Sunday, March 22, 2009

When does 1848 come round again?

... untune one string,
And, hark! what discord follows; each new thing meets
In mere oppugnancy

-- Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida

a corner liquor store window and adjacent building on Fillmore near Haight in San Francisco
We'll get to 1848 shortly via cuff links. I complained a couple of posts ago that I went searching for cuff links amongst my vast collection of tschotschkes, and none appeared. So my good friend Roy, retired Cal Berkeley librarian, brought five fabulous pairs to breakfast on Saturday ... and now I am amply supplied. I love things, and I love things imbued with meaning and past. So wearing Roy's cuff links will be a double delight ... not only am I upping the wardrobe, but I am also in constant touch with a good friend. So it is object as utility and as memory. I like that.

Roy also brought along last week's copy of the New York Times Review of Books and pointed out the article on a new book about 1848, the year that revolutions swept Europe. The Book is 1848: Year of Revolution, by Mike Rapport.

1848 was a year in which great historical utility failed in the face of a memory claimed by reaction.

The ancien regime had morphed through war into a hardened post-Napoleonic conservatism. There were 3 decades of cynicism (Metternich) and idiocy (Louis Napoleon) and weakness (Frederick William IV), and the contradictions in modernizing Europe hardened until only an earthquake would move them. The arth moved, and then it closed back over the revolutionaries. It is not too much to say that the horrors of the next century were founded in those moments.

I also recently read Alistair Horne's essay "France Turns the Other Cheek, July 1870: The needless war with Prussia" in Robert Cowley's What If: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have been, a collection of essays that speculate on how the reversal of single moments in history might have vast effects. Horne's point is that Louis Napoleon took Bismarck's famous bait in the Ems Telegram, and the subsequent Franco-Prussian War of 1870 led to France's humiliation and Germany's unification under Prussian militaristic auspices and, most significantly, an enduring conflict that took two world wars to squelch. Unresolved contradictions live to bite back. Conservatives think only of the moment ... or the last moment ... and their own most narrow self-interest. So, like an earthquake, they live to build up tectonic stress until a slaughter rolls around to blow them away.

Do we see it happening now? As in 1848, conservatives do not merely not have perspective, they are doing everything in their power to obfuscate the better to freeze the moment and stop change in its tracks. 1848 was a missed opportunity ... but there was probably no way that the opportunity could not be missed because the forces just weren't there. Today the forces are there ... we could enter a new era. But conservatives are looking around for a new Louis Napoleon, someone upon whom they might hang their illusions for another couple of decades until they get crushed by the earthquake they are creating.

So the crise du jour is the AIG bonuses. Sure it is obscene, and certainly Frank Rich got it right again when he warned that this could be an early Katrina for Obama. But that is a small item in a big butcher's bill. We have to move on. We have to get past petty fights over whether carbon limits are a new tax. We have to burst into the future. And everything conspires to undermine great historical utility in the face of a false memory claimed by reaction.

Remember what Marx said of 1848 ... the first time tragedy, the second time farce. Tragedy, think Reagan, Bush 1, Bush 2 even. Farce ... think Limbaugh, Coulter, Joe the bloody plumber. None of them are Bismarck. Doubly chilling.

Meanwhile, I have totally cool cuff links, and another great historical read down the road.

Check out my Twitter feed: arodsf

Photo by Arod of a corner liquor store window and adjacent building on Fillmore near Haight in San Francisco

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Jeepers ... get over it, dude

That last post is so gloomy that I gotta do this ... 5 things that make me happy every day.

1. A fine cocktail to end the day handmade by my excellent friend R

2. The sight of beautiful men

3. The sound of birds singing in the morning as I walk the dog

4. Contemplating history

5. Laughing

And of course, photography ... Photos by Arod from around town

There ... no more gloom.


Can't seem to get to writing as much as I want ... so I used an old trick of writing in my head as I walked the dog. It was raining today, so we did our long Fisherman's Wharf/North Beach Walk. That's where the pics are from.

Perhaps I do not feel like writing because of all the writing I do for work ... lame excuse. I have always written for work. As I noted in the immediately preceding post, the economic crisis is simmering at MRU (the major research university where I spin silken tales for a small but sufficient pile of dinars). We know there will be layoffs, and it just gnaws at the soul. I am reasonably secure that I am safe ... but safe today is not safe tomorrow. And safe means constantly ratcheting up the workload. I have long relied upon my own infinite capacity to work ... I am taking a break as I write here on Sunday afternoon between a couple cleanup jobs that will clear some space for big projects tomorrow.

The infinite capacity for work. I don't believe in it ... I would prefer the European approach of 32 hours, long dinners, time for the café. But that is not reality in these here United States, and the economic crisis can only possibly lead to even further intensification of work. Don't get me wrong ... I love my job, and the constantly evolving challenges require genuine ingenuity and commitment.

But what happens if I lose out next year, or the year after ... what happens to me. Multiply that gut-fear by tens of millions and you have the present conjuncture.

So when in doubt, shop. Well, not so much for me ... except for the ceaseless shopping for books. I went to Macys, I bought pants and shirts and socks and shoes and a new belt. I feel best about the belt. The idea is that the intensification of work requires an intensification of fashion. If I going to be carrying bigger projects to greater powers, I should look the part of where I want to go. I dress like a schlump ... a clean, respectable schlump, but a schlump.

