My 2021 in Review... Sort Of
Don’t forget to listen to the final 2021 episode of my podcast, “What Is X?”, featuring D. Graham Burnett, talking about History, and what it is. Hear us mercilessly rank on Leopold von Ranke, as we seek to imagine more imaginative ways of summoning the past, and we go some way, if not all the way, to explaining the theoretical aims behind our new book, co-edited with Catherine L. Hansen, In Search of the Third Bird.
Only two of the following three cultures are, as far as we know, real. In 2022, perhaps, I will reveal which of them I made up.
Let us start with Culture X, whose members will tell you that the roofs of their mouths are “blue”. Even if you shine a light in there, take a picture, and show them that their own palate is only the ordinary color of skin (whatever color that may be; in any case probably not blue), they will continue to insist that it is blue all the same. They will tell you that the roof of the mouth is “the same as” the dome of the cloudless sky, and that from early on children pass their time running their tongues from back to front. The soft palate for them is the sun on the horizon; what we call its “softness” is felt by the tongue as its heat. The hard palate is the great expanse of the sky; what we call its “hardness” is felt as crisp, open, and blue. As the tongue continues its journey forward, it eventually hits the back of the front teeth. Those are the dolomite cliffs on the horizon opposite the sun, dark and cold. Now give it a try. Imagine that your palate too is the dome of the sky. Imagine that, for as long as you can remember, in your idle time, or as you work, or as you lie sleepless, you have been running through this tour of the known world inside your mouth. Are you starting to see, now, how a palate might be “blue”, even if not “empirically” so?
Culture Y for its part believes that a child’s soul enters the pregnant mother through the never-quite-fully-sealed fissure in the top of her skull. Women and children wear hats with a large metal disc on top to prevent malevolent spirits from entering by the same passage. When there is a miscarriage, or when an infant dies who has not yet been named and therefore has no place yet in human society, the soul exits out the top of the baby’s head —easy to do at this early stage, when it is not just a crack but still a gaping fontanelle— and enters into the egg of any number of small species of bird instead. The remains of the infant are tied in a sack and hung over the front door. The top of the skull, protected by the metal disc, is said to be the “solar” point of the body, and to share in the nature of the sun, from which all life comes.
For Culture Z, the year is said to be a “ring”. Many in modern times have only a vague memory of the true nature of the year, but it lives on nonetheless in their language. In Spanish classes at elementary school kids will laugh when a classmate omits to put a tilde on top of the n in año, as that delivers a different word with a very different meaning. Or is its meaning so different after all? The tilde represents the disappearance of one of the two n’s in the Latin annus, as distinct from anus, whose meaning has remained the same across the millennia. Yet the double consonants in the former word do not signal an independent etymology, which is why we also have words like the French anneau, which alongside bague describes the sort of jewelry you wear around your finger. Both the annual and the anal, in other words, are so described in virtue of their circular nature, real or imagined. This is in fact why Cicero argued that you would do better to “say what you mean” and call the part of anatomy in question the culus instead, since anus is, or still was in the first century BCE, “a name that is not its own” (Epistolae ad familiares IX). But as we well know, euphemisms quickly become orthophemisms, as orthophemisms degenerate into dysphemisms, and today, in a cluster of Latinate languages as well as those other languages like English that depend on Latin roots to say much of anything at all, the body part and the calendar are intimately, perhaps uncomfortably, stuck in the same semantic neighborhood.
The palate is the sky; the skull is the sun; and the year, my friends, perhaps especially this year, is an asshole.
In my own case, to describe the year in this way is not to say that it has been particularly foul —my 2021 was probably marginally better than my 2020, if we are simply weighing up the “good” and the “bad” events as on a scale—, but rather in the sense that I have been experiencing life, the forward march of time, as if it were in its nature a sort of slow constriction, gradually reducing the size of the opening through which new potentialities may pass. I have been open, perhaps excessively open, in my writing on Substack this year, about the “constriction” I have felt (see here, but especially here). Indeed I have gone back on my early promise in creating this newsletter not to ruminate on my own internal states, but to speak mostly about the world itself independently of my own place in it — about quasars and the Upper Paleolithic and Byzantine heresies and whatever else captures my interest. In a way the promise was unsustainable, as it presupposed a dualism of inner and outer that on deeper consideration seems false to me.
Among its other disadvantages, the move to first-person introspection invites misunderstandings that hit rather closer to home than any imperfect or inaccurate knowledge of, say, cave paintings, with which a reader might come away from one of my essays on that topic. This was particularly clear to me after my essay on depression a few weeks ago. A generally interesting piece in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, which discussed this essay, contrasted the perceived temperament of the author behind it —i.e., me— with the “optimism” on display in Steven Pinker’s Rationality. The implication was that I, as the anti-Pinker in this construction, must be a “pessimist”.
