Friday, December 28, 2012

I have long interested in the formative years of modernism in the opening years of the last century.  One significant figure in the modernist pantheon has been the Frenchman Max Jacob (1876-1944).  A poet, artist, and visionary, as well as Pablo PIcasso’s closest friend in his early years, Max Jacob remains the great absent.

That situation may be changing now, with the appearance from Gallimard in Paris of a splendid new edition of his works (Oeuvres, 2012).  This stout volume of some 1800 pages embraces only about half of his production. but that seems enough.  I am looking forward to exploring its contents more fully.

I had previously been familiar with Jacob’s first poetry collection, Le Cornet à dés (or Dice Cup).  At first sight, these pieces disconcert because of their kaleidoscopic shifts from realism, via a kind of jocular humor, to episodes that are clearly visionary.  But now they seem more familiar and accessible.

Max Jacob was also active as an artist.  One can see some good reproductions of his work in the handsome exhibition catalog Max Jacob et Picasso (Paris, 1994).

Of Jewish origin, Max Jacob died tragically in 1944 at the concentration camp of Drancy.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

I am sometimes asked the following question.  If I regard rent control as poor public policy (as I actually do), why do I avail myself of its benefits?  (Of course, the landlord has challenged my right to this--so let’s not tell them about my views.) 

The answer is this.  For decades both political parties have been buying votes to sustain themselves in office.  They do this by subtracting money and benefits from the community as a whole, and channeling them to their favored client groups.  This means that less and less is being left in the pool to be shared in the outer precincts in which the unfavored dwell, either through ignorance or inability to extract themselves from their situation.

Should one voluntarily consign oneself to this group with its ever-shrinking prospects, or should one join in the largess that is being provided by the process I noted above?  The answer is obvious.  Libertarianism is not a suicide pact.
The other day a friend and I engaged in a discussion about the ending of Ibsen’s famous play, “Ghosts.”  I quoted it as I had (mis)remembered it.  Fortunately, though, I have a set of Ibsen’s works in the original, and was able to correct myself by that means.  Please don’t write me in Norwegian, though, as my knowledge only suffices to make out existing texts, not to converse in the language.

Quite a while back, as an aid to language learning, I picked up the habit of acquiring the texts of such major authors as Cervantes and Rabelais in the original. These virtuosos of language employ effects that no translation can capture.  In addition, for some authors I have texts in three or more languages.  For example, I possess Don Quixote in Spanish, English, French, and German.  Every translation is, after all, an interpretation.

Just as an exercise, I decided to assemble a kind of Pantheon of authors I have in at least three languages.  Here is the list:  the Daodejing; Homer; the Pre-Socratics; Aeschylus; Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes; Plutarch; Plotinus; Dante; Rabelais and Cervantes; Hölderlin; Ezra Pound and Walter Benjamin.  Notice the predominance of Greek authors, which probably reflects the fact that I do not read Greek with ease. Pound and Benjamin are certainly an odd couple.  The winner is Dante’s Divine Comedy, which I have in five languages (not to mention various commentaries and monographs on the writer).   Missing from the lists are Shakespeare and Goethe, because I have their works in only two languages.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Some will ask, reasonably enough, what I have been doing lately. I confess that I  have been spending a lot of time on Facebook, which can be addictive.  The silver lining is that I have reconnected with some old friends through that means.

In addition, I have started work on a book-length project--actually something I laid aside twenty years ago to write other things, some of which are posted on Blogger.  This project attempts a comprehensive conspectus of all the motifs or memes which have been used to disparage same-sex behavior.  One might have that though that this rubbish had now been retired to the ash heap of history, where it belongs.  But the memes keep recurring, zombie-like.  Anyway, here is the outline:

Homonegative Memes


Sex is for procreation only
“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”  (heterosexual pairing is implicit in the Creation story)
Abomination (to’ebah; of uncertain meaning)
Homosexual acts are inherently sinful (“God hates fags”)--Leviticus prohibition; Pauline critique
Diabolically inspired
Heresy (and buggery)
Medieval death of Sodomites legend
Not to be mentioned (apophasis); taboo
Provokes earthquakes and other disasters; cf. Sodom story
Threat to the survival of the human race (Philo)


A purely human vice--animals don’t do it
Argument from design (penis fits vagina)
Pathological (the disease model)
Spreads other diseases (e.g. STDs; AIDS)
Results from hormonal imbalance or other constitutional factors
A Darwinian anomaly


