Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Wrecking Ball of Innovation

I have a copy of When Facts Change, a collection of Tony Judt's essays assembled by his widow and published in 2015. I'm not reading it straight through and will probably read only a few of them. I've just finished an essay that first appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2007. It is a review of Robert Reich's book, Supercapitalism of that year. This essay, besides serving as a reminder of how powerful a writer Judt was, is still relevant to the current political situation in the U.S., as it specifically examines the economic myopia of Reich, who was the first secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, and, by association, represents the prevailing Democratic economic viewpoint that continues up to the present in the policies of Barack Obama.

Judt isn't critical of Reich's description of the wealth gap, which has since then received far greater publicity, thanks to Thomas Piketty, but finds his complacent acquiescence to economic forces unacceptable. Reich takes it as given that we live in an economically competitive world, that the super-rich are not at fault and that the primary national goal is productivity growth. In Judt's view, the sweeping economic model adopted by Clinton distorted an earlier model in which the state was seen as responsible for all of its citizens regardless of economic factors. Under Clinton, privatization picked up steam and the existing welfare system was replaced with one that treated the poor as economic entities and accordingly made their benefits contingent upon their attempt to become gainfully employed. On these changes, Judt says:

The real impact of privatization, like welfare reform, deregulation, the technological revolution, and indeed globalization itself, has been to reduce the role of the state in the affairs of its citizens: to get the state "off our backs" and "out of our lives" – a common objective of economic "reformers" everywhere – and make public policy, in Robert Reich's approving words, "business friendly." 

He goes on to say:

If modern democracies are to survive the shock of Reich's "supercapitalism," they need to be bound by something more than the pursuit of private economic advantage, particularly when the latter accrues to ever fewer beneficiaries: the idea of a society held together by pecuniary interests alone is, in Mill's words, "essentially repugnant." A civilized society requires more than self-interest, whether deluded or enlightened, for its shared narrative of purpose....

In the early years of the French Revolution the Marquis de Condorcet was dismayed at the prospect of commercial society that was opening before him (as it is opening before us): the idea that "liberty will be no more, in the eyes of an avid nation, than a necessary condition for the security of financial operations." We ought to share his revulsion.

Judt describes the negative consequences of Reich's policy views that were already evident in 2007, before the Great Recession, before Brexit and before the election of Donald Trump:

Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course; but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one's daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.

The essay concludes as follows:

We may find that a healthy democracy, far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise. What, after all, is the alternative? Our contemporary cult of untrammeled economic freedom, combined with a heightened sense of fear and insecurity, is leading to reduced social provision and minimal economic regulation; but these are accompanied by ever-extending governmental oversight of communication, movement and opinion. "Chinese" capitalism, as it were, Western-style. Is this what we want?

Because the essay predates Obama's election in 2008, it is easy to see that not much has changed under eight years of a Democratic administration; thus my criticisms of Obama hold. As an observer, I am not aware of any significant move that Obama may have made to distance himself from Reich's policy views, which currently seem embedded in the party and would have continued under Hillary Clinton had she been elected. Judt's views are far closer to those of Bernie Sanders, whom I supported in the Democratic primary.

While I completely agree with Judt that the modification of political thought to accommodate economic thought over the last few decades has set the world on a dangerous path, he has hardly provided a blueprint for change. He writes of democracy in the abstract when it ultimately depends on the votes, not only of educated, informed voters, but of the less-educated and uninformed who have recently brought us Brexit and Donald Trump. In a way it is unfortunate that Judt chose history over economics, because there is no one that I know of who might have made a better economic case, had he the appropriate credentials. The economists with whom I'm familiar, including Thomas Piketty, do not seem to grasp the urgent conditions described by Judt, perhaps because their training has been narrow and they have too much faith in their profession.

If calling for greater regulation, etc., isn't feasible and even then doesn't fully encapsulate the issues at hand, the limiting factor may be human cognition. Thus, I am skeptical of the ability of a Tony Judt or a Bernie Sanders to work out an actual detailed solution to the problems caused by global economic competition. Although Judt's heart was in the right place, his view of social democracy seems outdated and sentimental to me. The best hope is that we will end up with a highly regulated society wherein AI plays a larger role than it does at present, at the exclusion of mere mortals, who tend to be incompetent, corrupt or both when faced with such daunting tasks. That is hardly what Tony Judt or Bernie Sanders had in mind, but I find it a little more realistic and perhaps less ominous than they would have you believe.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


As usual, my activities have been circumscribed by holiday visitors whose presence makes it difficult for me to concentrate. Under these circumstances I imagine inhabiting a large castle and remaining alone in my chambers all day, coming out on occasion to dine with the guests. In the absence of that option, I have kept my reading light by limiting it to poetry. I am reading a collection of contemporary American poetry, and, as you might expect, I am not impressed. There are a few crazy poems that break out of the mold a little, but I tend to see them as desperate attempts to be different. I can understand why poets write them, because, as William Matthews said, the range of subject matter in published poetry – particularly American poetry – is extremely limited. I would be bored out my mind reading nothing but poems, but, on the other hand, it is still a good medium for expressing rarefied sentiments which might be awkward to express in fiction or prose. The main problem I have with the poems I read is that they seem hackneyed or mawkish, and when they are not they are likely to be excessively stylized, such as those of Jorie Graham, whom I don't think is worth reading at all. Then there are the poets whom I think of as stupid, such as Charles Simic; I always recall Auden's reference to Tennyson as "undoubtedly the stupidest" of all the English poets. Not much has changed since then.

When I read poetry it brings out the dichotomy in me between the arts and the sciences, and I realize that I don't feel entirely at home in either. I consider the arts more fun, but when the standards are set too low they become depressing. We usually watch the PBS NewsHour, which has arts segments reported by Jeffrey Brown, and we frequently find them so insipid that we turn off the TV at that point. Ironically, on one segment Jeffrey read some of his own poetry, which I thought was good. The problem here, as in most American art, is that when too much emphasis is placed on inclusiveness the bar is lowered and you soon become inundated with works of low quality produced by artists of lesser talent. In my opinion, the essay is the appropriate medium for many of the ideas that people try to squeeze into poems, and, for that matter, novels intended to shed light on subjects could just as well be essays too. The media force substantive issues into emotive packages because people are unable to assimilate them otherwise. At the other extreme, with scientific precision and mathematical rigor, even I find that something is missing, because I don't believe that it captures everything that is of interest to me. To some extent, the fuzzy thinking that occurs in the arts is balanced by the exactitude that occurs in the sciences. In most situations in which facts take precedence, science is more useful than art, but science does not lend itself to the expression of certain ideas. I think that, in addition to an intrinsic human tendency to reject the rigidity of science, science is deficient in the sense that it does not and perhaps never will offer a complete explanation for what we think of as reality.

I won't be entirely free of guests for some time, but am lining up a few books to read. I'm off fiction for the time being and am having trouble finding anything scientific that I want to read. On the agenda are Erwin Panofsky, the art historian whom I've read before, and some more Tony Judt.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


My disappointment with literature is often related to its inaccuracies, which, depending on how you define art, may or may not be permissible. As I see it, fiction may distort reality in order to create certain effects or emphasize some aspect of life, but I begin to find it unsatisfactory whenever it strays too far from the truth. Problems become apparent to me when an author doesn't seem to understand people and produces inadequate representations of them. Thus, a writer such as Krasznahorkai, whose characters are ordinary and are not idealized, doesn't readily get himself into trouble with the kinds of distortions that annoy me. He has made his task somewhat easier by avoiding the sophisticated characters who often show up in fiction. I thought I would say something about how a poor understanding of human nature results in bad fiction.

As you may have gathered, I tend not to idealize people and prefer to think of them as complicated animals. In fact, they are so complicated that they confuse themselves about what they are, and this is why I try to resort to dispassionate observation when assessing anyone. Recently I have been thinking about what it means to be feral, whether you apply the term to cats or to people. In ordinary usage, a feral cat is one that did not become acclimated to humans during the window in its development that would have made it more trusting and less afraid of them. Biologically, both feral and domesticated cats are wild, and their behaviors overlap significantly, since the differences are superficial. I think a similar phenomenon occurs among humans who have had little exposure to other humans during a critical developmental period, and later, for example, have difficulty adjusting to social expectations. As in the case of cats, feral people would in most respects be the same as normally socialized people, but they would be socially dysfunctional in the absence of therapy. A feral cat might face certain disadvantages compared to a domesticated cat, such as a shorter lifespan, but in terms of its native catness it would not have lost anything. A feral person, in contrast, would fail to develop skills that he or she has been biologically adapted to develop, such as language and the ability to socialize, and this would be a significant loss.

Like Henry David Thoreau, I think that, at the extreme, social environments have the capacity to distort native humanity in ways comparable to the environmental distortions experienced by domesticated cats. Although we are an adaptive species, we are not adapted, for example, to automatically consider all humans to be the same as us. We are adapted to absorb the social norms in our immediate environment even when those norms have no basis in reality. When you grow up in an environment where everyone believes something that is incorrect, as an adult there may be nothing to prevent you from maintaining the same bad idea. To continue the cat analogy, it might be as if you were a cat whose owners thought that you shouldn't hunt because you were a house pet. In this instance the owners would be using an inappropriate paradigm and would be misunderstanding their cat. I think that an underlying cause of world conflict today is a clash of paradigms, many of which, if not all, were somewhat arbitrarily invented before the modern era by groups whose cultures formed independently.

