Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A World That Has Always Existed

Poetry works on a different level to the novel, and goes much further. The novel accepts the everyday; it narrates it. - Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity
As part of my ongoing effort to clear out my personal library, I'm currently reading V. S. Naipaul's novel A Bend in the River. Thus far it's been an uneasy read (I've interrupted it twice to read other perfectly fine if inessential books of fiction). Where once I would have simply read the novel without complication, enjoyed the smoothness of his prose, now I'm suspicious, I feel on guard. He's a prickly character, of course, a controversial public figure, often given to making reactionary remarks. And since his books are about places in the world that I've never been to and know relatively little about, I'm wary of the world he narrates. To a large extent, I'm in a position to take his word for it, which is a big part of my unease. His novels (and travel writing, I'd imagine) seem to play a certain role in critically representing parts of the world for a Western audience, telling parts of that audience what it wants to hear about the scary other. At least that's the sense I get from reading some limited criticism about his work. I'm very wary of having Africa narrated to me in this way, and it makes me think about who such books are for.

A Bend in the River is just the third of Naipaul's books for me, after A House for Mr. Biswas and The Enigma of Arrival. The latter is one of my favorite novels, and it strikes me as nothing like the other two. In that book, the narrator is relating, with much uncertainty, those events and thoughts which ultimately resulted him becoming a writer and the person he is. It is altogether wonderful. It is writing, though it's unclear how much of a novel it really is. A House for Mr. Biswas was a kind of sprawling family drama, but perhaps since the story seems closer to Naipaul, it's not so much of a problem (though, admittedly, when I read it I was reading with somewhat different eyes; perhaps a re-read would reveal then-unnoticed issues). Salim, the narrator of A Bend in the River, is there for all sorts of observations about Africa, Africans, modernity, history, politics and political independence, education, and so on. Were the book more fanciful, I wouldn't feel as though I were having some aspect of the real world narrated to me, but it reads like a report, though a smooth one. I feel considerable less wary when Salim simply talks about himself and his own problems; the writing is more interesting in such passages, too. Already halfway through the novel, were I able to discern a plot or point, other than to represent an Africa for the reader, perhaps then I'd feel less overall unease.
Naipaul is Conrad's heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished. - The Swedish Academy, on announcing V.S. Naipaul the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature
Salim's account isn't, on the surface, obviously biased one way or another. It's not as though, at least so far, the novel reads as a statement against African independence, though indeed there are complications to be considered. The Swedish Academy is not wrong to note that Naipaul is attentive, here anyway, to what colonial empires "do to human beings", or to "what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished". That's here, and not without sympathy. It is interesting, however, that the Academy highlights "[h]is authority as a narrator" in light of this attention. As if writing should necessarily be authoritative. Again, as if a report.

I'm reminded, as I often am, of Gabriel Josipovici and his arguments about modernism. In the chapter, "It Took Talent To Lead Art That Far Astray" in his book What Ever Happened to Modernism? (my review), he discusses contemporary writers who "are concerned with telling a story and telling it in such a way as to make readers feel that they are not reading about a world that has been freshly made but about one that has always existed." One of the passages he provides happens to be from Naipaul's somewhat earlier novel, Guerrillas (1976; A Bend in the River was published in 1979). Now, to be fair, I don't think quoting individual paragraphs out of context, as Josipovici does in that chapter, is a terribly illuminating maneuver (and in the event, it proved to be part of an unfortunate distraction, for many readers, from the book's basic argument), and I will have more to say about that in another post, but the point he's trying to make is an important one, and relevant to my point here. Naipaul's Africa, in A Bend in the River, is narrated as though it has always existed, which encourages us to let it all too easily stand in for the real Africa. This is further exacerbated by the fact that Salim narrates looking back on events, from a seemingly distant, settled future. Yes, Salim observes and reports changes that have happened, but the world he narrates is there, ready, waiting for consumption.

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"Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn't it?"

Saul Bellow remains a divisive writer. Some are put off for good by the increasing reaction evident over time in his books. Others find his writing artless, idea-heavy, grasping for significance in its abundant references to intellectual figures, his critical popularity more a function of politics than literature. Still others would name him the exemplary American writer, the great American writer of the 20th century, modernist par excellence. For my part, I like him, though I've had my struggles at the level of the (sometimes rambling, aimless) sentence, and have written about him accordingly (see my two posts (one, two) on re-reading The Adventures of Augie March). And I find I'm interested in the reactionary strain in his writing, in the way that conservatism can be instructive, can tap into something overlooked by others, or perhaps in its willingness to lay bare a problem otherwise obscured.

