Bemidbar

Dear Jen,

I have almost no formal education in mathematics, so bear with me! I’ve spent a lot of time recently with Plato’s Meno, in which Socrates talks to a slave about how to find half the area of a square. The solution is to use the diagonal. We know the diagonal of a square with the sides of 1 is √2, which is a so-called ‘irrational number’. √2 written in in decimal form, is a never-ending sequence of numbers [1.41421…].

For a long time I wondered how an indefinite sequence of numbers (indefinite in its never-endingness) could equal the length of a diagonal, which is definite. The standard answer to the query is that the never-endingness of [1.41421…] is a matter of its representation, not its essence. If I represent the same number as √2, rather than the decimal form, there is no problem with never-endingness. The problem disappears!

Or does it?

First, in what sense is [1.41421…] never-ending? On what basis do we assert its actual infinitude? Perhaps it ends somewhere down the line that we haven’t discovered yet.

Second, is √2 a number? It seems to me less a number than a process to arrive at a number. Is 42 a number? Wittgenstein says this about Cantor’s infinity stuff:

Suppose someone says, “Show me a number different from all of these,” and as an answer he’s given Cantor’s diagonal rule. Why shouldn’t he say, “But that’s not what I meant. You haven’t given me a number. You have merely given me a rule in words for the step-by-step construction of numbers that are different from each of these successively.”?

Couldn’t I say that √2 is a rule for the construction of a number to define the length of the diagonal of the square? And not the length itself?

Another problem: couldn’t I say that how a number can be represented is an important part of its essence? The diagonal of the square with the side lengths of 1 is represented in decimal form by a sequence whose ends is hitherto undiscovered (called by many ‘irrational’ and never-ending). If representation and essence are not so easily split, changing our representation of the diagonal from [1.41421…] to √2 doesn’t help us much.

These essential differences in how numbers can be represented are another way of talking about incommensurability. (The Pythagoreans threw men off ships for daring to utter aloud the incommensurability of the side and the diagonal of the square.)

Wittgenstein again:

Should we avoid the word “infinite” in mathematics? Yes, where it appears to give a meaning to a mathematical procedure instead of getting a meaning from it. And it would be silly to become disappointed if we find nothing infinite in arithmetic or mathematics. However, it is not silly to ask what gives the word “infinite” its meaning for us. Then we can go on to ask about its connection, if any, with these mathematical calculations in which it appears to play a part.

You know more about all of this than I ever will, so I beg your forbearance in the face of my questions. I know you’ll say that I should learn the basics first. But heaven help me, Wittgenstein made me an ultrafinitist!

vale basilice,
D

Acts

Dear Helen,

Sorry for my tardiness in replying. I was away on holiday with my family. We visited the state of Washington and watched the casualties of liberalism wander around its capital, Olympia. There we found that peculiar, vacant sort of misery produced only by the left. Bless them, curse us. This is the first stanza of my poem about the ambulances:

Last night the ambulances
sirenless lights
on the black trees
Landlocked hospital ships
Chalices to the newly infirm
On the highway at night
they head the other way
One at a time, three of them.

Perhaps that can stand on its own. Maybe my problem with poems since my daughter was born is not a problem of creativity but of courage. Maybe creativity and courage are the same thing. In any case, your criticisms and encouragement are always welcome.

vale bene,
D

Romans

Dear Sarah,

Just as “the revolt against ethnocentrism” contained in the self-criticism of the West is perhaps the only uniquely and specifically Western idea, there is nothing more liberal than illiberalism (communist or religious) expressed as an intellectual project of debate and criticismCritique enmeshes the critic in the object of criticism.

Paul says something similar about sin and the Law:

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

One of my goals in beginning this journal again is to find ways of thinking that are not critique. My goal is not to escape the trap of responding to events and participating in the discourse of the day, which would best be achieved by silence, but to discover new modes and orders of thought, even to found new regimes of truth. That is, I’m interested in ποίησις.

