Ten Corrections

Ten Corrections*

(Dialectical Pairs)

The idea of using his knowledge in order to make himself better seems never to have occurred to him.
                                        – Aldous Huxley, on Marcel Proust
Le devoir de faire mon oeuvre primait celui d’etre poli ou meme bon.
[The duty to my work took precedence over the duty to be polite or even good.]
                                       – Marcel Proust
In the Brothers Karamazov Grushenka tells the fable of the little onion. A vicious old woman dies and goes to hell, but her guardian angel, straining his memory, recalls that she once, only once, gave a beggar the gift of a little onion she had dug up from her garden. He holds the little onion out to her, and the old woman grasps it and is lifted out of the flames of hell. This fable has always struck me as revolting: what human monster did not throughout his life make the gift of a little onion, if not to others, to his wife, to his children, to his dog? That single, immediately erased instant of pity is certainly not enough to absolve Muhsfeld. It is enough, however, to place him, too, although at its extreme boundary, within the gray band, that zone of ambiguity which radiates out from regimes based on terror and obsequiousness.
                                   – Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved
It’s only a fable, but it’s a good one; Matrina, who cooks for me now, told it to me when I was still a little girl. It goes like this:Once upon a time an old woman died who was as wicked as could be. And she left not one good deed behind her. Devils seized her and threw her into a lake of fire. And her guardian angel thought to himself: What good deed of hers can I tell God about? At last he remembered one, and he said to God: She dug up an onion in her garden and gave it to a beggar. And God said to him, If you give her the onion to hold on to, you can pull her out of the lake with it, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can enter paradise; but if the onion breaks off, then the old woman must stay where she is. The angel hurried to the old woman and held out the onion to her. All right, old lady, he says, take hold of this while I pull. And he started to pull gently, and the other sinners in the fiery lake, when they saw her being pulled out of it, grabbed onto her feet, so they could be pulled out too. And the old woman who was as wicked as could be started to kick at them: It’s me he’s pulling me out, not you, the onion is mine, not yours. No sooner had she spoken than the stem of the onion broke. And the old woman fell back in the lake and is burning there today. And the angel wept and went away.
                                    – Feodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
The whole truth is that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people, … I have dwelt on this chapter of the story, which the Jerusalem trial failed to put before the eyes of the world in its true dimensions, because it offers the most striking insight into the totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused in respectable European society… not only among the persecutors but among the victims.
                                 – Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem
 The Holocaust is a subject that has to be confronted in a spirit of humility; whatever Mrs. [sic] Arendt’s many virtues, humility was not one of them. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” – but Hannah Arendt loved to judge, and was at her most effective in the role of magister humanitatis, invoking moral pathos. And thus she rushed in where wiser men and women feared to tread, writing about extreme situations which she in her life had never experienced, an intellectual by temperament always inclined to overstatement, most at ease when dealing with abstractions, at her weakest when dealing with real people in concrete situations.
                                – Walter Lacqueur Encounter, 1979
Nothing can ever atone for the fact, of course, that one section of the Jewish population is helping to transport the majority out of the country. History will pass judgment in due course.
                                                      Diaries of Etty Hillesum, Jewish Council  volunteer
                                                       at  Westerbork, died in Auschwitz
Just imagine it was only about twenty years ago that people began to think that the use of “he” as a general pronoun might be exclusive of women. At a certain point, one realized that it does make a difference….in the case of “he” it points to the efficiency of patriarchy.
                                                           – Elaine Pagels, The New Yorker
Some readers may take offense at my use of “he” to denote the arbitrary person. Let me assure these readers that I share their goal of inclusiveness in language and differ with them only about the means to that goal. My view is that the traditional usage in this case makes English more inclusive, not less. The rule governing traditional usage is that when “he” denotes the arbitrary person, its gender is purely grammatical, not semantic, and hence carries no implications as to the referent’s sex. So understood, “he” no more denotes a man because of being masculine than the German “die Person” or the French “la personne” denotes a woman because of being feminine. The alternative practices that are currently recommended as inclusive – such as saying “he or she” or alternating “he” with “she” – actually threaten to rob the language of its capacity for gender-neutral reference to persons.
         – David Vellemen, Practical Reflections,
                    quoted in Jonathan Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature
Because you can’t beat them: you just flee (and thank God you can flee, can escape from that massy five-foot-thick moggoty-cheesy solidarity which overlays the earth, in which men and women in couples are ranked and racked like ninepins; thanks to whatever Gods for that masculine hipless tapering peg which fits light and glib to move where the cartridge-chambered hips of women hold them fast.)
