Thursday, December 14, 2017

How Much Free Speech



12/14/17

When I studied some political philosophy while majoring in English, my prof, Robert Rowan, was a civil liberties activist, prominent in the B.C. Civil Liberties Union or Association (or whatever it was then called).

He once in debate aired on CBC radio punched the philosophic lights out of Herbert Marcuse. This was the sixties and theories of guys like Marcuse and Norman O Brown got a lot of play.

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-12-14/what-if-the-u-s-has-free-speech-all-wrong

Rowan was a disciple of Joseph Tussman, of Obligation And The Body Politic, a Kantian in some respects. Tussman himself was a student of Alexander Mekllejohn, who wrote Education Between Two Worlds, the worlds before and after WW 2. It had a big impact on me, as callow as I was.

A big issue we took up, and Tussman was famous on it, was what limitation, if any, should be put on the 1st Am guarantee of free expression. 

It was Tussman’s (and Rowan’s) thesis, historically based as they argued at least, that it should be limited to political speech, or, more precisely, that speech that enures to a politically informed citizenry, that being the very engine of a well functioning liberal democracy. 

Commercial speech, for instance, doesn’t make the protected cut on this conception of the width of protected free speech. 

I’m making a short story long here because I just read an accessible article by Cass Sunstein on the work of a University of Richmond law prof, Judd Campbell. 

Sunstein calls Campbell’s work on the 1st Am extraordinarily illuminating. 

The argument in a nutshell is that the original meaning of the guarantee is quite restricted and relates in big part to what custom and convention deem to be conducive to good order, with some exceptions. So speaking hard against the national interest is seditious and hence not protected and is in fact criminal. 

This conception of restrictable expression is at odds with modern case law on the wide sway given to protected expression and poses interesting challenges for originalists, who to a man and woman tend to be strongly libertarian, as in “State do your minimum functions and otherwise get out of my hair.” 

But enough of me. 

Here’s the guy who really knows what he’s talking about and is a hell of a good writer to boot.

A Contrarian Note On Wedding Cake Case, The Baker Who Wouldn’t

12/14/17

Does this make sense?

I’ve had some vigorous exchanges with a few people here, there and everywhere on the wedding cake case.

While I’m totally for gay marriage and the grant to gay couples and individuals of all equal rights—“grant” may not be the right verb; “recognize” is better—I’m sympathetic to the argument based on compelled speech, assuming baking a fancy, symbolic and specified wedding cake can be legally likened to the expression inherent in artistry. 

Not otherwise.

The most troubling argument to me has been the question of what if the baker for religious reasons, sincerely but perversely held, is against interracial marriage.

I struggled with it and offered a few answers that didn’t sit well with me.

But I had last night a good conversation with my younger lawyer daughter, who gives and takes good arguments equally well. And it came to me.

I think.

No dancing around the application of strict scrutiny or hiving off racial issues for special consideration: no, I think the issue has to be met head on. And the answer I think—I stress “I think” because it’s only a thought—is that compelled speech must apply to the religiously based animus against interracial marriage it that’s what is sincerely and deeply believed. 

Compelled speech, which is as strong and embracing as the 1st Amendment itself, can’t be splintered into the convictions we can live with and the ones we can’t. If Nazis can march under their rights of assembly and unbridled expression, short of incitement, then bakers oughtn’t be compelled to create against their convictions, if they come within the ambit of artists who can’t be compelled to act against their convictions.

Nobody made that argument in oral argument before SCOTUS and I doubt it was briefed. But I do believe and think that it is the principled answer to the troubling question of what to do if race is at the bottom of the refusal to provide service.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

More On Mailer’s The Prisoner Of Sex: Halfway Through Part 2, The Acolyte

12/7/17

So some more on Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner Of Sex, as written to some friends, one of whom did his MA thesis on Mailer.

....Just to say in my on and off reading of this book, I’m in the middle of the second part, The Acolyte, some general thoughts are running  through my mind. He’s at the point of having finished with T-Grace Atkinson et al and is about to get down to brass tacks with Kate Millett.

One realization is that I’m falling nicely into the rhythm, pace and even longueurs of Mailer’s prose. I’m reading him easily as a matter of style and no longer find his writing frustrating. The obscure references and tropes that get by me have diminished though I still scratch my head over the odd one. 

I find all his talk about himself as a revolutionary and the need for revolution given his characterization of America as Moloch with its pollution, greed and machine like cannibalism of its citizens both overwrought and silly. 

OTOH, I like that he’s self derisive in questioning his status as a revolutionary owing to his growing into his creature comforts, middle age passivity and to the waning fervor of his energies, much of them sapped by his four failed marriages. (Not for nothing does PW stand for prisoner of war as well as prize winner.) 

That self deprecation reminds me of something purposefully self parodic I read by him about a writer going over all his bills, what he owes his ex wives, all the fancy dinners out, the vacations, the cost of a place on “the Vineyard,” and then finally he gets down to writing something called AMERIKA.

When Mailer gets off the revolutionary kick, I think he points to and expands wonderfully on a great theme about women as nature has them as child bearers and nurturers, that being connected to something mysterious beyond the ken of men, and how their nature works against them in wanting, for those that do, to be the ultimate equal of men in every way. That becomes for radical feminists, what critical theory calls, a “problematic.” 

Mailer is effective, I think, in skewering their fantasies about technology transforming their natures so as to obviate their need to bear children and in skewering the proposition that when liberated, including from their natures, they won’t be looked to as essential to giving birth to sustain the population. 

Yet while he does all that skewering he aptly, I feel, harkens to, and evinces, the sense of the mystery of creation that inheres In women (and not men), the beauty, the awesome naturalness and (metaphorically) the miraculousness of which contrast so profoundly with the dystopian science fiction fantasies of radical feminism. 

