Sunday, April 14, 2013

pour essayer de passer à autre chose

es-say  (ĕ-sā')  tr.v. -sayed, -saying, -says.  1.  To make an attempt at; try:  "The Lieutenant essayed a few initial pleasantries"  (S.J. Perelman).  2.  To subject to a test; try out.  —n.  (ĕs'ā, ĕ-sā' for senses 1, 2; only ĕs'ā for sense 3).  1.  An attempt; endeavor.  2.  A testing or trial of the value or nature of a thing:  an essay of his capabilities.  3.  A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the person views of the author.  [Old French essaier, assaier, from essai, assai, a trial, from Vulgar Latin exagiāre (unattested), to weigh out, from Late Latin exagium, a weighing, balance, from Latin exigere,  to weigh out, examine.  See exact.]  —es-say'er  n.

            As it so happens, I did see exact.  Which led to the discovery that both words come from the Indo-European root ag-.  From which we get words as disparate as "act," "agent," "agony," and "purge"; "ambiguous," "litigate," "synagogue," and "axiom."
            So I have been stalled.  As is probably obvious from the fact that over two weeks ago I finished with "Jesus of Nazareth is dead," and haven't written here since.  Truthfully I haven't written much of anywhere.  I can't claim I haven't had time, or have been too stressed to write.  It's just that I've been reading The Iliad and a book called War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (which I highly recommend to any- and everyone), and between the massacres of the ancients and the massacres of the moderns, I haven't been able to articulate a response.  As John mentioned in his comment on my last post, the church calendar seems to move too quickly at this time of year.  I am still stranded somewhere in Lent.
            The problem with remaining stranded, of course, is that I still think that humanity is worth something.  A lot, as it so happens.  And I don't see things as simply, "Oh, those governments.  If only they'd listen to those of us who care!  Everything would be just great."  But there is no us and them.  There are no "governments," "me," "you," "nature," "Croats," "Jews," "Yemenis," or "corporations."  For all the left has criticized our government for calling corporations individuals, we certainly treat them as though they were discreet entities.  As if we weren't just as much a member of the Big Club that Is Killing Everyone as Obama and Putin and Jeff Bezos are.  Own anything that came on a boat?  Ever ride in anything powered by gasoline?  Eat in restaurants whose food came from God only knows where?  Me too.
            But this is where I get stranded.  I hesitated to include this next quote, because I'm hardly familiar with Theodor Adorno's work.  But the blogger Brian A. Oard posted something on Adorno's famous and horribly misunderstood quote about poetry after Auschwitz that I think articulates what I'm getting at:

Here is the entire passage, from the English translation by Samuel and Shierry Weber:

The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation. (Prisms, 34)

It's a difficult passage from a difficult essay, made more difficult by being wrenched out of context. (One really must read the entire essay to understand the closing lines. If you find an inexpensive copy of Prisms in a secondhand bookstore, grab it.) Adorno's meaning, particularly what he means by the word "reification," becomes clearer when read in light of two earlier sentences in this same page-long paragraph: "In the open-air prison which the world is becoming, it is no longer so important to know what depends on what, such is the extent to which everything is one. All phenomena rigidify, become insignias of the absolute rule of that which is." Here's my paraphrase/interpretation of the key sentences: To persist, after Auschwitz, in the production of monuments of the very culture that produced Auschwitz (Adorno might have spoken of Strauss's Four Last Songs  rather than generalized "poetry") is to participate by denial in the perpetuation of that barbaric culture and to participate in the process (reification) that renders fundamental criticism of that culture literally unthinkable.

            To persist, not even after the "war" we are calling our own global version of terrorism (certainly that is how civilians around the world experience), but to persist in reading my books (published by whom?), watching my movies (starring whom?), and listening to my music (it's depressing how obvious it all becomes after awhile, isn't it?) — to persist during participates in the perpetuation of that culture.
            So this is my way of saying:  I love human culture desperately, so much and so intensely and engage with it so completely that I can't stop without slitting my wrists.  But I don't want to live in self-satisfied contemplation.
            I still don't know exactly what all of this points to, and so in the meantime I will keep writing about books and creativity and movies, and I even want to start writing about television shows in the future.  But somewhere in the back of my mind is something agitating against the very world it engages with.  I suspect it is in the back of everyone's mind whether we know it or not.  I might even be so old-fashioned as to refer to the part of us that knows something is wrong, constantly, all day everyday, as the soul — and it isn't going to be fixed or satisfied or placated by the internet.  No blog or porn or news or shopping is going to redeem the degrading moment we are all caught in right now.  

1 comment:

  1. I love the verb "essay." Can you imagine wizened old Yoda humphing, "Do, or do not. There is no 'essay'"? But in the context you elaborate here, "the degrading moment we are all caught in right now," the word "try" has something of Munchausen's boot-straps about it. I almost want to say that it's a whole lot of trying that got us into this degrading moment. I wrote something a bit ago (the BP oil well rupture) that tried to get at some of my conflicting instincts about these things. As I re-read it now, I am not sure how or if I've moved on since. Not much, I think.

    Thanks for this wider context of the much-abused Adorno remark. It would be way too cute (and not all that clever) a trick to turn it around and say "to write poetry is essential after Auschwitz," but there is something in such an inversion that does feel vital. Poetry can have a kind of wu-wei to it, a doing-without-doing, an essay unattached to definite outcome -- an openness to grace -- and while the line between wu-wei and mere complacency is real, I don't trust anyone who claims to be able to draw it once and for all.