The Starting Point

As you can see, philosophy struggles with huge tension. On the one hand, love seen as a natural extravagance of sex arouse a kind of rational suspicion. Conversely, we see an apology for love that borders on religious epiphany. Christianity hovers in the background, a religion of love after all. And the tension is almost unbearable.
—Alain Badiou, In Praise of Love (15)

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Evocation of Butterflies, Odilon Redon c.1912

Thus, when Kierkegaard was finally unable to contemplate the idea of marrying Régime, he broke with her. In the end, he represented the aesthete seducer of the first level, lived the ethical promise of the second and failed to make the transition, via the real-life seriousness of marriage, to the third level. Nonetheless, he visited the whole gamut of forms of philosophical reflection on love (15).

I, for one, have a very hard time forgiving Kierkegaard for this failure. A friend convinced me to give him another chance, and so I suppose I must, but I am always on the side of the heartbroken and against those that create a philosophy or moral that disregards, or attempts to repress, the truth of love: “as we all know, love is a re-invention of life” (33). Well, at least according to me and M. Badiou, whose compelling little book In Praise of Love (2009). A book composed of a conversation with Le Monde journalist Nicolas Truing  initially coming from a series of conversations from Avignon Festival’s “Theatre of Ideas.”

Badou begins the book by discussing some problems with the modern perspective of love. The first being the unwillingness to admit risk into one’s life which is perpetuated by online dating sites that advertise the possibility of finding your “soul mate” or perfect match risk free. And then:

The second threat love faces is to deny that it is at all important. The counterpoint to the safety threat is the idea that love is only a variant of rampant hedonism and the wide range of possible enjoyment (8)

And so one can see in the history of philosophy and religion an attempt to devalue romantic love. In philosophy the love of friendship is the gold standard while in religion, the transcending love of god, or some higher power, is the only true love. There is something in the temporal, mundane and corporal nature of passionate love that make people feel exposed to their mortality and vulnerability I suppose.

But surrendering your body, taking your clothes off, being naked for the other, rehearsing those hallowed gestures, renouncing all embarrassment, shouting, all this involvement of the body is evidence of a surrender to love. It crucially distinguishes it from friendship. Friendship doesn’t involve bodily contact, or any resonances in pleasure of the body. That’s why it is a more intellectual attachment, and one that philosophers who are suspicious of passion have always preferred (36).

For Badiou, the idea of a transcending love is also off the mark. Love is about difference, not oneness. It is the “Two scene”, as he puts it, in which,in its role as a ‘truth procedure,’  “a certain kind of truth is constructed” (38).

the “Two scene” —is experience. In this sense, all love that accepts the challenge, commits to enduring, and embraces this experience of the world from the perspective of difference produces in its way a new truth about difference” (39)

All kinds of love, Badiou states, make it possible for us to feel that we do not have to experience the world as a solitary, but can experience it through the difference of the other, side by side. Certainly this must be true. I only have to think of the delight I take in seeing the world from my youngest son’s point of view. I think we all do that—it is easy to find joy in experiencing the world through our children’s eyes but somehow we are told this can not extend to passion. People often look for love (through online dating sites in particular) to find the perfect match—the one that is just like me!—and yet, for myself, what I love the most are the people that make me see the world differently, through their eyes, their minds, and of course in the case of romantic love, through their body.

Badou’s book is thought provoking and quite lovely, although I did hit a few snags when he got to Lacan. In a nutshell, Lacan declared that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. Badiou clarifies the famously “shocking” proposition a bit, explaining:

Lacan doesn’t say that love is a disguise for sexual relationships; he says that sexual relationships don’t exist, that love is what comes to replace that non-relationship (19).

