Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Third Brief Note On To Kill A Mockingbird


I'm at the point in To Kill A Mocking Bird where it's just after Atticus has lost the rape case.

(I have no idea as to how the eventual appeal turns out. I don't remember that from the movie, or if the movie even deals with an appeal.)

One thing of interest to me was my initial sense of the possibility of an unreal saintliness in Atticus to the point of caricature. There have been things he's said and done in his ultra sage raising of his kids that have tended to drive me round the bend with his excess of wisdom and goodliness.

But his losing the trial and his marked world weariness after it are quite humanizing as is too his quietly competent trying of Tom Robinson's defence. No Perry Mason, no flashing legal brilliance, no legal miracles, just, rather, a hard working, diligent, undramatically effective, committed, conscientious and totally human defence counsel facing impossibly long cultural odds. 

Pretty good that.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Second Set Of Thoughts On To Kill A Mockingbird

I'm just at the point at which the repressed, imperious  aunt has moved in for a spell and is trying to suppress everybody else, inflicting her life denying snobbery, classism, racism, and "manners" on our poor Finches, including Atticus who's engaged in an eternal struggle within himself in how to deal with his minor monster of a sister. The point is made by Jean Louise narrating from an adult distance how in all her imperious negation Alexandra makes for a perfect fit with Maycomb and it with her. 

The argument between Atticus and Alexandra about her wanting to get rid of Calpurnia, which Atticus calmly disposes of without high emotion of any kind, not even a hint of intemperateness, add another notch to the gun-handle of his seeming saintliness. 

But when he makes Jean Louise apologize after she rightly and righteously lashes out at Alexandra for piping up that she, Jean Louise, "certainly cannot visit Calpurnia at her home," paraphrase, intoning in that opinion everything that is wrong with her and the attitudes she typifies, we may be seeing the first chink in the armour of his saintliness, a too ready inclination to bow down before, or at least give in to even by merely putting up with,  all that Alexandran negation. 

Same touch of human failure when he comes onto Jem and Jean Louise to deliver the Alexandran directed sermon as to how these kids must understand their superior Finch lineage and live up to it, not down from it as they have been, as Alexandra sees it. 

Conflicted and taken out of himself, against his own inclinations, Atticus delivers this sermon, shocking his kids into thinking their world has been turned upside down, that everything they've been taught and how they've lived are wrong and must be corrected, and shocked and made panicky and tearful at the thought that they have "lost" their father. 

Thankfully, in an instant it all passes. They know they have him back as Atticus of old, back to himself, as he tells them they should forget what he just told him. Here's another rare display of something transitorily weak and indeterminate, therefore human, therefore psychologically rounded and more real, in Atticus.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Some Initial And Interim Thoughts On To Kill A Mockingbird


I'm approaching the 1/3d mark of To Kill A Mockingbird.

A few interim thoughts.

Why not?

I generally know the story and saw the movie quite some time ago. So I do have a few preconceptions I'm trying to keep in check. And I'm not looking at any reviews or criticism as I read. My responses are straight from what I've read so far. I'm seeing something quite wonderful and one thing in particular that is raising some doubt.

The wonderful part so far, first 1/3d, is the portrayal of childhood in a particular setting, a small Alabama town seething right at its surface with racism, backwardness, violence and white trash. Foreboding is in the air as childhood innocence slowly recedes.  

A few things occur to me as to what makes the portrayal so vividly and beautifully affecting. One is that the first person telling is framed by Jean Louise as an adult recounting her young years simultaneously from the perspective of how she took in things back then, including her thoughts and words in her own young kid words merged with her adult understanding and explanations of that understanding in her own grown up thoughts and words. 

Another is how Lee so sharply delineates Jean Louise, Jem and Dill too, making them come alive in the consistent particularity of each with all their childish behaving and misbehaving and talk. What is remarkable is how Lee seems to penetrate the essence of what it means to be 6 or 7 or 12, in this place at this time as revealed in these kids' playing, their deviltry, their wonder, their incipient strengths, their weaknesses, their hard and growing education in the ways the world goes, and their experiences with others, relatives, elderly neighbours, other kids, and principally of course with Atticus. 

Calling him "Atticus" rather than "Dad" or "Father" seems a perfect touch, consistent with him being an older father, 50, both righteous and slightly world weary, a little bit detached yet warm and loving too. It's amazing how without saying so Lee makes us feel the absence of a mother in Jean Louise's and Jem's lives, makes us feel what it's like for them to live only with their relatively elderly and only slightly starchy father. His kids calling him "Atticus" conveys so much of all this.

Enhancing this seeming penetration of the essence of their childhood are two things at least (among others I'm sure): one is the detailed, concrete sense of place, local colour, revealed in virtually every sentence; and what makes that revelation striking among other things is the unerring use of language to convey this sense of place, the colloquialisms, the tropes--the poetry of them, the formalities and informalities in the ways of speaking, the idioms, the manner, forms and rhythms of southern speech, all of it adding up to a particularly identifiable and believable sensibility and world, making, in short, setting resonant in language. 

....Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum...

One aspect of that resonance is the mixture of high sounding elegant language with the all the informalities, the colloquialisms ungrammaticalnesses, ain'ts" for one instance, and such. I'm reminded of Huck Finn's use of the verb "commence" as in (say) "I commenced to wonderin,'" such a peculiar and resonant Southern phrasing, fusing the high sounding with the slightly ungrammatical, informal and contracted, each setting the other off to form a vividly perfect phrase. To Kill A Mockingbird is filled with these kinds of locutions.

My one seed of doubt is the portrayal of Atticus. He's, so far, so idealized and so filled with such mighty rectitude, sympathy, empathy (and all the other good thies), compassion, wisdom, patience, wry humour, strength, and all like that, with no discernible chinks in his upright, righteous armour that he's verging on caricature, on the utterly and rather unbelievably saintly. I'm not rushing to this judgment. It's but a gnawing partially formed sense that I'll keep an internal tab on.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A Supplementary Note On The Mayor Of Casterbridge

In response to comments from a friend:

Phil it's only circumstantial that I spent time on EJ. Sometimes when I want to write a note that tries to say something short but synoptic about a novel, I "reverse engineer" it by starting with the ending, where all threads come together or purposefully fray or do some of both and then go backwards, so to say, from there. 

EJ's a major minor character who quietly changes over the course of the story and who as you say functions as an ongoing contrast to what are Henchard's big down, big ups then big downs. It's not insignificant that Hardy ends with her thoughts and viewpoints in a vision of burgher contentment laced with trepidation and hints of subversion of her own seemingly settled resolution.

