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In the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, I chanced upon “His Transatlantic Progeny” by Judith H. Dobrzynski. She’s writing about an exhibition called about an exhibition highlighting Cezanne’s relationship to American Modernism taking place at the Montclair Art Museum through January. It seems like a nice enough event.

What struck me was this passage, however:

Jozef Bakos and Willard Nash… demonstrate that they too are descended from Cezanne, even though they never traveled to Europe or to American art centers where the master’s works could be seen. They heard how Cezanne, instead of producing a naturalistic representation of his subject, analyzed and rebuilt it on canvas in a flattened perspective, using fractured, sculptural forms composed of patches of color instead of conventional light-and-shade modeling. They learned about his thinking– sometimes described as a fusion of intuition and intellect– from reproductions and from teachers such as Andrew Dasburg…. Dasburg had traveled to Paris… and, upon discovering Cezanne’s work, divided his art into “before” and “after.”

In those days, painters adapted a style to their own by learning the thinking and methods of others before them. In essence, they sought to learn how to encode information the way that the other painters did. They would achieve this by learning such things. However, these days, in order to accomplish this simply on a visual basis, one need only turn to Adobe Photoshop and its many filters. The talented engineers and mathematicians at Adobe understood the essence of the story themselves, encoding many different filters and transformations by which you could turn one representation into another. It’s all very mathematical. For example, I am not sure it has been resolved yet whether or not Shepard Fairey composed his Obama Hope paper from scratch in some medium or whether he just transformed the original AP photo in Photoshop, but it would not surprise me if he pulled it off with the latter.

The interesting thing about the passage is it reflects how information used to travel. Styles could be transmitted without knowing the master, but by figuring out and learning technique. In those days techniques cost much more to develop in time and opportunity cost of style. In other words, the time spent adapting to a new style would have to be worth it from a personal and market benefit standpoint because it was a huge investment. Once you have missed a movement, you’ve missed it for good. In the old days, such profound changes could lead a transformative artist to label his prior work “before” and then “after.” I wonder if the same could be said of artists like that today. I’m tempted to put Yayoi Kusama in this category. She’s done all kinds of things, mostly thanks to the economics that make her productions and antics viable.

For a time, new content startled us in art. As time went by, the shock faded, and artists shifted to new forms with content, then new forms with none, and then old forms with none. The transformations gradually became more and more devoid of meaning. And the fate of a truly authentic and meaningful expression? Rage? Love? Passion? Jealousy? Hatred? Awe?

Just cliche.

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When I lived in Indonesia, I purchased and devoured every Japanese classic that I could get my hands on. From Kawabata and Oe to Mishima and Tanizaki, these novels invariably featured some very odd and different themes from the books I typically read. Spring Snow by Mishima remains my favorite of that lot, which I left in trust at Universitas Gadjah Mada for a wing of the library to be called “The Douglas MacArthur Memorial Library for Peace, Tolerance, and Justice.” Eventually, I encountered a work that I had much less trouble instantly understanding and appreciating: Chiyo Uno’s The Puppet Maker.

Chiyo, herself, was a celebrity. She lived fully up until the end of her very colorful 98 year life. She penned several interesting works, most notably Ohan, according to scholars. I learned of her works through Rebecca L. Copeland’s excellent The Sound of the Wind: The Life and Works of Uno Chiyo. Copeland compiled and translated (I think) three of Chiyo’s short works and added an original biography of her. And so, it is in this book that one may find The Puppet Maker. A final note about the publication: it comes from the University of Hawai’i Press. This university press is one of my favorites, as I visited the school bookstore in February and no amount of time was enough for me to enjoy A Dictionary of Cantonese Slang, Fundamentals of Japanese Grammar, Manchu: A Textbook for Reading Documents, Modern Tagalog, and The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy amongst many, many others. They specialize in works with niche Asian subject matter that really appeal to specialists and really dorky amateurs like myself. Browse the UH Press titles some time.

