“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, June 15, 2007

you know the routine...

That duplicity dogs the android is the puzzle around which La Mettrie’s Essay on Happiness winds itself, looking for an entrance, another metaphysician double crossed by metaphysics. As soon as they’ve dispensed with it and gotten down to hard reduction, the muses come back as curses, the slave emerges as a whole different zombie in the way La Mettrie and Hume set it up: the passions are unexpectedly discovered to be the masters, the body is one of those legendary slave ships where the slaves have taken over, and reason is demoted, begins its difficult career as an accompaniest, Kant’s transcendental caspar the friendly ghost, the x trailing a spectral glory behind the man machine as he goes merrily on his way to the mass grave and other more odorless triumphs. Still, even giving up the whole of the man machine to pleasure, folly’s great victory, doesn’t dispel the eeriness of pleasure itself, even if its climactic, the orgasm, is hidden within a literature of the obscene that adds another layer to the perplexing problem of feeling, which is another product of happiness triumphant, free from all the dodges now, the tooth fairy in the positional marketplace. And the problem of how the sage, by his clever engineering, managed to produce a theory that excluded sages, thus making a fool of himself forever after, sinks into a half remembered bed time story for dolts suffering the midlife crisis pangs.

Well, I’m going to make a leap, here, to William Burroughs. Burroughs because the man boldly tried to see the market economy in terms, primarily, of addiction, of which the secondary aspect is exchange. Which is in back of the routine, as he called them – not just riffs, but also the whole schtick of a life, doled out in the traps it makes for itself out of its rounds, its segments each being routines themselves.

The most famous of the routines is in Naked Lunch, and begins with a story from the infamous Doctor Benway:

“I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole to talk? His whole abdomen would move up and down you dig farting out the words. It was unlike anything I ever heard. "This ass talk had a sort of gut frequency. It hit you right down there like you gotta go. You know when the old colon gives you the elbow and it feels sorta cold inside, and you know all you have to do is turn loose? Well this talking hit you right down there, a bubbly, thick stagnant sound, a sound you could smell. "This man worked for a carnival you dig, and to start with it was like a novelty ventriloquist act. Real funny, too, at first. He had a number he called 'The Better 'Ole' that was a scream, I tell you. I forget most of it but it was clever. Like, 'Oh I say, are you still down there, old thing?' "'Nah! I had to go relieve myself.' "After a while the ass started talking on its own. He would go in without anything prepared and his ass would ad-lib and toss the gags back at him every time.”

In time, the asshole and the man came to be enemies, and a tug of war ensued to see who would be master:

"Then it developed sort of teeth-like little raspy incurving hooks and started eating. He thought this was cute at first and built an act around it, but the asshole would eat its way through his pants and start talking on the street, shouting out it wanted equal rights. It would get drunk, too, and have crying jags nobody loved it and it wanted to be kissed same as any other mouth. Finally it talked all the time day and night, you could hear him for blocks screaming at it to shut up, and beating it with his fist, and sticking candles up it, but nothing did any good and the asshole said to him: 'It's you who will shut up in the end. Not me. Because we don't need you around here any more. I can talk and eat and shit.' "After that he began waking up in the morning with a transparent jelly like a tadpole's tail all over his mouth. This jelly was what the scientists call un-D.T., Undifferentiated Tissue, which can grow into any kind of flesh on the human body. He would tear it off his mouth and the pieces would stick to his hands like burning gasoline jelly…”

Burroughs called the pieces out of which he made Naked Lunch routines. and he’d write them in letters to his friends. Where did routine come from? It is a burlesque/vaudeville word. The OED’s first citation for it as a stage term is from 1926, but that seems pretty late. Searching around in Google Books, I came upon Brett Page’s 1915 Writing for Vaudeville. Page footnotes the term routine, as though his readers may not have heard of it:

Routine – the entire monologue; but more often used to suggest its arrangement and construction. A monologue with its gags and points arranged in a certain order is one routine; a different routine is used when the gags or points are arranged in a different order. Thus routine means arrangement. The word is also used to describe the arrangement of other stage offerings – for instance, a dance: the same steps arranged in a different order make a new “dance routine”.

