Jan 17

Blood Meridian

Red in tooth and claw: social Darwinism at workBlood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
by Cormac McCarthy

So an interesting coincidence happened with regard to this book here. I was reading the reviews by people on Goodreads for this one, split between those who think it is the greatest novel ever written and pretty stupid, gratuitous, undisciplined, and pointless (and pointlessly violent, naturally), but I couldn’t figure out how to express the way I feel about “Blood Meridian” myself. Then, this fine morning, I was surfing the web like only someone avoiding doing more important things can do, when I stumbled on the wikipedia page of one Peckinpah, Sam, a film director from many generations ago and therefore completely irrelevant to anything in existence today. The bio of this obscure popular culture personality stated, in part, the following:

Many critics see his worldview as a misanthropic, Hobbesian view of nature as essentially evil and savage. Peckinpah himself stated the opposite. He saw violence as the product of human society, and not of nature. It is the result of men’s competition with each other over power and domination, and their inability to negotiate this competition without resorting to brutality. Peckinpah also used violence as a means to achieve catharsis, believing his audience would be purged of violence by witnessing it explicitly on screen (one of the major inspirations for his violent sequences in The Wild Bunch). Peckinpah later admitted that this idea was mistaken, and that audiences had come to enjoy the violence in his films rather than be horrified by it, something that deeply troubled him later in his career.

I am not a superstitious person, except when I am, but these coincidences do seem to happen to me with regularity. I don’t know how to understand them and don’t usually try. Anyway, the man’s attitude towards violence vis-a-vis human society (it is produced by society rather than thwarted by it), and violence vis-a-vis art (it is pornography rather than a means to catharsis), reflects perfectly my own. I think it doesn’t take too much effort to see that this is true, and only copious amounts of propaganda can turn what should be obvious to anyone into its opposite. So, the right volume of propaganda can turn Hobbes’ “nasty/brutish/short” line describing life before civilization into something self-evident. Conversely, the truly harrowing amount of violence perpetrated by men on one another today is somehow not seen as proof that the notion of civilization as something that restrains men from violence is pure bullshit.

The truth regarding the relationship of civilization to violence should be obvious to anyone. But that’s not what Cormac McCarthy seems to be talking about in Blood Meridian. But, then, what is he talking about in “Blood Meridian”? The problem is, I don’t know, and nobody seems to know, judging from the reviews. And yet, not being able to tell what a certain work is about is in no way an obstacle to being judged a masterpiece by a great many people today. This needs explaining.

I come from a visual art background, so I’ll talk about the visual arts to illustrate my point. It’s pretty much the same in literature, though– just substitute James Joyce for Marcel Duschamp, and you’ll have it right. For most of human history, someone looking at a work of art would find that their notion of what it is they are seeing would agree with that of the artist. This only changed in the modern era, in a period dubbed “modernism” in the arts. At this point, artists started to make pictures which had increasingly less to do with the world we live in. Eventually, modernism gave rise to two complimentary ideas, the notion of “art for art’s sake,” meaning that art by definition has no purpose; and the notion that form and content in a work of art are separate. The second notion means that what is depicted in a picture and the way the artist went about doing the depicting (the medium, the technique, the circumstances of the art-making) are separate things to be judged separately. So on the one hand, we have artists dragging found objects into museums and galleries, and on the other, canvases painted a solid color and sanded down: the first is an example of content without form, and the second of form without content, according to the modernists.

When the people reviewing “Blood Meridian” say that they don’t know what the book is about, exactly, but the beauty of the language makes it worthwhile to read, the assumption is that the work of art need not be about anything, the author’s technique is in itself enough to make it a meaningful experience for the audience. But surely, that can’t be the case: when Kafka wrote accident reports for the insurance company he worked for, he consciously worked to make them literary. But no matter how beautifully these were rendered (by one of the most revered stylists of modern literature, no less), no one wants to read them. Somehow, this is more obvious with literature than with the visual arts, where artists and critics have been pulling wool over everyone’s eyes for over half a century.

But what if “Blood Meridian” is about violence? Many reviewers suggest this to be what the book is all about. Is that the case here? To remove the violence to a bygone time period negates the notion that McCarthy is trying to bring us face to face with the violence the human race can perpetrate. In any case, what would be the point of such a thing, when we all know full well just how violent our race can be? Violence, being (along with sex) one of the main ways people are sold stuff today, needs to be handled carefully in a work of art, otherwise it quickly devolves into the art equivalent of sugar and fat, empty calories that taste good. Does McCarthy investigate the meaning of violence in our culture? The way it is used to sell us stuff? Something else about it? How? Otherwise, I don’t see how this is different from the art-school student who mistakes hanging up a poster of a serial killer (for example) for a “discussion of violence and its representations in contemporary culture,” as their artists’ statement will pithily state.

