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.

Lionel Trilling on Homosexuality

Who said this, and it's dumb, though it sounds so high falutin smart?

...But this does not leave the discussion where the Report seems to want to leave it--at the idea that homosexuality is to be accepted as a form of sexuality like another and that is as natural as heterosexuality...Nor does the practice of "an increasing proportion of.. psychiatrists who make no attempt to redirect behavior, but who devote their attention to helping an individual accept himself" imply that what the Report seems to want it to., that these psychiatrists hav thereby judged homosexuality to be an unxceptionable form of sexuality; it is rather that, in many cases, they are able to effect no change in the psychic disposition and therefore do the humane and sensible best thing. Their opinion of the etiology of homosexuality as lying in some warp--as the culture judges it--of the psychic structure, has not, I believe changed...

I read this as saying as homosexuality is a deviance, ideally to be treated, the sufferer to be redirected towards heterosexuality. The utterer, however otherwise estimable, is a man of his time in many respects, though he would not have taken kindly to such a judgment. Here he fuses the weakness of his Freudianism-he cites Freud in the same essay (The Kinsey Report) to the same nonsensical effect on homosexuality-with his weakness in making self satisfied, self assured pronouncements outside his area of competence, art, culture and intellectual history (the latter for which he is not given sufficient credit.)

Rather than reading Lionel Trilling's essay The Kinsey Report, I suggest being better served by listening to recordings of the blues band by that same name, led by the inimitable Big Daddy Kinsey, now deceased, who I once had the honour of buying a beer in The Silver Dollar in Toronto, only to have him tell me kind of emphatically that he didn't talk about no politics with strangers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

From Anonymous: Amour Propre and Amour Soi

One view:

Essentially, the opposite of self-preservation (amour de soi), amour propre is an acute awareness of, and regard for, oneself in relation to others.

While the savage person cares only for his survival, civilized man also cares deeply about what others think about him. This is a deeply harmful psychological deformation, linked to the development of human reason and political societies.

At its root is a difference between being and appearing. Savage man can only "be", and has no concept of pretence: civil man is forced to compare himself to others, and to lie to himself. Rousseau traces the development of amour propre back to the first village festivals, in which competition to dance and sing well increases the villagers' awareness of each other's talents and abilities. Amour propre is best expressed in a society in which wealth dominates; there, all are compared on an insubstantial and harmful basis.

A different view:

Propre can combine with a possessive adjective to mean 'my own ...'.Je vole avec mes propres ailes (I am flying with my own wings).

Rousseau distinguishes between 'amour de soi' - which we would usually translate as 'self-respect'; and 'amour propre' - nearer to being 'selfishness' or 'arrogance'.

Amour de soi tells you that you are valuable, and so are other people. It encourages you to take care of yourself, but not at the expense of doing harm to others. Amour de soi tells you that you are as good as other people.

Amour propre is selfishness.

It tells you that you are more important than other people (in most cases it tells you that what other people need or desire doesn't matter at all). Amour propre tells you that you are the most important person in the world, and that nobody else will ever matter as much as you do.

Amour de soi is not normally competitive; amour de soi encourages you to share with other people, so that both of you can benefit.

Amour propre is entirely selfish; amour propre tells you that anyone else' gain is your loss, and insists that you behave selfishly at all times, and spitefully when you think you can get away with it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Note On Trilling's Essay Manners, Morals, And The Novel

So I've now read half the essays in The Liberal Imagination and I'd divide what I've read into two categories: specific essays of literary criticism dealing concretely with specific works; and essays trying to work out some more general ideas. Those categories aren't rigid: some essays belong to both, say the essay on Fitzgerald; and the specifically critical essays are so rich in cultural and intellectual historical reference that they range beyond mere literary analyses, though they are that, including the most exegetical one on the Immortality Ode.

The essay I just finished, Manners, Morals and the Novel, is so far the strongest I've read of the second category. For a while there I followed along every step of Trilling's argument. But then in his discussion of why up to, and as at, that essay's time, 1947, America didn't really have a tradition of the novel of manners, as he defines manners, or a great novel of manners as such, I started to get a sense of tension (and maybe circularity) in what he is arguing.