Page’s suggestion for writing the gags foreshadows Burroughs’ cut up method:

“Have as many cards or slips of paper as you have points or gags. Write only one point or gag on one card or slip of paper. On the first card write “Introduction,” and always keep that card first in your hand. Then take up a card and read the point or gag on it as following the introduction, the second car as the second point or gag, and so on until you have arranged your monologue in an effective routine.”

“Then try another arrangement…”

Thursday, June 14, 2007

do androids dream of electric orgasms

[Rapheal Dubois] observes that after having been decapitated, a cricket performs induced reflex and spasmodic movement both better and for a longer time than before. Referring to the work of Golz and H. Busquet (if one removes a frog’s superior centers, it immediately assumes the coital position normally adopted only in the spring), he wonders whtehr the mantis’s goal in beheading the male before mating might not be to obtain a better and longer performance of the spasmodic coital movements, through the removal of the brain’s inhibitory centers. In the final analysis, it would hence be the pleasure principle that compels the female insect to murder her lover – whose body she beings to ingest, furthermore, in the course of lovemaking itself.

These habits are so well-designed to disturb human beings that scientist for oce, to their credit, have abandoned their professional dryness. For example, in his recent monograph, La Vie de la mante religieuse, Leon Binet, professor of physiology at the Faculte de Medecine in Paris, seems visibly affected by them. IN any event, it is quite surprising to seem him briefly foreswear his scientific detachment to call the female a kind of ‘murderous mistress’… I myself shall take this revealing lapse as the basis for interpreting Binet’s conclusion: ‘This insect really seems to be a machine with highly advanced parts, which operate automatically. Indeed, it strikes me that likening the mantis to an automaton (to a female android, given the latter’s anthropomorphis) reflects the same emotional theme, if (as I have every reason to believe) the notion of an artificial, mechanical, inanimate and unconscious machine-woman – incommensurate with man and all other creatures – does stem in some way from a specific view of the relations between love and death and, in particular, from an ambivalent premonition of encountering one within the other.” – Roger Caillois, The praying mantis.

When Fellini made a film of Casanova, a figure he detested, he chose Donald Sutherland to play the lead because, as he described him to a journalist, he saw him as “a big sperm-full waxwork with the eyes of a masturbator.” LI implores the gods to just once have someone give me a recommendation with that phrase! Obviously, Casanova was not to Fellini’s taste – he in fact found him boring and infuriating. However, as everyone who has seen the film knows, there is one tender scene: when Casanova ‘seduces’ a mechanical doll. The scene is here, on the ever extraordinary YouTube.

I am mentioning these things to bring us back to another side of La Mettrie’s Epicureanism: the reduction of man to a machine, which La Mettrie derives from Descartes, using the same models as Descartes – who referenced automatons. La Mettrie’s age was also that of Vaucanson, the extraordinary clockwork figure-maker. La Mettrie references him in the Man-Machine: “[Man] is to the ape, the most intelligent of animals, as Huyghen’s planetary pendulum is to the Julien-le-Roi clock. If we need more instruments, more wheels, more clockworks for marking the movement of the planets than for marking the hours or repeating them; if Vaucanson needed more art in order to make his flutist than his duck, he would have to employ even more to make a speaker, a machine which can no longer be regarded as impossible, especially in the hands of a new Prometheus… If I am not mistaken, the human body is a clock, but an immense one …”

Combining this thesis with the thesis that happiness really can be separated from the intellect – that, as La Mettrie puts in in On Happiness, reflection is almost like remorse – one has to ask what kind of thing pleasure is. Orgasm, which is La Mettrie’s favored model of pleasure, might be the result of the clockwork – but if the clockwork can lead up to it, how can it feel it? Feeling, La Mettrie had proposed in The Man-Machine, might be something like electricity – a vibration of some kind. But in On Happiness, the human clockwork seems to have an inside and an outside which are – how to put this – distinguished by no external wall, but by a metaphysical limit, a line running through the mechanism that complicates the mechanical matter, and thus complicates pleasure itself:

“As a desired object is painted better in its absence than present - because reality offers limits to the imagination that it doesn’t know itself once it is abandoned to itself, similarly pictures are more vivid when one sleeps than when one is awake. Nothing then distracts the soul which, all thrown into the internal tumult of the senses, tastes the pleasures that penetrate it better, and more at length. Reciprocally, it is also more alarmed and frightened by specters which are formed, at night, in the brain, and which are never so scary when one is awake, because the objects of the outside soon dissipate them: black dreams, to which are subject those who, during the day, are accustomed to entertaining none but sad, lugubrious or sinister ideas, instead of chasing them off, as much as is possible.”