“Against the law,” plain and simple--Roman law; common law; sharia law
Associated with other types of criminality
Faggot-burning legend
Decadence (destroyed ancient Rome)
Maintaining social cohesion requires outgroups  to be stigmatized  (Durkheim)
Equated with child abuse and pedophilia
Usury and debasement of sterling coin of nature (cf, Lombards in England)
Foreign importation (ethnophaullism)
Not indigenous to the healthy Third World--a vice of the decadent West
Gynecophobia (flight from women, denying natural complementarity) and simple indifference to female charms (privative argument); fear of the vagina
Aristocratic vice
Conspiracy (the “homintern”)
Recruiting imperative
Homosexuals demand “special rights”
Gay marriage a threat to “true” marriage
Threat to unit cohesion in the military
Inherently repellent--causes disgust in normal people


Inversion and effeminacy
A mere preference
Acting out and exhibitionism (as in gay-pride parades)
Close-binding mother
Failure to assume duty to procreate and raise children
Gay marriage a threat to “true” marriage
Abjection and lack of self-respect
Grudge gathering (“victimology 101”)
Self-indulgent and hedonistic
Mental disorder leading to poor functioning
Gerbil legend

Friday, December 14, 2012

Not often performed nowadays, The Wild Duck (1884) is one of the most stimulating of the later dramas of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.  In my view, its most challenging aspect is Ibsen’s analysis of the role of the life-lie in individual and social psychology. More on this below, The plot of the play is complicated. and I recount only a portion of it here.

The first act opens with a dinner party hosted by Håkon Werle, a wealthy merchant and industrialist. The gathering is attended by his son, Gregers Werle, who has just returned home following a self-imposed exile. There he learns the fate of a former classmate, Hjalmar Ekdal. Hjalmar married Gina, a young servant in the Werle household. The elder Werle had arranged the match by providing Hjalmar with a home and profession as a photographer. Gregers, whose mother died believing that Gina and her husband had carried on an affair, is horrified by the thought that his old friend is living a life built on a lie.

The remaining four acts take place in Hjalmar Ekdal's home, where Gregers has gone. The Ekdals seem to be enjoying a life of cozy domesticity. Hjalmar's father makes a living doing odd copying jobs for Werle. Hjalmar himself runs a busy portrait studio out of his home. In addition to keeping house, Gina helps him with the business. They both dote on their daughter Hedvig. Hjalmar tells Gregers that Hedvig is both his greatest joy and greatest sorrow, because she is slowly losing her eyesight. The family eagerly reveals a loft where they keep various animals like rabbits and pigeons. Most prized is a wild duck they rescued.

Gregers decides to rent a spare room in the Ekdal residence. The following day, he begins to realize that there are more lies hanging over the Ekdals than Gina's affair with his father. Gina explains that Hjalmar keeps Hedvig from attending school because of her eyesight, but he has no time to tutor her, leaving the girl to escape into imaginary worlds through pictures she sees in books. During their conversation, Gregers hears shots in the attic, and the family explains that Old Ekdal entertains himself by hunting rabbits and birds in the loft, and Hjalmar often joins in the hunts. The activity helps the senior Ekdal to cling to his former life as a hunter. Hjalmar also speaks of his forthcoming “great invention,” which he never specifies. It is related to photography, and he is confident that it will enable him to pay off his debts to Werle, finally making himself and his family independent. In order to progress on his invention, he often needs to lie down on the couch and ponder it.

Doctor Relling, a family friend, reveals that he long ago implanted the idea of the invention in Hjalmar's mind as a "life-lie" to keep him from giving in to despair.  The idealistic Gregers, his polar opposite, strongly disagrees with this approach: he believes that people are better off when they discard illusions.  Yet the Ekdal family has achieved a tolerable modus vivendi by ignoring the skeletons in the closet (among the secrets: Gregers' father may have impregnated his servant Gina then married her off to Hjalmar to legitimize the child; and Hjalmar's father has been disgraced and imprisoned for a crime the elder Werle committed).  This implicit understanding enables each member to live in a dreamworld of his own—the feckless father believing himself to be a great inventor; the grandfather dwelling on the past when he was a mighty sportsman; and little Hedvig, the child, centering her emotional life around an attic where a wounded wild duck leads a crippled existence in a make-believe forest.

