Friday, December 30, 2011

Anybody Home?

Are we alone in the universe?

By , Published: December 29

Huge excitement last week. Two Earth-size planetsfound orbiting a sun-like star less than a thousand light-years away. This comes two weeks after the stunning announcement of another planet orbiting another star at precisely the right distance — within the “habitable zone” that is not too hot and not too cold — to allow for liquid water and therefore possible life.

Unfortunately, the planets of the right size are too close to their sun, and thus too scorching hot, to permit Earth-like life. And the Goldilocks planet in the habitable zone is too large. At 2.4 times the size of Earth, it is probably gaseous, like Jupiter. No earthlings there. But it’s only a matter of time — perhaps a year or two, estimates one astronomer — before we find the right one of the right size in the right place.

And at just the right time. As the romance of manned space exploration has waned, the drive today is to find our living, thinking counterparts in the universe. For all the excitement, however, the search betrays a profound melancholy — a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence.

That silence is maddening. Not just because it compounds our feeling of cosmic isolation, but because it makes no sense. As we inevitably find more and more exo-planets where intelligent life can exist, why have we found no evidence — no signals, no radio waves — that intelligent life does exist?

It’s called the Fermi Paradox, after the great physicist who once asked, “Where is everybody?” Or as was once elaborated: “All our logic, all our anti- isocentrism, assures us that we are not unique — that they must be there. And yet we do not see them.”

How many of them should there be? The Drake Equation (1961) tries to quantify the number of advanced civilizations in just our own galaxy. To simplify slightly, it’s the number of stars in the galaxy . . .

multiplied by the fraction that form planets . . .

multiplied by the average number of planets in the habitable zone . . .

multiplied by the fraction of these that give birth to life . . .

multiplied by the fraction of these that develop intelligence . . .

multiplied by the fraction of these that produce interstellar communications . . .

multiplied by the fraction of the planet’s lifetime during which such civilizations survive.

Modern satellite data, applied to the Drake Equation, suggest that the number should be very high. So why the silence? Carl Sagan (among others) thought that the answer is to be found, tragically, in the final variable: the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves.

In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, nearly instantly so.

This is not mere theory. Look around. On the very day that astronomers rejoiced at the discovery of the two Earth-size planets, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity urged two leading scientific journals not to publish details of lab experiments that had created a lethal and highly transmittable form of bird flu virus, lest that fateful knowledge fall into the wrong hands.

Wrong hands, human hands. This is not just the age of holy terror but also the threshold of an age of hyper-proliferation. Nuclear weapons in the hands of half-mad tyrants (North Korea) and radical apocalypticists (Iran) are only the beginning. Lethal biologic agents may soon find their way into the hands of those for whom genocidal pandemics loosed upon infidels are the royal road to redemption.

And forget the psychopaths: Why, a mere 17 years after Homo sapiens — born 200,000 years ago — discovered atomic power, those most stable and sober states, America and the Soviet Union, came within inches of mutual annihilation.

Rather than despair, however, let’s put the most hopeful face on the cosmic silence and on humanity’s own short, already baleful history with its new Promethean powers: Intelligence is a capacity so godlike, so protean that it must be contained and disciplined. This is the work of politics — understood as the ordering of society and the regulation of power to permit human flourishing while simultaneously restraining the most Hobbesian human instincts.

There could be no greater irony: For all the sublimity of art, physics, music, mathematics and other manifestations of human genius, everything depends on the mundane, frustrating, often debased vocation known as politics (and its most exacting subspecialty — statecraft). Because if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction.

We grow justly weary of our politics. But we must remember this: Politics — in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations — is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it.

Fairly or not, politics is the driver of history. It will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few — the only — who got it right.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Moral Basis For Capitalism: Roger Backhouse and Bradley Bateman

'To convert the business man into the profiteer is to strike a blow at capitalism … The business man is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relation to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to society."

Can we create a morally acceptable form of capitalism; and if so, what would it look like? Faced with a decade of hardship apparently caused by the greed of a few, people are asking whether bankers are no more than profiteers, and whether inequality has risen too far. Even the former US treasury secretary, Lawrence Summers, and former head of the CBI Richard Lambert, have said we need to do better on inequality.

The quote above, however, comes not from anyone today but from John Maynard Keynes, in 1923, during the postwar turmoil in the financial markets. There was hyperinflation in Germany, a collapse of the Mark, chaos on the foreign exchanges as prices had gone up and down, and violent fluctuations in employment.

Like many of those who turned to communism and fascism, Keynes had strong moral objections to capitalism – but he consistently repudiated socialism, communism, and fascism, for he believed that capitalism was essential both to create high standards of living and to guarantee personal liberty. In effect he sought a capitalist revolution.

For Keynes, the sustainability of capitalism was not only a technical question but a moral question – because if capitalism is to survive, people have to believe it is a system worth supporting. His priority was to eliminate unemployment. It was also a moral priority to design an international monetary system that would reduce the chances of capitalism descending into chaos again. And to do that, economists had to grapple with difficult technical details, but their motivation was a vision of a better capitalism.

We face the same challenge today – to develop a morally acceptable form of capitalism. As Keynes feared might happen, much business is now seen as no more than profiteering. Many people object to the bonus culture of the banking system because they don't believe those bonuses are earned. We have also learned that inequality not only undermines the legitimacy of capitalism (that was Keynes's concern) but it has corrosive effects: unequal societies are unhappier, less healthy, and have more crime.

We cannot wind the clock back, but we should not be afraid to look to the past for ideas. It is hard to make a clear distinction between profiteering and legitimate business activity and yet, throughout history, there have always been limits on what can be bought and sold in the market. Perhaps the boundaries between legal and illegal activities need to be reconsidered; perhaps derivatives need to be better regulated – or simply banned from banks' portfolios. Creating a more stable banking system so that banks do not need bailouts would help maintain high employment and tackle inequality.

We can also look abroad. A decade ago it was common to look to Scandinavia or Germany and to compare their institutions with ours. Now "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism has lost its shine, perhaps we should reconsider whether we can learn, for instance, from Germany, with its system of industrial democracy and a banking system geared up to support industry, or try to find out why the gap between rich and poor is much narrower in most of Europe.

One reason for the problems we face today is that we have stopped seeing taxes as an essential institution in a capitalist economy for if taxes could be raised, especially on those who can most afford to pay them, public services would not have to be cut. We should see taxes as an integral part of a moral capitalist economy, providing health, education and social care outside the market. People should not be afraid to join Warren Buffett in saying the rich should pay more tax. The "Tobin tax" on financial transactions should not be seen as a way to raise funds for the euro, but as a tax that could help stabilise the financial system and as a "Robin Hood" tax.

