Sunday, April 20, 2003

Literary Theory
Spinoza vs Descartes

4 articles from the Times. Except for Madonna they're all from Saturday. The meeting described in the first article made the members of the panel seem so pathetic as to approach the obscene. The review of the Madonna exhibition refers to the show as "not art" which is absurd on it's face, regardless of whether the show is any good. [Madonna's collaborator and I share cousins.] The article on Beethoven is a discussion of the history of the interpretations of the 9th Symphony and of the various contradictory causes it's been used, not altogether inappropriately, to support. On Spinoza: It's not so much that emotions play a part in rationality, it's that they play a part in communication. People lie -to others and themselves- and it makes sense we should learn to understand our tricks and games. I've read Colin McGinn. There are things he seems not to understand.

All in all the above add up to a cruel joke, though Edward Rothstein -on Beethoven- and perhaps Madonna seem to be the only ones who get it. I suppose it does come down to Descartes, and the assumption that our conscious minds are in control of our emotions and our bodies. But that's never been true. The absurdity of Chomsky (mentioned in the theory article) is that he has no idea what drives people. He doesn't understand what it is to be bitter and enraged. In a sense he doesn't understand politics at all. How good is a political philosophy that takes no account of the existence of greed? The greedy don't care if their greed is irrational. Roberta Smith writes that Madonna's collaboration with Steven Klein isn't art because she refuses to recognize theater. Vaudeville is cheap theater, but theater is art, and Charlie Chaplin is more important than Pollock. Her snobbery is similar to that of the literary critics who feel the world passing them by and therefore choose to abandon it. Madonna makes something that recognizes its own limitations - it's pop crap- but 'Art' has to be something high and pure: art is not meant to be popular. But Shakespeare was an entertainer.

Contra Descartes (and Chomsky): it's Wolfowitz after all, who thinks he understands what it is he's doing and why. The asshole THINKS he's being moral. Bill Kristol thinks he's being moral as well. [Though I think Kristol is scared] Yet the knowledge that both of them have their heads up their asses doesn't give us the right to assume that our heads will never end up our own asses as well. The ability to criticize does not render us above criticism. As in law, each case is new. That's what intellectuals in this country seem never to understand. They want the conclusion. Modernity [Modernism] seems to recognze absurdity only in order to pretend to overcome it.
No such luck.

The Deep End and the Shallow End.
Why are American intellectuals so removed from the daily life of the country? Is America really so anti-intellectual? Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Joan Didion are the three writers I can think of who cross back and forth. An article on Jurgen Habermas in the NYRB said that he had no equivalent here. Is that only the fault of the people at large? I have no doubt their willful ignorance plays a large part in it. I was touched by the description by the Iraqi doctor of the American female POW we've heard about but who's name I've forgotten [Jessica Lynch]: His affectionate condescension towards her was deeply humane. He called her uneducated, almost innocent. But American intellectuals feel above "the body politic." There is a mind body problem. And it is a very American problem.
The Puritan heritage. The reformist notion of betterment and progress. The present is empty; the only thing that matters is the future. There is no middle class reality: I want to be rich.

The Madonna show wasn't particularly good, but it was interesting to see her interest in Jan Svankmajer. She's not dumb, and for all her self-absorption, sometimes it becomes a subject and not merely a symptom. On Roberta Smith and her impatience with theater: in her appropriately cutting comments on Nan Goldin, she manages to set aside and acknowledge something special about Bjork, who's some sort of genius. Culture is a slippery slope from the high to the low and the sublime to the ridiculous, as morality slides from responsibility to negligence.
From the conscious to the unconscious: our novelists understand this more than our college professors.

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