Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Reading Of Gulliver's Travels


A Reading of Gulliver's Travels: 

I just finished rereading Gulliver's Travels ("GT") and a few bits of analysis right to hand on line.

I gather that the ending of the book is an interpretive challenge and has caused quite some literary debate. (I'm glad to be corrected if I'm wrong.)

I have a view of the ending that maybe can flower into a coherent interpretation of the whole. I have not seen my view mentioned though it may well have been asserted in all the annals of GT criticism. 

My argument in a nutshell is that Swift's vision in GT is ultimately tragic.

A jumping off point for my view is the description at book's end of Gulliver spending four hours each day in his stable speaking to/with his two horses, who he keeps,  feeds and cossets and puts to no labour.

That is madness. That is an estrangement from reality. While the moral nobility of the  Houyhnhnms may well justify Gulliver's desire to live with them until his death, that doesn't vitiate his final demented speaking with horses, who he imagines are speaking with him. 

There is, however, a thematically important limitation to the Houyhnhnms' pure rationality, a practical rationality to be sure, unlike the abstracted craziness of the Laputans, (puta Spanish for whore.) While the Houyhnhnms are perfection to Gulliver, and while he tries in futility to be like them, while they exemplify fellow/horse concern and benevolence, they are also stale, dull and obtuse. Their language is barren, unpoetic, purely functional; their sex lives mechanistic, functional and lifeless. 

Their ordered lives lack all vitality. Death is of no significance to them. They miss the very id energy that makes life hotly messy, tragically flawed and vitally rich. The  Houyhnhnms are all super ego, devoid of the play in human life of the vile and the great, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, so to say. In a nutshell they are, literally, inhuman.

In his encounter with their utopian virtue, Gulliver encounters the heart of darkness, man's rapacity, depredation, folly and illusion, man as Yahoo "with a tincture of rationality." He has this encounter when speaks of European ways with his  "Houyhnhnm master," before he is banished. In this encounter, perceiving he is but a Yahoo "with a tincture of rationality," a patina of it perhaps, he becomes estranged from his own humanity, the vestiges of good that abound in humans, such as the kindness of Don Pedro de Mendez, or the benign, compliant goodness of his own family, wife and children, whom he reviles as Yahoos. He cannot see that the Yahoos of Houyhnhnmland are to humans what humans are in morality and virtue to the Houyhnhnms. 

Gulliver, pliant, pliable, compliant, ready to stoop readily to what he sees as above him, is nearly always bowled over by what he admires. He has at least twice been ready to lay down his European life, his English bourgeois life, in order to live with the Struldbrugs before he learns the truth of them, and of course with the Houyhnhnms, until they banish him. 

And up until he voyages to Houyhnhnmland, he is able to navigate his way back to his ordinary English life subject to never being able to settle there for long. But after the Houyhnhnms, after his intellectual voyage to the heart of human darkness in comparison with the highest virtue of the Houyhnhnms, he is undone, his sanity overwhelmed. 

And so in his madness, in his inability to regain human perspective, to see prosaic human goodness, benevolence and kindness where it exists, he is reduced to letting his wife speak only briefly to him after five years, while he speaks with horses four hours a day in the illusion they converse with him. His peering into the heart of human darkness has a unbalanced him unbalanced, made him mad. 

So therefore, can't we say, and I argue, that Swift's vision in GT's is ultimately tragic, that we cannot confront the deepest truths of ourselves, as has Gulliver, without brooking madness, that, in another way of looking at it, as Wallace Stevens writes, 

The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds?

Not what Stevens says, but what GT says, we must perforce be blind to what is worst about us, the deepest evil truth of ourselves, to be sane. We eke out such existence as we can amidst the folly, depredation, evil and illusion that humans live under in virtue of what they are. Gulliver's madness is the cost the truth of ourselves exacts.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Briefest Of Notes On Gulliver's Travels


I'm rounding the club house turn with Gulliver's Travels. He's back in England for a titch before he leaves for his fourth and final voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms.

Is there anyone who hasn't zoned out in parts while reading Swift's frequent descents into various lists and physical descriptions of things?

I've tended to.

But regardless, one of the ways I'm approaching this reading is try to trace as the book goes ahead how Gulliver himself changes. 