Such changes need to be analysed carefully, for technical details do matter, but they need to be on the agenda: if we are to save capitalism, as we must if we want prosperity and liberty, we must face up to its moral failings. Unless we do this, we will be unable to imagine a better future, let alone work out how to achieve it.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Romney Bounces Back

O Lucky Mitt

John Heileman/Dec 23, 2011/NewYork

The first votes in the Republican presidential contest were two weeks from being cast when Mitt Romney arrived in Bedford, New Hampshire, to give a speech with the same title as his campaign slogan: Believe in America.

In the fifteen minutes the address consumed, Romney declared his belief not just in America but in the notion that our founding principles are what made America the greatest nation in the history of the Earth principles that include the pursuit of happiness, which is the foundation of a society that is based on ability, not birthright.

Romney also talked about Barack Obama, who, according to Romney, sees America differently and believes in an entitlement society in which government should create equal outcomes.President Obama has reversed John Kennedy’s call for sacrifice, Romney thundered. He would have Americans now ask, What can the country do for you?’ 

Romney’s speech was billed by his advisers as his closing argument before the GOP nomination fight kicks off in earnest with the Iowa caucuses on January 3. But you would be forgiven for thinking it sounded more like the opening salvo in a general election. Romney drew no explicitor, really, implicitcontrasts with any of his Republican rivals, training his fire exclusively on the Democrat in the Oval Office. His focus reflected a strategy from which his campaign has rarely deviated all year long.

But it was also born of a confidence in Team Romney so deep it borders on serene: that the nomination is, if not in entirely the bag, then about to stuffed there soon.

The dynamics couldn’t be better for us, says a senior Romney strategist. I don’t see any scenario where we’re not the nominee.

At the start of December, this degree of self-assurance would have seemed not merely misplaced but a sign of mental illness. Newt Gingrich was surging, Romney was reeling, and the political-media class was predicting, with its own demented brand of amnesiac certitude, that the day of reckoning had come for Mitt’s (supposedly) fatally flawed candidacy. On the cover of Time, his face was pictured beside the half-mocking, half-pitying headline, Why Don’t They Like Me?

What a difference a month has made. At this writing a few days before Christmas, Romney has reassumed his perch in the catbird seat: level with the deflating Gingrich in the national polls, far ahead of him (and everyone else) in New Hampshire, and quite possibly on the verge of pulling out a win over the rising Ron Paul in Iowa. Romney and his people deserve much of the credit for this turn of events. But an equally large share belongs with the fact that, rather than staging a proper nominating contest, the GOP finds itself hosting what Republican strategist Alex Castellanos calls the world’s greatest clusterfuck.

In other words, Romney has had his share of unearned good fortune. And though the lack of affection for him in his party’s base might yet come back to bite him, at the moment he appears to be on the verge of proving an eternal verity of politics: Better to be lucky than loved.

The first visible sign of the Romney rebound came in the final Republican debate of the year in Sioux City, Iowa, on December 15. The national press corps had flocked to the northwest corner of the state in the expectation of a Donnybrook. But apart from the food in the filing center�from a local joint called La Juanita, whose tacos should be enough to persuade any Republican possessing taste buds to embrace the causes of amnesty and open borders�the event provided little satisfaction for reporters.

Romney, in particular, eschewed attacks on Gingrich or any of his other opponents, instead heaving brickbats at the president and massaging the right’s erogenous zones. (On Obama’s request that Iran return a downed U.S. drone: A foreign policy based on pretty please? You have got to be kidding.�) After a less than stellar showing five days earlier at the ABC News debate in Des Moines, he was back on his game.

The next morning, Romney conducted a town-hall meeting at a nearby steel plant, flashing his private-sector bona fides, and then flew off to South Carolina, where he received the coveted endorsement of the state’s governor, Nikki Haley. In the days that followed, his campaign unfurled a great many more such shows of support: from Bob Dole, Illinois senator Mark Kirk, and, for us New Yorkers, a slew of local Republican leaders. On top of that, he snared the backing of three newspapersthe Des Moines Register, the Portsmouth Herald (of New Hampshire), and the Oklahoman (the Oklahoma City daily) with widely diverse political leanings, allowing his campaign to argue for the ideological breadth of Romney’s appeal.

While Romney was gathering steam, all the other Republican candidates were chugging along in Iowa or New Hampshire�all except for Gingrich, that is. And where was he? Back at home in Virginia, watching his wife, Callista, play the French horn in the City of Fairfax Band; signing books in the Mount Vernon bookshop; and mugging for the cameras with a person dressed up as Ellis the Elephant, a character in Callista’s illustrated children’s book.

Gingrich’s bizarro campaign priorities and especially his glaring neglect of Iowa, which is critical to his prospects, raised eyebrows and brought forth harsh criticism from local and national Republicans. Apparently stung, Newt hightailed it back to the state and announced that following the examples of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum he would crisscross Iowa on a 44-city bus tour in the days leading up to the caucuses; he also took the opportunity to chastise his rivals for the barrage of negative ads pummeling him over the Iowa airwaves. It’s candidly very disappointing,� Gingrich tut-tutted, to see some of my friends who are running who have so much negative junk to hurl at him.

Put aside the fact that, coming from Gingrich, one of the progenitors of the modern practice of scorched-earth attack politics, this complaint was pretty rich. More important is the fact that his failure to respond in an effective way to the withering assault on his character and record�by Romney’s and Perry’s super-PACS and Paul’s campaign�was almost as damaging to him as the fusillade itself.

In the space of two weeks, Gingrich saw his poll numbers in Iowa sliced in half, from the low thirties to the mid-teens, and his standing fall from first place to third or even fourth, behind Paul, Romney, and Perry. Through it all, Gingrich continued to insist that he would run a relentlessly positive� campaign, and, who knows, given the famous Iowa nice proclivities of the Hawkeye State’s electorate, the gambit might yet work. But it was also a sign of desperation, of a candidate so drastically underfunded he has no choice but to stay positive.
I don’t see any scenario where we’re not the nominee, says a senior Romney strategist.

All of which brings us back to Romney, whose available resources�between his campaign, his super-PACS, and his personal fortune�dwarf not just Gingrich’s but those of the rest of the field. All year long, the looming question for the former Massachusetts governor and his team was how they would react when faced with a mortal threat. And while the Gingrich surge turned out to be, in the words of John McCain’s 2008 chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, more of a summer squall than a Cat-5 hurricane, it was still, quoting Schmidt again, a threshold test the campaign had to pass if it’s going to win it all.

