Posts on 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.Continuity check GH

This page will be expanded and revised as time goes on, and many pieces will be edited.

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?

Monomania as Philosophy

Besides the new ideas of clarity and distinctness, “perfection” and “substance” are now introduced (from one knows not where) as an unquestioned standard of reality. From systematically denying the evident, Descartes (like a child putting down one game and picking up another) now moves to the dogmatic affirmation of the dubious (the immortality and immateriality of the soul, the existence of a perfect God).

Plato and Kant have a lot to answer for

The romantics were the shock troops and sappers who softened up the honky world  for the consumer society. With liberty and equality, anyone could presume to want anything they wanted, without being accused of encroaching on others’ prerogatives. The aggregate quantity of desire multiplied exponentially, as Malthus pointed out, whereas the quantity of possible satisfaction increased only slowly, if at all. And to be too easily satisfied was shameful; an attainable or attained object was by definition degraded and unworthy. Last year’s chic outfit is this year’s wipe rag. Kant, Lamartine, and Novalis taught us that only the Ideal is good enough,  and marketing picked it up from there.

In Memoriam Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984

Many have tried to tame or defeat sexuality, but each attempt has only made it stronger and more horrible. Repression, chastity, marriage, idealization, libertinism, liberation, naturalness, “relationships”, psychoanalysis, bisexuality, intersexuality, transgendering, queering – nothing has worked, and sexuality still claims countless new victims each day.

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).

Vive les demoiselles!

Fortunately, the fundamentals of the demoiselle novel are pretty simple. You need one demoiselle, one step-parent (usually an evil one), two evil conspirators, one evil seducer, and one hapless suitor. Theoretically this adds up to six characters, but there’s normally some overlap between the evil seducer, the two evil conspirators, and the stepparent.

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).

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.

“Adopt the attitude of the octopus”

In ascending order of dignity, the chameleon is said to represent a dissembler, or  one who is inconstant and adopts any appearance to suit the time. The fox, with his many tricks, is held to be inferior to the hedgehog with his single very effective trick. The versatility and resourcefulness of the divine shapeshifter Proteus (twisting and turning…. hard to pin down…. a cunning fellow and jack of all trades) are treated with a degree of respect, though he hardly seems like someone to rely on. In all of these cases, dissembling and transformation are regarded as defensive tricks primarily useful for someone trying to escape enemies or to keep from being brought under control or called to account.

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.

The etymology of hypocrisy

The word “hypocrite” and its derivatives trace back to the Greek. Neither the word nor the concept is found in Hebrew. The  word does not appear in the Septuagint, the Jews’ own Greek translation of the Tanakh (the Old Testament), though it does appear in a different Jewish translation of the Tanakh into Greek. When the word is seen in the KJV translation of the Old Testament  it translates, and possibly mistranslates, a word that simply means “godless” or “lawless”….. In classical Greek the word “hypocrite” means someone who is pretending to be or acting as someone else. It can be  negative, as in the case of a fraud, or neutral, as in the case of stage actors and public spokesmen…..

One source claims that the word came to English via Molière’s play Tartuffe, ou le Hypocrite, and while this is not true and is off by many centuries, it’s possible that in English the limited Tartuffian sense became dominant while the broader meaning survived in France. Even so, Hugo’s application of the word “hypocrite” to an octopus pretending to be a rock and to the murderous ocean wave feigning innocence does seem like quite a stretch.  But Hugo, being Hugo, could lay it on as thick as he wanted.

Aristotle and Mollusk Sex

Aristotle usually figures in cultural history and in the history of science as a rationalist philosophizer, one of the men who put The West on the non-empirical, non-experimental, unscientific track of logical abstraction and argument — someone whose influence had to be thrown off before science would be possible.

This picture is really quite misleading. Aristotle was criticized in his own time for undignified activities such as the dissection of hermit crabs, and his biological writings show us that as an  experimentalist he wasn’t as far removed from Darwin as people think.

