“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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

this beatitude comes in terror - replay

This April post should really, I think, be on the margin of these Fielding posts. And I don't think it got enough attention at the time. So I'm pasting it here, a sort of onlooker text.

"It would be impossible to film this. It would be impossible that is to score the film to a proper time. There is the rhythm of time given by the historian, with its units – “the age”, for instance – of varying duration in which the content somehow determines the boundaries of the unit, and there is the real time, which opens up, upon being represented, to an audience who must trade their own real time for it, and there is slow mo and fastforward, which operate on the object of representation, the film, to create a difference in the content that picks up things unseen in real time.

This is a site and an occurrence. The site is London in the eighteenth century – a time cue. Three things happen. One, William Hogarth publishes The Four Stages of Cruelty in 1751. It is another of Hogarth’s series of etchings, this one depicting Tom Nero’s inevitable ascent into murder. The first of the etchings depicts acts of cruelty to animals. The Tate has a succinct description of the etching: “The worst abuse is being inflicted by Nero, who pushes an arrow into the anus of a terrified dog being restrained by two other boys. Another youth is distressed by what Nero is doing and attempts to stop him by offering a tart. To the left of Nero, a boy draws a hanged man on the wall and points at him, underlining the inevitable: that Nero’s behaviour will deteriorate further and cost him his life.” Lichtenberg will write about these etchings. So will Kant, in his most extended consideration of animals as the Analoga of humans in the lectures on moral philosophy, where he writes, for instance, that “when, for example, a dog has long served his master truly, so that is the analogon of service [Verdienstes]; for this reason I must reward it and sustain the dog until the end, when it can no longer serve.”

Two, in 1745 or thereabouts, in Princess Street, Emmanuel Swedenborg has his first vision. This post is about that vision… But wait…

Third event, if we want to call these things events: John Long publishes his book, John Long’s Voyages and Travels in the Years 1768-1788 in 1791, and in one paragraph, he quietly introduces a new word into the English language:

“One part of the religious superstition of the savages consists in each of them having his totem, or favorite spirit, which he believes watches over him. This totem, they conceive, assumes the shape of some beast or other, and therefore they never kill, hunt or eat the animal whose form they think this totem bears.”

Explaining this savage belief, Long delves into civilized history:

‘This idea of destiny, or, if I may be allowed the phrase, “totemism”, however strange, is not confined to the savages; many instances might be adduced from history to prove how strong these impressions have been on minds above the vulgar and unlearned. For instance one in the history of the private life of Louis XV, translated by Justamond; among some particulars of the life of the famous Samuel Bernard, the Jew banker of the court of France, he says that he was superstitious as the people of his nation are, and had a black hen to which he thought his destiny was attached; he had the greatest care taken on her, and the loss of this fowl was, in fact, the period of his own existence, in January, 1739.” (112)

Long himself was assigned a totem, the Beaver. It was tattooed on his body.

So, let us turn to Swedenborg. Two totemic quotes, incised in this non-space, to begin with:

It often happened to me subsequently, he said, to have the eyes of my spirit open, to see in full daylight what happens in the other world, and to converse with angels and spirits like I speeka with men.
- Jacques Matter, 79

This path is difficult, secret and beset with terror. The ancients called it ecstasy or absence,- a getting out of their bodies to think. All religious history contains traces of the trance of saints,- a beatitude, but without any sign of joy; earnest, solitary, even sad; "the flight," Plotinus called it, "of the alone to the alone"; Muesiz, the closing of the eyes,- whence our word, Mystic. The trances of Socrates, Plotinus, Porphyry, Behmen, Bunyan, Fox, Pascal, Guyon, Swedenborg, will readily come to mind. But what as readily comes to mind is the accompaniment of disease. This beatitude comes in terror, and with shocks to the mind of the receiver. – Emerson, Swedenborg, the mystic

Swedenborg was the son of a bishop, an expert on metals (just as Newton worked at the Royal English mint , Swedenborg was apparently called in by the Swedish treasury to work on the silver purity of the coins), and a general polymath. Long after his death, his posthumous papers on the brain were published. Together with the Animal Kingdom, a book he published in the 1740s, these, according to Charles Gross, in his history of the neuroscience of vision, show that somehow, Swedenborg made certain deductions about the division of labor of the brain that were amazingly prescient. He not only suggested the existence of neurons, but made a number of pronouncements that were confirmed only much later:

Swedenborg’s view of the circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid was not surpassed until the work of Magendie, a 100 [sic] years later. He was the first to implicate the colliculi in vision, and in fact the only one until Flourens in the nineteenth century. He suggested that a function of the corpus callosum wasw for “the hemispheres to intercommunicate with each other.” He proposed that a function fo the corpus striatum was to take over motor control from the cortex when a movement became a familiar habit or “second Nature.”

