Gary Percesepe ~ Transition

January 2, 2017

I was telling Joelle I was almost fin­ished read­ing her mem­oirs. I’d been read­ing them side by side, an odd way to read, sort of like an old two-columned Ashbery poem, or an obscure pas­sage from Derrida’s Glas. Derrida was some­thing else entire­ly. We’d see each oth­er on the con­fer­ence cir­cuit, which I can no longer abide. He sent me a let­ter once, writ­ten in French. Which I trea­sured, of course, and lost. In some move, some­where. But Joelle’s mem­oirs– I was telling her that I can­not touch them today. Not one more sharp pain. When read­ing is no longer a com­fort, when writ­ing isn’t pos­si­ble, this recur­ring suf­fer­ing. Go to the gym. I need to hit things. Perhaps I will come back to her twins tonight, I told her.

January 8, 2017

I some­how man­aged to fin­ish read­ing Subtraction, by Mary Robison. No idea how that book elud­ed me. I thought all of Mary’s work had safe­ly passed through me. But no. An exquis­ite nov­el, found by acci­dent. Perhaps her best. Like find­ing a Bach in the attic. But Joelle, I was say­ing. She can write. I told her that in old­en days I would have inter­viewed her on mem­oir, chat­ted it up, talked of con­se­quen­tial things, real ques­tions, based on care­ful read­ing and reflec­tion on her work. I used to do a lot of that. Names we could name; let’s don’t. People whose work I cared about, maybe loved besides. But I find I don’t care any­more. Too many inter­views out there, who has­n’t inter­viewed or been inter­viewed to death. The whiff of self-pro­mo­tion, the ridicu­lous image of a plat­form, some­where from which to take a dive.

January 9, 2017

Names? Wrote a hel­lu­va inter­view set­up with ques­tions for Cheryl Strayed, we were qui­et friends, was gonna do it, then she got Oprahed and I got bored. Not wild about any­thing. Tried to inter­view James Salter a while back and he was like, oh geez, let’s not, and that was so refresh­ing and instead we wrote let­ters about con­vert­ibles we’d owned and loved, and I told him about Pari’s tanned, tiny feet (size five) and how on Route 27 she’d jam them onto the dash­board, to the far­thest cor­ner from where I sat star­ing not dri­ving, and that was the charm because he invit­ed us to stop by on the way to the Hamptons (we nev­er went). Now Salter’s dead, and I sor­ta envy him.

January 10, 2017

Oh your mem­oirs are good, I was say­ing, they are good, Joelle, they break my heart, but they make me want to stop read­ing and nev­er fin­ish because I can’t han­dle one more painful, hope­ful thing. I may have to give you up too. I told her this. It’s a crack up, Scott! Like a plate, yes. You were cor­rect. I can only talk to four year olds, well behaved male chil­dren. The girls I just want to adopt. Ciao, Bella. I wrote this to her in a “let­ter.”

January 11, 2017

Someone emailed the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Fordham, look­ing to staff a sec­tion of Intro, and this is how I wound up agree­ing to teach a Wednesday night class. Correction, Scott: Four year olds, well behaved male chil­dren, the daugh­ters of friends, and eigh­teen-year-old phi­los­o­phy stu­dents. Before the Age of Cynicism. I found that I care about them. It’s the skin, smooth, unlined, the way they move, part­ing the air, and the air moves in the fill up the places where their bod­ies have been. It’s poetry.

What to say to them is anoth­er mat­ter. It’s over? Best not to begin there. What phi­los­o­phy once called life has turned into the sphere of the pri­vate and then mere­ly of con­sump­tion? Dragging us along in its wake, the addled and the mass-pro­duced, borne along like flot­sam and jet­sam in time’s stream. Illusion is sacred, truth pro­fane. The under­rat­ed Feurbach, the for­got­ten Adorno.

That seemed unhelp­ful. So I told them of Guy Debord, a French the­o­rist who wrote The Society of the Spectacle. In soci­eties where mod­ern con­di­tions of pro­duc­tion pre­vail, all of life presents itself as an immense accu­mu­la­tion of spec­ta­cles. Everything that has lived has moved away; gone into rep­re­sen­ta­tion. I explained that Debord wrote this book in 1967, that it helped cre­ate the con­di­tions for May, 1968. Then I had to explain Paris, May 1968.