I remember from reading this book a half a century ago that the evincing of this sense of mystery in contrast to the mechanizing and technologizing of sex (and maybe other things) is at part of the heart of what I remember to be the marvelous literary criticism that is yet to come.    

Matching his ambiguity and self irony about his status as a revolutionary is Mailer’s contrast of the within-the-system policy reforms of Abzug and NOW with the off the wall wishes of radical feminism that even then sought to erase all biological differences between men and women, to erase all mores, conventions and taboos about sex, envisioning a kind utopia of free love, and that sought to overthrow capitalism and the class and power divides it engenders. 

The matching arises, as best as I can make it out, from Mailer lauding the policy reforms but, too, being attracted to, not the dystopian/utopian fantasies, but, rather, the more prosaic but radical feminist calls for political and social transformation of American society. 

If I’ve got the ambiguities here right, I don’t as yet know whether or how he resolves them.

On I’ll read though and in any event.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

More On Mailer’s The Prisoner Of Sex

L:

As I recall, "wordy" had been a Mailer characteristic since about the late 50's (long, elaborate sentences with a lot of adjectives, i.e). 

So was "roundabout", which he'd developed as a coy defensive tactic, a way of hedging, hinting, not quite saying what you think he's saying. 

From time to time he'll call this "dialectical", though I never thought he meant much by that -- it was really just a way of being able to take provocative stances without being pinned down by them. 

And "self-obsessed" -- well, sure, that's Mailer, from the beginning, and overtly so, obviously, since "Advertisements for Myself". 

I think maybe the oddness stems from some earlier obsessions with viscera, bowels, and smells, which he'd developed in a confused search for some Big Idea that would identify him (previously that had been Time), but it does get at some notion of bodily essence that's probably relevant to his theme here. 

Finally, though, what makes it "not not engaging", to my mind at least, is that this is Mailer at the period where he encapsulates himself as his own protagonist, the Mailer-persona, part clown, part Aging Man of Letters, whose antics, verbal and physical, both amuse and, occasionally, stimulate. Or at least they did me, once upon a time. Don probably had a more appropriate response.

Me:

Thanks L. I’ll keep on with it. At least for a while. 

But even in the first part, The Prizewinner, he talks about:

...a colloquy between the liver’s passions and the justified claims of the spleen, the spirituality of the lungs in conflict with the wage demands of the muscles, all subjected at last to the logic of intestinal morality....

And I’m thinking wtf is he talking about? Is he serious? Is he just putting us on? And now given your good comment, I’m thinking, “Does he think he’s saying something meaningful but he wants it both ways by suggesting too that he’s just farting around because he probably knows it’s fanciful bullshit?” 

There’s a part in the first part where he’s courting the support of Bella Abzug and her group in his run for mayor. And she’s so plain spoken, like “Your ideas on women stink,” with her quintessential New York City bluntness. And I really appreciated that compared to his roundabout, at times obscure, long winded loquaciousness.


He’s prolix. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

On Rereading Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner Of Sex, So Far Part 1


I just finished the first part of The Prisoner Of Sex, The Prizewinner. 

I first read the book about 50 years ago.

It came up again in an article by Judith Shulevitz on Kate Millett and her book Sexual Politics, which slags Mailer and which Mailer answers in his book. Shulevitz, whom I like,  gives her the nod over Mailer.

I remember particularly thinking Mailer’s literary criticism in in his book was superb. But I knew even less then than I do now. 

I  wanted to reread Prisoner Of Sex, which I thought was great when I read it way back when, to see if I still favoured it. 

So I just started it. 

I don’t know what to make of the first part. It confuses me. It’s way wordy, way self obsessed, roundabout, with some obscure expressions the meaning of which got by me, yet playful, and not not engaging—I use a double negative because the engagement, such as it is, co-exists with mild impatience and bits of not getting what he’s saying. Overall, so far, I’m sort of liking it, but I’m wondering what’s the point of all its oddness. 


I’ll read on. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Note On Reading

11/26/17

With respect to books being read:

Just, finally, finally, finished, John L. Smith’s Of Rats And Men...., a biography of former and notorious mob lawyer and Las Vegas’s most beloved mayor, three terms, Oscar Goodman.

On the go, Rich Cohen’s The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King, summarized as so:

.... When Samuel Zemurray arrived in America in 1891, he was tall, gangly, and penniless. When he died in the grandest house in New Orleans sixty-nine years later, he was among the richest, most powerful men in the world. In between, he worked as a fruit peddler, a banana hauler, a dockside hustler, and a plantation owner. He battled and conquered the United Fruit Company, becoming a symbol of the best and worst of the United States: proof that America is the land of opportunity, but also a classic example of the corporate pirate who treats foreign nations as the backdrop for his adventures. In Latin America, when people shouted “Yankee, go home!” it was men like Zemurray they had in mind.

            Rich Cohen’s brilliant historical profile The Fish That Ate the Whale unveils Zemurray as a hidden kingmaker and capitalist revolutionary, driven by an indomitable will to succeed. Known as El Amigo, the Gringo, or simply Z, the Banana Man lived one of the great untold stories of the last hundred years. Starting with nothing but a cart of freckled bananas, he built a sprawling empire of banana cowboys, mercenary soldiers, Honduran peasants, CIA agents, and American statesmen. From hustling on the docks of New Orleans to overthrowing Central American governments, from feuding with Huey Long to working with the Dulles brothers, Zemurray emerges as an unforgettable figure, connected to the birth of modern American diplomacy, public relations, business, and war—a monumental life that reads like a parable of the American dream...

and:

James Andrew Miller’s Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency, summarized, with a lot of jazzy gloss, as so:

...A behind-the-curtain history of Hollywood's transformation over the past five decades as seen through the agency at the heart of it all.

