paleo Ideofact

Thursday, September 19, 2002
Eco on de Sade
I wrote a few days ago about de Sade's work, Justine. Today I was thumbing through Umberto Eco's charming book Misreadings (to be honest, it wasn't by chance, I knew what I was looking for), and found this wonderful description of the work. The narrator is a reader from a publishing house, reviewing manuscripts for publication:
The manuscript was in a whole pile of things I had to look at this week and, to be honest, I haven't read through it. I opened it up at random three times, in three different places, which, as you know, is enough for a trained eye.

Well, the first time I found an avalanche of words, page after page, about the philosophy of nature, with digressions on the cruelty of the struggle for survival, the reproduction of plants, and the cycles of animal species. The second time: at least fifteen pages on the concept of pleasure, the senses, the imagination, and so on. The third time: twenty pages on the question of submission between men and women in various countries of the world ... I think that's enough. We're not looking for a work of philosophy. Today's audience wants sex, sex and more sex. In every shape and form. The line we should follow if Les Amours du Chevalier de Faublas. Let's leave the high brow stuff to Indiana.
I know Eco is making fun of the reader rather than the book, but his description actually is pretty close to my own memories of the work. A page or two of depravity, followed by the long philosophical justification for it. Incidentally, the other book alluded to was written by a Louvet de Couvray (see second entry), a minor figure in the French Revolution. And yes, the book was risque, but more of a bodice ripper, from what I understand, than a philosophy of torture.

The other day, Andrew Sullivan gave a Sontag award to George Galloway, a Scottish Labour deputy and leading anti-war campaigner, who told the Guardian:
If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union, yes I did. Yes, I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life. If there was a Soviet Union today, we would not be having this conversation about plunging into a new war in the Middle East, and the US would not be rampaging around the globe.
As I've mentioned from time to time, I try to keep up with the reports on KurdishMedia News. I should probably add a permalink to the left for it. In any case, this story is simply horrifying:
16 September 2002: George Galloway, a British Labour MP, announced yesterday in an interview with the Iraqi TV, that the Iraqi people should back their leader. Galloway said the Iraqi people and all the Arab nations should support the Iraqi leadership to decrease the effect of the non-Arab coalition against Saddam Hussein. . . .

George Galloway ignores the crimes committed by Saddam’s regime against the Kurds and Iraqis. The Iraqi government still displaces thousands of Kurds from the Kurdish oil-rich city of Kirkuk each month. Independent human rights organisations in Kurdistan confirm that families are forced out from Kirkuk and replaced by Arabs from the south of Iraq and Palestine. This is part of the Iraqi regime’s policy of Arabisation of Kurdistan.

Many Kurds and Iraqis believe that Galloway is a disgrace to the British democracy. Iraqi people are still fleeing the country due to Saddam’s oppression.
The Kurds and Iraqis should rest assured that others share their opinion.

Wednesday, September 18, 2002
Blogger update
Well, still no sign of the archives. I've tried every blogger trick I can think of, and nothing's worked.

Update: Amazingly, they're back...

The inestimable Andrew Sullivan writes (fourth item from the top, as of this posting) about an Atlantic article not yet online by Philip Jenkins, author of the book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. I've read neither the book nor the article (Sullivan's read the article at least), but his characterization is nevertheless fascinating:
The future of Christianity - where its energy is, where the passion is, where the new flocks are - is clearly in Africa and Asia and South America, where pentecostalist movements or highly traditional forms of Catholicism are making huge gains. The next pope, it seems likely to me, will make this one look like a liberal. Immigrants to the United States will also bring this kind of religion more forcefully home, as the new religion census is showing. On matters such as the role of women or homosexuality, the power is increasingly moving toward those who view any diversion from traditional gender roles as unthinkable and any variation on marital heterosexuality as an abomination. And on the matter of separation of church and state, political liberalism is going to be challenged in ways as profound as in the seventeenth century. Perhaps the sheer financial power of the Northern churches will exercise some sway over the force of Third World conservatism, but I doubt it.
I had a vague sense that I had read this same worry somewhere before. At first I thought of Paul Valery, and rifled through the pages of his highly recommended work, The Outlook for Intelligence, but alas, in vain. Then I remembered: Bernard Shaw's preface to Androcles and the Lion. Shaw wrote:
When the late explorer Sir Henry Stanley told me of the emotional grip which Christianity had over the Baganda tribes, and read me their letters, which were exactly like medieval letters in their literal faith and ever-present piety, I said "Can these men handle a rifle?" To which Stanley replied with some scorn "Of course they can, as well as any white man." Now at this moment (1915) a vast European war is being waged, in which the French are using Senegalese soldiers. I ask the French Government, which, like our own Government, is deliberately leaving the religious instruction of these negroes in the hands of missions of Petrine Catholics and Pauline Calvinists, whether they have considered the possibility of a new series of crusades, by ardent African Salvationists, to rescue Paris from the grip of the modern scientific "infidel," and to raise a cry of "Back to the Apostles: back to Charlemagne!"
Shaw's worries proved unfounded; the vast European war became a vast World War, American troops also entered the fray, and modern, scientific, infidel Paris was free to carry on as it was, albeit with the awful consequences of having been bled white in four years of trench warfare. Political liberalism has been challenged by a series of movements beginning perhaps as early as Napoleon, or the revolutions of 1848, but certainly no later than the Paris Commune of the 1870s. It has withstood the twin assaults of communism and fascism in the last century, and I am optimistic it will overcome radical Islam and the quasi-fascist dictatorships of the Middle East in this one. Similarly, I do not worry overmuch that Shaw's fear, or Sullivan's, will confront us with quite the ferocity they predicted.