I both do and don't see her and Farfrae as harbingers of something modern, rationally systematic and smaller than larger than life. Of course it is evident in for example Farfrae's modernizing and systemizing what Henchard sloppily, intuitively and by dint of overweening will does in the way of business and in Farfrae's application of science and use of new machinery. And there is something admirable but inhuman in his near perfect ability to reason out not after all to seek vengeance on the low lifes who caused Lucetta's death but didn't intend to. 

There is some romance in the notion that Henchard larger than life is a figure of the past whose like we will not see again. Yet while, as I say, there is an element of that, I don't totally see it. I see, too, a complicated, massively strong man, a force of nature, who exists in paradoxical relation to everyone in the novel by reason of his outsizedness and to us as readers too. He's not, I'd argue, something, a phenomenon, that has passed by, forever gone. The theme of him, in his outsizedness, could apply, I may read Hardy to imply, in any variety of human settings, including what the, to those times, new age heralds and as you acutely note.

I like your last paragraph a lot. It gets at differences between Henchard and Farfrae both rhetorically and substantively more aptly and penetratingly than did I in my note. I'm not, though, seeing the "sacrifice" exactly, insofar as that suggests some wilful act by Farfrae. Henchard by reason of his nature is completely the cause of his own undoing, I think. And as we will always have our natures, our human natures, Henchards will always be amongst us, troubled, charismatic, forces unto themselves that lesser others circle around even as they may survive better and prosper, not flame out. 

Finally it's been a pleasure reading your comments and thinking about them. And making this small response to them. They have already deepened my sense of the novel, adding layers to what I had begun to think about it.

So I thank ye for that.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Few Unresearched Thoughts On The Mayor Of Casterbridge


A few unresearched thoughts on The Mayor Of Casterbridge:

Elizabeth Jane after regretting her final coldness to and rejection of Henchard reaches some equipoise and calm in her life. That her regret and guilt are short lived is due in part to her understanding that Henchard, apart from cruelly and selfishly keeping her real father, Newson, from her, is not of her blood and is in the way of blood a stranger to her save for how circumstances forged a temporary and false relation between them.

At novel's end she finds herself in a "latitude of calm weather" and "...doubly so after the Capharnaum in which some of her preceding years had been spent." So her discovery of an actual blood relation, her father, who finally chooses to live in a town nearby so that, old salt that he is, he can see the sea yet still be close enough to his daughter, contributes as much to her final equanimity as her escape from the darkness of a false and fraught relation with Henchard.

Yet her final attitude to Henchard is balanced and fitting.

While she finally moves past the darkness he had created for her, and while she at first, in her last acts towards him, coldly rebuffs him, all that she has gone through with him thinking he was her father registers in her regret and proaction in acting on her regret. She tries to find him after she at last understands the provenance of the dead goldfinch at the bottom of the bird-cage:

....When her husband came in she told him her solution of the bird-cage mystery; and begged Donald to help her in finding out, as soon as possible, whither Henchard had banished himself, that she might make her peace with him; try to do something to render his life less that of an outcast, and more tolerable to him. Although Farfrae had never so passionately liked Henchard as Henchard had liked him, he had, on the other hand, never so passionately hated in the same direction as his former friend had done, and he was therefore not the least indisposed to assist Elizabeth-Jane in her laudable plan....

She understands Henchard well enough to see his Will reflecting the man he was: "She knew the directions to be a piece of the same stuff that his whole life was made of, and hence were not to be tampered with to give herself a mournful pleasure, or her husband credit for large-heartedness." And so she obeys its austere strictures.

Her final being at peace with herself derives from the happiness she has found in marriage to Farfrae, her discovery of her true father, her relief at her emergence from what had been a certain kind of darkly veiled life imposed upon her, her largeness of spirt that has her try to do justice to what had been for years a kind of filial relation to  Henchard. That doing justice involves knowing him well enough to do in the end, his end, what he has willed, and involves, too, the good mature sense finally to leave in the past what has passed, that past containing no turpitude that will haunt her and that she must always answer to.

In this, in her innocence, in her passivity later evolving to a certain temperate strength, she differs from Henchard, whose demons, essentially comprised by his overpowering and unflinching singularity, selfishness, pride and wilfulness, allow him no peace even as they coexist with some instinct for compassion, with longing for fellowship and relationship, and with outbreaks of resolve to do good and their sudden breaches.

Henchard, however, cannot deny or surmount his own nature. So even when he has achieved some temporary respite from himself in his reconciliation with Elizabeth Jane, feels sympathy for her, is tender and solicitous towards her, he is as much as anything else prompted by his fear of losing her, is irritated by what seem to him signs of her profligacy with her expensive new muff and the profusion of new books in her room, is jealous of what is evidently growing between her and Farfrae and, ultimately, is utterly deceitful and life-denying in telling Newson that she died some years ago.

With Elizabeth Jane's calmness so derived, come her insights into the nature of her fortunate being in the world. What are at first excitement and enthusiasm in marriage settle into "equable serenity."  The key to her ongoing contentment  is to enlarge to an extent possible the bits of pleasure that come to most save those in complete pain. Elizabeth Jane understands that enlarging these specks of satisfaction in life are as inspiring as is the cursory embrace of "wider interests." (The oddness of this insight as conveyed by the narrator is not to be overlooked or gainsaid. It contains some seeds of its own subversion for reasons I'll soon set out.)

Her insights do contain for her their own liberating dynamism, allowing her a healthy indifference to how she is seen by rich and by poor. Rather, she is quietly thankful for her good lot in life, quietly thankful because demonstrativeness is both not in her nature and is at odds with what she has learned of the world: life is too sorrowful for effusion even when one's lot, as has Elizabeth Jane's, turns out (at least for a time) well.

Rather, what is wanted is an understanding that chance can visit anyway it chooses and that all are subject to contingency for good and for ill. None deserve any less than what has been accorded them even as many deserve more. Elizabeth Jane is in the end full of wonder at how chance and contingency have blessed her even as when younger she saw, felt and thought that, in the novel's last words, "...happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain."

Yet for all her new found equanimity, I find that a tension exists between these life calming insights and the inescapable shadow cast by Henchard's towering stature, even when he is reduced and broken at the end. The resoluteness of his will evident in his Will reminds us for all his good and greater ill, for all his strength and greater weakness, for all his continual resolve and its continual  breaking, reminds us, that is to say, what a towering figure he has been and perhaps, and this would be my argument, how pallid and colourless in comparison are all the others, including those notably admirable and good like Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane.

They and all the others are passionless pale shadows next to Henchard's strengths, despondent weaknesses, massive flaws, and utter humanness writ large. If the others are life, if Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane's marriage is life as happiness and contentment, if Elizabeth Jane's final understandings, insights and due behaviour, balanced and measured, reflect  a kind of golden mean, a moral, then I say, and I'd argue, Henchard is larger than life.

