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,


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,


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,


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,


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,


Dear Eloise,

I know I should be tending to the roof beam in my eye, but I can’t help but share what I’ve been thinking about lately re: our old politics. Don’t throw the letter away! Hear me out! I am a fool, but sometimes it takes a fool to see what’s going on.

There was a day when I realized that all the things my anarchist friends and I believed and wanted were the same things that the liberal journalists and bureaucrats wanted – and soon enough, the politicians too. It turns out we prefigured the next round of liberal cultural reforms. Our fringe sexual preferences, our hatred of the police, our anti-theism, our hatred of work, our speech codes, our consent workshops: all of it was taken up. This wasn’t “recuperation” but honest to goodness prefiguration. We weren’t co-opted; no, we were the obscure shock troops of the culture war all along. And this was true in the case of anti-racism more than anything else.

Anti-racism, like racism, is a state ideology. And like all state ideologies, it is a conspiracy theory. For a practical comparison of the two, look at Rhodesia (racist) and Zimbabwe (anti-racist). Theoretically, the two ideologies differ thus: racism is focused on the physical and repression; anti-racism on the metaphysical and extermination (in this, anti-racism resembles anti-Semitism).

The recent anti-racist movement opposes the police because police are racist (repressive towards physical bodies). The movement demands the policing of thoughts instead: the ‘idea of whiteness’ must be erased, prejudice and discrimination have to be removed. If that means destroying the bodies of white people, it is only because they happen to be the personification of the idea of racism. Coates comes close to expressing the metaphysical character of anti-racist politics when he writes about “people who think they are white.”

In truth, America, like most real existing states, is a sort of mixed regime of racism and anti-racism, with local and state governments (racist) in conflict with the federal government (anti-racist) – though both the local/state and federal governments are themselves split internally between factions and departments. This mixed regime of racism and anti-racism is what we call democracy. The anti-democratic turn in American political discourse concerns the end of the mixed regime. Like all political debates, the question is: whom shall we shoot or imprison? Should we exterminate racism or repress racial minorities? The beleaguered liberal is left calling for the unpopular compromise: we should do just a little of both…

It’s curious, isn’t it, how little any of this matters to the flow of capital.

Darkness and death all around, I’m afraid. And so it’s more important than ever not to take sides. But what do I know? I’m a fool. Pray for me.

vale bene,


Dear Helen,

Some say the Gospel of Mark was modeled on Homeric epics (Odysseus|Christ), much as Augustine later modeled his Confessions on Virgil’s Aeneid. (And Augustine held that Virgil’s fourth eclogue prefigures the second coming of Christ in the character Achilles.) I know you don’t care about Christ or old books, but I can’t help but start a letter to a Helen with something about Homer – and lo! your husband is called Mark.

Names again.

Thank you for the poem that you sent. I don’t think that I’ll be able to publish it because of its length. Seventy pages! What can I do with a poem that long? I haven’t the courage as an editor that you have as a writer. Bless you, curse me. What is the point of any of this if I don’t publish it? I haven’t published anything in years. It’s simply too long.

I wonder about the final stanza. Everything changes in that stanza – the length of the lines, the syntax, the clustered consonance. The poem gathers itself at the end and points towards the infinite, but the infinite is moving away from us. The heavens are darker by the hour. What do you mean by “shallow apotheosis”? Are we all so doomed?

I am a coward, but now I have faith. Poetry is still possible. Everything depends on your pen. Perhaps I will find courage. Until then…

vale bene,


Dear Eloise,

Your name is one letter from the love of Abelard. Eloise, name of the nearly beloved. Pray that Plautus was wrong about the nomen atque omen business.

The name of this journal, Letters, never made much sense to me. Does the name refer to epistles or to אs and בs? Or something else? I accept the mystery and now take the name as a directive. Thus my letters to you.

Do letters and words run afoul of the idea that the actual precedes the potential? It’s not a question that would occur to Aristotle or his predecessors because they didn’t write words. Look at the old Greek and Latin carvings: they wrote in blocks of text without spaces between the groups of letters. Only later did Byzantine editors put in the spaces and accents to create words as we know them now. What they did when they read and wrote is not what we do. I think this leads to a lot of misunderstanding (e.g., philology). When we open Liddell & Scott, it’s good to remember there were no Greek lexicons before the time of Alexander and nothing approximating a dictionary as we know it for a long time after that.

We make do with what we have.

You once told me the dictionary is the most beautiful type of book and if you had to pick only one book to read for the rest of your life, you would choose Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary. I don’t think you’ll be happy with this letter.

As for my one and only book? I would pick something small and minor, like Aira’s Varamo, lest I lose my mind in obsession. Better not to read than to become a monk.

Forgive me, Eloise!

vale pancratice,


Dear Eloise,

It occurred to me yesterday that the old Occupy X slogan about the 99% and the 1% is an inversion of Christ’s parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel of Matthew (the shepherd leaves the herd of 99 to save the 1 lost sheep).

Back when the occupiers were occupying, I wrote a short article that argued Occupy X expressed a sort of unconscious anti-Semitism. I put it this way:

The problem of anti-semitism is not the fault of the protesters, any more than the economy is the fault of employees of banks: the logic of externalisation that appears here as anti-semitism may be an essential component of any revolt, including, paradoxically, revolt against anti-semitism. The structure of revolt is a fight against external authority, and those participating in a revolt will ultimately pose the question who are we revolting against? This question appears as the limit or barrier of revolt. The forms revolt uses to overcome this barrier – mass violence, internal purges, dissolution, etc – bring back the old cliché about becoming what you were fighting against. To go a step further, those fighting were never anything else.

My concern was less Occupy X or anti-Semitism than the structure of revolt itself: that revolt seems always to be revolt against someone. The structure of revolt defeats the principles of those revolting. The structure is not altered when the named enemies are class enemies rather than national, racial, or religious enemies. (Is Christ’s admonition to love one’s enemy a different path? Does it relieve us of the category ‘enemy’ and lead us away from war?)

When the People occupy the square, walk in the park. When the People occupy the park, walk in the square.

Man cannot think without taking walks outside.

vale bene,