One of Foucault’s most ingenious lightning strokes comes at the beginning of the essay with a name like a telegram from the Hotel Abyss: Nietzsche, Genealogy, History. It was published in 1971, and it had a large effect in the world of scholarship – diffusing a p.o.v. through philosophy, literature and finally history departments worldwide.
Geneology is gray : it is meticulous and patiently documentary. It works on parchment that is tangled , scratched and often re-written.
Paul Ree was wrong, like the English, to describe linear geneses – to organize, for instance, all the history of morality under the tutelage of utility ; as if the words had kept hold of their sense, the desires their direction, the ideas their logic ; as if this world of things said and willed had not known invasions, struggles, rapine, masks, ruses. It is this standpoint that serves as an indispensable resource for geneology : to note down the singularity of events, outside of any monotone finality; to spy them there where one expects them the least, and in what passes for not having a history – sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; to grasp their return, not in order to trace the slow arc of an evolution, but in order to discover different scenes where they have played different roles; to even define their lacuna, the moments where the event didn’t happen (Plato in Syracuse did not become Mohammed, etc.).
This kind of history rejects, at least temporarily, one of the great functions of history: retrospective legitimation. To tell a history of progress in which the teller is at the enlightened endpoint, to in a sense miniaturize history to make it seem as though it finally makes sense in some point of time, passes through the needle’s eye of the present moment, such is the object, here, of Nietzsche’s, and by association, Foucault’s great rejection: rather, one plunges into the depths with such a respect for the depths that the depths define themselves. One doesn’t, to use a minor example, speak of the “scientists” of the seventeenth century, but use the terms that were used about them and that “they” generated: natural philosophers, for instance. Where we use the term “science”, the natural philosophers often used the term “art”. In Boyle’s Skeptical Chymist, for instance, the word science is used once, in a translation from a French text, to describe chemistry, whereas Boyle uses the word “Art” for chemistry – by which he means “practical” chemistry – much more often. We can reach in and “clean up” Boyle to make up an account of the history of chemistry, but to do this means silently disentangling that semantic and social compound from Boyle’s own pragmatics. Science, which for us “moderns” means some conjunction of empirical laboratory practice and abstract theorizing may well look back on impulses in Boyle’s work, but this is not the only “history” in which Boyle can feature.
However, the Foucauldian moment, at least as it effected the public consciousness of history, no longer has its grip on the public face of history. As Neoliberalism moved into a new, globalist stage in the 90s, the old Whiggish version of history, with its claim to “realism” – history that crowns the teller and the teller’s age as the global achievement towards which all history strains – came back. It came back riding, at first, on the end of history – the fad that came after the fall of Soviet communism – and then as the retrospective justification for what I’d call the right wing of neoliberalism – where it found its propagandist in figures like Stephen Pinker. Certain incidents – notably, 9/11 – made the governing class less shy about its colonialist subtext – that is, that Europe and the White West are the heirs of history, with the troops and drones to match.
Against this preface, I propose doing a little literary number. W.G. Sebald’ is not usually considered in this particular political context. Yet Sebald’s writing definitely falls under the heyday of neoliberalism. I want to take a moment in Vertigo and do some serious gloss work, you all.
Vertigo is a novel of sorts, Sebald’s first, published in 1990. It is divided up between events that happened to the narrator in the 1980s and events that happened to Stendhal (in the first chapter) and Kafka (in the third chapter). I’m interested in the first chapter, since what is happening to Stendhal, whose interior career, his mode of thought and feeling, was formed in the Napoleonic period, and was lived out in the reactionary aftermath, seems in some ways to shadow what was happening to intellectuals in the Thatcherite eighties, whose interior careers were formed in the revolutionary sixties and seventies, and were being played out in an unexpected turn of the times – a backwards movement, a most definite ricorsi.
