From out of the bushessometimes someone still unearthsrusted-out argumentsand carries them to the garbage pile.--Wislawa Szymborska "The End and the Beginning"
someone must be stretched outblade of grass in his mouthgazing at the clouds.
From out of the bushessometimes someone still unearthsrusted-out argumentsand carries them to the garbage pile.--Wislawa Szymborska "The End and the Beginning"
someone must be stretched outblade of grass in his mouthgazing at the clouds.
The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, etcetera. It's a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime. I know one, Pnin, having read it half a dozen times.--Zadie Smith, "Rereading Barthes and Nabokov," in Changing My Mind, 41.
A rereader [recall] can come to inhabit (p. 43) a limited number of novels. Time is scarce, so it's no surprise that we learn the architecture of only a few novels, although some of us may be surprised to learn how few we learn. Smith does not explain the the upper limit (half a dozen), and is discretely silent on how many rereadings are required to come to know a novel's architecture. As it happens, she provides evidence that she required at least five such re-rereadings; Smith decided to inhabit "Pnin," which is a minor scenic attraction en route to the canyon Lolita," (42) and later in the essay she admits that only during the "most recent rereading" (that is sixth time she read it) that she thinks "to kneel in front" of her "desk, place a glass of water at eye level and a position a comb, on end, behind it. Zebra cocktail! Nabokov saw it--now I do. And it's beautiful. Gratitude does not seem out of place." (54)
As it happens, on re-reading Smith's essay, I noticed that in between her analysis of Nabokov and Barthes, and the nature of writing and reading, she weaves two other analyses on subjects close to my troubled heart: first, that of the constitution of meaning (which I will largely ignore here); second, that of teaching (which I will focus on). Near the end of her essay, Smith notes that "Whether one quite approves of it or not, it's a Nabokovian assumption that if you work to give him back what he has given to you, this should be reward enough (for you). His students learned this soon enough." (54) Smith then adds a footnote (13) with quote from Nabokov: "My method of teaching precluded genuine contact with my students. At best they regurgitated a few bits of my brain during examination." (54 n. 13).
On Smith's rendering, Nabokovian teachers demand from their students a mastery of detail both of the subject matter studied (e.g., novels) and the matter taught (the lectures about these novels, etc.). There is no surplus to be generated by the student; she aims to master all, but no more than the subject studied and the lectures taught about the subject. The Nabokovian teacher is godlike, and the student's attitude qua student is a form of gratitude to the teacher for his gifts (recall this post). The student acquires (quite partial) mastery of a subject, and that is its own reward for a certain type of student.
I don't think Smith means to endorse Nabokovian teachers. For, earlier in her essay, she had remarked (i) that there is more than one type of student, and (ii) that the teacher need not force the students into a particular kind of mold (and i-ii are at odds with Nabokovian position):
To observe these two natural, unschooled reactions is fascinating [qua teacher]: they reveal within the famous ideological debate a more intimate and important question of character, into which a teacher should not necessarily intrude. Why not allow each student to find out for himself what kind of rereader he is? No bad blood need to be spilled over it (as it was when I was in college). After all, you can storm the house of a novel like Barthes, rearranging the furniture as you choose, or you can enter on your knees, like the pilgrim Nabokov thought you were, and try to figure out the cunning design of the place--the house will sand either way. (43)
I am a bit suspicious of the idea that the two reactions she describes -- (A) "to those students who have a tendency to feel humbled before the act of writing, [Barthes'] 'The Death of an Author' is a perverse assault on the privileges of authorship, on the possibility of fixed meaning, even upon 'Truth' itself' and (B) those students who "are excited to to add to the text's indeterminacy, their own indeterminacy as well" (42) -- are natural and unschooled. Perhaps, they are natural to "writing students" at elite colleges. (For those that like traditional schemas, (A) stands for authority loving types and (B) stands for the freedom-loving types. [Smith tells us she is naturally drawn to (B; 43; see also 49)]) That we teach to multiple souls at once is also a familiar fact of life to teachers who teach in some non-selective environments.
Smith advocates a kind of restraint in which the teacher allows the student to find out for herself what kind of rereader the student is. The problem is that it is not entirely clear that the restraint Smith advocates on the side of teachers also permits the discovery by students of being (say) a kind of Nabokovian rereader. That is to say, it's quite crucial to Smith's advocacy that certain ways of responding to texts are natural and unschooled. But her own text undermines this thought because to become a Nabokovian rereader one must also be schooled by Nabokov or some other teacher that shares in his "vision of total control." (55) This Nabokovian teacher does not permit the existence "of a secondary power directing and diverting," (55)* and so cannot allow a student unschooled nature to remain unschooled inside his classroom.
