Thursday, August 31, 2006

Pre-Honeymoon Non-Fiction Round-Up

I've read two important non-fiction books in recent months:

The Origin of Capitalism: a longer view by Ellen Meiksins Wood. In this excellent book, Wood locates the origins of capitalism in the changing social and property relations in England in the 1600s. In doing so, she points out where even Marxist historians and economists have assumed the naturalness of capitalism and in looking for its origins merely explained certain historical phenomena (e.g., feudalism, etc) as necessarily leading to capitalism. To Wood, this misses something essential and basically ignores what was quite different about various pre-capitalist economies. This book was fascinating (if occasionally repetitive), and fired my imagination. Aside from needing to read E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, which was already on my list, and several other items cited by Wood, I am now immensely interested in the question of potential alternative routes to modernity. Her distinction between various characteristics of English and French feudal relations, for example, made my head spin, given how difficult it is to imagine life without capitalism. There is much food for thought here. I plan to explore these issues in much greater detail in my reading, some of which may find its way here.

The Case Against Israel by Michael Neumann. In this book, Neumann effortlessly handles the various arguments made in Israel's favor. He establishes with ease the illegitimacy of the Zionist project in the first place, and how it's only natural that the Palestinians would have responded in the manner in which they historically have:
The ugliness of mob violence should not deceive us into supposing that more socially acceptable responses actually do less harm. We find its low-techs attacks on individuals more distasteful than high-tech attacks, even if they are sure to harm individuals just as much. A beheading disgusts us; not so a massive air assault which will have the side effect of blowing the heads off a few children. That both the attackers and we ourselves fully expect such "collateral damage" doesn't seem to matter. This indeed is why we witness the spectacular exercise in obliviousness that sees the apostles of Western civilization berating "the Arabs" or Islam for its brutality. That Western civilization recently produced King Leopold's Congo genocide, Hiroshima, the concentration camps, and two catastrophic world wars should make us think twice before we see any particular evil in the Palestinian response. (63-64)
It's not perfect (I have minor quibbles on some points of his interpretation of certain historical questions, but I do not feel that they negatively impact the power of Neumann's arguments), but this book should be required reading for anyone concerned with the issues surrounding Israel and Palestine, which should be anyone, period. I could quote from it at excessive length, but I will not. I will, however, leave you with some passages from the section addressing Palestinian terrorism (remember that his argument is in the context of generally accepted moral principles):
...the crucial point about collateral damage is not that it mutilates children and is therefore wrong; it's that it mutilates children and may at times be right. There really isn't any question about this. Even if every war the U.S. has fought since 1945 has been wrong, we can easily conceive of wars that are right, or at least in which we were right to participate. Most of us think such wars have actually occurred. And such wars involve just the sort of collateral damage we're talking about.

This is why there can't be any serious issue about justifying terrorism. Yes, it sometimes mutilates children for political purposes. This is clearly wrong if done in an obviously bad cause, or for very stupid reasons. But--I am not in a position to change or judge almost universally accepted moral principles--otherwise it can certainly be ok. That's why we so often cause it to happen.

Why then, would any of us feel entitled to find terrorism morally repugnant?

[...]

Whether to engage in terrorism--like whether to start a war--is a very serious strategic issue, fraught with uncertainty. But it is no more than that. I would not pronounce judgment on Palestinian terrorism because I do not, God-like, have all the facts on the ground at my disposal. I do not know if some other tactic would work as well, with less cost. I do know, and have argued here, that the Palestinians don't have any obviously viable nonviolent alternatives. It is also apparent that Palestinian terrorism has done great damage to the Israeli economy and that, for all the brutal retaliation it understandably provokes, from the Palestinian standpoint these very high costs may still be worth bearing, because the alternative seems to be total dispossession and very likely death in the thousands. I also know that the Palestinians have very substantial rights of self-defense that do apply to their present circumstances. Anyone who believes the Palestinians should renounce terror ought at least to provide a plausible argument that some other strategy will be more effective--and I do not see such an argument on the horizon.

The Palestinians have often said that, given an army like Israel's, they would never engage in terror. Perhaps they would be as scrupulous as we are, or ten times more so. One thing is certain: could the Palestinians trade terrorism for conventional, legal, approved warfare, thousands more innocent humans beings would be reduced to bloody lumps of flesh. Why this would be morally preferable is not entirely clear to me. (168-170)

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Pre-Honeymoon Fiction Round-Up

We're leaving for France tomorrow evening for our delayed and much-anticipated honeymoon, and it is highly unlikely that I will post anything here for the two weeks we are away. In the meantime, here is a brief round-up of some of the books I've read recently that I haven't commented on.

Murphy by Samuel Beckett. This was the first Beckett for me. Cursory glances at Molloy and Malone Dies had been daunting. Then, with all of the really smart things I was reading about Beckett marking his centenary this year, and the release of Grove's attractive new boxed set, I felt the time had come to take the plunge, and I decided to start at the beginning. Murphy proved to be both more and less difficult that I'd expected. There were several passages that made me laugh out loud and several others I needed to re-read a few times to comprehend and a few others that I never did. After completing the novel, I returned to the beginning and re-read the first 50 pages or so, clarifying some issues. I look forward to continuing with Beckett.

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom. After Murphy, it was an interesting coincidence to immediately be reading another novel about characters retreating from the world. I liked this book. See here for a couple of passages that struck me.

Things in the Night by Mati Unt. I had been looking forward to this Estonian (Dalkey-published) novel, and it got off, I thought, to a good start. It plays with narrative form, and seemed to be the kind of thing I would like, but by the end I was just reading to finish it. I find I don't have much else to say about it.

Phosphor in Dreamland by Rikki Ducornet. This is the third Ducornet novel I've read (Stain and The Jade Cabinet are the others). I quite liked it. As with the others, there is an element of the fantastic in this novel. It is a story that passes itself off as a scholarly account of a supposedly historical figure. As ever, Ducornet's prose is a delight to read, and some of her common concerns (questions of beauty and desire) are present. Worth a read. Incidentally, this book has some of the most overheated blurbs I've ever read. Her novel The Jade Cabinet is described as "Jane Austen meets Angela Carter via Lewis Carroll", Phosphor in Dreamland itself as "Jonathan Swift meets Angela Carter via Jorge Luis Borges" and, perhaps most unfortunately, Ducornet herself as "A drastically beautiful comic writer who stitches sentences together as if Proust had gone into partnership with Lenny Bruce." Seriously, settle down.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. My first Sebald. While there were passages of great power in this book, in the end I had to work to finish it. Nevertheless, I remain interested in Sebald's other books, Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, in particular.

The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction by Michael Wood. Earlier I mentioned revisiting Nabokov when I was re-reading Despair. (I still have a long-gestating post about Despair that I need to finish--as is no doubt clear, I like getting stuff out there as close to the reading as possible). I probably first heard about The Magician's Doubts via one of these posts at Tingle Alley. Before reading it, I'd already decided to embark on a major project to re-read Nabokov (I read a lot of Nabokov several years ago, and it's largely a blur in my mind). It's just as well, since Wood makes me feel as if I haven't read any at all. Not only that, it reminds me that somehow I have still not read Speak, Memory, which just seems wrong. So, now I look forward to re-reading The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Pnin and Pale Fire and Ada, not to mention Lolita for a third time (though now I want the annotated edition). And I now find myself interested in Nabokov's translation and commentary of Eugene Onegin. I am doomed. Anyway, Wood's book is marvelous.