To make my point, I’ve excerpted Aristotle’s writings on the sex lives of the mollusks — since you can hardly imagine a less-dignified area of empirical study.


Krakens, Basilisks, Clam-monsters

He worked his jowls and dripped saliva, gaping and sucking, so that people took him to be a veritable sea-basilisk [kraken, giant squid ]  or dragon-clam [clam-monster]….

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.

You can’t tell the players without a program

Most of the factional activity took place among the romantics. The romantic factions were Les Meditateurs, Les Frénétiques, Les Larmoyants, Les Illuminés, Le Petit Cénacle, Les Jeunes-France, Les Buveurs d’Eau, the literary Bousingots, the political Bousingots, Les Badouillards, Les  Muscardins (dormice), Les Dandys and Les Bohème.

The Discovery of the Bourgeoisie

Bourgeois doesn’t mean a citizen with the rights of the city. A duke may be bourgeois in the indirect sense in which the word has been used for the past thirty years or so. Bourgeois, in France, means roughly the same as philistine in Germany, and it means everyone, whatever his position, who is not initiated in the arts or doesn’t understand them. — Theophile Gautier, ca. 1860

Satie and the Sewing Machine

The Princesse was born Winnaretta Singer — one of the twenty-two children (by five wives) of Isaac Merritt Singer, the former Shakespearean actor and jack-of-all-trades who (with a little help from Elias Howe) had invented the Singer Sewing Machine. In 1875 Singer died and left fifteen million dollars to be divided among his wives and children (or most of them, anyway). In 1875 that was real money, and Winnaretta was able to buy her way into French high society.

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.

By the Neck Until Dead

Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Billy Budd were both finished by 1891, when Melville died and Tess was published. In each of these two books a guileless and naive (but not legally innocent) protagonist is condemned to death and hanged for the murder of a malicious villain. Both of the condemned were, in addition, young and physically attractive. Were these two books triggered by a real-life incident?

To the Shores of Tripoli

The Barbary Pirates, the Marine Hymn, the American tradition of secular government, an American suicide bomber attacking Muslims, Billy Budd, and a reversible pro/anti-war song.

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.

The Cynic Emperor

If there was any doubt that the cosmology of The Meditations was about politics and power and not scientifically grounded, and that Marcus speaks from the seat of power, the passages below (along with his passing remarks on the poor little pig and the runaway slave) should lay it to rest:

The universe should be regarded as a kind of constitutional state. (4.3)

If that be so, the world is a kind of state. For in what other common constitution can we claim that the whole world participates? (4.4)

The Translation of the Ruins of Rome (including eleven translations into five languages)

Poetry is supposed to be “what’s lost in translation”, and the translator has been defined as a traitor, but there’s one poem which has become part of the canon in at least five different languages:

At the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, a Frenchman was able to read a poem on the ruins of Rome signed by Joachim du Bellay; a Pole knew the same poem as the work of Mikołaj Sęp-Szarzyński; a Spaniard, as the work of Francisco Quevedo; while the true author, whom the others adapted without scruple, was a little-known Latin humanist, Ianus [Janus] Vitalis of Palermo.(P. 10 in “Starting from my Europe”, by Czeslaw Milosz (in The Witness of Poetry, Harvard, 1983, Norton Lectures,  pp 1-21.

All names lead to Rome

Over the centuries the Romans (or “Rom” / “Rum” have variously been Romans, Italians, Goths, Greeks, Turks, Crusaders, Romanians, and Gypsies, and as the capital of the Empire or as the center of Christendom, “Rome” has minimally been sited at Rome itself, Ravenna, Constantinople / Istanbul, Aachen / Aix, Salerno, Avignon, Moscow, Paris, and Vienna. During the modern colonial period “India” was also found everywhere: in India, Ethiopia, the Caribbean Americas (“West Indies”), Indonesia (“East Indies”) and Southeast Asia. Guinea / Ghana / Guiana is another wandering colonial place name.