One hundred and sixty nine years later, W.G. Sebald published his first “novel”, Vertigo [Schwindel. Gefühle], also a wrong-footing book in as much as its tone and subdued narrative – if narrative there is – seem contrary to the canons of fiction in our time. The first chapter is entitled “Beyle: or love is a madness most discrete.” Sebald, drawing largely from Love and other autobiographical writings, constructs a portrait of Beyle that, behind the reader’s back, employs certain fictional slights of hand, displacements of fact, distortions of context, amalgamation of incidents, to produce a Beyle who corresponds in some larger recognizable sense to the historical figure, but in the narrower sense corresponds to that figure very much caught in the narrator’s filling in, for his own purposes, of the historical lacuna. His very use of “Beyle” instead of “Stendhal” has a de-familiarizing thrust, in as much as it points to the duplicity of “Stendhal”: one of the affects of a pseudonym is the feeling it gives of making the bearer of the real name something of an imposter, a fake, a counterfeit, a parvenu in the domain of his own fame and reputation.
Can one, then, ask about the “extreme reality” of Sebald’s own time? In particular, the appearance of his novels coincide with the triumph of shock doctrine economics, to borrow Naomi Klein’s phrase, and the certainty, among the influential makers of public opinion, that there was “no alternative”. It would be surprising, given Sebald’s history-drenched consciousness, if this phenomenon did not find expression on some plane of his text.
Vertigo is a novel composed of two essay-like chapters – the first on Beyle, the third on Kafka – and two autobiographical chapters – one on the narrator in Venice in the early eighties, one on a trip back to his hometown in Bavaria that takes place in 1987. It mentions no current events – neither Reagan nor Thatcher nor Kohl are mentioned in the book. And yet there is, I think, a certain current in the book, a certain undertone in the writing, that does deal, indirectly, poetically, with the advent of the shock therapy society.
The passage that made me think of these things – and think of Beyle himself, who in 1821 had already developed his distinctive moody liberalism that would attract admirers as different as Nietzsche and Leon Blum – pretends to retell an anecdote about Beyle that must surely be in his journals or autobiographic writings, or in Love. Here’s the passage:
The narrative begins in Bologna, where the heat was so unbearable – in the early July of a year we cannot date precisely – that Beyle and Mme Gherardi decided to spend a few weeks breathing the fresher air of the mountains. Resting by day and travelling by night, they crossed the hilly country of Emilia-Romagna and the Mantuan marshes, shrouded in sulphurous vapours, and on the morning of the third day arrived in Desenzano on Lake Garda. Never in his entire life, writes Beyle, had the beauty and solitude of those waters made so profound an impression on him. Because of the oppressive heat, he and Mme Gherardi spent the evenings in a barque out on the lake, observing, during hours of unforgettable tranquillity, the most extraordinary gradations of colour as night fell. It was on one of those evenings, Beyle writes, that they talked of the pursuit of happiness. Mme Gherardi maintained that love, like most other blessings of civilisation, was a chimaera which we desire the more, the further removed we are from Nature. Insofar as we seek Nature solely in another body, we become cut off from Her; for love, she declared, is a passion that pays its debts in a coin of its own minting, and thus a purely notional transaction which one no more needs for one’s fulfilment than one needs the instrument for trimming goose-quills that he, Beyle, had bought in Modena. Or do you imagine (thus, according to Beyle, she continued) that Petrarch was unhappy merely because he never knew the taste of coffee?”
