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Notes on books & papers

I wasn’t surprised to learn, thanks to Edward Snowden, that Uncle Sam is looking over all our shoulders. I felt him sitting on mine just because the possibility was obvious, as a piece of technical progress: whereas letters sent through the post could only be snooped on through human drudgery (as happened systematically in the GDR), electronic data storage permits total transparency at the click of a gigabyte. Whatever is possible will be done, certainly is already being done. That is why the negative freedoms guaranteed under the rule of law are important for everybody — even the “innocent”. First, the path is very short from the abrogation of abstract principles such as habeas corpus to the concrete suffering of the unjustly incarcerated. The virtue of a policeman lies not in his character or judgement but in the limits of what is permitted to him by his role. People do what they can get away with, and that is why there are rules; especially for those who enforce them. Still, one imagines suspects get beaten up in the back of the van. Secondly, the category of the innocent can shrink very rapidly (McCarthy) and is already narrow enough to be uncomfortable for some.

I share the liberal outrage and trepidation at the US’s abuse of power, but surely the horse has bolted. The question seems to me to be: how humanity can live with the possibility of total surveillance without being crushed by it — just as, to change the subject, it is inevitable there will be transgenic animals and people, and the island of Dr. Moreau will be filled with monsters. What then?
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Fortune is a unix application that pops up on boot with a quotation or joke. Apparently Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, said that “Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”
The element of play is central to the creative act. To make anything new — even though it will of necessity be out of old stuff that happens to be lying around — something must arise unexpectedly. That is why the bureaucratisation of academia will mean intellectual life needs a new home. The absurd game of the funding application requires foreknowledge of results, their applications and relevance, and most bizarrely of all, the path taken to get there. Many higher education institutions require doctoral students to produce a “chronogram” for their entire project at the outset, and enforce compliance with it; that’s a step beyond the research proposal, which used to be recognised on all sides as a polite fiction, at most a point of departure.
Never mind that though. The wider point derives (at least its most recent seminal instance) from Schiller’s Aesthetische Erziehung, or as expressed more practically in the notion of negative capability. The fashionable term would be “flow”, but that leaves out the open horizon of the masterless imagination.
Need it be said that none of it is possible without hard work and a spongeful of knowledge? “C’t avec du vieux qu’on fait du neuf.” (Jacques Brel)

Writers of so-called serious fiction shared one dominant characteristic—their fiction was first and foremost about themselves. The ‘self’ lay at the heart of modernism, but now had a powerful rival, the everyday world, which was just as much a psychological construct, and just as prone to mysterious and often psychopathic impulses.

Is this quote from Ballard’s autobiography (which I found in a review of it here) anything more than an appeal to return to realism? To be sure, it would be a psychotic realism, to fit the times: the self fragmentary, collapsed, elided. What Lukács termed bourgeois realism, for all the breadth of its world-historical perspective (with characters, rather than the generalised “self”, at the centre) indeed seems inadequate to our bizarre day-to-day. Genre fiction’s looseness relative to high realism, by letting it off the hook of offering a coherent vision of this labyrinth, may allow room for the unconscious to reveal itself and in that way be a truer reflection of whatever is out there. It is also a licence for self-indulgence and escapism. But its formulaic elements (detectives, spaceships …) aren’t a deficiency; these just allow the author to get on with his real business instead of trying to be Tolstoy. In a few cases, as with Ballard, they may simply be elided. Viewing the world as a “psychological construct” is as radical as that idea once seemed when applied to the self, and in retrospect, just as compelling. At bottom self and world are two perspectives on their intersection.
To put it quite differently, maybe genre fiction is a way of writing about the present, whereas realism’s true object is a past recent enough to be remembered (to have formed the author) but now distant enough to be understood as a period. The difference in feel is hard to sense once the author’s time of writing has receded into our own past, in which perspective it may look similar to narrated time. The higher calling of genre fiction — its “genre” in the classical sense — would then be satire: time and place are transposed not just for the benefit of the censor, but to purify the narrative of any preachy or merely documentary aspect and let imagination free.

