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One of my MUST-READ blogs is Carpe Diem, written by Dr. Mark Perry, an economist. Perry relishes in debunking conventional wisdom by the mainstream media, as he recently did in posts on the real estate bubble, and far more notably, on the role of speculators in a free market (no surprise to anyone with a modicum of training in economics: speculators are agents of stability, not instability). Perry often accomplishes these feats with “back of the envelope” calculations that are both simple and intuitive, yet not replicated in other media. Of course, the author also suffers from two serious maladies: a propensity to hammer a subject until its 60 feet under the ground and also to make arguments that may not necessarily address the subject at hand.
The chart above shows 2006 income shares from the IRS, and medal shares at the 2004 Summer Olympics. Notice the amazing similarity? For example, the top 5% of U.S. taxpayers earned 36% of all income, and the top 5% of the 74 medal-winning countries (the top three: U.S., Russia, and China; and 70% of fourth place Australia’s points to total 3.7 countries) won about 33% of the total medal points (598.3 out of 1832).
[And] notice the amazingly similar outcome between shares of adjusted gross income earned by the top 5, 10 and 25% of Americans, and the shares of the 906 Olympic medals in 2008 earned by the top 5, 10 and 15% of medal-earning countries.
Perhaps any competitive process, whether it’s athletics or the economy, distributes results (medals, income) unequally? And perhaps that unequal distribution, whether it’s income or Olympic medals is a natural, expected outcome of any competitive process?
It just occurred to me that I have posted on a similar subject before that may be even more analogous. There is certainly a wide, varied gradient of artists in the world, whose more specific occupation could be called painter, architect, designer, or whatever. But not many are very popular. Those who are seem like they are everywhere. For every Klimt, Matisse, Picasso, Koons, Monet, or Hirst, there are a thousand artists toiling in obscurity selling their paintings to law offices, public courthouses, and unwary passersby at local art festivals.
In the European Union, a jurisdiction with some very blah so-called moral rights laws, artists receive royalties on works sold by auction houses and dealers between €1,000 – €500,000. In this way, artists continue to possess an inalienable right to the proceeds from resales of their art works. That’s why they’re called moral rights, because they’re just that important. As Perry has done before, I have beat that subject into the ground before — no, what is interesting in this case isn’t the moral rights themselves, but assuming that most art works sold in auction houses sell between 1,000 and 500,000, it’s the distribution of the royalties:
A study sponsored by the Antiques Trade Gazette showed that, in the 18 months to August 2007, 10% of the 1,104 artists benefiting from ARR in Britain (around half of whom are British) got 80% of the pot; the bottom 30% received less than £100 each.
It seems like evidence that in a field of human endeavor (that is to say, any artistic endeavor) that resembles something akin to a perfectly competitive or even monopolistically competitive market structure, when freedom is allowed to take its course, freedom results in Pareto-distributed outcomes, be it in athletics, paintings, or any other human endeavor. If liberals are to be believed by their words, that inequality must be fought with wealth redistribution because it is somehow per se unjust, then their entire worldview is anti-human and far more artificial than any industrial or metallic monstrosity.
As has been well documented on this blog, I believe that one possible lens for the analysis of politics is the philosophy of aesthetics. Whether or not it is meaningful is up to each person, but it nevertheless contributes information. Hence my “politicians as artists” series. In the spirit of the Olympics, I want to touch briefly on athletics.
The notion of ‘athletic beauty’ has been discussed since time immemorial, though notably by Plato, who believed that it was surely one of the most beautiful of the arts. I cannot find the source (wild guess: The Republic), but I seem to recall Plato glorifying athletics because athletes shape themselves and train (a sacrifice?) for performance that all recognize as beautiful. While something can be said for this appraisal of athletics, modern athletics do not often resemble the athletics of Plato’s time, which I believe consisted of wrestling, wrestling, and a lot more wrestling. ( Yuck. )
Today we have well-developed professional leagues and massive state-operated programs to develop athletics. In the former case, examples in America include the MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL, amongst others. Some deride these leagues, pointing to the huge amounts of money that team owners and players seem awash in. How can much beauty come from that? Or look in the latter case toward China’s sophisticated program of developing athletes. Critics point out that some athletes are selected at very young ages to train to become guardians of national honor, and they will be told they cannot see their parents for over a decade. Weekends off? Hah! Plus, the national government can throw as much money as they want at it. In both cases, where is the pure dedication to performance as an end in itself, or for the service of others?
I, on the other hand, think that we should consider athletic achievements irrespective of the money. The Olympics are a chance to do that. Yes, America is a wealthy country whose people can afford to spend lots of money (the income effect being larger than the substitution effect for many helps) on athletics which thereby creates huge opportunities for development. Yes, China can only compete with this by spending a massive amount of taxpayer money on similar development. In either case, or in neither, the achievements by the athletes stand by themselves however. All achievements have their context in time, of course, but money just provides opportunities — money isn’t some intangible substance, rather, it represents people’s values and concerns. So can’t we revel in the awesome display of athleticism by the ubiquitous Michael Phelps in the same way as we can in the precision and austerity of the underaged He Ke Xin?
The Olympics, at their best, concern the excellence of the human form. In so doing, at their best, they transcend the lesser concerns of identity and politics to draw our gaze toward the art of athletic beauty and achievement. The Beijing Olympics were a terrific success and we should be proud of the achievements of the Chinese athletes, as if, in some ways, they were our very own. To appreciate them thusly would be a proper celebration of the Olympics.
