ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Sin Against the Human Spirit, " by Ricardo L. Nirenberg

"Could we live a decent life without mainstream media outlets?"  My friend Massimo Calcaterra posed the question on the first day of 2020, and for a moment I wasn't sure what he meant.  The word "outlet" immediately suggested a hole and a pipe for letting water out of a sink or tub or toilet, and this suggestion was reinforced by the word "stream."  The addition of "main" to "stream" directed my mind more specifically toward large, important pipes, like sewers.  "Media," I didn't quite know what to make of it until I decided it must refer to the intervening thing, the conduit in between, in the middle.  In other words, the medium that carries waste from kitchen or bathroom to a place where it can be disposed of.

"Well," I said, "it depends on the number of people living together.  When we were camping —remember?—we took a crap no matter where, crouching in the grass or sitting atop a tree fork, as long as it was at some remove from the tents, and we washed and bathed in the lake.  We were only forty or fifty of us.  But when several thousand live in a town, the situation is different.  If houses have backyards and sufficient space in between, each can have their private sewers and their own sceptic tank, but when you have a city where buildings are crowded, then large public sewers are essential for a decent life."

Massimo burst out laughing.  "Sewers!  Crap's always in your mind, my friend.  By mainstream media outlets I meant a different kind of shit.  I meant the mass circulation newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, the Internet, the places that provide people with news and preside over their thoughts.  What I was asking is if you think we could live a decent life without the news."

"I'm sorry I misinterpreted you.  It must be the hangover.  How many bottles of wine did we drink last night, toasting the new year and throwing dust on the one that passed?  For each of the last twenty years my new-year resolution has been not to drink myself to a stupor on the next new year's eve, and I've consistently failed."

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast," said Massimo sententiously, and he went on with growing agitation, "Well, maybe it should not.  But as I read this morning in one of those MSMOs, written by a distinguished columnist: 'One is supposed to be optimistic for the new year.'  One is supposed!  If something is supposed, there must be those who suppose, right?  But who are the supposers?  Why, of course, the journalists; not you, not me.  They are the ones who make a world out of whole cloth and then write articles and columns about it.  And if someone points out the fabrication, they respond: "Whaddya mean, a fabrication?  It's been commented and analyzed all over the media!"

"Massimo, don't get worked up about fake news, you end up sounding like you know who..."

"You misunderstand me again.  Fake news, Fox News, it's all the same: news are fake by definition.  They are poison.  That's my point.  Just this morning, that prominent and promiscuous MSMO located at the navel of the world, which boasts of printing all the news that's fit to print... well, this slimy rag printed a prophetic utterance by their prime Pythia of technology.  It ruined my day, and perhaps my whole year.  Let me read this to you."

Massimo twiddled a bit with his computer, and read: "While our tech devices have, on the whole, been good for most people, there is a true business opportunity in making them work more efficiently and without a reliance on addiction. Whether we move toward more intuitively created tech that surrounds us or that incorporates into our bodies (yes, that's coming), I am going to predict that carrying around a device in our hand and staring at it will be a thing of the past by 2030. And like the electrical grid we rely on daily, most tech will become invisible."

"I must admit it's horrible," I said.

"The horror! The horror!, man, it's here, in the heart of New York.  A true business opportunity which doesn't rely on addiction: isn't that portentous?  The processed food industry will be able to beam sugar molecules electronically into your gullet, the tobacco industry will instill smoke electronically into your lungs, the porn industry will transmit the screwing to your amygdala and the beaver shots to your hippocampus nonstop.  We'll all be telecontrol-led zombies.  This horrible prophetess has never set foot outside of New York City, as you can tell by her reference to an invisible electrical grid, and she has never set her mind's eye on any time period other than her own lifetime, as you can tell by her wildly upbeat and abominable extrapolations."

"Massimo, only a self-tormentor will read The New York Times as assiduously and as closely."

"I know you avoid it.  I know you'd rather read a history of the Crimean War, or a book on the birds of the Canary Islands.  But, my friend, isn't that burying your head in the sand?  General opinion, and with it the general will, which, as you know, governs in a democracy, is formed and deformed by that rag and others like it.  How can you take your civic obligations seriously if you refuse to read the news?  That's why I was asking, can we lead a decent life without news outlets?  And by decent I mean responsible too."


I was at a loss as to how to respond to Massimo's question, and as I am writing this, a few days later, I still am.  I try, but I can only think about it the way I was taught to think, by logically analyzing the concepts involved, looking for historical parallels, recalling memorable readings closely or remotely related to the matter at hand, but above all, letting my mind roam the way Don Quixote let his Rocinante take him haphazardly; all of which makes for serious hindrance and delays.  Others are able to perform some sort of somersault and land with their feet on the right spot, that is, on a satisfying answer; not me.  I lie in bed at night, recalling Massimo's fierce disgust and the prophecies of that business-school Norn of Doom in The New York Times, whose nauseatingly reassuring "yes, that's coming" reminds me of a 1940 Hitler speech aimed at freaking out the Brits: "Wir kommen, wir kommen".  Perhaps I've taken a wrong turn long ago, and now wonder if I should perhaps return to my youthful, brief fling with Marxism.  A gloomy cloud of rebellious texts from the sixties floats above my sleepless head.  Tout d'abord, Guy Debord.  Our moribund capitalistic society is the society of the spectacle.  Far out.  The very word, spectacle, opens views of terminal decadence: the late Romans too absorbed at the games to pay attention to the barbarians at the gates.  Absorbed by the make-believe they perish, oblivious to reality and the impending disaster: spectacles do look temptingly like the problem.  Even today, in the Spanish newspaper El País (with which I have replaced The New York Times for my "realistic morning prayer"), a journalist observed: "La falsificación de la realidad es la mejor realidad. Y también es la que está mejor pagada." (The falsification of reality is the better reality. And it is also the better paid).  Right out of Guy Debord.  But the brutally naïve ontology of Marxism, the opposition of objective and subjective, reality and image, the first term by nature better than the second, as if they were not always mutually dependent and interchangeable, makes it impossible for an old man like me to regress to historical materialism.  Besides, one has to keep in mind that the plays of Plautus, Terence, or Shakespeare, not to mention the Greek playwrights, are spectacles too, yet it would take a beast like Stalin to claim that they are falsifications of reality.  I think it was Stalin who said, literature had to be national in form and socialist in content, i.e. national-socialist.  We have to admit there are differences among spectacles, and it won't do to throw them all in the same basket, as did Tertullian or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Similarly, there is journalism and there is journalism.  Two German names, both dear to me in adolescence, suddenly pop up, I don't know why: Heinrich Heine and Hermann Hesse.