This passage rather shocked me, since I had apparently overlooked it when reading Stendhal’s book Its conjunction of Petrarch and the cup of coffee, I thought, was brilliant: Petrarch, whose 15th century humanism made him the first quintessentially modern European figure in, at least, traditional intellectual history; Petrarch, Stendhal’s predecessor in exploring the great vexing question of contradiction in love; Petrarch, the humanist and scourge of corruption – on the one side. And on the other coffee, unknown to the Europe of Petrarch’s time; coffee, the commerce of which became a symbol for the global reach of the dominant commercial power exercised by the great European states; coffee, that liquid that generated the coffeehouse, which in turn, in some hyperbolic accounts, generated the whole space of bourgeois public opinion. Between the two, a temporal differential. Between the two, the question of whether happiness is really increased by our technology, commerce, and consumerism. For the vexing question of happiness which Petrarch’s coffee poses to the Whiggish historian – the man, almost always a man, who believes the world is getting better and better under the capitalist world order – is how to compare the contemporary happiness supposedly unleashed in the human breast by our world of commodities with the past happiness of people who were absolutely ignorant of, and thus free from, that system of commodities.
Love begins with one formulation of the theory of crystallization, and ends with another formulation that rather complicates the story. The story is based on an incident. The salt miners in Hallein, near Salzburg in Austria, throw a dead branch into the depths of the mine. Then, after a certain period, they haul it up again, and the leafless branch is encrusted, like a diadem, with beautiful, diamond-like salt crystals. Stendhal compares this process to the process of love. The image of the Other is, as it were, thrown into the depths of the consciousness, and then hauled up to the surface, and seen as radiant and beautiful in spite of the fact that the real Other is still that dead branch under the crystals – or perhaps, on a more optimistic reading, the reality of the dead branch itself is all of these sequences, from life to the underworld to a fantastic other life. It is, in any case, an eerie allegory – unheimlich. Following the logic of repetition Freud later saw as an essential moment of the unheimlich, the second formulation of the crystallization forms a second story, as if the first one had not already been told. In this formulation, Madame Gherardi, or Ghita, plays a major role – it is she who accompanies Beyle to the mine, and it is she who becomes the object of crystallization for a young officer in Beyle’s group. Here, again, as Sebald emphasizes, one thing substitutes for another – for the tone of the telling indicates that it is Beyle and not the officer who is under Madame Gherardi’s spell.
The question of the real comes up in an unexpected way in Sebald’s staging of Beyle’s encounter on that lake. It is startling to realize, once one has done some surface investigation of Beyle’s life, that Sebald has de-materialized Madame Gherardi – made her, as he says, a phantom, or a fiction of Stendhal’s:
“There is reason to suspect that Beyle used her name as a cipher for various lovers such as Adèle Rebuffel, Angéline Bereyter and not least for Métilde Dembowski, and that Mme Gherardi, whose life would easily furnish a whole novel, as Beyle writes at one point, never really existed, despite all the documentary evidence, and was merely a phantom, albeit one to whom Beyle remained true for decades.”
However, this is an odd case to make: Madame Gherardi of Brescia was so much not the phantom that she was General Murat’s mistress, just as Beyle was attached to General Murat’s command. This was well known at the time – so much so that Napoleon alludes to it in a letter to the General. She was referred to in Stendhal’s journal, by name, in connection with the “game” of crystallization – an extraordinary length to go if, indeed, Stendhal were in the business, here, of creating a mystification, since the journal was private writing. She was well enough known to be mentioned by other memoirists of the period, especially for the scandal she caused when, as a married woman, she traveled to Paris to be with her lover, Murat. This is not of course to say that Sebald is “wrong,” or made a mistake, but simply to say that he has taken a hint from certain of Stendhal’s biographers, who certainly take the Mme Gherardi figure in Love for a kind of fiction behind which Stendhal hides other women (an assumption that is a little strange, since the Murat scandal would certainly be known to readers in Paris in 1821) – and have used it to push a certain combination of literary devices to create a fiction. In making Mme Gherardi a “phantom”, the calm, essayistic tone, the Auerbachian assurance of the scene on the lake, trembles with some gothic motif underneath, some suppressed violence. But whose violence?