These thoughts cast some long shadows: that the purest pleasure might be felt within the doll when the doll is undistracted - this mannequin narcissism – directs us to a technostructure of isolated thrills, screen by screen, that appears in the war culture societies.

dog bites man - U.S. fucks over Rocky Flats workers

In a touching story that will surely set them laughing in the executive suites at Bechtel and Halliburton and other places to which Uncle Sam routinely shunts money for shoddy and overcharged work, Uncle Sam decided, once again, to fuck the low use population that worked at the Rocky Flats plant, a radiation death trap that was part of the radiation death network upon which the benign hegemony of the world’s greatest democracy used to base its mad, serial killer threat to annihilate this planet. Is this sweet or what? Now, take another big heaping spoonful of shit, please. Come on, baby, open your mouth larger:

“LAKEWOOD, Colo., June 12— A federal advisory panel recommended Tuesday that thousands of former workers at a nuclear weapons plant be denied immediate government compensation for illnesses that they say result from years of radiation exposure there.

The recommendation is a significant setback for a large number of people once employed as plutonium workers at the plant, Rocky Flats, 16 miles northwest of Denver. Their union, the United Steelworkers of America, had petitioned the Department of Health and Human Services to allow more than 3,000 of them to bypass a complex federal evaluation and compensation process established by Congress in 2000.”

The law was set up in the sweetest possible way. First, douse it in a seemingly humanitarian purpose: those workers at the plant whose employment coincided with periods in which the radiation records are non-existent get a pass. This is a small number of workers, and as their bones crumble and the white blood cell counts mount, the government is seemingly doing right by paying for their deaths. But – as they taught us in the Southern Baptist Church in my youth – there is nothing like making good by doing good. In this case, the burden is then put on those who worked at the plant when there was a grossly deficient and even fraudulent radiation record being kept, so that as this part of the low use population goes through the procedures of trying to wring some cure or therapy out of our medical system, the government that so kindly killed them gets to check and recheck their records and qualifications for tasting the littlest bit of recompense. You can’t give low use people money, after all – who knows what they would spend it on!

“In that time-consuming process, sick workers from Rocky Flats and other American nuclear facilities may apply for $150,000 in compensation, plus medical benefits, if there is evidence that they suffer from any of 22 kinds of cancer linked to radiation. A worker must first file a claim with the Labor Department, a step that brings a lengthy investigation in which scientists from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, through records, research and interviews, determine eligibility by establishing the radiation dose incurred by the worker. If the scientists are unable to determine the dose, the worker may file for “special exposure cohort” status.

It was this status that was sought by the former Rocky Flats workers. But after more than two years of hearings and debate, the panel — the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, a unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — decided on a vote of 6 to 4 Tuesday that the occupational safety scientists could accurately determine dose exposure for almost all of the plant’s former workers.”

Oh, a little dribbles on your chin, there! Uncle sam can’t have that. Eat all his wastes, every little bit. Meanwhile, high enders too are asking Uncle for money. Remember this hit from 2004, the year America affirmed its satisfaction in its paragon and son, George Bush?