I had thought to review Bill Holm’s The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland thinking that the book might be worth reviewing. It looked pretty on the cover, as if it might be more memoir, travelogue, and friendly ruminations. (That’s what I get for judging a book by its cover.) Upon actually reading it, I was sorely disappointed. A substantial reason, I admit, is that the author is unabashedly liberal. When I discuss politics or economics, I tend to mirror the tone that others discuss it in. If they are confrontational, I will be confrontational. If they are humble, I will be humble — if self-effacing… and so on. This book is an odd mix of patronizing and angry myopic blustering. That’s hard for a reader like me to take.
The book, sadly, can be summed up in the following sentence: America has perpetuated barbaric wars on the world, is destroying the environment, and its people cannot appreciate the better, simpler life. Some have compared him to Walt Whitman, but Whitman reflected on the world from a deep place of introspection that held the world in wonder. Holm is angry and bitter. The worst characteristic of America to him, it seems, is its people’s appreciation of religion. He tells us to pray in private, not in public and continually bashes religion, while at the same time raising the idol of the untouched environment.
Holm had potential — in some subjects, he seems like he could be a skilled writer, describing landscapes and music. He would no doubt be a much more popular and well-considered writer should he ever decide to eschew his odd, often misplaced recriminations with thoughtful consideration of broader themes. His fulminations completely overshadow the otherwise slightly charming anecdotes in the book. Oh, but I am sure the Chomskyites love it. It’s probably better called An Angry Liberal in Iceland. (Angry conservatives don’t make for very fun writers most of the time, either, folks.)
The author often pines for America to restore its fidelity to liberty and freedom, but it is quite clear that Holm has no understanding of what liberty really means, for he so loathes its exercise. One cannot on one hand advocate for liberty and on the other hand be so intolerant of its exercise. Not everyone believes that the government should control all facets of life. Not everyone believes that political speech should be regulated unless it is liberal political speech. And not everyone believes that terrorists should be able to maintain their liberty at the expense of American lives. The US does have many voces like Holm, however, and many of them are politicians, scientists, and influential public intellectuals. I think that the author of Poetry, Not Prose must have had these people in mind when he wrote “Freedom Dies By Suicide! (Obituary on A2)“:
Freedom died last night,
at the age of three hundred, three.
He left his children and his wife,
with nothing but their dreams.
He was found near a glass of gin,
and books piled to the lights,
(It was a lady friend who found him –
at a quarter past midnight.)
Though details are still to come,
The facts, as they are, imply:
Freedom did not die by the gun.
He died by suicide.
In summary: don’t look to this book for cogent or even interesting inquiries on human nature, nature, Iceland, or America. See some Shakespeare, read some Milton, go to Iceland, and vote Republican instead. I’m going to do a little bit of all that, and when I go to Iceland from October 11 – 16, I just might see if a certain author is around for a chat.
There is no need to embellish upon the record of timeless verse that comes to us from the Hellenes. Its achievements continue to echo through the annals of history, not merely to inform, but to awe. The contributions from strong women remain especially visible, I would argue for more than in other cultures broadly termed the West (to what degree this results from chance I do not know). These women include the likes of Kassiane, Theodorou, Karelli, Aravantinou, Votsi, and countless others — and this is all to say nothing of its female warriors, political leaders, and troublesome muses.
Someone who has been considered both a troublesome muse (the tenth, according to Plato) as well as a poet who could only have come out of legend is Sappho. Unfortunately, the vast majority of her work is lost to antiquity and those who lived in it. She is best known in general discourse as a lesbian poet. This is hardly surprising– she lived in Lesbos! But this is surely not the most important characteristic of Sappho, nor, really, is it related to particularly defining motivation. Sappho’s truest concern was love, and a comprehensive appraisal of her work must study that concern in the context of her time.
As someone who studied Sappho many years ago, I always vowed to return to her again in the future. I found that opportunity when I encountered Anne Carson’s book, If Not, Winter. Compellingly, its translator/editor does not set out to write or revise history. In this way, Carson’s compilation of the entire corpus of Sappho’s work puts Sappho brilliantly into the context of her time. By not bloviating (or worse, fulminating) on the issue of her gender identity and sexual temptations, Carson leaves these issues unmarked in the discursive sense. Had she drawn attention to them, she would have marked them, thereby insulating the original author and her subject material from the general readership. Instead, Carson promptly deals with the issue on the second page of her introduction to the work, casually dismissing concerns:
Controversies about her personal ethics and way of life have taken up a lot of people’s time throughout the history of Sapphic scholarship. It seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there?
Gladly! Many other arguments still rage regarding Sappho. For instance, scholars are not sure whether or not she was literate. One thing scholars seem to agree on, however, is that she was a brilliant musician, who composed her poetry to be sung with the lyre. At a time when poetry was both more dominant in general culture and less prevalent in the publication, her poetry must have been almost universally considered alluring and powerful. Even from only the sad, small, precious fragments that survive today, there can be no doubt of this. Consider this, the only surviving, complete poem:
Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains,
O lady, my heart
but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father’s
golden house and came,
yoking your car. And find birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out
and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?
For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.