Water and Permanence II

Passages from Lao Tzu, Po Chu-i, and Ted Hughes with different points of view about  permanence vs. the destructive power of water. Po Chu-i puts a new twist on it: for him the smoothing and levelling action of water represents a civilizing influence. (Refers to my Ruins of Rome page).

 Parmenides in Szechuan

In Chungking, the temporary Nationalist Chinese capital during WWII, Hao Wang (eventually to become Kurt Godel’s literary executor, studied mathematical logic  while Ch’en K’ang was  translating and commenting on Plato’s Parmenides. Oddly enough, Ch’en does not mention two closely  parallel passages between Chuang Tzu (Watson tr., p. 141) and Plato (Parmenides #130c) on the Forms (or Tao) of hair, mud, dirt, piss, and shit.

Does the Bush Protect the Little Bird?

For little birds hoping for refuge, by and large, the odds are not really good. Cao Zhi and Prince Rakoczi  escaped with their lives, but the Chinese poet had to sit helplessly and watch while his friends, one by one, were murdered by the his brother the Emperor. (The almost mawkish pathos of the poem here is very rare in the Chinese poetry). Temujin escaped too,  but he devoted his life to tracking his enemies down and killing them. He was not a sparrow, but the fiercest of sparrowhawks, and from him there was no refuge.

Drakon and Solon

From a contemporary ideological point of view, the Athenian venture is interesting. In Athens the republican state and the individual (and to a degree, the market society) emerged simultaneously — at the expense of myth, tradition, and the extended family. Individualism was made possible by the new state form, but this state form also forbade citizens to act on their desires for revenge and required them to restrain their impulses toward self-assertion. And finally, in Athens equality consisted of extending to commoners the old rights or privileges of the nobility (e.g. jury service, and the right to bring cases to trial), rather than simply stripping the nobles of their privileges and thus attaining a servile equality.

Werewolves and the State

So the werewolf is Socrates, the state of exception, the tyrant, and Solon (the founder of Western Civilization, and the tyrant). Following David Gordon White you could throw in Saint Christopher, Romulus and Remus, and the primal ancestor of the Turkish and Mongol hordes. Wolves symbolize the state of nature, tyranny, founding violence, restorative violence, rebellious violence, and anarchy. And government is the monopoly of legitimate  violence — even Weber knew that, though “legitimate” has no definable meaning here . All order is founded on violence. You want one founder, preferably in the distant past. You really don’t want lots of founders.

Murder Most Foul: Chinggis Qan’s Mother Speaks

The first recorded act of Temujin (the future Chinggis Qan) was the murder of his half-brother Bekter.  In the Secret History we can read  the eloquent speech his mother Ho’elün made when she heard the news. It seems like a bitter denunciation, but in the context of the book as a whole it functions as a prophecy that Temujin would prove overwhelming and  irresistible, and become the  greatest of  Qans. (Includes Mongol text of Ho’elün’s oration.)

The end of civilization as we wish we had known it

Berthelot went on with his dispiriting revelations, at the end of which I exclaimed: “So it’s all over? There’s nothing left for us to do but to rear a new generation to exact vengeance?”“No, no,” cried  Renan, standing up and going red in the face, “no, not vengeance! Let France perish, let the Nation perish; there is a higher ideal of Duty and Reason!”“No, no,” howled the whole company. “There is nothing higher than The Nation!”.

Edmond and Jules Goncourt (tr. Baldick, NYRB 2007), Pages from the Goncourt Journals, p.172 (September 6, 1870).

The captain remarked that was fighting between the Turkish troops and the Serbians, who are in revolt. The Russians intend to stir up a quarrel and then sit by and reap their reward. Since England, France, and Germany see that it would be to their detriment if Russia were to have full access to the Dardanelles Straits, they have been earnestly deliberating as to how they might protect them…. In their hearts the Russians fear the assistance that the English might render to the Turks, so they do not dare to act presumptuously. Since the Turks have recently agreed to settle the trouble in Turkey, their joint efforts make it seem unlikely that the various powers of Europe will be embroiled in a general war. (January 13, 1877)

Kuo Sung-t’ao, The Record of an Envoy’s Journey to the West (in J.D. Frodsham, The First Chinese Embassy in the West, p. 65, Oxford, 1974).