A recent article in the LRB quotes from the following passage in Francis Bacon, setting out his programme for what we might call the sciences (“natural philosophy”) and the humanities:

But the greatest error of all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge. For men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason to the benefit and use of men: as if there were sought in knowledge a couch whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a terrace for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state, for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground, for strife and contention; or a shop, for profit or sale; and not a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate. But this is that which will indeed dignify and exalt knowledge, if contemplation and action may be more nearly and straitly conjoined and united together than they have been: a conjunction like unto that of the two highest planets, Saturn, the planet of rest and contemplation; and Jupiter, the planet of civil society and action, howbeit, I do not mean, when I speak of use and action, that end before-mentioned of the applying of knowledge to lucre and profession; for I am not ignorant how much that diverteth and interrupteth the prosecution and advancement of knowledge, like unto the golden ball thrown before Atalanta, which, while she goeth aside and stoopeth to take up, the race is hindered,

“Declinat cursus, aurumque volubile tollit.” {1}

Neither is my meaning, as was spoken of Socrates, to call philosophy down from heaven to converse upon the earth–that is, to leave natural philosophy aside, and to apply knowledge only to manners and policy. But as both heaven and earth do conspire and contribute to the use and benefit of man, so the end ought to be, from both philosophies to separate and reject vain speculations, and whatsoever is empty and void, and to preserve and augment whatsoever is solid and fruitful; that knowledge may not be as a courtesan, for pleasure and vanity only, or as a bond-woman, to acquire and gain to her master’s use; but as a spouse, for generation, fruit, and comfort.

Advancement of Learning, I.V.11

Bacon makes good reading for us these days. The pursuit of knowledge that is merely useful, and self-satisfied or vacuous speculation, are its Scylla and Charybdis. Knowledge should keep its feet on the ground while aspiring to broaden the horizons of the human condition. Do my leaden metaphors — or Bacon’s golden prose — describe a coherent ideal? Perhaps we should conduct the pursuit of knowledge in the attempt to make it so. Bacon strongly influenced the Enlightenment (particularly in Germany) and the affinity is plain. The whole of I.V is full of salutary warnings most of which obtain just as much as ever today.

{1} The English explains the quotation fully. “cursus” is a poetic plural (I had to scan the line to understand its grammar). It is Ovid Metamorphoses X, 667: http://www.latein-pagina.de/ovid/ovid_m10.htm#11

GBH was a television series from the eighties by Alan Bleasdale loosely based on the Militant Tendency’s period in control of Liverpool City Council. The Derek Hatton character, Michael Murray, is played by Robert Lindsay: a sublimely undemocratic socialist with a heart of gold, as seen in the line, when challenged by a councillor on council housing for blacks because “You look after your own first” — “They are our own.” The plot seems to be that his administration is hijacked by Trotskyites who want to further the revolution by faking racial violence (the ends justify the means). The hubris of Murray exposes him to their scheming. But it turns out that the hard left takeover is engineered by MI5. What’s more, their remit used to be to destabilise revolutionary socialism before it could destabilise the country, but when that came to seem unlikely because the old Marxists had lost their fire and might soon end up joining the Green party, the mission reversed direction: MI5’s agents provocateurs were to make the left play up just in order to discredit the Labour party. The real story is thus not about the virtues of traditional socialism, though Bleasdale’s nostalgia for the latter’s decency and warm beer is apparent: it is the collapse of the democratic state in the face of Thatcher’s radicalism.

This recalls another series from the period (and it is now very much a period, looking back from twenty or thirty years on): Edge of Darkness, by Troy Kennedy Martin, with Bob Peck as Ronald Craven, a policeman whose eco-warrior daughter Emma is murdered. Investigating, he uncovers murky dealings with nuclear waste stored in a disused mine. It turns out Emma’s group was actually set up by CIA agent (and flamboyant Texan) Darius Jedburgh as part of a US attempt to undermine the British nuclear industry, but it escaped his control. An inept pair of British spies apparently fight the UK corner, but the government has in any case done a deal to sell the plutonium to a private American company; there is thus no effective difference between the aims of the two sides. Still bleaker than in GBH, the UK under Thatcher is seen to be a failed state.

