Tuesday, April 28, 2020

French Decadent Tales

French Decadent TalesFrench Decadent Tales by Stephen Romer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve dabbled in decadence, read some stories here and there and a novel or two by those writers known as “Decadent” writers. By today’s standards, many of these works have been, if not dry, so restrained as to make one wonder what makes the work decadent at all? This presupposes, of course, a certain notion of what decadence should be. Given our upbringing with cinema, our having been inured to violence and transgressive acts from our very birth, I don’t know that we of the current generation have a particular sensitivity to what was and was not historically considered decadent. You might be surprised, for example, at the many references to Greek and Roman classic literature and history found in these works, until you realize that many of the stylistic flourishes of these decadent tales were inspired by later Roman literature, when Roman civilization had passed its zenith and was, well, decaying. Decadence oftentimes does not equate with depravity, though there is plenty of that to be found throughout these tales. Nor is it always synonymous with indulgence and hedonism. In fact, some of these tales portray the very act of strict self-denial, a sort of spartan asceticism, as the ultimate expression of decadence itself! Decadence does not fit neatly into any particular box, except that of writers, generally of the late 19th-century, who held to a certain poetic style (not a strictly-metered style, but works that seethe wish poesis, generally). Many of these were French writers, hence the current volume. The introduction to this volume, which is quite good, lays out the different “flavors” of Decadence, along with some of the commonalities among decadent authors. But I will leave that for your reading.

I will also leave for your own reading and assessment, several of the stories throughout, particularly those that didn’t strike my fancy as well as the others. All of the stories were good at least, most were excellent, and a surprisingly large number were absolutely fantastic. Rather than waste your (okay, my) time on the more hackneyed pieces – which may have not appeared so hackneyed at the time, but which have not held up as well – I would like to concentrate on the best stories in the volume. And there are many!

Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's "The Presentiment" is fabulous and fabulist. A nicely chilling tale of death and the sacred where the line between occult and the veneration of holy artifacts is blurred like stitched-on patches on an old coat. A very old coat, indeed. Five dark stars!

"The Desire to be a Man," the second story by Villiers de l'isle-Adam should have been an episode of the Twilight Zone. I would not be surprised to learn that Rod Serling, at some point, read this tale while camping in the woods of the Finger Lakes region of New York and took furious notes. In my own imaginary world, that is exactly what happened. Thematically, Adams examines the emptiness of a man's soul and how his wish to fill his soul with meaning(?) have exactly the opposite effect. Artificiality is a hell that leads one to hell. An insightful, disturbing story that leads one to a lot of self-examination of person vs persona. Just the sort of thing Serling would have tackled!

Villiers’ "Sentimentalism" might as well be a primer for dandies, and not for the veneer of fine clothes and expensive tastes, but for the inner dandy, the emotional landscape and mind of the devotee. It is a strange sort of machismo, feeling deeply, yet not expressing reaction save through poetics. A sad story, both for the antagonist and his lover. Five stars. And I must say, Villier's work is powerful.

The stylistic accents and pacing make Mirbeau's "On a Cure" a very solid story. Existentialism, and the rejection of stark nihilism, is the philosophical current that runs throughout. This is a brooding little tale worth five stars, if you can see them for the height of the black mountains surrounding it.
Mirbeau’s "The First Emotion" is a story of desire, desire so intense it kills. A morbid, but wonderfully quaint story about the awakening of an inner life that leads to . . . Five stars.

The seemingly innocuous title of "The Little Summer-House," Mirbeau’s last story in this collection, is disarming. This is decadence in all its horror and brutality. Not a dainty story, but the narrator proves so, in a most cowardly and practical way. Though it's a story about "rich people problems," it is highly unsettling. An emotionally complex tale, once one gives a little thought to it.

If you ever enjoyed "Spy vs Spy" in mad magazine, you will love Jean Richepin’s "Constant Guignard".

Richepin’s sense of humor (and self-deprecation?) shines brightly in "Deshoulières,” which is simultaneously an outright mockery and perfect summation of dandyism.

Half of Guy de Maupassant’s stories in this collection were amazing. The other half were definitely lesser works. "The Tresses," one of the better ones, is woven through with themes of obsession, longing, unattainable desires, and . . .necrophilia sans corpus? This is a truly decadent tale: hedonistic, possessive, and without shame.

I very much liked Maupassant’s story "Night," but I can already hear the naysayers questioning the validity of the narrator. Some works don't need justification as their cold beauty over-rides the jaded modern desire for pure logic. Screw your logic. Five stars, impossible narrator and all!
Geffroy's "The Statue" is a cautionary tale about getting exactly, precisely what you want when self-centeredness and vanity are at the root of your desires. It is an intriguing bit of fiction, so rooted in realism that it's denouement must, of course, be rooted in poetic fantasy. Five stars for this very clever, but never "cutesy" story.

