Archive for the 'Literature' Category

“…but at what price”

These days, one Curt’s research interests is resurrection as a Russian cultural theme. Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Berdayev, et al. are the obvious starting points of such an investigation, but the interesting question is whether and to what extent resurrection, despite its Christian heritage, survived (and maybe even informed?) the Communist revolution/regime as a viable and relevant idea and if it influences Russian culture even to this day (this is, obviously, a simplistic summary on my part).

Given that I’ve been reading The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. II recently, it was inevitable that I would come across some citations that I (perhaps presumptuously) thought might be relevant; that led to an email exchange that I think is interesting more generally (and might, perhaps, inspire some interesting discussion in the comments), so I’ve unilaterally decided to reproduce it here.

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The threat of Jewish terrorism

Almost at the end of Roth’s American Pastoral, a couple more quick thoughts about it. It has turned out to be a trifle disappointing, though overall very good, as more than 400 pages of nearly uninterrupted ruminations about a single event, first by the author then by the protagonist, have sufficed to illustrate but not really to penetrate the psychology behind it. In a way, that seems to be the point. Roth, with his historical determinism and fatalism, would seem to concur with the terrorist daughter, who sets off a bomb in a postal depot, when she says to her father: “You can’t explain away what I’ve done by motives, Daddy. I certainly wouldn’t explain away what you’ve done by motives.” But this belief, whether it be true or false, runs pretty much counter to the entire impetus behind novel-writing, and as such doesn’t make for very good reading insofar as its spirit informs the narrative, much as books actuated by a belief in the meaninglessness of language tend to be really bad if not unreadable. And I am in addition rather skeptical of this relentless drive to make all the characters and situations representative of some broad societal reality, as if to invest them with a signicance they would not otherwise possess, but which ends by flattening or hollowing them to some extent.

In one respect, though, Roth seems to have hit upon an important point, namely that the radicalism of the ’60’s, far from being somehow an invasion of American ideals, was in fact very much an expression of them. That radicalism was really more social than political–simply the belief in revolution didn’t quite adequately capture it. It was the explosion of an unusually large youth population just at the point they all came of age, an inter-generational conflict in effect between children and parents, the rupture of the family all over, and this is at the core of the novel as well. Maybe the search for independence and autonomy, which is at the root of much of what is distinctive about American history and society, after having lost the frontier and thus the ability to realize it geographically, next sought to do so socially through a break with the surroundings into which one was born. Certainly the ritual of ostentatiously, even violently breaking with the family, often by clearly defining differences in taste, habits and even morals, has become virtually de rigueur in America. This must have been rather shocking to immigrant families who thought that they could cherry-pick the financial opportunity and independence of American life while avoiding its atomizing effect.

RAND, Rand and Accelerando

Just a few things of interest:

  • Profits of fear — Boing Boing has Charles Platt’s story about Sam Cohen, inventor of “the most moral weapon ever invented”…the neutron bomb. A fascinating look at nuclear hysteria, the Cold War and (of course) the military-industrial complex.
  • Evicting Politics — JTK makes an interesting observation:
    I find it striking that Rand’s great protagonists were inventors and businessmen, yet her admirers tend to focus almost exclusively on rational evangelism. The most powerful model for collective action appropriate to individualists is business, yet business gets short shrift from libertarians as a means for curtailing the state – they tend to devote themselves instead to collective political movements.
    Josh brings up the usual objection in the comments: “you won’t get liberty if your neighbours want you to be enslaved, no matter the number of gadgets you have”, but Kennedy rightly points out that this argument doesn’t fly:
    Few people primarily want to enslave you, they want something else and they think enslaving you is the only or easiest way to get it. When enslaving you is more expensive than it’s worth they lose interest in enslaving you.
  • Accelerando — Charles Stross’ new novel is available for free download in a variety of formats with the blessings of his publisher. Both Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise were excellent and the first chapter of Accelerando, published separately as the short story “Lobsters,” is quite good as well, so I have high hopes for Stross’ latest effort (GR: definitely check it out). As in Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, one of the major themes of Accelerando is the social impact of a technological singularity, which is a fascinating topic.