He doesn't say in that essay that regardless of that tradition lacking, America hasn't produced great novels. He acknowledges that it has, as obviously it had. And in surveying the fiction around him, he grants only Faulkner some place of honour in the novel of manners:

...Of our novelists today perhaps only Faulkner deals with society as the field of tragic reality and he has the disadvantage of being limited to a provincial scene...

And he notes that American life has "thickened" so as to be something different than when, as he paraphrases James Fennimore Cooper, its manners were "...too simple and dull to nourish the novelist."

A problem is that Trilling suggests manners, as he defines them, are a necessary condition of fictional greatness:

...Here then is our generalization: that in proportion as we have committed ourselves to our particular idea of reality we have lost our interest in manners. For the novel this is a definitive condition because it is inescapably true that in the novel manners make men...

He goes on in that paragraph to say "It does not matter in what sense the word manners is taken." He says his generalization is true whether for, say, Proust or Dickens or Homer or Fielding.

So, at least three, maybe four, questions arise.

How does he square that necessary condition with his observation that America hitherto has produced great novels, albeit not novels of manners because there was no such tradition in America because American life was not thick enough;

what exactly does he mean by manners--and does he use the term consistently throughout his essay;

and what does he mean when he says, for example, that Steinbeck's or Dos Passos's or Sinclair Lewis's novels do not rise to being novels or manners, that their fictional representations and conceptions of reality are insufficient?

He starts, after some discussion, codifying that discussion by defining manners as more than a "culture's rules of personal intercourse," as, rather more, "a culture's buzz and hum of implication...the whole evanescent context in which its explicit statements are made." I think a problem is that developed social thickness is not necessary to Trilling's large sense of manners and a problem is that Trilling conflates the social complexity which necessarily arises from intense urban life--

...life in a crowded country where the competitive pressures are great, forcing intense passions to express themselves fiercely and yet within the limitations set by a strong and complicated tradition of manner...--

with the truism that nearly any social situation and context, whether in the developing West of Cooper, the New England town life of Hawthorne, the river, raft and town of Twain, the Pequod of Melville, the sea, the old man and the big fish of Hemingway (even if only a novella), the Yoknapatawpha of Faulkner, and on and on and on, can provide sufficient evanescent context with which, and within which, genius can yield artistic greatness.

And that's the real reason no sense of the word manners binds Trilling's listed great practitioners; it's not complex urban life with a rich tradition of manners that marks their greatness; it's their greatness itself that marks itself, setting itself in diverse ways in the evanescent context with which and within which it works.

And that's the real reason why Steinbeck and those lesser talented writers listed "don't make the cut." It's not their deficient conception of reality, as Trilling argues; it's not America's deficient conception of reality, as he argues; it's not Faulkner's provincialism limiting his genius, as he argues, a real misjudgment on Trilling’s part in any event. It's their--save for Faulkner-- lack of great talent. (Faulkner had talent enough to be considered, rightly, a world class novelist.)

So this is a problem with Trilling generally when he doesn't confine himself essentially to literary criticism. His immense learning, his real thoughtfulness, his obvious intelligence and his eloquence begin to collapse on themselves the more he tries to systematically work out an idea or a set of them. And in that regard his eloquence is beguiling. He sounds so authoritative and knowing and grand when he makes his large pronouncements that we tend to glide along with them rather uncritically. But, I'd argue, even under the pressure of some common place scrutiny of a middling scrutinizer such as myself, some of that high sounding grandness starts to crumble some.

