a brief visit to the red light district

Logical positivist Alfred Jules Ayer was renowned both as a fierce debater and an audacious womanizer. As his stepdaughter Gully Wells told his biographer Ben Rogers, in 1987, shortly after his seventy-seventh birthday party, Ayer cleverly conjoined these competitive qualities in an unexpectedly philanthropic encounter with a besotted raper wannabe:

It was at another party, given a little later in the year by the highly fashionable clothes designer, Fernando Sanchez, that he had a widely reported encounter. Ayer had always had an ability to pick up unlikely people and at yet another party had befriended Sanchez. Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: ‘Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.’ Ayer stood his ground: ‘And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent men in our held; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.’ Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.

In the following year, a no less competitive confrontation with a more formidable adversity left Ayer bested in a far less festive setting. In the articles reproduced and glossed below, he recounts and analyzes a near-death experience, which pitted him against a bright and painful red light that governed the universe, and the guardians of space and time. Some time later Jonathan Miller commented to Dee Wells, Ayer’s final and antepenultimate wife: “Freddie is in spectacularly good form!” To which she replied: “He’s so much nicer since he died.” A character-building opportunity of this sort would improve almost all of us.

What I Saw When I Was Dead
A.J. Ayer

A.J. Ayer post mortem, London, 5 October 1988, photo by Steve Pyke
My first attack of pneumonia occurred in the United States. I was in hospital for ten days in New York, after which the doctors said that I was well enough to leave. A final X-ray, however, which I underwent on the last morning, revealed that one of my lungs was not yet free from infection. This caused the most sympathetic of my doctors to suggest that it would be good for me to spend a few more days in hospital. I respected his opinion but since I was already dressed and psychologically disposed to put my illness behind me, I decided to take the risk. I spent the next few days in my stepdaughter’s apartment, and then made arrangements to fly back to England. When I arrived I believed myself to be cured and incontinently plunged into an even more hectic social round than that to which I had become habituated before I went to America.
    Retribution struck me on Sunday, May 30. Continue reading a brief visit to the red light district

9. the means of language

— for Eric Gans
    Quand il parlait, il ne levait jamais un bras ni un doigt : il avait tué la marionnette.
    — Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste
    When he spoke, he never raised his arm, nor his finger; he had killed the puppet.
    — Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste[0]

    It is customary to introduce a French subject in the history of ideas (l’histoire des mentalités) with the simile coined by the great mediaevalist Marc Bloch:[1] « Le bon historien, lui, ressemble à l’ogre de la légende. Là où il flaire la chair humaine, il sait que là est son gibier. » The good historian, says Bloch, resembles the legendary ogre: wherever he smells human flesh, there he knows to seek his prey. But the postmodern ogre is a conflicted creature. Undermining the cause of his own carnivorous appetite, he holds that the singularity of definitively modern works consists precisely in their fundamental ambiguity. In so far as historical events are molded by human hands, this singularity must extend to all subjects of modern history.
    Witness Ross Chambers epitomizing French literary modernism in the two key masterpieces of that movement, Charles Baudelaire’s verse collection Les fleurs du mal and Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary:[2]

Their writing has an elusive quality that resists interpretative closure and makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to locate a subject in which an “intended meaning” would have originated. As a result, reading modern works becomes a literally interminable procedure, and in both the text and its interpretation the insistence of unconscious forces ― that is, of desire ― becomes impossible to ignore.

Physicists teach that perpetual motion is impossible. Economists agonize over the prospects of full employment. Little do they know that resistance to interpretative closure is all it takes to ensure that the tribe of literary critics becomes fully employed in the manufacture of perpetual motion compelled by the insistence of desire and predicated upon the impossibilities of ignoring. Continue reading 9. the means of language

who was that masked man?

In a passage from the Cogitationes Privatæ, a collection of fragments written around 1619 and known today from a copy made by Leibniz, René Descartes pledges: “Ut comœdi, moniti ne in fronte appareat pudor, personam induunt, sic ego hoc mundi teatrum conscensurus, in quo hactenus spectator exstiti, larvatus prodeo.” (Œuvres de Descartes, Ch. Adam and P. Tannery (eds.), X 213, 4-6.) Just as comedians are counseled not to let shame appear on their foreheads, and so put on a mask, so likewise, now that he is about to mount the stage of the world, where he has so far been a spectator, young Renatus Cartesius comes forward in a mask. Continue reading who was that masked man?