    Incidentally, Stross is doing this as a “marketing exercise”; he wants to see what impact (if any) releasing a free version online has on his sales figures. Apparently the initial results “look promising.” In the interests of helping him to keep track of how many people are reading the free version (and, hopefully, to convince his publisher to allow him to offer future novels as free downloads), consider reading the HTML unless you really prefer plain text or PDF.

The generation of ’47 strikes back

It is established that in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral one of the central themes is the way the broad events and currents of history buffet individual life. At one point he says of his protagonist:

“I began to contemplate the very thing that must have baffled the Swede till the moment he died: how had he become history’s plaything?…History…improbably, with all its predictable unforeseenness, broke helter-skelter into [his] orderly household…and left the place in shambles. People think of history in the long term, but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.”

In this context, it is interesting to see in what an apocalyptic light a presumably good Jewish liberal casts the ’60’s. Perhaps that is because virtually the whole of the Jewish community identified with the centrist upper-class liberalism that was smashed perhaps irreperably by the ideological polarization of that era. Roth overtly compares his protagonist to JFK, and in the same paragraph as the passage quoted above places the events of the decade in suggestive contrast to the Revolutionary War, as if to portray them as the two bookends of the period of American growth. Whether this indicates a belief in the onset of the decline of America or merely of the Jewish community through a perceived identification with now out-of-favor political attitudes is not entirely clear. Or maybe Roth is either sufficiently culturally assimilated to America or solipsistically self-absorbed enough to believe the fate of the two to be identical.

One-dimensional man

I’ve been reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth, in my opinion by far the leading American candidate to win the Nobel Prize for literature and I believe even the most likely to win it this coming year. It’s easy to see why. He has that quality which is irresistible for prize committees, a sociologist’s view of personality. Charitably, I believe that this is the philosophical root of the obvious artificiality of his dialogue. There is no subtext in his dialogue, because his characters seem to lack interiority. They say whatever they think, and their thoughts seem wholly turned to their environment. He doesn’t heed Robert De Niro’s admonition: “It’s important not to indicate. People don’t try to show their feelings, they try to hide them.” All his characters do is indicate; there are no barriers between the mind and speech, between speech and the interlocutor. There is no autonomy for the affections.

In short, Roth’s characters seem mere instruments of their circumstances and surroundings. He has admitted as much in an interview with Die Welt: “History gallops into you in your living room like a crazy horse. You are completely helpless…In principle, one must be happy for every moment that history leaves us in peace.” His novels then are inherently political, which is also catnip for the Nobel committee. But it seems to me that one of the goals of art, and of life, is to create a moral and intellectual independence, to develop one’s personality so as not to be merely the sum of one’s circumstances. The notion of individuals as mere exemplars of the social trends that define them is an awfully pallid portrayal of humanity.

p.s. Not related, but in this discussion Dalrymple makes two excellent points that I have tried to make in a roundabout way in the past:

  1. “While in possession of transcendental religious and philosophical truth, however, it has not escaped notice that the Muslim world has fallen behind the rest of the world. Japan, China, India are fast catching up or overtaking the West: they have been able to meet the Western challenge. No Muslim country has managed more than a kind of parasitic prosperity, dependent on oil – the industry which no Muslim did anything to discover or develop. Even their wealth, then, is a reminder of the dependence. The whole of the Arab world, minus the oil, is economically less significant to the rest of the world than one Finnish telephone company.   The fact that Islamic civilisation was once exquisite, and in advance of most others, is in this context a disadvantage. It means that Muslims tend to think in terms of recovery of glory, rather than anything new. In Muslim bookshops, you can find books about the scholars and scientists who led the world 600 years ago or more – who are a perfectly legitimate subject of enquiry of course – but after that there is a hiatus. If there had been no Muslims for the last 300 or 400 years, the world would have lost no technical or scientific advance.”

  2. “The London bombings may have caused at long last people to examine their fatuous multiculturalist pieties, which I believe are fundamentally derived from the restaurant model: today we eat Hungarian, tomorrow Mexican, the day after Lebanese, and so forth. Clearly, this is possible and very enjoyable, but there are more important and deeper things in life than a variety of cuisines. Perhaps people will begin to see that some values are simply not compatible with others, and will now be prepared to stand up for those that we believe in.”