A Precis of Stephen Pinker's Case For the Actuality of Moral Progress:

Breaking News: //Robert Jervis//Nove-Dec, 2011 National Interest
October 25, 2011

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking Adult, 2011), 832 pp., $40.00.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

WITH THE United States fighting two wars, countries from Tunisia to Syria either in or on the brink of intrastate conflicts, bloodshed continuing in Sudan and reports that suicide bombers might foil airport security by planting explosives within their bodies, it is hard to be cheerful. But Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tells us that we should be, that we are living in the least violent era ever. What’s more, he makes a case that will be hard to refute. The trends are not subtle—many of the changes involve an order of magnitude or more. Even when his explanations do not fully convince, they are serious and well-grounded.

Pinker’s scope is enormous, ranging in time from prehistory to today and covering wars (both international and civil), crime, torture, abuse of women and children, and even cruelty to animals. This breadth is central because violence in all of these domains has declined sharply. Students of any one of these areas are familiar with a narrow slice of the data, but few have stepped back to look at the whole picture. In fact, many scholars and much of the educated public simply deny the good news. But prehistoric graves and records from twentieth-century hunter-gatherers reveal death rates due to warfare five to ten times that of modern Europe, and the homicide rate in Western Europe from 1300 to today has dropped by a factor of between ten and fifty.

When we read that after conquering a city the ancient Greeks killed all the men and sold the women and children into slavery, we tend to let the phrases pass over us as we move on to admire Greek poetry, plays and civilization. But this kind of slaughter was central to the Greek way of life.

Implicit throughout and explicit at the very end is Pinker’s passionate belief that contemporary attacks on the Enlightenment and modernity are fundamentally misguided. Critics often argue that material and technical progress has been achieved without—or even at the cost of—moral improvement and human development. Quite the contrary, he argues; we are enormously better than our ancestors in how we treat one another and in our ability to work together to build better lives.

To make such bold and far-reaching claims, one must draw on an equally vast array of sources. And so Pinker does. The bibliography runs to over thirty pages set in small type, covering studies from anthropology, archaeology, biology, history, political science, psychology and sociology. With this range comes the obvious danger of superficiality. Has he understood all this material? Has he selected only those sources that support his claims? Does he know the limits of the studies he draws on?

I cannot answer these questions in all the fields, but in the areas I do know—international relations and some psychology—his knowledge holds up very well. With the typical insider’s distrust of interlopers, I was ready to catch him stacking the deck or twisting arguments and evidence about war. While he does miss some nuances, these are not of major consequence. It is true that despite the enormous toll of World Wars I and II, not only have there been relatively few massive bloody conflicts since then (and an unprecedented period of peace among the major powers), but the trends going back many centuries reveal a decline in the frequency of war, albeit not a steady one.

The record on intrastate conflicts is muddier because definitions vary and histories are incomplete, but most studies reveal a decline there as well. In the aftermath of the Cold War, civil wars broke out in many areas, and some still rage (most obviously in Congo), but, contrary to expectations, this wave has subsided. In parallel, Pinker marshals multiple sources using different methodologies to show that however much we may fear crime, throughout the world the danger is enormously less than it was centuries ago. When we turn to torture, domestic violence against women, abuse of children and cruelty to animals, the progress over the past two millennia is obvious.

Here what is particularly interesting is not only the decline in the incidence of these behaviors but also that until recently they were the norm in both the sense of being expected and of being approved.

In all these diverse areas, then, I think Pinker’s argument holds up. Or, to put it more cautiously, the burden is now on those who believe that violence has not declined to establish their case. (Whether our era sees new and more subtle forms of violence is a different question and I think would have to involve the stretching of this concept.) We often scorn “mere” description, but here it is central. The fact—if it is accepted as a fact—that violence has declined so much in so many forms changes the way we understand our era and the sweep of human history.

It shows how much our behavior has changed and that even if biology is destiny, destiny does not yield constant patterns. It also puts in perspective our current ills and shows that notions of civilization and progress are not mere stories that we tell ourselves to justify our lives.

So why has all this good news generally gone unrecognized, and why do many people believe that our age is unprecedented in its bloodiness? One reason Pinker notes is the tendency to whitewash history. Myths of a better time in the past and portrayals of our current era as degraded are common among social critics on both the left and right to goad us into shame—and action.

