Thursday, March 29, 2007

Eternal Sunset

From Text 196 of The Book of Disquiet:
The feelings that hurt most, the emotions that sting most, are those that are absurd: the longing for impossible things, precisely because they are impossible; nostalgia for what never was; the desire for what could have been; regret over not being someone else; dissatisfaction with the world's existence. All these half-tones of the soul's consciousness create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are. The sensation we come to have of ourselves is of a deserted field at dusk, sad with reeds next to a river without boats, its glistening waters blackening between wide banks.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Novelist is All of Us

From Text 27 of The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa:
Literature--which is art married to thought, and realization untainted by reality--seems to me the end towards which all human effort would have to strive, if it were truly human and not just a welling up of our animal self. To express something is to conserve its virtue and take away its terror. Fields are greener in their description than in their actual greenness. Flowers, if described with phrases that define them in the air of the imagination, will have colours with a durability not found in cellular life.

What moves lives. What is said endures. There's nothing in life that's less real for having been well described. Small-minded critics point out that such-and-such poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it's a nice day. But to say it's a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It's up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.

Everything is what we are, and everything will be, for those who come after us in the diversity of time, what we will have intensely imagined--what we, that is, by embodying our imagination, will have actually been. The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts. The novelist is all of us, and we narrate whenever we see, because seeing is complex like everything.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


This past week I read Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein's excellent exploration into Spinoza's philosophical system and the Jewish experience, historical and personal, that, she argues, formed his secret motivation to develop his system. I was wary of reading it yet without first having read some Spinoza, but Mark Thwaite sealed it for me the other week with his brief Book Depository review in which he said: "You will not read a better introduction to this still vital thinker". Well, a good introduction was just what I wanted, so I decided to read it immediately. I'm glad I did; this is a fascinating book, and happens to fit in quite nicely with my recent thinking on questions of reason and religion. Goldstein clearly and entertainingly explains much of Spinoza's metaphysical system, while also providing an interesting historical overview of the problems of Spanish-Portugese Jewry (in the period of more tolerant Moslem rule, supplanted by intolerant Catholics, and eventually the Spanish Inquistion), including, of course, those who fled Spain and Portugal for Amsterdam, like Spinoza's own family did before his birth.

Spinoza's basic question of his teachers--why did God do as he did? The answer, because God is good, is unsatisfactory. It begs the question, because it really locates the reason outside of God. If there is a "good" that God does, then the explanation of God is irrelevant. If things are "good" merely because God does them, then he may have just as easily done something else, so that God in this sense is arbitrary. So it thus does no good to appeal to a transcendent God. But Spinoza was not "atheist". He believed in God as immanent in nature, rather than transcendent. And nature makes sense, is logical. And human morality is immanent in human nature (one might argue, now, that it is a natural implication of evolution), rather than something imposed from without by a transcendent being.

Goldstein's explanation of the question of personal identity was engrossing. We are necessarily engaged in the project of being who we are. Our commitment to this project is explained only by the fact that we are who we are, and no one else. As Goldstein puts it at one point (p. 160):
There is an absurdity in even asking for a reason as to why we should care about ourselves. Identity itself explains the self-concern. We don't require any persuasion in taking a special interest in what will befall us. The persuasion we require is to take an interest in others as well. That's the business of ethics, and the business, too, of The Ethics.
Our personal involvement in the project of ourself opens us up to the range of emotions (love, anger, etc) that affect our ability to make judgments, judgments which impact the viability of the ongoing project. Spinoza would have us step outside of ourselves, to view ourselves and the world from the vantage point of the "View from Nowhere". From here, "the fact of who one is within the world seems to disappear". Spinoza recommends we take this view "as the means of attaining salvation":
Our very essence, our conatus, will lead us, if only we will think it all through, to a vision of reality that, since it is the truth, is in our interests to attain, and will effect such a difference in our sense of ourselves that we will have trouble even returning to the prephilosophical attachment to ourselves. It will appear almost too contingent to be true that one just happens to be that thing that one is. (p. 162)
When we are thus saved we will be able to face the reality of our own deaths:
Our inability to realistically contemplate our own demise accounts [...] for the otherwise incomprehensible power that the superstitious religions exert on us. Only reason, as rigorous as we can muster it up, can truly save us, can both give us the truth and also deliver us from our primal fear of the truth. (p.163)
I think all of this is fascinating, though I'm sure I'm misrepresenting something. Spinoza's "reason" does not appear to be identical to what we usually mean by "reason" today, though they are related, since for him the use of pure reason leads to a blessed state, a spiritual state. I could be misunderstanding something. Anyway, I don't want to say too much more about the ideas here, for fear of further misrepresenting them, but I look forward to actually reading Spinoza's own proofs. In any event, I highly recommend Goldstein's book. (Incidentally, I also recommend her excellent novel, The Mind-Body Problem.)

There was one aspect of Betraying Spinoza that disappointed--the epilogue. The subtitle of the book is "The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity", so throughout my reading I was waiting for Goldstein to explain how Spinoza's ideas indeed "gave us modernity". The "explanation" that finally comes seems sort of weak. In the epilogue, she mentions that a few years after Spinoza's death, John Locke moved to Amsterdam, where he made friends "chosen from among the same freethinking members of dissenting Protestant groups as Spinoza's small group of loyal confidants." Then she says this:
Though Locke's strong empiricist tendencies, persuading him to accept probability rather than certainty as justificatory grounds for beliefs, would have disinclined him to read a grandly metaphysical work such as The Ethics, in other ways he was deeply receptive to Spinoza's ideas, most particularly to the rationalist's well thought argument for political and religious tolerance and the necessity of the separation of church and state. (p.262)
Locke returned to England, and wrote on many topics, including in defense of religious liberty. His writings influenced the founding fathers who gained American independence from England, and wrote the U.S. Constitution. Goldstein quotes Thomas Jefferson, etc. I find this disappointing not because political and religious tolerance are not crucial (they are), nor do I mean to dispute the importance of the separation of church and state in general, or to those who founded this country. I find it disappointing because Goldstein spends much of the book talking about the very aspects of Spinoza's system that would not have appealed to someone like John Locke, and then proceeds to forge that link between Spinoza and Locke based on the question of religious liberty, seemingly to force the point about modernity. Two things strike me about this. The first is a question: was it necessarily Spinoza's influence in particular on Locke with respect to the matter of tolerance, or was the still relative tolerance of Amsterdam, compared to other European cities at the time, itself perhaps an important or even determining factor? I don't so much doubt the importance of Spinoza's writings on tolerance, or that they affected Locke. But she made this connection rather facilely, I thought.

Second, it seems to me that Spinoza's metaphysical project, if I come close to understanding Goldstein's explanation of it, has not been incorporated into the main current of modern Western culture (Western philosophy perhaps--I am in no position to judge). I kept waiting for Goldstein to show how it has, but she doesn't. This is the penultimate paragraph in Betraying Spinoza:
His determination to think out the tragedy of his community led him to a unique system of thought. Within this system he sought to demonstrate that the truths of ethics have their source in the human condition and nowhere else. He sought to prove that our common human nature reveals why we must treat one another with utmost dignity, and, too, that our common human nature is itself transformed in our knowing of it, so that we become only more like one another as we think our way toward radical objectivity.
Spinoza's system is thus inspiring, and spiritual in its way, and seems to bear little to no resemblance to general ideas about human nature in common currency in the world today. In this sense, Spinoza seems to still be considerably ahead of our time, as he was ahead of his own.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Needed: More Criticism

A lot of people have linked to Susan Sontag's previously unpublished mini-essay that appeared in the Guardian last week, but so far few have commented on it. Scott Esposito posted about it yesterday, and Ted at myrtias the other day. Ted calls the essay "essential reading". I disagree. I found it sort of rambling and pointless. She starts to say something interesting in the middle of the piece:
"The modern" is an idea, a very radical idea, that continues to evolve. We are now in a second phase of the ideology of the modern (which has been given the presumptuous name of "the postmodern"). This beginning of "the modern" in literature took place in the 1850s. A century and a half is a long time. Many of the attitudes and scruples and refusals associated with "the modern" in literature - as well as in the other arts - have begun to seem conventional or even sterile. And, to some extent, this judgment is justified. Every notion of literature, even the most exacting and liberating, can become a form of spiritual complacency or self-congratulation.