All of which is preamble to the following long-ish passage from Mr. Sammler's Planet, one of Bellow's more controversial novels (I've seen it dismissed out of hand as "racist", and indeed the subplot about the crazy black man who exposes himself to Sammler on the bus is... well, it's problematic at best). The passage comes early in the novel, and Sammler is musing about his niece Angela (in whom "you confronted sensual womanhood without remission. You smelled it,  too." (!)) and the implications, as he sees them, of modern rights and demands and etc:
Sammler in his Gymnasium days once translated from Saint Augustine: "The Devil hath established his cities in the North." He thought of this often. […] Without the power of the North, its mines, its industries, the world would never have reached its astonishing modern form. And regardless of Augustine, Sammler had always loved his Northern cities, especially London, the blessings of its gloom, of coal smoke, gray rains, and the mental and human opportunities of a dark muffled environment. There one came to terms with obscurity, with low tones, one did not demand full clarity of mind or motive. But now Augustine's odd statement required a new interpretation. Listening to Angela carefully, Sammler perceived different developments. The labor of Puritanism now was ending. The dark satanic mills changing into light satanic mills. The reprobates turning into children of joy, the sexual ways of the seraglio and of the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of New York, Amsterdam, London. Old Sammler with his screwy visions! He saw the increasing triumph of Enlightenment—Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Adultery! Enlightenment, universal education, universal suffrage, the rights of the majority acknowledged by all governments, the rights of women, the rights of children, the rights of criminals, the unity of the different races affirmed, Social Security, public health, the dignity of the person, the right to justice—the struggles of three revolutionary centuries being won while the feudal bonds of Church and Family weakened and the privileges of aristocracy (without any duties) spread wide, democratized, especially the libidinous privileges, the right to be uninhibited, spontaneous, urinating, defecating, belching, coupling in all positions, tripling, quadrupling, polymorphous, noble in being natural, primitive, combining the leisure and luxurious inventiveness of Versailles with the hibiscus-covered erotic ease of Samoa. Dark romanticism now took hold. As old at least as the strange Orientalism of the Knights Templar, and since then filled up with Lady Stanhopes, Baudelaires, de Nervals, Stevensons, and Gauguins—those South-loving barbarians. Oh yes, the Templars. They had adored the Muslims. One hair from the head of a Saracen was more precious than the whole body of a Christian. Such crazy fervor! And now all the racism, all the strange erotic persuasions, the tourism and local color, the exotics of it had broken up but the mental masses, inheriting everything in a debased state, had formed an idea of the corrupting disease of being white and of the healing power of black. The dreams of nineteenth-century poets polluted the psychic atmosphere of the great boroughs and suburbs of New York. Add to this the dangerous lunging staggering crazy violence of fanatics, and the trouble was very deep. Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice. He did not agree with refugee friends that this doom was inevitable, but liberal beliefs did not seem capable of self-defense, and you could smell decay. You could see the suicidal impulses of civilization pushing strongly. You wondered whether this Western culture could survive universal dissemination—whether only its science and technology or administrative practices would travel, be adopted by other societies. Or whether the worst enemies of civilization might not prove to be its petted intellectuals who attacked it at its weakest moments—attacked it in the name of proletarian revolution, in the name of reason, and in the name of irrationality, in the name of visceral depth, in the name of sex, in the name of perfect instantaneous freedom. For what it amounted to was limitless demand—insatiability, refusal of the doomed creature (death being sure and final) to go away from this earth unsatisfied. A full bill of demand and complaint was therefore presented by each individual. Non-negotiable. Recognizing no scarcity of supply in any human development. Enlightenment? Marvelous! But out of hand, wasn't it?
Oh, man, there's so much! Obviously, on the surface, this reads like a cranky old-man rant about the kids and the girls and barbarians. And he comes right out and says that Enlightenment is all well and good for white folks and Western culture, but worrisome when everyone else wants in on the game. And he's focused on moral decline and sexual mores, which is hard to take too seriously. And he subsumes under the phrase "the power of the North" all the labor it exploited in the so-called South. And there are some great dog whistles in there, like "petted intellectuals" and "disease of being white and of the healing power of black" and the spectre of Muslim-lovers and so on.

