Archive | March, 2011

THE GUARDIAN OF HAPPINESS

31 Mar

monumentvalley

I have just finished re-reading Slowness, Milan Kundera’s first novel in the French language.

The tale contrasts the experiences of the narrator/hero of an eighteenth century novella (a Chevalier, Mr. Kundera supposes), Vivant Denon’s Point de lendemain with Vincent, a modern young man of Kundera’s own contriving. Obviously he does this to compare the eras (somewhat like John Fowles). Readers of Kundera will not be surprised to find that the writer favours the 18th century. Favours it as a more suitable environs for the cultivation of elusive happiness. What makes the Chevalier’s experience better than Vincent’s. Both men have reason to be humiliated but only one has been, outright.

And, in the end, after a disconcerting postmodern confrontation with the Chevalier, we find Vincent on his motorcycle screaming back to Paris as fast as possible, in order to… forget. Whereas the Chevalier, now untroubled by the neurotic impulses, all surfeit of human hierarchy, to dwell on the psychology of the night, rides slowly back in a chaise contemplating the pleasure of his evening. Vincent had no pleasure. Why?

Finally, underneath the determinative status games, the Chevalier had a righteous and proper screw, some simply beautiful fucks indeed. And Vincent did not; one chance, he blew it and it actually might’ve been the true love that simply does not exist in the Chevalier’s world.. Vincent’s experience is thoroughly humiliating. He played it all wrong and in the end couldn’t even get it up. And more, due to a melancholy second party and a tragi-comic third Vincent is reduced to a peripheral character in his own humiliation. His impulse is to concoct a lie about the event and his is one of preposterous and pornographic heroics.

Understand, these events take place in the same building two-hundred years apart. In the 18th century this beguiling and mysterious woman the Madam de T invites a handsome young knight to spend the evening with her. Her husband, you understand, is present in the house. But it is an enormous place, privately owned for private use. Due to the courtly rituals of marriage practiced as an aristocratic alliance and wealth consolidation project Madame’s husband is not able to prevents her lover from being a guest in his own house.

This is not a love affair. The Chevalier is open to love but Madame is simply using him. She is trying to fool her husband into thinking that it is the young Chevalier and not her real lover, a Marquis, that cuckolds him. And it works. At dawn all is made clear and the Chevalier knows that he has been used. No matter, he has another lover.

The first time I read it I was visiting Melbourne, at a conference I forget which. It was something to do with multimedia, I did a lot of that back then. I had a job I seem to remember, one that required me following around some Internet Nanostar with a camera.

Oh I remember, there was a dinner party given in one of this city’s stately Belle Époque type rooms. Some function for a bunch of lawyers. I can’t remember why this episode featured in our schedule but there it was. It was in one of those Victorian buildings made on the back of gold rush when Melbourne’s black and white set aspired to being the Antipodean London.

The Nanostar mimed to a pre-recorded bit of his electronic music. His claim to stardom was that he was the first person to use some (now obsolete) bit of software to publish an album on the ‘net. The synthesizer had the word ‘unplugged’ pasted to the front of it just in case you hadn’t noticed. The dude thought this very witty. He obviously didn’t work at things much which is why you’ve never heard of him. The lawyers thought he was good value. They were a sea of ruddy paste-faced navy blue blobs garnished with puschy bits of gold metal and a dash of swide silk, drunk as fuck. They loved him. They thought he was someone they could look down on.

I was billeted with a charming couple (now since split). She worked at the NGV; I don’t know where he worked, but he was a drummer. Good record collection and a small flaking hard-trash bookshelf that would tell you the best stories from the hippie seventies if only it could. I saw Slowness there. It was, I guess, the second paperback edition. They let me borrow it.