Clarification: Of course, I recognize that Sullivan's worry is somewhat different from Shaw's; the former doesn't suggest that violence is something to worry about, as far as I can tell, although I'm not sure whether he envisions the assault on political liberalism as being attempted entirely through its institutions (i.e., voting, legislatures, courts, etc.) or by opposing them more violently. Perhaps instead he imagines a cultural shift, with pressures brought to bear on non-conformists as much through civil society as through government.

Tuesday, September 17, 2002
De Sade
Well, now that I'm going for a daily readership of 14.5 million (see the post below), I'd better give the people what they want. Which, sex, sex. Unfortunately, even though the topic here is the Marquis de Sade, I'm afraid I'll likely disappoint.

National Review Online recently ran a review by Thomas Hibbs of a new French film, aptly named Sade, about the 18th century writer. I haven't seen the film, nor have I seen Quills, the de Sade offering from two years ago. Frankly, the films don't interest me all that much.

Hibbs writes:
The film depicts Sade not only as a quasi-pacifist but also as an enlightenment figure (Emilie confesses, "he enlightened me"), a laidback source of wit and wisdom about the path to abandoning the fear of death and living in harmony with nature, instinct, or the inner voice. But the serenity of Sade's way of life conceals the tyrannical turbulence at the root of his conception of nature, an abandonment of reason and moral principles in favor of unmitigated, violent passion. Something like this is what Foucault — the most perceptive reader of Sade — sees in his books: "the insane delight of love and death in the limitless presumption of appetite," "the possibility of transcending…reason in violence."

For all their insistence on the sacred right of Sade to pursue his writing, neither Quills nor Sade probes the writings of its hero or allows us to see what sort of vision of humanity captivates Sade. There is operative here a sort of liberal anti-intellectualism that exhibits no curiosity about what people think or write so long as they are free to do so. Just what did Sade write?
I have tried to read four p0rn0grafic (sorry about the spelling -- as it is, I'm sure I'll end up with all sorts of Google hits I'm not looking for) novels in my life. One was by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, which, the back of the book assured me, was inventive and a literary effort on a par with his poetry and short stories; it may have been, but I didn't make it past the first chapter. I believe Robbe-Grillet, or his wife, or his mistress (I'm not sure which) dabbled in the genre; I read a chapter or two and gave up on it. I did make it through George Batille's book, The Story of the Eye, which seems to be as much about horror as about sex; I found it strangely compelling in a disturbing sort of way. The last work, which I also read all of, many years ago, was de Sade's Justine.

I have not returned to the book, and it's been at least 15 years since I read it, so I offer these thoughts for what they are worth. As I recall, the novel begins with Justine and her sister Juliette being orphaned and separated. Justine moves through a series of bad experiences -- bad foster care, ending up with a cruel mistress, kidnapped by a gang of highway robbers, and finally escaping them with a merchant they've kidnapped and she releases. The merchant, whom she sees as her savior, clouts her over the head and rapes her, taking her virginity.

