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.