There is evidence that, Smith recognizes the point of the previous paragraph. Above, I suggested that Smith recognizes two souls. But that's not quite right. She also recognizes a third, educated soul which recognizes that the relationship between author and reader is a "partnership" which is "far more hesitant and delicate than" Barthes's (or Nabokov) allows. In this partnership, author and reader are "stumbling towards meaning simultaneously, together." (56) Smith does not say much to explain that 'simultaneously'--it can't mean what it means either in special relativity or in ordinary common sense. Against Barthes, Smith wants to hold on to the idea that the Author completes the text before the reader reads it. Both writing and reading can be intentional activities, but the meaning of/produced by the text is something that exceeds the Author's intentions, even though she must be willing to (decide to) live with the meaning so unfolded. (An Author can always press delete and restart until the text is submitted.) So, I suspect she means that for Author and reader the meaning of the text is something unfolds as the text unfolds. There is more to be said about her notion of meaning (but that's for another time).
The partnership is a "connection" between the reader and "a consciousness other than" her "own." That is, to read is to connect with bits of somebody else's mind. It is based not on an implicit or explicit contract, but on the reader's "cautious faith." (56) By contrast, writing is an imposition of one's thoughts on imagined/unknown others: "in many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want..." (55 n. 7 quoting Joan Didion)** Smith is clear that these 'many ways' don't exhaust the act of writing, but they are necessarily a part of it (while also exploring this act simultaneously in her novels [recall here and here]).
To reach the point of allowing for some such partnership, one must be taught to be schooled in reflexes that correct or transform the unschooled natural responses. Frustratingly, Smith is not very elaborate on the ways one is taught to become a hesitating (I have used stuttering) rereader (although it's clear that in her case, it means a giving up an exclusive embrace of freedom). But we can discern at least two ingredients: first, the very practice of rereading is a necessary step in such an education. It's only then that you learn that while you can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable, (46, quoting Nabokov). That is, one must become accepting of failure in one's life (51), while not resting in it. Mastery of detail is an indirect means toward recognizing this end.
But second, and this is something that Nabokov does not seem to permit, one must be allowed to recognize that one's loneliness is an original and enduring impulse in reading about another "individual's experience of the world through the unstable medium of language." (56) There is, of course, a lot to be said about all the words in the previous sentence. But here I just want to note that if Smith is right, this requires as a duty on teachers to make space for the recognition of the existence of such loneliness by students (without of course drawing attention to their particular loneliness in front of other students--after all, a a teacher should not necessarily intrude nor embarrass) and then orient this recognition not to their (vain teacherly) selves, but to the thoughts of other worthy, individuals.
Probably this has always been the case: once an action is recounted, for intransitive ends, and no longer in order to act directly upon reality — that is, finally external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol — this disjunction occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins. Nevertheless, the feeling about this phenomenon has been variable; in primitive societies, narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose “performance” may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his “genius” The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at
the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person”--Roland Barthes The Death of The Author. Translated by Richard Howard
Barthes organizes his famous argument around a trans-historical "phenomenon:" that is, the possibility of certain symbols to be decoupled from authorial intention. (Yes, Barthes allows he is not sure it was always so.) According to Barthes this always happens when these symbols, which depict human agency, are decoupled from attempts to change behavior. In this decoupling the symbols need not be owned by anybody. (Yes, Barthes is explicitly aware of copy-right and other legal and moral institutions, but he takes such institutions as contingent bits of stabilization of that which is intrinsically unstable [meaning, ownership, etc.].) And once so-decoupled there is no way of knowing to whom a literary text belongs (or what it means). Barthes position is epistemic. (He does not flirt with idealism nor with indeterminate reality.)
The trans-historical phenomenon is itself inscribed in a historical progression that runs through Barthes's account. Much like his Enlightenment (and Marxist) predecessors we move swiftly from primitive times to civilized times of modernity and to a new age (post-modernity) in which "for a long time now certain writers have attempted to topple" modernity. These heroic authors (Mallarme, Valery, and Proust are mentioned) produced work (with an inner progressive logic that drives their innovation) that undermines the "modern figure" of the author, who produces (and legislates meaning to) a fixed text. Barthes does not call them 'heroic' but they have the role of original exemplars in his account.