Most notions about literature are reactive - in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive. But what is happening in the repudiations advanced in the current debate about the novel goes far beyond the usual process whereby new talents need to repudiate older ideas of literary excellence.

In North America and in Europe, we are living now, I think it fair to say, in a period of reaction. In the arts, it takes the form of a bullying reaction against the high modernist achievement, which is thought to be too difficult, too demanding of audiences, not accessible (or "user-friendly") enough. And in politics, it takes the form of a dismissal of all attempts to measure public life by what are disparaged as mere ideals.

In the modern era, the call for a return to realism in the arts often goes hand in hand with the strengthening of cynical realism in political discourse.
Unfortunately, she doesn't do much with this. She goes off on a weird, somewhat dated digression about the "hyper-novel", before finally locating the problem with today's fiction with television. Then she spends several paragraphs on broad generalizations about the differences between the novel and television. I found very little of value in this section, very little that hasn't been said before. By the end it's clear that she is making an ethical argument in favor of the novel; she is saying that reading novels is good for us. It's not immediately evident to me what the purpose of such a piece is. If it weren't a posthumously published piece from Susan Sontag, I don't think anyone would care.

Meanwhile, in the April issue of Harper's, Cynthia Ozick calls for more literary criticism to redress the problems currently besetting literary fiction. This article ("Literary Entrails") was similarly disappointing, though I certainly agree that we need more criticism. She begins by rehearsing the arguments made by Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus in two previous Harper's articles: Franzen's 1996 manifesto fretting about the lack of societal impact of literary fiction and calling for more socially engaged literature, and Ben Marcus' 2005 article, which defended experimental literature, largely from Franzen, by replying in part to Franzen's manifesto, but more to Franzen's notorious (and whiny) New Yorker essay from 2002 about William Gaddis titled "Mr Difficult".

Ozick argues that the kinds of manifestos and polemics made by Franzen and Marcus have nothing to do with the health of literature. They are bickering over readers who are increasingly not there to be bickered over. She says that what's needed is more literary criticism, the kind of literary criticism that "explains, both ancestrally and contemporaneously, not only how literature evolves but how literature influences and alters the workings of human imagination." She proceeds to single out James Wood as exactly the kind of critic we need, one who sees the "indebtedness" and "connectedness" between writers past and present. What we need, Ozick argues, are more James Woods (she actually says "What is needed is a thicket--a forest--of Woods"). Then she approvingly quotes several passages from Wood's criticism--this is a critical mind at work, she says. She mentions some others who provide "inklings" of a "potential critical aggregate", but that she includes Christopher Hitchens in this list is not encouraging (that she includes Wyatt Mason is, I think, encouraging). Again, I agree that more and better criticism is necessary, and I don't object to the idea that Wood is an interesting critic. But I think that one problem with literature today, in the absence of any sort of critical body of knowledge, is that everything is so uselessly contentious. People argue about their tastes, about their favorite authors, with very little general acceptance of the terms being argued over. People line up, as well, to argue about their favorite or hated critics, with James Wood often at the center of such disputes. As such, I don't think his role is positive.

Ozick admits in a footnote that Wood seems to have a blindspot with his partiality to "realism" (and against his bugaboo "hysterical realism"), but she contends that "a critic is nothing without an authoritative posture, or standard, or even prejudice, against which an opposing outlook or proposition can be tested." This sounds reasonable, but compare it with something Northrop Frye wrote in the "Polemical Introduction" to his Anatomy of Criticism (published in 1957). Frye is arguing that criticism should be developed scientifically, into a systematic study of literature, a body of knowledge. He writes:
There are no definite positions to be taken in chemistry or philology, and if there are any to be taken in criticism, criticism is not a field of genuine learning. For in any field of genuine learning, the only sensible response to the challenge "stand" is Falstaff's "so I do, against my will." One's "definite position" is one's weakness, the source of one's liability to error and prejudice, and to gain adherents to a definite position is only to multiply one's weakness like an infection.
Frye would, I think, see James Wood as more of a "public critic" who "tends to episodic forms like the lecture and the familiar essay", whose "work is not a science, but another kind of literary art." Frye wanted a criticism that has "a clear notion of progress" by which a critic could "become anything better than a monument of contemporary taste, with all its limitations and prejudices." What Ozick is calling for seems very different than Frye's scientific ideal. Using his terminology (and noting the names she listed aside from Wood), it appears that she would like to see a broader infrastructure of such public critics, all duking it out over literary taste, essentially. Ultimately Ozick's article disappointed not because she identified a problem in this lack of literary criticism, but because she does almost nothing with it except praise--and quote--James Wood, who is already the most visible critic working today anyway, so hardly in need of the attention.

I haven't yet made it incredibly far into Anatomy of Criticism (I'm about halfway through the first the four main essays), but I wonder if he allows that a "definite" critical position can be held that can't be reduced to mere taste. I wonder, too, how someone like Gabriel Josipovici would fit in with this kind of schematic. It seems to me that he has a definite position, but can it simply be reduced to a matter of taste? Given his talk about Modernists, and present-day novelists writing in bad faith, some could argue (and did, in some of the comments, here and elsewhere) what if you just don't like the Modernists? I'm interested in reading in more detail what he has to say about such things (to that end, I ordered two of his books: The Book of God and On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion, each of which were like $1.00 via Amazon. Alas, his earlier Lessons of Modernism is nowhere available for under $50, as far as I can tell, and the recent The Singer on the Shore collection is still relatively pricey); I will no doubt be reporting some of what I find here, as well as more from Frye's book.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Middlemarch, and Being Pulled Along By the Plot

I've been sick this week, so I haven't been able to complete some longer items I've been working on. I have, however, been able to finish reading George Eliot's Middlemarch, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I wasn't expecting it to be as funny as it is. It is often called "the quintessential Victorian novel"--indeed, the back cover of our copy calls it just that. Anyway, here, I gather, is what the Modernists were reacting against, and what present-day writers are more likely to use as their forerunner than the Modernists' own novels. The attempt to present "real life" in all its totality being an effort taken in bad faith, per Gabriel Josipovici. It's a huge book, of course (nearly 800 pages), and it abounds in characters we grow to care about. It does suck you in. Almost against my will I found myself despising Mr. Casaubon, for example, and rooting for bad things not to happen to Fred Vincy.

A seeming digression. Sometime before we were married, a high school friend of Aimée's and her husband visited us. The conversation turned towards literature. Happily, they are both literary-minded readers. She'd read Proust in the previous year, so we talked a little about her experience. Later on we mentioned that we'd both been interested in reading Beckett. He recommended Watt as a good place to start (naturally, I instead started with Murphy, since it was at the beginning). At one point, he said something that I liked, that has stuck with me. He said: "I resent it when I'm reading a novel and I feel pulled along by the plot." I recognized the idea. I think I'd had it myself, without quite realizing it. I know that when I read, say, Ian McEwan, someone who I once thought of as quite literary, I've had difficulty focusing on the words on the page. McEwan can write well, and he crafts very pleasant sentences--often beautiful ones--but. . . well, his novels are "good, gripping read[s]". That link goes to another Ellis Sharp post in which he expands on the idea presented in the recent Josipovici talk by quoting from James Wood's review of McEwan's Enduring Love. Says Ellis:
Wood complained that McEwan had become increasingly a novelist ‘who trades in narrative surprises…his novels suffocate with design. They trap their subjects in prim webs of information and argumentation.’ For Wood there is something deeply unrealistic about McEwan’s brand of realism: ‘his people are efficient fictional containers, but not people’.

