Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Burning World

The Burning World, by J.G. Ballard
1964, 160 pp.

No sooner did I at last, on Martin Amis' recommendation, pick up an early work by J.G. Ballard than did that long-loved, long-notorious author die suddenly at home in Britain. He was plainly a visionary, and the sort of author whose existence seemed to have been predicated on disturbing the comfortable, and on those grounds at the very least, he will be missed. Ballard got his start writing unique and disturbing “hard science-fiction” (which is the sort that is not about romance or dressed-up cowboys in space, but instead looking seriously at the effects of technology on human beings and institutions) before escaping that ghetto in the early 1970’s and setting up for himself a strange and inhospitable literary territory all of his own. His early books revolve around impersonal apocalyptic disasters (his first four novels were The Wind From Nowhere, The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World) and culminated with the classic short story collection Vermilion Sands, widely considered the apex of the genre. On the way he wrote a lot of short stories and a strange avant-garde book called The Atrocity Exhibition which featured memorable titles like “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” There were appendices called things like “Princess Margaret's Facelift” and “Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty.” Nobody much knew what to make of it, but it reminded a lot of people of William S. Burroughs.

Then came Crash in 1973, the source material for Cronenberg’s 1997 film, which should not be confused with the absolutely dreadful 2004 bit of Oscarbait. Crash centers on a group of people who find sexual arousal in car crashes, written in the cold, clinical language of a medical journal. One editor called it unpublishable and suggested Ballard was mentally ill. Jean Baudrillard called it “the first great novel of the universe of simulation.” Martin Amis did the best he could in a sarcastic review he later regretted. There was a lot of Moral Outrage, as he puts it, then the book immediately registered itself as a cult classic. Ballard himself said that his purpose in writing the book was that “I wanted to rub humanity's face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” Crash kicked off what Amis calls a “concrete and steel period” full of urban dystopia: Concrete Island and High Rise followed. The latter features the memorable opening sentence: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…” Ballard seemed to spend a lot of time writing about violent sex, sexual violence, and postmodernism, to the extent that those three things can be distinguished. In an interview with the Paris Review, he said, "The bourgeois novel is the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader, and at every point, offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters." There is very little comfort and secure moral framework in Ballard's concrete and steel phase. After that came the utterly inappropriate Empire of the Sun, an autobiography about Ballard’s wartime experiences as a child in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. It was later made into a mediocre film by Spielberg, starring a young Christian Bale.

The premise of The Burning World is frankly terrifying. It revolves around the idea that the tremendous volume of chemicals, industrial waste, and plastic which has been dumped into the ocean could create a film of saturated long-chain polymers like a sort of skin on the ocean. In the book this skin prevents moisture from evaporating off the world’s oceans. No evaporation means no clouds which means no rain. Food production collapses, the world turns to dust, social order breaks down, and the human population flees to the coast in an effort to find water. This book was written in 1964. Since then a mass of plastic and garbage has formed in the middle of the Pacific, and as the plastic has broken down it has filled the water with synthetic polymers which is being ingested by marine animals and is now working its way up the food chain. This is why hard science-fiction should not be a literary epithet but instead is quite worthy of serious consideration: its authors tend to extrapolate the stupidities our species will wreak on itself in the future.

The first part of the book, which occupies about 100 pages of the total 160, sets up the main character (a doctor named Ransom) and a small cast of supporting characters as they find each other and leave a town which is rapidly descending into anarchy. This is almost by-the-numbers stuff, but Ballard presents it in a curiously detached, staccato manner, with weird stretches of unmotivated action and curious lapses of time. Ransom is not the center of this action, and he seems to be adrift, as though Ballard hadn't yet worked out what to do with him. The supporting cast is a suitable group of eccentrics, and there are obligatory obstacles preventing them from leaving, but leave they do, along the river heading south to the beach. Once there, the real horror kicks in, and the novel starts to find its footing.

After some stage-setting at the end of Part I, as the thousands of refugees on the coast realize there is no plan and no future and bloodily storm the military-held water-processing facilities, the book abruptly skips to Part II, which sucker-punches the reader with the phrase "ten years later." Here Ballard really begins to shine. In the intervening decade since Part I, most of the refugees have died off, and those who have survived have eked out an existence by capturing seawater to be refined in old, increasingly ramshackle machines. These machines emit vast quantities of salt, so the landscape has become submerged under miles and miles of salt flats and dunes, beyond which the sea continues to retreat. The section opens with a virtuoso passage in which a company of ragged hunters use a cunning system of canals and lagoons to "capture" and "trap" a body of sea water, then herd it slowly and carefully back through the salt flats to their camp. This is brilliant, unique stuff, but all over much too quickly. We get a capsule view of the desperate lifestyle of the survivors, then Ransom and the remaining characters from the first journey set off on a quest back to town, where they think some water remains. The denouement is suitably grotesque, and a few earlier-established characters return in satisfyingly demented incarnations.

The trouble is that the book reads too much like a stimulating sketch for a more involved book. Ransom is too rarely given anything to do, and we see too little of the post-apocalyptic society. The novel's last sentence is enigmatic, suggesting either an arbitrary deux ex machina, a delusion, or perhaps death. All throughout, Ballard's prose is serviceable, if not inspired. He uses a lot of precise measurements: everything is "two hundred yards away" or "ten feet high" or happening "five minutes later." I find this tendency annoying and distracting, since more vague but less obtrusive descriptors work just as well, but it's a valid choice. He uses a few recurring visual motifs well, like the flashing of dried fish in the sun, and in the central stretch is brilliantly adept at envisioning the details of such a bleak existence and the pervasiveness of salt and dust. It's an excellent little novel, I just rather wish it went on longer.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Sentimental Education

The Sentimental Education, by Gustave Flaubert
1869, 420 pp.

Flaubert's reputation is impossible to overstate. He is generally credited as the first of the Modernists, greatest of the Realists, the originator of prose constructed with the lapidary precision of poetry, the inventor of the modern novel, and perhaps the greatest pure literary stylist in history. Shelves groan under the weight of scholarly monographs about him, and it is quite difficult to find anything new and profitable to say. If anything, knowing his reputation in the literary world is a disadvantage: for me at least, it raised expectations higher than this translation could bear.