What this means for literature is that if you live, say, in North America, and you are writing for and about college-educated, upper-middle-class people, you may have to make assumptions about your characters that imbue them with a belief system that would be unrecognizable in, say, China. Your characters may all have unknowingly adopted the social views that first formed under Christianity, were later shaped by the Enlightenment, and, in more recent years, stressed democratic values, capitalism and social equality. Far from recognizing the universal truth of these ideas, someone in China might well be baffled by them and would certainly not consider them self-evident. I run into problems with literature because I find that it is one thing to describe a peasant in his native environment while retaining a healthy skepticism about the merits of his worldview and another thing entirely to describe an upper-middle-class American in his native environment with no skepticism whatsoever about the merits of his worldview. When a writer writes about peasants, it is a given that they may be limited by their lack of education and hold erroneous beliefs, but the belief systems of the educated are rarely brought into question in literature. I noticed this while reading Proust, who is good at describing the details of bourgeois Parisian life but doesn't often question what I consider to be the stupidity of his characters, and he therefore seems to condone the petty social climbing that occupies most of their time. I thought there were glaring questions in Proust's fictional world that never came into consideration. Under an alternate view of literature, some may find Proust perfectly satisfactory, but in my view, literature isn't of much value if it doesn't have anything to say about the human condition, and that can't be done when an author becomes so entrenched with his subject that he or she is unable to think outside of the box inhabited by his or her characters. This isn't an easy thing to do, and perhaps fewer writers should attempt it.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Melancholy of Resistance III

In the second half of the book, Valuska overhears a conversation between the director of the circus, of which the stuffed whale is but a part (no other elements of the circus are ever mentioned), and a mysterious character referred to as "the Prince." The latter is somehow associated with the mob that has been following the circus around the countryside, and he apparently orders an attack on the town in which property is destroyed, women are raped and people are killed. During the attack, Valuska by chance accompanies the mob, and, though he does not participate in its destructive activities, this finally results in his placement in a mental asylum. Mrs. Eszter seizes the moment and coordinates the recapture of the town with the army that has been summoned for assistance. In short order the criminals are rounded up, the Prince disappears and the circus leaves town. Mrs. Eszter moves back into her husband's house and confines him to a few rooms; she plans to divorce him in due course. She becomes a local hero and takes a prominent position in the town government, from which she plans to roll out her moral revitalization program.

As in Satantango, the Prince represents a sinister figure, whom some refer to as the Prince of Darkness, but in this case he occupies a less central role than Irimiás, and his workings remain even more obscure. In the end he doesn't seem particularly satanic, and in all likelihood he is pursuing some unknown political agenda. Eszter is also very roughly equivalent to the doctor in Satantango. On the whole I found this novel less engrossing than Satantango, because the satanic element is more subdued. The writing is very good, but the detailed descriptions of the characters and their activities became tiresome in the second half. I am a little perplexed by the rapturous blurbs on the cover from W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag and Garth Risk Hallberg.

Right up to the end the theme seems to be inevitable decay. One of the victims is Mrs. Plauf, Valuska's estranged mother. Following her eulogy, Krasznahorkai describes in detail the chemical processes occurring in her body as decomposition commences. Perhaps there are a few people who might construe this novel as "visionary," as Sontag did, but I am not among them. Sure, Krasznahorkai, is a very good writer, but the excessive praise that one encounters in literary reviews is hardly convincing. As in any literary tradition, Krasznahorkai is limited by the works of his predecessors. Frankly, Kafka is boring: he was a neurotic, and his writing reflects an inability to adapt to the situation into which he was born. Similarly, Beckett is boring, because the effectiveness of his writing hinges, ultimately, on a fad – existentialism – which influenced his middle period and the works for which he is best known.

As you can see from the above, I am hardly a reformed convert to fiction. At this point I am more interested in laying bare the ignorant propaganda that currently supports its infrastructure, though, of course, I am still open to genuinely good writing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Melancholy of Resistance II

I'm about halfway through the book and at this point have a fairly good idea what it's about. One of the main characters, Eszter, who had formerly been the director of the town orchestra and so far seems to be the only well-educated resident there, became completely disillusioned with the town and the people, retired early and lives as a recluse. He suffers from spinal arthritis and rarely goes out. His days are spent experimenting on his piano with the harmonic theories of Andreas Werckmeister. On the threat of moving back in with him, his wife, from whom he is separated, manages to recruit him to support her rather vague crusade for "moral rearmament" in the town. The town streets are littered with trash, the atmosphere is depressing, and a strange exhibition of a whale has just arrived; visitors pay to see it inside the large wagon in which it has been towed. For unknown reasons, a number of criminally-minded men have begun to amble about in the streets since the arrival of the whale. Another major character, Valuska, is seen by most as the village idiot, but he has an enthusiastic side that appeals to Eszter, and he becomes Eszter's assistant. At a local bar, Valuska recruits patrons to act as the sun, the moon and the earth in order to demonstrate conjunction, and, as you might imagine, this doesn't work very well with drunks.

The planetary alignment theme seems to represent aesthetic harmony, which both Eszter and Valuska are seeking. In her own way, Mrs. Eszter is also trying to bring harmony to the town, albeit in a mechanical, political way. The main theme therefore seems to be how people combat the inevitable entropy that they encounter in their lives. The title seems to indicate that the protagonists are futilely resisting the inevitable, but it is still possible that there will be other developments further along in the novel. In any case, the value of Krasznahorkai's writing lies more in his ability to represent the psychic states of his characters. The whirl of his words comes closer to simulating what actually goes on in a person's mind than is expressed in ordinary prose. In this regard, James Wood, commenting on Krasznahorkai's novel War and War, says "By the end of the novel, I felt that I had got as close as literature could possibly take me to the inhabiting of another person...." This is the way I have felt too, and though I can't say that Krasznahorkai's characters are the kinds of people that I like to inhabit, one can only marvel at his talent, which puts most writers to shame.

Another aspect of the novel that interests me is how to go about contextualizing it. The question is whether Krasznahorkai's bleak and depressing settings are exaggerated stylistic inventions or roughly accurate representations of the rural, economically depressed communist Hungary in which he grew up. Although he obviously draws from the traditions of Kafka, Beckett and others, I am inclined to think that the conditions in his novels aren't that far-fetched. I am often reminded of my long stay in Dixon, Illinois, and I don't think that the people there were all that different from those in Krasznahorkai's fictional world. Fortunately, I was able to move away, but that seems to have been less of an option for Krasznahorkai's people. While I was there, like Eszter I inhabited my own world and usually avoided what little the town had to offer.

I am finding The Melancholy of Resistance enjoyable to read, but would not generally recommend it to others. It is an exotic literary production more suitable for literary aesthetes than for general readers, and I only like Krasznahorkai in small doses. I prefer him to American literary writers, because even though he tends to produce claustrophobic environments inhabited by mentally unhealthy characters, he convincingly portrays the inner lives of actual people who fall outside the narrow range one encounters in works produced by the unimaginative, upper-middle-class conformists who dominate literary fiction here. Despite the fanciful veneer of his writing, he is able to impart a form of psychological realism that is almost completely absent from most fiction these days.

Friday, December 9, 2016


I continue to be distracted from reading but may make some headway in fiction over the next few days. At the moment I am pondering this article about AI by Liu Cixin in relation to the work of CSER in Cambridge, particularly with respect to how futurists in the media tend to hype utopian outcomes while downplaying or glossing over real dangers which could lead to disastrous scenarios instead. In particular, as I've written before, I'm interested in how current political and economic systems are ill suited to address these kinds of problems. Though the positive outcome discussed in the article could turn out to be correct and parts of it are already proving so, I have yet to read a thorough examination discussing all of the structural changes that would be necessary for desirable results.

With recent events, the first thing that comes to mind is the rhetoric of Donald Trump, which is about fifty years behind the times. He was elected on the premise that he could bring back 1950's-like American economic conditions by keeping manufacturing jobs within the borders and increasing taxes on imports. I suppose you could give Trump the benefit of the doubt and say that he made these claims only to get elected and will actually do something quite different, but in the interest of caution it is more appropriate to regard him as an ignorant and dangerous opportunist. If he enacted his plan, American products would soon become too expensive for Americans to afford, and American companies would have no foreign markets because their products could be made for less elsewhere. In order to survive, American manufacturing companies would be forced to automate as much as possible, resulting in more layoffs and fewer employees. In the end, the manufacturing workers whom Trump was supposed to be helping would be either unemployed or working for even lower real wages than they had been previously. Regardless of political propaganda, automation is here to stay under any circumstances, and Cixin is probably correct in projecting that we are on the way to having a ninety percent unemployment rate – this is the real issue that requires political resolution.

