|by Darwin Leon – stolen painting|
|by Darwin Leon – stolen painting|
THE GROTESQUE GOD AND THE TASTE OF SHIT
PYTHIATISM AND THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Our frustrated realist, Gustave Flaubert, a romantic at heart, bitterly said that reality, meaning the way things really were from his perspective, tasted like shit. He contrived an imaginary reality to escape from his distasteful perception, a construction that Jean Paul Sartre, in his voluminous psychoanalysis of Flaubert,The Family Idiot, analyzed according to his Psychology of the Imaginary.
An artist’s job, as jazz-dance master Luigi Facciuto once averred (may he rest in peace although his motto was Never Stop Moving) is to make shit smell good: “This shit just came to me out of nowhere,” he told his dancers after he moved, “and now it’s our job to make it smell good.” Still, given the materials employed, the result has scatological implications to critics with an acute sense of smell.
Flaubert’s Imaginary was ‘romantic’ to the extent that his flight from stinking, excremental reality was an heroic adventure into another, mysterious realm of his own fashion, a monstrous, grotesque realm. There was no room for Love in that kingdom; mystery vanished accordingly, for Love a secret does not abhor. He was haunted by the odor of the ordure in his sandbox, thus was motivated to leave his sense of taste and smell behind if not the substance itself, and embrace nothing, which he idolized as Nothing.
Nothing is absolute freedom: Nothing is freer than the freedom at the bottom of Sartre’s Existence, for freedom is always freedom from something or the other. Sartre, however, would leave us a shred of something to cling to, bare existence, while Flaubert would be free of everything altogether, in the perfect Form of forms: absolute vacancy.
Sartre pointed out that Flaubert attempted to believe in and therefore feel love by neurotic or “pithiatic” means: auto-suggestion. He asks, “Is there not, however, in the very act of composition a still unreal but more immediate gratification? Yes: a gratification of the desire to desire.”
He quotes Flaubert’s letter dated February 8, 1841: “I wrote love letters for the purpose of writing, not because I love. Yet I would like to delude myself that I do: I love, I believe while writing.”
“At stake for Gustave is the credibility of language: in what form will discourse—his own discourse—be most likely to engage the pithiatic adherence of the boy? His answer is precise: writing. The reasons for this are apparent: writing seems like a passage to action, like an extemalization as well as a composition. It is not a matter of copying ‘I love you’ a hundred times; that would be a schoolboy’s punishment. You must invent love, do something original, come up with passionately authentic phrases, put yourself in the position to recognize them from the inside. This means you must imagine you are in love…. Of course, on the surface the pithiatic aspect of the enterprise is undeniable: it isn’t only a game (it is also a game), it is a successful attempt, at least as far as his pen is concerned, at autosuggestion.”
A difference between lust and love is asserted. Sublime love is a cultivated emotion, a synthesis of feeling and judgment. It is a suggestion from without, introjected and reinforced within by imitative auto-suggestion.
Flaubert was hardly devoid of passion in his youth. We think he feared for his sanity when the Sibyl raved within him at Hecate’s crossroad. He resorted to Reason—which god-fearing religious scholars have identified with Being or Logos—to quash the hysterical passion he suffered, obsessively endeavoring to restrain the Dionysian dragoness with Apollonian virtue, compelled to do so until she was incinerated and there was nothing left but the restraint itself, the blinding light said to be the mystic source of wisdom for Teiresias, Apollo’s proverbially blind sage.
The vanishing point of Flaubert’s Imaginary was death, beyond which is infinity. Flaubert named his devil Yuk, who was the living end, the licentious god of the grotesque who exposes the human world as it really is: cursed by shit and rotting corpses. Satan loved God so much that he hated man and tempted him with the finite world, which is the death of man because everything finite must have an end. The factual world is evil; in fact, there can be no truth, beauty and goodness in fact. There is not enough antiseptic in the putrid world to rid it of its rottenness. So let the facts of science be damned if its facts taken alone would damn the human spirit. Prosperity is a help but is no utopia.
A psychoanalyst characteristically takes pause to examine not only the familial details of an analysand’s biography, but he would also carefully scrutinize the character of his patient’s relationships with friends during his impressionable youth. After all, a boy’s best friend is likely to leave a lifelong impression.
Young Gustave Flaubert’s best friend happened to be Alfred Le Poittevin (1816-1848), a pessimistic philosopher and poet who lived in Rouen, who was, incidentally, Guy de Maupassant’s nephew. Their mothers were also best friends.
Alfred and Gustave, together with their friend Ernest Chevalier, shared pipes and conversation on Sundays and Thursdays, and on school holidays, they practically saw each other every day in Rouen, where they loitered in cafes, swam, rowed, and played billiards. Flaubert eventually followed Alfred to Paris to study law. In his correspondence he wrote that he and Albert sometimes conversed for six hours at a time, discussing hothouse ideals to break the boredom. The young fellows were most profoundly influenced by the Romantic reaction to materialism, with its Gothic, aristocratic, and evolutionary predilections, the philosophical movement being neo-Kantian. Alfred, already a published poet and infatuated with Goethe and Spinoza, loved poetic impersonality, which elaborates historical ideals to which the poet surrenders his personality, becoming a literary channel for traditional development.
Gustave shared many of those ideals with Alfred; for example, the traditional idea of Satan expressed in Alfred’s romantic-revolt poem by that name. Indeed, Flaubert had been fascinated by Satan ever since he had discovered Byron, who with Shelley led the so-called Satanic School; the school was credited with an attitude somewhat like that of the Goths of our day, of impious, imperious pride, unduly preoccupied with the grotesque, with monstrous horrors and lewd subject matter, a decadent demeanor that psychiatrists would soon diagnose as evidence of evolutionary degeneracy, a sort moral insanity brought to the fore by crowded civilization’s foul air and other poisons, especially alcohol—absinthe concocted from wormwood was the devil’s favorite hallucinogenic drink in France.
Ah, rebellious youth! Flaubert was imbued with the attitude that a reconciliation of reality with ideality was impossible. Ultimately, the ugliness of reality presided over by Yuk wins out, an attitude in contrast to that of the Zoroastrians, whose god representing Good runs slightly ahead of its twin god representing Evil to extinguish the negating factor in the final moment.
Alfred, intrigued by the exotic Orient, penned ‘L’Orient,’ depicting a youth weary of “the black vapors of civilization.” In ‘Heure d’ angoisse,’ a poet crushed by despair in a faithless world doubts the reality of immortality and providence. ‘Ahasverus’ embodies a longing for death and annihilation. In ‘La foi,’ the loss of faith is regretted.
Flaubert would correspond in 1851 about his gang of “young rascals,” recounting how they inhabited a “strange world” of insanity and suicide. He said hopeless love and vain philosophy had rendered him gloomy. The boys created a grotesque character which they used to satirize conventional beliefs; not only materialism but romanticism as well. In one play a boy says, “Gothic architecture is fine, it’s so inspiring!” Garcon replies, “Yes, it is fine, and the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day, too, and the Draggonades, and the Edict of Nantes too!”
He expressed his disdain for the bourgeois or town merchants in his 1839 school essay, ‘Les arts et le commerce,’ pleading for art set free from bourgeois ideology. “Has not the soul, too, its needs?” The commercial obsession of historical Carthage in particular seemed “monstrous and ferocious” to him. Even art for the sake of art he thought was vain at the time.
Flaubert conceived a nihilistic mystery play in 1838 where one would come face-to-face with the infinite: ‘Smahr—an Old Mystery Play.’ The play is obviously indebted to Goethe’s Faust, not to mention the literature of Byron and Quinet.
Smahr, an anchorite, is tempted by Satan, dressed as doctor of theology. They mount winged steeds to survey the world. Satan, demonstrating the nothingness of everything that is known, summoned Flaubert’s newly created god of the grotesque, Yuk, to explain life to him along the way. Yuk was disguised as a beautiful woman, an allegory for Truth. Smahr fell in love with her, but Satan loved her too. She turned out to be Yuk, who then preoccupied himself for awhile with persuading a married woman to give herself to every comer.
Yuk demonstrated to Smahr that life is a period filled with horrors such as bodies being devoured, blood raining down, orgies and the like. Smahr naturally craves power to preside over the world as it is for his own good, but his longing fills the world with death and destruction; alas, his desire is in vain because the power he wants has destroyed the very thing he longs for.
Yuk had initially been proud of his bravery, even joyful, but his plunge into the abysmal eventually made him feel fatally crushed in his finiteness by infinitude. All his knowledge, based on doubt, had been proved false and vain, empty. Yuk, emblematic of ressentiment embodied by the living No, then cries out that he alone is eternal, not even death can defeat him:
“I am reality, I am eternity, I am the power of ridicule, the grotesque, the ugly; I am what is, what has been and what shall be…. I am a whole eternity in myself….”
As the Sun sets on the dying universe, an angel would redeem Smahr, but Satan snatches the angel away. Yuk seizes the angel and rolls with her into the abyss, literally fucking her to death.
Graphic Credit: Darwin Leon
A FOOTNOTE TO
PYTHIATISM AND SARTRE’S THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others are useless. Gustave Flaubert
Dedicated to Sharon Stone
In The Family Idiot Sartre claims that for Gustav Flaubert, the novice playwright, writing was secondary to acting out his ideas, that the French Realist’s mature literature was born of the “thwarted vocation” of acting, and that he was an unconvincing actor, because “he acted so as to launch an appeal to being by exploiting the means at hand, that is, his very derealization.”
Sometimes the youth fascinated, disturbed, or won over his audience of friends and family when he played the part of a grotesque boy, an idiot, a giant, a saint and so on, but for the most part he was a bad actor; he was false, transparent, and irritating because he was writing his own plays, and doing so in bad faith, for he had no being of his own to speak of; he was simply attempting to negate a negative but had nothing real to work with.
The main thing here is that he is destined to incarnate a single character—for all his avatars resemble each other—not entirely his own character but the persona he wants to appear in the eyes of others, which we will describe in the next chapter. Thus his first vocation seems scarcely more than the simplest and most immediate reaction to his derealization; and I mean that this, as well as his constituted passivity and his pithiatism, would have served him if he had gone into the theater.
Young Gustave, in effect, was allowing himself, through self-cannibalization, to be vampirized by the characters he played:
And he [played his characters] all the more contentedly because he had discovered his true status as Master of the Unreal. In sum, he was reassured by judging himself instituted in advance, integrated by the society that refused him, and, fulfilled by his profession; he abandoned himself to his constituted passivity which would make him all his life the martyr of unreality…. He caricatures living people, in sum, in order to steal their being for a moment and know what it is to take pleasure in having an objective being. Surely he is not convinced that he is Papa Couilleres while he is doing him, or that this theft/possession (he becomes vampirized by the being he has stolen) could be accomplished without that pithiatism that generally characterizes constituted passivities.