I thought that after he learns the scuzzy truths of apparently great personages and events of history in Glubbdubdrib: ..."I was chiefly disgusted with modern History"...he would be disabused of his reverence for the kings and lords he still meets. But in Luggnagg, and then Japan, he still shows that reverence for those in high and royal place.

I'll have to see how this aspect of things--changes in Gulliver--finally resolves itself in Part 4, concerning the Houyhnhnms.

As a p.s.: what Gulliver reveals of himself when first encountering the Struldbruggs and before he learns the awful truth of living forever is fascinating. 

He's ready all of a sudden to ditch his desire to get back to England and his family and is prepared to spend the rest of his life with whom he imagines the Struldbruggs to be in their eternal longevity. He thinks they must be the repository of th greatest learning and wisdom and he goes on about all the glorious good he could were he have the gift of eternal life. 

His idealistic, innocent naïveté is very apparent here.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Streamlining The Analysis of Walter Rostow On The Legality Of The Settlements

I've done this to try to get at the essence of Rostow's analysis for my own benefit and for such convenience as it has for you.  

In 2 parts 



1500 -- 1917 Palestine "P" part of Ottoman Empire.

After 1917 under British Mandate

On July 24, 1922, the League of Nations Council confirmed the Mandate.

The Mandate explicit that the Mandatory Power responsible effecting Balfour Declaration in favor of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

The Balfour Declaration, the Mandate, and League of Nations incorporation  formed part of the same international law that self-determination is a right. 

The Mandate espoused the facilitation of Jewish immigration encouraged Jewish settlement: "it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

In 1922 ratified in 1923 the League of Nations gave Britain the Mandate to administer Palestine, which required her to implement the Balfour Declaration, and undertake a “sacred trust of civilisation” to advance the welfare of the Palestinian people and guide them to independence

Article 80 of the UN Charter, known in 1945 as the “Palestine” Article, carried this body of international law forward to the UN Charter era.

In 1947, Britain asked the UN to consider the question of a future government in Palestine in light of Britain’s determination to withdraw as Mandatory Power in 1948

On November 29, 1947, UN GA passed Resolution 181 (II), which recommended to the Mandatory Power and to the Security Council the adoption of a partition plan for the remaining area of the Mandate (west of the Jordan River)...

Common perceptions notwithstanding, General Assembly Resolution 181 (II) was not and is not legally binding, both because of its language—it is recommendatory only—and because of the limited powers of the General Assembly under the UN Charter.

In 1949, Israel concluded armistice agreements with Syria, Egypt and Jordan. These agreements included as a common provision that the Armistice Demarcation Lines were agreed “without prejudice to future territorial settlements or boundary lines or claims related thereto.”

Since 1949, despite several wars, UN resolutions, and endless argument about the relative merits of claims to the lands of the Mandate, the status of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem has never been resolved finally as a legal matter.

UN Security Council Resolutions 242 (November 22, 1967) and 338 (October 22, 1973) together constitute an authoritative UN decision on the principles to frame an Arab-Israeli peace settlement and remain the most important agreed framework for Arab-Israeli peace.

These resolutions reflect two facts, on the mind of governments of the day. The first, the Six-Day War of June 1967 was, for Israel, a lawful exercise of the inherent right of self-defense recognized in Article 51 of the UN Charter. 

As a result, Israel’s occupation of territory beyond the Armistice Lines was a result of aggression by its neighbors.

Second, governments determined not to repeat a mistake in 1956–57, when, under international pressure, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula without a peace agreement with Egypt. As President Johnson put it in 1967, “Nasser slit our throat from ear to ear” by reneging on the 1957 terms for Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai."

Arguments for lawfulness:

1 Geneva Convention doesn't apply on the ground that, under Article 2, the Convention applies only to occupation of the “territory of a High Contracting Party.” No country has a recognized legal claim to the “occupied territories.” Consequently, they are not territories “of” any contracting party, and therefore the Convention does not apply to Jewish settlement. In making this argument, advocates of legality stress that the international community did not recognize Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank and that now Jordan has withdrawn its claim. 

2 Even if the Geneva Convention applies, it was not directed at the kind of activity undertaken by Israel. Article 49 of the Geneva Convention responded to the Nazi experience and is directed at transfers of large populations into occupied territories intended to colonize territories so as to endanger the economic situation or separate existence of the existing populations. Proponents of this view argue that the nature and extent of Israeli settlements in the West Bank do not threaten the native population and therefore would not violate the Geneva Convention even if it applied. 

