Friday, December 06, 2013
Christianity is, essentially and fundamentally, the embodiment of disgust and antipathy for life, merely disguised, concealed, got up as the belief in an 'other' life, or a 'better' life. Hatred of the world, the condemnation of the emotions, the fear of beauty and sensuality, a transcendental world invented the better to slander this one, basically a yearning for non-existence, for repose until the 'sabbath of sabbaths' - all of this, along with Christianity's unconditional resolve to acknowledge only moral values, struck me as the most dangerous and sinister of all possible manifestations of a 'will to decline', at the very least, a sign of the most profound affliction, fatigue, sullenness, exhaustion, impoverishment of life.
Monday, November 25, 2013
In the opening chapter of his ground-defining book The Symbolist Movement in Literature, the Edwardian critic and poet Arthur Symonds quotes this dictum from Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution: It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works and has his being. First published in 1837 – only 40 years after the events it depicts- and around the same time that Ranke and Comte were trying to establish history as a more scientific discipline, with an underlying theory and a rigorous methodology, Carlyle’s History occupies an ambiguous position in historiography today.
On the one hand, Carlyle’s work is still cited as a source in the most up-to-date studies of the Revolution. It’s a must-go-to text for students of the period. On the other, there are those who argue that Carlyle’s methods and project are not empirical enough; that his high-flown, epic, symbolic style undermines any scientific contribution the work might make for an objective understanding of the Revolution. Modern academic historians have done much to lay open the economic causes of the Revolution, studying tax returns and harvest yields etc, while Marxists have given us a framework for understanding the underlying political and structural causes. Against this kind of academic, objective approach, Carlyle’s work reads more naively, more like a novel, or an epic of Revolution, and less like a serious scientific study.
But to hold this view is to miss the point Carlyle is trying to make about history, and to be blind to the very sophisticated awareness the work displays of the difficulties inherent in doing history. And not to read Carlyle is to miss out on the pleasure of encountering one of the greatest works in English of the 19th century.
The French Revolution may be regarded as a prototype of Symbolist literature, a non-fictional Symbolist work avant la lettre. This Symbolism is present in the work in at least two ways: in the theory of history that underpins the text, and in the text itself, the historiography.
1. A symbolic theory of history
Men do what they were wont to do, and have immense irresolution and inertia; they obey him who has the symbols that claim obedience.
As Symonds noted, Carlyle sees man’s propensity to create and interpret symbols and signs as the defining essence of man and fact of history: Man, by nature of him, is definable as ‘an incarnated word’, or in other words, man is a symbol-making creature. His allegiance to or rejection of symbols is held by Carlyle to be a chief driving force of history because it’s man’s adherence to or rejection of symbols that provides the strongest and highest motivation for his actions: Of man's whole terrestrial possessions and attainments, unspeakably the noblest are his Symbols, divine or divine-seeming, under which he marches and fights, with victorious assurance, in this real life-battle: what we can call his Realised Ideals. Carlyle sees history as the operation of various forces, not economic or political as modern academic historians do, but symbolic forces. This is how, for example, Carlyle explains the astonishing victories of the French Revolutionary army against much stronger, much better supplied and organized forces of the Coalition; that the French were fighting for a symbol, for their Revolution, and that it was the motivating power of this symbol, greater than the motivating power of the enemy’s symbols – Monarchy, Order, Conservatism- which led them to victory.
Carlyle describes the whole movement of the Revolution, from the early revolt against feudalism in the late 1780s to its capture by the reactionary and largely bourgeois Directory in 1795, in terms of a gradual movement between various symbols, a movement away from the symbols of Aristocracy of Feudal Parchment to an Aristocracy of the Moneybag. He comments: Fleur de lys had become an insupportably bad marching banner, and needed to be torn and trampled, but Moneybag of Mammon (for that, in these times, is what the respectable Republic for the Middle Classes will signify) is a still worse, while it lasts, and he calls this last symbol: the worst and basest of all banners, and symbols of dominion among men.