Wood also puts forward a view of great writing (or at any rate, true novels as opposed to inauthentic ones) as involving writing that strands the reader in not-knowing, in contrast to McEwan, who supplies the consolations and pleasures of explanation, meaning and resolution, which emerge through the medium of a gleaming, processed, entirely accessible prose.
I don't always (or often) agree with Wood, but these comments about McEwan make sense to me. When I read McEwan a lot of the time my eyes tend to want to race down the page. I get impatient; I have been conditioned by the prose, and the fine-tuned plot, to eagerly anticipate what happens next. And I don't like that. I don't really care what happens next. (Incidentally, looking back, I think this is why I liked Atonement the best of McEwan's novels. In it, I think he is much better at "strand[ing] the reader in not-knowing". In that novel, he subverted the tendency to want to know what "really" happened--and naturally got criticized for "ruining" what could have been a "perfectly good story". I'd need to read it again to see if I'd still rate it as highly as I did.)

I bring this up because toward the end of Middlemarch, over the last 150 pages or so, I noticed much the same thing. We have learned so much about the lives of these characters, and much has happened to them; by the end I had to restrain myself from the temptation to rush ahead. And I wanted to restrain myself, because the thing I liked most about the novel was what was slowest about it: the (omniscient) narrator's patient exploration of the characters' feelings and thought processes, interspersed with amusing asides. (The dialogue was generally more or less forgettable, but I really hate the attempts to "capture" the speech of the "lower" classes, the "ill-born".)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Mitchelmore on Genre

I left my last post a little incomplete. This is partly because, in the middle of writing it, I clicked over to This Space and saw that Steve has two new posts up about the problem of genre, making me realize I had more I wanted to say and the post had already become somewhat overlong. Steve blogs often about the ossification of the novel--how it's become a genre itself. When it first emerged, per Josipovici, "it became hugely popular [for its pretense to tell the truth], taking over as the dominant literary form. And no wonder. Here was an infinitely flexible vessel in which one could pour experience of the world." By now, though, the huge percentage of writers (talented writers) merely "fill the form", which is apparently ok by readers:
For many, the familiar comforts of genre give more pleasure than the truth at whatever cost, and they object to being labelled philistine or as lacking judgement. This occurred in Josipovici's lecture when he expressed astonishment at the ecstatic reception given to Irène Némirovsky Suite Française. At least three attendees thought it unfair to scorn a novel recovered from a literal holocaust. But Josipovici never said she was a lesser writer than the modernists to which she was compared, only that Némirovsky, like 99% of contemporary authors, were and are simply unaware of the inappropriateness of what they were and are doing. The air of authority they adopt - that given to them by the form - betrays the freedom given by the breakdown of genre.
More here and here. I'll return to this later.

(By the way, in reference to my "Satisfying" post below, Steve clarified something from his post on the Gabriel Josipovici talk. It was not Josipovici, but rather a member of the audience, who suggested John Updike as a writer aware of the kinds of problems Josipovici was talking about.)


Last week, Ed Champion posted a "field report" from Richard Grayson, who attended the NBCC panel discussion, The Mandarin at the Minimart: What We Talk about When We Talk about Mass Market Fiction. In the discussion it appears (as conveyed by Grayson) that the panel-members are talking past each other, that no one seems to share any definitions or expectations. In many respects, it is reduced to publishing and reviewing decisions (admittedly, the basic topic of the panel is the question of why "genre" or "popular" books are treated differently than "literary" books by reviewers and review pages). Book A is marketed as Science Fiction or Mystery, so it gets ignored, or shunted off to a genre review page. Book B is marketed as "literary fiction", etc. Panel-member Walter Mosley says that the "smartest writers wrote science fiction". Another, Louise Ermilino of Publishers Weekly, says that "good writing is good writing" no matter where it appears, and later asserts that "a hundred years from now, people are more likely going to be reading Stephen King than Philip Roth". Everyone seems to agree that it's all about story, and good stories can be found anywhere.

Ok, I have no desire to rehash the entire thing, but some points interest me, particularly in the context of my last couple of posts. First of all, I agree that "good writing is good writing". I see no reason why a nominally "genre" book could not be great art or great literature. The key word, though, is "nominally". If they are great literature, they cease to be "genre". In case it's not clear, I think the same is true of most so-called "literary fiction".

One thing said in the panel, which I've seen said elsewhere, is that "literary" writers "borrow" from genre, and get treated with more respect:
Cormac McCarthy wrote a genre novel [presumably The Road, which I gather is set in a post-apocalypse, like many dystopian SF novels; but what about Blood Meridian? Is not "western" a genre?] [...] Philip Roth can do alternate history in The Plot Against America and literary reviewers who don’t know that genre actually give Roth credit for inventing that kind of book, as if he were the first one to do it...
I think these kinds of comments are revealing. While it's probably true that many reviewers did give Philip Roth all kinds of credit for "inventing" alternate history (and more generally true that literary writers get more respect than genre writers when they "borrow"), this is because most reviewers don't know what they're talking about. The best parts of The Plot Against America (which, incidentally, I thought was wildly overpraised) were those that were the most typically Rothian. Roth, it seemed clear to me, chose his setting as an interesting way to explore certain ongoing fictional concerns of his. Whenever he had to move the plot of the alternate history along, it became less interesting and often felt rushed. As a result, this aspect of the book was unquestionably "unsatisfying". But I doubt he cared whether it was conventionally satisfying. No doubt several SF writers would have handled it better, made the facts of the alternate world more convincing, but it would have been quite beside the point; they wouldn't have been Philip Roth. Same with Cormac McCarthy. It's pointless to say that he "wrote a genre novel".

Then there's Ermilino's comment, quoted above, that "a hundred years from now, people are more likely going to be reading Stephen King than Philip Roth". No, they're not. Stephen King is popular entertainment. Philip Roth is a great writer. I see this kind of thing said all the time. This inability, or refusal, to tell the difference is depressing. But, then, what does she mean by "people"? "People" don't read Roth now, if we mean people in the huge kinds of numbers who read Stephen King. A hundred years from now, the people that read Roth will be the same kinds of people who read Henry James now, broadly speaking. Some other popular writer will be in King's place. I don't see why it should be offensive to say this. King gets routinely compared to Dickens and to Shakespeare--not their abilities as writers, of course, but their apparent popularity, as if this is any kind of useful indicator. People read Dickens and Shakespeare now, don't they?, these people observe, ergo they will be reading King a hundred years hence. And if you don't think so you must be a snob, looking down on other people's "tastes".

More later.


In a post celebrating the publication of J.M. Coetzee's new collection of criticism, Inner Workings, Scott Esposito says parenthetically of Coetzee's most recent novel, Slow Man, that it's "one of the Coetzee novels that [he] found more pedantic than satisfying". I liked Slow Man, and I've disagreed with Scott on that book at his blog before, but right now I'm interested in that word "satisfying". I've noticed the word in common use as praise for a novel. I'm sure I've used it as such myself. But what is meant when we say that a novel is or isn't "satisfying"? It seems to me that when we talk about that genre of literature known as "literary fiction", a novel is satisfying to the extent to which it meets certain kinds of readerly expectations. An engaging story, told well. Usually including emotionally compelling characters we can "care about". Intelligent; well-written; clever.

Let me return now to the topic of my last post: Gabriel Josipovici and his talk the other night in London. Ellis Sharp mentioned in his post on it that Josipovici read aloud from three unidentified works of fiction. Says Ellis:
They were all bad writers, going through the motions, Jospivoci argued. Each extract raised questions of narrative authority. Each author displayed a complacent omniscience about their characters.
Steve Mitchelmore modifies this impression in a comment to his own brief post about the talk, at This Space:
I would correct one thing: I think he said those "writers going through the motions" weren't bad at all - in fact that they were all talented etc, but that they went blithely on churning out these books untroubled by doubt.
An earlier post from Steve touched on "guilty pleasures" and the "philistine drivel flow[ing] from the assumption that Great Art is a Platonic realm and good for you like a sermon, while 'guilty pleasures' are what we'd all prefer to engage in instead." Steve objected to this and then, with some weariness, wrote: "It isn't about snobbery but making the distinction between an ephemeral need and what is needed at the deepest level."