The Woman Who Escaped from Shame by Toby Olson. I just finished this novel today. I had previously read,and liked, his novel from a couple years ago, The Blond Box. This one is a strange sort of adventure story involving miniature horses and incest and weird pornography and diamonds and stories within stories and meditations on narration. An enjoyable read, if occasionally clunky. Olson is best known, I think, as a poet, and usually his prose is quite good, but there were times when it was merely functional and dragged. Speaking of over-heated blurbs, this one featured enthusiastic, seemingly over-the-top blurbs from the likes of Paul Auster ("One of the shining outposts of recent American fiction... Rarely has a writer been willing to face the question of sexuality with such candor..."), Harry Mathews ("...at once harsh and tender, unrelentingly wicked and sovereignly just...tersely, perversely, painfully realistic...."), and Robert Coover ("Invites accolades that border on hyperbole...")... Indeed.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Illusions and False Expectations

Gabriel Kolko, from his excellent study, Century of War (after discussing the extent to which Japan knew full well the folly of its attack on Pearl Harbor):
With the exception of Japan in 1941, all sides [...] have initiated wars full of illusions and false expectations as to their future course, and the point is less that their actions were just or unjust but simply that they were counterproductive in terms of the attainment of their objectives. They not only failed to achieve these in the majority of instances, but they left their own nations politically and socially traumatized, thereby making possible revolutions from both the Left and the Right that otherwise would surely never have occurred.

Crucial to fathoming the cause of the ruling class's endemic, systematic myopia is the similarity of the formal and informal methods by which key decision makers are selected and molded in all nations, regardless of their political structures. Such socialization processes are never based on abstract and objective rationality or norms of merit, but unrelentingly weed out very early in their careers those individuals who are likely to treat information as a neutral, rational means to clarify and help formulate policies that have yet to be sharply defined--to ask, thereby, uncomfortable, critical questions about basic issues that interfere with the predetermined assumptions, goals, and interests of a class-dominated system and the men who run it. At the levels that count, there are rarely, if ever, dissidents within ruling classes who can--or choose to--alter policies before they become irrational or self-destructive.

[...]

The United States' consistent pursuit of counterinsurgency warfare after 1947--ranging from supplying aid to proxies to the use of its own troops--notwithstanding its frequent political or military defeats, has never been challenged within key decision-making circles.

[...]

...it is precisely the factor of careerism and ambition that produces a monolithic consensus among a nation's leaders, nearly all of whom unquestioningly make or endorse the unchallenged grave errors that lead to war.

[...]

The most significant aspect of intelligence has been the astonishingly great extent to which those paid to produce it distorted it or the rulers of nations ignored that part that did not justify their misconceived and dangerous preconceptions and policies.

[...]

Ultimately, the world in [the 20th] century has marched into its increasingly destructive major wars with no safeguards against the irrationality of its doctrines and objectives or against the gravely dysfunctional but relentless political and class needs--both domestic and foreign--of the major aggressors. What was called intelligence became part of an ideologically and politically self-reinforcing system, which complex or often elegant rhetoric buttressed but that repeatedly eliminated any sane, restraining impulses that nominally nonauthoritarian nations still had the latent capacity to consider. Rationality was not the essence of the system but rather its antithesis, and what was deemed "intelligence" became a justification of the propensity of nations to commit fatal errors that only intensified their illusions and false expectations and made wars vastly more costly, both humanly and materially, as the century advanced.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Benjamin on History

Selected passages from Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History":
...every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. [...]

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it "the way it really was" (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. [...] Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.

[...]

One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are "still" possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge--unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

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In Defense of DFW

So, Ed Champion has declared David Foster Wallace to be "washed up". The elements in his "argument"? I will quote from it at length:
Since Infinite Jest, Wallace has produced three volumes of fiction and two volumes of essays. But where the other two “prodigious fiction” writers singled out by Tom LeClair (Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann) have proven that they aren’t just cerebral structuralists flaunting their immense knowledge (in many cases working against their own limitations), Wallace, by contrast, has more or less shuffled to the same beat.

Now nobody wants to say this. Even I harbor some small hope that Wallace will either try something daringly different or subject his work to a degree of scrutiny in which peers tear him a necessary new one. But since this has not happened, it’s time to confess the cold hard truth: Wallace has failed to evolve. Why then is he still writing? Phoning it in, as Wallace did with the recent Federer essay, is simply too whorish for a man of his obvious talents.

The stories in Oblivion remain cold, needlessly dense, mired in academese and marketing jargon, and are, for the most part, all fixated on the same cartoonish emotion of detached anxiety. Banging the same drum over the course of a short story collection is, for my money, a cardinal sin. (Even if it is DFW here, it simply must be said.) The essays in Consider the Lobster are certainly amusing, but the only real “evolution” of the Wallace form is contained within “Host,” an essay in which DFW’s footnotes take over the text in an almost desperate way. This is all very fascinating (personally, I preferred the Atlantic colored typesetting to the book’s crude flowchart form), but it still leaves one wondering whether this is truly the best Wallace can evolve. Or if he really wants to be writing.

One looks upon the strange irony of Wallace touring the country for a book while ignoring virtually all interviews and wonders if Wallace is only putting out these books or accepting these gigs to keep a little extra cash coming in. You do what you have to do, I guess. But living at the whims of Bonnie Nadell (or anyone) seems a bit puerile for a man of 44.

It’s worth mentioning that during his San Francisco appearance with Rick Moody last year, Wallace noted that he had attempted a “sentimental” novel, which he abandoned. And I can’t help but wonder if this is symbolic in some sense. Reading his last two books in particular, I detected a joyless timbre, an almost total reluctance to pursue emotions on any subject at all. There was, of course, the brief allusion to religion in DFW’s 9/11 essay, the only essay in Consider the Lobster to contains any real feeling at all. Is it because Wallace wishes to isolate himself from the public? Or is it because he secretly detests writing?
First of all, trivially, since Infinite Jest, Wallace has produced two volumes of fiction, not three. But more importantly, I think this post reveals a lot more about Ed Champion than it does about David Foster Wallace. I'm not going to discuss his essays, because mostly I don't care--they're generally amusing works-for-hire and little more. His fiction is what matters, his fiction is what will be remembered, if he's remembered at all. And, in my considered opinion, his fiction is just fine. Oblivion is not a perfect collection (a couple of the stories are pretty weak), but then I'm not looking for perfection in my reading. More specifically, I did not find it "cold"--on the contrary, the best of its stories did indeed evoke emotional responses in me; in fact, I found them to be full of an enormous empathy for people and their problems, an impressive ability to imagine the mind-states of different people. And I have no idea what Ed could possibly mean by describing the stories as "needlessly dense". I have to ask, to what end? What "need" is obstructed by the "density" of Wallace's chosen style in many of these stories? Presumably, Ed is accusing Wallace of throwing up all this digressive language in the way of an actual story, that he does this as a sort of alienation technique to get in the way of emotion. I think this quite misses the point of what Wallace is up to, and why. Indeed, I think it misses the point of what he was up to in Infinite Jest itself. I argued previously, borrowing a term from Dan Green (if not borrowing his argument), that in his fiction Wallace is interested in occupying and describing the specific "language-worlds" of his characters and their respective milieus. I think he does this masterfully, and I think the result, if the reader is open to it, is potentially one of great emotional impact.