If you think that a full analysis of this poem is beyond me, you would be right. Nevertheless, I should point out that there is a real narrative unfolding, with multiple voices, confused intentions, and possibly, in light of the role of angels as pointed out in the last post, some extraordinary angst. If we knew more about her, we might know how much was conscious irony and how much was sincere. It seems as though these words are just the tip of the iceberg, while so much more meaning lies beneath the surface. This is part of why the translator decided that the subheading of the book would be “Fragments of Sappho.” But the main reason is because the translator chose to place each and every remaining fragment of Sappho’s work on their own pages. In this manner, she accords all of Sappho’s works an equal dignity. Sometimes the fragments are only a sentence, phrase, or word long.
As compiled, the fragments seem like golden rays of light revealed through dense clusters of summer leaves. We cannot get a sense of the full day, but we know both the resplendent glory of the fragments as well as their soothing nature: somewhere, far away, another human, perhaps not so unlike us, lived with dilemmas we could empathize with and figured out some insight that we, too, could arrive at in time.
In another poem, Sappho writes of love, saying that “what you love” is the most beautiful thing on earth. She explains this by using Helen of Troy as an example, before her mind turns to her lost love, Anaktoria. The last half of the poem is mostly removed and it is difficult if not impossible to tell what she was talking about. After her lament, Carson translates the gaps as:
out of the unexpected.
Out of the unexpected! Is it possible that Sappho ended on an ambiguous, but hopeful note? Does it refer to paradox? Did it resolve with a moral tale? We cannot currently know the answers to these questions. But we have posed a great many of them, and therein lies the main use of Sappho for the modern day reader. I think Carson understood it better than any of us. For each fragment, we must deal with a new set of questions that we can only arrive at by assessing the meaning of Sappho’s fragments in relation to our own narrative experiences. For example:
do I still yearn for my virginity?
I might go
Or as she exults in her ability:
yes! radiant lyre speak to me
become a voice
Each of these echos resounds, for we know Sappho’s power. It would be as if someone had to assess Michael Jordan’s career from a complete video of his 1991 NBA Finals, highlights from 1992 NBA Finals, a clip of MJ swinging a baseball bat, a few clips of Jordan dribbling up court from 1997, 1998, and 1999. We might be acutely aware of how inspiringly talented MJ was from the evidence we possessed alone, and the accolades awarded by his peers (we have some of this of Sappho as well). When I read these fragments, I have a sense of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Carson is our traveler in an antique land, perusing that ancient language, reading its extraordinary lyrics, dealing in all the relics. Sappho sculpted her own “shatter’d visage,” and we may wonder if a woman who knew so much happiness would be immortalized in a frown, though this may be all we have left. Carson delivers each fragment, no matter how small, to give us a sense of the “colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” as the “lone and level sands” of antiquity “stretch far away.”
neither for me nor the honey bee
Needless to say, Sappho’s poetry is referred to for its highly erotic content. More interesting to me is how the author translates from the original Greek (placed on the left-hand side of each page there is a fragment, translated in English on the right). Carson uses words such as sweetbitter, honeyvoiced, mythweaver, songdelighting. These are not words that we really have in English, but their composition follows standard rules for word formation and seem to be quite intelligible. Translators should never shirk from creating new words in order to translate. We need some frame of reference to understand these terms, after all. And if these new words help us see things we already understood in new ways, like a metaphor might, then these truly expand our power of comprehension, opening our minds to possibilities that we had never before considered. For example, typically, when we think of our “past,” we think of what is behind us. Not so in Cherokee culture. For them, the past is ahead of them, in front of their eyes anyway, because they can see it.
The translator in this case, Ms. Carson, appends thorough notes explaining difficult, tricky, or ambiguous translations. They certainly contain many insights. My favorite is the the discussion on the Greek word koma:
koma is a noun used in Hippokratic texts of the lethargic state called “coma” yet not originally a medical term. This is the profound, weird, sexual sleep that enwraps Zeus after love with Hera; this is the punishing, unbreathing stupor imposed for a year on any god who breaks an oath; […] Otherworldliness is intensified in Sappho’s poem by the synaesthetic quality of her koma–dropping from leaves set in motion by a shiver of light over the tree: Sappho’s adjective aithussomenon (“radiant-shaking”) blends visual and tactile perceptions with a sound of rushing emptiness.
My favorite definition is the first. That Zeus! Anyway, you will come to see the words synaesthetic and synesthesia much more often in the coming years, as I sense a resurgence of interest in the subject. Essentially, it is the fusion of senses, be it one’s seeing music or numbers, feeling texture in colors, and so on. Some say it comes from a curious biological happenstance in about 3% of the population, whereas others think it merely figments of people’s imaginations. ( The same debate rages over Fibromyalgia. ) Synaesthesia does not necessarily give anyone an advantage in comprehension or some extra computational capacity. If one is forced to see colors in numbers, and the colors are random noise, then this may actually distort an understanding of numbers.
Whatever the basis for synaesthesia, it seems that it fills a role similar to fictions. In my post, “The Angels Within,” I discussed the role of fiction and literature in our lives as filling a need. Simply, fiction can fill gaps in our identity, take us to places we could not otherwise go though we desire to, and allow us an escape from spatiotemporal confines. If we have explored the meaning of our most common adjectives, phrases, and emotions, then there really isn’t much space for the quality of being transcendent. Synaesthesia solves that problem. Fusing the senses might convey a sense of the ethereal or it might seem like it is opening a door into a world where the rules are entirely different. Either way, the concept synaesthesia allows us to transcend ordinary meanings, as if we lived in R^3 but suddenly inhabited R^5 or R^6; the point is that the possibilities would seem comparatively endless.