Another shortcoming of the Trumpian worldview, which I haven't seen discussed, is how it ignores the fact that technology is undermining traditional economic models. Not only will fewer workers be needed, but the conditions necessary for traditional economic competition may gradually evaporate. Most people will be living on fixed incomes and have less money available for the frivolous products that corporations depend on for their revenue. Furthermore, the "added value" that underlies contemporary economic thought may become more elusive as high technology becomes widely available; what was once thought of as business acumen or creative entrepreneurship may soon be something that can be bought off-the-shelf by anyone, effectively turning creativity and "intellectual capital" into commodities. It appears likely that there will be greater and greater competition for fewer and fewer dollars, and when work is no longer necessary, most people will probably opt to skip it entirely given that the work environment will have become too competitive. As Cixin says, people are going to have to get used to a life of leisure whether they like it or not. Trump is completely off the mark, because he is stuck in a time warp in which he thinks of himself and his peers as job creators just as jobs are becoming obsolete.

There are some really vexing problems here that I'm not about to solve with my feeble brain on this blog post, but I can still make an effort. In an earlier scenario I suggested that apps could theoretically reduce the irrationality that thrives in the current electoral system by becoming part of the system and adding rationality to decision-making processes, i.e., telling people how to vote. Because there seems to be a global trend of electing incompetent demagogues, I am beginning to wonder whether a world coup by the tech giants might not be as bad an idea as it sounds. Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Bill Gates are rational people who may be more qualified to transform the world into a safe habitat for seven billion people than the ones who tend to win popular elections. At the moment a benevolent technocratic dictatorship seems more appealing to me than a world run by intellectually deficient buffoons.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Melancholy of Resistance I

I'm gradually getting back to reading and still have a long way to go in this novel by László Krasznahorkai. It is somewhat different from Satantango in that it concerns events in a town rather than in the country, has a broader range of characters and is written in long, flamboyant sentences. It also exhibits more psychological realism by showing how each character thinks, highlighting discontinuities in perspective that very few writers even notice, let alone capture in their work. As in Satantango the narrative is driven by forebodings and signs, always hinting at some mystery yet to be revealed.

My attitude to fiction is quite jaded at this point, and I am inclined not to read it at all, so whenever I do make the effort I can only tolerate works of the highest quality. In this respect Krasznahorkai doesn't disappoint, and I think he must be one of the best novelists ever. To compare him to Alice Munro or Philip Roth or Marilynne Robinson would be a joke. I find him more interesting than Dostoevsky, Proust, Kafka or Joyce. If you take the novel seriously as a form of art, there probably aren't many other living authors worth reading today.

The thought that is preoccupying me at the moment is Krasznahorkai's use of peasant characters, which ties in with some of my lifelong meditations. One of the reasons why I like him is that he doesn't hesitate to reveal weaknesses in peasants, something that not only does not occur in American fiction but is specifically banned in the era of political correctness. Broadly speaking, the concept of a peasant does not exist in American culture, because it has been replaced by the immigrant and melting pot narrative, in which everyone becomes equal. The melting pot narrative has caused cognitive dissonance in me from the moment I set foot here in 1957, because I immediately noticed differences in people through an intuitive understanding of peasant and non-peasant mentalities. As my life unfolded I became more acutely aware that I didn't care in the least whether I made a lot of money or achieved high social status, and that this put me at odds with the dominant currents in American society.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was put off by the Italian immigrants who lived in the town where I grew up. Later, when I lived in Illinois, I noticed that it was hard for me to relate to the second or third generation Polish immigrants whom I ran into at work. In the workforce, the absence of intellectual curiosity in others became a permanent barrier separating me from them. A similar barrier existed between me and my ex-wife's family. Prior to World War II they had been farmers and grain elevator operators in western Ohio, and after the war the men turned to law, geology and business. The women married similarly and never lived on a farm again. In one generation they went from agrarian lives to professional lives, which reflected their drive for financial and social advancement. As with the Italians and the Poles, I found them unimaginative and incapable of engaging in discussion of subjects which were not part of their limited backgrounds. This prompted me to look into my own background in search of something that might help explain the origin of my different perspective.

Part of that difference is simply a matter of life experience. I was born into a middle class family in England, where I lived until the age of 7. From the ages of 7 to 18 I lived in a suburb of New York City. After that I lived for several years in Indiana and Illinois, with short stays in Connecticut, Ohio, Oregon and Kentucky. Although my experience was hardly cosmopolitan, it was certainly broader than that of my in-laws. Another part of the difference, I've decided, is family history. In my family, the agrarian roots are further back than most. In England my ancestors were tailors and furriers by the early nineteenth century, and in Turkey they were engaged in international trade by the early twentieth century. My grandfather was importing pianos to Greece and his sister was studying music in Paris while my ex-wife's illiterate grandfather was in a field plowing behind a horse in Ohio. Thus, even though education did not play much of a role in my family until the late twentieth century, on my mother's side there was significant multiculturalism by 1920, with my grandfather speaking seven languages and my grandmother having German and Armenian parents.

There is a special beauty for me in writers like Krasznahorkai, who aren't afraid to call a peasant a peasant. In his case there isn't necessarily any heroism involved, because the environment in which he writes has different cultural references from those in the U.S. Even so, it is encouraging to me to know that there is a writer of fiction out there who has a brain. That is important to me as a resident of a country that suppresses all derogatory discussion of its peasant constituency and elects crypto-peasants such as George W. Bush and Donald Trump to its highest office.

Monday, November 28, 2016


The arrival of visitors for Thanksgiving predictably disrupted my mental state. When there are people in the house temporarily and I am aware of their presence, my thinking processes change, and I am unable to read, write or do much of anything until they leave, even if there are benefits to having them here. In this instance I enjoyed the visitors, in part because one of them had better social skills than is typically the case. It was possible to develop a rapport, and some useful and interesting knowledge was exchanged, but there were still the tiresome routines of showing people around, eating at restaurants and engaging in chitchat. I am probably a little hardened against visitors as a result of having had a long succession of ones who were socially obtuse, incurious or solipsistic. If you are in the habit of avoiding interactions that are known to be unsatisfactory, when they are forced upon you they become doubly annoying. On the other hand, a little social interaction can be good for you even if you don't enjoy it, since a certain amount of practice may be necessary if you want to avoid slipping into unacceptably antisocial or eccentric behavior.

I've read very little of the Krasznahorkai novel and am liking it so far. When I'm further along I'll have more to say.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


The country seems to be in a state of post-election trauma, with many Democrats in a panic and many Republicans scrambling to conjure up an illusion of political unity in which they are the key players. It must be impossible to walk past Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York with all the olive branches littering the sidewalk. From my point of view, though the political situation has taken a turn for the worse, it is only a minor change from one state of dysfunction to another. Instead of having a vaguely idealistic, unimaginative, conventional and ineffectual president, we will have an unprepared, egocentric and bombastic president. The checks and balances within the system, many of which are unintended, are likely to permit change only at a snail's pace, and the architecture of any change will be so flimsy as to permit its alteration or removal after a near-future election cycle. One of the inherent ironies of Trump's election is that although he seems to be ideologically pro-business, the introduction of change, and in Trump's case unpredictable change, is anathema to business, because businesses can't operate efficiently during periods of political instability.

Of course, to me the more interesting questions relate to whether the electorate is capable making good decisions in the first place, and as I've said repeatedly I don't think that it is. Rather than rehashing that, I've been thinking about what, if anything, has been different about this election, and there have been a few things. The main one has been the effect on the election by different kinds of individuals. Everyone is used to the influence of money in elections, and the narrative had been that corporations, with the help of the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, and special interest groups such as the Israel lobby influence election results by providing funds for advertising and campaign organization. This time Trump won mainly with free publicity, which is still a case of corporate interests affecting election outcomes, but not as they usually do, because the media corporations responsible did not have a plan to promote Trump and were merely filling their coffers with revenues that he inadvertently generated for them. Some of the other players have been more sinister. It is difficult to know exactly how the Hillary Clinton email controversy emerged and to what extent it was a coordinated effort. It seems to have started as a conventional Republican tactic to discredit a probable Democratic presidential candidate well before the election. As Bernie Sanders said, it is a non-issue, and if I didn't already know how ignorant many voters are I would find it difficult to understand how it had any impact, but Republican strategists are well aware that if they repeat something often enough millions of people will believe it. The whole "Hillary is a crook" message is so obviously contrived and false that one can only be amazed that millions of voters believed it. The sinister elements of this message relate to the probable hacking by Russia under the direction of Putin, the release of emails by WikiLeaks and the timing of announcements by the FBI. It seems likely that Putin, and perhaps WikiLeaks and insiders at the FBI all attempted to tilt the election toward Trump, and they succeeded.

What is new, then, is an effective disinformation campaign implemented with new technology by a foreign sponsor for its own strategic purposes. As far as Julian Assange is concerned, he seems to be a minor megalomaniac who is unlikely to have a significant long-term influence on world events. Of greater concern is Vladimir Putin, who sought and got the president he wanted. Also of concern is the possibility of intentional disruption of the Clinton campaign by the FBI. Presumably there will be investigations to follow. Unfortunately, the underlying problem was and still is the inability of voters to make informed decisions, and there is no quick fix for that. If voters knew what they were doing it would have been impossible for Trump to win under any circumstances, given that he has no experience and is a proven liar.

