- I have given much thought, in my life, to a certain intellectual history that characterizes the stages from the early modern age until now in terms of increasing rationality and the dis-enchantment of the world. This story seemed wrong to me – wrong on the level of ordinary life, at least, and probably wrong on the level of intellectual life within the epoch of capitalism – or more broadly, the epoch of industrial production. Just as the money-nexus did not replace the gift economy, but rather relies upon it, so, too, did the collapse of the belief in an enchanted realm, a realm in which the rules of causality are bent to the charisma of certain figures, happen only partially, with the forms of it still in use as a support for the administered world, the world of parity products and neo-liberalism. Read a fairy tale and watch a police series on Netflix and you will see causality bend in both cases, adhering in both cases to our greater belief in charisma than in contingency. Cause and effect, deduction and inference, obey rules that were discovered at least in part long before the Great Disenchantment of the world happened, but they go against elements of the human grain as it has adapted to thousands of years of agricultural community to be repressed too absolutely as we bid goodbye to peasant cultures. What is culturally dominant is a compromise. This is not to say nothing has happened since 1499 – it would be sheer blindness to insert “universal human behavior” directly into history like it was some lego piece in a toy construction. Rather, there is a surprising elasticity in collective belief systems, which allow parallel and bifurcating systems to flourish and remain at once as distant from each other as the hot tip and the rabbit’s foot. This is why I liked and disagreed with Doug Sikkema’s article for the New Atlantis, “Disenchantment, Actually: Modern disenchantment may be a myth, but it is still the water in which we swim.” It is a review of The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences by Williams College religion professor Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm. Josephson-Storm traces the myth of disenchantment back to the German romantics, which gives the myth a distinctly German tinge. In the twentieth century, after all, it is the Germans who have picked at it, from Gadamer to Adorno to Blumenberg. Myself, though, I would have chosen a different threshold, a hundred years earlier, in the battle between the ancients and the moderns, a controversy of French origin that spread quickly throughout Europe. Secularization – which is the great concern of the Germans – was, historically, preceded by a long war on superstition conducted by church and state. It was a feature of the early modern era that two parallel policies of statecraft were pursued to police popular belief. One was the hunt for witches and demon possessed deviants of all kinds; the other was the gradual expulsion of traditional sciences, like astrology and alchemy, from their official niches. The astrologer was once as much a part of a royal court as a prime minister. Yet the astrologer suffered an almost total loss of prestige in the seventeenth century due to the sense that astrology didn’t deliver the goods about the stars, or about the future. Astronomy and the mathematicians seemed to be the people to bet on. In the one case, the persecution of witches depended crucially on the belief that there were witches, while in the other case, the expulsion of the astrologers depended crucially on the belief that astrology was false.Sikkema claims that Josephson-Storm, for all his factual analysis of seemingly enlightened figures opting, in certain conditions, for transcendental – or paranormal – explanations, doesn’t account for the pervasiveness of the “secular order”.“To say that we are all disenchanted now means not that we have rid ourselves of the metaphysical or supernatural but that we relate to these as a fallen rather than a reigning order. Disenchantment is the water in which we swim.”Myself, I think Sikkema’s account depends upon a claim about the “disenchanted order” that refuses to see its relationship to the enchanted instance as anything but a negation. I am perhaps too rational to accept that claim. I think the disenchanted order lives as well upon a charismatic figuring of its claims. Sikkema defends the standard view without quite getting to how the disenchanted and enchanted order meet in ordinary life. That’s more of an enigma than his schema allows.