I think this distinction is not felt by many, or not understood. Usually it's perceived that if you don't read any "genre", for example, it's because you're being dismissive and elitist. And genre enthusiasts can compare much of what they read with much of what gets hailed as "literary" and often rightly not see anything special about the latter, noticing that it's just as unoriginal and formulaic as non-genre readers assume genre is. Because most of what gets published as literary fiction, and is considered for literary awards, is not particularly interesting. Even when it's good and well-written. Most of it does not meet that need felt at "the deepest level". Most of it would not induce most readers to claim it as a "guilty pleasure", yet they offer not much more than a satisfaction of "an ephemeral need" (a need, in this case, to read a smart, entertaining story). We can disagree on which books meet that deeper need (or even address it), but if we don't agree that there is a distinction to be made on this point, conversation will remain difficult.

In his post, Ellis wrote that that Josipovici mentioned two of the "very few of the modern British novelists" who wrote out of an awareness of the "bad faith" of the novel (as acknowledged by the Modernists): "William Golding, in Pincher Martin, and Muriel Spark, in The Hothouse By The East River." I've never read either of these writers. Since Golding is the author of Lord of the Flies, which often gets lumped in with books like The Catcher in the Rye (books we're supposed to read in high school), I've had a tendency to assume that I could not bother with him and not be missing much. But then I learned he'd won the Nobel Prize, which did compel me to readjust his position in my mind slightly. Now I definitely want to read Pincher Martin, at least.

Steve noted that Josipovici, to Steve's evident dismay, interestingly named John Updike as a "popular literary novelist who was aware in his or her work of the issues raised in the talk". Steve wondered whether it had been Ellis who asked the question prompting this reply. Ellis says no: "Had I been quizzing the genial Gabriel Josipovici on his attitude to modern American fiction, the gauntlets I would have thrown down would have been early Pynchon and David Foster Wallace." It pleases me that Ellis mentions David Foster Wallace in this context, because it seems to me that Wallace is misunderstood by admirers and detractors alike. He is not just "playing games"; he is not simply refusing to "incorporate" his own critical stance on irony into his fiction (of which he is routinely accused, casually and gratuitously, most recently, to my attention, here). I think he is very aware of the problems that Josipovici appears to be raising, and that in his fiction he is working through these problems seriously (see an earlier post by me on Wallace here; by the way, I think this much-discussed "stance on irony", as delineated in the above-linked interview, and in his essay "E Unibus Pluram", found in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, is also misunderstood, especially as it relates to his own fiction). What he doesn't do is "satisfy" our expectations for a certain kind of psychologically convincing, emotionally compelling story. He may, instead, address the "deeper level of need" (I think he does). I was going to say that when this deeper need is addressed there might be a different sense of satisfaction--we might be satisfied that the need is being met--but are we ever really satisfied in this sense? Do we not in part seek out such books because we remain, and must remain, unsatisfied?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Learning the Jokes

Ellis Sharp reports on what sounds like a fascinating talk given tonight by Gabriel Josipovici. According to Josipovici, he says, the vast portion of British writing "is carried out as if Kafka and Proust had never existed. Modernism is something which everyone knows exists but which most prefer not to think about." I've recently stepped up my efforts to better acquaint myself with the history of literature (by reading it, in case that wasn't clear). This is for two reasons. First, plainly, simply to read some good books (turns out Middlemarch is pretty good!). Second, to be able to recognize the kinds of thing that Josipovici is talking about. A post from Golden Rule Jones last week ended with this interpretation of something J.M. Coetzee said about young writers not reading: "you can’t be a serious writer if you don’t know the jokes." I take it as given that the same is true of being a serious reader.

Of course, I learned about Josipovici through Steve Mitchelmore (who briefly mentions the talk and Ellis' account here), and more via Ready Steady Book and Spurious. I've read one novel by Josipovici (In a Hotel Garden, which I wrote about here), and I was able to find two others when I was in Paris last Fall (Moo Pak and Now). I have his criticism high on my list of books to acquire (The Book of God: A Response to the Bible looks especially interesting). Ellis writes that he left the talk with his "faith in serious writing renewed".

Existence of Something

I learn today via Mark Thwaite at ReadySteadyBlog that Daniel Hind's Threat to Reason, in which I expressed an interest in my last post, is due out from Verso in May. Mark has touched on these topics a few times and has actually read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. He found it "blunt yet shrill". In a brief post on it a couple of weeks ago, he wrote: just made me think Dawkins was a bit of a scary megalomaniac. As an atheist, it didn't convince me as a book, as an argument, but then neither have any of the religious responses to it that I've read. Often these argue well enough for the existence of something, i.e. something spiritual (we can't empirically prove or find love, but we know it exists), but none argue convincingly for the specificity of their own very particular brand of religion. Dawkins doesn't get out of the double-bind of needing a prime mover, but equally that is no justification for thinking e.g. that Christ is the way to salvation, nor that "we" need saving. It is a huge leap from arguing that there is "something out there" to being able to posit that your own version of faith is any kind of truth.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Simple Division

At the end of the Lenin's Tomb post I cited in my last post, Lenin briefly informs us about an upcoming book called The Threat to Reason, by Daniel Hind, who is new to me. Lenin points to Hind's blog of the same name. He's only posted four times since launching the blog in November of last year, but what he's written so far has caught my interest. From his first post:
The book - and this blog - will look at the ways in which the ideas and prestige of the eighteenth century Enlightenment are used in contemporary political debate. In particular I want to show how attempts to define Enlightenment primarily as a conflict between reason and faith can function as a form of enchantment, and distract us from the work of understanding the world.
And from his second:
There has been a spate of books in recent years that have sought to set out a simple division between faith and reason in which faith is understood as being a commitment to Biblical (or Koranic) literalism and reason is a commitment to materialism and the values of the Enlightenment. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and The End of Faith by Sam Harris adopt this central organizing division.

We will have plenty of opportunities to examine this style of thought in the months ahead [...]. But right now I just want to ask whether if what Dawkins and Harris say is true - that fundamentalist religion poses a unique and autonomous threat to secular society, even to the survival of mankind - their response is a sensible one. (They are quite wrong of course, let's be clear about that, but like I say, we have plenty of time).
Of course, I've been trying to talk about some of these issues here, in my own stumbling way. I've been afraid that I might have painted myself in a corner--but I guess that's a good thing about blogs; I can start over if I want to. Anyway, I've disagreed with Dawkins and others about the "problem of religion"--even as an atheist, who agrees on what evolutionary science tells us about the likelihood of there being a God. (I am aware that I have already in effect repudiated my earlier linguistic argument against saying "I am an atheist". Holding myself to saying "atheistic" all the time, I quickly noticed, would make for some awkward writing. The point still holds, however, that my atheism does not define who I am, nor do I consider it terribly interesting.) Hind says in passing here what I've been wondering about but haven't gotten around to discussing: even if Dawkins and Harris and so on were right, their approach to the problem seems remarkably wrong-headed, even stupid.

I strongly suspect I'll be reading Hind's book when it appears. And of course, I'll be returning to this theme yet again here.

Freedom of Speech

At Lenin's Tomb, Lenin has a great post on "Free Speech and Power". He describes a controversy surrounding the anti-immigration work of an academic named Professor David Coleman, which has prompted students at Oxford to raise a petition calling for his tenure to be called into question. The students argue that "[t]he use of academic power and prestige to bolster racism was bringing the University into disrepute". Lenin points out other similar instances at English universites, and then writes:
It would be too much to say that this racist tendency amounts to a fraternity, but there is certainly an effort in many quarters to give academic respectability to a political philosophy which is uniquely and inherently responsible for genocide.

Enter the Liberal. He doesn't need to think about issues of repression or oppression, or of long-term consequences, or of power. For him, violence is unproblematically wrong (except when Western states are doing it), free speech is unproblematically right (except when some Islamists want to exercise it by protest, and then it becomes a threat to free speech), capitalist norms are all there is to anything, there must be a 'free market' in ideas, racism is bad but repressing racism is equally bad.
The complaints of these and other students have raised the ire of certain people, because the students don't understand that, simply, "If they disagree with the views of an academic, they have endless opportunities to put their own opposing case. That is the way freedom of speech works." Lenin again:
Well, "freedom of speech" does not work like that, and it has never worked like that.


