Thursday, May 28, 2009

Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century: A Yugoslav Philosopher Reconsiders Marx's Writings, by Gajo Petrović
1965, 230 pp. Translated by the author from the Croatian Philosophy and Marxism

Gajo Petrović was a stalwart of the old and now mainly deceased Praxis School of Yugoslav Marxist humanism. He lacked the economic expertise of Branko Horvat, the innovative drive of Mihailo Marković, the ethical focus of Milan Kangrga, or the comprehensive analytical gifts of Erich Fromm of the Frankfurt School, but he was nonetheless a solid if unostentatious thinker, and this is a solid if unostentatious book. It was written after Petrović's close study of Plekhanov, but before his more critical and polemical works during his conflict with the dogmatists of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. It is probably best considered as a preliminary statement of position and an introduction to the basic tenets of Marxist humanism. As such, it is a rather unremarkable read for the initiated and I enjoyed it on the grounds that it is always pleasant to be told things one already knows and agrees with. Though critical of Stalinist (and French-Stalinist) Marxist philosophy, it is not a polemic; since it is a collection of essays, it also lacks a unifying theoretical structure.

The first few essays are a critique of what passed for orthodox Marxist philosophy. Petrović rightly points out that most of its catechisms--economic determinism, the dogma of "dialectical materialism," the capitalism/dictatorship of the proletariat/imperfect socialism/perfect communism development, etc-- have little to no basis in Marx, but are instead Stalinist distortions of Leninist distortions of Marx. Petrović is kinder to Lenin than I think is necessary. He correctly notes that Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks (see Volume 38 of his Collected Works) effectively repudiates the dogmatism and denial of humanism in Materialism and Empiriocriticism. I still have no time for Lenin or what passes for his thought, and I think Petrović's case would be stronger if he placed the point of departure from Marx squarely on Lenin's shoulders, against the better efforts of Rosa Luxemburg, but it ought to be noted that Petrović was writing in Titoist Yugoslavia when criticism of Lenin was still zabranjen. Anyhow, he begins with some obligatory criticisms of Stalinist distortions, and the reader thinks immediately of Orwell's line about a book by Bertrand Russell: it is surprising to remember that there was a time when it was the first duty and obligation of serious people and people of conscience to loudly repudiate Stalinism, that the matter was ever in doubt. Petrović never mentions his French opponents by name, but it is necessary to remember that the Praxis School and the other disparate, lonely Marxist humanists were engaged in constant intellectual warfare with the French school of Stalin's apologists who hated the works of "Young Marx," the philosopher and humanist, asserting instead the primacy of "Old Marx," the bitter, cold-eyed, "scientific" economist. These two camps might more accurately be divided into those who have lived under tyranny and those who have not; those who recognize the thread of passionate humanism which animates all of Marx's thought and those who select only those aspects which can be interpreted to support their own preconceived allegiance to repression. Understandably, Petrović and the other Praxis thinkers knew that Moscow was a greater threat than the self-indulgent dilettantes in Paris, so it is to Moscow that the criticism is directed, but the purpose of the critique was not to win over Soviet apparatchiks but to serve as a humanist (and accurate) counterweight to the prevailing philosophical trends in Europe.

The centerpiece of the book is three or four essays on Marx's conception of man. Curiously, Petrović appears not to have had access to Marx's actual Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, but instead relies heavily on quotes cribbed from Fromm's Marx's Concept of Man, which is indeed a good book. An outright review or discussion of it may have been more profitable, rather than a second-hand approach to Marx, but again, we must give allowances for a Yugoslav thinker who probably couldn't get ahold of banned books, and who was writing for an audience probably unfamiliar with Fromm. Substantively, Petrović spends a lot of time discussing the ideas of alienation and praxis, and traces their importance through the corpus of Marx's work. He disputes the Stalinist (again, Leninist, I say!) subjection of philosophy to politics and the view of man as a mechanical, economical animal rather than a free and constructive being. He insists that man is free to the extent that he is able to act as a creative, self-determining personality and contributes to the development of humanity, all of which is solid Marxist-humanism.

Somewhat disappointingly, Petrović dodges the end-point problem of materialist philosophy: if the material world is bounded by causality, then everything has a cause, and if everything has a cause, how can man be free in a determined world? Is not the praxis which makes man a unique being itself a product of material causes? If so, how is it an essentially creative act? Neither Marx nor Petrović ever answers this question to my satisfaction.

There are a couple interesting essays on ontological and epistemological problems, including two at the conclusion which deal with language and Wittgenstein, Being and Heidegger. I would not be the tedious pedant I am if I did not point out that neither of these have much to do with Marx, in the mid-twentieth century or otherwise, but they are interesting, especially as a historical document expressing the perspective of a forgotten school of thought on the most important philosophical issues of the day. No stubborn, dogmatic obsolescence for the Praxis School: these fellows were cutting-edge. My only complaint is that the final two essays seem to represent an abandonment of any pretense to a central organizing theme.

In sum, Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century hits most of the important themes of Marxist humanism: individuality; the importance of freedom and creativity; the process of de-alienation of man from himself, his society, and his labor; the unity of Young Marx with Old. It hits a few other points besides which are at once interesting and distracting, and would have benefited either from rhetorical fire, a central thesis, or more access to Marx's actual writings. As it stands, it is a solid contribution to the field, though it frequently leaves the reader wondering where he has mislaid his copy of Erich Fromm.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Flaubert's Parrot

Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian Barnes
1984, 190 pp.

I closed Julian Barnes' slender, elegant novel with an audible sigh of despair. I have a teetering pile of some twenty books I intend to read before the end of the summer, including two weighty Russian doorstoppers, and now I have no choice but to obtain and read everything Barnes has written. I had intended to start in on Richard Ellmann's massive biography of Joyce in preparation to taking a running-start at Ulysses, and now I've got to drop everything, all of my meticulous plans, and read a dozen more slender, elegant books by a talented, intelligent, gifted writer.

That bastard.

Flaubert’s Parrot is a novel and a collection of essays centered around the trivia and minutia of Gustave Flaubert’s life, as written by an elderly, lonely, melancholy, retired British doctor named Geoffrey Braithwaite. He does not appear in the first couple of essays except as an unobtrusive authorial voice, and I found myself scribbling down an objection: “Why present as novel, why not just book of essays by J. Barnes?” But details begin to accumulate about Dr. Braithwaite, as the reader begins to notice what sort of things interest him, what other people think about his Flaubert obsession, and how, alone and at the end of his life, his fixation with the dead French novelist is what keeps him going. As we get to know Geoffrey Braithwaite, he emerges from the margins of the essays on Flaubert as a kind, sad, terminally nice man, and through him so too does Julian Barnes appear as a genial master of ceremonies. I wanted to be friends with him, to sit in his quiet, dark study with a cup of tea and talk about L’Éducation Sentimentale. It’s an interesting gambit: Barnes could have presented us with just a collection of essays and reflections, which would have been interesting enough. But he decided not to. He decided to make the reader feel something, in addition to just thinking things, and I found myself wondering why he decided on that feeling specifically. Why Geoffrey Braithwaite as a narrator, instead of somebody else? Does Braithwaite’s story communicate a feeling Barnes associates particularly with Flaubert? Is he based on somebody Barnes knew? When he decided on an emotional experience for the reader in addition to an intellectual one, he could have settled on anything. I wonder why he wanted me to empathize with Geoffrey Braithwaite, in addition to Flaubert.

Whatever the case, Barnes effectively strips away much of the machinery of a conventional novel and replaces it with his endearing personality and wealth of knowledge. This is risky: if either the personality or the knowledge had proven insufficient it would have ended in disaster. Barnes pulls it off like a virtuoso running through the Toccata and Fugue in D minor just to warm up and check that all the pipes are clear. His knowledge of Flaubert is encyclopedic, and he presents it in a variety of forms. There are straightforward essays, reflections on Flaubert and trains, and Flaubert and animals. There are three chronologies of Flaubert’s life: one wholly positive, the other entirely negative, and one in Flaubert’s own words. Critically, he lets Flaubert talk in lengthy quotations from letters and novels, and doesn’t try to imitate his voice or produce a pastiche. Braithwaite has his own entirely separate voice, and beyond it is a layer of slightly postmodern subjectivism, as Braithwaite learns how difficult it is to find actual reliable knowledge about Flaubert, but persists in telling you anyway, because he cannot bring himself (yet) to tell you about himself. There is a highly amusing section in which he utterly eviscerates some poor literature professor (who, I was delighted to learn, actually existed), and a rendition of Braithwaite’s own version of Flaubert’s famous Dictionary of Received Ideas. There’s also an essay from the perspective of Louise Colet, Flaubert’s mysterious and much-maligned mistress, and a series of mock-term paper questions. Braithwaite has some pretty shrewd literary observations: “Flaubert’s planned invisibility in a century of babbling personalities and shrieking styles might be characterized in one of two ways: as classical, or modern…a century before [modern critics] he was preparing texts and denying the significance of his own personality.” Or, apropos of Sartre’s miserable book on Flaubert: “How submerged does a reference have to be before it drowns?” And based on the hilarious sequence on pages 98-100, I was ready to vote for him as Dictator of Literature. In the end, he produces a phrase which perfectly sums up Flaubert’s work, Flaubert’s life, and his study of both: “straight-faced, yet misleading.” He has a sharp insight into the state of modern literary criticism: "[Critics] act as if Flaubert, or Milton, or Wordsworth were some tedious old aunt in a rocking chair, who smelt of stale powder, was only interested in the past, and hadn't said anything new for years...Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again...I never find myself, fatigue in the voice, reminding Flaubert to hang up the bathmat or use the lavatory brush." Braithwaite has an immensely respectful approach of pursuing the writer as a reader which seems to be lacking in a world full of tendentious academics who half-learned from Freud how to tell artists what they really meant, using literature like a drunk uses lampposts: for support, not illumination.

