The House in Paris

I just finished reading Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris, which, unsurprisingly, I quite enjoyed.  The structure of the book suggests that it was written for people like me (three distinct parts: “the present,” “the past,” “the present”). It builds on the themes of The Last September but history is not always at stake – – it is about ordinary, everyday life.

The story is about potentiality – – events that open up possibilities but do not actually take place so that reality never replaces the imaginary.  Marriages are planned but never occur, anticipated meetings do not happen, and explorations of Paris must be deferred. The point, it seems, is that “the plane of potential” matters: that the very possibility of events subtly changes one’s relationship to the past as well as the future, even if the events, themselves, never take place (66).

Leopold, one the children at the center of the story, comes to Paris to meet his mother only to be told that she cannot meet him. He is disappointed, of course, and yet, the fact that they do not meet preserves something: “the mother who did not come to meet Leopold that afternoon remained his creature, able to speak the truth” (65). She is able to be remain “his creature” in part because he never has to confront her past.  As the opening chapter to “the past” suggests, “He expected from her a past as plain as the present, simply a present elsewhere. She was his contemporary” (65).  What unfolds in this section, however, is a clear indication that she was not his contemporary and her past was not as “plain as the present.” Her past is complicated, unfinished, and disruptive of the present.  Although there are clear breaks in her life–before and afters–they do not correspond to easy divisions: her husband constantly claims and remakes her remembering (and prevents her from certain kinds of forgetting).

Leopold never meets his mother, but by the novel’s conclusion, she is no longer “his creature.” And yet, she is certainly not her own creature.  She is Leopold’s, she is Ray’s, she is Max’s, she is even Mme Fisher’s and her family’s.  This fact, ultimately, suggests that growing up is a process of negotiating potentialities (those imposed by others, those imagined) rather than acquiring power/self-possession.

Rule by Nobody

While in LA, I’ve been lucky enough to hear Fred Moten talk a few times.  It’s incredibly energizing, intellectually and affectively, and always demonstrates the power of performance, and the power of thoughtfulness in a time when there is so little thinking.  During one talk, he noted his ongoing struggles with Hannah Arendt, and her dismissive letter to James Baldwin where she notes her fear of “the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end.”  Objecting to Baldwin (and offering condescending notes of correction) is enough for me to swear off Arendt (Baldwin is the best, in my book), but if Moten is willing to struggle with her all the same, I perhaps I should to.

Which is how I find myself reading On Violence this morning and thinking through her thoughts about bureaucracy as “rule by Nobody” (38).  And, one of the weirdest things about this book that is so against bureaucracy precisely because “there is no one left who should even be asked to answer for what is being done” (38-9).  And yet, the book, which is committed to reclaiming responsibility as it thinks about violence, demonstrates the *exact* kinds of structural violence it deplores through its implicit and explicit racism.  If Arendt wants people to “be asked to answer for what is being done” and to insist that institutions “petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them,” she does so in part because she knows that she will not have to answer for her racism (41).  She confidently dismisses the “silly and outrageous” demands of Black students and laments the “curious tendency to yield more to Negro demands” in part because her version of personhood, so central to her political theory, does not include Black people (19).  Which is all to say, that she misunderstands how even the “rule by Nobody” is the rule by Somebody (i.e. White people), and how her own version of political responsibility prevents the possibility of answering “for what is being done” because it treats some people as nobodies.

And, for me, this reminds me of the importance of scholarly genealogies that aren’t all white (or male).