The Puppet Maker itself is essentially journalistic, told from the first person perspective of Chiyo as she travels to meet Tengu Kyukichi, perhaps the last great puppetmaker. She, a young woman, and he, an 85 year old, witness and discuss the puppetmaking art form at the precipice. As the puppetmaker sees it, “If this story were a play, then I suppose you could say we’ve come to the third act. If we do the third act today, the rest of the play won’t last another week.”

Later, he continues:

“You know what I think?” he said. “I think the puppet theater has seen its last days.” Indeed, the old man believes that it is now only a matter of time before the puppet theater perishes completely. And yet he continues to devote himself all the more to this dying art. If those in my line of work ever heard that the alphabet we use—that is, the alphabet I am using now—was shortly to go out of existence, I doubt they would continue to write, hoping against hope that by doing so they could perpetuate their art. No, we would give up immediately, and that is why I sense in the old man an extraordinary depth of passion.

And so, the work is communicating on several levels. The author has something to say about the man, the art, and tradition. We are inclined to sympathize with the puppetmaker, but not pedantically so. Unlike in a movie, there is no musical score to make us dance to whatever feelings the director wishes to evoke. Chiyo lets Kyukichi’s words speak for themselves. For a modern Westerner, they are difficult to assess, but I suspect they represent a time and a way of life very different from today. Indeed, Kyukichi spares few words for the wife who has accompanied him for six decades, and fewer still for children, some of whom he can barely remember anymore. Of his wife, he says this:

“What was it she’d do for me that I appreciated most of all? Sometimes I’d work late into the night, you see, and when I did she’d always wait up so she could lay my bed out for me. Well now I suppose just about anyone would have done the same. Laying out bedding is no great task. But once I’d crawled into bed and started off to sleep, I’d sometimes feel my old wife go around behind me and pat the quilt down soft around my shoulders. That’s all. But no one else would have done it.”

From the few words he uses, it seems he has a core tenderness, just one that is hardly practiced and little noticed. It didn’t matter as much then, when there was so much less opportunity. Still, the truly compelling parts of the narrative concern art and our relationship with it. For this, puppet-making is truly a wonderful foil and Kyukichi’s words come alive. Kyukichi describes the state of puppet-making thus:

“You see, art is tradition. It’s the same for carving puppets, too. If you’re going to carve Lord Hangan, you carve him the way tradition tells you he’s got to look. And, if you’re going to carve the hero Yuranosuke, you carve him in keeping with the Yuranosuke tradition, the way he’s been carved for centuries. But what happens to art when it’s done the same way over and over for hundreds of years? Back in the old days folks did things a certain way because it seemed natural to them. But now we’ve reached the point where we’re just copying the way things were done long ago without really understanding why, and so long as we’re just copying, it doesn’t have much meaning for us. Years ago folks lived with one goal in mind, and once they reached that goal, well, they were ready to die. But now, if you don’t set your sights higher and higher and aim to get beyond whatever goal’s been set, you might as well go ahead and die, and you sure don’t have any business talking about art. But, you see, I didn’t come to figure this out till four or five years ago—and it dawned on me when I finally noticed folks weren’t coming to the puppet plays much anymore. They were turning up their noses at it. How I wish I’d realized this sooner!”

There’s always a sense that the old days were different than today. For example, people often say that politics was kinder and gentler in the United States. In some respects, yes. In some respects, no. Yes, in that there was less overall competition and fewer interests bound up with the results. A good ‘ol boys network might ably control local politics for decades with most living their lives well. But no, in that you were much more likely to end up dead, run out of town, or ruined as a result of them. Slander? Try 1800. Things were no better in the 1940s or 60s. And so, in this respect, Kyukichi may be overreaching about his conclusion that in the old days artists merely replicated the old ways. It is possible, but I am skeptical. Even by seamlessly duplicating another’s style, there may be slight, but important differences of technique. Perhaps one carves faster. Perhaps one artist develops a change seemingly as slight as the puppetmaker equivalent of the damp fold in sculpture, but it has not been consciously appreciated yet.

