In his essay The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experiences after taking a dose of mescaline. At the end of the book, he makes this observation:
That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. […] And for private, for everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants. All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots – all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial.
The use of the term Artificial Paradises by Huxley refers to a book by Charles Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels, which describes Baudelaire’s experiences with hashish. Just as men have longed “to escape, [...] to transcend themselves”, so have writers tried to capture the experience on the page.
Let’s call these attempts to capture the drug experience in printed form "literature of substance" -- "substance" being a word used by David Foster Wallace to very effectively describe agents that get you high, ranging from weed to peyote, and encompassing alcohol and all other chemical and natural concoctions that are used by mankind to escape or transcend.
I'm still on my Jacques Derrida kick! I've spent a week surfing his works and reading the exciting biography Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters (as recommended to me by a commenter to last weekend's Derrida post).
I now realize how ridiculous it is that I've never studied Derrida or the other deconstructionists and poststructuralists before, since they cover many of the same themes I've been long obsessed with: ethics, language, personal identity, political activism. I now find Derrida deftly reaching the same kinds of conclusions I have been groping towards (but, I'm sure, with much less finesse and skill) in these pages. In short, I feel like I've been a deconstructionist/post-structuralist all my life, but I didn't know it until now.
Years ago, I used to think about oranges, and wonder what I could do about the fact that sometimes an orange just doesn't taste as good as an orange should taste. What is the essence of an orange? How is it possible that something could be an orange but not contain or present the essence of an orange? The more I explored this question, the more new questions it raised. Is an orange called an orange because its color is orange, or is the color orange named after the fruit? If the former, then what would we possibly call the color if the fruit didn't exist? If the latter, then what is the meaning of the blood orange, which has a tart ultra-orange-y taste, but is a lurid red?
The taste of an orange is just as distinct as the color, but as every orange-eater knows, you sometimes pop a slice from a newly peeled orb into your mouth and feel instantly disappointed. All too often an orange tastes like nothing -- flat, fibrous, chewy, watery nothing. Well, way back when I was a kid, I sometimes used to lick a spoon (disgusting, I know, but I was just a kid) and stick it into the jar of Tang orange drink powder that my Mom kept around the house for me. Now that was the essence of orange.
(Interestingly, I never really cared much to drink Tang, which tasted like Kool-Aid and didn't have much tang at all, but I liked to lick the spoon. I would ostentatiously guzzle a glass of Tang in front of my family every now and then to make sure we kept the kitchen well-stocked, but a glass of Tang really never tasted very good, although it was cool that the Apollo astronauts drank it).
I've been trying for years to get a firm grasp on the work of Jacques Derrida. This philosopher has never fully caught on with the general population in the United States of America (yes, we do have popular philosophers here, but unfortunately they are Aristotle, John Locke and Ayn Rand). However, I know that Derrida has a foothold in academia, and he's vastly respected around the world. I sense a personal affinity with those of his ideas that I've been able to understand, but I've never had much luck reading his books, perhaps because the cultural references of mid 20th-century France are too alien to me, or perhaps because he wrote intentionally in a diffuse and enigmatic style in order to reflect what he saw as the diffuse and enigmatic nature of truth.
Wanting to understand Derrida's ideology simply and concretely (these are the terms on which I like to understand any philosopher), I tried chucking the books and watching a film called Derrida, a "cinema verite" portrait directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering in 2002, just a couple of years before their subject died. This film does a great job of capturing the philosopher's charisma and quick wit, and it also delivers the good news that Jacques Derrida appeared to be happy and well-loved at the end of his life. Perhaps this speaks more positively of his philosophy than any logical analysis could -- still, however, this film fell short for me in one way. It did not attempt to explain his philosophy in top-down terms that I could clearly understand.
Where is experimental literature in the 21st Century? And where is it supposed to be?
Most generations probably fail to recognize their experimental geniuses in real time. However, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein were recognized in their lifetimes, so it's fair to ask who might be carrying that torch on the literary scene today. Only a few of the usual nominees seem very satisfying. Thomas Pynchon? Don DeLillo? Paul Auster? William Vollman? The late David Foster Wallace? The late W. G. Sebald? Jennifer Egan? Blake Butler? (Please don't bring up Jonathan Lethem in this context).
Some of these writers are doing good work (personally, I'll buy into Auster and Sebald as powerful experimentalists) -- and all of them are certainly knocking themselves out trying to be as experimental as all hell. But that's the problem -- the mainstream American/English hyper-meta-hystero-pomo-X scene is so self-conscious and steroid-driven that the books are just flat out wearying. The experimental scene I'm familiar with is also too solitary. It lacks the sense of unity and community power that a good experimental literary scene needs in order to thrive.
For Americans like me, a look to Europe can help. A movement called Oulipo (Ouvroir de literature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature) has been growing for half a century, and it is still alive. It was born in Paris in 1960 with the express intention of shaking up the experimental scene. The original principals were Raymond Queneau, Francois Le Lionnais, Jacques Bens and Marcel Duchamp, and later members or quasi-members included Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, Herve Le Tellier, Jacques Jouet, Daniel Levin Becker, Jean Queval, Michele Audin, Henry Mathews and Tom McCarthy.
I probably skim 150 to 200 blog posts or articles a day, prompted by RSS and Facebook and Twitter. The headlines usually fly by without leaving a trace, but I skimmed one two weeks ago, then returned to it a few days later to read it in full, and found myself thinking about it ever since. This is a piece by a professor named William Egginton with the unfortunately unfocused title "The Novel and the Origins of Modern Philosophy" that appeared at a site called Berfrois after originally running at Stanford University's Arcade. It'ss about the influence Miguel de Cervantes's satirical masterpiece Don Quixote may have had on Rene Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy, which contained the philosopher's great declaration cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am").