Sebald’s second move in his recasting and fictionalizing Love is to report this dialogue, these murmurs in the oncoming dark on Lake Garda, as though it were transposed from Beyle’s book. Instead, Sebald has put, into the phantasmatic Mme Gherardi’s mouth, words that are spoken not in dialogue, and not by Mme Gherardi (who is given dialogue in Beyle’s book), but maxims written by Beyle. The fragments section of his book, from which this dialogue is taken, with a little rewiring, is firmly in the moraliste tradition, the tradition of Pascal’s Pensees and La Bruyere. What Mme Gherardi says is a mashup of two fragments, 140 and part of 145. The reconstruction of these maxims is another step in creating a certain ghostliness – a certain fog – which lies around the entire picture of Beyle.
But what of Madame Gherardi’s comment itself? How are we to parse it? What does love being a currency that pays its debts in its own money have to do with Petrarch and coffee? It is best, I think, to divide the comment in two, for both parts set up a triangle between the recent history of Europe in Stendhal’s time, the value of the passions in a world seemingly devoted to money, or utility, and Beyle as one of Sebald’s oddmen – men who are out of even, literary men at the margins of the greater shifts and turns of the social forces in Europe.
The first part, with its comparison of love to money brought into the frame certain events that resonated in the early 18th century – as the inflation of the French revolutionary era had a massive effect on the events of the Napoleonic era and the restoration. Keeping our double focus, the period in which Sebald is writing is also one determined economically, in part, by the great inflation of the 70s. The link between love and a currency losing its purchasing power as prices go up, a currency that is not linked to any substance, also binds together Beyle’s time and Sebald’s. To see this, we have to take a little course in economic history: just as the abrogation of the Bretton Woods accord by Nixon sank, once and for all, the gold standard and the regulatory structure around foreign exchange, so, too, in the 1790s, did the French revolutionary government clip the link between currency and gold in the creation and promotion of the assignat. These were supposedly papers that were assigned value as shares of the nationalized properties of the monarchy and the church, which had been seized by the state. But the Revolutionary government took a printing machine approach to them, flooding the nation, and Europe, with the things. James Buchan, in Frozen Desire, devotes an elegant chapter to this episode in modern state finance.
…the revolutionary paper moneys seem to drive the revolution on. In the career of these pieces of paper, one sees condensed the idealism of 1790,the chaos of war and invasion, the massacre of Salpetriere and the triumph of Valmy, the guillotine in the Place de la Revoliution, the quaint New Age months and years and weights and measures and festivals of the Supreme Being, St. Just’s pastoral fantasies on the eve of Thermidor, the despotism of Buonaparte and the communism of Babeuf and finally Balzac’s profiteering nouveau riches.
Such, then, is the sweep of Gherardi’s comparison. It insinuates into love, as a passion, a certain frightening revolutionary power, one that sweeps away the usual foundations of the “reality” of one’s unit of exchange, one’s wage, one’s promise, ones final, revocable body, and puts in its place a foundation forged out of expropriation and idealism – a shaky structure, that cannot, such is Gherardi’s conservative point, last.
There is another point in Gherardi’s argument – or her tease, from Stendhal’s point of view, or Sebald’s sense of that point of view. It arises out of the conservative critique of love’s sustainability and goes to another level, a level that allows us to ask what progress itself is for – what the good of it is.
In the art, literature, philosophy and social sciences of the nineteenth century, a terrific amount of rationalization revolved around – found its justification in – a central paradigm of progress, whether to acclaim it (the classical liberal response) or to stand back in horror from it (a response shared by reactionaries and certain socialists). When Beyle takes the possibility of “passional love” as the measure of cultural liberty in European societies, he is not merely being too clever: he is beginning a critique of cultural narrowness – of a moralistic straightjacketing of people – that took as its paradigm case, in the 19th century, the moral condition of public life in the U.K., and took as its theme the paradox that the most democratically constituted state, politically, was the one with the most restricted cultural scene. Alexander Herzen, in exile in London, wrote damningly of the lack of personal breathing space in English society in his essay on Robert Owen, which Tolstoy greatly admired; so did Gauguin’s mother, the radical feminist Flora Tristan, who was scathing about the cultural segregation of women in Victorian London. Inside Britain, this criticism was taken up by one of the great Victorian sages: John Stuart Mill.
