Empty Days

Saturday, June 19, 2004



Modalities of self-expression

The paradox of course is that there is such over-population not only in purely geo-economic terms but in the traditionally small worlds of arts and fine letters.
Too many people are suddenly participant of an elitist weltanschauung - through the universal education system, no less. And of course the fight for public self-expression finally becomes a matter of economics - how else to regulate the written flow of proliferating verbosity?

I look with horror at my own blog and I laugh at so much print. The only truly saving quality of this orgy of words is of course that it should be so perishable. The more people, the more perishable each and every one. It's the law of nature that what is too much should auto-regulate and fade away.

***

Ambition is really quite secondary in all of this. Some have tremendous drive and finally push to the apex or somewhere nearby, where the circles are tightest. But what about self-expression in all of this? What is this ambition really about?

In the end the question is simple: why on earth seek readership? why try to publish "where it counts"? why sacrifice so much paper in the vain hope of lending some value to the written word? Why - may I ask - must the word be preserved? And whence does it spring from, apres tout?

***

It is an interesting phenomenon. There should be a purpose other than self-assertion, yet it looks all the way as if self-assertion were the driving power behind this quest for the perfect word.

On the other hand, this same drive can very well be expended in conversation - in oral verbosity that generates enough feeback to roll out its never-ending development. Sharing ideas - why not.

Does the printed word aims at the same thing - generating a certain echo, some feedback, an imagined conversation? Or is this nothing but monologuous self-assertion after all?

***

In the end, writing serves to create a world of one's own - full of echoes and resonance, full of ricocheting concerns. A monologue is still a conversation, with oneself - the ideal alter-ego that never really exists.

It appears that in a truly complex world of the inner dialogue, self-assertion through published print simply does not obtain. It is a secondary activity, that may or may not be. Written expression appears as a form of self-sculpture - a collection of thoughts and insights that are destined to clarity. The perfect word seen from the inside is the purest expression of what is at any given time - words give shape to thought. But thoughts are designed to sculpt and incise.

And the sense of mortality cannot prevail on what is at any given time.




LA DÉPRESSION
De la mélancolie à la fatigue d'être soi

Le malheur de vivre a toujours eu partie liée avec la condition humaine. Sous des diagnostics divers - taedium vitae, acédie, mélancolie, neurasthénie - ce sont les mêmes symptômes qui perdurent. On les désigne depuis la moitié du siècle dernier sous le mot de dépression. Terrible et soudaine nuit de l'âme qui s'abat sans coup férir et que chacun redoute. Ses ravages sont d'autant plus considérables qu'ils s'étendent dans une société fragilisée par l'émergence de l'individualisme. Mais la dépression est moins fatale qu'il n'y paraît. Certains psychanalystes en découvrent les bienfaits. Les écrivains en rapportent des témoignages qui sont autant de chefs-d'œuvre. C'est cette connivence entre dépression et création que ce dossier veut mettre en évidence, à travers une sorte de bibliothèque idéale de la déprime.

***

I must disagree with the underlined statement. The problem is not merely some vague "individualism" - the problem is the ant-city, the ant-world, where every human is made to feel not as an individual worth the name but as an ant, an item in a huge insectarium of equals.

The humiliation of being "equal" to a million others is what democracy produces of necessity. Ants are reduced to swallowing appropriate medication - for lack of any other consolation in their inherent mediocrity. But for an individual - the sense of being a true individual is enough of a consolation to sustain the same biochemical gloom. There we can talk of "creation" and all that talented crap. What matters is the sense that a human being is worth more than a handful of euros.

Not only God is dead - the individual is dead too!

***

Incidentally, this reminds me of a tiny episode that probably says it all: I once attempted to put myself "back on track" by taking some courses in whatever new-career (it doesn't really matter which - but it was truck-driving, haha). The courses were free but you had to pass an orientation interview, a very beaurocratic social-services thing, where they tried to determined whether you were fabulating or out of your mind altogether.

The psycho-babbling girl who conducted the interrogation and made me spill out my dire history up to date, was astonished that I should have gone through such lengthy episodes of dire despair "without treatment". She was truly flabbergasted, almost incredulous - how can anyone endure any suffering at all and not "seek help"?

I never realized that people here were so afraid of suffering, so dismissive of it. But the look on that girl's face said it all - indeed, depression in the ant-world is nothing but a medical matter, it's not supposed to exist, it must be "cured" on the spot. All ants must be content ants - or die and perish in the void.




While reading this article on homosexuality in literature, it occured to me that two great russian writers - Tolstoy and Dostoevsky - did not entirely ignore this particular "fact of life". Curiously, their view of the thing does not match (who would have thought?).

Tolstoy is openly contemptuous - in Anna Karenina there is a passing unmerciful depiction of a clearly homosexual couple in officer's uniform: camrades of Alexei Vronsky, the perfectly manly aristocrat.

Dostoevsky meantime describes a young pretty-face homosexual in his House of the Dead - with kindness and some sympathy for his beauty and naive predicament among low-life brutes; he also clearly implies that one of the inmates who was most sincerely loyal to him was likely also "of the same crowd".

Nice, hein? Clearly the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that the former never left the high-mindedness of his privileged position, while the latter has visited Dante's inferno where all of humanity was laid open to him. A humbling experience.




What am I doing?

After the recent crises it seems that I am now practicing something like total-escape - creating an instant-world of my own for the time being, avoiding so-called reality, barely even leaving the flat, and spending all this time on the net - part of instant-world creation.

All this looks too much like a bubble that is bound to burst rather sooner than later. Maybe some neuro-overcompensation after depletion. Just a tide and a wave that will ebb. Then I'll go through the same crisis again, and in truth - what I do hope for is that I am made to suffer so bad I will finally do it and be done with this whole circus.

I don't want to meddle with addictions - the purely artificial paradises and those dubious highs and lows. It doesn't matter morally though - but dependance forces tremendous worry over cash, it's too much of a luxury in my circumstances, and I need freedom, mad tiny freedom, not some shit that passes for gold. I already have my own wild chemistry in any case - no need to enhance this crap.

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There is not much point in living - yet there is not much point in dying either. Which will it be?




Bobok

I am trying to write in French - and I can't. Objectively I can - but subjectively I can't. It's like some sort of a barrier. A wall. Like trying to talk to a wall - it doesn't happen, it doesn't come out, it dies and can't gather impetus.

In short, it's a world closed to me seemingly forever, at least that's how I feel, mentally speaking that particular window is blocked. I don't know why. Because I can and do write with palpable gusto - but only when I feel I am talking to some living audience (on french blogs lately). Then it comes out of its own, it is as if this fictitious yet real yet tiny french living environment authorized me to practice the language at all... Very strange, really. Perhaps I have a serious rejection-complex regarding this whole french thing, traumatic even - except that I am not really aware of it. Perhaps it has to do with my past, and the dynamics of that past, and I need some specific settings to exercise an activity associated with it in the past...

Or - the most interesting hypothesis - maybe my use of French has always been oriented towards showmanship: trying to be something I am not, overcoming my natural face, appearing as better than I know myself to be. And the effort and the pleasure that went with it have thus always been profoundly neurotic... Very likely, this one. For why else would I find no pleasure/stimulus in writing the language without purpose (= without audience)?

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Gangsta in the hood

Well, well, well... No need to go to the movies, it's all happening right under my balcony. Or very nearly so. We just had a nice high-speed police chase through the quiet maze of dead-end streets out here - with the result that a gangsta SUV landed in the thick bushes of the park right across the street and the bad guys escaped over the fence just before the lone police-car got there. Leaving a gun and some loud rap playing inside.

Spectacularly unsuccessful, those cops. Quiet too. I mean, why get all nervous when nobody's actually shooting at you - just escaping over some fence? No bother.

Lucky though this big SUV didn't hit some random car in the process of blowing past all those intersections. But it's quiet here at night. But it's only a matter of good/bad luck anyway. Lucky it was just some bush in the park after all.

And I mean - it *is* a quiet neighbourhood in general outta here. Except that this park marks a sort of a water-line between the middle-class duplex world and the worst gangsta hood in town. And I live just on that very line, in a row of low-life hen-houses in the no-man's land of sorts. I wouldn't cross to other side at night for the life of me. Coz it's dangerous there. It's not that dangerous here. But it's a sort of a gray area, really, crime keeps spilling over here pretty regularly.

Just on the edge - that's basically how I live anyway.

Friday, June 18, 2004



Jeans and moral decline of the West

Went to the dentist today and there was a street-sale from a certain boutique nearby. Jeans at $25 (super-cheap these days). I thought I might finally replace the old pair of pants that is becoming spectacular in its weariness. Unfortunately it was not to be. That absurd boutique cattered to teens and youth, and the goddam jeans they sold turned out to be totally unreliable: who needs awful flimsy polyester-ridden things, pre-fabricated to look worn-out to the thread or even "splashed with coffee" or I don't know what else? Then I decided to take a look inside, at their regular marchandise, and was *shocked* to discover that these shameless bitches sold this same kind of useless shit for $200-$300... to teens - fat-ass, stupid, pimpled, over-done little bitches a la Britney Spears and Co.

It's a disgrace, I say. Flimsy jeans made-in-Turkey that look like shit, at such prices, to such clientele, in a low-middle-class residential area... Just shameless. I've seen this sort of thing in downtown boutiques. But then you know who lives in the downtown - goddam millionairs, Ritz is just around the corner. These over-cashed monsters need to lose their dough somewhere sometime... That's what I figured, at least.