There begins a second part of the work, in which Justine encounters a series of ever more depraved lunatics who indulge in lengthy monologues justifying the terror to which they are about to subject her. It seems that the speakers are all one speaker; they talk not so much of sex but of the implications of a godless nature. (And indeed, they talk and talk and talk, so much so that one can imagine the poor girl saying, "All right, all right, don't make me listen to any more of your drivel. Put me in the stocks and lash me, but let's get this over with.") Needless to say, Justine is always an intent listener, and even moves the monologues along by asking questions that seem designed to elicit proofs of the absolute truth of the speaker's views.

In the end, Justine finally escapes her tormentors, and is reunited with her sister. She soon recovers from the ordeals she went through, only to be struck in the face by a bolt of lightening, which kills her instantly.

Throughout the work, de Sade expands upon his bizarre philosophy, which perhaps is best described as a philosophy of the jungle rather than the bedroom. The strongest rules, and the exercise of power is the ultimate aphrodisiac (although none of de Sade's characters seemed to enjoy anything they were doing; rather, it seemed like the tortures were necessary demonstrations of the philosophical system each elaborated upon). There are no constraints on strength, since religion is merely myth and the state protects, and encourages, the strong. Voltaire, whose work Candide is vaguely similar to Justine (although Voltaire is too much of an artist, and too human, not to give his Panglossian idiots redeeming human characteristics, so that their perseverance does seem to prove that this is, with all its faults and all its evil, the best of all possible worlds), once remarked that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him. De Sade seems to be saying that if God did exist, it would be necessary to kill Him.

To return though to Hibbs' essay, I somewhat disagree with his main point, which seems to be that Sade, the film, is a manifestation of liberalism's inability to deal with the consequences of its ideas, or the upshot of its experiment, to paraphrase Hawthorne:
Liberalism wants to celebrate sexual license and unconstrained freedom of thought, but it is not eager to see the terror to which these might lead in the lives of those who take these principles as more than platitudes.
I suspect that the sanitized de Sade is offered for entirely different, and altogether more understandable, reasons: he sells movie tickets.

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That depends. Could I still use lower case letters?

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As regular readers know, I normally don't do this sort of post, but having gotten two or three hundred emails like this over the past six months, it finally got to me.

...still appears to be having some troubles -- the archives are still lost, and it did some very unusual things last night (which is why I didn't bother to post anything until this morning). It's frustrating, but still better than writing for the drawer.

Update: Still no luck with the archives. I'll try again later tonight, I suppose, although there's probably no point...

Robert Speirs was kind enough to write with the following observations regarding this post:
I just read Saddam's "open letter to the American people" as reproduced on your estimable site. It struck me that the arguments and admonitions it contains were indistinguishable, word for word, from countless articles and speeches given by the likes of Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Robert Fisk over the last year. If I weren't such a skeptic, I might think that all the leftists met secretly with Saddam's agents to be given a script to inundate the Western media with. On the other hand, if they had, they couldn't have tracked his ideas more faithfully.

They seem to forget that Saddam publicly states that Gulf War I was a victory for Islam, or at least for Iraq. Which reminds me that Mubarak still calls the central square in Cairo Midan Tahrir, for the great Egyptian victory in October 1973, which resulted in Israeli tanks penetrating to within a few miles of Cairo. I've tried to think of Western analogues, but only the Alamo and the adulation of Robert E. Lee by white Southerners come to mind and they don't really fit. It's as though in Germany they should still be celebrating the Nazi conquest of France in 1940 as a great good development, naming town squares after Panzer leaders and ignoring the consequences of the war.
I try to avoid painting with a broad brush, particularly when we come to questions of left and right, but there is a bizarre drive to justify tyranny among some in the extremist but nevertheless still respectable left (the kind of people invited to write op-eds for the New York Times, or lecture on college campuses). Mr. Speirs' words reminded me of another tyranny, and another defeat -- the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in particular this passage from Robert Conquest's book, Reflections on a Ravaged Century. In a section called "Mindslaughter," (the term was understated, if anything), Conquest recalls an interview a Marxist historian gave on a British public affairs program:
For a useful, almost classical demonstration of the revolutionary mind-warp, the motivation behind acceptance of a totalitarian Idea, we turn to an interview given by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm on "The Late Show," 24 October 1994 (see TLS, 28 October 1994). When Michael Ignatieff asked him to justify his long membership in the Communist Party, he replied: "You didn't have the option. You see, either there was going to be a future or there wasn't going to be a future and that was the only thing that offered an acceptable future."