In sum, it is a splendid literary entertainment, by someone who clearly loves books, about someone who loves books, writing about an author who revolutionized books, intended for readers who love books. It is funny and moving, and instructive. It takes its subject seriously and its audience as well: it assumes its readers capable of mature intellectual consideration and emotional empathy. An excellent book.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Transformation of American Law

The Transformation of American Law, Volume I, 1780-1860, by Morton Horwitz
1977, 356 pp.

For the past thirty years, Morton Horwitz’ two-volume Transformation of American Law has been the foundation of American legal history. It is impossible to write a new legal history without referencing him; any historiography must devote its attention and often its centerpiece to his work; indeed, he effectively invented the genre and defined its parameters and conventions. It is also a devastating attack on the “Consensus School” of American legal history which had prevailed during the 1950s, which minimized the role of class conflict in the development of American law, and one of the finest critiques of American society ever written.

The thesis of the first volume of The Transformation of American Law is that from the founding of the republic until the outbreak of the Civil War, judges self-consciously allied themselves with the rising commercial class, and, after consolidating their monopoly on legal authority and their power to direct social change through common law, created a legal framework for the benefit of the bourgeoisie. Horwitz is no lonely heterodox howling on the fringes of academia: he is the Charles Warren Professor of Legal History at Harvard, and his book won the Bancroft Prize, the premier award in American legal writing. And yet The Transformation of American Law, though not a Marxist work, is one of the most important books for Marxists I’ve ever read. Thick with references, historical context, and immense legal expertise, it reads like the dangerous, muscular older brother to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.

This book is sufficiently complicated and interesting that it warrants more of a discussion than a usual review. I’m warning you now: this is going to be lengthy. Readers in search of a summary and a couple criticisms should jump to the last paragraph.

Rather kindly to the layman reader, Horwitz begins with a brief explanation of what exactly common law is and how conceptions of it changed from the 18th to the 19th century. This is the opening theme of what will be a motif throughout the book: that the early 19th century marked a radical and deliberate transformation (indeed, a Great Transformation) in American law, which we will see played out over and over through an array of legal ideas. In the 18th century and before, common law (which is law that is not legislated, but held as tradition and changed by judges) was seen as fixed, handed down from the distant past, and based on “natural” principles, so that it is “discovered” by judges, not made. All actual changes were enacted by legislatures, and were seen as made through an act of will. In 1720, the American colonies (using rather peculiar reasoning) legally established that they did not conquer North America (they simply found it, apparently), so they remained subject to English common law. The Continental Congress of 1774 decided to keep that common law and existing English statutes, in order not to disrupt existing commerce.

But from the founding of the republic, common law was increasingly restricted. This restriction was not a matter of political party or constitutional philosophy, but instead a general trend across the legal profession. Immediately there was an argument that all states had their own common law, so there was no general common law under federal jurisdiction. This was followed with the idea that the Constitution and the legislature embodied the general will of the people, making the “natural law” foundation of common law redundant. Legal authority therefore came entirely from popular will, not any sense of inherent, objective righteousness. That being the case, as Supreme Court Justice James Wilson argued, the obligation of common law is voluntary, and can be changed according to the will of judges, since there is no longer any objective righteousness specific to common law to deviate from. Immediately the old conservative argument against activist judges and upholding static interpretations of law is dismissed as an ahistorical fiction.

By 1820, judges saw common law as framed by already existing general doctrines (or rather, "class interests") based on a self-conscious consideration of beneficial social and economic policies, and with consideration as to how those doctrines applied beyond any individual case. They effectively assumed a sense of responsibility to use their power to shape common law to promote “socially desirable conduct,” which is essentially a euphemism for "economic development." In support of this, Horwitz discusses at some length conflicts over water rights and land use.

Horwitz argues that the original common law conception of property was inherited from the landed English gentry, who viewed land not as a productive asset but as a private estate for personal enjoyment. This perspective makes economic development difficult: mills are always obstructing or diverting rivers, factories create noise and pollution, railroads cause fires, and so forth. Beginning with the 1805 case of Palmer v. Mulligan, judges overturned the older, more feudal and aristocratic concept of property rights in favor of the new, dynamic, capitalist version. The hallowed idea that property rights as property rights are now and have always been a central fixture of American society is demolished: where property rights conflicted with capitalism, they were discarded. Palmer v. Mulligan set up the idea that property rights hinge not on ownership but on the ability to develop land for business, even at inconvenience to others, and that in determining injury, the relative efficiency and productivity of property uses is what matters, not who owned land first or who has a natural right not to be disturbed or displaced.

Using the refashioning of water and land rights to the promotion of development as a springboard, Horwitz argues that the central issue of 19th century American law is the matter of how much certainty and predictability the law would guarantee to capital, and what sort of return on investment the law would protect. Recognizing that a scarcity of capital necessitated some certainty that the investment of that capital would produce a return, judges initially acted to promote monopoly. They limited the role of juries in awarding damages (since juries tend to use a community sense of fairness and awarded large damages) and substantially limited the liability not only of the state but of private corporations chartered by the state to undertake works of economic development. Therefore, small-scale landowners whose property was seized or destroyed in the process of development were limited in compensation, and were effectively forced to underwrite the expansion of monopoly capital. As further evidence, Horwitz moves through detailed discussions of liability, eminent domain, negligence, commercial law, and contracts. On each point, he finds judges who have personal relationships with capitalists and with similar class interests ruled consistently to protect the privileges of monopoly capital.

Indeed, after 1840, judges adopted the idea that all legislatively authorized acts, whether by public officials or private charters, were entirely immune to damages. Since most corporations were then licensed by municipalities to fulfill functions which otherwise would be the purview of government, this meant corporations could generally do anything they pleased, free from damages, by claiming they were on government business. This kept government budgets small, and therefore kept taxes low, which, as Horwitz cleverly notes, meant that the incidence of the cost of development fell not on the wealthy, who would be affected by high taxation, but on the poor, whose property was seized or destroyed without compensation. The historic American aversion to taxation and big government was, in this formulation, an ideological cover for shifting the burden of development from the wealthy to the poor. It was nothing less than an early form of socializing costs and privatizing profits.

At first the commitment to promoting monopolies was total, and extremely effective. In 1780, there were exactly 7 corporations in the United States; by 1840 there were hundreds. Judges even began to rule that an attempt to set up competition and draw away business was an infringement on the property rights of licensed corporations. But eventually enough capital accumulated and infrastructure developed to such an extent that monopolies became a hindrance rather than a help, and the new capitalist class began to resent the legal profession for limiting commerce rather than aiding it. Beginning with the Charles River Bridge case of 1837, there was a shift away from monopoly to competition, on the grounds (in the argument of Roger Taney, Andrew Jackson’s Supreme Court Chief Justice who later ruled in the notorious Dred Scott case) that granting monopoly franchises restricted later legislation, and therefore the will of the people.

To buttress this new concept, there was a change in the conception of contracts. Previously they were considered to be based on some standard of objective justice which would be the standard for a ruling in the case of dispute. Then it was established that instead, contracts were an arbitrary meeting of wills with no underlying principle of justice. Since contracts were often used for the delivery of goods at a given price in the future, it was a simple matter to extend this idea to rule that there was no such thing as a “just price,” for goods and no responsibility of fairness or equality in the negotiation of contracts or prices. “Modern contract law,” Horwitz writes, “was thus born staunchly proclaiming that all men are functionally equal because all measures of inequality are illusory.” This statement is the basis for all Marxist interpretations of law, and it took a supreme effort of will not to stand up and declaim a well-known line from the first volume of Capital.