Pulling this or that pillow from under my head and turning over to my other side as if to shake and energize my memory, I try to recall The Glass Bead Game, the last novel by Hesse.  It is set some four centuries into the future, in a place called Castalia, where a sort of monastic order of erudite men – no women – devote themselves to teaching and, most importantly, to playing a game, el juego de abalorios or Glasperlenspiel, whose rules are not explained, but we are allowed to gather that it has to do with finding recondite connections in the vast corpus of knowledge inherited from the past.  No new knowledge is produced in Castalia, nothing of what in our universities is called research.  It looks as if the players are castrated mathematicians who, having offered their manhood as a sacrifice to atone for the fragmentation and utter disconnectedness of past culture (i.e. our own), are now devoted to the endeavor of making it whole.  Our own time of fragmentation is dubbed the Age of the Feuilleton, a word with a pejorative twang, meaning mostly the cultural and literary supplements of our newspapers.  This, I realize now, is what brought Hesse's novel, read when I was fifteen or sixteen, back to my mind.  I toss over to the other side, put a pillow on my face, and ask myself what might have been so vile about the feuilleton.  In those days when I was reading Hesse I used to read, too, the Sunday literary supplement of La Nación, a Buenos Aires daily, and there I found, amid much that was soon forgotten, some that was not, and many a Borges poem that has never quit me.  The Glass Bead Game, as it turns out, was more important for me than I thought: perhaps it excited my calling, which seems to be to try to make, out of the little I think I know and the much I think I have forgotten, something I may think of as a whole.  It sounds crazy, but what good is it to be in love with Beethoven's late piano sonatas and with Euclidean geometry, if we are unable to join those tributary loves into a single love?  "Our lives are rivers, gliding free / To that unfathomed, boundless sea," as Longfellow mimicked Jorge Manrique; but notice he didn't say rivulets or creeks.  Anyway, if I had never understood the reasons for Hesse's animus against the feuilleton, this is because I was unaware that it was a frightful quirk of German modernism.

My awareness of the frightful quirk began in my late thirties, when, enthralled by the music of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and intrigued by that strange commutativity, Liebestod equals Todeslieb, I looked at the composer's writings against the Jews, whom he accused of having transformed artistic objects that were the inheritance of two millennia of heroic deeds and toil, into "art bills of exchange" – Kunstwarenwechsel.  Mendelssohn, whose Lieder ohne Worte I had learned to play and love as a boy, was superficial, while the poet Heine, to whom Wagner owed the legend and plot of Der fliegende Holländer, wrote poems that are but gedichteten Lügen, versified lies.  I remember one of my visits to my old mother in 1991 or 2 in her tiny Buenos Aires apartment.  While we were as usual drinking maté and listening to music on the radio, she expressed the opinion that Jews are not good at arts or literature, and that the true yiddishe kop applies itself to commerce or banking, to money making or money changing.  I knew of course that she had no education beyond elementary school; nevertheless that shocked me.  Had she been reading Wagner?  No, that wasn't possible.  Had Wagner's view of the Jews pervaded even the Jews' view of themselves?  The historian Heinrich von Treitschke, upholder of Bismarck's Reich and promoter of the unholy trinity of nationalism, racism, and colonialism, decreed, circa 1890, that the feuilleton – yes, the seemingly innocuous feuilleton! – was a poison that was killing German culture, and that the poisoners were – guess who – the Jews.  Heinrich Heine, he declared, had been their mastermind.  The historian was a prophet: less than fifty years later, Heine's books were going up in flames all over Germany, and as Heine himself had written in Almanzor, "where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too." Heine had often contributed to the German press between his move to Paris in 1831 and his death there in 1856.  Long-suffering Heine, who supplemented the meagre income from his prose and poetry books by writing for the newspapers; exquisitely skeptical Heine, whose favorite books as a boy were Don Quixote and Gulliver's Travels, where he must have learned – I dare suggest – his sad and humorous blend of the high and the low, of the lyrical and the satirical; Heine the pagan Jew, whose aversion to all received pieties had a double effect: he earned the hatred of Treitschke and his venomous ilk, and the love of the teenager I once was.  I used to read Heine's Reisebilder in a Spanish translation and selection, Cuadros de viaje.  I admired his opening description of the city of Göttingen, a city famous for its sausages and university, a pretty city which one likes best when throwing a backward glance (Rückblick) at it.