Poetry probably has a superior capacity to convey the essence of the synaesthetic because the more words you have, and most other literary forms have more words, the more anchored these new terms, concepts, and sensations become in what is already known. The power of the synaesthetic, however, lies precisely in its formless, abstract qualities. If Sappho’s poetry refers to words such as aithussomenon (“radiant-shaking”), then we might gain from a closer reading of what is left of her work.
Still, Sappho’s numerous actual expressions of love and longing will remain the most resonant aspects of her work. They certainly seem at least the equal of any opera that I have seen, and granted, I have seen only a few. From my favorite part in Puccini’s Tosca:
The stars were gleaming,
The ground was fragrant…
The creak of the garden gate,
light footsteps in the sand,
the smell of her hair. She came
and fell into my arms.
Oh tender kisses, sweet caresses,
While, trembling, I beheld
Her beautiful form freed of its gown.
Gone forever is my dream of love.
Time has fled, and I die in despair!
I die in despair,
But never have I loved life so much!!
Compare it to some of Sappho:
I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me.
with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.
And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.
But if not, I want
to remind you
]and beautiful times we had.
For many crowns of violets
]at my side you put on
and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.
And with sweet oil
you anointed yourself
and on a soft bed
you would let loose your longing
and neither any[ ]nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent
no grove[ ]no dance
The book itself admirably translates Sappho so that we may have a glimpse of her in her own context, but also in a way that preserves her and puts her in a highly respectful position amongst fellow poets and artists. New York Times reviewer Dinitia Smith seems to agree that this book is an excellent compendium of Sappho’s work:
Of course Sappho also composed poetry: erotic, sensual, desperate poetry, filled with the anger of desire, wonder at the beauty of the desired one, the sweet languor of gratification. And now her verse has been elevated to new heights in a gorgeous translation by the poet Anne Carson, who is also director of graduate studies, classics, at McGill University in Montreal. […] Sappho’s poetry is filled with a golden eroticism. It is redolent of Attic sunshine, the sweet smells of the Aegean, Grecian meadows.
Other fawning reviews of If Not, Winter may be found here. She will long be a part of our discourse on fiction. Perhaps Sappho herself had some sense of the gravity of her issues and the life she breathed into them:
someone will remember us
even in another time
In the last post, “The Angels Within,” I discussed the relationship of fiction (and literature) with the human condition. Kermode and Vargas Llosa argued that fiction filled a gap between who we are and who we want to be. Considering that economics is the study of human behavior and our choices in a world filled with scarcity, it ought to shed some light on our humanity to figure out how fiction serves these needs and if it continues to do so today.
Many authors believe it does not.
According to the Wikipedia article on the “Death of the Novel,” certainly the definitive source on the subject, authors have hypothesized the impending death of the novel for years. Critics as renowned as Barthes and authors as notorious as Vidal have weighed in on the subject. Actually, the article has some interesting notes that I wish to tie together. The article mentions various persons’ theories for the death of the novel, including “the rise of nihilism in European culture,” there being no significant people to write about, and “the mortality of the post-war generation of American novelists.”
All of these explanations are right. They each shed different light on the fundamental cause of the death of the novel, which, while perhaps exaggerated in scope, has indeed come to pass.
First, the nihilists. The rise of nihilism in European culture has not been limited to Europe; it has extended through to the entire West, and have no doubt, it will metastasize to the rest of the world as “progress” continues apace. The nihilism of European culture is not really consistent philosophical nihilism as such, rather it is an overweening meandering over the discursive landscape full of meaningless regurgitations, aphorisms, and moanings of half-formed ideas as though they are deep insights. Poppycock. It is no coincidence that this pervades the left-loving intelligentsia at the same time that the cost to the formation and transmission of information shoots through the floor. The staggering promulgation of media smashed the entrenched fragmented ethical hierarchies, thereby sweeping away the anchors of meaning and culture. The vapid utterings of so-called European nihilists remains.
Second, are there really no more important people to write about? Granted, it would be hard to come up with another Douglas MacArthur, of whom biographer Geoffrey Perret once wrote that he lived the most interesting American life. But the popularity of biography has not waned. Could this point be related to the nihilist point…? Perhaps there are merely no significant people to write about in the wake of determinism and the inevitability of history a la Marx. Since the argument is ludicrous on its face, we can dispense with it, but let us remember it for the sake of discussion later on.
Third, the mortality of post-war American novelists. I think that it might be a bit presumptuous to assume that the novel is dying because post-war American novelists are dying. New markets for literature are opening up all around the world as the cost to creating and publishing literature continues to decline. Some of my most interesting times in Indonesia were spent translating novels (although some of my worst times in Indonesia were doing the same… thinking of the translations of various Japanese novels far better read in their native language or English…). Putting that aside, the author’s mocking point was that “when a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him,” meaning that when the post-war generation died, the novels the like of which they penned die with them. The author may have unwittingly been right, but for the wrong reasons.
Entrepreneurs loaded the gun. Politicians like Reagan and Thatcher negligently waved the gun around shooting wildly. And so: Capitalism killed the novel. Some might not long mourn its departure, believing that nothing intrinsic about the novel was particularly valuable. This would be a mistake. Just as haiku, typically 17 syllables, matches the average length of a human utterance of 16-18 syllables, implying that the form of haiku conformed to an organic essence of humanity, so too did the novel conform to an essence of humanity. Just what that essence is must be the subject of another post.