What a crazy week. I met some friends. Friends? No, they were, as they say, ‘contacts’. I got almost no sleep and was thrown out of at least one well-established venue of this fair town. The best food and every night a grand dinner. Big screens everywhere. Players from Microsoft and Fox all the way on down the newly merging pyramid of information and entertainment. Zip, zip zip. My mind reeled at the possibilities. Oh the crowd, what a hipster bunch. We were all, we were certain, gonna be rich! We’d been chosen. Kundera writes:

Being among the elect is a theological notion that means: not as a matter of merit but by a supernatural judgment, a free, even capricious, determination of God, a person is chosen for something exceptional and extraordinary. From such a conviction the saints drew the strength to withstand even the most dreadful tortures.

The first time, I read the above quote without bother. I was more impressed by the farcical portrayal of modern sex contrasted by the real-life sub-plots going on around me (in me) while I read it. Untroubled I agreed with Kundera that this idea of the gift of faith, which when you strip away the haughty chauvinism of doctrines like Preselection, is what this ‘elect’ business is all about, was an illusion.

Absolutely. Yet here I was, with my little crew of confidantes (for the length of the conference), conspiring to change the world with the magic of the global electronic network. And change the world by making lots of money! We were all, we all agreed without saying so – the elect. And we agreed without any real discussion or reflection. We never really talked of our responsibilities as ‘the elect’ save for a quick and cursory affirmation of soft, shallow environmentalism. We didn’t say ‘elect’ out loud; we just thought it.

Couple months later and I move to Melbourne; a half -year on I received a gift. I now understand this ‘gift of faith’ palava that the priests talk about. I get that final coffee-shop conversation in Pulp Fiction; Samuel L’s speech viz it doesn’t matter if this was an ‘according to Hoyle miracle’. With me there was nothing that resembled a miracle. It was just a feeling.

When I first read Slowness I was a nihilist. I was a nihilist. Now, re-reading it, I’m a believer. And so in this second tryst with this book, by an author I’ve ‘known’ a long time now, I’m confronted by the above passage as I was not the first time. If faith makes you one of the elect is faith not then an illusion? This happens, I expect, to everyone who professes faith. Many, thus confronted, will toss the book. But that’s wrong. I must stand and ask a question:

An illusion?

Slowness comes to its finish and relates the end of Point de lendemain as it does, that book’s last words:

“I climbed into the chaise that stood waiting. I hunted for the moral of the whole adventure, and… I found none.”

But Kundera, two-hundred years into the future, well after the death of a God that seemed so oppressive to the French in the 1780s, has discovered the moral:

Madame de T embodies it: she lied to her husband, she lied to her lover the Marquis, she lied to the young Chevalier. It is she who is a true disciple of Epicurus. Lovable lover of pleasure. Gentle protective liar. The guardian of happiness.

The guardian of happiness lies. This is the view from scorched earth. Kundera perhaps is crying for a time of an oppressive God that necessitated such lying? But, finally, he agrees with Nietzsche. I heard the word said, God is dead. He hath died of his pity for Man. The guardian of happiness is a liar, is it not clear to you who profess Faith or affirm Scripture? Wake up!

Now I’m not a Christian. Nor am I a believer in a reward in the eternal hereafter. I don’t know about any of that. Does the soul die? I say ‘maybe’. And the whole Heaven/Hell scenario sounds suspiciously like the Santa Claus story: you get presents if you’ve been good. (Do badly behaved children not get presents at Christmastime?) My ‘faith’ does not conform to any existing doctrine about God but instead is tempered by the traditional doctrines of Stoicism which regard faith as a personal matter and reason as primary.

“All of us,” Kundera tells us, “have known the illusion (more or less strong) that we are worthy of that higher level, that we are predestined and chosen for it.” (My italics). Mr Kundera is an existential nihilist after all: a striver after meaning. After the Holocaust, after the totalitarian states, after the death of God: what? I am no longer a nihilist but that does mean that I think now that Slowness is a pack of lies. Indeed I understand it at a deeper level (that is what re-reading does for you after all). My feeling that there is something in this thing we have called many things (now: God) – my faith has not altered my adherence to the metaphysics of Kundera which are those in essence of Nietzsche: God is dead, I still see the truth of that.