4 There'a principe of into law that, where a prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully (in this case, Jordan), the state subsequently taking the territory in lawful exercise of self-defense has, against the unlawful prior holder, better title. This argument turns in part on the facts that led to the 1967 War and the conclusion that Israel acted in lawful self-defense against Egypt’s blockade, Syrian attacks and provocations, and other menacing actions. 

5 A fifth argument is based on the historical claim of Jews to live in Palestine. Proponents of this argument, which arguably is not a legal one, trace the history of the region back to biblical times and assert that the Jews have had a continuous presence in the area and have a superior historical right to it.

Finally, my own 2 cents.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 242

November 22, 1967

Following the June '67, Six-Day War, the situation in the Middle East was discussed by the UN General Assembly, which referred the issue to the Security Council. After lengthy discussion, a final draft for a Security Council resolution was presented by the British Ambassador, Lord Caradon, on November 22, 1967. It was adopted on the same day.
This resolution, numbered 242, established provisions and principles which, it was hoped, would lead to a solution of the conflict. Resolution 242 was to become the cornerstone of Middle East diplomatic efforts in the coming decades.

The Security Council,

Expressing its continuing concern with the grave situation in the Middle East,

Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security,

Emphasizing further that all Member States in their acceptance of the Charter of the United Nations have undertaken a commitment to act in accordance with Article 2 of the Charter,

Affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles:

Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force;

Affirms further the necessity

For guaranteeing freedom of navigation through international waterways in the area;
For achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem;
For guaranteeing the territorial inviolability and political independence of every State in the area, through measures including the establishment of demilitarized zones;

Requests the Secretary General to designate a Special Representative to proceed to the Middle East to establish and maintain contacts with the States concerned in order to promote agreement and assist efforts to achieve a peaceful and accepted settlement in accordance with the provisions and principles in this resolution;

Requests the Secretary-General to report to the Security Council on the progress of the efforts of the Special Representative as soon as possible.

Since the military withdrawal is from "territories," not "all territories," that Israel can stay on some of the territory must imply that who all the territories will go to is an open question. If it's an open question, then ownership is an open question. If so, one can't say definitively that it's all Palestinian land because if it was then the U.N. would have had no right to let Israel stay on some of it. How could it? If that is so, that unclarity, that proprietary open-endedness, demanding resolution by negotiation, ousts the clear applicability of Fourth Geneva Convention Article 49(6). That being so, who can say that Israel with all of its historic ties to the land cannot settle some of the lands, those settlements subject to ultimate resolution as was the case in Gaza, resolution in that case coming from its unilateral withdrawal, with the settlements dismantled?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Note On George V. Higgins's A Change Of Gravity


George, George why hast thou forsaken me?

George V. Higgins, that is.

As a lover of his early novels and a reader of most of what he's written, I was thrilled recently to have come across his last two novels, The Agent, which I read a few weeks ago, and his second last, A Change Of Gravity, which I just finished yesterday and that, I confess, I both had to force myself to finish and found myself more and more skipping over pages of distracting, having-nothing-to-do-with-anything conversation.

Garrulous, a word that can arguably be used for Higgins's writing, though I never did, is on the money for A Change Of Gravity. But buried within all the endless talk on talk on talk about subjects that go nowhere, don't advance anything, and confuse the hell out of me, are the core and spine of a brilliant novel about corrupt Massachusetts' local politics involving politicians, handlers, judges, cops, lawyers, some women involved with them, and the low and street life that flows through an obscure District Court. Buried within all the endless talk is some, not enough, vintage Higgins fictional talk. This good talk gets down to the bones of life as it's chiefly lived in this world, reveals character, advances the story, materially fills in the fictional world and compels attention. 

The last 60 pages or so of the 452 pages are full of exceptionally good talk, as the talk brings coherence through legal argument at a hearing to a mass of sprawling detail about a host of characters, their schemes, transactions, relationships and their lives. The coherence is nuanced too. We have it as seen through the prism of a legal argument that imposes a singular pattern on all the sprawling facts. But we needn't accept that pattern even as in its telling by way of the argument we better understand a more inclusive and fair minded version of the people and events accumulating in our minds as we read. And when the legal argument distorts what characters have done and why, we can see the distortion and judge it as that even while in virtue of the distortion we put better together the meaning of things.