The Sentimental Education is the story of Frédéric Moreau, an up-and-coming young man recently arrived in Paris, and the trials and tribulations of his life and loves as he muddles through the end of the July Monarchy and the Revolution of 1848. I decided to read it because of the revolutionary connotation, and because Woody Allen lists it as one of the things that makes life worth living in Manhattan. I must admit that upon finishing it, I have to conclude that either he overstates or sets the bar lower than I do.

With Flaubert, the problem of translation may be insurmountable. The intricately constructed internal rhymes and alliteration and aural patterns of the original French are lost, and Flaubert's monomaniacal fixation on le mot juste is lost along with it. I imagine the experience of actually reading Flaubert is quite different from slicing through this old Signet paperback. Some quite good prose survives the translation, but it really does not seem worth criticizing the prose to any meaningful extent. Instead the reviewer is limited to structural criticism.

The Sentimental Education is a deliberately anecdotal work. Most of the events in the narrative were lifted from Flaubert's own life, and most of the characters are based loosely on people he knew. It lacks much of a plot and forward momentum save for the common thread of Frédéric's endless pursuit of Madame Arnoux, the wife of a crooked businessman. The first half is a series of parties, dinners, meetings, and brief conversations, mainly centering around the ambitions and subsequent failures of the characters. Frédéric is desperate for Madame Arnoux, but only succeeds in being swindled by her husband (with whom he makes friends, as a way to get near Madame) over and over. Frédéric's best friend Deslauriers wants to be a powerful lawyer, but lacks money has politically unpopular views. Pellerin wants to be a brilliant, innovative painter, but has no talent. Hussonet is a radical journalist, but ends up a censor under Louis-Napoleon. Dussardier and Sénécal are radical republicans; by the end, one switches sides and ends up killing the other. And so forth. The recurrent punchline is the ridiculous lengths Frédéric goes to in order to remain close to Madame Arnoux, and how his life gets wrapped up in the sordid affairs of her husband.

Frédéric is not a sympathetic character or a hero in any sense. His disinterest in politics and the lives of other people is a sort of running joke, and by the end of the novel he is figure so despicable as to seem almost a Dickensian caricature. Much of this seems to be in the service of subverting genre conventions. The Sentimental Education, complete with ironic title, is an anti-Bildungsroman, and is therefore under some obligation to produce the usual events of a coming-of-age story, but seen through Flaubert’s glass darkly. Thus we have Frédéric in a duel to defend the honor of woman he isn't with which ends not in heroic death, but a slightly cut thumb. Instead of amassing wealth, Frédéric constantly misses important business meetings to be with ladies who take advantage of him. When the Revolution finally turns up, it is almost a sideshow for Frédéric, who is much more upset about not having sex with Madame Arnoux. Instead of holding a pure, Werther-like passion, he does not even stay faithful, but instead sleeps with Rosanette, Arnoux’s mistress, in revenge. And why does he have this life-destroying, life-long passion for Madame Arnoux? He saw her on a boat at the beginning of the book and she looked good. It’s purely arbitrary, as indeed is all literary romance.

While The Sentimental Education lacks unity of a strong plot, it does have an unrelenting unity of theme and motivation. But it never rises to the level of tragedy, since Frédéric begins the book as such a dullard and a narcissist, so we never get a sense of innocence lost or principles being corrupted. There's also no foil character or counterpoint to emphasize Frédéric 's corruption. Instead, major characters are Frédéric, Rosanette, Arnoux, and Madame Arnoux, all of them venal and manipulative to varying degrees of success, and all of them playing musical beds with one another. We know of the weaknesses of the first three, though not so much the fourth since she is left as the mysterious ideal until at the end we see all at once that she is aged and degraded. The unifying factor is Flaubert's bitterness and disgust for bourgeois society and the people he has known to inhabit it.

It is possible to unpack these thematic elements a bit further. By the ending chapters, Frédéric has three women, forming a sort of Freudian trinity. Whenever we see Madame Arnoux, she is with her children, and Flaubert does not stint in laying on her motherly characteristics. Frédéric’s own mother is a little-seen, much put-upon presence, rather like Madame Arnoux herself. Through mainly his own indifference, Frédéric is engaged to his young neighbor, Louise, who we first see as a child, and who looks up to Frédéric as an older brother. Frédéric has an affair with Madame Dambreuse, who is the wife of an ill-fated wealthy businessman. She is a wife and nothing else, her character (and even her name) is limited to that function. Frédéric is driven for possession of the first, ignores the second, and gives up the third, who is the only one he could have reasonably been happy with. There is also the presence of Rosanette, the mistress of Arnoux and later Frédéric, serving the venerable and thankless role of the whore in the trusty virgin v. whore, adoration v. desire dichotomy. This adulterous link sets up a Frédéric v. Arnoux dichotomy as well: Arnoux is what Frédéric wants to be, but also totally bankrupt both morally and financially, which incidentally is how Frédéric ends up. Arnoux’s advantage seems to be that he sees his wife sexually, and is kind to his mistress, while Frédéric is never anything but self-serving and callous. Madame Arnoux seems at times complicit in this tangled arrangement, or is at least being used by Arnoux to get more money out of Frédéric, in a sort of emotional prostitution.

All of this is established through the long series of anecdotes, most of which follow a similar structure in which quite a lot of scene-setting and exposition is followed by oddly terse and brief dialogue or action. The heavy layering of establishing detail at the beginning of each new scene does wear on a bit, but its intricate construction is fascinating. Flaubert writes in a sort of prose equivalent of the deep-focus lens. For the non-cenephile, a deep-focus lens captures the foreground and background in equal focus, whereas the human eye naturally can focus only on one or the other. Most viewers don't notice this, but it's a way to show the world in more detail than humans normally perceive it. It is a subtle grammar of hyperrealism, and it suggests that the background of a shot provides context which is equally as important as the subject in the foreground. Citizen Kane is of course the masterpiece of the technique, and I have to wonder if the person who invented the deep-focus lens had ever read Flaubert. His eye is all-seeing: it picks up the fluttering of laundry in the windows, the sound of a trolley-car, children playing in the streets, the noise of people upstairs, and so forth. He is able to compress things which must be happening over variable lengths of time into one instant of hyper-aware detail. It's quite interesting the tiny pieces of the world he chooses to set a scene with, and he is undeniably brilliant at remaning almost invisible in the background of the prose while controlling so tightly what the reader notices and imagines. I can well believe that the effect in the original French is astonishing.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The First Writings of Karl Marx

The First Writings of Karl Marx, edited by Paul M. Schafer
2006, 217 pp.