In subsequent treatments of the theme, the moment of shock has passed. The Men in Black are now at worst a necessary evil with a troubled conscience. State sovereignty is passé.

Unlike Trovatore, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera isn’t an opera I know. When I checked it out, the scene Bertolucci adopts from it at the end of La Luna turned out to fit his film’s dramatic logic quite as well as the one from Trovatore. Again, two men vie for a woman – she is married to Renato, but loves Riccardo, the Earl of Boston (based on the historical King Gustav III of Sweden, who was assassinated at a masked ball). The affair is chaste, but Renato, convinced otherwise and also politically motivated, kills Riccardo at the ball. The latter explains his wife is innocent of infidelity and, expiring, pardons Renato. It’s a masked ball, so Renato has to discover which masquer is his target; earlier, he asks the page Oscar, who is first coy with the secret then reveals it. In Bertolucci’s film, Joe wanders the set looking for his mother. Her friend sings him Oscar’s line: “Saper vorreste di che si veste, quando l’è cosa ch’ei vuol nascosa; Oscar lo sà, ma nol dirà …” (Oscar knows which costume but won’t tell). No tidy equivalence is to be drawn between the roles in the two dramas, but when Joe’s Italian father puts together his knowledge of who he is and what Joe has been up to (drugs and such) he slaps him. Maybe all Oedipal wrongs are now put right. What’s more, the film is at least as much Caterina’s story as it is Joe’s, and it seems that unlike the Verdi heroines she plays, she gets to have the better man in the end.

Never mind the garish set; and at least it has Italian subtitles. I couldn’t find one with English. Needless to say, this scene owes everything to the finale of Act II of Don Giovanni — a subject for a future post.

EDIT I surely meant Act I.

After her husband’s death in a car crash, opera singer Caterina takes her son Joe with her on tour in Italy. The two meet her former lover, Joe’s biological father. The film employs two extended operatic scenes: one from Un ballo in maschera at the end, which is perhaps a family reunion; and the duel scene from Il trovatore, where the eponymous troubador and the Count vie for the heroine Leonora’s affections. She is played by Caterina, and we watch Joe move from the audience to the backstage world where the theatrical illusion is created. As the diva’s son he apparently has free rein to wander where he pleases. Verdi’s opera has an absurdly complex backstory. Manrico, Lenora’s true love, is the son of Azucena, a gypsy from the rebellious mountains whose own mother was burned at the stake by the Count’s father. Count Luna (nudge nudge) thus has a political as well as an amorous motive to kill him, quite apart from the question of vendetta. But it turns out (bear with me) that Manrico and the Count’s brother were swapped as infants. Azucena threw the wrong baby onto her mother’s pyre — her own son, not the kidnapped sibling. So when the Count has Manrico executed in the final scene, Azucena finally achieves vengeance; blood is thicker than water. The structure of Bertolucci’s backstory is simpler — Joe’s father isn’t who he thought he was — but the situation is paralleled in the rivalry of the two men. Joe’s tour of the smoke and mirrors behind the performance echoes his discovery that all was not what it seemed. According to one website I saw while researching this post, Bertolucci had just completed ten years of psychoanalysis when he made the film.