The boy had something to gain by his playacting, which was tantamount to throwing hysterical fits:
But for the de-realized child, an absenteeist, the character is none other than his persona created and guaranteed by the benevolence of the Other: protected by an invisible armor, he offers himself up to the blows of fate, exhibiting, without taking responsibility for it, the pre-established transposition of his absurdity and misfortune. In his theatrical experience the child finds irresponsibility, submission, happy and compensated vassalage; the guarantee of the imaginary by a sovereign will, by the necessity of connections, by tradition and universal consent; a priori knowledge of his being-for-others, the ambiguity of fatum, the justification of pathos that is, not just of his excessive gesticulation but of his constituted passivity, which, by forbidding hint action, encourages him to abandon himself to what he is and to show his passions through gestures; pithiatic belief, never total but consolidated by that of others; the ability really to feel what he expresses . The child finds all this in his theatrical experience as long as it remains in the immediate realm of un-reflected spontaneity, in other words, as long as he produces himself on stage, moved only by the need to escape from his insubstantial and tedious persona by replacing it with the being of a character.
Good play actors, then, are disposed to passivity and pithiatism, in contrast to Sartre, who is an activist because he participates in socialist activism. That is, play actors are receptive to the influence of suggestion, which makes them convincing imitators, or performing hysterics.
I personally note that a Freudian psychologist, a regular sex fiend or “cunt-hound” who professed psychology at the New School and who loved to seduce beautiful aspiring actresses, recruited me when I was an acting student at HB Studio into one of his group therapy sessions on the Upper West Side. After several drinks at a bar on Broadway, where I first met him, he posited that “actors are the most neurotic of all people, mainly hysterical, which makes my group therapy sessions a lot of fun.” He claimed that acting is “a masochistic profession.” Ironically, he confessed in group therapy that he was obsessed with or possessed by Sharon Stone, and that she often appeared in his dreams as a dominatrix with a foot-long black dildo with which she painfully sodomized him.
Now Sigmund Freud, in his ‘Fourth Lecture on The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis’ (1910), noted in the context of thwarted development that:
(The sexual impulses) appear in opposed pairs, as active and passive. The most important representatives of this group are the pleasure in afflicting pain (sadism) with its passive opposite (masochism) and active and passive exhibition pleasure. From the first of these later pairs splits off the curiosity for knowledge, as from the latter the impulse toward artistic and theatrical representation…. Every process of development brings with it the germ of pathological dispositions in so far as it may be inhibited, delayed, or incompletely carried out. This holds for the sexual function, with its many complications. It is not smoothly completed in all individuals, and may leave behind either abnormalities or disposition to later diseases by the way of later falling back or regression.
Flaubert liked playacting, and found writing alone somewhat troublesome because he was loath to confine his imagination to the written word. The family potentate would eventually send him off to law school, to which he was indifferent, to say the least, although he found the precise, unsentimental objective language of the law attractive, in comparison to the wild, romantic urging of his youth.
While on vacation at home, he suffered a nervous breakdown or crisis, accompanied by temporary paralysis, an event said to be a nervous disease; the ‘stroke’ may have been, for all we know, an epileptic seizure although clear signs of epilepsy were not apparent.
These attacks, absent the usual signs of epilepsy, recurred throughout his life whenever he was under considerable stress. If his abnormal motor or sensory affects, whatever they might have been, were psychogenic, today they might be considered as evidence of a psychosomatic “conversion disorder,” along the lines of ‘classical’ hysteria, provided they were preceded by stress, not faked, not medically or culturally determined, not limited merely to pain or sexual dysfunction, and not falling within the context of some other somatic disorder or mental illness. Incidentally, the symptoms of conversion hysteria in the West are of a different type than those found in the East despite the requirement of cultural indeterminism.
Epileptic phenomena, as Sartre well knew, were once believed to be symptomatic of hysteria. Hysteria was called a “protean” affliction because it could mimic or fake the symptoms of many physical diseases. Studies of hysterics had demonstrated that hysteria is a performance with a purpose—primary and secondary gains are to be had.
When we examine the photographs of hysterical performances taken at Salpetriere Hospital, we believe our own starlets would have gained appreciative Off Broadway audiences there in those days. There were also male hysterics at Salpetriere, just as Dionysus appeared at Delphi while it was ruled by Apollo, but the command performances were naturally given by pithiatic women inasmuch as females traditionally had the “wandering wombs” associated with irrational or immoral behavior, while men were customarily the repositories of reason, which logically justified their might as a moral right by virtue of their will to power.
Pierre Andre Brouillet’s‘Una lecon Clinique a la Salpetriere’
(A painting Sigmund Freud kept in his office).
The “Queen of Hysterics,” Blanch Wittman,
Faints into the arms of Joseph Babinski
Like witches of old, who were usually impoverished women who practiced the magical arts of witchcraft as a trade, the new witchdoctors took up diagnosing and casting curative spells as a business. Instead of burning witches at the stake, and chaining womb-wandering hysterics to prison walls, they would endeavor to disenchant them of their maladies with their persuasive powers of reasonable talk and positive suggestion, perhaps after the demons possessing the hapless patients came forth and revealed themselves during hypnotic spells, courses of free association, or during couched confessions for which no penance was exacted. And, like the witches of old, hysterics performed well at the suggestion of their inquisitors, confessing their sins, particularly those of a sexual nature; otherwise, the prognosis would be “incurable”; that is, if they did not perform as indirectly directed, they would be cast into the hopeless ward from hell.
The fallacious arguments has been made by some good doctors that, if hysterical behavior is a performance, then performers are hysterics. For them, the hysterical performances confirmed that histrionics, or pretending to be someone else, is a masochistic art. In fine, hysteria was an invention, or rather a new name for an old disguise, and the enthusiasm or spirited prepossession of the “scientific” doctors, who were themselves frequently subject to the hysteria they had unwittingly induced, had a financial motive; to wit, to corner the market from the so-called charlatans and quacks who plied their ancient trade with potions, mesmerism, sympathetic magic, hypnotic spells and the like.
Witchcraft like psychoanalysis was not without its financial rewards, and lifted many a witch out of dire poverty. We refer to The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches In the County of Lancaster With the Arraignement and Triall of Nineteene notorious WITCHES, at the Assizes and generall Gaole deliuerie, holden at the Castle of LANCASTER, vpon Munday, the seuenteenth of August last, 1612…. by Thomas Potts, Esq., who was clerk of the court and present for the trials. Seventeen of the women were found guilty. The Introduction and Notes, from which we quote below, were written by Thomas Crowley, Esq.
A common story emerged from witness and the confessions of the accused, of vengeful witches being accosted by and entering into deals with a devil named Tibbe or Fancie, appearing perhaps as a boy, black cat, brown dog, or hare and such. The witches were most likely engaged in a competitive business of selling unorthodox spells, curses or blessings, and dealing in “contraband” i.e. magic images, the likes of which have historically produced considerable income to legitimate religions besides those forbidding graven images.
Whether it be with witches as it is said to be with a much maligned branch of a certain profession, that it needs two of its members in a district to make its exercise profitable, it is not for me to say; but it is seldom found that competition is accompanied by any very amicable feeling in the competitors, or by a disposition to underrate the value of the merchandize which each has to offer for sale.
Accordingly, great was the rivalry, constant the feuds, and unintermitting the respective criminations of the Erictho and Canidia of Pendle, who had opened shops for the vending of similar contraband commodities, and were called upon to decry each other’s stock, as well as to magnify their own. Each ‘gave her little senate laws,’ and had her own party (or tail, according to modern phraseology) in the Forest. Some looked up to and patronized one, and some the other. If old Demdike could boast that she had Tibb as a familiar, old Chattox was not without her Fancy. If the former had skill in waxen images, the latter could dig up the scalps of the dead, and make their teeth serviceable to her unhallowed purposes.
In the anxiety which each felt to outvie the other, and to secure the greater share of the general custom of a not very extended or very lucrative market, each would wish to be represented as more death-dealing, destructive, and powerful than her neighbour; and she who could number up the most goodly assortment of damage done to man and beast, whether real or not was quite immaterial, as long as the draught was spiced and flavoured to suit the general taste, stood the best chance of obtaining a monopoly.
It is a curious fact, that the son-in-law of one of these two individuals, and whose wife was herself executed as a witch, paid to the other a yearly rent, on an express covenant that she should exempt him from her charms and witchcrafts. Where the possession of a commission from the powers of darkness was thus eagerly and ostentatiously paraded, every death, the cause of which was not perfectly obvious, whether it ended in a sudden termination or a slow and gradual decline, would be placed to the general account of one of the two (to use Master Potts’s description,) “agents for the devil in those parts,” as the party responsible for these unclaimed dividends of mortality.
Did a cow go mad, or was a horse unaccountably afflicted with the staggers, the same solution was always at hand to clear negligence and save the trouble of inquiry; and so far from modestly disclaiming these atrocities, the only struggle on the parts of Mothers Demdike and Chattox would be which should first appropriate them.
And in all this it must not be forgotten that their own credulity was at least as great as the credulity of their neighbours, and that each had the power in question was so much an admitted point, that she had long ceased, in all probability, to entertain any doubts on the subject. With this general conviction on one hand, and a sincere persuasion on the other, it would be surprising if, in the course of a few years, the scandalous chronicle of Pendle had not accumulated a corpus delicti against them, which only required that ‘one of his Majesties Justices in these parts, a very religious honest gentleman, painful in the service of his country,’ should work the materials into shape, and make the gruel thick and slab.’”
In Dr. Whitaker’s astonishment that Margaret Johnson should make the confession she appears to have done, in a clear case of imposture, few of his readers will be disposed to participate, who are at all conversant with the trials of reputed witches in this country. Confessions were so common on those occasions, that there is, I believe, not a single instance of any great number of persons being convicted of witchcraft at one time, some of whom did not make a confession of guilt. Nor is there anything extraordinary in that circumstance, when it is remembered that many of them sincerely believed in the existence of the powers attributed to them; and others, aged and of weak understanding, were, in a measure, coerced by the strong persuasion of their guilt, which all around them manifested, into an acquiescence in the truth of the accusation. In many cases the confessions were made in the hope, and no doubt with the promise, seldom performed, that a respite from punishment would be eventually granted. In other instances, there is as little doubt, that they were the final results of irritation, agony, and despair.
The confessions are generally composed of “such stuff as dreams are made of,” and what they report to have occurred, might either proceed, when there was no intention to fabricate, from intertwining the fantastic threads which sometimes stream upon the waking senses from the land of shadows, or be caused by those ocular hallucinations of which medical science has supplied full and satisfactory solution. There is no argument which so long maintained its ground in support of witchcraft as that which was founded on the confessions referred to. It was the last plank clung to by many a witch-believing lawyer and divine. And yet there is none which will less bear critical scrutiny and examination, or the fallacy of which can more easily be shown, if any particular reported confession is taken as a test and subjected to a searching analysis and inquiry.”
