Tuesday, May 28, 2019
A question to a well read friend:
A question for you if you’ve read Julian Barnes’s novel/la The Sense Of An Ending, which btw won the Mann Booker prize.
In movies when one scene illogically follows or flatly contradicts another or a character does or says something obviously against type or when in the setting there’s snow on the ground in say, Tahiti and all things like that, it’s commonly called a “failure of continuity.”
So in this novel/la, if you’ve read it, you’ll know that the narrator, Tony, a student at Bristol University, who broke up with his university girl friend Veronica, also at Bristol, and a girl most definitely on the make, learns that she’s now going out with his much smarter-than-him high school friend Adrian who is a Cambridge student.
Tony out of a complex of motives writes an extremely nasty, angry letter to Adrian in which he excoriates Veronica, wishes them both all kinds of ill fortune and expresses enraged sorrow and pity for any unfortunate who happens to be their child.
Tony then learns that Adrian has killed himself and that some of his angry spite turns out to bear some rough semblance to tragic events that have happened in Adrian’s and Veronica’s future lives. The latter chunk of the novel turns a lot on Tony trying to plumb the depths of those events, come to terms with them and to expiate his deep sense of guilt over the relation between his letter and those events.
But here to my mind is the discontinuity. Even if Tony’s young man’s nastily angry letter seems to approach presaging the future tragic events, how could anyone rationally think him to bear any guilt or fault or liability or blame or needing to answer, apologize and atone for that relation, when in common sense fact and by any reasonable measure he has none and needn’t. But the novel proceeds seriously as if there is some and he needs to, and significantly at that.
There is no subterranean meaning in the novel that I can detect that wants us to understand that what seems discontinuous is in fact discontinuous even if the narrator and other major characters think, act and speak on the basis that blame and moral reckoning there are a plenty.
So either I’m missing or misunderstanding something vital in the novel/la or a big fictional premise in it is flawed in the nature of discontinuity. I’ve read a few reviews but have found no mention made of what I ask.
Any thoughts, if you’ve read The Sense Of An Ending?
Monday, May 27, 2019
First is a short statement by R as to the idea of theme in literary criticism is an artificial construct imposed on the work save for those works that explicitly want to make a point.
....Themes do arise, and we do it, and people see different themes, it's one of the ways we assimilate literary works to our own concerns. The themes are our invention, not the writer's, but of course they relate to the play. But some works have built-in themes, like Pride and Prejudice, or Animal Farm, the contradiction between Communist talk and walk, etc. But some don't, and then we assimilate them into our concerns using the story of the writer as a basis....
Second is a longer me, taking issue with his claim and arguing against it.
....Different people seeing seeing different themes is a piece of all individuals’ singular subjectivity. Save for what is quantifiable and/or evidentially replicable, we all see everything differently. Even when we agree on what we see, there must be at a minimum nuances of difference. And just so, every person’s responses to the great sweep of emotions and complications in Shakespeare’s great stories differ.
On your logic, these differences in response “are our invention” not the writer’s. Well, of course they’re not the writer’s; the emotions come from us, not from him. But if our emotions are responsive to what the writer intends, there is a symbiosis between writer and reader that is more subtle and complex than a a sheer cleft between them.
If someone is glad that Othello slays Desdemona or does a jig on experiencing Lear finding out that Cordelia is dead or is brought to great sobbing and wailing by Puck and Bottom or Mercutio’s liveliness, then he doesn’t get to form part of that symbiosis. His responses are idiosyncratic and wrong when measured by what the text reveals the author intended.
And it’s not that, short of theme, there is a sheer cleft between the emotions of our responses and our intellects. Because it’s unthinkable that, albeit in different degrees and levels of understanding and self understanding, we don’t think about our feelings in response. And in that very transition from emotion to intellect, heart to mind if you like, we plant the seeds of interpretating, analyzing for understanding, the work.
So it doesn’t tell against the argument from theme, that each person’s understanding of the work will differ, will differ even within overarching agreement. And, so, of course, interpretation is our invention and not the writer’s: after all, we’re doing it, not him. But as with our emotional responses, we can enter a symbiosis between what the writer intends, as is manifest in the work, its words, metaphors, symbols, recurrences, allusions and so on, you know the whole schmeer, and our interpretation of the work, our understanding on analysis of what he intended. And we can fail to achieve that symbiosis if our interpretations are simply out of whack with the writer’s intention.