Elif Batuman is a Turkish-American writer who opted to study literature rather than creative writing. A couple of years ago she reviewed Mark McGurl’s study of the MFA writing ‘Programme’:

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n18/elif-batuman/get-a-real-degree

Here are a couple of links for the defence, from a creative writing professor and McGurl himself:

http://www.themillions.com/2010/10/what-we-teach-when-we-teach-writers-on-the-quantifiable-and-the-uncertain.html

http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?id=200

Fredric Jameson’s altogether more sympathetic and arid recent review of the paperback edition of McGurl, also in the LRB, fleetingly mentions “the increasingly self-centred and obsessively reflexive cast of this literary production”, only to defend it as a “colonisation of subjectivity, its transformation into new experience(s)”. Ouch! But education, in the school of life or the academy, isn’t about turning inward. You have to have something to write about. “Show don’t tell”, “find your voice” and the like are no more than practical maxims to avoid egregious unwriterliness(es) — for instance, didacticism or pastiche. Once adopted as a programme of indoctrination, they are a recipe for uniform vapidity, however sensible they might be as rules of thumb (or ladders to be thrown away) while we remember that they are just other writers’ prejudices. Batuman is witty about this and also about meeting real, oversized Russians while writing her thesis.

Jameson analyses how such prescriptions, when taken as a programme, favour a whole literary approach. But that is the opposite of fresh and innovative. If you want “the colonisation of subjectivity” there is Friends.

In the Diary of the latest LRB (which I won’t link to because access is subscriber-only), Barbara Graziosi describes how her husband (who “does not read anything much AD”) learns dead languages:

a quick read through the grammar … then hours and hours and days and months and years reading through the extant texts, muttering phrases while making tea or walking to work … an immersion in the ancient language, until you get the jokes. The past did not seem a matter of covering ground, but of finding some ground, in the first place, on which to stand.

This is different from learning modern languages (those regularly encountered) which are in a sense not really foreign at all, to the extent that we share a global culture. Getting under the skin of the ancient Hittites or Hebrews is another matter, calling for patient mulling and pondering. The fascination and reward lies in the very difficulty and difference overcome through bridging such a vertiginous chasm cutting across the continuum of human experience. Translation is useless. Just before the above passage, Graziosi quotes W.G. Sebald on another gifted language learner whose method involves “making certain adjustments to his inner self”. That still seems to me an essential part of a full education, as was generally the case till quite recently. As one territory is abandoned others may open up; but I’m glad someone still gets the marginal jokes of Sumerian accountants.

It’s perhaps worth emphasising that the shared culture is not the product of TV and internet, but colonialism and Latin. Europe spoke many vernaculars but shared a classical culture, and that is what makes French or German, in literate mode, feel more akin to dialects or even modes of style than languages — not their much more distant common Indoeuropean origin. Our ancestors were terrorised by the same Roman soldiers.

That reminds me of a scene in Life of Brian where John Cleese makes an insurgent graffitist correct the grammar of his call for the Romans to go home — which should of course be “Romani ite domum”.

I just visited my Facebook account for the first time in some while and remembered the sour taste. A Palo Alto company’s misappropriation of the language of friendship and even liking has produced a newspeak that is no less hideous for knowing it’s just their game. Why don’t they say “Facebook friend” instead of “friend”? This elision of the proprietary element betrays the real nastiness beneath as much as the dinky-toy feel of the language when so castrated. The infantilisation is fascism in ovo. And who knows what use this technology may be put to in ten tor twenty years’ time — an age in the world of computing?

I didn’t know the origin of the name “Facebook”. The service was first made available only to Harvard undergraduates, then expanded in waves to include progressively less upmarket universities and beyond. Freshmen in the US apparently receive an actual book of photos and mini-bios to help them find their social feet — the “facebook”. I suppose it’s one way of deciding who to go to the student bar and have a pint with.

I was also suprised to discover that I got married in 2008. The assumption is that Facebook enjoys a central place in its users’ lives, and they will document them there in a timely fashion. Facebook becomes a projection of the social self, virtually outsourced. If users start out at a Jesuitical seven (probably common enough), the psyche will be transformed. That needn’t be a bad thing, but if man’s psychic prostheses are to be in the hands of corporations (or any other centralised organisation that might come to take their place), we may wonder whose interests will then be served. An example in Brazil is the “Currículo Lattes”, which no doubt started life as an attractive way for academics to parade their intellectual credentials online. It has long since become an obligatory form of self-monitoring and bureaucratic quantification of what should not be quantifiable, therefore (to put it neutrally) changing the nature of what passes for professional intellectual activity. The Potëmkin village is Airstrip One.