- Salmagundi (the Summer issue) features an essay by Dubravka Ugresic, entitled Artists and Murderers, that is right up my alley in terms of being a scathing and total denunciation of the world of art and culture in the time of genocidaires and businessmen (the two types often trading positions, now collecting civilians in camps and massacring them, now setting up chains of folky fast food restaurants). It seems that in Croatia, where Ugresic hails from, the writing, artmaking and artcollecting fields, which were once overflowing with the botched, the bewildered and the bohemian, the eccentric heiress and the surrealist poet, are now booming thanks to the participation of the usual masses of scum: politicians, celebrities, and the whole herd of tv talk show guests who at one point or another stole, killed, defrauded, scored, screwed, lied, and otherwise made their heap out of an almost transcendental assholery. You see them in the glam magazines, they roost in the lists of the 100 most influential. Or, more innocently, they are heirs of the heap, children of the rich, having traded in Daddy’s very real semi-automatic for a goldplated squirt gun. Croatia, in other words, sounds much like the United States. Here’s a couple of grafs:
All that would be fine. Why not let a thousand flowers bloom? Each of us can be nourishment for the mind of a child, in the words of a Croatian amateur poet in celebration of literature. Murderers and criminals are, however, remarkably ambitious, their appetite is growing, it is not enough for them that they have published their own books, have had their own solo and group shows, garnered media attention; they want acclaim, they want the society which they have bestrewn with their artworks to bow down before them. Front and center at every theater’s opening night, at every new show, they pontificate on the aesthetic values of each movie, book, performance. But even that is not enough, they aspire to wield total control over any realm of art inhabited by their hobby. They are more than happy to join committees, editorial boards, councils, they become members of juries, elbow their way onto school curricula, into primers, textbooks, anthologies. Their hunger is insatiable.
And this, after Ugrasic receives an email from a friend explaining at length who were the drowned and who the saved in the current cultural industry in Croatia, lamenting that she is the only person in the world who can’t get her book published because – well, she really is a writer:
The email from my friend sparked my imagination. Chilled by the nightmare vision of millions of people worldwide from an array of occupations clutching their books, and millions more adamant that it was only a matter of time before they, too, had their book in hand, and inspired by the movie Fifty Shades of Gray, which I watched along with millions of other earthlings, I went off to a store that sold practical merchandise. There I purchased the strongest rope I could find, sturdy iron stakes (as if off to scale a mountain), a drill. The salespeople jollied me into buying it all and as a bonus they threw in adhesive strips. The usually snarky salespeople proved unexpectedly solicitous in my case.
I’d decided to end it all. As far as suicidal practices and strategies go I may be an amateur, but I am well-read. Recent statistics suggest that women who commit suicide no longer rely on pills nor do they lean toward the good-old technique of slitting wrists; instead they tend to embrace the Bye-bye World! trajectory of the “male” technique of – hanging. This, then, was why a key item on my shopping list was the rope. Only a few months later we learned that hanging is not a man’s preference; General Slobodan Praljak, having heard his sentence read out in The Hague, downed a little flask of poison before the “cameras of the world.” One might say that his theatrical instinct had the upper hand; he did die. On television screens lingers his grimly frozen head, his gaping mouth, looking more like an immense fish than a human being.
This is my kind of stuff, served piping hot. My pantheon leans towards the critics of the grotesque who through a sheer hatred of vice (and a entropic decline in the love of virtue) became grotesques themselves: Swift, Leon Bloy, Karl Krauss, Pasolini.
3. The Dublin Review of Books – oh how many reviews of books there are, Nina, said one Evelyn Waugh character to another – has a number of good reviews up this week. Among them a review, by Alice Lyons, of Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, Tokarczuk is a Polish novelist and poet, and she seems to be among the righteous. Here’s a graf from the review of the novel, which is centered on a retired engineer named Janina Duszejko:
While she tires of life in the patriarchy, Duszejko isn’t cowed. More than anything, she feels sorry for the other gender, which suffers from what she calls “testosterone autism” that causes “an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he’s drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs a character’s psychological understanding.” Still, being dismissed as a “crazy old bat” by the local police commandant is infuriating and she doesn’t take it lying down. As she says, “the truth is that anyone who feels Anger, and does not take action, merely spreads the infection. So says our Blake.”
This is lovely stuff, quite in the manner of Ugrasic. People who can see that the blind are following the blind into a ditch, and that ditch is called: the end of civilization as we once imagined it.