Heine was escaping from the law degree he had gotten in Göttingen and the consequential law career.  Perhaps, before he threw that backward glance, he should have thought of Lot and his wife escaping Sodom; whatever he was thinking back then, years later I was to find in Heine's glance an added load of irony.  All through the nineteenth century and up to 1933, Göttingen was the most prestigious mathematics center in the world; when the Nazis expelled the Jews, Göttingen mathematicians moved to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and to New York University and its (later named) Courant Institute, from which in 1966 I received a PhD.  As for the brilliant Göttingen mathematician Emmy Noether, being a woman on top of a Jew, hence unwelcome at Princeton or New York, she made do with Bryn Mawr.  Often, yes, too often, lying on this bed as now, I've dreamt with Professors Courant, Friedrichs, Bers, Moser, my namesake Louis Nirenberg, and the rest of the crew.  Was it yesterday or was it even tonight, in some brief spell, that I dreamt I was being escorted through anti-chambers, marble chambers, and wood-paneled libraries, to Richard Courant's office?  There, I was expected to exculpate myself for having abandoned math.

The poems of Heine's Buch der Lieder I encountered later than his prose: for my eighteenth birthday my sister gave me my first LP record, Lotte Lehmann singing Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe, a setting of twenty of those poems.  Of the last one, where "Die alten, bösen Lieder, / die Träume bös' und arg" (The old, evil songs, / the evil, angry dreams) are supposed to be put inside a coffin and sunk into the sea, I didn't catch, until much later, the gist of the final stanza:

Wißt ihr warum der Sarg wohl
so groß und schwer mag sein?
Ich senkt' auch meine Liebe
Und meinen Schmerz hinein.

(Do you know why the coffin
could be so big and heavy?
I sank my love together
with all my grief in it),

but the music that accompanied it plucked the strings of my heart.  It was a timely present, right at the season when I began falling in love and also right when I decided to study math.  I turn on the light and make a note not to forget to mull over that remarkable coincidence, some other sleepless night.


I turn off the light.  Both Heine and Schumann died in 1856 after much suffering, leaving their world when it had fallen in the grip of a pandemic, a new infectious disease called The New, whose main symptom is mortal boredom.  The age of the feuilleton wasn't over, far from it, but the feuilleton got more and more entangled with The New, as The New York Times got, much later, entangled with its technology Pythia and her zombie apps.  The marriage of Journalism and the New was made in both heaven and hell, and out of it the twins Ennui and Modernism were conceived.  All those events were heralded in Goethe's Faust, but their seals of Holy Writ were stamped, as far as the French are concerned, by Charles Baudelaire and his Fleurs du mal, whose first edition is of 1857.  My involvement with those poems dates not to my teens but to my late thirties, after I had quit math; my first public excursion into the academic humanities, if memory doesn't fail this once, was a talk I gave about Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, T.S. Eliot's Wasteland, and the last poem in Les Fleurs du mal.  I've lost the text and I don't recall the details: perhaps all I am remembering tonight is but the contents of that talk.  It was, I felt, well received, but at the end a professor in the English department pointed out that death is only a literary topos.  Whatever death may turn out to be, here are the last eight lines, addressed to death, of Les Fleurs du mal, first included in the second edition (1861), and my attempt at translation:

Ô Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l'ancre!
Ce pays nous ennuie, ô Mort! Appareillons!
Si le ciel et la mer sont noirs comme de l'encre,
Nos cœurs que tu connais sont remplis de rayons !
Verse-nous ton poison pour qu'il nous réconforte !
Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau,
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu'importe ?
Au fond de l'Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau !

Death, old captain, time has come! Anchors aweigh!
This place bores us to death, o Death! Let us cast off!
Sky and sea are dark, ink-black,
but our hearts, as you're aware, flash beams of light!
Pour your poison for us to give us comfort!
Brains ablaze, we want to dive
down to the bottom, be it Heaven or Hell:
the bottom of the Unknown, to discover the New!

« Verse-nous ton poison pour qu'il nous réconforte ! » reminds me of Massimo's angry cry that all news are poison; but we should be fair to the poet: by nouveau Baudelaire does not mean quite the same as the New York Times; he does not value novelty in technology nearly as high as novelty in the moral and esthetic realms, as he makes clear elsewhere, e.g. in his Fusées.  But given the way he was tormented by Time – at every minute (he writes also in Fusées) we are crushed by the idea and the feeling of time, and he adds that the only way to forget that nightmare is either work or pleasure – given this attitude, or as Heidegger calls it, Grundstimmung, or basic attunement to Time, we cannot expect too fine an eye for discriminating between newness in morals or esthetics and newness in gizmos or apps: newness is like opium.  We get it where we can.  We are like patients etherized upon our screens.

Baudelaire's mortal boredom, a.k.a. existential boredom, is a peculiar symptom, a syndrome that is an enantiodromia, a double-fronted Janus that exhibits the oppositions inherent in the nature of Time.  When Heidegger picked up the theme of boredom in a course he gave in Freiburg in 1929-30, he treated it at some length, and, as was his wont, defined it from etymology: boredom in German is Langweile, long while, meaning that when we are bored we feel time is too long, its flow too slow.  The opium of the New, one would then guess, is a remedy to make the flow of time feel faster, so that boredom would be the disease, and the New its balm, its anesthesia.  Yet one can cogently maintain, as I chose to do a while ago, that the New is the disease and boredom is the symptom whose definition is not that time flows slowly, but rather that, pushed hither and thither by the New, we never have the occasion nor the will to pause, to marvel at, and to acknowledge the surprising gifts of the moment.  That is the sin against the human spirit.  That is the devilish part.  Remember Faust's gage to Mephistopheles:

Werd ich zum Augenblicke sagen:
Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!
Dann magst du mich in Fesseln schlagen,
Dann will ich gern zugrunde gehn!