But it is true that without something more, an art form might become static and uninteresting to the consumer. I really like Kyukichi’s sensibility regarding the intrinsic need for growth in the arts. Certain forms may have held special meaning in the past, but if they fail to in the present, then artists ought to consider change. In this case, we see a titanic struggle between modernity and tradition, because what Kyukichi is alluding to is not the necessity for mere changes of style. Given the improvements in technology and the changes in attention span, the art form itself is obsolete as pure entertainment for anyone born after 1930. Rather, Kyukichi may be unconsciously be pushing at the reality that puppetmaking needs some kind of fusion with other art forms, lest it be relegated to museums and ceremonial performances. His lament, “How I wish I had realized this sooner!” gives us a window straight into Kyukichi’s heart. This is his fondest wish.

The narrator herself struggled with the character of the puppetmaker:

I had never thought anyone could actually sit in the same place for sixty or seventy years doing the same thing day in and day out. If the person were performing a religious austerity, like those who practice zazen, perhaps I could understand it. And yet here was this old man, doing just what I had thought impossible. “I don’t know how it looks to others,” he told me, “but I’ve a reason for sitting right here all day long, never going out. You see, if someone came on business while I was away—well, wouldn’t be anybody else here who’d know what to do. No, I decided it was for the best if I stayed in as much as possible. Look, I’ve got my tools and things all laid out around me so I can sit right where I am with everything at hand’s reach. The sort of life the old man has led may not seem all that strange in a country town like this. No, he has lived just as a tree or flower might live, completely natural.

The power of a metaphor isn’t only that it helps us to see data in a new but analogous fashion. It’s also that it amplifies selected fundamental qualities or characteristics of a thing or situation in our perception. Chiyo’s description reflects a common perception in the modern day that a man who found his way early and did that the rest of his life grew like a tree or flower — sitting in the same spot, but still full of life, untarnished by the blemishes of modernity, unconcerned. And yet, it would be just as true to take the metaphor in a negative sense. We can lament his lack of opportunity, to be stuck no matter his true desires or talent, to in effect be condemned to the same lot generation after generation as the vast majority of the world were for thousands of years. Only in the mid-20th century did social mobility take off. Kyukichi, after a certain age, and maybe even before it, would still probably have it no other way, though. By the time of the interview, he has a solid sense of what his role is in the art, and more importantly, art’s role in him:

“…but let me tell you a thing or two about art. There’re folks who set their sights on one level in art—and once they’ve reached that level, they figure they’re finished for life. Then we’ve got craftsmen like Hidari Jingoro who keep right on perfecting their skills until the day they die. You see, there are those who always push for better, who are always struggling and trying so long as they’ve got breath in their bodies. And, I wonder if this isn’t where art is said to live. Once you’ve decided that you’ve gone far enough—you can’t do better—well, then that’ll be the end for you. I don’t know how much longer I’ll live. Maybe two more years, maybe three, but this that I’m telling you is what is closest to my heart.”

Some artists are not possessed by achievement in their field. In these days, I suspect a higher portion were, though. I’m fascinated by his comment that he wonders “if this isn’t where art is said to live.” Is he saying that it’s in the focused struggle to create ever better art? We do know that by then, Tengu Kyukichi had ceased being someone much associated with the past, and as we know, this partly includes even insuperable ties to family. They remain, incidental, to his story, but they are far from the chunk of the iceberg. What lies below is the passion binding him to his passion: the art of puppet-making, its limits, its transcending moments. It is indeed of art that he wishes to speak:

“…as I’m making my puppets, I feel as if I’m praying to the gods. Don’t you see, where my skill stops—when it doesn’t go any further—that’s where you’ll find the gods. Yes, they’re there just beyond human understanding. […] But let me just say that if you don’t reach out to the gods first—make some kind of effort—then they sure aren’t going to go out of their way to help you. […] Before I start to carve a puppet I have it all clear in my mind how that puppet ought to look. But there’s always one part I just can’t get no matter how I try—yes, there’s always something missing, and it’s in that part, that missing part, where the gods reside.”