Ed draws in the famous Tom LeClair article that discusses DFW along with Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann for the purpose of claiming that, unlike them, Wallace has "failed to evolve". But maybe Wallace didn't fit in with the other two in the first place, except superficially. They are three very different writers. Comparing the arcs of their careers for the purpose of finding one of them wanting is a waste of time. But, while we're at it, let's look at Powers, briefly. (For the record, I am a huge admirer of Powers' fiction.) Ed has said elsewhere that he considers The Time of Our Singing a step forward for Powers. I don't find anything at his own blog about that novel in any detail, but let me again link to The Reading Experience and Dan Green's post about that novel, to which Ed posted a lengthy comment. Dan is more critical of the book. First, he addresses a common general complaint about Powers' fiction:

To say that Powers [quoting Sven Birkerts here] "has always fallen short in the presentation of viscerally compelling characters" is to say only that he has attempted to exploit the possibilities of fiction in a way that doesn't rely on "viscerally compelling characters" to engage the reader's interest. He wants the reader to involve him/herself in the "intricacy" of design, to find in the tracing out of the incremental, spiralling pattern a source of interest at least as compelling as character identification, if not more so, since Powers's novels make it clear that the writer's job is not merely to tell stories and evoke characters, but to use such things as story and character to make something fresh from the form, to find the means to unite story, character, and theme with form in a way that is mutually reinforcing: character is tied to the evolving revelations of form, formal ingenuity itself embodies and discloses theme.

Ultimately, Dan's judgement is that, in The Time of Our Singing, "Powers too tightly harnesses both style and form to the exposition of "theme" in a manner that is much too earnest for my taste." In his comment to this post, Ed says:

it seems clear to me that Powers has been gradually shifting away from his conceptual dual narratives, hoping to evolve in order to convey life with a more human voice, one in which language and Powers' remarkable erudition take a back seat to the human experience. It's a highly ambitious development, particularly interesting given that it comes uncharacteristically mid-career. But, as far as I'm concerned, it does makes Powers one of the most exciting novelists to watch at the present time.

[...]

Powers WILL get beyond this point. Because every novel he turns out is a evolution of this struggle. And it seems to be getting easier for him to work this problem out in a sustained narrative.

I am much closer to Ed than I am to Dan in my enthusiasm for this novel. But I didn't see it as any great departure. I've bolded what I think are the most relevant lines in this comment. Ed sees Powers as "evolving"--and approves--and sees Powers' erudition taking "a back seat to the human condition". At risk of being overly pedantic here (too late), what else has Powers been writing about if not the "human condition"? I've never found Powers' fiction cold or emotionally lacking, either. I didn't find The Time of Our Singing any more emotionally affecting or personal than his other novels, but I did find it more obviously emotional, more obviously personal. Or, as Dan has it, more "earnest". I was not really bothered by this. The point is, Ed appears to want Wallace to do what Powers is doing, insofar as he thinks writers should evolve in this way.

Consider, also, Ed's assertion that "Banging the same drum over the course of a short story collection is, for my money, a cardinal sin." One wonders why it's a "cardinal sin". It seems clear to me that Wallace, in his recent fiction, is interested in writing about certain things, exploring certain aspects of the human condition in certain ways (imagining the extremities of a given "language-world"), and his two post-Jest story collections, and huge portions of Infinite Jest itself, are the result of this effort. But Ed doesn't want Wallace to do that. Ed wants Wallace to be more expansive, to connect, man, to tell a goddamn story already. To follow through on what he perceived the promise of Infinite Jest to be. Tautologically, Ed doesn't want Wallace to write what he wants to write, Ed wants him to write what Ed wants Wallace to write. This is no way to assess a writer's work. Hey, personally, I like the stuff--it's fun to read, it makes me work, it makes me think, and, yes, it moves me, dammit, though I hardly think this is its primary function or intent.

But returning to this complaint about "banging the same drum" being "a cardinal sin". What about those writers who return to common themes over their entire writing lives, themes that they explore and worry continuously? Writers as diverse as Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Beckett, Proust (ok, this is cheating), Kafka, hell, Stephen Dixon--are they to be found wanting according to this formula as well? Ed seems to be exhibiting a bias in favor of writers who don't do that, who try different things from book to book, story to story. It is, of course, entirely his prerogative to have whatever preference he likes when it comes to fiction, and to not like what Wallace has been up to lately. Ed's on record in several places for preferring fiction that is expansive, detailed, even lengthy. Fine. But this strikes me as just as limited a notion of what literature can be as some critics' fixation on character or realism, and it seems to embody a highly limited notion as to what "growth" might mean for any given writer.

Earlier this week, Ed lambasted Nick Hornby's lazy formulation of reading as "fun" vs. "boring", criticizing the apparent lack of curiosity in and dismissal of more difficult works that seems to be all too common. Well, this was like shooting fish in a barrel. Nick Hornby is a joke, and it's a truism that most people don't like to challenge themselves when they read. But to turn around later in the same week and effectively dismiss a supposedly favored writer for essentially not writing what you think he ought to be writing is finally not much different than what Hornby was doing. All other matters aside, it seems extremely hasty to jump to the conclusion that Wallace is "washed up". What's the rush? It was nearly 20 years before William Gaddis finally followed The Recognitions with JR. What if he never publishes another story or novel--is that such a tragedy? The works he has already written will remain and will be judged as a body of work. The term "washed up" is redolent of our celebrity-fixated culture, where we expect art to be produced for our enjoyment on certain schedules, according to certain sets of expectations, and when it's not we move on to the next producer. This is irrelevant to the enjoyment and assessment of literature.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Sorrentino Tribute

In the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation, please see Derik Badman's "Elegy for G.S.", a nice tribute to Gilbert Sorrentino, in comic-strip form.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

One's eye passes over the page without seeing it

One of the stranger books I own, if not the strangest, is Guide to Kulchur by Ezra Pound. A completely whimsical purchase, I have little insight into why I bought it. I've read none of Pound's poetry, though I'm aware that for some it's of paramount importance (as poetry), and that he is a huge figure in the history and development of Modernism. I know this as a fact, so to speak, not as something I can identify myself. In any event, I have the book, and I dip into it every now and again, when I'm unable to focus on anything else, when I want something brief to read (it's organized into very short chapters), etc. It was originally published in 1938, not exactly the most heartwarming period of Pound's life. It's peppered with bizarre spellings, constructions, abbreviations (he often uses "wd." and "cd." for "would" and "could", for example), neologisms...