There is no necessary reason why the institutions of power should be devoted to pernicious ends. But of course, power is a factor liberal free-speechers are rarely duly cognisant of: the fantasy of an open discursive field is simply too alluring. The metaphors used to describe this process give the game away: "let a thousand flowers bloom", people say, which unfairly assumes that there is a creative process going on, and also that all of the little flowers are innocent, pretty little things that can share the same space. Funds, power, institutional resources, appointments and so on are finite: their distribution is necessarily political.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Sane People

…the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them. - George Eliot, Middlemarch.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

What Is It Needed For?

In Ivan Turgenev's novel, Fathers and Sons, Madame Odintsov is talking with Bazarov (translation from the Russian by Rosemary Edmonds):
'. . . I have no desire, no longing for life. You look at me incredulously; you think those are the words of an aristocrat covered in lace and sitting in a velvet armchair. I don't deny for a moment that I like what you call comfort, but at the same time I have very little desire to live. Reconcile that contradiction as best you can. Of course all this is sheer romanticism in your eyes.'

Bazarov shook his head.

'You are healthy, independent, well-off -- what more do you need? What is it you want?'

Bazarov is a self-described nihilist: he doesn't recognize any authority, or any tradition. The past should be completely swept away. More to the point, here, is that he has no appreciation for art or nature. Of art, he says: 'Why, what is it needed for, may I ask?' Whereas nature simply exists in order to be transformed by man. Love is another ridiculous thing. It only brings stupidity--what good is it? Meanwhile, he is realizing, to his horror, that he is falling in love with Madame Odintsov. A few pages later he admits:

'Let me tell you then that I love you idiotically, madly. . . . There, you have forced that out of me.'

Madame Odintsov held out both her hands before her, while Bazarov pressed his forehead against the window-pane. He was breathing heavily; his whole body trembled. But it was not the trembling of youthful timidity, not the sweet alarm of the first declaration that possessed him: it was passion struggling in him, violent and painful -- passion not unlike fury and perhaps akin to it. . . .

It is often observed that we believe in all kinds of things that are irrational--love, for instance. I'd take that further: I think that most of what we believe in is less rational than we'd like to think. Or: if we believe in something rationally--there are rational reasons for holding a certain belief, and we may even be able to cite scientific evidence to support the belief--our commitment to the belief may be irrational. Our passion is irrational. Bazarov couldn't abide the passion that Madame Odintsov inspired in him, just as he couldn't abide art, because they are absurdities--what are they good for? But those irrational things--like love, or art--that we believe, as well as those rational beliefs we hold with an irrational passion, or fervor (or, rather, the passion with which we believe)--these cannot be rationalized away, cannot be dealt with on a rational plane.

iPod rundown - 03/08/07

1. Paul Robeson - "Blue Prelude": I downloaded a bunch of Robeson at Aimée's request last year. I'd not listened to him previously. Of course, that voice is amazing. I admit, though, that my first reaction to his versions of those old folk songs and spirituals is to think that the voice is too much for the songs. That they sound better with a rawer, untrained singer. The authenticity trope again.

2. Built to Spill - "Stop the Show": This is on Perfect From Now On, probably Built to Spill's finest album. One day I'll write a long-winded post about how it was a major-label Built to Spill cd (Keep It Like a Secret) that led me to the rock underground and ultimately farther afield, into noise music, free jazz, and all around Wire-covered stuff. The first two-plus minutes of this track are slow and lovely, with one of the finest cello appearances in rock history. From about 2:45 till 3:15 there is a phenomenal, noisy build-up, then it rocks generically for a little, before getting interesting again, with some molten feedback. Six minutes of guitar bliss.

3. Fleetwood Mac - "Gold Dust Woman": Again with Fleetwood Mac. I have two good friends who are unaccountably huge Stevie Nicks fans (one routinely flies out to Denver to see her perform, the other thinks nothing of catching her in Philly, Baltimore, and Virginia, in the same week). Anyway, this song is great. Compare with her stiff post-coke 80s and 90s schlock. When asked why she didn't have more songs as well-developed as those on the first couple of Mac albums she appeared on, she frankly said something to the effect (watch me not look it up) that that was when Lindsey Buckingham was talking to her. Yeah.

4. African Brothers - "Self Reliance": I've only very recently started listening to Fela Kuti and other African funk workouts. What I've heard so far, I've liked. This song clocks in at 8:34, is very enjoyable, and comes from the Ghana Soundz compilation.

5. Randy Newman - "Underneath the Harlem Moon": another good song from 12 Songs, the only Newman album I have.

6. Tarnation - "You'll Understand": One of my favorite albums from 1997 was Cornershop's When I Was Born For the 7th Time. I don't like it quite as much anymore, but I still love the song "It's Good to Be on the Way Back Home Again", which is a duet with Paula Frazer. I fell in love with her voice. I was excited to learn that she was in a group of her own called Tarnation, so I snapped up their album called Mirador. As happens so often, I listened to it once, and promptly filed it away to gather dust. I only recently loaded it onto the iPod, and this is the first song to come up from it. It's very nice, country-ish. I should have been listening to it all this time.

7. Vashti Bunyan - "Timothy Grub": Much has been written about Bunyan's return to music and affiliation with the annoyingly labeled "freak-folk" groups, more than 30 years after the release of her only album, Just Another Diamond Day. Whatever, this is very pleasant English folk. Most of the songs sound like lullabies to me. Incidentally, better that she hang out with Animal Collective than Devenda Banhart.

8. Luna - "Hey Sister": Someone left the Lunapark cd at my house years ago. I kept meaning to listen to it. One of the many borderline albums to make the cut when I culled the collection recently. Perfectly decent VU-inspired rock.

9. The Ex & Tom Cora - "Batium": An instrumental from 1991's Scrabbling at the Lock, which, as coincidence would have it, I've been listening to constantly over the last month (Aimée is thrilled, rest assured). The Ex are completely great in every way, and this album, one of two they did with the late avant garde cellist Tom Cora, is fantastic. Another great instance of the cello in rock.

10. Charlie Feathers - "Someday You Will Pay": I've talked about Feathers some before. This track is a lot of fun (of the "you broke my heart, and one day you'll pay" genre). Jaunty female vocals provided by the Miller Sisters. Feathers himself doesn't sing, but he does play the spoons, which is pretty awesome. Wouldn't be complete with out the fiddle.

11. Belle & Sebastian - "My Wandering Days are Over": typically pleasant Belle & Sebastian song off of Tigermilk.

12. Evan Parker - "Line 3": This is a circular breathing solo from David Toop's excellent Haunted Weather compilation. I haven't spent a lot of time with Parker, but I like what I've heard. This sort of solo can easily descend into a show-offy display of technique, but with Parker it doesn't. As the track started, I noted the repeating screeching quality of it--easy to imagine that as a turn-off. But as the track continued, and my mind drifted elsewhere, I felt a sense of calm emanating from the music. Hard to explain. I'd become aware that he was still playing, and the sounds were similar as at the beginning, but what had been mildly irritating was now not at all. There is a certain purity to this music. The word that flashed across my mind as it played was "monastic". Beautiful.

13. Double Leopards - "Stutter": Ah, glorious noise. I guess it's the Brian Eno aesthetic: this music works great as white noise droning in my head as I'm trying to work, but if I zero in at any given moment there's something interesting going on. My favorite noise artist.

14. Lotion - "She Is Weird City": I've had a promotional copy of the Full Isaac cd since 1994, when it came out (I was working at a record store). I had literally never listened to it until a couple of months ago. I'm not sure why I took home it in the first place, or how it's made so many culling cuts in the past. Catchy, guitar rock. Yeah, more or less a dime a dozen, these bands. But: They're good! I do not have the album--the follow up to this, I think--for which Thomas Pynchon famously provided the liner notes.

15. Flamin' Groovies - "32-20": Not bad, raucous cover of a Robert Johnson song, from Teenage Head.

Stendhal Postscript

Last year I read Vertigo, the novel by W.G. Sebald. On the back cover we're told:
Traveling in the footsteps of Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka, the narrator draws the reader line by line into a dizzying web of history, biography, autobiography, legends, literature, and--most perilously--memories.
And, indeed, the opening section of the book begins:
In mid-May of the year 1800 Napoleon and a force of 36,000 men crossed the Great St. Bernard pass, an undertaking that had been regarded until that time as next to impossible. For almost a fortnight, an interminable column of men, animals and equipment proceeded from Martigny via Orsières through the Entremont valley and from there moved, in a seemingly never-ending serpentine, up to the pass two and a half thousand metres above sea level, the heavy barrels of the cannon having to be draged by the soldiery, in hollowed-out tree trunks, now across snow and ice and now over bare outcrops and rocky escarpments.