John Stuart Mill, who was born in 1806 – when Stendhal was 23 – is an interesting figure to compare to Beyle. Mill, in his maturity, tried to reconcile with the Liberalism of Victorian England, for which he was a great advocate, with the values of the French Revolution, which Beyle, a generation younger, experienced as the very spirit of Napoleon’s continental system. Unlike Beyle, Mill not only adored his father, but made it one of his life’s tasks to defend the utilitarianism that James Mill, in tandem with his friend and teacher, Jeremy Bentham, developed. Bentham’s utilitarianism was connected, root and branch, to the eighteenth century sensualist metaphysic – the very school from which Beyle learned his worldview – making Mill and Beyle, with their two very different characters, philosophical cousins.
Mill suffered a nervous breakdown when he was twenty. He read himself into this breakdown, under the strain of the books his father assigned to him as part of his education; he then read himself out of it, through a therapeutic immersion in Wordsworth’s poetry. Mill was forever after grateful to Wordsworth, and – given his training in systematic thinking – felt that poetry was a data point insufficiently considered by the ethos of his father. Famously, Bentham had said that from the point of view of utilitarianism, there was no difference between poetry and pushpin. That is, the pleasure you got from one and the pleasure you got from the other was essentially cut from the same cloth. All pleasures were equal qua pleasure. This was a crucial political economic point: if pleasures were somehow innately heterogenous, you couldn’t quantify over them and produce simple social calculations. If some pleasures were different, the world of utility would then be insufficient to guide all social policy.
Mill dealt with this problem in a more general spirit in his essays on Bentham and Coleridge, and in a more systematic spirit in Utilitarianism. Nobody at the time or later felt that his solution was elegant, or even, in the terms he presented it, defensible; yet everybody feels there is an intuition at the bottom of it that must be dealt with:
“Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.”
Pleasure itself (and, by inference, pain) cannot, apparently, endogenously produce this hierarchy – instead, Mill makes an empirical move and goes to exogenous factors to both claim that this is a hierarchy (of higher and lower happiness) derived from the experience of experts (who are tacitly defined in terms of their cultural knowledge) and to inscribe this hierarchy in his social philosophy. Unfortunately for Mill, this makes his two happinesses seem less, rather than more, legitimate, forms of wishful thinking against Bentham’s hardheaded dogmatism. In terms of Mill’s own work, one can see, behind this passage, a project that goes back to his essays on Bentham and Coleridge. It is the Coleridge essay, especially, that shows the reach of Mill’s mind and his attitudinal difference vis-a-vis his more downright predecessors. Choosing Coleridge for the topic of an essay is a surprising choice: Coleridge was the enemy of his party. Coleridge was reaction. And he was even a bit of a turncoat, since, in his youth, Coleridge had sympathized with the French Revolution. Yet Mill recognized that beyond these qualities, Coleridge was also a brilliant opponent, the great theorist of reaction. In a clarifying passage, Mill brings this together with the critique of the ideology of progress:
One “observer” is forcibly stuck by the multiplication of physical comforts; the advancement and diffusion of knowledge; the decay of superstition; the facilities of mutual intercourse; the softening of manners; the decline of war and personal conflict; the progressive limitation of the tyranny of the strong over the weak; the great works accomplished throughout the globe by the co-operation of multitudes: and he becomes that very common character, the worshipper of “‘our enlightened age.” Another fixes his attention, not upon the value of these advantages, but upon the high price which is paid for them; the relaxation of individual energy and courage; the loss of proud and self-relying independence; the slavery of so large a portion of mankind to artificial wants; their effeminate shrinking from ‘even” the shadow of pain; the dull unexciting monotony of their lives, and the passionless insipidity, and absence of any marked individuality, in their characters…
One can see, in the critique of progress, an incipient critique of the cultural narrowness of a purely commercial society. Mill’s response was to embrace an eclecticism that synthesized the conservative defense of culture, as he found it in Coleridge, and the Benthamite defense of social policy based on utility. It is a problem similar to that faced by Stendhal: to remain faithful to a rationality founded on the sensualist materialism of the 18th century with the revolutionary sentiment derived, stylistically, from Rousseau. In Stendhal’s work, that revolutionary moment, which dissolves all previous irrational structures, only to get routinized in the Civil Code, goes underground – goes into the depths of the salt mines – and emerges in the erotic. But it is a funny liberation that is promised here, one that authenticates itself by ending badly, or perhaps I should say, twistedly – without the satisfaction that it promised. Beyle’s “yes” is to a lovelife that is the eternal return of the same problem.