Auditors from the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Coalition Provisional Authority Inspector General (CPA IG) have repeatedly and consistently criticized multiple aspects of Halliburton's activities in Iraq. In nine different reports, these government auditors have found widespread, systemic problems with almost every aspect of Halliburton's work in Iraq, from cost estimation and billing systems to cost control and subcontract management.
Key findings from these audits include the following:
· In December 2003, a DCAA draft audit reported that Halliburton overcharged the Defense Department by $61 million to import gasoline into Iraq from Kuwait through September 30, 2003. (4)
· On December 31, 2003, a DCAA "Flash Report" audit found "significant" and "systemic" deficiencies in the way Halliburton estimates and validates costs. According to the DCAA audit, Halliburton repeatedly violated the Federal Acquisition Regulation and submitted a $2.7 billion proposal that "did not contain current, accurate, and complete data regarding subcontract costs." (5)
· On January 13, 2004, DCAA concluded that Halliburton's deficiencies "bring into question [Halliburton's] ability to consistently produce well-supported proposals that are acceptable as a basis for negotiation of fair and reasonable prices," and it urged the Corps of Engineers to "contact us to ascertain the status of [Halliburton's] estimating system prior to entering into future negotiations." (6)
· In a May 13, 2004, audit, DCAA reported "several deficiencies" in Halliburton's billing system that resulted in billings to the government that "are not prepared in accordance with applicable laws and regulations and contract terms." DCAA also found "system deficiencies resulting in material invoicing misstatements that are not prevented, detected and/ or corrected in a timely manner." The report emphasized Halliburton's inadequate controls over subcontract billings. The auditors "identified inadequate or nonexistent policies and procedures for notifying the government of potential significant subcontract problems that impact delivery, quality, and price" and determined that Halliburton "does not monitor the ongoing physical progress of subcontracts or the related costs and billings." (7)
· On June 25, 2004, the CPA IG found that, as a result of poor oversight, Halliburton charged U. S. taxpayers for unauthorized and unnecessary expenses at the Kuwait Hilton Hotel. According to the IG, the overcharges would have amounted to $3.6 million per year. (8)
· A July 26, 2004, CPA IG audit report found that Halliburton "did not effectively manage government property" and that the company's property records "were not sufficiently accurate or available to properly account for CPA property items." The IG "projected that property valued at more than $18.6 million was not accurately accounted for or was missing." (9)
· In July 2004, GAO found ineffective planning, inadequate cost control, and insufficient training of contract management officials under LOGCAP in Iraq. GAO reported that, when Halliburton acted as a middleman for the operation of dining halls, costs were over 40% higher. (10)
· In an August 16, 2004, memorandum, DCAA "identified significant unsupported costs" submitted by KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, and found "numerous, systemic issues . . . with KBR's estimates." According to DCAA, "while contingency issues may have had an impact during the earlier stages of the procurements, clearly, the contractor should have adequate supporting data by now." When DCAA examined seven LOGCAP task orders with a combined proposed value of $4.33 billion, auditors identified unsupported costs totaling $1.82 billion. (11)
· On November 23, 2004, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (formerly the CPA IG) examined a $569 million LOGCAP task order and found that Halliburton "did not provide . . . sufficiently detailed cost data to evaluate overall project costs or to determine whether specific costs for services performed were reasonable." The IG concluded that the Army "did not receive sufficient or reliable cost information to effectively manage" the task order. (12) Multiple criminal investigations of Halliburton's Iraq contracts are also ongoing. The Justice Department is investigating Halliburton's admission that two of its employees received up to $6.3 million in kickbacks to steer LOGCAP subcontracts to a Kuwaiti contractor. (13) The Defense Department Inspector General, the FBI, and the Justice Department are investigating allegations of fraud and overcharging for gasoline under the RIO contract. (14)

Understandably, some feared that Uncle Sam was not going to stand for this gang rape of taxpayers – and that would send an anti-free enterprise message around the world. If even the government of George Bush hurt the meritocrats who run some of our great corporations, CEO heros, who would be next! But those fears were put aside in 2006:

“Army to Pay Halliburton Unit Most Costs Disputed by Audit
By James Glanz
The New York Times
Monday 27 February 2006
The Army has decided to reimburse a Halliburton subsidiary for nearly all of its disputed costs on a $2.41 billion no-bid contract to deliver fuel and repair oil equipment in Iraq, even though the Pentagon's own auditors had identified more than $250 million in charges as potentially excessive or unjustified.

The Army said in response to questions on Friday that questionable business practices by the subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root, had in some cases driven up the company's costs. But in the haste and peril of war, it had largely done as well as could be expected, the Army said, and aside from a few penalties, the government was compelled to reimburse the company for its costs.”