But I am guilty of an error: McCarthy, so far as I know, is not claiming that his book is a discussion of violence or anything else, it is the people who read him that have said as much. “Blood Meridian” is perhaps just a post-modern exercise to its writer, a meditation on language using the subject of violence as a guide for improvisation, a skeleton to weave his literary stylings around, so to speak. In such a case, it’s hard to see what would make so many people applaud McCarthy as a modern genius– surely one needs to accomplish something more than a lengthy literary improvisation with no content to be counted among the greats. But then again, it is all too easy to fool people today in every other way, I don’t know why literature should be any exception.

I haven’t even mentioned the content of the book– it’s here that Blood Meridian really stinks to high heaven. All other things remaining as they are, if this book wasn’t an invitation into a flawed and misleading view of history and human nature, it may not be such a stinker. So, just one example:

“War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

This quote was liked by 169 Goodreads readers. Only problem is, besides grating on the reader’s ear, this assertion is wrong. Perhaps you might argue that these are the words of a character and don’t represent the author’s views, but the rest of the book seems to support the view that this is, indeed, the thesis of the whole thing, all 351 pages of it. War seems to be the central character, to which all others are secondary and subservient, and it’s not in this position for the sake of criticism.

Whether writing about an apocalyptic future, as in “The Road,” or an apocalyptic past, as in “Blood Meridian,” Cormac McCarthy seems to capture the feel of life today. Perhaps that is why people are drawn to his books. Yet, not only do his books offer no answers to his readers, they potentially lead down some dead-wrong, dead-end paths, suggesting very harmful notions via the passing on of unexamined assumptions as well as in the general atmosphere of hopelessness pervading the action. Its hard to blame McCarthy for being hopeless, as it is only becoming more difficult to remain optimistic about mankind’s prospects. And yet, there are ways to be honest about what we (mankind) have done to the world and to ourselves while maintaining the possibility of fighting for something better.

Jan 17

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The average person would throw his freedom at the feet of the first person who would relieve him of it.

Erich Fromm would agree, though not for the same reasons.

Little need be said about a the plot and characters of a book as well known as this one. Much can and should be said about the historical context of the novel though, and about us, its readers, our ways and means, although I will likely as not fail at the task, being a stunted product of my time. Which is not to imply that our time is more stunted than another, and especially that of Dostoevsky, although the mid 19th century did have one big advantage over ours: the belief in progress as a force which will allow men to blossom.

Dostoevsky may be among the first to seriously doubt this notion. In this regard, it is significant that he comes from Russia, a peasant country with a long history of oppression and virtually no tradition of humanitarianism or liberalism of its own. Coming into contact with progressive western ideas of that sort, Dostoevsky doubted them based on his profound knowledge of people– Russian people. Unlike most progressives of his era, of which he was one in his youth, Dostoevsky came to the conclusion that the revolution will not find support among the masses; and he knew enough about the nature of power to understand that a revolution attempting to drag the peasants in its wake would simply turn out to be more of the same oppression. That pretty much leaves the conservative project of self-improvement as the only meaningful path an individual concerned with the plight of his/her species can pursue, paradoxical as that is.

Amazingly, we are in the same mess today we were in 150 years ago. The world is far from uniform: if you wonder what the “end of the world” will look like, you need look no further that certain parts of the Third World, and for a vision of what the liberal utopia of 19th century progressives looks like, by and large, check out Scandinavian welfare states, especially before the anti-immigrant reaction has started to settle in over the last decade. But the world as a whole is much the same colonial administration it was in 1850, getting more colonial by the minute. The options available to a conscientious individual are the same today as those available back then, meaning no meaningful option at all short of withdrawing from that one hopes to see changed. Such is our world.

The readers of Dostoevsky today will learn most from deciphering the context of his novels, seeing how the basic conditions of our lives haven’t changed all that much in the intervening century and a half, and are, as such, familiar to anyone who would bother to get their head out their ass. The verbose and challenging nature of a book like The Brothers Karamazov is a testament to a bygone era of verbal and critical virtuosity and involvement we have unfortunately lost along the way. For an English-language example of the same, see the Lincoln-Douglas debates: they are eloquent, complex, and challenging, and they were addressed to and expected to be understood by the average person of the time. Back when the main media of communication were verbal, everyone seems to have been able to follow complex arguments and appreciate beautiful turns of speech we have long given up in favor of visual sophistication, and interested enough in the issues of their day to do so. The main medium in use by a society has everything to do with the way a society conceives of and processes its world: see Neil Postman’s wonderful “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”
for a detailed explanation.