Lorrain's "An Unsolved Crime" lies, as might be imagined by the title, somewhere on a line between decadence and noir. There's a sort of de-sexualized "Eyes Wide Shut" conspiracy vibe here, replete with masked, robed figures, but this one featuring ether, rather than sex, as the lure. But then, it's not quite so straightforward as all that. Much of the mystery remains obscured. The way I like it!

Lorrain follows with "The Man with the Bracelet". It is truly what most people would call "decadent," forbidden pleasures in a sea of decay, squalor, whores, and cut-throats and the people who try to exploit them, all mixed together in a stew of self-loathing. This story puts the "decay" in decadence.

Both timely and "too soon," in "The Man Who Loved Consumptives" Lorrain’s characters debate whether the subject in question is a near-necrophiliac or a tender elegiac. Of course, given the Decadent's penchant for objectifying women, he is viewed as wise, a person who feels more deeply than the rest of humanity, and is lauded for his cleverness. Though I disagree heartily with the sentiment, this is a convincing story.

Rodenbach's "The Time" is a bit of chaos magic, but rather than sigils and ecstacy, it is time and death that cast the spell for the hapless narrator. Only after he has forgotten the weaving of synchronicities that would realize one desire, but only in the absence of another. Five stars.
"Danaette" is exactly what I signed up for when I picked up this volume. I should have known Remy de Gourmont would deliver such a work of exquisite beauty. After all, I included one of his stories in the Leviathan 3 anthology, so, I suppose I wear my love of de Gourmont on my sleeve. The prose is absolutely stunning. The imagery is jaw-dropping. The co-mingling of sin and innocence is a precise hallmark of decadence, in my mind, at least. This is the gold-standard. Five stars like white snowflakes, if you catch my drift.

Never have I seen Eros and Thanatos so intertwined as in Gourmont's story "Don Juan's Secret". In that little sub-sub-sub-genre of stories about death and sex, this has to top them all. My goodness, what a writer! I already knew that, but this clinches it: Remy de Gourmont has ascended to stand side by side with Marcel Schwob as the decadents' Decadent.

Given my previous experience with Marcel Schwob, I had high expectations going into this section. "The Brothel," a transgressive ghost story, if I ever read one, met those expectations. Five stars.
Schwob delivers the grue in "The Sans-Gueule," a story about two soldiers that have had their faces blown completely off and the woman who takes them home to try to determine which is her husband. This story was disturbing even for Schwob, which is saying something. I felt like I was watching a Tool music-video in my head while reading this. Really off-kilter stuff here. Five stars worth, in fact.

I would swear that the literary seeds that sprouted Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges were planted firmly in Schwob’s story, "Paolo Uccello, Painter". This is a precognizant proto-echo to those two great writers' work, combining the best of both before either was even born. It is an anachronistic miracle. Five transcendental stars.

The strengths of these stories more than make up for the weakest of tales in the book (and, to be fair, they are few). They elevate into something nearing the sublime, especially the works of Lorrain, de Gourmont, Schwob, and my newfound decadent crush, Villiers. Can decadence elevate? Absolutely. But, like the fable hero’s journey, one must pass through the underworld to attain heaven, comprehending existence in all its beauty and ugliness, thrilling and banal. The Decadents open a portal onto the path of this journey. Take a step . . .

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Hermetic Deleuze

The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual OrdealThe Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal by Joshua Ramey

Halfway through my sophomore year of college, I made a change. I was a physics major and hating life. I was waking up literally having nightmares about partial differentials and in a constant state of high-anxiety about my schoolwork and grades. I was already married with a daughter (I married young - and, yes, we are still happily married nearly 30 years later), poor as the day is long, and about to have a series of mental breakdowns if something didn't change. I was tutoring a young lady in math who told me about her major in Humanities. I asked a little bit about it and, after talking with her, my wife said to me "that sounds right up your alley". And she was right. So I changed and, eventually graduated with a BA in Humanities with a History emphasis and an Anthropology minor. One of the best moves I've made in my life.

The Humanities major was intentionally broad and covered a number of different topics, one of which was philosophy. The luxury of my degree's requirements was that much of it could be taken in any order - it was broad and deep, but not as sequentially-arranged as most majors. I waited until my senior year to take the required Philosophy 101 class. Of course, by that time, I had already been steeped in philosophy through my general humanities classes, which gave a gloss on many movements in philosophy as reflected in art, literature, theater, cinema, music, dance, architecture, etc. I also had a few key classes that dove deeper into philosophy - classics, medieval and renaissance history, for example - so I didn't come to that freshman class as a senior without a decent amount of philosophical study behind me.