(Should I ever say to the moment:
please abide! You are so fair!
then you may put me in chains,
then will I gladly go to hell!)

Whereby Faust condemns himself to boredom.  And he thinks, just like so many of us, that such boredom will be heavenly!  The Devil will provide Faust with ever-flowing New, and Faust's soul will drown under the sewery flow.  Another reason to prefer my definition of boredom over Heidegger's is that boredom may be perceived as a slowing of time only at the present moment; later, on recollection or im Rückblick (as Heine preferred to look at Göttingen), it is perceived as the opposite, as an acceleration: where did time go, the stealthy?  It flew away!  And now, on this sleepless January night, while I rub my tingling foot and ponder whether I should get up from bed and eat a banana, I ask myself: where did December go, when everyone was wondering aloud where 2019 had gone?

Baudelaire does not have the genius of Goethe, not by a long shot.  When he tries to imitate Goethe's Faust in his "Le Joueur généreux" (The Generous Gambler), he explicitly takes boredom to be the disease, his own disease, and the ever-flowing New the balm.  Nor did he measure up to Heine, whose "Die alten, bösen Lieder" provides, in a few lines and in simple natural terms, that which Baudelaire pretends to achieve with his large thuriferous, sulfurous machine.  The French poet's preference for grandiosity over simplicity is remarkably similar to Wagner's: this is also shown in their condescending judgment of Heine.  In Baudelaire's opinion Heine is no genius:

« Ce charmant esprit, qui serait un génie s'il se tournait plus souvent vers le divin » (that charming mind, who would be a genius if only he turned more often toward the godly; in L'Expo de 1855).

This judgment says much about the man the French call le roi des poètes, especially if we read it together with one of his most often quoted aphorisms about human nature, from Mon cœur mis à nu:

« Il y a dans tout homme, en toute heure, deux postulations simultanées, l'une vers Dieu, l'autre vers Satan » (In each man there are, at all times, two simultaneous postulations: one toward God, the other toward Satan).

Heine, then, to believe Baudelaire, was too inclined, too unbalanced toward Satan to be a genius.  But to interpret that judgment, we shouldn't rush to Dantesque conclusions: Baudelaire is the poet of modernism, not of scholasticism.  His God and Satan have less to do with eternal salvation or damnation than with the vexing problems of the New: the New imposed on that which ought to be always the same.  His religion can be roughly culled from his work, in particular from his Journaux intimes, of which Fusées (Rockets) is the first part.  There he writes that even if God did not exist, religion would be sacred and divine.  Editors and annotators have puzzled over that phrase, even though its meaning is quite clear: what Baudelaire needed from the sacred books is only the first three chapters of Genesis, where God separates earth from heaven, light from darkness, water from earth, and most importantly man from the animals, and man from woman; when man falls, he does so tempted by an animal and a woman.  Baudelaire, moreover, was less interested in the creation of all that stuff than in its separation: he could do without God, but His absolute separations were sacred and necessary.  Satan and his "evil," of which Baudelaire offered us the buds, meant descent to the inferior levels, contact with animality and woman and voluptuousness; whereas God meant for Baudelaire ascent to the uppermost, where man stays gloriously alone, admiring himself on a mirror.  His Journals are filled with his love of prostitution and gross invectives against women as animals: "Aimer les femmes intelligentes est un plaisir de pédéraste" (to love intelligent women is a homosexual pleasure); "Woman is natural, thus abominable. Hence she is always vulgar, thus the opposite of the Dandy."  A dandy, remember, is what Baudelaire aspired to be, and a dandy, remember, is one whose main occupation is to admire himself on a mirror.  George Sand, who dared defy the tenets of the time regarding the separation of the sexes, was the object of his most vitriolic hatred:

« Que quelques hommes aient pu s'amouracher de cette latrine, c'est bien la preuve de l'abaissement des hommes de ce siècle. » (That certain men could fall for that latrine proves the degradation of the men of this century).

Well, we know that Baudelaire's favorite composer was Wagner (he said so); quand même, to speak of degradation in the case of one of Sand's famous lovers, Frédéric Chopin!  I spend some moments on a senseless question, triggered perhaps by the stupidity of the word latrine: What would Baudelaire have written of Emmy Noether, woman, mathematician and Jew?

His religion was, in two words, absolute separation, contrary to the likely etymology from Latin religare, which means to tie together.  That is why Baudelaire hated so much the ideal of vulgar, Comtian-positivistic progress: as he says, real progress is ascent, it is the erasure of the traces of man's fall.  To the boy inspired by Hesse's Glassbead Game, where the object was to find connections, Baudelaire's obsessive separations could not but be repellent.  As for his judgment of Heine, it becomes clearer when we remember Heine's ambivalent reactions to the turmoil and tragedy of 1848-9: his conviction that the rebels had justice on their side, joined with disgust at rebelions – too crude, too loud, in his own words, "Für pöbelscheue, zarte Ohren" (for mob-abhorrent, tender ears).  Baudelaire may have belonged to those who judged Heine a fence sitter: had Heine believed in God the Separator, he would have been less ironical and skeptical, more on the side of law and order – and more of a genius.