The reason why it doesn’t exist, according to the theory is that the pleasure, while mediated by the other’s body, in fact takes you very far away from the other in the form of your own personal pleasure. I am not sure I buy this. After all, if sex where truly, solely, a narcissistic adventure, then why the need for an other? Masturbation would suffice for that, no? It is difficult to see, in fact, why the theory applies only to sexual relationships. In this light can there be such a thing as friendship if the pleasure of the friendship can only be felt individually. Maybe I am missing something. Coincidentally I have a rather large tomb of Lacan’s sitting on my to-read pile, so I will have to investigate.

But overall, Badiou’s book is a brave declaration, in this day and age, of the importance of love. The chance encounter that transforms into destiny. Badiou talks of the process of falling in love as the “event-encounter” from which love follows. The passages in which he focuses on the declaration of love is really wonderful and true:

The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it iso perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright […] That is the moment when chance is curbed, when you say to yourself: I must tell the other person about what happened” (43)

I love that—a kind of horrifying stage fright—I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the image out of my head of those three little, yet infinitely powerful words, clinging to the curtains of the stage of my mind: the butterflies of I love you.

As Troung writes in the introduction to this book, “praise of love, sung by a philosopher who thinks, like Plato, whom I quote: ‘Anyone who doesn’t take love as a staring point will never understand the nature of philosophy.'” My thoughts exactly.

*published 2012 by Serpent’s Tail, trans. from the French by Peter Bush

The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life

Kisses are like confidences: they attract each other, they accelerate each other, they excite each other.
—Vivant Denon, No Tomorrow (11)

The Kiss, marble, 1888-89, detail

 Rodin’s The Kiss, marble, 1888-89, detail

Naturally I had to read it. After reading the essay, I thought I might just let it rest with the Kundera (follow link to have a clue as to what I am blathering on about). But once I read Slowness I knew that everything in my fast growing-finished-with-the-semester!!-reading-queue was going to receive yet another bump down. And of course I read everything out of any sort of proper order (insofar as a deep comprehension of the original essay, ‘”Are You There Yet?”: Libertinage and the Semantics of the Orgasm,” was concerned) but that’s okay: no regrets.

A woman’s imagination moves quickly, and at this moment Mme de T—’s imagination was singularly inspired (5)

The book, maybe perhaps probably written by Vivant Denon is a lovely little dream. And that is all it is meant to be. That is the point. A point which finds its glory and meaning in its very pointlessness.

The libertine novel is a curious pre-Victorian era phenomenon (when people could talk about sex without implicating themselves in the discourse of repression that Foucault famously cited) but this novel has a different tone from others that I have read such as Les Liaisons Dangerous or Les Bijoux Indiscrets  which have a distinct cynicism attached to their themes. Denon’s story is a paean to pleasure in all its fleeting splendor.

There’s an ethics to the erotic encounter properly understood and managed. Yet to think that such a lesson has any currency in our society makes the assumption that we still feel some mysterium tremendum in sex, that it is something for the private pavilion and the cushioned grotto. Is that still the case? (from the introduction, Peter Brookes, xxv)

I can not say, but we can each of us try to live according to the spirit of simple pleasures for pleasure’s sake. And at any rate, it is a fun read and makes the memory of Kundra’s novel Slowness that much more pressing on my soul. It is the commitment and the hope of writers like Devon and Kundera to love and to passion through relationships with others that I admire and in which I find consolation.

I stepped into the carriage awaiting me. I looked hard for the moral of this whole adventure…and found none (32).

*Title taken from dedication: 2 Corinthians 3:6

**translation from the French by Lydia Davis

 

 

Existential Mathematics

recalled the well-known equation from one of the first chapters of the textbook of existential mathematics: the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting. From that equation we can deduce various corollaries, for instance this one: our period is given over to the demon of speed, and that is the reason it so easily forgets its own self.
—Milan Kundera, Slowness (135)

 

In researching my final film studies paper, I got happily (some might say, stupidly) sidetracked by an essay discussing the libertine novel genre. Through that essay I came to Kundera’s book Slowness which interpolates a modern day story with the story from the 1777 novella by Vivant Denon, No Tomorrow. The modern story relates a weekend spent at a French château in which some sort of political/scientific meeting is taking place. The narrator relates Denon’s tale of sexual ecstasy in a similar setting, to the pathetic tale of political “dancers” and their scurrying ilk.

