John Emerson’s greatest hits: literature

The majority of my posts, and most of the most popular posts, are literary in manner even if the topic is history or philosophy. This page links to my most successful long literary pieces.  A group of shorter pieces are included complete here: John Emerson’s Least Hits. My best non-literary pieces (on Laozi and Chinese Philosophy, Inner Eurasia and the Mongol Empire, Philosophy and related topics, and American politics) are here: John Emerson’s Greatest Hits: not literature

My literary posts have been carefully devised to fall at an indeterminate point on the seriousness scale, somewhere between 0% and 100%. Caveat lector. Non-literary pieces are meant to be read straight.


Ressentiment and Schooling

Sexual repression and hatred of the body are often alleged to be at the root of Western alienation. An examination of a number of key figures (Nietzsche, Rimbaud, and St. Augustine, with glances at Sartre, Pascal and Thoreau) shows that behind the sexual repression and ressentiment often lie years of intensive classical education forced upon these authors by ambitious parents — often mothers, with the fathers absent or ineffectual. The supposed sexual repression is simply the result of the same social-climbing imperatives, which forbade both illicit relationships and inappropriate marriages.

Could Nietzsche have married Jane Austen?

But the big question is this: if Nietzsche had been an Austen character, could he have married one of Austen’s Dashwood sisters? I think that the answer is “maybe — but probably not.” In his favor is Jane Austen’s own bias toward reserved, dignified suitors. When she concocted improbably happy endings for her books, Austen made sure that the “nice guy” got the girl — whereas she forced the dashing, impulsive seducer to slink offstage in disgrace. Now, according to the testimony in Gilman’s book, Nietzsche was tolerably like the characters Austen favored, and during his younger days he probably even had the ardent sincerity Marianne (the “sensibility” sister) demanded. At the same time, however, both sisters expected what we would call an upper class income (1000 to 2000 pounds), and Nietzsche probably would have been out of luck for that reason.

Why did Henry James kill Daisy Miller?

Unfortunately, Daisy actually died of a natural cause: malaria spread by a mosquito. Here we again bump up against the problem you have with every goddamn realist novel. In order to make something into a story, you have to give unreasonable significance to one or more vivid facts.  (Balzac and Zola were aided in this task by gross superstition, and Balzac also believed in the pseudoscience of physiognomy, which deduces character from facial features). The business about the miasma striking down possibly-lewd women (but not the men with her) would work fine in Beowulf or in the Old Testament, but realism isn’t supposed to be like that. Like the long fine needle of shivered glass that pierced the London girl’s heart, Daisy’s death is just a coincidence. So much for that.

Where philosophy and sex both went wrong

By now, the horses of philosophy have been out of the barn for two and a half millennia already and we’re not going to get them back inside, but you have to ask yourself whether modeling the pursuit of truth on an abnormal mental state resulting from a hormone imbalance ever was a good idea. Are truth-seekers indeed obsessive, broken human units whose desired truths are really just distorted, fetishized projections of their own neediness and lack? Is this a desirable state of affairs?

Further Annotations to Nabokov and Appel’s “Annotated Lolita”

p. 174. …bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on singularly lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.

Certainly a reference to Victor Hugo’s 1877 L’art d’être Grand-Père. Hugo was a highly affectionate grandfather who once told his four-year-old granddaughter that she had a cute ass. He was also one of the horniest bastards who ever lived; his preference in women was “the first one who comes along”. (Source: Robb biography). Another horny bastard was Theophile Gautier, who confessed to an unconsummated preference for nymphets. (Source: Goncourt diaries).

Everything you ever wanted to know about Mozart and Salieri

To begin with, Akhmatova and Mandelstam’s Salieri and Mozart are entirely based on Pushkin. Pushkin seems to have taken the story at face value, but it seems unlikely that he intended for his play to be taken as serious history. Akhmatova’s theory that Pushkin’s Mozart represents Mickiewicz is on the whole doubtful. It may be that the contrast between hard-working Salieri and fast-working Mozart was based on the Pushkin / Mickiewicz contrast, but Salieri’s criticism of Mozart’s frivolity also could have been (and was) applied to Pushkin (by Bestuzhev and Zhukovsky).  However, Salieri’s expressed feelings about the dignity of art were shared by Mandelstam (and Akhmatova).

Melville’s “The Confidence Man” and Rabelais’ Panurge

Chapters 37-40 take a dig at Emersonian self-reliance. Melville was often dependent on financial help from others, and Emerson’s uncharitable principles must have seemed unduly harsh to him.  In chapter 39 Charlie, the Emersonian,  refuses on high moral principles either to lend or to give money to his needy friend Frank — for friendship is something too high and pure to be smirched either by a business transaction or charitable giving.