In the explosions of his life, his fall, rise and fall, capped off by his final indomitable yet selfless will as writ in his Will, abrim with self-unforgiving, austere rectitude, signing his name to direct his ultimate namelessness, exists a man beyond, in a Nietzschean way, life that is smaller than larger than life, beyond burgher life, beyond Elizabeth Jane's balancing final insights. These insights seem in contrast to the explosions of his life, lighting up then darkening down this novel, bromidic.

In these contrasts, explosions against pallidity, do I see the essence of this novel, which gives what its title promises: a story about The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Trey Gowdy v Kamala Harris

What Harris is doing precedes her going back in our moment to for example the Bork hearings. That said, it's interesting to contrast Gowdy as a committee questioner with Harris, both former prosecutors. She's smart and tough with well thought out questions meant to make an ideological point. So is he. But I sense he was a better trial lawyer than she was including being a more adroit cross examiner. He's certainly more impressive than her in legislative oversight work. One reason why is that her impetuous questioning, not allowing time for an answer, asking open ended questions that need more than a yes or no, but interrupting the answer being given to the point of her being chastised and constrained, overwhelms signs of her skill. But Gowdy is patient, asks closed, thought out questions that yield only a yes or no, and goes on unruffled to make clear points and get clear concessions damaging to the side represented by the examinee. As I see this moment's legislators doing this kind of work, examining witnesses, Trey Gowdy stands out as the best. And mine is entirely a non ideological observation.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Bob Dylan's Nobel Speech


I just listened to, while I read, Bob Dylan's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in which he tries to connect his song writing to literature. It has lightly heard and unobtrusive piano accompaniment. 

I liked it a lot and think in a deep way I understand him, having spent a good chunk of my music listening and reading life having listened to the kind of roots music he immersed himself in after hearing a Leadbelly record maybe the day after Buddy Holly died, who he and I both love too, and spent it reading many of the same books. 

What he's talking about is typified in the Smithsonian Folkways American Roots Collection for one example or in Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music for another, the unseen republic. 

Dylan talks about how the themes from Moby Dick, All Quiet On The Western Front and The Odyssey find their way into his songs as he got past the vocabulary of the folk songs he learned. He got past it to write songs in his own way.

I think he connected his song writing to literature well and in a particular way, and it's the way most people hear and read songs, poems and stories, which is to say in ways that connect to their common but deeply felt experiences, and I think it is good and fitting that he won the Nobel Prize.

One disagreement: encapsulated by Dylan saying meaning is not so important as hearing the beauty of lyrics or hearing an overall story or taking in the large themes, or all these together, that--here's the precise encapsulation--for an example he gives, Shakespeare is meant to be seen on stage not read as a text whilst pouring over its meaning. 

I'm guessing that that's what Shakespeare intended. But his intention in this is irrelevant: his works aren't his anymore; he's dead; they're his audience's. Seeing them performed, reading them closely aren't exclusive. If poetry isn't amenable to understanding, to paraphrase, to why did Donne say that this way, then it's sounds, images and rhythms of compelling qualities but meaningless.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wonder Woman


I broke a promise to myself. 

What promise?

Never to pay to see any blockbuster superhero crap unless maybe I was taking a kid to the movies. 

But my wife mentioned she wanted to something superheroish, and that and all the foofara about Gal Gadot, who I had to tell to stop calling me, poor obsessed kid, and about the movie as a feminist statement (as if) blah blah blah overcame my self insistence to give superheroes and heroines a wide berth.

We went to see it tonight and I regretted it. Lots of sensational effects, a gorgeous lead actress, a story of sorts, a puerile theme. All in all, it wasn't for me. I'd rather see a 83' quiet black and white French film about a 16 year old boy losing his virginity to his best friend's mother or some such, with a lot of talking and prosaic coming and going.

Seeing the movie reminds me of something I have tucked away in my mind: in Toronto, as in other fair sized cities, you can pay hundreds of dollars to go see mind numbing musicals and other such mediocre stuff. But, in contrast, on Saturday afternoons at the Pilot Tavern on Cumberland Street just on the outer eastern edge of Yorkville or at the Rex on Queen Street East, both for free, though you'll likely order a beer or two, maybe some food as well, but maybe not, you can see and hear some of the the best jazz and blues musicians in Canada, some being world class. 

That's what Wonder Woman reminded me of, the difference between paying money to see loud blaring effects, all kinds of sensational craft but having no aesthetic, sensual or emotional depth, just sensational noise and images, and seeing something without anything sensational in it, without a lot of staged hullabaloo, but that has in it something insightful, or thoughtful, or moving, or funny, or stirring, or outrageous, or satirical, or sexy, or romantic, or tragic, or one or more of eight thousand other qualities that might be encapsulated by the word human. 

Not to get too censorious but Wonder Woman seems to me an instance of us amusing ourselves to death, (or at least to a bad cold.)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Paraphrase Against Interpretation

As said to an interlocutor:

....So, I don't think you've oversimplified anything. Rather, don't get a swelled head, you've vividly made your case. We're agreed, I think we are, that every paraphrase is an interpretation but not every interpretation is a paraphrase, even as I'd say some interpretations are paraphrases. 

Concise definitions of the two words are:

Paraphrase: express the meaning of (the writer or speaker or something written or spoken) using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity...

Interpretation: ...the action of explaining the meaning of something...

So, express the meaning against explain the meaning. 

Another example plucked from the Internet:

This above all, to thine own self be true. 

Most important, be true to yourself. (paraphrase) 

Shakespeare believes that the most important loyalty a person can have is to his or her own self. (Interpretation) 

To go to the second example first, the distinction there seems to be without a difference, just a few more words to say the same thing. 

But in your example, your "explanation" includes an insight into the relation and connection between the energies of political revolution and the spiritedness of youth. This insight illuminates part of the meaning of those lines in at least two ways that their paraphrase can't reach: it elucidates implied meeting, which paraphrase in its nature doesn't; and it explains these lines' meaning contextually by drawing out their meaning as they relate to the rest of the poem, which paraphrase in its nature can't reach.

So, your example makes clear that once the core of interpretation as explanation is fixed, then the latitude of what can comprise it takes it when it's evident in those widths, lengths and depths beyond expression as the core of paraphrase. 

Btw, it strikes me that an insupportable interpretation makes that point too. An interpretation not at all justifiable by the text, astride from the text,  is still an interpretation. And when it's that it's a country mile from a paraphrase.

Seen so, their difference now turns out, to my mind, not to be that fuzzy even as they can overlap...