And so there I was last night, rummaging through the second drawer in my dresser, which is dedicated to sundry baubles and accoutrements of a life that has been by parts hippie, gay guy, leather dude, uniform collector, Renaissance Faire goer. I was looking for cuff links. I found 15 pairs of abandoned sunglasses ... mostly aviator things that I would use to add that special soupçon of class to a well-turned out uniform. I had the good sense to pile them up and consign them to the Community Thrift store. I also found something like a dozen earrings ... I have never worn earrings. They're going as well. I now have a bowl of badges ... over a dozen. I always had the badges, but now I will have them out for display and perusal and mirth.

What I did not find is cuff links. So I will have to wear the cool new shirt tomorrow with the cuffs turned up ... I do that all the time anyway ... I have never been able to work or type or even walk around without rolling up my cuffs. But what with the new clothes, the new glasses ... did I mention I have new super-slick MyKita-frame, German bifocals ... I thought I would go for the whole look. Oh well.

The glasses have been good overall ... it is really cool to be able to read stuff without fumbling around for reading glasses ... and I like the style. But I have to watch it. I have had two little accidents that I blame on them. I actually walked into a door because I was looking down and thought I had another six inches. Ooops. And yesterday, I tapped the bumper of a car in a parking lot as I turned into a parking spot. Very unnerving. I looked at the other bumper and there was not even a mark ... I mean it was a brush-by at 2 mph. But I never do that. I am a very careful driver. It really got under my skin. I had been shopping all day, and I am genuine shopaphobic, so I short-circuited and headed home.

The only cure is a good long walk ... nearly 3 hours of which half an hour was spent at Caffè Puccini at a sidewalk table, awning-protected from the threatening drizzle.

This is two gloomy posts in a row, and separated by two weeks. I have a half-written thing on Charlemagne, and I have just finished the deliciously written Justinian's Flea, which looks at Justinian and the terrible plague that decimated the world in the latter half of his reign. More to write on that. So I promise ... at least I promise myself ... to write more and not allow myself to be so cheaply unnerved.

Photos by Arod, all taken today at Fisherman's Wharf or North Beach.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Glum or Gloomy

Feeling glum ... and gloomy. They're not the same. Glum is low bore self-pity; gloomy is clear-eyed watching the storms gather. Sometimes there are no storms. This time there are.

Over the weekend, there was a memo from work which brought home the economic crisis ... that is to say, the depression. It was a minor memo, and the content is not something I choose to disclose ... this blog is not about the particulars of my work even if I can muse about the nature of work in the electronic era from time to time. But the memo was so short, so firm, and indicated just how deep the cuts are going to be. I wonder who is on the block; I am reliably informed it is not me, but what if that does not last? How many people with seemingly firm jobs glumly, gloomily confront a future where everything solid could melt into poverty in one horrible morning meeting?

In the meanwhile, with Americans slowly groking how shallow is the pool and how deep is the doodoo, the 'publicans have opted for a nihilism so thin and so dark and so obvious that one is left to wonder. But wonder not ... of such things are the darkest periods in human history made. They are dancing with the devil, and they know, and they like it. Bobby Jindal be damned ... he is their clown, their marionette dancing to orders from bozos, and thereby a bozo himself.

But I am far away from what started me thinking about this post. It was the memo ... and it was my glum recent quandary when faced with two laundry bags that no longer fit into my life. I found I could not throw them out. They are folded, ungeometrically, on a stool in my bedroom that collects sundry objects pining for a place of their own. They came into my life with a fetching but cheap wicker basket that I use for dirty clothes ... but they are useless and they don't fit the basket so I want to get rid of them. I can't do it. I hate throwing things out.

How much better off would we be if we hated throwing things out as a society. We have become so inured to the obscenity of discarding things still filled with utility that we have backed ourselves into a global cataclysm. Next time you get out, watch as the busboys clear tables and imagine how much food is discarded in the restaurants of America every day. Okay, that is cranky ... but it is true.

That memo mentioned above portends, without predicting, people being discarded. I do not blame my immediate bosses ... they are marching to orders from the real deciders who are marching to orders generated by the collapse of our illusions. But our response to a crisis is to dispose of people when a society which worked together would respond to a crisis. Curious that it is the nihilists of the 'publican bent who are Christians and eschew so virulently the notion that Marx derived from Christianity Christian "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Witness this, o christians:

32. And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
33. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.
34. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
35. And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. [Acts 4:32-35; my emphasis]

I suppose I am rambling.

So as I was waiting yesterday for dinner, I grabbed a book off the shelf at random, as I often do, and read a passage to RL, my sainted roommate, cook, and bartender. It was Istvan Mészáros' 1970 Marx's Theory of Alienation. This was a book that made a big splash among the leftists and radicals who were my companions in that era. I picked a random quote, something that I underlined more than three decades ago,

Alienation is therefore characterized by the universal extension of "saleability" (i.e. the transformation of everything into commodity); by the conversion of human beings into "things" so that they could appear as commodities on the market on the market (in other words : the "reification" of human relations); and by the fragmentation of the social body into "isolated individuals" ... who pursued their own, particularistic aims "in servitude to egotistic need", making a virtue out of their selfishness in their cult of privacy.)

You know ... that may be Marx, and I may be an atheistic ex-post-Marxist ... but if you read that as a quote from the Bible to a bunch of christers, they would believe it was the words of Jesus.

Whatever else, it does come close to the glum soul of our gloomy crisis.

Photos by Arod from the countryside around Winchester, Ontario, 2007