So your point about themes being our invention simply is an unhelpful truism that doesn’t help the position you take against theme. Good interpretation will accord with intention. Bad interpretation won’t. That there is a discernible difference between the two, I think, knocks the props out from under your claim.
And this applies of course to the New Criticism properly understood as close reading leading to the ability to say what the work is about as a matter of its meaning...
Sunday, May 26, 2019
First this: the essay
Then from that this:
Conclusion: Oakeshott and Postmodern Conservatism
In his 1996 book, The Illusions of Postmodernism, the Marxist literary theorist wrote:
...Postmodernism then, is wary of History but enthusiastic on the whole about history. To historicize is a positive move and History only stands in its way. If postmodern theory really does believe that historicizing is ipso facto radical, then it is certainly mistaken. It assumes that historicizing belongs largely on the Left, which is by no means the case. You do not need to tell the Edmund Burkes, Michael Oakeshotts and Hans-Georg Gadamers of this world that events can only be understood in their historical contexts. For a whole lineage of liberal or right-wing thinkers, a sensitive attunement to historical context, to the cultural moldings of the self, to the subliminal voice of tradition and the force of the local or idiosyncratic, has been a way of discrediting what they take to be the anemic ahistorical rationality of the radicals. Burke’s appeal to prescription, venerable custom and immemorial heritage is in this sense much the same as contemporary pragmatisms’ appeal to our received social practices, even if the former is thinking of the House of Lords and the latter of baseball and free enterprise. For both schools of thought, history—which comes down to something like “the way we happen to do things and have done so for rather a long time”—is a form of rationality in itself, immeasurably superior to such jejune notions as universal freedom and justice....
Eagleton’s observation about the odd coincidence of postmodern theorizing with a certain kind of conservatism was largely ignored, despite its galvanizing implications. Perhaps the reason was that the Oakeshottian conservatism invoked by Eagleton itself seemed like a relic of the past by that point. By the 1990s, Oakeshott himself was considered something of an oddity amongst right-wing intellectuals. He was clearly immensely learned and intelligent, but his anti-rationalism and emphasis on a politics of “faith” and emotional attachment to tradition seemed like superstition in accordance with the spirit of the age. Economically minded neoliberals like F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman were more to the taste of conservative politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who was often eager to give her reforms a rationalistic quality. Oakeshott might have seemed a venerable artifact from an earlier era, doomed to fade out with the century he witnessed almost in full.
History has arguably disproven this conceit. Oakeshott’s thinking now seems not so much a phantom of the past as an anticipation of conservatism’s postmodern future. In particular, he argued that the basis of conservatism is not ultimately in some form of rationalism. This is because traditionalist reason provides us with a greater sense of affective satisfaction than rationalism, which can only ever destroy the meaningful attachments in our lives with its insistent skepticism and lust to know the world purely as it is. Traditionalist reason provides us with a sense of historical constancy and identity which may not in fact exist, but is reflected in our practices and commitments. This includes our commitment to groups like the “nation.” These may be highly arbitrary, but they are nonetheless how we frame our sense of who we are and what we owe to those like us. This provides a greater sense of meaning than rationalism, which for Oakeshott was an almost inhuman way of looking at things.
This position of course echoes the writings of many postmodern theorists, who were similarly keen to emphasize the impotence of reason relative to history and traditions. Perhaps the most prominent point of comparison is with the writings of Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard. Both these authors stressed that the project of trying to formulate a universal moral reason had failed. Instead, we must analyze the historically contingent ways different societies and traditions understood personal and political morality, without trying to interrogate them based on some conceited rationalistic standard applicable in all places at all times. Oakeshott would not have agreed with the radical political implications they drew from these epistemic and moral positions, but his philosophical thinking largely accorded with theirs.