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Note On Walter Kirn's Blood Will Out


On Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn

Ok, on what I've quickly looked at, I'm a lonely voice. 

All reviews I read are enthusiastic about Walter Kirn's Blood Will Out, which is a wonderfully written, insightful, self revealing account of his relationship with convicted murderer, sociopath, con man--maybe Gatsby like, but not really, he never springs from his platonic conception of himself, but Kirn seems to think the analogy holds--Clark Rockefeller, one of his assumed identities as one of *the* Rockefellers and what Kirn calls him. 

Kirn flits in and out of his 15 year friendship with  Rockefeller, and spends a big chunk of the book's time wondering how he could have been taken in by him for so long. The book's latter portion concerns Kirn's attendance at Rockefeller's murder trial. Kirn pivots off the trial to revisit the long friendship from the angle of now knowing the truth about Rockefeller. Kirn sees now so much of what he missed before and wonders why and how he did.

Kirn's a smart fellow, graduate of Princeton and Oxford. His self examination leads to some understanding of how Rockefeller sucked him in, which I boil down to Kirn willing himself to believe that Rockefeller is indeed one of *the* Rockefellers so that their friendship is a ticket for Kirn inside the inner chambers of American aristocracy. 

The problem (for me at least) is how obvious it is, hindsight notwithstanding, simply from reading a bit in Kirn about Rockefeller, of whom before this I only had passing knowledge, what an utter phoney he is, how full of bullshit he is. Others, say Kirn's mother, Kirn's then wife, see it right off, but Kirn wills himself into obtuse blindness even as he recognizes contradictions in what Rockefeller says in the same conversation, breaches by Rockefeller of his promises, and the patent implausibility of so much of what he says. 

Which isn't to say that even somebody sensible couldn't have been taken in for a while, but for Kirn to have been so for 15 years: that's simply astonishing. And here's the nub of the rub: what Kirn wills himself to believe even in the face of so many counter instances corresponds to some depth of deficiency, of something missing, a hole,  in him that he never comes to terms with insofar as this book has it. 

So we have a certain discordance among Rockerfeller's quickly apparent bullshit and sociopathy manifest in depravities culminating in murder, Kirn's susceptibility to it for a decade and a half while others detect it right away, Kirn's attempt to diagnose what in him made him so vulnerable, and his failure to penetrate causes deeper than what he has on offer. This last marks, I argue, a failure in the book, as though we've eaten a promising, and in fact quite delicious meal that is satisfying as far as it goes but still leaves us hungry, wanting more, and, so, finally, dissatisfied. 

Therefore, as this last discordance--between Kirn trying to understand himself fully but not getting there--increasingly becomes the axis on which the book turns, depths not reached, I became somewhat numbed and inured while reading: more cons and lies and foolishness and bullshit, more susceptibility to it, and no forthcoming better insight into why. 

In this, there's a telling short sequence that I'm not sure even Kirn gets the ironic significance of. It's tucked in near the end part of the book, during the time of the trial. Kirn has dinner one evening with James Ellroy, who Kirn sketches only briefly but wonderfully. Kirn's a terrific writer. And they talk. And, in short, Ellroy tells Kirn, I paraphrase, "Enough with getting to the bottom of what this guy's about. You'll never understand him any better than you do. He is who and what he is." 

The sequence is telling for a number of reasons: Kirn defies the advice but gets to no further underlying truth about Rockefeller, let alone himself; as he gets no deeper truth neither do we and we get increasingly treated to variations on a theme growing shopworn; and post trial, Kirn, not heeding of Ellroy's advice, oddly reviews and slogs through a batch of emails and blog entries by Rockefeller having to do with him getting a severely injured dog from people in Kirn's town in Montana, which dog, Shelby, Kirn transports from Montana to Rockefeller in New York, described in the book's opening. Kirn's review of these emails and blog postings is irritatingly dull and marks a rare literary lapse in Blood Will Out. 

So I say, coming back to where I came in, Blood Will Out is a worthwhile book. The prose is crisp and clear. There is obvious intelligence behind it and up to a point we learn a great deal about Rockefeller and his hold on Kirn with some understanding why. But we don't, I argue, finally come away wiser in this sense: we remain befuddled  by what more deeply in Kirn allows him to trust Rockefeller sufficiently to consider him a friend over 15 years. That failure and what collaterally spins out of it comprise the ultimate weakness of Blood Will Out. 

Near the very end, Kirn in reflecting on everything in a summarizing way claims something like he conned Rockefeller as much as Rockefeller conned him. To me that claim comes across as pathetic self delusion and rationalization. But the rationalization of what? Perhaps, I speculate, Kirn unwittingly is acknowledging and trying to rationalize why he, in the final analysis, has come up short. 

A final (almost a foot) note: why I think Kirn is wrong to see Gatsby as a literary precursor to Rockefeller, who in fact models many of his cons and exploits and crimes off movies, tv shows and novels, is that Gatsby is indeed great as he paradoxically lives out a self created ideal, a Platonic self conception, noble, maybe like Don Quixote's quest is noble, in its fervency and his commitment to it even as it is built around a meretricious simpleton, Daisy, and is built on gangster corruption. There is totally nothing that is noble or redeeming or great in Rockefeller's sociopathic, ultimately murderous, bullshit.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Steve Martin's Born Standing Up


I just finished reading Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, his memoir of what led to his career in stand up, from childhood on, through that career, finally to giving it up. 

It's smart, at times tender, honest, but discreet in the self revelation. He's revealing enough about certain parts of his life but makes it "implicitly clear" there are just some things he's not going to talk about. The biggest personal part of 
what Martin goes public with are his fraught relations with his father and the belated, sad partial resolution of them. 

It's interesting to compare Born Standing Up to Kliph Nesteroff's The Comedians insofar as they both describe the course of American performance comedy over periods of time, Nesteroff's more detached, Martin's written subjectively, from the angle of his own career.

What strikes me in comparing how they discuss comedy is that Nesteroff lays down a lot of information while Martin is both more synoptic and reflective in theorizing about his style of comedy and what it replaced. 

For example, Martin discusses the meaning of punch lines and how they in a sense dictate precisely when the audience laughs. But as Martin describes how as he develops his own comedy of the absurd, he dispenses with jokes and punchlines and leaves the audience to determine for itself when and at what to laugh. I'm not persuaded of this but it's intriguing.

Martin also reviews the idea of comedy involving a release of tension, saying he doesn't completely understand it, but that he structured his act around sustaining tension and not allowing for its release. Again, I'm not sure I'm persuaded by Martin's notion here but it's interesting. 