Our understanding of the massive slaughter and oppression levied by the dominance of the Western world over less modern civilizations has magnified this propensity, and stressing how much violence there was in earlier times, and in some contemporary non-Western societies, seems to stereotype Others as barbarians. Ironically, the liberal worldview that Pinker credits with so much of our progress involves a sensitivity to our current and previous sins that encourages viewing distant societies such as the American Indians not only more favorably than we did until recently but also more favorably than is warranted.

Related to this, the somewhat cynical spirit of our age makes us suspicious of claims about progress in human behavior, especially because the plethora of such claims by Western thinkers like Herbert Spencer and even Max Weber in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries failed to foresee the cataclysms that were to come and appeared to justify the dominance of racism and sexism around the world. It is all too easy for any of us to imagine how we could be ridiculed, generations from now, for our naïveté and unwitting complicity in a new malign order.

The recent past too seems to make a mockery of Pinker’s argument. Just to mention the names of Hitler, Stalin and Mao is to make us cringe at the thought of progress. Although the world has seen nothing so horrific since then, readers of this journal will be familiar with the wars between Iran and Iraq and between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and any day’s newspaper reveals numerous incidents of bloodshed. Since they are happening now, they are very vivid, which makes it hard to maintain a sense of proportion.

Reading about the latest school massacre or serial killer grabs our attention more than the drab long-run statistics. Even if we are aware of the terrors of the distant past, we do not feel them in our gut.

The wars of the twentieth century and the domestic mayhem caused by those tyrannical leaders will lead many to ask how previous eras could conceivably have witnessed as many casualties at the hands of oppressors or at the point of a gun. Well, they didn’t.

But Pinker argues that what is important for understanding social processes is not the absolute number of deaths but their proportion of the world’s population, which has greatly increased over time. To some, this will seem like a sleight of hand. In what way do tens of millions of deaths in wars and attempts to remake societies become less significant because of the rise of world population, including in continents far distant from these atrocities? Morally, they do not. But if one wants to use body counts as a way to understand the extent of violence in the world, proportions and ratios are a better measure than absolute numbers.

Is it also appropriate to point to the lack of a war between the United States and the USSR as evidence of growing peacefulness? The Cold War of course saw American troops fighting in Korea and Vietnam, not to mention numerous smaller proxy wars. These were not large enough to move the needle on Pinker’s scale, but a nuclear war would have been.

Pinker briefly notes many of the arguments for why this did not occur, but to the extent that peace was maintained by the fear of total annihilation, one can certainly question how we should enter this period into our balance sheet. If we think that we were playing Russian roulette, then the fact that we were lucky does not count quite so strongly for our living in a less violent time.

An awareness that massive war could still break out today similarly inhibits our sense of progress. Without a true rival state to the United States, the specter of world-destroying conflict has disappeared, but even optimists agree that there is at least some chance of a Sino-American war, and the danger of a nuclear exchange between other hostile pairs, most obviously India and Pakistan—but also Israel and a nuclear-armed Iran—cannot be dismissed. These perils remind us that progress always comes with costs: no splitting of the atom, no nuclear holocaust. And this makes us resist Pinker’s analysis.

Most broadly, we see less progress than we should because we are prone to what can be called the conservation of fears. If through effort or good fortune the problem we worry most about disappears, all the others move up a notch. Terrorist incidents were frequent during the Cold War, and although they did not kill as many people as did 9/11, they were a significant concern for citizens and policy makers.

But no one suggested that this was a menace of sufficient magnitude to merit making it the pivot of American foreign policy, let alone the center of societal concerns. We are now so worried about terrorism because our security environment is otherwise so benign. The fact that we no longer have to live under the shadow of instantaneous destruction has much less impact on our psyches and sense of how dangerous our world is than logic would suggest.

PINKER WANTS to do more than document the decline of violence; he wants to explain it. And that explanation comes in two forms: a “Civilizing Process” that reduced violence, especially within states, and a “Humanitarian Revolution” that extended rights not only to different races, but also to women and children. (The two processes have some overlap, and growing humanitarianism probably would have been impossible without the earlier evolution away from barbarism and toward gentility, but they nevertheless remain distinct.)