For a while I was reading and translating Anaximander’s fragment: ἐξ ὧν δὲ ἡ γένεσίς ἐστι τοῖς οὖσι, καὶ τὴν φθορὰν εἰς ταῦτα γίνεσθαι κατὰ τὸ χρεών· διδόναι γὰρ αὐτὰ δίκην καὶ τίσιν ἀλλήλοις τῆς ἀδικίας κατὰ τὴν τοῦ χρόνου τάξιν (The birth of beings is from what also their death comes to be: necessity. For they give justice to one another from injustice according to time’s order). I still can’t make sense of it, and I wonder if this urge to return to the old writers is a mistake.

Perhaps you’re right that the only way forward is sculpture, not texts. Carving a future in stone…

vale bene,
D

John

Dear Esther,

You still don’t believe me? Look at the beginning of Society of the Spectacle: like all reactionaries, Debord yearns for “the former unity of life.” He doesn’t follow Alasdair MacIntyre to the Church, but he wants the Church’s restoration (how else to explain the anachronistic anti-clericalism?). He wants to be the sort of criminal and dissident only possible in Christendom. If Christ and His vicar are dethroned by the commodity and the spectacle, there is no sovereign to rebel against.

vale bene,
D

Devarim

Dear Esther,

I know from a letter to Morgan Sportes in the 80s that Debord did read Maurice Nadeau, but he mentions only Nadeau’s magazine Les Lettres nouvelles, not the magical history book.

Your contention that the underground surrealists are everywhere except France seems like a good place to start on the project. I offer my assistance and resources, however meager, and eagerly await your findings.

One of these days Frére Dupont will explain the problem of the Mexican jumping bean, and other friends will start on Pierre Menard. Until then…

vale pancratice,
D

Devarim

Dear Esther,

Two decades after Breton’s suggestion that “the time might have come for surrealism to go underground,” Debord finally arrived at the “obligation to hold oneself in reserve.” I read his arrival at this obligation as a partial vindication of Vaneigem and a nod to the underground surrealists, then many years in hiding.

I know you agree that now is not the time for the surrealists to reappear. Our good brothers have only just begun their work. For those of us in the light, two slogans to paint on our banners – Strike the stone! Another generation must die in the desert!

I don’t want to write a new history of poetry. I want to learn how to create its future. I want to escape the nothingness of critique without renouncing my past or affirming the present. But first, I want to get a full night’s sleep!

vale bene,
D

Acts

Dear Helen,

I haven’t finished a poem since my daughter was born. It’s as if one act of creation precludes the other.

I tried to write a poem about something I saw the other week. I was driving home on a highway at night somewhere in Maryland. An ambulance passed by on the other side. Its lights were on but not its sirens. Then a few minutes later, another ambulance went by. Then another. And another. All with their lights on but without sirens. Their flashing lights played against the trees that crowded against the shoulders of the highway. The trees were black. I couldn’t see any stars.

My attempts at this poem never get past the first stanza. I call the ambulances “chalices for the newly infirm” and get caught at the poem’s turn from the image of an ambulance to the idea of prayer and help and private disaster. I should steal your “shallow apotheosis” line. (No, I should finish the long poem about my grandfather.)

You asked what worries me. I’m trying to reconcile my ultrafinitism with God. Does God demand the actual infinite, the real Gigantic, the being of the incalculable? I don’t think God is a number of any sort, but that doesn’t resolve the problem.

I’ve started reading Pound again:

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
       Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
                        How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity,
                        Pull down thy vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down thy vanity,
                       I say pull down.
But to have done instead of not doing
                     this is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
               To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.
         Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered  .  .  .

To do instead of not doing! Fine advice!

vale bene,
D

Vayikra

Dear Esther,

Since you asked, I read Vaneigem’s resignation letter from the SI and Debord’s response. My sympathies are with Vaneigem, who chose silence and contemplation over “communal practice”.