Les invasions normandes — une catastrophe? is one of a handful of books owing their place on my shelf to the title. To English ears, the Norman Conquest was something the French did to the English, and it seems amusing to think some French author might view that venture as having been on balance harmful to French interests. Another such was on the wedding of Diana and Charles by Josy Argy and Wendy Riches, for the surnames of the authors (remembering that the Falklands War had recently taken place). A third is Schlangen, wie ich sie sah, a fine book for boys whose title could only be translated as “Snakes as I have seen them”.

The Normans may have spoken fluent French by the time they bested King Alfred at the Battle of Hastings, but not long before, they arrived in France as uncouth Germanic barbarians. China and Greece are two examples of civilisations that quickly achieved cultural dominion over their conquerors. Les invasions normandes … is of course about what France suffered (or not) rather than what France did to England. It is representative of a tendency in twentieth-century historiography exemplified in the case of the greatest cataclysm of them all, the fall of the Roman Empire, by Peter Brown, a specialist in late antiquity. Perhaps much continued largely unchanged for many in some places, or perhaps most of the contraction had already occurred under the late emperors. At some point, the aqueducts ceased to flow, the baths and theatres were converted to rubbish tips, the corn shipments stopped; on the other hand, the new rulers were or became Christian, and monks still cultivated Latin, carrying much of classical civilisation with them under their unwashed robes. That culture was always the preserve of an elite, and continued to be so.

Like the collapse of homeostasis I posted about recently, the death of a civilisation is full of contingency, so it is difficult to say — related questions — what were its causes, where the loss hurt most (baths, annona or letters?), or to whom it made a difference, let alone when it overarchingly occurred. For that reason, it is more plausible than it might immediately appear to suppose that we are currently passing through such a transition — whoever “we” are — one that may soon become as immediately unpleasant in certain more sheltered parts of the world as it already is in some others. Smartphone, schmartphone.

Aristotle’s categories are something like the possible constituent parts of propositions; for instance Substance is a thing, and a Quality is something attributed to it, as in “Socrates is mortal”. The Greek word “category” was later used to refer to the “parts of speech”, and that is an illuminating though limited analogy. Aristotle does not say how he derived his categories, or show that all and only those ten fit the bill; but the notion that there are such propositional atoms is seductive. Maybe the metaphysical temptation is diabolical. Kant offered a “transcendental deduction” of the categories in the first Critique, that is, he attempted to demonstrate their legitimacy and necessity of one list, supposing there were to be categories.

Could the idea be extended to social relations? For instance, instead of necessity, possibility, and whatever their negative triplet is — obligation, permission, prohibition? The individual, the collective, others (as seen in Unix file permissions)? Agency and structure? Thinking about it like that, it’s a fairly short step to the system of Talcott Parsons; but just as I have avoided simply transferring Aristotle’s list to the social dimension, the ideal would be to regard existing sociological theory as provisional and suspicious.

This is a separate venture from social psychology, just as Kant’s system is not meant to be a description of specifically human perceptual and conceptual apparatus (“… not how people actually think, but how they should think” KrV A ???). For instance, it seems plausible to regard the in-group and the out-group as basic, with the individual a late addition perhaps introjected from the individual other — larger-than-life characters such as Alcibiades, who would be oriental despots if they could. Yet the individual clearly has a place within the range of possibilities, even if he is as yet only envisaged as a god.

I’ll return to this post with links and the above reference, but most of the former will be from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

When I placed Derrida on the side of the angels in the previous post, I was simply recruiting him (at third hand, via Shatz and the reviewed biographer) in support of the truism that writing allows us to be at our best. It is a device that brings us out. Crucially, it is a vehicle or medium for the hopes addressed by metaphysics, ever since Plato (or Parmenides), without the transcendence. According to Kant, the fascination of the perennial metaphysical questions is as inescapable as they are unresolvable — meaningless, as analytic philosophers have said. No. Pick up a pen, and enter the realm of the Ideal, with no ectoplasm in sight.