In fact, the test for Team Romney came in two partsand it passed both. The first was whether the Romney operation would and could do what was required to halt, and ideally reverse, Gingrich’s rise. In any campaign, there are moments where you need to swing the bat and club someone who is a threat,� says a senior strategist for another Republican presidential runner. �It’s easy to talk about but not every candidate or campaign is actually able to do it, and they were.

They marshaled their forces, deployed their surrogates, and spent the money necessary to cut Gingrich’s guts out. It’s a credit to their toughness.

The second test was for Romney himself: Under pressure from Gingrich, would he wet the bed? He did not. �There was that debate where Mitt stood up and said, I’m not a bomb thrower’  in reaction to Gingrich’s incendiary claim that the Palestinians are an invented people and that showed great discipline and confidence, says Castellanos, who advised Romney in his previous White House bid. There were times in 2008 when things got hairy and he went off the rails. But this time, Gingrich didn’t faze him; he didn’t hit the panic button. He’s emerged as a much stronger and more mature candidate.

Yet Romney has also benefited enormously from forces outside of his control. Given his weakness with the hard-core base and conservatives more broadly�a weakness illustrated vividly by his inability to break through a ceiling on his support in the mid-twenties in national and non�New Hampshire state polling�most analysts expected that, in time, the anti-Romney vote would consolidate around one viable alternative on the right. But, to date, that has not happened, in no small part because the available options have proved serially to be, well, somewhere between faintly and screamingly ludicrous.

�Who would’ve thought that Romney would get to this point without having a crapload of negative ads dropped on his head,� says a veteran Republican consultant. �It’s not like there’s not any material out there to work with, after all. But the other candidates have no money, so they can’t afford even to do the research, let alone pay for the airtime to really hurt him. And then, on top of that, they’re all incompetent, so they’ve wound up splitting the anti-Romney vote and opening up the door for him to win this thing real quick.

Nowhere has the fracturing of the field been more evident�and more potentially consequential�than in Iowa. In 2008, it was the coalescence of the Evangelical vote around Mike Huckabee that allowed him to whip Romney in the caucuses and in so doing effectively cripple his campaign.

This year, however, the Christian right has so far split its support among Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum, while at the same time no Establishment challenger to Romney exists. In such a fragmented field, it is possible, and even likely, that winning on caucus night will entail capturing less than 30 percent of the vote. (In 2008, Huckabee won with 34.) And that in turn explains why either Paul or Romney, barring a sudden efflorescence by one of the second-tier candidates after Christmas, has the highest odds of taking the prize�for while both have ceilings on their support, both also have relatively high floors, along with the organizational strength to turn out their supporters.

Either scenario is, of course, great news for Romney. A victory in Iowa by Paul would set up as Romney’s chief competitor going forward a candidate whose views are too far out of line with too much of the Republican Party for him ever to claim the GOP nomination. And a victory by Romney would send him hurtling at breakneck speed into New Hampshire and almost certain triumph there�a result that would more or less hand him the nomination before Republicans in 48 other states have even voted.

If things do indeed unfold this way, Romney will stand as unquestionably the luckiest nominee in modern Republican history�and also the most curious. For most of the year, he floated above the fray, not running for president so much as hovering over the sad and comic spectacle of his rivals’ imploding one by one.

It was enough for him to appear presidential. Enough for him to debate well. Enough for him to avoid disaster. Just as in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, in a contest with a bunch of clowns the guy without the funny nose and floppy shoes wins the day. But before Romney and his people get too giddy, they should remember one thing: Barack Obama, for all his flaws and weaknesses, won’t be wearing any greasepaint, either.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

George Will on Gingrich's Last Decade and a Half

Excerpt from Will's op ed in WaPo of December 23, 2011:

In eight of the 14 years between his service in the Continental Congress and the presidency, George Washington kept busy winning the Revolutionary War. And in the 17 years between John Quincy Adams’s service in the Senate and the presidency, he was minister to Russia and to Great Britain and secretary of state. Since 1998, Gingrich has been a businessman and a historian for Freddie Mac.

Jeffrey Goldberg on the Arab Spring

Bloomberg December 23, 2011

There was a time in Cairo, just a few months ago, when it was considered slightly outre to suggest that Egypt’s religious conservatives might take advantage of Hosni Mubarak’s demise to engineer their way into power.

We were told that battalions of tweeting secularists were steering this revolution, and that the people of Egypt did not want sharia, or Islamic law, to govern their lives. They simply wanted freedom. This was Selma on the Nile.

One night in a ragged, badly lit cafe just off the square, one of the revolution’s “Google kids” -- not an actual employee but someone who could plausibly be employed by Google - - explained to me how the Mubarak regime manipulated Western opinion. “They wanted you to believe that the only thing stopping the Muslim Brothers from taking over the whole country was them,” he said. “This is how they scared you. Then you gave them guns they used to kill us.”

Both statements were true. Mubarak did invoke the specter of Islamism to Western visitors; a dozen years ago he told me, “My people expect a firm hand. If we don’t lead strongly, they will turn to the mosque for leadership.” And the regime’s thugs did deploy American weaponry against the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt. This was America’s shame. It is also a shame -- a lesser shame, a shame of poor analysis--that the Arab Uprising went entirely unpredicted in Washington and elsewhere. To compound the shame, few people, even in the midst of the uprisings, forecast the rise of Islamist parties to power not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and coming soon, inSyria, when the Assad regime finally falls.

Dignity and Respect

In many ways the Arab Uprising -- or Arab Awakening, or Arab Spring; freedom means we can call it what we want -- should thrill the American soul. Millions of Arabs, their fear of torture and persecution finally conquered by anger at the regimes that oppressed them, rose up and, in countless acts of astonishing bravery, defeated or are attempting to defeat the despots and the massive secret police apparatuses under their command. The protesters sought dignity and respect and the freedom to choose their own path, and these are things that resonate with Americans.

Then came a problem. It turns out Mubarak was right. The only thing standing between Egypt and the rise of fundamentalist Islam was … Mubarak. The path the Arab people seem to want, at least for the moment, is the path of Islam.

The big news out of Cairo late this fall was not the Muslim Brotherhood’s triumph in parliamentary elections, even though the Brotherhood-affiliated party took 37 percent of the popular vote. The main news was made by the more extreme Nour Party, which is affiliated with Egypt’s Salafists. The Salafists, who believe that the world should be made over to look as it did during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, took almost 25 percent of the popular vote. In other words, the majority of voters in the Arab world’s most populous country chose either a party whose motto is “Islam is the Solution” or a party that believes that medieval Arabia is an appropriate state model.