This sleek, slender volume collects together Marx’s doctoral dissertation from 1841, “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature,” its extant appendices and fragments, as well as the surviving extracts from Marx’s notebooks on Epicurus, a few incidental letters related to Marx getting his degree, and several long letters between Marx and his father Heinrich. The whole affair is capped by an earnest 70-page introduction by the editor which thoroughly explains and summarizes everything that is to follow, but which also provides some useful context and background information. Professor Schafer spends a lot of time assuring us that despite the boring and pedantic title and obscure subject matter, Marx’s dissertation really is quite interesting. He is half correct.

Democritus was a pre-Socratic philosopher and polymath known for his travels, erudition, experience, and expertise on all subjects. He was (possibly) the first to conceive of the idea of the atom: a physically indivisible piece of matter (or rather, an infinite number of them) constantly in motion in the void. How he came up with this, I would love to know, but it seems to be lost to history. Epicurus came along much later with quite a similar theory, though with one critical distinction: for Democritus, the atomic hypothesis was one of mechanical determinism. He viewed atoms as obeying predictable laws in predictable ways, and reasoned that their interaction determines the physical world. Epicurus, though, postulated that the atom has a “swerve” away from a straight line, which introduced an element of randomness, opening up the possibility for freedom and non-determinist relations in the natural world. This conflict is the subject of Marx’s thesis.

Marx takes the side of Epicurus, but for annoying reasons. He first points out that Epicurus was happy and preached happiness and contentment, while Democritus was never satisfied, despite his wide travels and fame, and follows the line of reasoning that a philosophy can be judged by the sort of happiness it brings its adherents, rather than its objective validity. There are lengthy passages in which he applies Hegelian machinery to Epicurus’ thought, and at times it is desperate stuff. He dodges the prime mover problem without a shred of elegance: “the atom is the cause of everything, hence without cause itself.” Plainly this does not follow. He begins to praise Epicurus for what sounds like a defect: “He therefore determines all properties in such a way that they contradict themselves” which is apparently what the properties of the atom demand, because for Epicurus, atoms are the completion of the natural science of self-consciousness. He scoffs at Democritus, for whom atoms “are only an objective expression of the empirical investigation of nature as a whole.” Pages and pages are spent discussing the (flimsy) justification for Epicurus’ “swerve.”

Once he explains the opposing theories and why Epicurus’ inconsistencies are in fact virtues, Marx looks for a larger example to solidify the point and hits on meteors. The apparently rather hard-headed Democritus seems to have concluded that meteors (and other celestial bodies) are just made of atoms like everything else and that no further conclusions can be drawn. Epicurus, though, (or at least Marx’s Hegelian reading of him) concludes that meteors are atoms given mass, which allows them to achieve “independence” and “reflect on themselves, confronting themselves in their own shape.” In meteors, apparently matter has a relation to itself, through which it realizes itself and develops. Or something. Worse yet, Epicurus concludes that “since eternity of the heavenly bodies would disturb the ataraxy of self-consciousness, it is a necessary, a stringent consequence that they are not eternal.” So the idea of eternal meteors would make Epicurus sad, therefore, they must not be eternal. Brilliant! Why did the man who only five years later would savage Bruno Bauer on the fine points of Hegel find this argument persuasive?

All of this is not to say that the book is uninteresting. The introduction to the dissertation and the surviving notes which led to the lost fourth chapter are fascinating, since in them Marx lays out for the first time his view of philosophy as a critical tool to compare material reality with the Ideal and therefore to instigate radical change. His allegiance to Epicurus seems to be caused entirely by his desire to prove that material reality is not determinist, but that there is room for the will and for improvement, and that this recognition can lead to satisfaction. At the same time, he expresses his recognition that philosophy is fundamentally inadequate, and also that the world to be philosophized is likewise inadequate. The bearded prophet of the British Museum Reading Room is quite present in these pages, just still in the dewy grip of his youthful romanticism before his years in exile, in poverty, in struggle, in hunger, and the deaths of his children made him a trifle more militant.

It is difficult to fault Marx very much for the peculiarities of his argument. If any one theme shows through in this book, it is just how astounding the advance of science has been over the past 150 years. John Dalton had developed a primitive theory of the atom in 1808, but it is unlikely that Marx, a law and philosophy student, would have read it. No meaningful analysis of atomic particles took place until Niels Bohr in 1913, eight years after Einstein had worked out the special and general theories of relativity and had developed a mathematical analysis of the motion of atoms. Of course Marx had peculiar ideas about meteors and astrophysics: in 1840, such things were still in the realm of "natural philosophy." That realm has essentially ceased to exist, as vast swathes of its territory have been conquered and pacified by the relentless march of science. And of course, despite the flaws in his and Epicurus’ reasoning, they turned out to be mainly correct: atoms do move, do include an element of randomness, and celestial bodies are not infinite and eternal. Democritus, however, was the more scientific of the two, with his emphasis on skepticism and careful empirical investigation. He had the form right but not the content, while Marx and Epicurus had it the other way around.

The dedicated reader who manages to hack his way through the frantic metaphors in Marx’s long letter to his father will be rewarded with an early demonstration of Marx’s erudition. At 22, having already consumed the whole of Hegel’s thought, he was translating Roman law into German, comparing esoteric principles found in the private letters of Greek philosophers, and considering the legal systems of seventeenth-century jurists. His thesis, though, seems well within the capacity of the readers of this blog, save (of course) for the language issue. It must be acknowledged that the reader comes away frustrated, with the sense that Marx has not solved the really interesting problems of the first mover, of determinism, or of free will, though perhaps knowing what we do of his later writings, it is too easy to expect too much from Herr Marx on his first try.

MITI and the Japanese Miracle

MITI and the Japanese Miracle: the Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975, by Chalmers Johnson
1982, 393 pp.

