Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Preface to Humiliation by William Ian MIller

Most of us are familiar with the unpleasant emotions that attend losing face in social interaction; we know only too well the sick feeling of being exposed as thinking we are more than we really are and the humiliation of having our poses of competence undercut by our own ineptitude. This book is about the anxieties of self-presentation, the strategies we adopt to avoid loss of face in our routine social encounters, and the emotions – namely, humiliation, shame, and embarrassment – which maintain us as self-respecting and respectable social actors. I approach these themes in a variety of ways so that this book is less one argument than a series of arguments, suggestions, and observations.

The themes emerged from my years studying the heroic society of saga Iceland. The sagas generated my consuming interest in the discomfitures that plague us in even the most conventional of social encounters. They reveal, with unusual astuteness, the behavior of a people who cared with the totality of their being about the public figure they cut and about the respect they elicited. These people could not contemplate self-esteem independent of the esteem of others.

We, in contrast, allow ourselves the possibility of self-esteem in the face of the contempt of others. But even though we can envisage self-esteem without independent confirmation, it is hard to achieve and not always a virtue if achieved, for it can be as easily the defining trait of the sociopath as of a saint, of the self-centered boor as of the self-confident person of great inner strength. In short, although we may think of ourselves as interesting and entertaining, that is not our call to make. So we, like the saga people, are not strangers to the nervousness and tensions that necessarily accompany caring about what others think of us. Like those ancient heroes , we care about honor, about how we stack up against all those with whom we are competing for approbation.

This concern is one of the central themes of this book. Honor is not dead with us. It has a hidden face, moved to the back regions of consciousness, been kicked out of most public discourse regarding individuals (though it remains available for use by nation-states to justify hostility); it can no longer be offered as a justification for action in many settings where once it would have constituted the only legitimate motive. But in spite of its back-alley existence, honor still looms large in many areas of our social life, especially in those, I would bet, that occupy most of our psychic energy. Honor is intimately tied to the idea of reciprocity. Much of the substance of honor is still rooted in a desire to pay back what we owe, both the good and the evil. The failure to reciprocate, unless convincingly excused, draws down our accounts of esteem and self-esteem.

It has long been noted that, in honor-based cultures, shame is the flipside of honor. But in our complex society the domain of shame has contracted as the domains of humiliation and embarrassment have expanded. Humiliation (or fear of it) is perhaps the key emotion that supports our self-esteem and self-respect. Humiliation is the price we pay for not knowing how others see us. Humiliation (and the fear of it) is in fact the very “power the giftie gie us” that Robert Burns prayed for. It is perhaps our most powerful socially orientated emotion of self-assessment. Humiliation cannot be avoided, having made itself, or at least the threat of it, a normal feature of most routine social interaction. Routine interaction is thus a risky and complicated business, requiring competence if we are to survive with honor and self-esteem intact. I do not mean to deny that the routine can be routine and thus easily negotiated. Surely the person who always feels panicked in the presence of others has started to develop the strangeness of a Dostoyevskian character. Never the less, most socially competent people are also routinely aware of these risks as necessary features of the monitoring systems that maintain their social competence –and at times painfully so.

The emotions of humiliation and shame construct, destroy, and recreate volatile hierarchies of moral and social rank. Shame and humiliation do not work in quite the same ways in their relation to rank (we shall see that shame requires groups of rough equals, while humiliation can work within and across stable hierarchies), but they carry out the same kind of rough work of punishing moral and social failure. Thus not infrequently honor, humiliation, and the obligation to pay back what one owes find themselves inextricably bound of with violence.

Throughout the book I am concerned to get at the extent it is possible to talk about emotions across time and across culture. The precise experience of many of our richest emotions – among which I include, of course, humiliation – is in various ways influenced by and dependent on the social arrangements that elicit them and the vocabulary used to express them. I shall give some attention to how the emotion we indicate by the word humiliation was referenced, if at all, in other times and places. . .

Language and culture have a way of cabining the thinkable, and differences in language and culture necessarily produce differences in thinking, even in perceiving and feeling. But the differences are themselves not unpredictable, nor are they unrecognizable. No, we cannot think just like others unless we become them, but we can learn to imagine quite well how they will act and what thoughts they must be having to justify and give coherence to their actions. It is surprising indeed how close we can come, if we are observant and do our homework. So I am left with interpretivism (what else do we have?), but without the religion of mandatory difference or the dogma of the inscrutable diversity of cultural and social experience.

Perhaps I trouble myself about this because I fear the trendinistas who will suspect my credentials as a social constructionist. With them, I too think it is admirable to stand against those who purport to explain social and cultural phenomena by easy recourse to that lazy tautology, human nature. But to say something is socially constructed is no explanation either unless it is seen as a promise to provide a complicated story about just how the particular practice is indeed constructed.