Martin is thoughtful, well read and intelligent. He majored in philosophy with a further concentration in poetry, English and American. He says he did well enough to be an A student and to consider doing graduate work in philosophy. As a sidebar, however, does it say something about the different universities in the California state system that when Martin went to the state university at Long Beach, he did unblemished work but when he began taking philosophy courses at UCLA he hit an academic wall and decided he'd gone as far as his aptitude would take him and he gave up his studies? 

Born Standing Up was a joy to read.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Of Tuvel


So there's this issue, what has been referred to as the "Tuvel Controversy."

I link to a description of it above.

In a nutshell, if I've cracked the shell without splintering the nut, a philosophy professor in Tennessee argues in a recent paper that just as there is gender fluidity, transgenderism, as in the case of Bruce now Caitlyn Jenner, there ought by philosophical parity be racial fluidity, transracialism, as in the case of Rachel Dolezal. This has been caused massive and hysterical outrage and caused the journal in which the paper was published to write an abject letter of apology in which it vowed to reconsider its entire editorial policy.

I haven't read the article, the incendiary outrage against it or the apology, only a about them such as the below link.

But fwiiw, I have a quick thought about the notion of parity in the two cases.

I'd argue that in the case of transgenderism, there is an innate, intense, unnaturally suppressed if suppressed drive to identify one's self as the gender that is opposite to one's sex. My premises here are that this drive is a complicated mix of the genetic and psychological and that it turns on essential differences between male and female genders that also involve the blend of genetics and psychology. 

In the case of race, if one is wholly genetically one race or another, and the case of Dolezal assumes she was genetically white with some Indian ancestry as well, but with no Black ancestry, then I'd argue that there is no parity. The reason is that if, as I assume, gender involves some irreducible mix of the genetic and the psychological, then that irreducible mix makes it a different case than the case of race without a genetic basis for claiming to be of a different race. 

In another way of putting it, the physical or the genetic is a necessary condition of transgenderism and the absence of the physical or the genetic makes transracialism a different case and an impossibility: one cannot be what one is not.

Now what I say is only an immediate and slight stab, a nick, a cyber paper cut at best, at a complex subject and I can already imagine my meagre shot at a bit of an argument being overrun by counter examples, basic logic and by expertise in fields where I have none. I'd be happy to see and consider any of that.

But it is surely a sign of our times that, I assume, a well intended, written-in-good faith philosophical essay that makes a serious argument should be subject to the hysterical outrage that has been levelled against it and Professor Tuvel. I've read that a law prof, Brian Leiter, has said that she may have a claim for defamation for what has been said about her by some in response. 

I think there are a lot of sacred cows that need slaughtering.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Thoughts On Andrew Sullivan's Essay On "Reactionism"


A too long exchange between a friend and me on Andrew Sullivan's long essay taking apart what he calls ultra right "reactionism," which he contrasts with conservatism:


....Alright, it got better after the first couple of paragraphs. I still found it annoyingly condescending, but, as I said, he's at least focused on the more interesting and important phenomenon, and, after all, there's his New Yorkish audience to appease. 

So, first, his definition of "reactionism" and its distinction from conservatism is flawed -- note that all of its putative features are really characteristics of revolutionists, and each of his historical examples is only a response to an initial radical effort exhibiting each of those traits: apocalyptic style, contempt for elites and institutions, revolutionary yearning. Indeed, with the appropriate definition of "elites" and "institutions", you're far more likely to find those traits among the "progressive" anti-Trump left today than among Trump or Brexit supporters.

And then there's the problem with his notion of the "modern world". It has its discontents, certainly, but those were a problem long before the recent wave of populist elite-rejection, and have almost nothing to do with globalization as such, or porous borders, or identity politics and its enforcement -- or automation or robots. See Arnold's "Dover Beach" for a contrasting idea. Sullivan's "modern world", however, is just the above litany of more or less recent developments that are being contested -- he implies it's some sort of inevitability, to which resistance is futile, but that's a fond delusion. Once upon a time fascism seemed like the "modern world" to many similarly deluded, and communism seemed like "the future" -- it's a convenient and oft-used rhetorical trope, but it's really just a way of begging the question.

He does at least collect three interesting figures, as representative "reactionaries", and gives them fair treatment. I couldn't find anything as coherent as an "ideology" that linked them, however, and his concluding attempt to modify that into a unifying "mood" seemed more about Sullivan himself than current politics. He's on the right track in talking about  culture, finally, and the natural reaction of all human groups if or when that culture is disrupted or threatened, but then quickly falls back on tired characterizations of the response, like "retreat into the past", reaching "backward for a more primeval and instinctual group identity" , which are really just a sop to left-liberal anxieties and if anything a projection of their own desires.

In the end, he himself puts together proposals along the lines of what he regards as "reactionary", but just toned down. He seems to think this differs from the mind-set of those he wants to call reactionaries, but in that he seems to repeat an error common during the campaign, as a writer insightfully put it: Trump's opponents tend to take him literally but not seriously, his supporters take him seriously but not literally. It simply means, in general, that one should look deeper than the remarks that are made in a rally, or a blog, or even a particular interview, and try to understand at least what the underlying sense might be....


...Not polishing apples when I say you have a better grasp of these issues than do I, but I found his distinction between "reactionism" and conservatism telling and made complicated because the two overlap. 

....Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power...

One sign of that distinction may be the split on the right, stronger during his candidacy and abating as he appears to be edging towards being more moderate  in governing than he was campaigning, between those implacably opposed to him and those invariably supporting him. Another sign may be the apparent diminution of the importance of Bannon, who I'd argue is Exhibit A for reactionism. Doesn't he embody in varying degrees what you well list: apocalyptic style, contempt for elites and institutions , revolutionary yearning? Aren't these traits what excited Trump's base and aren't these traits what drove #nevertrump among think conservatives, like say Krauthammer, who have come to some terms with him are somewhat mollified by his moderating but are underlying all that still appalled by him? Trump's was a rhetorically incendiary campaign and Bannon came on in due course to solidify and guide the fire. The #nevertrumpers despised Bannon as much as they did Trump.  It's hard to characterize today's Trump supporters because in our fast moving times Sullivan's diagnosis as it applies to Trump himself is somewhat stale, that caused by, as I say, Trump's moderating. Another instance of the split is the recent fight over health care and dealing with Obamacare. The Freedom Caucus seems to me to be be closer to reactionism in a spectrum between it and conservatism. The difficulties the passed bill will face in the Senate where there are more moderate Republicans is a sign of that same split. Trump is trying to thread a needle between those two extremes. I I digress but do not believe the reactionists can win to it. The planting of medical care as a right with government support has taken too much hold and the pure marketeers, who are also reactionists, will flail and fail in the attempt to implement their vision.)