Horwitz concludes his painstaking analysis through the application of these new principles to commerce with a brief summary of his findings. Based on the evidence, he concludes that by 1860, judges had a) reduced the ability and jurisdiction of juries to mete out damages, and therefore consolidated power in their own specialized, professional class, b) reduced regulatory and protective doctrines, c) fostered monopoly capital at the expense of property, d) subordinated labor to capital in contract negotiations and liability, and e) ratified and codified market-generated inequality. He sets up the beginning theme for the second volume, which details the rise of “legal formalism”: the strict-constructionist sort of argument we associate (if we can stomach it) with Antonin Scalia. In Horwitz’ formulation, formalism serves a specific purpose: flexibility joined the legal profession with capital and secured their dominance, and once dominant, only rigidity would keep them there.

A few structural points. This is legal history, not theory, so the reader spends a lot more time working through the minutia of riparian water rights as they pertain to Palmer v. Mulligan rather than experiencing the difficult excitement of seeing a new theory unfold. In that sense, this book serves as an excellent repository of specific information to supplement the more general theories to be found in Polanyi, Miéville, and Pashukanis. If you need to know specifically who decided and on what case that competition should be enshrined into common law in order to win an argument or cement a thesis, this is the place to look. There is quite a lot of fascinating historical information, but it is not presented in a very chronological format. I spent a lot of time noting down the dates of cases and then realizing that the dates suggested a slightly different interpretation from Horwitz’s narration. Further, each section ought to be thought of as happening in tandem, not in linear progress as Horwitz at first seems to suggest. There is a lot of repetitive “Initially, the conception of X was A, but then it shifted to Y,” much like in this review.

Horwitz seems at times to overstate his case. He very much wants to argue that the construction of modern capitalism was a deliberate process (almost, but not quite a conspiracy) by judges who were personal friends of capitalists, but the evidence does not always support this sort of teleological interpretation. Instead it seems to have been a halting, trial-and-error sort of process, quicker in some states under certain judges, and slower in others, sometimes doubling back on itself or contradicting itself, sometimes leaping ahead. His analysis of the starting point and the ending point are indisputable, but sometimes he reads more deliberate malice into the transition than was probably the case. A sociological concept of class and institutional interests would help his argument quite a bit. As a legal history, though, as a primer on the development of the key issues in American law, and as a dense, factual supplement to any critique of law and capitalism, it is unparalleled.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Little Wilson and Big God

Little Wilson and Big God, Being the First Part of the Confessions, by Anthony Burgess
1986, 448 pp.

I find the idea of Anthony Burgess to be faintly terrifying. He can only be categorized as the last true polymath: author of more than thirty novels, two books on linguistics, two books on Joyce, five volumes on English literature, composer of some two hundred pieces of music, speaker of ten languages, and one of few people to ever plausibly say that they have read Finnegans Wake more than once and understood it. Burgess even wrote an abridgment of it. It is said that when he met Jorge Luis Borges, they agreed not to use either of their native languages, so they conducted their conversation in Anglo-Saxon. This is the first volume of his auto-biography, covering the period from slightly before his birth until his early forties, when as a colonial English teacher in Malaysia he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he had a year to live.

The reviewer despairs. By page eight he's dispensed polyglot puns, mentioned Thomas Malthus, joked about the Emancipation Act and the First Folio, discussed Malay philology and used the word "concupiscence." What are we to make of a child who first reads Don Quixote at age eight, and begins having earnest sex with a communist librarian at thirteen? We cannot take seriously his boast that he read Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy at eighteen, on the grounds that nobody has ever read that book. (Imagine the horror of finding that on page 358 he later composed a libretto based on a story from Part 3, Section 2, Member I, Subsection I of Burton's obese volume.) I turned to Martin Amis for solace, who wrote: "Not many people know this, but on top of writing regularly for every known newspaper and magazine, Anthony Burgess writes regularly for every unknown one too. Pick up a Hungarian quarterly or a Portugues tabloid--and there is Burgess, discoursing on goulash or test-driving the new Fiat 500." This about sums it up. There were years when the man would review 300 books. If I keep up my eight-per-month quota, I am on track to break a paltry 100 this year and at times it feels like all I do is read books and write reviews. His review of Foucault's Pendulum mentioned breezily that he read most of it in the original and contains a reference to "the etiolated scholar of George Eliot's Middlemarch."

At any rate, the autobiography, groaning under the unhappy Sisyphean weight of endless names, locations, literature jokes, and quotidian detail (Burgess and Borges must have discussed "Funes the Memorious," or perhaps Burgess inspired it) this volume follows its prodigal narrator from birth in a poor district of Manchester, through unsuccessful schooling and indifferent university studies, into the military in wartime Gibraltar, out of the military in dilapidated London, and then to Malaysia, to his teaching post. On the way he teaches himself music by reading the scores of Stravinsky and Haydn works, teaches himself Greek to read Homer in the original, writes various sonnets in the style of Hopkins, takes a history class from A.J.P. Taylor, meets George Orwell and Graham Greene, and has sex with innumerable women. For vast stretches of trackless jungle-prose thick with jostling names of now-defunct products, demolished street-names, forgotten names, and transient song lyrics, the book at times becomes unreadable. It will serve some scholar someday as an astonishing resource on pre-war life in Manchester; to the reader, any given ten pages are about the same as any other.

All throughout, Burgess coasts along, displaying the same attitude towards everything. Amis rightly calls him "imperturbable," and (delightfully) refers to his "panoptic suavity," "chuckling insouciance," and "word-perfect putdowns." He is permanently amused in a detatched, condescending, slightly bored way, regardless of the situation: his mother and sister dying of Spanish influenza in 1918, his wife being assaulted by GIs and miscarrying (apparently the origin for A Clockwork Orange), his and her encyclopedic infidelity, various fistfights, jail, crabs, World War II. His novels, I admit (and he later admits), are similar: they are packed with information about times, place, people, and ideas, but they never make the reader feel much of anything. Disappointingly, despite the vast swathes of art he has consumed in various languages, there is remarkably little reflection or discussion of what any given piece meant to him at any given time. So he read the Critique of Pure Reason as a teenager. What did he think of it? Presumably he was amused in a bored, detached sort of way.

Burgess is very much out of fashion these days, on the logical grounds that he was something of a serenely and mildly racist, sexist, homophobic imperialist of the cheerful and well-meaning variety. He comes across much more stubbornly Catholic and conservative than his prodigious philandering would lead you to believe, and has a few casually deplorable things to say about women and brown people. Despite his obvious mental gifts, he is frequently forced to fall back on pleas of laziness or persecution to excuse various failures, both academic or professional. I enjoy his work, because I like to learn, and I like an author who can present an etymological history of the vast array of Malay words for copulation in one paragraph, then a joke about Kandinsky in the next. I own the second volume of his autobiography, but I admit that upon finishing this one, I feel no urgence to begin reading it. It is no surprise that Burgess's autobiography contains a lengthy index: I suspect I will consult this if I want a few pages of targeted wit and erudition, and will perhaps dip into it from time to time for the pleasure of watching him perform, but as a sustained act, he rather overstays his welcome.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Towers of Trebizond

The Towers of Trebizond, by Rose Macaulay
1956, 277 pp.

Having recently finished off several books in progress, I took to perusing my shelves for some light work of fiction to read before bed, and discovered that I own Rose Macaulay's Towers of Trebizond for no discernible reason whatsoever. I have a clean, crisp, apparently new copy from the New York Review of Books line of overlooked classics, with a thoughtful introduction and a picture on the front of some rather preposterous British people. The introduction assures me that the opening line is a commonplace in educated British conversation. When did I buy it? And more importantly, why did I buy it? I will never know. Perhaps a shrewd biographer will one day ferret out the answer, though by then it will be too late to tell me.

The Towers of Trebizond concerns the understated non-adventures of the redoubtable and imperturbable Aunt Dot and the militantly ridiculous Father Chantry-Pigg on a Church of England missionary trip to Turkey, as narrated by Dot's niece Laurie. It is not a particularly outrageous travelogue; indeed, I hesitated over including the word "adventures" in the previous sentence, however qualified it may be. It is (mostly) a very wry and mild-mannered sort of book which coasts serenely along on the strength of the long, languid sentences of Laurie's narration, studded with amusing dependent clauses. Take this one, for instance:

"Traveling together is a great test, which has damaged many friendships and even honeymoons, and some people, such as Gray and Horace Walpole, never feel quite the same to one another again, and it is nobody's fault, as one knows if one listens to the stories of both, though it seems to be some people's fault more than others."

Now that is a sentence you can really move around in. I dare you to count the commas. Within the first few chapters I was scrawling in my notes things such as: "Reads like if P.G. Wodehouse went on vacation." The book carries the same sort of sweet innocence and good-natured surprise at how silly everyone in the world is despite how seriously they take themselves. It seemed a world in which one never particularly has to worry about anything ("I too follow professions," Laurie writes, "but at some distance behind, and seldom catch up with them") and travel, even with a camel which eventually loses its mind, is an exotic, charming experience rather than a hell of heat, noise, dirt, squat toilets, interminable waiting, and relentlessly bumpy transportation. The vital question of the church mission is not one of theodicy or theology, but whether Muslim women are ready for hats. A character named Xenophon turns up, which provides for some good Anabasis jokes. I strongly urge you to use an Anabasis joke at your next party. Even when Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg disappear into Soviet Russia halfway through and are presumed captured, imprisoned, shot, or turned traitor, this is more a subject for bemused indifference than alarm.