Anyway. What can I say - it's a first, I've never seen such a proliferation of over-priced articles of low-down shit posing as high-fashion for such mediocre clientele.

***

I should mention however that I clearly remember the year when denim prices went sky-high and never came down ever since. Jeans used to be the everyman's pants of choice - sturdy, durable, classic. They looked chic when well-worn - but that meant some hard living has gone into fabric, it wasn't pre-fabricated, it meant something.

What I also remember is that this loss of denim innocence coincided with the onset of globalization - traditional american brands moved their production overseas, many of the classic ones disappeared since in the inferno of the ever-expanding cheap-labor fashion-driven relentless overproduction/overconsumption. Fat little bitches ate the market. Levis is a whore for selling its regular denims at over $70.

What can I say. These little teen brats should have their ass spanked every fucking week - just to get a sense of reality once in a while. As to their papas and mamas and their wads of cash, perhaps we do need a few more Islamic terrorists over here to destabilize the economy. You know, basic values - water-supply is more important than make-up?

Something like that. All this prosperity is starting to look ugly.

And I am on welfare. That shows too.

***

PS. It occurs to me that those hip pseudo-militant "leftist" youths who vociferate against global economy are themselves ass-deep in these same pseudo-fashionable articles of teenhood - maybe, when they do their "sittings", they should first surrender those glamorous pants of theirs: and feel the hard ground with their naked ass.

Jesus.




The egotist

Q. Vous vous sentez moral, gentil et humanitaire?

M.H. Oui, mon admiration naturelle va à la bonté. Je ne mets rien au-dessus, ni l'intelligence, ni le talent, rien. Je viens d'épouser Marie-Pierre pour sa bonté.





La poésie est l'autre versant de la connaissance, elle procède directement de l'émotion, elle est la seule capable de faire percevoir les choses en soi. (M.H.)


Houellebecq and Nietzsche - via Schopenhauer

M.H. obviously spends a lot of time thinking - in full freedom of meditating on what matters (as Lev Shestov once put it in respect to Dostoevsky), and not just pretending to exercise a highly valuable activity or playing abstract games.

I read in some youthful french forum something to the effect that he has no new ideas to offer. Obviously, that was from some science-fiction reader who imagines that inventing all sorts of improbable yet impressive tricks is what thinking is about. Mistaking Houellebecq for a writer of sci-fi is of course laughable. On the other hand, the fact that he shows not the slightest pretension to "serious philosophy" is all to his credit. The supposedly serious stuff we'll leave to the academics - they need to keep their jobs after all. Here's a concise, accurate, and truthful description of this state of affairs:
Q. Peindre des personnages, expliquer des mécanismes, mettre sur la table l'état des connaissances en physique-chimie: n'est-ce pas trop pour un seul homme?

M.H. Le triomphe du scientisme a confisqué au roman le droit naturel d'être un lieu de débats et de déchirements philosophiques. Il y aurait d'un côté la science, le sérieux, la connaissance, le réel et, de l'autre, la littérature, son élégance, sa gratuité, ses jeux formels. C'est pour cela, je crois, que le roman est devenu le lieu de l'écriture pour l'écriture. Comme s'il ne lui restait que ça. Je ne suis pas d'accord et, pour tenir le coup, je me répète souvent cette phrase de Schopenhauer: «La première - et pratiquement la seule - condition d'un bon style, c'est d'avoir quelque chose à dire.
As we all know Nietzsche was first an ardent reader/disciple of Schopenhauer. If you imagine that, when one rejects passions of youth, it never leaves traces - you're wrong. Of course it does. People never change completely - only death operates complete annihilation of what has been.

Therefore, let's see what Nietzsche has to say on pretty much the same subject:
24. L'art pour l'art.— The fight against purpose in art is always a fight against the moralizing tendency in art, against its subordination to morality. L'art pour l'art means: "The devil take morality!"— But even this hostility still betrays the overpowering force of the prejudice. When the purpose of moral preaching and of improving man has been excluded from art, it still does not follow by any means that art is altogether purposeless, aimless, senseless—in short, l'art pour l'art, a worm chewing its own tail.

"Rather no purpose at all than a moral purpose!"—that is the talk of mere passion. A psychologist, on the other hand, asks: what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? choose? prefer? With all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations ... Is this merely a "moreover"? an accident? something in which the artist's instinct had no share? Or is it not the very presupposition of the artist's ability...? Does his basic instinct aim at art, or rather at the sense of art, at life? at a desirability of life?— Art is the great stimulant to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l'art pour l'art?

— One question remains: art also makes apparent much that is ugly, hard, and questionable in life,—does it not thereby spoil life for us?— And indeed there have been philosophers who attributed this sense to it: "liberation from the will" was what Schopenhauer taught as the overall end of art; and with admiration he found the great utility of tragedy in its "evoking resignation."— But this—as I have already suggested—is the pessimist's perspective and "evil eye": one must appeal to the artists themselves.

What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Is it not precisely the state without fear in the face of the fearful and questionable that he is showing?— This state itself is a great desideratum [Wünschbarkeit]; whoever knows it, honors it with the greatest honors. He communicates it, he must communicate it, provided he is an artist, a genius of communication.

Courage and freedom of feeling before a powerful enemy, before a sublime calamity, before a problem that arouses dread—this triumphant state is what the tragic artist chooses, what he glorifies. Before tragedy, what is warlike in our soul celebrates its Saturnalia; whoever is used to suffering, whoever seeks out suffering, the heroic man praises his own being through tragedy—to him alone the tragedian presents this drink of sweetest cruelty. —
Describes rather well what Houellebecq (or any such other) does - as a writer and a "moraliste". Though he'd probably prefer "detachment" to "resignation" - and it is of this overcoming reality that Nietzsche speaks as well. The sweetest cruelty of truth in facing human suffering, relentless honesty in superseding reality without hiding from it. Art-for-art never does that, it can't, it lacks purpose indeed and is a paltry mark of refusal to face up to what matters.

This applies to "scientism" as well: the false self-assurance of certainty that negates the very real drama of human life and hastens to offer dubious yet convincingly flat explanations. Pathetic anti-depressants, discrete crematoriums, ready-made responses to "difficult situations", blank-stares of the learned snobs in their sad tenured arm-chairs... All this is profoundly boring, vile, senseless and ultimately ridiculous. The great all-conquering ideal of a well-reasoned, comfortable, flat, "happy" life - what else can you possibly ask for, oh human?

Needless to say, the kind of "art" that arises from such a world is mostly meaningless. Colorful, seductive, but meaningless and forgettable. And so it should be - like the rest of such a life.

Therefore, glory to the one who can see through the trash and rediscover the human world for us, poor buggers - and share his victory over it.




Future

The snobbism of reading nothing but "great" writers... Yes, indeed. However I simply can't find enough mental energy to worry about "so much else" that is going on while I sleep. I could never really fall for current-cinema, or current-literature, or whatever else that is too time-consuming yet ephemeral. That's partly also why I dropped out of the hi-tech sector - it was too demanding in terms of ever-changing trifles.

Technological progress is indeed a world of trifles. Programmers, computer-designers and others endlessly "update" what they learn - basically forgetting what they had to learn previously because it's already gone and done with. They costantly "read" those horrible fat textbooks full of tiny little data and their geeky brains are fuming with fast-burning numerical trifles. These guys are pretty brainy and pretty busy - producing endless ephemera.

This is their world, the world they rule and shape. A world of ever-burning trash, essentially. In a sense they are slaves of their own success. I wish they had a choice. They don't really. Everything else is "outdated", has no drive, no future. That future is what drives people into hi-tech. I wish they had a choice.

I made the only choice - I dropped out of that world of yours, folks. And I am fighting death as a result. How do you survive without "future"?




Une incroyable franchise

That's from an interview with Houellebecq, the new "enfant terrible" of French letters. But that's a false impression, really - Houellebecq is not an "enfant", despite obviously being an iconoclast of sorts. Incredible sincerity is what passes for "terrible" out there - bad and good sign at the same time. Bad because clearly too much muck rules the waves, good because there is still something to fall back on, and speak some truths. Here's how:
Q. Vous trouvez! Plateforme est tout de même une apologie de la prostitution!
M.H. Ah oui! Mais ça, j'assume à fond parce que je sais que j'ai raison.
"Because I know I am right". And he's right indeed, Michel - that's the only criterium of speaking the truth, even when you're wrong: knowing what you know. All the rest is muck: pretense, false objectivity, pious lies.

However I don't understand why they claim that his books prove particularly shocking to women (though I wouldn't recommend him to my mother... but I thought people like my mom didn't read such books... gotta be different in France). I didn't find anything to rival Sade who never shocked me as much as he made me marvel at his cruel audacity in depicting hidden extremes of human nature. Nothing, except an intelligent attempt to emulate certain subversive procedures of the said writer-terrible.

But let us not forget a certain tongue-in-cheek humour, without which there'd be no Houellebecq to speak of:
M.H. ...Du coup, j'ai une sympathie résiduelle pour le catholicisme, à cause de son aspect polythéiste.
And a certain falsely naive, sad(e) intelligence, otherwise known as common-sense:
M.H. L'islam est une religion dangereuse, et ce depuis son apparition. Heureusement, il est condamné. D'une part, parce que Dieu n'existe pas, et que même si on est con, on finit par s'en rendre compte. A long terme, la vérité triomphe. D'autre part, l'Islam est miné de l'intérieur par le capitalisme. Tout ce qu'on peut souhaiter, c'est qu'il triomphe rapidement. Le matérialisme est un moindre mal. Ses valeurs sont méprisables, mais quand même moins destructrices, moins cruelles que celles de l'islam.