Adam Shatz’s recent review in the LRB of a biography of Derrida makes the latter sound eminently reasonable and humane, beneath the obscurantist bluster, and despite the bullying use to which that obscurity lends itself. Actually reading a page or two of De la grammatologie could well make such a rosy picture look like a mirage; but it is heartening to learn that Derrida refused to endorse the Cultural Revolution when Maoism was all the rage in Paris. So when Shatz writes that, according to Derrida:

Western thought from Plato to Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss had been hopelessly entangled in the illusion that [spoken] language might provide us with access to a reality beyond language, beyond metaphor: an unmediated experience of truth and being which he called ‘presence’

it sounds like a sturdy rejection of language mysticism, no more a repudiation of “common sense reality” than Kant’s assertion that the thing-in-itself is unknowable. The priority ascribed by Derrida to writing over speech would thus place him on the side of the angels.

Jonathan Franzen’s collection How to Be Alone opens with an essay on his father’s death from Alzheimer’s. Franzen’s novels satirise fashionable reductionisms, pharmacological in particular, and here he is explicit. Recalling how perusing his mother’s letters helped reconstruct the events of his father’s illness, he describes the urge to record stories in writing as:

akin to the conviction that we are larger than our biologies. I wonder if our current cultural susceptibility to the charms of materialism — our increasing willingness to see psychology as chemical, identity as genetic, and behaviour as the product of bygone exigencies of human evolution — isn’t intimately related to the postmodern resurgence of the oral and the eclipse of the written: our incessant telephoning, our ephemeral e-mailing, our steadfast devotion to the flickering tube.

Writing provides a peg to hang memory on and renders it more potent. Writing is the theatre of our cultural memory, a theatre where new writing is in dialogue with its tradition and the world beyond the stage door. The technology that preceded writing was oral poetry such as Homer’s (but examples from other cultures are recorded); a technology with the flaw that its main scope for creative engagement with the tradition was to overlay it with embroidery, reducing the length of its reach.

By eroding memories, piece by piece, Alzheimer’s obliterates the sufferer’s very self. In memory lies written a narrative, wherein we and others are the characters. Writing is a kind of prosthesis to enrich, strengthen and broaden memory’s grasp, opening the individual to a wider circle of sympathy and a more reflexive, elaborate self-understanding. In using the word “prosthesis”, I’m thinking of Bruno Latour, who argued (I’m afraid I can’t find a reference) that the limits of the self don’t necessarily coincide with those of the body, but may include various gadgetry. Perhaps the computer keyboard and its graphical interface are an example. The blind man’s stick (or even dog) might be another. Information technology has certainly changed the intimate tenor of life, so that although it seems reasonable to hope that humanity will find new sea-legs or surf-legs, and not be submerged in an ocean of ephemera and froth, it would be risky to regard it as a sure thing.

Wittgenstein (the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations) wrote that we can just see that someone is in pain — we do not deduce the fact by tortuous analogies. Not only can I see my dog is hungry, but without needing to measure the activity of her salivary glands, I feel the inhuman intensity of her anticipation as I rattle about in the kitchen with dog dishes.

Ethology studies hard-wired behaviour. The spider, like the hedgehog, only knows one thing. (Either reason is the one thing we know, or it is where mankind rises above ethology, at least momentarily.) Given the role played by neoteny in domestication, it seems plausible that the affection of a cat for its owner is a transference of affection for the mother; the affection they sometimes show one another seems different in character, perhaps fraternal. Dogs are pack animals, cats have territories, and that knowledge sometimes sheds light on what they may be thinking; though in those cases it’s different enough from human thoughts to make them behave in non-human ways, there is a fundamental kinship that certainly facilitates empathy.