January 12, 2017

My son Vinny was try­ing to explain to me why he had deac­ti­vat­ed his Facebook. “Do you ever go to the refrig­er­a­tor to see if some­thing is appeal­ing and lat­er on you return to see if any­thing is appeal­ing as if some­thing mag­i­cal­ly appeared,” he said. “This is check­ing Facebook through­out the day- the same crap over and over. When I came to this real­iza­tion I delet­ed it.”

January 13, 2017

Once one con­trols the mech­a­nism which oper­ates the only form of social ver­i­fi­ca­tion extant, Debord the­o­rized, one can say what one likes.

The spec­ta­cle “proves” its argu­ments sim­ply by going round in cir­cles: by com­ing back to the start, by rep­e­ti­tion, by con­stant reaf­fir­ma­tion in the only space where any­thing can be pub­licly affirmed, pre­cise­ly because that is the only thing to which every­one is wit­ness. (Auto-col­o­niza­tion is a very French idea; it’s much too ear­ly to for­get Foucault.) Spectacular pow­er, Debord thought, can deny what­ev­er it likes, once, twice, or three times over, and changes the sub­ject, know­ing full well there is no dan­ger of any riposte, in any space. The spec­ta­tor knows noth­ing and deserves noth­ing. As a senior Italian offi­cial said, in the late 1980s, “Once there were scan­dals, but not anymore.”

January 14, 2017

I once asked my ther­a­pist, a kind­ly Jew in Ohio named Bob, “Can we ever know what we want?”
“No,” he said. “Not a chance.” Bob didn’t have the heart or incli­na­tion to quote Kundera to me: “We can nev­er know what to want, because, liv­ing only one life, we can nei­ther com­pare it with our pre­vi­ous lives nor per­fect it in our life to come.”

January 15, 2017

Second mar­riage is like this: First: the sigh. What? she says. I want to go for a three week ride. Where? she asks. She has the soft Tennessee lilt and the Jimmy Choo shoes, also size five. Well, yes, I say. I’m in, she says. I check the oil, the tires, the cash. We’re flush. She shot­gunned in, I threw my hand at the gearshift, the car glid­ed off. Music played. Someone was moan­ing, “Let it be me.” I got lost in the music and remem­bered an old French film. Maybe it was Truffaut. A cou­ple walked togeth­er in the park. I watched them walk, think­ing how the act of walk­ing is an inten­tion­al throw­ing of the body into a state of non-equi­lib­ri­um, each step a risk that ends well only when the risk is repeat­ed, when the oth­er foot answers the move­ment of the first, mimet­ic desire, each foot com­pen­sat­ing for the move­ment of the oth­er, this pat­tern, repeat­ed over and over, a del­i­cate fall and the qui­et restora­tion of bal­ance. I thought: we don’t know what we want, we fall into things, as we fall into the­o­ry. As we fall into love. It’s unnat­ur­al and vio­lent and unsta­ble but only when you think about it. You can­not aim for grace; grace hap­pens, in the will to move for­ward. The movie kept play­ing in my head: A man and woman in bed, in smoky sun­light, a cou­ple with some­thing mam­moth to lose, too enor­mous to keep. I pulled us south on the inter­state. Hours passed. In the dash­board light I stud­ied her make­up, her small even teeth and decid­ed, just a woman. My woman. How even dead-still in the car you knew she had rea­sons for mov­ing, was built for speed, matched per­fect­ly the motor’s hum.

January 16, 2017

Debord thought that “the spec­ta­cle” was not a sup­ple­ment to the real world, an addi­tion­al dec­o­ra­tion; it is itself the heart of the unre­al­ism of the real soci­ety. I said this in class. Hands shot up. Like a real­i­ty show, the stu­dents exclaimed. Well, yes, I said. One you can­not turn off. With only one chan­nel. It’s all about monop­oly of appear­ance. The spec­ta­cle is the guardian of sleep. As Debord put it, the spec­ta­cle is the exist­ing order’s unin­ter­rupt­ed dis­course about itself, it’s lauda­to­ry mono­logue. He wrote this in 1967, I told my class. The more human life becomes prod­uct, the more we are alien­at­ed from it, mean­ing our­selves. Until we stare at the screen, any screen, tiny screens, large screens, at church, at a restau­rant, in bed with our lovers. The humil­i­a­tion of the word. Orwell was wrong, I told them. Big Brother is You, Watching.