Seven years later Kuo Sung-t’ao, the first Chinese ambassador to England, kept a record of the long sea voyage  taking him to his post. During his trip he improved his knowledge of the Western nations and the relationships between them, and as it happened, at the time he reached the Mediterranean Russia and Turkey were engaged in a dispute about Serbia, with all the other powers hovering on the wings to keep things from getting out of hand. “Their joint efforts make it seem unlikely that the various powers of Europe will be embroiled in a general war”, wrote the Ambassador. 

And he was right for a time, but he had put his finger on the place where the general war would break out 37 years later. ….


Bird Milk, Reptile Milk, Fish Milk

The most interesting thing that came out of my quest for exotic milk is that the hormone prolactin seems to be associated with parenting activities by either sex, not only in mammals and birds, but even in fish (and by conjecture and extrapolation, even in therapsids). I’m less narrow-minded than most, and I don’t have any difficulty with the idea that human, mammalian,

Hemoglobin and its substitutes

The color symbolism of red and green derives from the closely-related molecules hemoglobin and chlorophyll, the first representing animal life and the second, vegetable life. On the other hand, if we were priapalids or “penis worms” whose blood relies on hemerythrin instead of hemoglobin, purple or violet would have the place in our color symbolism that red does now.

A Naive Reading of Descartes

The basic “Cartesian” philosophical principles of mind-body dualism, idealism, and the ontological proof of the existence of God are all there in the Discourse on Method, but in such a sketchy form that they don’t seem like philosophy at all. The metaphysical, philosophical part is limited to the six pages of Part Four, and to me seems by far the weakest and least interesting part of the book. What’s really interesting is the description of a practical analytic, atomistic scientific method — including a job description for research assistants, an early version of peer review, and a model for scientific training that looks a lot like “progressive education”.  A naive reading of Descartes’ text finds a pragmatist. 

Staying at home

Voltaire’s dig was aimed at Maupertuis and the other French geodeticists, who traveled to Lapland and Ecuador to take measurements establishing the exact shape and size of the earth — data necessary for the confirmation of Newton’s gravitational theory. Voltaire’s belief that these trips and measurements were unnecessary was the result of an anti-empirical theoreticist bias. This was the rationalist age, and Voltaire thought that measurements were unnecessary, since Newton’s theory showed what the measurements would be. (Voltaire was all wrong, of course.)

The Waters above the Firmament: Creation science, firmament science, Armageddon science, and pi skepticism

Unfortunately, the first principle of the majority of American conservative Christians is that every word of the Bible is literally true, and as a result fundamentalists are forced to come up with some kind of  explanation for “the waters above the firmament”. Even a century ago (or as far as that goes, 1400 years ago at the time of Cosmas Indicopleustes) this concept was pretty far-fetched, but when men walked on the moon in 1969 the idea became ludicrous. But the fundamentalists soldier on, retranslating the Hebrew, postulating massive changes for which there is no evidence, and finding signs of water on Mars.  They might just as well try to prove that the earth is flat, too, while they’re at it, but they never seem go quite that far any more — God knows why.

The Coming of the Age of Iron

This book, together with Robert Drews’ The End of the Bronze Age (Princeton, 1993) makes it pretty clear that iron and steel didn’t make anything happen. The rise of iron roughly coincided with a series of invasions which brought down many of the empires of the Eastern Mediterranean (notably Troy), but the evidence tells us that the invasions came first, and that the heavily militarized conquering nations afterwards developed steel technology for military uses. During the nineteenth century it was often thought that technological changes (or access to resources) caused social changes,  but nowadays it is more often thought, as in this case, that the social changes led to the increased exploitation of already-existing technology and resources.