If a dancer does get the opportunity to enter the political game, he will showily refuse all secret deals (which have always been the playing field of real politics) while denouncing them as deceitful, dishonest, hypocritical, dirty; he will lay out his own proposals publicly, up on a platform, singing and dancing, and will call on others by name to do the same; I stress: not quietly (which would give the other person the time to consider, to discuss counterproposals) but publicly, and if possible by surprise: “Are you prepared right now (as I am) to give up your April salary for the sake of the children of Somalia?” Taken by surprise, people have only two choices: either refuse and discredit themselves as enemies of children, or else say “yes” with terrific uneasiness, which the camera is sure to display maliciously…” (19-20)

Kundera has a gift for describing the cynicism of the world in all of its painful reality. The hypocrisy of it all is what is at the heart of our desire to forget ourselves and others—it’s too painful. Written in 1995, one can see—not much changes. Which is why the juxtaposition of the two stories is lovely and brilliant. In the modern story people are cruel to one another, thoughtlessly hurting each other and simple racing to get through it all and to forget it all as quickly as possible. Devon’s tale is one of shameless pleasure, of a night of slow love whose transience cannot touch the memory that lingers. Time to love, time to ponder the time spent loving, matters. And it is why slowness matters.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace (39).

Kundera has a preoccupation with memory and forgetting, with joy and sorrow, and the true humanity he suspects exists in his fellow citizens. His writing is poignant, elegiac, but always hopeful. He asks us to consider the speed at which we operate when the fleeting aspects of life rushing us towards death are the most painful to contemplate.

I finished reading this book while stuck in a massive traffic jam. This is how jammed it was—I literally read while I drove. The irony of being forced to a crawl, enabling me to finish Slowness, gave me almost enough delight to stave off the frustration of being stuck on a hot road breathing in the exhaust of all the other irritated cars and people. But what is the rush, really? what do have besides time? What should we do with that time? Race through, reach the finish line in record speed? Particularly in the environment I currently exist in which semesters come to a crushingly quick close, I know that this speed makes it impossible to retain all that is good in every day. I have a deep craving to slow things down. I have no time to read books that are not assigned to me, I haven’t time to get through all my work and do the laundry and feed my people—never mind feed my soul. And so, when I do it anyway—when I linger over dinner, chat with a friend,  read a book only because it gives me pleasure and makes me consider the fact that maybe we should slow down and love the people who will let us love them, or even write this blog while my three final papers still loom—I set aside the feeling of vulnerability and fear that my rushed life otherwise pretends to avoid: somehow thinking that to run away and bury ourselves in an all-consuming forgetfulness will be easier.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope (156).

Kundera’s book, most of all, is about love, the kind of love that dearly departed Prince celebrates in his beautiful song (apologizes for the poor quality of the video, but as all Prince fans know getting ahold of internet videos of his music has always been like sighting a unicorn—and this brief interlude of access will most likely not last so enjoy what you can while you can). It is kind of love we all deserve in whatever form: slow love.

 

 

Sacrificing a Thousand Apparent Truths

The brain, as I have said before, needs to acquire knowledge about the permanent, essential and constant properties of objects and surfaces, in a world where much is continually changing. To do this, it must discount all the changes that are superfluous, indeed an impediment, to acquiring that knowledge; it must, in the words of Glees and Metzinger, ‘sacrifice a thousand apparent truths’ 
—Semir Zeki, Inner Vision (185).

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14th & 1st, L line Florist, Victoria Accardi (2016)

The question, what is art? is one of seemingly perpetual interest and discussion. I’m not quite fool enough to attempt an answer, nor to even believe that an answer is possible, but one thing I do believe is that art is the constant. As far back as our human minds can stretch into our history—there is art. I therefore think a better question is, why is that? Semir Zeki, in his wonderful book Inner Vision proposes a possible basis upon which an answer to that question can begin to be understood. Zeki begins, within his field of expertise: the neurology of vision.