I look at the clock: it's half past three, and I'm not half done with Baudelaire, his New, and his separations.  Did Baudelaire hear of Darwin's The Origin of Species, published in 1859, halfway between the first two editions of Les Fleurs du mal?  I promise myself to google it in the morning and check my Pléiade tomes.  Unlikely, though.  Had the dandy known of Darwin's work, he would have ipso facto identified it with Satan, as our evangelicals do.  I'm about to turn on the light to write a note – google Darwin & Baud – when other memories from my past descend upon me and push me back onto my pillow, deeper and deeper.  Deep I sink, into a basement.  In the mid-eighties, in the basement of the university library, I found a complete collection of the Argentine literary magazine Sur, founded in 1931, and spent hours in the project of reading it all.  Back in my youth I had read a few articles, very few; then math dislodged all else, and now, past forty, all else returned with a vengeance and a fury.  In the earliest issues of Sur I read Borges' polemics with Roger Caillois about Edgar Alan Poe's creation of a literary genre, the crime novel, and I read Benjamin Fondane – a name encountered here for the first time – on the talkies, which, selon lui, were wrecking the art of the movies.  I noticed that the Spanish translations from the French in Sur were atrocious; they were anonymous, and I suspect they were the work of Victoria Ocampo, the founder and editor.  And I realize now – as I never did before – that those early essays already showed a spiritual chasm between Borges and Fondane, who were very nearly of the same age: Borges celebrated in Poe the writer who had combined literary fiction with journalistic crime news; Fondane disliked the talkies and tended to view them as a fall because, in his opinion, they combined genuine cinema with the much older theater; that, I wager, informs their opposing takes on Baudelaire.

Ocampo had met Fondane, by her own account, in 1929, at the Paris apartment of Léon Chestov, a.k.a. Lev Shestov, the pen name of Lev Isaakovich Schwarzmann, a Russian-Jewish philosopher.  She had gone there on a visit with her friend José Ortega y Gasset, a fatuous philosopher whose misogynism matched that of Baudelaire, yet whose influence on Spanish and Hispano-American culture was multifaceted and immense: he was, inter alia, the founder of the publishing house Espasa-Calpe and of its Colección Austral, where I first read, in my teens, Heine, Unamuno, Antonio Machado, and, among many others, Ortega himself.  Heaven forgive me if what has stayed of Ortega's œuvre most vividly in my mind is a remark he made about my native city and its mainstream media outlets.  Why, he asked himself, did Buenos Aires remind him of Kant?  It was, he soon realized, because the newspaper boys yelled, "¡Crítica, La Razón!", the two main evening rags back in the 1940s.  Anyway, Ocampo and Ortega noticed a young man in the elevator wearing a jaunty beret and orange or green gloves and scarf: it was Fondane.  (That, to my mind, points to an incipient dandyism in Fondane, and an affinity with Baudelaire.) They were introduced, and while Shestov and Ortega talked philosophy, Victoria and Benjamin talked about tangos, and became friends.

Fondane was the adopted name of Benjamin Wechsler, a Romanian Jew born in Iași, who moved to Paris in 1923, and mutated from Romanian poetry to poetry in French.  "Wechsler" means changer, money changer, or trader, and brings back to my mind Wagner's anti-Semitic coinage, Kunstwaarenwechsel.  Shestov, born in Kiev in 1866, fled his native land in 1921, after the Bolshevik Revolution, and became an exile, like Heine; like Heine, too, he lived the rest of his life in Paris.  Here the parallels end: Shestov would not, like Heine, "bow to fate, being too weak to defy it"; the main article of his doctrine is that we are too weak to defy fate only because we have not enough faith.  The same point is made often in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and Shestov contrasts those with Greek philosophy in the old, Pauline tradition of Athens against Jerusalem.  Proclaiming himself the enemy of Stoicism particularly and of Greek thought in general, Shestov adamantly opposes Spinoza's admonishment, non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere (do not ridicule, nor lament, nor despise, but understand).  Passion, not the understanding, is Shestov's path to faith; indeed, he takes Genesis 3 literally: the fruit of knowledge is death.  Job raised his wails to God because he had faith that He would listen, and did get his health, his children, and his cattle back: it is stupid and cruel to tell Job, non lugere.  Never mind that Spinoza's admonishment was intended for historians, not for stricken souls: such details, or efforts to understand, will only confuse the issue. Lamentation by itself, however, is not sufficient for the miracle of getting back that which is no more: we must be at the end of our tether, hopeless and terminal, like Job; only then, says Shestov, can our strong faith move mountains and force time to stop and to back up.  One day Fondane asked him how, in view of those teachings, could he expect to have any disciples?  Who would dare follow him, if it required reaching the extremes of grief?  Shestov enthusiastically told him, You are the first one to understand my thought!, and on that day Fondane became his beloved disciple.

Thus, when in 1929 Victoria Ocampo, invited him to Buenos Aires to give talks at Amigos del arte, a group founded five years earlier by herself and other upper-crust Argentine ladies, Fondane showed them some avant-garde films by Man Ray and Buñuel; he discoursed about Shestov's philosophy and let them into a transcendent secret: the true critique of reason is not Kant's, but Dostoevsky's Underground Man.  And when Ocampo, inspired by her friend Ortega and his Revista de Occidente, founded Sur in 1931, Fondane became a contributor right away: between 1931 and July 1940 a total of nine essays, all published previously in French – Victoria did not seem to mind, paid for them, and, as indicated above, probably translated them herself.  Through Fondane, Shestov contributed to Sur four essays, also translated from the French.