The way we choose to convey our thoughts has a major effect on the thoughts’ content, and the main medium used by a society will influence that society’s values in profound ways. It seems that some people are starting to wake up to this fact– I heard an NPR story yesterday suggesting that the language spoken by a society has an effect on the way the members of this society conceive of and relate to money, for example. I suspect that the culture of Dostoevsky’s day lent itself to the “utopian” spirit of the progressives’ program, just as our culture today lends itself to the mercantile emphasis of our times, as well as the naked manipulation of individuals done in the name of democracy and freedom the world over.

Aug 07

The Iron Heel

The Iron Heel
by Jack London
ebook, 1st Edition, 186 pages
Published May 3rd 2006 by Project Gutenberg (first published 1907)
url http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1164

The Iron Heel, Jack London’s political allegory. Horrible writing to get across a largely true idea, which is yet flawed in a crucial way. The true and the valuable consists in clarity of the language and in the wonderful way complicated concepts are made coherent.  See the part on surplus value:

Here is a shoe factory. This factory takes leather and makes it into shoes. Here is one hundred dollars’ worth of leather. It goes through the factory and comes out in the form of shoes, worth, let us say, two hundred dollars. What has happened? One hundred dollars has been added to the value of the leather. How was it added? Let us see.

Capital and labor added this value of one hundred dollars. Capital furnished the factory, the machines, and paid all the expenses. Labor furnished labor. By the joint effort of capital and labor one hundred dollars of value was added.

Labor and capital having produced this one hundred dollars, now proceed to divide it. The statistics of this division are fractional; so let us, for the sake of convenience, make them roughly approximate. Capital takes fifty dollars as its share, and labor gets in wages fifty dollars as its share. We will not enter into the squabbling over the division. No matter how much squabbling takes place, in one percentage or another the division is arranged. And take notice here, that what is true of this particular industrial process is true of all industrial processes.

Now, suppose labor, having received its fifty dollars, wanted to buy back shoes. It could only buy back fifty dollars’ worth.

And now we shift from this particular process to the sum total of all industrial processes in the United States, which includes the leather itself, raw material, transportation, selling, everything. We will say, for the sake of round figures, that the total production of wealth in the United States is one year is four billion dollars. Then labor has received in wages, during the same period, two billion dollars. Four billion dollars has been produced. How much of this can labor buy back? Two billions. There is no discussion of this, I am sure. For that matter, my percentages are mild. Because of a thousand capitalistic devices, labor cannot buy back even half of the total product.

But to return. We will say labor buys back two billions. Then it stands to reason that labor can consume only two billions. There are still two billions to be accounted for, which labor cannot buy back and consume.

Two billions are left to capital. After it has paid its expenses, does it consume the remainder? Does capital consume all of its two billions?

If capital consumed its share, the sum total of capital could not increase. It would remain constant. If you will look at the economic history of the United States, you will see that the sum total of capital has continually increased. Therefore capital does not consume its share. Do you remember when England owned so much of our railroad bonds? As the years went by, we bought back those bonds. What does that mean? That part of capital’s unconsumed share bought back the bonds. What is the meaning of the fact that to-day the capitalists of the United States own hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of Mexican bonds, Russian bonds, Italian bonds, Grecian bonds? The meaning is that those hundreds and hundreds of millions were part of capital’s share which capital did not consume. Furthermore, from the very beginning of the capitalist system, capital has never consumed all of its share.

And now we come to the point. Four billion dollars of wealth is produced in one year in the United States. Labor buys back and consumes two billions. Capital does not consume the remaining two billions. There is a large balance left over unconsumed. What is done with this balance? What can be done with it? Labor cannot consume any of it, for labor has already spent all its wages. Capital will not consume this balance, because, already, according to its nature, it has consumed all it can. And still remains the balance. What can be done with it? What is done with it?

Because of this balance arises our need for a foreign market. This is sold abroad. It has to be sold abroad. There is no other way of getting rid of it. And that unconsumed surplus, sold abroad, becomes what we call our favorable balance of trade.

The United States is a capitalist country that has developed its resources. According to its capitalist system of industry, it has an unconsumed surplus that must be got rid of, and that must be got rid of abroad. What is true of the United States is true of every other capitalist country with developed resources. Every one of such countries has an unconsumed surplus. Don’t forget that they have already traded with one another, and that these surpluses yet remain. Labor in all these countries has spent its wages, and cannot buy any of the surpluses. Capital in all these countries has already consumed all it is able according to its nature. And still remain the surpluses. They cannot dispose of these surpluses to one another. How are they going to get rid of them?