At the same time Carlyle is aware of the internal growth and decay of symbols, both as entities in themselves, and of the waxing and waning power of symbols to motivate men and hold society together. Of the former he writes: The Truth that was yesterday a restless problem, has today grown a Belief burning to be uttered; on the morrow contradiction has exasperated it into mad Fanaticism, obstruction has dulled it into sick Inertness; it is sinking towards Silence, of satisfaction or of resignation, marking stages in a symbol’s evolution from an intellectual problem – a truth-, to a belief, to a fanaticism, to an inertness, to a silence. Of the latter he writes how symbols can be exhausted, becoming in effect empty lies or shams, which need to be overthrown. Indeed, he sees this overthrowing of empty symbols and the creation of new ones as another motivating factor in history generally, and in the French Revolution in particular, contrasting the lies of religion under the Old Regime, for example, with the reality of hunger: Behold, ye appear to us to be altogether a Lie. Yet our Life is not a Lie, yet our Hunger and Misery is not a Lie! Symbols can also be emptied of their mysterious content and power to become mere ‘Formulas’, by which Carlyle means abstract ideas such as Constitution, Justice and so on. Carlyle sees history as the interaction between these formulas and reality: What strength, were it only of inertia, there is in established Formulas, what weakness in nascent Realities. In the text, Robespierre is the representative of such formulas, while Danton is the embodiment of reality: with what terror of feminine hatred the poor seagreen Formula looked at the monstrous colossal Reality, and grew greener to behold him. Symbols for Carlyle, then, can also operate in the realm of history as shams, lies, formulas.
Carlyle’s view of the importance of symbols in the processes of history is a corollary of his wider theory of history. Carlyle sees the universe as a chthonic ocean of forces, innumerable and ineluctable, internal and external. Our whole Universe is but an infinite Complex of Forces; thousandfold, from Gravitation up to Thought and Will. Every event in history is the result of an action, and an action is the product and expression of exerted Force. Similarly, each person is a nexus of such forces, so that when men come together to make history, as they did in the Constituent Assembly and the National Convention, the number of forces and the interactions between these forces become necessarily so complex that no objective science can hope to fathom them:
Every reunion of men, is it not, as we often say, a reunion of incalculable Influences; every unit of it a microcosm of Influences, of which how shall Science calculate or Prophesy! Science, which cannot, with all its calculuses, differential, integral and of variations, calculate the Problem of the Three gravitating Bodies, ought to hold her peace here, and say only: In this National Convention there are Seven Hundred and Forty Nine very singular Bodies, that gravitate and do much else, who probably in an amazing manner will work the appointment of Heaven.
For Carlyle, the enormous complexities of history are not something which a scientific, empirical method alone can deal with; they require, in addition, comprehension by a symbolic, historical imagination.
Space precludes us here from entering into a fuller discussion of the interaction between Carlyle’s view of history and his historical methods with those trends that were developing concurrently in Germany under von Ranke. We can say, however, that Carlyle, a student of German culture, was aware of them, and that his symbolic view of history, when contrasted with von Ranke’s more empirical view, is not so naïve as it sounds. Carlyle’s work, like von Ranke’s, was grounded in close readings of contemporary documents, including letters, diaries, contemporary newspaper articles, memoires – including those of Goethe’s, whom he quotes at length- , as well as trial transcripts, minutes of the proceedings of the Jacobin Club and the other various assemblies that met during the course of the Revolution.
Having looked at Carlyle’s symbolic theory of history, we turn now to symbolism in the text itself.
2. Symbolic historiography
Man is a born idol worshipper, sight worshipper.
In his text Carlyle uses various key words to stand for a particular nexus of historical forces. Von Ranke warned against this because he thought that the use of such key terms –leading ideas - circumscribed the historical reality behind them; he believed that the complexities of an historical event cannot be characterized by the recurring use of only one term or idea. But Carlyle, by giving these words capital letters, in effect turns them into symbols, naming them, and thereby allowing the reader, a symbol loving creature, to see them. It is thus, however, that History and indeed all human Speech and Reason does yet, what Father Adam began life by doing: strive to name the Things it sees of Nature’s producing – often helplessly enough.