The Crimean Goths

At one time or another Gothia lived under the control of (or within the sphere of influence of) the Scythians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Huns, the Khazars,  the Comans / Polovtsi / Kipchaks, the Varangians / Rus / Russians, the Genoese, the Mongols, the Tatars, Tamerlane, the Cossacks, and Russia, and Gothia also had significant dealings with the Bosporan Greeks, the Greeks of Trebizond, the Petchenegs,  the Alans, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Hungarians, the Crusaders (from “Romania”), the Wallachians, the Zikhians (whoever they were), and the Lithuanians.

The Torgut Exodus

At the beginning of the modern age the Torguts were still nomads, and were able to move across the continent on short notice. Living in the days before railroads, automobiles, and airplanes, during their time on the Volga they fought against the Swedes and Turks, sent a delegation to the Dalai Lama in Lhasa 2500 miles away, and exchanged delegations with the Manchu Emperor in Beijing 3600 miles away. They also served the civilized world as a conduit for  information about the continent as a whole: around 1715, Chinese emissaries returning from the Torguts brought the Manchu emperor news of Russia’s 1709 defeat of the Swedes at Poltava in the Ukraine (about 600 miles west of the Torgut’s Volga homeland). The Russian victory at Poltava also indirectly contributed toward enlarging the Western universe: captured Swedish officers were transported far to the east, and two of them ultimately brought back a German translation of the first Mongol work ever seen in Europe (a history written in 1659 by the ruler of Khiva in present-day Uzbekistan, Abu al Ghazi Bahadur).

700 year old jokes from a Syrian bishop

Bar Hebraeus’ Chronography, one of the major sources on Mongol Persia, is also multi-cultural, relating the histories of the Hebrews, the Chaldeans, the Medes, the Persians, the pagan Greeks,  the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, and the Mongols — called Huns. (Another historian of Mongol Persia, Rashid ad-din, also wrote histories of China and Western Europe).  A peculiarity of the Chronography is that it uses two dating systems, the Muslim system and a second system which dated events from the foundation of Alexander’s Greek  Empire in Persia —  which had been defunct for 1400 years. (Presumably because of their Monophysite Christology, the Jacobites did not start their calendar with the birth of Christ).

Starting from Greenland (or, the Turkish Kayak)

“Kayak” is probably a Turkish word, and the word “caique” has entered the European languages from Turkish as the name of an entirely different boat. The two words met in Scandinavia ca. 1700, having circumnavigated the globe between them. The Ivory Road from Greenland to China ca. 1000 AD. The Varangian (Norse) circumnavigation of Europe at the time of the Fourth Crusade.

Silk and memes

Relic-worship and related practices are not part of the scriptures of Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, and insofar as they relate to these three doctrines, they seem more to be contrary to it than otherwise. And in fact these practices, which were heavily intertwined with magic and superstition, were often condemned by the orthodox when they first appeared

Etymological Vaginas

To me it’s an open-and-shut case. The Yule-Pelliot theory assumes an alternative universe where Italian sailors, given a chance to make a smutty remark, failed to do so — or even worse than that, an alternative universe where Italian sailors inadvertently made remarks which only later were discovered by others to have had a lewd connotation. Sorry, but I don’t think of that as a possible world.

History of the Caucasian Albanians

Bestial, gold-loving tribes of hairy men…. demented in their satanically deluded  tree-worshipping errors in accordance with their northern dull-witted stupidity, addicted to their fictitious and deceptive religion….They also had drinking horns and gourd-shaped utensils from which they lapped their broth and similar greasy, congealed, unwashed abominations. Two or three of them to one cup, they greedily and bestially poured neat wine into their insatiable bellies which had the appearance of bloated goatskins….. Possessing completely anarchical minds, they stumble into every sort of error, beating drums and whistling over corpses, inflicting bloody sabre and dagger cuts on their cheeks and limbs, and engaging naked in sword fights – oh hellish sight! – at the graves, man against man and troop against troop, all stripped for battle.

