Friday, May 14, 2010

Monsieur Sartre Discovers the World

Les Mots, by Jean-Paul Sartre
1963, 210 pp.

The Age of Reason, by Jean-Paul Sartre
1945, 300 pp.

The Reprieve, by Jean-Paul Sartre
1945, 377 pp.

Iron in the Soul, by Jean-Paul Sartre
1949, 349 pp.

Existentialism is a Humanism, by Jean-Paul Sartre
1946, 141 pp.

Jean-Paul Sartre—Philosophy in the World, by Ronald Aronson
1980, 359 pp.

Letters to Sartre, by Simone de Beauvoir
1990, 531 pp.

Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, by Iris Murdoch
1953, 158 pp.

Some time ago I decided that I had been too shallow about Jean-Paul Sartre. After the predictable enthusiasm of the snobbish teenage intellectual wore off, I had long dismissed Sartre on political grounds. I found him always too dogmatic, too cozy with Moscow, too detached during the Occupation, too much the towering archetype of the Reactionary Leftist. I knew a few sordid details about his and De Beauvoir's relations with young women, and sided with Camus when I learned of their famous break. I judge all twentieth-century intellectuals by their stance on the three great forces of our age: imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism. Sartre was Right on Imperialism, yes, and even courageously so, but Wrong on Stalinism, and seems to have abstained on fascism in practice, which counts to me as being Wrong on It.

His philosophical work is too putridly written anyway. Perfectly good words exist without having to go around making so many up.

But eventually I'd come round to grudgingly admitting that this was too shallow an approach to one of the last century's most prominent intellectuals. His work was too wide, too deep, and too prolific to be so easily written off tout court, and while I may be able to dismiss Sartre the Man, Sartre the Thinker and Sartre the Phenomenon still remained to be grasped. So I set out to learn some things.

The first thing I learned is that the literature is vast and unruly. I have now read about 2500 pages by or about Sartre, and even that selection was necessarily spotty. I have, for instance, left out most of the shibboleths of Sartre’s thought: Being and Nothingness, the two doorstopper volumes of the Critique of Dialectical Reason, the 4,000 pages on Flaubert. This is partially deliberate and partially out of necessity: in a genuine effort to approach Sartre in good faith, I have selected those books which I think I will be most positively disposed to, and which will therefore leave open a desire to return to Sartre’s more difficult work in the future. I am also facing six MSc exams and a dissertation on Bengali agrarian structure, and simply don’t have time to totalize any historico-political realizations of the practico-inert totalization. I have things to do.

The enormity of Sartre’s output is further complicated by the diabolical productivity of Simone de Beauvoir. In addition to her four volumes of autobiography (largely about her relationship with Sartre) there are several autobiographical novels, many volumes of diaries, Adieu to Sartre (which is mostly transcripts of conversations), and several volumes of letters between the two of them. Add to this the many thousands of critical and academic monographs, and you have a truly horrifying selection of material indeed. I have tried to choose the books I think are both best and most important to the historiography of “Sartre studies.” Thus, under review here are Ronald Aronson’s book (thirty years in the writing, he had first access to the unpublished second volume of the Critique), as well as Iris Murdoch’s brief introduction (the first English-language study of Sartre’s thought). Of the many volumes of letters, I chose the most scandalous. De Beauvoir published many of Sartre’s letters before her death, with the sex bits kept in and the names edited out. After her death, her executor (formerly a teenage lover of both Sartre and De Beauvoir) published Letters to Sartre in a complete and unedited edition, stirring up all manner of controversy and recriminations, to be discussed more fully below.

This selection of books constitutes an approach to Sartre as the politically-engaged writer of fiction. The memoir and the letters are meant to get a sense of him as a person; the scholarly books are meant to get a sense of how his fiction work integrated with the general course of his thought. The philosopher is overlooked here, and the playwright and journalist marginalized. This is unfortunate, but will hopefully allow a deeper and more coherent appreciation for the aspects of Sartre’s work I am addressing.

The Roads to Freedom trilogy (Les Chemins de la liberté) therefore forms the core of this analysis. Written during the Occupation and published in 1945 and 1949, these three novels depict a few months in the life of Mathieu Delarue and his friends and lovers as they and their world of Montparnasse cafés live through the summer and fall of 1938 and then the defeat of France in June 1940. Mathieu is of course Sartre himself in fictional form: born in the same year, also a teacher of philosophy, filled with thoughts about ontological freedom. He is something of a waffling, ineffectual petit-bourgeois intellectual, but deliberately so, all the better to illustrate and embody the realization of meaninglessness and the dilemmas which emerge with an understanding of Sartre’s idea of freedom.

The first volume, The Age of Reason, is the least interesting of the three. It is something of a conventional melodrama which revolves around two days in Mathieu’s life as he searches frantically for money to pay for his mistress Marcelle to have an abortion. The use of characters who clearly represent philosophical types and the frequent blunt employment of hyper-conscious inner monologues gives the otherwise unremarkable novel a veneer of existentialist thought. This also annoyed Iris Murdoch, who writes that “[t]oo much of the story is predigested for us in the consciousness of the main characters.” The two most important figures who flank Mathieu are Daniel, who embodies negation and destructive egotism, and Brunet, the committed, unquestioning Communist. This sets up a pattern which intensifies in the later volumes: as Iris Murdoch writes, “Mathieu stands between the deliberately fallen and perverted nature of Daniel and the naively but innocently engaged nature of Brunet.” But in the first volume, Brunet is a marginalized figure; instead, Daniel is the source of action. But he (and his activity) is action without content. He cannot manage to forge an identity for himself, to insert himself into conditions which will determine his behavior. He is a self-conscious expression of Sartre’s idea of “bad faith,” in which, despite being aware of our basic freedom, we act as though we have no control. Daniel is a figure of tension and contradiction, and Sartre’s presentation of him as a sort of pathological quasi-Freudian case history is one of the few points which separates The Age of Reason from simply being a standard melodrama. By the third volume, when Daniel plays only a very minor role, Sartre drops all pretence and has him actually tell us that he is trapped in a mentality of "in-itself," rather than "for-itself," hence his anguish and destructive activity. This is unfortunate: Daniel is probably the only character who is more interesting at the start of the trilogy than at the beginning. As a tortured, psychologically damaged, unpredictable figure trying and failing to define himself and his place in reference to the world, he is interesting. As a sock-puppet for one of Sartre’s philosophical concepts, and as a very poorly-dramatised homosexual, he is dull.

The second volume, The Reprieve, is a far more ambitious and intelligent piece of work. Here the overall structure of the trilogy becomes clear: The Age of Reason takes place in the summer of 1938, when private lives and personal concerns still dominated the nature of experience. Sartre’s decision to present them in long, unbroken scenes of third-person subjective narration is therefore logical, but faint murmurs of history are still present, mostly in the form of Communist political engagement and the war in Spain. Minor characters from the first novel get more screen time in the second. Most important is Gomez, the bohemian painter who went to fight in Spain and has been made a General, but a whole host of new characters are also added, many of them well-drawn and placed in sympathetic plights. The Reprieve takes place during the 8 days of September 1938 which culminated in the Munich agreement, and thus created a brief illusion of peace. The formal departure is clear on the first page: Sartre has been reading John Dos Passos, and illustrates his theme by constant cutting between narrators, sometimes within the same sentence. Fictional characters and historical personas mingle, third-person and first-person narration blend into each other, and past tense gives way to present. He is a great proponent of what in cinema is called the match-cut, when, for instance, a person says “No” in one scene and we cut immediately to someone in another scene reacting to someone else saying “No.” A person in one scene orders a cup of coffee, a person in another scene recieves one. The general effect is to give the impression of a wide social fabric in which the decisions of the powerful affect people of all different backgrounds and social situations in similar ways. Much of the novel consists of private lives being interrupted as men find that they have been mobilized and will soon be fighting a war. By cutting constantly between scenes, Sartre is able to dramatize the social solidarity which is too often lost in subjectivity and egoism. This was a direct decision in light of the claustrophobia of La Nausée, which is an abstract, ahistorical demonstration of the human project. Les Chemins de la liberté is a historically specific, socially embedded demonstration of the particular ways different people try to realize the human project under conditions outside of their control.