With this book, Chalmers Johnson invented the discipline of the political economy of development. If the field can be thought of as a genre, he invented its conventions: the close attention to specific individuals in specific positions with specific policies, the examination of those policies over time, then the tentative process of drawing conclusions of what sort of "model" these policies may suggest. This is a sort of blurring between economic history and economic theory, with quite a bit of organization, bureaucratic, and industrial policy analysis thrown in. Robert Wade's Governing the Market is probably still the outstanding book in the field, but Alice Amsden, Peter B. Evans, and Meredith Woo-Cumings have also produced substantial work. As a discipline, its purview is the specific, detailed role of the state in fostering economic development using historical case studies, often chosen from the newly industrialized states of East Asia.

Johnson's book was one of the first powerful polemics against the neoliberal "consensus" which emerged in the dark early years of the Reaganite hegemony. The (rather daft) assertion then was that East Asia in general and Japan in particular had industrialized rapidly due to their adherence to free market principles, their weak, hands-off governments, and their ability to "get the prices right." This of course was nonsense, and if its proponents were not so nakedly dishonest, the merest glance at the evidence would have immediately exposed them as imbeciles. Johnson's purpose in MITI and the Japanese Miracle is to prove that Japan was a "developmental state," in which the first priority of government was to foster economic development, and in which all the tools of state were directed towards that purpose. His choice of years is revealing: there is none of the common pre/post-war dichotomy here. He is very clear (and very persuasive) in driving home the continuity in personnel and societal goals between the pre-war and post-war periods. In a fit of admirable understatement, he refers to the Pacific War as an unsuccessful policy of using military force to foster Japan’s economic development, which might be a bit of a historical stretch, but from the narrow perspective of the economic bureaucracy is just about right. Amongst his interminable lists of people who staffed various offices and held various positions, a few names consistently reappear: Nobusuke Kishi, who served as Minister of Commerce and Industry during the entire war, then as Prime Minister in the late 1950’s and who was officially an unindicted class-A war criminal; Shigeru Yoshida, who finished the war in that ministry, then became Prime Minister, and Eisaku Sato, who was railway minister between 1924 and 1948, then was Prime Minister in the 1960’s. Most of the bureaucratic machinery that became MITI began as the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, then became the Ministry of Munitions during the war, without any substantial change in personnel or institutional practices. Johnson is quite clear that the same technocratic elite, all educated in law or economics at Tokyo Imperial University, have been running Japan almost without oversight or accountability, for fifty years.

Due to the extreme centralization of government during the late imperial period, the chapter covering the Ministry of Munitions during the war approaches an outright economic history, which makes it by far the most interesting substantive chapter. The vast expansion of military spending led to an insurmountable balance of payments deficit, which required restrictions on all other imports and a program of crash domestic industrialization, but with the expanding conquests on the Asian mainland being incorporated into the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” Japanese industry had no markets to sell to, and those markets they had captured no longer had foreign exchange to use. The outbreak of war in Europe virtually ended international trade, and in October of 1939, the Japanese government instituted fixed prices on consumer goods, rents, inputs, land, food, and labor, creating a totally false economy. This chapter goes quite quickly and is fascinating, and leaves the reader with the impression that the United States could have simply sat back for the entire war and watched Japan collapse under their poor understanding of the balance of payments.

A few key policies emerge as the core of Johnson’s view of the “developmental state,” and he kindly summarizes them in the conclusion for readers unwilling to slog through the unremitting details of the middle chapters. Johnson draws a distinction between countries in which capitalism developed first, and necessitated state action to organize, promote, and regulate it (in essentially the classic Polyani formulation) and countries which came late to development with an already-established state machinery that could be used to foster development. That process demands a sort of economic nationalism and singleness of purpose: a set of societal goals to be pursued at the expense of all others and of international arrangements. It also places the state in opposition to private economic interests, which tend to be conservative and want to protect their often inefficient or counter-productive predominance.

In order to bring about their development goals, the economic bureaucracy must have control of finance. In Japan, this took the form of savings incentives, creating a large pool of liquidity which was channeled directly into the Ministry of Finance. In both Japan and Taiwan, the state controlled the "commanding heights" of the financial sector, allowing if not active direction of financial funds, the ability to arrange preferential financial terms for businesses cooperating in their development plans. The bureaucracy also needs room to maneuver, and here both Wade and Johnson come across as far more authoritarian than their economic proclivities would suggest. Johnson ascribes much of Japan’s success to the arrangement by which the politicians serve only to rubber-stamp the plans of the bureaucracy and as a sort of buffer to distract, pacify, and nullify the demands of special interest groups. Meanwhile the bureaucrats, who are not subject to term limits or elections, go about their enlightened business of making, implementing, reviewing, and administering actual policies. When Johnson is arguing that the “special interests” to be resisted were powerful cartels, this sounds persuasive and desirable, but when the “special interests” are the poor, the sick, the homeless, the displaced, the unemployed, and the elderly, the idea of perpetual anti-democratic rule by “enlightened” bureaucrats sounds less persuasive. After the war, MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) even used their financial control to force firms to merge and cooperate, essentially forming strategic monopolies and cartels, which Johnson argues was vital to fostering Japan’s export boom. But it was purchased at the expense of the general public, who did indeed eventually gain some benefits from the overall increase in growth, but only as a residual of the vast wealth created by harnessing their labor-power to state-sponsored monopoly capital.