Civility, for Pinker, was promoted to a great extent by the rise of the state in early modern Europe. It is a Hobbesian notion that statistics from nonstate societies confirm: without law supported by sufficient power, both self-defense and self-aggrandizement produce a violent world. The data are quite clear that the development of a state structure is associated with a sharp decline in homicides. Here and elsewhere, Pinker is quick to note that correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but both logic and chronology indicate a significant role for state power in quelling violence.

Still, as Aesop noted in his fable of King Log and King Stork (one of the few sources that Pinker does not cite), a strong government can kill, and a decline in homicide can be more than compensated for by an increase in state-sponsored killing. Pinker acknowledges this, but I do not think fully takes on board the central problem of government that has preoccupied so many thinkers, that underpinned the American Constitution and that remains a vital concern today: How do we devise it so that the government is strong enough to maintain order and guarantee rights without being so strong and independent as to be a menace to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

The second major civilizing impulse is the development of commerce. A fundamental intellectual breakthrough was the understanding that economic activities were not zero-sum and that uncoerced trade was mutually beneficial. Trade also provided potential income streams for states and flourished when ruling parties could provide internal order. Thus while Columbia scholar Charles Tilly was correct to say that “war made the state, and the state made war,” one too could say this about commerce.

To these well-known elements Pinker adds the insights of the historical sociologist Norbert Elias who showed how the development of royal courts led to forms of civilization that we now take for granted—table manners (including not brandishing knives that all too easily could be used to stab food, as well as one’s neighbor), not spitting, along with defecating and copulating only in private. Much of the evolution of etiquette and manners made social interactions more predictable and reinforced self-control and the need to delay gratifications, practices that made sense when being hot-blooded was likely to reduce rather than increase wealth, standing and security.

How convincing is this?

The obvious objection is that it amounts to explaining history with history; that it describes more than it enlightens. Pinker acknowledges that these mechanisms are all deeply intertwined and that proof is impossible. In dealing with such large and complex phenomena, plausibility may be all that we can hope for, and Pinker’s argument and evidence do meet this test. And his willingness to include anomalies in his explanation is admirable. But it is his desire to do so that also provides grounds for skepticism.

Pinker argues that the uptick in domestic violence in the West, and especially in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s, can be explained by a temporary “decivilizing process.” The increase in homicides and crime was caused, he argues, by a decrease in respect for authority, a rise in self-indulgence, a scorn for self-discipline and other “bourgeois values,” and a renunciation of the belief that societies are held together by a willingness to respect others.

The fact that those of us who participated—even marginally—in these activities remember the condescending diatribes of our elders along these same lines does not mean that Pinker is incorrect. But his case would be stronger if he could show that the marchers and protesters and anti–Vietnam War brigades were the ones responsible for the increased violence.

It is also hard to rule out the possibility that both the social turmoil and the rise in crime were brought about by third factors, most obviously the dislocation and diversion of resources caused by the war and the heightened sense on the part of many young and educated people that Western social institutions had failed to live up to the Enlightenment values on which they were founded. Indeed, the 1960s and ’70s witnessed a great expansion of rights and the reinvigoration of social inquiry that Pinker sees as an engine of progress.

And while Pinker attributes the subsequent decline in crime to a return to the earlier norms, the drastic increase in the incarceration rate (which many consider to be uncivilized) may have had something to do with it.

WHAT PINKER calls the “Humanitarian Revolution” involved a recasting of normal and appropriate human behavior. Part of our historical and biological heritage, we now see torture, slavery, and sanctioned violence against women, children and others who were powerless in society, and often against those who held different political and religious beliefs, as repugnant. The world became not only safer but also more humane.

The cause, Pinker tells us, was the growth of literacy, writing and publishing. “Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point,” which leads to at least a degree of empathy. Furthermore, exposure to a wider range of people, thoughts and events “is the first step toward asking whether [current practices] could be done in some other way.”