Modestly, Barthes closes his piece by suggesting that in addition to these authors projecting, in their texts, a new image of an author, the future also needs Barthes's philosophical activity which involves the presentation of a new muthos (although one developed from pre-existing material) in which reader and text co-constitute each other and the meaning of the text, anew, every time. Barthes is explicit in crediting ordinary language philosophy (the "Oxford school") on such performativity. (Barthes, prefigures Judith Butler's later use.) This constitution of literary meaning is not unconstrained; there are symbols (words, sentences, etc.), from which this constitution is constructed, which have been produced by pens, laptops and code, and agents. The point, however, is that Barthes wishes to black-box the pre-conditions that need to be in place for this co-constitution to occur (even though he is constantly gesturing at material forces that play a role in this).
Barthes practices a species of philosophical prophecy in which he stands against society which "proudly champions precisely what it dismisses, ignores, smothers or destroys," and against the Critic and all other forms of authority ("reason, science, the law') that stabilize and fix facts and "arrest" meanings. (It is astounding to see the Critic being treated as authoritative in such a way.) Barthes's progress of history is, thus, supposed to lead to a form of anarchism (undoubtedly of a Marxist kind--one could look at Barthes's other writings, but that would be cheating given his views on such matters). The moral vision that animates Barthes's analysis of certain images that facilitate forms of social hierarchy is left unspecified. But it has a distaste for hypocrisy and forms of power that make puzzle-solving (in science and criticism) possible because they have narrowed the possibility space (of interpretation, meaning, etc.).
But in so doing, Barthes cuts 'reality' in two. First, there is a material world accompanied by trans-historical phenomona. There is, of course, stage-relativity articulation and felt experience of these phenomena. But they are of a determinate world. One of the stable phenomena of this world is, in fact, literature. In this material world, identity is stable, but this material world is black-boxed (not unlike a Kantian noumena) in the conditions of possibility of a literary world. And, second, it is intrinsic to the literary world that in it, by contrast, 'A=A' is not trivial, perhaps not even possible ("all identity is lost" including and "beginning with the very identity of the body that writes"). (But 'literature' can be a whole lot broader than being placed in the Penguin Classics series). In Barthes's terms, "literature is precisely the invention of this voice" in which symbols are decoupled from authorial intention and in which multiplicity of meaning is always a live possibility.
I am not the first to notice that Barthes's position is not fully stable because he flirts with various ways in which the norms of such a literary world displaces the institutions that stabilize social reality and, thereby, encroach on the material world which starts slipping out of reach.* Yet, it does not do so according to Barthes because the reader-"spectator" (that would be you, my friend!) is the site where "multiplicity is collected, united." When we are such spectators 'we' are part of co-constitution of order and intelligibility (and in so-doing construct ourselves).
To turn multiplicity into a collected unity is the political act as such (see Spinoza, Hume, etc.). Thus, in so doing, Barthes turns the paradigmatic instance of a private joy of bourgeois culture into the exemplary political-legislative act.
When one looks at the effect of such conceptual moves on some of the humanities, in which reading is mistaken for political activism, it is easy to find sources of ridicule (and futility given that when we look at the larger culture we see that the cult of Author-God is still very much alive (not just in literary circles, but also in "reason, science, the law.")) But as we move to a world in which all of our doings are traces to be turned into data in large-data-mining operations and algorithmic productions, we will be constituted by some spectators, human or, more likely, robotic as their text to read.
One lucky sod now escaped through the squeaky double doors -- a feckless novelist on a visiting fellowship -- but she did not retire unobserved.--Zadie Smith On Beauty.
The unnamed visiting novelist makes no other appearance within the novel. She is mentioned just before the anticipated, great set-piece debate at a faculty meeting over freedom of speech/censorship and political correctness* between two of the main protagonists in the novel (two male, British art historians -- Rembrandt scholars -- employed at a prestigious liberal arts college in New England near Boston <-- this understates all their familiar, racial, and political relations and rivalries). And she is only noticed by the Dean's secretary (herself not a very consequential character in the novel). We are told nothing else about her--not even the place she is visiting from.+
The presence of this novelist does solve a problem of perspective in the novel. The novel is often written from inside the characters' minds or takes up a (shifting) perspective alongside a particular character describing reactions and events from their individual point of view. But sometimes the intended perspective is left a bit ambiguous; there are instances in the novel where the reader is offered brief reflections from no point of view fully owned by any depicted character (see, for example, here). For, the perspective of the novel becomes unified if one attributes the represented, narrative perspective to this lucky sod who becomes the 'author' of the narrative.