This was right after I had explained basic Plato, that after democ­ra­cy comes tyran­ny. In ancient Greece, his­to­ry and democ­ra­cy entered the world at the same time; their dis­ap­pear­ances have also been simultaneous.

January 17, 2017

Today I explained to my fresh­men that Debord fol­lowed up with a sec­ond book, Comments On The Society of the Spectacle, in 1988. He began the first chap­ter of this slim book with this cheery sen­tence: “These Comments are sure to be wel­comed by fifty or six­ty peo­ple; a large num­ber giv­en the times in which we live and the grav­i­ty of the mat­ter under discussion.”

He went on to speak of ter­ror­ism. In 1988. Democracy, he thought, would cre­ate its own incon­ceiv­able foe. The spec­ta­tors must cer­tain­ly nev­er know every­thing about ter­ror­ism, but they must always know enough to con­vince them that, com­pared to ter­ror­ism, every­thing else must be accept­able, in any case more ratio­nal and democratic.

January 18, 2017

Unaccountably, my thoughts turned back to mem­oir. I thought again of Joelle’s two very dif­fer­ent books, pub­lished more than a decade apart, and won­dered at the art of what she had left out. She hides extreme­ly well, I thought. Mamet’s advice: Come into the sto­ry late and get out ear­ly; tell the sto­ry in the cuts. A thought which trig­gered Adorno’s pre­cau­tion for writers:

One should nev­er begrudge dele­tions. The length of a work is irrel­e­vant, and the feat that not enough is on paper, child­ish. Nothing should be thought wor­thy to exist sim­ply because it exists, has been writ­ten down. When sev­er­al sen­tences seem like vari­a­tions on the same idea, they often only rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent attempts to grasp some­thing the author has not yet mas­tered. Then the best for­mu­la­tion should be cho­sen and devel­oped fur­ther. It is part of the tech­nique of writ­ing to dis­card ideas, even fer­tile ones, if the con­struc­tion demands it. Their rich­ness and vigour will ben­e­fit oth­er ideas at present repressed. Just as, at table, one ought not eat the last crumbs, drink the lees. Otherwise, one is sus­pect­ed of poverty.

January 19, 2017

So, my mom had anoth­er “heart episode” last night, seri­ous angi­na attack. She was very near death, and she knew it. Minutes ago she called me to make sure I under­stood what this means, that her heart is weak and these episodes more fre­quent, and that she may not sur­vive the next one, when it comes, as it sure­ly will. I said to her, “You’re ready, mom. Of all the peo­ple I’ve ever known, and stood vig­il with, I’ve nev­er seen any­one more ready.” And she said, “Oh, do you think so?” And I answered, yes, I did. And then she said, “I am ready. I just want to go.” She took a moment, her breath­ing labored on the phone, and she said, “I just want to see his face.” And I could­n’t tell if she meant the face of G‑d, or her beloved Arnie, gone twen­ty-three years now. And she spoke of Jeanne, her only daugh­ter, gone nine years now. And I thought of the clos­ing scene of the movie Titanic, where Rose, the last to make the jour­ney, cross­es over at last, and is greet­ed by all the pas­sen­gers and crew that pre­ced­ed her. Who’d been wait­ing. A great cloud of wit­ness­es. Left unspo­ken was my broth­er Tommy, who was the first in my fam­i­ly of ori­gin to make this voy­age. Death is a trans­for­ma­tion. Philosophy is prepa­ra­tion for death, I was just say­ing to my stu­dents last night, my phone silenced while my moth­er tried to call to tell me her heart was fail­ing. I missed that call. I don’t know when the next call will come. I will not be ready, but she will be. She’s always been ahead of me. Jeanne and Tommy, too. We are dying in birth order. “I just want to see his face,” she said. The deep long­ing in that short excla­ma­tion. I know I won’t for­get it.

January 20, 2017

However des­per­ate the sit­u­a­tion and
cir­cum­stances, do not despair. When there is
every­thing to fear, be unafraid. When surrounded
by dan­gers, fear none of them. When with­out resources, depend on resource­ful­ness. When sur­prised, take the ene­my itself by surprise.
~ SUN TZU, The Art of War

This is the epi­graph that Guy Debord select­ed for his book.