But God is always reborn and will be again. Just like Marx’s predictions of a New Tribal Civilization one of advanced technology; equality; inclusiveness sans class; Nietzsche’s superman has not, will not, come about. At least yet. We are still confronted with the Infinite. And so again there’s this burgeoning spiritual movement. But does this not confirm Freud’s “Future of An Illusion” that we are simply instituting a lie to guard against the unhappiness consequence of bleak reality unclothed in religious glamor? Is it not simply a kind of mass hysteria, the usual animal fears filtered thru the standard mass consciousness and professional gurus?

Yes, but still… it does nothing to spoil my feeling – The Feeling. Funny isn’t it? But that is the nature of faith. It is a feeling. It permits one to ascertain a truth for which one is absolutely no material evidence.

In the beginning there was the Void which was Truth (goes a Chinese tale) and then came Form which is Illusion. We humans see as permanent what is anything but because we are short lived. We shape things from baser materials and kid ourselves that what lies beyond our designed rooms and cities does not matter. Until we are reminded otherwise.

tsunami

And we always are, sooner or later. Then we stand and wonder what, why, who is doing this to us.

To have faith is to be plugged into the Infinite, to the Beyond. It is to have consciousness of being part of a larger whole in which your little life is simply another motion picture. To sculpt this into truths by which we live we invent stories and images of God. That is an illusion. That is the lie. The lie that guards happiness. But to function, to actually work, these stories must grow from the seed of an ultimate truth. That is our metaphysical paradox. The Truth is a lie and the Lie is the truth.

So it is, so it seems to me. Still I believe… in what? Well no doctrine (save my own. Ask me my theological disposition and I’ll tell you in all seriousness that I’m an Einsteinian Pantheist. I have no real idea whether he had The Feeling but something tells me he did. His earnest protest against the facts of Quantum Mechanics seem to me a crisis of faith. But he was asking for it. He thought he knew.

How could he? How can we? The Qu’ran teaches us that Allah alone knows all and this was when Allah was a big man with a white beard, a stern face and a finger that was always pointing at us in anger (according to us half-pagan Catholics). In a universe in which a galaxy is a pebble, where bigger whorls have little whorls that feed on their velocity, what anthropomorphic personification suffices? None.

We need a new lie, or do we.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

30 Mar

It seems to me the snake was telling the truth; God was lying. The woman says to the snake: we may eat of the fruit of any tree in the garden but that one. The one that lies in the centre of the garden. God tells us it’s bad for us, that it will kill us.

AdamandEve
“Adam and Eve”, 1528
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)

And the snake says, “Oh sister, that’s horseshit. You eat the fruit from that tree and you’ll know things. You’ll be able to understand stuff. You’ll know the difference between right and wrong. That’s why the Old Bastard tells you not to eat it. He knows, you eat that and you’ll be like Him.

And so she eats it. And she gives it to the man and he eats it. He always does what she wants him to.

And they begin to understand. And what do they understand of themselves, man and woman? What do they do? They see each other naked and are ashamed of that. Of the poo and the goo and the in-out squishing noises; the feasting on each other’s flesh that never troubled them before. More than that she realizes she’s always spreading her legs even tho’ it doesn’t seem to feel half as good for as it does for him. They didn’t understand before, they just did it. And now the man understands he’s always doing what she wants and now she’s really gone and done it! How he longs to get back to his nice comfortable rut when he was happy and stupid. Well no more of this obedience shite, now he has to face brutal existential reality. From now on he’ll be picking much more the fruit of the hemp tree. And he better invent beer.

And now they have to work. (Or did they really always have to work they just didn’t understand what that means?) Now they feel pain (or did they always feel pain?) Now they understand: death is waiting for them.

Did God lie? Sure. Don’t we tell our children hyperbolous stories in order to prevent them from doing stupid stuff? How useful to how many parents over the aeons has the Boogie Man been? And sure the snake was telling the truth. I’m sure there are pedophiles skilled in the art of appraising children of the truth of parents’ white fibs in order to win their trust and lure them toward perdition.