I'd say the book's last 60 pages are as good as or better than anything I've read in Higgins, more dense, thematically rich and complex than the exciting literary tightness and lowlife authenticity of The Friends Of Eddie Coyle or The Digger's Game or Cogan's Trade (made into Killing Them Softly with Brad Pitt as Cogan) or, jumping over A City On A Hill, The Judgment Of Deke Hunter.

Higgins's novels stretch to near breaking point the possibility of constructing worlds, showing characters in action and advancing a story almost entirely through retrospective dialogue. In A Change Of Gravity, despite the exceptional last 60 odd pages, the conversational waters have burst the damn and flooded the world. Too much is under conversational water. Too little hasn't drowned or been submerged in all the distracting talk. Higgins here has lost his literary grip, the iron discipline of the earlier novels gone, the spare authentic perfection of them now lost in a maze of a building-on-itself irrelevancy that wants to give depth and breadth to the fictional world, but, rather, numbs, bemuses and, maybe worst of all literary sins, bores us.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

On Philip Roth's The Facts...And George Pelecanos's The Cut: A Brief Note


So I just finished in this order Philip Roth's The Facts, his biographical memoir, and just now, like a few minutes ago, George Pelecanos's The Cut. That's the only reason I have this odd pairing in mind. 

I liked the factual portion of The Facts, the recounting of Roth's life with his parents, his growing up in a Jewish enclave in New Jersey, his time at Bucknell, then the University of Chicago, then his making his literary way in the world, with most of it undergirded by his impossible relationship and marriage to the impossible Josie, to whom he's neurotically drawn even as he dreads her and wants to get away from her. Those portions are concrete, since rooted in real life events, and brim and bristle with Roth's typical trenchant literary intelligence. One slight caveat, the prose is very fancy, with lots of big words used when more simple direct ones will do. It works in the end, but at times it's a bit much. I've never noted this, if I may, sesquipedalian quality to Roth's prose before. 

But what drove me round the bend are the bracketing letters from him to "Zuckerman" and Zuckerman to him, that stand in contrast with the fact based biographical accounts within the brackets. The letters are full of complex theorizing about the relations among life, fiction and biography. But they are so unrelentingly and obsessively introspective, so unrelentingly self obsessed, they they tried my patience and irritated the hell out of me. I managed through them both but often wanted to say to him, "Enough already. Shut the hell up."

So what a refreshing contrast it was to read The Cut's great, linear, detailed, spare story telling, with strongly drawn characters, with a great sense of DC's streets and street life, a story that simply flows along atop, may I say it, muscular, no nonsense prose that is unpretentiously literary in what it both denotes and evokes. 

I can just see Hemingway retching in reading the bracketing letters in The Facts and feeling fatherly towards Pelecanos's The Cut. 

Next up another go round with Gulliver's Travels, last read by me decades ago.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Note On Identity Politics


Identity Politics:

This is a reworking of a comment I made to a FB friend in a brief exchange we had a few months ago about identity politics. It reflects a few points he made that right away deepened, at least I think deepened, my understanding. 

Is this a good distinction better to understand the meaning of identity politics: the contrast between:

 a politics that is committed to--how to put this?--making oppressed, denied, marginalized groups fully equal citizens in their rights and liberties;

 and the interiorizing of the group self as a kind of group self obsession that asserts that group self to the virtual dismissal of other interests where these insistences and assertions strain against the commonalities a liberal democracy requires at its foundation? 

These commonalities, and encapsulated by the word "equal," represent the ideal of the movement from anachronistic status to merit. Hayek called it the move from status to contract.

Does this distinction reflect a more nuanced view that understands the historically rich play of groups vying for power in the securing of their fully equal civil rights isn't identity politics as such?

An example of this might be MLK's statement about the content of character in the context of the struggle he lead for equal civil rights. If so, then identity politics as such, as it ought to understood, might be seen as that very contrasting interiorizing I just touched on. 

The common understanding I perceive of identity politics is a politics that plays to groups, works off coalitions, rather than appealing to all citizens. But as my friend taught me, this view is naive; all politics does appeals to groups, works off group interests and coalitions. This common idea of identity politics is fatuous. 