M.H. Les Français se comportent vraiment comme les valets d'une portion de l'Empire. Une autre initiative m'a plongé dans la stupéfaction: ces pétitions faites en France contre la peine de mort aux Etats-Unis. C'est hallucinant! Les Français sont si vaniteux qu'ils ne veulent pas être en dehors de ce qui se passe, et aujourd'hui tout se passe aux Etats-Unis.

Q. Vous n'avez pas l'air d'apprécier ce pays! Pourtant, on vous imagine assez bien leur consacrer un roman.
M.H. Oui, je m'imagine bien aussi. Si j'étais courageux, effectivement, j'irais vivre aux Etats-Unis puisque c'est le pays qui me déplaît le plus. C'est très désagréable... je m'y sens mal tout le temps.
And a certain literary perspicacity, living the written word as an ever-enriching part of reality:
M.H. Cela va dans le sens de l'effet de réel, que j'ai énormément travaillé dans ce bouquin. J'adore quand Dostoïevski mentionne tel ou tel publiciste complètement oublié dans ses romans. J'aime beaucoup lire les notes en fin de chapitre, j'ai l'impression de plonger dans un univers que je ne connaîtrai jamais: la Russie en 1864.

M.H. Mais bon... je ne vis pas pour écrire. Honnêtement. Jusqu'à présent les sujets s'imposent à moi.
And finally - politics of the private individual who knows it's not really worth it as such:
Q. On peut donc vous classer à droite?
M.H. Oh non... Je ne me sens pas non plus de droite, parce que les gens de droite que j'ai rencontrés ne m'ont pas convaincu du bien-fondé de leur supériorité naturelle. Enfin... je suis peut-être de droite au fond. Mais je la trouve trop insolente avec les producteurs. Je n'ai jamais vraiment dépassé cette constatation qu'il y a des gens qui travaillent et d'autres qui ne font rien.

Q. Tout de même, vous tapez davantage sur les idées de gauche que sur les idées de droite.
M.H. Mais il n'y a pas d'idées de droite!
Quite so. Ideologies are the privilege of the intellectual elites (traditionally mostly leftist or extremist), while common-sense is a traditionally conservative credo. Which is why Unabomber's views on the modern world are so similar to Houellebecq's. And this quite despite their apparent differences.

Either way, as these excerpts may show, Houellebecq is really quite an old-style guy. A well-read, unpretensious, pretty smart guy. And talented too - because he has this poetic, essentially romantic fibre in him that is perhaps the necessary sin of all them much-exerted cynics. You won't find this in his interviews but in his better books.

Another reviewer called him a "moralist". I should wonder how you could show any real moral-fiber in your thinking without being indeed a moralist - that is having some sort of integrity in the face of the world, having a view on the world.


The innocence of the critic

Pierre Jourde sounds like an intelligent guy. Apparently he is rather new to the fray and is thus particularly uncompromising and refreshing. A good literary critic needs a healthy dose of naivité - a remote world of his own, as yet unpolluted by too much proximity to the literary mill and its incestuous battles - to cast a new look on things.

Excerpts from an interview, regarding his splashy Littérature sans Estomac:
Je ne connais pas bien, au fond, le monde de la littérature contemporaine - du moins jusqu'à présent.
...
Puis le livre est né du rassemblement de ces articles, avec une réception à laquelle je ne m'attendais pas tout à fait. Ca ne relevait pas, je le répète, de l'ordre de l'impudence. Si au départ une idée a présidé ce livre, c'était celle d'une réflexion sur la littérature et qui passait par différents modes d'expression.
...
J'aime surtout bien m'amuser et je dois avouer m'être bien amusé à écrire de la critique.
...
En partie, je crois que certains textes de mauvaise qualité sont issus de gens dont le rapport au problème qu'est la littérature me semble insuffisant. Dans le cadre du "document humain", il y a quelque chose de plus général qui renvoie au social. C'est le symptôme de la société occidentale qui est de considérer que la singularité individuelle vaut en soi, quelle qu'elle soit. Chacun devient intéressant, quoiqu'il ait à dire. Cette idée, au départ, n'est pas fausse si nous considérons tout individu comme un monde, un univers ; le problème est que la littérature -c'est une vertu que nous pourrions lui accorder- a pour but de rendre problématique cette question de l'individualité et de la singularité. La littérature est bien plus que de la représentation ; et la création et la lecture sont un apprentissage du dépassement de l'individualité car elle risque sans cesse d'être un effondrement sur soi-même. C'est pourquoi je pense que l'esthétique du document humain est une esthétique de l'appauvrissement qui se base sur la valeur de l'individu. La Littérature sans estomac répète simplement que la littérature est cet apprentissage du dépassement de tout ce qui peut être considéré comme un donné : le donné psychologique, le donné du réel et celui du langage. On devient véritablement écrivain à partir du moment où la littérature devient l'apprentissage de la perte du dépassement de ces donnés. L'écrivain, telle est ma conception, se plonge dans le langage par haine du langage, comme il se plonge dans lui-même par haine de lui-même et dans le réel par haine du réel. Son travail consiste en cette tentative de sauter toujours au-delà, sans forcément y parvenir toujours. Proust le dit très bien dans la sonate de Vinteuil : "créer en soi le vide". Ce vide crée en nous l'espace ou peut descendre la grâce, où tout ce donné puisse être, non pas derrière, mais devant nous, tel un réel qui se créera sans cesse.
Incidentally, the english translation of the title would be "Gutless Literature". Splashy, angry, true also. I think what happens in France these days is the same thing that's always been true in America - where book-publishing is as much of an industry as it is industrious. When literature is being over-run by wholly commercial considerations, it is no more "littérature" but simply "book-publishing" - whatever print on paper. The old literary establishment in France is trying to agglomerate this mercantile modus operandi into their habitual modus literatus - and is effectively creating a monster: lending undue reputation to whatever happens to drive sales up.

And we're talking big sales here - France *is* the literary land par excellence, populated by traditionally voracious book-readers. The problem is that the general public is being fed trash because "most people" prefer trash in any case - whereas "littérature" can never cater to the populace. Democracy of taste should not apply here.

In other words, when money-making industry becomes the real force behind the machine, we get the very american "two thumbs up" dynamic - undue, indiscriminate, commercially-motivated praise, posing as bona fide critique. In France this model should not apply. But it does now. Jourde is decrying the selling-out of literature as nothing but a publishing device. He's right of course. But I wonder how they could manage to avoid this unholy effect these days...

People are selling out for a reason - because that's the system now, the big capital drives the big machine, and it's spinning ever-faster with every decade (haven't you noticed, dears?). Creating a counter-movement ("restoration" actually, rather than underground and such) would make sense only if it matters to enough people to support it. Yet France is as commercialized and basically careless as any other western country these days. Perhaps the best these protesters can do is go on the net and do it for free - because they won't be able to finance their counter-punch, least of all revive the french literary life in the face of the big-money leviathan. Not in the long-run, I am afraid.

Thursday, June 17, 2004



Oh mon Dieu
Guide des résidences d'écrivains en Europe

Sur l'initiative de la Maison du Livre et des Ecrivains de Montpellier publication avec les Presses du Languedoc du

Guide des résidences d'écrivains en Europe bilingue (français/anglais) - 20 €

Ce guide recense près de 180 résidences d'écrivains réparties entre 88 régions dans 27 pays d'Europe.

Outre les informations d'ordre pratique (conditions, modalités, perspectives), il donne, pour chacune d'elle, une brève description de son environnement.
On the same shelf as the youth-hostel guides, no doubt. And then they lament that so much drivel passes for litterature these days. Tourisme stylistique? But it's so old-Europe it's almost lovely.


French power

Reading so much grand-style French online is starting to get to me. In the sense that it opens an old chamber full of ghosts I thought were long defunct and done with. Nops - it's all there still, laying in wait so to speak, for me to fall into that ancient wonderfully warm vast morass again... The lasting echoes of youth, I suppose.

Especially the pleasure of language - which gives me a yearning to emulate and manipulate, a sort of sculpture class really, where you get yours hands dirty with all the abandonment of childhood revived. I didn't get that urge while reading Houellebecq because he deals in thinking, ideas, not styling - not arts & crafts. The man is a philosopher masquerading as a fiction writer - while most of these endless french style-mongerers merely masquerade as thinkers, when their main pleasure is palpably a matter of handling language (with them it drives thought rather than vice-versa: critics are rarely ever philosophers in any true sense of the word, let alone poets - I know this applies to me, in the way I operate at least).

But let us not diminish the pleasure of fine wordsmithing. It is contageous, it is inspiring, it drives some fine life through the neurons. Very opportune at the moment. I had the hardest time finding an online french dictionary that I could incorporate into my browser for one-click definition of obscure words (while there are hundreds of such services for english, and thousands of obscure words in french - the technological power and wealth of America makes France look like some backward little hamlet - but they speak and write better out there, for that same reason, it seems). Finally I had to opt for a an easy-to-use dictionnaire des synonymes instead of bona fide definitions - no matter, that way I'll learn even more words in a single click.