Among those who took part in that legendary transalpine march, and who were not lost in nameless oblivion, was one Marie Henri Beyle.
Marie Henri Beyle is, of course, Stendhal. Naturally, I did not know this when I started reading Vertigo, nor did I know it by the time I'd finished the entire section dealing with Beyle and his memories of this march. Sebald does not identify Beyle as Stendhal; the reader is expected to know it. Granted, it's not taken to be an earth-shaking piece of information, but I usually don't pay much attention to literary biographies. I'd had some vague notion that Stendhal was a pseudonym, but beyond that, I'd never given the matter any thought. (In fact, I didn't realize till I was actually reading The Red and the Black that it's simply "Stendhal", with no other name attached to it.)

Perhaps inevitably, given how much his biography's been picked at, I happen to know bits and pieces about Kafka's life, so I was able to piece together that the section "Dr. K. Takes the Waters at Riva" is about Kafka. And it was this that made me wonder whether I'd been expected to know who Stendhal was earlier (I'm smart like that sometimes).

I said that I don't pay much attention to literary biographies, which is true. But, oddly, it's Kafka that might change my mind about that. It's hard for me to say exactly why. I've read The Trial, The Castle, and most of the stories, and I intend to read them again, but I've never wondered where they came from or why they exist. So it's not that. But all of a sudden, in the last year, I feel a need to read a good biography of him. His Diaries, too. Is it for a glimpse of the literary? A peak into the mind of this person who had to write, but then wanted it all destroyed at his death? I don't know. Maybe it's memory, the working through of memory on the page. Will I know why when I finally do read them?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Red and the Black, Stendhal

I've just finished reading Stendhal's The Red and the Black. I enjoyed it. I don't pretend to have any deep insights into the book, but here are some general thoughts.

Sometime last year, I'd found a used hardcover of the recent Burton Raffel translation, published by the Modern Library. (Inexplicably, the book's jacket cover features a bizarre photograph of a naked torso, with a hand on the right side of it, which may or may not belong to the same body, and to the top, what may be the under-side of a breast. Anyone have any idea what that's about?) I'm happy to read Stendhal, one way or another, but the typical questions about translations again come to mind. How accurate is it? How well does it capture the spirit of the original? What kind of liberties have been taken? Unfortunately, my French is woeful, so I'm in no position to judge for myself directly. When trying to decide among translations, then, I must weigh assessments made by others. With a translator like Raffel, it's interesting that his detractors and supporters cite the same evidence: he renders Stendhal's French in a highly "readable", Americanized, colloquial style. And readable it certainly is. The novel in his translation is incredibly easy to read, and there are more than a few expressions that feel overly modern. I could give some examples, but it's hard for me to be certain whether a given expression was in currency at that time (for example, characters said to be yelling "at the top of [their] lungs"), but in the main, aside from the setting, the book did not feel terribly, well, foreign. I know it's been hailed as a "modern" novel, but I didn't expect it to this extent. Published in 1830, as rendered in English by Raffel it could almost have been written at any time since then.

In fact, I notice that similar criticisms are made of his translations generally. Back when I was deciding among the many translations of Don Quixote, I was leaning toward Raffel's translation--in part because it's published as a Norton critical edition, but also because I found the first few pages more, uh, readable than those of the other versions. (In the event, soon thereafter Edith Grossman's much-lauded translation appeared, and I ended up buying hers. Naturally, I have yet to read it.) Anyway, Raffel's version of the Quixote received the same kinds of criticism: often brilliant, but excessive instances of modern usages (Sancho Panza's references to his "kids", for one), etc. Since then I've started to wonder about "readability" as a value when assessing a translation.

To the novel, then. I said I enjoyed it, and I did, though the closing 40 pages or so are rather excitedly melodramatic. I'm not going to bother recounting in any detail the events of the story, or discuss its theme--other than to say that it follows the life of Julien Sorel, a provincial son of a carpenter who finds himself amidst aristocratic society (of which he is largely contemptuous) and at the center of two romantic scandals. He is "ambitious", we're repeatedly told, though it's not entirely clear what exactly his ambition is. He daydreams about what it might have been like 20 years earlier, when he could have served under Napoleon (who he secretly admires--an unpopular opinion among the "well-born"), and achieved some sense of nobility, despite his low origins. He and the other characters are forever worried about concealing their true thoughts on a matter, often because of societal expectations or political or class reasons. Julien is obsessed with hypocrisy--his own, as well as that of the aristocracy and the clergy, especially. The story is told by a third-person narrator, who seems at times amused, at times dismayed, at times bored, by the proceedings. The narrator appears to be nearly omniscient, while also shifting among the perceptions of the many characters, usually Julien and whoever he may be most engaged with at any given moment in the novel. As such, the novel is an early refinement of the psychological novel, or "psychological realism". Indeed, this is another reason why the novel did not seem especially alien: it's quite compatible with current-day fiction, perhaps underscoring the extent to which the so-called psychological realist approach has become the expected, default mode of fiction-writing.

The Scandal of Democracy

Jodi Dean has an interesting post about a book called Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Rancière. She refers to there being "something appealing in his discussion of the scandal of democracy". This is the second time I've seen this phrase used, "the scandal of democracy". What does it mean? Does it mean that, from the standpoint of those used to possessing power, the idea that power is not naturally held by anybody, that no one is "entitled to govern", that this is scandalous?

Jodi expresses some confusion with Rancière's idea that, as she puts it, "justification and legitimacy [of power] presuppose an underlying equality". Rancière seems to suggest that democracy, in a sense, rests on chance, since it is only chance that has one group ruling over another. This "chance" implies an underlying equality. I recall that Chomsky has said on numerous occasions that any kind of authority must be justified. It must be justified because there is no natural reason why, for example, you should have authority over me. This requirement that authority (or politics) be justified points to equality. She quotes Rancière:
[there is] no force that is imposed without having to justify itself, and hence without having to recognize the irreducibility of equality needed for inequality to function. From the moment obedience has to refer to a principle of legitimacy, from the moment it is necessary for there to be laws that are enforced qua laws and institutions embodying the common of the community, commanding must presuppose the equality of the one who commands and the one who is commanded. ... Inegalitarian society can only function thanks to a multitude of egalitarian relations.
This makes some sense to me (that at base we are equal, and that, therefore, authority must be legitimized). I would add that even the most authoritarian rule relies on the consent of the governed. Jodi observes that this "equality" is "trivial" since it can serve to merely "cement" more "fundamental inequalities"--i.e., those inequalities that actually obtain in real life.

I'm getting ready to set out what I believe are some first principles about democracy, and some implications thereof. This kind of discussion helps. I may need to seek out some of Rancière's work, who I'm only now learning of for the first time. (Add him to the list!)

In the comments to Jodi's post, Amish Lovelock refers to a New Left Review article from last year by Peter Hallward, which examines Rancière's "radical egalitarian politics"; the piece apparently compares Rancière to Chomsky in this regard. Of course, the article is subscription-only, but this is from the end of the freely available snippet:
Against those who argue that only the appropriately educated or privileged are authorized to think and speak, Rancière’s most fundamental assumption is that everyone thinks. Everyone shares equal powers of speech and thought, and this ‘equality is not a goal to be attained but a point of departure, a supposition to be maintained in all circumstances.’
I like this, and I think I may need to either subscribe to the NLR, or at least buy this article. In any event, this idea is one of central importance to my own conceptions of politics in general, and democracy in particular. I will be returning to this.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Democracy: Not Just a Legal Framework

I don't know much about China--its history, culture, how the Communist Revolution happened, why, etc. When I started subscribing to Monthly Review, the first issue I received was entirely devoted to the question of "What happened to China's Socialism?"--how its neoliberal reforms had transformed the country and so on. And here I knew very little about why and how China went Communist in the first place! So it was necessarily way over my head. (I'd love to read a book-length history of this, by the way, as well as on the Cultural Revolution. Anyone have any recommendations that are neither fawningly Mao-ist, or dismissively and/or comprehensively anti-Communist? One that treats it seriously?) There was, of course, some interesting material in David Harvey's book A Brief History of Neoliberalism (which, again, I whole-heartedly recommend), but that's about it for me. I do recall fairly vividly many of the images of Tiananmen Square, though I can't say I understood what was going on, or why.