I hope to avoid writing much about politics, because I find it boring – like being forced to watch reality TV endlessly. It took me a couple of years to get sick of Obama, and even though Trump hasn't even taken office yet the image of him already makes me cringe. For the time being I will escape into literature and will be starting to read The Melancholy of Resistance, by László Krasznahorkai, to that end.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

G.H. Lewes: A Life IV

After its serialization in Blackwood's Magazine in 1857, Scenes of Clerical Life was published as a book in 1858 and was well-received by the public. This was followed by the novel Adam Bede in 1859, which was extremely popular and immediately placed George Eliot in the ranks of the best living English novelists. Marian continued to write fiction for the remaining twenty-one years of her life, becoming increasingly famous. Soon she and Lewes were prosperous enough to afford a house, and their standard of living improved dramatically. Initially Marian was ostracized socially because of their living arrangement, and even friends from Coventry and family members broke off contact with her. Women would not call at their house, and only Lewes was invited to the homes of others on social occasions. As her fame increased, Marian achieved social acceptance and visitors of both sexes attended gatherings at their house. She and Lewes got into the habit of leaving on trips to the Continent as soon as she had finished each book. Their unmarried state never caused any concerns in Germany, Lewes was very well liked there because of his biography of Goethe, and German higher education suited his method of learning, since he could attend lectures and obtain specimens without being a matriculated student, which facilitated his studies, including the dissection and microscopic examination of animals.

Lewes moved away from literature but continued to write books: Sea-Side Studies; The Physiology of Common Life; Studies in Animal Life; Aristotle: A Chapter from the History of Science; Problems of Life and Mind; The Foundations of a Creed; and several revised editions of his History of Philosophy. He became more prominent as a journalist and served as the editor at Cornhill Magazine and The Fortnightly Review, which were leading journals. As a scientific writer he contributed to early editions of Nature, and as a philosopher he contributed to early editions of Mind. Although he never became quite as influential a thinker as he may have liked, he was an ardent supporter of Darwin, which put him in better graces with Huxley. Even the shy Darwin read his articles with interest and visited him once at his house. He remained at the center of London intellectual life and was probably well-acquainted with anyone you could think of from that period, but he never escaped the perception of him as a journalist and a popularizer. Ashton doesn't say so, but my feeling is that he had adopted the model of a Renaissance man from Goethe just as it was becoming untenable. He was a reasonably good writer and thinker and a perceptive critic at a time when specialization was taking over academia and research. While his range of interests and curiosity seem remarkable today, no one tries to do what he did anymore, and a sensible person like Lewes would now restrict his vocation to journalism in the absence of advanced training in a scientific field. A slightly dilettantish man like Lewes stood little chance of matching the feats either of Charles Darwin or of George Eliot, and to try both, as he did, seems absurd, especially when you consider how kind and egoless he was and how his personal responsibilities and lack of financial resources curtailed his opportunities.

Despite his professional success and Marian's rise as a major author, family problems continued to plague Lewes. When his three biological sons were old enough he sent them to a private school in Switzerland, where they were poor students, and Thornton, the middle son, was particularly rambunctious. For lack of a better idea, Thornton, nicknamed Thornie, and the youngest, Herbert, nicknamed Bertie, moved to Natal, which was then a British colony in what is now South Africa, with the aim of becoming farmers. In 1869 Thornie became very ill and returned to England, where he never recovered and died of spinal tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. As it happened, Henry James, then a young writer, was paying a visit to George Eliot during one of Thornie's worst episodes. Bertie married in Natal but also became ill and died from bronchitis there in 1875 at the age of twenty-nine. The eldest son, Charles, lived briefly with his father and Marian in London and got a job with the post office; he married in 1865. Ironically, Agnes, the source of many of Lewes's woes, outlived everyone, including Charles; she had been disinherited by her father but nevertheless managed to survive until 1902.

One of my interests in reading this book was to examine how Lewes's outlook influenced George Eliot's. He makes his preference of realism clear in the following statement, which comes from the article "Realism in Art: Recent German Fiction," which was published in 1858:

Realism is thus the basis of all Art, and its antithesis is not Idealism, but Falsism. When our painters represent peasants with regular features and irreproachable linen; when their milkmaids have the air of Keepsake beauties, whose costume is picturesque, and never old or dirty; when Hodge is made to speak fine sentiments in unexceptionable English, and the children utter long speeches of religious and poetic enthusiasm; when the conversation of the parlour and drawing-room is a succession of philosophical remarks, expressed with great clearness and logic, an attempt is made to idealize, but the result is simply falsification and bad art....Either give us true peasants, or leave them untouched; either paint no drapery at all, or paint it with utmost fidelity; either keep your people silent, or make them speak the idiom of their class.

Citing one of Lewes's reviews, Ashton sums up his aesthetics as follows:

Lewes was clear-sighted about his criteria; he was living with a woman who was at that very moment fulfilling his prescriptions for 'true psychology in a novel', namely that it should consist in 'the presentation of the actual emotions, motives, and thoughts at work in the action of the drama'. This was the gift he recognized in Marian, as he had recognized it in Jane Austen, and, partially, in Charlotte Bronte and Mrs Gaskell.

It was exactly this kind of realism that astounded me when I read Middlemarch, and though her writing may seem dated in other respects, George Eliot's realism has, in my opinion, never been surpassed by any writer. Although I am capable of enjoying different kinds of fiction, I find realism to be the most effective and important, and the dearth of it in contemporary fiction signals commercialization and a lack of real insight in today's writers, both popular and literary.

I also chose to read this book in order to make a comparison with Jean-Paul Sartre's relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. At the most fundamental level there are strong similarities. Both couples shared very close worldviews, loved each other and supported each other's work. However, the worldviews of the couples were dissimilar and the personalities and dynamics within the relationships were not the same. Sartre/de Beauvoir were primarily anti-bourgeois when in fact they never escaped the class that they supposedly disliked. Neither of them was a good social observer, and their curiosity seems to have been badly stunted, leading to narrow ideological thinking. Most of de Beauvoir's writing seems to be a transcription from her journals and diaries, and a lack of imagination and an inability to understand people who were not like herself left her with very little material with which to work. Thus her most lasting influence will be in feminism, because her early discontent as a woman is what fueled her entire career. The missing ingredient, I think, is life experience. Although they were not materialistic, their lack of money did not cause them real hardship, because they had no children and no responsibilities. They were able to fashion a lifestyle based on immature sentiments that were never put to the test. Sartre used his money to support as many mistresses as he could afford, and de Beauvoir engaged in adventurism in search of material for her books. With what I've read so far, I find de Beauvoir quite disappointing. All of the education, discussion and collaboration in the world couldn't make either Sartre or de Beauvoir great writers.

In comparison, G.H. Lewes and George Eliot seem vastly more likable, interesting and accomplished. It is unfortunate that Lewes never wrote a magnum opus and is hardly remembered today, but it is a significant achievement to have brought to the world a great voice that would likely have remained silent without him.

Friday, November 11, 2016

G.H. Lewes: A Life III

My reading has been further disrupted by the election, yard work and preparation for winter, but I am still making some progress in this book. When Marian Evans's father died in 1849 she began to receive a small income from his estate, and after an extended trip to the Continent she decided to become a London journalist. She had already been exposed to a wide range of intellectuals whom she had met through the family of Charles Bray, a ribbon manufacturer with many interests who lived in Coventry near her father's retirement house. In 1851, at the age of 32, she took up lodging in the house of John Chapman in London. Chapman was a radical who was good at raising money, and he was then in the process of purchasing the Westminister Review. He was a roué, living with his wife and mistress in the same building while starting an affair with a third woman, and apparently he also showed an interest in Marian, setting off a major household row. After that settled down, and having recognized Marian's talent, he called upon her to edit the Westminister Review behind the scenes, since the task was beyond his abilities. Marian was quickly thrust into the midst of London's intelligentsia, and before long Chapman introduced her to Lewes. As with many people, Lewes did not make a favorable first impression on her, and for a time she pursued a friendship with Herbert Spencer, which did not blossom into a romantic relationship as she may have hoped, chiefly, according to him, because he found her physically unattractive. He remained a bachelor for his entire life.

Lewes contributed to the Westminster Review, and over time Marian had greater exposure to him. He was becoming more interested in science at that stage and got into a major spat with Thomas Huxley, who questioned his credentials. He also managed to get into a public disagreement with Dickens over spontaneous combustion. Marian gradually became intimate with Lewes, and their official coming out as a couple occurred in August, 1854, when they traveled together to Germany, where Lewes conducted research for a biography of Goethe. By then they were living together in London, and though Lewes remained on friendly terms with Agnes he had not lived with her for some time. Strangely, his three surviving sons and Hunt's four children all considered Lewes to be their father without raising the question of why he didn't live with Agnes, whom Lewes supported financially until his death. Lewes's Life of Goethe became one of his greatest successes, in terms of both sales and the quality of his writing and research.