Sell them to countries with undeveloped resources.

Suppose the United States disposes of its surplus to a country with undeveloped resources like, say, Brazil. Remember this surplus is over and above trade, which articles of trade have been consumed. What, then, does the United States get in return from Brazil?

From Brazil the United States, in return for her surplus, gets bonds and securities. And what does that mean? It means that the United States is coming to own railroads in Brazil, factories, mines, and lands in Brazil. And what is the meaning of that in turn?

It means that the resources of Brazil are being developed. And now, the next point. When Brazil, under the capitalist system, has developed her resources, she will herself have an unconsumed surplus. Can she get rid of this surplus to the United States? No, because the United States has herself a surplus. Can the United States do what she previously did—get rid of her surplus to Brazil? No, for Brazil now has a surplus, too.

What happens? The United States and Brazil must both seek out other countries with undeveloped resources, in order to unload the surpluses on them. But by the very process of unloading the surpluses, the resources of those countries are in turn developed. Soon they have surpluses, and are seeking other countries on which to unload.

The planet is only so large. There are only so many countries in the world. What will happen when every country in the world, down to the smallest and last, with a surplus in its hands, stands confronting every other country with surpluses in their hands?

London thinks that after the workers control the means of production, they will simply get paid 100% of their products’ value rather than half or less. But what happens when the whole world has such surpluses and a socialist planning bueracracy is not there to remedy the glut of crap no one wants or can afford? Plenty of these things can and do get bought by the government and dumped in the ocean, but what are the more general effects? I suppose this places a limit on the profits capitalists are able to earn, but more importantly, it places a limit on the need for labor. Some stasis is necessary so that the workers earn just enough to buy what is produced, but never so much that they would consider not working full time since their needs are already met. Perhaps the financial markets are the current outlet for extra surpluses, but then the huge amounts of money conjured up in the NYSE are patently a mirage, since they are tied to nothing tangible.

The flaw is a part of this same argument. It is inconceivable to Jack London that anyone would want to reverse the “evolution” which has led to greater efficiency in production, in fact he views the process as irreversible. It is self-evident to him that larger concerns are more efficient than smaller concerns, newer machines superior to older ways of producing things. As a result, his solution is to simply take over the wonderful machines that are presently in the hands of capitalists, and to give them to the workers themselves. Everything will be better then. But the notion that such a thing as economies of scale exist is simply untrue, as per Newton’s laws of the conservation of energy and matter. Greater efficiency can at best be procured against future deficits, such as the petroleum-fueled boom we have been living in the midst of since before London’s times. The mechanical looms which replaced the cottage weaving industry of the 18th century were powered by coal or steam, and as such do not offer any advantages over the long run unless there is an infinite supply of fuel, which there isn’t (England was pretty much deforested by the early Industrial Age).

It seems to me that this should close the argument, with no need to even discuss the second fallacy in London’s description, which is that it is possible to just hand over the means of production to the workers and call that anything other than the same thing that you started with. As Marshall McLuhan suggested and Fredy Perlman clearly saw, the medium (factories and machines, in this case) will dictate certain conditions of social reality irrespective of who owns or controls them.

Unless people manage to tap into a power source which is practically inexhaustible on a human scale (stuff like energy originating in stars), the whole argument is moot: we will be out of energy reserves shortly, and revert to a level of production which will make Feudalism seem futuristic, since we will have depleted all soils, bodies of water, and anything of any value or beauty by that point. The only upside  to the impending apocalypse may be that the mentality which has produced these evil stupid atavistic times will likely pass along with the times themselves: people living by the labor of their hands and the land can’t afford to pretend that they are all individuals with a god-granted right to ignore or exploit anyone and anything they come across.

Jul 31

Distant Star

Distant Star
by Roberto Bolaño, Chris Andrews (translator)
Paperback, 150 pages
Published December 17th 2004 by New Directions (first published November 1996)
original title Estrella distante
ISBN 0811215865 (ISBN13: 9780811215862)

The key to what this book is about is the following paragraph, from Between Parentheses, although it appeared in slightly different form in a novel– perhaps Amulet.