There's of course much more to be considered. But maybe this is a helpful start.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Non Feminist Reading Of Emma


Emma and a vindicating feminist reading of it--i.e., there ain't any.

I write the odd note, very odd likely, on what I've read principally as a way later to remind myself of what I thought, which without which note I'd likely forget it.

So as I say 0 much happens in Emma. It's a story about the things going on in her small world. The novel seems like precursor chick-lit of a type, "womanly writing" in a certain sense of that. What sense? Staying away from bold themes, bold doings, the proliferation of "domestic" detail, the preoccupation of "women's concerns" seen from a woman's perspective, given the times, earlyish turn of the 19th century, 1815 to be sure. For one big thing, marriage is given by Austen as the chief way of women by and large securing their place in the world. Failing getting married or otherwise being provided for, they face bad fates like Ms Bates and her mother--impending poverty, or like what threatens Jane Fairfax if Churchill, Frank not Winston, doesn't come through, work, that is to say, heaven help her.

It may be thought that in Emma's young woman's resolve not ever to get married, to reject marriage, and not to pine or plan for it, mark her unique and radical. I can't see it. She at the beginning and through a long way through doesn't know herself, doesn't know she loves Mr. Knightley, runs away from herself while thinking she's asserting herself in her busybody matchmaking so chock full of errors and misjudgments. 

Her resolve not ever to wed is an aspect of her unself-knowing immaturity. In that sense, her resolute devotion to care for her father is both genuine and loving, an assumption of righteous duty, and, too, the rationalization of her running away from things. For when she blanches at suggestions of Mr. Knightley's attachment to Jane Fairfax or even to "poor" Harriet, the Platonic truth of herself is manifest: she must marry; and Mr. Knightley must only marry her. Mr. Woodhouse is the satirized extreme of Emma's inclination to run away, shrinkingly to avoid life under a facade of vivacity. Hence, for example, her early indefatigable matchmaking and attempting to direct the lives of others. And hence her easy friendship with "poor" Harriet," clearly her inferior, and her jealousy of Jane Fairfax, in some ways her superior. 

It may be thought that there is something singular and radical in Emma only wanting to marry--not for station, not for security, not to escape loneliness, not to escape the need to work, and other less than the-marriage-of-true-minds motives that Austen presents--for deep and reciprocal love. 

But that would be a misguided thought. 

She has many of those other motives totally in hand: she is by Highbury standards of the wealthiest; she faces no prospect of poverty; she is, absent her father, still surrounded by family and friends, including nieces and nephews. The motives for marriage that might impel others are an easy and assumed part of her life. She is, however flawed she is, of superior character, sensibility, intellectual and emotional intelligence and discernment. So in her growth, and in the concomitant flowering of these superiorities, she and her Platonic intended inevitably find each other, (no big surprise.) So there is 0 socially radical or unconventional in how Emma comes finally to wed. That is simply the working out of her personal superiority. It's personal, not contrarian or unconventional. The inevitability of her marriage to Mr. Knightley explodes any thought that there is anything radical in Emma's attitude to marriage. She finds and fulfills herself in it.

So I'm arguing there is no "feminist" reading to be made of Emma, or at least not one that vindicates feminist ideals.

So it might be thought that as opposed to Mrs. Elton who recurrently refers to Mr. Elton as "my Lord and Master," Emma's marriage to Mr. Knightley shows an equality among the sexes that strikes a blow for that as such. But that is a vulnerable thought for a few reasons including: 

the odious Mrs. Elton humble brags in that reference, makes a play of self deprecation that is really pretext for her show of her own superiority. She always tries to assert her own presumed superiority whether by claiming it outright, whether by criticizing others in comparison to herself, whether by humbly bragging as she often does, whether by disrespecting certain understood formalities as when she calls Mr. Knightley, "Mr. K," whether by simply ignoring entreaties of others that she not do what she wants to do that affect them, and in other ways too; and 

again, Emma finding personal parity with Mr. Knightley is more than anything the natural emergence of her noted superiorities in conjoining with a man who both deserves their benefit, understands and promotes them, and wants them. So, again, this parity is singularly personal and not socially exceptional. In Austen women can dominate men as much men can dominate.