Reading Sur in the library basement led to tangible results: I resolved to write a piece titled "The Passion of Benjamin Fondane."  It was to be my first literary essay, other than my unpublished and lost talk on Wagner, Eliot, and Baudelaire.  My non-math publications, at the time, were only a few short stories, memories of childhood, and a long, desultory poem.  The Fondane project took a while.  First, it aroused the interest of the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, who was an admirer of Shestov and of his anti-conceptual, faith-driven struggle against the certainties of reason and the arrow of time; Bonnefoy put me in contact with Emil Cioran, a compatriot and friend of Fondane's back in the occupied Paris of 1942-4.  Cioran told me much about Fondane and Shestov, and advised me to send the essay to Andrei Codrescu, in whose journal Exquisite Corpse it finally appeared in 1989.  A word is needed to explain my title: it was meant to suggest the passion of Jesus Christ, another Jew who knew he was to be sacrificed and did nothing to avoid it.  Shestov died in 1938 and was spared the worst; as for his only disciple, someone denounced his family name was Wechsler: Fondane was arrested by the police in Paris in March 1944, taken to Drancy, and gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau in October.  He knew it had to be, and did nothing to avoid it.

And now, sleepless in this excessive night, Rilke's Nacht aus Übermaß, I ask myself what led me to Shestov and Fondane, thence to Bonnefoy and Cioran.  The French would say, Ah, le hasard objectif – yes, no doubt, there are chance encounters, especially in library basements, but what caused me to dwell on this one encounter and put myself under its star?  Am I asking a senseless question, as logical positivists might object?  Or is this attribution of senselessness itself senseless?  When, in the library basement, I chanced into Fondane and Shestov I was 46 or 47; Fondane was 45 when he died, Baudelaire 46: what had I done of my life?  The lines of Rimbaud, who died at 37, tormented me:

« Oisive jeunesse
À tout asservie,
Par délicatesse
J'ai perdu ma vie ».  

(Shiftless youth
to all and everything attached,
because of such solicitude 
I've wasted my life.)

What led me to Shestov and Fondane?  Most likely, it was their father-son relationship: at thirty I had lost my father, and the mourning had not ceased; my short stories were mostly about it, and in Shestov and Fondane I found a perfection of that vital link which, between my father and me, had bloomed and then wilted as I entered puberty.  Yet underneath it all there was another motive.  Pontius Pilate put it superbly: "What is truth?"  Mathematicians are convinced that, like Pythagoras and Jesus, they come into the world that they should be witnesses to the truth.  Their teachings, that two plus two make four and others things of that sort, have to be accepted unless one is raving mad.  Even so, Dostoevsky's Underground Man preferred to go mad sooner than to accept that two plus two make four, and that's why Shestov said he was the author of the true critique of reason; the Underground Man preferred to follow his caprice rather than the rules of arithmetic.  I had needed math in my youth to resist the sucking and submerging force of untruth all around, but at some point, after my father died, I needed a different sort of truth, having more to do with lived time or, as Kierkegaard says, with subjectivity.  All the mathematicians I have known despise the value of timebound truth or negate its possibility.  To focus my Rückblick on Göttingen: Hermann Weyl used to say that when it comes to stuff outside of the mathematical sciences, man's capacity for self-deception is infinite, and David Hilbert, hearing that someone had abandoned math for poetry, snickered, "Good, he did not have enough imagination to become a mathematician."  It was that awful, self-sufficient snicker, which I encountered every day and everywhere mimicked by my colleagues, that pushed me into the arms of Shestov and Fondane.  There is no stronger motive, at least for me; there is nothing I resent more than being snickered at.

Cioran I remember with admiration and affection.  I was surprised that this man, famous for his bleak view of life, this soul exalted by the Spanish mystics and the French language, was so street-smart.  When, at the end of a long visit to his garret at the rue de l'Odéon, my wife and I were standing to say good-bye, Cioran asked me what I did for a living, and as I said that I taught math, he beamed and said, "ça fait bien" (that's cool).  He knew that in the mind of most people mathematics is the gold backing of philosophical speak, even though he considered analytic philosophy a major disaster inflicted on the world.  Among the stories he told us about Fondane during the Occupation, Cioran expressed his own puzzlement at seeing how his friend went out and around with no precaution, defiantly dressed as "un clochard fantasque" (a fanciful bum).  Those two words have kept sounding in my mind in counterpoint to Baudelaire's dandyism.

For it was on Baudelaire that Fondane spent the Occupation.  From 1941 until his arrest in 1944 he spent most of his time writing Baudelaire et l'expérience du gouffre, Baudelaire and the Experience of the Abyss, which appeared posthumously in 1947.  Among the several essays I ended up publishing about Fondane, there is one in which I concentrated on that book; that was 15 or 16 years ago and I'm not sure where to find it; I'll find out tomorrow morning.  I do remember, however, that among the many things left in it unsaid par délicatesse, there is the elephant in the room, the fact of Baudelaire's anti-Semitism.  Fondane never mentions the sonnet "Une nuit que j'étais près d'une affreuse Juive" (One night when I lay next to a horrid Jewess), nor did I in my essay.  Fondane does mention, near the end of his book, in chapter 29,  another piece of evidence, at the end of fragment XLV of Baudelaire's Mon cœur mis à nu:

« Belle conspiration à organiser pour l'extermination de la Race Juive.
Les Juifs, Bibliothécaires et témoins de la Rédemption. »
(Nice conspiracy to be organized for the extermination of the Jewish Race.  The Jews, Librarians and witnesses of the Redemption)(italics in the original).