In the conclusion, Johnson sets out three alternative solutions to the central problem of the role of the state in development which can be derived from his study of the Japanese model. First, there is the policy of “self-control”: the state issues licenses to strategic cartels to achieve certain goals and leaves the methods for achieving them up to the cartels themselves. Plainly this is the favorite of private industry, and it is telling that this least intrusive option is still a stronger role for the state than anything seen in the United States or the United Kingdom. Second is the “state-control” option, in which management is separated from ownership and put under direct state supervision. This characterized the most extreme period of Japanese militarism and led to gross inefficiency and mismanagement. Though he deftly avoids any Hegelian philosophizing, the third option is a synthesis of the other two, realized by the material development of their internal contradictions: the “public-private cooperation” system. Under this model, ownership and management are still privately held, and the state still handles social goal-setting. The two meet through informal institutions and networks of common personnel, and the state uses “soft power” to influence private decisions. This power includes, but is not limited to selective access to government finance, targeted tax breaks, government-supported investment coordination, the use of government corporations in high-risk areas, government research and development support, equitable allocation of burden during recessions, and government marketing assistance. Naturally much of this necessitates a separate investment budget with discretionary and unsupervised bureaucratic authority. Of course this also requires a great deal of cross-penetration of elites, to the point where the economic bureaucracy elite and the private industry elite begin to look indistinguishable from one another. It is also necessary to judge economic performance not based on short-term profit (Johnson presciently notes that this habit in the United States is a recipe for disaster and probably retards our growth) but instead on maintaining full employment, increasing productivity, increasing market share, decreasing costs, and managing long-term innovation. There are numerous formal and continuous forums for the negotiation and discussion of these arrangements, and since both sets of elites went to the same university and since retired bureaucrats pass immediately into leading roles in industry, the cross-penetration is virtually complete

Johnson’s book is certainly the definitive work on the subject, but what it is not is readable. The long lists of Japanese names and Orwellian bureaucratic titles swiftly become taxing, and there is little if any sense of narrative momentum. An inset of photos would have helped the reader keep all these people straight, and some clear sense of their relative importance would allow the non-specialist to safely discount the numerous bureaucrats who appear once then vanish into the mists of Johnson’s footnotes. The central four or five chapters are long, unrelieved by charts, graphs, or diagrams, and downright boring, even by the standards of this reviewer, who voluntarily watches Tarkovsky films. Since Johnson restricts his focus just to MITI, this book is not the story of Japan’s economic miracle, nor an economic history of Japan, nor an explanation of post-war reconstruction. Instead, it is a painstaking history of a bureaucracy. Certainly the central chapters of this book are an invaluable tool for research, but they ought to either be studied closely and carefully or not at all.

The first and the last chapters, though, are required reading, and serve as a fascinating counterpoint to Robert Wade’s analysis of Taiwan’s development. However, what is curiously missing from this book is a dimension of class consciousness. This is particularly surprising considering that Chalmers Johnson went on to be a vocal and bitter critic of the Bush cartel, and authored an astringent trilogy of polemics in the Chomsky genre. Yet here he writes of the efficacy of pacifying popular unrest with meaningless concessions, of the role of elected officials being limited to that of a “safety valve” and “rubber stamp,” and that the state-organized consolidation of capital into monopolies and cartels is a critical component to development. Johnson’s book is a factually rich source, and a work of splendid scholarship. Now all it needs is a Marxist to base a book on it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

All the Names

All the Name, by José Saramago
1997, 238 pp.

I have, regrettably, little to add to our comrade's March 22 review of this book. I will not try to compete with the spectres of Weber and C. Wright Mills he animates, nor do I have substantive points to dispute, but being in the position of having read several of Saramago's works by now, I hope I can contribute a bit by way of comparison and position.

All the Names is a smaller, more enclosed work than the other Saramago novels I've read. It is most obviously similar to The History of the Siege of Lisbon: both center on a quiet, unregarded, lonely, middle-aged man who works around the periphery of written words. In both books, this quiet little man commits an act of disobedience which opens up his previously cloistered world and allows him to discover his humanity. But while The History of the Siege of Lisbon has at its heart a beautiful romance, All the Names is concerned entirely with the process of recovering one's humanity from the alienation of labor and institutions. Robert Irwin over at the Times is quite incorrect when he suggests that it is "less human" than The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis: that book is much more interested in metaphysics and memory and parallels an individual becoming dislocated from the world and his own memories with an entire country doing the same thing, with destructive results for both. (Incidentally, Irwin also whines about Saramago's anti-punctuation "I have never understood why he wants his readers to have to work so hard," which suggests that perhaps the professional book reviewers for the New York Times need literary training wheels.)

The story concerns Senhor José, a minor clerk at the Central Registry, a vast warren which houses the birth, marriage, divorce, and death records of apparently everyone who has ever lived. The Kafka-esque parallel is almost too obvious to bear mentioning, but the real pedigree of this dusty image seems to me to owe much more to the beautiful, detailed stasis of Mervyn Laurence Peake. Much of the story follows Senhor José as he attempts to find one specific woman (referred to only as "the unknown woman,") and rebuild the human aspects of her life.

The prose is as riddled with authorial meditations as ever, sometimes in the form of dialogue between Senhor José and his apparently omniscient ceiling. There are very effective overtones of paranoia, and some actually quite persuasive passages of suspense. As ever, Saramago has an intense eye for the pain and depths of feeling in his minor characters, and seems to believe powerfully in the transformative capability of minor, everyday, secular miracles. But he is at his absolute best when writing about interpersonal romance: nobody writes about being in love like Saramago does. With that element missing, and only the intellectual ruminations on institutions, alienation, humanity, and memory left, All the Names is an example of what Saramago can do with his best hand tied behind his back. He still produced a splendid book, despite it missing most of the pieces by which we normally recognize a book. There is only one name, and that an intentionally nondescript one, no physical descriptions, few descriptions of places, little exposition, no romance, and the climax is (and is much more than) the adoption of a new filing system in a bureaucracy. Yet for all that it is a brilliant book about what it means to be human, full of thoughts and ideas and feelings. It leaves the reviewer with the conclusion that, like punctuation, Saramago is too good for the technical necessities of mere mortal novelists.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics

Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, by Immanuel Kant
1783, 301 pp.

This slender, concise work, which followed Kant's Critique of Pure Reason by two years, serves admirably its purpose as an efficient introduction to Kant's philosophy. It is structured with rigorous, meticulous logic: first an introduction to the problems of metaphysics, a very brief summary of the key points of the Critique, then an exploration of a priori (or "synthetic") reasoning in its various and increasingly complex forms. His purpose is nothing less than to construct a method by which metaphysics can be considered and practiced as a rigorous science, and slightly to persuade the reader to go and buy his previous book. He was apparently provoked to write the Prolegomena by a poorly-reasoned review of the Critiquein the Göttinger Gelehrten Anzeigen: he spends a bit of time in the Appendix ridiculing the totally forgotten fellows who misunderstood him.