One of the few things I knew about Pound before I bought the book (other things: editor of The Waste Land, important Modernist figure, American ex-patriot, purveyor of anti-semitic-rantings during WWII, winner of controversial award for Pisan Cantos) was that he had translated a lot of Chinese literature, particularly the works of Confucius, into English. In the Guide he reproduces some of the Analects themselves. For example, in the very first section of the book he presents and comments on Analects XI (under the heading "Kung on the Make Work Fallacy"):
The inhabitants of Lou wished to put up a new public granary. Min-tseu-kian said: Isn't the old one still good enough?

Is there any need of a new one which will cost much sweat to the people?

Said Kung the Philosopher: If that man opens his mouth, he speaks to some purpose.


COMMENT: The old granary was still suited to its purpose. Kung is against superfluous labour that does not serve a purpose.

Said Szetsun, or rather so says his translator: "The sayings of the great sages are ordinary." This I take to mean that there is nothing superfluous or excessive in them. When one knows enough one can find wisdom in the Four Classics. When one does not know enough one's eye passes over the page without seeing it.
When I first read this passage I was struck, because this gets at one of my common themes, the anxiety of allusion. As previously mentioned, I often fear that I'm missing something essential, some allusion that will open up meaning for me. No doubt I'm not being fair to myself, but literature builds on the history of literature, and noticing, say, a classic trope is not unimportant. Also, this passage in some sense brings Walter Benjamin to mind. There is much that is mysterious in Benjamin's writing, much that needs to be re-read to be comprehended. But then there are the passages that seem obvious. Actually, one thing that I notice about writing about my reading, about reading blogs, say, about others' reading experiences, is how important it is to note the seemingly obvious or trivial. It is easy to "pass over" those passages, the simple ones, or to pass over (i.e., not record, not attend to, not blog about) my own observations, when they seem of relatively little consequence, when writing about those very things can lead one to other less obvious ideas, to writing of perhaps more consequence or meaning.

Toward the end of Pound's book, page 352 in the New Directions edition that I have, to be precise, is this list, under the heading "As Sextant":
I. The FOUR BOOKS (Confucius and Mencius).

II. HOMER: Odyssey: intelligence set above brute force.

III. The GREEK TRAGEDIANS: rise of sense of civic responsibility.

IV. DIVINA COMMEDIA: life of the spirit.

V. FROBENIUS: Erlebte Erdteile: without which a man cannot place any book or work of art in relation to the rest.

VI. BROOKS ADAMS: Law of Civilization and Decay: most recent summary of 'where in a manner of speaking' we had got to half a century ago. Second half of Beard's introduction indicates the essential omission from Adams' thought.

VII. The English Charters, the essential parts of BLACKSTONE, that is those dealing with history and philosophy of law. The American Constitution.

As the Four Books contain answers to all problems of conduct that can arise, a man who really understands them may regard the other six components of this list as amenities rather than necessities.

This is, naturally, not a full list of books a sane man will want to enjoy. These are books without which he cannot measure the force of the others.
Naturally, I've read very little of this. Only the Odyssey, stray portions of Greek tragedies here and there, the American Constitution. That last sentence, "these are books without which he cannot measure the force of the others", doesn't do much to alleviate my anxiety. I'm reminded of this interview with Gilbert Sorrentino (who, if I'm not mistaken, was an admirer of Pound's poetry), where the interviewer asks about Mulligan Stew (Note that this quotation points to my reasons for having delayed my reading of Mulligan Stew as long as did.):
Mulligan Stew is a parody of several literary cultures. Can this process have any meaning for readers who don't understand what's going on before their eyes? Can this sort of book still be written today?

GS: A parody only works if the reader or viewer is aware of the model that is being parodied. Sure, a book like this can be written today, but since there seem to be fewer readers, there will be fewer people who get the parody. Literature feeds on itself and people have to learn to read if they want to be readers. You can only learn to read by reading, but you can read only if you've learn how.
I suppose my reading project can be described as a sort of lurching, late-started attempt to "learn how".

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Readings on the Terror Plot

Three items from the last week on the "foiled terror plot":

First, Robert Fisk, on the view from Beirut:
So I sat on the carpet in my living room and watched all these heavily armed chaps at Heathrow protecting the British people from annihilation and then on came President George Bush to tell us that we were all fighting "Islamic fascism". There were more thumps in the darkness across Beirut where an awful lot of people are suffering from terror--although I can assure George W that while the pilots of the aircraft dropping bombs across the city in which I have lived for 30 years may or may not be fascists, they are definitely not Islamic.

And there, of course, was the same old problem. To protect the British people--and the American people--from "Islamic terror", we must have lots and lots of heavily armed policemen and soldiers and plainclothes police and endless departments of anti-terrorism, homeland security and other more sordid folk like the American torturers--some of them sadistic women--at Abu Ghraib and Baghram and Guantanamo. Yet the only way to protect ourselves from the real violence which may--and probably will--be visited upon us, is to deal, morally, with courage and with justice, with the tragedy of Lebanon and "Palestine" and Iraq and Afghanistan. And this we will not do.
And Craig Murray, advising us to be skeptical of it altogether (link via This Modern World):
...many of those arrested had been under surveillance for over a year - like thousands of other British Muslims. And not just Muslims. Like me. Nothing from that surveillance had indicated the need for early arrests.

Then an interrogation in Pakistan revealed the details of this amazing plot to blow up multiple planes - which, rather extraordinarily, had not turned up in a year of surveillance. Of course, the interrogators of the Pakistani dictator have their ways of making people sing like canaries. As I witnessed in Uzbekistan, you can get the most extraordinary information this way. Trouble is it always tends to give the interrogators all they might want, and more, in a desperate effort to stop or avert torture. What it doesn't give is the truth.
Finally, Jodi Dean on our enjoyment of the war on terror:
Are these humiliations and pleasures [...] the contemporary equivalent to war sacrifice? So, we feel involved, like we are making a sacrifice to a greater cause, that we are actually at war, to the extent that we allow ourselves to be humiliated? We take off our shoes and belts, allow ourselves--innocent people!--to be frisked, doing our part for the cause?

And, likely we enjoy seeing it happen to others, seeing them brought down a bit, shoeless, with droopy pants. We like seeing how others pack. We enjoy the way the pushy and impatient are made to wait with the rest of us.

And, we enjoy our own humiliation as well--it proves to us we are alive, that we matter. Nietzsche describes the way the priestly introduction of God and the soul made man an interesting animal. The war on terror makes us not only interesting, but important: we could be dangerous; we are like spies, like James Bond; we are so mysterious that we could bring down planes! Our every item is potentially of interest, a sign of guilt, a hint at something, something suspicious and meaningful. Oh yes, we enjoy this war on terror.

Who are we? If recent trends toward pushing through first and business class travelers, toward giving them quick and easy service, rendering them above suspicion--after all, they already know how important they are--is any indication, then the we who enjoy are a large middle class. We have enough money to travel or are employed in occupations that require us to; it's unlikely that we spend a great deal of time using our physical strength, the labor of our hands, to earn our keep. We are neither the group most likely to give our sons and daughters to the war effort nor those who will profit mightily from investments in the war machine or financial speculations on its outcome.