Hopefully, this clears up the vexed question of who counts in America: working class scum, or important investors who are giving their all in a time of peril.
Open wide!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

the divorce of wisdom and happiness II

In my last post on this subject, we ended with the knots and nets of necessity: once you grant that the path of the wise man and the path of the fool are separate paths, you have granted the central condition for the hegemony of wisdom over pleasure – the ascetic ideology. That ideology is not annulled by asserting the hegemony of pleasure over wisdom, however – such is the primitive sense of epicurean materialism, as Lukacs understands it - since wisdom and pleasure, the wise man and the fool, are still kept at a distance from one another. However, there is a moment in that reversal that does not inevitably lead to embourgeoisement, or to the reign of happiness triumphant, the horror that currently bestrides our globe. Or at least that has been my hypothesis – embodied in a life in which, as hypotheses go, it has been rudely and roundly confuted by circumstances. Nevertheless, LI is a stubborn cunt and is going to hold to our glimmers and glimpses into the possibility that the path of the wise and the path of the foolish is the same path, but turns into a different path depending on whether you go forward on it or backwards.

So much for the mystagogic intro. Now, let’s get back to La Mettrie, the mythical monster. He was never admitted to the company of the philosophes – for Voltaire, who knew him, he was a fool. Diderot, who was afraid of the proximity of La Mettrie’s thought to his own, also classified him as a buffoon. And who but a buffoon would mistake an eagle for a pheasant, wolf it down, and consequently die of it? Yet I suspect that La Mettrie can’t be laid aside quite like that. He was rediscovered, in the late nineteenth century, for his thorough working out of the Man-machine idea, suggested by Descartes. And this makes him easy to put in a slot for intellectual history. But he does have readers, particularly in Germany who claim a higher status for him, and in particular like to say that the Essay on Happiness is his masterpiece. It certainly seems to prefigure Nietzsche, in tone as well as in certain of its thoughts. This, for instance, could easily fit into The Dawn:

“To live tranquilly, without ambition, without desire. To use our wealth, and not to enjoy it; to conserve it without worries, to lose it without regret, to govern it, in place of being the slave of it; to not be troubled nor moved by any passion, or rather not to have any; to be content in misery, as in opulence: in pain, as in pleasure… to disdain pleasure and voluptuousness; to consent to having pleasure as one is rich, without being too seduced by its agreeableness; to disdain live itself: at last, to arrive at virtue by the knowledge of truth, such is the theme that forms the sovereign good of Seneca and the stoics in general, and the perfect beatitude which follows from it.

How much this makes us Anti-stoic! Those philosophers are severe, sad, hard; we are soft, gay, compliant. All soul, they make an abstraction of their bodies; all body, we make an abstraction of our soul. They show themselves inaccessible to pleasure or to pain, we make it our glory to feel one and the other. Killing themselves to be sublime, they elevate themselves above all events, and don’t believe themselves to be men until they have ceased to be men. Ourselves, we do not have control over what governs us; we don’t command our sensations; avowing their empire and our slavery, we try to make ourselves agreeable, persuaded that this is the seat of the happiness of life: and, finally, we believe ourselves the happier the more we are human, or more worthy of being human.”

That beginning is obviously not going to go down well with the philosophes crowd, who inherited a clinging to the Stoics as a sort of secular religion. With La Mettrie, they were confronted with the crumbling of a hard won hedonism into the bottomless gulf of nothingness. La Mettrie starts several thoughts, in the essay on happiness, that bring us into contact with the Underground Man – whose teethgrinding is, in a sense, the height of hedonism. But the Underground Man’s embrace of the pleasure of pain is, from La Mettrie’s standpoint, simply the refusal to accept our essential slavery – a term that La Mettrie, either following Hume or independently of Hume, takes to describe the relation of reason to passion:

“We, we do not have the disposition of what governs us; we do not command our sensations; avowing their empire and our slavery, let’s try to render ourselves agreeable, persuaded that this is where the summit of happiness lies.”