More importantly, Oakeshott anticipated the positions of many postmodern conservatives today. For instance, postmodern conservatives are reticent to trust rationalistic arguments made by cosmopolitan “elites” who stress that we have moral obligations to all individuals, regardless of where they come from. Instead, politicians like Donald Trump and Victor Orban stress that they are “nationalists” who believe that our primary moral obligations will always be to those who look and act like us. Of course, a rationalist might counter that these factors are highly arbitrary. It is purely an accident that one is born an American or Hungarian, as it is purely accidental that refugees from Latin America or Syria were born into unstable countries where they faced serious risk of violence.
Nonetheless, these factors matter to postmodern conservatives for reasons that would have been familiar to Oakeshott. The insistence that we concern ourselves with individuals with whom we have little in common is implicitly an insistence that maintaining traditional practices, and the sense of identity and meaning they provide, is at best a secondary concern next to our universal obligations. This rationalistic emphasis that we accept the “unfamiliar” into our communities, along with the skeptical injunction that we examine why we attach so much moral significance to arbitrary factors like who belongs to what nation, destabilize the postmodern conservative worldview. For this reason, postmodern conservatives are committed to combatting such positions wherever possible.
Intriguing, meaty essay, I enjoyed it.
I’ll restrict myself to a question and an observation. I do so as an interested layman in these matters, without academic or professional expertise.
My question is: do I correctly assume that the reasoning expanding utilitarianism to its “radical edge” manifest in, say, for one example, the 19th century advocacy of universal suffrage is essentially that it increases utility, namely a greater happiness for a greater number?
My observation is that I’m at sea with your claim of significant connection between on on hand post modern theory and on the other Oakeshott’s conservatism, (“cultural conservatism”) arguing for embedded reasoning as against a kind ahistorical rationalism aka a “politics of skepticism.”
I argue your attempt significantly to link the two betrays an instance of the logical fallacy of composition, here elevating something somewhat descriptively comparable between the two into their binding commonality, that binding evident in the very nomenclature you use, namely, “postmodern conservatism.”
It’s reasonable to contrast economic libertarians like Friedman and Hayek with cultural conservatives like Burke and Oakeshott and to contrast technocratic, history-skeptics with post modern theorists. But where does the connection between cultural conservatism and postmodernism go beyond this comparison?
Postmodernism, in a main iteration, there are others, is a specific analysis of culture and events shaped by forces rooted in power —though the analysis of what comprises power and how it works out varies with different groups of theorists—perpetually and dynamically impinging on and determining human life and events.
The comparison you draw is post modernism’s insistence that human events and change are historically located as do the conservative thinkers you quote Eagleton to list. But I argue your comparison starts and stops with this observation. The line of thought running from Burke to Oakeshott is an incrementalist claim, going slow, privileging our organic link to our past manifest in our habits and traditions, fearing unintended consequences, skeptical—speaking of a politics of skepticism—of technocratic expertise conferring/imposing solutions from on high. In fact Eagleton characterizes this line of thought well, (edited to make the point):
...You do not need to tell the Edmund Burkes, Michael Oakeshotts and Hans-Georg Gadamers of this world that events can only be understood in their historical contexts...a sensitive attunement to historical context, to the cultural moldings of the self, to the subliminal voice of tradition and the force of the local or idiosyncratic...
But, contra you, this, cultural conservatism, has nothing to do with an analysis of determinative forces rooted in power, be it the power of ownership of the means of production, or the power of hegemonic race, class and gender, or to do with any notion of culture as superstructure, all of which in different iterations and emphases are hallmarks of varieties of post modern theory.
So your fallacy of composition, in a nutshell, resides in taking some descriptive similarity in the insistence on historical embeddedness and mistakenly elevating that similarity into a prescriptive conflation of post modernism and conservatism, again the evidence of that conflation is your own terminology, “postmodern conservatism” when in toto they are radically distinct from each other.