The trial of the Samlesbury witches, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth, forms a curious episode in Potts’s Discoverie. A Priest or Jesuit, of the name of Thomson, alias Southworth, had tutored the principal evidence, Grace Sowerbuts, a girl of the age of fourteen, but who had not the same instinctive genius for perjury as Jennet Device, to accuse the three persons above mentioned of having bewitched her; “so that,” as the indictment [lvii] runs, “by means thereof her body wasted and consumed.”
“The chief object,” says Sir Walter Scott, “in this imposture, was doubtless the advantage and promotion of the Catholic cause, as the patient would have been in due time exorcised and the fiend dispossessed, by the same priest who had taught her to counterfeit the fits. Revenge against the women, who had become proselytes to the Church of England, was probably an additional motive.” But the imposture broke down, from the inability of the principal witness to support the scheme of deception. Unsuccessful, however, as it proved, the time was well chosen, the groundwork excellently laid, the evidence industriously got up, and it must ever deserve a prominent place in the history—a history, how delightful when it shall be written in the spirit of philosophy and with due application of research—of human fraud and imposture.”
This wicked attempt on the part of this priest, or Jesuit, Thompson, alias Southworth, to murder the three persons whose trial is next reported, by suborning a child of the family to accuse them of what, in the excited state of the public mind at the time, was almost certain to consign them to a public execution, has few parallels in the annals of atrocity.
The plot was defeated, and the lives of the persons accused, Jennet Bierley, Ellen Bierley, and Jane Southworth, saved, by no sagacity of the judge or wisdom of the jury, but by the effect of one simple question, wrung from the intended victims on the verge of anticipated condemnation, and which, natural as it might appear, was one the felicity of which Garrow or Erskine might have envied. It demolished, like Ithuriel’s spear, the whole fabric of imposture, and laid it open even to the comprehension of Sir Edward Bromley and Master Thomas Potts.
Then as today the stigmata or signs of hysteria would increase in number as the profession progressed. Naturally it would behoove the best modern neurologists to become psychiatrists and treat the most affluent women, many of whom if not all were neurotic due to their discontent with patriarchal civilization, making of some of them a good example of the virtues of prolonged psychiatric treatment. Some patient patients would be so utterly convinced by the results of their submission to professional authority that they would take up the practice themselves; others, conscious of the fact that they were “faking it,” found scant relief from the maladies suffered.
Flaubert’s performance, Sartre believed, was staged to gain enough sympathy to get out of law school, first of all, and then to do whatever he wanted. Mission accomplished: his father was convinced Flaubert’s constitution would not tolerate a regular life; he was withdrawn from school and supported by his family’s considerable resources. It was after this crisis, which most people would have written off as mildly traumatic at most, that he supposedly found himself able to write at length, albeit painstakingly, sometimes working on a single page for an entire week in a scientific effort to find just the right, harmonious yet unsentimental words to perfect it.
Hysteria, by the way, can be so broad as to encompass all sorts of disorders. Now an obsessive-compulsive person might protect himself from the shitty world by confining it to things that must be touched and warding off its pollution by repetitious hand-washing.
Flaubert, hypothetically, totalized the world at his writing desk, warding off its pollution with a clinical representation or purist style of writing. In other words, his writing distanced him from the dirty world as he condensed what he thought about it into words, tortuously molding the crap into concrete constructions—everything was under control in that bloody wrestling arena. In Walter Pater’s words, he was the “martyr of style.”
Neither technique nor artist should be noticed in fine art. Flaubert finally managed to lose himself in brilliantly depicted details, to paint himself out of his picture of Madame Bovary; there he would perfect his unreality in a disappearing act; to wit, become untouchable or Nothing. Only Nothing is perfect and permanent; that would be his form of hysterical paralysis within which his artistic convulsions were performed. And that was no easy accomplishment for a rebellious subject raised in the vague, emotional effusions of French High Romanticism with all its affectations in the form of incomplete words—words are merely symbolic, indicative of potential action, impotent in themselves.
From the age of fourteen, he is quite explicit about his dissatisfaction with the written word, a dissatisfaction that will persist at least until the crisis of 1844; the written word is clearly inadequate as it can render neither feelings, sensations, nor ecstasies. This denunciation is his recurrent subject, and, as we know, the deepest reasons for it lie elsewhere; but if he slips it into most of his early works from the age of fourteen on, it is as an occasional yet crucial motif. He was forbidden the career of actor; hence, words were deprived of their ordinary accompanying gestures, mimicry, and intonation; they were suddenly mutilated, became little more than inert scaffolding how could he give them back their former fullness? Deprived of his old sound tools, he had to replace them by crude, mute instruments which, because they were not heated by his breath, would never express his animating pathos. Of course, he would read his text aloud, interpret it, giving a singular aspect to the universal vocable through the timbre of his voice, and hence would be able on rare occasions to preserve the illusion that he was giving birth to it by expectoration. But he knew very well that reading is not acting. Even the ludic aspect of literature has nothing to do with acting. Above all, writing for unknown readers is an attempt to captivate and seduce them by defenseless graphemes, which they interpret as they like. He is vulnerable with nothing in his hands, nothing in his pockets; the writer traces his scrawl and goes away, leaving it to the most malevolent inspection.
Despite Sartre’s analysis, we see nothing neurotic or abnormal in Flaubert’s reluctant progression from an oral to written mode of communication; the reduction of thought to objective texts, the invention of writing, accounts for the “progress” of civilization.
As Neil Postman has pointed out, in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), a medium is a suggestive metaphor, and the particular form of a medium helps define the truth—a medium has an epistemological function. For example, “today’s news” was a creation of the telegraph. We still think of the brain as a tablet on which personal experience is recorded, and as a calculating and decisional machine; today we think of it as a personal computer linked by one device or another to the Internet “Cloud” in which we have our heads.
Nicholas Carr asks us if Google is making us stupid. Postman believes our regression from words to pictorial images as a mode of communication is filling our heads with dangerous nonsense and rendering us silly. Still, we associate the truth with the printed page or its facsimile, which constitutes a reorientation of thought from the oral mode. Our laws are written; therefore our lawyers do not have to be wise; being well briefed is sufficient. Oral testimony is still preferred as being a truer to the mind of the witness, but we more strongly believe in the authority of writing. “The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its author, reviewed by authorities and editors. It is easier to verify of refute, and it is invested with an impersonal and objective character.”
However that may be, to exist is to exist in print, as Lewis Mumford noted, which makes a far greater impression than actual events and releases people from the domination of immediate and local circumstances. Sartre himself said he wrote to free people—no doubt beginning with himself. Maybe we should all take up writing at greater length.
AGAINST CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM
EPISTLE TO DOCTOR CYNICA (INTERNET PHYSICIAN)
BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
My Dear Doctor Cynica,
I am honored to receive your public remark criticizing my fine Internet essay, “GRAMMAR”.
I am unable to find your name listed in the Directory of Physicians. I suppose you are using a pseudonym or an alias, as is the practice of the Anony Mouse Family. Since I am unable to reach you after your indelicate grammatical operation, I am herewith framing your impertinent critical remark along with my impetuous response thereto:
“Although you obviously have talent as a writer, I think you could have said what you were trying to say in a much less pretentious manner. This was not at all easy to read, and I am a highly educated person who has occasionally been guilty of playing sesquipedalian myself. One of the tenets of good grammar is to avoid verbiage. If I may quote William Safire (THE grammar authority): ‘Many of us like to stretch the minds of our readers, introducing them to the big menu behind the list of daily word specials, but all too often we practive polysyllabicism because we want to show off. Lookame, I got this prodigious vocabulary.’ Choose the word that says precisely what you mean and your prose will be less cumbersome and much more readible (not to mention enjoyable). Good luck!” (sic)
First of all, I congratulate you on your dissimulation I mean “dissimulation” in the psychiatric sense: “the ability or tendency to appear normal when actually suffering from a disorder: a characteristic of the paranoic.” (American Heritage Dictionary).
That, together with your underlying pretention to the literary throne, conspicuously qualifies you to lay down your stethoscope and take up the pen that is, after you have improved your handwriting so that somebody can read it. Already, at this stage of your development, it is difficult to ascertain whether you are a pompous ass or a master of irony, an idiot-savant or a perfect mime, a complete fraud or a pernickety pedant. But one thing is clear: you might do a lot less damage as an author to reader’s minds than as a physician to their brains for, in the latter case, the injury would be irreversible.
In any event, your pursuit of grammatical glories might cure you of the great defect of High Education nowadays: the arrogant narrow-mindedness that makes you believe that, if you do not understand something, it must be someone else’s fault, namely, the author’s. This is really the common defect of bad toilet training: the studious student thinks his toilet is the only throne in town, that it raises him to the most exalted summit yet he does not know the true nature of his productions, so dizzy has he become, with his nose up in the air, breathing his own gas.
Therefore, if you are to progress to Grammar’s true realm, you must climb down from your toilet and broaden your education. You must descend from your imperial tripod and study your trivium at the real trivium, on the mean streets, particularly at the crossroads where robbers and thieves lurk. You must descend from your throne and examine the logjam you have created, then go beyond the putrid prejudices you have acquired at random.
For example, take your blind faith in William Safire as “THE grammar authority”. He is an authority in the narrow sense, however, as you should have gleaned from my brilliant essay, I speak of Grammar in the broadest sense, of the best that has ever been said about everything. I can include only one of Safire’s statements in that category: he said a fence should be erected around your state to keep the weirdoes therein.
No, Safire is not THE authority on grammar. Quite to the contrary. He is your created imposter. H.L. Mencken is the real authority. Since you are given to criticism, you might want to examine his distinction between bad and good critics, set forth in his ‘Footnote on Criticism’ (THE AMERICAN SCENE).
The bad critic “writes because he is possessed by a passion to advance the enlightenment, to put down error and wrong, to disseminate some specific doctrine….This is true, it seems to me, only of bad critics, and its degree of truth increases in direct ratio to their badness….It is almost universally held that the thing is a brother to jurisprudence, advertising, laparotomy, chautaugua lecturing, and the art of the schoolmarm.”
On the other hand, “the motive of the good critic who is really worth reading…is not the motive of the pedagogue but the motive of the artist. It is no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world….Everything else is afterthought, mock-modesty, messianic delusion….”
Mencken goes on to speak of his criticism of one of my favorite authors, Theodore Dreiser, saying that he has little interest in Dreiser’s main ideas:
“What then, was my motive in writing about Dreiser so copiously? My motive…was simply to sort out and give coherence to the ideas of MR. MENCKEN and to put them into suave and ingratiating terms, and to disclose them with a flourish, and maybe with a phrase of pretty song, into the dense fog that blanketed the Republic.” (emphasis added)
Dense fog, indeed! In case it is still too dense, Doctor Cynica, Mencken means to say he used Dreiser’s writing as a perch from which to sing his own song. To further clarify this point, I refer you to Miguel de Unamuno’s short story about a physician who loved to write, ‘The Madness of Doctor Montarco’.