Vaneigem handled the concept of the qualitative by the ton, but resolutely forget what Hegel, in The Science of Logic, called “the most profound and most essential quality,” which is contradiction. “In relating to it, actually, identity is only the determination of what is simple and immediate, of what is dead, insofar as contradiction is the source of all movement, of all life. This is only to the extent that a thing includes within itself a contradiction that shows itself to be active and alive.”

We could all use more meditation on what is simple and what is dead. But putting that aside, doesn’t Vaneigem include within himself a great contradiction?

It’s true that I’ve never been part a sustained communal project, so my sympathies for the contemplative might just be a fancy way of expressing my preference for the solitary. Forbearance is hard.

Debord’s faith is extraordinary:

We don’t have to pretend to ourselves that we are sure of anything or of anyone. We are only sure of the movement of history, insofar that we know how to recognize it by participating in it; and, without doubt, insofar as each one of us can recognize it in himself and is capable of proving it.

Can you imagine writing that with a straight face? It’s like old Descartes arriving with certainty at the actuality of the infinite before he can decide whether or not he has hands. Debord is sure of nothing but the movement of history! What a thing to be sure of! Not being a Christian, Marxist, or German, I’m not sure that history has a movement, but even if I thought it did – I’d be sure of a lot more before that.

What am I missing?

vale basilice,
D

Vayikra

Dear Esther,

I call Debord a reactionary. He said a lot about revolution, but what he fought for  were the last bits of old Europe that survived the wars. The criminals and poets of the middle ages were his models of freedom. (His affection for the criminal world is a reactionary affectation. All crime today is connected to the drug trade.)

Now he drinks with Walter Benjamin in the forest of suicides. You can overhear him if you listen:

Benjamin muses, “If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”

Debord replies, “Boredom is always counter-revolutionary. Always.”

There is a pause, then Benjamin responds, as if he had not heard Guy at all. “And boredom is the grating before which the courtesan teases death.”

The two suicides sit.  There is nowhere to go but the table and its never-finished glasses.

Debord offers a final, glum remark for the night, “It can be confidently affirmed that no real opposition can be carried out by individuals who become even slightly more socially elevated through manifesting such opposition than they would have been otherwise.” And, after a long, long pause, “We missed the mark then, didn’t we?”

I was delighted to see Debord’s now been taken up by Mario Vargas Llosa and the young reactionaries. They’ll do better things with his work than anything anarchists could do.

(Regarding my last letter, stay away from Vaneigem’s history of surrealism. It’s terrible.)

vale bene,
D

Romans

Dear Esther,

You have never forgiven Breton’s hatred of homosexuality. I am fascinated by it, not scandalized. Didn’t Debord hate homosexuality too? And on the same grounds as Norman Mailer, of all people.

Anyway, the Surrealists were the best European group – better than the SI. Maurice Nadeau’s book confirmed that for me when I read it years ago. I leant it to Taylor, and she agreed. (Do you still talk to her, by the way? I haven’t heard anything from her in years. Does she know about my daughter? Has she found a way to be happy? I pray she is well.)

I came across a line from Breton: “After centuries of philosophy we’re still living off the poetic ideas of the first men.” It’s perfect, really. All the encouragement I need for my turn to Aeschylus and Heraclitus and Parmenides and Job: the first men. The men before poetry and philosophy came to be by their being cleaved from one another.

The problem with the surrealists and the SI is that Breton and Debord were geniuses, and people like me who read real books think too highly of geniuses. We get accustomed to the capabilities of genius in literature and forget that genius elsewhere is ruinous. The great men who were any good took up poetry or history and stayed away from the castle or the barricade. The blessing and the curse of our age is that it’s without great men.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

The Creator is God the poet. God made (ἐποίησεν) the world with words: the Creation of the tragedy (ἡ Ποίησις τῆς τραγῳδίας). So sayeth St. Breton: “We’re still living off the poetic ideas of the first men…”

vale bene,
D