We need to be interpellated. If we didn't enjoy the war on terror, it would collapse.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Violently Misdirected Nostalgia

One of the books that I did NOT acquire with the Big Dalkey Get, but wish I had, was The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud (the friend I split the deal with got it, though if I had to wager, I'd guess she has yet to read it, or, frankly, any of her lot). I didn't know much of anything about it when we made the order, but in the meantime I've read stray pieces here and there about it that have intrigued me, about its quietness and strangness, about its form, digressions on the way to Roubaud's literary "Project". I think it was this review by Steve Mitchelmore that first drew my attention to Roubaud's book as one that I wanted to read:
Roubaud's dream was [to] write something as great as anything in the tradition; presumably that would have made him happy. He sensed its possibility in the "irreducible originality" of the Project and the joyous liberty of the dream. But with the death of Alix, and the end of his literary hopes, how could its originality be reconciled with the Romantic tradition with possibility at its core (such as retrieving Eurydice)? Roubaud's originality is to be found in The Great Fire of London's formal confrontation with the death that bears away such possibility. The plotless digressions, the limitless order of reading and obsessive focus on description, analysis and explanation, all take the place of Alix and the space she left behind. For sure, there is a certain liberty in this, but one that means the end of the kind of book that Roubaud loves. He know[s] the novels produced by Dickens' are no longer possible. He does not try to imitate them or to confuse art with a violently misdirected nostalgia.
Of course, I don't have much else to say about it now, since I have not yet read the novel. My reason for posting this today is to refer you to the excellent new blog Slightly Bluestocking, where AC, among other interesting posts, has been writing about her experience reading it:
Memory, and the way it shapes form – this is one of the primary concerns of The Great Fire of London. Roubaud states at the beginning that the book’s mystery is not in its content, but in its ‘formal meaning.’ And it is this latter aspect that slowly unravels over the course of the book. It’s actually the most fascinating part of the book (for me): that exploration of the why of the writing, and the why of the form.
Also, I like the passage from the novel that AC quoted in her previous post so much that I'm going to reproduce it here:
The fact is that a library is always expanding; from the "big bang" of one's first book up until its owner dies. A library can't really dwindle, or be emptied of a part of its substance, then start growing again. At least, not without mortal danger. Each one of the books it incorporates at one moment or another of its existence becomes equally indispensable, even if it will never be read again. A minimal pruning is in order at times, perhaps, but such action is conceivable only in the context of a general strategy of growth. If I maintain the image of the body, the books a library loses are nail clippings, fallen hair. But I find an even more appropriate comparison with plant life: a forest, perhaps, or a garden. You are surrounded by a living being. You yourself belong to this being.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Stephen Dixon

Several people have linked to this nice interview with Stephen Dixon at Failbetter. There's some interesting stuff about his writing methods, particularly the bit on how 30 and Gould came about through his processes of re-writing. But I want to quote this:
Your work is rich with highly distinctive dialogue—your characters talk in voices quite similar to one another, and to that of your narrators. Why do they speak this way? Do you worry that switching from unique voice to unique voice might break the flow of your narratives? Or do you mean to show that all characterizations are reflections as much of the author as of the characters themselves?

I don't agree that my characters talk in voices quite similar to one another. I try to make each voice distinct. If I haven't done that, then I've failed in a way. My women don't talk like my men and my men talk differently from one another. I have a sense, when I'm writing, of what each character is and the way he or she speaks, and I try to get that on the page. Certainly, all my characters are not reflections of the author. Where'd you get that? The voice of my characters is not mine.
I found this amusing, because I agree with the interviewer about Dixon's characters. Right now I'm one-third of the way through Phone Rings. It's only my third Dixon book (Interstate and Old Friends are the others), so I have limited experience, but the characters in it sound almost exactly like his other characters. I don't see this as a problem, I just don't think it's a crazy thing to say. I think Stanley Elkin's characters all more or less sound similar, and I love Elkin. Perhaps the difference can be found in that "more or less". They all sound like Dixon (or Elkin), but they also sound distinctly like themselves, and are indelibly imagined characters.

There are elements of Dixon's prose that I find potentially off-putting, and they are at the level of syntax and word choice. For illustration, here is a sample from page 105 of Phone Rings:
He called Dan and said "I'm only calling to tell you something that might interest you that happened today. Of course, also to hear how you are. But that, later, for I don't want to lose what I called to say, unless everything with you's not okay...."
In a post reviewing Phone Rings early this year, Dan Green by coincidence quotes this same passage, at greater length, in part to demonstrate how "Dixon doesn't always seem at pains to delineate his characters with the expected kind of specificity"--how they do in fact sound much alike. In that post, as well as this one from last week, Dan argues that Dixon's fiction, by exploring the ordinary, the more mundane aspects of life that are usually ignored by more putatively "realistic" works of fiction, is much more "realistic", if by that word we mean not fiction that follows the conventions of "realism", but instead fiction which is more like life. I agree. Dixon's fiction is often painfully, even annoyingly realistic.

I got sidetracked from my attempted point about what is potentially off-putting about Dixon's prose. It has a lot to so with these, as Dan has it, "roundabout locutions" and "digressive asides", but also basic word choice. There are stretches where one of Dixon's characters speaks or thinks so digressively and apparently irrelevantly that it can be a chore to keep reading. There was more than one occasion while reading Interstate when I wanted to slap the father character, if only for the appallingly selfish and off-the-point things he would say to his daughters (in flashbacks to scenes occurring before the horror described repeatedly in that novel) and the ways in which they were constructed. In the passage I've sampled above, that "But that, later, for I don't want to lose..." is an irritating locution. The short-hand of the word "that", as if he can't be bothered to speak coherently, I find very awkward (there are similar examples that are much more awkward still; this one is fairly mild). The conjunction "for", when spoken, almost never sounds natural to my ears. As a result, it always sticks out as a word use--as does Dixon's excessive (it seems) use of certain contractions, especially "I've". Again, I've described these word choices as potentially off-putting, and certainly I, personally, have been annoyed by them on several occasions. It's tempting to say "no one talks like that". This might not matter in the least (and often is quite irrelevant), if it weren't for the idea that Dixon is effecting a sort of extreme, if you will, realism, with his piled-on thoughts and conversations. I once complained about these uses to someone who'd actually had Dixon as a teacher at Johns Hopkins, and she said "but he really talks like that!" Which I thought was funny, first of all. But also, well, of course people talk like that. People talk all kinds of different, awkward, sloppy ways. And Dixon and his characters are generally considerably older than I am, so this or that locution could easily be more common to a different age cohort. So this is just something I've had to get used to. It is also, admittedly, a matter of getting used to the rhythm in Dixon's style.

It's fascinating that Dixon's fiction manages to be, as Dan puts it, both experimental and realistic, as well as often being emotionally affecting. By exploring the areas of life usually ignored by so-called "realistic" fiction, by worrying at these lines of inquiry, teasing out countless permutations of a line of thought, Dixon risks irritating or even boring the reader. I think that in some way much of the tension in his fiction lies here. If we stay with Dixon through one more apparently tortured locution, or seemingly unending digression, we find that the work builds on what has come before, so that even those moments of irritation and tedium become essential to what makes the fiction work.

As far as future Dixon reading for me goes, I already own a copy of the massive Frog. The Failbetter interview with Dixon brings my attention more than ever to 30, if only because he said it's as good as anything he's written. I will also be on the lookout for Gould, which I know I've seen used various places. And I covet McSweeney's attractive bundling of I. and End of I....