The novelist's departure from the scene of action suggests that we are to imagine this nameless author as herself projecting and imagining the represented action. She is herself a spectator with a very limited or partial perspective; she cannot possibly have been a witness to all the events described. She must have relied on testimony and imaginative, sympathetic projection into the circumstances of the characters presented.
The previous paragraph may seem rather fanciful (and the significance of the mention of this 'lucky sod' has been interpreted differently). But the reflexive, insertion of a narrator, who, herself is a spectator with a very limited or partial perspective, who relies on her power of imagination is a device that Smith (Zadie, that is) had also used [recall] (with less subtlety) in The Embassy of Cambodia, where the device is explicitly marked.
Moreover, identifying this lucky sod with a counter-factual Zadie Smith projected into the novel illuminates another feature of the novel: the main action of the novel shifts between the very detailed descriptions of and maps changes in concretely named, neighborhoods (and cemeteries, pubs) of Northwest London, and the fictional, Wellington College projected onto an imaginary place in New England (get it?) near Boston. While this fictional Wellington undergoes the seasons (and the passing of the years), it is presented and experienced by some of the novel's characters as changeless place. (Of course, the novel also reminds us that Wellington is built on slave labor--which is shown to be part of the suppressed memories that constitute the place.) Wellington is thus outside space and time: a no-place (u-topia), despite having a name and identity. Smith's roots are in, and she is, of course, herself a fine chronicler of, NW London.
I close with a promissory note: the pretense of authorial reflexivity is not just a post-modern, literary game. On Beauty presents and encourages aesthetic and moral-political reflection on and engagement with different modes of artistic depiction (with Dr. Tulp's Anatomy Lesson, De Staalmeesters, and, especially, Hendrickje Bathing playing central roles.) By inserting herself into the life of the novel, Smith acknowledges something of the moral, leveling criticism (voiced by one of her protagonists, Howard, whose attempts to live coherently in light of his own theories we see come undone in all kinds of ways,) of the projection of artistic independence, of the very idea of inventive genius that stands outside political economy and power relations (even if she also shows in the final scene that at least some art is the product of forces other than consumer demand).
That is, Smith is pretending as if she has learned from her own characters, characters that we have to take to be imaginatively projected by her fictional counterpart, who has worked out and presents the comic and creative interplay between these characters's ideas and actions (not to mention bodies occupying places). And, thus, she gently, but decisively -- to quote the essayist, Zadie Smith -- by "directed play" leads the reader to imagine what it would be like for an author to be on equal footing with her characters, while effacing, momentarily, that she does so, perhaps not with Nabokov's 'total control', but certainly on her peculiar terms.
"To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss” was one of the mottoes of the Khmer Rouge. It referred to the New People, those city dwellers who could not be made to give up city life and work on a farm. By returning everybody to the land, the regime hoped to create a society of Old People—that is to say, of agrarian peasants. When a New Person was relocated from the city to the country, it was vital not to show weakness in the fields. Vulnerability was punishable by death.
In Willesden, we are almost all New People, though some of us, like Fatou, were, until quite recently, Old People, working the land in our various countries of origin. Of the Old and New People of Willesden I speak; I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not choose me and must wonder what gives me the right. I could say, “Because I was born at the crossroads of Willesden, Kilburn, and Queen’s Park!” But the reply would be swift and damning: “Oh, don’t be foolish, many people were born right there; it doesn’t mean anything at all. We are not one people and no one can speak for us. It’s all a lot of nonsense. We see you standing on the balcony, overlooking the Embassy of Cambodia, in your dressing gown, staring into the chestnut trees, looking gormless. The real reason you speak in this way is because you can’t think of anything better to do.”--Zadie Smith (2013 The Embassy of Cambodia.
The implied narrator of Smith's story is the old (presumably retired) lady standing on the balcony overlooking the Embassy of Cambodia in Willesden. (There really is an embassy there on Brondesbury Park.) It's possible there is a second implied narrator who is never mentioned but who has a knowing perspective on Fatou's life (this narrator sometimes shares Fatou's thoughts). But it's more likely* that we're supposed to imagine that the nameless old lady on the balcony is herself imagining the details of Fatou's life constructed out of a few glimpses of seeing the African-born young woman walk by occasionally. She does so by imaginatively (or sympathetically) projecting herself into Fatou's circumstances. Thus, she is very much akin to not just an impartial spectator, but also a novelist.