Simply, there are two related problems for novels. One, other media (journalism, non-fiction, television, etc.) now tell the tales once told by novels more succinctly, which appeals to the West, a world in which the opportunity cost of time has quickly risen just as surely as information costs have precipitously dropped. The value of a tale as long and convoluted as War and Peace no longer seems as great as the value of reading three books on completely different subjects or more relevant NYT bestsellers or learning three foreign languages (which is probably what I could have done in the time it took me to deal with Tolstoy). And are we really that interested in realist fiction? No. What does it do for me that these new media don’t do better? Nothing. Two, the subject matter of novels that may best belong to novels — long tales of love, heroism, adventure, tragedy, romance, and even science fiction — can only be done so many times in so many ways before the demand in the market decreases. Now, of course the novel is not going anywhere and it is not really dead. This is what I meant by the exaggeration of the claim in terms of scope. However, as a percentage of the total fiction being created, the percentage must have waned over the past few years. There is nothing to suggest it will stop. Why would I read about a fake general whose life includes epic campaigns for freedom on three different continents over fifty years whose extraordinary rise was just as brilliant as his meteoric fall when I could just read about Douglas MacArthur? Take this example from Old Soldiers Never Die:
The general was the quintessential twentieth-century incarnation of the tragic hero as immortalized by great playwrights down the ages. MacArthur’s complex nature and dramatic life made him the living breathing brother of Coriolanus, Hamlet or Macbeth. Like the tragic heroes of the theater, he would finally be brought down not by his enemies but by an immutable fault line that ran through the bedrock of his character. When the SCAP got airborne from this remote coral island, MacArthur was set on a direct course to the ultimate destination of all tragic heroes: the spectacular, irreversible fall.
Ho! I’ll take another non-fiction biography, please. There are other benefits to reading these books over fictionalized versions. I learn history that I can talk about with other people that goes beyond dreamy (or dreary) discussions on character, the inevitable lessons that such fiction might have to offer. Now I can discuss real consequences as well as the imagined. That’s not a trivial benefit that factors into people’s economic cost-benefit analysis when deciding between fiction and “non-fiction.” So this is not at all to say that there has been a death of fiction, for as Milosz says, even completely factual biography is all fiction. But it is to say that the relative benefits of novels, whose ideas have been cast and recast in many ways, now pales compared to the relative benefits of non-fiction (a type of fiction in our terms) because its stories are always unique as well as useful in ways novels never could be.
This suggests many things. I think amongst them is that as novelists attempt to distinguish themselves from other novelists and their conventions for profit (profit need not be financial, it could be artistic satisfaction), they will adopt increasingly unconventional styles and themes. Unconventional styles could include narrative structure, the prose, or even settings. I am reminded again of Indonesia. While there, I had one particularly rewarding experience was translating Saman by Ayu Utami, an experience I don’t think I am likely to soon forget. It provided me with many colorful phrases that I would cannibalize for my own use of Bahasa. The words that conclude the book are frankly unfit to print, in any language (which makes me wonder about the seemingly demure young man and woman who recommended it to me), but it reminds me a lot of Night by Bilge Karasu, a Turkish writer. Both novels have met with wild acclaim and both jar the reader (see the NYT review’s take on this) with substantial leaps across time and frame of reference. At the end of both novels I was exhausted, but in an oddly satisfied way. Both novels continued to haunt me for years, and, in fact, haunt me to this day. We should expect more of it.
We may also expect the continued swelling of importance for journalism, be it by blog, radio wave, or television. Tom Wolfe, a tremendous novelist, lazily warns of the very real demise of the novel in a five part series on Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge series hosted on National Review. Wolfe described the problem as follows:
Right here, as we speak, the novel is dying a horrible death. It really is. It’s had it. And soon it’ll be in the same position as epic poetry was in the early 19th century. That had always been the great genre. But non-fiction will continue. And the memoir and autobiography will never die, never has died. And they’re interesting because they’re like Wikipedia, some of it may be true.
Robinson asks an excellent question related to my aims in this post, “When did it happen that in this country that the formative novelist, the great novelist is Mark Twain, when did it happen that American letters became possessed of precious, little stories instead of big, boisterous stories that fit the temper of the country itself?”
It happened soon after the Second World War. There was a key essay by Lionel Trilling, who was a [Professor at Columbia] who also had a huge following among, let us call, the “charming aristrocracy” and he said the day of the realistic novel is over. Its been done, its been done to death, and besides, we live in a fractured society now and you cannot do a slice of life and pretend that this slice of life is giving you all the life int he country. The future of the novel is in the novel of ideas.
Wolfe goes on to give some early novels of the late Norman Mailer as examples of this, including Barbary Coast. Robinson points out that Updike and Mailer criticize Wolfe’s work as journalism, not literature. Wolfe responds:
Something like journalism, which is written precisely so that the great masses can understand, would be looked down upon by the charming aristocracy. In fact, in American literature, an essentially journalistic approach has been behind– [PR interjection] TWAIN for goodness sake, Hemingway– every success. Hemingway went about writing novels that way, but even more to the point, Sinclair Lewis, our first Nobel prize winner in Literature, to do a novel about his hometown in Minnesota. He didn’t just draw on his memories, he went back! Taking notes on every area of life. John Steinbeck, in case of Grapes of the Wrath, went to the San Francisco News and volunteered to go out and write a series on migrant workers who were pouring in from the Dust Bowl in the mid-to-late 1930s. He didn’t know anything about them.