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Weekend Book Acquisitions

We went by the Book Thing on Saturday. For those unfamiliar with it, the Book Thing is a great service here in Baltimore where you can walk in and take books for free. In the midst of all of the discarded Tom Clancy and Danielle Steel and bestsellers of the past, including many Leon Uris doorstops, there are occasionally some real gems. It's also a great place to unload books you no longer have any use for. We dropped off two bags of books and returned home with a pretty good selection. These are the ones that are of the most interest to me:

JohnBerger – Once in Europa (middle book in Pig Earth trilogy); Keeping a Rendezvous (art crit. essays)
J.G. Farrell – The Siege of Krishnapur
Rebecca Goldstein – Mazel; Strange Attractors (stories)
Knut Hamsun – Hunger (Robert Bly translation)
Mark Helprin - Winter’s Tale
James PurdyIn the Hollow of the Hand
Jose Saramago - Baltasar and Blimunda
Muriel Spark – Reality and Dreams
D.M. Thomas – The White Hotel
John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces
Rebecca West – The Fountain Overflows
Patrick WhiteThe Living and the Dead

Two of these books (Helprin's and Toole's) happen to have been among those receiving multiple votes in that silly "top novel of the last 25 years" poll The New York Times ran recently (for a reminder, here is that list again, at Amazon, which was the first non-Times link that came up on Google). Speaking of which, it turns out I've read 16 of the 25 books listed (I'm counting the Updike, even though I've only read the first two Rabbit books, neither of which were published in the last 25 years, and only the first book in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy), though neither of these two (both of which my wife--er, partner--has read: she liked Winter's Tale, but did not find A Confederacy of Dunces to live up to its considerable advance hype). There are plenty of good reads on the list, of course, but the fact that even a single person thought that The Plot Against America was the best book of the last 25 years is worrying. Much was made about the preponderance of Philip Roth novels on the final list, but that by itself does not bother me. Roth has, in fact, written some great novels in the period in question. I have no complaints whatsoever about Sabbath's Theater or The Counterlife--both are excellent, though I think the former is clearly the greater book. I think Operation Shylock is probably a bit overpraised, and American Pastoral definitely is, and yet I enjoyed them both. I also liked The Human Stain, but as with Plot, there is not a chance in hell that it is the greatest novel of the last 25 years (personal taste and opinion bedamned!). I always feel that these last three novels receive more than their share of praise, because they are perceived to be about something important, unlike the apparently trivial Sabbath's Theater, with its arguably unpleasant protagonist (whereas I was sorry when he was gone). American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America are all entertaining novels and they contain some great writing from Roth, but as complete novels they do not remotely measure up to Sabbath.

As for the rest of that list, I remain mystified as to the massive appeal of Beloved. I loved Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye (I've not yet read Sula), and I even liked the apparently much-reviled Paradise. But Beloved, while not without its finer moments, left me wondering what the big deal was. I don't have much to say about the rest of it, other than I like the Delillo books represented and thought that Edward P. Jones' The Known World was brilliant.

Ok, after that timely mini-rant, back to the weekend haul. If I had been only allowed to walk out with one of these books, it probably would have been Hunger, which I've been meaning to read for some time but somehow had avoided buying. The John Berger books should be interesting; I read his great novel G some years ago but have not followed up with anything else of his since. I was pleased to find the two Rebecca Goldstein books. I loved her novel The Mind-Body Problem, and liked the more recent Properties of Light as well (also, her new book about Spinoza intrigues me). Purdy's book is the fourth of his novels I've found at the Book Thing. Of Saramago, I've only read, and loved, The Stone Raft, but with Baltasar and Blimunda I now have three of his books at home waiting to be read (the others are Blindness and The Cave). I've never read anything by Muriel Spark, but her recent death, um, sparked my interest. This one is a late novel, from 1996. I don't know how her late work compares to her early stuff. I don't know anything about the D.M. Thomas novel, but it looked potentially interesting. Rebecca West and J.G. Farrell are writers I've heard much about but never read. I'm always pleased to find a Patrick White novel. The Living and the Dead is an early one (from 1941). Naturally, the Complete Review has it under review.

We also picked up Freud's The Future of an Illusion (actually, I'm fairly interested in this one, too, since I've not read a lot of Freud), plus two French grammars, a Ruth Rendell mystery and two by P.D. James.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Meditative Noticing

Moments after posting my thoughts on Peter Handke's Across, I noticed this post at Spurious (just prior to the one I linked to in my previous post):
Callers to order: Handke's phrase, or the phrase he allows his narrator, in Across, the book I would like to say is his purest. What happens? Read critical works, and they'll tell you there was a murder. It's true, of course: the narrator happens on a man scrawling a swastika into a tree. He kills him with one blow and throws him over a cliff.

But that murder is like the one Handke allows his narrator to imagine in On a Dark Night, who longs to topple cyclists from their mountain bikes: it is part of an order of things, an order of walking, of the natural world, of meditative noticing.

Gloriously Handkean; he needs, one presumes, to revive this sense of order every time he writes. He needs to be called to order. But then Loser, of Across, is called away from his work by those callers (what are they? certain objects - archeological remnants).

I still await the first daddy long legs of the summer, remembering how Loser calls them creatures of the threshold. And Across, the whole book, which I have not reread and do not have near me, but that lives on in me, inhabiting me, is all threshold, all plateau: the book between, the book steered gently by the same wind that ruffles the pages of all Handke's fiction. The wind at the back of the walker, the wanderer, who has as his enemy the cyclist and the fascist.
I avoided mentioning the murder explicitly in my post, in part to not give it away (as if plot is the point here, but still), but also to not draw too much attention to it as murder. It was an action, in response to a disruption, and he took steps to restore order. But then he must restore order within himself, even if he does not feel "guilt" per se.

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Across, Peter Handke

I've just completed reading Peter Handke's novel Across. It's a perplexing book. The narrator is Andreas Loser, a professor of foreign languages and something of an expert on thresholds. The book is divided into three sections, plus an epilogue, and is composed almost entirely of his observations of the world around him, combined with ruminations on existence and, for the most part, relatively brief snippets of conversation. These observations are detailed and seemingly random, moving from object to object, scene to scene. We learn that he participates as an amateur in archeological digs, learning early on to look for what is not there, for what has "vanished irretrievably". Thus he develops his interest in and knowledge of thresholds. Much hinges on this word "threshold".