[The] proliferation of newly discovered visual areas, many of which are specialised to process different aspects of the visual scene such as form, colour and motion, [raise] important questions about why the brain needs to process different attributes in different compartments […] vision is an essentially active search for essentials (21).

What Zeki proposes is that art, essentially, works the same way, or, shares the same purpose.

The neurological definition of art that I am proposing—that it is a search for constancies, during which the artist discards much and selects the essentials, and art is therefore an extension of the functions of the visual brain—is meant to have very broad applications (22).

By which he means that our aesthetic likes and dislikes are not covered under his thesis, but do rely upon it, because, “art must, after all, obey the laws of the brain” (125). And the laws are much more complex and fascinating then one might think. It is not simply a straight shot from “seeing” to “understanding,” both of these processes are more complex and more tightly bound to each other than previously imagined. The fun thing about Zeki’s work and passions, is that he looks to other vital areas of life, like love and art, to present evidence which science is newly discovering, but which art has always understood—at least insomuch as art unknowingly (innately?) exploits and reflects the brain’s method of organizing information. On the one hand, that seems obvious—painting (which is Zeki’s focus in this book) is obviously a ‘visual’ art and so it stands to reason that ‘successful’ art must obey visual parameters and preferences of line, color, form, and motion.

The brain, as it turns out, has highly specialized cells that are uniquely interested in single attributes—like color, form, or motion—and these cells are both concentrated in areas of the brain and also widely diffused (most dramatically in the cells concerned with form). More than that:

Recent experiments that have measured the relative times that it takes to perceive colour, form and motion show that these three attributes are not perceived at the same time, that color is perceived before form which is perceived before motion […] This suggests that the perceptual systems themselves are functionally specialized and that there is a temporal hierarchy in vision, superimposed upon spatially distributed parallel processing systems (66).

Fascinating stuff. The book expounds on all manner of visual maladies which have done a lot of work in showing just how specialized the processes are and then goes on to look at art (mostly modern) to point out philosophical consistencies between what artists (impressionists, cubists, modernists, fauvists) say they are trying to explore or achieve with what we know (which is some, but not all) neurologically about what the brain’s visual system tries to accomplish. Zeki’s brilliance is that he conjoins two disciplines for the same purpose. Artistic inquiry naturally has a longer, richer history than neurological inquiry, and yet the former seems to possess what artistic discourse lacks: the promise of quantitative and qualitative comprehension (seems to, at least….). Art has always been a difficult subject to capture in language, as Zeki writes,

Language is a relatively recent evolutionary acquisition, and it has yet to catch up with and match the visual system in its capacity to extract essentials so efficiently. To describe the power of art in words constitutes, in the lines of T. S. Eliot, ‘a raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment’ (9).

All the same, sometimes we come out with some hilarious accuracy: Mondrian, for instance, whom we all know had a deep and abiding appreciation for the brain’s preference for horizontal and vertical lines, heroically defended the wisdom of our visual organizing system to Theo van Doesburg (founder of De Stijl group) writing to him:

Following the highhanded manner in which you have used the diagonal, all further collaboration between us has become impossible. For the rest, sans racune (115).

Well. What more can one say?

 

*painting by my daughter Victoria Accardi. To see more of her work go here.

A Book by Its Cover

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all”
—Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (37)

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I attended a symposium in January in which the head of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA—an excellent resource if you don’t know of it) mentioned a book that he had loved (and had had to wait for as there was an over two-hundred person hold on it at his Boston library). I found the book in my library’s consortium, but also had to wait about a month and a half for it. I had already just gotten involved in another book, so when I got the notification that it was waiting for me, I retrieved the book immediately but was then warned that I had to return it in two weeks time due to other holds—I was a bit panicked and so read it right away.