As ever, Kant's diction is wildly difficult to follow. You need a machete and a team of sherpas to hack your way through sentences like this one: "Let the concept be that of cause, then it determines the intuition which is subsumed under it, e.g., that of air, relative to judgments in general, viz., the concept of air serves with regard to its expansion in the relation of antecedent to consequent in a hypothetical judgment." But at least here he is writing to be understood by the non-specialist and though at times he lapses into obscurity, his effort to be clear shows and is greatly understood.

Luckily the introduction is relatively painless and even rather amusing, and Kant's train of thought is actually quite easy to follow. He is extremely adept at explaining a position, but with one obvious problem, then considering that problem and explaining the position it leads to, save for one obvious difficulty, and so forth. Once he has set up his distinction between analytical reasoning (in which the proposition is contained in the concept itself, like "all bachelors are unmarried") and synthetic reasoning (in which the proposition is not contained in the concept, like "My whiskey is on the floor") his progression through increasing complexity is actually fairly logical. First he manages to prove (convincingly) that mathematical reasoning is synthetic, which proves that synthetic reasoning is possible, leaving only the question of how to apply it to other fields. So far so good. Then he just barely proves that scientific reasoning can be synthetic, but here he begins to stretch. The trick is in the connection of empirical experience to a priori reasoning: "Before a judgment of perception," he writes, "can become a judgment of experience, it is requisite that the perception should be subsumed under some such a concept of the understanding." In other words, the only way we can make sense of our perceptions is by categorizing and analyzing them using general concepts like quantity, orientation, location, and so forth. Those concepts of the understanding are synthetic and universally valid, since they are the tools we apply to any experience in order to understand it. Therefore the properties of a specific thing are subsumed under the concept, and you've moved from analytic to synthetic knowledge. Kant kindly provides a table of all possible concepts of experience, which in a fit of modesty he says "shows an inherent perfection, which raises it far above every other table which has hitherto though in vain been tried or may yet be tried." His ego is a consistent source of comedy: he begins the book by stating that nobody has ever done metaphysics before, that he has invented it wholesale in the single greatest work of philosophical genius in human history, but nobody cared because the Critique was long and boring. In the appendix he compares himself favorably to Euclid, and states that any future metaphysics will simply be minor digressions down a trail he has blazed. He seems like a fun guy to have at a party.

At any rate, the point is that experience is not just an aggregate of disconnected sensory perceptions, but in fact requires synthetic unity of understanding. But here he begins to go too far out on his synthetic limb: he argues outright that it follows from this proposition that we do not derive universal laws from experience, but our experience determines the universal laws. Certainly it must be granted that our experience determines our understanding of those laws, but it cannot possibly be asserted that "quantity" (for instance) would vanish in the absence of people to experience it.

Since these concepts are universal and therefore common to all experience, it follows that reason is capable of a complete understanding of all things, which is in Kant's argument the purpose of metaphysics. This complete understanding transcends the actual experience of any given individual thing, therefore Kant's metaphysics are transcendental.

The trouble with Kant is that he really seems to have advanced philosophy as far as any human possibly could go without the help of science. Within the closed system Kant constructs, God is indeed the logical conclusion: God is for Kant an issue of practical necessity. "We must therefore accept," he writes, "an immaterial being, a world of understanding, and a Supreme Being..because in them only, as things in themselves, reason finds [its] completion and satisfaction." Though the reader may despair at this cop-out after so much rigor, he at least seems to have a robust attitude towards attempting to understand the properties and relations of his Supreme Being. But he's arrived at this Supreme Being by following ontological predicates: unfortunately, I may have all the ontological predicates I want concerning the existence of a bottle of whiskey in the bottom drawer of my desk at work, but none of them will make it actually exist, and despite all of my clever reasoning, I will only be able to ascertain its (non)existence using verifiable science. Science was not in 1783 what it is today, though, so it is difficult to fault Kant too much. One wonders what he would have done with the extensions of science and the philosophy of science which have been developed in the interim.

The volume of the Prolegomena I read (the Carus translation from 1905) kindly included a discussion of Kant's life and work, a series of essays on Kant from a variety of philosophical standpoints, a sample of Kant's handwriting, and a translation of the original review which made him so angry. All of this was quite interesting, although the Prolegomena stand well on their own. The actual Prolegomena run only 160-odd pages, so these supplementary materials here make up about half the book and while they are probably quite useful to a new student of philosophy, to the initiated they mainly serve to assure you that other people find Kant difficult to understand as well. Essential for understanding Kant, and an excellent introduction to his philosophy, this work is highly recommended.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Satanic Verses

The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

1988, 561 pp.

It is difficult for the thoughtful and informed reviewer to find much that is new and useful to say about a book this notorious. Like Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover and even Catcher in the Rye, this novel has become such a cause célèbre and such an object of vitriol for so many for so long that to a certain extent it is necessary and expected in literary discussions to have an a priori opinion on it. This is of course unfair to the work and to the author, and even to the reader, who is likely to be either confused or disappointed by the book not turning out to be what it was described as by people who hadn't read it either. I will attempt in this review to keep my goals constrained: this is a review, not a work of literary criticism, and therefore the purpose is to explain what the book is like to read and how well it succeeds at what it sets out to do.

The answer to the first question is simple: it reads like a Salman Rushdie book. There are the usual rococo flourishes, the aural playfulness, the blending of Indian diction, the strange names and repetitions of increasing complexity. As ever, Rushdie is intensely conscious of internal rhyme, startling dichotomies, and the polyglot aural potential of words. There are common Rushdie motifs: movies, storytellers, hidden identities, confusion of imagination and reality. The prose here is decidedly more mature than in Midnight's Children and more taut than in The Enchantress of Florence, but it is definitely Rushdie prose all the same. Like those other two books, it is exhilarating and fascinating for about three hundred and fifty pages, then overstays its welcome for the following two hundred. This is particularly problematic in this book, which lacks the forward momentum of the other two. Midnight's Children was built around the history of modern India and a coming-of-age story framed by the first person narrator's contemporary reflections, so we knew where we were headed. The Enchantress of Florence involved a mystery and a puzzle, so we knew that by the end it would be solved. The Satanic Verses involves two quite-opposite Indian actors who miraculously survive a plane exploding over the English Channel. One, the Bollywood superstar Gibreel Farishta, takes on the aspects of the angel Gabriel and begins to hallucinate (or dream or experience) his other appearances in history; the other, a stodgy, conservative radio actor named Saladin Chamcha, finds himself transforming into a corporeal manifestation of a devil. There are fascinating digressions and the dream sequences are at once profound and irreverent, and the exploration of the themes of alienation and emigration are splendidly executed, but it is never clear where, if anywhere, the plot is going. This lack of forward momentum leaves Rushdie's recondite prose rather spinning its wheels and leads the reader to run out of patience much too early.