It might be thought that in Emma's utter impudence, high spirits, refusal to heed men's advice if she doesn't agree with them, her spirited willingness to argue on any point with anyone if she feels she is right, lays a model for women's independence and equality. But she is most evidently flawed in these displays. When she comes to know herself and the Platonic truth of herself, her high spirits moderate themselves; she becomes quieter, more reflective; less thinly sure of herself, more modest, less error and misjudgment prone, in a word more mature, all in a way that cuts entirely against this thought.

If any of my billions of readers want to make a different case, I'd be happy to read it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Interpretive Note On Heart Of Darkness


So I finished rereading Heart Of Darkness. I'm again fighting not to drown in the many-sidedness of its theme as I'm yanked back to the same problem I had 50 years ago or so, of trying to work out its mind-stretching meaning.

Here's a small stab at that with two questions, the first bristling with its own internal questions.

First Question:

When Kurtz says "The horror! The horror!" what's he exactly, or, better, not exactly, saying? Is it a condemning judgment of the wild and murderous chaos that has overtaken him and what he has done in that? Or is it a final realization, if he has not realized it before, that in his path from ambitious, enlightened, piety-filled, multi talented, intellectual European liberal to a heedless, savagely wanton, murdering, despot-God to the natives who worship him, his existence, all that he has done, is without meaning? Does he dying behold into the absurdity of the world? 

Could it be both? Is it something else? Do the first two exclude each other on the basis that the latter, seeing nihilism, precludes any moral judgment, that meaninglessness is literally the case? Or does the first evidence such life destroying rapacity that the only conclusion can be that if man can do such evil, then nothing morally matters. 

It's to be remembered that Marlow for all his condemnation of Kurtz is entranced by him, is in thrall to him, counts him remarkable, feels needful of defending him and keeping his meaning protected. It's to be remembered that much of this devotion comes from Kurtz's dying words, while Marlow then can say nothing. 

Here's my convoluted view. Camus in his afterward to The Stranger makes a big deal about Mersault's unflinching honesty and committment to his own truths, even at the possible cost of his life--he's an atheist; nothing really matters; he has no real feelings of remorse; we all die, so what's the point? But if it doesn't matter, as the world is absurd since we all die, then what matters this unflinching integrity that has Camus likening Mersault to a kind of Algerian Christ? What is the ground for virtue; why even privilege integrity? Isn't this the very fundamental and obvious contradiction in asburdism or nihilism? It's an intellectual abstraction entirely belied by our, all people's, experience and necessarily leads to its own reductio ad absurdum.

But Conrad, I argue, avoids this contradiction in Heart Of Darkness. When Kurtz repeats "The horror!" he intones his shocked realization of the harsh collapse of all things into abject meaningless and of the then murderous, rapacious sum of all that he has done. The meaninglessness is underlined by the manager's boy's announcement in a scathing tone of utter dismissiveness, "Mistah Kurtz—he dead."

But for Marlow, himself driven to the depths of existential despair by Kurtz who's “kicked himself loose of the earth" such that Marlow figuratively loses the sense of whether he's up or down, Kurtz's dying words offer him an awful truth. They offer him a clear glimpse into a terrifying, soul destroying abyss beyond judgments of good and evil but yet qualified by some inchoate sense of rightness signified by the capacity for judgment implicit in "The horror! The horror!" 

Second Question

It flows from the answer to the first. Why does Marlow in the end lie to Kurtz's "intended," allowing her to maintain the illusion of Kurt's shining goodness, that in the end Kurtz is the same man he was when he left fort the Congo? Marlow despises lies. The worst extrapolation from them is that all of normative life is a lie, just like the lie that rapacious imperialist purpose is imbued with high moral purpose. Marlow struggles against that extrapolation throughout. He fights a losing cause and loses himself in it until, as opposed to the master story teller who keeps his companions spell bound with his story throughout, he's, as noted, speechless at Kurtz's dying. Which is to say, he's without anything to say; which is to say, nothing means anything to him that's worth saying.

At the long last scene, as the room darkens about Marlow and Kurtz's intended, as she's still wearing black in grief a year later, he is physically revulsed by her clamoring devotion to her image of Kurtz. Marlow is revulsed by and torn between the prospects of shattering her illusion or lying to her, lies, most broadly, in one way implicating the meaninglessness of all things, but, in another way, keeping meaninglessness at bay by the myths, other lies, necessary to civilized life, protecting it from the heart of darkness. Marlow is double visioned. He has learned from Kurtz's dying words the yoked together paradox of the horror of the emptiness of things and the horror of depredation driving out all moral meaning, the latter dotted with the seeds of judgment. 