Sartre’s canvass is broader, and his insight keener than in the first volume. Brunet emerges as a meaningful character in his own right, and the different impact of historical events on apparently powerless individuals is convincingly demonstrated. But if anything, Sartre overcompensates. He is so enamored with his cross-cutting technique that he commits a now-standard cinematic error: he cuts so swiftly that not only is the narrative sometimes difficult to follow, but the audience is also rarely allowed to see dramatic situations or thoughtful conversations develop. That he sustains this technique for almost 400 pages instead of using it judiciously for dramatic and intellectual emphasis is also a bit tiresome, but encourages the reader to proceed slowly and carefully. It’s rather like watching a two-hour montage: interesting in the abstract, but exhausting in practice.

Iron in the Soul seems at first to be a happy medium. It takes place during the collapse of the Third Republic in June 1940, and in the first third gives us several characters in longish scenes, to develop specific ideas. So we see Gomez, who had in The Reprieve left his wife and child to return to fight in Spain, but who is now living in New York, being offered pointless work as an art critic. Boris, the young idealist, and his narcissist sister Ivich reappear. There is a wrenching scene of Gomez’s wife and child, trying to make their way on foot with an endless refugee caravan to unoccupied France. All of these scenes are well executed, but none resolve their respective stories, so in each case the reader is left thinking that the stories will be resolved at the end of the book.

The second third follows Mathieu, now in the army, as he and his squad wait around to be captured by Germans. Their officers have run away and they have no ammunition, so they wait and bicker about who lost the war. Another squad comes along, still disciplined and still willing to fight. In the pivotal moment of the trilogy, Mathieu takes up a rifle to join them. The result is about what you expect.

Then you approach the final third of the book, which you expect to resolve all of the existing stories, and perhaps return to many of the characters from the second book whose stories also did not get resolve. But none of this happens. Instead, Sartre offers the story of Brunet the Communist, having been caught up in the retreat and captured, as he tries in vain to organize a cell in the German prison camp. This is presented in two fifty-page paragraphs. The first works: the unbroken prose feels rather like a director with a Steadicam, winding through the confusion and chaos of an army in disarray, returning constantly to the solid, confident figure of Brunet. Sartre has a point here. As Murdoch puts it, “Brunet unreflectively identifies himself with a single concrete project…The universe solidly and reassuringly is as the Marxist analysis says it is. He himself is an instrument of the Party whose function has been determined by History. Brunet reflects no more about these things; he acts.” No confusion of the in-itself here, no despair at the terrible realization of human freedom. Thus a clear contrast is drawn between Brunet and Mathieu, and the characters from the beginning, and Sartre’s argument is well depicted. But the second long paragraph adds little to the experience of the first, and ends the book, so we never learn the fates of a dozen or so interesting characters. This is especially disappointing since the first half of Iron in the Soul is quite good, and the book seems to be shaping up in such a way as to cast the whole trilogy in a coherent, satisfying, well-crafted light. To end it with what feels like (rather boring) redundancy on the one hand, and dissatisfying lack of resolution on the other is quite annoying. Whether this was a deliberate decision by Sartre, taken to illustrate the meaninglessness of existence, I don’t know. If so, then all it signals is the writer’s greater interest in himself than in his characters or his readers.

The ending aside, the trilogy is good, if not marvelous. The second volume in particular is an excellent formal and philosophical exercise, and makes it impossible to come away without respect for Sartre as a novelist. I was bothered by the end, and some decisions along the way, but Les Chemins de la liberté did indeed leave me wanting to read La Nausée.

Sartre's memoir Les Mots is a strange entry in the genre of literary autobiography—strange and suspicious enough that it may be better considered as a novel than a memoir. It depicts the young Jean-Paul, raised by a domineering old bourgeois and two women, and who withdraws into a world of books, then discovers the pleasure of writing them. As a story, this is delicately, even sometimes beautifully told, but as the memoir of Jean-Paul Sartre, it perhaps protests too much. We are not given the actual subjective experience of Sartre’s young life, nor shown clearly how his experiences shaped his intellectual development. Instead the mind at work is that of the mature Sartre, with all of his analytical habits on full display, telling us what to think about what he is ostensibly showing us. What he presents as actual experience, is an organized, analyzed composite of events presented as symbolic. He is also rather unfair and dismissive to the adults who seem to have provided him with a rather comfortable and indulgent life: his grandfather gets to be the subject of the mature Sartre’s assault on the bourgeois experience of art, and the women are reduced to irrelevance.

Granted, perhaps it is unreasonable to expect anyone to write a memoir which consists solely of honest, enlightened self-insight, depicted with a control of lucid, lively prose. In some respects, Sartre suffers in my judgment by being Sartre: I credit him with a sharp eye and a subtle mind, and therefore expected something a bit more probing. It also presents itself as a search for self-knowledge, but to this reader, having also read a vast swathe of Sartreism, it came across as an act of self-mythologizing. It reads like the work of an intelligent man who has read Freud and gone back through his life to find those events which can be presented in a Freudian context to produce at the end the proper impression of the adult man. It is a perfect demonstration of the fallacy of confirmation bias.

Yet for all those complaints, many key aspects of Sartre’s life are present in Les Mots. The committed engagement with literature, obviously. But also the unworldliness. Sartre’s family never seemed to have to earn money, and it was never expected that Sartre himself would have to earn money. Instead he passed his entire life secure in the notion that he could and would do nothing but read and write on things which interested him, and had no awkward contact with grubby material necessities. This perhaps reached its apotheosis (or, from the point of view of Sartre’s readers, its nadir) when Gallimard gave him a monthly stipend for life, so that even sales and royalties ceased to matter. As Aronson ruefully puts it, “he could work when he wished on whatever he wished, without colleagues, without supervision, without criticism.” This was the life of the young Jean-Paul as well, and it is clearly a situation he never quite left. Les Mots is also a tightly, rigorously written document of the experience of alienation, and contains a small polemic on Sartre’s idea of what art is and how it should be experienced. It is not a bad book; I am simply suggesting that to take it at face value is to be misled by the wiles of the mature Sartre.

It is an unfortunate truth that Ronald Aronson’s book on Sartre is the best book under review. It will hold strong appeal not only to any reader interested in Sartre, post-war philosophy, or leftist thought, but to any reader with any appreciable interest in literature. It is intensely readable, and though judicious in its praise and criticism, it is suffused with a great sympathy and affection for its subject. Sartre is presented in quite an understanding light, which is perhaps necessary considering the despicable portrait painted by Letters to Sartre; all I can say is that after reading this book, I would rather have been Ronald Aronson than Jean-Paul Sartre.

There must be some high pantheon in the Olympus of literature for those select few academics who have managed, through Herculean effort of intellect, to distill mountains of turgid philosophy into slender, lively, intelligent, fascinating books. What Walter Kaufmann has done for Nietzsche and Shlomo Avineri for Hegel, Aronson does here for Sartre. Aronson covers all of the major phases of Sartre’s thought, and all of his most important works, often in quite close detail, but free from scholarly throat-clearing and annoying digressions. There is not a whiff of nonsense about the book, to the extent that Aronson refuses even to draw general conclusions and ends his study two pages after ending his discussion of Sartre’s huge book on Flaubert. This is an intelligent, critical intellectual biography, nothing more and nothing less.

It will be profitable at this juncture to follow Aronson in a brief discussion of the development of Sartre’s thought. Throughout the book, Aronson anchors his analysis on two poles: Sartre’s fixation with the nature and extent of human freedom on the one hand, and his abiding pessimism on the other.

According to Aronson, Sartre began his philosophical career by posing critical questions about the ontology of freedom. His first two books, The Imaginary and Imagination, roughly translated, both pose a similar argument: that man is always free because in any situation, man can retreat into the imagination. This idea of mental escape was later enlarged to include emotions: “Emotion and imagination alike are spontaneous, self-determined free acts in which we escape from a world ‘ruled by deterministic processes.’” But immediately Sartre’s pessimism turns up: escapist imagination hardly constitutes real freedom in the real world, and even according to Sartre himself, too much reliance on this sort of freedom leads only to pathology. But already a familiar tension emerges: the world is unpleasant, and there must be some way of mitigating it, so Sartre proceeds from what he wants to be true (that humans are basically free) and constructs a clever answer, but one which even he ultimately does not find persuasive. His tendency to chase solutions he has already decided on, and his willingness to mangle the theorists whose shoulders he stands upon (Husserl and Heidegger, mostly) are quite frankly reminiscent of another mad genius, one who used to haunt the British Museum Reading Room.