‘And last of all, a true story. I repeat: this isn’t fiction, it’s real, it happened in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship and more or less everybody (the small and remote “everybody” that is Chile) knows it. A right-wing young woman sets up house with a right-wing American, or marries him. The two of them aren’t just young, they’re good-looking and proud. He’s a DINA (National Intelligence Directorate) agent, possibly also a CIA agent. She loves literature and loves her man. They rent or buy a big house in the suburbs of Santiago. In the cellars of this house the American interrogates and tortures political prisoners who are later moved on to other detention centers or added to the list of the disappeared. She writes, and she attends writing workshops. In those days, I suppose, there weren’t as many workshops as there are today, but there were some. In Santiago people have grown accustomed to the curfew. At night there aren’t many places to go for fun, and the winters are long. So every weekend or every few nights she has a group of writers over to her house. It isn’t a set group. The guests vary. Some come only once, others several times. At the house there’s always whiskey, good wine, and sometimes the gatherings turn into dinners. One night a guest goes looking for the bathroom and gets lost. Probably he’s a bit tipsy or maybe he’s already lost in the alcoholic haze of the weekend. In any case, instead of turning right he turns left and then he goes down a flight of stairs that he shouldn’t have gone down, and he opens a door at the end of a long hallway, long like Chile. The room is dark but even so he can make out a bound figure, in pain or possibly drugged. He knows what he’s seeing. He closes the door and returns to the party. He isn’t drunk anymore. He’s terrified, but he doesn’t say anything. “Surely the people who attended those post-coup, culturally stilted soirees will remember the annoyance of the flickering current that made lamps blink and music stop, interrupting the dancing. Just as surely, they knew nothing about another parallel dance, in which the jab of the prod tensed the tortured back of the knee in a voltaic arc. They might not have heard the cries over the blare of disco, which was all the rage back then,” says Pedro Lemebel. Whatever the case, the writers leave. But they come back for the next party. She, the hostess, even wins a short story or poetry prize from the only literary journal still in existence back then, a left-wing journal.’

’And this is how the literature of every country is built.’

When I was a freshman student in the BFA program of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I tried to make a similar point in an assignment for a 2-D Design class. Maybe it’d be more accurate to say it was a parallel point. Saying it was similar is slightly pretentious on my part– I didn’t really know anything then, and what’s worse, thought I did. The scary thing is that the adjunct teacher who taught the class was taken enough with the results of my labors that she gave me an A for the class; a grade I surely did not deserve since I spent the majority of the semester making sure everyone knew just how much better than them I considered myself. Better than them, better than the stupid 2-D assignments, better than the whole world, I’m sure. That poor teacher must have had tremendously dull groups of students year in and year out to find anything interesting in my assignment.

My project consisted of some kind of comic, although I knew just as little about comics as anything else then, so it wasn’t much of a comic, more like a story told in pictures. I remember I got one of those sketchbooks with the pages already colored with swirls, for some reason. The story, which I thought up on the spot, was about a kid who sits around drawing and talking with friends at a coffee shop, mostly about art. Thats what I spent my time doing then, or wanted to think I did. Then he’s walking home one night and gets robbed by a bunch of other kids. While rummaging through his bag, one of the robbers says, “Hey, check out this kid’s drawings,” before they run off without looking. The last scene was of the boy sitting alone at the same coffeeshop, with thought bubbles saying “art” with a question mark (in the previous coffeeshop scene they said “art” “art” “art,” like to show that’s what they’re talking about). The end. I think I was trying to say that art is fine and all, until life makes a mockery of your creativity and makes you feel stupid for even thinking about it.

The difference is (one of the many differences is…), Bolano is really good at what he does, meaning that as his books make the point that art and fascism are not as opposed as one might be inclined to think, his genius with his chosen medium makes the exact opposite point. Reading Distant Star the second time really brought this out; the tension between the book’s message and execution, content and form, is one reason I rate it so highly.

I gather the job of an artist who would create original art is infinitely harder today than it was a hundred or two hundred years ago, but I wouldn’t have known this to be the case if not for people like Bolano. That is, reading Bolano makes clear to me just how hackneyed all the other writers are; what I don’t understand exactly is why i had to read this book twice to even appreciate it fully– although I gladly re-read Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, etc., their books are fully accessible to me upon the first reading. Maybe it’s the Borges influence.

I have much more to say about this book, and Bolano, and maybe I will. Things like, this is a book about SOMETHING. As in, it is neither pretending that a writer’s work concerns pretty prose, content be damned, as if the two have ever been separate; nor is it a cliche created to sell copies to people for whom reading is a comfort activity.

Jul 27

The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Originally published 1966,
written 1940

The Master and Margarita is about the modern world: boring, sterile, mercantile, evil; and the eternal world of goodness and generosity, imagination and freedom which opposes the other, sometimes just barely.

