrows. Matthias, who replaced Judas, was stoned and then beheaded. Judas hanged himself from the branches of a redbud tree. Andrew was crucified. Thomas the doubter walked into  India spreading the gospel and was never heard of again. Now that check too met its end in Christ’s presence.

It isn’t necessary to see the resurrected Jesus. That’s why the Holy Ghost was sent –to be a comforter and an inspiration. Of the twelve disciples only Thomas immediately recognized the risen Christ, and then only when he was instructed to place his hand in the wound. The others, who loved him, knew him, couldn’t or didn’t see him until he developed in front of their eyes like a photographic negative.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Nietzsche's Pedagogy by Peter Sloterdijk

[ Nietzsche studied the writings of Emerson with great enthusiasm as a young man.]

From a socio-psychological perspective one could define modernity as the impossibility of educating individuals to completion: there are only diplomas; there is no longer maturity. That is why parents and teachers are now systematically “incapable of coping with” their  offspring and pupils – the reason being that the finished world itself, from which the pedagogical labor of conformity was to take its cues, has in turn crumbled as the result of dynamization.  Education as a way of aligning the world and young people is running on empty – and whoever wanted to accept its factual results genuinely as final results would surely be one of those people on whom Nietzsche’s contempt was ignited.

What appears in Nietzsche as an aesthetic Weltanschauung is in truth a potent psychagogic program for a world  time of post-classical strategies for human elevation. It responds to the necessity that modern individuals find themselves under, namely, to transcend the horizon of their prior education. In this context, Nietzsche’s infamous words about the Ubermensch mean nothing other than a challenge to create the auto-plastically self-educating Self as a work of art out of the semi-finished products that mothers and teachers send out into the world.

Strip the elements of genius and religiosity out of the notion of the Ubermensch; replace its incitement to godly individualization and  elitism with Hanswurst (buffoon) - a title to which Nietzsche – the helpless master of the dangerous idea of cultivating humans into something higher -  had himself laid claim, and one can easily discern an idea of world-moving usefulness and urgency: the necessity of lifelong learning, a system of self-education and cultivation, a learning society capable of producing individuals fit for a globalized world in sufficient numbers to solve its impending problems.

The classical kynical* motif of “reminting the coin” was picked up by Nietzsche to set an anti-christian turnaround in motion. It was his reformist dream to trigger a counterrevolution of health against the morbus metaphysicus that had cast its spell on the Western world since the days of Socrates, Paul and Augustine, with all their inhibitions. But anyone who wants to “remint the coin” must rewrite the texts, the Platonic ones no less than those of the New Testament.

Nietzsche’s most important effect likely emanates from his talent of imbuing sacred texts, in serious parodies, with unexpected contrary meanings. He turned old texts into new tunes, and wrote new texts old tunes. His parodistic genius exploded all traditional genres of discoursing in elevated and lowly tones. As a buffo founder of religion, he preached the Sermon on the Mound anew and rewrote the Tablets of Sinai; as anti-Plato he laid out earthly ladders of power and vigor for the soul seeking to rise to something higher.

One may question whether Nietzsche’s rewriting of  texts and redirecting of forces should enjoy universal success. But what remains unfinished and more relevant than ever is the habit of his attempts at reformulating the spirit of moral laws in keeping with the contemporary age.

Perhaps one can learn from Nietzsche’s parodistic art something of the task of writing anew the tablets on which will be inscribed the rules for the survival of the industrious animal homo sapiens. It could turn out that revaluing values and remaining loyal to the earth that amount to the same thing.

* Kynismus: derived from the ancient Greek philosophical tradition founded by Diogenes and representing a countervailing mode of life in both philosophy and action as it sought unity in nature and disrupted the social and ethical mores. By contrast there is the contemporary cynicism expressed in sarcastic beliefs in the power of reason, which thus never fully takes life seriously.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Norman Mailer by Anthony Rudolf

In 1968 Norman Mailer, in what may be his best book, The Armies of the Night, would write about the anti-war march on Washington. The tableaux include a portrait of Robert Lowell, who famously dealt with public issues in his poems and whose appearances in Mailer’s book I wrote about in a previous section. The subtitle is History as a Novel, the Novel as History. The progressive movement was a house with many rooms, in one of which lived James Baldwin, who spoke of ‘the fire next time’, the eponymous title of his incandescent book. In different ways we all believed, as I no longer do, that ‘deep in my heart, we shall overcome some day’. I used to think that Mailer was an old bruiser, and he liked to give that impression, yet, while he packed a punch, at his best he was a surprisingly graceful and subtle writer, think Cassius Clay rather than Mike Tyson.  The only bite Mailer took out of or rather put into your ear was a sound bite, unless you were married to him.

He was an educated emotional intelligence projecting into language the evidence of his (im)pulses. Among his non-fiction books are Cannibals and Christians (where he tells us that the writer he learned most from technically was E.M. Forster) and Advertisements for Myself (an erotic story, The Time of Her Time’,  was omitted from the UK edition). James Baldwin in Nobody Knows My Name concludes an essay on his friend : ‘He has a real vision of ourselves as we are, and it cannot be too often repeated in this country now, that, where there is no vision, the people perish.’ Mailer’s novels on my desk include An American Dream, with its beguiling opening paragraph: “I met Jack Kennedy in November 1946. We were both war heroes, and both of us had just been elected to Congress. We went out one night on a double date and it turned out to be a fair evening for me. I seduced a girl who would have been bored by a diamond as big as the Ritz.’ A rival candidate for the most striking opening paragraph is Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers: ‘It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.’

Silent Conversations; A Reader's Life by Anthony Rudolf