Fiction as well as nonfiction can serve this purpose, and the mid- and late-eighteenth century witnessed an explosion of novels. With the Enlightenment, more and more ideas were exchanged through letters and discussions in increasingly cosmopolitan cities. Such exchanges are crucial, according to Pinker, and lest I be accused of caricaturing his claim for how they lead to progress, let me give an extended quotation:

...When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases . . . we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely....The later and parallel rights revolutions over the past thirty years (greater rights for racial minorities, gays, women, children and even animals) were similarly rooted in “technologies that made ideas and people increasingly mobile. . . . [and led to] a debunking of ignorance and superstition. . . . [and] an increase in invitations to adopt the viewpoints of people unlike oneself....

It is the free flow of ideas, unrestrained by dogmas, that is doing the work for Pinker. Nevertheless, much as this idea is appealing to academics and intellectuals, skepticism is in order. We have come to see slavery as a violation of our values and sense of what it means to be human, but one does not have to be a Marxist to doubt that this was the inevitable consequence of free inquiry (it certainly was not in the United States).

Pinker displays a great faith—although he would dislike that word—in the ability of social science (he does not like current trends in the humanities) to lead us toward not only a better understanding of the human condition but also the betterment of it. I love reading and doing social science, but think we should be wary about overclaiming. Empathy, for Pinker’s account, may lead naturally (but not inevitably) to at least a degree of do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you behavior.

But Pinker realizes that one can see the world through someone else’s eyes and still want to harm him, and also appreciates that research on the effects and, even more, the causes of empathy and sympathy are necessarily limited because of the difficulty in constructing appropriate experiments, without which it is hard to move beyond correlation. Since kindergarten, most Americans have been taught to be empathetic, and human-subjects boards would likely object to manipulations that would try to make them less so. And even good knowledge can be put to bad ends.

It is not necessarily true that all good things go together; more knowledge might lead us in directions that Pinker and I would deplore. For example, we could learn that capital punishment does indeed deter murder or that genetic endowments help explain why there are so few women in the ranks of top mathematicians. Pinker does realize that knowledge is not the same as enlightenment—no country was more educated than Nazi Germany—but does not consider whether an open society might democratically decide to close off certain avenues of thought.

So dogma, the antithesis of open inquiry, is Pinker’s bête noire, embodied above all in religion, which he associates with intolerance and superstition. There is no doubt that religion has often contributed to evil, and as a nonbeliever myself I have trouble empathizing with those who think they can understand the will of God. But we should give the Devil his due: many antiwar and human-rights movements have deep religious roots, and much of the energy behind campaigns that Pinker and I applaud comes from people who feel a higher calling to help their fellow human beings. (Pinker’s one paragraph addressing this only scratches the surface of the question.)

Pinker is on firmer ground on other crucial points related to knowledge. The first is that the reduction of violence and the expansion of humane treatment of people has been spurred by the conscious decision to design incentives and institutions to these ends.

The growth of commerce and state power may have lowered homicide rates, but only as an unintended by-product; with the Enlightenment, people began to consciously develop arrangements to reduce violence and protect not only their rights but those of at least some others as well. Here intelligent design works. The circle of empathy can be deliberately increased by measures like liberal education, and the framers of the American Constitution were not alone in seeing that they had to—and could—build institutions that would limit their own power. This is of signal importance.

At its core, this is about self-awareness—an understanding of human nature that can allow us to rein in our inner demons and give our better angels the upper hand. Self-control, so central to the humanizing trends Pinker documents, can be strengthened. If empathy is developed partly through novels, parents can urge their children to read them and school curricula can be developed appropriately.

Perspective-taking can be encouraged by foreign travel. Although we should not expect too much from these efforts (indeed they may produce contempt and hostility) and Pinker does not advocate extreme social engineering, he does say that societies function best when they are built on the realization that we are all prone to violence and abuse.