There have been two predictable Western responses to the rise of Islamism in Egypt and across the Arab world: panic and rationalization. Panic is self-explanatory: The Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical cousins are, generally speaking, anti-Western, anti-Semitic, hostile to Christians in their midst, and have a view of women that most Westerners find abhorrent. It is not difficult for creative minds to place the Muslim Brotherhood on a continuum that ends at al-Qaeda, even though al-Qaeda was created in part as a corrective to what Osama bin Laden & Co. viewed as the unforgivable moderation of the Brotherhood. The panic felt in some quarters is precisely what men such as Mubarak, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and even the late-stage Muammar Qaddafi in Libya hoped to cultivate in their Western interlocutors.

Rationalizing Fundamentalism

The other predictable response among Westerners has been to rationalize the rise of Muslim fundamentalism by arguing that the Muslim Brothers and even the Salafists are not the bogeymen we think they are. Scratch a Muslim Brother, the argument goes, and you’ll find the Middle Eastern analog of a European Christian Democrat. This argument elides the misogyny and anti- Semitism of Islamists, not to mention their embrace of various baroque and pathetic conspiracy theories, including the notion that the attacks of 9/11 were plotted by the Mossad or the CIA. On the other hand, the Egyptian Brothers no longer have to look to Iran to see how Islamists govern; they can look, and are looking, toTurkey, where the ruling AKP party has come closest to maintaining a commitment to traditional Islam without turning its back on the West or completely cutting off the oxygen to liberal-minded secularists.

A set of less predictable responses to the upheaval in the Middle East would include, at the outset, a strong dose of analytical humility. No one knows how these newly empowered Muslim political parties might govern. Never having governed before, the parties themselves don’t know. There are reasons for conditional anguish: The (now contracting) economy of Egypt can’t afford to be led by people who believe “Islam is the solution,” and it certainly can’t be brought into the 21st century by leaders who want to build a bridge to the 7th. But no one has yet offered compelling proof that the Brotherhood would break Egypt’s treaty obligations or press its views through violence.

Another less predictable response might come in the form of fatalism: What will happen in the Middle East is going to happen. The crisis in the region this year was, indirectly, of America’s making: On the advice of the camp of cynics known as foreign policy realists, successive U.S. Administrations believed that the best American policy in the Middle East was to make alliance with the most amenable Arab despots, who would ensure stability. Well, stability turned out to be chimerical. The Arab masses, less interested in geopolitical stability than in dignity and free expression, have rebutted the realist argument.

Military Hangs On

All this assumes Egypt’s brutal military will actually cede power to elected parties. Either way, the outcomes won’t be determined by the U.S. The people of the Arab world are going to spend the next 10 (or 20 or 30) years deciding for themselves how they wish to be governed. It will often be messy and unpleasant, but in the end, once they complete their experiments in theocratic rule (or revert back to other forms of authoritarianism), I’m reasonably sure (as an American optimist, rather than as a fatalist) that they will turn to a type of liberal democracy informed by faith, but without the intolerance associated with fundamentalism.

This is not to say the West must ignore the Arabs as they sort out the future. The U.S. still has the ability to shape certain outcomes -- the intervention in Libya is a case in point -- and protect those who need protecting. (The aggrieved Christians of Egypt spring to mind.) And the U.S. should work more assiduously to speed Assad’s downfall in Syria, which would leave America’s main nemesis in the Middle East--Iran--without an Arab friend. The uprisings offer opportunities for the U.S. None is greater than the chance to see the Arab world find its way to freedom, if we only have the patience and fortitude to watch as it detours through fundamentalism.


Two points:

1. Some self-indictment here? Maybe Goldberg didn't see it, but I read not a few analysts, like Barry Rubin, David Frum, Marty Peretz and other unexcitable, non romantic types who predicted exactly the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt.

2. There's no call for optimism as to the emergence of liberal democracy in about 25 years time. This kind of prediction I diagnose as self-mollification. No one knows what the next 25 years will bring, and predictions are fatuous. Let's watch and observe, hoping our governments do the best they can.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Their Sex Life by A.R. Ammons

Their Sex Life,

One failure on

Top of another

William Giraldi on Adam Kirsch on Lionel Trilling

....What makes Trilling such a complex subject is not his outstanding intellect that insisted on complexity and pluralism, but his steadfast resistance to being pigeonholed and his seeming contradictions of character. A career academic and critic, he was also, in Barzun’s words, “the very negation of an academic critic” in his freedom from Eliotic dogmatizing and method-making. A cloistered, lifelong New Yorker who got itchy whenever he left the five boroughs, he deigned to speak for all of human society in his infamous use of “we.” An unbelieving Jew reared in a conservatively Jewish household, Trilling held that being Jewish was a social rather than religious or cultural enterprise. An apolitical citizen who walked the middle road because “between is the only honest place to be,” he was a powerfully political reader and writer who contended that literature offered badly needed political and moral instruction. And, most splitting of all, Trilling the Apollonian critic of refinement yearned to be a Dionysian artist up to his elbows in the sweet blood of creativity...


Dr. Johnson’s criterion for lasting criticism: the conversion of mere opinion into universal knowledge.

Dr. Johnson’s criterion for lasting criticism: the conversion of mere opinion into universal knowledge. (William Giraldi)

Me: this is so good I had to repeat it twice.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On The Descendants

Did you notice that Clooney says very early on that he specializes in real estate transactions but when later asked by his daughter what papers he's pouring over, he says he's reviewing a deposition? I don't think so: that's for litigators not real estate transaction lawyers. (The rule against perpetuities brought back memories, mind you; I got a A in estates in law school.)

I've been arguing that Clooney suffers from being a Johnny one note as an actor, which is to say, unlike for instance the great Sean Penn, Clooney can never transcend himself in his roles. Here, he breaks out, showing real emotion and tense restraint throughout the movie, culminating in his tearful goodbye to his wife, which worked. This is the best acting I've ever seen him do. I didn't find Clooney wooden either, just nicely understated.

This was a good, quiet movie, albeit predictable, that never dragged but rather had the competent feel of taking its time. Robert Forster was a winner as the cantankerous, flinty and single minded father in law. (You could imagine his daughter as a chip off the old block.) Clooney was understatedly powerful in falsely conceding his wife's fidelity, when that was so pesistently insisted on by her father.