The Muskogee-Waukesha-Bismarck Triangle

Variations of this story took place in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where Christian met and encouraged the teenage Barney Kessel (probably in 1940), and in Bismarck, North Dakota, where Christian inspired the teenage Mary Osborne (probably before 1939). By 1945 all four of these guitarists had made the big time in New York or LA, and by then T-Bone Walker, who had known Christian in Oklahoma, was pioneering a jazzy kind of electric blues in Chicago and LA.

Now, the point is that these five guitarists all came from the middle of nowhere:  Waukesha (WS), Oklahoma City (OK), Muskogee (OK), Minot (ND), and the environs of Dallas (TX). They were all more Western than Southern,  and their musical environment was countryish. All of them had careers in the boonies before they reached the big city, and all of them were at the top of their trade by the time they reached New York. New York was marketing a music tradition which had matured elsewhere.

To see ourselves as others see us

The most important dumb Swede in American history was Chief Justice Earl Warren. In film, Sonja Henie was dumb, Greta Garbo was less dumb, and Ingrid Bergman was not dumb.

In general, Swedes are either madmen or dumb. Madness trumps dumbness — if a Swede is a madman, his dumbness is moot. Gaear Grimsrud was probably both, but who knows?

Kenneth Burke faked it too 

After failing to track down some tasty quotations from Leibniz, Foucault, and Harry Stack Sullivan that I’d been using for years, I conclude that they are probably all fake. But Kenneth Burke bails me out –for he did the same thing, crediting come of his own ideas to Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey.

The Authenticity and Fengshui of Bob Dylan

In short, when Bob Dylan remade himself it wasn’t because he was a phony trying to hide a boring suburban past. Presumably it was because he realized that the times were indeed a-changin’, and also because he realized that the things that might have worked in Hibbing weren’t going to work very well in New York.

My Fossil Railroad | Haquelebac

The interesting thing for me is that the northern part of the Soo Line route almost exactly follows the “woods trail” of the fur trade’s old Red River oxcart trails (which remained in use into the 1860s, less than 20 years before the rail line was built.)  Where the oxcart trail turned east at Ottertail (pop. 533, but once an important place), the rail route drops south and hooks up to the east plains trail, which it follows to Glenwood or a little beyond, and then diverges again and goes directly to Minneapolis-St. Paul instead of cutting over to Saint Cloud as the oxcart trail did.

Another Joyce  

An central theme of Joyce’s, unexpected by me at least, is love. The only character I’ve seen so far whom Joyce clearly despised is “Mr. James Duffy”, a leftist-Nietszchean bachelor (George Bernard Shaw?) who, on general principles, rejects the love of the unhappily-married Mrs. Sinico, and we saw above that loss of love is also the theme of “The Dead”. What Joyce found lacking in modern life, so it seems, was not elegance, nobility, drama, or excitement, but love.


A long piece about my favorite composer, who I see as the musical analogue of Gogol. Musorgsky is grossly underrated as a dramatist, and those who listen to his music as absolute music (as I did for a long time) miss the darkness of his vision.

Van Gogh as Sucker

Back to the original question. When Van Gogh died a lot of cash was tied up in academic paintings done by people no one has heard of since. Not long after his death, cash started flowing away from these paintings toward Van Gogh’s paintings. The academic paintings were stranded as historical curiosities, whereas Van Gogh’s paintings can now be used as security to get hefty loans from major banks. So if we ask ourselves “Where was the cash value of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings during his lifetime?”, the answer is simple.

Gautier’s hippo, Rimbaud’s goony-bird, Rimbaud’s Dancing Bear

The big-bellied hippopotamus
Lives in the jungles of Java,
Where monsters growl from every lair,
More than you’d ever dream of.

The boa uncoils and hisses,
the tiger unleashes his roar.
The buffalo bellows with rage —
but the peaceful hippo just feeds and sleeps.