I should again stress how significant the obstacles were that Lewes faced, especially when you compare him to the cosseted intellectuals of today. His lack of a university degree, combined with his theatrical flair, tended to cause the better-educated, socially superior class to look down on him as a common hack journalist. With limited financial resources he had to support his estranged wife and her seven children, four of which were not his own. In order to generate sufficient income he had to write articles and books and translate works from French and German at a rate that would be considered preposterous now. And he was doing this in a highly polluted London, where he frequently became ill at a time when medicine resembled witchcraft. No wonder he only lived to the age of sixty-one.

What impresses me the most about Lewes is the nurturing role that he played in the transformation of Marian Evans into George Eliot. Ashton describes this quite well, so I'll quote her directly:

He had early on recognized her extraordinary ability to write trenchant, witty, and thoughtful criticism. From a scrap of descriptive writing she read out to him in Berlin in 1855, he thought she might be able to write novels. When he saw her wonderful comic essay 'Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming' (Westminister Review, October 1855), he knew she had genius rather than just talent. Lewes urged his diffident partner, over and over, to try her hand at fiction. In September 1856 she finally did. Sending off another fine essay to Chapman, the ebullient 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists' with its division of silly novels into such sub-species as 'the mind-and-millinery species', 'the oracular species', and 'the white neck-cloth species', she sat down on 23 September to begin 'The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton', intended as the first story in a series to be called 'Scenes of Clerical Life'.

On 6 November Lewes wrote to Blackwood about an article he proposed to write on sea-anemones to follow 'Sea-side Studies'. He also sent 'A m.s. of "Sketches of Clerical Life" which was submitted to me by a friend who desired my good offices with you'. Lewes is careful not to lead Blackwood to expect too much, but he skilfully drops references to The Vicar of Wakefield and 'Miss Austen' when describing this first of a series of tales 'illustrative of the actual life of our country clergy about a quarter of a century ago; but solely in its human and not at all in its theological aspect'. In his excellent way, Blackwood replied less than a week later: 'I am happy to say that I think your friend's reminiscences of Clerical Life will do.'

From this exchange dates the celebrated partnership of George Eliot – though she did not take this name, chosen for love of Lewes and a good, plain, English-sounding surname, until February 1857 – and Blackwood, with Lewes as indefatigable go-between.

I still haven't finished this biography and will have more to say later.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Although I'm hardly at all interested in politics, I thought my readers might like to know my reaction to the unexpected Trump victory. As I had been following the polls closely in recent weeks, like many I was surprised by this outcome. However, on reflection, there are similarities between this election and the election of George W. Bush in 2000, and Bush's reelection in 2004 was already a confirmation to me of the incompetence of voters – hence my continuing skepticism regarding the wisdom of the existing democratic process. In this case it is difficult to predict how Trump's presidency might evolve, because he is less ideologically rigid than he presented himself, and his real strengths are in photo ops and his sheer aggressiveness. Put in a historical perspective, there is nothing new here, as H.L. Mencken wrote in 1926:

No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

My presidential vote was superfluous because I live in a Democratic stronghold. I voted for Hillary Clinton only because I did not want to support a third-party candidate who might inadvertently contribute to the election of Trump by reducing the number of Clinton votes in another state, as Ralph Nader did for Bush in 2000. It is impossible to know, but Ralph Nader may have changed world history for the worse by reducing Al Gore's vote count in 2000. In this household we had a small panic about the election results and someone began to look into real estate in France, but we have since settled down.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

G.H. Lewes: A Life II

Prior to meeting Marian Evans, as she called herself in 1851, Lewes had tried his hand at several professions. He wrote plays which were rejected in 1842 and another play which was produced in 1850. In 1847 he published his first novel, which was a commercial and critical failure and was followed by a second dud novel in 1848. That same year he acted in an amateur play sponsored by Charles Dickens to raise money for indigent writers such as Leigh Hunt, and the following year he acted professionally in the role of Shylock. All the while he continued to write reviews. He and Thornton Hunt founded a new publication, The Leader, in 1850, in which Hunt covered political matters and Lewes covered literary subjects, writing under the name "Vivian."

Lewes's personal life began to disintegrate in 1848, when Agnes became pregnant with her first child by Thornton Hunt, with whom she eventually had four children. Lewes accepted the first as his own, which subsequently made it impossible for him to divorce her under British law and later prevented him from marrying Marian Evans, forcing a more scandalous life on them than they would have preferred. Ashton astutely points out how Lewes's reviews at the time reflect an agitated mental state, with Agnes and his strained financial condition causing him to write terse, churlish reviews of new Brontë novels, including Wuthering Heights.

One of the reasons why I am enjoying this book is that it describes an alternate, contrasting intellectual environment to the one inhabited by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and the one available today in the U.S. There was an intellectual freshness in the London of 1850 that scarcely resembles Paris of 1945. The British Empire and the Industrial Revolution were at a peak, and both the arts and the sciences were vibrant in London, with a few quack exceptions such as then-popular phrenology and paranormal fads. Liberalism of the sort with which we're familiar didn't yet exist and Marxism was in its infancy, yet intellectuals and industrialists alike were thinking about fairness for the working class. The British are to be respected for their emphasis on empiricism and their disdain for metaphysics, which is fully in evidence in Lewes. The nineteenth century in England was the century of the gentleman naturalist, and even Lewes, a literary man, became captivated by science. He attended lectures in Berlin and rejected German metaphysics entirely. In my opinion, one of the main reasons why continental philosophy became irrelevant was its adherence to the works of minor thinkers such as Hegel. As Tony Judt clearly demonstrated, Sartre, who descended from that line of thought, was completely out of touch with his times – yet he was revered as one of France's great thinkers.

Given their preference for the scientific method, it is unfortunate that British and American thinkers were unable to discover more plausible social solutions than the ones generated by Marx and the earlier thinkers of the Enlightenment. However, science is slowly moving in the right direction, finding, for example, that capitalism causes inequality and that humans are fundamentally irrational, and finally there may be realistic solutions on the horizon for managing human affairs. Democracy and capitalism are badly in need of replacement, and research is beginning to prove it.

Monday, October 31, 2016

G.H. Lewes: A Life I

In case you were wondering, I have been distracted by family responsibilities over the last few days and have done little reading and no writing. This book, by Rosemary Ashton, seems to be an appropriate sequel to my investigation of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, because I have stumbled on a new topic: literary couples. I already knew a lot about George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), one of whose better biographies was written by the same Rosemary Ashton, and was interested in taking a closer look at the Eliot-Lewes relationship from a knowledgeable source in order to get a better perspective on the de Beauvoir-Sartre relationship. One doesn't hear much about collaborative literary relationships, but, in the case of George Eliot, her relationship with Lewes was critical: she may never have written fiction if it hadn't been for him. The de Beauvoir-Sartre relationship seems less symbiotic and more fraught with problems for a number of reasons. First, I don't think that de Beauvoir and Sartre were as talented as they saw themselves, and, second, although they consulted each other frequently, their interests and works hardly converged, and they probably could have done their writing individually. So far I am struck by how spoiled and arrogant de Beauvoir and Sartre seem; they started with superior educations and a distorted sense of self-importance. Eliot and Lewes represent a dramatic contrast, with inferior educations, years of struggle and extraordinarily hard work. Observing the couples, de Beauvoir and Sartre seem more imperious and tendentious, while Eliot and Lewes seem comparatively more curious and, in the end, more knowledgeable. One of my theses is that the best fiction requires, besides a certain amount of imagination and high level of linguistic skill, a depth of understanding of human nature and society, and that understanding seemed somewhat lacking in de Beauvoir and Sartre.

George Henry Lewes was the grandson of Charles Lee Lewes, an irreverent actor in England at a time when acting was not a respectable profession. G.H. Lewes's father, John Lee Lewes, was a minor literary figure who had two families. His wife bore four children, and he abandoned the family in 1811 to start an illegitimate family with Elizabeth Ashweek, with whom he had three sons. The third son, G.H. Lewes, was born in 1817. John Lee Lewes abandoned his second family in 1819 and moved to Bermuda to work as a customs officer. Elizabeth Ashweek married in 1823, and her sons disliked their stepfather. Not much information on Lewes's childhood is available, but apparently his mother faced financial difficulties. They lived in Gloucestershire, Southampton, Jersey, Nantes and Boulogne, and presumably their moves were motivated by a search for lower living costs. Lewes became fluent in French and early on developed the outlook of a freethinker.

By 1837, at the age of twenty, Lewes had become a young Bohemian in London. He sought to emulate Shelley and became acquainted with Shelley's irresponsible surviving friend, Leigh Hunt, the writer. He supported himself through a variety of literary and journalistic pursuits. Leigh Hunt's son, Thornton, became his closest friend. Lewes seems to have been well-suited, despite a spotty education, to a journalistic life. He was able to churn out reviews, articles on Shelley and Goethe and a popular introductory philosophy book. By the time he was in his early thirties he had established friendships with Leigh Hunt, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Charlotte Brontë, Auguste Comte, George Sand, William Makepeace Thackeray and Herbert Spencer, and later he corresponded with Charles Darwin. He seems to have had a gregarious personality, have been good at telling jokes, producing witticisms and doing imitations, but he also had omnivorous interests and critical acuity.