His eldest daughter and her more complicated than expected boy friend--president of the chess club after all, whose own father had just died--came approporiately to Clooney's defence with his wife's father. And Judy Greer playing Speer's wife was really good in yelling at Elizabeth, while purporting to forgive her, for trying to take her husband away from her and break her family. I could her rage.

And Clooney was deglamorized for how pretty he is--dowdy, frumpy clothes, dowdy car for all his wealth, slouching odd walk and run. He breathed no inner charismatic fire all of a piece with, I think, him being a good looking (for sure) frumpy, high minded, middle aged guy immersed in his work and letting himself go.

You could understand his wife--apparently, like me, an extreme sports firebrand and single minded too--being dissatisfied, though Speer the real estate guy seemed somewhat of a let down of a choice by her in my books.

I knew about 2/3s of the way through that he wasn't going to sell the land. But I didn't mind that one bit, so much of a lesser part of the movie did it feel like to me.

All in all, it had a good beat and you could dance to it, and I'd give it 3 out of 5 and recommend it.

A Slight Comparison Between Camus's The Stranger and The Brothers Karamazov

I must be getting older. For whatever I thought of The Stranger about 45 years ago, I've just reread it to speak with some people about it and think its theme is absurd (no pun intended) and incoherent, though the story is interesting and well written.

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

This absurd theme of absurdity contrasts with the dashing of it--if God does not exist, all is permitted--in the climactic scene between Ivan and Smerdyakov that I've touched on before, arguing that The Brothers Karamazov has it that this evisceration of it does not need faith to anchor it, our common humanity and innate though imperfect impulses toward human sympathy will do fine.

Friday, November 25, 2011

George Eliot to Harriet Beecher Stowe on the Jewish Element in Daniel Deronda

As to the Jewish element in ‘Deronda,’ I expected from first to last, in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance, and even repulsion, than it has actually met with. But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is — I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid, when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as my nature and knowledge could attain to.

Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us. There is nothing I should care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs.

But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment. Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called "educated" making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting? They hardly know that Christ was a Jew.

And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek. To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion.

The best that can be said of it is that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness — in plain English, the stupidity — which is still the average mark of our culture.
“Yes, I expected more aversion than I have found. But I was happily independent in material things, and felt no temptation to accommodate my writing to any standard except that of trying to do my best in what seemed to me most needful to be done; and I sum up with the writer of the Book of Maccabees, — "If I have done well, and as befits the subject, it is what I desired; and if I have done ill, it is what I could attain unto.”

Me on Leavis on Daniel Deronda

The great English critic F.R. Leavis, a high Anglican by the way, wrote a famously provocative essay on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, itself controversial in its time—the eighteen seventies—for being the first overwhelmingly sympathetic work of English literature towards Jews.

Leavis’s argument, with which I agree just having finished the novel, is that:

1. the sections of the novel dealing with the Jewish story—Deronda’s journey to learning he’s a Jew, his evolving commitment to his Judaism and the blossoming of his relationship with the young Jewish girl he rescues from drowning herself—are bad art;

2. the sections dealing with the story of the other main character Gwendolen Harleth are the most superb in all of Eliot’s work, and particularly the presentation of her character, psychologically penetrating, complexly whole and utterly compelling in her vivacity and egotism; and

3. if the novel could excise the Jewish story save minimally to serve Gwen’ story , being titled Gwendolen Harleth instead of Daniel Deronda, it could lay claim to being a masterpiece of English literature.

On Leavis On Daniel Deronda

(From an anonymous comment on the internet as slightly adapted, i.e. not mine but I adopt a lot of it.)

....I'm firmly on the side of F.R. Leavis. The problem is not that the Jewish sections are Jewish, it's that they're bad -- boring, didactic, unsubtle -- while Gwendolen's sections are some of Eliot's best work. One oughtn't to accuse Leavis of anti-Semitism by virtue of this review, but I've seen that accusation implied in other essays about Daniel Deronda, and I don't think there's any reason for it. Leavis just wanted to salvage the better half of a book that's clearly uneven.

I think the main problem with the Jewish half is that Eliot, determined philo-semite though she is, simply does not know how to write Jewish characters as if they're real people. So Mirah is a timid, saintly epitome of well-bred Jewish womanhood, despite her upbringing in the theatre, and Mordecai is practically a stereotype -- at any rate, he's firmly in the tradition of intellectual Jewish mystics.

Meanwhile, all the lower class Jewish characters are greasy, vulgar, money-grubbing, etc., and while Eliot is careful to assure us that poor urban Gentiles are vulgar as well, she never actually shows us any.

The only Jewish character who is not in some way either a philo-semitic or an anti-semitic stereotype is Deronda, and he is a terribly boring character when left to his own devices. He works best as the mysterious figure occasionally popping up in Gwendolen's life, since Gwendolen's imagination invests him with much more interest and personality than he actually has.

Meanwhile, Gwendolen is over in her half of the book, being one of the most interesting and human characters Eliot ever created, but every time you get immersed in her story you're suddenly yanked back over to the Jewish half and forced to read pages-long paragraphs about Zionism.

If Eliot had merged the two halves of her book a little more the discrepancy wouldn't be quite as obvious, but since she essentially wrote two books and joined them at the hip, it's easy to see why Leavis would be tempted to perform surgery on them.

Me: The only part of this comment I disagree with is that the presentaton of the Cohen family is more rounded and sympathetic than suggested above. And, ironically, by not being ideal types, they and Mirah's father, too, are more resonant and interesting than the idealized Jews, including Deronda.

Friday, November 18, 2011

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 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; willful involves self succumbing to self in wrong doing. In this sense, will and willful are antitheses.

Lionel Trilling on Ideas vs. Thinking

From The Sense of the Past, from The Liberal Imagination, the essay being written in 1942:

The "tyranny of words” became a popular phrase and is still in use, and the semanticists offer us an easier world and freedom from war if we only assert our independence from words. But nearly a century ago Dickens said, that he was tired of hearing about the “tyranny of words” (he used that phrase); he was, he said, less concerned with the way abuse us than with the way we abuse words. It is not words that make our troubles, but our own wills. Words cannot control us unless we desire to be controlled by them. And the same is true of the control of systematic ideas. We have come to believe that some ideas can betray us, others can save us. The educated classes are learning to blame ideas for our troubles rather than blaming what is a very different thing—our own bad thinking. This is the great vice of academicism, that it is concerned with ideas rather than with thinking, and nowadays the errors of the academicism do not stay in the academy; they make their way into the world, and what begins as a failure of perception among intellectual specialists finds it fulfillment in policy and action.