I believe that no culture is so purely coherent  that competing views are not available within it and that all cultures are riddled with internal contradictions and competing claims. And because cultures are not coherent, because they are riddled with contradictions, because they do not exist without some knowledge of the practices of other cultures, because they are always impinged upon from without and subject to locally originating change from within, we should not be surprised to find some fairly widespread practices and many vaguely similar styles across cultures and through time. Thus it is that many of us have had experiences with the norms of honor and may have participated in activities not unlike burning a witch.*

* “ elicitation of envy is not condemned in an honor based system as it is in witchcraft systems. The moral regime is very different. Honor say you should not fear eliciting envy and in fact rewards it by making it honorable. It was one thing to avoid flaunting your position by obnoxious behavior towards others and quite another to avoid excelling out of fear for the consequences of excellence.  Honor could have no truck with pusillanimous people in witchcraft systems where its leveling force is well known and nicely captured by then oft-cited Bemba proverb Max Gluckman put into circulation: “To find one beehive in the woods is luck, to find two is very good luck, to find three, witchcraft.”

Monday, May 14, 2018

Song of Becoming by Fadwa Tuquan

They're only boys
who used to frolic and play
releasing in the western wind
their blue red green kites
the color of the rainbow
jumping, whistling, exchanging spontaneous jokes
and laughter
fencing with branches, assuming the roles
of great heroes in history.

They've grown suddenly now
grown more than years in a lifetime
grown, merged with the secret word of love
carried its letters like a Bible, or a Quran
read in whispers
They've grown more than the years of a lifetime
become the trees plunging deep into the earth
and soaring high towards the sun
They're now the voice that rejects
they're the dialectics of destruction and building anew
the anger burning on the fringes of a blocked horizon
invading classrooms, streets, city quarters
centering on squares
and facing sullen tanks with a stream of stones.

With plain rejection they now shake the gallows of the dawn
assailing night and its deluge
They've grown, grown more that the years of a lifeti
become the worshipped and the worshipper
When their torn limbs merged with the stuff of our earth,
they became a legend
They grew, grew and became
larger than all poetry.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Huron God by Jean de Brebeuf

Father de Brebeuf spent nearing twenty-three years among the Hurons. They didn’t pay much attention to what he had to say but he did them. His account is the most extensive in Jesuit Relations. I can only hope to read the whole of it.  At any rate, at the dawn of history God was either of the sky or of the storm, and usually had a wife or sister who tempered his anger or delivered his benevolence. Lately, God developed much more abstract and also personal qualities.

“As these poor Indians are men, they have not been able to deny the existence of God altogether. Because given to vice, however, they are only able to form conceptions of him that are unworthy of his greatness. They have neither sought nor recognized him except on the surface of created things, in which they have hoped to find fortune or dreaded misfortune. The address themselves to the earth, the rivers, the lakes, the dangerous rocks, and, above all, to the sky, in the belief that these things are animate and that some spirit [ or ‘demon’ as the good father calls it] resides in them.

 They are not content simply to make wishes; rather, they often accompany these with a sort of sacrifice. I have noticed two kinds of these. On type is to render the spirits propitious and favorable, and the other is to appease them when  they have received what they imagine to be some disgrace from them or believe they have incurred their anger or indignation. Here are the the ceremonies they employ in these sacrifices. They throw some tobacco into the fire, and if it is, for example, to the sky that they address themselves, they say,  Aronhiate onen aonstaniwas taitenr, ‘O sky, here is what I offer thee in sacrifice, Have pity on me, assist me.” If it is to implore health, Taenguiaens, ‘Heal me.’

 They have recourse to the sky for almost all their needs, and respect the great bodies in it above all creatures, and remark in it in particular something divine. Indeed, it is, after man, the most vivid image we have of divinity. There is nothing which represents divinity to us so clearly. We perceive its omnipotence in all the prodigious effects the heavens cause on this earth, its immensity in the sky’s vast extent, its wisdom in the orderly movement of the heavenly bodies, its goodness in the benign influences it sheds continually  over all creatures, and its beauty in the sun, and in the aspect of the of the stars. I say this to show how easy it would be, with time and divine aid, to lead these peoples to a knowledge of their Creator, since they already give special honor to a part of His creation which is such a perfect image of Him.

And, furthermore, I may say it is really God whom they honor, though blindly, for they imagine in the heavens an oki, that is to say a demon or power which rules the seasons of the year, which holds in check the winds and waves of the sea, which can render favorable the course of their voyages and assist them in every time of need. They even fear his anger and invoke him as a witness in order to render their faith inviolable when they make some promise of importance, or agree to some bargain or treaty of peace with the enemy. Here are the terms they use: Hakrihotwe ekaronhiate tout Icwakhier ekentate, ‘The sky knows what we are doing today.’ And they think that if, after this, they should violate their word or break their alliance, the sky would certainly chastise them . . .”

“They have a faith in dreams which surpasses all belief. If Christians were to put into execution all their divine inspirations with as much care as our Indians carry out their dreams, no doubt they would very soon become great saints. They look upon their dreams as ordinances and irrevocable decrees; to delay the execution of them would be a crime. An Indian of our village dreamed this winter, shortly after he had fallen asleep, that he ought straightaway to make a feast. Though it was the middle of the night, he immediately arose and came and woke us to borrow one of our kettles. The dream is the oracle that all these poor people consult and listen to, the prophet which predicts future events, the Cassandra which warns of misfortunes threatening them, the physician which treats them in their sicknesses, the Aesculapius and Galen of the whole country. It is their absolute master . . .”