But it’s a lot more complicated than that. I generally think that trying to decide whether one is an optimist or a pessimist is a lot like declaring that one is an “introvert” or an “extrovert” — which in turn is something a lot like declaring that blue is your favorite color or elephants are your favorite animal, which is to say it’s immature, and something that’s only done to mark us out in the social scheme in some distinctive way, but without requiring that we give it any real thought or say anything that is really true. I’m not a child anymore and I have no idea what my favorite color is. I also have no idea whether I’m an introvert or an extrovert or an “empath” or whatever. I’m just a human being like everyone else, who struggles to make connections and sometimes fails. And I similarly have no idea whether I’m an optimist or a pessimist.
Ideally, I’m whatever the nature of the world would justify being, but it’s a life-long project to figure out what that is, and anyone who stops right in the middle of that project and decides to “make the call”, as if they were TV hosts on election night, just isn’t really thinking. I can at least say, for now, that I “vibe” a lot more with G. W. Leibniz, when I’m reading him, than with, say, Emil Cioran, which gives some sign of hope that I am, like my philosophical guide, an “optimist”. Whatever that means.
Though Cioran has his place too, and if a year-in-review essay is supposed to tell you what its author has been reading, then I might note that earlier in the year I went back to his L’inconvénient d’être né (The Trouble with Being Born, 1973) with some measurable pleasure. Even if I would not take Cioran’s pessimism as a model for inhabiting this world, it at least seems to me pretty compelling as a way to inhabit Paris, the city he and I have in common, and a city we both see as utterly ill-equipped to live up to the reputation for sensual delectation, non-stop bon-vivantism, and “good living” that is vapidly associated with it.
I was long wary of Cioran, as I was of all of the authors who managed to find their way to the “Philosophy” shelves of suburban Californian chain bookstores in the 1980s, when I was first trying to figure out what that word designated. I would later be able to fill out his back story —he likely got there on the authority of Susan Sontag’s recommendation alone—, which is indeed very different from the pedigree of, say, the Will and Ariel Durant volumes one also found on those shelves. It took a while to warm up to him, but in recent years, largely for family reasons, I have been especially attuned to the contributions of Romanian intellectuals and artists in twentieth-century France, which are indeed enormous. Every time I see Eugène Ionesco’s name I am reminded of the way -escu surnames have been systematically distorted into -esco by the French, in view of nothing more than the coincidental homonymy of -cu with cul, which in Latin is culus. Which brings us back to Cicero and the importance of saying what you mean, and what I mean is that Romanians made twentieth-century French culture, with a perfect synthesis of outsider lucidity and ingenious mastery of their adopted culture, but also with a certain trauma that seems marked for me by the deformation of the -cu into -co, and that is expressed in Cioran’s aphoristic distillations of a sense of his Parisian life as one of loss and constriction, in Isidore Isou’s multimedia madness (film, painting, pornography, treatises on economics), in Gherasim Luca’s babbled quasi-French syllabic poetry. (Why, incidentally, do only 0.8% of you click the links I provide? I’ve studied my stats and I know all about your reading behavior. Trust me, this one is worth clicking.)
Do you want to know what else I read in 2021? I’ve caught a lot of heat this year for admitting one year ago that in 2020 I enjoyed reading Sally Rooney’s Normal People (though I believe I also said that the sadomasochistic sex scenes left me feeling not so much like an old person pruriently spying on what the kids are getting up to, as rather a kid myself who does not yet understand what sex is, and who gets inadvertently exposed, e.g., to some strange distortion of it as in, say, The Night Porter (1974) or Visconti’s Götterdämmerung (1969) and thinks: “Well, I guess that’s just what adults do; what do I know?”). So this time around you will perhaps be happy to know that I have read a total of zero works of new literature.
To be honest I don’t really understand why new literature should be prioritized in any way. If it’s good now, it will be good ten years from now, so what’s the rush? And correlatively, given that the now is just an infinitesimal sliver when compared to the past, if what you are in search of is the good, is it not reasonable that the vastly greater part of what you read should be old? Otherwise, it seems to me that what the reader is in search of —what most readers are in search of— is not the good at all, but just something to chatter with one another about, in roughly the same vein in which they will take to social media to say stupidly that some shot from Succession or whatever TV show is on now has the same “composition” as a Renaissance painting. Because it’s “art”, you see.