And I love it. I love it for the writing, for one, for the way he moves through this paragraph, with its piled-on parallel phrases and its crazy lists and those characteristic not-quite-grammatical turns. But I also love it for its ideas, though I look at them a little upside-down from how they're no doubt intended. After all, never mind whether "this Western culture could survive universal dissemination", it cannot be universally disseminated, and its deepening and spread to date has been setting the stage for world-wide ecological collapse for decades now. But even without that immanent collapse, and here we return to a regular theme of mine, where is the labor and the energy going to come from if everyone is entitled to the modern, Western way of life? The left's critique of capitalism has, in my view, generally failed to take this into account, taking for granted the necessity and desirability of being "modern". We've bought wholesale into the culture of ever-continuing and -expanding consumption, the apolitical notion of economic growth (apolitical because placed outside of politics and all too much left-wing political thinking), all lip service to the contrary notwithstanding. Sammler is going on about morals and sexual mores, which is easy to laugh at and dismiss, but it's classic misdirection, perhaps even of himself. The real "full bill of demand and complaint . . . presented by each individual" is that of modern conveniences and air conditioning and cars and iPods and the Internet and everything else. Enlightenment? Maybe. But it's Modernity, and all the assumptions and expectations, political, economic, cultural, that's out of hand. What will we do about it? What can we do about it? Is it possible to think an inclusive polity that does not depend on unsustainable features of modern life?

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Friday, May 04, 2012

Expression of a Distant Destruction

In the most recent edition of Jacobin, Curtis White has an interesting article about philanthropic foundations and their uneasy relationship with progressive movements, "The Philanthropic Complex". It's a pretty good read. The following passage appears midway through the piece:
They do not have to justify the origins of their wealth, or how they use that wealth, or what the real benefit of their largesse is.
 §
In the end, what the foundation can be trusted to understand is not forest health, or climate change, or the imperatives of recycling; what it can be trusted to understand is the thing that gives it its privileges: its endowment.  Unfortunately, managing how the endowment is invested often leads to conflicts with the stated social purpose of the foundation.

For example, one of the emerging controversies in the world of private philanthropy is the 95-5 question.  Foundations are required to give away just 5% of their endowment each year.  The other 95% is invested.  But invested where?  Environmentalists are particularly sensitive to this question because if the money is invested in companies that continue to pollute, you have a very disturbing reality.  5% does (theoretical) good while 95% does demonstrable bad: chasing profits in the same old dirty and irresponsible way.
This issue came to a head when the Los Angeles Times concluded a long investigation into the investment practices of foundations by revealing that the Gates Foundation funded a polio vaccination clinic in Ebocha, Nigeria, in the shadow of a giant petroleum processing plant in which the Gates Foundation was invested.

The Los Angeles Times report states:
But polio is not the only threat Justice [a Nigerian child] faces. Almost since birth, he has had respiratory trouble. His neighbors call it “the cough.” People blame fumes and soot spewing from flames that tower 300 feet into the air over a nearby oil plant. It is owned by the Italian petroleum giant Eni, whose investors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Say what you like about the need to invest wisely for the future of the foundation, but this is prima facie evidence of a deep moral conflict not just at Gates but in all of private philanthropy.  The simple fact is that most boards actually don’t know if their investments and their missions align.  When pushed on the matter, most foundations respond as Gates did:  investments are the foundation’s private concern and no business of ours.

But the problem remains, when organizations receive funding, what confidence do they have that this happy money is not itself the expression of a distant destruction?  (Perhaps your funder owns stock in British Petroleum.  Of course, for the people of Louisiana, that’s anything but distant.)  When philanthropy proceeds without acknowledging this reality, it proceeds without conscience.  It proceeds pathologically.  It destroys the thing it claims to love.  And it makes the organizations it funds complicit.
These are important points to make, and I quoted White at length here to present some of the movement of his argument, but I want to say this: there is no such thing as significant wealth that "is not itself the expression of a distant destruction". There's not! Investments and positive missions cannot ever align! Capitalism requires destruction. Accumulations of wealth, of capital, means dispossession, theft, someone somewhere getting enclosed, robbed, impoverished, maimed, killed. That's the whole game! Our continuing ability to pretend that it's possible to somehow reform into existence, or big money into existence, our allegedly desired better world is amazing.