I have long contended that the main problem with devotion to Islam is not that Islam is in itself a bad doctrine but that in a Muslim context everything must be judged with reference to the words of Mohammed and the lives of the first four caliphs. It’s very fashionable and politically correct these days to talk about how advanced Muslim civilisation was during the Middle Ages, but Dalrymple points out that using this as a normative ideal reinforces the dangerous psychological tendency to think in terms of recovery of a past glory rather than creation of a better future. The belief that all righteousness is lodged in the authority of a single document and at a single point in the past is fundamentally at odds with the very notion of “modernity” and with open-mindedness. And as for point #2, I was saying to my brother just the other day that it is possible to have a successful multiethnic and even multicultural society, but what cannot work is a multi-ethical society. Clearly everyone is not going to agree on all moral values, but there has to be one basic ethical standard in society. Without that the conflicts will be interminable and insuperable, and perhaps worse than that the tacit sanctioning of moral wrongs.

Search (to) your (heart’s) content

I’m assuming everybody is already familiar with Google’s plans to scan all the books in the libraries of Stanford, Harvard and the University of Michigan and make the contents of all those books searchable. Not a problem for books in the public domain or whose publishers have given permission for them to be searchable, but publishers aren’t too happy about the fact that Google plans to scan every book and make them all searchable via Google Print. Now Google is planning to hold off on scanning copyrighted works for which they haven’t already received permission until November to give publishers a chance to opt out (ð: eWeek).

The Association of American Publishers and its extremely annoying chair, Patsy Schroeder, are moaning about this opt-out policy:

“The great concern of not just publishers but the entire intellectual property community is Google’s turning copyright law on its head,” [Schroeder] said. “All the burden is now on the rights holder.”

Okay, she might have a point except for one important thing: if Google turns up a search term in a copyrighted work they haven’t received permission to reproduce, you only get a couple of sentences of context around that search term. Even in books for which they have received permission, you only get a couple of pages (sounds complicated, but these screenshots pretty much tell the whole story). And, having tried it for quite a while today in a couple of different books, I can definitely say that trying to read even just ten pages on each side of a search term in a book for which permission had been given is not only extremely laborious, but probably impossible.

In any case, a couple of sentences from a 300-page book is pretty tiny, certainly no more than is regularly excerpted in book reviews, scholarly papers, etc. and nobody ever raises a fuss about those usages. Of course, that’s exactly Google’s defense: that what they’re doing is covered by fair use. Patsy disagrees. Which pretty quickly boils down to a legal argument, which I don’t particularly care about (and which isn’t clear-cut one way or the other).

The more important issue is this: even if what Google’s doing is technically illegal, why in the world would any publisher object? Google Print not only makes the books you already own easier to use, but provides great advertising for new books. As is my wont, let’s see an example of the latter first: today I plugged my father’s name into Google Print and was surprised to see that he’s mentioned in a couple of books. It turns out that the only interest I would have in those particular books is pure morbid fascination with people who take words like “process” way too seriously, but, if I’d been more seriously interested in any of the books that popped up, there are links to buy from several different vendors right there. In other words, this is a great way to find new books on topics of interest and, therefore, is great directed advertising for book publishers. Put a Nokia 770 in my hands, the entire Stanford library on Google Print and the desire to learn about some new topic in my head (it happens every once in a while), I’ll be buying books left and right (or, rather, I would be, if publishers could get their goddamned act together and back some universal electronic publishing standards [ð: TeleRead]).

As for the second point, between my brother, my father, and myself, we probably own every book Mark Twain’s ever wrote. My father also owns Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which quotes Twain as having written:

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

It’s a great quote, but, despite knowing Twain wrote it and owning probably every Twain book ever, it would take forever to track down just exactly where he wrote it. However, judicious use of Google Print demonstrates that this quote comes from Life on the Mississippi and, furthermore, that it concludes a very amusing little paragraph. Now that’s what I call making my books more useful! Point is, publishers should be thanking Google for both the directed advertising of their books and for making those same books better (and, therefore, more desirable) at no cost. Instead, there are rumblings of lawsuits.

Note that Amazon‘s (selective) full-text search of the books they sell is the only comparable (though less ambitious) service already available. Of course, it should come as no surprise that Google and Amazon are at the front of this curve, since they’re about the only companies out there with both the vision to dream up something like this and (more importantly) the resources to implement it (though a nod of the head is due to the resourcefulness of both Project Gutenberg and Wikimedia).