In 1975, five young employees of a sclerotic William Morris agency left to start their own, strikingly innovative talent agency. In the years to come, Creative Artists Agency would vault from its origins in a tiny office on the last block of Beverly Hills to become the largest, most imperial, groundbreaking, and star-studded agency Hollywood has ever seen—a company whose tentacles now spread throughout the world of movies, music, television, technology, advertising, sports, and investment banking far more than previously imagined.

Powerhouse is the fascinating, no-holds-barred saga of that hot-blooded ascent. Drawing on unprecedented and exclusive access to the men and women who built and battled CAA, as well as financial information never before made public, acclaimed author James Andrew Miller spins a tale of boundless ambition, ruthless egomania, ceaseless empire building, drugs, sex, greed, and personal betrayal. Powerhouse is also a story of prophetic brilliance, magnificent artistry, singular genius, entrepreneurial courage, strategic daring, foxhole brotherhood, and how one firm utterly transformed the entertainment business. Here are the real Star Wars—complete with a Death Star—told through the voices of those who were actually there. Packed with scores of stars from movies, television, music, and sports, as well as a tremendously compelling cast of agents, studio executives, network chiefs, league commissioners, hedge fund managers, tech CEOs, and media tycoons, Powerhouse is itself a Hollywood blockbuster of the most spectacular sort....

And, at last, about to start Norman Mailer’s The Prisoner Of Sex. I’m rereading it to see whether my decades old first impression of it as amazing literary criticism and a superb answer to the militant feminist he joined issue with Kate Millett—Sexual Politics—particularly in championing Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence still holds up for me.

Of Rats And Men: Biography Of Oscar Goodman By John L. Smith

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Of Rats and Men


10/20/2003Doug French

Most people know Las Vegas as the slickly packaged, corporate version that is hawked coast-to-coast by the local government's convention authority these days. But, not so long ago, Las Vegas was just a dusty, desert town where a few of the nation's wise guys, bookmakers and one defense attorney came to reinvent themselves.
Guys that were considered crooks and hoodlums somewhere else blew into Vegas with its legalized gambling and became the city fathers. Talk to any of the city's old timers and they wax eloquent about the good old days when the town was run by the Mob, when your wife or girlfriend could safely walk unattended anywhere in the city.
No one pines for the old Vegas like Nevada's best writer, John L. Smith. Smith has chronicled much of the Las Vegas story in his books about the city's famous and notorious, as well as in his columns in the Las Vegas Review Journal newspaper. His latest book, Of Rats and Men: Oscar Goodman's Life From Mob Mouthpiece to Mayor of Las Vegas is the biography of Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman. Goodman describes himself as the "happiest mayor in the country." Once happy hour starts, and Goodman commences to consume his considerable daily intake of gin martinis, no doubt, other mayors would be hard pressed to keep up in the happiness department.
Goodman only recently became a politician, winning the mayor's seat as a long shot candidate in 1999. Goodman was thought to be unelectable after years of defending the likes of Meyer Lansky, Nick Civella, Tony Spilotro, Frank Rosenthal, Nicky Scarfo, and Vinny Ferrerra, plus a host of other organized crime figures.
The bulk of Smith's book is devoted to stories of Goodman's defense of these mobsters as well as his representation of U.S. District Court Judge Harry E. Caliborne, Mustang Ranch brothel owner Joe Conforte, Jack Gordon (LaToya Jackson's ex-husband), wife-beating country star Tracy Lawrence, drug addict casino mogul Ted Binion, and even ear-biting boxer Mike Tyson. Goodman specialized in defending the undefendable.
Las Vegas is a town full of big egos, and Oscar Goodman has arguably the largest. Because of his ego, Goodman didn't take every high-profile case offered. In 1994 Goodman was approached to be on O.J. Simpson's dream defense team, but Goodman passed. He also passed up an opportunity to be on former Panamanian President Manuel Noriega's defense team. Sitting second chair is not Oscar's style.
Mr. Smith and his subject share a reverence for the mobster types that controlled old Vegas, and a healthy distain for the Federal Government that would stop at nothing in an attempt to convict these men that allegedly trafficked drugs, ran prostitution, operated gambling operations throughout the country, and skimmed profits from Nevada casinos. Although suspected of murder and other atrocious crimes, Goodman believes that his clients were men of honor, while those in government and their informants were rats of the worst kind.
The following paragraph from the book captures Goodman's essence:


The government hated to be upstaged or proved wrong and Goodman was not a congenial combatant. He gloated in victory, snarled in defeat, and never gave an inch. Prosecutors had been his clients' mortal enemies and that made them his enemies, too. Even after 35 years, he remained a one-man revolutionary whose deep distrust of government bordered on anarchy. Long-time observers of Goodman saw a man who would rather have thrown a bomb in the courtroom in order to make a statement than cut a deal for his client. Oscar Goodman would never go quietly into that good night.
Anarchist Oscar has become "hizzoner" having served as mayor for four years and counting, winning re-election this year with an extraordinary 86 per cent of the vote. Instead of going toe-to-toe with the government, he is the government, except the office of mayor has very little power plus the land controlled by the City of Las Vegas is relatively small compared to that controlled by the Clark County Commission. Essentially, all that a Las Vegas mayor can impact is downtown. The world famous strip, with its seemingly endless rows of corporate-controlled attractions, is located in Clark County. And, the fastest growing municipalities in the valley are Henderson and the city of North Las Vegas, each becoming a sea of stucco suburbia where the politically correct are trying to outlaw the growing of grass.
A decaying downtown is the only canvass for Goodman to paint his legacy on. He continually tries to attract a major league sports franchise to the city. He has proposed rounding up the city's homeless and shipping them to a prison in Jean, Nevada, south of Las Vegas. He insists on dictating what can and will be built on 61 acres of city-controlled land that he calls "the most valuable real estate in the United States." Although the real estate market dictates that tilt-up concrete office buildings are in demand and the most likely use for the 61 acres, Goodman will have none of it. He is holding out to make downtown Las Vegas a major league city worthy of his vision. The market be damned. Additionally, Goodman's city health and building inspectors are now aggressively working to bulldoze private property that the city considers blight.
Goodman has made the complete transition from government agitator to log-rolling politician. When the local office of the FBI was thinking of moving its offices outside the Las Vegas city limits, Goodman stepped in, delivering 5.3 acres to the U.S. Government at no charge. A new IRS building is also on the drawing board for downtown. It's hard to imagine the Oscar Goodman of twenty years ago handing land over to his archenemy.
Mayors throughout the city's recent history have partnered with developers hoping to create attractions to re-vitalize downtown. Goodman is no different. None of these projects have accomplished anything other than wasting taxpayer money.
Goodman is so popular that he was courted heavily to run against incumbent Republican governor Kenny Guinn in 2002. But, again his ego wouldn't let him run against Guinn. "Why didn't Goodman run for governor?" Smith asks, "Because he didn't want to work a smaller room under a smaller spotlight.
"He would have gone out of his mind in Carson City, where his nightlife activities of [sports] betting and Beefeater might not have been fully appreciated. For the consummate showman, giving up his starring role as Las Vegas mayor to run for governor would have been like leaving Broadway to pursue summer stock in Winnemucca."
Anyone who is fascinated with mobsters, that love The Sopranos or who enjoyed the movie Casino (Goodman played himself in the movie) will not be able to put down Of Rats and Men. Goodman was the mouthpiece for dozens of wise guys with funny nicknames, and John L. Smith chronicles the stories of all of them through the memories of Goodman and his wife Carolyn, plus a wide array of sources, both friends and foes.
What Oscar Goodman now does best is shill for the new Las Vegas, while continuing to relentlessly self-promote. As the book makes clear, the Oscar Goodman story is far from over. But, as the city has gone corporate, run by lawyers and CPA's, much of the charm of the old Las Vegas that Goodman was so much a part of, has been lost, no doubt making Goodman and his biographer very sad.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Identity Politics

11/23/16

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.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

On Will And Wilful

The Nature of Will and the Difference Between Will and Wilful 

We so often speak of will without thinking carefully about what it means even as it is such a fundamental idea in understanding ourselves. In my own thinking about will I have ultimately conceptualized it as determination in the merging of two different ideas of determination: the singling out of something as a kind of judgment as in “I have determined that…” or “it is my determination that…;” and the single minded implementation of that determined judgment.

What I have in my own mind added to that conceptualization is that that determination must struggle—the more, the greater the exercise of will—against what stands in its way. Without straining against difficulty will does not operate; it doesn’t have to because it doesn't emerge. So I would add to the second meaning of determination-- "the single minded implementation of that judgment"—"against difficulty."

That addition needs refinement. Difficulty need not be external obstacles; it may inhere in the very project which is will’s object. So if a formidable man blocks my way to my destination and I need to steel myself to the difficulty of overcoming him, that is one mode of will. If my project requires great discipline in achieving it—practice, training, rehearsal, physical effort, exertion, creative effort and the like—that is another mode of will. The first may be thought of as self against the world; the second may be thought of as self against self.

These thoughts also lead me to want, as well, to distinguish between will and willful. The latter may be understood as “the unrelenting intent on having one's own way; being headstrong, obstinate; being habitually disposed to disobedience and opposition.” Determination is common to these meanings.

The dividing line between will and willful is transgression.

Will is determination in relation to accomplishment or achievement. Willful is determination in relation to what is disapprobative. 

If every morning I get up at 5:00 am to train for a marathon, that is an exercise of will. If in the course of my morning runs I cut through my neighbor’s flower beds after having been asked not to that is willful. 


So will involves self overcoming self in doing what is difficult to a purpose; whereas willful involves self succumbing to self in wrong doing. In this sense, will and willful can be seen as antitheses

Monday, November 20, 2017

Literary Criticism As An Argument Of A Certain Kind

11/20/17

In a long past life I was literature student, and not a bad one, with thoughts of a life in academe. The whole thing got to me in the end—note the play on “end”—and I switched horses. But I read this a few years ago and like it very much. It still forms what in literary criticism is essential as I see it.

...Finally behind all that is written in this essay rests the conviction that engaged literary criticism takes a position and argues for it. It argues for what it thinks, and says so clearly and accessibly, forming what it thinks into a coherent whole. Engaged literary criticism defends its position. In the view of literature taken here—seeing from as world, from as meaning, all resonating in theme—literary criticism is most engaged, meaningful and resonant when it grapples with form as world. For that fight brings the critic to the heart of literary meaning, in which form and content are one, which is to say literary works’ very nature and essence....

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Reading of Huck Finn

11/15/17

I was thinking about Huck Finn, having finished reading it and trying to work out some seeming ambivalence about it. A brief exchange with a friend, a former professor of American literature, caused me to try to put my thoughts together. In so doing I thought past my seeming ambivalence.

Me:

....Finished Huck Finn and am left with a conflicted, mixed-feelings critical self that I’m trying to work out.

It may be that the Phelps part of the novel is the first instance of black humour in U.S. literature.

Unlikely...

Added note, here’s a view of black humour I agree with: ...the presentation of tragic, distressing, or morbid situations in humorous terms; humour that is ironic, cynical, or dry; gallows humour...