Humans do not possess perfect information. They act in a world replete with risk and full of uncertainty– yes, these are two different things. And despite Kyukichi’s mastery, he is humbled by the reality that there is something beyond his precise calculation that goes into the art. It’s not just chance, but perhaps the occasion when he initiates some carving only to see something he missed in his mental conception that he now wishes to execute — or something that might be a flaw. Kyukichi recognizes in the flaw of his imperfect conception the idea of gods. Gods are unfathomable, but generally considered to be, if not all-knowing, certainly more knowing than we and arguably non-linear in temporal perspective. This reminds me of the literary theorist Kermode who argued “the concords of past, present, and future towards which the soul extends itself are out of time… 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.”

These angels very much resemble Kyukichi’s gods. And so there is something in the human make-up that acknowledges its own imperfection, yet stubbornly refuses to attribute individualistic, virtuoso creations (art) to pure chance. Instead, we seek out any semblance of knowing will. Perhaps there’s some beauty in Kyukichi’s gods, who do not exist independent of humanity’s imperfection, though they ably light the way for humanity’s endless drive to overcome it.

We often hear pundits, scholars, and friends arguing about the merits of competition in the context of economics. Introducing competition to a moribund industry characterized by monopoly, as occurred when UPS and FedEx were finally able to challenge the US Postal Service (a truly damaging monopoly) for the delivery of packages, induces all competitors to improve their offerings because, in general, they have to battle on quality and price to find patrons. All else equal, this is what we would expect in any activity, leading to more choice, better service, and greater happiness. And this is what we tend to find.

But, arguably, the blessings of competition are even more pronounced in the arts. In 2008, I described the effects of competition on two great bands of the 1960s in “The Fortune of Coldplay“:

The Beatles and Beach Boys engaged in an “arms race” of sorts that propelled both bands to dizzying unforeseen heights of artistic expression. The story is worth recounting, briefly: Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, two of the virtuosos behind their respective bands, forced each other to get better with each album. They influenced each other, beginning with The Beatles’ Rubber Soul driving the Beach Boys (read: Brian Wilson, the only one of them worth a creative damn) to produce Pet Sounds, which Paul McCartney to this day calls the best album ever and moves him to tears with its melodies. In turn, McCartney went to the drawing board with John Lennon and they came out with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is often called their best album. According to some, this album broke Brian Wilson, whose prodigy was unleashed by the album but also broken by it. Wilson had, like perhaps Fermat grasping his Last Theorem or Nash contemplating Game Theory, become possessed by the art of the possible in his field. [Yet] the fulminations of other Beach Boy members condemned Wilson’s potential magnum opus, SMiLE, to death. When Wilson recovered [from his breakdown], he produced SMiLE as he thought it would have been. The result is unlike anything else that came from the 60s, or perhaps unlike anything that has ever been made.

I had argued in the post that it may not be possible to not have an “arms race” like that again, pitting extraordinary talent against extraordinary talent, producing ever more outstanding works, and satisfying consumers (in this case, of music) better than they could have dreamed. I was strictly mistaken. This could only occur in a market with a set of tastes that are perfectly and permanently satisfied. Rather, the example of The Beatles and the Beach Boys shows the benefits of competition for us. Similarly, in my recent post on Coorte, I showed that he received a fine for selling art work in a market without being a member of the artist guild. Yet consumers all benefited from his doing so, for they received excellent art works. Allowing artists like Coorte into the market without prior approval ensures that other artists must create works that compete with Coorte’s genius. This is why artists (and workers) form guilds (and unions) that insulate themselves from becoming better.

There is no other reason.