 Father Brebeuf’s accounts the laws governing the prosecution of crimes among the Huron quite extensively. The family of the victims and the village of which he is a member must receive a whole series of lavish [ one might say ‘publicaly funded’]  gifts, ritually imparted if the application of the principle ‘eye for eye/tooth for tooth’ and the cycles of revenge and wholesale murders which often attend it are to be avoided. Observing  how well Huron law  works in that respect ,  the father concludes that ‘their procedure is scarcely effective than is the death penalty in other places.’

“ If, however, the relatives of the dead man avenge themselves for the injury by the death of him who struck the blow, all the punishment falls of them, and they also must make presents to those who were the first murderers, without the later being obliged to give any satisfaction. This is to show how much they regard vengeance as detestable, for the blackest crimes, such as murder, appear as nothing in comparison. Vengeance wipes them all away and brings upon itself all the punishment that they merit.”

In Huron society, however, a crime estranges not just the individuals directly effected. “For it is not here as in France and elsewhere, where the public and whole city do not generally take part in the quarrel of an individual. Here you can not insult any one of them without the whole country resenting it and taking up the quarrel against you, and even against an entire village. Hence arise wars, and it is more than sufficient reason for taking up arms against some village if it refuses to make satisfaction by proper presents for the killing of one of your friends.”

Of course father Brebeuf did witness the gruesome tortures inflicted on those captured in war: “The inhumanity is altogether intolerable; indeed, many people are unwilling to attend these fatal banquets.” In the end, the Iroquois subjected him to it, though it seems unlikely the he would have sung out his contempt for his tormentors from beginning to end as most victims did.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018


In the summer Algonquin tribes gathered several hundred strong along alluvial plains scattered about  the Northeast e.g. by the St Lawrence, Connecticut , Saco and Kennebec Rivers as well as on the shores of Lake Champlain. Archeological evidence suggests that in pre-historic times such settlements could  at times consist of several thousand individuals. There they fished, gathered fruits and planted their crops of corn and squash. These were probably not permanent settlements in the sense of places that they returned to year after year but were used in rotation depending on  the agricultural and hunting offerings available or their security from intrusions by enemies in the Iroquois tribes such as, in particular,  the Mohawks or, later, the Europeans as they expanded from their initial colonies on the coasts. In the winter, however, they broke up into small bands to seek their sustenance  deep in the forest wilderness. It was a tough life  but  intimate compared  to life in large settlements.

The Jesuit father Paul Le Jeune wrote about his winter travels with a small band of Montagnais in the hunting grounds of the northern Appalachian Mountains, east of Quebec and south of the St. Lawrence, in  1633-1634.

The Indians pass the winter in these woods, ranging here and there to get their living. In the early snows, they seek beaver in the small rivers and porcupines on the land; when the deep snows come, they hunt moose and caribou. From the 12th of November, when we entered these vast forests, to the 22nd of April, when we returned to the banks of the St .Lawrence, we camped at 23 different places. Sometimes we were in deep valleys, then upon lofty mountains, sometimes in low flat country, but always in the snow. We crossed many torrents of water, some rivers, several beautiful lakes and ponds, always walking over the ice.

Upon entering these regions, there were three cabins in our company: nineteen persons being in ours, sixteen in the cabin of the Indian named Ekhennabamate, and ten in that of the newcomers. This does not included the Indians who were encamped a few leagues away from us. We were in all forty-five persons, who were to be kept alive on what it should please the holy providence of God to send us, for our provisions were getting very low.

This is the order we followed in breaking up our camps, in tramping over the country, and in erecting our tents and pavilions. When our people saw that there was no longer any game within three or four leagues (7-10 miles) of us, an Indian who was best acquainted with the way to the next place we were going cried out in a loud voice one fine day, “Listen men, I am going to mark the way for breaking the camp tomorrow at daybreak.”

When there are a number of things to be carried, as often happens when they have killed a large number of moose, the women go ahead and carry a portion of these things to the place where they are to camp the following day. When the snow is deep, they make sledges of wood which splits and which can be peeled off like leaves in  thin, very long strips. These sledges are very narrow, because they have to be dragged among masses of trees closely crowded in some places. One day, seeing the sledge of my host standing against a tree, I could scarcely reach the middle of it, stretching out my arm as far as I could. They fasten their baggage on these, and, with a cord that they pass over their chests, they drag these wheel-less chariots over the snow.

But not to wander too far from my subject, as soon as it it day each one prepares to break camp. They begin by having breakfast, if there is any; for sometimes they depart without breakfasting, continue on their way without dining, and go to bed without supping. Each one arranges his own baggage, as best he can, and the women strike the cabin, to remove the ice and snow from the bark, which they roll up in a bundle. Once packed, the baggage is thrown on their backs or loins in long bundles, which they hold with a cord that passed over their foreheads, beneath which thy place a bit of bark so that it will not hurt them. When everyone is loaded, they mount their snowshoes, which are bound to the feet so that they will not sink in the snow, and then they march over plain and mountain. They make the children start early, but even so they often do not arrive until quite late. These little ones have their packs, or their sledges, to accustom them early to fatigue; the adults try to stimulate them by making a contest to see who will drag or carry the most.