In time of war, when two different cultures or two extreme modifications of the same culture, confront each other, this belief in the autonomy of ideas becomes especially strong and therefore especially clear. In any modern war there is likely to be involved a conflict of ideas which is in part factitious but which is largely genuine. But this conflict of ideas, genuine as it may be, suggests to both sides the necessity of believing in the fixed immutable nature of the ideas to which each side owes allegiance. What Gods were to the ancients, ideas are to us.

Me: This seems to me to be a good account of the diffference between ideology and liberalism and ties in with Trilling's theme of the idea of liberalism as it emerges from the essays in his book, a good account of the difference between closed systems of thought which are not self questioning and open minded, dead to evidence and to argument and liberalism as paradoxically simultaneously believing and doubting.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Camus as a Jew

Tablet/November 7, 2011

The question of whether Albert Camus was Jewish is, of course, absurd. Born in French Algeria 98 years ago today, he was the second child of Lucien Camus, a farm worker raised in a Protestant orphanage, and Catherine Sintes, the illiterate child of Catholic peasants from Minorca, Spain. He was given communion at the age of 11 and died an atheist at the age of 43.

Camus understood, however, that the absurd reveals deep truths about the world and our own selves. Cradled between the semi-centenary of his death in 1960 and the centenary of his birth in 1913, we might take a moment to consider the question of Camus’ ties to Judaism. They are surprisingly deep and broad, encompassing not just his own life but his political and philosophical thought as well.

Though a number of his childhood friends were Jewish, Camus was as indifferent to their particular faith as they themselves were. In republican France, Jewishness was largely a private matter; it was only when Nazi Germany buried the Republic in 1940 that Jewishness became a public matter and indifference to the fate of Jews was no longer possible—or should not have been possible.

Yet when the authoritarian regime of Vichy passed a salvo of anti-Semitic laws in 1940, most Frenchmen and -women did not blink. One of the few who did blink—in fact, doubled over in shock and revulsion—was Camus. Working for the newspaper Paris-Soir, Camus was stunned when his Jewish colleagues were fired.

In a letter to his wife Francine Faure—a native of the city of Oran, Algeria, who was very close to the local Jewish community—Camus said that he could not continue to work at the paper; any job at all in Algeria, even one on a farm, would be preferable. As for the new regime, he was merciless: “Cowardice and senility is all they have to offer. Pro-German policies, a constitution in the style of totalitarian regimes, great fear of a revolution that will not come: all of this to truckle up to an enemy who has already pulverized us and to salvage privileges which are not threatened.”

At the same time, he began to reach out to Jewish friends. To one, Irène Djian, he denounced these “despicable” laws and reassured her: “This wind cannot last if each and every one of us calmly affirmed that the wind smells rotten.” He reminded her he would always stand by her—a remarkable position for a Frenchman to take in 1940, when the vast majority of his compatriots either embraced or accepted the new laws.

When he and Francine moved into her parents’ apartment in Oran, they become friends with André Benichou, a professor of philosophy who was born into a Jewish family but made a point of declaring his atheism at a local café every year on Yom Kippur, Good Friday, and the first day of Ramadan. With Benichou, Camus and Faure worked as private tutors for Jewish schoolchildren forced out of the public schools by the anti-Semitic laws.

In 1942, afflicted with tuberculosis, Camus went to the Cévennes, a rugged region in central France, to ease his damaged lungs. Unable to afford a sanatorium, Camus moved into Le Panelier, a farmhouse his in-laws owned just outside the small Protestant village of Chambon-sur-Lignon. Among the few visitors he had was his friend the historian André Chouraqui, a French Algerian Jew whom Camus peppered with questions about the Old Testament, all the while taking notes for the book he was then writing, The Plague.

By then, Chouraqui was already risking his life in the French Resistance, particularly in the critical work of finding homes for Jewish refugee children. Much of this activity centered on Chambon, where the pastor, André Trocmé, had already mobilized the village in the work of welcoming, housing, and hiding these children. By the end of the war, the people of Chambon had saved the lives of at least 3,000 Jewish children and adults.

Was Camus aware of Chouraqui or Trocmé’s activities? There is no record of such knowledge in his notebooks or in accounts of friends and colleagues; on the other hand, this was precisely the sort of knowledge one would deliberately keep from friends or notebooks. Nevertheless, the simultaneity of Camus’ reflections and Chambon’s activity is striking. The French Algerian novelist and Cévenol farmers found common ground in their insistence on the dignity of each and every human being.

Indeed, it is the theme of absurdity that most powerfully underscores Camus’ understanding of Jews, Judaism, and Israel. At the political and existential level, Camus felt a visceral connection with the absurd predicament of the young Jewish state. It was a political bond insofar as many on the French left, from whom Camus was estranged, had grown deeply anti-Zionist in the wake of the Suez War. In 1957, he publicly affirmed his sympathy and support for Israel.

His reasons still echo today: Not only must Europe accept Israel’s existence as the only possible response to the continent’s complicity in the Final Solution, but Israel must also exist as a counter-example to the oppressive rule of Arab leaders. The Arab people, he declared, wished for deserts covered with olive trees, not canons. Let Israel show the way.

A naïve hope, certainly, but one that suggests that Camus’ attachment to Israel was existential: His plea for cooperation and collaboration between Jews and Arabs in Israel echoed his pleas to his fellow pied-noirs and Arabs in Algeria. In fact, Camus had flown to Algiers in 1956 to urge a civilian truce between Arabs and French Algerians. His desperate claim that Arabs and European settlers were “condemned to live together” proved wrong, of course. They instead concluded they were condemned to kill one another—a conclusion, were he alive today, he would urge both Israelis and Arabs to avoid while there is still time.

Yet Camus’ deepest and most intriguing bond to Judaism is revealed in his philosophy of the absurd. In early 1941, when Vichy was preparing a second round of anti-Semitic legislation and the papers in France and Algeria were giving free rein to anti-Semitic rhetoric, Camus completed his philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The opening lines are among the best known written by Camus: “There is just one truly important philosophical question: suicide. To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy. Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.”

Of course that question needed to be answered in 1941. How could it be otherwise, given the dire predicament in which the French and French Jews, along with Camus, found themselves?

But if the question persists, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or autobiographical interest. It is perennial. It is the same question that Job confronts when, with his children dead, his possessions gone, his belief in God tested, and he himself crumpled in a mound of dust and ashes, his wife tells him, “Curse God and die.”