Monday, May 20, 2019
...A long time ago, I summed up The Outsider in a sentence I realise is extremely paradoxical: `In our society any man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral is liable to be condemned to death.’ I simply meant that the hero of the book is condemned because he doesn’t play the game. In this sense, he is an outsider to the society in which he lives, wandering on the fringe, on the outskirts of life, solitary and sensual. And for that reason, some readers have been tempted to regard him as a reject. But to get a more accurate picture of his character, or rather one which conforms more closely to his author’s intentions, you must ask yourself in what way Meursault doesn’t play the game. The answer is simple: he refuses to lie. Lying is not saying what isn’t true. It is also, in fact, especially saying more than is true and, in case of the human heart, saying more than one feels. We all do it, every day, to make life simpler. But, contrary to appearances, Meursault doesn’t want to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened. For example, he is asked to say that he regrets his crime, in time-honoured fashion. He replies that he feels more annoyance about it than true regret. And it is this nuance that condemns him.
So for me Meursault is not a reject, but a poor and naked man, in love with a sun which leaves no shadows. Far from lacking all sensibility, he is driven by a tenacious and therefore profound passion, the passion for an absolute and for truth. The truth is as yet a negative one, a truth born of living and feeling, but without which no triumph over the self or over the world will ever be possible.
So one wouldn’t be far wrong in seeing The Outsider as the story of a man who, without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for the truth. I also once said, and again paradoxically, that I tried to make my character represent the only Christ that we deserve. It will be understood, after these explanations, that I said it without any intention of blasphemy but simply with the somewhat ironic affection that an artist has a right to feel towards the characters he has created....
The last two paragraphs:
....I had been shouting so much that I’d lost my breath, and just then the jailers rushed in and started trying to release the chaplain from my grip. One of them made as if to strike me. The chaplain quietened them down, then gazed at me for a moment without speaking. I could see tears in his eyes. Then he turned and left the cell.
Once he’d gone, I felt calm again. But all this excitement had exhausted me and I dropped heavily on to my sleeping plank. I must have had a longish sleep, for, when I woke, the stars were shining down on my face. Sounds of the countryside came faintly in, and the cool night air, veined with smells’ of earth and salt, fanned my cheeks. The marvelous peace of the sleepbound summer night flooded through me like a tide. Then, just on the edge of daybreak, I heard a steamer’s siren. People were starting on a voyage to a world which had ceased to concern me forever. Almost for the first time in many months I thought of my mother. And now, it seemed to me, I understood why at her life’s end she had taken on a “fiancé”; why she’d played at making a fresh start. There, too, in that Home where lives were flickering out, the dusk came as a mournful solace. With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration...
You made the point, if I have it right, that in the end Mersault after abject alienation, after his characteristic“flat affect,” at last exults in being able to feel emotion, feel something, and perhaps (this is me now interpreting you) there’s some kind of personal redemption/vindication for him in that.
But at the end he says he’s happy, his long sleep cleansing him of his previous anger toward the chaplain. So as I read this, he’s not incapable of emotion or sharp reaction to things. He assaults the chaplain. His assaultive anger seems purgative. Clam descends; a long sleep follows; and, as just noted, after it, he’s happy and calm. He has what might be called a parodic, even ironic, epiphany, an anti epiphany. Instead of being in a state of mystical union with God or with the symmetry of the universe, with the oneness of all things, he assimilates himself to the universe’s “benign indifference.” It flows through him, opens his heart, and makes him feel “so brotherly.” But it’s really an anti brotherliness because he feels kinship with no one else but himself:
...To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still...
Completing this solipsistic brotherly anti brotherliness, all that remains to perfect it is to have attend at his execution ...a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration...
He has been reborn into sheer negativity:
...And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe...
His beckoning death is the apotheosis or the heights or the capper of the universe’s benign indifference. His death, death itself, vouches his, our, meaninglessness, the truth that nothing matters. The realization of, his experiencing of, the truth of meaninglessness, is liberating for him. As quoted, he exults in it.
So why then at the end does he want to feel less lonely—...For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely..—and what exactly is the “all to be accomplished”? Why aren’t his realization—his insight into indifference, and his calmness and joy in that sufficient? Why does his fulfillment require his hope that an execrating crowd will attend his execution?
My reading of that “hope” is it goes to him wanting to gain vindictive satisfaction in trumping the crowd, in triumphing over it, by being born alive, fulfilled, in death, the opposite of the execrating crowd having its hatred fulfilled by his death:
....With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again..