To paint for you the hardships of the journey, I have neither pen nor brush equal to the task. You would have to see them to understand, as this is a meal that must be tasted to be appreciated. We did nothing but go up and down. Frequently we had to bend over double to pass under partly fallen trees, and step over others lying upon the ground whose branches sometimes knocked us over, gently enough to be sure, but always coldly, for we fell upon the snow. If there happened to be a thaw, oh God, what suffering! It seemed to me I as walking over a road of glass that broke under my feet at every step. The frozen snow, beginning to melt, would fall and break into blocks or big pieces, into which we often sank up to our knees, and sometimes to our waists. Falling was painful enough, but pulling oneself out was even worse, for our snowshoes would be loaded with snow and so heavy that, when we tried to draw them out, it seemed as if somebody were tugging our legs to dismember us. I have seen some who slid so far under the logs buried in the snow that they could pull out neither their legs or snowshoes without assistance. So imagine someone on these paths, loaded down like a mule, and you mat judge how easy is the life of the Indian.

In the discomforts of a journey in France, there are villages whereon can refresh and fortify oneself, but the only inns that we encountered were brooks. We even had to break the ice in order to get some water to drink. It is true that we did not travel far each day, for that would indeed have been absolutely impossible for us.

When we reached the place where we were to camp, the women went to cut the poles for the cabins, and the men to clear away the snow. Now a person had to work at this building, or shiver with cold for three long hours waiting until it was finished. Sometimes I put my hand to the work to warm myself, but usually I was so frozen that fire alone could thaw me. The Indians were surprised at this, for they were working hard enough to sweat. Assuring them now and then that I was very cold, they would say to me, “Give us your hands so that we may see that you are telling the truth’; and finding them quite frozen, they were touched with compassion and gave me their warm mittens and took my cold ones. This went so far that my host, after having tried it several times, said to me,” Nicanis, do not winter any more with the Indians, for they will kill you.” I think he meant that I would fall ill, and because could not be dragged along with the baggage, they would kill me. I began to laugh and old him he was trying to frighten me.

When the cabin was finished, about nightfall or a little before, they began to talk about dinner and supper all in one, for as we had departed in the morning with only a small morsel to eat, we had to have patience to reach our destination , and wait until the hotel was erected, in order to lodge and eat there. Some days our people did not go hunting and so it was for us a day of fasting as well as a day of work…

Certainly this is an incomplete account of the daily life of the Montagnais in their winter abodes and treks. The sense of its difficulty comes through clearly, though one can easily imagine that father Le Juene’s weakness had its own causes, Jesuit acetic practices of those times and his disdain for Algonquin culinary habits which he elsewhere characterizes as gluttony. In flush times there was hardly an end to their eating: everything must be consumed whatever in excess of biological satiety there  might have been. Perhaps this reminded him of the habits of the rich back in France, who had their own excesses while the poor lived hand to mouth, very often subject as the result of inconstant crops and requisitions to famine. And what, it must be asked, was life like before the introduction of the white man’s hatchets, knives and gunpowder or  the skin trade was globalized?  Was life in ‘old times’ worse or possibly even better- or  more leisurely? At any rate, right up until the middle of the 2Oth century  remnant bands  seemed content to live without many modern amenities, and live, as it were, among themselves without the compelling authority of the  ‘invaders’, inured to the hardships that were only generally erased for large portions of the white population with the coming of the New Deal.

In another passage father Le Jeune remarks on the minds and civil society of the Montagnais

. . . it is of good quality. I believe that souls are made of the same stock and that they do not differ substantially. Hence, the well-formed bodies and well-regulated organs of these barbarians suggest that their minds too ought to function well. Education and instruction alone are lacking. Their soul is a naturally fertile soil, but it is loaded down with all the evils that a land abandoned since the birth of the world can produce. I naturally compare our Indians with European villagers, because both are usually without education, although our peasants are slightly more advanced in this regard. Nevertheless, people who come to this country always confess and frankly admit that the Indians are more clever than our ordinary peasants.

At the time Jesuits also had missions in some of the more ‘backward’ areas of France itself such as Brittany. But the  father continued:

Moreover, if it is a great blessing to be free from a great evil, our Indians should be considered fortunate. For there are two tyrants, ambition and avarice, who distress and torture so many of our Europeans but have no dominion over these great forests. Because the Indians have neither civil regulation, nor administrative offices, nor dignities, nor any positions of command – for they obey their chief only through goodwill towards him – they never kill one another to acquire these honors. Also they are content with basic subsistence, and not one of them gives himself to the devil to acquire wealth.

Sounds like the germ of Rousseau’s notion of the “Noble Savage”. It cannot have been literally true. Every society has norms of social performance, however they might be honored in the breach, which are by degrees as compelling as the commands of a haughty bureaucrat. Chains of authority might not be immediately recognizable to an outsider even though their very lives often depended on them working properly. In the case of Marquette’s travels down the Mississippi, on many occasions, his life was only saved from ferocious young braves by the circumspection of elders. On a few occasions, in “Relations' the fathers themselves were often surprised by the haughty presumptions of women who they regarded as mere  ‘wizen  old hags.’ Anthony Wallace himself noted, in his historical account of the Iroquois ( though they be different than the Algonquin in many ways) that the power of aged matriarchs (mothers) was generally underestimated and that it was often their interests that held sway over the minds of the famous orators playing the role of chiefs in public councils. To father Lejuene’s eternal credit, however, his “Noble Savage” prejudice- more relevant to his criticism of French society than accurate with regards to ‘The Indians” does not fatally interfere with his compelling observations, especially in the stories of his interactions with individuals and reflections on their theology and language; very useful to an historian of our own age. The paragraph that immediately follows the former invoking the “Noble Savage”, a qualifying  gem in the constellation of the book in hand:

They profess never to get angry, though not because of the beauty of this virtue, for which they have not even a name, but rather for their own contentment and happiness. In  other words, they want only to free themselves from the bitterness cause by anger. The sorcerer said to me one day, speaking of one of our Frenchmen,

 “He has no sense, he gets angry; as for me, nothing disturbs me. Let hunger oppress us, let my nearest relations pass to another life, let the Iroquois, our enemies, massacre our people, for he is haughtier than any other Indian; I never get angry.”

 What he (the sorcerer ) says cannot be taken as an article of faith , for he is haughtier than any other Indian, so I  have seen him annoyed more often than any of them. It is true he often restrains and governs himself by force, especially when I expose his foolishness. I have only heard one Indian pronounce this word, Nincatihn, ‘I am angry”, and he said it only once. But I notice that people were wary of him, for when these barbarians are angry, they are dangerous and unrestrained.

It was perhaps a matter of faith to the sorcerer that he be not angry,  as inconstant and badly he performed his own idea,  something he had to force himself to do, and even had a special performance in that regard in the band as a whole. Many social performances are a sort of ‘anger management’. Father Le Juene as his own ideas on what ends and means  are suited to anger management in the eyes of God- the ‘Kingdom’ of Christ- as opposed to secular rulers- and the adoration of the Virgin and Saints together with obedience to the Jesuit Brothers.

“The problem of the coercion of political authority is to buttress consent rather than to destroy it. There is no sacrifice without a seething undercurrent of ressentiment, no meek obeisance to the governing powers that does not harbor a smouldering animus  against them. Since a being who confers his favors on you demonstrates his superiority by doing so, your gratitude for his largesse is bound to be laced with a certain disgruntlement. It is partly to assuage the guilt of this animosity that we must repair to the alter once more, in search of that pure, unspotted self-abnegation before the Law that lies perpetually beyond our reach.” [1)  

[1] Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice, page 18

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Artifacts of Power by Thomas Bisson

I have tried to evoke some people who happened to live in villages, fields, and pastures under the lordship of the Count of Barcelona about 850 years ago. Their freedoms and prosperity were coming under pressure in an age of competitive growth. They survive today only in some little-known records of their complaints against a few other people whom they served, obeyed, and feared. Problematic and mostly unpublished, these records are partial as well as few in number. I have tried to learn from them, even to imagine from them, without misreading them. For I have lived with them enough to be persuaded that, whatever their limitations, they afford rare evidence of how power was experienced in a medieval peasant society. That is the subject of my evocation . . .

The anguish survives in their voices, is what renders them audible. I do not wish to exaggerate the suffering conveyed in the fragile evidence of that emotion. The Count’s and King’s tenants survived, remembering  two killings amongst their troubles. History knows of more desperate peasantries than these; and it may be that the societies here evoked belong to a troublous subset of people prosperous enough to be capable of protest when their lives are disrupted. What is peculiar (though surely not unique) to this Catalonian scene is the place of violence and fear in the disruption. If “violence” is conceived to encompass all that was forced unwillingly on the peasants of the memorials, then I may indeed be at risk of exaggerating their suffering. People always complain, not always persuasively. Moreover, the violence which stalks their representations, and caused their suffering, was morally ambivalent, for it straddled a zone marking off conflicting customs of societal order. There was something familiar about the distraints visited on Bertrandus of Sant Climent, whose house was forced and a pig taken, or on Carbo, when Lady Berenguera (and her men, be it understood) broke into his house at Font-rubi in pursuit of her ”right.” Intimidations, ransoms, even quite possibly beatings would surely have been defended as customary behavior by our voiceless perpetrators. Was there a subsistent strain of institutionalized violence left over from ancient military practice?

Nevertheless, the tenants of Count Raimund Berenguer and his successor King Alfons I complained, and many of them complained bitterly, about the deportment of the men set over them and their cronies. They represented that those people had disrupted an old order of customary lordship. They said they were violated, said they suffered. I cannot read their memorials otherwise.

            The struggle of man against power is the struggle
                              Of memory against forgetting.
                                        - Milan Kundera

So the paradox abides. In an agitated world of tumultuous lordships some troubled peasants fought custom with custom, sought (as only we can see it) to stave off a new mode of harsh exploitation that made them feel, in words from Font-rubi, ‘like slaves.’ They were the Lord-Count’s (and Lord-King’s) tenants, yet their story is hardly one of distant masters, paragons of exaggerated virtue. That is why it was forgotten, first by those for whom the people were beneath remembrance, later by us who can only be accused as hard of hearing. What needed remembering was not so much how the Lord-Princes of Barcelona tended their old domains as how their people experienced power in their drenched and sun baked rural habitats. For this experience is what they spoke of in words that we have, or almost have; what some one once, momentarily, thought memorable, and what I have tried to read, to hear, to hold in the names and voices; in what we have of these people, - and all that we have.