However, I would like to mention that in France too they are finally attempting to use the internet for something other than shopping and chatting. They're very late to the game, but better late than never. Renegade critics of the super-tight parisian literary establishment are creating their own websites and online associations - they're bringing their brilliant polemics to the internet, it's afire with bile and pain and long sharp tools of murder. Lovely, just lovely.
To think that in the olden days you had to actually buy the goddam paper cahier or what not to get a taste. Well, what can I say - it serves me well, I who cannot go to a neighbourhood La Fnac to leaf through the thing...

Yet I can't say I much regret not living in Paris.




I've slept through the day (having passed a white night) and the force of my lust for sleep was so great I could not wake up even when they used heavy-duty machinery in the flat above - they came to polish the floors. Perhaps I need extreme fatigue to combat offensive noises.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004



Solitary

Fireworks. Probably a private party. I could go on the roof and watch. Not tempted enough.

***

To every judgement one may oppose an opposite judgement. And both will be true. What people are made of and what prevails.

***

The irresistible temptation of the frustrated is to rebel. Then rebellion becomes consacrated and loses its meaning. Frustration skews opinion - one is always ready to oppose. Even if his causes are worthless, he will choose to defend them - marginality, the hunted underdog, still a manner of status.

The lies that are born out of this are prodigious. But one is blind as to what drives him. It all becomes clear in retrospect - yet shame is not an option. Original frustration is eternally vindicated.

Errors of youth.

***

While aphorisms may seem like a winning formula it is actually the natural style of the tired mind. And why bother with lengthy explanations? Indeed.

***

I have yet to read one review that does any sort of justice to Houellebecq. That says: it's very good and here's why. Instead they're trying him tediously in the open court of public injustice - defenders or accusers, but none a reader.

Perhaps reader reviews are not written by critics.

***

Where will you choose to go today?
I'll stay home.

***

Samuel Beckett has a striking face. His prose cannot compete.


ambition and intelligence

I've seen unbounded ambition up close. Not the sort that brings out the best in you - rather the sort that brings out a monster. A certain crude will to power masquerading as highly intellectual aspirations.

I've also seen how this open doors and clears the way - effectively breaks down doors and leaves a trail of unheeded breezy destruction in its wake. This is the manner of the parvenu. Especially in intellectual, literary circles as I've seen in France.

Sometimes an individual may indeed possess uncanny intelligence. Yet, this animal baboon will to push forth quickly makes native intelligence into an instrument of either contemptuous intrigue or ruthless domination. Such a man may still aspire to integrity and some human generosity - yet, his ambition is too visceral to leave any space for true intellectual honesty, the one that urges: "back off".

Curiously, such people usually make a show of holding deep convictions and even nothing less than a secret key to the universal truth. This blinds them and effectively high-jacks their natural intelligence. They become narrow-minded and fatuous while still showing uncanny mental flexibility.

Perhaps this is the way to power - when power does not come naturally.

Clearly, all this leads to quite some bombast and outrageously sanguine pretense. In purely psychological terms this would reveal a deep-sitted lack of confidence that hides behind a parade of facile "truths". In other words, such a man simply makes a great pile out of stale yet traditionally revered beliefs and sits on it like some tribal king on his sacred hill (Wittgenstein's simile). Innovation and true intellectual openness appear as the ultimate danger. Such people are generally extremely conservative - and harbor a host of idols that they admire and recognize as their only judges. In the end the best idol is God.

Peut-on lire de la théologie tout en écrivant un roman?

Anything goes.




Why I learned Italian instead of German, oh why

E continua, curvata da una lingua non semplicissima, altrettanto splendidamente. Murphy, personaggio indolente, apatico, principe della speculazione filosofica e dialettica, ne è il centro. Per meglio dire i suoi pensieri, il suo grottesco agire è oggetto di una stramba indagine antropologica condotta dallo stesso protagonista e dai personaggi che lo circondano.

The only word I do not understand: stramba.

It is a roman language and all I have to do is read aloud in my mind, to overrun unfamiliar spelling of very familiar, perfectly french words. It is syntax that I really had to learn.

If I knew German I would vaguely understand nearby languages, such as Dutch or even Swedish. That part of Europe remains off bounds mentally. But my Romance vocabulary makes me more European than I could ever bargain for otherwise.

Russian and English are escapes.

I applied terrific personal effort to master English when I was already in my 20's (and I am clearly aware of how imperfect my writing skills really are in that language - a third language never quite sets in). To escape French and the dead-end that it represented outside of France. As a second language my French never quite developped to fully take root. All in all, I could say that I really "lived in French" for no more than a decade and likely less. Russian, meantime, remained the anchor-tongue of family and lost past, in which I would take inevitably passive refuge when everything else failed. And it failed continually.

One does not "learn" languages - one grows into a language and language grows into one. The process of learning requires active mental participation in the cultural field the language is rooted in. If this field is perceived as closed and refusing further growth, the language loses meaning and become a dead burden. Becomes a "dead language", in fact - known only objectively, from outside, and offering no inner purpose.

Having learned Latin and some Ancient Greek I well know the difference between life and death.

Nietzsche knew it too (in the most restricted linguistico-cultural sense I am trying to make here).

Here I should like to mention Dostoevsky's instinctive insistence on the importance of knowing one's maternal language well (Writer's Diary) - he spoke against the awful blindness of the Russian upper class who educated their children in european languages and entirely neglected their maternal tongue. This is a great writer and thinker who speaks of what he knows intimately - how language relates to culture and how this relationship shapes mind and soul. Forms of intelligence themselves are affected. Pure logic simply does not exist.

I never forgave the anonymous official at my high-school who forced me to grind through 5 years of Spanish instead of German - I skipped a year in my early adolescence and were too young to be consulted on which options to choose during that mechanical switch in destiny.

Destiny is an unfathomable, blind machine - it grinds you and makes you take routes you would rather have avoided.

Luckily, all this hash ends up in the cemetery.




Serendipity

Yesterday, in my nostalgico-meditative mood, switched on the tv set (after days of complete abandonment) and immediately ran into a double documentary feature: on French families who come to Quebec and then find they can't adapt for reasons of cultural flatness here; and on self-taught achievers who make it in their field of interest without any diplomas or higher education.

Talk about coincidence - that's exactly what I've been rummaging about lately.

Perhaps it's a strange illusion but I've long noticed that this sort of precisely aimed resonance of seemingly random nature tends to occur every time I open up on an inner perspective of some sort. It is as if I tap in into something vital - and get a perfectly opportune response, at random.

Uncanny but true.


Definition

The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.
The fact or occurrence of such discoveries.
An instance of making such a discovery.

We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which his literary reputation primarily rests. [...] He explained that this name was part of the title of “a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of....”




Silence

Good God - it's so terribly simple, and yet impossible.

When I walk out on my balcony at dawn and the city is still dormant and there are no people in the streets, no cars, no human sounds, and I see the sun and the birds and the greenery - I am happy.

I could be nearly perfectly happy if only I lived somewhere where there is no humanity for miles around. If I could have some space of my own, a spot of land. Some freedom from the sight of the world, pure and simple.

It's impossible.

I tell myself it's only an illusion - but I am lying.

***

Every day I am experiencing the huge improvement absence of human noise constitutes. Neighbours upstairs moved out end of May and this unhoped-for silence opens up nothing less than a new dimension - of inner/outer space. It gives me strength.

I know this will end on the 1st of July - and another year of hell will begin.


Eyes wide shut

This must be abnormal yet I wish I could be that way more often (all the time in fact, while in practice it only happens once in a while - rarely). I mean: self-sufficiency. Mean lean thinking-machine. It is true that I am actually talking to myself here, the mirror thing. Ditched comments, ditched statistics, complete disconnection, perfect equilibrium - producing my own oxygen.

But that also means openness - I am sucking in everything that might serve as food for thought, of whatever variety. How can it be that a spirit mirroring itself should be such a voraciously polyvalent beast? Isn't it supposed to be the other way around - when you see nothing but yourself? In fact what happens is that you see yourself in everything (Nietzsche described this with great precision, as the ego-monger he was).

It's a sort of all-seeing blindness.

The need to communicate does not arise. What arises is the need to impart. Were I less of a wreck on the whole, I could perhaps make a pretty good pedagogue. Or maybe literary critic. Shit like that, monologous. Not a writer though - that part requires quite a bit more than mere intelligence (something a lot of the French never understand and keep publishing all manner of smart crap posing as fiction - though I understand they enjoy themselves immensely in the process: writing seen as yet another act of pleasure).

At this time I am indeed rather content that I did not go all the way with that cyanide project recently. Heh. Not that I would have regretted it - one doesn't wake up to regrets, one doesn't wake up at all. Regrets are for the living. So I really have nothing to regret re potential self-killing - either now or in the future. Suffering is hardly anything to worry about.

What is curious however is that intellectual matters should procure such complete satisfaction that I forget worrying about all of my other drives and lacks and dire impossibilities and little daily pains. In fact, daily pains are being reduced to a minimum since I barely even find time to leave the appartment - too busy absorbing and meditating. No human contact outside of the purely fleeting. I don't notice people these days. Self-absorption (or whatever it is my mind is brimming with).