What did I read then, if not anything new? I read, mostly, Proust, Proust, Proust, and Proust. In 2022, I intend to read Proust, Proust, and, finally, Proust, at which point I’ll move on to other things. I also filled in some gaps in the Russian-literature department, notably Varlam Shalamov’s Колымские рассказы/Kolyma Tales (1966), which was every bit as grueling and compelling as I had expected; and Ilf and Petrov’s wonderful Двенадцать стульев/Twelve Chairs (1927), which is a marvelous picture of the relative openness of early Soviet culture to forms of satirical and avant-garde artistic expression that very soon would come to be seen as threatening —because honest— to the whole endeavor. In 2022 I intend to finally get around to reading Vasily Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба/Life and Fate (1980), which remains the most conspicuously gaping lacuna in my Russian reading list.
I also read, this year, my first entire novels in the Sakha language. I began with Nikolai Luginov’s Сэргэлээххэ/In Sergeleekh (1978). I cannot say it was good; in fact, it was pure hack-work, with utterly predictable cardboard characters doing exactly what you might anticipate model Soviet citizens —even those belonging to an ethnolinguistic minority in a distant province— to do. But in a way this was perfect for me: whatever else may be said of socialist realism, it dumbs humanity down in a way that is so easy to comprehend as to make stories told in this genre ideal for any language learner. After this I read Nikolai Abyïchanin’s Чучунаа уонна Суланьа/Chuchunaa and Sulan’a (1984), which I enjoyed considerably more. The author is a Sakha-language ethnic Evenk, an even smaller minority inhabiting the Arctic region with a largely reindeer-and-hunting based form of subsistence. A Chuchunaa is, in Tungusic languages, a mythical being comparable to the Himalayan Yeti, but rather more like the North American Wendigo, in that it seems to be not so much a giant snow-dwelling primate as rather a human being who for some tragic reason has left society and has consequently been “animalized” to some degree. Anyhow, scoff if you will, but I’d rather read a gripping Yeti tale in a beautiful new language (new to me, that is) than keep up with contemporary English-language fiction.
I also kept reading, as usual, from my familiar list of ancient, premodern, and early modern non-fiction prose stylists, including, as usual, Pliny the Elder, Robert Burton, and Thomas Browne. I read, mostly because I found the title so beautiful, a volume called La petite philocalie de la prière du coeur (The Small Philocaly of the Prayer of the Heart), which is a translation of a sort of traditional text on the aims and methods of prayer in the Russian Orthodox tradition. And I was delighted to discover Jacobus de Voragine’s thirteenth-century Golden Legend, which I read in French translation, and which I wrote about here. I came to it via the stories of Gustave Flaubert, who seems to have drawn inspiration for his delirious re-telling of the tale of St. Julien the hunter from the equally delirious saint and compiler of the legends of other saints who came before him. I can’t remember if the Flaubert was this year or last, but either way it blew my mind and remains as vivid as the day I read it.
As far as I can recall the only movie I watched this year was Rebel without a Cause (1955), on a flight from Paris to San Francisco. It was not at all what I had always imagined it to be (I think I had its basic story line confused with Marlon Brando’s in The Wild One (1953)). Somewhat like the sex scenes in Normal People, I confess I couldn’t really follow what the characters were up to, though here the fault lies with the censors more than with my own limited imagination. I was surprised at how much the film took that pseudo-didactic tone satirized in the letter from “Dr. John Ray”, the psychiatrist and perversion-specialist, that prefaces Lolita (1955), and that throughout the period seems to have provided the clinical authority through which many prurient entertainments had to be laundered. Rebel seems to wish to explore the psychosexual causes of youth “delinquency”. But because it can’t explicitly name any of the complexes that are supposedly driving the characters’ actions, it all just ends up making no sense. I remember the same impression from the Paul Newman version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), where what is at issue is obviously homosexuality, but nonetheless these grown men are having gut-wrenching arguments about who was friends with whom on the high-school football team. At least there the euphemism was clear; when Sal Mineo is pining for James Dean to be his “father”, by contrast, one really just doesn’t know what to think. It was great to see Jim Backus in an apron though, whom I had previously only been able to think of as if doing nothing for all eternity but saying “Oh, Lovey!” on constant repeat.
As for music, I continued to listen foremostly to the guitarists whose style I’m trying to learn to play: Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, and probably most of all Libba Cotton (though what’s unique about her has to do with the fact that she’s left-handed, but rather than restringing her guitar accordingly, simply turned it over; I’m right-handed and I imagine nothing I ever do will make me sound like her). I’d like to start to learn how to play Manouche-style guitar in the vein of Django Reinhardt. Living in Paris I know I’m surrounded by many people who could teach me, but so far I’m entirely self-taught, and I feel, for reasons I don’t quite understand, tremendous hesitation at the thought of asking anyone for help. I’m also particularly interested in Botswanan guitar styles, and most of all this fellow named “Ronnie”, who I gather from YouTube comments died some time ago. He is doing something with his guitar, and with the look on his face as he plays his guitar, that has really got inside of me.