The memorials of complaint and the very parchments which contained them were forged in the steamy experience of power. So they themselves, these artifacts, lead lives of their own, human-like lives insofar as they reveal the options and strategies of scribes groping uneasily between responsibilities and subjective engagement. They at least survive – and have more to tell the brave scholars who will one day decipher them more fully and edit them. Yet “I have traveled a good deal” in them myself, have come to know some of their dark corners as well, even to recognize their authors- Ponc the Scribe and Guilelm Ponc, and the uneasy anonymous of Ribes –of two or three of them. They seem like reverberating spaces, holding echoing voices of scarcely more than audible accents.  THE memorials evoke the periphery of spoken rural life, an expressive  yet confined zone in which event and recollection were rearranged by external prodding. It is a fated limitation of my little journey that the people I know best are the malefactors, but for whom there would be no records at all. Et even of them – of Deusde, or rather his petty brutality; of Arnal de Perella and his wife and bailiffs building a lordship on the wreckage of comital power at Caldes de Malavella and environs; of Raimund de Ribes profiteering in justice in the Pyrenees;  of the Berenguer exploiting the eastern settlements – even of these people the portraits lack depth.

Still less can the people subject to their power be realized. That is why I have clung to their names, and to the voices that come with some of them. Maria Guitarda of Caldes de Malavella, from whom Arnal de Petrella took a 3s. pig; Guilemus de Noger, who fought unwarily with Berengarius de Soler at Ribes, which cost him a field; Amallus Oromir, whose household at Argencola – perhaps quite a little one, yet including a woman’s effects – was sacked: what have such people to prove of themselves but their faithful witness? What they might have wished to remember – their contented lives, their tolerably customary services and payments to the Count or King’s servants – are lost to all but conjecture from their yelps (for the capbreus tell us little more). They cannot be blamed for failing to answer the questions they were never asked. For us they come on, these people, as they did to their interrogators, in their sheepish silences, yet also in their spoken sorrows, lamentations, and pleadings for mercy and justice. “Your man Raimundus Marti” and his fellows at Font-rubi, Ramon Sunier of the Rubes valley, who said that Raimund de Ribes took 200s.from his brother’s killer, “and he himself got nothing.” “And you, Lord, give us the land where we lived, that we may be yours!” The people of Cabra “dare not appeal” to the King “for fear of those knights . . . for you are far away and they are near us.”

Petrus Guilelmi de Brugera 12s and 3 Mitgersb of barley, and Deusde struck his wife.” Arnallus de Valoria of Corro, denouncing Pere de Bell-lloc. “Ermessen and my husband Esbaldid 5s because our small child died, no other cause.” Bernardus Burdo weaver. Gui the clerk. Pere Oler . . .

“For you are far . . . and they are near . . .”

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Tao Lin's Trip

Life seemed bleak to Tao, ‘as it had in evolving ways since I was thirteen or fourteen. I was chronically not fascinated by existence, which, though often amusing and poignant, did not feel wonderful or profound but tedious and uncomfortable and troubling. Life did seem mysterious, but increasingly only in a blunt, cheap, slightly deadpan, somehow un-intriguing manner. As I aged, I seemed to become less curious about why I was here, where I came from, and what would happen when I died.’

One learns more about Tao’s ‘way in the world’, in bits and pieces, as his story moves on and he reflects back on his early years. He suffered from asthma, he seemed frail and pigeon-chested, his eyes weren’t all that great and his teeth came in badly. Ultimately he seems to come to the conclusion that he, and millions of others were victims of pollution:

‘When, at the age of eighteen, Tao left for New York City, the city of him probably contained parts per million or billion of glyphosate – which had been in vaccines since probably the late seventies because vaccines contained soy, sucrose, and various proteins from non-organic sources and because some viruses, like measles, shingles, and flu were grown on gelatin derived from pigs and cows fed genetically modified food containing up to 400 parts per million of the 18-atom compound, which Tao would eventually think of as ‘the bleakest drug”- plus hundreds of thousands of other synthetic compounds, making him malfunction socially, physically, cognitively, psychologically, and emotionally in obvious, subtle, subconscious, layered and unpredictable ways.’

‘Tao used to think of his body as a small, swamp-like thing, where anything could be tossed without concern because it’d disappear into the overall stew. Encouraged by corporations and government organizations and media that parroted those sources, which said there were ‘safe’ levels of compounds that had been introduced decades earlier into biological systems that had evolved without them for billions of years, he felt he could throw things into the pile of his body and they would dissolve, or something. Now he viewed his body as an enormous city in which each molecule of BPA, PVC, PCB and CFC, of ethyl-mercury and phthalate and polyethylene and antidepressant, flame retardant and surfactant and artificial sweetener, neonicotinoid and organophosphate, was a non-functioning, havoc-causing member of society- that would not be absorbed into the murky bog of him and be forgotten but would have a concrete effect on the molecular city of him during his life-span as itself and multiple metabolites. There was no ‘safe’ level . . .”

This is the point of view Tao Lin narrates coming to in his book. It all began with a nagging sense that taking all sorts of prescription type drugs to self- medicate his depression- like Adderall, Xanax, amphetamines of various sorts, heroin and caffeine, weren’t doing him much good. Not that Tao Lin was ‘dumping’ these substances willy-nilly into his body. He carefully measured his doses according to his own body weight, calculating the resulting effects and after-effects. He never seemed to have any big supply of whatever he decided he wanted- it might take him days to do so at any rate- but just enough on hand without, never-the-less, ever having to go without.