On my reading of his hope, and of these last two paragraphs of the book, what comes primarily forward, at least for me, is not so much Mersault’s finally feeling some emotion, something more than his flat affect—after all, his combative fury with the chaplain is hardly flat affect or emotional deadness—but rather his triumph in understanding meaninglessness, his anti epiphany.
If so, my previous point remains for me:
why with that insight does Mersault, as I just noted, need or want to feel less lonely: after all, he is, he says, so happy with his insight into meaninglessness; and
why does he need the seemingly vindictive pleasure of triumphing over his hoped for execrating crowd; after all, he is at one with the benign indifference of the universe?
The following occur to me as possibilities:
1. These last two paragraphs collapse into incoherence.
2. The ironies are so relentless that they circle back on themselves. So, Camus intentionally subverts what he seems to describe of Mersault’s triumphant realization.
3. I’m misreading the ending and either missing something important or erroneously overcomplicating things.
4. Something else.
From Camus’s after-note he seems not to have meant to be so ironic as I suggest in 2, though he does say at its end:
.... I tried to make my character represent the only Christ that we deserve. It will be understood, after these explanations, that I said it without any intention of blasphemy but simply with the somewhat *ironic* affection that an artist has a right to feel towards the characters he has created...(the asterisk are mine)
I interpret that to mean that Mersault, Christ like, sacrifices his life to be true to the truth:
...he refuses to lie. Lying is not saying what isn’t true. It is also, in fact, especially saying more than is true and, in case of the human heart, saying more than one feels. We all do it, every day, to make life simpler. But, contrary to appearances, Meursault doesn’t want to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened. For example, he is asked to say that he regrets his crime, in time-honoured fashion. He replies that he feels more annoyance about it than true regret. And it is this nuance that condemns him...
....So one wouldn’t be far wrong in seeing The Outsider as the story of a man who, without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for the truth....
But, finally, these comments, as I read them and the last two paragraphs of the book, belie Mersault’s final need to feel less lonely and to want to triumph vindictively and with self-vindication over the hateful crowd. Camus’s after-note confers dignity and integrity on Mersault. And yet, it’s reasonably inferable that he reciprocally hates the haters. So at the very end there exists in him some degree of spiteful pettiness. And at the end that degree of spiteful pettiness is unlovely and all too human. It is inconsistent with his calm, happy, brotherly, unifying feeling derived by him from his anti epiphany.
Sunday, May 19, 2019
Honestly, I don’t get it.
You’re a smart, educated, enlightened guy; how can you expend any energy on this crap, unless it’s simply a job necessity?
Not being paid to review anything, I’m free to swing wilder.
I saw 1 and thought it was terrible, just a blood soaked, violent flick with an attempt to hip it itself up by winking at itself—a massive cop out—and saying in effect, “It’s only make believe,” as Conway Twitty sang. With nothing redeeming about 1, it’s basically porn, just fetishizing something different than sex.
So I watched 2 out of curiosity and in the thought that maybe I missed something in 1. I didn’t: as the old Jewish joke, adapted, has it, “I can say one thing good about 1: 2 is worse.” Even what story there is 1, essentially pretext for the violence, as in all porn, is diminished to virtually a 0 in 2. And the violence-caused-blood soaked-running water filling the cinematic bath tub spills over the tub’s walls and splays and splashes everywhere leaving only a bloody mess.
I won’t watch 3 unless my curiosity kills the cat of my resistance.
But even if I do, 1, 2 and 3 contribute to our increasing moronism, desensitization, vulgarity and steeply declining seriousness. You’re none of these and have none of any these in you, which, apart from job demands, makes your expending better-spent-elsewhere energy on this all the more puzzling.
Wednesday, May 8, 2019
Actually just saw it.
Story is so contrived so as to be a cartoon.
1 1/2 out of 5 is generous.
And Rogen is awful in it.
It’s an unconvincing stinker. 1/2
No believable chemistry, though the premise is conceivable.
Rogen, who is always mostly irritating, noisy bluster, and Theron, who acted here by rote, had no heat and conveyed no sense of reality as opposed to high concepts dressed up in human bodies.
A waste of 2 hours. 2/2