For example, the origin of the Revolution he sees as arising from the interaction of the two forces which he names ‘Prurience’, and ‘Effervescence’. The pre-Revolutionary scene was ripe with ‘Prurience’ – a word that in the 1830s meant a mental itching or craving, as well as propensity towards lewdness. He traces how this manifested itself both in the corrosive ideas of the Philosophes and Enlightenment thought; in the increased focus on pleasure in the life of the court, which created an unbridgeable gulf between rulers and ruled as well as putting an unsustainable strain on the nation’s finances; and in the scandal sheets and erotica which circulated freely in Paris in the late 18th century, engravings featuring the Queen in lesbian orgies and so on. Acting as spark to this gunpowder is ‘Effervescence’, which he describes as the propensity in the Gallic character for the sudden eruption, for the passionate gesture, for noise and fuliginous fury. Carlyle ascribes the various revolts that happened throughout France in the terms of ‘Effervescence’, noting, in his account of the sugar riots in Paris in the summer of 1792, for example, how the secret courses of civic business and existence effervesce and effloresce, in this manner, as a concrete Phenomenon to the eye. In the text, ‘Prurience’ and ‘Effervescence’ become symbols of two forces whose interaction was the tinder and spark of the Revolution.
Symbolism in the discourse also appears in a number a recurring devices, such as the extended and repeated similes or metaphors Carlyle employs for the Revolution itself: a sand palace disappearing into a whirlwind, a fireship sinking with all hands. Another device is the repeated epithet, which accompanies the names of the key figures of the Revolution -like Homer’s heroes - to remind the reader who they are: Robespierre is always seagreen, Huguenin ever has the tocsin in his heart, Maillard is always the famed leader of the Menads…
Carlyle knows that the reader is a person in history just as much under the influence of symbols as the personages in his history of the Revolution are. Man, with his singular imaginative faculties, can do little or nothing without signs, which is one of the reasons why he employs a symbolic, epic, novelistic mode of transmission of events, a mode that is intensely visual. Throughout the text there is a discourse field of words associated with light: vision, seeing, focus, shining as well as their antonyms: murk, shadow, obscurity. This discourse field forms the underlying metaphor of the whole work. Visualisation as a narrative strategy is constantly foregrounded and brought to the reader’s attention: In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing. …. Let the reader here in this sick room of Louis, endeavor to look with the mind too. At other times, Carlyle will select one of the participants in a historical event, and use him as a focaliser for the reader to visualize what is going on: Let the Reader look with the eyes of Valet Clery, through these glass doors, where also the Municipality watches……Visualisation itself is even symbolized in the text. Carlyle’s term for the Court of the Ancien Regime is L’ Oeil de Boeuf, which is a symbol of an eye, as well as a description of the shape of the window in the chamber in Versailles where the Court met.
This visual aspect of the work also applies to the wonderful verbal portraits Carlyle gives of the various personages of the Revolution; and it’s probably best to just give a selection here:
Shining though such soil and tarnish, and now victorious effulgent and oftenest struggling, eclipsed, the light of genius itself is in this man, which was never yet base and hateful, but at worst was lamentable and loveable with pity.
Him mark, judicious Reader. … hot metal, full of scoriae, which should and could have been smelted out, but which will not. He has wandered over the terraqueous planet seeking, one may say, the Paradise we lost long ago.
Marat is no phantasm of the brain, or mere lying impress of Printer’s Types, but a thing material, of joint and sinew, and a certain small stature: ye behold him there, in his blackness in his dingy squalor, a living fraction of Chaos and Old Night, visibly incarnate, desirous to speak…
Visualisation is not simply a narrative or discoursive strategy, however, but one that is closely allied to Carlyle’s method of selecting and analyzing material. He imagines himself as a kind of all-knowing historical Eye, which roams above the scenes and, like a camera, picks out salient ones for the reader to visualise:
Which event successively is the cardinal one; and from what point of vision it may best be surveyed; this is a problem. Which problem the best insight, seeking light from all possible sources, shifting its point of vision whithersoever vision or glimpse of vision can be had, may employ itself in solving; and be well content to solve in some tolerably approximate way.