Well, if imagination and emotions are one means of escape, but not anchored enough in the world, perhaps art, since it is imaginary, is the site of human freedom. This led to several essays on aesthetics in which Sartre argues that since art is imaginary, it cannot have anything to do with morality, since morality requires being-in-the-world, but at the same time that reality cannot be beautiful, since beauty is a virtue which can only be applied to the imaginary. This interest in art as a means of escape animates Sartre’s first and most famous novel, La Nausée. In that book, Sartre’s narrator Roquentin realizes that all things are contingent and meaningless, that there is no order to the world, whether human, divine, or causal. The horror of this (the nausea, obviously) suggests that our only way to continue living in such a world is to hide the meaninglessness through organization, wishful thinking, self-deception, escape, “bad faith,” and so on.

Roquentin’s dilemma is of course expanded upon and developed at length in Sartre’s first great philosophical masterpiece Being and Nothingness. This is rather a difficult book to summarize, though Aronson is masterful at making it intelligible. I will be briefer than he is, at the risk of doing some violence to a key work. Here Sartre’s concept of freedom has broadened yet further: there is no difference between the being of man, and his being free. With his consciousness, man creates himself, gives meaning to things in the world, and can detach himself from any situation. But again, the pessimism returns: we build illusions to hide this freedom from ourselves, and our consciousness exists “only as it sees the world as lacking,” because we cannot be the thing that created itself. Sartre sees man as being engaged in a constant, doomed project to become what he calls “the for-itself-in-itself,” the thing which is not contingent on something else, “consciousness become substance, substance become the cause of itself, the Man-God.” Understandably, this is rather difficult. In fact, Sartre says that we cannot realize that goal because simply existing and having that goal are one and the same, so we are chasing something which is itself created by our running. Thus, his famous conclusion: “man is a useless passion.” From this doomed project emerges the self-deception of “bad faith,” attempts to make things dependent on us and thereby to dominate them, creations of various illusions. These can be analyzed (as Sartre later did at horrific length in his books on Baudelaire, Genet, and Flaubert) using the machinery of “existential psychoanalysis.”

Now, Sartre wrote those things during the late 1930s, and few books could be less politically engaged. With the declaration of the war, though, he was called up and sent to the front, and later taken prisoner. Suddenly Sartre found that he was in the grip of forces completely outside his control, and worse, that these forces did not consider him exceptional at all. Suddenly he was but one powerless man among many thousands of powerless men. His letters to Simone de Beauvoir show the trauma of this realization, though De Beauvoir seems utterly oblivious to it. But the damage was done: Sartre discovered the world. The three novels discussed above signal his first attempts at engagement with reality, but the decisive turning point was his seminal essay What is Literature?

Aronson rightly places What is Literature? at the center of the book and of Sartre’s intellectual development. In it, Sartre takes up the model of Being and Nothingness, but resolves its dilemma: art, he argues, especially reading, allows me to unify the subject (myself) and the object (the work of art) through the imaginative, creative process of experiencing it. The novel I create in my imagination when I read is the “for-itself-in-itself,” and I accomplish my ontological goal and cease to be a useless passion. He doesn’t quite come out and say that reading makes me the Man-God, but the implication is there. He goes on at some length about the role of the artist and the relation of the artist to the audience and the place of art in class (and classless) society, all of which is fascinating, and possibly his best work. The point, though, is that he effectively concludes that the only moral, philosophically tenable position is to be a politically-engaged writer. Aronson therefore treats us to a chapter-long analysis of Sartre’s plays, and another chapter on Sartre’s political essays, both of which are splendid for their brevity and analytical rigor.

Aronson then discusses Sartre’s relations with the Communists: his early, rebuffed attempts at cooperation during the war, then his whole-hearted adoption of the Party line, followed by distance and internal criticism after the invasion of Hungary, and finally his turn towards the Third World after the Cuban Revolution. Sartre comes out of this discussion in a far better light than I’d ever given him credit for. The engagement with Communism led of course to the Critique of Dialectical Reason, in which Sartre sets himself up as an independent Marxist philosopher. Aronson had access to the unpublished drafts of the Critique and does the best he can under the circumstances, but not even his enthusiasm can get past the misery of actually reading the thing. “It is an undisciplined, almost incoherent style of writing in which everything must be said, more or less at once, and never otherwise than by a kind of fiat,” he writes, after giving us a 70-line paragraph as a excerpt. He does engage in meaningful analysis of Sartre’s argument, but ultimately finds it unconvincing, and finally dubs the Critique “undisciplined, self-indulgent, confused, and confusing.” Aronson elsewhere devoted an entire book to the Critique, and was obviously suffering some fatigue from that decision. Far better for Aronson are Sartre’s political essays, especially those in his book about Cuba and his analysis of Stalinism.

Finally Aronson turns to the 4,000-page monolith of the book on Flaubert. It represents about one quarter of Sartre’s collected writings, and is in fact longer than the collected writings of Flaubert himself. Sartre worked on it for about twenty years, dedicated to a single methodological question: “What can we know about a man?” Indeed, the Flaubert book is only incidentally about Flaubert: it is designed to demonstrate the method of existential psychoanalysis, to prove that everything can be communicated and that with the necessary information, we can arrive at a perfect understanding of another person. As Aronson sees it, “the Flaubert was, after all, a product of defeat. L’Idiot de la famille was erected over the ruin of the Critique, the collapse of his political hope, his role as political intellectual and the project of a committed theatre. It was a work of withdrawal, in which Sartre’s thought left the world and became absorbed in the life and work of another intellectual recluse.” After slogging through Sartre’s approach and outlining the content of the book, Aronson eventually dispenses with pleasantries altogether. The book “violates the elementary rules of human communication,” he complains. It “lacks all respect for its readers,” and, like any monologuing crank, it makes no distinction between “the activity of research and its socially communicable results.” Aronson washes his hands of the matter, despite his obvious enthusiasm for Sartre’s early and middle periods, and his great respect for Sartre’s intellect. Aronson refuses to draw any general conclusions or engage in any evaluation. He ends his book two pages after concluding his discussion of the Flaubert.

Compared to Aronson’s formidable performance, Iris Murdoch’s Sartre: Romantic Rationalist is rather underwhelming. Murdoch was a good novelist who won the Booker and was made CBE for her services to English literature. I find her quite skilled at time, place, mood, and atmosphere, though I think her use of male narrators in the first person is more brave than it is successful. She was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s at Cambridge, and married John Bayly, the splendid literary critic. Her very sad death from Alzheimer’s is the subject of the film Iris with Judi Dench and Kate Winslet. Her book on Sartre was the first serious monograph on the subject to appear in English. It is very short, and made even more so since her introduction fills pp. 9-39, and pp. 148-159 are various bibliographical lists. Furthermore, since it appeared in 1953, it covers only Sartre’s earliest writings, whereas Aronson’s study came out in the year of Sartre’s death.

Murdoch’s thesis is quite literally embodied in her title: she considers Sartre to be a rationalist intellectual by disposition, but to have come to intellectual maturity under the romanticist shadow of Surrealism (to which she devotes a surprising amount of time and space) and was unable to escape what she calls a “romantic Trotskyist longing for permanent revolution.” Her discussion of Sartre’s trilogy is quite good, and her insights into Being and Nothingness are fascinating in the sense that they are original and organic and have not yet been shaped by any scholarly consensus or sterile debate, such as currently exists. She deals with Sartre’s solipsism without making excuses, and discusses it in such a way that throws light on many of the works discussed above: “He isolates the self so that it treats others, not as objects of knowledge certainly, but as objects to be feared, manipulated and imagined about.” This is confirmed by much of the action of the wartime trilogy, and of Sartre’s approach to his family in Les Mots and the literary figures he devoted books to. She also sums up Sartre’s enduring appeal with great efficiency: Sartre suggests that your personal despair is in fact a universal characteristic of humanity, and has nothing to do with social situations, historical specificity, your own defects. We see ourselves in his portraits of the lonely individual, (not to mention himself as a lonely individual), which produces enduring sympathy. Her take on Sartre’s Marxism (still quite protean at the time of her writing) is quite interesting. She must have been surprised by later events, since she writes that “The Marxist can be a confident utilitarian because he has both a clear idea of human good and an understanding of the mechanism of social cause and effect. Sartre lacks both.” Yet it is hard to disagree with her assessment. Sartre did lack both. He just didn’t let that stop him.