The hippo fears neither sword nor spear,
He just stands and looks right at you.
He laughs and laughs
at the sepoys’ bullets bouncing off his hide

I am like the hippopotamus:
Swathed in my conviction,
protected by strong and inviolable armor,
fearlessly I cross the desert.

Théophile Gautier

The Avant-garde Hollyhock

The hollyhock played a unexpectedly large role in XIX-c French avant-garde literature, appearing twice in the works of Gerard de Nerval, once each in poems by Verlaine and Rimbaud, once in a Berthe Morisot painting named for the flower, and it also fugures in the works of Jean Giono.

No God of the sock drawer

It is one of the axiomatic beliefs of my creed, though also provable by reason, that Gods hiding in sock drawers would be lesser Gods. However, because of their very lesserness, they would also be strictly non-existent, since Godness is identical to absolute moreness.

A real God hiding in a sock drawer would be so transcendently evident that his attempt at hiding would fail. His transcendent butt would be sticking out, and you’d just want to kick it so bad.

“Le Real” is a kind of Sturgeon

So we could paraphrase Kant, “A hundred real reals do not contain a centavo more than a hundred possible reals.” Seemingly, the Real is the cash value — the kingly, the important, the inherited realm, landed property, and the gold and silver coins. Philosophical realism is the philosophy for which Ideas or Forms are important because they are royal and real because they are thinglike – which seems to destroy the purpose of the Ideas, which supposedly gain their power via their distinction from mere physical objects. And in Spain and Portugal, royalty remains “real” to this day, whereas in France since 1789, even the word real itself has been banished from the language. (What does Lacan have to say about all this? “The Real is impossible.” Thanks a lot, Jacques!)

I shall do away with all substance

For me it’s interesting that the word used in this passage by Christian translators of Genesis from Hebrew into Latin  (substantia) was a calque of a Greek word (hypostasis, stands under) which is the opposite of the word (exanastasis, stands up) used by Jewish translators of the same passage from Hebrew into Greek. And these same Christians also used the Latin word and the Greek word from which it was calqued as technical terms opposite in meaning (one substantia but three persons or hypostasis), thus expressing the granddaddy of all empty distinctions (or mysteries), arguments over which led men to their deaths, and ultimately sent the Nestorians all the way to China.


Now, the Real, (le real) is, of course a fish — specifically, a kind of sturgeon , as I have shown. But Lacan does not speak of le real, of course, but la real. In other words, contrary to his usual practice he uses ordinary language and not technical language. Furthermore, he speaks not of a sturgeon, but of a salmon:

But sometimes desire is not to be conjured away, but appears as here, at the centre of the stage, all too visibly, on the festive board, in the form of a salmon. It is an attractive-looking fish, and if it is presented, as is the custom in restaurants, under a thin gauze, the raising of this gauze creates a similar effect to that which occurred at the culmination of the ancient mysteries.

Madame Bovary

I can’t be fair to Emma. For me, reading the book was unbearable, like watching the slow-motion crash of an airliner I had almost boarded. Give Flaubert credit for writing a powerful book.

Emma is the misogynist’s idea of Woman: emotional, incapable of rationality, but exciting. From a social Darwinist point of view, she was the natural prey of the seducer Rodolphe and the usurer Lheureux, and could never have been anything else — whereas the hapless Charles (the me-figure in this story) was her own natural prey. From a Buddhist point of view, her story is a tidy little morality play about the fatally self-defeating essence of desire. Or it could be a bourgeois homily on debt, or on the virtues of chastity and faithfulness. But I don’t think those are messages I was intended to get.

Erik Satie

Erik Satie was a truculent alcoholic who lived for decades in tiny, squalid apartments  which no one was ever allowed to enter. After his death his family and friends had to remove two loads of garbage and rubbish before they could retrieve the manuscripts and other effects which were heaped haphazardly about the room.  He had only one, very short, serious relationship with a woman, and hid his true feelings behind a sarcastic, whimsical mask which no one was ever able to penetrate.