This is all the more remarkable in that Swedenborg seems not to have dissected or at least experimented himself. It has been speculated that he observed Pourfour du Petit’s experiments on dogs in Paris. But there is no hard evidence for this. (128-129)

What we do know is this. Swedenborg, at some point in the 1740s, traveled to London. Being a wealthy and famous savant, honored in Sweden with a seat in the Parliament, his travels were always apparently punctuated with visits to other savants and important people. This is what he told a director of the bank of Sweden. He had come back to his lodgings for the night. He ate with a great appetite that evening. Then, he experienced a disconcerting thing. His apartment seemed to fill with fog. The floor seemed suddenly covered with reptiles. “I was all the more taken by the fact that the obscurity kept getting thicker. However, soon it thinned out, and I saw, distinctly, a man sitting in one of the corners of the apartment at the center of a lively and radiant light. The reptiles had disappeared with the shadows. I was alone, and you can imagine my horror when I heard him, the man, in the kind of tone that would inspire terror, pronounce these words: Don’t eat so much. At these words, my view was clouded again. Little by little it came back, and I saw myself alone in my apartment.” (63)

Now, it is easy to understand the terror. If this happens to me tonight, I will be a raving lunatic tomorrow. But why the words, don’t eat so much?

It is a very strange way to enter into the numerous heavens and hells that surround us, and through which Swedenborg was able to communicate, like some kind of code going through the corpus callosum.

It wasn’t until the next day, when the man reappeared again, that he explained that he was god, and that Swedenborg was his man for writing down the proverbs of heaven and hell.

“Don’t eat so much.” The sentence seems to come out of Gogol, or Kafka. That it is in the highest degree banal, and in the highest degree terrifying – that it seems to attach to no symbolic system (though Matter does try to find one), is what makes it so uncanny; this is the tyrant’s banality, which the courtier endlessly interprets. It is like the story about Potemkin with which Benjamin introduces his essay on Kafka. In that story, Potemkin is in one of his depressed states, confined to his room, and won’t sign any paperwork. The council, meeting in an antechamber to his room, is in an uproar, when a lesser functionary, Shuvalkin, tells them he will easily set things right. He takes the papers and boldly goes into Potemkin’s room, sees the great man sitting in the half darkness, biting his nails in a threadworn sleeping outfit, and presents the papers to him for signature:

“Shuvalkin stepped up to the writing desk, dipped a pen in ink, and without saying a word pressed it into Potemkin’s hand while putting one of the documents on his knees. Potemkin gave the intruder a vacant stare; then, as though in his sleep, he started to sign – first one paper, then a second, finally all of them. When the last signature had been affixed, Shuvalkin took the papers under his arm and left the room without further ado, just as he had entered it. Waving the papers triumphantly, he stepped into the anteroom. The councilors of state rushed toward him and tore the documents out of his hands. Breathlessly they bent over them. No one spoke a word; the whole group seemed paralyzed. Again, Shuvalkin came closer and solicitously asked why the gentlemen seemed so upset. At that point he noticed the signatures. One document after the other was signed Shuvalkin… Shuvalkin… Shuvalkin.” (795)

The devil is in the banal, and the devil may be the Lord. Such is the rule of ambiguity in the great cosmic tyrannies. Indeed, Swedenborg’s journeys through heaven and hell have that same mix of the celestial and the utterly banal, from what I have read of them. The law of analogies is unfolded without any more to do than Swedenborg took in unfolding the laws of the brain. One wonders whether, in fact, after all, perhaps Swedenborg’s analogies were all travels in the brain… the brain… the brain…

But to our donkey business. As is well known, Swedenborg believed that we are all doubled – our images exist in another realm, and their images are us. He could converse with those images. But there is a twist to his belief. There are three heavens, but every heaven corresponds to a part of the human body. And every part of the human body is a society of angels. We know what part of the body this society is by its position in regard to other societies of angels. In a sense, this is a vast fractal, the body composed of self-resembling bodies, and so on to infinity. The substance of these bodies seem to be a sort of entelechy of affection, and affection connects man, beast and plant. What distinguishes man and beast and beast and animal in this scheme is not reason, but degrees of affection, with man being closer to the center – God – and plants being further out.

Although this retains the traditional hierarchy, it retains it in a much different way than Kant. In fact, it is similar to Mary Douglas’ notion of how meals gain their meaning – “ The smallest, meanest meal metonymically figures the structure of the grandest, and each unit of the grand meal figures again the whole meal – or the meanest meal. The perspective created by these repetitive analogies invests the individual meal with additional meanings. Here we have the principle we were seeking, the intensifier of meaning, the selection principle. A meal stays in the category of a meal only insofar as it carries this structure which allows the part to recall the whole. “ (1972, 67)"

Friday, September 25, 2009

the waters of life and of death

In his sad last book, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, Henry Fielding begins his account proper by sketching out the measures he took, while suffering from the ills brought on by the miasmas of London, his course of life, his workload, and his forced encounter with numerous stinking criminals, beggars, whores and the whole lot, to rid London of a gang of murderers and robbers. Having succeeded in the year 1753 in actually suppressing murder for a whole season in London (a city by this time of around 650,000 people), he then retired from his magistrates position to devote himself to restoring his health. For, as he writes, “I was now, in the opinion of all men, dying of a complication of disorders.” These included gout and dropsy.