Yet Murdoch is often rather digressive, which is surprising for such a short work. The reader gets the impression that she knew a lot about the history of modern philosophy and about novels, but did not perhaps have much to say about the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. Certainly it is important to situate the object of study in a specific milieu, but it is unwise to devote equal time, attention, and enthusiasm to the surroundings as to the man himself.

Curiously, one important strand of thought which both Aronson and Murdoch leave out is an actual concrete analysis of what exactly Sartre meant by “existentialism” in the real world. The discussions of Being and Nothingness are important to this, of course, but that work is also notorious for its lack of application to the real world. Aronson discusses Sartre’s engagement through literature, which I agree is of central importance, but we do Sartre a disservice if we assume that he somehow thought that literature was the only meaningful way to act in the world. He gave a more general presentation of his views in his lecture (and later the short book) titled Existentialism is a Humanism.

It is a fascinating work. It is short and accessible, which enables the reader to consider it as a totality, and it rewards careful thought as such. In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre presents his now-famous argument that with human beings, existence precedes essence. We are not created based on some pre-existing template of what constitutes human nature. We simply exist, and our essence (what human nature is) is determined by each of us in our actions. And further, layering on a bit of Kantian thinking, our actions should be such that we would want them to be common to general human nature. Sartre argues that Dostoevsky’s Trap is but the starting point for an existentialist: if everything is permitted, then there is no excuse, no recourse for our actions but ourselves. If we are free, then we are responsible for what we do, and the world is what we make of it. “There is no love,” he says, “apart from the deeds of love.” This unyielding primacy of actual human action and ultimate personal responsibility leads Sartre to conclude that existentialists are not reproached for their pessimism, but for “the sterness of our optimism.”

As an explanation and a defense of a position, Existentialism is a Humanism is first-rate. It is a fine piece of rhetoric, and a brilliant popularization of very complex ideas. It is also fascinating because it shows that Sartre can be intelligible and persuasive when he chooses to be, and that his philosophy really was a coherent system which he really did illustrate in the works discussed above.

Of the books here reviewed, Letters to Sartre is the only one I wish I hadn’t read. It is a big, beastly book: over 500 pages of De Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre, mostly (and by mostly, I mean pp. 35-375) dated September 1939-March 1941. As part of the research for this review, I read a number of other reviews of De Beauvoir’s copious writings, searching for the best volume to consult. Time and again I came across a similar phrase: “if De Beauvoir had deep thoughts on X event or Y book, she must have left them for her letters to Sartre.” Since this phrase cropped up in reviews of her personal diaries, I considered myself safe in seeking out those very letters. Here, I thought, I shall get a sense of Sartre from the outside, through the eyes of a highly intelligent woman who knew him best.

I was wrong.

If these letters are any indication, Simone de Beauvoir was one of the most catty, petty, self-absorbed, pseudo-intellectual solipsists ever to rise to unfortunate public prominence. Her letters mainly convey her daily routine: she drinks a lot of coffee in cafés, reads books, writes in her diary, and sleeps with lots of young girls, mainly ex-students. Since the bulk of the letters start on the date which initiated that minor historical quibble known as World War Two, I naively thought that De Beauvoir would have some thoughts or reflections on this. She does not. In late November of 1939, she writes to Sartre and asks him to explain the origins of the war—not because she wants to know, but for the novel she’s working on. By mid-December, when Poland had been partitioned and occupied and Warsaw’s 400,000 Jews forced into a ghetto, De Beauvoir gets her several girlfriends to find out if their respective boyfriends think she’s pretty. Hitler invades France; Beauvoir writes that she has a terrible pimple on her cheek and is losing sleep over it. Does she have thoughts about the defeat and collapse of the Third Republic, the establishment of the Vichy collaborationist regime, the evacuation of the British from Dunkirk? No, but she does go to see The Gorilla, starring The Ritz Brothers and Bela Lugosi. She doesn’t even have thoughts about the books she’s reading: her first thought occurs on p. 238, while on a ski trip during Christmas 1939, when she has something to say about Heinrich Heine. She first mentions the war on p. 317, several letters after Sartre was in fact taken prisoner by the Third Reich. She never demonstrates the slightest concern for the conduct or progress of the war, or the loss of life there entailed. Instead, she is very interested in the color of her turbans, and the emotional state of her various girlfriends.

This is the point that’s caused a degree of controversy. As a review in The New Yorker put it, following the publication of this unedited volume:

“The revelation was not the promiscuity; it was the hypocrisy. In interviews, Beauvoir had flatly denied having had sexual relations with women; in the letters, she regularly described, for Sartre, her nights in bed with women. The most appalling discovery, for many readers, was what ‘telling each other everything’ really meant. The correspondence was filled with catty and disparaging remarks about the people Beauvoir and Sartre were either sleeping with or trying to sleep with, even though, when they were with those people, they radiated interest and affection. Sartre, in particular, was always speaking to women of his love and devotion, his inability to live without them—every banality of popular romance. Words constituted his principal means of seduction: his physical approaches were on the order of groping in restaurants and grabbing kisses in taxis. With the publication of Letters to Sartre, it was clear that, privately, he and Beauvoir held most of the people in their lives in varying degrees of contempt. They enjoyed, especially, recounting to each other the lies they were telling.”

It gets a bit worse:

“Sartre and Beauvoir liked to refer to their entourage as ‘the Family,’ and the recurring feature of their affairs is a kind of play incest. Their customary method was to adopt a very young woman as a protégée—to take her to movies and cafés, travel with her, help her with her education and career, support her financially. (Sartre wrote most of his plays in part to give women he was sleeping with something to do: they could be actresses.) For Sartre and Beauvoir, the feeling that they were, in effect, sleeping with their own children must, as with most taboos, have juiced up the erotic fun.”

So where does this leave us, at the end of 7000 words? I must first and foremost admit that I was wrong about Sartre in many ways, most egregiously in the realm of politics.

I had always thought Sartre a rather good playwright, and had no trouble accepting him as the model of the politically-engaged man of theatre. Having read his short stories, several of which I can still recall clearly despite the ten years and thousand books which have passed since then, I thought of him as a decent fiction writer. His three novels have led me to revise this judgment upwards. They are an impressive project, and though the realization is a bit hit-and-miss, it was certainly inevitable that any attempt to illustrate the concepts of Being and Nothingness in real world events would be a difficult task. Les Chemins de la liberté are an important piece of post-war writing, and central works of existentialist literature; The Reprieve is without doubt an excellent novel, and Iron in the Soul is half of an excellent novel. Sartre as a novelist has amply proven himself. What of the rest of his work?

It is possible to construct a sort of timeline of Sartre’s life and work, and my approach thereof. As illustrated in Les Mots, Sartre’s pre-war life was an intensely cloistered, self-referential, unworldly one. He seems never to have grasped the existence of a world outside of the rather fascinating and misshapen skull of Jean-Paul Sartre. This gave rise to some interesting theories often presented in miserable prose, and an existentialist outlook that coloured the rest of his intellectual development, but which rested on an uneasy tension between solipsism and action. Upon discovering the world (in the unfortunate guise of World War Two), Sartre’s life and work fell into four phases: political neutrality but engagement with general reality; then the shift to ardent Communism; the High Communist phase in which Sartre became a Marxist thinker in his own right; and finally the phase of Sartre-as-champion of the Third World. Or, following Edmund Wilson’s phraseology: Sartre Discovers the World Exists; Sartre Discovers Communism Exists; Sartre Discovers He Is a Communist; Sartre Discovers the Third World Exists. Taking into consideration the work produced in each period, it is difficult not to conclude that Later Sartre became a character in a book by Early Sartre: intelligent, but self-indulgent, once again unworldly.