Speaking of cool Amazon stuff, they’ve now got a feature in their maps section that allows you to see street-level photographs of locations on the map. It’s only available in 24 US cities (so far, anyway), but basically what they did is drive down a whole bunch of streets in a lot of big cities with digital cameras rolling and hooked into a GPS receiver, so you can not only see where the bar I went to last night is on the map, but what it looks like (not much). Of course, Google Maps are easier to search, but the street-level view is a hell of an idea and a nice complement to Google’s aerial photos.

In fact, one can only hope that someone out there is working on combining Google Maps’ search flexibility and aerial photographs, Amazon’s street-level pictures, JiWire’s hotspot finder and the Gmaps pedometer into one world-destroying über-map.

Justice is a funny thing

Something inherent in the necessities of successful action . . . carried with it the moral degradation of the idea.

                                      --Joseph Conrad

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

                                       --J.R.R. Tolkien

Nietzsche’s checking out Katharine Neville’s ass

After hitting up the bookstore tonight and picking up more Dumas, more Klosterman and the first book of Frank Miller’s Sin City, I stopped off at a local deli to pick up a cheesesteak and some stout. In other words, I was pretty much supplied for the weekend (except, of course, that I have to spend most of my day tomorrow grading exams, doing laundry and getting a haircut).

Anyway, as I was walking home, I couldn’t help but think to myself that I could hardly have picked three more dissimilar books, at least superficially (well, I could have made it even more of an odd collection if I’d remembered to stop back by the Philosophy section and pick up The Ego and its Own as I’d originally intended). Which is, to be honest, not entirely unusual for me. Here, for example are nine consecutive books from one of my shelves:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
Chaos Theory, by Robert P. Murphy
The Man Without Qualities, vol. I, by Robert Musil
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
Complex Analysis in One Variable, by Raghavan Narasimhan and Yves Nievergelt
Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada/Cien sonetos de amor, by Pablo Neruda
The Eight, by Katherine Neville
Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed./trans. by Walter Kaufmann
Roads to Santiago, Cees Nooteboom

For some reason, I’m always constantly amused by the odd conjunctions imposed by an alphabetical ordering system. Here’s Bob Murphy, with whom I’ve interacted quite extensively in online forums and who now teaches at a college I once (briefly) considered attending, sandwiched in between the incredibly hip Murakami and the modernist/obscurantist hero Musil. Neruda and his legion of soft-headed fans are looking down their noses at Neville’s formulaic plotline while Nietzsche checks out her ass. Nooteboom and Nabokov are trying to have an intelligent conversation, but with the Neville/Nietzsche melodrama looking like it’s headed for violence and 10 million annoying teenagers telling Neruda he’s “so, like, brilliant”, they’d settle for merely being able to hear each other.

As for poor old Narasimhan, I can’t decide if he’s trying to get someone, anyone to listen to his elegant proof of the Corona Theorem, or if he’s just sitting there wondering “What the fuck happened to me? Who are these people?”

A real chornoi russki

At last further information on Pushkin’s legendary but little-researched African great-grandfather Gannibal. A very fascinating figure by all accounts, but the very idea of such an anomalous figure popping up in Russia of all places, and being related to perhaps the most famous Russian of all to boot, has tended to obscure everything pertinent about his life. I would still quibble with crediting this man with for example the canals which were not built until the mid-20th century under Stalin for the same reason that I object to crediting Leonardo with inventing the parachute or the tank or the many other contraptions that he drew but was never able to get to work. It reminds me of the joke in which a beaver and a rabbit are sitting next to the Hoover Dam and the beaver points proudly to it and asks: “What do you think about that?” To which the rabbit replies: “Did you build that?” And the beaver responds: “No, but it’s based off of a design of mine.”

But on the whole, as I say, Gannibal is apparently a remarkable man for what he accomplished particularly in light of his origins. The obvious delight that black intellectuals take in his accomplishments, even the rather strained embrace of the 7/8 white Russian Pushkin as one of their own, rather puts the lie to the insistent claims of Frantz Fanon and his numerous maggot-like disciples that black “post-colonial” culture has to define itself in violent opposition to Western culture. That is the product of a feeling of inferiority turned to resentfulness and despair. Gannibal had no need or use for that kind of brutishness, and perhaps that is in part why Pushkin became himself such a rarity in Russia: a liberal, a humanist, a spokesman for individuals in love and suffering, the greatest poet of the modern world’s greatest national poetic tradition…

Poets: is there anything they do know?