And so Marlow lies, allows the grieving lady her blatantly false image of Kurtz, in 180 degree contrast to the truth. And in this, doesn't Marlow make a small bid for some slight glimmer of life continuing amidst the enveloping darkness:

....The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness....?

Friday, December 2, 2016

A Note On George V. Higgins


Listen, I love George V. Higgins, and I must've read 90% of his 26/27/25 whatever books.

And what I love most is his story telling and world creating through dialogue, and not just dialogue, but through the way guys talk, and I use "guys" advisedly, as in street guys, guys who live on the ground not in the air, lawyers, judges, cops, bar tenders, fixers, crooks, killers, dope dealers, scum bags, politicians, bag men, doormen, and like others, and some women, a few, who fit into these categories, guys who see the world as it is, see human nature for by and large the grubby thing it is, guys who are practical and reason practically by real world consequences according to the rules and logic of their worlds. 

It's unique in American fiction and I love it.

To me, it's strongest in Higgins's first novels, and he came flying out of the gate brilliantly with his first, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, made into a strong movie too with a great performance by Robert Mitchum. That novel is as good as anything he wrote, I'd argue. He was a Federal prosecutor. Norman Mailer said of him,"Who knew the fuzz could write like this." 

So I'm reading what I think is his second last novel, The Agent, and it's got some, a lot, to be sure, of Higgins's great writing strength.

But 2/3ds through it, I've got this nagging feeling, and I'm trying to resist it, hoping it'll all make sense: there's too much talk, too much extraneous talk for its own sake; it imparts a lot of information, sure; but it seems slack somehow, as, the way David Simon has a tendency to do even more so, characters speechify and make points for the author through dialogue that's ostensibly authentic but is at bottom serving some polemical, in the case of Simon, or some informational, in the case of Higgins, purpose at the expense of the story.

I'm hoping out of my love for Higgins that by story's end, it'll all make sense and that my nagging feeling is a false positive.

A Note On The Tipping Point


Right at the last few pages of The Tipping Point.

What's its theme: the structure of the tip; or, more general, that small things can matter a lot? The book's subtitle is "How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference." 

I'm certain that with effort you can diagram the structure of the tip as it emerges in Gladwell, with its main parts, sub parts, sub sub parts, sub sub sub parts and so on: the law of the few, mavens, connectors, salesmen, stickiness, contagion, the rule of 150, and what have you. I can't from memory keep up with them all or from memory explain the whole system by all its constituents.

The parts and seeming endless subdivision of them, and the sheer discursiveness, wherein sometimes the numerous instances are looped back to the central argument and sometimes, seemingly not--seemingly because maybe I just missed the loop, make me think that really the book essentially boils down to the proposition that small things can matter a lot.

In his conclusion, for my own example, he cites a Cali education prof who concluded that more money, smaller class sizes, and other such benefits, weren't enough to "tip" more teachers into going into tough schools in tough neighborhoods. But the educator, deriving an insight from the Tipping Point, and going beyond the container of conventional benefits, suggested that entire staffs or teams of teachers and principals go into these schools together. In these numbers, there is then born the greater will to attack these tough school/tough neighborhood problems. That new approach might "tip" greater numbers of teachers to those schools than otherwise. It's too early to tell, Gladwell says, if it worked.

Now, I don't knock the idea: there's the lovely application of a good insight there. And more power to The Tipping Point that the insight came from it. But how is that application of that idea an example of Gladwell's elaborated structure of the tip? Where's the social epidemic here with all its moving parts, as Gladwell has them? His use of "tip" here seems a touch gratuitous to me, only a touch because Gladwell is so delightful, congenial, good hearted, well intentioned, clear thinking, prodigious in his research, unpretentious and accessible. And his book is choc a bloc with intriguing insights and examples, many counterintuitive, such as Paul Revere as a connector.

But I think the example I cite is telling. I'm arguing his theme, despite his overall argument, is that small things may be hugely consequential and not, now against his argument, so readily systematized.