3. Language and history
Men’s words are but a poor exponent of their thought; nay their thought itself is a poor exponent of the inward unnamed Mystery, wherefrom both thought and action have their birth. No man can explain himself, can get himself explained; men see not one another but distorted phantasms which they call one another.
Modern historiographers aspire towards a transparency of text, in which the information presented is not obscured by the means used to convey the information, i.e.: the language. They work under the assumption that language is capable of being a servant of meaning; this is the assumption underlying von Ranke’s famous dictum, that history must simply show wie es eigentlich gewesen ist – what actually happened. Carlyle’s historiography is entirely different, because Carlyle, as a supreme linguistic artist, is under no illusion that language is not also the creator of meaning, that it can ever be totally transparent and objective because words have subjective meanings as well as objective ones: What these two words: French Revolution may mean; for, strictly considered, they may have as many meanings as there are speakers of them. Language has only an arbitrary, symbolic relationship to the things it denotes – here Carlyle follows Locke -, which means that pure objectivity of description is impossible. This extends even to the grammatical choices available to the historiographer. In a brilliant insight Carlyle writes how the use of the past simple tense radically impinges our view of what is being described by the way the tense omits certain factors present in reality: For indeed it is a most lying thing, that same Past Tense always: so beautiful, sad, almost Elysian-sacred, ‘in the moonlight of Memory’, it seems and seems only. For observe: always one most important element is surreptitiously (we not noticing it) withdrawn from the Past Time: the haggard element of Fear!
Because words have ultimately a symbolic relationship to the things they signify, the historical work au fond also has a symbolic relationship to the history it describes. Indeed the whole text is symbolically described as a tapestry, a tissue, a weaving; and this textual weaving is emblematic of the wider weaving of the symbolic forces operating in historical reality: Story and tissue, faint ineffectual Emblem of that grand Miraculous Tissue and Living Tapestry named the French Revolution, which did weave itself then in very fact, ‘on the loud-sounding ‘Loom of Time’! As personages disappear from history, so they also disappear as characters from the text: The brave Bouille too, then vanishes from the tissue of our Story. The historical work is not only a description of history, but also a symbol of it.
One of the considerable pleasures of reading the book comes from Carlyle’s prose, which is at times lofty, at other times facetious. One of the very greatest prose stylists of the language, Carlyle’s sentences everywhere display an acute awareness of rhythm and sound: ‘Worn out with disgusts’ Captain after Captain in Royalist Moustachious, mounts his warhorse, or his Rozinante war-garron and rides minatory across the Rhine, till all have ridden, he writes of the first Emigration. He is the master of the dramatic scene, as well as the pithy historical epigram. Of Robespierre’s attempt to found a new religion in the Festival of the Supreme Being in June 1794, for example, he writes: Mumbo is mumbo, and Robespierre is his prophet. Wise wigs wag, he writes of the diplomatic storm in Europe created by the Declaration of the Rights of Man; Condorcet is described as mouton enrage, and of Mirabeau’s crucial decision to side with the Third Estate in the meeting of the Estates General with which the Revolution begins, he writes: Mirabeau stalks forth into the Third Estate.
Von Ranke wrote: To history has been assigned the office of judging the past. In his 1820 work Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, Carlyle wrote: History is as perfect as the Historian is wise and is gifted with an eye and a soul. Carlyle displays enormous wisdom and soul in the judgments he makes, not only of the personages and events of the French Revolution, but more generally about the unfolding processes of living history itself. An example of the former is the assessment he gives of the vacuous and phlegmatic King Louis XVI, surely one of the stupidest men to ever warm a throne with his buttocks: Thy whole existence seems one hideous abortion and mistake of Nature; the use of meaning of thee not yet known. Of the latter, here are some examples of epigrams Carlyle turns out on a range of topics:
Money itself is a standing miracle.
All available Authority is mystic in its conditions and comes ‘by grace of God’.
How beautiful is noble sentiment, like gossamer gauze, beautiful and cheap; which will stand no tear and wear!
Famously, the first volume was put into the fire by a chambermaid, who thought it was simply waste paper, and Carlyle had to write the whole thing again from memory, which would have defeated lesser men. The French Revolution, thus, stands as a symbol of one man’s titanic endeavor, as well as a description of a people’s struggle to change their world for the better.