Doctor Montarco was a good medical practitioner, nay, almost a perfect one, who took up writing fantastic stories to relieve himself of the burden of prosaic pretentiousness, but his patients believed that a good doctor would confine his writings to medical subjects, that Doctor Montarco’s fantasies proved him incompetent to practive medicine, therefore they gradually deserted him. But the good doctor, despite the threat of imminent poverty for himself and his family, kept writing. His motto was ‘All or Nothing’. He would express himself in full or not at all. His writing of the thoughts people think but do not dare to express eventually landed him in a madhouse, where a Doctor Atienza speculated on whether Doctor Montarco was really mad or not.
“It wasn’t madness,” Doctor Atienza diagnosed. “But now they have succeeded in making it turn into madness. I have been reading his work since he has been here and I realize now that one of their mistakes was to take him for a man of ideas, a writer of ideas, when fundamentally he is no such thing. His ideas were a point of departure, mere raw material, and had as much importance in his writing as earth used by Valasquez in making the pigments had to do with his painting, or as the type of the stone Michelangelo used had to do with his ‘Moses'”
And thus, Doctor Cynica, I am using your bad criticism of my Grammar as grist for my own mill, as a platform to sing yet another song, despite the fact that you did not understand my song to Grammar, and chose to blame me for your misunderstanding.
I realize you might have believed you were honorably enaged in well-intentioned “constructive” criticism when you appended your Comment to my essay. Please know, then, that I fully sympathise with THE greatest grammarian, Mencken, on that very subject, which he pontificated upon in his ‘Footnote on Criticism’ as follows:
“In all history there has never been, to my knowledge, a single practitioner of any art who, as a result of ‘constructive’ criticism, improved his work….I cannot recall a case in which any suggestion offered by a constructive critic has helped me in the slightest, or even actually interested me. Every such wet-nurse of letters has sought fatuously to make me write in a way differing from that in which the Lord God Almighty, in His infinite wisdom, impels me to write: that is, to make me write stuff which, coming from me, would be as false as an appearance of decency in a Congressman….Constructive criticism irritates me. I do not object to being denounced, but I can’t abide being schoolmastered, especially by imbeciles.”
Finally, in closing, I must say that I believe the above will be particularly instructive to you both in your effort to maintain your god-like status as a physician as well as your struggle to become an author. However, with that forewarning in mind, I adjure you, Abandon your physical practice for the metaphysical, make your independent bid for the Mad House, and let bad critics remain damned to the hell they live in.
David Arthur Walters
Miguel de Unamuno, ABEL SANCHEZ and other stories. Trans. Anthony Kerrigan, Chicago: Henry Regner, 1956
H.L. Mencken, THE AMERICAN SCENE, a Reader. Ed. Huntington Cairns, NY: Knopf. 1965
H.L. Mencken, TREATISE ON THE GODS, NY: Knopf, 1930
THE PLURALITY OF TIMES
From Groundhog Days – Intercourse on Time
By Melina Costello & David Arthur Walters
10 October 2003
My Dear Madame Melina,
Logic does not prove that life exists on other planets or, for that matter, that any other proposition corresponds to objective reality. But logic can demonstrate that particular propositions in themselves are false or fallacious, at least according to the assumptions upon which the particular logic is based. Static logic is based on the principle of identity and contradiction that, IF A is identical to A, THEN A cannot be not-A. Everything follows from that presumption. Your argument may be illogical or fallacious, but that does not necessarily mean that your hunch is mistaken or that your case is groundless. You might find a better argument or lawyer; in the interim, we have good cause for reasonable doubting.
John Ellis McTaggart in The Unreality of Time doubted the reality of Time as we ordinarily think we know it. He argued that time is unreal, and offered an extended, complicated argument to support his premise that time, the “past, present, and future” contradicts itself. Of course his argument was challenged on logical grounds, sometimes with extended arguments in symbolic-logic language beyond the understanding of most of us. Few time philosophers agree with McTaggart’s position today, yet most consider it a good point of departure because it does not matter whether his proposal is right or wrong, for, in either event, the student will gain considerable ground towards the understanding of what may be the most important subject in the world.
As for unreal time, or time as we think we know it, McTaggart said it requires the time-series triune of past, present, future. This he calls the ‘A series.’
“It is because the distinctions of past, present, and future seem to me to be essential for time, that I regard time as unreal,” said McTaggart.
Now that statement may on its face seem absurd or illogical, since he seems to both affirm and deny the existence of time. Of course we have been around a few blocks, so we expect he will proceed to juggle words and say that one kind of time is real, the other kind unreal; or that we misperceive reality; or that what we perceive is an illusion – we think of the man who tried to jump through a concrete wall because his guru said it was an illusion.
But never mind that for now. McTaggart insists that time as we perceive it must have a past, present, and future. Mind you, some say not: some say only the “B series” of Before and After is essential to time. Never mind that either – we shall take McTaggart’s word for the essentiality of A Series.
Now, then, remember, we who subscribe to Groundhog Days have our own special interest at stake: we are interested in the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, hence we want to know, What is Professor McTaggart’s position on the logical possibility of multiple universes subject to different times? The Doctrine as we understand it in relation to each individual self would require each universe to have a different present so that someone can die in the present of one time-series, and be at once born again in the present of another time-series, in the identical circumstances of the past, at the time of his birth, of the one he has just left, where survivors of his death are going about their business as usual, while he is a new born babe at his destination universe, where everyone is of course younger or unborn.
McTaggart had no logical problem with multiple time-series although he says nothing about eternal recurrence; that is, assuming for the sake of argument that the time-series of past, present, and future is real in the first place. Multiple or parallel universes are not even required. There can be different time-series going on in the same universe!
“The hypothesis here is that there should be within reality several real and independent time-series. The objection, I imagine, is that the time-series would be all real, while the distinction of past, present, and future would have meaning within each series, and could not, therefore, be taken as ultimately real. There would be, for example, many presents (each point in each time-series is a present once), but they must be present successively. And the presents of the different time-series would not be successive, since they are not in the same time. (Neither would they be simultaneous, since that equally involves being in the same time. They would have no time-relation whatever.) And different presents, unless they are successive, cannot be real. So the different time-series, which are real, must be able to exist independently of the distinction between past, present, and future.
“I cannot, however, regard this objection as valid. No doubt, in such a case, no present would be the present – it would only be the present of a certain aspect of the universe. But then no time would be the time – it would only be the time of a certain aspect of the universe. It would, no doubt, be a real time-series, but I do not see that the present would be less real than the time.
“I am not, of course, asserting that there is no contradiction in the existence of several distinct A series. My main thesis is that the existence of any A series involves a contradiction. What I assert here is merely that supposing that there could be any A series, I see no extra difficulty involved in there being several such series independent of one another, and that therefore there in no incompatibility between the essentiality of an A series for time and the existence of several distinct times.
“Moreover, we must remember that the theory of a plurality of time-series is a mere hypothesis. No reason has ever been given why we should believe in their existence. It has only been said that there is no reason why we should disbelieve in their existence, and that therefore they may exist.”
Therefore we have the Hypothesis for the Plurality of Times waiting for someone to present positive evidence for or against it. McTaggart’s statement in its favor should arouse the hopes and fears of our subscribers: the hopes of those who think the world they are in is the best of all possible worlds and want to repeated it ad infinitum; the fears of those who think this world is hell on earth and do not want another vicious cycle let alone an endless series of hells.
We must admit that if multiple time-series exist, the positive evidence when obtained might not prove the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence. We could respectively be progressing to heaven or hell in a hand basket. Even those Groundhog Days subscribers with a positive mental attitude towards endless repetition have expressed doubts about their portion of progress relative to the progress of the repeated lives of our progeny, and they do not accept the dogma that the progress of all repeated lives are equal. That is no problem for the time being. Pending the receipt of positive evidence, it appears that the Hypothesis for the Plurality of Times suits the hopes and fears of all those who want somewhere to go after death whatever the situation may be there.
Art Credit: ‘Man attempt’ by permission of amazing Cubo-surrealist Darwin Leon
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
“Right now I am really mad,” Tracey Flagler, the nice girl next door, scribbled furiously in her diary. “I want a million dollars right away. I want to be independently wealthy so that I do not have to do anything. My life just seems to be so stupid sometimes that I no longer want eternity. Who wants eternal stupidity? Eternity sounds so exhausting! I want amazing things to happen. I want to see myself as amazing. I am angry that I have to work tonight. I am mad that I have to support myself. I just don’t want to do anything anymore. I wish I were DEAD. I want to be free right now, and I mean right NOW, or DEAD.”
Give me liberty or give me death – perhaps the two are one and the same. Tracey finally freed herself from going to work. I noticed that she had not fed the dozen or so alley cats that showed up at her door regularly. I glanced discreetly into her window from my bathroom window next door, saw her nude form on the bed, and surmised that she was sleeping. The next day I looked again; her body was in exactly the same position, and likewise the day after. Something was wrong with that picture. I went across the way, up the flight of stairs to her apartment, knocked on her door and looked into her window. Her body did not move. I tried the door; it was open; her prized cats, the fluffy ones she kept inside, did not race around as usual, but put their heads down and growled sorrowfully.
The odor was ghastly. It was a good thing she had put out plenty of food for her cats, I thought, or they would have eaten her according to the rule, Food eats food. A note to our landlord was pinned on the wall, asking him to get rid of whatever he found in the apartment. After official inquiries were completed and the apartment unsealed, he told Tracey’s fellow tenants to take whatever they wanted before the Salvation Army truck arrived. I was the last to take my pick, but I found a fortune that had been neglected and tossed into garbage bags, namely her literary remains, along with several charming items that have occult properties, and other things I have described elsewhere. I found a book outline that she had penned on 35 pages of an Eden Roc Hotel note pad. The book would include a chapter on reincarnation, but she had written “DELETE” beside ‘Ch.7 – Reincarnation’. Who knows where Tracey is now, or whether she exists at all?
The answer to that question was imagined in my dream last night. I saw her reflection in a bubble that popped up on an ocean of milk. She had resurfaced in a motel room – San Diego Motor Inn, read the neon sign flashing just outside the window, casting an eerie red light across the room. Her lithe, alabaster form was stark naked except for a big black cat she held across her chest as she stood by the bed. Music from Madonna’s latest album was playing on the clock radio. An elegant leather briefcase was on the stand at the foot of the bed. She put the cat down, exposing her enchanting bosom, bent over and opened the briefcase. It was full of money – exactly one million dollars, I instantly calculated in my dream. I was both aroused and amazed by the spectacle. She looked up at me and smiled. Somehow I knew that I could have anything I wanted if I would squeeze her marvelous breasts at the same time, one in each hand, and make a wish. She glided towards me, hips swaying with the music, fulsome lips slightly parted. Now if someone comes at you with their lips slightly parted, you have to kiss them, so I intended to do just that, and to fondle her breasts as well, and of course to enjoy the joy within her at the same time, but as she came near and I eagerly looked at her flat tummy, I awoke with a start – she had no navel! What did it mean?
