Monday, November 28, 2016

Diary

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

Diary

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 LifeStudies in Animal Life, Aristotle, A Chapter from the History of ScienceProblems 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

Trump

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.