Then there is evolutionary speculation. Most dogs have trouble untangling themselves from the lead if it gets under a leg. Mine (who have long, extensible leads) are baffled when they go the wrong way round a tree and have to come back the other way. I’d say they are not cognitively equipped to deal with the problem, which would not occur in nature, even though some dogs could be trained to solve it. This is similar to the human difficulty with large numbers, or probability and risk. That looks like a case where reason is larger than ethology: it is possible to learn better habits of mathematical thought even if it remains natural (if that is the word) to worry more about plane travel than crossing the road, or panic about childhood inoculations.

Apart from the crutches of evolutionary psychology and ethology, last not least, there is history. If I were to tell you about my cats I would tell their stories, which it seems likely they do not know. Belinha frequented the bar round the corner, but the owner shooed her away when she got mange because it put off the customers. So we adopted her. She had two kittens, the only ones born and bred in the house, who have different parts of what I find it hard to resist calling her personality — and ten times the confidence. She certainly never showed affection to the others, because she was afraid of them, but she warmed to people over time if approached gently. The other cats chased her away, and she would go off for periods of several days. Recently she disappeared for good. Maybe she was turned into “beef” kebabs by the vendor on the square.

Those three kinds of knowledge don’t go very far. They may tell us more about ourselves than the animals we watch. That leaves careful attention, putting all theory aside.

Elizabeth Costello, it is safe to say, does not enjoy the same level of popularity as Franzen’s Freedom. A book about an old woman giving polemical talks about vegeterianism and then arguing with her hosts at each venue could never have the broad appeal of a grand family chronicle informed by the stateside culture of therapy. As far as I know Coetzee is indeed a committed vegetarian, just as Franzen really is a liberal with a fondness for birds. Coetzee’s book shows that he has thought deeply and read widely about animal welfare. The distance fiction allows him to take from his own hobbyhorse (as it may well be) transforms it into matter fit for art. Paradoxically, this way the case for vegetarianism is stated less convincingly than it might have been in an earnest, literate essay: Elizabeth is muddled and hectoring, led astray by her strength of feeling. Because the novel is a study of character, the contradictions of her conviction can be explored, and other, more temperate voices given their due. Thus Elizabeth Costello is as much about what it is like to hold strong moral views, and the corrosive effect that may have, as the question at hand. It also casts doubt on the humane values that might be held up as our justification as a species. Coetzee does not here wear his learning lightly, but he succeeds in giving it dramatic form and showing how what might be dismissed as dusty old debates — such as those of the Renaissance — are played out in the flesh. Likewise with the more pedestrian convictions of Franzen’s characters: Richard in Freedom, like Chip in The Corrections before him, has some good liberal riffs on consumer culture, but what makes them interesting is his sardonic excess. Attempting to generalise, and with apologies to Lukacs, who said it better: the key seems to be that the views being expressed are plausibly attributed to characters motivated by a dramatic situation; they are lifted above the merely personal into a hypostatic realm of representative significance. That doesn’t mean they need be typical, and Coetzee’s novel is the better as art (if not entertainment) for having more rarefied interests. Franzen — having made his name with The Corrections — does once allow himself what must be considered a merely authorial pronouncement when he makes Joey give up on Atonement, a Christmas present from his worthy sister:

[he] struggled to interest himself in its descriptions of rooms and plantings

even though that is both in character and an eminently plausible realist detail — at the time, McEwan’s novel must have enjoyed sales comparable to Franzen’s own.

This blog never recovered speed after my European trip. I have made
some improvements to my office arrangements with a view to reducing
distractions and generally pulling my finger out. My recent reading
includes Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth
Costello
; there are at least two posts there. Everyone seems to have
heard of Nagel and the Kantian unattainability of the bat’s-eye view;
the catchiness of his title is undiminished even if the idea serves
only to sharpen a Kantian perspective on a different problem. Its great
appeal to the imagination is the very promise of forbidden echolocatory,
bloodsucking noumena. The imagination is unbounded by epistemology,
though it may be parasitic on it.