M&M is a to a large extent a morality tale. The baddie in the novel is the modern world, the world of Stalin’s Russia most immediately, but not exclusively. Bulgakov was not unaware of the world outside of the U.S.S.R., and although foreign lands or characters do not appear in M&M, the interwoven narrative of Jesus’ last day and crucifixion makes it clear that Soviet hypocrisy is not the sole target of scorn– rather it is the entirety of our bureaucratic, joyless world. The good side is embodied in the usual suspects– Jesus, the generous and the kind, the creative, the honest, the brave. Satan, in another slight twist, is also on the side of the good as an agent of Christ on earth (towards the end, Matthew asks for Satan to arrange perpetual peace for Margarita and her lover– apparently God is incapable of acting directly on earth).

Bulgakov hates modernity, the city, and everything that comes with it (“What a mess!” says Margarita as she flies her broomstick over a crowd of busy shoppers). Satan hates electric light. It is telling that the only time any piece of modern technology– a car– is mentioned in a non-negative context is when Margarita is getting into one on her way to do her penance at Satan’s ball, a decidedly worldly affair. The most joyful scene of the book is Margarita’s flight from Moscow on a broomstick, en route to Satan’s ball, and passing over Siberia, a vast wilderness populated only by mythical creatures. “Listen and drink in that, which you’ve been denied in life– silence,” says Margarita to the Master as they are about to finally reap their eternal reward: a country home illuminated by candlelight, where the Master can spend his evenings writing with a goose quill and listen to Schubert with everyone that matters to him.

Soviet literature and the organizations representing writers are the subject of equal or greater scorn, as the two jokers from Woland’s (Satan’s) entourage make clear when sarcastically predicting the emergence of the next Gogol, Tolstoy, or Dostoyevsky from the bureaucratic literature association.

But all the sarcasm and irony in the world wouldn’t make Master and Margarita what it is without the joy offered in contrast to the terror and boredom of business as usual. The joy rises out of the dread in normal life, and feels so authentic for that reason. First situated in the bleak emotionally draining world of modernity which is all too familiar, the reader is then taken on a ride where the bores, the tyrants, and cheats are punished, and the good have lots of fun, and eventually get rewarded.

I suppose I am revealing more about my own prejudices than the book when I say that this is art at its best: yes, it is a thrill to read (literally, for much of the book– you could do worse than learning Russian just so you could read this in original). But it leaves you uplifted long after you’ve put the book down: it gives hope to those who are crushed by the sick logic of our modern world. Joy is the currency of life, and one can spin an entire philosophy beginning with this idea alone. That the worlds of 1st century Palestine, 1920s Moscow, and 2010s US are as similar as they are in their intent to rob their citizens of joy in whatever way possible is for some reason the ultimate leap of faith for most people, writers included.

Perhaps among the lesser appeals of the book is the story-within-the-story of Jesus’ last days. I don’t know whether this is an original invention on Bulgakov’s part, but the weaving in of a novel by a character into the novel at large is a device that has been adopted with relish by many since, at times to the extent that the interweaving of multiple levels of (fictional) reality seems to be the whole point of a work, such as Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche.” I suppose that what is a creative plot device in Bulgakov and a metaphor in Borges becomes like a cancer that eats itself when made into self-referential behemoths by others of the “post-modern” persuasion.

Lately it seems to me that all the best books are in various ways aware of Baudelaire’s words, “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom,” this one being no exception. In describing Stalin’s Russia, Bulgakov managed to leave a picture which is universal in its depiction of our lives. Americans like to believe that they are a chosen race; M&M makes clear the similar conceit held by the Russians of 1930, different as it was in its’ exact manner of expression. As we lead our (mostly) terrible lives, the Master and Margarita is more than relief from the tedium and the brutality, it is a protest and a challenge of incendiary scope, if only anyone would notice.

A good essay about M&M which makes some of the points I’ve tried to make, but competently (there’s two pages to the essay):

http://www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/02themas/pevear.html

Jul 26

Ibn Battuta in Black Africa

Ibn Battuta in Black Africa
by Said Hamdun (Editor), Noel King
Published March 10th 2005 by Markus Wiener Publishers (first published January 28th 1995)
ISBN 1558763368 (ISBN13: 9781558763364)

The Muslim world of the 14th century, like the Roman world of the 2nd century AD or the world of the Fertile Crescent Civilizations 3000-1000 BC, was pretty much just like ours in the ways that count.

The realm of Islam covered much of the known world in the 14th century. Some people traveled around it just for the sake of experience and such, like this guy. He was from Morocco, and made it as far as China, Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa, this last one being the journey chronicled in this book. Africa had large, rich, and stable kingdoms along the coasts, which grew prosperous by mediating trade between the people living in the interior and traders from far away, Muslims, Europeans and others. Ibn Battuta’s account makes it clear that there was no racism of the kind we in the West have come to know so well back then, although there was plenty of pettiness and accusations of provincialism leveled at anyplace that was not Mecca or Medina. There was certainly slavery, but crucially, it was not identified with race.