And it is the same question we all confront when, as Camus wrote in the “Myth,” the stage sets collapse around us—any number of belief and value systems we have lived with our entire lives—and we suddenly confront a stripped and bare world whose strangeness and opacity beggar any effort at comprehension.

Job and Sisyphus, in short, are heaved into a world shorn of transcendence and meaning. In response to their demand for answers, they get only silence. Herein lies the absurdity, Camus writes: It is “the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together.”

The silence of the world, in effect, only becomes silence when human beings enter the equation. All too absurdly, Job demands meaning. “Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard/ I cry aloud, but there is no judgment.” And no less absurdly, Job must ask himself what he must do if meaning is not to be found? What is our next step if meaning fails to show up at our appointed rendezvous? “But where shall wisdom be found?/ And where is the place of understanding?”

We think we know how the story of Job ends: Rewarded by God for his loyalty, Job is paid back with even more children and sheep and property. But is this the ending? A number of biblical scholars suggest the Job we hear in the final chapter, the one who accepts and resigns himself to God’s power play, is not the same Job we hear in the preceding 40 chapters.

Instead, he is a throwback to an earlier story that was grafted onto the otherwise perplexing account. Instead, the real Job is Camus’ Job. He is a Job who answers God’s deafening and dismal effort at self-justification with scornful silence.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston, and the author, most recently, of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life.

A Note on Law For a Change, Specifically S. 13(8) of the 2002, Limitatiions Act of Ontario

An adpated note from me to someone (with names and facts being changed to ensure anonymity and confidentiality):

...You'll recall our discussion and my previous email to you about the law that a payment on account starts the time running afresh for limitation period purposes concerning suing on an account.

Attached as scanned is the relevant section 13 from the Ontario 2002, Limitations Act.

Section 13 codifies the rule of acknowledgment, which in the case of payments on account has been put in these terms:

...It is familiar law that a payment by a debtor to his creditor, from which a new promise to pay may be inferred, has the effect of starting afresh the running of a period of limitation...

Note subsection 8 of section 13.

The $2,795.88 "payment" is shown on your August 4, 2011 statement.

What's intriguing in all this is the phrase "...from which a new promise to pay may be inferred..."

It may be arguable that that phrase does away with any payment necessarily being an acknowledgement for the purposes of s. 13(8). It may be argued that it's a factual question whether "a new promise to pay may be inferred," and that that inference has to be drawn from all the evidence. So if the payment came from Brunhilda's own account and was a payment in error, I can see an argument for not being able to infer a promise to pay here. In that case the plaintiff is stuck.

And that argument fits with the rationale for the rule of acknowledgement, which is that treating a debt as live and owing displaces the the rationales for limitation periods, being: the varieties of prejudice in stale cases caused by the passage of time; and the social interest in the timely prosecution of claims.

A problem you might face in all this is that limitation periods are perceived as "technical" defences and if courts can in good, or not so good, conscience avoid applying them, they'll sometimes be happy not to apply them. Which is to say, courts generally don't like people evading their obligations on technicalities.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ruth Franklin on Whether Novels and Politics Should Mix

TNR/ November 2, 2011

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in events honoring Irmgard Keun and Amos Oz—two writers who, on the surface, would seem to have little in common. Keun (1905-1982), born in Berlin, was a literary darling of Weimar Germany who promptly found her works blacklisted after the Nazis came to power.

She spent the late 1930s in exile—for a time as the companion of the Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth—before returning to Germany, where she lived out the rest of her life in relative obscurity.

Oz, meanwhile, is perhaps the best-known of his generation of Israeli literary lions, a writer showered with honors, author of nearly twenty works of fiction. Unusually for a novelist, he is nearly as well known for his journalistic writing, in which he has strongly advocated for a two-state solution, criticizing those on either side who impede the progress of peace.

The question of how to write a political novel—or whether politics and the novel ought to have anything to do with each other at all—is crucial for any writer who lives and works in tumultuous times. (Of course, some would say this includes every writer, period, since global politics affect us all.) Some of the more politically engaged writers have argued that a novelist who avoids current events shirks his or her responsibility.

Hence Chinua Achebe, writing during the Biafran War: “It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant—like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.”

But others have insisted just as urgently that politics and the novel must be kept separate—among them Oz, who has often asserted, as he did in the interview I conducted with him, that he literally uses two different pens for writing polemics and writing fiction, explaining that fiction is for ambiguities and “complicated thoughts,” while politics is for the straightforward and transparent.

As a critic, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable navigating the intersection of politics and literature, feeling safer on the “high road” of purely aesthetic appreciation.

I’ve also found the argument persuasive that a novel that foregrounds politics will always be unsuccessful as a work of fiction, motivated blatantly by ideas rather than by plot, character, or language. But there is no such thing as a pure literature, unmediated by outside influences; and there’s something about this attitude that makes me feel a little like the man who leaves the burning house to pursue the rat. So I was grateful for my recent encounters with Keun (on the page) and Oz (in the flesh), which made me think about this question again.

Keun rose to prominence in Germany in the early 1930s with her best-selling second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, a story in the vein of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes transplanted to interwar Berlin. The difference is that, in the American novel, the floozy somehow manages always to come out ahead, her misadventures and malapropisms notwithstanding.

Keun’s version turns out more like The House of Mirth: The heroine’s beauty and charm aren’t enough to allow her to snare one of the wealthy men she desires, and she winds up destitute and desperate. Though it contains almost no overly political content, the novel’s dark vision of life in Germany earned Keun a place on the blacklist, and her books were withdrawn from circulation. In a place where simply telling the truth about the way things are is enough to get one’s books burned, writing an honest novel is itself a political act.

Keun’s novella After Midnight—written in 1937, during the period she spent on the run from the Nazi regime—uses the voice of an unsophisticated young woman named Sanna to present a subtle critique of Nazi Germany from the inside. (At the discussion of Keun’s work in which I participated, it was mentioned that she may be unique among German writers in depicting the texture of daily life under the Nazis while it was going on.)

Sanna is herself uninterested in politics, speaking uncritically of her aunt’s support for Hitler: She “bought swastika flags and joined the National Socialist Women’s Club, where she got to meet a good class of person as a German wife and mother.” And she is judgmental when a girlfriend begins dating a “person of mixed race, first class or maybe third class—I can never get the hang of these labels.” But if Sanna is personally unreflective, she is nonetheless a good observer, and the picture she draws of Nazi Germany is unwittingly damning.

Keun followed After Midnight with Child of All Nations, which looks at the world of the exiles through the eyes of a young girl: “We left Germany when my father couldn’t stand it any more, because he writes books and articles for newspapers.” (These three novels have recently been published in English translation by Other Press, Melville House, and Overlook, respectively.)