Sebald presents himself – as the narrator, with all the distance and funnybusiness that involves – as incorrigibly melancholic throughout the period of the eighties. That melancholia is linked, by allusion and juxtaposition, to the thwarted, the intentionally irrational, love lives of Stendhal and Kafka. But as Foucault so rightly says, emotion is not an ahistorical constant. It too is experienced within the everydayness formed within the culture’s past and present and expectations. The image of Petrarch’s coffee is, I think, more resonant for Sebald, who was witnessing the Thatcherite turn towards the deeper invasion of capitalist norms on the private life, than it may have been for Stendhal – which is perhaps why he dispossesses Stendhal of the thought, and gives it to a de-materialized woman who, in the end, does not become either Stendhal’s lover. Her comment is dialectically complex: on the one hand, it is a defense of the unique individual’s liberty – restoring the decisional character of the passions. It reclaims an intentionality that Stendhal’s crystalisation obscures in myth. On the other hand, it also puts into doubt the notion that there is such a thing as retrospective legitimation: a move against the Whiggish idea that the accumulation of commodities is the endpoint of history. The political economist pretends to value neutrality, but is deeply loyal to a certain ideal of happiness that levels people – that creates happy consuming machines, instead of unhappy or happy spirits.
It is this leveling that, I think, is the key to Sebald’s unhappiness in Vertigo – or to the level of unhappiness. It is not an unhappiness that is opposed to happiness, but instead, one that seeks out a happiness that it could be opposed to, a happiness that springs from… well, it is hard to say what. Writing? Love? Or the exhilaration of disaster? Mill’s reasons for dividing pleasure into a higher and lower state are rooted in a utilitarianism that is in contradiction to them – but this doesn’t mean that happiness is all of a piece, that happinesses are interchangeable. Which of course creates an enigma for a social order founded on the pursuit of happiness: for perhaps the happiness of one person is not only not shared by another, but actually causes the latter pain: happiness, in other words, can be loosened from solidarity to such an extent that giving pain to the Other, exterminating the Other, can become a collective goal.
Sebald terminates Vertigo with a paraphrase of Samuel Pepys account of the Great Fire of London. Surely he was reading about the Great Fire because he was pondering the burning of the German cities in the great air war of the 40s, which in Sebald’s view had been, if not hidden, at least not really assumed the proportions of the disaster it was in the literature of the major German post-war writers, as if the trauma of it was beyond them, or as if the incomparably more extensive Nazi mass murder had made it seem, in comparison, justified.
We saw the fire grow. It was not bright, it was a gruesome, evil, bloody flame, sweeping, before the wind, through all the City. Pigeons lay destroyed upon the pavements, in hundreds, their feathers singed and burned. A crowd of looters roams through Lincoln’s Inn. The churches, houses, the woodwork and the building stones, ablaze at once. The churchyard yews ignited, each one a lighted torch, a shower of sparks now tumbling to the ground. And Bishop Braybrooke’s grave is opened up, his body disinterred. Is this the end of time? A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, throughout the air. The powder house exploded. We flee onto the water. The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire. And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.