But the point of the book is not the plot, it is the themes, and at this Rushdie scores a brilliant success. Farishta and Chamcha are both fleeing an India which is changing and which they no longer recognise, and neither have homes they can go back to. Both have been in love with English women, and both straddle an uncomfortable divide between Indian and English cultures. They experience in a magical and miraculous rendition of common immigrant experiences, and the magical hyperbole allows Rushdie to personify and magnify the problems and discomforts of that transition. Rushdie apparently feared, though, that the reader may not grasp all this talk about alienation and cultural disconnect, so in a fit of post-modernism the figure of God (who appears briefly around the mid-point) turns out to be the same voice as the narrator, who addresses the reader personally, discusses how the characters represent different ideas, and seems to respond to implied questions from the reader. Gibreel Farishta, it seems, is true to himself and his origins, so he is genuine and therefore good, while Saladin Chamcha does not and (though Rushdie/God never actually uses the word "assimilate") attempts to destroy his identity beneath the trappings of another one. These two possibilities represent the dichotomy of the immigrant experience, and their conflict is the fundamental source of the alienation which results from implantation in a new culture. I picked this up from the action of the book, though, and was not entirely sure why Rushdie felt the need to spell it out: it seemed to me to be an admission that he was not entirely confident that he was succeeding and wanted to cover his bases.

Of course it is impossible to review this book without discussing that man with the silly hat and the stellar sense of humor. The bits of the book which caused that spot of bother take place in a dream or hallucination had by Gibreel which concerns a "former businessman" named "Mahound" who brings a new religion to two cities called "Jahiliya" and "Yathrib." The episode of the satanic verses is recreated quite faithfully to the source documentation, and Mahound/Mohammad is generally presented in a fairly positive, if authoritarian light. There is only one stretch quite late in the book which is critical of religion (and coming on the heels of José Saramago's winning prizefight against God, it seems like Atheist Little League) and even that derives from Islamic tradition:

"...Salman the Persian got to wondering what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a businessman. This was when he had the idea that destroyed his faith, because he recalled that of course Mahound himself had been a businessman...so how excessively convenient it was that he should have come up with such a very businesslike archangel, who handed down the management decisions of this highly corporate, if non-corporeal, God."

There is, however, a brief section spent ridiculing a figure simply called "the Imam" who lives in paranoid exile in London. This cannot be anyone other than Khomeini, and while reading it I wondered if perhaps Khomeini found out about it and trumped up the whole blasphemy charge because Rushdie hurt his feelings. There is also a general argument that revelation is necessarily false, self-serving, and dangerous, as is indicated by the increasingly disturbing sections describing a prophetess who leads a village on a pilgrimage to the sea. Rushdie demonstrates a pervasive skepticism of self-appointed holy men, and it is impossible not to notice that the Khomeini-proxy is singled out for specific ridicule.

But then we all know that Ruhollah Khomeini did not read this book, nor did many of the lunatics who burned it, nor did the thugs who murdered Rushdie's translators and publishers. The sick irony of the entire incident is that Rushdie's characters and themes seem addressed directly at the angst and anxiety of those impoverished, dislocated, marginalized Muslims who paraded him around in effigy. He explored their problems with insight, wit, humor, and sympathy. Rather than reading his book and thinking about it, thousands of the faithful thought murder and arson was the answer, thereby perhaps behaving more stupidly than anyone has for centuries. Rushdie himself spoke of his regret that the controversy fed the Western stereotype of "the backward, cruel, rigid Muslim, burning books and threatening to kill the blasphemer," but of course it was not a stereotype; it was an actual instance of backward, cruel, rigid Muslims burning books and threatening to kill a blasphemer. Based on this behavior, the secular humanist can only conclude that organized religion is simply an enormous mechanism for the militant assertion and propagation of poor literary taste.

At any rate, The Satanic Verses is an excellent book, if a bit over-long and under-plotted, but for anyone finishing Midnight's Children and wanting more, this is a good place to turn next.

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, by José Saramago

1993, 375 pp.

José Saramago is perhaps the world's finest living writer, and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is at once a work of deep human sympathy and humor, pathos and anger, it is philosophical and heretical, as often profound as it is irreverent, and constantly brilliant. This book changed the course of Saramago's life: his earlier works were firmly grounded in the actuality of Portugal, whether past or present. The immense controversy this book provoked drove Saramago into self-imposed exile on the Canary Islands, and turned his work from concrete human stories like The History of the Siege of Lisbon to fiercely critical allegories like Blindness and The Cave. I am interested in works of art which provoke religious furor, but I have never encountered any work of art which so effectively demolishes religious belief the way Saramago does in this novel. This book is at once the finest work of atheism and by an atheist yet produced as well as the only way to make the gospel legend remotely plausible. It is the literary equivalent of using the ontological argument to prove that the only way for God to exist is for him to necessarily not exist.

For an unrepentant cinephile, it is difficult not to see in Saramago's gospel the aesthetic of Italian neo-realism. There is constant attention to quotidian detail specifically about the lives and experiences of the rural poor. Much of the book revolves around work: the struggle to find work, how the availability of work dictates where and how people live, about the material dimensions of life. This is not the first time the congruence of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and the principles of Italian neo-realism has been articulated: Pier Paolo Pasolini made his Gospel According to St. Matthew in 1964, and one must wonder if Saramago has seen it. The film was shot in the poor Italian district of Basilicata, where forty years later the deluded anti-Semite Mel Gibson shot his Passion of the Christ. The actors were local amateurs, the budget was minuscule, and there was no screenplay. The cinematography is stark black and white. The dialogue was taken directly from the actual Gospel of Matthew, and Pasolini's Jesus bears no resemblance to the usual pretty white guy with the flowing hair. This Jesus wears his hair short, his robe is dark, and he sounds sometimes like a union agitator. In both Saramago and Pasolini's version, there is none of Gibson's loving torture-porn: the crucifixion is almost understated and resigned in its matter-of-fact abruptness. The horror is that it is inescapable, and the brutality is the implacable cruelty of God, not of the Roman soldiers. Both artists do the most destructive thing possible to the Jesus legend: they take it seriously.