It would seem that the obvious remedy would be to face facts, to speak frankly, to let in the light. However, in this play the revelation of the truth is not a happy event because it rips up the foundation of the Ekdal family. Once the skeletons are brought out of the closet, the whole dreamworld collapses; the weak husband thinks it is his duty to leave his wife; and the little girl, after trying to sacrifice her precious duck, shoots herself with the same gun (having overheard the fatal words from Hjalmar: "Would she lay down her life for me?").

The cynical doctor Relling, who fostered and maintained the lies the family is founded on, offers a telling observation: "Deprive the average human being of his life-lie, and you rob him of his happiness.”

The doctrine of the life-lie is a hard truth to embrace, especially for thinking persons who pride themselves on having labored long and hard to expunge such illusions from their own consciousness.  For as long as Western civilization, probably any civilization, has existed, a central component of critical thinking has been this tenacious effort to escape from illusions, however much they may seem to promise immediate comfort. 

For a long time I sought to trace the origin of the insidious but probably necessary concept of the life-lie.  Something similar is found in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, though he too ends up with the counsel that it is best to renounce such fantasies.

I have now found the answer to my quest in a most surprising text, the Republic of Plato.  How can that be, one asks, since Plato created such a powerful image of the dangers of ignorance and illusion in the parable of the Cave?  Wasn’t Plato always firmly opposed to lying?  Well, not always.  Plato insists that the Guardians, his ideal rulers, must be allowed to promulgate “Noble Lies” among the masses in order to control them.  Indeed, it is their obligation to muster this device in the interest of the overall good of the commonwealth.  The Greek philosopher specifically compares the administration of such falsehoods to a physician giving out medicine (compare Dr. Relling in Ibsen’s play).  Needless to say, this privilege is not universally granted.  The Guardians should not lie among themselves, and of course the lower orders must be taught not to lie.  (See Republic, 382c-d, 389b-d,  459c-e).

Following the example of breeding livestock, Plato advocated eugenics for human beings.  In his ideal state the lower orders must be discouraged from having children by restricting their access to sex.  Publicly, these unfortunates will be told that the right to have intercourse is randomly assigned by lot.  In reality, though, the Guardians control the access by secret conclave. The lot notion is a Noble Lie.  These ideas are revolting, to be sure.  Yet they also illustrate the fact that Plato--especially in The Republic--is a polyphonic thinker, advocating one principle at one point and a contrasting one at another.  His favored use of the dialogue form fostered this seeming cognitive dissonance.

Postscript.  A reader has kindly informed me of a recent offshoot of The Wild Duck on American television:

Sunday, December 09, 2012

La Belle France, the US, and Me

Long a dedicated traveler, I have made many trips to France--not just to Paris but to the French provinces where I savor the varied landscape and character. 

This commitment is also enacted long-distance.  I started reading French books--at first classics and novels, now increasingly nonfiction--in high school.  In those days, and still now to a large degree, I was fascinated by literary modernism.  To understand this vast and fundamental phenomenon one must immerse oneself in the works of Balzac, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Huysmans, Proust, and Apollinaire.  Today, in my retirement, I have kept up the practice of poring over these books, a habit which affords countless hours of pleasure and instruction. 

Professionally, there has been another reason for the commitment.  As a medieval art historian, my main focus has been on France, the pivotal country in those distant days.  In terms of scholarship, though, French medieval art historiography has been a bit thin on the ground.  There are, by my estimate, only four leading figures: Emile Mâle, Henri Focillon, André Gabar, and Louis Grodecki (the latter two of Russian and Polish origin, respectively). 

To be candid, Franco-American relations have not always run smooth.  For their part, middle Americans, dwelling in the heartland in a broad arc stretching from Pittsburgh to Fresno, have long been distrustful of the French--an attitude encapsulated in the recent satirical image of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”  In their own fashion, French traditionalists return the complement in their disdain for Americans and “Anglo-Saxons” in general.  They resent the perceived displacement of France from its leading position in the world by a cabal of English speakers. It was a Frenchman, I believe, who once said that America is the only country that has advanced from barbarism to decadence, without the intervening stage of civilization.  (See the thorough account of Philippe Roger, The American Enemy, Chicago, 2005).

The main part of this paper addresses the major phases of the American reception of French thought in recent decades.

I start with the following prologue.  As a kid, on August 25, 1944  I opened a California newspaper which had a full-page ad placed by a local department store celebrating the liberation of Paris.  For this commercial firm, and I suspect for many Americans, France meant luxury products: fashion, cosmetics, and perfumes.  Of course, our major universities harbored specialists in French literature and history, but these professionals caused scarcely a ripple outside.  In fact the last French thinker to have an impact on the English-speaking world was Henri Bergson, now sadly neglected.  Although Bergson lived until 1941, his influence here peaked in the 1920s.  Yet this situation was soon to change.