Pinker also points to the role of understanding in overcoming the particularly pernicious psychological bias that he calls the “Moralization Gap.” Individuals and collectivities usually want to think well of themselves. This trait eases our way through a difficult life but causes great problems when conflict arises because we are quick to blame others.

Pinker’s coverage of the research on the role of this bias in intergroup and international conflict is a bit thin (something I notice because I have contributed to it), but the basic point is clear and important. Although sometimes those we interact with are indeed responsible for the problem, the immediate assumption that this is the case, and the social and psychological inhibitions against seeing how we may be offending others and infringing upon their legitimate interests, is a major cause of escalating conflict.

Students of international politics know that efforts to gain mutual security can be foiled by the failure of the state to realize that others may see it as a threat, and therefore to interpret their undesired moves as evidence that they are unreasonable and aggressive. Throughout the Cold War, Soviet leaders could not see that their behavior played a large role in their encirclement by enemies; Mikhail Gorbachev’s intellectual breakthrough was to grasp this. Self-knowledge is important and difficult here (religious teachings about our all being sinners can help), but it can also be dangerous. Be too quick to believe that the Other is behaving badly because of what you have done and the lead-up to WWII happens all over again.

SOME ARE likely to see all this as the Whig theory of history decked out in social-science clothes. There is something to this, but Pinker is aware enough to argue that his “is a kind of Whig history that is supported by the facts.” Although he sees deep forces as responsible for much of our progress, he also acknowledges the role of contingency. He might have done more to discuss how these two fit together; could plausible historical counterfactuals have brought us to a very different outcome: Even with the Enlightenment, might full-blown racism have continued in the United States had Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolence not succeeded and World War II not been fought partly in the name of racial equality?

It is the attempt to link so many different types of declines in violence to one another that gives pause. Some links clearly are present. Early struggles to broaden the circle of those who were believed to have inalienable rights led eventually to the civil rights movement, just as it, in turn, contributed to the movements for women’s equality and gay rights. But there are problems in applying progress in one area to progress in another. Humanitarian advances do not necessarily lead to more peaceful and understanding relations among states. Nor does more self-control in one individual lead to more self-control across groups of individuals.

To his credit, Pinker realizes this is a problem, but his attempts to overcome it through social psychology are less than entirely successful. Pinker explains the decline of homicide and the decline of slavery quite differently, and the decline in war, coming later than the other markers of progress, may be even more distinct. Indeed, the two chapters on this subject do not build upon his previous arguments nor do they provide a foundation for later ones. I do not wish to argue that international politics is entirely a world apart, but wars continued to rage while other kinds of violence declined.

Perhaps what changed the incentives for peace and war must be found elsewhere. Similarly, the connection between the decline in intra and interstate wars is loose. International tensions often feed internal violence as outside countries support disputing factions. And civil wars can transmit violence to the international level. I agree with Pinker that some of these trends are of a piece with the decline of domestic violence, especially in the smaller role of honor and the general view that violence is at best a necessary evil rather than a valued mode of conduct. But it is quite possible to imagine a world in which wars coexist with some measure of domestic peace and humane behavior.

For Pinker, much of what was believed in the more violent eras “can be considered not just monstrous, but in a very real sense, stupid,” and
As humans have honed the institutions of knowledge and reason, and purged superstitions and inconsistencies from their systems of belief, certain conclusions were bound to follow, just as when one masters the laws of arithmetic certain sums and products are bound to follow.

Only in societies cut off from the free flow of ideas can enormous moral errors continue to flourish. He realizes that this view seems self-congratulatory but does not seem to see that it holds true only if one accepts contemporary values. His claim that previous beliefs “would not stand up to intellectual scrutiny as being consistent with other values [the people in earlier eras] claimed to hold, and they persisted only because the narrower intellectual spotlight of the day was not routinely shone on them” strains credulity. It implies that if we were transported to those times we could argue our new contemporaries out of their benighted beliefs and practices (assuming we were not killed first).