Ignatieff then asked: "In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?"

Hobsbawm answered: "This is the sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible. Erm ... I don't actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have said, 'Probably not.'"

Ignatieff asked: "Why?"

Hobsbawm explained: "Because in a period in which, as you might say, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as a historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous, they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure."

Ignatieff then said: "What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the lost of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?"

Hobsbawm immediately said: "Yes."
Conquest points out the limits of Hobsbawm's thinking (the question of whether there was going to be a future or not -- only the triumph of Stalin's regime ensured that there would be). Regardless, the whole interview is astonishing, not least because Hobsbawm isn't regarded as a crank -- my copy of his work The Age of Capital carries a recommendation from the New Republic:
Eric Hobsbawm is one of the few genuinely great historians of our century.
Similarly, I imagine that, regardless of what defenses they offer for Saddam, there were be little loss of reputation among those intellectuals Mr. Speirs cites.

Monday, September 16, 2002
Blogger totally screwed up today. At least for me.

Update: It started with the normal archive nonsense. Then posts already published moving from "current" status to "future" status all by themselves. What a waste of time.

Sunday, September 15, 2002
51st State?
James Fallows has a lengthy article in The Atlantic on the logistical difficulties that post-war Iraq will present. It is well worth reading, but I am not at all persuaded that what seems to be its thesis, that America is not up to the task of occupying Iraq, is correct. The United States has maintained order in Europe, a far more fractious multicultural stew with a far greater (and diverse) population than Iraq, a far larger land area as well, for the last 56 years, and one could argue (N.B. -- I would not) that the U.S. has been occupying it for that long, given the number of bases and military personnel stationed there. The same can be said of the U.S. occupation of Japan and, perhaps, even South Korea.

No one would call Japan or the European countries our 51st state, and there is no reason I can think of why Iraq would fundamentally differ from these earlier experiences. It is far more of question of political will; if the goal is to create a democratic, prosperous, and moderate Iraq, then a long-term commitment will be needed (so, too, will be the cooperation of the Iraqi people, although it's hard to imagine they would prefer dictatorial terror to some form of federalism and representative democracy).

I was glancing through Gershom Scholem's Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, a book I haven't read but have meaning to for some time (I read his Origins of the Kabbalah several years ago -- in those days I was neither married nor a father, and had a lot more time for reading). In any case, I was somewhat astonished by this line in the foreword to Major Trends, written by Robert Alter, a professor of comparitive literature at Berkely:
The writing of history, of course, involves interpretation, and interpretation is always debatable, but at a moment when many are tempted to imagine that all historical determinations are relative and perhaps even intrinsically fictitious, Scholem's formidable work reminds us that the concept of truth still has a role to play in the vocation of the historian.
The concept of truth still has a role to play in the vocation of the historian. That's an astonishing statement, suggesting as it does that much history can be written without the concept of truth. The foreword, incidentally, was copyrighted in 1995.

Al Qaeda
Via Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, Robert Musil (who writes with a truly Musilian style; I'm envious of his adroit handling of language), I came across this Frank Rich column reacting to Bush's U.N. speech. Rich raises the specter of Al Qaeda as ongoing threat in his second and penultimate paragraphs (as the first troubling question arguing against war in Iraq):
Al Qaeda may be forgotten, but it's not gone — apparently even from the suburbs of Buffalo, as CBS News first reported last night. At least two-thirds of its top leadership remains at large. A draft version of a U.N. report on our failure to shut down its cash flow says that "Al Qaeda is by all accounts `fit and well' and poised to strike again at its leisure." (It has already struck at least a half-dozen times since January.) Regime change, anyone? Al Qaeda almost brought one about in Afghanistan, assuming its likely role in the assassination attempt on Hamid Karzai. As Harry Shearer said in his satirical radio program, "Le Show," 9/11 is "the event that changed everything except terrorism."


What happens if Al Qaeda attacks the U.S., or if Afghanistan or Pakistan falls while we're at war in Iraq?
I wrote on Sept. 3:
I expect that we'll hear much, in the next few weeks, about the dangers of al Qaeda, the instability of Afghanistan, and the need to prosecute the war on terror anywhere other than Iraq.
I do not think such arguments will carry the day, or even dominate the debate on Iraq, but I expect to see more columns like Rich's in the coming weeks.