Gore Vidal’s 1985 piece in the New York Review on Italo Calvino, who’d just died, popped up on their site today. I was captivated by this quote from Calvino in an interview:

only a certain prosaic solidity can give birth to creativity: fantasy is like jam; you have to spread it on a solid slice of bread. If not, it remains a shapeless thing, like jam, out of which you can’t make anything.

That could be read as an argument against most genre fiction — better, as undermining its claim to be a workable medium. I’ve been toying with the prospect of SF as a way of writing about Brazil, a country that’s certainly stranger than fiction. What would seem implausible exaggeration in a straight account could pass as poetic licence in space opera. That’s in keeping with the tradition of “Persian” and other orientalising satire, except that in this Kakania, the problem isn’t the censor, but stretching the reader’s credulity.

For instance I remember a story by John Wyndham (I think) in which the hero wakes up to the sound of superdecibel advertising in his street. It turns out that evil experimenters working for an agency have miniaturised an entire town to test the effectiveness of such techniques, which couldn’t be tried in the real world because it would be illegal. If Wyndham was extrapolating from the increasing intrusiveness of advertising in the fifties, he would no doubt be delighted to see his dystopian exaggeration realised in twenty-first century Latin America.

Animals are hard to write — between the Scylla of kitsch and the Charybdis of triviality, the creature-in-itself is lost. This must be because of their essential otherness: in literary terms, they aren’t characters. My cats ogle the lemurs that occasionally traverse our garden in their troupes with an intentness that reminds me of the human passion for sport. In ethological terms, the killer instinct is brought out by any furry or winged creature small enough that may pass, but such an objective explanation says nothing about what it is like for them to be so fascinated. The analogy with a quite different fascination of our own is compelling because of the way it combines intensity with a certain playfulness, even though the object belongs in a social dimension with no feline equivalent; it is also attractive because I myself find it difficult to be carried away by sport, and the emotions it can arouse show our own kind in what could well be considered a bestial light. So just where a Verfremdungseffekt allows one to see humanity from a different angle, as it were from the outside, a kinship with another species fleetingly appears, even if it is only a generic one: desire as its own end, perhaps. This in turn reminded me of Thomas Nagel‘s famous Kantian essay on What is it like to be a bat, in which he argues that because we are limited by the sensory experience of our own organs as the framework within which to reflect on the nature of perception as such, it makes no sense to try and imagine our way into that of a creature with radically different equipment. Returning to the question of animals in fiction, on this basis, any successful portrayal would need to respect the deep otherness of its object, whose subjectivity could at most be hinted and its very existence guessed at; such a figure would inevitably be marginal to the action seen as the interplay of characters. One brilliant example is the dog Baleia in Graciliano Ramos’s Vidas Secas. Beyond that, narrated animals are the vehicle of human projections, and so just a mirror for the characters of their owners. The only examples I can think of are bad writing lacking all irony, but it could be done well. However the problem at hand is the potential for animals to appear in fiction in their own right, even if they cannot do so as characters; and except in passing, that has scarecely been attempted.

George Herbert Mead wrote about the emergence of self in interaction, seeing the seeds of it in the quarrels of dogs, which however don’t quite get there. I’m not sure whether Mead does either, but that is a question for another post. Also, Wikipedia tells me I have misremembered the central thrust of Nagel’s essay (I was just tidying up my post and putting in the hyperlinks when there was a powercut) yet if memory serves he does also make there the point I refer to — perhaps just as an easier analogy to his real argument (if Wikipedia is to be believed) about physicalism. Those who live in cities without libraries depend on Wikipedia, and though it is a poor substitute, it is a crutch.

Plato’s epigram (which probably wasn’t written by him) seems to imply something we might understand by “soul”:

 τὴν ψυχὴν, Ἀγάθωνα φιλῶν, ἐπὶ χείλεσιν ἔσχον·
῎ηλθε γὰρ ἡ τλήμων ὡς διαβησομένη.

That is, when kissing his lover, his soul rose to his lips as though it would cross over.