The story takes place in Naples in a poor neighborhood and is narrated by Elena Greco concerning her friend, and her friendship with, Lila Cerullo. It is a really interesting book. Superficially it is a page turner of typical Italian melodrama. And yet there is more. First of all, it is a book about female friendship, which (as far as literary themes in the western “canon” go) is a johnny-come-lately of  a genre (jane, I suppose). For hundreds of years we got female characters who were mothers, sisters, lovers/wives, or daughters, but unlike the well-mined exploration of man-to-man friendships, the domain of female friendships was inaccessible (or perhaps uninteresting) to predominantly male writers. So, that aspect alone, which is richly examined in Ferrante’s first of 4(?) in the series, is quite wonderful.

What, instead, did [Lila] and Stefano have in mind, where did they think they were living? They were behaving in a way that wasn’t familiar even in the poems that I studied in school, in novels I read. I was puzzled. They weren’t reacting to the insults, even the truly intolerable insult that the Solaras were making (273).

The other really lovely subtlety of the novel is the interplay between the poverty of the neighborhood and education. Elena and Lila are both—well, in a word—brilliant, and Ferrante shows the development of their intellects and the struggles which ensue with a thorough beauty. I ended up, in my state of panic, reading the book in two days flat. But that may also be a function of the easy (which I do not mean disparagingly) prose and Ferrante’s ability to suck her readers in. In fact, although I knew going in that it was the first in a series, I have to admit I was a bit annoyed at the forcefulness of the serialization: I feel that I have to read the next book in order to finish the story and that can, and for me does, feel manipulative. But, as I enjoyed reading it, it is not perhaps too burdensome of a manipulation.

Here is my main serious complaint: I really hate the cover. I am glad to be done reading it so that I can be done having to look at the hideous thing. It is tacky and expresses nothing of the depth the novel offers: friendship, humanity, quotidian struggle, familial pressure, coming-of-age, prejudices, and culture. Instead it looks something like what the book is in danger of being misunderstood as: a made for TV melodrama mini-series. I have spent time in Naples (although the above photo of two of my children is in Rome it expresses the visual beauty of the country) I went back and looked at some photos I had taken Italy and Naples. The inner city is sensual and striking and I can not understand why the cover to this novel is so cheesy given the resources. This may be a small matter to some people, but I would argue that it is not. Whether one fully realizes it or not, these things matter. If you are asking me to read a book of some 350 pages, you would be wise to make me want to first hold that book in my hands.

 

 

The Lemon is the Antidote

Reason must know the heart’s reason and all other reasons which are felt from the tip of one’s hair to the extremity of one’s toes
—Leonora Carrington, Down Under (28)

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Portrait of Madame Dupin, 1947

Down Under is Leonora Carrington’s riveting account of being held in a Spanish institute for the incurably insane. How she got there is in itself a fascinating story. She was Max Ernst’s lover and at the outbreak of WWII he was arrested by the Gestapo, but then released. He escaped further arrest (or worse) when Peggy Guggenheim arranged for him to come to the United States. Peggy, I guess, did not arrange for Carrington’s escape and ended up marrying Ernst herself…. Carrington was left bereft, heartbroken. She escaped France by going to Spain, which was where the pressure on her heart and soul cracked her brain. I suppose in the face of the combination of heartbreak and the terror and insanity of WWII, a psychotic break must be a near inevitability. When her friend, who was driving the car to Spain, commented that the brakes had jammed Carrington internalized that word. She was “jammed” the world was “jammed.”

What caused the panic to rise within me was the thought of automatons, of thoughtless, fleshless beings (8)

But things got seriously worse at the institute to which she was taken. She was given a series of shots of Cardiazol which induce seizures (a sort of “shock therapy”). Down Under describes that harrowing experience.

When I came to I was lying naked on the floor. I shouted to Asegurada to bring me some lemons and I swallowed them with their rinds. […] then I went back to bed and, intimately, tasted despair (36).