Laurie even provides some meaty descriptive passages to back up the novel's spinal travelogue, like this one:

"The real Trebizond, about which the Home listeners would not hear, was in the labyrinth of narrow streets and squares which climbed up from the sea, and in the ruined Byzantine citadel, keep and palace on the heights between the two great wooded ravines that cleft deep valleys down from the table-topped mountain Boz Tepe to the shore, and in the disused, wrecked Byzantine churches that brooded, forlorn, lovely, ravished and apostate ghosts, about the hills and shores of that lost empire."

After Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg disappear, she rides the camel on to Jerusalem, where she has lunch with her mother, and makes friends with a chap who is pillaging the notebooks of a mutual friend who got eaten by a shark. She returns to England, and teaches a small ape to play chess, drive a car, and ride a bicycle to go buy things in town. Occasionally she has discussions with her endlessly pessimistic Turkish friend Halide about love and adultery. There's some exceedingly mild mannered social criticism: "I went on musing about why it was thought better and higher to love one's country than one's county, or town, or village, or house. Perhaps because it was larger. But then it would be still better to love one's continent, and best of all to love one's planet." It's never particularly clear what Laurie (or Rose Macaulay) thinks about the Church of England and its missions, which occupy a good deal of the book, although there are some endearing jokes at the expense of the odious Billy Graham. There is quite a bit of history of the various factions of mystical English Christianity, and some theological ruminations which can only be interesting to believers. The author was a Christian and an active one, but the narrator is not and seems to find the religious characters rather silly:

"Constantinople," said Father Chantry-Pigg, who did not accept the Turkish conquest.
"Byzantium," I said, not accepting the Roman one.

It's a constantly, almost ponderously and self-consciously British sort of book, and a bit startling to have been written in 1956. It reads almost like a parody of late-Victorian missionary travelogues, and I never could quite shake the suspicion that that is exactly what it is. But then suddenly in the last few chapters the book turns dark and tragic. It is plainly a semi-autobiographical work, so perhaps the change of tone happens in the book because it happened in real life. But I kept wondering why it was included: if it was a real experience, why put it at the end of this otherwise light and amusing travelogue? It seems at once to trivialize the tragedy and pull the rug out from under the comedy. Is it fictional, and if so, why add such a downbeat to a slightly frivolous tune? I thought of the end of A Farewell to Arms, where it seems like Hemingway had just had a terrible day and decides to kill everyone out of spite. Plainly the subject of this book is not a painful loss of innocence or disillusionment with God and the Church. Instead, it seems to read as though suggesting that mainly life is amusing and a bit silly, but sometimes rather nasty as well. So it goes.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Myth of Sisyphus

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, by Albert Camus
1942, 151 pp.

I have had an affinity for Albert Camus ever since I was fourteen years old and discovered an elderly copy of The Stranger in the garage with its cover ripped off and some unintelligible pencil notations in the margins. I quite like him as a novelist and admire him as a playwright; I am in almost perfect agreement with him morally, politically, ethically, and even philosophically. I vastly prefer him to Sartre. But for all that, I have never been able to make much ground in his non-fiction work. It is not out of a problem with his ideas or out of disagreement, but instead a problem of prose. It may be that I have acquired only the worst translations, but I find his non-fiction prose almost unreadable. It seems to me poorly structured, from the level of the sentence on up: sentences will seem to contain subordinate clauses which contradict or obfuscate the dominant ones, or will list concepts which seem to me exclusive to one another. His paragraphs often seem badly organized: they never begin with a topic, proceed to examine or support it, then flow logically into the next paragraph. Often assertions are followed not by evidence but by more (and sometimes contradictory or non-sequitur) assertions. Sometimes it seems there are line breaks missing, sometimes individual sentences seem to have no relation to the ones around them, and he often appears to raise fascinating questions only to get lost in his examples and never actually get around to answering them. This is particularly frustrating since I agree with all of his central premises, and want very much to hear his solutions, but I always come away disappointed.

The Myth of Sisyphus poses the central question in Camus' thinking and of modern humanism: does the recognition that life is meaningless necessarily require suicide? To get at this, Camus spends some time investigating the concept of "the absurd," which is the condition that arises when human reason finds itself unequipped to grasp the unreasonableness of the world. But he is not always clear that "the absurd" is more than the adolescent realization that the world will not organize itself for my personal pleasure. Instead we get a curious argument about man's inability to "unify" the world and the purpose to life, but even this is hardly a justified rage against the hollowness of theodicy in the context of wartime Europe. Camus examines a few philosophers who began to deal with this: Heidegger, Jaspers, Shestov, Kierkegaard, and Husserl. This seems to me a strange combination, and his treatment of them is hardly systematic, but his point is that they commit "philosophical suicide" by taking positions that contradict their clear recognition of the absurd. Here "philosophical suicide" seems a bit of a dramatic phrase: perhaps "cop-out" is more accurate.

But then Camus argues that it is necessary to take the absurd seriously, and understand the contradiction between the human desire to understand and the unreasonable world. So far so good, but how does he reach the conclusion that suicide must be rejected, because without man, the absurd disappears? Isn't that exactly the point? The absurd is a rather uncomfortable thing, and the question of suicide, it seems to me, has been arising since Hamlet as a solution to that suffering. Camus argues instead to embrace it, and that embracing it yields the freedom and passion which comes from living without hope. This does not follow. If your spouse beats you, it does not seem to me that embracing a hopeless future of beatings is the solution, nor is it logical to argue against suicide because committing suicide will end the beatings. He seems to me to have argued against suicide by citing the arguments in favor of it, and argued in favor of living in an absurd world by citing the reasons why such a life is miserable. And what would a non-absurd world look like? Is it impossible, and if so, is it impossible because of the natural world or because of man's failings? Can it be hypothesized about, or is it logical impossibility? He doesn't say. Instead of close, methodical analysis, we seem to get off-the-cuff personal attitudes.

He moves on to discussing how The Absurd Man should live. "What counts is not the best living but the most living," he says, and "'everything is permitted' is not an outburst of relief or joy, but rather a bitter acknowledgment of a fact." The meaninglessness of the absurd man's actions are his most profound justification. Again, the logic seems flawed. Why is more meaningless experience preferred to less? Isn't the sum of ten zeroes equal to the sum of only two? And if no ethical rules apply, isn't this only adding to the already existing suffering in the world, rather than trying to live in revolt against suffering?

Camus discusses three examples of absurd living: the seducer, the actor, and the conqueror. This is an odd grouping, but Camus is prone to odd groupings. Then, apropos of the role of the artistic creator in an absurd world, he discusses Dostoevsky, particularly Kirilov in Demons, and Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov. This is both the strongest and the weakest part of the book. Strongest because here Camus is chained to the form of literary analysis, which imposes more organization and coherence on him that he otherwise displays, but also weakest because the characters he chooses to analyze speak in the brilliant, overwhelming voice of Dostoevsky, and therefore seem to present a stronger and more logical case for suicide than Camus presents against it. The concluding discussion of the titular Myth of Sisyphus is not at all persuasive. Drawing a parallel between Sisyphus and the modern laborer is solid, if somewhat obvious, but concluding that Sisyphus is happy, because he is conscious of his "wretched condition" and the absurdity of his fate, that the acknowledgment of this truth "conquers it," and that Sisyphus therefore reaches a state of hopeless but contented acceptance. I do not consider Sisyphus happy, and I do not understand how hopeless acceptance creates happiness or is consistent with Camus' argument of the necessity of revolt. Furthermore, the choice of Sisyphus as an example seems to me a poor one: Sisyphus does not spend an eternity in hopeless toil because that is the natural state of the world which his reason is unable to grasp. Nor is menial wage labor or prison the natural state of the poor and the dispossessed in human society. Instead, Sisyphus is condemned to his fate by the arbitrary tyranny of the gods as punishment for his attempts to better his own life. And he is not condemned out of a matter of rationality or morality, since he and the gods were about equally depraved, but solely because their arbitrary power was greater than his. Hopelessly accepting the unaccountable abuse of power runs quite contrary not only to most of Camus' other work but against most humanist philosophy in general. It also speaks to a glaring contradiction. How is Sisyphus, as the absurd hero, to live "most," let alone "best"? He is capable of neither, due to the power of his oppressors. So too is it not a question of the most or the best living for most actual people, but a brief life of mediocrity. Camus writes as though the absurd was only a matter of man and his place in the natural world, but it is not: surely the absurd extends to man's relation to others, to the institutions man creates which end up enslaving him, and to the control of the social system in which he operates. There is none of this to be found in The Myth of Sisyphus, and Camus seems to assume as natural all manner of social relations which are not universal, not essential, and not timeless in nature. At the end of his section on the absurd man, Camus declares "Civil servants of the world, you, too, can be absurd!" but he is unclear on how exactly the absurd civil servant would differ from his non-absurd colleagues, and whether the absurd civil servant would still pay his rent and do laundry and so forth. Is it merely an internal matter of quiescent acceptance of one's life of meaningless suffering? This hardly seems the answer.