It's a nice state. I have two explanations: either it's a biochemically determined phenomenon that I can't possibly regulate or even apprehend except for living it as it is - or I've momentarily found a sort of gap in the wall of time and opened up on an inner perspective. I am breathing through it, and it gives me the space I need to be without heed. It's called inner freedom, I think - which is a metaphora for wide horizons and open air. I don't want people crapping on my space, which is why there is no yearning for communication.

The breach in the wall gotta close up sometime - it's fragile and I'd rather enjoy it fully while it lasts.

Fragile ego - an eye without lid.




Beauty in French

Ludivine Sagnier

The name "Ludivine" comes from Jean d'Arc times - old Franc stock. I wonder why it is those european babes should look so ravagingly intelligent - compared to the dumb-bimbo ideal on this side of the ocean? I guess there is deep meaning here somewhere.

I don't like that meaning but it's there.




I might be slightly bi-polar after all (not enough to go on lithium, unfortunately) - the amount of mental energy and emotional response I seem to generate these days is suspiciously high. Especially in view of months and months of total depletion and seething darkness.

It's always been like that - turbo bursts of energy and long periods of effective death. I should consider some medication perhaps, yet I am afraid I might then lose even these periods of elation for something of a uniformly unproductive stability.

Do I really want peace and quiet?


State-of-the-world philosophy

Finished Houellebecq's book - Particules Elémentaires. Once again I am amused to discover that those wonderful reviewers got it massively wrong: there is no "futuristic glimpse of hope" in the finale. The way out it imagines is a very simple and dignified development - universally accepted Roman suicide of a civilization. Conscious solution to a natural dead-end. Peace be with you, world of pained humanity.

It has been noted that authors are inclined to kill their characters when their line is spent and reaches its fictional completion. In Houellebecq, western civilization itself is one of the main characters - and it is made to die a logical death. This is a philosophical statement in a century-long debate - not a utopian/dystopian fantasy.

As I've hinted before, Houellebecq operates a sort of coming-out of the science-fiction as a literary (and, most importantly, philosophical) sub-genre into the world of great european literature. He is neither Stanislav Lem nor Philip.K.Dick - but neither is he a George Orwell. This is a first, I think. But it's also well-known that great novels are made of a fusion of existing genres. Dostoevsky used purely romantic/or melodramatic novel (Dickens, Dumas) and freely threw it into the mix: his novel of ideas.

"Novel" comes from "new".

And Houellebecq knows very well what he's doing - he's doing philosophy, since fiction apparently represents the only free space left for any sort of authentic critical thinking these days (science-fiction lent some parking space for a while). Sweepingly exaggerated yet essentially accurate description of the said state of affairs, under the guise of sci-fi:
L'objectif était bien entendu, par le maintien d'un nombre d'individus uniquement divisible par lui-même et par l'unité, d'attirer symboliquement l'attention sur ce danger que représente, au sein de toute société, la constitution de regroupements partiels; mais il semble bien qu'Hubczejak ait introduit cette condition dans le cahier des charges sans le moins du monde s'interroger sur sa signification. Plus généralement, sa lecture étroitement positiviste des travaux de Djerzinski devait l'amener à sous-estimer constamment l'ampleur du basculement métaphysique qui devais nécessairement accompagner une mutation biologique aussi profonde - une mutation qui n'avait, en réalité, aucun précédent connu dans l'histoire humaine.

Cette méconnaissance grossière des enjeux philosophiques du projet, et même de la notion d'enjeu philosophique en général, ne devait pourtant nullement entraver, ni même retarder sa réalisation. C'est dire à quel point s'était répandue, dans l'ensemble des sociétés occidentales comme dans cette fraction plus avancée représentée par le mouvement New Age, l'idée qu'une mutation fondamentale était devenue indispensable pour que la société puisse se survivre - une mutation qui restaurerait de manière crédible le sens de la collectivité, de la permanence et du sacré. C'est dire aussi à quel point les questions philosophiques avaient perdu, dans l'esprit du public, tout référent bien défini.

Le ridicule global dans lequel avaient subitement sombré, après des décennies de surestimation insensée, les travaux de Foucault, de Lacan, de Derrida et de Deleuze ne devait sur le moment laisser le champ libre à aucune pensée philosophique neuve, mais au contraire jeter le discrédit sur l'ensemble des intellectuels se réclamant des "sciences humaines"; la montée en puissance des scientifiques dans tous les domaines de la pensée était dès lors devenue inéluctable.

Même l'intérêt occasionnel, contradictoire et fluctuant que les sympathisants du New Age feignaient de temps à autre d'éprouver pour telle ou telle croyance issue des "traditions spirituelles anciennes" ne témoignait chez eux que d'un état de détresse poignant, à la limite de la schizophrénie. Comme tous les autres membres de la société, et peut-être encore plus qu'eux, ils ne faisaient en réalité confiance qu'à la science, la science était pour eux un critère de vérité unique et irréfutable. Comme tous les autres membres de la société, ils pensaient au fond d'eux-mêmes que la solution à tout problème - y compris aux problèmes psychologiques, sociologiques ou plus généralement humains - ne pouvait être qu'une solution d'ordre technique. C'est donc en fait sans grand risque d'être contredit qu'Hubczejak lança en 2013 son fameux slogan, qui devait constituer le réel déclenchement d'un mouvement d'opinion à l'échelle planétaire: " LA MUTATION NE SERA PAS MENTALE, MAIS GENETIQUE."
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Is this bad philosophy? But then you'd have to remember Dostoevsky and Tolstoy - not quite what you study next to Plato in your 101 philosophy class, but somehow it never really matters what you study in school. Liberal arts and free thought are not an academic prerogative, should not and were never intended to be. And so Houellebecq does it all on his own, to his natural measure and without undue pretense. Kant and Nietzsche need not turn in their graves. But it's the kind of thinking that makes you think - and it's been long absent from our mental skyline, it seems to me.

I might be very wrong (due to the force of first impression) but I don't think I've read anything of that stature in a very very long while. Given my general disconnection from current literature and culture in general, I am not aware of whatever might have passed in the meantime. But I doubt that it was anything of much note. Hundreds if not thousands of books are published every year that are of "some note". They make a splash, they populate best-seller lists, they win prizes and are "widely acclaimed" - for a million of reasons, 90% of them commercial and thus vacuous.

The popularity of Houellebecq does not impress me. In fact it is only due to this wide notoriety that I was able to access this writer at all - and this is the informational value of hype for me. What is popular is not always good. What is good better be popular - otherwise I won't find out about it and miss out on something I was looking for all along. Some meaningful words, some true thought, some sense, some humanity.

[ Visitors who can't read French are invited to use automatic online-translators to get the gist of it ]

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

The value of praise

Sometimes I have to wonder what is the real intent and value of praise - and how it is different from flattery, or not.

In all personal praise there seems to be an unconscious element of subjugation. Submitting someone to your high opinion. As opposed to adulation perhaps. The irritant factor in adulation is of course the high standard it imposes on the other. Oftentimes the reaction is expressed in false modesty or contempt - which is a mode of self-defense.

Flattery is similar in its subjugating effect. It is also more slovenly and self-serving than sober praise, which is purposefully distant and thus colder, striving for impersonal objectivity to stave off the irritatingly intimate undertone of flattery.

At the same time, I've noticed that people who are open to flattery - rejoice in it and find it sustaining - are naturally inclined to flatter beyond reason. It is something instinctive, perhaps an attempt to draw sympathy. The same kind of sympathy they experience towards those who praise them. An attempt at intimacy.

It seems that the more subtle expression of high opinion is the oblique, egalitarian approach. A response and a dialogue rather than overt praise. Then there is the sincere, on the spot reaction, the most natural of all - and often the most selfish.

***

One indubitable observation is that praise is best accepted from a recognized authority - a seasoned actor praising a debutant's first performance; respected teacher praising a student's effort. The effect is then entirely positive and elating. A consecration of value.

At the same time a fan writing an inspired message to a celebrated writer, or applauding a singer etc, is also a praise taken in good faith. But here the object of praise is protected by higher status and accomplished influence - such fan reaction is then expected and pleasing.

This simply does not obtain between equals. Praise disturbs equality - by elevating without authority. The tactfully correct approach would remove praise altogether or coat it in enough humour to negate that effect.

***

Another notorious observation is that many prominent artists (that is people whose performance is not dependant on any objective value beyond opinion) refuse to read reviews of their work - positive just as much as negative. You might wonder why. I suppose once you know your value as expressed in wide influence, critics'
opinion becomes superfluous - it neither adds nor substracts value. Or status.

One somewhat comical example is President Bush who openly admits to not consulting media opinion as to his actions - since, in his eyes, the value of his decisions is beyond (public) dispute. A president has no cause to doubt his status as a policy-maker (however this attitude only applies to hostile inferiors, like the press).

***

Nietzsche is curious is that he is so pompously liberal in bestowing both praise and contempt on about everything that falls under his eye. Another interesting sign is that he uses the "royal we" to emit opinions. Clearly, this false multiplicity helps create a sense of assured value to his pronouncements (see Unabomber pretending to speak for a group - the "royal we" for universality of expressed ideas).

He was also notoriously susceptible to praise and intimate flattery (as follows from his letters and his friendship with "disciples" - Paul Rée, most notably). Seemingly recognizing no other authority than himself, he vigorously pursued validation through agreement (seeking like-minded individuals) and violently rejected any sort of detraction and doubt.