But when they become better, and improve themselves through the crucible of competition, we can build on those achievements. There’s another example of this in an “art” of sorts: chess. The 20th century saw many advances in the art of chess, including those made by Tal, Capablanca, Alekhine, Lasker, Botvinnik, Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov. The 1970s through the 1990s was the era of Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov. Fischer is best known as the American who broke Soviet dominance of world chess. But in the chess world itself, his nationality isn’t very important. His contributions to opening theory and endgames are. Chess masters continuously study and study and study previous games. It gives them a sense of the probabilities of how games will play out, but it also means they are storehouses of information regarding the games and artists who came before them. According to Fischer’s wikipedia:

Some leading players and some of his biographers rank him as the greatest player who ever lived. Many other writers say that he is arguably the greatest player ever, without reaching a definitive conclusion. Leonard Barden wrote, “Most experts place him the second or third best ever, behind Kasparov but probably ahead of Karpov.” […] According to the Chessmetrics calculation, Fischer’s peak rating was 2895 in October 1971. His one-year peak average was 2881, in 1971, and this is the highest of all time. His three-year peak average was 2867, from January 1971 to December 1973—the second highest ever, just behind Garry Kasparov. […] Fischer’s great rival Mikhail Tal praised him as “the greatest genius to have descended from the chess heavens.” […] Kasparov wrote that Fischer “became the detonator of an avalanche of new chess ideas, a revolutionary whose revolution is still in progress.” In January 2009, reigning world champion Viswanathan Anand described Fischer as “the greatest chess player who ever lived…”

Yes, it is possible that his capabilities have been exaggerated by his iconic status in the media, but when so many legends and peers believe he was the best, one must concede the possibility. The media would be less likely to distort their evaluations. It is now worth considering Anatoly Karpov, still ranked the 98th best player in the world, who was a dominating world champion for many years before the era of Kasparov. Unlike most masters, he did not have just one peak of greatness. He was world champion from 1975-85, when Kasparov began his stifling dominance of chess. Yet, Karpov retained much of his ability for the following decade, despite not surpassing Kasparov or Nigel Short. Still, Karpov’s greatest performance was in a 1994 chess tournament:

The field, in eventual finishing order, was Karpov, Kasparov, Shirov, Bareev, Kramnik, Lautier, Anand, Kamsky, Topalov, Ivanchuk, Gelfand, Illescas, Judit Polgar, and Beliavsky; with an average Elo rating of 2685, the highest ever at that time, making it the first Category XVIII tournament ever held. Impressed by the strength of the tournament, Kasparov had said several days before the tournament that the winner could rightly be called the world champion of tournaments. Perhaps spurred on by this comment, Karpov played the best tournament of his life. He was undefeated and earned 11 points out of 13 possible (the best world-class tournament winning percentage since Alekhine won San Remo in 1930), finishing 2.5 points ahead of second-place Kasparov and Shirov. Many of his wins were spectacular (in particular, his win over Topalov is considered possibly the finest of his career). This performance against the best players in the world put his Elo rating tournament performance at 2985, the highest performance rating of any player in history.

In this era of Fischer, Kasparov, and Karpov, it is worth considering what a tournament between all of them at their peaks might have been like. It is something Karpov has considered, since he would have played Fischer for the World Championship had Fischer not declined to defend his title. And although considered one of the all-time greats with his positional brilliance, always ready to take advantage of the most minor mistakes, he is not considered greater than Kasparov or Fischer. According to Karpov’s wikipedia:

Karpov is on record saying that had he had the opportunity to fight Fischer for the crown in his twenties, he (Karpov) could have been a much better player as a result (in a similar way as Kasparov’s constant rivalry with him helped Kasparov to achieve his full potential).

This is probably true. On the other hand, Karpov’s place in history may be unchanged, for his own improvement may have spurred even greater improvement in Kasparov as well. Whatever the case, it cannot be said that less competition is better for fostering the brilliance of artists anywhere in any situation.