Pinker summarizes the correlations between reasoning and education on the one hand and nonviolence, cooperation and endorsement of individual rights on the other, but methodological constraints mean that only a few of these studies can make claims for causation, and even those cannot escape the possibility that the results simply show that smarter people are more likely to be socialized into prevailing Enlightenment views. One has to wonder whether those who believed in Fascism in the 1930s or endorsed the burning of witches in the seventeenth century were less able to reason consistently and abstractly than we are.

I am not sure he would appreciate the association, but Pinker’s argument echoes the motto engraved in the CIA’s lobby: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” These claims place too much of a burden on reasoning. After he moves on from the Civilizing Process, Pinker largely leaves material factors behind. Power and interests, costs and benefits play little role.

This, I think, is clearly wrong for the decline of war and questionable throughout. He also downplays the ways in which violence can result from reasoning, just as threats and, when necessary, the use of force is deployed to establish and maintain open societies. When these are engaged in war, they are also capable of killing large numbers of enemy civilians, as the United States and the UK did in the bombings of Germany and Japan when they calculated, correctly most historians now believe, that this would help bring victory.

Torture also had a return engagement in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Pinker could see progress in the fact that it was quite limited and was justified not only by the pressing circumstances but also by the claim that it was not torture (and that the United States had the legal opinions to prove this). I agree, and would not argue that we are headed back to the Dark Ages. But this sorry episode, which I think will be repeated if there is another major attack on America, does show that people can reason themselves into cruelty.

So what does Pinker’s analysis tell us about the future? He refrains from speculation, noting the role of contingency and statistical distributions with “fat tails”—i.e., unexpected events with large consequences. But this sensible if cautious stance does not sit entirely well with his central argument. If knowledge, reason and the free flow of ideas have brought violence down in the past, they should continue to do so in the future. It would seem highly likely, perhaps even inevitable, that free societies would develop even further where they are established and spread—if at uncertain pace—where dogma now reigns, with the result that the world would be even better in the coming generations.

Once stated, this seems too triumphalist if not reminiscent of George W. Bush, but it is to be welcomed both as a vision and a benchmark against which Pinker’s argument can be judged by our successors.

In the end, even if Pinker’s explanations do not entirely convince and his faith in reason is exaggerated, he has succeeded in documenting the enormous decline in all sorts of violence and cruelty. This achievement of humankind deserves to be better known, and readers of this important book will remember it and ponder its causes. It is a story worthy of seven hundred pages.

Robert Jervis is the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University.More by

A Note To A Friend On Phasing Into Daniel Deronda After Finishing The Brothers Karamazov

Note to a friend on phasing into Daniel Deronda after having finished The Brothers Karamazov who shares my view that we all should have one "great novel" on the go at all times:

...I found Bros K tough to finish but forced myself and am 10 xs better off for it. It's an amazing reading experience, like a sublime opera of novels. Let me know when you finish it: I have some thoughts and questions to bounce off you. Don't, I suggest, discuss it or check it out while you're reading it because there's a murder mystery working its way through all the rest going on.

I'm finding Daniel Deronda enjoyable reading and "easy," in a sense, after Dostoyevsky. I'm just at the part when Gwen comes back from gambling after learning her family's fortune is lost and puts her the shoulder of her will against the supposed inevitability of her and her family living in reduced circumstances.

It interests me, among other things, and apart from my obvious interest in Eliot's treatment of the theme of Jewishness, how she weaves in some characters'--so far, Gwen, Deronda (and maybe Grandcourt) bouts of existential dread in advance of the 20th century.

Another thing, Eliot was notoriously physically ugly and it's intriguing to consider her descriptions of Gwen's vivacious looks keeping that in mind and to consider the characterological superiority of Ms Arrowpoint.

One thought: a purely random event got me back to Lionel Trilling and I got a copy of his The Liberal Imagination and a book about him by TNR's Adam Kirsch Why Trilling Matters. It's all that that got me back to great novels. I tend to line up my reading by where Trilling's essays point. Even if you don't pursue that, I'd recommend Trilling's essays in themselves as terrifically worthwhile reading...