In the end, it might be said that Nietzsche had a very great and very fragile ego - the focal point of all his thinking (will to power). Perhaps this is what makes his philosophy so current even today - in a world of disconnected individuals.

***

In short, praise is one of the more forceful forms of judgment, to be used with caution. Judge not lest ye be judged - or pay the price.


Houellebecq Dantec or what the heck

I am still rummaging through the violently small world of french literary debates - through the internet, safely removed thousands of miles away from my candid shores.

First of all, there is this cute phenomenon of disgruntled neo-conservative Europeans moving to Amerika and then immediately building up a stupid alternative idol out of this neverland they still think is the answer to their local woes. Holy mama. I just found out about a certain Maurice Dantec - and immediately thought of our blogoesque Andrew Sullivan. While one is French and the other British, it is uncanny to what extent their ideas are similar - and simplistic. Houellebecq, vastly more intelligent, is content to find temporary refuge in the nearby Ireland or Spain.

Reaction means "reacting" - usually a vomiting reflex. The logic of disgust certainly does not hold a great deal of positive thought. Hence simplistic, and mostly vitriolic, aberrations of the freshly departed.

I can't understand why they keep comparing Houellebecq to Celine. While the latter had certainly some major verve and a strident, hainous voice (the number of exclamation marks in his voluminous prose is an artefact of arts and letters), Houellebecq is much more pensive - universally chagrined rather than mortally offended. The man is a pessimist of the best variety. Celine is something worse than a pessimist (the fact that he was a dedicated antisemite, while Houellebecq is a reluctant racist, is indicative of a vastly different inner direction).

In other words, the difference between what I persist to call a "proto-fascist" (Houellebecq) and a full-blown fascist (Celine) is more than simply a difference of degree - about as vast a difference as, say, between Unabomber the killer-philosopher, and Nietzsche - the killing-philosopher.

As Houellebecq ironically put it in some article: "I am scared I might agree with Dantec" (who is a fool and a big mouth - and has some audience).

But of course, in Paris-oh-Paris of today they're indeed a bit too myopic to bother about such nuances. Too much ideological straight-playing (a.k.a political correctness) makes you blind to anything other than black-and-white, yes-or-no pronouncements. They accuse Houellebecq of being an agent provocateur, a brewer of scandals. While the true scandal is that they actually find him so very scandalous they can't see past the goddam "scandal". All it says in the end is that the man touches a nerve - has them by the balls - they like it not, and yet have not much else to say except to call him a racist and a fascist - which, unfortunately for the detractors, is nothing but slander.

Bad, bad Houellebecq.

Which reminds me of a pretty similar episode of "15-seconds notoriety" I had on this very blog in my recent politico-venting period. This is what happened: I wrote some pretty excited post with all the solitary high-color I usually permit myself in this desert here, and linked to some shit on the big Volokh Conspiracy blog. Of course it's run by jewish neocon lawyers and that's precisely how I described the link. The next day, to my immense surprise, I found that Volokh the lawyer has written a lengthy rebuke to my post on his big blog. It mostly consisted in portraying me as a rabid antisemite (potentially murderous, of course) - I got huge traffic from that little lawyerly calumny.

But hell - imagine if I tried to be as candid in the big press as I am permitting myself to be here... And hell - that's what Houellebecq is doing after all, being candid in the big press. The amount of vitriolic slander and actual law-suits he's been getting is uncanny. Hence - temporary exile(s). However, his popularity is not due to these scandals. It's due to the obvious truthfulness and depth of his writing. He touches a nerve - and maybe even the whole nervous system of his time and place.

Houellebecq is not just about France and its petty ideologies. It's about the state of the world as we know it - all of us, westerners. And while both Celine and Houellebecq are writers of evident disgust, their protest assumes very different forms. I am tempted to suggest that Houellebecq is actually a better, deeper writer than Celine... though the weight of literary tradition will probably make this sound preposterous. But let us wait and see. Time will tell - as it did for Nabokov, with his "scandalous" little Lolita.




Biography: Michel Houellebecq naît le 26 février 1958 à La Réunion. Son père, guide de haute montagne, et sa mère, médecin anesthésiste, se désintéressent très vite de son existence. Une demi-soeur naît quatre ans après lui. A six ans, il est confié à sa grand'mère paternelle, qui est communiste et dont il a adopté le nom comme pseudonyme. Il vit à Dicy (Yonne), puis à Crécy-la-Chapelle. Interne au lycée Henri Moissan de Meaux ;déjà ses camarades sentaient qu'il avait une capacité de réflexion et une puissance d'analyse, un recul sur les évènements tout à fait exceptionnels pour un garçon de son âge. On le surnommait "Einstein".

Heh. They also called me "Einstein" at school (while some preferred "Frankenstein"). Either way, I suspect it's a common nickname for many little kids of apparent "capacity of understanding and analytical power". Then life takes on its inevitable course and things start falling apart. Or maybe not. It's a lottery - and some win big, and most win not.

I am grateful Houellebecq got a good ticket. This way I can read his stuff now. And what if he too were not to be? Losers need some winners at least - it's the sole excuse to carry on for the rest of us low-downs.

Not emulation - gratitude, folks.

Monday, June 14, 2004



My friendships and what it says about me

I have two friends whom I rarely see, but it's the kind of natural loyalty that does not require frequent contact - 10 years from now I might emerge from nowhere, with a scarred face or no face at all, and will be met with the same smile of recognition. And vice-versa.

People who bond over instant recognition of a soul strangely familiar - never lose each other. This might be true in love, this is certainly true in friendship. In actuality, this is the only meaningful grounds for mutuality. It is neither generosity nor keen interest nor even shared ideas. Ideas change, so do ways and means.

***

Case in point is the friend I met in New York - literally on the street, literally by pure chance, for no possible reason other than instant recognition of natural affinity. She walked up to me to ask for an indication where to find a place to eat something other than junk-food. I offered to lead her to an Italian cafe-restaurant I knew (I know Manhattan fairly well - or used to at least) and share her table.

The other friend I met in Paris in the metro - exact same gratuity of circumstances. It was her initiative to approach me in the dense crowd - I was reading a book that meant volumes to her. I believe I followed her to her station, disregarding my own destination.

***

Thus, hasard or God's will brought about lasting friendships, something I could never quite arrange of my own effort. I am timid and reclusive - too low down on myself to look out for friends. And what do I have to share other than my insignificant person?

It is not quite fear of rejection. It's just that I fundamentally do not conceive of myself as having something to offer. If I did, then perhaps fear of rebuke would arise. But I am not sure - I've never known such a state.

***

The friend I met in New York holds convictions that are far removed from my own. She's your typical progressive, a righteous leftist of the bobo variety, sharing in the ideological wonders of postmodernist academia, dreaming of a just world where no stone will be left unturned for the good of some generic humanity. In short, she's a militant believer - and our early conversations usually resulted in her wincing indignation at my uncouth opinions.

I was invited to her subsequent wedding which gathered a rich variety of the most prominent types of her milieu - sex-operated butch lesbians, activist lawyers, ivy-league cultural studies delegates, New York cafe-intellectuals.

Of course there was the old generation - simple immigrant working people on her side; very rich working people on his. An odd mix. And then of course a sparkling of uncolorful vague monads such as myself indeed.

It was too strange to bear for long. I ended up taking refuge in solitary walks along the water-line (there was a lake - very nice Connecticut countryside - I still have the beach shells). Curiously enough, the only character I managed to sympathize with was one of the immigrant workers. A peasant and a loner among his people - mutely yet perceptibly intelligent. In short, an authentic human who knew no English. Conversation remained mostly in potentiality but sympathy is hardly a thing needing words.

In later years it appeared that I could not really communicate with her husband. A very nice yet peacefully unintelligent academic of the successful variety. Our meetings became rare and then dwindled to no meetings at all. Marriage is a social entreprise - and a refuge from self.

***

My other friend is that philosophy Ph.D. I keep referring to. She too leads an actively social academic life but her outlook is clearly conservative. I am tempted to call it - conformist. Preserving good relations with the dominant milieu while avoiding mingling in losing debates. She was momentarily swept into a feminist discussion-group and started wavering (militant ideologies are extremely convincing yet vacuous) but all this went away when she too married yet another academic, twice her age and thrice her conservatism.

I was invited to yet another marriage and witnessed yet another crowd of unfamiliar types. This time it was either potential tenure-hunters or people contentedly making their living in a variety of mildly artistic occupations such as computer-networking, computer-design, cinema, and pretty much whatever else. Just your classic middle-class vaguely intellectual city dwellers.

It is interesting to observe that even this choice of disparate humanity did not offer any glimpse of possible affinity. In the end common cultural language is the only thing that facilitates recognition. In a sea of placid conformity to an unthinking process of median life nothing ever emerges that might strike a spark beyond mere commonality of backgrounds.

In short, the milieu my friend inhabits is a very boring one - and this is what I am constantly confronted with in my own surroundings in any case. This is what people are like here. I wish them well but would rather walk away. And so I do.

***

Curioso. Both my friends are great lovers of fine restaurants. This is something I could never fully comprehend - this level of passion for subtle food. I am invited, I share, I enjoy - and then I forget. The joys of life are social joys. I suppose a habit of fine eating is a social habit, a symbol of something - perhaps status. I doubt it's nothing but appetite for variety. It's also a mimicking of the old bourgeois grand-life tradition. And thus a myth.

Compared to which I am something of an ascetic. I would clearly give away every last shred of comfort for a good cause. The problem is that I never had access to such a cause.

Oftentimes I think of Georges Orwell and his first-hand explorations of the life of the homeless. I understand that - I could do it to, if such exercises in frugality ever had any sort of meaning for me. The hungry artist in the attic and all that. But I am no artist and I live without purpose.

***

I have little to talk about with either of these friends. But we understand each other. I think there are some deep similarities of character and general outlook on life, quite beyond the apparently unmatching sets of ideas.

I think it has something to do with the strength of character - and thus integrity, and thus a certain depth of intelligence that originates from and defines will. This is not IQ talk, of course.

My New York friend is probably the most intelligent and also the most tortured. Her thought is amazingly supple, casuistically oblique and insightful. She is a great self-analyzer and a deep delicate psychologist. If perchance she had had any sort of self-confidence she'd be an astonishingly able commentator of literary and other texts (I was swept away by what I was given to read from her ever-unfinished papers). Instead she's so marred in depression and anxiety that climbing the academic ladder spoils all her creative abilities - if only she could dare do all she does *outside* academia. But then she'd probably figure it to be worthless drivel. A hopeless case. She reminds me of Blaise Pascal - without his strength of conviction.

My philosophy Ph.D. friend is on the contrary possessed with an all-devouring productivity and uncanny sense of organization and synthesis. She's the most openly willful of the three. Her intelligence is cuttingly clear and almost scientifically precise. She cuts right to the heart of whatever body of thought she is presented with - and her commentary is without compromise as to ostensible implications. However her intelligence is largely descriptive. She does not seem to have any will to go beyond what is and hint at what might be. Perhaps this is false modesty - or simply another manifestation of her profound conformism. Every time I know she understands more than she says or writes. This is fear of self and hidden lack of confidence. She does not like to opine - as there is a chance it might turn out wrong. Not surprisingly, this also makes her very opiniated. Her model-thinker is Spinoza.

And then there is me. I wish to God I could describe myself the way I just did for my friends. I am the most unsuccessful, the most weak-willed of the three. At the same time I am likely the most original - dropping out of society is a senseless proposition and yet I am living it because it gives me the freedom to be as I am. Even though I am a nothing. I could never write academic papers with any sort of conviction. Social success under the guise of intellectual achievement did not appear as a viable use of mind. I have no idea where else to apply my mental energy except to self-analysis. I am plagued by the fear of self. I am useless and broken, and yet I have not surrendered an inch of my ground. I am entirely unrealized and drifting into nothingness. A kingdom and a horse - or else. My model-thinker is Nietzsche, without all of that testosterone.

***

My social apathy makes me a very bad, useless, ungenerous friend - I have no money and no living-space to entertain my friends. I do not go on distant trips to let them rejoice in my presence. I am frequently too depressed to be humane.

I know I've been strangely blessed to even have friends at all.




Of course all this simply means that I cannot find enough air to breath - Unabomber explains why in such patently clear terms I am beginning to read his manifesto as a manner of Modern Times Gospel:

O ye, vacuous sinners, thy cities are harbors of emptiness, the wrath of Creation will hunt you down and thou shall not find refuge in the mountains - they will hurdle rocks on you and abysses will open under your feet; nor in the valleys - they will flood you and drown you; nor in the woods - they will make you trip and fall and call for mercy...

Something like that.


Old world blues

This whole Houellebecq thing (via some chance glimpses of a long-lost world over the internet) threw me back to my Paris-France years - I find myself seized with vivid, reaping memories. The fullness of intellectual life I experienced then, and what I might call generically a certain unsurpassed-since "level of debate"... Ah, what a contrast - what a bloody contrast with the paltry deprivation, the arid linear desert of listless all-pervading stupidity I've known since...

The New World is a bad joke, ladies and gentlemen. The only part that's worth something - vast silent expenses of wild nature - is out of bounds. And the dormant life of these ugly square cities is a caricature, a drole mimicking of what urbanity might be about: a gathering of cultured minds, not a cesspool of hapless wage-hunters.

In North America this gathering role was traditionally played by liberal arts universities. Unfortunately, these formerly noble institutions have ostensibly degenerated into something of a poultry farming industry - breeding square-minded linear-thinking drones for the good of the greater business-world.

Goddam mercantile purists.

Not that I have any illusions as to similar aberrations in Europe. But, by God, what a contrast still. The poverty that surrounds me is not made of slums and rags. It is made of a limitless mass of empty flat minds opened only to what they've sucked in with the milk of their mothers: money, success, wealth. Or a simple-minded opposition to the same. Two sides of the same goddam coin.

Euphemistically, this is known as the "innocence" of the New World. For a long time now it's been nothing but enduring grossness of spirit.

No, I am not very much of an elitist - and I do not aspire to terrifically aloof snobbish wonders. None of that. Yet, I cannot find anything remotely familiar, any of that intelligent humanity I would recognize in instant, who shares the language of my mind - naturally and without absurd pretense.

Goddam creepy swamp.

Houellebecq is a talented writer. But that's not what matters - not the talent (though thank God for that). What matters is the rich dome of meaningful echoes his writings translate. It's the soil of an old, rich culture that his prose and thought grow from - so palpable, so familiar. And the natural ease of a princely inherited right to that soil.

They call him reactionary in "progressive" Paris - progressive in how slovenly it sucks up all the rap-n-crap emanating from America, the land of ever-lasting candy-dreams.

Goddam transatlantic idiocy.

Who's to blame? No one of course. And after all - it's just a bout of nostalgia, a venomous one perhaps, but what else it could be...


Fiction in science

Echoes from a learned newsgroup debate on determinism/materialism in biochemistry and physics - as a real-world commentary to Houellebecq who is not afraid to take it up in his fiction:

And what determines the concentration of signal molecules-- genes or fields? I know you believe the former, but why? Let me save you the bother of explaining. You subscribe to the notion that reality is essentially matter. This is a meme, a culturally-shared habit of thought. Needless to say, memes do not make good science.
[...]
The thrust of Gibbs' 8/01 Sci-Am article was that many biochemists are abandoning mathematical models that rely on the "central dogma" because these models aren't helping develop new drugs. Nobelist Alfred Gilman claims that new modeling that avoids genetic reductionism will become a
"drug discovery engine." So this has nothing to do with "explanatory power."

[...]
Right. That's called macrodeterminacy. But this is merely a statistical aggregate. True determinism requires that atoms and molecules also behave deterministically, and this is not the case. What we find instead is "nonrecurrent novelty."
[...]
Weiss is referring to the Boltzmann theorem. Physicists long ago gave up on micro-level determinism. Macrodeterminism is merely a mirage generated by statistical aggregation. There's no underlying, true, determinism for it to be based on.

Surprisingly, I was able to understand the hairier parts as well. Though I would rather not quote them here.

On another note, statistical aggregate is indeed a mirage - as can be gathered from watching professional sports where team statistics are calculated as far as 40 years back, and this without any regard to the fact that teams are composed of mortal individuals who come and go and variate, not to mention the changing ownership and changing economic and other conditions. Statistics give a false yet warm sense of certainty - while in sports (and this is part of the beauty and suspense of the whole thing) "gods" and luck (with lucky-charms and superstitious rituals in the locker-room) play as a third force in every single game.


Let's see

I think I do not understand why "music" is so important in youth culture. Or rather - I do not understand the purposes served by this obligatory obsession.

I guess that's because I've never been part of any sort of "youth culture". l look from the outside and I am missing the point. I guess all these "bands" and endless fandoms have a clear meaning - along the lines of "you are what you listen to" and such. I guess I am too mainstream academic bookish type. As I am also pretty much out of the cinema line. In other words, I am extremely old school and generic "well-read" style (though I don't even read that much, as that too doesn't really matter these days).

***

Small cults. Much of the youth stuff is purposefully "underground". The problem is that commercial culture consistently high-jacks their little bunkers - as soon as anything "new and in" gains some popularity it sells out, literally. Popularity leads to loads of cash. That's what pop-culture is all about really. And no matter how "marginal" and "underground" you try to stay, in the end you're high-jacked big time and - what's notable - you never can resist, never, baby. Then a new small-cult band or "movement" takes your place. And so on, endlessly. Consumerism that's called. Royalties and loyalties. Poor kids.

The really curious effect though is that nothing serious ever comes out of all these endless and more and more extreme escapes from the mainstream. For instance, it is very hard to imagine how something like "goth" could ever "grow up" - which actually means, mature and bear some lasting fruit, transform mainstream society in some way. Nothing of the sort ever occurs. It's a regressive phenomenon that can never leave the margines of adolescence and self-obsession : just playing games in a dark corner, really.

In other words, it's rot - something that rots and produces extremely toxic and powerful gases right under the skin of the shiny-happy mass-culture. And guess what - some day all this mass-marginality will break loose and explode to the surface. In some almost unrecognizable form, most likely. 30-year old adolescents are too much of an oxymoron to remain harmlessly "out of it".

I have nothing against "goth" or "science-fiction" or all the shadier factoids, for that matter. All I am saying is that it doesn't make sense. And what doesn't make sense eventually starts to produce uncanny and rather unexpected results.