Him:

...OK, but then it is two books, not one....

 Me:

...No, or at least no not necessarily.

Huck is always sensitive to his environment: he settles in up to a point wherever he is, including with his father till the beatings become too much.

He finds a temporary idyll on the raft with Jim right after the finale of the deadly family feud and before infection by the Duke and the King.

The pitiless, savage critique of society is relentless through the novel and it encompasses those who might seem good. 

So the Phelpses are “good Christians,” well meaning within their limits, loving of family, pillars of a kind of their community, God fearing to be sure, but they harbour slaves, keep Jim chained up, perceive him as chattel, and seek the “right way” to deal with him as a piece of property. 

Tom Sawyer is of the Phelpses, of the society that finds its true meaning in deathward ways, in the portrayal of the deadly, meaningless family feud, in the portrayal of Sherburn staring down and dismissing the would be lynchers even after his cold blooded murder of the drunken fool Boggs, and in its maintaining slavery, which by the time the novel was published, mid eighteen eighties, Clemens adamantly excoriated. 

The psychological portrayal of Huck is infinitely brilliantly acute. Bonded with Jim and isolated from society with him, his best humane instincts come out, though at constant war with how he has been socially formed. As Clemens wrote:

...It shows that that strange thing, the conscience—the unerring monitor—can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it....

Clemens conveys with acute intuition that tension between Huck’s best instincts and his social formation. So, for example, not long after getting off the raft and finding the Phelps homestead to free Jim, and in the process of assuming the identity of Tom Sawyer, Huck, contriving to explain his delay in arriving, speaks of an accident on the steamer and answering whether anyone was killed says, slight paraphrase, “No’m killed a nigger.” 

Idyll gone, social formation makes its claim. And so Huck again falls under the pernicious sway of Tom Sawyer and is again ensconced, very comfortably, in the society Clemens in the novel reviles, the revulsion including that which appears nice and civilized and God fearing. 

We have for example the scabrous detail of Uncle Silas Phelps going to Jim, enchained, everyday to read the Bible to him. Tom’s wild and unknowingly evil plan to free an already free Jim is presented in bitter burlesque to pound home with relentless detail  the bottomlessly absurd cruelty of its errancy and to fulfill an intent of black humour, which is to expose to readers enjoying it, and to measure, their own deformed sensibilities.

The engine of irony, satire, sarcasm and black humour through the entirety of the novel is the abomination of slavery and racism. The reduction of the nobility of Huck and Jim at novel’s end is the apotheosis of that abomination. It devastates the society it portrays, a society that is a continuum from its degenerate dregs, its racist dregs, its murderous dregs, its inhumane dehumanizing dregs to its ostensible respectability. It’s scabrous that Miss Watson in her Will gives Jim his freedom. It may seem a good hearted act. But what underlies it and pillories it is society’s unrecognized evil in her owning him.

The loveliness of life on the raft is a temporary and magnificent dream of freedom and is a naked innocence—about all of which not enough can be said; it’s a peak of world literature—which can only have meaning isolated, apart from the dead land. Huck even within Tom’s sway at the end has some inchoate sense of this born of his experience when he declares: 

...But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before...

Saturday, November 11, 2017

More On Huck Finn In Approaching Its Last Part

11/11/17

More on Huck Finn for a sec.

In Chapter 32, Huckleberry winds up at the Phelps’s farm and takes on the identity of, first off, Tom, then in the forgivable crystallization of hard-to-believe fictional coincidence, Tom Sawyer. He keeps saying it’s easy to be Tom Sawyer and on learning that he is to be Tom Sawyer, Huck says, mild paraphrase, “I was glad to know who I am.” The references to identity are many in the Chapter.

My general idea is that all works of literature involve, maybe entail, a search for self, some searches more explicit than others. That idea is manifest in this novel. As Huck tries on various identities, as he symbolically keeps dying and arising anew, as he sheds what he tries on, as he must needs work past the likes of a Tom Sawyer to become free, as the themes of death and freedom thread through Huck Finn, so now, at the Phelps’s in planning and scheming wth Tom to free Jim, Huck’s smack in the middle of that working-past effort.

So I approach the last part of Huck Finn to test my reaction to it, to try to see whether, as has been said a lot, it comprises a cruel and disappointing anti climax after the idyllic heights Huck and Jim reach for a time or whether I can see in it scabrous indictment of what Huck comes finally to reject that is both thematically coherent and that doesn’t pit that thematic coherence against a feeling of frustration and let down, or, in a word or two, emotional incoherence.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, Ho Hum

11/9/17

I just finished John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, which I found underwhelming.

It a made a big splash in its time, 1959 and right after but I don’t see much, not anything really, about it now.

My sense is that its literary legs proved shakier than might have been thought. It seems to have faded away.

As I say, I found it meh, and diffuse, yeah diffuse, that’s the word that comes to my mind about it, too spread out, not that much that was that affecting. But hey, that’s just me.

A Mere Few Words On Huck Finn

11/9/17

On Huck Finn:

I’m thinking that Huck and Jim, on finding each after the terrible Grangerford Shepherdson climax of violence, reach innocent, idyllic heights on the raft, away from the dead land:

...It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened- Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many....

But then the dead lands brings them “Bilgewater” and the Dauphin and paradise is lost.

I can say this without a doubt: Huckleberry Finn is my favorite character in literature. I’m unable to put into words my sheer pleasure in hearing him talk to me.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

On Whether To Teach Huck Finn As Written Or At All

11/5/17

Another thing about Huck Finn: that’s whether there’s a need to not teach the book or at a minimum whether “nigger”should be excised and replaced by (say) “slave.”

Of course I understand how the many times “nigger”appears and how blacks are portrayed are extremely offensive or can be. 