Unless our lives are dreams we have wished upon ourselves, dreams rarely come true. If only I had kissed her lips and squeezed her magic breasts and wished that I would never wake up to this reality, I might have forgotten the difference between dreams and reality, and enjoyed an orgasmic life with the woman of my dreams – the existential ace cannot exist alone: there must always be another for number one to be. But one must be careful what one wishes for, and it might be best not to wish for anything at all lest the source completely dries up.
Tracey’s breasts might have shrunk with my every wish, just as did the skin of the wild ass in Balzac’s instructive story, Le Peau de Chagrin – The Skin of Chagrin. Raphael of Valentine, the impoverished young protagonist of Balzac’s story, had discovered the secret of success in the human will, and he had in fact drafted a seminal work on the subject. In sum, he believed in the power of passionate thinking to achieve anything one wants. But his grinding poverty belied his theory, or rather some obscure fault in him rendered him unable to prove it true in his case, so one day he resolved to drown himself in the river Seine, after losing his last gold piece at the gambling parlor. As disaffected youth knows very well, suicide is the most obvious solution to life’s problems, but most of us survive the troubling years.
“There is something great and terrible about suicide,” observed Balzac in Chagrin. “Most people’s downfalls are not dangerous; they are like children who have not far to fall, and cannot injure themselves; but when a great nature is dashed down, he is bound to fall from a height. He must have been raised almost to the skies; he has caught glimpses of some heaven beyond his rich. Vehement must be the storms by which compel a soul to seek for peace from the trigger of a pistol.”
Now the late Tracey Flagler, who was an aspiring author among other things, certainly would have appreciated Raphael’s predicament as much as I do: “How much young power starves and pines away in a garret for want of a friend, for lack of a woman’s consolation, in the midst of millions of fellow-creatures, in the presence of a listless crowd that is burdened by its wealth! When one remembers all this, suicide looms large. Between a self-sought death and the abundant hopes which call a man to Paris, God only knows what may intervene; what contending ideas have striven within the soul; what poems have been set aside; what moans and what despair have been repressed; what abortive masterpieces and vain endeavors! Every suicide is an awful poem of sorrow. Where will you find a work of genius floating above the seas of literature that one can compare with this paragraph: Yesterday, at four o’clock, a young woman threw herself into the Seine from the Pont des Arts.”
As Raphael treads his melancholic path to the river, he encounters two beggars along the way, on old man and a child; they pled for his charity, he flings his remaining small change at them, and continues towards his fate. But he decides to wait until dark to forever extinguish his passionate will, lest he be seen and fished out of the water alive by the suicide-prevention institution, ‘THE ROYAL HUMANE SOCIETY’S APPARATUS’, which has a shed nearby. Much to his posthumous dishonor, the record of his attempt would then be published in the paper.
Wherefore Raphael entered an antique store to pass the time, and there he eventually encounters the proprietor, a centenarian, one of those types that serve artists so well as models for Moses:
“The craftiness of an inquisitor, revealed in those curving wrinkles and creases that wound about his temples, indicated a profound knowledge of life. There was no deceiving this man, who seemed to possess a power of detecting the secrets of the wariest hearth. The wisdom and the moral codes of every people seemed gathered up in his passive face, just as all the productions of the globe had been heaped up in his dusty showrooms. He seemed to possess a power of detecting the secrets of the wariest heart.”
The wise old Jew was iconoclast who wanted nothing, therefore he wound up with it all, including an antique shop full of curious from his carefree travels all over the world. We venture to invent a maxim here – if it has already been penned by another, our plagiary is pardonable: He who wants for nothing has everything.
“I have attained everything,” uttered the old man, “because I have known how to despise all things. My one ambition has been to see. Is not Sight in a manner Insight? And to have knowledge or insight, is not that to have instinctive possession? To be able to discover the very substances of fact and to unite its essence to our essence? Of material possession what abides with you but an idea? Think, then, how glorious must be the life of a man who can stamp all realities upon his thought, place the springs of happiness within himself, and draw thence uncounted pleasures in idea, unsoiled by earthly stains. Thought is the key to all treasures; the miser’s gains are ours without his cares…. The true millions lie here,” he said, striking his forehead.
The wizened wise merchant had something in store, a curio that he felt would be most suitable for Raphael’s distraught state: “Without compelling you to entreat me, without making you blush for it…I will make you richer, more powerful, and of more consequence than a constitutional king…. Turn round, look at that leather skin,” he went on, using his lamp to illuminate the talisman, a portion skin from a wild ass, stamped with the Seal of Solomon, no bigger than a fox’s skin, gleaming on the opposite wall, upon which something was inscribed in Sanskrit. Raphael, highly educated as he was, translated the exotic script into English:
POSESSING ME THOU SHALT POSSESS ALL THINGS, BUT THY LIFE IS MINE, FOR GOD HAS SO WILLED IT. WISH, AND THY WISHES SHALL BE FULFILLED; BUT MEASURE THY DESIRES, ACCORDING TO THE LIFE THAT IS IN THEE. THIS IS THY LIFE, WITH EACH WISH I MUST SHRINK EVEN AS THY OWN DAYS. WILT THY HAVE ME? TAKE ME. GOD WILL HARKEN UNTO THEE. SO BE IT!
Raphael asked the merchant if it was some sort of joke, or, then again, was it an enigma? The old coot responded, in part, “Before you came here, you made up your mind to kill yourself, but all at once a mystery fills your mind, and you think no more about death. You child!” And, “I am a centenarian with a couple of years to spare, and a millionaire to boot. Misery was the making of me, ignorance had made me learned. I will tell you in a few words the great secret of human life. By two instinctive processes man exhausts the springs of life within him. Two verbs cover all the forms which these two causes of death may take – To Will and To have your Will…. To Will consumes us, and To have our Will destroys us, but To Know steeps our feeble organisms in perpetual calm. In me Thought has destroyed Will, so that Power is relegated to the ordinary functions of my economy. In a word, it is not in the heart which can be broken, nor in the senses that become deadened, but it is in the brain that cannot waste away and survives everything else, that I have set my life.” Moreover, “Is not the utmost brightness of the ideal world soothing to us, while the lightest shadows of the physical world annoy? Is not knowledge the secret of wisdom? And what is folly but a riotous expenditure of Will or Power?”
“Very good then, a life of riotous expense for me!” Raphael rebelliously exclaimed. I had resolved my existence into thought and study, and yet they have not even supported me. I am not gulled by a speech worthy of Swedenborg, nor by your Oriental amulet….” Raphael then proceeded to wish upon the Skin of Chagrin for, in short, a life of boon companions for the riotous enjoyment of fine wine, passionate women, and, it goes without saying, song, culminating in no less than orgasmic joy: “I bid this enigmatic power to concentrate all delights for me in one single joy. Yes, I must comprehend every pleasure of earth and heaven in the final embrace that is to kill me.”
“Joy, joy, joy, joy, joy…!” Tracey Flagler had reiterated longingly during the lonely lucubration before her disappointing demise. The wishes Raphael made came true, and each truth shrank the magic skin along with his life, for that skin of a wild ass was his own ass, so to speak. But Tracey’s wishes did not come true. Her heart shriveled in despair, and she overdosed herself with the drugs her psychiatrist had prescribed to relieve her melancholy, having saved up several prescriptions for a dire emergency.
If only she had met Raphael, and he had become her Balzac, they might have lived a longer life on the average, and had a great deal of fun in the meantime. No doubt the bejeweled Madame Tracey of Valentine would have hosted a most charming Parisian salon. She would not have the billions of an Oprah, but powerful gentlemen would marvel at her breathtaking beauty, as if she were Madame Recamier herself, and, like Madame Recamier’s great friend Madame de Staël, Madame Tracey would probably enchant the likes of Napoleon with her popular gift of gab. Madame de Staël’s books are rarely read today, and are roundly criticized as mediocre, but none other summed up the society of her time so well. Madame de Staël and Napoleon were unwilling to share power over the minds of influential men, so he exiled her – Madame Recamier was charged with the crime of visiting her. Her exile gave her cause to contemplate suicide in her tome, Reflections on Suicide.
“Inordinate misery makes people think about suicide,” wrote Baronne Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holsten (nëe Necker). “We need not be afraid of devoting too much time to this subject –it is at the heart of mankind’s whole moral organization. I flatter myself that I can offer a few new insights into the motives that lead us to suicide, and those that should turn us away from it.”
Like every one else, I have considered suicide. First of all, I desperately opined, it is impossible for god to kill himself. But what could god do with eternity but to create something to break the boredom? I was moved to become the greatest author the world would ever or never know, the author who managed to cremate himself with his own works. At present I am writing the second draft of the seventh volume of my planned fifty-volume suicide note. To whom am I writing? Unhappy people.
“Unhappy people are the ones to write for,” wrote Madame de Staël. “People who have the good things of the world learn only from their experience, and consider abstract ideas on any topic nothing but wasted time. Sufferers are different: reflection is their safest refuge. Isolated from the distractions of society by misfortune, they examine themselves like an invalid tossing on his bed of pain, seeking the least agonizing position they can find.”
“It would be so nice if I had enough reasons to want to be here,” reads an entry in Tracey’s diary. “The idea that there are an infinite number of reasons to live thrilled me at first, but I don’t have one of them for myself. Right now I HATE, HATE, HATE – I HATE being alive – I want to be alive but it sucks to be alive –I HATE this culture based on the fun I don’t have – I HATE drugs and alcohol – I HATE Abraham – I HATE myself for not taking responsibility for him – I HATE being sad all the time – I wish I were dead and I wish Abraham were dead so I could stop loving him – I HATE thinking that I will not love someone so much again – I’m trying to tap into true love and the humans like Oprah Winfrey and Madonna and Jerry and Esther Hicks and Neale Donald Walsch and Jane Roberts and Robert Butts and Pat Rodegast and Judith Stanton and Napoleon Hill, people who have found true love – I know in my heart I’m so good but I HATE myself for not having their fun. Have I had fun here? That is the question. No, I am not having fun now. That is what all the reasons to live are really for, to have FUN! Do I want to be here? No, I wish I were dead, dead, DEAD! But my book makes me feel better. I have fun when writing it. I would have fun teaching people JOY. I know Oprah would love my book, and she would have me on her show, and I would have plenty of money and be secure, and I could finally relax, take a permanent vacation from all these stupid people who don’t have any imagination, who don’t know they can create their own planets and live on them with their own lovers, like my Abraham, and then I would have fun all the time. Joy, joy, joy, JOY would be forever mine! ”
If only Tracey could be around to see Honoré de Balzac appear on the Oprah Winfrey show: Oh what wisdom he would impart to our bourgeois world! It is a world that was already well on its way in Balzac’s day. Balzac cut his literary teeth anonymously, as a potboiler formula writer. The formulas are rather simple, rooted in the motivational principles of human nature, but they are better kept a trade secret, for an audience loves to be deceived, and a disillusioned audience will not maintain the trade. Love does not abhor a secret, and, neither does Oprah, but she would not have to be embarrassed with the revelation that our masterful novelist was a profligate fraud burdened by insurmountable debts due to his spendthrift ways. She would no doubt appreciate a confident man who was able to exchange novels for his staggering debts even before the novels were conceived let alone written.