At a regular meeting of card-players, asked by the narrator what the theological tradition has to say about thresholds, a priest says this:
"...According to an almost forgotten proverb: 'The threshold is a fountainhead.' And this teacher says literally: 'It was from thresholds that lovers and friends absorbed strength. But,' he goes on, 'where nowadays are we to find the destroyed thresholds, if not in ourselves? By our own wounds shall we be healed. If snow stops falling from the clouds, let it continue to fall inside me.' Every step, every glance, every gesture, says the teacher, should be aware of itself as a possible threshold and thus recreate what has been lost. This new threshold consciousness might then transfer attention from object to object, and so on until the peace relay appears on earth, at least on that one day--and on the day after and the day after that, rather as in the child's game where stone sharpens scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper wraps stone. Thus, thresholds as seats of power may not have disappeared; they have become conceivable, so to speak, as inner powers. If man were conscious of these thresholds, he would at least let his fellow man die a natural death. Threshold consciousness is nature religion. More cannot be promised."
These lines seem key to me, though they are, like much else in the book, mysterious. While reading, I was having a difficult time investing the word threshold with the meanings that seemed so important to the characters. I thought about the action that takes place when one approaches a threshold. One crosses from one space into another. A threshold within us might be crossed as we move from one decision to another, from one sense of time to another, from one idea to another, perhaps its corollary or opposite. Looking up threshold in the dictionary, I found predominantly everyday usages such as "door sill", "entrance", "doorway", or even "place of beginning". But then: "a minimum requirement for further action; specifically: a determination (as of fact or the existence of a reasonable doubt) upon which something else (as further consideration or a right of action) hinges".

As already mentioned, much of the narration is given over to serial observations of the narrator's world, natural as well as man-made, country and city, and the intersections of each. These observations appear to be filtered through the consciousness of the narrator, but many of them seem to be outside the narrator's possible view. We view them anyway. The narration is usually presented in the first person, with the word "I", but often the narrator refers to himself as "the runner" or "the guest" or "the cook" or, indeed, "the narrator", as if he is observing from without the events, however large or small, of his own life. He reports, generally without comment, the words of other people, including his family. The titles of the sections are "The Viewer Is Diverted", "The Viewer Takes Action", and "The Viewer Seeks a Witness". So the narrator, Loser (he identifies his name with a dialect verb losen, or "listen"), is explicitly observing his world, he is of it, but aloof, apart from others, even his own family and his work. He seems reluctant to disturb anything. When he finally does "take action" it is sudden, violent, surprising after the almost complete inaction leading up to it. He reacts to an infringement, a wound--he sees a freshly painted swastika on a tree: "this sign, this negative image, symbolized the cause of all my melancholy--of all melancholy, ill humor, and false laughter in this country." This "minimum requirement for action", this threshold moves him suddenly, briefly, into a new mode of being--from inaction into action. The action having been taken, he returns to observing, though he seems more agitated. He talks of being exposed, though there is no way anyone could know of his action:
...I felt a strange satisfaction at "exposing" myself, just as there can be a certain satisfaction in exposing oneself to total darkness or a glacial wind--in laying oneself open to the worst sort of adversity. Satisfaction? No, pleasure. Pleasure? No, determination. Determination? No, acquiescence in the conditions of existence.
He feels that he is in perdition--he finds the word unavoidable, but then chooses to avoid it. He finds, rather, that there is an obstruction ("disillusionment", "falsification") in the center of his field of vision. He cannot properly view the world. He must then seek a kind of witness.

It could be said that Across is about storytelling. The narrator must get his story "across" to the reader? The narrator must move "across" a threshold in order to have experience of any kind to convey, however it must be conveyed? In the third section, he "seeks a witness" not, it seems, to the action he has taken, but to the telling of the story of the action. We may often hear of people having to unload some stressful account before they may finally rest. Here, the narrator seeks someone to hear his story. (To read it.) Having done this, he can move on. In the end he dreams: "The storyteller is the threshold." Then he returns to viewing. And is at peace?

Handke's prose (in translation, of course; Handke is Austrian) encourages the reader to slow down. Across is a short book--only 138 pages--but it took me the better part of a week to read. I began the book and was at first impatient--what was the point of all these disconnected observations? And what was the deal with this threshold business? The language, seemingly straightforward, resisted my attempts to read on. External distractions and lack of sleep prevented me from focusing on the words as well as the book needed me to. Another book, another perfectly fine book, I might have been able to continue reading in this vein without losing much. I put the book aside at a key moment in the narrative, so it turned out, and returned to it Monday of this week, beginning again. It was better going this time. Yet, by the end, the main action of the book remained mysterious to me, the narrator's motivation eluding my grasp. Not motivation; that's the wrong word. Explanation? Impetus? Yes, impetus is closer (but I suppose "threshold" is even more appropriate). And yet, again, this was my fault: I'd flitted right over a key word or two at the worst moments. Upon completion of the book, I returned to the several pages surrounding the action. In light of what came later, everything was much clearer now--as clear as it was going to be anyway. Then I re-read much of the conversation with the priest about thresholds, some of which I've quoted above. It was re-reading the pages featuring the action, and then re-reading the lines from the priest (remember: "Every step, every glance, every gesture...should be aware of itself as a possible threshold and thus recreate what has been lost") and pondering this question of thresholds that has moved me to write here about this novel, as part of my own attempt to come to terms with it.

This is the first Handke book I've read. At the same time that I acquired Across, I also found a used copy of what I believe was his next novel, Repetition, and I had earlier picked up The Left-Handed Woman. I gather (from frequent mentions by Steve Mitchelmore at This Space, as well as posts such as this one by Lars at Spurious) that much of his work addresses similar types of concerns. I'll be reading more of him in the future.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Murray Bookchin

I learned Monday of the death of Murray Bookchin via ReadySteadyBlog. In the short time that I've been aware of Bookchin, he's earned my respect for his exciting and above all rational ideas about the state and anarchism and ecological issues. Only a few months ago I read Bookchin's Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left, an excellent, lively collection of interviews and essays from the mid-1990s. I had planned to write something about it at the time but never got around to it. The book serves well as a short history of 20th century radicalism, with analysis of what went wrong at various times and places, as well as a critique of many of the problems facing radicalism today, including the unfortunate tendencies in present-day anarchist thought--tendencies toward anarchism as a lifestyle choice, anti-scientific, divorced from real life as lived by most people.

I suspect that I first became aware of Anarchism as something to take seriously through the work of Noam Chomsky. But, other than general ideas about the nature of authority, Chomsky doesn't spend much time articulating a vision of the future. In his famous essay, "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" (found in his first book, American Power and the New Mandarins--reissued in 2002 by The New Press), Chomsky does discuss at length the Spanish Civil War, particularly the initially revolutionary nature of that conflict and the typical inability of the liberal media to recognize it. In doing so, he quotes extensively from George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, particularly passages in which Orwell describes what he encountered upon arriving in Spain--genuine worker control, the apparent lack of hierarchies, etc. Chomsky's discussion fired my imagination, creating in me an abiding interest in the Spanish Civil War as one of the key events of recent history.

I finally read Orwell's book last month. It had been a contender for "next book" for some time, but Ellis Sharp's brief post about it brought it front and center in my attention (I also highly recommend the book and agree with Sharp, and Chomsky incidentally, that it is considerably better than Orwell's fiction). One of Orwell's observations is that the war was only truly alive to the general public when they felt there was something they were fighting for, beyond just generic "democracy" from above, when they had the arms and still controlled the territories that the Anarchists had captured, when it was revolutionary, which the Communist Party clearly was not, controlled as it was by the Soviet Union (which, perhaps, did not want to alienate its military ally, France). This theme is important. Bookchin, in the above-mentioned collection, makes no bones about the fact that the American Communist Party followed the dictates of the Soviet Union, but he stresses that, by the 1930s the Soviet Union, and by extension the Communist Parties in other countries, had long since ceased to be a revolutionary force. I don't have Bookchin's book in front of me to refresh my memory, but these passages, for me, put the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s in an even more tragi-comic light than before. I will return to this with at least quotations from Bookchin in future posts. I have and plan to read soon Bookchin's history The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936.