Having an idea that the issues at play here derive from a sacramental economy that is falling prey to another economy, the grand transformation that is turning every sacrifice into a commodity, it is interesting that the old feudal notion slave emerges as though in a dumbshow to hint, in gestures, that the liberation of the philosophes, the “delices” of civilization, were actually in contradiction with their production – thus attacking the philosophe norm from a different direction than Rousseau. But the logic that La Mettrie follows is ultimately not that much of a departure from that pronounced in the Katha-Upanishad. La Mettrie, in the essay on happiness, takes the stoic theme that the truest happiness accrues to he who tires to find the truth and shows that it isn’t so. Happiness is quite independent from an intellectual search. Those who have no intellect to speak of can well be happy. And it is not possible to deny that they have some mysterious different and lower type of happiness, since that implies what remains to be proven – that the intellectual search for truth is the real, the essential form of happiness.

Rather, as La Mettrie points out, it seems to be the senses that give us pleasure, and pleasure that gives us happiness. Thus, that we receive pleasure from the senses should not shame us – we don’t need the stoic discipline. Quite the contrary. What we need is to lose our remorse for the pleasure of the senses.

“Since remorse is a vain remedy for our troubles, troubling even the clearest water without clarifying the most troubled, destroy it. … We are right to conclude that if those joys that are rooted in nature and reason are crimes, the happiness of man is to be a criminal.”

Writing things like this has made some wonder, of course, how much La Mettrie de Sade read.

One of the paradoxes of La Mettrie’s position is that he pretty much strips away the motivation for intellectual behavior. Which leaves us with two choices: either intellectual behavior is strange – expressing, as with Lucretius, the clinamen – or it isn’t what it seems. As the slave of the sensations, the intellect is, at least, distinct from the sensations. But the possibility looms that it isn’t even that – the slave fades to shadow.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The frontline is in D.C., and the casualties are carted off to less visible think tanks

Alas, I have no time today. But there is one link LI must urge on our readers. It is this story by Joshua Halland and Raed Jarrar, entitled Bush says “We’ll be in Iraq for 50 Years, Reporters don’t bother to ask Iraqis to Comment.” I had trouble reading it myself – lately, as I read things that make me unbearably angry, my neck starts to stiffen up. But I trooper on! Anyway, it has the goods on the Washington Post’s Ann Scott Tyson – although she only represents the Beltway Court Society in its Conventional Wisdom mode. Still. She writes a story suggesting that the U.S. is considering staying in Iraq for the next fifty years, South Korea style. She quotes a general, a GOP hack, a Bushie, a token Dem. So this happens:

When we reached the Washington Post's Ann Scott Tyson and asked her why there were no Iraqi voices in her story, she was somewhat taken aback by the question. She hadn't considered getting the views of any Iraqis, "because the story was focused on a shift in the administration's thinking here in Washington. It wasn't really focused on Iraqis, or their reaction." She later added: "There's a limited number of viewpoints you can include." Tyson explained that it wasn't always possible to reach people in Iraq for a quote before deadline. It's a valid point, except that several of the articles we reviewed were analyses written several days after talk of the Korea model started kicking around D.C. When we asked if that were true in this case, she said it wasn't -- it was primarily because the story wasn't "taking place in Iraq."

Ah, be still my swollen neck! The Iraq war is, after all, not really taking place in Iraq. This is the vampire’s most secret thought, his unconscious speaking.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

the divorce of wisdom and pleasure I

Li woke up with that Manu Chao song stuck in our head: me gustas tu. Who knows where the hell that came from? Perhaps because I heard on the radio last week they were coming to Austin…

But me gusta marijuana/ me gustas tu it seems wholly appropriate to today’s post, another in my interminable backasswards crawl towards my current obsession: the divorce between wisdom and happiness. And though I am sure that I have worn out the patience of all but the most hardcore masochists among you, I received a sweet email yesterday about the sage and the fool that made me think: all is not in vain!

So, let’s begin with death:

“Yama said: The good is one thing and the pleasant another. These two, having different ends, bind a man. It is well with him who chooses the good. He who chooses the pleasant misses the true end.