Nonfiction authors lie a lot to tell a little truth. Great novelists lie a little to tell great truths. In any event, if it were not for the human imagination, next to nothing would get said or done. Honoré de Balzac, like his bureaucratic father before him, fancied himself as entitled to a title, but also the fun life that goes with it. He naturally fell in love with a fabulously wealthy Russian countess, who was so kind as to provide funds from time to time, and to finally marry him after putting her fortune in a trust he could not get at, but who in the end was more interested in shopping for jewelry than in his deteriorating health, as that was his problem, not hers. Oprah Winfrey would probably be much to his liking, and even the more so given their mutual interest in the occult. He wanted millions and lost a great deal of other people’s money trying to get them, but money was not the cause of the monomania he attributed to his characters; rather, there was some sort of energy, an essential force or elemental power underlying reality, and, despite his business failures, he thought that thought concentrated by that force was bound to succeed for good or ill. Yes, the occult power of thinking could be misdirected to negative as well as positive ends hence could be an enormously destructive power – monists speak enthusiastically of the creative-destructive power.
Balzac’s own life was a grandiose wish for love, fame and fortune. His pursuit of happiness despite every failure unto his premature end, has blessed our self-loving, money-grubbing culture with an everlasting self-portrait of great beauty. At the end of the day, human history seems to be a mistake for which we have due cause for chagrin. On the other hand, since this is the best of all possible worlds because it is the only one immediately available, we have cause for joy as well, for without the great expectations that lead to so many disappointments, life would not be worth living.
Tracey Flagler misunderstood eternity, I opined today as I relished some of the chocolate I retrieved from her apartment. Eternity is exhausting, but only in the sense that it relieves us of time altogether, hence we are relieved therewith of our anxiety over the future. Eternity is not time, it has no moments. Eternity does not go on forever and ever: Eternity is immovable. Eternity is that Better Place funereal preachers refer to in order to console the living. There is no stuff to want or to worry about in that placeless place. There is neither North nor South, nor East nor West, in eternity: The rivers of milk and honey in the East and the emerald trees laden with precious gems in the West are exotic fictions piously designed to lure the vulgar onto the exoteric paths that converge at the occluded centre of the universe, the centre that is and is not, the centre that is at once everywhere and nowhere, the pointless point of it all. May we enjoy everything besides the point.
“Take me, and God will harken unto thee!” If the Skin of Chagrin has been wizened by desire down to nothing, then may we have faith in Nothing, the Negatively Existent One. Only Nothing is perfect. The rest is for naught, so let us have as much fun as we can, even though we might suffer for it. Perhaps if we cared less about fun, and stopped making ourselves miserable for the want of it, we would have a lot more of it.
TO BE CONTINUED
THE RAVISHING LOUISE COLET
A FOOTNOTE TO
PYTHIATISM AND THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Gustav Flaubert, conservative republican, and Jean Paul Sartre, a Marxist, had their promiscuity in common if not their politics. Still, while writing his psychoanalytical biography of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, Sartre was no doubt nauseated by Flaubert’s abusive treatment of the ravishing and ravished Louise Colet, paramour to several notables of her day. The liberal Sartre has ample respect for the female sex, while Flaubert’s attitude was characteristically vulgar:
“Woman, a vulgar animal…. Woman is a production of man; she is a mere result of civilization, a factitious creature.” His moral disgust for Flaubert’s contemptuous intercourse with women aggravated his belief that Flaubert was a sick representative of a sick society, someone under the influence of perverse suggestions, a psychological malady he associated with “pithiatism.”
Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir
Sartre had remained loyal to author Simone de Beauvoir in their open relationship and supported her philosophical writing as well while she carried on with others, but Flaubert kept prize-winning poetess Colet at arm’s length most of the time, using her upon occasion to suit his lascivious or his literary needs, then jilting her. She was finally so offended that she wrote a get-even counter-novel to Madame Bovary, entitled LUI A View of Him, painting him as a florid-faced womanizing buffoon and upstart writer. Flaubert’s friend George Sand denounced the novel, in scatalogical terms, as an excretion in a chamber pot.
The beautiful Madame Louise Colet whose idols were the heroines of the French Revolution was the inspiration for Madame Bovary if not the model although Flaubert would say “she is me.” He met Colet in 1846 in a studio where she was posing for a sculptor who was creating a death mask of his dearly departed sister, Caroline. She was a dozen years older than he—he preferred older women—and she recognized the value of his work long before others did so.
A man may Exist as an individual thing but he needs others to Be. Flaubert, isolated as he was by his solitary writing endeavor, needed an Other to be somebody, someone to recognize him and thus verify his existence as a human being. Yet he remained faithful to the imaginative life; in his case, to art for art’s sake.
His on-and-off relationship with Louise over eight years was tumultuous; that is, romantic, at least from her perspective—he referred to it as “a very long irritation.” He kept her at a comfortable distance, in Paris, while writing Madame Bovary at his countryside hermitage. He preferred writing letters to her over making love with her. As far as he was concerned, love for a woman is a secondary affair; above all, a real man pours himself into his work. He took occasional breaks from his Sisyphean task to pen letters about Madame Bovary to his lady love in Paris, whom he visited but would not or could not live with.
Louise Colet nee Revoil (1810-1876) was not just another vulgar nobody with good looks from the southern countryside; she was somebody in her own right, a journalist and romantic poet, and a professional one at that. She settled in Paris in 1835 with her impecunious husband, Monsieur Hyppolyte Colet, a flautist and composer, who gave up trying to control her appearance and every move, and, instead, became a “discreet” husband. She soon won the 2,000 franc prize for poetry at the Académie Française—she would win it three more times, setting a record for women.
It was not long before she established a salon, in modest quarters but attended by the capital’s most progressive intellectuals. Her cause at the Academy was not hindered by her lover who was a member there, Victor Cousin, the eclectic philosopher and director of education whose Platonic-leaning philosophy was branded Spiritualism—Hegel accused him of stealing his “soup”—a Spirit-enlivened brand that was much appreciated by the New England Transcendentalists in America. His theories had a profound influence on education in the United States.
Colet lived and breathed High Romanticism in her youth. She greatly admired women martyred in the Revolution. George Sand thought Colet was talented but going in the wrong direction with her writing; she chided her for admiring Charlotte Corday, who assassinated Jean-Paul Marat in 1793, and Madame Roland, who was executed for treason and for betraying her sex—Sand at that time favored the radical Jacobin party while republican-minded Colet sided with the Girondin moderates.
Colet was subject to Romantic histrionics: in 1840, when she was almost nine months’ pregnant with her daughter, she stabbed Alphonse Karr, an anti-feminist critic, in the back after he had publicly identified Cousin, whom he hated, as the child’s father—Cousin was providing support for the child. The knife hit bone and glanced off; Karr hung it on the wall of his apartment as a memento of the backstabbing. Colet’s discreet husband praised her valor, and Cousin flattered her with this epigram: “I am a quintessential woman, but I know how to act like a man.”
As for her beauty, Colet and was not remiss in flaunting it. She believed beauty was classically a very good and wonderful thing; she complained that it was being dishonored by pious Christian women. She put hers to romantic use in affairs with Victor Cousin, Gustave Flaubert, Alfred de Musset, and Alfred de Vigny.
The reason for a woman’s success is debatable when she is extraordinarily beautiful. Some women, for instance, Colet’s beautiful friend Madame Récamier, enjoyed an unusually exalted status in Paris because of the intelligence they demonstrated in their salons. Their wit was accepted as equal to men’s, and their gracious virtues were literally worshiped by romantic gallants; such “great” women, who have been credited with civilizing many noblemen, were not merely show pieces on pedestals. Nonetheless, sexual politics were such that anti-woman polemics were rife in mid-nineteenth century France; the antipathy was perhaps due to the fear of reversion to one of the horrors of the Revolution: radical women donning men’s attire and taking up arms, and the pen as well.
Colet was a lady writer, heaven forbid, following in the professional footsteps of socialist George Sand, who had once donned men’s clothes, grown a mustache and smoked cigars. It was presumed that a lady who made her living writing must not be a lady, but a hermaphrodite, or, a lesbian with masculine tendencies.
Colet was referred to by critics as a pushy woman of letters; her poetry was dismissed as merely imitative of superior poets; her success, her prizes and pension, was attributed to Cousin’s sponsorship. Even he had his doubts about women of letters; love a secret does not abhor: sometime after their affair ended, he expressed misgivings about literary women, and said their “secret beauties” should not be vulgarly exposed by booksellers.
We hesitate to characterize Colet as a ‘courtesan,’ for she supported herself with her writing and lived independently. ‘Paramour’ suits her where love is adulterous. Adultery was rather normal in those days, something Parisians to this day seem to excel at without much suffering.
Colet’s poetry was appreciated by a few critics during her time. She has lately been refashioned into a feminist heroine, recently by Francine du Plessix Gray in Rage & Fire: A Life of Louise Colet.
Flaubert, whose fame was assured with Madame Bovary, pledged lifetime loyalty to her and her daughter, but the relationship did not last long. She was especially incensed by a mocking reference, in Madame Bovary, to a gift she had given him during their affair, a cigarette case with a family jewel inscribed with ‘Amor nel cor’ (Love in my heart), a gift he referred to in his novel as a signet ring thus inscribed, given by Emma Bovary to Rudolphe. Colet took her revenge in her poem, ‘Amor nel cor’:
It was for him, for him, whom she loved like a god;
For him, callous to all human sorrow, uncouth to women. Alas, she was poor and had little to give But all gifts are sacred that incarnate a soul.
Well, in a novel of traveling-salesman style, As nauseating as a toxic wind, He mocked the gift in a flat-footed phrase, Yet kept the fine agate seal.
Colet fell into the arms of Musset, and wrote the novel, LUI—A View Of Him, to compete with Madame Bovary. Musset was the basis for the novel’s “him,” whom the novel’s heroine resisted in order to be true to the character Colet modeled after Flaubert. He said her effusion had sealed their relationship with a “funereal bouquet.”
LUI did not sell well in French. The 1859 novel has been translated into English by Marilyn Gaddis Rose, and is worth reading.
A FOOTNOTE TO
PYTHIATISM AND SARTRE’S THE FAMILY IDIOT
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Gustav Flaubert, frustrated romantic proponent of French realism, did not exist therefore behave in the way that his biographer Jean Paul Sartre wanted him to exist; that is, according to Sartre’s universal definition of existence, which is, although Sartre put existence before being, really a mode of being, i.e. being responsible for oneself according to a Marxist psychologist’s desire.