Keun doesn’t seem to have written explicitly of her intentions anywhere, but considering her circumstances, it’s impossible to imagine that these novels—as well as being works of art—were not also important to her as political gestures. Oz, on the other hand, has repeatedly made it clear that he does not intend his fiction to be read with one eye on the page and the other on the newspaper.

In that spirit, I undertook to examine his latest, Scenes from Village Life, unallegorically: as “not so much a book about the Israeli condition as about the human condition in general,” as he put it. This is a collection of linked stories each told by a different person: Some are local fixtures, appearing over and over; others we meet once and never see again.

They all live in the fictional village of Tel Ilan—“the most beautiful village in the entire country,” one character says, filled with farmland and cypresses. But the mood is nervous, dark, uneasy. Some of the characters have lost relatives: parents or children who have died or become estranged. Nearly all of them live alone, or with an elderly parent rather than a spouse. There are siblings who don’t speak to each other; guests who fail to show up; uninvited visitors who arrive without warning. In many cases, they endure guilt for crimes committed—or sustained—long ago.

All great literature is “about the human condition,” as Oz would have it; and at least several of the stories in this collection certainly merit that distinction. But great literature derives its greatness also from its particulars: and the particulars of this book are that it is set in Israel, at a time that seems to be the present, among characters who live Israeli lives and think Israeli thoughts.

Take the book’s very first line, “The stranger was not a stranger,” which works on one level as a general warning that things are not going to be what they seem, and on another as a reflection on the relations between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors. It’s easy to take this kind of interpretation too far, to infer political import in virtually every detail, ad absurdum. But to not do it at all seems equally absurd. These stories are meant to speak to the Israeli condition as well as to the human condition; otherwise they would be irrelevant. And in the Israeli condition, politics play a primary role.

During our interview, Oz told an anecdote that illustrates the intertwining of politics and literature with particular power. After a twenty-year-old Palestinian was shot in 2004 while jogging in Jerusalem—the killers apologized to his family, saying they had thought he was a Jew—the man’s father, the prominent lawyer Elias Khoury, sponsored the Arabic translation of A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz’s autobiography and masterwork.

The book is the story not only of Oz’s childhood, but of the childhood of the state of Israel, to which his parents came as refugees from Lithuania in the 1930s and which he grew up alongside. Even its smallest details are rich with political implications, as in the debate, humorously presented, among the customers in the grocery shop frequented by Oz’s parents over whether to buy “kibbutz cheese” (“somewhere … an overworked pioneer girl was sitting, with tears in her eyes perhaps, packing this Hebrew cheese for us”) or “Arab cheese,” which happened to be both cheaper and tastier.

“Imagine the contempt with which Tolstoy would regard anyone who would buy one kind of cheese and not another simply because of a difference of religion, nationality, or race!” Oz writes. “What of universal values? Humanism? The brotherhood of man? And yet, how pathetic, how weak, how petty-minded, to buy Arab cheese simply because it cost a couple of mils less, instead of cheese made by the pioneers, who worked their backs off for our benefit!” When even cheese cannot be free of politics, how can literature?

“Elias wants to build emotional bridges between our nations, and to do that you need to let each read the narrative of the other,” Oz said in an interview with The New York Times. In fact, he took the bridge-building even further himself, sending a copy of the book to the former Fatah youth leader and convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti in prison. “This story is our story; I hope you read it and understand us as we understand you,” Oz reportedly wrote as a dedication.

It’s hard to think of a more moving gesture of faith: in literature, in politics, in humanity. There may be two pens on Oz’s desk, but he writes with them using the same hand.


I find that Franklin is making no real argument to speak of and her ostensible subject, if that it be, as the tease has it—“Should Politics and Novels Mix?”—is more a reason for her talking about Oz and Keun as such, and it's fine talk at that, than a theme informing her comments.

And, by my lights, the reason for that—just a way into these writers—is that the question of this mixing is really no question at all, especially starting from the premise that when it comes to writing literature, prescription is to be avoided unless—in some instance, on some point—it can’t be.

Don’t a few truisms, maybe prescriptions, say it all about the ostensible essential question here, about the fake issues it appears to raise? Novelists shouldn’t be essentially didactic; novelists shouldn’t essentially proselytize; no subject, absolutely no subject, is beyond authorial province; and literature is one thing, propaganda another.

If these truisms tell the story, maybe there are others, then what’s the dilemma? For example, Franklin says,

…The question of how to write a political novel—or whether politics and the novel ought to have anything to do with each other at all—is crucial for any writer who lives and works in tumultuous times…

Is there really any issue here? Within these truisms, what can the argument be against writing a novel that treats or touches on or foregrounds or backgrounds politics and in the way the author chooses? And, within these truisms, an author can write a political novel, however that phrase might be conceived, in any way he or she chooses. Where and why need any complication arise?

Chinua Achebe may have his own thoughts about what themes are appropriate for an African writer and Oz may be held to stand for the proposition that literature and politics need be kept separate—his famous two different pens. But this supposed opposition is fake because there is no necessary answer to the supposed question the supposed opposition goes to.

Franklin also says this:

… As a critic, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable navigating the intersection of politics and literature, feeling safer on the “high road” of purely aesthetic appreciation…

My puzzlement over her statement is on a par with it over this statement by Lionel Trilling (whose essays I’ve been reading) in Reality in America from The Liberal Imagination:

...This belief in the incompatibility of mind and reality is exemplified by the doctrinaire indulgence which liberal intellectuals have displayed toward Theodore Dreiser, an indulgence which becomes worthier of remark when it is contrasted with the liberal severity toward Henry James. Dreiser and James: with that juxtaposition we are immediately at the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet...

What is this intersection between politics and literature? And what is the navigating a critic must do? And what are “these dark and bloody crossroads” in Trilling's context of the different judgments being of made of Dreiser and James in the 1940s?

I understand Trilling’s complaint is about a particular American conception of reality that misinformed the literary judgments then being made about James and Dreiser, forgiving and appreciative of the former and severe as to James.
But why dark and bloody, and why such storm and stress, either for Franklin or for Trilling, over the further truism that when political considerations overwhelm aesthetic ones in the critic, critical judgment gets warped?

Which is not of course to say, that politics can’t help guide or even inform literary criticism, but if literary criticism it be, then the lines, at least conceptually, don’t seem all that difficult to navigate in the intersection, dark and bloody crossroads, or what all, between literature and politics.