Dear Rivkah,

It is not a coincidence that the revolutionary, the journalist, and the cop find themselves in the same places again and again. Each thinks the others parasitic, and he is half right. They all need each other. The riot is their consummate event.

If there is a heuristic of action for us, it has to be: go where the revolutionary, the journalist, and the cop do not go; read what they do not read; say what they do not say; pay attention to what they do not pay attention to. Alas, this negative heuristic ties us to them just as they are tied to each other. We have to habituate ourselves to arrive at the heuristic without thinking or noticing, as if by intuition or chance.

I’m thinking of translating Sophocles.




Dear Margaret,

When you inhabit the world as if it were a novel or a poem or a scripture or a song, you can entertain even the worst cruelty. Men and deeds become words; the earth, a field of characters. Thus Pound and his Confucian dreams. Thus Ruiz-Tagle and his poems in the sky.

Word was made flesh only once.

I’ve found the underground surrealists.



Man and woman: a dialogue

M: The danger in the election – if it makes sense to talk about danger in an election – was the national socialist from Vermont, not the victorious real estate developer. The Vermont senator had spokesmen for the Venezuelan regime speak at his rallies. I’m glad he didn’t win. The guy who did win has been interesting. He’s drawn the intelligence agencies into the open. Through incompetence, strategy, or foolhardiness, I’m not sure. Now spies are at the center of politics. It’s like a dramatic performance of Debord’s Comments: “The general conspiracy has become so dense that it is almost out in the open, each of its branches starts to hinder or trouble the others, because all these professional conspirators are spying on each other without exactly knowing why, or encounter each other by chance, yet without recognizing each other with certainty…”

W: It does not make sense to talk about danger in an election or to talk about an election at all. You get caught up in politics, and I worry that your critical detachment is not as detached as you make it out to be. You follow these things too closely. What a terrible trap, to be stuck in the present, especially at such a lonely time. You roll your eyes at me when I say this, but it was only yesterday that Alcibiades led the Sicilian expedition and Abraham walked Isaac up the mountain. Breton is right; we’re still living off the poetic ideas of the first men. What is an election? Not even a moment. I want to live as long as a stone – not forever, but for a very long time. I want to be a stone on Mt. Moriah. And here you worry yourself with the ‘danger’ in an election, in something less than a moment.

M: I don’t disagree with you, if what you’ve said can be agreed or disagreed with, but I can’t help myself. I can’t just think about rivers and stones and mountains and poems. What you call ‘less than a moment’ is inescapable, especially since the birth of my daughter. At her birth, the catchphrase ‘live in the moment’ was made flesh.

W: There was a Hasidic rebbe who told his followers to ‘live with the times’. They didn’t know what he meant. Did he want them to adopt a modern way of life? Change how they dressed? Stop praying so much? Surely not. Finally, they arrived at an interpretation. ‘Live with the times’ meant every day to keep in mind the Torah portion for that week. I understand ‘live in the moment’ in a similar way. Our moment stretches back at least to the 17th century.

M: I don’t know. There was a time when we competed for the most radical negation. I’m against work! So? I’m against friendship! Well, I’m against love! Then I’m against happiness! And I’m against time! I-I-I’m against language! I’m against thinking! Until finally we were against nothing because we opposed opposition itself (on simple grounds: opposition cleaves one to the opposed object). Negation did not negate enough. And at the end of that, I was left dissatisfied and lonely. Why did we go through it? What did we hope to achieve? Less than nothing? Now I want to affirm, to say yes, to accept, to embrace, to create, like those poetic first men…

W: But you cannot will yourself authentic creation any more than you can will a community into place.

M: I used to think that was true, but great works have always been self-conscious. Introspection is not a new problem in art. Virgil knew exactly what he was doing.

W: You think this because you see history as a single line, not a series of cycles. Virgil is like Joyce, greatness after the game is up. After that game is up. Then another cycle begins somewhere else.

M: What does that have to do with the stone and the moment?


Dear Eloise,

Peter Handke is praised, when he is praised, in aesthetic terms. His Serbian adventures are politely passed over in favor of his novels and plays, especially those that have nothing obviously to do with war in the Balkans. He’s reduced to an aesthete with an unfortunate political mistake. I think this is a grave mistake. Handke’s writing about Serbia are a heroic attempt to break out of the cycle of ‘humanitarian war’ and nationalism – and with a public poetic gesture, a real attempt at speaking and intervening against politics. As he says:

Finally, to be sure, I thought each time: but that’s not the point. My work is of a different sort. To record the evil facts, that’s good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts.

Is his Serbian adventure not also an attempt to retrace the path of Martin Heidegger? To find a clearing where Heidegger found only darkness?

His new novel, The Moravian Night, should put to rest any ideas about his having become a Serbian nationalist. Not that his reviewers noticed. They cannot read the book because they are still cheering on the NATO bombs from decades ago. The prospect of a poetic alternative to war-mongering (of the good or evil variety) is inconceivable to them.

All the better. That leaves Handke to us.

vale bene,


Dear Jen,

Complexity for man is fixed. There was no more complexity in the past than there is now, nor less. But the ratio of complexity changes. Technological and social complexity are inversely correlated. As the one grows, the other shrinks.

As social complexity heads to zero, we face the prospect of man’s world without man; man’s world inhabited only his creations and his creations’ creations.