One generality is clear: Sartre, for all his intellectual pyrotechnics and the increasingly absurd length of his ruminations, seems to have been a rather lazy thinker. I first had an inkling of this while reading his famously terrible preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. There Sartre not only fails to supply any critical or intellectual appraisal, or even to situate the book in a historical, social, or biographical context, but indeed commits a very basic high school-student error: he summarizes. Worse, he summarizes incorrectly. He spends almost fifty pages telling you what he thinks Fanon is about to tell you, but as you begin to actually read Fanon himself, it becomes painfully obvious that Sartre only read the first chapter, and that he read shallowly. I began to wonder what could explain this, and then began to notice a pattern in Sartre’s work. We can draw a straight line from the simplistic preface to the unwritten fourth volume of Les Chemins de la liberté, to the uncompleted second volume of the Critique, to the unfinished fourth volume of the Flaubert, to the abandoned notebooks on ethics, to the manuscript on Mallarmé which was apparently misplaced somewhere. This straight line is labeled “Lazy Thinker.” Why else dispense so consistently with scholarly rigor and the conventions of research and presentation? How else do we explain the increasingly self-indulgent rambling of the later works? Sartre’s enormous output may suggest a man of enormous energy and passions, but his apparent refusal to revise, to clarify, to think before he writes suggests a man allergic to the heavy lifting required by critical thinking. I should not want to have to write a book as long and complex as the Critique of Dialectical Reason, but I should greatly prefer having to write that book to having to write the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

But when Sartre is brief, controlled, and rigorous, he is very good indeed. Hence his lively political essays, and the superb Existentialism is a Humanism. This probably also explains his memorable short stories, and his quite effective plays. His writing when it was for an actual audience (indeed, his engaged writing) is brilliant, and always worth reading. It is the writing he apparently did for himself, by himself, with himself in mind, with himself as audience that is turgid, confused, and largely unreadable.

Sartre was certainly a genius of some kind. Few intellectuals have written so many critical works in so many fields of endeavor, or have grappled so seriously both with eternal problems of human experience and with the specific political and social problems of the twentieth century. He cannot reasonably be overlooked by any serious student of twentieth-century thought, and a brief sampling of his work is too confined to dismiss a thinker who contained worlds. I look forward to returning to perhaps a half-dozen of his books, though I finish this project pleased that I never met him, and certain that his longer and larger projects will always remain unread by me.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Guest Post: Re: The Moral "das Ding"

Here it is in the rough;

The dichotomy seems to be between, in my estimation a false one, a priori notions or levels of productivity. A priori notions; which relate to concepts like the categorical imperative. Then questions of productivity (Social, economic, otherwise) relating to utilitarian or consequentialism, which still exist with abstractions filled in with a priori assumptions.

If we are to assume that the axiomatical understandings of moral structures exist under the pretext of economic productivity, for example, it is unhealthy for the economy of a civil society to create a general distrust amongst all the people by allowing murder to go unrecognized, this would undoubtedly cause a massive rupture in the fluidity of productive forces; no one is going to go to work and produce things if there exists a very real fear of getting killed the second they leave their home. But what if we turn this on its head? What if the threat of violence serves as the productive element of society? PRC serves as an example of this, if we are to assume a functioning and, for the most part, legitimate government structure is necessary to mediate the material relations between people; that a working economy cannot exist without a working government, can it not be stated that if we are to have at the foundation of any moral structure the issue of its productive and economic impacts, we then cannot condemn exploitation, state violence, corporate violence, corruption, etc. on moral grounds. The condemnation only exists within its speculative productive impacts, so were we to see that, in certain places, under certain regimes, where heavy exploitation brings in massive amounts of foreign capitol, we then are stripped of a moral argument against this practice because morality serves productivity.

It seems impossible to avoid filling in the spaces of abstraction without resorting to simplistic a priori estimations. A little something inside you that just tells you this is wrong or this is right. It is also seems impossible to avoid, without a God, to avoid postmodern speculations about how you define "good" and "bad". Hitchens I've noticed tends to fall into this trap, the only time when he debates theologians and his argument crumbles, when he makes a very categorical statement, "this behavior is evil!" to which the theologian then replies "Where do you draw your conclusion of what is evil and good without a God to lay out the very definitions for both?" Other than simply stating the source of it comes from a priori subjectivity, where do we have grounds to make such assumptions about the validity of moral statements (or indignations)? The Kantian notion of "duty" and the categorical imperative become the obvious and all too easy reply. Which, in my opinion, crumbles the instant someone recognizes that their categorical "duty" will undeniably lead to something destructive, that occasionally a space opens up where to lie seems completely morally justifiable. Thus, confusing the importance of which to attach ones moral compass to, "duty" or consequence, does morality lie in ones behavior and acts in accordance to duty or is it contingent on the outcome of amoral actions directed towards a moral outcome?

But similarly, consequentialism seems to require a level of immediacy. If the ends justify the means, and since there is no specific "duty" or categorical imperative which insures one is going to make the most utilitarian judgment, then it seems to me that the individual would then need a certain closeness to the outcome of the particularly morally driven behavior. A visible consequent of the action. Though, as the space expands; with the action driven by utilitarian speculation as the epicenter of this space, and the effects of this action go beyond the visible, unseen consequences of otherwise immoral behavior go unnoticed. Purchasing clothes that were made in sweatshops because you not purchasing it is not going to close the sweatshops anyways and it is economically smart on your part. The lack of a categorical imperative here rings loudly. If morality existed in action and not outcome, then duty dictates the behavior.

The trouble with the above is not the lack of understanding of morality, drawing from good ol' Witty here, but paradox in the human "understanding" or morality. It is a metaphysic, its understanding seems to be nothing more than a dialectic without a rational synthesis, its validity seems to lie in the capricious behavior of human beings. Part of it seems to me that Zizek's "materialist theology", while not satisfactory by any means, provides us enough space to say "genocide is wrong" "rape is wrong". We must engage with each other as if such a thing like morality actually did exist, while recognizing the subjectivity of it.

Beyond that, as unsatisfying and open-ended as all that was, my ideas of "morality" get stuck there, and I can't seem to push past it.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Guest Post: Hermit in Paris

Hermit In Paris, by Italo Calvino
2003, 255 pp.

One need read only a few books by the great man to realize that while he may have been a hermit in Paris, Calvino is a giant in literature. Born on the 15 October 1923 in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, two months after which his family moved back to their native Italy, we find our protagonist spending his first 25 years in San Remo, Italy, fighting along side the partisans against fascism, and finally moving to Turin to join the ranks of returning combatants seeking a university degree. His rushed thesis was on ‘the Opera Omnia of Joseph Conrad’. In twenty days in December of 1946 Calvino wrote his first novel The Path to the Spider’s Nest. A novel which his mentor and fellow author Cesar Pavese passed along to a publisher, and went on to sell 6,000 copies in post-war Italy, no small feat. If one was active in Politics in Italy in the 40’s and 50’s one had few options, on the one hand was fascism on the other was communism. Calvino gravitated toward communism, and broke with it in 1957 in light of the failure of Khrushchev to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union, the exit of one of the leading communists in the Italian party, and in the Soviet’s response to Hungary and Budapest (as well as the support for these actions by the PCI leadership).

The book itself is a collection of interviews, essays, and critical reflections upon the travels of the human through the mediums of life, literature, and politics. We follow Calvino as he fought the Nazi’s in one of the most important regions for the Germans the Maritime Alps, ‘a back route to the font lines’ where “Even in the final days of the war the Germans had reappeared by surprise and we had suffered mortalities.” He writes tellingly of war, “As long as our lives hung by a thread, it was pointless conjuring up even the notion that a new life was about to dawn, one without machine-gun fire, reprisal raids, the fear of being caught and tortured. And even afterwards when peace had come, rediscovering the habit of functioning in a different way would take time.”