The briefer concluding essays are mostly trifles. Doubtless they are interesting to read while relaxing in the sun by the Mediterranean, but they add little in the way of philosophical or contextual knowledge. The appendix regarding Kafka is interesting, and I agree with most of Camus' analysis, though I cannot agree with his faulting Kafka for having a glimmer of hope and therefore not really being absurd. Kafka was much more interested in social phenomena and the interaction of the individual with institutions than Camus seems to have been, and his conclusions to these questions do not strike me as at all hopeful. Camus shows his keen eye for literature, though, and argues a strong case, but on the whole this volume seems a paler, less subtle, and less persuasive rendition of the themes Camus later explored so effectively in his plays and novels and in The Rebel.

The Island of the Day Before

The Island of the Day Before, by Umberto Eco
1994, 517 pp.

This is the eighth book I have read by Umberto Eco, and the fourth novel. It is probably the most accessible of his fictions, though it lacks the frantic exuberance of Foucault's Pendulum.

Eco seems to have a curious habit of inventing complicated, over-educated, worldly, highly erudite characters who he then fits into rather conventional, almost dime-store plots with which he tinkers around, adding a few whimsical, slightly postmodern flourishes. The Island of the Day Before is the story of Roberto della Griva, a young Italian adventurer of the seventeenth century who finds himself shipwrecked. None of the usual Robinson Crusoe business here, though: Roberto is shipwrecked on another ship, which is abandoned (sort of) and anchored within sight of an island. Between the ship and the island runs the international date line, so the island is literally in The Day Before. The rest of the book concerns lengthy flashbacks (some 40 chapters of them, I think) explaining how Roberto ended up in this predicament, interspersed with present-day chapters on how he tries to get out of it.

The MacGuffin is the secret of longitude, which indeed was quite a difficult concept to figure out. Somewhat annoyingly, Eco subjects the reader to several long pseudo-scientific debates on this and other subjects in which people alternate spewing out several pages of peculiar seventeenth-century reasoning. Eco is persuasive at evoking the intellectual excitement of the time, when modern science was first extracting itself from the swamps of tradition, superstition, and confusion, but we never particularly get to see the beginnings of what was to become actual science, just a lot of intellectual dead-ends being tossed about. A debate between alchemy and phlogiston theory is only of limited entertainment value. These tend to wear on a bit, as does Eco's penchant for bloody-minded lists of permutations. These are a recurring event in his books, which if animated by scholarly enthusiasm (The Name of the Rose) or playful humor (Foucault's Pendulum) can be a pleasurable way to display his erudition, but can be fatal to the book if carried on in the absence of a meaningful story or interesting characters (I'm looking at you, Baudolino). Here they are not so intrusive, but are still unwelcome when they arrive.

Of course this wouldn't be an Eco book if there wasn't some rumination on the subject of narrative, an interplay of texts of questionable authenticity and veracity, and some trickery involving what is and is not fiction. At an early age Roberto conceives of an imaginary evil twin named Ferrante for whom he blames all of his life's problems. In the last third of the book, Roberto (apparently desperate for something he can control) begins to write a story in which he blames Ferrante for the circumstances which led to his voyage to the South Pacific, for stealing his lady-love, for shipwrecking him, and so forth. These work as a sort of fiction-within-a-fiction parallel to Roberto's own flashbacks. Roberto and Ferrante's back stories tend to be the most entertaining sections, sometimes accelerating into the territory of "rollicking adventure novel." There is a lengthy sequence early on about the siege of Casale, some love poems, and a mysterious sea journey. Richelieu and Mazarin have suitably villainous cameos, and there is some obligatory court intrigue to go along with it.

Eco employs his usual trope of presenting the text as a manuscript delivered to an unnamed editor who intrudes periodically in modern idiom to add humorous comment or reflection on the book's action. Eco, who seems to love nothing more than an unreliable narrator, uses this to add an extra level of doubtful veracity into a story already packed with unwise suspension of disbelief. Unfortunately, it also allows him to (wryly, mischievously) deliver a rather annoying cop-out of an ending. The litmus test of this book, precisely like all of Eco's other fiction is this: so long as the story is grounded in some semblance of reality, even a reality told in flashback or imagined in a narrative, the book works. When Eco indulges in lengthy flights of mystic fantasy or delirium, it does not. That The Island of the Day Before is two parts reality and erudition for every one part rhapsodic obscurantism is a strength. It is a solid, diverting book.

A final note is warranted in admiration for the heroic William Weaver, who has translated all of Umberto Eco's books into English, as well as piles of Italo Calvino, Roberto Calasso, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Italo Svevo. I'm given to understand he works closely with Eco on translation, and somehow they have conceived of a process which allows them to translate words like "atrament" and "atrabilious." (Indeed, I've read the diary he kept during his year translating "Foucault's Pendulum," and experienced many a sympathetic wince as he finds himself driven to obscure dictionaries which even then do not have the peculiar words, terms, and names Eco uses...and what does one do when translating polyglot puns in dialogue of characters who constantly use foreign expressions? What about when you realize that words which are nouns in English are adjectives in Italian? The mind reels.). Any book translated by Mr. Weaver is certain to be a wealth of excellent prose, and this is no exception.

Utterly Useless Information

I have just learned that the peculiar squiggly mark favored by nineteenth century German philosophers to mark paragraphs in their impenetrable books (§) is called a "section sign," and can be vocalized in a sentence using the perfectly good English word "section." Also, the paragraph sign "¶" is called a "pilcrow" and there is a sign which combined a question mark and an exclamation point into the delightfully-named "interrobang," which this font has never even heard of. This is the best day ever.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Age of Iron

Age of Iron, by J.M. Coetzee
1990, 198 pp.

I had hoped to give a perfect review to J.M. Coetzee's Age of Iron, but alas, the book has one inescapable flaw: on page 141, there is a superfluous "very."

In addition to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, Mr. Coetzee, a white South African and university professor, holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and nine honorary doctorates, translates from Dutch and Afrikaans, has won two Booker Prizes, and is such a recluse that he seems to be the only famous person on the planet who (as far as I can tell) is not a close friend of Christopher Hitchens. There are stories of entire dinner parties at which he does not utter a single word. A colleague reports having seen him laugh exactly once. I would very much like to know what the joke was. He seems to write short, stark, shocking books in tight, lapidary prose, mainly about the cruelty and suffering of living in this world. Apparently he does not smoke, drink, or eat meat; he bicycles long distances, and spends time writing seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. I find his self-discipline and exceptional skill faintly terrifying.

Age of Iron is an epistolary novel narrated by an old woman who is dying of cancer in 1986 South Africa to her daughter in America. This is at once something of a jolt: since this is the first Coetzee book I've read, I have no idea what his authorial voice usually sounds like, but here he is never out of character. Every word is persuasively the voice of a sad, lonely, dying woman, watching the world she knew collapsing around her. Few male authors attempt a female protagonist, fewer still do so with first-person narration, and I'm not sure I've ever read anyone not only add the complications of age, terminal illness, and racial alienation, but actually succeed. To be perfectly critical, as the book goes on, the narrator (around page 150, we learn her name is Mrs. Curren) begins to give lengthy monologues which at times sound a bit stilted and are difficult to imagine actually being spoken. Mrs. Curren was a professor of classics, though, so I was willing to believe that she has a skill and familiarity with eloquent lectures, and since the narration is a letter, I assumed that in the process of writing, Mrs. Curren cleaned up the language a bit. You can almost see her revising as on page 163 when she goes from the cliché "War is never what it pretends to be. Scratch the surface and you find, invariably, old men sending young men to their death in the name of some abstraction or other" to the excellent "the future comes disguised, if it came naked we would be petrified by what we saw." Coetzee it seems is a good enough writer than he doesn't have to force Mrs. Curren to be one all the time, unlike (say), John Updike, who is always having simple, uneducated character speak with the chiseled precision of John Updike.