Early on in my college studies, before that change in major, I was in an astronomy class that was boring me to tears. I love astronomy, but my professor was drop-dead dull. I expressed my boredom to a math professor who I respected a great deal. He told me "you pay for college, get what you paid for! If it's boring, make it entertaining. Make the craziest claim you can and see what unfolds. In your astronomy class you could say 'the whole Hubble space telescope project is a waste of money' or something like that. Other students will jump in with their opinions and, voila, non-boring discussion."

He was right. I tried it and got my money's worth out of that class. I had several students come up to me at the end of the semester saying "I'm so glad you threw out that comment about [whatever it was I actually said - I don't even remember now]. That opened the class up for me!"

Fast forward to my Philosophy 101 class, with me as the only senior in a freshman-level class. I was bored. I threw out a comment that I still think is true: "Socrates didn't even use the so-called Socratic Method. He used leading questions to pull the answers that he wanted from the crowd. They weren't discovering together, they were following his subtle lead." My, oh my, did that philosophy professor not like that. He was an old school (pun intended) academic and did not like me questioning Socrates. After a couple more comments like this, he pulled me into his office and basically told me that I needed to stop being so creative with my critique and just learn the material. I was a little cocky and a lot upset, so I said "basically, you want me to barf back what you feed me". And he answered that, yes, basically, that was it. I was applying to grad schools and wanted the best grades possible, so I did what he asked . . . on tests and papers . . . but not in the classroom. I still spoke my mind and disagreed heartily with the professor many times. He always gave me good grades on my tests and papers because I regurgitated the material, just as he had asked, and, to his credit, he never let our disagreements in the classroom spill over into his grading. I got an "A" in the class and a really sour taste in my mouth for the academic study of philosophy.

Then came grad school. That was a different milieu entirely. We were encouraged to argue our points vehemently, so long as we backed our bravado with solid rhetoric and documentary evidence (my MA is in African History). There was plenty of philosophical meat to our discussions. I learned about Foucault, Chomsky, Derridas, Sartre, and many others, and became more facile in my use of philosophy as a tool to dig for knowledge.

Deleuze was still on the cutting edge of philosophy. He died the year before I got into grad school, so his posthumous popularity hadn't quite blossomed yet. At least his ideas hadn't penetrated far enough into the historical domain to have much relevance to my work at that time. But I heard of him. And I kept hearing of him, in little snippets, bizarre congeries of references spoken in almost spiritual tones. Some people who are a lot smarter than I am really, really were digging this dead dude.

Life intervened and I lost track of Deleuze. Only recently, while listening to the Weird Studies podcast (the single best podcast on the interwebs, if you ask me) did I pick up the thread again. Deleuze (and his compatriot, Felix Guattari) kept getting mentioned again and again and again. Finally, I had to do something about it. But I wasn't going to jump straight in. I had learned enough to know that Deleuzian territory is dangerous, complicated, like the philosophical equivalent of Visitation Zones in Roadside Picnic. I thought about foolishly rushing headlong into Deleuze's work, then thought better of it. I couldn't just brazenly bluster my way out of his woods. I needed to explore. Slowly. Carefully.

When I saw the title The Hermetic Deleuze, I thought "Aha! I can approach Deleuze through my knowledge of hermeticism!" After all, I had done a paper on Pico della Mirandola in my junior year of college that was lauded by the renaissance history professor from whom I was taking the class at the time. My intent was to go "sideways" into Deleuze.

The question is: was it successful?

Yes and no. I was not a philosophy major. I had learned enough in my college years to be dangerous, but not savvy. I was never steeped in the language of philosophy like those friends of mine who were philosophy majors. I stumbled through the vocabulary, more fully learning what words like "heuristic" and "theandric" meant. It was a slow plod because my vocabulary had to be extended with every page for the first third of the book or so. I recalled enough from hermeticism to keep me afloat, just barely. But I had to intellectually float and dog paddle, to get used to the feeling of my philosophical body being in water, so to speak.

Then I started hitting the truly Deleuzian rapids. The latter two thirds of the book I scraped on rocks a few times, got caught in a whirlpool or two, got myself completely turned around and crawled onto the shore only partially aware of what I had just been through. But I made it through. Once. And I'm willing to do it again. Some sections were very clear, others are going to require more serious study and some more grounding in Deleuze's work, unfiltered. Rather than give a blow-by-blow account, I will leave you here with the notes I took throughout the book, with page numbers. I think this reflects the feeling I have looking back on the experience as a sort of stained-glass mosaic, with some panes being crystalline and other panes being so clouded as to be a blind spot.