                            William Faulkner, Absolom! Absolom
 Kleine Morgenbetrachtung aus grossen Liebe entstanden. Eigentlich ist doch die Haputsache, das wir uns vierzig Jahre so liebten and leben, eigentlich ist mir doch nicht so ganz gewiss, das dies alles ein Ende haben soll. Gewiss ist das Nichts – en tant que personliche Bewusstsein, und also das tatsachliches Nichts -uberaus wahrscheinlich und alles anders hochst unwahrsheinlich. Aber erleben wir nicht immerfort, seit 1914 und nun jetzt seit 1933 und in dieser letzten Zeit immer gehaufter, das allerunwahrscheinlichste grausig Phantastische, ist uns nicht das vordem absolut Unverstellbare zur Selbstverstandlichkeit und Alltaglichkeit geworden? Wenn ich die Verfolgungen in Dresden, wenn ich den 13 Februar, wenn ich diese Fluchtlingswochen erlebt habe, warum soll ich nicht ebensogut erleben (oder eben: ersterben), dass wir, Eva und ich, irgendwo uns mit Engelsflugeln oder in sonst einer schnurrigen Form wiederfinden? Nicht nur das Word “unmoglich” ist ausser Kurs geratten, auch “unverstellbar” hat keine Gultigkeit mehr.
[A brief reflection for the morning owed to great love: After all, what is most important is that for forty years we have so lived and loved each other that I am, after all, not at all certain it should ever come to an end. Certain it is that nothingness – en tant que personal consciousnness, and therefore, Nothingness in fact, is altogether likely, and anything else highly unlikely. But haven’t we experienced since 1914 and even more since 1933, and most recently ever more frequently the most horribly fantastic, the most utterly unlikely things? Hasn’t the absolutely unimaginable become run of the mill and expected? If I have survived the persecutions in Dresden, if I have survived the 13th of February and these weeks of flight, why shouldn’t Eva and I just as well survive (or rather, die) to find one anther again somewhere fitted out with angel wings or in some form or other equally odd? Not only has the word “impossible” fallen out of use, “unimaginable” has lost all meaning as well.]
                                                   – Viktor Klemperer, Tagebuch, 18 Mar 1945
 So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
                                                                                                                                                                        – Isaiah, LV. 11
Truth, it seems to me, is known only to the person who is affected by it, and if he chooses to communicate it to others, it automatically becomes a lie.
                                                                                         –  Thomas Bernhard
“She sees that I shrink, in respect of my fear for the peace of my house,” he thought, “and she will use her advantage, as is a woman’s way. She is more a female than she is an individual and my wife. I may not be surprised, though it is always a little painful to see the eternal feminine displacing its wiles in one’s own wife. It would make one laugh ruefully, it has indeed an irritating effect upon me, to perceive that a person thinks to deal according to his individual mind, when all he really does is to repeat the general pattern – mortifying indeed it is! But what are such thoughts? I can only think, not say them. What I must say is this.” And he went on.
                                – Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers
Man sees in woman, woman in man, almost always too much of the generic characteristics of the other’s sex, and too little of what is individual in the other. In practical life, this does less harm to men than to women. The social position of women in most instances is so low because it is not determined by the individual characteristics of the woman herself, but by the general ideas which are current concerning the natural function and needs of woman. A man’s activity in life is determined by his individual capacity and inclination, whereas a woman’s activity is supposed to be determined solely by the fact that she is a woman. Woman is to be the slave of the generic, of the general idea of womanhood. So long as men debate whether woman, from her “natural disposition” is fitted for this, that, or the other profession, the so-called Woman’s Question will never advance.
                            – Rudolf Steiner, Philosophy of  Spiritual Activity (Philosophie der Freiheit)
I wanted to try to begin graduate school in poetry.
                                                           Nick Flynn, The New Yorker, July 12-19, 2004
“Who says you are a poet? Who defined you as a poet?”
“No one. (neutral) Who defined me as a person?”
“Did you study it?”
“Study what?”
“To be a poet. Didn’t you try to finish your degree, where you prepare to be… Where it is taught?”
“I didn’t think it was something that was taught.”
“Where does it come from then?”
“I thought… I thought … from God.”
                                                                   The Trial of Joseph Brodsky,  Feb. 18, 1964
  …I’m shocked by the petty sorrows – microscopic in comparison with mine – with ours – the nineteenth century novel deals with. I even hurled Trollope to the floor when he tried to make me indignant over the fact that a rich widow, a clergyman’s daughter, had recieved a letter – a perfectly correct letter – from a bachelor, Mr. Slope, which episode occupies twenty pages, to say nothing of the hundreds of pages the author devotes to the equally earthshaking problem of whether a priest should remain at the head of an old-age home till the end of this days or be replaced. To us, Russians living in the year 1944, such problems appear ant-like, even bug-like.
                                                      June 28, 1944 Kornei Chukovsky, Dairy, 1901-1969
What an intoxicating writer Trollope is! I am reading his John Caldigate and find it so exciting that I have to put it down in the tragic parts: I can’t go on, I’m too “involved.” Then there is the sure hand with which he draws the characters, his knowledge of life and the veery depths of the human soul, and the modesty of it all -you feel he has no idea how brilliant he is…                                                      op. cit, January 8, 1957
                                                   The Last Toast
Here’s to domestic wreck
to my life run amok
to solitary for two
and dear, here’s to you –
to your eyes – their ice;
to your lips – their lies;
And here’s to the world:
it is cruel and cold.
And here’s to God:
He let me go.
                                                                              – Anna Akhmatova
Katchens Puerlitat zeigt sich in dem letzten Tagen in dem haufig und ernsthaft wiederholten: Wo bleibt Gott? Aber dieser Puerlitat teilt sie mit Millionem. Erst wenn (und weil) es ihnen schlecht geht, zweifeln sie an dem gutigen Gott.