I was going to try to summarize everything I’ve written this year, but that would seem unduly long-winded, and in any case I have trouble keeping track (and to top it all off I know you don’t click links anyway). The two major projects I would have to announce are the ones I was also proudly announcing a year ago, though by now one of them is truly in the bag and the other is much closer to being so than before.
I’m not good at doing the requisite hype work that is expected of authors today, and the truth is by the time something comes out I want nothing more than to move on to the next thing, while the whole apparatus of the book world requires that we keep talking about what’s in our rear-view mirror. That said, in the coming year some of my co-authors and I will be making explicit some of the theoretical commitments —some of the “philosophy of history”, if you will— that guided us in our work on In Search of the Third Bird. (Again, I also discuss these in the most recent episode of my podcast, with ESTAR(SER) co-editor D. Graham Burnett.)
My Internet book is now finished, and available for pre-order if not for order (though as with “pre-heating” and “pre-boarding”, one wonders whether the distinction makes any sense). It has a lovely blurb by Stephen Fry, the world’s most well-read and capacious gelastician (thank you again, Stephen), and the first review is already in with, whew, nothing negative in it. Kirkus Reviews announces that “a professor of history and philosophy of science casts a stony eye on the liberatory promises of the internet”, and describes the book as “thoughtful… a worthy critique of a technology in need of rethinking”. An excerpt from the book is scheduled to appear in Wired Magazine, though I’m not sure when. Anyhow, let me pitch it one more time and be done with my part of the hype: Won’t you buy my new book, please?
From a financial point of view, Substack is a better use of my time than book-writing, for now, though that may change if The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is sells well and positions me to obtain more attractive advance contracts for future books. So this experiment will continue at least through 2022. Even if I wanted to shut it down, there are several essays I’ve promised for this venue and not yet delivered. I owe you at least one more on popular music, as I’ve referred to the two I’ve already written as part of a “trilogy”; I owe you five more on Proust, which will bring us to one for each volume of the Recherche; and I owe Alex Douglas a response to his very compelling critique of my admittedly somewhat ad-hominem essay on René Girard. I’m racking up debts on here, but of course as David Graeber has observed, anthropologically speaking to pay off a debt is to close off a relationship. And I’m not ready to do that with you, not yet.
Perhaps I don’t say “thank you” often enough, so let me do that now, with deep heart-felt sincerity. In spite of what I initially proposed, I have opted to make all of my writing open to everyone, and to leave paid subscription entirely a matter of choice, with no other benefits than the knowledge that you are supporting writing you like to read. I am very surprised at what a success this Substack experiment has been. I am read by far more people than I ever expected, and when I’m able to make out from the e-mail addresses (the only information I have) who those people are, I am often surprised, touched, and honored… and also intimidated, given that so many of you are people whose own work I admire, and I always feel that I’m one sentence away from messing it all up by saying something ill-conceived or banal. Whether I know who you are or not, and whatever sort of subscription you may have, I am truly happy to know you’re there, and reading me, as the world transforms beyond recognition, and our reading habits along with it, and as for many of us the ring of each passing year grows tighter and tighter, and we feel ever more sharply the pinch of time.
When my sister and I were small we called the open part of the sleeves of our pyjamas that hung down around our wrists “juffies”. These juffies were a real feature of the architecture of the world as we experienced it —I would even say they were one of its weight-bearing columns, as they mattered so much to us—, yet somehow I haven’t heard anyone mentioning juffies for several decades now. Whether this is a result of active suppression, or whether juffies just aren’t as central to the way the world is built as I had initially thought, is a question I still have trouble answering.
Sometimes I begin to fear that everything is like juffies, that if we do not keep bearing up the world through speech and experience, its structure will shift to the point where the elements that used to compose it will appear as nothing more than ruins. I gather that this is the reason for the cyclical repetition of holiday rites, for imagining the year as a ring — not to feel its squeeze, but to renew it again and again. There are of course other ways to hold the world together. One might for example run one’s tongue across the roof of the mouth in order to keep the sky from falling. Try it. It works. You’ll see.
My warmest wishes to all of you for 2022. I’ll see you back here on January 10.
Image: Henri de la Sidaner (1862-1939), La Place de la Concorde (1909)