And though I'm not confident that I understood more than a third of what was going on, I am absolutely sure that I learned many things and that my intellectual horizons have been expanded, and that is what philosophy can do. I will dive into Deleuze's waters once again with one of his own works, then revisit this one at a future date. I have so many questions and potential paths to explore (some listed in my notes below). Philosophy has done its job and Deleuze has got me thinking in ways that I have not thought before. Mission accomplished.

(4) Ready to sink my brain into this. The introduction has definitely whetted my appetite. And I've only had to look up two words: "heuristic" and "theandric"!
(10) A marvelous introductory essay. I'm hoping the book holds up to its promise.
(18) I understood about half the sentences I just read. Now to reread them again and again and again. My vocabulary is being extended with every page. This is slow going!
(24) Having a good background of knowledge in the Hermetic traditions is helping quite a bit. Deleuze is . . . I don't even know the word: oblique? Sidelong? Askew? It's going to take a lot of immersion in his work to really begin to understand his work at a meaningful level. I get hints and allegations, thin wisps of something just beyond my perception. Philosophical ghosts. I'm being willingly haunted,
(29) Just when you wrap your head around Theandry and begin to sense the whiff of Immanence on the air, Deleuze throws three more concepts your way. My brain is bending in new and interesting ways, some remarkably pleasant, some tortuous. I'm just glad I'm familiar with Pico della Mirandola and Ficino, or I would be utterly lost. That senior paper I wrote on Pico is saving me!
(32) This may be a brain-wringer as intense as Gödel, Escher, Bach was. Thankfully, it's about half as long, maybe less. Curious to see if it also has homework exercises!
(44) I was not expecting a deep dive into early Christian theological debates. Dazzling and utterly confusing.
(52) The contradictory notions of Bruno and Pico outlined on page 51 are worthy of exploration. I can feel a short story coming on . . .
(56) Ah, more Pico. This is something I can sink my brain into. I remember finding Pico's writings quite intuitive as an undergraduate. Hopefully, I can slip back into the magic Christian frame of mind easily enough again.
(58) Interesting that Pico considers true Magic not a work in itself - it doesn't cause miracles, it reveals miracles already inherent in, but hidden by nature. Goeteia, on the other hand, calls on the "operations and power of demons". Magic, in his estimation, is noble and complimentary with Christianity, while the dark arts are contradictory. I wonder where he drew the line between the two?
(73) Never use the word "obvious" in a philosophical text. Just don't. Still, I'm starting to see the tip of the iceberg regarding the relationship between Bruno's conception of nature and matter and Deleuze's immanence. It's like it's on the tip of my brain - I can sense a . . . presence about the intersection of the concepts, but can't articulate it.
(82) Bruno views art as potentially generative of magic if the image is less concerned with verisimilitude and more concerned with what may be. "The artist who wishes to move himself must be moved". Art, then, generates resonance with that which is beyond the art itself, so the art is representative, but more importantly, a sort of portal to access that which is beyond mere form.
(92) Biography helps. Deleuze was a member of a Salon during the French Resistance where he was exposed to Hermetic ideas, particularly Mathesis at a young age. He wrote the forward to Malfatti's Mathesis: or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge in 1946, when he was 21. He later renounced this work.
(103) My hypothesis is that we should continue to see, on the horizon of Deleuze's work, the persistence of his adolescent vision of an ecstatic, erotic, and unfinished project of mathesis universalis as that "prephilosophical" or "nonphilosophical" apprehension of immanence alluded to on the final pages of What is Philosophy?
(108) Deleuze, here, seems to be most concerned with symbols as indicating the search for knowledge and wisdom, rather than the categorization of knowledge into discrete containers.

It is rotative thought, in which a group of images turn ever more quickly around a mysterious point, as oppossed to the linear allegorical chain.