One of the profound changes in human experience from 1700 until today has been the staggering increase in technology, information, and choice. These go hand in hand. When we are able to build machines, we can print books on a large scale and spread information to the masses. People can choose between the many fictions they experience: one can sail the wild seas with Admiral Horatio Hornblower, journey back to read petitions of Emperor Tiberius, or learn valuable lessons on decision-making from Sun Tzu.

The economics of technological change itself is a complex thing. However, the economics of art investment as a function of this change is not. In response to the recently concluded India Art Summit, iTrust Financial Advisors (based out of India) weighs in on the question: “Is art a good investment?” The answer of course is “it depends.” But it’s a solid article that first lists some of the investment characteristics of art assets:

  • Uncorrelated Returns. The author suggests that the returns from investment in art are not correlated with returns in stocks or bonds. I suspect this is increasingly untrue for reasons I will explain later. Still, it would not really mitigate the author’s point that art assets could be useful diversification tools (ways to not put all of your eggs in one basket).
  • Lack of liquidity. It’s difficult to convert an art asset into more fungible form, such as cash. It takes time, especially to get fair market value.
  • Lack of income. Unlike stock ownership, art ownership does not provide income streams such as dividends.
  • Fakes and regulatory framework. There’s supposedly more risk with art, but I wouldn’t say this is a very strong point. On the other hand, gains from sales in art are subject to a higher tax than stock gains. Although no one knows what this disparity will look like after the Bush tax cuts expire, and sadly, it seems they will have to because of the suicidal spending spree recently embarked on, it is likely art gains will remain taxed at 28% while stock gains will be somewhere around 20% (according to President Obama). The consequence of this is that investment decisions between these asset classes is slightly tilted, all things being equal, in favor of stocks and that the pre-tax return from an art work must be 40% more than the return from an otherwise comparable gain in stock in order for an investor to be neutral between the two. For more, see: Internal Revenue Code s. 1(h)(4) and s. 408(m)(2).
  • Transparency. The author only means here that there seems like relatively low liquidity and therefore price signals are not as robust as in other markets– though they may be just as efficient.
  • Handling costs. Stocks don’t have them. Okay.

The interesting point is the first one. You see, I am dying to get a hold of a book recently recommended to me by a secret agent code-named Hunter called The Patron’s Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Renaissance Art. In a review of the book by California Literary Review‘s Judith Harris:

In The Patron’s Payoff, art historian Jonathan K. Nelson and economist Richard J. Zeckhauser have harnessed their separate disciplines into a new analytical key for understanding the linked motivations of patron and artist or architect in conspicuous commissions. . . . No less than the American financier who donates a museum wing on condition it bears his name, or the merchandiser who endows a university institute named for him, the results of Renaissance patronage had to be, first of all, highly visible.

This is an intuitive, but important microeconomic finding because it suggests that in the Renaissance era, these brilliant works of art were not created primarily as an asset class that would yield investment returns directly in currency. Rather, it would yield returns in the form of status, privilege, and indirectly perhaps in currency. This makes it a very different type of asset class than stocks. Or, at least, it did. In The Economics of Art and Culture, James Heilbrun and Charles Gray suggest that the returns on art increase through time:

“The history of art connoisseurship tells us that the main lesson imparted by the test of time is the fickleness of taste whose meanderings defy prediction.” William Baumol’s skepticism is grounded in his study of 640 arts transactions during the period from 1652 to 1961, as listed in Gerald Reitlinger’s The Economics of Taste. Baumol calculated the real rates of return associated with specific works of art and concluded that the average annual compounded rate of return was 0.55% in real terms, about one-third as high as the real return on a government security. Returns varied from a high of 27 percent to a low of -19 percent per year. […] Another study, that by Frey and Pommerehene, extended Reitlinger’s data up to 1987 and included more recent auction data from France, Germany, and The Netherlands. Taking into account inflation, commission fees, and other pertinent factors, they calculated the average rate of return to paintings over the entire period to be 1.5% per year. […] It should not be particularly surprising, then, that studies of different time periods and varying data sources reach conflicting conclusions on the investment value of art.