In an older version of the story Eve is given a choice between the tree of life and the tree of knowledge. One brings immortality, the other understanding. She chooses, feminists like to say, because her man cannot. Did she make the right choice? Would she? Had she known she would be ashamed. And shamed?

It’s a story.

I’m amused and moved almost to pity when I see people fight for the literal interpretation of scripture. I understand. It makes things nice and simple, clear and easy to understand. How many times has the law fallen to disrepair because of the excessive deployment of interpretive metaphor?

It can be made to say anything! Thus cries the priest in Jesus of Montreal when confronted by a Passion play that deploys the actual facts (and lack thereof) concerning the actual life and death of one Joshua from the Sticks. That this Passion also expresses most beautifully the gift that Jesus bore is immaterial to the priest. It contravenes doctrine and therefore his cushy job in the Cathedral is threatened.

It’s a story. The truth is not the story, the truth is in the story. The story is simply a vessel for it. And like a child that’s been taught not to go wandering in the bushes for fear of the Boogie Man the story will morph and elaborate as s/he grows and ages. S/he’ll know that it was a lie yes, but one that fundamentally told the truth. Does that not make sense? What truth now in the Book of Genesis, second episode.

Modern people reading it will know better, if they wish. We have always known that the human female, unlike other animals, feels excruciating pain and is in actual mortal danger during child-birth. But we now know (if we wish) that this is the dual result of our relatively recent evolution to a bipedal mammal and the subsequent increase in brain size requiring of course larger skulls. Because of our large brains women suffer pain. The little brats, their heads are too big! It’s another story but it says the same thing: the pain in childbirth is consequence of our capacity for understanding. Different story, same basic truth.

Still the stories are different. They are composed in different times and told in different ways. In these differences there is also a truth, perhaps one that sits on a larger scale of existence.

What is the difference?

Well obviously we can forget all that palava about ‘shame’ (can we? should we?). Sex is natural, necessary and should be fun. We have thousands of years of contemplation of the subject (mostly by males). We have thousands of books, documentaries, internet soundbytes, magazine articles, newspaper items coming out every year (mostly by females). We have understanding. What we don’t have are the rituals and beliefs that create from all that a new idea of ‘the good life’ in this brave new world.

In the old stories the woman chooses, from willful wickedness or courageous determination (mostly willful wickedness). She knows not the consequences but more than anything she wants to know. It’s the artifact of a culture asserting the political rule of men, no more soap operas. It is the artifact of a culture that radically chooses to assert the primacy of monogamy and sobriety in sexual matters. No more bouncing from girl to girl. But the woman chooses. Within the old story an older story leaves an essential, now submerged, thread.

The story of the Fall of Man was originally a rebellion. Rebellion against the then dominant culture with its god-kings, its bedazzling religious spectacles, its rituals of blood and sex. In these scary creeds there is also an Original Couple. But they are gods. Human were not then worth remembering except if they were great kings who won a war. The Book of Genesis was a Book of Revolution. It declared that we were cosmically important. That our… what we moderns would call – ‘sexuality’, is not a giant force that drives us writhing into the maelstrom but the site of a virtue that the One True God commands.

Naturally we know that the pagan tale corresponds more with the facts as ascertained by science. But we are modern people, three thousand years after Moses, and we no longer feel the need for human sacrifice or blood soaked ritualistic orgies. Perchance our war with sex, waged over millennia has something to do with this? We understand. And understanding has cultivated our hearts, some of us. What is the literary difference between the Book of Genesis and the Theory of Evolution? In the old story the woman chose and we blame her: Eve the temptress! scowls St Augustine, Woman is defective and misbegotten shouts! St Acquinas. Let them die in childbirth! scoffs Martin Luther.

Is this perhaps more, perhaps a denial by the male animal in furtherance of controlling the sex instinct so wild in humanity? His sex instinct. For who is it that thinks most of the consequences on the brink of coitus? Who’s the one more likely to ask: is this a good idea? Defective? Misbegotten?