It's one several reflexive moments in this compact story. And we are forced to ask the political-poetical question: with what 'right' does somebody (the 'author' not to be confused with Zadie Smith) speak on behalf of another (let's call her 'the represented'), especially when the represented are not even a minimal unity (they are multiple peoples). [Notably, a viable option, a federation, in which multiple peoples form a unity, is overlooked; the implied narrator, who has an obsession with world, political history, especially genocidal history (in addition to the Khmer Rouge, Ruanda, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust are all mentioned in passion), is evidently not a political philosophy.] It's clear that the represented did not elect the author. Even so, the author was chosen. The nature of this being elect is left a bit vague: at first it seems chance (the vagaries of being born at a particular place), but in a further imaginary dialogue this is explicitly rejected -- being born at a specific gives no special title -- it may also be thought fate or necessity or (God's) providence, although the author presents the represented as suggesting that the whole thing (the author speaking for the represented, etc.) just is nonsense. In the presence of nonsense, representation does not get off the ground.
The represented are presented as suggesting that the author is chosen because she herself lacks the imagination to do something else. (This is the first charge) That is the author is taken to lack that very quality (imagination) which, in fact, is the core of her skill (and, when lucky, the source of her possible sustenance.) We may say, then, that the author presents the represented as charging her in addition, with lack of social utility (nothing "better to do"). These two charges seem to go unanswered. That is, Zadie Smith is giving the prosecution against (at least part of) her art a full hearing.
I write a 'part of' because it is explicitly denied that we're dealing with poetry:
When the Embassy of Cambodia first appeared in our midst, a few years ago, some of us said, “Well, if we were poets perhaps we could have written some sort of an ode about this surprising appearance of the embassy.” (For embassies are usually to be found in the center of the city. This was the first one we had seen in the suburbs.) But we are not really a poetic people. We are from Willesden. Our minds tend toward the prosaic. I doubt there is a man or woman among us, for example, who—upon passing the Embassy of Cambodia for the first time—did not immediately think: “genocide.”
Here it is suggested (it's an earlier chapter than the one quoted above), that there is a unity, a we, a people in Willesden. This people(the represented) is unimaginative (prosaic) not poetic. One may wonder how a unity, such a we, is possible without poetry.
Genocide is understood as a purification that is romantic in spirit. It's not about progress, but about a return to a more authentic and strong lifestyle in which there is no space or place for vulnerability.
To speak for the represented one must be receptive to some such vulnerability and possess a willingness to sympathize (or empathize) with others. Yet, throughout the short story the limits of sympathy are shown and discussed by the author:
The fact is if we followed the history of every little country in this world—in its dramatic as well as its quiet times—we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or to apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming. Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?
Time and attention are scarce goods, and sympathy places a heavy demand on both and so generate huge opportunity costs. To much sympathetic care for others would swallow up "our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures." The art of living requires limits to the moral and sympathetic imagination even if it is only invoked in a spectatorial fashion (to follow the history of another is not to participate in it). And here we have the damnest charge against the author (and Smith's craft); she is a passive witness to just bits of the lives of others (in this case Fatou, who lives a life of near modern slavery, and reflects on this fact).
The metaphor of this authorial passivity, is the embassy's wall, which occludes a garden from view; in this garden there is a regular, almost eternal game of badminton in which "violent conclusion" and "hopeful return" are alternated; this game is represented by the shuttlecock whose movements is -- like the shadows in Plato's cave -- partially visible above the wall.
I am running out of space here to discuss the ways in which the little story meets the charges against an author who through her craft and imagination gives voice to those who are generally kept voiceless in our polities. But I close by noting that the whole story treats the very narrow circle of friendship as the superior alternative (to the caring or moral spectatorship). It's friendship (not family) that activates kindness and generosity. Even when the friendship is not pure nor equal (there are motives of conversion, sexuality, possession, and need), it can motivate actions that counterbalance some of the worst that humanity has to offer. And, whatever else Zadie Smith is showing us, the author is a friend to no one, not even to the represented.
Yesterday, as we were ambling our way through Prague on a lovely late Summer evening, Jousef Moural, pointed me to a church barely visible behind scaffolding, the Italian Chapel of the Assumption of Our Lady. We stopped a few doors up in front of a plaque on Karlova street commemorating that Kepler lived there during his stay (1600-1612). On the authority of the late, great Renaissance scholar and historian of astronomy, Zdenek Horsky, he told me the following anecdote. I have not found it elsewhere on the internet, so I thought it worth sharing.
The chapel, which was completed just before Kepler arrived in Prague, has a dome. For nearly a decade Kepler passed by there as he was struggling with Tycho 's data before he recognized that the orbits were ellipses--something that does not just jump out of you from the Mars data. (Mars's orbit really is very close to a circle.) The dome and the floor plan have, you guessed it, are elliptical, then an innovative architecture.