Again, I found the references to confusion and distress at the modern world telling. My understanding of this is superficially broad and sketchy but I see globalism as I understand it and capitalism as irresistible forces that politics can't do much about and with the edge going to those able best to harness their abilities to what is changing and what will be vocationally be in demand. In the U.S. and Canada too unemployment seems to be going down (putting aside the stats on those who've stopped looking for work) but wages remain stagnant if not declining. Globalization and advancing technology are feeding and expanding the underside, the losers, in our "coming apart," to use Murray's phrase, in this round of "creative destruction. That underside is part of what Trump referred to as "American carnage," what he promised to resolve but likely can't, in bringing back manufacturing jobs now made *generally*  obsolete in America by both  automation and cheaper labour abroad. The underside is bewildered and enraged by what it has lost. Not to blame it, politics is bewildered by it too. The underside is marked socially by dysfunction, alienation, drug use, anti social behaviour, other modes of dysfunction that Murray traces in Coming Apart. The extreme economic nationalism of a Bannon carrying with it the dream of restoring an idealized American economic past, "MAGA," in my understanding seems to me a species of reactionism that Sullivan briefly describes well.

Finally, it may be that what you see in Sullivan's proposals as warmed over and toned down reactionism is a function of the overlap between conservatism and reactionsim as Sullivan has them and despite the differences between them he traces. He says he's sympathetic to some of what animates reactionism and to some of its ideas. Please forgive the long quote from his essay:

....Beyond all that, neo-reactionaries have a glaring problem, which is that their proposed solutions are so radical they have no chance whatsoever of coming into existence — and would be deeply reckless to attempt. Their rage eclipses their argument. The notion that public opinion could be marshaled to effect a total reset of American government in favor of a new form of monarchy, as Yarvin suggests, is, to be blunt, bonkers. And is America seriously going to remain a white-majority country? How, exactly? Can the U.S. economy suddenly unwind global manufacturing patterns? Can America simply abandon its global role and its long-standing commitments to allies?

Of course not. And the Trump administration is, day by day, proving this. An isolationist foreign policy collapsed at the first gust of reality. A thinly veiled Muslim immigration ban would have accomplished nothing — most Islamist terrorism is homegrown — and went nowhere. The communities that once thrived off manufacturing or coal mining are not coming back. Even the most draconian mass deportation of undocumented immigrants will not change the demographics of America — or suddenly raise wages for the working class. Global trade has become too entrenched to be reversed. The dismantling of Obamacare dismantled itself — not because of an elite plot but because, when confronted with its being taken away, a majority of Americans balked.

There is, perhaps, a way to use reactionary insights and still construct a feasible center-right agenda. Such a program would junk Reaganite economics as outdated but keep revenue-neutral tax reform, it could even favor redistribution to counter the deep risk to democracy that soaring inequality fosters, and it could fix Obamacare’s technical problems. You could add to this mix stronger border control, a reduction in legal immigration, a pause in free-trade expansion, a technological overhaul of the government bureaucracy, and a reassertion of Americanism over multiculturalism. This is not an impossible direction for the Republican Party to go — though it would have to abandon its know-nothing narcissist of a leader and its brain-dead congressional leaders. The left, for its part, must, it seems to me, escape its own bubble and confront the accelerating extremism of its identity politics and its disdain for millions of “deplorable” white Americans. You will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.

Reaction can be clarifying if it helps us better understand the huge challenges we now face. But reaction by itself cannot help us manage the world we live in today — which is the only place that matters. You start with where you are, not where you were or where you want to be. There are no utopias in the future or Gardens of Eden in our past. There is just now — in all its incoherent, groaning, volatile messiness. Our job, like everyone before us, is to keep our nerve and make the best of it....

To stick to my earlier example, it may be that the difference between reactionism and conservatism lies in the difference between a Steve Bannon and a Gary Cohn....


Thursday, May 4, 2017

Trump v Obama As Seen Through An Emersonian Lens


A friend:

My cultural excavation of the day is the opening pages of Emerson's Self-Reliance, which reads like a blue-print for President Trump's approach to the world.  It's surprising how closely he follows the Emersonian ideals and admonitions.  

...The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you. But the man is, as it were, clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat, he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear....


...Pretty good.

As I read it, the boy wants some of the man in him and the reverse. Strengths and weaknesses go to both. Here may be a kicker: Trump has structures and advisors that mitigate the boy in him. Obama had 0 doing that to the man in him. He was all man, and suffered all the debilities of all his manliness, the culmination of which is paralysis, outsized caution making a foreign policy fool of him, a fool who more than once put his foot in his mouth and then tripped over himself from having one foot in such an unnatural place. There is circuitry in Trump's craziness, in his seemingly bizarre zig zagging. He seems in the end, with paths carefully plotted by those around him, to get, one way or the other, to where he wants to go, his child being the father of his man. 

This is beside who is ideologically preferable. It is a comment on who is more leaderly given Emerson"s dichotomy....

Saturday, April 29, 2017

My Take On Menand's Take On Norman Podhoretz's Making It


My take on a take, on Louis Menand on Norman Podhoretz's Making It

...I just read the essay by Menand. My problem with it is that after spending a lot of time describing the trajectory of Podhoretz's career, and even in describing it, he rarely rises above the terms of the book. So, significantly, in respect of this critical failure by Menand, he ends his essay noting Mailer's catty and petty rationale for turning about and dissing Making It in his review of it: Podhoretz hadn't seen fit to ensure that he, Mailer, be invited to a party thrown or attended by, I can't remember which, Jackie Kennedy. Menand's essay is full of gossip and backstabbing, of when Podhoretz was in and was out of which circles, how former friends turned against him. Nowhere did I see anything like a sustained evaluation of the book's merits or demerits and the reasons why. There is one genuine insight in the essay: Podhoretz writing first rate memoir, such his My Negro Problem..., but taking his own experience as the evidence for large and silly generalizing conclusions. Other than that insight, with smart evaluation built into it, I remember no others. Essentially, Menand's essay is well written, smart, at times judicious, at other times juicy, elevated Page Six stuff...

Friday, April 28, 2017

Existentialism And Relgion: The Idea Of A Religious Existentialism


Something I wrote to a friend today on a small thread here prompted by an Introduction by Philip Maitre to famous essay by Sartre, the title of which I've seen translated as either Existentialism & Humanism or Existentialism Is A Humanism:

.... Religion and existentialism as I understand the latter may or may not go together. 