“After having stood the terrible six weeks which succeeded last Christmas, and put a lucky end, if they had known their own interests, to such numbers of aged and infirm valetudinarians, who might have gasped through two or three mild winters more, I returned to town in February, in a condition less despaired of by myself than by any of my friends. I now became the patient of Dr. Ward, who wished I had taken his advice earlier. By his advice I was tapped, and fourteen quarts of water drawn from my belly. The sudden relaxation which this caused, added to my enervate, emaciated habit of body, so weakened me that within two days I was thought to be falling into the agonies of death.”

Fielding’s body is dragged across the pages of his journal like some hideous object, of which he – a magistrate - is the victim, much as a criminal might be the victim of some instrument of torture. When he finally does decide, for the sake of his health, to seek the warmth of Lisbon, Fielding has to be taken on a litter to the dock, and then, sitted in a sedan chair, hoisted aboard the boat. At which point, sitting in his cabin, he makes the following reflection:

This latter fatigue [of the journey] was, perhaps, somewhat heightened by an indignation which I could not prevent arising in my mind. I think, upon my entrance into the boat, I presented a spectacle of the highest horror. The total loss of limbs was apparent to all who saw me, and my face contained marks of a most diseased state, if not of death itself. Indeed, so ghastly was my countenance, that timorous women with child had abstained from my house, for fear of the ill consequences of looking at me. In this condition I ran the gauntlope (so I think I may justly call it)
through rows of sailors and watermen, few of whom failed of paying their compliments to me by all manner of insults and jests on my misery. No man who knew me will think I conceived any personal resentment at this behavior; but it was a lively picture of that cruelty and inhumanity in the nature of men which I have often contemplated with concern, and which leads the mind into a train of very uncomfortable and melancholy thoughts. It may be said that this barbarous custom is peculiar to the English, and of them only to the lowest degree; that it is an excrescence of an uncontrolled licentiousness mistaken for liberty, and never shows itself in men who are polished and refined in such manner as human nature requires to produce that perfection of which it is susceptible, and to purge away that malevolence of disposition of which, at our birth, we partake in common with the savage creation. This may be said, and this is all that can be said; and it is, I am afraid, but little satisfactory to account for the inhumanity of those who, while they boast of being made after God's own image, seem to bear in their minds a resemblance of the vilest species of brutes; or rather, indeed, of our idea of devils; for I don't know that any brutes can be taxed with such malevolence.”

This passage (which I consider extremely wonderful and frightening) could stand as a totem, as something to think with, as one reads Fielding’s Enquiry into the Late increase in Robbers. That Enquiry is all about a distemper in the constitution of England – and Fielding means, by that, something like a social body, on the lines of Hobbes’ Leviathan. Fielding, in the above passage, goes from himself, body and face, as a horror not to be gawked at (which is in contrast to the horrors that were gawked at – the hanged at Tyburn, for instance) to those who insulted him, the sailors, men of low degree, to the notion that, as with the dropsy, our original constitution needs purging, a taking off of those liquors of original sin in which we swim, to a moment of satiric ascension not unlike Swift’s in Gulliver’s travels, in which God’s own image is conjoined the vilest of brutes. The most celebrated effect of Fielding’s Enquiry, according to Jessica Warner in her book Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason, was to supply ammunition for the last Gin Reform act. The correlate for the waters of death, the anti-baptism that exchanges God’s image for that of a yahoo, was precisely gin – which, as Warner points out, was the first serious drug craze in the West.

I'll stop here for today, with a quote from the Enquiry:

"..for the intoxicating Draught itself disqualifies them from using honest Means to acquire it at the same that it removes all Sense of Fear and Shame, and emboldens them to commit wicked and desperate Enterprize Many Instances of this I see daily; Wretches often brought before me charged with Theft and Robbery, whom I am forced to confine before they are in a Condition to be examined; and when they have afterwards become sober, I have plainly perceived from the State of the Case, that the Gin alone was the Cause of the Transgression and have been sometimes sorry that I was obliged commit them to Prison.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

Fielding is on deck

My ass festival post may have been more enigmatic than I quite wanted it to be. Sometimes, I want the haze of connotation to rise up from my prose – there’s no reason to live without a little mist. But I don’t want the mist to eat up the prose.

Anyway, this is a busy week for me, but I am going to write my next post about a rarely read text of Henry Fielding’s, An Enquiry into the causes of the late Increase in Robbers. We will see if I can do this.