I'd like to think that sometimes when we are contemplating the starry heavens above, our beautiful even devote artifices can if not guide then inspire inquiry, too.
The oracle...was sound asleep all through the writing of the book. Sound asleep in the corner of the office. Philip K. Dick (1963) The Man in the High Castle.
of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Ecclesiastes 12:12
One branch of political philosophy is a species of comparative institutional analysis; in which the earthly models of the heavenly exemplar are developed in different ways because they are based on different empirical axioms. I have proposed to call this genre, Socratic political theory about ideal theory. In the past I have suggested that More's Utopia and Le Guin's (1974) The Dispossessed are instances of the genre. (To say that does not mean they don't belong in other genres, too.)
I picked up The Man in the High Castle at an airport recently. I am grateful to the TV series for making it so easily and widely available, but I have not seen the series. The Main the High Castle can be read as imaginative counterfactual history about what would have happened if the Axis powers had won the Second World War and the Axis powers have divided the spoils. It's clever and troubling (it's a world of massive genocide, racial hierarchy, betrayals, censorship, but also uncommon moments of humanity, etc.). Yet within the novel, and arguably the key theme of the story is another book writen by Hawthorne Abendsen [a homage, perhaps, to Asimov's Nightfall or, Wiesel's Night, or, perhaps, Celine's great novel], who has authored The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (itself an allusion, as Wikipedia notes, to Ecclesiastes 12:5). This books is also a counterfactual history, but -- even if you agree that there is no metric for such things -- closer to actual history (the allies win the war, although with plenty of variations from actual history).
We can say, then, that we are explicitly invited to compare two imagined, but institutionally rich worlds to each other. One means for doing so, is by looking at what remains the same in both imagined worlds despite the historical and institutional variation as well as what differs in both worlds despite points of contact. Some other time I want to say more about this, but there is a further complication. For the The Man in the High Castle also goes meta on us (I forget who gave me that phrase recently---apologies!), because the way Abendsen's book is supposed to be interpreted is also a matter of, well, conflicting interpretations throughout the book. And here I want to close with a note on it.
At the end of the The Man in the High Castle by relying on an interpretation of the I Ching (cf here), we are presented with the thought by Juliana (one of the main characters who turns out one of the few heroes of the plot and who is compared to a daemon from the underworld) and Abendsen that the The Grasshopper Lies Heavy has an Inner Truth. (The idea also angers Abendsen.) Remarkably then, we are explicitly invited to consider that books have a surface meaning and an inner truth. A few pages before Juliana had already concluded that the point of Abendsen's book is not about that novel's "make-believe world." She grasps that its inner truth is a commentary on her world (the one in which the Axis won).
We are, thus, invited to treat The Man in the High Castle not just as counterfactual history but also as a commentary on Dick's actual world (ca 1963)--that is on the nature of the civil rights movement and the nature of US imperialism (both issues in the two novels). For example, in Abendsen's imagined world discrimination between 'Whites and Negroes' is ended by the second world war, and US and UK imperialism compete for global victory. How to think about such a commentary in a methodological fashion -- as rigorous as the interpretation of the I Ching -- is for another occasion.
We inevitably desire eternity; and dreams of eternity can only fail, condemned as we are to temporality.--William Egginton "Borges on Eternity," (in Eternity: A History, 277)
Today, Eternity: A History edited by Y. Melamed arrived in the mail. I don't know why I received the volume (I have edited a volume on Sympathy in the same series, but I have not been sent other gratis copies in the series), but I am pleased with the anonymous gift. Because I sometimes muse about Borges, I was drawn to Egginton's elegant "Reflection" on Borges (quoted above). Oddly, when I looked up Egginton in the list of Contributors, I found his name missing. At first I wondered if Melamed had played a practical, Borgesian joke and invented a fictional character to write the entry on Borges. But from Wikipedia I learn William Egginton was born in Syracuse in 1969.*
In Averroës's Search,-- sadly unmentioned by Egginton --, the great philosopher, Ibn Rushd, is explicitly located in "the land of Spain, where there were not a great many things, yet where each thing seemed to exist materially and eternally." It's important for Borges' politics that this philosopher is also a Spanish philosopher and, thus, somehow in the cultural ancestry of the 'West.' And Spain gets presented as (to adapt a Quine-ean phrase) a desert landscape, where the lack of ''entity' density is compensated, as it were by a cosmic, metaphysical harmony, by eternal, material existence of the relatively rare entities found there. Of course, this only seems so because we assume that no material thing -- we can ignore spirits here -- exists eternally in Spain.