Previously, Tao Lin hardly ever took psychedelic drugs or smoked much marijuana, at least not with any enthusiasm. He remained skeptical about the praises often heaped upon these substances. But now, with his late attempts to ‘recover’ from his previous ‘addictions- beginning with  eating a more healthy diet- he started to take an interest in them, especially, as before, as functioning units in his detailed, microcosmic observations of himself. . . every fleeting event, thought, feeling or idea being near religiously recorded on his various electronic devises and more or less broadcast to the world: his rather unique ‘genre’, the fractal items of which  are eventually gathered into books, with, perhaps, the more than simply useful help of his editors and publishers.

Maybe nobody in America is quite as depressed as Tao Lin, at least not anybody writing about it every day almost to the point of intolerable banality. But most people- petit-bourgeoisie in a state of social-economic and political decline- see how it could be, spent some time or many times feeling just like Tao Lin . So Tao Lin has an audience, if only because they might sense: ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’

Tao Lin makes some good points about ‘recovery’. Results don’t come very well from principled, heroic, one-time resolutions. Well, he did try that on one occasion- during a trip on psilocybin- deleting  his internet presence, smashing his computer, hastening like a maniac to desert the city to live in nature but quickly realized that changes would have to be made ‘one step at a time.’

“I would leave society” he writes, “ its drugs and language and ideas and habits and opinions and websites –incrementally, as a gradual and evolving process. I would use psychedelics, books, my history, my mind, and my body to continue learning and the mystery and less of culture and its hierarchies, so that I wouldn’t sink, like in quicksand but without a directional struggle, back into the life I’d once wanted- and had felt, surprisingly and gratefully, empowered to leave”.

“In the fractal model of recovery that I began developing for personal use in 2013 and continue to ponder and use on myself, change becomes a kind of practice. A graph of fractal recovery from drugs and other problems is somewhat unpredictable in the short-term but stable and directional in the long-term. In fractal recovery, change happens to some degree in waves. Failure is expected and can be viewed partly as resonances of past failures, as unavoidable and useful and even enjoyable. Other strengths of the fractal model of behavior modification includes that it has no rules so is optimized for creative involvement, that its main inspiration is nature (the longest surviving known system) and that it allows one to avoid ideology (rules coming from other humans) and so retain individuality even while making and earnest attempt at recovery. . .”

Tao Lin was as careful about his doses of mind-altering drugs as he was with his under-the-counter use of prescription anti-depressants. When he did ‘take the plunge’ into the unknown he became unhinged, experienced ‘pink elephant effects’, feeling that he had ‘been informed’ but subsequently with no accurate memory of what that information had been and left struggling with whatever paranoid reaction set in when the high began to wear off. Perhaps he gained a more  macrocosmic view of the universe but, whatever, he continues to view that experience in the usual, essentially microcosmic Tao Lin fashion.

Monday, April 23, 2018

La Salle's Letters

At the time of his death at the surprisingly youthful age of 43, La Salle’s debts, at minimum, amounted to 106,831 livres, a figure which does not include everything  he lost.  His whole family, upon who he often relied upon for financial support lost between 300,000 and 500,000 which included his expeditions of 1678, 1683 and the fatal one to what would later be called Texas in 1684. These last figures are from a memorial sent to the King by those family members so are certainly an exaggeration. La Salle never made much money, not even from the grants of land and commercial privileges the received from the king, which he often mortgaged to raise funds. 

La Salle’s creditors complained. He responded. Many of these responses were preserved and collected over time. In my judgment they are the most reliable direct evidence we have about the man and they don’t seem overburdened with conventional literary devices.

In the autumn of 1680 La Salle wrote to an associate who had demanded long deferred profits:

“I have had many misfortunes in the last two years. In the autumn of 78 I lost a vessel by the fault of the pilot; in the next summer, the deserters I told you about robbed me of eight or ten thousand livre’s worth of goods [ La Salle kept no books]. In the autumn of 79, I lost a vessel worth more than ten thousand crowns; in the next spring five or six rascals stole the value of four or five thousand livres, were killed or drowned in the St. Lawrence, and the furs were lost. Another robbed me of three thousand livres in beaver skins stored at Michillimackinac. This last summer, I lost seventeen hundred livres worth of goods by the upsetting of a canoe. Last winter, the fort and buildings at Niagara were burned by the fault of the commander; and, in the spring, the deserters, who passed that way, seized a part of the property that remained, and escaped to New York. All this does not discourage me in the least, and will only defer for a year or two the returns of profit which you ask for this year. These losses are no more my fault that the loss of the ship “”St Joseph” was yours. I cannot be everywhere, and cannot help making use of the people in the country.”

He begs his correspondent to send out an agent of his own. “He need not be very savant, but he must be faithful, patient in labor, and fond neither of gambling, women, nor good cheer; for he will find none of these with me here. Trusting in what he will write you, you may close your ears to what priests and Jesuits tell you.”