As I read the short article in full, the idea of considering Cervantes and Descartes together suddenly struck me as an obviously great idea -- and not only because of the coincidence that they both have 9-letter names in which 5 of the letters are in exactly the same place (the pronunciations, however, are entirely different, one name being Spanish and the other French).
1. The classic science-fiction author Ray Bradbury has died. I never really kept up with his work, but when I was a kid I thought Illustrated Man had the coolest book cover in the universe. "The Veldt" was my favorite story from that collection. Here's more on Ray from Boing Boing, io9, Neil Gaiman and Ed Champion.
And while I've gotcha here:
2. Beautiful visualizations can occur when great authors pick up the brush.
I can never guess which of my Philosophy Weekend blog posts will turn out to have legs.
Nine months ago, researching the origin of the word 'altruism', I learned that the term had been coined by Auguste Comte, a 19th Century French philosopher I had heard of but knew little about. Comte had developed a humane and optimistic system of political, ethical, scientific and metaphysical philosophy called Positivism, and during his lifetime Positivism was a gigantic sensation around the world. Intrigued, I wrote a blog post to wonder what it signified about our own culture that a major 19th Century philosopher with an ambitious platform of international peace, respect for human diversity and freethinking scientific rigor had fallen completely off the radar immediately after the disaster of the First World War.
What I didn't expect was that my blog post would start getting lots of hits from Google, and would become one of my more popular Philosophy Weekend posts (I do watch my traffic statistics, not to feed my ego but to discern trends in reader interest). Then, a mysterious late comment appeared on my Comte post that brought a big smile to my face. In response to my statement that Positivism was defunct today, and this commenter posted a single sentence reply:
Well, we are not quite that dead, are we?
This was accompanied by a link to Positivists.org, a well-designed website with an active Facebook page and a lively blog. The new web presence is apparently the work of an eager German philosopher named Olaf Simons who appears to have some clue how to use social media to spread a message. Positivism lives!
HHhH, a remarkable new historical novel by a young French author named Laurent Binet, has been getting a lot of attention. The book, a sly and woolly ponderance of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovokia during World War II, is as good as all the hype suggests.
What makes HHhH stand out is the author's approach to his historical plot. Years ago, before he became a published author, he lived and taught in Slovokia and became possessed by the legend of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich's assassination in Prague in 1942. He wanted to write a fictional treatment of the event, but he dreaded the banal literary conventions he'd have to grapple with if he wrote a classic work of historical fiction. He also felt overwhelmed by the moral gravity of the terrible story he wanted to tell, and he feared fumbling the fine line between truth and fiction.
So, to make his book possible, he opened up the toolkit known as metafiction. He wrote the story of himself writing this book, interweaving historical scenes with humorous skits about himself as bumbling author. The result is something like the history equivalent of Nicholson Baker's comically self-referential study of John Updike, U and I.
(This introduction to a too-little-known French author is the Litkicks debut of Eamon Loingsigh, whose novella An Affair of Concoctions can be sampled here).
I didn’t come across Comte de Lautréamont right away. I found him only after a long search for the most furious literature I could find, and I suspect others don’t find him quickly either, if they find him at all.
As a disgruntled teen, mainstream writers like Stephen King and dusty fuddies like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stephens could not slake my brooding brain. Poe turned my head and Coleridge was my favorite Romantic in school, both with drug addictions and personality disorders that were sent desperately to the pen in order to relieve their burdens, financial or emotional. But when I found Bukowski and Kerouac and those who influenced them, I eventually bumped into Comte de Lautréamont, who quickly became even more interesting to me when I heard that translations abound in many languages, except English.
Lautreamont was born as Isidore Lucien Ducasse in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1846, and left it during a time of great turbulence. His mother died soon after giving birth to him, in the midst of the Argentinian-Uruguayan War, and he was raised by his father, a Uruguayan public official of French ancestry. He was sent to school in Paris, France at the age of thirteen. By seventeen he was known at his Lycée as a quick student, yet morbid and sardonic in humor. Memorizing the Romantic writers as well as Dante, Milton, Baudelaire and Racine, he soon decided to become a writer in order “to portray the pleasures of cruelty!”
(Thanks to Brain Pickings, 3 Quarks Daily, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and many others for noticing Mike Norris and David Richardson's "Beholding Holden" last month. The writer/artist team is back here today with a look at a famous transgressive French poet from half a millennium ago. -- Levi)
I can’t remember when exactly, in some long ago French class, that I first read a poem entitled “Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis”. In English this translates as “Ballad of the Ladies of Times Gone By”.
This poem contains the haunting refrain: “mais où sont les neiges d'antan”. This was translated brilliantly by the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “but where are the snows of yesteryear”. Rossetti coined the word "yesteryear", which is still in use today.
The ballade itself comes from a long poem called “The Testament”, written by a French poet of the 15th century: François Villon. In the middle ages, mock testaments, as in Last Will and Testament, were a common form of literary expression. These were satiric verses, often obscene, in which a dying person or more often, an animal, leaves parts of his body to different individuals. In one Testament, a dying pig leaves his bones to a gambler to be made into dice, and his penis to the priest.
Villon had written an earlier, shorter piece called “The Legacy”, in which he used the legal framework of the Last Will and Testament to leave comic bequests to his friends. These were often things which he didn’t own. He left well-known Paris taverns to his drinking buddies. To another friend he left a pair of pants to be redeemed for payment due.
“The Legacy” was written in 1456, upon the occasion of Villon leaving Paris for Angers. The invocation of death is used in a mocking tone, as he declares he has been martyred by his cruel mistress, and is thus bequeathing his earthly possessions while he becomes “one of the Saints of love”.