1.  The existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and his colleagues had a significant impact in North America.  With the war over, observers on these shores were relieved to learn the Hitler’s barbarism had not succeeded in extinguishing intellectual life, for it was springing to life in anew in France.  Even though Sartre was typically and ineradicably French, his idea of self-creation (as advanced in his little book L'Existentialisme est un humanisme) appealed to the American fixation on self-reliance.  At the time we did not know about the French philosopher’s ambivalent role in the Occupation, nor were we acquainted with the fact that his main source of inspiration was the sinister German thinker Martin Heidegger.

Alongside the intellectual interest in Existentialism, the US produced a popular variant, one that was largely media driven.  This subculture was populated by long-haired individuals of indeterminate gender, wearing turtle-neck sweaters and with questionable hygiene.  Typically, they lived in dark, dank basements illuminated with candles.  With their hippie cousins these so-called Existentialists shared a love of jazz (an enthusiasm that was fortunately sanctioned by reputable French authorities).

[1a.  A lesser current, contemporaneous with the former, was the Neo-Catholicism advocated by Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa.  During the war the couple had taken refuge in Princeton University.  This intellectual trend interfaced with the message of a popular television personality, Mgr. Fulton J. Sheen.  Even non-Catholics were sympathetic, responding to a widespread notion that the West needed its own ideology to combat godless Communism.  For those drawn to the intellectual side of the Catholic revival, though, the ponderous works of Thomas Aquinas proved a hard nut to crack.  They were also a hard sell, for Scholasticism was simply not compatible with the modern world.]

2.  The next wave of French influence was that of Structuralism.  At first mainly of interest to anthropologists, the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss began to attract a larger public in the English-speaking world in the early 1960s through translations.  In fact Lévi-Strauss had lived in New York City during the war, and continued to make use of American ethnological reports.  Despite the homophobia he displayed in his memoir Tristes Tropiques, to this day I derive inspiration from some of his works.  Yet his magnum opus, the four-volume blockbuster Mythologiques is clearly a failure.

Michel Foucault came a little later.  I first read Les Mots et les choses not long after it appeared in 1966.  This work, generically structuralist, was followed shortly thereafter by L’archéologie du savoir.  In their turn these tomes preceded his three-volume work on the history of sexuality, which has had such an influence on gay scholarship in this country.

Over time several two key defects came to be recognized in Structuralism.  First was its overreliance on binarisms, including such contrasts as male-female, odd-even and so forth.  This tendency reflected the linguistic model found in the earlier works of Ferdinand de Saussure and others.  Second was the emphasis on static systems (“structures”).  This commitment to analyzing synchronic wholes hobbled any effort to understand change over time.  If the structures identified were coherent and complete in themselves, why should they suffer any alteration?

In fact Structuralism itself was to be subjected to intense pressure for change.

3.  The bombshell came in a paper delivered by Jacques Derrida at a conference held at Johns Hopkins University in 1966.  This intervention and Derrida’s later writings laid the foundation for the Post-Structuralist wave.  The new trend attacked the sovereignty of binaries by focusing on slippage, a process whereby one pole of a contrast can morph into its opposite. The distrust of fixed categories enshrined in Post-Structuralism made it seem intellectually innovative, even revolutionary, satisfying the long-standing appetite among the young for revolt.  Yet the scope of this revolt was limited, for it quickly became evident that Post-Structuralism had no convincing political doctrine or message.  For many adherents that lack was not a problem, for the sublimation of the revolutionary impulse into a supposed revaluation of all values sufficed.  Queer Theory is often regarded as an aspect of Post-Structuralism.

Broadly speaking, the tendency overlaps with Postmodernism.  Postmodernism has seeped into many disciplines, including religious studies, literary criticism, sociology, ethics and morality, linguistics, architecture, the visual arts, historiography, legal studies, politics, international relations, anthropology, and music. Quite a megilla. Despite its protean reach, Postmodernism, and its twin, Post-Structuralism, are now in decline.


In all this variety some enduring qualities of the French intellectual style emerge.  At their best French thinkers and scholars advance bold conjectures. Some of these are plausible, while others amount to little more to rhetoric, hot air in short.  Oftentimes it is hard to tell the difference because little empirical evidence is provided.  Such citations as are found are often faulty, a particular problem with foreign works.  The latter tend to be noted pro forma only, suggesting that the writer has made no real effort to grapple with the content.