But should for that reason this masterpiece of world literature not be taught or not taught as written by Twain? 

I can see the argument for it not being taught or “nigger” bowdlerized. 

But in my judgment the argument is wrong and misses how precisely studying Huck Finn is at the essence of what it means to be liberally educated. 

For if there ever was an American great work of fiction that savages systemic racism, scorns the status of slavery, and indicts viciously and excoriates with literary finesse and fury too the society that enables and perpetuates these poisons, it’s Huck Finn. The novel, in one way of putting it, traces with deep and pervasive irony Huck’s emergence from the impact of these poisons to come to their redemptive rejection. 

So readers of all cultures and races and beliefs as they read, study and are taught Huck Finn should, I’d think, emerge from their initial shock from, repugnance with, and understandable reflexive reaction against the novel with a deeper, educated consciousness and appreciation of Huck’s emergence and what it means thematically. 

I’d think that with that journey from book’s beginning to its end, with that education out of first and maybe reflexive reactions and presumptions with all the stress and discomfort they may well cause we have a microcosm for what a liberal ought do among other things. And in this particular journey, Huck’s vernacular, his attitudes, the way black slaves are depicted are but a huge aspect of the novel’s brilliance and are essential thematically. For they depict with concrete,  pungent and realistic brilliance Huck’s world and they set with equal brilliance and psychological acuity the terms of from what he emerges. In this they amplify the power of that emergence. 

So in my view that’s what’s to be gained from studying and teaching the novel as written and what’s to be lost by not. The issue seems to me a test case for what a liberal education ought to be. 

In the same way, Jewish, I welcome the teaching of (say) The Merchant of Venice even as Shylock falls from his thundering Old Testament heights to being sent away like a defeated and servile dog or David Copperhead/Field, whatever, even as Fagan as a figure of looming effeminate unreserved evil gets no redemption and effectively and obnoxiously embodies Dickens’s anti semitism. And I welcome them not as in Huck Finn, where a redemptive vision emerges, but because like Huck Finn they are world class works of literature whose power overwhelms their anti semitism in deciding whether they should be taught.

Further On Rereading Huck Finn

11/5/17

On rereading Huck Finn

I’m rereading Huck Finn. I’m at the start of the Grangerford Shepherdson feud.

I’m thinking about everything as I go.

Among much, much else, I’m struck by Huck’s native wit, by how well he knows natural signs, by how cunning, inventive and shrewd he is, by how shrewd and intuitive a judge he is of human nature, by his practical wisdom, by how intensely reflective and thoughtful he is, by how deeply and unflinchingly honest he is with himself, how he chews and chews over issues and what troubles him till he works out some balance among his thoughts, his judgments, his emotions and his conscience, how in all that he is caught between elusive human truths of what’s basically right and wrong, mostly coming from Jim and his growing-deeper relationship with him, and the conventions that have formed him. 

I’m struck too by how Tom Sawyer as the embodiment of confinement by convention with his derivative false escapes from them has Huck in his power and how Huck, modest and learning about himself and the world, underestimates himself by giving Tom Sawyer too much sway over him. And I’m struck by how when Huck expresses his intense need to get away from his degenerate father he says with seeming equal urgency that he must as well get away from life with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson.

One thing I’ve been particularly turning over in my mind is Huck’s and Jim’s disagreement over Solomon’s reputed great wisdom, which is Huck’s view, and over why Frenchman don’t speak English.

Needless to say, there are many ironies running through both disagreements. Huck, 13 and somewhat educated, relies on conventional wisdom, scriptural authority and a certain amount of credentialism, Miss Watson, the Widow Douglas, and offers the example of Solomon proposing to slice a disputed over child in half to settle who is its actual parent. 

Jim argues that Solomon must have too many children such that one less means little and that what he ought to have done is go around and check with witnesses, those in the know, as to whom is the true parent. 

So Jim misses the more abstract point, as Huck complains he does, and Huck can see neither the virtue nor force of Jim’s literal and practical reasoning and dismisses Jim’s argument by saying in effect that being black he’s some form of lesser being who just can’t be reasoned with. 

Huck also argues that just as (say) cats and dogs “speak” differently so do Englishmen and Frenchmen. Jim replies, through some tough cross examination type questioning of Huck, that cats aren’t dogs and dogs aren’t cats but that Englishmen and Frenchmen are men and, so, should speak the same language.  Huck then essentially resorts to the same dismissal of Jim’s argument. 

In these exchanges, I don’t think all wisdom lies with Jim, though plenty of it does. Each is missing something of what the other has. Huck misses Jim’s plain stated and wise literalism that makes so much practical and elemental sense and Jim misses such learning as Huck has and being able to see past what is literally so.

So there is I think a complex epistemological theme, if that’s not too grand to say, working through the novel. It can’t be, I shouldn’t think, that through the disagreement over all men speaking the same Twain means to suggest, rather piously, that we all are brothers and sisters and language differences drive that simple truth apart. That’s a hopelessly abstracted and naive utopian view that in essence denies the force and richness of culture. 

I’d argue that what undermines any notion that Twain entertains this simple minded piety are the amazing richness of human difference and the near to infinite and amazing variety of human particularity that make up the novel as they come to be seen through Huck’s growing discernment and expression in narration. That all is a richness simply beyond the likes of Jim, taking nothing away from him since the force of his elemental truths and his wise and common decency stand shoulder to shoulder with all the more somewhat abstract and symbolic expanses of the world that emerge from Huck.

A long time ago I argued—against the then prevailing critical consensus that the novel’s final part is flawed in so reducing Jim given his natural aristocracy and freedom on the raft to the service of one more of Tom Sawyer’s at play schemes—that the last portion isn't  flawed and that an intended scabrous and savage indictment flows from it. 