The next time we encounter the eternal in Borges's story of Ibn Rushd, Faraj (an "orthodox" Qur'anist) is reported as saying, "while language and signs and writing are the work of men, the Qur'an itself is irrevocable and eternal.'' (Averroës remains silent in response, although he thinks that Faraj could also have said "that the mother of the Book is similar, in a way, to the Platonic Idea.") Faraj is the host of the dinner-party, and it is impolite and imprudent to draw those unskilled in theology into discussion about it.
As an aside, in his contribution to the Eternity volume (p. 84), Peter Adamson helpfully notes that the idea that the Qu'ran is uncreated becomes an imposed dogma in the mid ninth century by the Abbasid Caliphs, although this remark only gives a hint of what is at stake in Ibn Hanbal's famous defiance on this point.**
It is notable that Borges's Ibn Rushd philosophical translation of Faraj's remark does not contradict it. He is shown capable of an esoteric reading that he does not utter. Here, as is elsewhere, Borges shows that he has grasped Ibn Rushd's political thought because Ibn Rushd is exceptionally clear on the significance to political-theology that the experts that know can keep quiet.
The 'mother of the Book' is itself a Quranic phrase (see 43:2-4) and on the Platonizing reading of Borges's Ibn Rushd it is a kind of eternal template for the Arabic text that Faraj knows how to recite. It is compatible with this idea, but that's unmentioned, that any material Qu'ran could also be produced in a different language (the work of men).***
The idea of a 'mother of the Book' returns under a different name (and with a different content) in The Library of Babel: in the eternally existing and eternally returning library, "There must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books." There Borges's narrator treats the "belief" in what was termed the Book Man," that is, the "librarian" who "must have examined that book" (and "this librarian is analogous to a god") as a "superstition." (Here the narrator sides with the Islamic critique of Christianity.) I note that Borges's narrator goes on to insist -- and I hasten to add on impeccable, modal metaphysical grounds -- that this perfect compendium of all others books itself, must exist.
Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead...What then sustains and strengthens traditions? What weakens and destroys them?
The answer in key part is: the exercise or the lack of exercise of the relevant virtues...Lack of justice, lack of truthfulness, lack of courage, lack of the relevant intellectual virtues--these corrupt traditions, just they do those institutions and practices which derive their life from the traditions of which they are the contemporary embodiment...Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) After Virtue, 222-223.
I often think that analytical philosophy is tainted beyond hope; our complicity in cultures of sexual harassment; our unwillingness to reflect on the patterns of exclusion, intellectual, racial, and personal; our repeated willingness to champion and be championed by intellectual bullies who have offered the world little of permanent value -- love, joy, beauty, etc.; our insistence that we're the party of truth and justice, while being unable to address in a forthright matter all the petty compromises with power and privilege we've made, etc. Of course, these are the predictable by-products of professional advancement. I recognize in myself the despair of a former-idealist; I should be a reactionary by now, but with age I turn the cliche up-side down: I am more critical of, and less comfortable with, the ways of the world than when I was a younger man.
But my heart is softened when I learned from MacIntyre this week that Gilbert Ryle wrote sensibly on Jane Austen's moral philosophizing; Ryle linked it, after distinguishing between a Calvinist and Aristotelian ethic, firmly with the "secular and aesthetic Aristotelianism of Shaftesbury." (No scholar would probably describe Shaftesbury like that now, but, when one reflects on it, Ryle is being insightful.) Not for the first time, I am struck by the fact that the more I learn about the history of analytical philosophy the quirkier -- in a good sense -- our tradition becomes.
Last week, after my rant went viral, with a guilty conscience, I found my copy of After Virtue and I decided to bring it on a conference trip to Austria and read it at earliest possible moment. I had been meaning to re-read it since I wrote this post (on MacIntyre's penetrating criticism of Rorty). Much to my surprise, the book had been clearly unread since I bought it second-hand in Red Lodge, Wyoming, during the Summer of 1992. (A stamp of The Broadway Bookstore is still clearly visible.)
I don't remember buying After Virtue. Judging by google.maps, the book-store is gone, although several others that look familiar are still in Red Lodge--a charming (undoubtedly quite touristy now) Western town that always stuck in my mind as the ideal quiet spot to write novels while having access to some of the comforts of civilization. Perhaps it's also a good place to await the fall of our civilization. (I have not been back.)