Pasolini does not investigate Jesus as a three-dimensional human being with psychological depth and a personal history. His film is taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew (indeed, there was no screenplay, just the sparse dialogue from the scripture) and therefore skips quite quickly from the Massacre of the Innocents to Jesus being baptized by John. This is precisely the period which Saramago covers in the most detail and the time in which Jesus' personality would be formed. Pasolini's choice to take the Gospel literally but external to Jesus' experience leaves the audience with a rather sinister impression of Jesus. His words tend not to make sense and rather than explaining a cogent, anti-material, transcendental philosophy, he often seems arbitrary, petty, and self-centered. One thing is clear from Pasolini's film: the story without human psychology does not work. Saramago on the other hand fleshes out the missing pieces, and drops a few of the more bizarre episodes. His Gospel has fewer of the direct, familiar quotes, and quite a lot of new material, and by sacrificing literalism for humanity, he achieves a literary triumph.

When I was a child, the first thing which convinced me of atheism was how poorly the Bible was written. It is redundant, unclear on the big, establishing, expository information (Cain goes and lives in the land of Nod, which is east of Eden...when was that created? Who lives there? Was something left out?) but full of utterly insignificant detail about sandals and livestock. The endless genealogy charts and absurd ancient agricultural laws seemed to seven-year-old-me to have no place in a holy book, and quite frankly the messages are confused and conflicted at best. The word "and" shows up far too many times. Was God unaware of the semicolon? This bothered me. Worse, if the Bible was meant to have been written essentially by God (in the guise of the Holy Spirit) through various authors, why was God's prose style so bad? As a devoted childhood reader of Kipling and Stevenson and C.S. Forester, I had an eye for a rollicking adventure with good, strong, clear prose and plenty of forward momentum. There was none of that to be found in my early excursions into the Bible, and it soured me on religion for life.

Had the actual gospels been written by Jose Saramago, it is likely I would have become a Christian fundamentalist. Saramago's distinctive style has never been more commanding, nor more suited to the source material. The omnipresence of Saramago’s narrator makes his books inherently proletarian, and here gives Jesus a rugged, populist quality to accompany his depth of feeling. Saramago's prose has calloused hands and dirt under its fingernails, and it winks at you over its glass of port by the campfire on a warm summer evening while fireflies combust in the fields. He is incapable of writing a boring sentence or of creating a cardboard character, which are the two qualities the Bible most thoroughly lacks. His characters are almost always acutely conscious of their personal insignificance, and spend a lot of time in solitude, but of a combatively individual rather than indulgently solipsistic variety. Jesus is no different here: he is a lonely, troubled, poor, unimportant laborer until about page 250. He is distinguished only by his compassion and by his constant guilt.

The guilt of Jesus and Joseph is the hinge of the story, and something which is entirely overlooked in the synoptic gospels. In Saramago’s story, Joseph overhears a group of Roman soldiers receiving their orders from Herod to massacre all the infants in Bethlehem. He runs back to the cave where Mary and the newborn Jesus are hiding to protect them, but does not warn the people of Bethlehem. The guilt of the murdered children haunts him his entire life, and then haunts Jesus afterwards, until in his meetings with God it dawns on the reader that the only person responsible for the deaths of those children is God himself. And here we hit upon Saramago's real genius. Once Jesus is realized as a thinking, doubting, Socratic sort of individual, the onus of suffering passes from him onto God. Even the faithful characters are acutely aware of their God's nature, and Saramago's narrator assumes the reader is intelligent enough to realise the eternal problem of theodicy and therefore does not gloss over the role of God in the suffering depicted. "God does not forgive the sins He makes us commit," the narrator sighs. And again: "When, O Lord, will You come before mankind to acknowledge Your own mistakes?"

God does finally appear in person in a tour-de-force scene in which he dicusses with Jesus and the devil what role he has decided Jesus will play. Jesus asks God what he wants and recieves the answer "He wants a larger congregation than the one He has at present, He wants the entire world for Himself." Jesus is no fool: "But if God is Lord of the universe, how can the world belog to anyone but Him, not just since yesterday or starting tomorrow but from the beginning of time?" The problem is God's dissatisfaction with his creation, and therefore with himself. A tiny part of him says "You continue to be the god of a tiny population that occupies a minute part of this world You created with everything that's on it." He wants more and has decided Jesus must die for it. "I'm waiting," Jesus says. "For what, asked God, as if distracted. For You to tell me how much death and suffering Your victory over other gods will cause, how much death and suffering will be needed in the battles men fight in Your name and mine." God begins to list them: page upon page upon page of brutal, horrible deaths, alphabetized, in gruesome detail. Then he mentions the Crusades. Then the Inquisition, then Islam. And so on and so on, and the reader begins to hear Saramago's voice come through, like a prosecutor listing the charges. The devil, who is listening to the entire conversation, seems slightly in awe. He offers a simple, logical solution in which no one has to die and Jesus can be saved, but God refuses. "You must be God," the devil says, "to demand so much blood."

Indeed, if God emerges from this book with gallons of blood on his hands, the devil comes across as a rational, logical fellow with malice towards no one. Early on it is suggested that at the moment of cretaion, the devil created his own man and woman, but forbade them nothing, so there was no original sin and hence no other sorts of sin either. The failure of God in this sense is clear, and it becomes obvious that his dissatisfaction is with his own shortcomings, which he is determined to wash away with the blood of others. I don't believe I have ever read a less sympathetic portrayal of any character in literature. In the intellectual duel of Saramago vs. God, God never stood a chance.

Enough glowing hyperbole for one review. This is one of the finest books I have ever read, and ought to be consumed immediately and thought about in detail by believers and doubters alike. It is a literary triumph and a philosophical work of art, and cannot be recommended strongly enough.