Ok, the point. Apparently there was some thread controversy over at Crooked Timber. I don't care about that (I haven't read it, so I won't link to it specifically), but in response to it, CR at Long Sunday (cross-posted at his own ads without products blog) posted an excerpt from an interview with Wang Hui in 2003. I want to reproduce it here, because it feeds into my ongoing democracy discussion:
In 1989, why did the citizens of Beijing respond so strongly and actively to the student demonstrations? It was largely because of the adventurist reforms to the price system that Zhao Ziyang had twice imposed, without any benefit to ordinary people. Their earnings suffered from the agreements they were forced to sign by factories, and their jobs were at risk. People felt the inequality created by the reforms: there was real popular anger in the air. That is why the citizenry poured onto the streets in support of the students. The social movement was never simply a demand for political reform, it also sprang from a need for economic justice and social equality. The democracy that people wanted was not just a legal framework, it was a compreshensive social value.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Military Thinks It's Crazy

Back to Iran. Given the insanity of the Bush Administration and the various idiotic comments about Iran made by Democrats (like John Edwards or Hillary Clinton), an attack on Iran looks all too likely from where we sit. However, it is worth noting that, as Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview I've already linked to and quoted from twice, "the military in the United States thinks it's [the idea of an attack on Iran] crazy. And from whatever leaks we have from intelligence, the intelligence community thinks it's outlandish, but not impossible." And later in the interview:
Shank: In the 2008 presidential election, how will the candidates approach Iran? Do you think Iran will be a deciding factor in the elections?

Chomsky: What they're saying so far is not encouraging. I still think, despite everything, that the US is very unlikely to attack Iran. It could be a huge catastrophe; nobody knows what the consequences would be. I imagine that only an administration that's really desperate would resort to that. But if the Democratic candidates are on the verge of winning the election, the administration is going to be desperate. It still has the problem of Iraq: can't stay in, and can't get out.
So how desperate will the Bush Administration be? Is it possible that the military and the ruling class, generally, "won't let" Bush attack Iran? It is, certainly. Bush has surely become a liability for the empire--just as Nixon was before he was forced to resign. And there have been reports that certain high-ranking military officers "will resign" were Bush to order an attack on Iran, that "[t]here is simply no stomach for it in the Pentagon, and a lot of people question whether such an attack would be effective or even possible."

So there are some encouraging signs.

It was One Year Ago, um, Monday...

I note that I am approaching my one year anniversary of beginning this blog. March 5th of last year, I finally decided to take the plunge (my reasons for doing so here, the blog name explained here). It's been an interesting, and fun, experience.

My last post, in which I wrote about the potential war on Iran and the need to prevent it, highlights a problem I've had here--a problem I perceive of tone. It does often seem frivolous to follow up a serious post about war and human suffering with a post telling the world what I've listened to on my iPod. And yet I want to do both, as well as all kinds of other things. So I have. But I am not unaware of the oddness of it. Life is like that.

Of course, aside from music and politics, the other area I've written substantially on has been literature. On this, contra Scott Esposito, I agree with Sam Tanenhaus on one point (mind you, this is pretty much the only thing I agree with him on, as far as I can tell):
It is easier to get a good piece of analysis and writing, a better essay, a better report, whatever you think a book review of being, on non-fiction than fiction. Novels and short stories are very hard to write about.
Scott says in response to this: "If you are concerned about literary aesthetics and culture, then they are in fact very easy to write about." Really? Isn't this a strange thing to say? I find literary aesthetics very difficult to write about (of course, "literary culture" is a distinctly different thing, so maybe that's what's so easy). And I don't find all that much discussion anywhere about the actual aesthetics of a work of fiction, even online (I'm not saying there aren't blogs that do this; obviously there are, and those that do have become much more valuable to me than are the bulk of the litblogs). Even where blogs are better than mainstream book reviewing (and the best of them unquestionably often are), I see mostly writing that is concerned primarily with content and theme, comparatively very little with how the things work. And I think this is because it's difficult. It certainly is for me. If you've been paying attention, and care, you may have noticed a relative lack of literary posts lately, and an increase in the number of posts on politics and music. This is why (that, and an overall increase in sleepiness, but that's another matter entirely). But I haven't given up on it; I promise. Perhaps it is for this difficulty that some of the posts I've been happiest with have been those in which I've tried to do some of this, and succeeded, at least on some of my own somewhat nebulous terms. (Specifically, I'm thinking of my posts about Peter Handke's Across, Tom McCarthy's Remainder, and Nabokov's Despair, as well as my defense of David Foster Wallace and my post about Stephen Dixon.)

As I started out, it was interesting to see who responded. It was enormously gratifying to be blogrolled and linked to by some of the literary-minded bloggers I respect the most, such as Dan Green at The Reading Experience (and thanks to Dan, also, for early encouragement, for example in a comment to this post on "Politics and Literature", as well as alerting his own readership to the Nabokov, Wallace, and Dixon posts mentioned above), Steve Mitchelmore at This Space, and Ellis Sharp at The Sharp Side. Early posts about music and music culture caught the attention of Carl "Zoilus" Wilson and Simon Reynolds, two of my favorite music writers, both of whom sent many readers to me--after which I naturally promptly stopped writing about music for weeks! Thanks to everyone who has sent readers my way, whether via blogroll, or a link to a specific post. Thanks to everyone who has commented, particularly those who've commented regularly, thereby helping to form a sort of Existence Machine community--I'm thinking of long-time readers like Scraps (of Parlando) and newer readers like Brandon (of No Trivia).

This incremental awareness of a readership, however small (and mine is certainly that), does pose its own set of pressures and expectations, beyond those I already put on myself when I write. But I try not to worry to much about that. Anyway, it's been a good year. Thanks for reading.

Prevent an Attack on Iran

The most important question of the last couple of days is, of course: What the fuck is the matter with the Democrats? They're asking for more war funds than Bush? It's true:
U.S. House of Representatives Democrats will more than fully fund President George W. Bush's request for money to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year, but are still debating conditions that could be attached, senior lawmakers said on Thursday.
I know I shouldn't be surprised by this, and unfortunately I'm really not. And yet it is still astonishing. The Democrats won Congressional majorities in November on the strength of widespread dissatisfaction about the War on Iraq, but it was immediately clear from the public statements of such moral vacuums as Nancy "Impeachment is off the table" Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, among countless others, that no substantive changes were forthcoming. Again, the sheer contempt for democracy is breathtaking. We should always remember that Democrats are imperialists, too. They only oppose Bush insofar as they think he has bumbled things badly (and insofar as they hate like hell that they're not in power). That the United States has invaded and occupied Iraq, a country that was no threat to anyone: this is an ongoing War Crime, of the most basic type. But the Democrats don't care. They don't care because they share the basic belief that the US should be able to do what it wants in the world. More to the point, they "don't care" because they operate within a worldview that doesn't accept that War Crimes can be committed by Americans. To them, the concept is unthinkable. What Americans do is right, by definition.
I look on this state of affairs in despair. It seems increasingly likely that the US will attack Iran some time soon. An attack on Iran would be an appalling atrocity, and the ramifications of such an attack, while unpredictable, are likely to be devastating. How can we stop it? I don't know that we can, really, but we owe it to ourselves to try, to make some noise. In a couple of recent posts, I've linked to the blog Once Upon a Time..., written by Arthur Silber. He's been posting at a tireless rate about the mendacity of our political culture, in general, and the continuous bombardment of lies about Iran, in particular. I recommend you add his blog to your daily reading, if you haven't already. Last week, in part three of a series ominously titled "Dispatches From Germany, Summer 1939", he lists some things we can do to help "Build an Effective Resistance" to the run-up to yet another war. They involve doing a lot of things that often seem pointless--like writing our Representatives and Senators, newspapers, other public figures. I know they've seemed pointless to me, anyway, and I very seldom do it. But I plan to do it now. As a not-widely read blogger, I will probably ramp up my posts about this, but if you have a wider readership and happen to read this, please take the opportunity to speak out against an attack on Iran as often as you can. If you've already been doing it, I applaud you. If we're wrong about the likelihood of an attack on Iran--well, I hope we are. If we're not, then we need to do all we can to stop it from actually occurring. Waiting until an attack finally happens will be too late.