In “American Diary 1959-1960” he describes his time in America in perhaps one of the greatest series of letters, here collected and presented with subtitled journal entries, and insightful accounts of the US. Calvino’s trip across country led him to conclude, rightly I might add as testified by my own car trip across country, “A few outings on the motorway are enough… you realize that 95 per cent of America is a country of ugliness, oppressiveness, and sameness, in short of relentless monotony.” He actually met Martin Luther King during his sojourn in Alabama. He was there on the 6th of March, 1960 and witnessed, “what racism is, mass racism, accepted as one of society’s fundamental rules.” This passage of a Calvino merits an extended quotation, Calvino writes of the day’s proceedings when racial tensions flared their ugly ways as black people simply were exiting a meeting at a Baptist church,
‘The most admirable ones are the black girls: they come down the road in twos or threes, and those thugs spit on the ground before their feet standing in the middle of the pavement and forcing the girls to zigzag past them, shouting abuse at them and making as though to trip them up, and the black girls continue to chat among themselves, never do they move in such a way as to suggest they want to avoid them, never do they alter their route when they see them blocking their path, as though they were used to these scenes right from birth.’
He speaks about Texas and the Texan mentality in incisive terms as well reminding us that they in fact went into WW2 a year before the rest of the country following along with a Canadian bomber squadron. He was present during Mardi Gras in Louisiana, and found a home in New York, the city that of all the cities he lived in Calvino immediately felt in possession of and at home in.

In one interview we find out that Calvino knew people who were particularly close to Gramsci, he met the Hungarian literary critic and Marxist Gyogry Lukác’s in the Summer of’56, and that he was a diligent communist who actually fought as one, worked as one in a publishing house, and believed in it with a youthful zeal. He faced the continuing failure of communism in praxis, and gradually grew less interested in Politics as an active participant. However, Calvino points out two things that are immediately relevant to our understanding of what this means. “One is the passion for a global culture, and the rejection of the lack of content caused through excessive specialization: I want to keep alive an image of culture as a unified whole, which is composed of every aspect of what we know and do, and in which the various discourses of every area of research and production become part of that general discourse which is the history of humanity, which we must manage to seize and develop ultimately in a human direction. (And literature should of course be in the middle of these different languages and keep alive the communication between them.” And “My other passion is for a political struggle and a culture (and literature) which will be the education of a new ruling class … if class means only that which has class consciousness, as in Marx. I have always worked and continue to work with this in mind: seeing the new ruling class taking shape, and contributing to give it a shape and profile.” Thankfully, as a result of this combination of factors he did not leave us with a scant amount of literature. If I quote in length it is because the erudition of Calvino is such that I do not want to cheapen it by paraphrasing his lifetime of deep thinking and articulations.

I could go on quoting and write about what to me is largely the pivot point of the book, his Hermitude in Paris, how his living in different cities as a writer contributed to the concept of Invisible Cities, but I’d prefer to simply say read the damn book. One is never cheapened by reading Italo Calvino, he wrote each book in a different way and he can only enhance one’s understanding of the world by showing us the multitudinous forms of his narrators, his imagination, his fantasy, and his exploration of what literature can and should be. He writes this advice, “First of all live, and then philosophize and write. Writers above all should live with an attitude towards the world which effects a greater acquisition of truth.” And he reminds us, “What counts is what we are, and the way we deepen our relationship with the world and with others, a relationship that can be one of both love for all that exists and of desire for its transformation.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

To the Finland Station

To the Finland Station, by Edmund Wilson
1940, 509 pp.

When life has become particularly difficult, when you flounder amid indecision and uncertainty, when you feel you have lost your way, you can do no better than to read a good book about communists. We, all of us, move through life assailed by information, much of it contradictory or irrelevant or fraudulent, with no governing principle for its assimilation and evaluation, and marooned in our solitude as the communicability of experience diminishes. How, then, are we to organize our experience of the world, especially in a manner effective enough to allow us to take meaningful action in it? A long and healthy dose of Marx, with his unparalleled ability to marshal and organize vast amounts of information into an argument which is both cogent and forceful, will immediately set you aright, and make whatever difficult tasks lie ahead appear to be small, simple things. All that had appeared solid will melt into air, and the way ahead will be revealed. Only ask yourself: What Would Marx Do?

I have therefore arrived at To the Finland Station after a long Marxist bath which began with the hundred-page introduction to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, then proceeded through a volume of Hobsbawm and a short piece by Tony Cliff. My appraisal might be affected by this prolonged exposure, but I found this book to be extremely enjoyable. Wilson, a gifted literary critic and close friend of Vladimir Nabokov, is a splendid writer. His Axel’s Castle is an intelligent, accessible approach to most of the important artists of the Modernist period, and is a good place to start for an accurate, logical description of what exactly happens in Ulysses. Here he is a sort of curious sidekick to Leszek Kolakowski. To the Finland Station mirrors much of Kolakowski’s monumental Main Currents of Marxism quite closely: there are the various pre-Marx socialists, then Marx himself as the centerpiece, then Lenin and Trotsky emerge in the third act. But in many ways Wilson is the exact opposite, and perhaps perfect companion piece. Kolakowski is an intellectual and scholarly juggernaut, an immense whirling combine of knowledge and analysis, with sentences like mechanical threshers, shredding all that stands before him. He knows everything that has ever happened or ever will happen, and has compressed it all into his work. He is the Alpha and the Omega, and he can flatten the life’s work of a poseur like Althusser in one withering sentence. His work is less a book and more like an entymologist’s catalogue, with innumerable obscure Marxists preserved, impaled, in careful boxes. Wilson, on the other hand, has no scholarly apparatus. There are no footnotes, no bibliography. Naturally, I found this a bit annoying. Much of his material is biographical and conversational, to the point where he seems often to be writing a novel. The book is easy and quick to read because of this: I may read Kolakowski before bed, but I bet you don’t. This is much more manageable.
In fact, if I am ever absurd enough to have a child, it is highly likely that this will indeed be her bedtime reading: “Now, next door to the Marxes in Trier there lived a family named von Westphalen…”

Like Kolakowski, though, the stuff before Marx turns up is often desperate. The book opens well, with an enthralling account of Michelet, the great (and often utterly forgotten) French historian, who was the first (and in many senses the only) writer to use the actual documents and archives to write a multi-volume history of the French Revolution. Within two chapters Wilson had me on Amazon, pricing full sets. The chapter on Gracchus Babeuf is excellent, and a more efficient introduction to that essential character than Robert Rose’s full-length biography.

The chapter headings are a good summary of Wilson's approach: Karl Marx Decides to Change the World, Marx and Engels Take a Hand at Making History, Marx and Engels Go Back to Writing History, Trotsky Identifies History With Himself, Lenin Identifies Himself With History.

Wilson’s avuncular conversationalism does have its drawbacks. Particularly when describing the misery of Marx’s life in London, Wilson’s sense of humor works against him. He seems to be laughing at Marx and his three dead children, adopting a position of superiority which is hardly warranted. That said, the chapters on Marx are mostly very good, and though they are lighter on detail than David McClellan’s excellent biography, they are quicker, smoother, and probably better written. Anyone interested in the great man’s life, but pressed for time and without access to a university library could do no better than to seek out To the Finland Station and read pp. 112-345. Wilson has clearly read Marx widely and deeply, even to the extent of translating some of Marx and Engels’ odd polyglot correspondence and sending copies of Marx’s mathematical manuscripts to a distinguished professor for commentary. He is great fun and displays contagious enthusiasm when he talks about the good bits of Marx’s work, and has a sharp eye for the problems which are now so familiar.

In particular, he has an entire chapter called “The Myth of the Dialectic,” which, while he annoyingly fails to trace the origin of the thesis-antithesis-synthesis vulgarism to Fichte rather than Hegel, does make an important point. Hegel was an idealist and a mystic, and the concepts of the dialectic and the Absolute Idea are holdovers from the great age of German mysticism. Marx never was able to get away from metaphysics, and they are often his undoing. His love for abstraction and grounding in classical German philosophy led him down dark alleys which he plunged into so heedlessly that he never found his way back out. Hence we have the inescapable problem of the Labour Theory of Value, which in Volume III of Das Kapital turns out to be separate from actual prices and demand functions and turns out to have been mysticism all along. This may explain why the best of Marx’s work are the most materialist, the most immediate responses to actual political events rather than the products of long years of abstract rumination.

