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.