Ibn Battuta himself is a braggart and a sleaze, his account reliable as often as not. Yet, this is one of less than a handful of accounts of Sub-Saharan Africa in the middle ages, so you simply can’t get this information anywhere else. After a while, Battuta’s boasting becomes endearing.

Pretty interesting book to read, since it is so easy to see oneself as living in those times. I feel like anything that can shake us out of our lazy, complacent ethnocentrism and superior attitudes can only be a good thing. Revealing the past for what it is– the present of people who lived before– can only make us aware of our own mortality, fallibility, and profound unremarkable-ness. Our present will be judged by the people who come after us, and have no doubt, they will not think us brilliant for spending all our time figuring out how to “make the economy grow” while destroying the planet that sustains us all at an ever increasing rate. If we don’t fuck up so bad there is no “intelligent” life to judge us at all, that is.

On a totally unrelated note: there are color photos of Russia from over 100 years ago that are a life-changing experience, something that will play with your head and leave you unable to think of the past as “The Past” ever again. A number of them are here:

http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/08/russia_in_color_a_century_ago.html

while the Library of Congress has the collection in its entirety, thousands of pictures and negatives.

Jul 25

Requiem For A Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change

Requiem For A Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change
by Clive Hamilton
Published April 7th 2010 by Earthscan Publications (first published January 1st 2010)
ISBN 1849710813 (ISBN13: 9781849710817)

It ought to be clear to everyone by now that modern humans’ main characteristic is hubris: the manner in which we (will) have exhausted our environment’s resources is exactly the same as the manner in which a horde of rabbits or rats would if introduced to a new place, i.e. Australia. We creatures reproduce and devour until there is nothing left to devour, then die off en masse to a more sustainable level– although this is something yet to be seen in the case of the human species as our environmental depletion is somewhat deeper and more complex than in the case of rabbits. Neither having big brains, nor consciences, has made an iota of difference in the population trajectory of our species, leaving one to reconsider the question of what it is, if anything, that separates humans from other creatures. Could it be that, objectively, there is nothing that gives us the right to claim the status of top dog in the critter hierarchy? After all, there are many animals which thrive, but only one which seems hell-bent on driving not just its own kind to extinction, but most other creatures as well.

But I am being facetious, here, because I don’t believe for a second that it is really human nature to behave as we have been behaving now for some time, with well known consequences. Not any more than masochism is in the nature of dogs trained to attack bears, or suicide is in the nature of rats kept in solitary cages with nothing to do but push a button releasing intravenous morphine into their bloodstream until they keel over. These are all, clearly, aberrant scenarios. Let us not forget that people are equally related to bonobos as to chimps, meaning that we are at least as likely to cooperate and play, help each other and explore each other, as we are to devour each others’ young. I suggest that the dominance of competitive behaviors versus cooperative ones is determined by the environment we find ourselves in.

But it is all a moot point, it seems: not only are we going to destroy the planet which has nurtured our kind and those of all others for millennia, but we won’t even enjoy ourselves in the process. Unfortunately, it’s just not fun to live in a dog-eat-dog world of the sort we’ve had created for us, not even in the unlikely case you happen to be the top dog.

Jul 22

Escape from Freedom

Escape from Freedom
by Erich Fromm
Published September 15th 1994 by Holt Paperbacks (first published 1941)
original title
The Fear of Freedom
ISBN
0805031499 (ISBN13: 9780805031492)

 

Amazing book, so good one wonders how it ever got published. Surely only because back in 1940 people still thought of civilization as responsible for the realization of human potential, collectively and individually. How much has changed.

Fromm makes sense of Freud in just a few straightforward pages: to simplify, Freud saw people as governed by innate drives seated deep in their sub-conscious. Fromm sees people as governed by social forces. The change in focus takes much of the absurdity out of Freud’s thought, and has immense explanatory potential. For example, Fromm’s emphasis explains why certain character traits are shared by entire socio-economic groups, i.e. anal personality in the middle class of his day.

But it’s mostly the realism of Fromm’s world-view that makes him so valuable. The freedom we “gained” as a result of the Enlightenment is a double-edged sword: as it individuates us and makes it possible for men to conceive of concepts like self-realization, it severs us from the comfort of established social relationships and age-old ways of life. As a result, people are isolated and without identity or support even as they are ever aware that the world is theirs for taking, should they rise up to the challenge. This is a terrifying condition to endure for most people, who turn to any number of substitute behaviors and ideologies as a kind of “security blanket,” things like nationalism and xenophobia all the way to autistic disorders, I suppose. This trend is exacerbated in times of greater social stress, like economic depression. I think this explanation rings very true in a general sense.