There is a poetical imperative for complexity without machines.

vale bene,


Dear Esther,

I’m taken with the idea that Freud’s work is a mythical response to Nietzsche – an attempt to create a new myth of man and ward off the rising occultist mud then covering Europe. This is what the surrealists saw in him. Freud as poet and creator. Ποίησις και Μῦθος. The unconscious as great invention.

It’s a mystery why the early 20th century was a time of myth-making. Whole cities built and destroyed by myths. An impossible history. There was no history in the early 20th century. The enormity of the myth making, the frantic pace of it, the number of poets… all defy the historian, who is left talking about forces and peoples and ideologies and circumstances, all of which were for a brief moment almost non-existent (so hidden were they by words). There was no totality of circumstance. (So unlike Kojève’s poem, the EU…)

It ended in the catastrophe, of course.

vale bene,


Dear Anna,

I want to see history from the perspective of rivers. The sea and the deep are beyond my reckoning, but I would like to walk beside the Dnieper and the Danube and the Elbe and make their silent thinking a part of me. Or the humble Great Miami, which runs through the birthplace of my father and grandfather, who would raft the river on homemade boats before it was blocked by a dam.

Perhaps the underground surrealists are not under the ground but under the water. Perhaps they are not men at all anymore but have become the rivers of Europe, the living λόγος of Heraclitus, the movement that never forgets.

History from the perspective of rivers is Biblical history; the longue durée stretched back to Eden. Rivers find a historical path contrary to the left, so it is not surprising that national socialist regimes in China or Russia or FDR’s America fixated more than anything on building dams. Dams are less an ecological problem than a problem of history because in redirecting and stopping the water, they redirect time (in the USSR they even tried to reverse the flow of the Northern Dvina). I learned from Julio Cortázar’s From the Observatory that when eels migrate up the rivers, they’ll cross stretches of land to get around barriers. Nature’s insistent genius! These dams and locks will not last very long.

God let Adam name the animals, but He named the rivers:

    Pison, circling Havilah, whence gold
the good gold of that land
and amber and precious stone
Gihon, circling Kush
Hidekel, running east of Assyria
and Euphrates, the fourth

Archimboldi’s novel The Rivers of Europe might be a way out of the impasse of socialist history. Speaking of, I was surprised to learn that the old Nazi song ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ mourns the death of “comrades” shot by both “reactionaries” and communists. Not enough has been made of the socialist aspect of the Nazi party. Otto Rühle noted it early on (also pointing out the national aspect of the Bolsheviks), but nobody listened to him back then and nobody listens to him now. They can’t listen to him because once you accept that Nazism is a socialist movement, the whole fabric of leftist history falls apart. (Incidentally, Rühle moved to Mexico in the 30s and became a painter…)

I can’t play the Stalinist game of good national socialists (Bolsheviks, etc) and bad national socialists (fascists, etc). Rivers don’t abide such distinctions; neither should we.

Now, to listen and to swim.

vale bene,

ps. Don’t mention Achilles and Scamander!


Dear Eloise,

It seems the anarchists have dropped all pretenses and produced 1940s-style pro-war posters. There is no way to understand the “we” in this poster except as referring to the American, British, and Soviet militaries and their successful war against Germany, Italy, and Japan. The “’em” is harder to parse. Presumably it means Nazis, but I imagine that if the men anarchists are fighting against in Berkeley were of military age in the 1940s, they would have been drafted to fight against Germany.

At least the standard leftist history of anti-fascism admits that it’s a state and military matter. The anarchist has to reimagine the anti-fascist struggle as excluding the military forces that made up its bulk (notable anti-fascist fighting forces include the Royal Air Force and United States Marine Corps). Unlike the Marine Corps, I don’t imagine contemporary anarchists are actually capable or willing to kill their enemies with bayonets. Thank God.

Between the return of Kurdish nationalism and the embrace of the new united front, is there a single anarchist left who refuses the state? Have all the old lessons about the left been forgotten?

The warnings remain: No common cause and We are not going to war.

Bless them. Curse us.

vale pancratice,


Dear Eloise,

If someone were to ask me whether they should become an anarchist or philologist, I would tell them, “No. Save yourself the heartache and don’t do it.” But in not becoming an anarchist or philologist, one cannot leave either behind and exist in the space opened by leaving without renunciation. (Renunciation cleaves one to the renounced and makes leaving impossible; those who renounce their past maintain a neurotic attachment to it. Whatever the formal legal definition might be, divorce makes marriage permanent.)

I am interested in commitments that cannot be broken.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Christ’s midrash on Genesis remakes marriage as man’s connection to creation (as Melville does with whaling).

vale bene,


Dear Jen,

Why do you assume that the set of natural numbers is infinite?

You are a Christian, so you believe in the beginning and the end of time. Let’s say that all possible computational power went about counting natural numbers. At the end of time, there would be the largest number, and no other larger number would ever be counted after it. Who’s to say that such a number – let’s call it the Ω number – is not the largest possible number? The end of the line?

Don’t say anything about Knuth’s up-arrow notation. Those arrow notations are not numbers but steps or functions to arrive at numbers. But even if they were, the same end of time problem would arise.

The best rejoinder is to say that these computational limits don’t matter because God is the actual infinite and can calculate and conceive any number or set, including so-called infinite sets. Maybe so. That’s a mystery man cannot grasp, and it doesn’t answer the first question. God’s numbers are not natural numbers.

The infinitude of God insists on the finitude of man and his numbers.

Utter failure in other projects and no sign of the surrealists. Enjoy your cave.

vale bene,