Canova
“Three Graces”, 1817
Antonio Canova (1757-1822)

Methinks they speak in denial. The early Christian women tried hard to accommodate the image. They dressed in bags and rags and had to mutilate themselves because sometimes the drab threads didn’t do much good. In CE 585 the bishops at the Council of Mâcon decided that , yes, women do have souls after all. The motion was carried by one vote.

What difference between the stories? We now know we did not choose. We know that that doesn’t matter – things are as they are regardless. We know we can’t blame women, that blaming women is surfeit of the bully instinct in the human animal, the result of the prime bleak fact of violence, and consequence finally of the male tendency to use their penises for thinking with. All this is to modern people banal, matter-of-fact. We know that that’s the way of it and what can you do? And we know, if we can face it, that we don’t know. We are like children who have grown up.

What has our tough adolescence made of us?

Lucasfriedeggs

Sarah Lucas, b. 1962
“Self-portrait With Fried Eggs”, 1996

ONLY THE BODY HUNGERS

29 Mar

If you are a slave it is your body that enslaves you.

Only the body hungers, only the body feels pain. It is the body alone that craves to be drunk, that requires inebriation. The body desires the obliteration of the senses.

If your mind goes wandering it is the body that distracts it. If your mind is cluttered with petty miseries it is the body’s miseries and the body’s only. If your mind refuses to serve you then it is the body that divides its loyalties.

The soul requires not food or water or wine. It doesn’t need to party. It doesn’t need to get high…

It is already high.

Turnerslaveship

THE WORLD IS BLEEDING

28 Mar

angrypeasants

Oh the protests in the city over the week-end. Saturday morning there was the campaign to change the law so that same-sex attracted couples can commit to their relationships legally. Funny that there’ such a fuss. Given that objections to gay marriage are something that stems in part from the high levels of promiscuity amongst gay men (lesbianism has been relatively accepted) one would think a traditional conservative would affirm monogamy amongst these wild people.

Oh well it stifled my ability to conduct an intelligent conversation, all that chanting of ill-baked slogans, but it seems to me the final step to a truly liberal society. Why disrupt love? Perhaps it has something to do with the little Drama Queen who included gratuitous humour viz loss of bowel control on a dance floor in his speech. I liked his joke myself but I doubt it’ll do anything to persuade Tony Abbott’s circle of acquaintance.

After that, yes after the gay marriage rally came another (is there a roster?) Anyway, after that there was small group of Libyans whose slogans were so pathetic that they stopped and simply sang their national anthem which is moving because melodically lugubrious. How appropriate. But what purpose does it serve? Their protest is useless. I know, I know, it’s only… human. It’s human to resort to ineffective symbolism in the face of that that makes one helpless. But it will change nothing.

Are they asking for my money? For what? Guns? Guns and bullets are what helps the Libyans now. I’d say they’d be in contravention of the law if they asked for money for that. But they shouldn’t be, it’s hardly the act of a terrorist to strive to rid one’s country of the kleptocratic nutbag that’s been running it into the ground for decades now is it? Still they can’t. And, because they can’t, their protest is useless. Would they get it if they asked for it? Something tells me that those inclined to pony their cash to alleviate the plight of foreign people in distant lands would also be very uncomfortable about buying tools for killing. But that’s what it takes.

Feel the power, it’s inside you. It’s in every single one of us. The power to bind and to loose. The potential to do; or not to do. And yet the world is bleeding.

Who else was there? There were the Trots. There’s always the Trots. They do the work. (Do they?) You know there’ll be a protest when you see their A3 photocopied posters taped to everything. They campaign for action on climate change, they campaign for the queer set’s marriage rights, they advocate on behalf of the Iranian people and their struggle against US imperialism. They never mention how the Iranians deal with the gay marriage rights issue.

Irangayhanging

Next day it’s the Japanese. Students in matching yellow shirts, lots of conspicuously pretty girls. Very polite and very much in earnest. Japan needs money they’ve been wrecked by a tsunami. New Zealand needs money, Christchurch got wiped. The Africans need money. We/they’ve fucked up their world and armed them to the teeth. We gave them inoculation against disease and their profit on’t is AIDS. The Libyans need money and we are donating an extra 15 million dollars or something, so Kevvie tells us. That’s the best part of a dollar from each of us.