Man, symbol of Eternity imprisoned into Time! It is not thy works which are all mortal, infinitely little, and the greatest no greater than the least, but only the Spirit thou workest in, that can have worth or continuance.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
He seemed to me then the very archetype of a romantic. His appearance, his blazing, indeed fanatical artistic zeal, his intensity, his grotesque humour all struck me as the incarnation of one of ETA Hoffmann's fantasy figures. His incomparably passionate concentration while rehearsing and conducting, forever reminding me of his fantastical forerunner, Kreisler, made such an impression that I wholly forgot that he made room in his life for other activities and that his name had first struck me as a composer....
Bruno Walter on Mahler...
Bruno Walter on Mahler...
Drawing by Hoffman
Silhouette by Otto Bohler
Tuesday, October 08, 2013
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Love has been written and sung about since our species first learned to produce language, and its effects on the emotions, the heart, the personality and the body have been studied, recorded, analysed and celebrated from the dawn of history. What interests Barthes more than these however, is the effect of love on the mind, on the intellect, specifically that part of the mind which produces language. For Barthes, love exists as an outpouring of language: “I’m so in love!” “I love you so much!”, “I love him”, “I love her” etc. Love exists, then, in its most developed form, as an ejaculation, as discourse produced by the lover, whether mental or uttered. What Barthes does is to focus on this discourse, but in such a way as to enact it rather than to analyse it.
Language is either transactional – we use it to do things - or descriptive – we use it to describe things. Either way, it is locked into one or other of these two modes. The challenge for Barthes was to liberate language from either of these two ways of being and to give language a third possibility, that of the truly declarative and expressive; a mode in which language expresses meaning not by referring to things, but by virtue of its own structure. In simple structuralist terms, ‘cat’ means cat not because of any inherent relationship between word and object, but because ‘cat’ is not ‘bat’ nor ‘car’ nor ‘cut’, and because we have agreed amongst ourselves that this pattern of sounds, this structure and no other, shall stand for this and not for something else.
In two works from 1977, Barthes attempted to apply his ideas about language to two of the most traditionally conventionalised genres: the autobiography, and the love story. In both these works he reached for a method that would empty language of its content and bring to prominence its form, its structures; to find a mode uninflected by referentiality or utility: a writing degree zero, in which writing is not about something other than itself.
A Lover’s Discourse attempts to create a discourse about love which does not merely describe love or refer to it or analyse, novelise it, but to simulate it, to dramatise it, to recreate it. As Barthes puts it: the description of the lover’s discourse has been replaced by its simulation, and to that discourse has been restored its fundamental person, the I, in order to stage an utterance, not an analysis. This is not an analysis of love, but a staged utterance. We are to read it as the unmediated thoughts – discourse – of the lover himself.
In attempting to liberate language from its two constraining modes, Barthes has created a highly original structure. Taking as its model the dictionary – another work in which language is not about anything other than itself – the book consists of 80 fragments, each consisting of four elements or layers.
The first layer is what Barthes calls the figure, a gesture, to which all the other elements in the fragment point: No Answer. The second layer is a headword: mutisme/silence, and it is under these headwords that the fragments are arranged alphabetically. The third layer is a sentence which defines the headword and the figure: the amorous subject suffers anxiety because the loved object replies scantily or not at all to his language (discourse or letters). The fourth layer then gives a series of numbered aphorisms in the style of Nietzsche, which in different ways comment on, develop, contradict or exemplify the figure. There is thus a movement within each entry of all the major elements of language: from the phrase and the word, through to the sentence and the aphorism, and ultimately to the text itself.
By organizing the entries in alphabetical order, Barthes avoids the pitfall of editorializing – the arrangement of fragments into some order determined by something outside language, something resembling a narrative arc or personal experience, or more artistic considerations such as pitch or pace. At the same time he also avoids an extra-linguistic ordering according to coincidence or chronology. The alphabet is an ordering system that belongs to language itself. An alphabetical ordering, therefore, maintains the formal purity of the language.