                                         Klemperer Diaries
[Katchen’s childishness has shown itself these last few days in the often and earnestly repeated: “Where is God?” But this is a childishness shared with millions. Only when (and because) things go wrong, do they doubt of God and his goodness.]
These pairings are meant to stand on their own, without explication. But experience with trial readers has shown that what appears to me to be self-evident is by no means apparent to the world at large. Hence the following GLOSS:
The title is Ten Corrections. The second item in each group is meant to be read as a correction of the first. In the third group there is a correction of the correction.
l. Huxley is a minor literary figure. Proust is one of the greats. Huxley is a moralist. Proust is an artist. The pairing demonstrates the qualitative difference between these two types. Huxley reproaches Proust. He wants Proust to be not what he is – a creative force in the class of Cervantes, say – but, rather, a better person – whatever that means; whereas if Proust had not been what he was, not realized his nature in action, Huxley would never have heard of him. What could be more fatuous? Proust, on the other hand, fully recognizes his obligation to be not only good but -and this is especially endearing – polite! (His great refinement in manners is what led Gide mistakenly to suppose the artist could not coexist with a sensibility so developed in social artiface; and yet the wonder is that the artist can coexist with almost any description of man). And he regrets that these obligations are subordinate to, are preempted by, the obligation to his work: ie, to his talent, his conscience, his calling. Proust is fully aware that one desideratum is in conflict with the other: the artist’s sense of duty – in this case mistaken for selfishness – is stronger than the social man’s. Had the choice been between two obligations of equal weight, it might be called tragic. But it is not. Being “good,” except in extreme situations where the consequence of choices are clearly defined, is an amorphous concept at best; otherwise, there probably are situations in which the priority is not with the art. But Huxley was thinking of daily life, not eventualities of this type.
2. The second pairing is interesting not because Primo Levi remembers Grushenka’s anecdote, or cites it to make a point, but because he remembers it incorrectly. In Levi’s version, the old woman is rescued by her one good deed. In the original story, her one good deed cannot help her. It fails to rescue her precisely because it cannot outweigh a lifetime of selfishness. (She kicks off the other sinners.) Why did he get it wrong? One doesn’t know. But the pairing demonstrates how emotional bias can interfere with intelligence in good causes as well as bad, perhaps because this is the nature of causes. Although Levi is on the side of the angels, his zeal to make a case inadvertently undermines the fidelity of his memory. Even in a man whose integrity has earned universal respect, the mind is subject to the deleterious effect of the passions: in this case, the overriding desire to bring the German people to judgment for the atrocities he had experienced at first hand.
3. Hannah Arendt was reviled and persecuted – I do not think it is too strong a word – by liberal Jewish opinion in the form of groups and individuals in the United States, and especially in New York, for suggesting, in her coverage of the Eichmann trial, that the Jewish Councils in occupied countries inadvertently collaborated in the extermination of their people by numbering the Jews [the sin of David!]and itemizing their wealth. If the Councils had refused to cooperate with the Nazis, for all that cooperation was based on a conviction that it could bring some relief, the probability is that a great many more individuals would have escaped the Nazi dragnet. The “correction” is written in the spirit of judgment against her for daring to suggest a notion so damaging to Jewish self-esteem. The “correction of the correction” is taken from the diary of Etty Hillesum, one of those astonishing documents that have survived the period whose purity and beauty vindicate the notion that it is right to think the best as well as the worst of our species. Etty Hillesum sees it more or less the same way that Hannah Arendt saw it: the Jewish Councils must bear the weight of shame. No one could be more qualified to make such a judgment. She herself worked on a Jewish Council in Amsterdam. And she did not take advantage of the opportunity to escape when it was offered to her, but chose rather to accompany her family to Auschwitz. The moral authority of such an individual cannot be contested and shores up – if it needs shoring up – the same quality in Hannah Arendt.
4. Demonstrates the irreversible damage that ideology has done to the English language.
5. Faulkner, great and a great misogynist. Celine might fit into this category, likewise, but what might be called his misogyny is absorbed by the broader category of misanthropy. Victor Klemperer, like so many Germans brought to the bar of the unendurable – cf. the Abscheidbriefe in Du Hast Mich Heimgesucht bei Nacht – is, I hope, representative.
6. In this case the correction is only apparent. The distinction is not between chaff and wheat, but between two perennial types, the prophet and the literary artist, between the Muse and the Holy Ghost; nor is it a question of the march of civilization, of the assault on language by advertising, propaganda and journalism. Thucidides writes: “Corcyra fell with its component parts” because the “agreed upon currency of words for things was subjected to random barter.”
 7. Inasmuch as the first item represents the thoughts of a fictitious character (Potiphar), the second is not so much a “correction” as a supplement. For a true contrast, consider Pope John Paul II’s “Meditation on Woman” (Mulieris dignitatum, 1974), in which he defines woman by her roles: virgin, wife, mother, omitting all who, like Mary Magdalene, do not fit into one of these generic categories.
8,9,10. Gloss is superfluous.