The psychotic fantasies and delusions that ensue are disturbing and not uncoincidentally surreal in the extreme. After all, Carrington was a surrealist artist (English-born, Mexican/Irish descent). But there is something in the way she tells of the ordeal—the odd details that make it very real. I (perhaps strangely, but none the less) completely understood her random obsession for lemons—she comes to consider lemons as an antidote to the Cardiazol, and believes, in her delusion, that the lemons are the key to the story! Or when, at great effort, she gets ahold of a pencil and piece of paper, draws a triangle on it and passes it to José, one of the orderlies:

That triangle, to my way of thinking, explained everything (28).

You feel her mind trying to grip onto anything to prevent the free fall into an utter disconnect with herself. And she does strategize—she tries to organize her mind in interesting ways. She has a sort of mental visual map that helps her at least name the buildings and areas of the institute she is in (which, when she later gets away, she is able to match against what was actually there instead of what she thought in her confused altered state, i.e. “Down Under,” “Africa,” “Outside World Street,” “Garden Pavilion”). She uses objects in her room or dresser to represent the pieces in her mind:

My red and black refill pencil (leadless) was Intelligence. Two bottles of Eau de Cologne, one flat was the Jews, the other, cylindrical, the non-Jews. A box of “Tabu” powder, with a cap half of which was grey and the other black, meant eclipse, complex, vanity, Tabu, love (41).

In this way she gets them out of her head, outside of herself so that she can make some sort of sense. She also struggles to solve the problems of the world developing a full blown martyr complex on the way. Her sexual passions get wrapped up into her state of being and one gets a real sense of her as feeling, intelligent, sensual woman. It is a brief tale, but the complexity she brings to the story is fascinating.

An interesting aspect of this little book is that it was not actually written, rather, it was “told to Jeanne Megnen” which, I think, alters the telling. In many ways, the mind wanders more freely when it does not have to concern itself with organizing the words and sentences on the page. In the case of this particular book, that quality lends itself to the overall oneiric, nightmarish quality.

I sank, I sank down into a well…very far…The bottom of that well was the stopping of my mind for all eternity in the midst of utter anguish. But will you ever understand what I mean by the essence of utter anguish? (36)

*Published by Black Swan Press, translated from the French by Victor Llona

 

Companions in Distress

“What shall I do?” I said. “It seems a pity to commit suicide when I have lived for ninety-two years and really haven’t understood anything.”
—Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet (17)

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Described as a Surrealist novel, the 1974 book, The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is nothing if not dreamlike. Where the novel begins bears zero relation from where it ends and the matter-of-fact tone with which Carrington relates the hairpin turns and oddness is exactly like a dream in which things just are and you don’t necessarily question how you know—don’t ask questions! the facts are whatever they appear to be.

Then a terrible thing happened to me. I started to laugh and could not stop. Tears poured down my face and I covered my mouth with my hand, hoping they would think I had a secret sorrow and was weeping and not laughing (45).

The most wonderful thing about the book is the innocently curmudgeon of a protagonist, Marian Leatherby. She is very funny and her friend Carmella is the type of friend we all wish we had:

“I will give you a solution in a few moments,” said Carmella, who was rummaging in a large covered basket that she had brought. “In the meantime I had better give you the chocolate biscuits and the port, before anybody comes” (141).

A woman with priorities! And the one who gives the near-deaf Marian a hearing trumpet which causes her to learn that her odious family, whom she did not in anyway miss hearing, are plotting to send her to a “retirement” home which is where the real adventure begins.

The novel is closer, in my opinion, to a sort of a magical realism in that Carrington does not try ones patience with pseudo-psychological-surrealist imagery. Rather than a deep seeded anxiety, the book has a sort of joyful innocence. Marian is very trusting, and for a fellow-trusting fool like myself, it is nice to root for her.

I leapt right into the boiling soup and stiffened in a moment of intense agony with my companions in distress, one carrot and two onions (176).

*image from L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers