Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On Obscure, Coded and Alchemical Texts: Part 3

More on Leo Strauss and...Me?
Clearly, if Wilhelm Reich's model of history in The Mass Psychology of Fascism is even close to being accurate, even "in the ballpark," then fascist systems are the default mode in all societies since roughly the rise of agriculture. There are short gains made, lots of reversions to the old class warfare of the Few against the Many, until the Many get pushed so far they revolt, and the Few make a concession or two...then work furiously to nullify it. This story runs all through Vico, too.

If something like this "is" right, then it makes sense that there has always been a need for some writers to write obscurely, in some sort of code that can cover for them if called in for questioning. Concomitant to this, there has probably always been some form of samizdat, probably going back to Chinese writing on rocks. (Anyone got the goods on that, by the way?)

[This seems like the perfect time to mention that I'm very much aware of Umberto Eco's idea about "paranoid overinterpretation." It doesn't worry me, but it does at times come in quietly and haunt me for a while, before leaving me alone. I jest, but slightly. Let me say there are times when I allow myself the indulgence of some scary-movie paranoia based on some reading of a text: they're - and you know how They can be - out to get me, but "get" seems the operative word here; it seems murky and a pinch lovecrafty. HERE's some interesting writing by a blogger on this sort of stuff, ya know, like...if you're into it.]

I brought up in Part 1 my personal dissonance vis a vis Isaiah Berlin disagreeing with Godfather of the NeoCons Leo Strauss in that Strauss thought writers write obscurely, sometimes 'cuz their minds work that way (even though he was a Mage, I can't help but feel the exceedingly odd Austin Osman Spare fits in here), but other times because writers fear Authority. Berlin thought that was basically wrong; I have long thought it was right, but find it uncomfortable agreeing with anything Strauss thought (the more I delved into him, the creepier he and his cabal looked to me); after vexing about this before sleep two nights ago, I awoke with my answer, and felt much better and kinda lame for not realizing and elucidating it earlier: Strauss picks which texts he thought one must "read between the lines" to understand in his own convoluted secret society of NeoCon hermeneutics; I assume almost all writers are saying what they're saying unless I have very good reason for thinking otherwise. I have my own hermeneutics, influenced by many a disparate thinker.

I assert Strauss's system is more about reading so that the texts will say what he wants them to say: that there's Good and Evil, relativism is wrong, almost every political philosopher after the Renaissance has it all wrong, and he and his acolytes know by reading the texts in a special way how to see this. HERE is a pretty good article on Strauss. Pay special attention to sections three and six, "esotericism" and "esotericism revisited." (But I still urge the interested reader to search out Xenos's Cloaked in Virtue. Saul Bellow's last big novel was a roman a clef called Ravelstein, centered around a character who was perhaps Strauss's most famous pupil for a long time, Allan Bloom - the same guy who wrote The Closing of the American Mind - who hated relativism of all sorts, hated rock 'n roll, and was a closeted homosexual who died of AIDS. Strauss appears in that book as "Felix Davarr.")

So: I think my bend is more toward writing and less toward reading, although obviously these two acts can never really be separated. I think any one of us would find reading and writing much more difficult to disentangle than we might have thought. I don't think it can be done, but I'm willing to be proven wrong.

James Joyce, Luigi Serafini, the OULIPO, and the Voynich Manuscript
And not all esoteric texts are about evading persecution, obviously. Most devotees of Finnegans Wake are well aware of Joyce's statement about hoping to keep the scholars busy for a thousand years and that he wrote for "an ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia." Joyce's dreambook used a template based on Vico's theories about rising and falling throughout history, and Vico appears on the first page of the..."novel"?

Luigi Serafini seems to not be hiding anything that will bring down the current order in his miraculous, marvelous work of surrealism replete with a writing system that has only been decoded maybe about 5%, the Codex Seraphinianus.

                                         a page from the exceedingly obscure Codex Seraphinianus

The wonderful - mostly French - writers in the OULIPO group write obscure texts, but this is mostly because they are interested in what can be yielded, textually, by utilizing a mathematics of constraint. Now, there may be something very radical politically going on among some of the OULIPO, but I have not seen it, nor have I read of anyone else finding something there. At this point, I'd like to say that the Italian writer Italo Calvino was the greatest oulipean yet (see especially his If On A Winter's Night A Traveller), and I'd also like to put in a good word for American oulipean Harry Matthews, especially his Singular Pleasures, which, even though he doesn't consider this work oulipean, still: 61 little vignettes about masturbation? You gotta hand it to him.

And what of the possibly eldritch, possibly forged, possibly dangerous Voynich Manuscript? It hasn't been cracked, but from the writing I've read about the problem of the text, it seems like the writers were trying to keep something from somebody...but who? And why? And what is going on there? (WARNING: If you have a certain caste of mind and have yet to look into the problem of the Voynich, it might suck you in. Please take this warning seriously! Be careful! The Voynich has claimed more than one victim! - the OG)

Religious Texts and Peoples Persecuted: A Few Melancholy Notes
Along the lines of books so powerful to Authority they must be hunted down and burnt due to their possible danger and threats to official Power, I will simply type the term Albigensian Crusade and the term Gnostic Gospels.

Clearly, some other times and places in which alternative visions of religious "truth" were more heavily frowned upon than persecuted with extreme prejudice. But eventually outright persecution devolved upon deeply pious mystics, from their own people and from the powerful, fearful and ignorant outsiders. An example of this would be the early mystical writings among the Jews, which eventually evolved into kabbalah. Perhaps the greatest scholar of kabbalah, Gershom Sholem says early on in his Kabbalah that early mystical writers in the Judaic tradition not only had very esoteric ideas, but they wrote under pseudonyms and stressed an ascetic life of contemplation and deep study of texts, but that "The clear tendency toward asceticism as a way of preparing for the reception of the mystical tradition, which is already attested to in the last chapter of the Book of Enoch, becomes a fundamental principle for the apocalyptics, the Essenes, and the circle of the Merkabah mystics who succeeded them." Unfortunately, the more orthodox, those outside the tradition, and others found this very pietistic asceticism threatening: "From the start, this pietist asceticism aroused active opposition entailing abuse and persecution, which later characterized practically the whole historical development of pietist tendencies (hasidut) in rabbinic Judaism." (page 11) Here the outward appearance of pietism and asceticism aroused hostilities towards these groups, and of course, their books. Which were "weird." (Even today, when someone professes to have studied the kabbalah, I listen and doubt quickly and seriously they've put the time in. 'Tis a rare devoted reader of kabbalah, it seems to me, even though it has possibly never been more "popular" on the world stage than right now...

It could be that, for most of Joyce's "nightmare of history" magicians, hermeticists, and alchemists (are there really any differences between those?) feared persecution but also had other reasons for writing in obscure modes. One idea that seems intuitively "right" to me is that these people - at least they at times professed this - it could be because they knew they were going to be hounded. As Alexander Roob says in his Alchemy and Mysticism: The Hermetic Cabinet , "Many voices, even within their own ranks, were raised agains the 'obscure idioms' of the alchemists. And their own account of their communication technique hardly sounds more encouraging: 'Whenever we have spoken openly we have (actually) said nothing. But when we have written something in code and in pictures we have concealed the truth.'" - Rosarium Philosophorum.

Roob goes on:
"The tendency towards arcane language in 'obscure speeches,' in numbers and in enigmatic pictures, is explained by a profound skepticism about the expressive possibilities of literal language (my emphasis - OG), subjected to Babylonian corruption, which holds the Holy Spirit fettered in its grammatical bonds." (pp.8-9) This all might qualify as some species of group denial: but about what, why, on whose part? And how conscious was this denial that they are writing oddly because a skepticism about the possibilities of "literal" language, and not because they feared violent persecution by some Diocletian, some Shi Huang Ti, some model for King Ubu? You write so obscurely because of "a profound skepticism about the expressive possibilities of literal language"?

Yes, and I wonder what happened when they told that to the Judge?

But I jest. This subject is not all that filled with hilarity, I admit. But we have all had a bad cover story at one time or another, haven't we?

Or at least it must've appeared "bad" to Authority. "But dad...I was smoking pot only because it allows me to get closer to God."


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I read that Scholem wrote a book on practical kabbalah and then destroyed all the copies.

Ricorso: I thought my Dante group would end in January, but a tenth grader asked me to start again at the beginning in February. I asked both my tenth grade honors classes if anyone else wanted to join, and a number of kids raised their hands. Perhaps I will never stop reading the Divine Comedy. I wonder if that will help me understand Vico?

Wednesday remains my favorite day of the week because my Finn group meets on Wednesdays, even though I still can't understand the text very well.

Thanks for another great blog posting, Dr. J!

michael said...

I had not heard that story about Scholem. I'll look into it.

When I think of Dante I think of Berlin's essay on Tolstoy and history and Sir Isaiah's idea about thinkers tending to be foxes or hedgehogs. I think of Dante as a hedgehog (and so did Berlin, IIRC), and Vico as one of the great foxes.

I still dip randomly in FW at least once a week and read a page or two aloud to myself, then it reverberates through my consciousness throughout the day (mostly the sounds of the words in combination), and I try to tease out more and more meanings. I read FW like no other book: as an enigmatic code (and which I know what the code is "about") but as something that will immediately change my consciousness. After many years, I hit on reading it for the sound first and foremost, without lusting after the hidden meanings. I let the meanings come to me, when they're ready. Every now and then I delve into my secondary sources...

I'm glad at least three other humans are interested in this stuff; it's odd: this is the first time I've felt some inward compelling "reason" to write on this topic. Last night I realized I could do about 15 more "parts" on this topic, but I think that would be getting away from what the blog was supposed to be "about," which was that it was supposed to be about quite a lot of things...

But I do need to get some more of this stuff out of my system...

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I do not know about hedgehogs and foxes.

I remember I found Tim Leary's Exo-Psychology very difficult when I first tried to read it.

michael said...

For me, the degree of diffculty/obscurity: Leary-Shakespeare- Bible-------------------FW.

Berlin concocted an intellectual's meme in 1953, in an essay on Russian thinkers, "The Hedgehog and the Fox." He got the idea from 7th BCE Archilochus. Basically: hedgehogs know one big thing; foxes know a lot of things.

Q: By the way, how did you make this classification?

Berlin: I never meant it very seriously. I meant is as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something, this one was very simple.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

I guess I find myself less concerned with what Dante knew than with what he created. Many people think about creating a huge structure. A few complete their structures, and fewer still complete structures which continue to exert a large influence on our world. Dante completed his, and it continues to provoke fascination from critters like Eliot and Pound, etc.