Because language in its purist essence is a structure that only has meaning by reference to itself, each entry includes references to other stretches of language on love, to conversations with friends and lovers, to the great works of European literature on love: The Sorrows of Young Werther, the Symposium, Stendahl’s De l’Amour, Freud, Lacan, Proust and so on. The use Barthes makes of these quotations and the way he illuminates them are one of the highlights of the work. (The only weakness, if we may permit ourselves to be critical of a work so full of wisdom and beauty, is the complete absence of any reference to Shakespeare, surely the wisest and most comprehensive teacher of love in European literature.)
Everywhere, Barthes focuses on the relationship between love and language, the discourse of love. Some examples. Here he is on I-love-you:
I-love-you is without nuance. It suppresses explanations, adjustments, degrees, scruples. In a way – exorbitant paradox of language – to say I-love-you is to proceed as if there were no theatre of speech, and this word is always true, has no other referent than its utterance: it is a performative.
On the scene, or lovers’ quarrel:
It is characteristic of the individual remarks in a scene to have no demonstrative, persuasive end, but only an origin and this origin is never anything but immediate: in the scene I cling to what has just been said.
Or on the way we cover the loved being in language in trying to pinpoint exactly what it is we love about that person:
Industrious, indefatigable, the language machine humming inside me – for it runs nicely- fabricates its chain of adjectives. I cover the other with adjectives, I string out his qualities, his qualitas.
Or the meaning of the lovers tautology: “You are adorable because you are adorable, I love you because I love you.”:
Is not tautology that preposterous state in which are to be found, all values being confounded, the glorious end of the logical operation, the obscenity of stupidity, and the explosion of the Nietzschean yes?
In passing, Barthes occasionally drops these shattering epigrams, as if they have no meaning, no significance, no importance:
Orgasm is not spoken, but it speaks, and it says I-love-you.
Cannot friendship be defined as a space with total sonority?
The third person pronoun is a wicked pronoun: it is the pronoun of the non-person, it absents, it annuls.
Since man has existed he has not stopped talking.
Now, in case this sounds like the laying of the dead hand of structuralism on the living pulse of a poetic emotion; if it sounds dry and intellectual, let me assure you that it is anything but. The book is beautiful, playful, full of arresting insights, new ideas, lyrical and tender, witty, sympathetic, moving, sensual, joyous. In short, it is everything you would expect a book about love to be. And if one reads it when one is in love, truthful and accurate to a powerful degree.
The word is not the thing, but a flash in whose light we perceive the thing.
Friday, September 27, 2013
The immortality of the writer is to be taken seriously. Whenever anyone reads his words, the writer is there. He lives in his readers.
Thursday, September 19, 2013
In The Lover’s Discourse Barthes writes about irrational behavior, especially that prompted by love. For Barthes, irrationality stems from the image and the uncontrollable force of language produced by the image- this is the lover’s discourse. Under the signifier D for demons:
A specific force impels my language toward the harm I may do to myself: the motor system of discourse is the wheel out of gear: language snowballs, without any tactical thought of reality. I seek to harm myself, I expel myself from my paradise, busily provoking within myself the images (of jealousy, abandonment, humiliation) which can injure me; and I keep the wound open, I feed it with other images, until another wound appears and produces a diversion.
For Dostoevsky, irrationality was always self-harming, but only if self- harm is considered from the point of view of rationalism itself, from the dictum of never knowingly acting against your best self interest. And for Dostoevsky, too, this irrationalism erupts as an uncontrollable impulse towards language. Raskolnikov, in the Crystal Palace, blurts out his murder, but his interlocutor doesn’t believe him mainly on the grounds that if he was the murderer, he wouldn’t confess so brazenly to it. Think of all those characters who blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong moment, impelled by the language instinct to lacerate themselves, to make the situation worse, to assert their right to a capricious rejection of Paradise, the caprice of language itself. And think of all the demons in Brothers Karamazov, how Liza blurts out her love for Alyosha, and then prompted by her little demon, says that to be despised is good, expelling herself from her paradise.
Suddenly there are demons everywhere… BK 11.3