Archive for November, 2005

Okay, here are some books

A few weeks ago, I critiqued the TIME list of the best English-language novels since 1923. I think I had some good points, but, whether you agree with me or not, it’s obviously easier to criticize than to create. So, with that in mind, I’m creating my own list of favorite books. Of course, any such list has to have constraints, so here are mine: this is a list of the best books that I own, either on paper or electronically, with multiple books from the same author only if they’re really, really deserving. That immediately disqualifies some books that would otherwise make the list, like Proust’s Swann’s Way or Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which is sort of annoying, but the plus side for both you the reader (because you get to see what got left out) and me the writer (because I can just go down the list) is that I’ve already got a list of all the books I own physical copies of, and I have few enough electronic editions stored on my hard drive as to not matter too much. So, anyway, here goes:

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Couldn’t have said it better myself

From a Colby Cosh post entitled “The heights and depths of”:

Is there another site in the universe, I ask you, that delivers such greatness and such appalling awfulness in equal measure? You never do know what you’ll get when you click on an ESPN link–it might be the last depraved rantings of some exquisite genius like Hunter S. Thompson, or the most ghastly flatus imaginable from some podunk beat writer.

Top signs that Bloomsday is upon us

A couple of weeks ago I linked to an interview with Harold Bloom and put up a quotation of his at the top of the page, but that should not be construed as an unconditional endorsement. In general I feel that he has had a salutary effect on literary teaching and criticism, at least in his ostensible aims if not in his style. He claims to be pushing against overt ideology and political correctness in the humanities, which is of course not true to the extent that everyone works out of and expresses an ideology in their work (the post-modernists have taught us that much). But at least Bloom’s brand of ideology seems more oriented towards addressing the elements of literature that are unique and special, or at least distinguish them from nakedly theoretical tracts. This is my main quarrel with applying gender, Marxist, post-colonial et al. theories to literature. It’s not so much that I disagree with their premises (though I often do), it’s that looking at works of literature as primarily economic or racial or genderal signifiars doesn’t yield insights that are basically any different than the conclusions to be found by studying an inheritance or the tax code, and it certainly doesn’t explain why works by Shakespeare or Cervantes are still considered central in a way that 16th century census records aren’t. Those even goes for new theoretical currents like the new trendy literary Darwinism. Generally speaking I find new-Darwinism and evolutionary psychology rather compelling, but again, not only are the things one finds by studying Pride and Prejudice through this lens not much different than the insights one gains by studying fruit flies, the exercise in facts seems generally consist of somewhat mindlessly applying the results of those behavioral studies to the literary work in question. I’m not saying the conclusions in either case are invalid, but from a scientific standpoint fruit flies are much more conducive to experimental research than 19th century novels, so what’s the point of literature?

Which brings us back to Bloom. He presents literature in a way that makes a pretty convincing case that what one can discover in Shakespeare or the other great authors is largely unique to them. Whether it is still of any use to us is another question, but literature stands a greater chance of surviving from this perspective than by providing auxiliary illustration of animal behavioral principles, much less discredited Freudian or Marxist nonsense. That said, Bloom projects the weird impression of not having a center, which is strange in a man who once wrote a book called The Western Canon. It’s very inspiring to hear him talk about the importance of gaining wisdom from the books one reads, or of least of remembering that it is the most important thing we can gain from literature (which it is from the eternal point of view, although like most academic critics he underestimates the value of entertainment for us down here on earth), but he doesn’t seem to have anything to say as to what he means by wisdom. Certainly not much in the way of ideas or approach unites all the authors he’s roped together other than being “classic,” and one almost gets the dispiriting impression that for him it is merely their acceptance as classics that ultimately guarantees their status as wise. Partly I suppose simply because it is hard for me to imagine someone believing Montaigne and Descartes, or Samuel Johnson and the writers of the Kabbalah, as all being wise, or at least in the same way. I’m not suggesting that there should be an explicit doctrine of wisdom, it couldn’t be further from the case, but even taking into account that freedom from doctrine or theory is at least partly what he seems to mean by wisdom, there doesn’t seem to be anything very directed in his criticism except loathing for those uncouth academic barbarians who he feels have desecrated pure aesthetic culture. He certainly doesn’t philosophize with a hammer. And speaking of Nietzsche, although Bloom quotes him a lot, you can bet that you won’t find him quoting this passage from On The Genealogy of Morals, which I can’t help but think of when reading Bloom:

“As for that other type of historian, an even more ‘modern’ type perhaps, a hedonist and voluptuary who flirts both with life and with the ascetic ideal, who employs the word ‘artist’ as a glove and has taken sole lease of the praise of contemplation: oh how these sweetish and clever fellows make one long even for ascetics and winter landscapes…I know of nothing that excites such disgust as this kind of ‘objective’ armchair scholar, this kind of scented voluptuary of history, half person, half satyr, perfume by Renan, who betrays immediately with the high falsetto of his applause what he lacks, where he lacks it, where in this case the Fates have applied their cruel shears with, alas, such surgical skill!…why did nature give me my foot?…for kicking to pieces these rotten armchairs, this cowardly contemplativeness, this lascivious historical eunuchism, this flirting with ascetic ideals, this justice-tartuffery of impotence!”

p.s. In classical post-modernist fashion, when pressed for clarity he tosses off some enigmatic quotes by Kafka, and it’s no surprise that he completely misreads Kafka as passing on to us a weary, resigned shrug rather than recognizing the energy of the introvertedly explosive comedian that he was. His gallows-humor was like Villon’s, although much more subtle.

p.p.s. It’s pretty broad irony, I know, but how about this: “Everyone is now much more concerned with gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, skin pigmentation, and twenty other irrelevancies, whereas I am talking about what I have never talked about before, and that is wisdom…I teach my clases at Yale and what cheers me up are my Asian American students – about half of the students who take my clases are Asian Americans…If this country has a future, it will be because of the new immigrants, the Asians, the Africans, the Hispanics.”

Ça ne fait rien

Nice to see that Americans are just as good at condescendingly giving French people empty, platitudinous advice about how to improve their society as the French are to Americans.

Friedman: the advent of the dreaded “-ism”?

Here’s an interesting but weird debate debate between Milton Friedman and the CEOs of Whole Foods and Cypress Semiconductors. On the one hand you should probably read it and draw your own conclusions first, but I would like to give my own interpretation of it nonetheless. While I find it annoying on the specific level that the Whole Foods CEO uses the opportunity to shamelessly plug his own company throughout, and while I doubt that Whole Foods is the moral paragon he conceitedly claims it is, on the theoretical level, surprisingly, I find myself more in agreement with him on the general role of corporations in society. This is somewhat surprising, because I am generally quite suspicious of self-serving BS masquerading as idealist rhetoric about altruism. But at the same time I find Friedman’s and Rogers’, the Cypress CEO, outright hostility to the very concept of altruism even more baffling. Sadly, it seems to me evidence that Friedmanian economic thinking has hardened into a dogma. After all, who decrees that the purpose of a corporation is one thing or another? While Friedman and Rogers explicitly acknowledge that Whole Foods investors and anyone else has the right to to do with their money as they choose and invest where they will, they clearly disapprove of any proximate goal or use that is not tied to the ultimate goal of corporate profit maximalization. But this exclusive focus on corporate profit maximalization seems, as Mackey, the Whole Foods CEO, says, a bit narrow-minded. And, considering that the basic economic unit is the individual and not the corporation, doesn’t it seem a little, well, collectivist?

I, at any rate, certainly believe that corporate profit is itself only a proximate goal, and hence of variable value, and that the ultimate goal of capitalism, or any other social system, is to maximize the welfare of the constituent indviduals. Generally speaking I believe that individuals know in what their happiness consists better than anyone else, so I drift towards the laissez-faire end of economic philosophy, which is why I have to wonder, in a system of voluntary economic transactions, why the hell Friedman and Rogers are chastising other people for what they do with their money and won’t just be tolerant of it. Adam Smith was certainly correct that individuals often do the most good by taking care of their own affairs, but if that observation hardens into a principle it becomes as oppressive as any other orthodoxy. The foundation of a liberal society must be the awareness that no single mind can know what creates the most good or the greatest happiness for everyone, and that therefore decision-making power over how to pursue their own happiness must be granted to individuals (and defended from the depradations of others). Friedman and Rogers don’t seriously challenge that right, but their de-valorization of any economic action outside of corporate profit creation betrays a narrowness of spirit that fails to fully acknowledge that philosophical basis.

p.s. I admit the title of this post is a little opaque, but it stems from my belief that when any body of ideas has congealed the point that they can be identified as an “-ism” they are probably dead. Whether Friedman has gotten to that point with his fixation on corporate profit-maximizing, despite my admiration for a lot of his ideas, is unclear to me.