I then over the years gave up that seeming interpretive ghost and tended to fall into the consensus view. Now I hear the music of my old idea playing softly but with increasing pitch as I reread. 

We’ll see. 

Or at least I’ll see.

Friday, November 3, 2017

A Narrow Note On The Meaning Of Sexual Harassment

11/3/17

A question on the meaning of sexual harassment:

Here’s a typical definition of it plucked from no site in particular on the web:

.... Definition of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when either:

The conduct is made as a term or condition of an individual's employment, education, living environment or participation in a University community.

The acceptance or refusal of such conduct is used as the basis or a factor in decisions affecting an individual's employment, education, living environment, or participation in a University community.

The conduct unreasonably impacts an individual's employment or academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for that individual's employment, education, living environment, or participation in a University community....

My question turns on the phrase “when either” in the third line of the definition and is, to be precise, why so limit it? 

It’s a phrase of limitation, saying in effect the general opening definition ONLY occurs “when either....

I understand that in certain areas of the law “sexual harassment” is a term of art and it may be that the quoted  definition, which doesn’t seem atypical of Internet definitions, at least from a quick search, tries to incorporate into a general definition those specific instances.


But I’d think an improved definition would omit “when either” and replace it with “examples of which include...”

A Note On Trump’s “Mitigation Evidence” For Bergdahl

11/3/17

But why was what Trump said in characterizing Bergdahl and what punishment he wished for him “mitigation evidence” for Bergdahl?

from Noah Rothman:

.... Divorcing this decision from the politics of the matter is impossible. Bergdahl’s attorneys insisted that their client’s case should be dismissed outright because Donald Trump had attacked the defendant on the campaign trail as a “dirty, rotten traitor” who should face execution. They argued that Trump interfered in the process, but the motion was dismissed. The presiding judge, Army Col. Jeffery R. Nance, said he felt no pressure from the White House to deliver a harsher sentence. Quite the opposite, in fact. On October 30, Nance appeared to imply that his sentencing would send a message to the president. “I will consider the president’s comments as mitigation evidence as I arrive at an appropriate sentence,” he said....

I take mitigating evidence to be evidence that logically goes to lessening the severity of a sentence such as it being a first offense, or the accused being youthful or manipulated, or otherwise exemplary and so on. 

So the evidence is of factors or circumstances that create some sympathetic understanding for the accused and may go to soften the harshness of the crime, or that may add some weight of overall mitigating understanding. And thus this evidence can lead to the leavening of sentence.

Therefore, the answer I come up with to my own question is that Judge Nance reasoned that in his excoriating public humiliation Bergdahl suffered and suffers a lot. Trump’s comments, carrying with them the force, authority and power, such as they may be in his case, of the American presidency, served extraordinarily to magnify that public humiliation and therefore Bergdahl’s suffering and were, therefore, effectively some punishment. As such, they could be considered in weighing what was an appropriate sentence, and in departing from what otherwise might have been a harsher sentence.


In this, if so, in what he wished on Bergdahl, then surely Trump hung himself by his own words as they created the result opposite from what he said he wanted.

Monday, October 30, 2017

On Beginning To Reread Huck Finn

10/30/17

Can anyone disagree with this?

I’ve just started rereading my favourite novel, which, unlike (say) Don Quixote, is an effortless pleasure to read from first word to last, and which, like Don Quixote though in different ways, is a work of world class great literature.

In fact, I note that when Huck and Twain pooh pooh “the books” Tom Sawyer cites as authority for his claims about what’s proper for “high toned” gangs of marauding murderers to do, he names Don Quixote as one such book. 

So there’s no question I’m rereading Huck Finn. The point up for disagreement is whether it’s as great as I claim. By the way, one aspect of its greatness is the magnificent evocation of Huck by means of his “voice,” voice being a metaphor for how he emerges for us as we “listen” to him by his narration. 

For example:

.... Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he WAS most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, ME. I couldn't get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn't rest; I couldn't stay still in one place. It hadn't ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn't to blame, because I didn't run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn't no use, conscience up and says, every time, "But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody." That was so—I couldn't get around that noway. That was where it pinched....


I get such a shiver of pleasure when I listen to Huck talk to me. Though different of course, but it happens that get the same shiver of pleasure when I listen to Bobby Bland sing.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Brief Note On The Hound Of The Baskervilles

10/29/17

A brief note on an important thematic aspect of The Hound Of The Baskervilles:

When early in it , Dr. Mortimer asks Holmes and Watson, basically Holmes, for advice given the Baskervilles’ curse, it seemingly having taken the life of Sir Charles, it begins Conan Doyle’s theme of the natural, essentially cause and effect, as against the supernatural defiance of cause and effect. 

Mortimer has in fact concluded that a marauding, killing hound on the moor is supernatural. Given that judgment, and with Sir Henry arriving to take over the Baskerville estate, Mortimer at the outset of the novel principally wants to ask Holmes what he, Mortimer, ought do with Sir Henry. He doesn’t retain Holmes to resolve the mystery, which by definition aren’t resolvable, at least true ones aren’t. 

From Holmes's point of view, every set of clues points toward a logical, real- world solution. Considering the supernatural explanation, Holmes considers all natural explanations, implicitly rejecting anything else. Sherlock Holmes personifies the intellectual's faith in logic, on examining evidence and moulding them into facts to find answers.