Melville mentions Rabelais in one place in the book, and many of the Emersonian anti-philanthropic speeches in the book are mirror images of the sponger Panurge’s praise of debt, debtors, and bankrupts in Book III of Gargantua and Pantagruel (a view which is, I suspect, closer to Melville’s):

 “Imagine the idea and form of some world….. in which there is not one debtor or creditor: a world without debts…. There, among the stars, there would be no regular course whatsoever. All will be in disarray….Among the elements there will be no sympathizing, alternation, or transmutation whatever, for the one will not repute himself obliged to the other; he hadn’t lent him anything….This nothing-lending world would be nothing but bitchery, a more unearthly wrangle than the election of the University Rector of Paris….. On the contrary, imagine a different world in which everyone lends, everyone owes, all are debtors, all are lenders.

Stacking hay and things of that kind

In chapters  XIII-XV of Hamlin Garland’s Boy Life on the Prairie (Nebraska, 1961) the stacking of wheat is explained in enough detail for the book to be usable as an instruction manual, and he also describes the various technical changes wheat harvesting went through during his lifetime.  (From when I was about six I just barely remember the kind of crew-operated threshing machine that left a big pile of chaff; it had replaced hand stacking and would soon be replaced by the combine). Stacking wheat was a difficult and critical job, and good stackers were in high demand during the harvest season, though not really afterwards, since they were just farmworkers after all.

Things were about the same in France….Arthur Rimbaud left the difficult job to his mom:

Delahaye was slightly awed when he called at the farm… He found his friend at harvest-time, rhythmically heaving the sheaves of wheat overhead to his mother, who formed the haystack.

Rimbaud, Graham Robb, Picador, 2000, p. 301.

Byzantine anecdotes

There are plenty of anecdotes. A holy man is terrified by the demon-spawn Emperor. The emperor’s demon nature reveals itself to witnesses. Trained geese peck grains of wheat from the naked Empress-to-be’s aidoiôn (look it up). The Empress-to-be, a stripper and courtesan, goes to a party and pulls a train with all the guests (regretting, however, that she had only three usable holes). Street gangs dressed as Huns (early counterculturists) terrorize the streets under the Emperor’s protection. Hoodlums and con men are picked up on the street and promoted to powerful positions. The lovely daughters of the nobility are forced into marriages with low-class oafs. Inconvenient persons are chopped into pieces and thrown into the sea. Two of the most powerful men in the world show themselves to be henpecked. The tall, splendid, very attractive Gothic princess Amalsuentha (with her “extraordinarily masculine bearing”) is strangled in her bath.

Victor Hugo on cephalopods

The creature superimposes itself upon you by a thousand mouths; the hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man amalgamates himself with the hydra. You form but one. This dream is upon you. The tiger can only devour you; the octopus, oh horror! breathes you in. It draws you to it, and into it, and bound, ensnared, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself.

Beyond the terrible, being eaten alive, is the inexpressible, being drunk alive.

This passage, which has been cobbled together from the most vivid lines of a long chapter, adequately represents Hugo’s capacity for excess.

For me, Hugo is an enormous nuisance. One of the great writers and public intellectuals of the 19th century, dominant in French poetry for decades, prolific for sixty years or more (he kept on writing after Rimbaud quit), the source of a hundred or so movie scripts, Hugo remains internationally popular to this day. But I find him impossible to read.

The hypocritical octopus

Recently when reading what Victor Hugo had to say about octopuses (none of it good)in Travailleurs de la Mer,  I came across this line: “The octopus is a hypocrite. You don’t even notice it, and suddenly it unfolds itself.” For Hugo the octopus is murderous — it lies disguised  in ambush, and then suddenly it opens up and gets you! (which indeed it often does,  if you’re a fish). Elsewhere, Hugo writes of the sea itself  “The wave is hypocritical: it kills, hides the evidence, plays dumb, and smiles“.

To me, the English word hypocrite does not simply mean “someone who feigns innocence”, which is how Hugo uses it here. To me hypocrisy is the ostentatious affectation of virtue by someone who is unvirtuous, especially when the hypocrite also loudly condemns someone who has committed the same sin that he himself is committing. This sent me on a long but interesting wild goose chase through the dictionaries.

“Bousingot”: not in your dictionaries

The word bousingot, which designates certain French political and literary rebels during the period 1830-1835 (and which is seen twice in Hugo’s Les Misérables), was used as a political label only during that very brief period and cannot be found in my ten pounds of French dictionaries: as Hugo explains in his novel, it had replaced the word ” jacobin“, and a little later was itself replaced by the word  “demagogue”.

Luckily, ample materials exist on the internet for tracking down this word and its origins.  The word comes from sailors’ and farmer’s argot and was adopted by Les Jeunes-France of the Petit Cénacle,  a group of political and literary rebels of that era which included Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval. Their enemies picked the word up to use against them, and the usage and the behavior it labeled both spread out into the greater society. Eventually it came to to designate more militant rebels (especially the students among them), and when these staged actual uprisings and brought heavy repression onto themselves, many of the original literary bousingots dropped the label. This use of the word survived as a historical reference to the rebels of that era, but the generic meaning “rebel” fell from use.


Published on January 16, 2014 at 8:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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