Actually, that’s not precisely correct. It is true that we should not be surprised studies from different time periods and data will suggest different investment values in art. However, it is not because of taste or methodological issues. The most viable hypothesis to explain these findings is that from the Pharoahs through Louis XIV, very little art was transacted for the purpose of investment returns in currency. That is not to say they didn’t expect returns, as is likely shown in The Patron’s Payoff. And this is why, except for considering artifacts that are only now perhaps categorized as art, it is not difficult to catalog the few noteworthy artists and styles of those ages.

However, when technology improved, living standards improved. Commensurate with the notion that food and shelter cost relatively less in a person’s budget, more money would now be available for those “higher pursuits” such as fine arts. Previously, there would be few buyers for spectacular art works and indeed returns would not be correlated with any market because it depends almost purely on prestige issues. Now, a market develops, and we learn that people care more about getting money — which they can exchange for all kinds of things — than mere prestige, though that is still attached in many cases. The rate of return goes up through the ages, peaking with the bubble of the 1980s but settling in the 1990s, because people are getting richer and demand for art goes up. It is no more complex than that. Ironically, even though investment in art is likely at an all-time global high (certainly still true without the useless NEA), it probably pales in comparison to the amount of art that is “consumed” through television and movie watching, to say nothing of sports.

In this week’s Economist, an article details a sad development: the age of the scribe in the square is over:

The church has been there since 1736. For almost as long, scribes have gathered on its plaza to tend to correspondence, public and private. It was they who gave rise to the printing shops. They, too, who gave the neighbourhood its character. But they are now a dying breed, superseded by ever-spreading modern gadgetry. […]

[Rojas] mostly writes receipts for tradesmen—plumbers, construction workers and the like—or helps fill out tax forms. As a sideline, he types letters of complaint to government agencies, the city’s mayor or even to the president himself. In a full day’s work, he can still expect to see eight to ten customers. But business is down, he says, even over the four years he has been there.

The square’s scribes were once famous as stand-in Romeos, writing love letters. Sometimes, the same scribe would find himself handling both sides of the correspondence for a courting pair. But requests for such letters are now rare….

Of course, with the lowering of information transmission/creation costs, the role of these scribes has declined in the past. As new art forms develop, those locked in LOL-land, digital arts, and ever more numerous variations of them — a few are losing their way. There may come a day when the scribe in the square perishes from the earth completely.

At that day, their services will become more valuable than ever. After all, what Juliet would prefer a missive in an email over a letter obtained through the most important signals of investment from love, time and thoughtfulness?

A long excerpt from the outstanding The Uses of the Past, written by Herbert Mueller, but emphasis mine:

Pageantry — the purely decorative — is also a conspicuous quality of Byzantine art. The whole culture of the church-state was hidebound by tradition, and the basic tradition was a formalism that always tended to artificiality. It suffered from its greatest achievements, whose forms became fixed, sacrosanct, and arrested further development. Large provinces of culture were so blighted by the tyranny of conventionalism that there was no healthy development at all. […] During the last renaissance of Byzantine culture, its poets and philologists revived the ‘pure’ Attic dialect, and began revising the ancient texts in this wholly artificial literary language.