I might be starting to "get" Deleuze. Starting . . .
(111) . . . Deleuze continues to be haunted by the connection of philosophy to symbolic iterations - artistic, scientific, and esoteric - that would be adequate for the expression of immanence and indispensable for philosophy as an act of creation.
(125) So, in sum, as I understand it, Deleuze is more concerned with "becoming" as an action than with the platonic "idea," which is a static state of being? I guess? It seems that Deleuze delights in multiplicities, rather than The One. I would love someone to confirm or repudiate my understanding, please!
(126) Aha! The notion of "intensity" in Deleuze provides me a nice window to peer into his philosophy. Now, I just need a glass house made of those windows.
(138) Deleuze's concept of "difference" escapes me at the moment. It is not as simple as one might think. Honestly, I don't even think I have a mental direction to face in order to begin to understand it. Guess I'll just intellectually wallow until I find some piece of driftwood to hang on to.
(148) About two years and three rereads, that's what I'm going to need to crack the code on that last chapter. Phew!
(154) . . . the flesh is pulled or pushed out from the outside by the planes that frame it (in musical terms melody and rhythm push sound towards its pulsing vitality . . . harmony represents the planes that intersect and frame sound in a cosmos, a universe of vectors and dimensions.

This cryptic passage is actually helping me to understand Deleuze's approach/view on art more clearly.
(171) For Deleuze, all genuine artistic experimentation must be understood as a local activation of otherwise imperceptible cosmic forces that move through natures, cultures, and psyches. When it is successful, the work of art suggest new modes of sensible and affective engagement within the world . . .
(173) . . . when a person dies, the event is the result of physical causes, but the meanings of a death are multiple and thus both precede and exceed the physics of the event itself. Teh mental or ideal time in which the meanings of a death are played and replayed is not linear and sequential, but aberrant and discontinuou . . .

Cue: differentiation between Aion and Chronos.
(200) Understanding less and less as I approach the finish! And this after listening to several podcasts about Deleuze.
(208) I will definitely need to give this a reread after having listened to a series of podcasts which are basically "Deleuze for Dummies". I'm definitely able to follow the threads here in a much more informed manner.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Justice of the Night

The Justice Of The NightThe Justice Of The Night by Glen Cavaliero
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The First Lesson

God has a great round face
like the sun, a dial like the sun,
a sun-dial.

His grin is the daylight.
He tosses the earth in his arms
on a taut line

far up into the night
then over and down to the day
from holly to rose.

We are hurled about,
his sport, his delight, his toy,
sun-up, sun-down:

he never misses a catch,
that good giant God,
tough and sure.

Cling to the ball
as it spins, enjoy the game
if you can, breathless,

bruised; endure the round
of grief and glamour, the theme
all laws obey

safe in the everlasting
thrust and clasp of his arms
at work, in boundless play.

Thus opens Glen Cavaliero's marvelous collection, The Justice of the Night. There is, beginning with this poem and shot throughout the rest, a sense of playfulness and despair, a lining of humor and hope to a dark cloud of existentialism raining down fleeting moments of opportunity, some caught, most lost, slipping through the fingers, but enough drops of Kairos sticking to the skin to impart the feeling of meaning to it all.

Perhaps I am too stuck on my formative time living in England in the mid-80's. Or maybe my recent trip back there made me overly nostalgic again. But Cavaliero seems to capture the very essence of the isle.

For instance, "Hellingley" is a reverse-hauntology, the ghosts of what might have used to be, but were only a distorted reflection of the present, until now. It is a yearning, an anachronistic aching. I feel it when I dream of England. I do. I do.

I thought that "On the March" had a familiar feel to it, despite the strange place names. Then, when I read that it was about eastern Wales, it suddenly made sense: Cavaliero had invoked Hay-on-Wye from within me, drawn Wales out from my memory and impressions. It's summoning magic, raising ghosts in my mind. Necromancy of psychogeography.

Lastly, in my mind, but not in the book, I am entranced by "The Auditors," which is everything i would ever to aspire to write in a poem. It sums Cavaliero's oeuvre up nicely, a bookend (if not chronologically, forgive the timeslip) to the opening poem:

The Auditors

Those clarion mornings on the hill,
the auburn stone of balustrades, celestial
intervals of bells - such stainless recollections
are precarious: very soon

the holy landscape of the visionary
poets, lovers, priests, affording miracles
of stupefying grace too beautiful for sight,
reveals obscenities

to blighted carrion plots
you come across by chance. Uneasiness infests you
as it crawls in hair and skin. Some shed or nettle-patch,
that crumbling privy . . .

Always and everywhere
the grey judicious unimpassioned angels
taking stock will register each violation
of an urge to live

despite all discord,
and they let things be. A coachload on the motorway
goes roaring through the dangerous rain, the tarmac glares,
no intersection

interrupts. The auditors
are not concerned: familiar with fatalities
in underpasses, swamps or lonely woodland,
they administer

oblivion, their heartless love
dispensing coal-black wine to obviate
the plight of every grid-locked suppliant
and to underwrite each debt.

View all my reviews