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Sunday, June 13, 2004



Philosophy discussed over a glass of white wine

- "Je plaisante... La vérité est que ça ne m'intéresse plus du tout [sex]. La connaissance, oui... Il reste un désir de connaissance. C'est une chose curieuse, le désire de connaissance... Très peu de gens l'ont, vous savez, même parmi les chercheurs; la plupart se contentent de faire carrière, ils bifurquent rapidement vers l'administratif; pourtant, c'est terriblement important dans l'histoire de l'humanité. On pourrait imaginer une fable dans laquelle un tout petit groupe d'hommes - au maximum quelques centaines de personnes à la surface de la planète - poursuit avec acharnement une activité très difficile, très abstraite, absolument incompréhensible aux non-initiés. Ces hommes restent à jamais inconnus du reste de la population; ils ne connaissent ni le pouvoir, ni la fortune, ni les honneurs; personne n'est même capable de comprendre le plaisir que leur procure leur petite activité.

Pourtant ils sont la puissance la plus importante du monde, et cela pour une raison très simple, une toute petite raison: ils détiennent les clefs de la certitude rationnelle. Tout ce qu'ils déclarent comme vrai est tôt ou tard reconnu tel par l'ensemble de la population. Aucune puissance économique, politique, sociale ou religieuse n'est capable de tenir face à l'évidence de la certitude rationnelle.

On peut dire que l'Occident s'est intéressé au-delà de toute mesure à la philosophie et à la politique, qu'il s'est battu de manière parfaitement déraisonnable autour de questions philosophiques ou politiques; on peut dire aussi que l'Occident a passionnément aimé la littérature et les arts; mais rien en réalité n'aura eu autant de poids dans son histoire que le besoin de certitude rationnelle. À ce besoin de certitude rationnelle, l'Occident aura finalement tout sacrifié: sa religion, son bonheur, ses espoirs, et en définitif sa vie. C'est une chose dont il faudra se souvenir, lorsqu'on voudra porter un jugement d'ensemble sur la civilisation occidentale."

Il se tut, pensif. Son regard flotta entre les tables, puis se reposa sur son verre.

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[ M.H. Particules Elémentaires, Troisième Partie - Illimité émotionnel, ch.1 ]





Expression of natural impossibility

On fréquente les gens pendant des années, parfois des dizaines d'années, en s'habituant peu à peu à éviter les questions personnelles et les sujets réellement importants; mais on garde l'espoir que plus tard, dans des circonstances plus favorables, on pourra justement aborder ces sujets, ces questions; la perspective indéfiniment repoussée d'un mode de relation plus humain et plus complet ne s'efface jamais tout à fait, simplement parce que c'est impossible, parce qu'aucune relation humaine ne s'accommode d'un cadre définitivement étroit et figé.

La perspective demeure, donc, d'une relation "authentique et profonde"; elle demeure pendant des années, parfois des dizaines d'années, jusqu'à ce qu'un événement définitif et brutal (en général de l'ordre du décès) vienne vous apprendre qu'il est trop tard, que cette relation "authentique et profonde" dont on avait caressé l'image n'aurait pas lieu, elle non plus, pas davantage que les autres. En quinze ans de vie professionnelle, Desplechin était la seule personne avec qui il ait souhaité établir un contact dépassant le cadre de la simple juxtaposition de hasard, purement utilitaire, indéfiniment ennuyeuse, qui constitue le climat naturel de la vie de bureau.

[ M.H. Particules Elémentaires, Troisième Partie - Illimité émotionnel, ch.1 ]
_________________

To which Unabomber responds without finesse:

Footnote 10. (Paragraph 62) Some social scientists, educators, "mental health" professionals and the like are doing their best to push the social drives into group 1 by trying to see to it that everyone has a satisfactory social life.




Paradoxically, post-modernist line of thought ("so-called" in fact) appears entirely self-centered and futile by comparison. In the end, all it could came up with in a tangible way was something we now know as political correctness.

This is a form and a damning expression of a profound moral and intellectual sterility - of our cultural elites, the ones that matter, like it or not. The redneck Bible-Belt (or equivalent relics elsewhere) is trying to compete but is about as promising - which is to say, null.

The old half-wit quip of "nature does not tolerate emptiness" would serve well here: the desert in our hearts and minds is advancing, something is bound to burst in and fill it up one day.

Something we'd rather not foresee, I am afraid.

***

As I said, Houellebecq is effectively a proto-fascist. He's only expressing something everybody responds to, inevitably and for very good reasons. You can't say it ain't so.

***

What Unabomber is revealing in his analysis of the "psychology of leftism" is precisely this basic sterility. His only notable fault is that he believes there is a cure. In fact, he promotes holocaust - of the Western civilization as a whole.

Houellebecq is content to speak of suicide - of the said civilization.

It is a matter of your lack of depth and imbecile optimism to imagine a new order would save the world. But there is little doubt that the vast majority of people are imbecile out of animal optimism - and that is why extremely destructive revolutions followed by extreme dictatorships tend to occur. Usually, to "save the world".

Just waiting for a new powerful ideology to pump your lungs. Laying flat and waiting, waiting, laying in wait for a new order. It might take a while yet - but it's coming.

***

Revolutionaries are usually disgusted intellectuals. As opposed to subsequent dictators.


Mickey-Mouse logic: history in cartoons

Typical example of how media forces opinion and why. Ideological uses of moral outrage. Excerpt from a contemporary editorial:
A stunning transformation is taking place. Thanks to FBI Director Louis Freeh and his merry band of trigger-happy goons, the Unabomber is about to make a status leap from Freddy Krueger to folk hero.

[...]

What Freeh didn't bargain for was that the ordinary Joe and Jane would read the madman's ramblings and identify with them; hell, even adopt them as their own. And it's happening, even in these early hours of its release. Although reading the Unabomber's words is an exercise in masochism, one thing strikes you immediately: this guy has tapped into the heartbeat of America, albeit with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

A straw poll of lunchers in MacPherson Square in the heart of DC proves this. "This guy has a lot of interesting things to say," says a blue-rinsed matronly law firm secretary. She put aside her trash novel this noon-time, she tells me, to "absorb" the writing, which The Post published in a special eight-page pullout insert. The Times didn't run anything, save an article explaining its position, but it ponied up half the money for The Post's print run.

A lawyer munching on sushi on K Street tells me that the bomber "has a point" when talking about society. He jabs an ink-smudged finger at a gray block of text as an example. "Here, here's what I mean," he says. The text reads: "But in all IMPORTANT matters the system tends increasingly to regulate our behavior." He smiles, wiping bits of raw fish from his lips: "Ain't that the fucking truth?" Whatever you say ...

A dozen more people echo similar sentiments; some begin to ad lib a kind of weird psycho-babble analysis on what "makes the guy tick," bestowing a kind of Billy-the-Kid alter-ego on the maniac.

Not one mentions that this latter-day bomb slinger has blown away three people and seriously injured dozens of others. "But he's killed people," I say, "doesn't that influence your opinion at all?" A retired postal worker - having snacked on Prozac no doubt - tells me: "Well, that should be an overriding factor here ... but you can't argue with a lot this guy says. What he's done, I suppose, is a different matter."
Oh baby. Now where is that copy of Mein Kampf again? And then you wonder how it could happen at all.

But that's how it happens - tapping into Zeitgeist, speaking out raw truths that everyone "harbors" yet does not quite dare to articulate. The life of prevailing ideologies is dependent on silence. This is also the operational mode of the moral law. Nietzsche was saying something about pia fraus - pious lies - of a certain ideology. Nietzsche, in all truth, was nothing other than a Unabomber of exceptional destructive power - his ideas are still as fresh and troubling as they were in his own time, seemingly such a different time... Seemingly.

No greater thinker and speaker of hidden truths has appeared since Nietzsche. None - despite a host of lesser, diverse minds and doers. We are still born away in the same wave of "metaphysical mutation". The Third Reich, Communism, Freud, American Pop-Culture are all part of the same thrust towards God knows what.

You can't stave this off with Mickey-Mouse logic of "all is well in the best of worlds". Oh baby. If only we knew... ourselves.

It's not over yet - by a long mile.




Unabomber is an American - he seems to believe that the land he inhabits somehow belongs to him by ancestral right and is willing to fight for his spot of the ground. Pathologically, eco-anarchists are possessed with a sense of property - it's not just love of nature, it's love for *their* nature, *their* environment.

City-dwellers are far less convinced of their right to hold a spot of land. Modern urban mentality is ant-like: whatever the collective authority would grant me is good enough. And it may be revoked by the will of the many embodied in the state and its power-holders. There's is nothing to fight for. Nothing is truly mine. Certainly not "wilderness" (seen as potential natural resource for the urban world).

I don't see how it could be different in metropolia of millions of people. Millions, billions and counting. The only thing that might perhaps stop the frenetic march of human expansion is either a global war of unheard-of destruction or some catastrophic natural disaster: an epidemic of some unfathomable viral disease let's say, or a fat asteroid wiping out a continent or two. Something like that.

There is no question that some time or other something of the sort will occur and will be followed by an icy span of Dark Ages.

Dreaming of improbable ameliorative revolutions is much more of a utopia than the above. Paradoxically enough.

I side with Houellebecq - he's a better philosopher.




Who the hell is Theodore Kaczynski?

"The honest truth is that I am not really politically oriented. I would have really rather just be living out in the woods. If nobody had started cutting roads through there and cutting the trees down and come buzzing around in helicopters and snowmobiles I would still just be living there and the rest of the world could just take care of itself. I got involved in political issues because I was driven to it, so to speak. I'm not really inclined in that direction."

Don't we all - after a point.

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