Richard Estes at American Leftist has a nice post about Bookchin, with links to some other articles, including this obituary in CounterPunch by Brian Tokar, and, after quoting some passages from Bookchin himself, ties his ideas in with what is going on now in South America:
No doubt some Marxists will take umbrage at Bookchin's blunt celebration of anarchism as the source of most contemporary social movements. It is the argument that will never go away, always returning in new variations. Is it only possible to carry forward the revolution by taking control of the instruments of state power, or, must the revolution, if it is to succeed, aspire to the eradication of the state itself?

Nowhere is the question more acute than in Venezuela, where the Chavistas have seized control of the state, through recourse to a paradoxical ideology that emphasizes the nationalism of Bolivar and the universality of Guevara, using it to defend against the imperial intervention of United States, while social movements exploit the newly opened space for experimentation, frequently relying upon the broad anarchist principles enunciated by Bookchin, artisanship, the mutual aid of the community, a closeness to nature and enlightened ethical norms.
I don't know a lot about Chávez and the Bolivarian movements. We hear a lot in the US about Chávez's "authoritarianism" but not much about what is actually happening on the ground. Estes quotes from an interview with Al Giordano in 2002, which contains a number of important observations, a couple of which I want to also quote:

The Bolivarian Circles are very similar to the Workers Councils of Paris 1968. There's also a Situationist tendency in some of what we see in the Venezuelan revolution. One of my best writers recently put that word, revolution, in quotation marks, but I don't. The surrounding of the TV stations, the confrontation with "the spectacle," Chávez's own willingness to confront the corrupt Commercial Media and legalize Community TV and radio, these things are showing the entire world a way out of this media mess. I love it.

None of this means I think that a Chávez government or a Lula government or a Lucio government or any other government is all honey over cornflakes. But the insistence that any movement be "perfect" or "correct" is the quickest route to a permanent state of defeat. What we've seen in Venezuela is that the government (the classic concept of the state) has taken very key actions, like legalizing Community Media as a Constitutional right, and smashing to bits the previous corrupt two-party system, has opened a space for more anarcho-syndicalist and self-valorized activity to gain a foothold in society, where previously it had none.

For me, Murray Bookchin's clear, no-nonsense style has been an important starting point on the way to understanding a lot of radical thought. In the process, he has addressed a number of the superficial concerns that I had about Anarchism, particularly its co-optation by "lifestyle anarchists"--technophobic people with an excessive interest in mystical new age hooey. I have still used the word "Anarchism" to signify what I am interested in here, but perhaps it's better to use Bookchin's term "communalism" to differentiate from the lifestyle anarchists. In any event, Bookchin's work has fascinated and inspired me. I mourn his passing, and I look forward to reading more of his books, such as The Ecology of Freedom, as well as another one on Spain, To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Listening - Year to Date

I have some longer posts in the works, but I can't say that I know when I'll complete them. So now seems as good a time as any to post my top twelve albums of the year so far.
  1. Matmos - The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast
  2. Boris - Pink
  3. Espers - Espers II
  4. Six Organs of Admittance - The Sun Awakens
  5. Jesu - Silver
  6. Om - Conference of the Birds
  7. Mission of Burma - Obliterati
  8. The Coup - Pick a Bigger Weapon
  9. Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
  10. Ghostface Killah - Fishscale
  11. Mr. Lif - Mo' Mega
  12. Brightback Morning Light - Brightback Morning Light
Comments: I'd only listened to the Matmos cd once prior to last Thursday, but since then I've been obsessed with it, and in the process it's leap-frogged over everything else and is now my favorite album of the year. I'd like to be able to describe it adequately, but I'm afraid I cannot. It's brilliantly detailed and clever and just a lot of fun to listen to. And it sounds amazing... Boris still kicks ass... Espers is a new band for me and their acoustic-folk-drone sound is beautiful... It fits in perfectly with Ben Chasny's always excellent Six Organs of Admittance. The Sun Awakens is another great one. Chasny's guitar-playing is stunning, perhaps better than ever. Some have complained that the 24-minute drone that closes the cd seems out of place compared to the rest of the album. I agree that it's quite different in tone. But it feels like a throwback to the choreography of LPs, where often one side would be quite different than the other... Jesu's short EP is awesome. It's been called "shoegazer metal", which is somewhat unfortunate, but not entirely inaccurate, insofar as it is metal, but is slow-churning, sounding a little like My Bloody Valentine... I liked the Om record so much, I bought their earlier Variations on a Theme, which isn't quite as good... Mission of Burma's second reunion album is fantastic... By coincidence, just a few weeks before buying Pick a Bigger Weapon came out I bought The Coup's earlier, controversially covered Party Music. I liked it (it's hard to hate something with a song called "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO"), but it's a little uneven. The new one is better. It's nice to hear some truly left-wing rap that is also fun to listen to... Sonic Youth is Sonic Youth... I've been getting more into Ghostface lately, and Fishscale is good, but it hasn't quite been differentiated in my mind as much as I would like, which is possibly why it's not rated higher... Mo' Mega is the first Mr. Lif full-length I've heard. I was initially put off by his rapping style, but I've come to appreciate it. And it sounds great... Brightback Morning Light has been a pleasant, mellow surprise.

Other stuff: Just missing the cut are Love Is All and Destroyer and, to a lesser extent, Built to Spill. Belle & Sebastian's The Life Pursuit is about half good. I've not been able to find the Burial cd anywhere (no one seems to have heard of it), so I'll probably have to give up and order it online. I have listened to Scott Walker's The Drift a couple of times, but I've been unable to get into it (weirdly, the opening of the first song reminds me of US Maple, who otherwise sound nothing like Walker's music). However, I also bought Walker's earlier cd, Tilt, and that one I've enjoyed more, so I'm holding out hope that the new one will grow on me. Aside from Matmos, the other cd I've been listening to obsessively over the last several days has been Herbert's Bodily Functions. I bought it a few years ago and filed it away as "pleasant" after only a few distracted listens. I imported it into iTunes recently, and a couple of its songs playing during random shuffling got my attention. I've been underwhelmed by T.I.'s King cd. The album isn't bad, I guess, but it seems monochromatic. I have a hard time appreciating the whole "rapper taking over the world" conceit. We also bought the very nice Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris collaboration, as well as Richard Thompson's entertaining 1000 Years of Popular Music.

Anticipated new stuff: We're heading to France for two weeks at the beginning of September (our honeymoon, at last!), so I won't be buying any music between now and then. There are a few records I'm looking forward to: the aforementioned Burial, and new albums from Yo La Tengo, Johnny Cash, the Mountain Goats (see, by the way, Tom Breihan's nice interview with John Darnielle), Pere Ubu (still), and the new Herbert cd, Scales (as well as one or two other Herbert cds)...maybe that Thom Yorke solo album, etc.

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