The book opens with Mrs. Curren discovering a homeless man named Vercueil who has been sleeping in the alley next to her house. She develops a sort of relationship with him, attempting to offer him help and charity, which he rejects, but at the same time desperately needing him for human contact. She is a smart, sensitive woman who at the end of her life has been left alone to die: "'It will be all right': those are the words I want to hear uttered. I want to be held to someone's bosom, to Florence's, to yours, to anyone's, and told that it will be all right." Vercueil is never romanticized: he is constantly difficult, unappreciative, selfish, and often unfeeling. He is mostly silent, mostly inattentive. He is, in Mrs. Curren's words, "beyond caring and beyond care." Mrs. Curren has a black live-in maid, whose teenage son gets wrapped up in anti-apartheid violence. She tries to warn him that he is too young and the police are too brutal, but his hatred is stronger than her advice: "My words fell off him like dead leaves the moment they were uttered. The words of a woman, therefore negligible; of an old woman, therefore doubling negligible; but above all of a white."

In her efforts to help the two angry teenagers, Mrs. Curren sees terrible things: police brutality, dead children, a shanty-town burning. Coetzee does not pull punches here, and is all the more harsh in that the witness to terrible events is a sad, vulnerable old woman who is constantly in pain. "Grief past weeping," she writes. "I am hollow, I am a shell. To each of us fate sends the right disease. Mine a disease that eats me out from inside. Were I to be opened up they would find me hollow as a doll, a doll with a crab sitting inside licking its lips, dazed by the flood of light."

Though the figure of Mrs. Curren is easily recognizable as a representative of soft, insulated, anti-apartheid liberal whites, neither she nor the book as a whole ever descends to the level of simple allegory. Coetzee does not force this thinking, feeling woman to become Everywoman (or Everyman), perhaps on the excellent grounds that Every(wo)man is a dreadful bore. It is an intensely personal, human book, and Coetzee never lets the reader lose track of the details of this specific person dying in this specific place at this specific time. Instead of the author making the character a hand-puppet for a larger idea, the character comes to realize her own place in the crumbling world of apartheid South Africa. She begins to witness the extent of the government capacity for brutality, and starts to understand the endless hatred that brutality has developed in the young generation. She sees terrible things, knows that more terrible things will continue to happen, and further, knows that she will not live to see peace and healing. "I am trying to keep a soul alive in times not hospitable to the soul," she writes.

Some reviews have suggested the end finds a sort of solace and salvation, but I must disagree. The relationship between Mrs. Curren and Vercueil is one of two equally marginalized people, left behind by a generation which is much harder and more cruel than they. Both of them are dead weight to a society which does not care about basic human worth, so they are left to die, ignored by everyone but each other. It's a bleak ending for a bleak book, but brilliantly crafted and flawlessly executed.

The Atrocity Exhibition

The Atrocity Exhibition, by J.G. Ballard
1970, 157 pp.

I have no idea what to make of this book. It consists of an aggregation of the so-called "condensed novels" J.G. Ballard wrote and published, mostly in New Worlds, between 1966 and 1969. These "condensed novels" are a paragraph of strange text, led off by a short, bold-faced title. At first I noted down the particularly crazy examples of these ("Transliterated Pudenda," "Eurydice in a Used-car Lot," "Dissociation: Who Laughed at Nagasaki?") but then gave up in despair. Had I continued I would have ended up transcribing the entire book. Several of these paragraphs are grouped together into a section ("The Universe of Death," "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race," "The Summer Cannibals," etc.) which vaguely communicate a story. As the reader wades through these lunatic, often disturbing prose snapshots, patterns begin to emerge. There is a central figure, variously called Travis, Talbot, Traven, Tallis, Trabert, Travers--the "T-figure," if you will, apparently inspired by reclusive, mysterious novelist B. Traven. T was a bomber pilot, or imagined himself one, but was in a crash, died for a while on the operating table, and came back with "something missing." He is obsessed with finding linkages between things, mainly using visual media, and wants to re-kill John F. Kennedy in a way that "makes sense," apparently repelled, like Don DeLillo and Martin Amis, by the idea of a lonely loser meaninglessly killing the wealthy, brilliant, powerful, aristocratic Leader of the Free World. T seems to have been a doctor of some sort, and escapes from the hospital where he either worked (or was a patient), finds a woman and some radicals or sociopaths (or both) to use to hatch his plans. He is hunted by Dr. Nathan, who is either his colleague, his teacher, or his doctor, who is trying to find him, with help of Claire Austin, who is always standing by a window, and who I think was T's wife. With each new section, T's name changes, and we see similar events (a helicopter chase, flashbacks to sex and obsessive media projects, weird research, the death of a young woman, a fixation with car crashes) again and again, though slightly changed. The time is difficult to nail down: is this the same thing happening again and again, or only one event, remembered different ways? Are these things happening, or is T imagining them? Things seem to recur: I think Catherine Austin dies a half-dozen times. There is even a deplorable character named Vaughan, who may or may not be the same deplorable Vaughan of Crash, who was obsessed with the sexuality of car crashes. Ballard even took this into the real world when he staged a show of "new sculpture" at the Arts Lab in 1969, featuring three smashed cars, a topless girl, and closed-circuit television. During the month that the exhibition lasted, the cars were routinely subjected to "hostility" and attack from visitors to the gallery, and the girl was almost raped in the back set of a wrecked Pontiac.

I was at first tempted to call Ballard the most Žižekian of novelists, but considering that he began these weird stories when Žižek was about seventeen years old, it might be more accurate to call Žižek one of the most Ballardian of thinkers. There are strange mergings of inner and outer realities, such that it is impossible to determine if the external world is an application of T's psyche, or if his psyche has been determined and constructed by external inputs. There is a recurring motif of confusing landscapes with bodies: "Above all, the multistory car park was a model for her rape," for instance. The figure of Dr. Nathan is either the manifestation of postmodernism taken to its logical conclusions or a ruthless send-up of that impoverished belief system, to the extent that those two things are different. He spends a lot of time saying things like this:

"Talbot's belief--and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario--is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event--a liberation of sexual energy--mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President. In the eucharist of the simulated auto-disaster we see the transliterated pudenda of Ralph Nader, our nearest image of the blood and body of Christ."

Do we?

In the last few sections of the book, the bold-face title phrases start to form disconnected sentences, which I have reproduced below in an effort to give you an indication of what the book is like to read. Generally, one gets the impression that Ballard, through all his peculiar avant-garde techniques, is on to something. Much like how Crash is borne of the observation that while car crashes are horrific in person, at a distance they become fascinating, and as entertainment are positively appealing ("The key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor sums up speed, drama, aggression, the junction of advertising and technology...a car is the ultimate freedom: the freedom to kill yourself"), so too has visual media allowed the (usually male) psyche to re-create optimum sex and death acts in ways which have private meaning, rather than the absurd, meaningless character of real life. "Art," he wrote, "is the principle way in which the human mind has tried to remake the world in a way that makes sense." In terms of the structure of creation and the drive to create, whether the content of the optimum scenario is sex or death becomes immaterial, interchangeable: what matters is that it "make sense" to the person doing the constructing. The recurring images, often given in lists, tend to blend together. Here's a representative: "Pudenda of auto-crash victims. Using assembly kits constructed from photographs of (a) unidentified bodies of accident victims, (b) Cadillac exhaust assemblies, (c) the mouth-parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, volunteers were asked to devise the optimum auto-crash victim. The notional pudenda of crash victims exercised a particular fascination. Choice of subjects was as follows..." There are some eerily prescient bits: the section entitled "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," written in 1969, suggests that images of Reagan may be the optimum mental combination of sex and violence, realized on a large scale. Ballard had quite the track record of things like this: in 1968, he predicted that eventually visual media would allow everyone to star in their own personal porn films, realizing in external images their private fantasies, in 1971 argued that personal computers would allow people to opt out of reality, and so forth.

The Atrocity Exhibition is brilliant and also almost unreadable. Few things could be less like a novel: a banana, for instance, is slightly more like a novel than The Atrocity Exhibition. It might also be brilliant. I really don't know.

Here are the combined paragraph titles. This is the closest I can come to indicating what the book is like to read. Just imagine each line is followed by a paragraph of strange, violent, sexual, obsessive text:

In his dream of Zapruder frame 235
Tallis was increasingly preoccupied
by the figure of the President's wife.
The planes of her face, like the
cars of the abandoned motorcade
mediated to him the complete silence
of the plaza, the geometry of murder.

At night, these visions of helicopters and the D.M.Z.
fused in Traven's mind with the spectre
of his daughter's body. The lantern of her face
hung among the corridors of sleep.
Warning him, she summoned to her side
all the legions of the bereaved.
By day the overflights of B.52s
crossed the drowned causeways of the delta,
unique ciphers of violence and desire.

Each afternoon in the deserted cinema
Tallis was increasingly distressed
by the images of colliding motor cars.
Celebrations of his wife's death,
the slow-motion newsreels
recapitulated all his memories of childhood,
the realization of dreams
which even during the safe immobility of sleep
would develop into nightmares of anxiety.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Vermilion Sands

Vermilion Sands, by J.G. Ballard
1971, 208 pp.