Herein is the crowning paradox of the most celebrated contribution of Byzantium — its preservation of Greek culture. According to Toynbee, ‘Orthodox Christian piety’ preserved this heritage. Actually this piety was inimical to Greek humanism, and at times openly hostile. Justinian passed a law forbidding anyone ‘infected with the madness of the unholy Hellenes’ to teach any subject; it was he who closed the schools of Athens, ending their history of eight hundred years. Classical learning never disappeared from Constantinople, to be sure. In time greek became the official language of the empire (though to the end it called itself the ‘Empire of the Romans’). Yet Byzantium never caught the essential Greek spirit — free, curious, critical. Piously it preserved its invaluable heritage, without ever really understanding it or benefiting from it. […]

Altogether, it was an essentially static culture, whose apparent energy was rooted in little apparent moral, intellectual, or spiritual initiative. […]

Still, it managed to carry on for a thousand years after Rome fell. The original question remains: What kept this static civilization going? Why was it preserved by a tradition that failed to preserve Rome? I see no very good reasons, or at least none that illustrate a satisfying philosophy of history. Off-hand, the advantages of the Byzantine Empire seem accidental or incidental. […] One is tempted to believe that it was indeed the Virgin who kept saving the empire, for some unfathomable feminine reason.

What, then, does St. Sophia have to tell us? I should not restrict its meaning to the few implications I have chosen to stress in the drama of fourteen hundred years. I should insist only that there is no one simple meaning, and that we must realize the profound incongruities of the drama if we hope to rise on stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things. St. Sophia remains an inspiring monument, glorious and vainglorious. It is a symbol of humility and pride, of holiness and worldliness, of the power of faith and the limitations of faith. It is an everlasting triumph, of a society that failed. It may epitomize all the great societies and golden ages of the past, which also failed and still inspire. It calls for reverence, and for irony. […]

Here again St. Sophia gives the clue to a basic ambiguity. Pride goeth before a fall — but first it lifts men to real heights. Without pride the tragic hero would not be a hero; without it there would be no tragedy in history because no civilization at all. and without it there would be no higher religions. It was pride that built St. Sophia. It was still pride that led thousands to pray in St. Sophia in the miserable last days of Byzantium.

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
through midair–

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
even unwilling.

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:

]
]
]
]
]
toward[

]
]
]
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?

Or:

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.”

Another fragment:

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
and roses
]at my side you put on

and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.

And with sweet oil
costly
you anointed yourself

and on a soft bed
delicate
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
]no sound
[

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
I say
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.

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.

[[ AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you are reading this, please let me know how you found this blog! By an email? Another blog? A web link? Please comment on this post or email admiralwaugh@gmail.com and let me know! ]]

In recent weeks I have stopped kind of just posting links, but I have discovered some really interesting commentary lately. This comes from a recent addition to my Google Reader, The Guardian’s Art & architecture blog, a post written by Simon Goddard about Masaccio, the greatest and youngest “old master” I never knew about!

If the world of art was stricken by the same incurable, anniversary-fixated old rope disease as the UK music press then, round about now, there’d be brainstorming editorial meetings on how best to commemorate the imminent 580th anniversary of the untimely death of Masaccio – Renaissance Italy’s hippest young gunslinger who more or less invented painting as we know it. […]

For while enough major works have survived to earn him a rightful place in the pantheon of Renaissance masters, his biography is the palest of sketches. We know, or rather we think we know, that he was born near Florence on December 21, 1401 and that he died, aged 26, in Rome some time in the latter half of 1428 (we don’t even have an exact date). And that’s it. […]

In rock’n’roll terms, his bequest to art was the equivalent of Elvis Presley’s Sun recordings, a year zero foundation stone for future generations to develop and perfect. Masaccio was the first to fully master depth and perspective on a two-dimensional surface. Before his arrival, paintings were flat, ornamental images beholden to staid Gothic tradition. After him, they became windows on walls, peering into another universe of similar spatial dimensions to our own. Significantly, his frescoes were a vital influence on Michelangelo. The latter’s close friend, the great Florentine biographer Vasari, was still swooning over Masaccio’s legacy 140 years after his inexplicable death. “Everything done before him can be described as artificial,” frothed Vasari, “whereas he produced work that is living, realistic and natural.”

Wow, I encourage others who may be ignorant of this artist to learn of him by reading more from the blog post. The author of the post reserves special praise for the work Masaccio is apparently best known for, the Holy Trinity fresco, pictured right.