Fondane mentions it only to dismiss it by asking, "Is that nice conspiracy motivated?" (his italics). And he answers, "No, since Baudelaire immediately adds: 'The Jews, Librarians and witnesses of the Redemption.'"  Thus summarily, with a non-sequitur, Fondane disposes of Baudelaire's anti-Semitism.  He does not mention that the nice conspiracy bit comes in the heels of Baudelaire's condemnation of all commerce or Wechseln as egoistic and Satanic, but he does remind us that elsewhere Baudelaire has expressed his indifference as to being victim or executioner.  Exterminating a whole race or just himself, it's all one for him: it is only an unmotivated spectacle to alleviate boredom.  Poor Baudelaire!  He did not really hate the Jews nor did he hate women; he was only bored to death.  How did I manage to abstain from zeroing in on such crap when I wrote that essay sixteen years ago?  I didn't want to offend my friends from the Société d'Études Benjamin Fondane; I'm sure that was it, but I'm ornerier now and less inclined to spare other people's feelings.  The essay of sixteen years ago was written fifteen years after my first essay on Fondane, the one in Exquisite Corpse: it seems that every fifteen years or so I must spend a night and a day revising my take on Fondane and Shestov, some sort of circadian rhythm.  Fifteen years from now, I may be waxing angry over Fondane's silly interpretation of Kafka's The Trial if I am still alive, but what I find most horrid now, tonight, is the thought of the fanciful Jewish bum, just when the Nazi death machine was about to swallow him, burning the midnight oil to exonerate le roi de poètes from his nice conspiracy to exterminate the Jews.  And not out of love your enemy or turn the other cheek, things Fondane did neither practice nor praise; far from it: most of his books are full of attacks on his enemies, whether the poets he despised, like Valéry, or the philosophers Shestov had taught him to abhor, like Spinoza and Leibniz.  No, Fondane had to exonerate Baudelaire because, in the mind of most French writers, if Baudelaire collapses so does modernism, and where does that leave themQuel gouffre affreux !  Thus, Claude Pichois, the editor and annotator of my Pléiade edition of Baudelaire, dismisses out of hand any thought of anti-Semitism, and affirms that the nice-conspiracy phrase is ironical.  The initial word, belle (nice) proves it, so he says.  And no doubt, following the critical technique of M. Pichois, the initial word, Bagatelles (Trifles), proves that Céline's Bagatelles pour une massacre is ironical, and any thought of anti-Semitism must be set aside.  Why can't those people accept the obvious, that anti-Semitism has all-too-often accompanied modernism – think of Pound, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Marinetti, Céline, and even Jews like Karl Kraus?  I don't know why, but they can't.  The French conspiracy of silence about Baudelaire's anti-Semitism is, I suspect, related to their larger silence about the extent of their own collaboration with the Nazis.

It took a non-French writer to point out that le roi des poètes had no clothes.  I mean Jorge Luis Borges, in whose opinion "Baudelaire is a touchstone: whoever likes him is an imbecile," as he told his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares in 1974.  Which takes me to Yves Bonnefoy, a great admirer – alas! – of Baudelaire and Borges.  And to my essay "Bonnefoy Interprets Borges" in offcourse November 2011.  After Borges' first Norton lecture at Harvard in 1967, Bonnefoy approached him and asked what he made of Baudelaire.  "Too arrogant," Borges said.  Now, that was something the French poet could not stomach, so what did he do?  Dismiss it.  How?  Borges, says Bonnefoy, knew as well as anyone that Baudelaire is not arrogant; but Borges, being a great poet himself, feared his own arrogance, ergo he projected that fear onto another great poet, Baudelaire.  This Freud-flavored technique, which Bonnefoy employs on many occasions in his critical essays, should be thought of as derived from Salvador Dalí's paranoiac-critical method, even though Bonnefoy despised Dalí.  Fondane, for his part, has a slightly different method.  Whenever he doesn't like Baudelaire praising virtues that may fall under the categories of reasonable, logical, or bourgeois, or when he doesn't like Gérard de Nerval agreeing on his own madness, Fondane writes, « il le dit pour se faire pardonner » (he says it that he may be forgiven).  Had he written on Spanish literature, Fondane would have maintained that Don Quixote did not really recover his sanity before he died; no, he said he wasn't mad so as to die according to the ordinances of the Church and so as to be posthumously kept in the good opinion of the philistines around: he said it that he might be forgiven.  This is a very old polemical trick, identical with that of Irenaeus of Lyons in his writings against the Gnostics.  Both Fondane's and Bonnefoy's critical methods, as well as that of the paranoid Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and of all those who pretend to dismiss as false that which is clearly expressed by someone else, are well described by the old Jewish joke:

Chaim and Max, old acquaintances, meet by chance on a train station. "Where are you going, Max?" asks Chaim.  "To Minsk," Max replies.  And Chaim: "I got your number, old cheat; you say you're going to Minsk so I should conclude you are going to Pinsk.  But in fact you are going to Minsk.  Oy, Max, why are you such a liar?"