The good and the pleasant approach man; the wise examines both and discriminates between them; the wise prefers the good to the pleasant, but the foolish man chooses the pleasant through love of bodily pleasure.” – Katha Upanishad

The context for Death’s routine – Yama is death – is the following: Nachiketas is the son of Wajashrawas, a man who had reached that point in his life when becoming a sage took priority over all else. So he gave away his property. Nachiketas, like the young man in Lewis Carroll’s Father William ("You are old, Father William," the young man said,/"And your hair has become very white;/And yet you incessantly stand on your head--/Do you think, at your age, it is right?"), decided to bother the old man and asked “Father, have you given me to someone?” After being asked three times, Wajashrawas said yes, I’ve given you to Yama – death. Recall that Father William also became impatient with his young man after three questions ("I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"/ Said his father; "don't give yourself airs! /Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?/ Be off, or I'll kick you down-stairs!"). Nachiketas then proceeded to go to Yama’s house, and spent three days there without eating and drinking. Threes, by the way, haunt this story, as they haunt all stories involving wishes. Sure enough, Yama, impressed by Nachiketas’ ascetic regime, grants him three wishes. Nachiketas’ first wish is to be reconciled with his father. His second wish is for Fire. But Yama balks at his third wish, for Nachiketas wants to know if there is something after death. To know what comes after death puzzles even the gods. But Nachiketas insists. Thus begins the second chapter of the Katha Upanishad, with the verses I quoted above, with death making a primary distinction between the wise, who chose the path of the good, and the foolish, who chose pleasure. In the translation made by Shree Porohit Swami and Englished by Yeats, the verse goes; “Who follows the good, attains sanctity; who follows the pleasant, drops out of the race.” I take this to be teasing us with a sense of paths, tracks, traces – something that lets us follow. But I also like the translation I am quoting: “These two, having different ends, bind a man.” In Calasso’s “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony”, there is a nice passage about Ananke’s net – Ananke being necessity:

“According to Parmenides, being itself is trapped by the “bonds of powerful Ananke’s net.” And in the Platonic vision of things, we find an immense light, “bound in the sky and embracing its whole circumference, the way hempen ropes are gound around the hulls of galleys.” In each case, knots and bonds are essential. Necessity is a bond that curses back on itself, a knotted rope (peirar0 that holds everything within its limits (peras). Dei, a key work, meaning ‘it is necessary’, appears for the first time in the Iliad: “why is it necessary (dei) for the Argives to make war on the Trojans?” That verb form, governed by an impersonal subject, the es of everything that escapes an agent’s will, is traced back by Onians to deo, ‘to bind’, and not to dea, ‘to lack’ as other philologists would have it. It is the same image, observes Onians, “that, without being aware of its meaning in the dark history of the race, we find in a common expression of our own language: ‘it is bound to happen.’

Tracks do form nets. Reading this, I thought surely Callaso would then reference Vernant and Detienne’s wonderfully mysterious book on Cunning among the Greeks, which teases out a variety of binding, rope twisting and corded words to fill in the semantic field of the ruse – of metis. But he doesn’t. Myself, I am reminded of the fact that civilization has long been identified with metalwork – the bronze age, the iron age – rather than work with fabric. When the Spaniards conquered the Incas, they conquered a culture that had inherited another set of assumptions entirely, deriving from knots and nets. Charles Mann makes this point in 1491, going over recent discoveries in Peruvian archaeology that point to the privileged place of netmaking and weaving from the earliest times. And, of course, there are the khipu, the Incan knot language that was assumed, until recently, to be a form of accounting. Gary Urton, a Harvard archaelogist, is the most prominent recent figure to say, not so – there’s words encoded in those knots and filaments. But such a base for civilization, such soft technology, blindsided the Europeans, who couldn’t even see that it was a technology. Even though, of course, knots, strings, fabrics, weaving do have a lively underlife from the Greeks through the Renaissance witches, and of course every marriage is a knot tied. (Although there is a counterknot to prevent marriage – the noueurs d’aiguillettes were persecuted by Parliamentary decree in France).

Everything here is so old that it happened in your dreams last night, from the three wishes to the division between the wise and the foolish, the path of the good and the path of pleasure, and the bewilderment that came over you as you went down the path until a wolf appeared…

que voy a hacer - je suis perdu…