A couple days ago, Curt deconstructed August Kleinzahler’s diatribe against Garrison Keillor and the state of poetry in America today. Amidst his various thrashings, Kleinzahler cynically opines that “[c]ultural and economic forces only suggest further devastation of any sort of vital literary culture,” to which I responded:

Is this guy fucking joking? The literary culture in this country is booming as I suspect it probably never has before. Millions of people write publicly on forums and blogs, reaching a bigger audience than ever before. And the best of those writers don’t have to wait until they die and have their work uncovered and published by their executors…

In other words, Kleinzahler, in his chosen role as intellectual/elitist/poet/prick, mistakes a degradation in his favorite form of literature for a general “devastation” of the entire literary culture. This observational bias, while intellectually dishonest, is nonetheless understandable (after all, who hasn’t seen a decline in the popularity of his favorite musical artists/styles as a sign of the impending musical apocalypse). However, this bias stems from the misunderstanding that, I claim, lies much closer the the real root of the decline of poetry.

You see, Kleinzahler, like so many people who’ve spent too much time on the academic literary scene, mistakenly thinks that poetry is really a literary pursuit. It’s not. At it’s heart, poetry is an oral artistic endeavor. The ancient epics were oral traditions long before they were ever written down. The best of the modern epics, like the Aeniad, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, recognize this fact and practically demand to be read aloud.1 The Petrarchan explosion, with its sonnets (“little song” in both Italian and Provençal), songs, eclogues, etc. was similarly tied to the oral traditions and forms of the song and the ballad (what other reason could one give for the extreme emphasis on rhyme and meter?) Since then and even up to the present day, the most popular forum for poetry has been the salon, the coffee shop and even the tavern, where intellectuals and wits compose, read and recite poetry to each other.

Admittedly, the strains had been there at least since Virgil, but somewhere along the way poetry become serious literature. A more industrious scholar than I could probably make the argument that that’s when poetry started to die. As Curt points out, modern poetry is mostly visual instead of oral. It’s either totally impossible to read aloud or sounds like “someone with emphyzema [] perpetually running out of breath in mid-phrase.”2 And one detects a hint of bitterness in Kleinzahler’s diatribe: part of the reason he hates Keillor (aside from the totally justified distaste for Keillor’s reading of terrible poems) is that Keillor is trying to once again make poetry oral, to pull it out of its hermetically sealed “literary” strongbox. Not that this makes Keillor a hero or anything; wretched taste in poetry is still inexcusable.

And in this analysis we see how to reconcile the decline in poetry that Kleinzahler, Curt, I, and pretty much everybody else acknowledge with the non-“devastation” of literary culture that should be equally obvious. After all, oral culture is in the decline and for precisely the same reason that literary culture is on the rise: the written interaction that dominates the communication of the Internet generation has supplanted a good chunk of what would otherwise have been oral interaction and the Internet/movie/television obsession with the visual has eroded much of the priority given to verbal eloquence. That the president of the most powerful country in the world is a guy who seems to have trouble speaking in complete sentences ought to be evidence enough of this trend.

(Of course, I’ve also argued in the past that pop music generally and hip hop in particular is the real “new poetry” and in that medium one might see a return to poetry’s oral roots. I still think this is true, although this is a sort of “low” poetry, more on the level of a ballad or romance than on the level of Petrarch or Shakespeare. However, one could also make the argument that “high” poetry is, by its very literary pretentions, a departure from the oral heart of poetry and, as such, presages its own decline. Another argument that really requires the scholarly treatment, not mere blog-rantings)

1. I should point out that I once spent a very long but enjoyable evening drinking cheap beer and reading Paradise Lost aloud with three friends. As I recall, we kept going until we were too drunk to continue, which, for practical purposes, meant we made it through about Book VI.

2. In quoting this, it should become obvious that the entirety of my point is contained in the first paragraph of Curt’s post, but I still felt it deserved a more complete explication/dissection.