In short, a man after my own heart.

Émile Zola: Nana

She represents the extravagant world of global finance, which produces unheard of amounts of money by entirely different means. Her barren and insatiable womb (sed non satiata, שאול ועצר רחם ארץ לא־שבעה מים ואש לא־אמרה הון , etc.) is a symbol of creative destruction and the counterfeit infinities of finance:  “all things solid melt in air”, etc. Nana is The Unattainable, the Ideal, the blue flower, the Grecian urn, “Excelsior!”, etc., and under high capitalism these are all we can hope for anymore. It’s a damn shame.

Max Weber and Cultural Studies: The Rational and Social Foundations of Music

I actually didn’t finish reading this book, and sometimes I wonder whether anyone ever has done so (especially the garbled English version). I imagine it being passed from bibliography to bibliography unopened, like a Christmas fruitcake, with maybe an occasional sentence plucked out here and there and cited to prove that the book has been read. 

Karl XII of Sweden

Efficient as the Swedish state was, its leader was chosen according to archaic dynastic principles and subject to all the accidents of royal fertility, mortality, and romance. Some of the action in Charles’ life seems comic to anyone not familiar with dynastic history.  At one point his sister Hedvig Sophia was being married off at the very same time that Karl’s marriage to their cousin Sophia Hedvig was being proposed.

Aucassin et Nicolette

The only thing Aucassin ever does is pine for Nicolette. His kingdom is attacked and his aged father is unable to fight, but Aucassin only wants to continue pining. When his father finally cons him into defending his birthright with a lying promise, Aucassin goes absent-mindely into battle and is almost killed before he remembers where he is. Then he fights bravely and captures the enemy baron who has been attacking their kingdom continuously for decades. When Aucassin finally finds Nicolette after her first escape, he immediately falls absent-mindedly off his horse, throwing his shoulder out of joint, so that she has to set it for him. Then she has to explain to him that they need to flee, since his father intended to have Nicolette burned to death; otherwise he would have blissfully wandered around until she was captured.


Vinicius de Moraes: The Return of the Prodigal Son

I will waken the birds who, for fear of darkness,
Have gone silent in the nighttime branches
And sleeplessly await the break of dawn.
I will rouse the drunkards in the doorways,
The sleepwalking dogs, and the ambient mysteries
Which fill the night. Shouting, I will beseech
The winds to violate and the sea to lay waste
The white beaches thick with prudery.
With laughter and song I will torch
God’s habitual nighttime silence,
So intimidating to man. May the city
Put a lunar shawl over its face
And come out to receive its poet
With jasmine branches and memories….

Bernardim Ribeiro’s Menina e Moca (partial translation)

A girl and a child, I was taken from my mother’s house to distant lands; as for why I was taken away …. I was little, I didn’t understand…..

For my peace of mind (if such a thing there might be, together with such sadness and regret)  I chose to live near this mountain, where both the place and the lack of human company are right for my feelings  — for it would have been a great mistake, after witnessing so many troubles with these eyes of mine, still to venture to hope for that peace from the world, which it never gives to anyone.

long sought, and sought forever. It was a great misfortune which had made me sad — and perhaps what had made me happy, as well.    But after I had seen so many things changed into others, and happiness turned into intense pain, such emotions came over me that the good that I had had pained me more than the evils that still were with me.

Vinicius De Moraes:
Sonnet on the Final Hour

It will be like this, dear friend — one day
we’ll be watching the sunset
when we suddenly feel on our faces
a light kiss of cold air.

You’ll look at me silently
and I’ll do the same,  remembering….
then dazzled with poetry, we’ll pass through
the door open before us, to the darkness.

Crossing the border of the Secret
I will softly say, “Don’t be afraid”
And you will say, “Be strong”.

And like two ancient lovers
mournfully entwined in the night
together we’ll enter the gardens of death.


Published on January 17, 2014 at 2:20 am  Leave a Comment  

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