For Kierkegaard they go together in his famous "leap of faith" after beholding a terrifying nothingness-- "fear and trembling." Thus, faith becomes his "purposes and projects," using Maitre's phrase from his Introduction. Why faith may be seen as existential is because insofar as existentialism is a philosophy of subjectivism, the leap of faith is from the terrifying apprehension of nothingness to the fullest realization of subjective fulfillment in something absolutely larger than oneself, (enough for Kierkegaard for Abraham to have slain Isaac.) 

But would Sartre consider a leap of faith bad faith and what would distinguish bad faith from good faith, the latter comprised by purposes and projects that confer meaning and value on self, others, their relation and the world of objects? 

For Sartre, as I understand him, purposes and projects must have a concreteness in the world and must involve in some way engagement with the world, which means necessarily with others. I can't make the intellectual move from that idea to a leap of faith into faith, which, however intensely and authentically felt and held, constitutes a reification, which is an engagement with "nothing" and by definition not the world, unless perhaps, maybe, (probably not) that faith translates into "good works."  

As I say, my knowledge and understanding of Buber are skimpy to say the least, though I'm of familiar with his "I and thou," but only as a kind of catch phrase. I've always taken it to mean turning the "other" into a human being whom one, so to say, takes into one's soul and can therefore feel for them love, empathy, compassion and kinship. 

Is that construction of "I and thou" right, and if it is what makes Buber's religiosity existential? And, finally, what resolves the gap or tension I see between Kierkegaard  and Sartre? Or am I asking misconceived questions?...

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Black Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black


Crime based noir + literature = The Black Eyed Blonde... John Banville writing as Benjamin Black, the same John Banville who won the Man Booker in 2005 for his novel The Sea, which I most definitely will soon read.

I can think of a few writers of this genre whose works are literary.

Take Raymond Chandler for instance.

The thing is that Banville/Black purposefully channels Chandler, his protagonist being Philip Marlowe, agonizingly self conscious, so sad and so self disappointed but, too, self accepting and comfortable in his own skin, wonderfully articulate in the vernacular, totally down to earth, wry, vulnerable, sometimes a tough guy, sometimes overwhelmed, well read, a perceptive judge of others, often cracking wise though not hard boiled, but, above all, honorable, living unflinchingly according to his own code of honor, ethics and morality. 

If every work of literature, (poetry too, in a way), is, as I argue it is, a search for self, a questing in the way of that by accumulating self knowledge borne of experience, then the Black Eyed Blonde exemplifies it as Marlowe comes to certain terms with himself over the progression of what happens. 

And the writing, born of first person narrative, is, I think, flawless, perfect, with Marlowe having a distinctive come-alive voice and fully realized, compelling and believable sensibility. 

Examples of this writing: 

p 89 ‘I’m just your ordinary Joe, trying to earn a buck and stay honest. There are thousands like me, Mrs. Langrishe — millions. We do our dull jobs, we go home tired in the evenings, and we don’t smell of roses.’

p 106 ‘A tabby cat that had been sleeping by the door opened one eye and looked at me, then got up slowly and padded away, its tail lazily twitching. What is it cats know about us that makes them disdain us so?’

p 132 ‘You don’t realise how narrow the space you’re living in is until someone else steps into it.’

And in places the writing is beautifully evocative too: 

p 134 ‘”To you a solitary life is unimaginable. You’re like one of those big fancy cruise ships, clambered all over by sailors, stewards, engineers, fellows in crisp uniforms with braid on their caps. You have to have all this maintenance, not to mention beautiful people dressed in white playing games on the deck. But see that little skiff heading off towards the horizon, the one with the black sail? That’s me. And I’m happy out there.”’

p 165 ‘Outside, the street was deserted, and a warm mist was wafting down from the hills. Across the way, the eucalyptus trees stood motionless in the light from the streetlamp. They were like a band of accusers staring at me silently as I got into the Olds. Hadn’t they told me so? Hadn’t they said I was a fool..?

…Ghostly waves were breaking in the moonlight, and farther out the night was an empty blackness, with no horizon…’

I don't know if Banville/Black out-Chandlers Chandler. I guess I'll have to reread some Raymond Chandler to find out 

I can't recommend this novel strongly enough for sheer reading pleasure.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Existentialist Bafflegab And Camus's The Stranger


On existentialist bafflegab and Camus's The Stranger

Philip Mairet in his introductory essay to Sartre's essay Existentialism & Humanism says that existentialism is a philosophy of subjectivism, that the root of all human anxiety is our need for authenticity, which itself is rooted in our need to know we exist. The dilemma of existence arises, he says phenomenology says, from our being caught between the unknowinginess of objects and our self unknowingness as perceiving subjects. In that in between lies epistemological chaos paradoxically  coupled with our innate need, springing from our need to know we exist, to be responsible for our actions, that they be meaningful so that by that we achieve authenticity. We escape, strive to escape, the anguish created by these needs by starting with an understanding that so things are and not otherwise, are not what they are not. And we can transcend anguish, after that realization, by creating projects and purposes that then confer meaning on us as subjectivities and upon "the world of objects--all meaningless otherwise and in themselves." (P. 14) By so doing, we get the authentic knowledge we exist, our "transcendent need and desire." (P 14)  Not many can do this. Most of us find reassurance by thinking about death as little as possible and by losing ourselves in the worship of "idols such as humanity, science, or some objective divinity." (P 15)

I think to myself that all this can't withstand even not very probing scrutiny. 

The reduction of all human anxiety to an existentialist formula and catchphrase isn't argued for, isn't demonstrated, is just asserted without cause to agree with it. That we all in varying degrees crave affirmation and recognition is a truism rather than a truth and as such spawns simplistic self helpism rooted in self esteem as an all consuming premise. But that truism doesn't exhaust the sources of human motivation nor the causes of anxiety. Which is why to claim that it does is reductive and constitutes self help rooted in self esteem in principle undifferentiated from this existentialist notion, which is, to my mind, exactly self help rooted in self esteem gussied up in more dramatic and highfalutin language.

Same with the apparent "dilemma of our existence." Certainly, we can't fully know ourselves and we can't in principle know everything about the world of objects, which in fact we populate while we perceive them. But is the result of that really chaos giving rise to our anxiety and dread, which we can either run away from in bad faith or in good faith embrace and transcend by our purposes and projects? Again there is truism here more than truth, triteness masking as profundity. The world can be mystifying. There is so much we don't know. Most of us want purposeful lives and anxiety can certainly come from feelings of purposelessness, triviality and failure. But do we need pages and pages of arcane vocabulary to understand this? What sentient adult doesn't understand it, feel it. And thus we in the main try to give meaning to our lives in what we do, chased by a felt need to do. But in that, and in what we don't know, are we really in a universal condition of chaos marked by anguish? Surely this is vastly overstated. Surely, we, most of us, have sufficient provisional working senses of ourselves and the world such that we can get along albeit imperfectly but not mired in sickening dread.  