That vindicated faith gets enhanced by elements in the novel from the Gothic tradition, which highlights the bizarre and unexplained. The mysterious hound, the dark brooding mood, the unexplained grisly deaths, the Baskervilles’ long standing family curse, even the dark mysteries hovering around Baskerville Hall add up to a Gothic mystery, which, at book’s end, succumbs to Holmes' deductions. They consist of drawing inferences from evidence formed into facts, reasoning from information to conclusions, all in vindication of the ineluctable relation between cause and effect, in  precise disaffirmation of the supernatural.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

On The March, E.L. Doctorow’s

10/21/17

I said that I’d finished Doctorow’s The March and didn’t love it. It’s gotten across the board good reviews. I went looking for something that said what I was feeling, being too lazy to think it through myself. I came across this. I don’t agree with it all but it gets at some of what I feel, especially this paragraph—you should forgive the repetition: 

....But I, for one, find some of these portrayals to be only a few cuts above what is to be found in Gone With the Wind and especially found the novel's conclusion--in which the feisty mulatto Pearl and the Irish infantryman Stephen Walsh ride off to a life together in New York, a life in which they will presumably overcome the obvious obstacles to such a match as existed in 1865 and after--to be patently sentimental, a transparent attempt to leave us with a little democratic idealism to leaven the story of violence and destruction.....

... The March 
by Daniel Green

It is perhaps now a little hard to comprehend just how unsettling E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime seemed at the time of its publication (1975). Not exactly a historical novel--it seems designed to question the very utility of historical "fact" in our consideration of the past--it nevertheless produces a vivid if subjective rendition of the ragtime era by juxtaposing purely fictional characters with actual historical figures who are in turn treated as if they were fictional characters. 

Considerable liberty is taken with the historical record, and the result is a novel that not only fictionalizes history but suggests that, as far as the novelist is concerned, history might just as well be fiction. Whereas much of the self-reflexive, "postmodern" fiction of the time called attention to the artifice of fiction-making in order to reinforce the separation of fiction and reality, Ragtime seemed to propose that, for the literary imagination, the two realms are really quite permeable. (Robert Coover's The Public Burning would do the same thing two years later.)

Doctorow's undercutting of the reality/fiction divide has proven to be very influential, to the point that we are no longer much taken aback when a writer injects apparent "fact" into what is otherwise called a fiction--even putative facts about the author him/herself, as in Ellis's Lunar Park or Harry Mathews's My Life in CIA, in which "Brett Easton Ellis" and "Harry Mathews" are the "fictional" protagonists. 

Nor are we particularly struck by historical fictions that are not merely set in the past or attempt to recreate periods in the past, but use historical personages as "characters." Doctorow himself went on to write other novels more or less in this mode, such as World's Fair and Billy Bathgate, but eventually he has come to seem more interested in simply re-creating the past through what are finally the usual conventions of historical fiction.

The March, Doctorow's latest novel, is cut comfortably from these conventional patterns. Although the novel presumes to depict William Tecumseh Sherman in ways that must at times extrapolate from the historical record--what was Sherman thinking at this precise moment during his infamous March to the Sea?--it is otherwise a fairly straightforward account of his march through Georgia and the Carolinas. 

Although the narrative shifts kaleidoscopically among various groups of characters participating in the march, this is ultimately just a way of giving the story a properly comprehensive sense of historical realism. All of the characters portrayed in the novel are no doubt representative of the cross-section of human types involved in this important historical event.

In his review of The March, John Freeman perhaps gets at the heart of what Doctorow is trying to accomplish: "While the details of Sherman's lethal procession are well-known today, time seems to have forgotten the human angle. Sure, property was destroyed, but how were the Union troops greeted? Did they proceed with guilt? Did they pause before burning cities to the ground? Did the recently emancipated slaves really believe this fire-breathing beast was their conductor to the Promised Land?" 

Providing the "human angle" on Sherman's march would seem to be the novel's primary goal, answering these and many other questions that can't necessarily be resolved simply by consulting the history books. It is itself an attempt to become a history book one might ultimately consult along with all the others for that "human" touch only it can offer.

And in its way, The March achieves this goal reasonably well. It's readable enough, its fragmentary form realized with the skill one would expect of a writer of Doctorow's caliber, its characters lively enough to sustain interest over the course of a novel featuring such a large cast, although not all of the characters resist becoming merely illustrative of the category--freed slave, disillusioned plantation wife, irascible Rebel soldier--their presence is meant to personify. 

Perhaps it is true, as Walter Kirn says in his review of the novel, that "When the subject is as large and old as war, the pursuit of pristine originality can thin a story down to nothing" and that "To get through such tales aesthetically unscathed is a finicky, slightly cowardly objective that works against basic honesty and passion.”

 But I, for one, find some of these portrayals to be only a few cuts above what is to be found in Gone With the Wind and especially found the novel's conclusion--in which the feisty mulatto Pearl and the Irish infantryman Stephen Walsh ride off to a life together in New York, a life in which they will presumably overcome the obvious obstacles to such a match as existed in 1865 and after--to be patently sentimental, a transparent attempt to leave us with a little democratic idealism to leaven the story of violence and destruction.

Putting aside its flaws in execution, however, I am most disappointed in The March because it does nothing to provoke me out of my indifference toward historical fiction that simply tries to "bring history to life." 

One can accept the axiom that such fiction is always finally about the present as much as the past--in The March, about the origins of our continuing racial conflicts, about recovery from a great national trauma--and still think that this novel at best rehearses platitudes but otherwise does very little to alter our understanding either of the Civil War or of the lingering issues whose lack of resolution has plagued American life since then. 

I could easily warm up to a kind of historical fiction that either upsets our established notions about historical subjects or that questions accepted practices of historical representation (as did Ragtime). Unfortunately, The March does neither. Perhaps in the long run it adds something of marginal interest to a consideration of the Doctorow oeuvre (especially by those more interested in history than in literature), but since Doctorow's sociopolitical thematic concerns are by now quite well known, the appearance of this novel seems to me, at least, mostly superfluous.