Doesn’t sound much but it adds up. We got payments on this, that and the other thing. We got children who need a fighting chance and we got a million people out there ready to make a buck on that. We got desperate people on the streets. They cut off the dole or it doesn’t last like it used to and they just wanna know if you can spare a dollar. No really! I can hear it jangling in yer pockets. Spare a dollar? Cunt!

All thru your life man aaaaarrrrrrrrgggghhhhhh!!!!!!

This is all happening on the streets of every city in the world. Every modern developed city. Just what does that mean? Modern? Developed?

Well for one thing it means that beggars don’t qualify for a disability pension. For another there’s little by the way of matching t-shirts. Those Japanese, they’re so po-mo daddy-o, they know how to operate in the Modern Market Economy. They should, they’re the second largest in the world. Oops sorry, third.

The second is a nominally communist dictatorship. Innovative, those Chinese (don’t laugh). They raided Western culture, Western techniques and Western intellectual property and combined the worst aspects of socialism and capitalism. Great! Works a treat. Especially if the world’s largest economy is into you for three-hundred zillion very large.

Japan seems to’ve gone from world power to sinking slowly in record time. Finally they beat the Americans at something besides cheap cars. And their kids are here collecting for their countrymen. Remember, they’re still rich. As a country very rich. And even their tins a jingling on the streets of this still very lucky country’s cultural capital. Are we still lucky. Do we notice the sinking? Do we do anything more than indulge in the usual religious warfare. All are flotsam in the angry face of Nature.

The rich bleed too.

Oh dear. Dear, dear, dear. The shark and his pearly teeth.

COMIC BOOK

27 Mar

NewGodsKirby

New Gods cover, 1971
Jack Kirby (1917-1994)
America

TUNE

27 Mar

ellington

It means nothin’ ‘less it swings somethin’.

WORDS

27 Mar

YoungKundera

Through Vivant Denon’s lifetime, probably only a small group of intimates knew he was the author of Point de lendemain; and the mystery was put to rest, for everyone and (probably) definitely, only a very long time after his death. The work’s own history thus bears an odd resemblance to the story it tells: it was veiled by the penumbra of secrecy, of discretion, of mystification, of anonymity.

Engraver, draftsman, diplomat, traveler, art connoisseur, sorcerer of the salons, a man with a remarkable career, Denon never laid claim to artistic ownership of the novella. Not that he rejected fame, but fame meant something different in his time; I imagine the audience that he cared about, that he hoped to beguile, was not the mass of strangers today’s writer covets but the little company of people he might know personally and respect. The pleasure he derived from success among his readers was not very different from the sort he might experience among the few listeners gathered around him in a salon where he was scintillating.

There was one kind of fame from before the invention of photography, and another thereafter. The Czech king Wenceslaus, in the fourteenth century, liked to visit the Prague inns and chat incognito with the common folk. He had power, fame, liberty. Prince Charles of Britain has no power, no freedom but enormous fame: neither in the virgin forest nor in his bathtub hidden away in a bunker seventeen storeys underground can he escape the eyes that pursue and recognize him. Fame has devoured all his liberty, and now he knows: that only totally unconscious people could willingly consent these days to trail the pots and pans of celebrity along behind them.

You say that, though the nature of fame changes, this still concerns only a few privileged persons. You’re mistaken. For fame concerns not only the famous people, it concerns everyone. These days, famous people are in magazines, on television screens, they invade everyone’s imagination. And everyone considers the possibility, be it only in dreams, of becoming the object of such fame (not the fame of King Wenceslaus who went visiting taverns but the fame of Prince Charles hidden away in his bathtub seventeen storeys underground). The possibility shadows every single person and changes the nature of his life; for (and this is another well-known axiom of existential mathematics) any new possibility that existence acquires, even the least likely, transforms everything about existence.

Milan Kundera
Slowness, 1995