Next to last, by what criteria are the existential projects and purposes to be measured? Mairet's Introduction gives no clue. If my purpose and project is to collect varieties of lint, then on what basis is that less transcendent than fighting to save lives? If the issue is subjectivity and the way out of enveloping nothingness, then on what ground does one's affirmation through a project stand over another's, especially if we lose ourselves in "idols" such as humanity or science? On what Mairet says, the lint collector haunted by the spectre of death and rising over it with the fabulousness of his lints will be more authentic, will live more fully, more meaningfully, than the curer of a terminal disease who doesn't think a lot of his own mortality. It is, I think, a telling mark against the corner in which the nihilist underpinnings of Mairet's argument force him that much less fancy folks than existentialists, of which less fancy folks I count myself as one, have no trouble seeing the greater human significance of the disease curer over the lint collector and which of them, likely, has the more fulfilled, meaningful life.

Finally, it is that very underpinning nihilism that makes an absurdity of Mairet's argument. Maybe we can't derive an ought from an is, some smart people think we can, but we can't for sure derive something from nothing. That is why Mairet can offer no criteria for distinguishing some purposes and projects from others, why they all stand equal under existentialist law. For if there were distinguishing criteria marking the better and the worse, the more important from the less important, the moral from the immoral, the purposeful from the purposeless, other than how they make us feel, then the very bottom of the argument--the meaningless  of the world and ourselves in it-- falls out. The distinguishing criteria would spell out meaning that the bottom of the argument asserts doesn't exist.

And that, btw, is the unresolvable contradiction between Mersault's pridefulness and vindictiveness at the end The Stranger and the book's theme of absurdity, that nothing matters.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Spirit And Letter Of The Law


Question: is there such a thing as the spirit of the law and if so what can it functionally mean? 

There may be such a thing, i.e., it may be something we can speak coherently about.

I'd say, if I had to try to define it, it's what the law aims at, its purpose or its intent, as derived from what the law says.

So in this sense, I can see talking about the letter and the spirit of the law: to take a dull example, there are complicated laws governing what equipment vehicles need to meet emission standards, the letter, the larger purpose of which is to curb air pollution, the spirit. 

I don't see anything controversial in any of this. 

But the bite can come, for examples: when the letter of the law seems inconsistent with the spirit of the law--say it can be shown that certain emission prescriptions don't curb emissions; or when someone violates the letter of the law but meets its spirit, say unprescribed emissions controls that work but still leave the driver non compliant with what's prescribed but can be shown ineffective. 

The examples are endless. 

With these examples, textualists, of which I'm one, will say, "Spirit me no spirit. If the plain language of the law points to a clearly understood meaning, then that ends the question of what the law is/means." 

Mind you, if the language in question is ambiguous, capable of being read reasonably more than one way, recourse to overall language, structure, context and purpose are indispensable means of resolving the ambiguity. Judges, citizens, will want to favor the reasonably possible meaning that fits with the language structure, context and purpose of the overall law. 

But the difference between my two examples and reasonably read ambiguity is that in the first cases there is a tension or gap between meaning and purpose with a proposal that the latter trump the former, while in the case of ambiguity, the effort is to try as much as possible to harmonize meaning and purpose, to try to make them seamless. 

So my argument is that when literal meaning, the letter, seems at odds with overarching purpose, spirit, the former must prevail and in the sense of ostensible friction or a contest between the two, there is no prevailing meaning that can be given to the idea of the spirit of the law.

There is a doctrine of absurdity, which is to say, the law is not be read so as to lead to absurd results. While I'm not well schooled in this doctrine, my general, unnuanced understanding is that it's confined to evident drafting errors, "the scrivener's error," which is to say, manifestly the legislature cannot have intended provisions that are distinctly opposite, in fact countermanding of, what the law as a whole clearly intends. This is a very narrow doctrine. 

If anyone wants to amplify, refine, raise questions about, or disagree with any of this, I'd be happy to consider any such.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Few Sour Notes On Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question


Oy vey!

I finally finished reading Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which is one of those books I read very slowly over a very long period of time, at most 15 pages at a time, save for tonight when I read about 40 of its last pages just to finish. I didn't read it slowly in order to savor it or to pause meditatively over its parts. That's just the way I happened to read it for whatever the reason. 

Basically I didn't like it and one reason is that I can't remember the last time I was so irritated by, impatient with, frustrated by, felt exasperated dislike for, a main character. Here, the utterly hapless protagonist, if he can be called that, there's so little that goes on, Julian Treslove, obsesses over wanting to be a Jew. (Don't ask: it's in this book a ludicrous premise.) 

He's the personification of an obsessiveness that stops short of mental illness. He obsesses over who he is, over every little thing that happens to him--nothing big does--over his friendships, his relationships with women. He embodies the paradox of the kind of person who's so deeply and endlessly preoccupied with own puniness, failures, weaknesses and limitations that he's finally and essentially irritatingly self centered. He's self abnegation as self assertion. 

That one reason blends into another one: I'd argue Jacobson invests himself in Treslove's unending interiority. Rumination, at least in one of its meanings, isn't a good thing. It's obsessive thinking. As a mode of anxiety it's compulsively going over and over the sources of distress. And as Treslove does little but ruminate, so Jacobson fancies that rumination an apt means of his, Jacobson's, questioning, answering, observing, discussing, exploring, disputing, presenting, joking about, explaining, talking about, satirizing, hectoring, all endlessly to an obnoxious fault, Jewishness in all its ostensible forms, manners and habits. 

What Jacobson through Treslove has to say about the nature of Jewishness is typically so petty, so absurdly binary, so trivial, so essentialist, so over the top, so trite, so exaggerated, all in all so foolish, that it made me think as I was reading that "This guy, Jacobson, isn't really very smart after all, that no one but some fool who lives largely in his own pointy head could seriously think and write these things." 

I'd argue that for Jacobson, Treslove isn't a detached fictional creation of a certain type of man. I'd argue, rather, that while clearly Treslove isn't an autobiographical character, Jacobson projects much of his own sensibility into him. 

Now The Finkler Question, which by the book's terms means The Jewish Question, got a lot of good reviews and it won the 2010 Man Booker Prize. All that reviewing and prize winning glory made me wonder if my breaking up with the book was me and not it. 

I surmounted my wonder, however, and concluded it wasn't me, it was it. And so I was gratified to see that a high toned critic like James Wood felt somewhat the same way. So if anyone wants to get a more concrete and detailed sense of some of the causes of my disdain for this novel while reading a spritely and acute piece of book reviewing at the same time, I commend Wood's article on Jacobson's work.