As I was writing my review of Ballard's The Burning World, I did a quick New York Times search to see what his most recent book was. Instead I saw that he had died the day before. I admit I was a bit taken aback: I'd liked the book and looked forward to reading more of his stuff. I remembered reading that China Miéville considered Ballard one of his heroes, that Kingsley Amis was a big fan, and that Anthony Burgess wrote a few glowing reviews of Ballard's early books. I read a half-dozen or so appreciations in The Guardian and went back and re-read the half-dozen reviews Martin Amis wrote of his work. I came away regretting that I'd only gotten round to reading him so late, and resolved to be better acquainted with his body of work.

To that end I picked up his short story collection Vermilion Sands. It is always mentioned in one breath among his greatest work, and among the greatest work in the genre, so I felt on solid ground. I was not disappointed; nor, in the interest of disclosure, was I astounded. Instead I finished the book as intrigued as I was when I began it.

Vermilion Sands is a collection of nine stories, all vaguely connected by character and location, but inextricably connected in mood and theme. All of them take place in a sort of run-down future Palm Springs equivalent called "Vermilion Sands," which seems to be on the shore of an ocean made of shifting, dangerous sand where white manta rays fly around in the sky. There are mentions of something called "the Recess," a time when apparently everyone on Earth took a decade off from work and productivity. Vermilion Sands is populated by the idle rich, particularly the idle rich as envisioned from the vantage point of the mid-1960's: these are not unemployed stockbrokers or venture capitalists, but avant-garde artists and mysterious actors. Each story revolves around some sort of futuristic art medium: psychologically sensitive architecture, flowers that produce sound instead of smell, singing statues, moving painted screens, cloud sculptures, living fabric, paintings that remember what they see, and automated poetry computers. Each story is told via first-person narrator, usually a professional artist, who encounters a demented, listless, dangerous woman. These women tend to wear billowing white gowns over their naked bodies, often are rich or formerly famous, usually live in abandoned villas, have mysterious pasts, and frequently are obsessed with a dead person. Often the art medium in question goes terribly wrong or turns out to be dangerous.

The earliest story is "Prima Belladonna," first published in 1956, the latest is "Say Goodbye to the World," from 1970. All of these stories are slathered in the aesthetic of the old New Worlds science fiction magazine during its run under the guidance of Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison. New Worlds brought together a collection of avant-garde, speculative, so-called "new wave" writers, mainly anarchists and socialists by nature, who were interested in William S. Burroughs, psychedelic drugs, sexual liberation, and the decay of Western Civilization. They printed a lot of MC Escher art and Beat poetry. Here's a mission-statement excerpt from one of their many defenses of their freedom to publish: "Tired of the familiar hypocrisies and the empty moralising of the middle-class, bored with the sententious orthodoxy of the official Left, suspicious of the motives of big business, especially the arms trade, hearing the first intimations of a very noisy uncontrollable cyberspace, a virtual universe of spin and image manipulation, understanding how popular media can become a sinister instrument of public brainwashing, how easily the culture of consumerism buys and sells our representatives..."

Marshall McLuhan's ideas were manifest (though sometimes excoriated) on almost every page, as they are in Vermilion Sands as well: there is all manner of concern over the implications of a medium, on the degrees of participation demanded of a consumer of that medium, and the potential evolution of our continued detachment from media and disinterest in actual experiences. I love the stuff these guys wrote. It's weird, often profane, frequently mind-bending, but subversive, interrogative, and instigative in a way that I think only science fiction can be and in the way I think science fiction ought to be. M. John Harrison is still one of my favorite writers of all time, and perhaps the finest prose stylist currently working in English. Gene Wolfe is some kind of demented genius. Michael Moorcock is the dean of aggressive, anarchist, anti-heroic, counter-culture fantastic fiction. I even like Harlan Ellison's early stories. I've never made it anywhere into Samuel Delaney, though. Ballard was frequently in New Worlds, especially his "condensed novels," which were later aggregated into The Atrocity Exhibition, a savage bit of madness I'm also currently reading.

New Worlds got in rather a lot of trouble when they decided to serialize a novel called Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad which was morally, verbally, and thematically explicit in rather inventive ways. It also featured the excellent line, "The saddest day of your life isn't when you decide to sell out. The saddest day of your life is when you decide to sell out and nobody wants to buy."

I digress. Here Ballard's stories are somewhat leisurely and restrained, and admittedly seem to be hitting the same note over and over. As ever, he is strong with the peculiar visual simile. For instance: "His dead clothes hung on his muscular body like the husk of some violated fruit." Or "Her skin dimmed and the insects in her eyes slowed to a delicate waving." At times he lets his characters, who are intelligent, though gripped with unconquerable ennui, reflect and philosophize. At this the story "Studio 5, the Stars" is certainly the strongest. It concerns a future in which poetry is produced by automated machines that are programmed with rhyme schemes, assonances, themes, and so forth. Poets are incapable of writing their own work, instead their "art" comes from how well they can program their poetry computers. "Fifty years ago," a character says, "a few people wrote poetry, but no one read it. Now no one writes it either. The VT set merely simplifies the whole process." To these people "great literature is not only unreadable, but unwriteable as well." The medium really has become the message.

Vermilion Sands is an interesting read, particularly as a sort of time capsule, though I feel it would have benefited from some variation. By the last story, the reader knows precisely what is going to happen and when, which is too bad because each story individually is quite worthy of consideration. I will report back when and if I survive reading The Atrocity Exhibition.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Sheltering Sky

The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles
1949, 335 pp.

When I began mentally composing this review, it was going to be "appreciative" and "positive," though well short of "glowing," but now that I'm sitting down to physically write it, having now finished the book and had time to think about it, I must admit I've quite changed my mind.

The Sheltering Sky involves an unhappily married American couple unfortunately named “Port” and “Kit” (fun fact: the guy’s full name is “Port Moresby,” which is the same name as the capital of Papua New Guinea!) as they and sometimes their friend Tunner travel aimlessly around North Africa shortly after the Second World War. They frequently encounter the Lyles, a pair of despicable and disreputable Brits also meandering around the fringes of the Sahara. None of them are particularly appealing characters: Port, who gets the majority of the third-person subjective narrative attention, alternates between vague, moody, pseudo-mystical drifting and cynical manipulation. If he isn't sitting around staring profoundly at the desert, he's probably wandering off to some encounter involving a prostitute. Kit is a solipsist hypochondriac, which may be redundant but is unfortunately accurate, who spends a lot of time whining and fretting. She is obsessed with omens. She seems pretty clearly manic-depressive, and is (for reasons to be shortly explained) the book's unredeemable flaw. Tunner is a bit of a dunce and is easily manipulated, and early on manages to get Kit drunk on a train and has sex with her. Now, I am all in favor of amoral, complicated, conflicted, or otherwise interesting characters. I do not by any means demand that characters be good people, and indeed of the various elements in fiction, character might be the one which interests me least. But I didn't believe any of these people. The minor characters are excellently drawn, and the environment is clear and lovely. But the center of the book does not hold.

There is hardly any plot to speak of, aside from the basic, primal, Campbellian "journey away from civilization." I assimilated this theme gladly, and for the first two thirds of the book was perfectly happy with it. I processed the idea that Port was stripping away the accoutrements of modern life, and in doing so was stripping away the pieces of the self, and was negligently destroying his wife in the process. So far so good, a sort of Thoreau/ St. Simeon Stylites, but with a modern recognition of the torment of interpersonal relations. It is never established where this drive for self-destruction comes from, but I was willing to take it as given, even in spite of his pensive moping and silly behavior. Recognizing the context of post-war, existential, French-influenced, Beat-era gestalt, I was content to run with the unexplained, slightly archetypal despair and flight from civilization. The motif of the Sahara as a vast, morally nihilist, unfeeling, uncaring, but pure and natural counterpoint to the moral and aesthetic horrors of civilization worked perfectly well. But then at the end of Part II, he gets typhoid and dies in a fit of delirium, mainly because he can't really be bothered to get better. Kit, sought by the local police, escapes alone into the desert. All right, I thought, he's managed to destroy himself, and now she's picking it up and pushing on with her own journey. This, I decided, will be the real test of the novel.

And then the whole damn thing goes right off the rails. Kit gets picked up by a caravan of Arabs, one of whom shortly thereafter (in a fit of vague, flowery, slightly delirious prose) rapes her and then shares her with another nomad. She rather likes this, and becomes his regular concubine. When they reach his home, he dresses her as an Arab boy and keeps her locked in a room as a sort of drugged sex slave. Then his wives find out and they whip her until he rescues her and then (I think) decides to kill her via slow poisoning. She escapes and wanders aimlessly in a market until she gets picked up by an apparently beautiful black guy, who she promptly has sex with in a hotel he finds. She wakes up to discover him and the hotelier stealing her money. Finally people from the embassy track her down and send her (struggling, unwilling) back to Tangier. Tunner turns up to meet her, but she disappears into the city. End of book.