In 1841, at the age of 23, Lewes married Agnes Jervis. Apparently their first few years together were happy, and they produced four sons, one of whom died young. For reasons not entirely clear the marriage declined, and Agnes bore several children by Thornton Hunt. There are aspects to Lewes's Bohemian proclivities that are not well understood, and I'll discuss them further if they come up later in the book, which I've barely started.

I apologize if this topic doesn't interest you, but it is important to me in that it provides the kind of sociological perspective on literary production that I find most meaningful. It is all too common to read proclamations that some author has produced a "work of genius," but my experience has shown me that nothing occurs in a vacuum, and, more precisely, a great work cannot come into existence if all the right pieces aren't already in place – pieces which predominantly have nothing to do with the particular talents of an author.

Saturday, October 22, 2016


The last few days have been spent observing fall colors and politics, which don't require comment. I continue to ruminate over Simone de Beauvoir, who, unfortunately, has produced an unpleasant aftereffect in me. Whatever her good points, I am tending to notice a pattern of self-indulgence, a lack of self-criticism, and, on top of that, some delusional thinking about the nature of her existence. The self-indulgence pertains to her lengthy writing style. If I had adopted a similar style, this blog would now be several thousand pages long, you would have heard about everyone I ever met, and I would have familiarized you with the details of every vacation or trip that I ever took. I would have done this without providing much context and very little analysis of the character and motivations of the people I knew. In order to do this I would have had to think that my life was important enough to waste your time describing it ad nauseum without ever getting to the heart of anything.

The lack of self-criticism occurs to me in those instances where de Beauvoir may have had a harmful effect on those around her. Based on her own account, it appears that she placed a lot of pressure on her friend Zaza, forcing her to adopt a harsh intellectual outlook on life that didn't suit her personality and put her at odds with her family. De Beauvoir hints at her own culpability in Zaza's death but takes no responsibility and ends that section of her autobiography on that note. Similarly, though she does not discuss the details of her sex life, she conveys a cavalier attitude toward the psychological impact she may have had on people who were much younger than she was. In the case of Nelson Algren, I got the feeling that her relationship began and ended as an amusing experiment for her, and that, though she may have felt bad about the outcome, she had been unwilling to make any changes in her life on his account.

The delusional thinking aspect is what concerns me the most. Apparently she was exceptionally headstrong from an early age, and she had a tendency to define herself as whatever she wanted to be even if that meant denying physical reality. As I mentioned earlier, she thought that she could transcend her body and be a woman or a man or whatever she liked. Her version of feminism wasn't a simple one that emphasized equality, but one more akin to contemporary gender studies, which allows individuals to choose their gender based on how they happen to feel. As in modern gender studies, de Beauvoir tended to view gender as a social construct, and while I agree that it is to some extent, it is also partly the result of irreducible biological facts. Where she goes overboard is in her ridicule of women who enjoy childrearing, domesticity and social ritual. In what I've read of de Beauvoir, I have seen no sympathy for those women, whose behavior accords with obvious biological reality and their actual feelings. In this respect, she is displaying the most basic kind of ignorance, for which I can never forgive her. Ironically, though defying traditional gender roles, she adopted a distinctly subservient role to Sartre throughout their relationship and ascribed greater talent to him than she did to herself. Furthermore, the intellectual superiority which she credits to herself and Sartre looks suspect just thirty years after her death. Between the two of them there seems to have been a decided avoidance of science, and this permitted them to manufacture their own reality, even when that meant that they were guaranteeing their future obsolescence as thinkers.

Not long ago I thought that de Beauvoir was similar to George Eliot, but on closer examination that resemblance is illusory. Specifically, I have been thinking about how de Beauvoir was deeply moved by Eliot's The Mill on the Floss but doesn't even mention, as far as I know, Eliot's far better novel, Middlemarch. The former is an autobiographical tale about social circumstances that unfairly cause the ostracism of a precocious young woman, but to George Eliot it was also a lamentation on her break with her brother, Isaac Evans, with whom she had been close during childhood. De Beauvoir seems only to have read it as in indictment of social custom, which was not the only intention of the author: Eliot felt heartsick for Isaac, and the novel indicates that she would rather have died with him than remain estranged. Middlemarch, in contrast, is a magisterial work that examines society at all levels, and, unlike any work by de Beauvoir, accurately appraises everyone within their particular social niche. While George Eliot had the perceptiveness to notice the foibles of the intellectuals in her life, de Beauvoir seems never to have taken off her rose-tinted glasses for Sartre, who would probably make even better fodder for satire than anyone known by George Eliot. Moreover, there is a warmth to George Eliot's portrayals of ordinary people, which contrasts with de Beauvoir's simmering disdain for all things bourgeois.

I've started to read G.H. Lewes: A Life, by Rosemary Ashton, which is about George Eliot's partner. Although I'm tired of England and English literature, Lewes and Eliot represent a more productive and interesting intellectual time and place than the wrongheaded and unsavory one inhabited by de Beauvoir and Sartre.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


The fall colors are at a peak again here and as usual reaffirm how good it is to live in Vermont. The mountaintops turn orange first, and the colors slowly flow downward to sea level until everything has turned brown. You can extend the experience by hiking at higher elevations when the change begins. Frost has finally struck the garden, ending the growing season. This winter will probably be snowier than last. I am at a lull between books and have a couple of new ones on hand for whenever I resume. At this point I'm a little overdosed on French writers and will be returning to Hungary, England and elsewhere. American fiction remains too painful for me to read.

William became an outdoor/indoor cat last month and is much happier as a result. At first he went on a spree catching goldfinches, moles, voles and chipmunks, but he has since calmed down and hasn't deposited many dead animals by the door recently. He had one serious fight with a feral cat, in which he could have lost an eye, but he has recovered except for missing patches of fur that have yet to grow back. He loves following us around the yard during the day. Because there are dangerous predators out there, we bring him in at night.

I don't particularly like to comment on current events, but thought I should say something about Donald Trump. His political ascent is one of the most bizarre events in American political history for a number of reasons. If you analyze it purely on a political level it is a predictable development in the sense that the Republican Party has gradually wandered into a remote ideological region and has left its door open to fringe candidates who have nothing coherent to offer. To me it is a sign that the party lacks a central idea. The more disturbing aspect of it is that there are people who actually vote for someone like Trump, whose shortcomings are obvious. He is one of the most overtly elitist candidates ever, yet he has managed to make himself appealing to the common man. Any critical analysis of him immediately reveals that he has no qualifications for the job: he clearly does not understand politics, government, economics, science or world affairs, and he has unusually low ethical standards at a time when they are more essential than ever for most political candidates. Trump is a blatant example of the pitfalls of the American democratic process. Voters need training in how to make rational voting decisions or else have their right to vote rescinded. Fortunately, it appears that Trump will lose by a landslide to Hillary Clinton, who, though by no means an ideal candidate, is a reliable person with an appropriate background.

The other news event, which seems to be exciting literary people, is the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan. I have been avoiding reading people's reactions, because I don't care what they think. Nothing has changed in how I see Dylan, and this event is really about the Nobel Committee. The Swedes would have been wise to stay away from aesthetic judgments, because that is not one of their fortes, if they have any. As I've said, Dylan's talent emerged in the 1960's, but has been followed by a barren half-century. Like Richard Feynman, a fellow Ashkenazim, he started with an extraordinary talent. In his case he was able to assimilate vast amounts of music and oral tradition during a time of social upheaval to produce a unique synthesis – all without quite understanding what he was doing. Dylan was never disciplined enough to meet my definition of a great artist; he was a raw talent that fizzled. Since both Dylan and Feynman took up painting as a hobby, you can compare their works and use that as a neutral basis to decide which of them is the better artist. In my judgment, Feynman is the better artist, and that may be because he was more disciplined and a clearer thinker than Dylan. On close examination everything that Dylan ever had to say was derivative of what other people had said, thus he remains an enigma rather than an exemplar of artistic expression.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 II

Much of the remainder of the book is devoted to painting a detailed sociological portrait of the time and place under discussion. This appeals to me in the sense that it clearly demonstrates how the behavior of the intellectuals in question was determined by the environment in which they lived, and that the actual merit of their ideas played little role in their public stature. However, this approach is also disappointing in that it tends to reduce the issues of the period to style and fashion and thereby grants Judt an authorial control in which the intellectuals in question are portrayed as flawed or ignorant to one degree or another without having any opportunity to defend themselves. On the whole I think Judt's analysis is correct, but obviously Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Mounier and many of the other intellectuals discussed would disagree with him if they were here to defend themselves.

Judt's objections to Sartre center on his silence on important issues, including the existence of Soviet labor camps, the show trials of Eastern Europe and Soviet anti-Semitism. Rather than presenting Sartre's positions as reasoned ones, he explains how attitudes that developed among intellectuals in France evolved over time and supported him. Sartre and his cohort had become suspicious of the U.S. and Britain when they had failed to prevent Hitler's victory in France, when the U.S. had bombed French cities, and, following the war, when the U.S. had become an occupying force.