Flaubert, according to Sartre’s psychoanalysis, could not help the way he was not himself, which unbeknown to him was a radical self; he was a phony, a victim of capitalist society. He was subject to a “pithiatic” form of neurosis. He was neurotic, not figuratively speaking, but in the sense of mental illness; he was mentally sickened by a sick i.e. bourgeois society.
Now a neurotic person is an unduly nervous one, a person who is anxious and emotional as the result of some invisible injury. He suffers from a psychic conflict between alternates, neither of which he wants to choose; say, between his ideal self, which others have propped up for him, and his real self, which he consequently despises when he falls short of the ideal. He is trapped between two hard rocks, and, in self-defense, works out an impractical compromise, an absurdity that condemns him to drag his cross around for the rest of his life.
Sartre’s obsessive, multivolume biography of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, appears to be a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black ad infinitum. Flaubert was not the social-utopia activist Sartre would have liked him to be, but he was a realistic activist indeed, in the sense that thinking and writing is symbolic activity; and his cynical depiction of bourgeois society in Madame Bovary, cynical because his depiction happened to be true, was just as liberating as Sartre’s self-involved or romantic existentialism, which was essentially a furthering of French Spiritualism or Voluntarism, not to mention Sartre’s own tendency to exhibit moral degeneracy for sake of drawing attention to scandals that everyone is “born in sin,” that is, as an individual necessarily varying from the Good of the Whole, naturally finds fascinating.
Indeed, Sartre, the foremost existentialist of the day, seems to have been suffering from existential pythiatism or neurotic existentialism. What is “existentialism”? The word was coined after the war by a jazz singer in a smoky Paris cellar club when an American reporter asked her what people were doing there. “Existentialism,” was her flippant response to the idiotic question. She said was “just existing,” something that people who hang out in bars are wont to do, especially if shell shocked by world war and downright sick and tired of the ideological neuroses and induced hysteria that led to that war. At least that is the legendary account.
Sartre would deny that he was an ideologue as he endeavored never to repeat himself and in doing so could not help saying the same thing in different ways to avoid platitudes and hackneyed phrases. A man grieving at Sartre’s massive funeral said he did not understand what Sartre had said, but he was obviously a great French philosopher so he was sad at his passing. Sartre’s work, however, is not incomprehensible, and is indeed ideological.
“Ideology,” incidentally, was a French term, coined by the Ideologues, who defined it as the science of ideas, meaning modern scientific thinking, which is as skeptical of being or ontological concepts as any so-called existentialist thought can be. But the term ideology would eventually be misidentified with so-called doctrinaire or rigid thinking. ‘Doctrinaire’ is another French term perverted from its original meaning; the Doctrinaires were more or less pragmatic political moderates. Thomas Jefferson was captivated by the original Ideologues: he supplanted Theology at his university with Ideologie; his friend John Adams was not so enthusiastic about the godless way of thinking, and dubbed the scientific methodology fad “idiotology.”
Intellectuals including Sartre disavowed so-called Existentialism at first, but eventually it behooved them to embrace the term after the press popularized it. The “Personalism” that was much enjoyed by religiously inclined French philosophers was overrun by the existentialist fad; Personalism emphasized the social person over individual existence, and was associated with the social notion of a Supreme Person; i.e. the Word made flesh in Jesus the Christ. A person or human being is an existential incarnation of being.
So what is an existentialist? An existentialist, first of all, thinks he can find his freedom in subjectivity. As a particular individual, he thinks he is solely responsible individual for his own actions including the symbolic action of thinking instead of relying on habitual culture or the rationalized systems of being such as religions with projected gods. There is no Subject of subject, no divine being beyond man to subject him to definition. Only self-consciousness transcends and thus defines self; I claim that I intuit myself, a self that is necessarily prior to thought. I think that I am therefore I am I. You see, I think for myself and therefore I negate everything else, what is not me, by way of distinguishing it from me, and nothing can pin me down because I am not a thing but am an immaterial negating force positing myself. Sartre posited reading and writing as the mode of establishing external evidence of subjective freedom from the bonds of time and space.
Existentialists seek the impossible, for language itself is not at all individual; it is a social tool dependent on and responsive to the will and suggestions of others. And there is no such thing as a singular absent at least one other, and another for comparison’s sake. Naturally the existence of an individual absent a transcendental Supreme Being is contingent on random configuration of circumstances. That is, the existent is accidentally defined instead of intentionally self-defined. An existentialist may attempt to describe the network of existents, necessarily in systematic or logical fashion if we are to understand his exposition, but existentialism is not in itself a systematic way of thinking at all, but rather consists of a collection of anxious and absurd reflections on the human predicament, particularly the predicament of a man’s individuality made most obvious to him by the disturbing fact of death.
Indeed, any sort of systematic existentialist thought put forward by a so-called existentialist would contradict the very premise of existentialism – thus did Sartre strive, at least in theory, never to repeat himself.
Not that Sartre was unaware of the contradictions of philosophical thinking including the fundamental antinomies that cause philosophy to be an unending circular enterprise, a case of the cat chasing its tail until it drops dead. He would readily admit that our attempts to set existentialism or any other ism for that matter in stone are absurd; in fact he was not an “existentialist” as some fool would try to define the term but was simply a philosopher tagged by the term. Whosoever solves the riddle gets to eat the guru and sit on the mat under the tree for the time being….
HARPIES AND MAGPIES
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
The ancient Greek myths still hold true today. This is evident to anyone who becomes familiar with those myths and takes a good look around. For instance, I have recently noticed the appearance of Harpies in the open publishing precincts of the literary world.
Harpies are variously described in the ancient literature. They are half-birds and half-maidens, sometimes depicted as carrion-eating vultures with women’s faces. Although the representations of Harpies are not always ugly, they are invariably weird.
Harpies were associated in ancient times with storms that caused men to disappear from the face of the earth; that is, they are terrible man-hating wind bags whose main endeavor is to blow men away. No doubt Harpies especially hate their long-winded competition, inspired authors, and are therefore mortal enemies of great literature. As wind-spirits, Harpies have also been associated with the ancient belief that ghosts impregnate mares; fleet-footed horses are born instead of human-bird creatures. No doubt Harpies use their equine offspring to spread their mischief throughout the world.
Yes, spreading mischief is the main occupation of Harpies. Their very name implies “snatchers”. They instinctively endeavor to steal the spirit of men, to suck the breath out of them, to leave them for dead.
The most famous mention of the Harpies is given in the story of the Argonauts, concerning the old blind and miserable king Phineus. Hesiod said Phineus was blinded by Helios because Phineus preferred a long life to eyesight. Another account has it that Phineus had two children by Cleopatra, daughter of the North Wind when she died, he remarried, and his new wife put him up to blinding her new stepchildren. As punishment for that deed, Zeus gave him the choice between death and blindness. Phineus chose blindness, which angered Helios so much that he punished him further by sending him the Harpies. The Harpies in turn snatched or befouled his food so that he nearly died of hunger. The Argonauts arrived and made a deal with him: they would get rid of the Harpies providing he showed them how to reach their goal (those who cannot see often have the gift of prophecy, while those who can see cannot find their way). Phineus gave them an outline and told them how to get through the Clashing Rocks. The Harpies were then killed or banished to the Strophades islands where they are bound by oath to remain. Vergil relates the encounter of Aeneas and his crew with the Harpies there.
It was on the shores of the Strophades first I landed The Strophades–as the Greeks call them–are islands In the great Ionian sea and there the appalling Celaeno And the rest of the Harpies have lived since the house of Phineus Was closed against them and they were driven by fear From the tables where they had gorged themselves in the past. No more disgusting monster nor plague more cruel Nor agent of heaven’s anger more dire than these Was ever thrust up from the Stygian waters. They were birds with the features of young girls, their droppings Were utterly nauseous, their hands had talons, Their faces eternally pinched and pale with hunger. Here we made landfall and when we entered the harbor We saw rich herds of cattle everywhere At graze about the plains and goats at pasture With none to guard them, so we rushed upon them Weapons in hand, and called upon the gods, Even great Jove himself, to share our plunder. Then we spread seats along the curving shore And addressed ourselves to a delicious banquet. But suddenly with a horrifying swoop Down from the mountain eyries stooped the Harpies With a great clattering of wings and ripped The feast in fragments and fouled everything With their filthy contact–they stank revoltingly, And screeched appallingly–So once again We set our tables, moved our altars and kindled Their fires in a deep recess hidden beneath An overhang of rock and hedged in by trees But once again, from a different quarter of sky, The raucous flock swooped down from their hidden lairs And fluttered around their prey with their hooked claws And fouled the feast with their mouths. Then I commanded My comrades to take up arms: we must wage war On the loathsome tribe. Obedient to my order They unsheathed their swords, hiding them in the grass, And covered up their shields. Then, when the sound Of their swooping wings was heard along the shore Mineus blew a trumpet blast from his lookout High on a rock. My comrades charged and engaged In a new form of battle–trying to wound These disgusting birds of the sea. But however hard They struck they could not even mark their feathers Nor inflict wounds on their backs–they simply escaped By soaring quickly into the sky and leaving Half-eaten food and a trail of filty behind. But one of them, Celaeno, perched on a spur Of rock, and spoke–a prophetess of woe. ‘You have slaughtered our cattle, you have felled our bullocks– Do you mean to make war to justify your deeds, True kindred of Laomedon? To make war And drive us Harpies, blameless as we are From our ancestral home? Listen to me! Take heed of my words and fix them in your minds! The prophecy the Almighty Father Jove Imparted to Phoebus Apollo and he, Apollo, Imparted it to me, chief of the Harpies, And now it is mine to impart the words to you, Your course is set for Italy. Summon the winds, They shall obey, to Italy you shall go, You shall be granted entry to a harbor. But you shall not put one stone upon another To encircle your fated city with its walls Before the utmost pangs of ravenous hunger Force you to gnaw at and wolf your very tables In payment of your brutal assault upon us!’ So saying she flew off and swiftly fled Into the wood. My comrades’ blood went cold With sudden dread. They had no more heart to fight But bid me sue for peace with prayer and vows– Whether these creatures were goddesses indeed Or vile and disgusting birds….”
The Harpies had been minding their own business in Vergil’s account of them, and merely retaliated for Aeneas’ offensive landing. Nevertheless, the Harpies’ oath to stay on their own island apparently did not bind them fast in respect to brilliant authors. I happen to know the Harpies are flitting all over the world today doing the most damage they can. I just encountered one. She is the foster child of a Magpie.
The Magpie family is famous, of course, for generating chatterboxes who do not know what they are talking about; therefore they fill the world up with their blather. Magpies are relatively harmless, however, and many of them become fine authors. After all, one has to start somewhere, and practice makes perfect.
Some Magpies, when frustrated by their own failures, try to become literary critics in order to feel better about themselves by dictating lessons to other writers, many of whom become or are already chattering critics themselves. Nonetheless, not much harm is done, as the growth of the Magpie family merely provides a mediocre platform for great artists to look down upon and to make occasional exalted comments about. After all, only an imbecile would be taken in by the critical clichés being constantly harped by Magpies.