Incidentally, Silber helpfully provides a link to the Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nüremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal, 1950. It's always worth taking a look at these, in case you've forgotten their content, and then re-familiarizing yourself with American actions abroad since then (William Blum is always useful on this score, as in this article, or if you have more time, try his book Killing Hope). Compare. It's a depressingly sobering exercise.

Consent of the Governed

Chalmers Johnson, in an excellent interview with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! (link via American Leftist):
Imperialism is a form of tyranny. It never rules through consent of the governed. It doesn't ask for the consent of the governed. We talk about the spread of democracy, but we're talking about the spread of democracy at the point of an assault rifle. That's a contradiction in terms. It doesn't work. Any self-respecting person being democratized in this manner starts thinking of retaliation.
And then, in response to a question about popular resistance to the ongoing American presence throughout the world:
We see the resistance in the form of Prime Minister Zapatero in Spain, that he promised the people that after he came to power, he would get out of Iraq, and he was one of the few who did deliver, who does remember that if democracy means anything, it means that public opinion matters, though in an awful lot of countries, it doesn't actually seem to be the case. But he has reduced radically the American military presence in Spain.
I quote these passages because they tie in with my intention to write about democracy (which I began here), but the whole thing is interesting, particularly when he describes his conversion from Cold Warrior to anti-imperialist through his observations of the reality of American military bases.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

iPod rundown - 03/01/07

1. Paul Bley - "Ida Lupino": I've talked about Bley before. This track is gorgeous, one of my favorite jazz recordings of all time, from the classic Open, To Love. I have two other Bley cds that also feature versions of this Carla Bley composition: Closer, released on ESP, and Ramblin', on BYG Actuel. Both of those versions are shorter and faster than this one. Here, you can almost hear Bley thinking as he improvises.

2. Pere Ubu - "A Day Such as This": Song of the Bailing Man was Pere Ubu's fifth album, the last of the original run (the "historical" era, as David Thomas puts it). Gone are the Chuck Berry riffs of guitarist Tom Herman, replaced by the more angular work of the Red Krayola's Mayo Thompson. And for this album only, Anton Fier appears on drums and other percussion. At more than 7 minutes, this song is unusually long for Ubu. It's a mid-tempo track, with a repeating percussion cycle for most of the song, and marimba. Halfway through, it speeds up, almost rocks, but not quite, before returning to the pattern set by the beginning.

3. Matmos - "Rag for William Burroughs": The longest track (13+ minutes) from my favorite album of last year and Matmos' best. It opens with some pleasant, melodic piano (backed by interesting electronics), interrupted at 1:55 by the sound of a gunshot, followed by keys opening a door, and the sound of a typewriter (backed by an insistent buzzing), then two typewriters. The typewriters devolve into a clicking rhythm. Then at the 4:15 (or so) mark begins 7 minutes of a very entertaining electronic rag. Very cool.

4. Charalambides - "I Don't Know What To Sing": This track is just over a minute long, and there's not much I can say about it. Some fuzzy guitar, voice. In general, I like Charalambides' brand of Texas psychedelic music, but this song wouldn't tell you much about what they do. It's more of sketch, really. From the reissue of Our Bed Is Green.

5. Pere Ubu - "Big Ed's Used Farms": Oddly, this is also from Song of the Bailing Man. It's a faster song, and half as long. David Thomas' frenetic vocals are more in evidence here.

6. Van Der Graaf Generator - "My Room (Waiting for Wonderland)": It was Simon Reynolds' book, Rip It Up and Start Again, that led me to Van Der Graaf Generator (John Lydon was apparently a big fan), a group that had previously only been on the periphery of my awareness. I have so far picked up one album, Still Life. Peter Hammill's dramatic vocals take a little getting used to, and I'm still getting used to them (sort of like Scott Walker, for me, in this respect). This particular song is lovely and mellow (and also more than 7 minutes long). Mostly keyboards, with a beautiful sax throughout.

7. Bob Dylan - "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts": Blood on the Tracks is one of my favorite Dylan albums (we're always going out on a limb here at The Existence Machine), but for years I took little notice of this song. Lately I've come to like it, too, even if I couldn't say with confidence what it's about. Some nice local images though.

8. The Go-Betweens - "The House That Jack Kerouac Built": Years ago I bought two Go-Betweens albums (Spring Hill Fair and Tallulah) after reading about them in one of those music guide books, but I didn't give them fair listens until recently, partly inspired by this Parlando post. I'm still absorbing the albums, but I like them. Catchy, literate, guitar pop.

9. Uncle Dave Macon - "Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train": Perhaps like a lot of people, I bought the cd reissue of the famous Anthology of American Folk Music, assembled by Harry Smith, expecting it to be interesting more for historical purposes than for listening pleasure. I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I like a lot of the music for its own sake. The original set contained three volumes, but Smith had apparently intended for there to be a fourth, and even had a songlist ready for one. John Fahey's Revenant label finally released it a few years ago as Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4. It includes this Uncle Dave Macon song. Macon is one of my favorite artists on these anthologies (along with the Carter Family and Dock Boggs, among others). A lot of the songs featured touched on topics of the day (the Titanic, the Mississippi flood of 1927, definitely life in the Great Depression, etc.) but some, such as Macon's, are more explicitly political. A sample lyric: "some lay it all on parties, some lay it on others you see, but now that you can plainly see what happened to Tennessee/for the engineer pulled the throttle, conductor rang the bell, the brakeman hollered 'all aboard' and the banks all went to hell". I wouldn't mind finding a collection of Macon's music.

10. Fiona Apple - "Please Please Please": A fine song from Extraordinary Machine, an excellent pop album.

11. June of 44 - "Take it with a Grain of Salt": June of 44 was already more or less dead by the time I found them (one day I'll write about how I ended up sifting through the wreckage of various kinds of already-happened music), and I guess the indie kids have moved on from this kind of thing, but I like it. Ascetically recorded post-Slint math-rock (wheeee!), complete with dramatic yet barely decipherable spoken vocals. I described them earlier as a "music of possibility". I think I meant that they seemed transitional, like they and their ilk were on their way to some future kind of rock, but which never quite happened. Which sounds semi-dismissive, like I don't get actual pleasure from listening to them. But I do. This song is on their first album, Engine Takes to Water.

12. Pavement - "Summer Babe (Winter Version)": Now that I've finally listened to the Fall, I can hear why Pavement got compared to them, especially circa Slanted & Enchanted. This is the first song from that album, an album that continues to get better every time I hear it. Malkmus has always reminded me of Lou Reed on this song.

13. Radiohead - "Motion Picture Soundtrack": This is the quiet closing track on Kid A. By now, after some of the dust has settled, it seems clear to me that Kid A and especially Amnesiac are far and away the best of Radiohead's albums. OK Computer, which I played constantly for years, and loved, now sounds quaint to my ears, and I never got into The Bends. The debut Pablo Honey was always sort of crap, "Creep" aside, and I've had the hardest time giving a fig about their more recent Hail to the Thief.

14. Fleetwood Mac - "Not That Funny": A Lindsey Buckingham song from Tusk. Tusk was famously underrated at the time, but it has since become more recognized for what it is, an excellent and diverse collection of pop songs. Fleetwood Mac's White Album. Inspired, I guess, by the energy of punk, Lindsey's songs are all short and seemingly more minimal than his contributions to either Fleetwood Mac or Rumours.

15. Einsturzende Neubauten - "Schwindel": Haus der Lüge is the only Neubauten record I have; I like it, but haven't made the effort to track down any of their other numerous albums. This track is fairly typical of the album: lots of clanging metal, occasional German vocals.