Wilson is also sharp on Marx’s other weaknesses: his enormous hatreds, his domineering nature, the misery he inflicted on his family, his tendency to factionalism. All manner of contradictions are revealed: Marx’s ambivalence towards science while espousing scientific socialism, his inability to reconcile his great hatred of capitalism with his sober economic analysis of its necessity. And so on. Wilson’s Marx is a fascinating character memorably presented, but an altogether smaller figure than you expect. His Engels, however, emerges as quite a sympathetic character. There is none of the rage of some Marxists who accuse Engels of simplifying and distorting the subtle gradations of Marx’s thought into the sort of vulgarity which has been used to justify violence and repression. Wilson’s picture of Engels is of a loyal, amiable guy who likes to have a good time and when he is away from Marx’s drive and cynicism, likes to go horseback riding and eat grapes. Weighed against this sympathetic portrayal of Engels, Wilson’s Marx seems all the more limited. There is a touching passage about their only real falling-out, occasioned by the sudden death of Engels’ lover Mary Burns. Marx started out to write a sympathetic letter, but didn’t quite know how, so he ended up complaining for several pages about his own life. Engels, understandably, replied coldly. Marx tried to apologize, and apparently cast about for something to cheer Engels up. He seems to have concluded that the best thing would be to get Engels talking about something he knows well but that Marx doesn’t, apparently on the grounds that what Marx himself enjoys is expounding at length on topics that others are ignorant of. So Marx writes to Engels about factory machinery, and only succeeds in alienating Engels more. Two more of Marx’s letters go unanswered, and we begin to see just how much Marx needs his friend and how limited he was in the world of personal relations. Marx’s daughter later wrote of how her father would get immensely excited when Engels was coming to visit London, but be all to business when Engels actually arrived. These letters are an angle on Marx we don’t often see: the lonely exile, the great intellectual whose passionate hatred and pedantic insistence on subtle distinctions drove away all his comrades, the old man afraid that he has driven away his only friend. Here, and later during his account of the death of Marx’s wife, Wilson is quite moving.

Instead it is Lenin who is the hero of To the Finland Station. Wilson has quite a glowing assessment of Lenin, who he sees as above petty politics, as a charming, charismatic statesman of the future. Most of the violence of the Revolution and the Red Terror Wilson ascribes to Trotsky, who he sees as a bit of an egotist, a dilettante, and a man prone to violence and cruelty. Wilson later recanted a bit and published as Appendix E to a later edition of To the Finland Station a correction in which he acknowledged that virtually all of the institutions of Stalin’s repression were set up by Lenin himself. But for the main narrative, Lenin seems almost a messiah, and Wilson faithfully reports all of the best stories from Trotsky’s biography of Lenin, but leaves out the carping, contemptuous tone of Lenin’s polemics and the gleeful cruelty of Lenin’s telegrams.

Wilson, of course, has his problems. While he is an effective and engaging popularizer of history and ideas, he is less convincing when he expresses his own ideas. He is given to some unconvincing psychologizing, and he has some peculiar ideas about Jews. The book suffers from the absence of the 1844 manuscripts, but it is not Wilson’s fault he could not have access to them during his writing. We probably could have done with less of Fourier and Owen and a bit more of Kautsky, Luxemburg, and Plekhanov. If read as an interesting, thoughtful, and enthusiastic account of a great and fascinating drama, the book is a rousing success, it just must not be taken as a critical, scholarly opus, or as the last word on any point of controversy.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Black & Blue

Black & Blue, by Ian Rankin
1996, 498 pp.

Although “tartan noir” is a genuine, codified genre in its own right, this book may perhaps be best categorized along with The Wire in a sort of “post-industrial sociological realist” vein of crime fiction. Since I still consider The Wire to be the finest work of fiction so far this century in any medium, this is high praise by association, and well warranted. Both David Simon’s work and Ian Rankin’s novels explore the violent intersection of individuals and institutions in the wake of rapid capitalist transformation of older societies. This interaction is mediated by various forces: the geography of a modern city, the effects of immigration and racial stratification in an urban setting, the role of controlled substances in mediated experience. It is something wholly apart from the existential themes of the classical noir, and something more prescient and clear-eyed than standard social criticism. I love this kind of stuff.

Ian Rankin boasts an enormous ouevre, startlingly varied an expansive for a relatively young man. I selected Black & Blue at random, but it appears to have been a serendipitous choice. My copy comes with a 10-year retrospective introduction by the author which helpfully explained that this, the 8th of currently 17 novels featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus, of the Edinburgh police, is a transitional and transformative book in the series. Evidently it was with this book that Rankin decided to branch out from pure police procedural into a wider interrogation of post-industrial society. Black & Blue won a number of awards and inspired a book-long critique of its themes.

The story is enormous convoluted. There are three general strands: the first has to do with the real-life “Bible John” murders, which took place in Scotland in the late 1960s. Rankin posits a follow-up copycat called “Johnny Bible” and introduces Bible John as a character, hunting the killer who has usurped his notoriety. So there’s a serial killer and a real-life serial killer hunting him. Very good. The second strand involves the mysterious death of an oil platform worker and expands out to include a crime family from Glasgow, a drug operation in Aberdeen, corruption of oil interests in the North Sea, and crooked cops. The third strand has to do with a former partner of Rebus’ who recently committed suicide, and who may or may not have framed a suspect named Spaven many years ago as part of the original Bible John case. Spaven became famous in jail and eventually killed himself, protesting his innocence all along. The young Rebus was involved in the cover-up to the possible framing and is now the target of an internal affairs probe and a television crime show. Needless to say, about 500 pages later all of these things turn out to be connected, and it is to Rankin’s credit that once all the pieces are in place, the whole plot does indeed make sense.

Rebus is a solid protagonist. He’s as maverick-y and tenacious as all fictional detectives are required to be, and is frequently persecuted by the police, which happily allows the reader to identify with him as an individual being persecuted by a giant, soulless, powerful institution. This is absolutely necessary in detective fiction. If the protagonist is going to be a cop instead of a private eye, he must be distanced from the police department, lest the reader realize that as a police detective, our hero is an appendage of a giant, powerful, soulless institution which exists to persecute individuals just like the reader. Anyway, Rebus has solid loner, maverick cop credentials. He also has an impressive drinking problem (at one point he has three Laphroaigs at a pub at 6 AM before going to work) and a dark past and a divorce and an estranged daughter. He carries the book well, with lots of stubbornness and wry quips.

As much as I enjoyed the novel and would recommend it and am looking forward to reading the other 16 Rebus books, it is not without problems. There are two major ones: the way Rebus quits drinking about halfway through, and the way the plot is resolved.

The first suffers from comparisons. One of my favorite detective series is by Lawrence Block, about an alcoholic New York detective named Matt Scudder. In that series as well, the middle book is pivotal and signals and expansion of scope into wider societal themes. It is also the point where Scudder quits drinking, but that process accounts for possibly half the book. Scudder manages to string together one or two sober days, sometimes almost a week, but is constantly aware of the struggle and constantly rationalizing himself into having another drink. The torment of the addiction is executed brilliantly, and indeed sticks in the reader’s mind long after the plot has dissipated. Further, I’ve now read several hundred pages of Infinite Jest, which is greatly concerned with addiction and features many very long monologues about AA meetings and the sensations of addiction. This is serious business, but Rebus quits almost casually. I found it simply impossible to believe that a bitter, lonely 55-year-old detective who has three single malts before work could give it up so quickly, particularly concerning the central role that pubs and whiskey play in the lives of people who are unfortunate enough to live on this stupid, rainy island. I just didn’t buy it, and it undermined the emotional gravitas of the Rebus character.

The second problem might have something to do with an American/Scottish cross-cultural difference. American detective novels end with cathartic gun battles. The last one I read featured an entire subplot which existed solely to provide a reason for a cathartic gun battle at the end. But while it is easy to believe that heavily armed, trigger-happy American cops do indeed have extensive gunfights with double-digit body counts, police officers in the UK don’t carry guns. There is one gun in all 500 pages of Black & Blue, and it’s used to hit somebody. The Bible John/Johnny Bible plot gets resolved offstage, the really sinister sadist gangster villain gets arrested by somebody else, and people who you want to go to jail do so. But the book ends less with a bang than a whisper, and frankly, despite enjoying the book very much, it left me a bit unfulfilled. It also left me curious to read other installments in the series, to see if either the drinking becomes more of an emotional arc, or if all the books end on a quiet minor key.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens
1857, 820 pp.