Were you to believe Wolfe and some of the claims made in this post, you might fear for the survival of the novel. But this is where the essence of humanity comes back in. No doubt the novel will survive so long as it continues to fill some sort of niche in human needs, but they may not be the consistently traditional forms we are used to (and largely bored by these days), nor will they probably resemble the tales told so often before. And for many story-telling purposes, they will be replaced by other fictions, be they blog posts, biographies, or scientific treatises.
As for the perpetuity of angels, they may truly be nearer death than the novel. The challenges presented by so many combating forces for the increasingly partitioned territory of identity (states, tribes, religions, tv shows, sports, games all now make claims!) tugs people in many directions at once, and they absorb more information from more sources than ever before. News, jargon, and blog posts such as this one replace the fictions of complementarity once known as angels. Their survival depends on the ability of angels to represent something that can never be described by consistent arguments and discrete lexicons. They depend on the inexplicable and our willingness to admit the existence of the inexplicable in the full mysteries of the universe.
Historically, the two parties have not much gotten along. The BBC has taken delight in trying to tear Thatcher down, having never accepted her as either an instrument of the people or ever a harbinger of good will. Rumors are that its latest program on her, The Long Walk to Finchley, will depart from these hangups.
The first picture of Lindsay Duncan as Margaret Thatcher has been revealed. I have to say that it looks like she almost captures her essence. It still looks a bit summoned and unnatural. Perhaps too calculating. Thatcher had a plaintive iron quality, for it was not by nature just “iron” all the time. Her fire came from her ideological passions, not from some desire to break people as it almost seems from this picture. We shall see, I suppose. The drama features some top names as members of the Thatcher cabinet, and I am anxiously awaiting the program’s debut. ( Might I also note that Duncan’s Thatcher is more reminiscent of Opposition Leader (4:47ish) and newly-elected Thatcher than early-90s Euroskeptic Thatcher? Odd depiction if you ask me, but I always preferred the other hair anyway. )
I hope that the piece does her justice. Even the biographers who have attempted to do so sometimes miss important elements of her persona. For instance, how very feminine she sometimes desired to be. I’ve always thought this excerpt from Sir Nicholas Henderson’s diary, on the occasion of Thatcher’s first visit to Washington after Reagan’s inauguration, was poignant and more than a little dramatic:
Likewise with us on the Friday night following the dinner for the President. It had been a long day, starting with two live TV programmes at 7 a.m. and 7.30 a.m., visits to two factories in the morning, a speech at Georgetown University at lunchtime, discussions at the Pentagon in the afternoon, followed by a press conference, a reception for the Commonwealth and then the party for the President. Rather to my disappointment the President did not ask Mrs T to dance though we had provided plenty of what we thought was appropriate music, such as ‘Dancing Cheek to Cheek’ and ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’. […]
The Reagans remained chatting, rather than dancing. I am not sure why. It is possible that he may not have known in advance that dancing would be going to take place and did not therefore know whether it would have been in order to have started. Oddly, at the White House party the previous evening, he had accompanied the Thatchers to the door to say goodbye and had then returned to the party to dance with Mrs Reagan.
After the Reagans had left the Embassy party a number of guests departed but Mrs Thatcher stayed chatting and watching the dancing. She had said to me in London beforehand that she hoped people would not rush away, which was why we had arranged to have a band. Nobody[fo 3] asked her to dance. So I went up to her and said, ‘Prime Minister, would you like to dance?’ not an opening that would have been available to men in the courts of old, at Versailles or the Hofburg or, to move to more modern times when women Prime Ministers have become known, that would have been inspired by Mrs Golda Meir or Mrs Bandaranaike , or, surely, have been permitted by Mrs Indira Gandhi .
Mrs T accepted my offer without complication or inhibition, and, once we were well launched on the floor, confessed to me that that was what she had been wanting to do all the evening. She loved dancing, something, so I found out, that she did extremely well. Long afterwards I read that one of the few frivolous things she did as an undergraduate at Oxford was to learn ballroom dancing. The band showed great brio and I think Mrs T was happy. After the dance was over and we returned to the end of the room I hoped that someone else would ask her to dance, but alas, this did not happen. Were they all too shy, too much in awe? In retrospect, I realised that I should have encouraged Jim Symington to dance with her; or at any rate I should have arranged something rather than simply leaving it to chance. Meanwhile many others had moved to the dance floor and the party got into a swing. Denis approached and told Mrs T that she must go home to Blair House to bed. I asked her if she would like one more dance and she said she would like to waltz. ‘Yes, come on,’ she said, and we took the floor eagerly. It was with some difficulty that Denis eventually managed to extract her. She had expressed a wish to see some of the floodlit Washington monuments, but Denis put his foot down crying, ‘bed’.
Who would have thought, given the Left’s attempted dehumanization of this great liberator, that Margaret Thatcher loves to dance?
Some truths are for a time and some truths are for all time. In terms of the former, we read editorials and blogs that speak of facts and ideas whose dilatory relevance is overwhelmed by the passage of time. Impressions and cultural stereotypes also come to mind. They occur in discourse and are useful for a time, but they don’t help us peel away the layers of noise, media, and culture that obscure the fundamentals of human nature — though, naturally, they themselves arise from these fundamentals.