Oy, gotteniu!  What was I thinking, what Oedipal rage seized me, when I sent my offcourse 2011 essay to Bonnefoy?  He had asked by e-mail what I was doing, and I confessed that a few years before I had criticized his essay on Borges which had appeared in the Yale Review; he asked to see my piece...  What was I expecting?  Congratulations?  Of course he was offended, and never replied.  Not long after, he died.  « On doit des égards aux vivants, on ne doit aux morts que la vérité »: I should have remembered Voltaire; instead, I was listening to vitam impendere vero, the haughty motto of old curmudgeons.  Again, when Borges told Bonnefoy that Baudelaire is too arrogant, he was stating the obvious, which can be denied only under penalty of perversity.  It is enough to read his "Ô Mort, vieux capitaine" to understand that Baudelaire's arrogance consists mainly in his will to take himself out of time, like a child throwing a tantrum and saying, "I pick up my marbles and go home."  Baudelaire as a child had a home and a mother he adored; presumably he refers to her in "Le Balcon": « Mère des souvenirs, maîtresse des maîtresses... »  At mother's house, time was not the enemy; quite the opposite, each minute was precious: « Je sais l'art d'évoquer les minutes heureuses... »  But that's gone: now time is unbearable, too long, always the same, excruciatingly boring: now going home means not to mother but to death.  Fondane, anyway, rejects "Le Balcon" as unworthy of his Baudelaire.  Valéry had the highest opinion of that poem; that possibly influenced Fondane, who hated Valéry: odium poeticum can be very strong and tenacious; but a deeper reason for Fondane's rejection of "Le Balcon" is his wish to keep his Baudelaire as a pure, unflinching enemy of Time.  The most shocking statement in Fondane's Baudelaire is not the summary dismissal of anti-Semitism with a non-sequitur, but his determination to remove the poet from time and its dangers.  Fondane complains (p. 60) that critics have attributed to time, to the epoch, to history, briefly to no matter what (« à n'importe quoi en somme ») a religious and poetical experience absolutely personal, hence atemporal (« une expérience religieuse et poétique absolument personnelle et par-là ex-temporelle »).  Time, epoch, history: those are n'importe quoi, stuff for the junk pile; what is absolutely personal must needs be atemporal.  Here Fondane is stating an anthropological axiom that is a negation of Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (1927), and a negation of Ortega's earlier (1914) "Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia". – Says Fondane instead: I am I regardless of my circumstance, my epoch, and all that pile of rubbish.

What gave Fondane the chutzpah and the hubris, unheard of in both Jerusalem and Athens, the audacity to remove himself and his hero from Time, and to defy the Now that can crush all of us in an eyeblink?  It was doubtless his master's doctrine.  If only we have enough faith, once we arrive at the extremes of grief we shall be able to abolish time and undo that which was done: yes, to undo even the Fall.  Thus Shestov.  And likely it was that doctrine, too, that gave Fondane the audacity to stay in his Parisian domicile of rue Rollin all during the Occupation, and go out in his fanciful bum attire, an audacity which astonished Cioran.  With all his admiration for Shestov, Cioran, an unbeliever, didn't buy into his friend's focus on the Fall.  In La Chute dans le temps (1964) (The Fall Into Time), Cioran writes that even before the Fall, Adam already showed his incapacity for happiness, that incapacity to bear happiness which led him to prefer death, and which we have all inherited.  I think that describes Baudelaire rather well, and withal Fondane, but I don't agree that we have all inherited it: only those who are sick with boredom, a plague that became more acute with modernism.  It was boredom and the desperate plunge for The New that motivated the First World War and from that, indirectly, the other massacres of the 20th century.  It was the enemies of Time, the sinners against the human spirit.  You can still see them all around.  The guy sitting facing you on the bus; you look at his eyes: they remind you of something... oh yes, of the empty set, from the days when you were studying logic and math.  Suddenly he pulls off his iPhone, just as cowboys draw their guns in the movies: he wants to kill Time before Time kills him.  Those pullulating enemies of Time dwell in a self-made hell.  Yet not everybody dwells there; a few are blessed.  And not because they are zombies with apps installed in their brain, as The New York Times predicted, but rather because they are at peace with Time.  They don't want nor need to plunge into the abyss, be it heaven or hell, to find the New.  Time by itself brings them amazing news, without the intermediary of MSMOs or smart phones, nor gouffres or boundaries of grief: the blessed pay attention, they are attuned to Time's gifts.  Tolstoy was one of those. Proust (who often, out of laziness, is classified as a modernist) wasn't speculating on the nature of Time nor planning on how to tame it or undo it when he sat to a cup of tilleul tea and tasted a cookie.  Borges (no modernist) wasn't pulling up his sleeves to abolish Time when he stopped to look at a humble house and its honeysuckle on a muddy street near the Maldonado stream, and tasted eternity.

As dawn brightens the windows, I burst out laughing.  I just noticed a funny thing about those days, thirty-four years ago, when in the basement of the university library I encountered Fondane and Shestov and put myself under their aegis.  Yes, I wanted to abandon the truth of math, which abolishes Time and pretends to replace it by the "real number line"; I wanted a timebound truth, more in accord with the human spirit, a truth that could embrace both the terrifying and the exhilarating powers of the Now.  And yes, I was still terrified by the death of my father, a death I thought was a quasi-conscious suicide, and energized by my duty to make sense of it.  But what's funny about it all is that, wanting to abandon the mathematical way of abolishing Time, I fell into another, the way of unreason and faith, the way of Shestov and Fondane.  I realize my perseverance or my blindness only now, at dawn, after this night.  This baile en el rancho e' la Cambicha (to recall a pop song from my boyhood), where I have been dancing to the tune of Time.


Links to the two essays on Fondane mentioned above:  "The Passion of Benjamin Fondane" and "Le Baudelaire de Fondane".

Ricardo L. Nirenberg is an editor of Offcourse

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