Does that last paragraph make the slightest bit of sense to you? Does it fit with the previous ones? Does it sound like I made it up? More importantly, do you think any human being at all ever anywhere would behave that way?

Oh, how heroically I struggled to drag a meaningful theme out of this book! Perhaps, I reasoned, this book is about sheltered Europe coming face-to-face with The Other. Here Africa kills a white man and has sex with a white woman. Quelle horreur! But the last third fits so poorly with the rest that genuinely I expected to turn every page and find that it was all just a dream. Since it obviously involves Kit losing her mind, how much of it actually happened? How much did she imagine or hallucinate, aided by the third-person subjective narrative choice? Alas, it all appears to be quite literal. Maybe, I thought, it's about the inability of the West to appreciate, understand, and eventually survive their encounter with Blackest Africa: sort of an "East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet" idea. The frail, man-made "truths" of the West meet the ancient, indifferent actuality of the natural world, right? But symbolism only goes so far. A character must still be a recognizable human being and must behave according to some semblance of internal logic. A character is the medium for a sort of relationship between the reader and the author in which the reader gives attention and hopefully emotional and/or intellectual engagement, and the author promises not to betray the reader's trust. It is a great paradox of fiction that despite being nothing but lies, it must also scrupulously tell the truth. And I didn't believe anything the last third: it breaks the reader-author relation established in the first two sections.

I wanted some explanation, so I turned to the film, made in 1990 by Bernardo Bertolucci, that rather self-indulgent poet of sensual images, lonely sex, and loss. Most of the film is quite literally shot-by-shot, word-for-word from the book, but without the third-person subjective narration. I found the sumptuous cinematography by Vittorio Storaro a pleasure to watch, but with the absence of the novel's inner reflection, the dialogue is stilted and the interpersonal action a bit abrupt and poorly fleshed out. This absence of internal narrative both taketh and giveth back: on the one hand, we miss the emotions and obsessions which (slightly) explain the characters' peculiar or otherwise unmotivated behavior. Without this, they occasionally just appear to be behaving stupidly for no reason at all. On the other hand, we are also spared some of the rambling delusional passages, which helps. Without the narrative demonstration of Kit's apparent descent into lunacy, the last third in particular seems rather ridiculous, for the very good reason that it is rather ridiculous. Some of the more sensational bits, especially towards the end, are toned down for the film. Apparently Bertolucci actually spoke with some North Africans while filming and discovered that it isn’t precisely common behavior to appropriate a bewildered white woman as a sex slave, so the sexual experiences at the end are softened and made slightly more logical. Bowles was apparently infuriated by this, and said later in an interview “it should never have been filmed. The ending is idiotic and the rest is pretty bad.”

As in the novel, the supporting characters are the strong point. The actors who play the Lyles are slimy and deplorable almost to the point of caricature. Their appearances and some of the interplay between Kit and Port which in the novel seemed to be expressions of listless, existential ennui instead accelerate into the realm of comedy. As ever, I quite disliked John Malkovich. He does some strong acting here, but not even that can disguise his faintly crossed eyes and peculiarly affected voice.

In the film, the central characters appear more as wealthy Gatsby-ish dilettantes, whereas in the novel, they seemed more like slightly scruffy permanent expats. This suggests that the barrier which separates the travelers from their surroundings is less their skin color and origin and more their wealth. Partially since there is no major African character, and the narration given to Tunner and the occasional French officer is missing in the film, so there is no counterpoint to emphasize their Otherness. Instead we just see them floating through crowds of impoverished, fly-covered children, tossing money around. The story seems much more like "spoiled rich people encounter realities of poverty and go crazy or die" instead of "in search of meaning, pointless people encounter indifference of the world and go crazy or die," which is what I choose to believe I got from the novel. The film is in general a more presentable, restrained piece, and in my estimation works better than the novel, but the end is still a mess.

In an interesting touch, Paul Bowles himself turns up as the narrator: an elderly, well-dressed fellow, sitting at the back of cafes, watching the main characters. Unfortunately, Mr. Bowles' diction is slurred and muddy. He is an interesting presence, but at 79 years old, not an ideal narrator. The Sheltering Sky was his first novel, written when he was 38 and was forming the focal point of the weird expatriate artist community in Tangier which would shortly include William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and Tennessee Williams. I like the work of his contemporaries and generally trust their recommendations; indeed, Bowles is generally highly regarded, but it must be by those who either started this book and did not finish it, or who were blessed with the ability to forget how it ends.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan
1998, 193 pages

When I was a ludicrous and aspiring young writer, I discovered that my greatest obstacle was my complete inability to think up a story to hang all my clever characters, situations, bits of dialogue, and passages of description onto. I flailed around for a while, reading several novels for inspiration, and finally had an epiphany: to some extent, virtually all interesting stories revolve around Something Bad Happening to a character. Nobody wants to read a book in which a character gets everything they want all the time with no trouble. We want suffering, because we recognize that to be alive means to suffer, and through an empathy for the character who is suffering, we create for ourselves the illusion that others may feel empathy for our own suffering. This concept drives all sorts of art, from Charlie Brown to Hamlet. I began to practice it at its most primitive: I would literally create a character and then do bad things to him. I had one where a guy’s car breaks down in Nevada, so he tries to walk to the nearest gas station, but then he steps in a gopher hole and breaks his ankle, and then gets stung by a scorpion and finally he sees somebody on a fence up ahead, but when he crawls there it turns out to be Death. I had another one where I had a blind guy fall out of a rowboat in a lake. That sort of thing.

I mention this because Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam is the sort of book I would have written then, if only I’d had quite a lot of talent and polish. It is a very small book, with very few characters, very little passage of time, and absolutely nothing extraneous. This gives the book a sort of virtuoso quality: it is a kind of glittering, sharp, steel trap which once activated plays itself out according to merciless, indifferent internal logic. This economy of character and language, though, means that virtually every surprise is telegraphed far ahead of time. At first I frowned at Mr. McEwan, writing in my notes that while he certainly is marvelously skilled, he is not as clever, nor I as dense, as he seems to think. By the end, though, he clears things up: “On the other hand,” he writes, in regards to how a first-class stamp could have saved two people, “perhaps no other outcomes were available to them, and this was the nature of their tragedy.” It is less that McEwan shows his hand too early and more that he delights in letting you know what outrageous and disturbing thing it is he is about to do to his characters, and then making you watch, helpless, to see if he actually does it. And indeed he does.

On those grounds, I am going to slightly give away the ending. You will know the ending a little past the halfway point, if not sooner, and the pleasure (or unease?) of the book is watching it happen, so I hope I will be forgiven. McEwan sets up two friends: Clive, an eminent composer, and Vernon, a powerful newspaper editor. They meet at the funeral of a woman who former the lover of both of them, and they make a pact that if one is ever in a state of mental decay, the other will help him die. Then they go back to their lives, but shortly thereafter each face a moral crisis in which they choose wrongly. Their respective decisions alienate each other, and directly or indirectly cause professional ruin. When they both go to Amsterdam under false pretenses, each one convinces a Dutch doctor (they are very open about euthanasia there, you know) that the other is insane and must be killed, according to their pact.

Now I must admit the end is a bit of a stretch. I am well aware of the laissez-faire approach the Dutch have towards assisted suicide, but I somehow doubt that a doctor in Amsterdam will kill somebody just on the say-so of somebody else. But everything up until that point has been crafted with such skill and tight control that I was willing to go along. McEwan is deft at sketching out both central characters in a minimum of space, and is quite effective and presenting each of their own private worlds in its unique specificities. Clive has a lovely house in Kensington with a large, disordered studio where he writes his symphony; Vernon's life is one of frantic meetings and constant arguments, each demonstrated efficiently and memorably. McEwan has a curious habit of giving a short chapter to one character which ends in a cliffhanger, then doubling back in time to explain via the other character how that cliffhanger occurred. It’s a strange technique, but a much more interesting one than simply cutting back and forth, and is in perfect unity with the content, adding to the impression of a dangerous metal flower unfolding.

I’m given to understand that all of McEwan’s work is like this: short, stark little novels in which disturbing (often violent, demented, or inexplicable) events and people interrupt someone’s well-ordered, ordinary life, and he watches, detached, as they grapple with the emotional and moral fallout. Amsterdam is the novel he won the Booker Prize for, but I have not seen it recieve startlingly more praise than any other of his novels: apparently, he always writes with this sort of skill. Reading the reviews, I was not convinced that I wanted to read a novel like that more than once, but after this book, which is so compact and professional, I am persuaded. His novels are so brief and swift that they can be consumed easily in one or two sittings, and I think I shall be glad to have them around to eat through when I am in the mood for watching a consummate craftsman Do Something Bad to a character.