Even so, I don't share in After Virtue's narrative of decline -- it closes with the thought that we have entered 'new dark ages' -- and dreams of a new philosophical prophet to point the way out of our 'barbarism' (MacIntyre uses St. Benedict as exemplar (p. 263)). It's not that I am more optimistic than MacIntyre about our situation since the early 1980s, but rather because I have come to think that all ages, even the relatively prosperous and peaceful ones, are barbarous. That ours is an age of demagoguery and racialized nationalism -- identity politics is not limited to college campuses -- , and of demographic and environmental fears does not distinguish us from others. Even the sincerity of our religious fundamentalists is a recurring possibility. All ages call "men and women of good will" (263) to join in the endless task of minimizing the evils others inflict on each other. History teaches that more often than not those of good will are not up to the task.
Despite the gloom, or perhaps because of it, After Virtue is a book for adults; I found it exhilarating reading. It offers many complex, interwoven arguments and, despite its relentless earnestness and argumentative and historical short-cuts, each page contains a sentence or two that will stop you in your tracks. Long before academics invented a scholarly industry around neoliberalism as the vice of our times, MacIntyre sets his sights on the bureaucrat's disguise as a technocrat (and the odd alliance with the therapist as exemplars of our times). In chapter 8, MacIntyre defends so-called epistemic versions of Knightian uncertainty in order to undermine claims to managerial expertise. (He seems to be unaware of Knight; I return to that some other time.) Some of the best lines in the book are its critical treatment of the performative theory of self, now associated with Judith Butler, but apparently articulated by Erving Goffman in the 1950s and 60s.*
Indeed, I discerned I was right to feel guilty for not having mentioned MacIntyre in my rant because my distinction between the practice and the philosophical politics of philosophy that is presupposed in my rant, resonates with MacIntyre's use of a distinction between practice and institutions. And throughout the book he anticipates my own impatience with overblown and self-congratulatory claims of philosophical progress. More important, and much to my surprise, he articulates the ways in which taints from the past cannot be ignored for those that inherit tradition (country, practice, religion, etc.). Despite, or perhaps, because of his fondness for Aristotle, an unmistakable point of his argument is the diagnosis of what we would now call white privilege as a consequence of American slavery (220); he leaves no doubt that history generates obligations to latecomers.
I close with an observation on MacIntyre on Austen. At key junctures in his argument, MacIntyre tacitly corrects Ryle's claim that Austen's outlook is secular, by repeatedly insisting she is "a Christian." Evidently, classifying the past correctly is an urgent task if we fight the corrosion of intellectual narratives.
Yesterday, I was reminded of the old Somerville Theatre at Davis Square. I use 'old' because it has since been renovated; it was quite shabby when I lived in the area. I encountered Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969) during the animation festival. I had no idea when I first saw it, that it was already a classic and that, in fact, much of the audience anticipated its return. I did not trust my memory on this fact, but I was pleased to find this point confirmed in a report of the festival, probably the year before I attended it, published in the Harvard Crimson.* I was so astounded by the short cartoon, that I sought it out whenever it returned to town. It never failed to amaze how something could be so funny and horrid at the same time.
In looking at it again, when preparing this post, I recognized that I had somehow had effaced from memory the significant role of the rather narcissistic opening (and closing) credits in the film (including the jokes embedded in them). For reasons I cannot explain I find the credits especially jarring because they contrast with the visual simplicity of the cartoon itself.
Either way, in revisiting the cartoon, I was struck that Godzilla's foot has scales. Godzilla (who is supposed to be some kind of dinosaur, I think) is part gorilla, part whale, and Godzilla has an aquatic origin. But the scales also puzzle me because I believe whales do not have scales. Yet, in looking at the final image of Bambi flattened by Godzilla, I was reminded of Leviathan (think book of Job and Hobbes). In the famous image at the front of Hobbes's Leviathan, the people that compose the Leviathan are made to look like scales.
Bambi's mom is slaughtered by man-the-hunter. I have no idea if, at the height of the Vietnam War, Marv Newland meant to invoke the brutality of the state-leviathan, which tramples innocence along the way. But it is not far-fetched; in the original, Japanese context, Godzilla is meant to evoke the dangers of atomic warfare (this is also an unsubtle point: Godzilla flattens Japanese cities).
So far so good. But if one goes down this route, the question is whose innocence innocence is being trampled on? The flattened daisy evokes, perhaps, LBJ's famous commercial against Goldwater. I would like to think that Bambi stands for the idea of American freedom, but I am not entirely confident on this matter.