The discipline that peels away these layers is economics. Far more than the study of how production is organized, or the methods by which an economy may be managed, economics is the study of human behavior. It concerns itself, at root and through its most robust microeconomics, with the inner core of the human being. From these truths, all other elements of the human condition emerge. This includes art. While art, especially contemporary art, is generally considered well beyond the domain of economics (mostly by those involved in the arts community since they know nothing of economics), it is only by the grace of its truths a constant in our consciousness.
In this post, I illustrate this concept through works by the renowned literary critic Frank Kermode and famed author Mario Vargas Llosa, who is, incidentally, father of libertarian commentator Alvaro Vargas Llosa.
In The Sense of an Ending, which memorializes the author’s lectures delivered at Bryn Mawr in late 1965, Kermode concerns himself with fictions of “the End.” In his words, “ways in which, under varying existential pressures, we have imagined the ends of the world.” But his effort is not only to chronicle the way these narratives have changed through time as it might be for most other literary critics, though he does do this. Rather, his aim is far more ambitious. He seeks to “help us to make sense of our lives.” In his highly alluring argument, he states that:
The great majority of interpretations of Apocalypse assume that the End is pretty near. Consequently the historical allegory is always having to be revised; time discredits it. And this is important. Apocalypse can be disconfirmed without being discredited. This is part of its extraordinary resilience. It can also absorb changing interests, rival apocalypses…. It allows itself to be diffused, blended with other varieties of fiction– tragedy, for example, myths of Empire and of Decadence– and yet it can survive in very naive forms. Probably the most sophisticated of us is capable at times of naive reactions to the End. […] Given this freedom, this power to manipulate data in order to achieve the desired consonance, you can of course arrange for the End to occur at pretty well any desired date.
Your first thoughts surely turn to the Global Warming Apocalypse now unleashed on the West — but the point is that this is a very powerful cultural meme that will likely always be with us. There are times when Apocalypse is not so much on our minds, and it is not very much on our minds now, though in the mid-1960s many feared a nuclear holocaust. This possibility could still very well come to pass, of course, and movies portending our end won’t be going away any time soon. So it’s one thing to describe its presence. It seems fairly obvious. But really, why are we so preoccupied with Apocalypse? Ends? Kermode does not give any answers. But he does give us some hints:
It is worth remembering that the rise of what we call literary fictions happened at a time when the revealed, authenticated account of the beginning was losing its authority. Now that changes in things as they are change beginnings to make them fit, beginnings have lost their mythical rigidity. There are, it is true, modern attempts to restore this rigidity. But on the whole there is a correlation between subtlety and variety in our fictions and remoteness and doubtfulness about ends and origins. There is a necessary relation between the fictions by which we order our world and the increasing complexity of what we take to be the ‘real’ history of the world. […]
Emphasis mine! Kermode alludes to the increasingly discordant and fractured narratives that purport to be histories of the world, but he means it to pertain to more than just history a la “Nero was a Roman Emperor,” “MacArthur waded ashore at Leyte Gulf, then soon delivered a rousing speech to the Filipinos,” and “Swahili used to be a tonal language.” He’s saying that something is going on with how we view the world and our relations to each other, as a result of our re-evaluation of the beginning and our relationship to the End. Soon, in my view, he alludes to Spenser and Shakespeare as prime movers in examining these frayed ends in the human conscious:
The discords of our experience–delight in change, fear of change; the death of the individual and the survival of the species, the pains and pleasures of love, the knowledge of light and dark, the extinction and the perpetuity of empires–these were Spenser’s subject; they could not be treated without this third thing, a kind of time between time and eternity. […]
Now Macbeth is above all others a play of prohecy; it not only enacts prophecies, it is obsessed by them. It is concerned with the desire to feel the future in the instant, to be transported beyond the ignorant present. […] Macbeth is saying that if an act could be without succession, without temporal consequence, one would welcome it out of a possible future into actuality; it would be like having hurly without having burly. […] Nothing in time can, in that sense be done, freed of consequence or equivocal aspects. Prophecy by its very forms admits this, and so do plots. It is a truism confirmed later by Lady Macbeth: ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’ The act is not an end. […] But only angels make their choices in non-successive time, and ‘be’ and ‘end’ are one only in God.
Emphasis mine. Kermode shows that there’s something in the human condition vitally concerned with time. An obsession with Apocalypse becomes only a part of something even more fundamental. Somewhere, bound up in this obsession, are concerns with memory, angst, second chances, patience, waiting, hope, and identity. But why?
Enter Mario Vargas Llosa, an author of whom I have written on this blog. He has several books of essays out and once made a valiant run for President of Peru. In the compilation of essays known as Making Waves, he writes of lost friends, Sandinistas, Thatcher (he loves her!), Botero, and feminism. These books of essays are like printed blogs, really. In any event, I quite like his writing, and in one essay, he has something that approaches an answer to the question that vexes us. From “The Truth of Lies”:
Ever since I wrote my first story, people have asked me if what I write is ‘true’. Although my replies sometimes satisfy the questioners, every time that I answer that particular enquiry, however sincerely, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling of having said something that never gets to the heart of the matter. […]
In effect, novels lie — they can do nothing else — but that is only part of the story. The other part is that, by lying, they express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, disguised as something that it is not. […] Men are not content with their lot and almost all of the — rich and poor, brilliant and ordinary, famous and unknown — would like a life different from the one that they are leading. Novels were born to placate this hunger, albeit in a distorted way. They are written and read so that human beings may have the lives that they are not prepared to do without. Within each novel, there stirs a rebellion, there beats a desire.