Judt also describes how the roles of intellectuals differed from country to country. As a dominant cultural center in Europe, Paris had long been respected for its intelligentsia, and they had been highly active in national debates since the Dreyfus affair. I was amused by Judt's frank description of how intellectuals in France differ from those in the U.S.:

One of the distinctive and enduring differences between France and the United States has been the insignificance of the intelligentsia in the public life of the latter. In marked contrast to their French homologues, American intellectuals are marginal to their own culture. For a multitude of reasons, the intellectual in America has no purchase upon the public mind, not to mention public policy. Thus there was (and remains) about the United States something profoundly inimical and alien to the European and French conception of the intellectual and his or her role. If "America" represented the future, then it pointed to a society in which the role of the intellectual, real as well as self-ascribed, would be dramatically reduced.

If I had been more cognizant of this view when the book was published in 1992, I might have saved myself a lot of frustration and annoyance by not subscribing to the New York Review of Books; I didn't recognize until about 2014 the extent to which it is a marginal publication serving the narrow interests of a tiny, closed group. For reasons of mental health alone, steering clear of American intellectuals and their affiliates seems to be the best option, though it may result, as it has in my case, in retreating from the possibility of discussion.

Judt describes the legacy of the French intellectuals in question as follows:

More than their past errors or their occasional air of overbearing superiority, it was the ineffable solipsism of so many French intellectuals that finally broke their hold on the European imagination. Uniquely, they seemed unable to grasp the course of events. Despite their best intentions, Sartre, Mounier, Merleau-Ponty, and their spiritual heirs did not see themselves projected onto the stage of history but rather saw history reduced to the categories and dimensions of their own intellectual trajectories. Because of their neglectful uninterest in Europe's eastern half from 1957 until the later seventies, French intellectuals in recent years have found themselves discovering truths that had already been self-evident to others for three decades....

Since I read this book primarily to gain a better insight into Sartre and de Beauvoir, I'll comment on that. The main suspicions I had adopted while reading de Beauvoir were that her understanding of politics seemed limited in The Mandarins and that she tended to be inappropriately adulatory and uncritical towards her father, her cousin Jacques and Sartre in her memoirs. She also seemed oblivious to the significance of the cultural barriers separating her from Nelson Algren. Judt confirms to me that though she is a clear and honest writer, she is not particularly perceptive and is prone to adopting naïve ideas. Regarding Sartre, I never held him in high regard, and Judt confirms what I already thought. Sartre may have been interesting as a personality and in his range of interests, but from the present he does not in the least resemble a major philosopher, playwright or political theorist. Although I still think that de Beauvoir's writing is worthwhile, I feel that you have to sift through an awful lot of it to find what is best. If you look at all of her work as autobiographical, the most memorable passages for me have been her recollections of conversations that she held with other women. But to get to that you have to wade through thousands of pages of delusional thinking about the men in her life, a poor understanding of history and a shockingly myopic take on the world from a limited French intellectual point of view. At the moment she and Sartre seem to me like one-trick ponies: they resented their bourgeois upbringings, to which I say "So what!" I may resume reading her in the future, but for the time being I've had my fill of her.

Regarding Tony Judt's writing itself, I enjoyed his vigor and clarity as usual; these characteristics set him apart from nearly all academic writers. However, I think that his style is somewhat better suited to shorter essays, because in this full-length book I began to feel that his arguments were overkill, and that there wasn't much left of Sartre by the end. Judt reminds me of a cat that has caught and killed a bird and is carrying it around proudly in his mouth, and though having no intention of eating it he bites it periodically for good measure; before long the bird looks like an inert bundle of feathers, and you begin to wonder what the fuss was all about.

Monday, October 10, 2016


One of the statements in my last post was unclear to a reader and requires further explanation. I have got into the habit of comparing people to chipmunks, and now "chipmunk" is a code word that refers to the conspicuous absence of scientific evidence, particularly biological evidence, when making prescriptive statements about people, society and organizations. For example, when Thomas Jefferson wrote of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" as "unalienable Rights," he was referring to humans in the abstract, primarily as legal entities, and ignoring the biological context of his ideas. This has become a private joke for me, and I imagine an eloquent chipmunk similarly composing a grand document which brings order and harmony to chipmunk society. My thinking is that the existence of both humans and chipmunks is guided by natural laws which have no relationship to most of the concepts that we invent. In a sense we resemble chipmunks in that we unselfconsciously go about our lives and do whatever we are inclined to do without relying on abstract concepts at all. Furthermore, the evidence is now overwhelming that humans are fundamentally irrational in many respects, and I believe that the humanistic models of government that came to dominate in the West were mistakenly based on the same incorrect "rational agent" hypothesis that has been implicitly employed by Jefferson and other political theoreticians since. The term "rational agent" comes from modern economics, but has an earlier history in the Enlightenment.

I like to use Jefferson and the American Revolution as examples of the limits of human cognition, and how we, as a culture, may, for example, rewrite history to suit our heroic conceptions of national identity. As I've said, if you look at the bare facts of the origin of the U.S., it was a case of white male landowners breaking with England in order to pursue their private business interests without being encumbered by the British government. At the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, its beneficiaries were still white male landowners, and everyone else was subhuman in a strict legal sense. The saving grace of the Constitution was the allowance for its alteration, because the modern world bears little resemblance to the world of 1787. However, the U.S. government currently responds too inefficiently to collective needs, and it seems possible that political dysfunction could eventually lead to its collapse.

My theory, which I have attempted to articulate with varying degrees of success on this blog, is that something resembling a "zoo" or "wildlife management" model of governance is beginning to look more appropriate than the "rights of man" model now generally assumed by modern governments. There was a time – in the eighteenth century – when the "rights of man" model may have been plausible for use on a large scale if contemporary abuses such as slavery had been addressed, but since then overpopulation, increased cultural clashes, global warming, mass extinctions and more powerful weaponry may have made global problems too challenging for solution within the context of existing governments and international organizations. This is where I think AI enters the picture. I know that some of my readers may think I'm engaging in futuristic, antidemocratic nonsense, but to me AI is the obvious next step when you consider the documented limits of human capability. It takes no imagination to envision a large computer outperforming the human brain in a variety of processes, and such a computer could operate without the biases that are known to produce poor decisions in humans. Just as individuals often overrate their intelligence, so do governments and other institutions. Up to this point, human arrogance has been easy to defend, because we have been the smartest species on the planet, but I think that AI may soon change our outlook.

My reasons for taking this position on mankind are not based on any inherent pessimism or a deep dislike for the current state of affairs, but rather on my preference for order rather than disorder. I have had ample time to reflect on my own life, and it has been obvious to me that I made decisions at various points which were not optimal. The same is true for practically everyone, and I don't believe that one must accept life as inherently full of inadequate information, bad advice, stupidity, poor decisions, etc. If you reflect on your own life, the lives of your siblings, the lives of your parents, the lives of your grandparents, and so on, you will clearly see many haphazard choices that significantly affected the courses of your life and theirs. From a decision-making standpoint, much more information and information processing is available now than used to be the case, and I don't think it should be wasted. It is becoming technologically possible to live a better-informed life, thanks to information technology and the sciences. Until recently in human history, outcomes were often ascribed to fate, luck or God, and there are now better ways to produce desired outcomes that shouldn't be ignored. This entails seeing our place in the universe rather than making up stories that merely conceal our ignorance.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956 I

Because of my unease with Simone de Beauvoir's accounts of both historical events and personal matters, I decided to get a second opinion by reading this book by Tony Judt, which was published in 1992. Judt was one of the leading scholars of modern European history, and here he describes in great detail the intellectual environment in France immediately following World War II. In my reading of Simone de Beauvoir I began to detect hints of hagiography, and there is no one better equipped than Judt to unmask historical inaccuracies in this period. Judt was particularly interested in the effects that intellectuals have on history, and he himself became a significant public intellectual following 9/11, when he went public as an anti-Zionist and criticized the Bush administration for its actions in Iraq. He was a breath of fresh air when other so-called intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens and Michael Ignatieff were cheering on Bush. It is most unfortunate that he died prematurely from ALS in 2010 at the age of sixty-two. I feel lucky to have met him in 2003. As a humanist and an academic, Judt is still subject to the reservations I have about those camps, but I know that he had personal integrity and was not blinded by professional ambition, as is often the case.

The book discusses dozens of French intellectuals from the period and occasionally ventures as far back as the French Revolution for examples, but I am reading it mainly for his opinions of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. So far, about halfway through, he isn't enthusiastic about them:

As a rule, philosophers found Sartre slippery; playwrights found him didactic. But each found him to be a genius at the other activity.

Regarding the second and third volumes of de Beauvoir's memoirs he says:

Although they sometimes lack psychological insight and show remarkable naiveté at times, they are honest and informative narratives of a high quality.

He also notes that in The Mandarins de Beauvoir attempted to clean up Sartre's record on remaining silent about the Gulag system:

Even Simone de Beauvoir, in Les Mandarins, was constrained to insert a series of anguished debates between Dubreuilh [Sartre] and Perron [Camus] over the news of Soviet camps, though she managed to make it appear that these debates had been taking place as early as 1946.