“ After having put matters in good trim for trade, I mean to withdraw, though I think it will be very profitable; for I am disgusted to find that I must always be making excuses, which is a part I cannot play successfully. I am utterly tired of this business; for I see that it is not enough to put property and life in constant peril, but that it requires more pains to answer envy and detraction than to overcome the difficulties inseparable from my undertaking.”

After the expedition which ended in the scene of horror at ruined town of the Illinois, attacked by a party of 500 Iroquois warriors, to another creditor pressing him for dividends, he wrote:

‘Though I have reason to thank you for what you have done for this enterprise, it seems to me that I have done still more, since I have put everything at stake; and it would be hard to reprove me either with foolish outlays or with the ostentation which is falsely imputed to me. Let my accusers explain what they mean. Since I have been in this country, I have had neither servants, nor clothes, nor fare which did not savor more of meanness than ostentation; and the moment I see that there is anything with which either you or the court can find fault, I assure you that I will give it up; for the life I am leading has no other attraction for me than that of honor; and the more danger and difficulty there is in undertakings of this sort, the more worthy of honor I think they are.”

Perhaps by honor La Salle means that he is not a liar or dissembler. As one admirer wrote of him: “He distinguishes perfectly between that which he knows with certainty and that which he knows with some mingling of doubt. When he does not know, he does not hesitate to avow it; and though I have heard him say the same thing more than five or six times, when persons were present who had not heard it before, he always said it in the same manner. In short, I never heard anybody speak whose words carried with them more marks of truth”. At least the truth as he was able to see it. And it seems that on several occasions in his applications for assistance from the King he did engaged in the usual flatteries and unrealistic assessments of what he could do- like ‘ challenging the Spaniard’s exclusive claims to the Gulf of Mexico’, finding the outlet of the Mississippi by sea when he did not know its longitude, invading New Mexico with an army of Illinois, Miami and remnants of New England tribes brought down river, while oblivious to the vast intervening territory of Texas. Not to say he couldn’t be delusional.

To the same correspondent he continued:

“Above all, if you want me to keep on, do not compel me to reply to all the questions and fancies of the priests and Jesuits. They have more leisure than I; and I am not subtle enough to anticipate all their empty stories. I could easily give you the information you ask; but I have a right to expect that you will not believe all you hear, nor  require me to prove to you that I am not a madman. That is the first point you should have attended , before having business with me; and, in our long acquaintance, either you must have found me out, or else I must have had long intervals of sanity.”

To another correspondent. He defends himself against the charge of harshness to his men:

“ The facility I am said to want is out of place with his sort of people, who are libertines, for the most part; and to indulge them means to tolerate blasphemy, drunkenness, lewdness, and a license incompatible with any kind of order. It will not be found that I have in any case whatever treated any man harshly, except for blasphemies and other such crimes, openly committed. These I cannot tolerate: first, because such compliance would give grounds for another accusation, much more just; secondly, because, if I allowed such disorders to become habitual, it would be hard to keep the men in subordination and obedience, as regards executing the work I am commissioned to do; thirdly, because the debaucheries, too common with this rabble, are  a source of endless delays and frequent thieving, and, finally, because I am a Christian, and do not want to bear the burden of these crimes. . .

I do not know what you mean by having popular manners. There is nothing special in my food, clothing or lodging, which are all the same for me as my men. How can it be that I do not talk to them? I have no other company. M. de Tonty has often found fault with me, because I stopped too often to talk with them. You do not know the men one must employ here, when you exhort me to make merry with them. They are incapable of that; for they are never pleased, unless one gives free reign to their drunkenness and other vices. If that is what you call popular manners, neither honor nor inclination would let me stoop to gain their favor in a way so disreputable; and, besides, the consequence would be dangerous, and they would have the same contempt for me that they have for all who treat them in this fashion.”

[ of course La Salle always took plentiful supplies of wine and brandy on his expeditions. Perhaps he rationed them too severely or reserved them for the Natives?)

“As for what you say about my look and manner, I myself confess that you are not far from right. But naturam expellas: and, if I am wanting in expansiveness and show of feeling towards those with whom I associate, it is only through a timidity which is natural to me, and which has made me leave various employments, where, without it, I could have succeeded. But, as I judged myself ill-fitted for them on account of this defect, I have chosen a life more suited to my solitary dispositions; which, nevertheless, does not make me harsh to my people, though, joined to a life among savages, it makes me, perhaps, less polished and complaisant than the atmosphere of Paris requires. I well believe that there is self-love in this; and that, knowing how little accustomed to a more polite life, the fear of making mistakes makes me more reserved than I like to be. So I rarely expose myself to conversation with those in whose company I am afraid of making blunders, and can hardly help making them. Abbe Renaudot knows with what repugnance I had the honor to appear before Monseigneur de Conti (his main patron at Court); and sometimes it took me week to make up my mind to go to the audience, that is, when I had time to think about myself, and was not driven by pressing business. It is much the same with letters, which I never write except when pushed to it, and for the same reason. It is a defect of which I shall never rid myself as long as I live, often as it spites me against myself, and often as I quarrel with myself about it.”

Parkman remarks that this is a ‘strange confession for a man like La Salle.” And goes on quite a bit to explain it. It seems simple enough to me, he didn’t like and had much contempt for the fopperies of Paris, the Court and aristocratic manners.