Let’s stop for a second and make something clear. The author is essentially calling all texts lies. How can this be? Well, let’s consider what truth is. You could read a passage that states nothing but simple facts about MacArthur being relieved of duty by President Truman in 1951. The passage could state, with simplicity and clarity, that MacArthur sent letters to Republican congressmen that infuriated the President. You could state that MacArthur hated Truman’s orders regarding the restraint to be exercised in attacking the North Korean and Chinese forces. It would all be true, and yet, by virtue of leaving so much out, it is a lie. It could be a lie because of the way the events are told, or restructured, but without every possible bit of information, they are lies. This is what Vargas Llosa is saying anyway. He is not alone in thinking this way. I am reminded of Nobel-winning author Czeslaw Milosz, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Captive Mind (an absolute must-read for any conservative, including the libertarian strains). Milosz writes:
Obviously, all biographies are false, not excluding my own…. They are false because their
individual chapters are linked according to a predetermined scheme, whereas in fact they were connected differently, only no one knows how.
Now we are getting somewhere. Vargas Llosa writes that novels and fiction are supplying a demand in us, that we always want more. We are not content with our own lot. This does not necessarily mean we are unhappy. It means that we always think we can do better, or do something else. One may be perfectly content with one’s lot in life. Perhaps a man has retired to a small cottage in the countryside with his wife, his children are all successful, and this is all he thinks he desires. This is true to a point. But I bet he would desire the state to last, no? And then for a state of happiness to last for his children? He may desire a swift death– and this is still something to desire. So let us not challenge Vargas Llosa on this point, though it is something that I think may go unappreciated by many modern economists. However, it is given its due by the Austrians, for it is one of the most fundamental assumptions of Ludwig von Mises’ economics. His magnum opus, Human Action, is predicated upon it. (An implication of mine is that economics, at its most powerful, will one day more formally assimilate this blending of literature and psychology. It hasn’t happened yet.)
And so Vargas Llosa is not being too general when he writes that fiction is preoccupied with giving us the lives we are not prepared to do without. Surely, these narratives have kept the flames of our intellects alive since time immemorial. One need only think of the epic poems once memorized by men, now forgotten due to the ineluctable pull of marginal utility and the wiles of other fictions to satisfy our hunger. Vargas Llosa continues:
The fantasy that we are endowed with is a demonic gift. It is continually opening up a gulf between what we are and what we would like to be, between what we have and what we desire. But the imagination has conceived of a clever and subtle palliative for this inevitable divorce between our limited reality and our boundless desires: fiction. Thanks to fiction we are more and we are others without ceasing to be the same. In it we can lose ourselves and multiply, living many more lives than the ones we have and could live if we were confined to the truth, without escaping from the prison of history.
Men do not live by truth alone; they also need lies: those that they invent freely, not those that are imposed on them; those that appear as they are, not smuggled in beneath the clothes of history. Fiction enriches their existence, completes them and, fleetingly, compensates them for this tragic condition which is their lot: always to desire and dream more than we can actually achieve.
When it freely produces its alternative life, without any other constraint than that of the limitations of its own creator, literature extends human life, adding the dimension that fuels the life deep within us — that impalpable and fleeting, but precious life that we only live through lies.
What possibilities have we dreamed! It seems so difficult to make sense, from the rich wonders we have imagined, both beautiful and terrible, light and dark, gray and grayer, of how all our fiction relates to our fundamental human desires. It’s still not even clear what the demand really is: just to live another life? To get ideas? To compare one’s self to an ideal and get ideas? I think it’s something akin to the latter. Vargas Llosa beautifuly portrays fiction as the enemy of the totalitarian state, and to those who would attempt to impose a narrative on others. One wonders how long such a narrative may persist…
And what of our preoccupation with time? In relation to our consideration of fiction, does it act like a companion that guides us, as Jean-Luc Picard wondered, or is it the fire in which we burn, as Dr. Soran believed? (Video of the battle here.) Whatever the case, Kermode believed that our relationship to time is complex, still best expressed in paradoxes but in fiction:
In apocalypse there are two orders of time, and the earthly runs to a stop; the cry of woe to the inhabitants of the earth means the end of their time; henceforth ‘time shall be no more.’ In tragedy the cry of woe does not end succession; the great crises and ends of human life do not stop time. And if we want them to serve our needs as we stand in the middest we must give them patterns, understood relations as Macbeth calls them, that defytime. The concords of past, present, and future towards which the soul extends itself are out of time, and belong to the duration which was invented for angels when it seemed difficult to deny that the world in which men suffer their ends is dissonant in being eternal. To close that great gap we use fictions of complementarity. They may now be novels or philosophical poems, as they once were tragedies, and before that, angels.
In the next post, “The Death of Angels,” I propose examine how the modern age may be changing the epiphenomena of our human condition through fiction.
Post-Script: If any of this is interesting to you, I strongly encourage you to look at Kermode and Vargas Llosa’s work. I’m just trying to string some concepts together, so with these excerpts I give them unjustifiably short thrift, but there’s so much in their works to sit and enjoy.