Judt describes France as in ideological tatters before World War II and continuing in that state afterwards. There was no clarity in how to punish German collaborators and members of the Vichy government, and there were mixed responses to events in Soviet East Europe. The communist party in France remained strong throughout the period, and most French intellectuals were reluctant to criticize the Soviets. Sartre and de Beauvoir became influential political thinkers through their journal, Modern Times, which was founded in 1945 and still exists. Sartre believed in a communist future, and this prevented him from criticizing its abuses in the present. De Beauvoir thought that Soviet communism was unrelated to French communism. Camus was the first in this group to criticize the Soviets, resulting in his break with Sartre described in The Mandarins. Judt also complains about Sartre's lack of a solid philosophical foundation for his political views. Because Sartre never wrote a book on existential ethics, as he had promised, the moral reasoning behind his ideas, if any, remained obscure.

To speculate a little, I think Tony Judt would have loved to have been a Parisian public intellectual in the manner of Jean-Paul Sartre or Raymond Aron, but he was turned off by the actual intellectual environment when he lived there and instead became a critic of public intellectuals. I wholeheartedly agree with him and only wish he had gone on the attack sooner when he moved to New York. However, in other respects I don't agree with him at all. He is writing in the tradition of an Enlightenment humanist, which I think has run its course. To me, concepts such as liberté, égalité, fraternité, socialism, communism, democracy and capitalism are obsolete, because humans have conclusively proven themselves to be ineffectual at collective self-governance on a large scale. Having a far lower opinion of mankind than Judt, it appears to me that modern political theory isn't much different from theories one might propose to bring order to chipmunk society. The absence of consideration of the biological limitations of humans in political thought precludes the possibility of a functional theory. In this regard, as I have said repeatedly, in the long run AI is more likely to produce tenable solutions.

I should also mention that, having lived in the U.S. for most of my life, discussion of European political history seems extraordinarily exotic. That is because, with the exception of the Civil War, which had little effect on the structure of government, there have been no major political upheavals here in 240 years, and the population is blindly faithful to longstanding ideas of democracy and capitalism. Efforts have been made periodically to inject socialism into the system during economic downturns, but those have always evaporated once the economy recovered. Although I don't see the present system in the U.S. as sustainable or desirable, Europe seems far more complex and chaotic in comparison.

I'll post again on this topic whenever I finish the book.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Prime of Life V

I got so tired of the remainder of the book that I skimmed it. The period in this section includes the German invasion and occupation of northern France and Vichy France to the south, from 1940 to the end of the occupation in 1944. Sartre initially joined the army, was captured and was subsequently released. He wrote the philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness and the plays No Exit and The Flies. By the end of the war de Beauvoir and Sartre had begun to travel in wider artistic circles. They socialized with Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet and befriended Albert Camus. Sartre became more politically-minded than he had been previously and hoped to steer France in a socialistic direction after the war. This is the same territory covered at the beginning of The Mandarins.

Because de Beauvoir's descriptions in this volume seemed inadequate from the beginning, I looked briefly into other biographical sources in order to get a better sense of what actually went on. Although she makes veiled references to it, she has elided practically all of the considerable sexual activity that was taking place within her circle at the time. I can understand to some extent why she would do this. There is the element of privacy, and most of the people were still alive when she wrote the book. However, this is supposed to be a memoir, and I find it unacceptable that she glosses over facts that more clearly illustrate the nature of her relationship with Sartre than she succeeds in doing otherwise. She repeatedly states that the relationship was at the core of her life, yet in the book he comes across as some guy whom she sees – every once in a while –  to discuss their writing. Fortunately, their literary executors have since released many of their letters, which reveal that Sartre had a tremendous sexual appetite for pretty young women, preferably virgins, and that de Beauvoir played a significant role in finding and grooming them for him. De Beauvoir herself had sexual contact with them but does not seem to have been a lesbian or bisexual, though one author speculates that she may have had erotic interactions far earlier with her childhood friend, Zaza. Apparently Sartre had as many as nine mistresses at a time, and some of them were unaware of the others. Sartre and de Beauvoir themselves stopped having sex early in their relationship, and it is possible to stretch things a little in order to portray them as advanced thinkers in this realm, but one must consider that de Beauvoir has deliberately covered up Sartre's activities and that some of the women who became sexually involved with him later said that they had been used and discarded. I have no interest in pursuing this vein further and am content to agree with Louis Menand's assessment in this article. The most plausible explanation for de Beauvoir's authorial choice in how to handle the activities in question is that she was playing the traditional role of supportive wife in a patriarchal society, which, though out of keeping for the author of The Second Sex, reflects who she was.

The sex part, per se, has little influence on my opinion of de Beauvoir, and I am more concerned that she chose to saddle herself with Sartre, whom I don't admire at all. I would have liked her more if she had attached herself to someone less seedy and manipulative. Beyond her academic abilities she may not have been as smart as you may think. Unfortunately, I am going to have to kick her out of my personal pantheon, where George Eliot still resides, because she reminds me too much of a Jackie Kennedy or a Nancy Reagan in her willingness to bolster a man of little merit: Kennedy was unfaithful and Reagan was not very bright. She demeaned herself by making sacrifices for Sartre, who, in my opinion, wasn't worth it. I have lost all enthusiasm for her writing and may not read any more of it. On the positive side, she is occasionally perceptive and always articulate, but on the negative side she is lacking in imagination, and, above all, the compromises that she made for Sartre found their way into her work, which diminishes her in my mind.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Prime of Life IV

In 1938 both de Beauvoir and Sartre obtained new teaching positions in Paris. They continued to live separately while seeing each other frequently. That year Sartre published his first novel, Nausea, which met with critical and commercial success. De Beauvoir worked on She Came to Stay, which was not published until 1943. By 1939 the imminent war affected everyone in Paris, and de Beauvoir describes her daily life in some detail. I had thought that she must have been drawing from her diaries to write her memoirs up to that point, but apparently she did not keep a diary before then. The diary entries that she reproduces are slightly condensed compared to the preceding text but are otherwise little different. Now, three quarters of the way through the book, I am becoming overwhelmed by minutia that doesn't interest me much. To be sure, World War II was an important event and still has major repercussions over seventy years in its aftermath, and de Beauvoir's chronicles might be useful to a historian of the period, but that isn't why I chose to read this book and I am increasingly finding it boring. I am looking forward to finishing it and moving on to something else.

De Beauvoir's limitations as a writer and thinker are beginning to weigh on me in a manner that makes it difficult for me to continue reading this book and accept her at face value. I will soon finish reading it and make a final comment. My problem as a reader is that she does not provide enough breadth of perspective to leave me feeling that her portrayals are sufficiently accurate. I had somewhat the same feeling while I was reading The Mandarins, but in that book any deficiencies were made up for by some of the dialogue between the characters. Such dialogue is not present in The Prime of Life, leaving it, for me anyway, somewhat empty. The earlier Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter was also more readable, but in that case it was because it contained a sharper focus and the emotional energy was less opaque. In The Mandarins and the present book, Sartre is an important figure, but I don't see why he is important beyond the fact that de Beauvoir has assigned him that position.

None of my reading of de Beauvoir so far has included much philosophy, and the writing has essentially all been autobiographical. However, in the background of this writing is a credo that she adopted at an early age and mentions now and again. I am finding myself in philosophical disagreement with her, but because she evades the explicit statement of her views in favor of a literary approach I am left with a gnawing feeling that makes her writing seem avoidant. The impression I have is that both she and Sartre are extreme Cartesian dualists, which in their case prompts them to see themselves as free beings who happen to inhabit their particular bodies. She seems to think along the lines that she has a duty to be free from the social pressures associated with the fact that she happens to inhabit a female body. This is a significantly different view from standard American feminism, which focuses more on equal rights and can ultimately be resolved by legal means. For me, Cartesian dualism is conceptually incorrect: you are your body, and therefore both Sartre and de Beauvoir look like fools to me. This foolishness then becomes exacerbated by their insistence on spending their entire lives in Paris with the same closed circle of friends, which is a perfect way to form and maintain a delusional bubble.

Sartre and de Beauvoir are starting to look like naïve college students who never grew up. Specifically, they thought that they could read anything, master it and then write brilliantly on the subject. I first noticed this in The Mandarins. De Beauvoir thought she understood America very well because she had read a lot of American fiction, seen a lot of American films and listened to a lot of American music. In The Mandarins you can instantly recognize as a reader that there is a deep cultural incompatibility between Louis Brogan (Nelson Algren) and Anne Dubreuilh (de Beauvoir), but I am not at all sure that the author recognizes it as such. De Beauvoir strikes me as anthropologically and sociologically obtuse, perhaps because she came to these subjects via trendy, obsolete structuralism, and post-structuralism doesn't seem to me to have been an improvement. In retrospect, the intellectual movements that emanated from France during de Beauvoir's life, including existentialism, seem like fads to me. She did study psychology and seems handier there, but at that time the field was still under Freud's influence and it had not yet become a true science. Both de Beauvoir and Sartre seem to view science as having no bearing on their work, and I think this is a critical mistake which will relegate them to the status of minor historical figures rather than major thinkers of the period. De Beauvoir would have been an interesting person to know, but she is dead and I am beginning to think that all that is left is a flawed legacy.