This provincialism has been sustained by the centralization of French intellectual life in Paris.  This concentration makes it easy to spread ideas, but hard to dislodge them when they have become settled.

For their part French publishers seem generally to skip fact-checking, so that errors committed by their authors pass into print without challenge.

For a long time French books have been plagued by faulty production standards.  All too common were (and regrettably still are, though to a lesser extent) flimsy paperbacks printed on bad paper and poorly bound so that they come apart unless handled with great care.

Still, once all the reservations have been taken into account, the sustained vigor of the “French invasion” is remarkable.  As a rule Americans are more likely to learn French than either German or Italian. By itself, though, this fact cannot account for French preeminence.  After the war Germany and Italy underwent intense Americanization, so that they left with little distinctive to export.  Matters were different in France. Sometimes truculently, sometimes reasonably, the French sought to retain their cultural independence.  As a result they had a good deal to offer.  To be sure, Italy developed important fashion and film industries, but these endeavors did not generally foster the germination and transmission of ideas.  The French culture industry did.

I must not close this discussion without noting a major exception to the strictures noted above.  That is the work of French historians.

In 1984-92  Pierre Nora edited a monumental work of seven volumes addressing the loci memoriae of France, entitled Les lieux de mémoire.  What are such sites, or realms, of memory?

"A lieu de mémoire is any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community (in this case, the French community)" (Nora 1996: xvii)

In other words, sites of memory are "where [cultural] memory crystallizes and secretes itself" (Nora 1989: 7). These include:

    •    places such as archives, museums, cathedrals, palaces, cemeteries, and memorials;
    •    concepts and practices such as commemorations, generations, mottoes, and all rituals;
    •    objects such as inherited property, commemorative monuments (see image right), manuals, emblems, basic texts, and symbols.

Nora believes, however, that sites of memory are not common in all cultures. In fact they are pretty much exclusively a phenomenon of our modern age. Sites of memory replace a “real”  living memory
which survived for millennia by oral tradition, but now has disappeared. In Nora's view, a constructed history replaces memory as such.  In this view, sites of memory are artificial, and deliberately fabricated. They exist to help us recall the past – which is perhaps necessary in order to make living in the modern world meaningful.

The purpose of sites of memory is "to stop time, to block the work of forgetting", and they all share "a will to remember" (Nora 1989: 19). Nora maintains that his definition of sites of memory excludes prehistoric and archaeological sites, since what makes them "important as sites is often precisely what ought to exclude them from being lieux de mémoire: the absolute absence of a will to remember and, by way of compensation, the crushing weight imposed on them by time, science, and the dreams of men" (1989: 20f.).

Thursday, December 06, 2012

A major shift in the art world has been the supplanting of Pablo Picasso as THE artist of the 20th century by Marcel Duchamp. This displacement yielded the "Duchamp effect." A similar shift (the "Caravaggio effect"?) puts that artist ahead of Michelangelo among the Italian masters. Once upon a time, Vermeer and El Greco were shrouded in obscurity. Then they too experienced their effect-epiphany. 
To what extent is this model applicable in other fields?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

In a rather negative review of Salman Rushdie's recent Memoir of his years in hiding, Zoe Heller nonetheless highlights an important evolution in the novelist's thinking regarding the religion of his birth. In an interview given in 1995 Rushdie endorsed the familiar exculpatory view common in liberal circles, namely that there is a bright-line separating Islamism (Muslim extremism and fundamentalism--bad) and Islam itself (good), Now, it seems, he no longer adheres to this consoling rationale, regarding any efforts to separate reactionary forms of Islam from Islam itself as dishonest and wrong. They are, he suggests, embarrassing corollaries of the old attempts by Western Marxists to separate "genuine" Marxism from the horrors of Soviet Communism. Now he has concluded that Islam is not after all a heterogeneous or pluralistic congeries, but a monolith, and a dangerous one.  I tend to agree.
At all events, for an interim report on the Heller-Rushdie controversy, see:

Monday, December 03, 2012

On setting out for my weekly visit to that incredible art emporium, the Metropolitan Museum, I am inevitably struck by what Camille Paglia left out. Yet did one really expect a potted history of art from this always idiosyncratic, opinionated, and fascinating writer?
‘Glittering Images,’ by Camille Paglia