Take for instance, the cliché against polysyllabic words. There was once a time when every speaker knew that his spoken syllables ran together, and that the punctuations of the written language are conventions that, unfortunately in many cases, do not express the continuous aspect of natural expression. Indeed, in ancient Greece, the writing itself was not punctuated the following sort of sentences might appear, to be easily understood by the pupil:
Or, take the plain language cliche that favors people who do not want to look up rarely used words in dictionaries. If the critical magpie bothered to look up more words, she might eventually find out that she is a member of, figuratively speaking, a psitaceous family.
Two anecdotes are due here. One, I am reminded of a man whose Hawaiian name is nearly a yard long. Two, I remember how ecstatic I was when, while I was writing a brilliant essay about the loss of parliamentary hereditary privileges by the Lords, I encountered the first opportunity in my life to use the word antidisestablishmentarianism!
But away with the Magpies! I brought them up because one of them adopted a Harpy whom I recently observed perched in the comment facility on the edge of my own website nest at now defunct Themestream.com. It was not a courtesy call, for Harpies know nothing about courtesy; I gave her a chance to be courteous, to no avail; I visited her nest politely, affording her an opportunity to be hospitable, again to no avail. Instead, she returns again and again to my territory to harp critical clichés learned from the Magpie family. Her own nest is a mess but she wants to tell my guests that I am a bad housekeeper, which is to say she thinks my guests are imbeciles She address herself to my readers in the comment boxes:
“Attention Readers, this author is lousy and does not know what he is talking about. He is a wind bag, a word machine. Do not bother to subscribe to or to read him.”
She does not stop there: the aspersion is at least 200 words long. She is following her mythological instinct as she tries to foul the food I have set out for myself and my guests. What she hates most of all is my free speech. If she had her way, she would snatch away my free spirit and smother it rather than mother it.
I do not really mind because although she would foul my nest with her droppings, I simply use them as more grist for the literary mill; her leavings are in fact pretty good fertilizer. Besides, there are two ways of dealing with Harpies, short of hailing the Argonauts:
One: every time they visit, greet them with a curse. The disadvantage of this method is that Harpies actually thrive on curses, so one must have just the right formula (I shall consult with a good witch on that subject).
Two: the advantage of the disadvantage of the first solution is that traffic increases dramatically when the Harpy keeps coming back to abuse authors, drawing the whole flock of Harpies. Sometimes a thousand might be recruited to come back to an author’s nest to work their mischief. Money per click can be made off the trafficking in abuse. Fame or infamy makes a fortune in this kaliyuga–shit sells, does it not?
Increased traffic and monetary rewards are appreciated even more when the defamed artist knows his underlying works are actually brilliant, profound, and sophisticated and also virtuous according to the radical, classic standards of Liberty. Like the noble statue covered with pigeon droppings in the public square, his works stand stalwart in their heroic poses under the leavings of the fleeting flocks of Harpies.
Alas, if that secret got out, the Harpies might get wise and take an oath to never return again to those shining precincts.
I must leave off here, for birds are singing on my lanai as I speak. I want to feed them right away, for I remember how the Argonauts got through the Clashing Rocks.
Quoted: THE AENEID, Transl. Patric Dickinson, NY: Mentor, 1961
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
I’ll try to keep this brief, no more than 1,700 words, but that might be difficult considering the lather I have worked myself into. Two cups of Kona coffee are partly to blame for my frenzy. Two cups would launch anybody into outer space. That is why the Big Island of Hawaii is believed to be an excellent place to launch satellites over the polluted, overtaxed dead bodies of local environmentalists and tax resisters who oppose space projects. I have also heard that a Big Island gang of yahoos called the Crater Heads have taken up snorting Kona coffee crystals when they are not at Volcano National Park inhaling the sulfurous fumes. Whew, way cool, I suppose.
But what really got me going this morning was further evidence that the Internet is not doing what it is supposed to be doing, expanding people’s consciousness. Rather, it is shrinking their brains, and that is especially tragic since I suspect many brains were already severely foreshortened before the Internet became available.
I had just posted ‘Hysterical Woman’, my liberal effort to explain why women have good reasons to behave hysterically, and why men should heed their screams. I think the article is about 750 words in length. I didn’t run a word count, although I suppose I should always do so in this calculating age.
A reader immediately made a comment that my article was too long. He was so kind to advise me that Internet articles should only be 350 words, otherwise people will just pass them by. He didn’t take the time to read my name, misspelling it twice in his comment. And to top it off, his ‘too’ was too short, as he dropped an ‘o’ off his ‘too’ and made it ‘to’, not that I am picky, but I couldn’t help notice it.
I just had to talk to someone about the comment. I disagreed with it, yet I was somewhat worried since my pieces are always more than 750 words, and usually more than 1,000. It just so happened that my friend Valery Valium was at the Coffee Cove where I was churning the “issue” over in my head. I went over and sat down beside her.
“Valery, I’ve got a problem.”
“You mean an issue. What is it?”
“A reader has complained that one of my articles is too long, that it should be only 350 words in length.”
“Talk about the short attention spans on the Internet, but this takes the cake. I mean, why do people even bother to click on my work if they can’t concentrate for the two or three minutes it would take the average 1957 high school graduate to comprehend a thousand words? It’s like people cannot even give you a minute of their time on the Net. So why don’t they just keep on moving instead of leaving a comment beginning with, ‘No offense, but…’ Yeah, right – why say ‘No offense’ if no offense is on the mind in the first place?”
“I know, Dave. You always know they are thinking about offending you when they begin with, ‘No offense.’ The offense invariably comes right after the ‘but.’ But maybe your article was too long for the Net.”
“Damn the Net! It’s the Typhon prophets warned about!”
“What? Typhon?” Valery gave a mock look of alarm. “Sounds like the anti-Christ or something,”
“I mean Typhon, the dragon with the burning heads and millions of long serpent legs, the hurricane, the typhoon, the computer monitors, the wires, the whirling…”
“Dave, calm down. Here, have one of these,” Valery recommended, reaching for her silver pill box.
“No thanks, I’m fine. Val, this so-called reader does not even bother to spell my name right. And of course he doesn’t use his real name, whatever it is. He must be ashamed or just running scared, leaving a ridiculous pseudonym behind, a silly evasive symbol. I’ve seen it all over the place, in snotty, snide little comments on articles and in the forum.”
“He might be a juvenile, maybe SED,” Val interjected. “But no wonder he doesn’t use his real name. Maybe you’d like to belt him one.”
“Nah, I don’t think so. It’s not him really. It’s just that he is so representative of the kind of mice being bred by the Internet culture. I saw his handiwork at the forum the other day. He starts one forum after another, then flits all over the place like a social butterfly trying to regulate everyone else’s behavior. And he writes like he reads, in little discombobulated bits and pieces here and there. He’s a scatterbrain who needs to pull himself together, write a 7,500-word, how-to article on how to organize thoughts. No, it’s not really him. I’ve encountered this many, many times, Valery, and I swear the great dissolution is upon us, the brains are getting shorter and shorter…”
“Don’t complain like that around them, or they won’t bother to click on your work,” Valery advised.
“Somebody had better make a good profession out of complaining about this stuff pretty soon, or the world’s going down the tubes!” I raved. “Short brains, that’s the problem! How do these people get out of school?”
“Dave, chill out, just give them a break, listen to what they say, you might learn something.”
“Learn something from short brains? We worked our brains hard when I was a kid. I already had a college reading level in the fourth grade. Hell, I was reading Dickens at age eight. I wrote my first 5,000-word short story at age ten. We could concentrate back then! But today’s reader is so anxious to click on something else for fear of missing something, all he can do is scan and click, scan and click, clickety, clickety, clack! And what is there but hackneyed hash, so much of it that readers fall asleep if they are not constantly being stimulated by packs of junkyard dogs presided over by bickering trash lords.”
“Dave, you and I know that people who use the Internet a lot are mostly nitwits or people without a life,” Valerie calmly observed, “but just as traders say ‘Don’t fight the tape,’ you must not fight your readers if you are posting on the Net. Amateurs write for themselves, professionals write for their audience. Hey, if you don’t like the Internet audience, then log out. The user is always right, you know, no matter how much you hate him, so follow your reader’s advice and limit your articles to 350 words, or insert 350-word page breaks. Also use plenty of hypertext links in pretty colors for people to click on – make them feel like they are doing something, going places, you know. And stay out of the forums, they are a waste of time, just closets full of moldy mops that need to be rinsed out after being dragged around on the same old floor so long. Anyway, you are dead wrong about the short brains.”
“Because the size of a brain has nothing to do with its capacity.”
“I know, Val, but I was speaking figuratively. Anyway, thanks for letting me vent on you. I just wanted to point out that…”
“Sure you don’t want something to relax before you vomit?” Valery offered a black pill.
“O guess I am spewing forth. Sorry. No, no thanks. I think I’ll have some more coffee, I feel like I’m running down now…”
“That’s better,” Valery smiled broadly. “Dave, lighten up a bit. People do not have short brains in the physical sense.”
“Well, then, they have footballs for brains,” I presented an alternative. “When kids graduate from college, they are handed a football: ‘Here is your brain, use it well,’ they are told.”
“Very funny! A pigskin for a diploma! Still, people can concentrate now just as much as they could thousands of years ago. It’s just that they do not want to concentrate today unless it will get them grades or money.”
“Egads, may Zeus save us from them! No wonder Pythia was shrieking in Miami the other day about the sinister stuff going on in America.”
“Forget Miami. And don’t blame the Internet. It’s just a tool. Just keep writing, keep your stuff short and sweet, and be sure use lots of page breaks.”
“Alright already, I guess I really found a sympathetic shoulder. Say, I just thought of something Herodotus mentioned.”
“Herodotus, an ancient historian. He said that, when Xerxes asked what prize does the victor receive at the Olympian games, he was told the winner is rewarded with a wreath of wild olive. A man named Tritantaechmes then exclaimed: ‘Heavens, Mardonius, what manner of men are these against whom thou has brought us to fight! men who contend not for money, but for honor!’
“I see, I think. What are you writing for?” Valery asked.
“I write to think, to exist.”
“Then why are you complaining? Go ahead and think and exist.”
“But I would also like to break up the cobwebs in people’s minds, set them free.” I said after a long pause.
“Then why are you demanding they conform to your rules? That’s just another cobweb, another trap.”
“But it annoys me that so many people want to be fed with regurgitated pap, to live like termites. Some of them are so lazy they won’t even reach for the breast, for crying out loud.”
“Oh, get off that kick. Just say what you have to say and let them think for themselves,” Valery urged, “then you will be serving your cause. And keep it short.”
“O.K., I’ll take that under consideration when presenting my next tirade. Maybe I’m the guy with short brains. Thanks, Val.”