In an even broader sense, this book is about the way modern society is anti-human, insofar as it makes it impossible for people to grow as human beings, instead harnessing their anxiety into various kinds of despotic projects. Fromm says as much– I don’t have the book in front of me and can’t quote it, but I am not making it up: elsewhere, Fromm says that the majority of people in western society today live (and are) as automatons. He does not mince his words. Yet, as seems common, he does not follow his own thoughts to their conclusions. He thinks that since modern society has the technological means to make the realization of human potential a possibility for all people, this is a worthy goal to pursue (technology is not a tool to be used in a disinterested way, it creates its own social conditions and eventually entire world-views. See Zerzan, Mumford, all the way to Marx).

Fromm realizes that the Humanist freedom is not all positive, that it involves the giving up of security enjoyed by people in older societies. But I wonder if the positive freedom as formulated by Fromm, the freedom to seek and fulfill self-realization, is not a hoax, leaving us with nothing but the loss of our place in the world, and nothing to compensate for the loss. As Kurt Vonnegut said (I think he said it), the jury is still out on whether big brains give their bearers an evolutionary advantage or not. The jury is still out, as far as I’m concerned, on whether consciousness is anything but a hindrance, and if it is not, that it is not best in small doses, like so many things.

Jul 05

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
by Christopher R. Browning
Paperback, 271 pages
Published April 24th 1998 by Harper Perennial (first published January 1st 1992)
original title
Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
ISBN
0060995068 (ISBN13: 9780060995065)

 

It takes a lot of effort to introduce previously non-existent or at least marginal or submerged norms and idealogies into the minds of people, but once you’ve gotten them in there, they are in there for good– at least until an equal amount of effort knocks them back out.

Hitler and the National Socialist Party very deliberately and conscientiously showered the minds of Germans with propaganda about the supremacy of the German race, the need to bury one’s individualism for the sake of goals held in common by the nation, and the inferiority and evil of Commies, Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, etc. The propaganda was self-contradictory and incoherent upon anything past a cursory examination, yet it was no less effective for that. Once the ideas of the Nazis became accepted as the norm, common, average Germans could be gotten to perform tasks in direct conflict with more basic forms of morality, things such as shooting unarmed women and children.

This seems to be how people work. When utterly implausible, self-contradictory, and hate-filled crap spewed forth by half-wits like Rush Limbaurgh is adopted by millions of educated first-world citizens as their personal ideology, we see that this is still how people work. Barrack Obama has rescinded the rule of law and institutionalized actions taken previously to create a surveillance state where anything goes in the name of national security– but no one even noticed, thanks to the decades-old propaganda campaign to destroy the notion that we the people are the owners of our government, which works for us. What came to replace this notion? The propaganda has it that we are consumers, not citizens, that anything remotely resembling compassion for others is socialism (what’s that? don’t ask, its just evil), and that we live in the greatest nation on earth because… freedom/capitalism/something, IDK. The free market is a magical thing that will solve all our/mankind’s problems, if only it were allowed to work its magic. Science is not to be questioned– it will lead us to a techno-utopia soon. New is always better. Economies/businesses have to grow or they will die. Nature is separate from men, and in a subservient role– there for us to exploit as we see fit. etc. etc.

It took a long time and effort to get people to accept these ideas as gospel, and it took a lot of time and effort for people in 1930s Germany to accept that Jews are sub-human creatures which need to be destroyed fro Germany to prosper. This book shows this process a little bit in the latter case. There are many works which do a similar service for the contemporary version– John Kenneth Galbraith, Erich Fromm, C. Wright Mills, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein are all writers who have dedicated a large or sizable part of their career about showing the way our society actually works. Adam Curtis of the BBC has been making documentaries for decades which show among many other things the way public opinion is created and molded, such as The Century of the Self, a film I highly recommend to everyone.

The pervasiveness of this propaganda is what makes it so hard for us to understand what is going on in the world and in ourselves. Once you get it, there is nothing very complex about the way the world works, yet getting there is a nightmare since for every notion, someone has created a counter-notion to discredit it, and five more notions as alternatives just to confuse the issue. Naturally, this is doubly true for issues which are threatening to power. Yet, getting to the bottom of the confusing mess is essential, since as this book clearly shows, what is at stake is not just ideas but flesh and blood beings.