I have avoided Charles Dickens for almost a quarter-century. I have never experienced any of his works, with the exception of A Christmas Carol, which I consider to be a tragedy in the genre of Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind: the stages by which an independent will gives way to external compulsion and coercion. I have never seen any of the various films or stage plays based on his books, nor have I ever read any of his many novels, whether in school or otherwise. Until now.

And, startlingly, I really enjoyed it. An 800-page book carries quite a burden of proof, to justify the investment of the reader’s time and attention, and to pay for the opportunity cost of not reading perhaps five other, shorter, books. Dickens manages this here, with dexterity and aplomb. It really is quite a good novel, and the prospect of reading more Dickens no longer fills me with howling dread. I am still leery of his plucky-young-boy novels, but look forward with pleasure to the day I have time to settle down to Our Mutual Friend, Hard Times, Edwin Drood, and Bleak House.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote that Little Dorrit is a more subversive book than Das Kapital. I would argue that he drew a needless distinction: Little Dorrit effectively IS Das Kapital, but with more jokes and better characters. The plot concerns William Dorrit, a goodhearted if overly dignified man who winds up in the Marshalsea debtors prison for so long that he becomes known as “the Father of the Marshalsea.” His youngest daughter, the upright, long-suffering, completely pure Little Dorrit was born in the Marshalsea, and has lived her whole life there, taking care of her father and her wayward siblings. Then there is Arthur Clennam, our hero, recently returned from China, attempting to make his way and start a business in seedy, rainy London. Lurking constantly in the background is the sinister Blandois, a blackguard and murderer with a suspicious moustache and diabolical plans. The plot is hugely elaborate, and studded with subplots and counter-plots too numerous to delve into here. Suffice it to say that the Dorrit family is raised high and then brought low again, as in a similar way is Arthur Clennam. There’s long voyages and illnesses, and in the end everything turns out fairly happily.

The characters are what drive this whole clattering, ramshackle, Rube-Goldberg-device of a plot, and quite memorable characters they are indeed. But really the book hinges on two utterly sublime creations: Mr. Merdle and the Circumlocution Office. Merdle is a captain of industry, a powerful player, a legend of capitalism and financial ingenuity. He has lavish parties at his exquisite mansion, attended by adoring luminaries referred to only by their professions: Law, Bishop, Physician, etc. Also in attendance are members of the omnipresent Barnacle family, who run the vast, impenetrable bureaucracy of the Circumlocution Office. The chapter which introduces the Office and the Barnacles is an exhilarating, hilarious bit of writing which justifies the purchase and time investment of the book all by itself. The purpose of the Office is to ensure that nothing at all gets done, and to that end it employs enormous numbers of people filling out innumerable forms, all of which contradict one another, all of them obstructing any progress anyone anywhere attempts to make in anything. There are whole bodies of self-proclaimed "socialist" thought which display less class consciousness and a weaker grasp of actually-existing political economy.

You can also have my word that the Circumlocution Office is alive and well in London today.

Eventually, after many hundreds of pages of the plot thickening, it finally curdles when it turns out that Mr. Merdle is in fact an 1857 rendition of Bernard Madoff, down virtually to the last detail. I almost howled with delight on the Tube. The passages illustrating the collapse of London finance when his Ponzi scheme comes to light are wonderful, as Dickens spins out an extended metaphor which is equal part Lehman Brothers and Battle of the Nile:

“The Inquest was over, the letter was public, the Bank was broken, the other model structures of straw had taken fire and turned to smoke. The admired piratical ship had blown up, in the midst of a vast fleet of ships of all rates, and boats of all sizes; and on the deep was nothing but ruin; nothing but burning hulls, bursting magazines, great guns self-exploded tearing friends and neighbors to pieces, drowning men clinging to unseaworthy spars and going down every minute, spent swimmers floating dead, and sharks.”

The withering, all-encompassing contempt Dickens pours upon the wealthy and the powerful is truly one of the most entertaining, gratifying, and inspiring spectacles in all of literature. I wish I had read this book as a small boy so that, when called upon in class to say what I wanted to be when I grew up, I could reply: “One day I want to ridicule someone as well as Charles Dickens ridiculed the bourgeoisie.” His scorn takes in Parliament, the bureaucracy, Big Business, finance, the establishment of various professions, and self-aggrandizing philanthropists. His invective is never less than elegant and convoluted, and there were large passages I was tempted to memorize so that I could spit them at the drones of Finance I see on the Underground every morning. The so-called "populist rage" which greeted the events of 2007 was the petulant fist-waving of a child compared to Dickens' hilarious outpouring of ridicule. Granted, one is never far from the knowledge that Dickens was paid by the word, but he is such a virtuoso at spinning out metaphors and sentences longer than any reasonable human could be expected to sustain such verbal ingenuity that he is a delight to read. Yes, a suspicious number of his characters have wordy verbal mannerisms, and yes, he does present conversations which circle and circle longer than necessary. But this gives us both a sense of the characters and of actual-existing life. It adds to the sense of the novel being a world which you wrap yourself up in and get pleasantly lost. And it prefigures some important literary developments, since the run-on ramblings of Flora Finchley effectively prefigure Molly Bloom's monologue. It also speaks less to Dickens’ financial needs and more to his great energy, and as far as I’m concerned, its his energy and his verbal dexterity which pull the whole enterprise off. He really is the sort of writer who could make the back of a cereal box entertaining, and I must report that I thoroughly enjoyed all 820 pages.

Avanti II: Night of the Living Avanti

I began the Avanti Book Review a year ago with the stated intention of reviewing every book I read. This I did without fail for 10 months, with the one exception of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, for which I wrote a compelling 2500-word review which was promptly lost in a power outage. I reviewed 74 books, totalling 23,737 pages. Then in late October I stopped. I stopped not because the workload of getting a master’s degree was too much, but because undertaking a degree at the London School of Economics is the opposite of thinking. My mind had grown fat and disgusting, and I was ceasing to have interesting things to say about the books I was reading. I was also finding that I read too many books which elicited too little response: I neither loved them nor hated them, and while reading them may have enhanced my cultural and intellectual capital, they left my life no richer. The first book I read and did not review was G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. When I finished it, I took a long walk to mentally compose the review, as is my habit. Despite walking for some time, I found I could only generate a paragraph, and that bland at best. Following that was The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford, sometimes considered a fine bit of modernism. I discovered I lacked the energy to sift through its levels of irony and unreliable narration. I found most of my reactions to the books I was reading could be expressed with a shrug. What did I think of John Banville’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea? I thought it was predictable. What about Witold Gombrowicz’s long-suppressed modernist fable Ferdydurke? I didn’t get it. If you want greater detail, you are welcome to ask me sometime, over a dram of single malt. The point is that I sort of lost interest.

Since then I have read 38 books: 23 fiction and 15 nonfiction. I have also read approximately 85 scholarly journal articles, which average 25 pages each, which is an additional 2500-odd pages of dense nonfiction that should be taken into consideration. For my dissertation I have read large pieces, running into many hundreds of pages, of a further 19 books, but since I did not read them cover-to-cover, I leave them off my official tally. At the time of this writing, I am 900 pages into Ulysses, about 500 into Infinite Jest, and am reading a handful of other books besides. So there’s been a lot of reading going on à chez moi. I estimate I’ve processed well over 12,000 pages since the last review. Since the previous year’s reviewing covered 74 books, to catch you guys up would entail about half a year’s work, and let’s face it, that time would be better spent reading.

But! I have nevertheless revived the moribund corpse of the Avanti Book Review. I do this mainly for the pleasure of reading, and I do it not with the purpose of reviewing every book I read, but instead the ones I want to review. Mainly these will be positive reviews, of books I am enthusiastic about but which I think for some reason you are unlikely to read. Perhaps they are too long. Perhaps the genre is too obscure. Perhaps they are unfairly neglected or utterly unknown. Therefore these reviews should probably be taken less in the sense of a reasoned critical opinion, but instead in the sense of a friend urging you to check out this good book.

Those aficionados of my invective-studded evisceration of some books should not lose heart. I will continue to angrily review books which either a) I expect to like and then don’t, or b) are so pungent with scrofulous moral decrepitude that I feel it an intellectual duty to demolish them. Instead of two or three reviews a week, there will probably be more like three or four a month. I shall write not as a theorist but as a connoisseur. I hope that these new reviews may cause in some reader a few moments of happy contemplation.