Sunday, July 30, 2006

On the road again

I'll be posting very little, maybe none, this week while I travel to Los Angeles for work. While I'm gone, you might read this article about Hard Case Crime that Jim sent me from the L.A. Times.

Or you could just go read Pepys's diary. You can always read Pepys's diary. That's one of its glories.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lessons of history

Often as it's quoted, I think George Santayana's "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" isn't quite sufficient to describe the current situation. Not as pithy, but more apt for right now would be, "Those who cannot remember the past are—along with everyone else in the entire world—condemned to repeat it."

There are, after all, many of us who remember the past; many of us have even taken the trouble to learn about events that transpired before we were born. But because the Bush Administration and its enablers actively refuse to learn any lessons from past mistakes (or, god forbid, past successes)—and because the Purported Opposition Party for some reason can't decide that it's a good idea to point out to the world that the Lunatic War-mongering Incompetence Party is, in fact, lunatic, war-mongering, and incompetent—we're all stuck repeating history.

Those of us who are lucky are repeating history, that is. The unlucky are being killed by bombs.

Along those lines, this post is about one historical tradition that doesn't ever seem to go out of style with military or civilian leaders: underestimating the fighting ability of the men on the other side.

From Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1 (1587)
An hundred horsemen of my company,
Scouting abroad upon these champian plains,
Have viewed the army of the Scythians,
Which make reports it far exceeds the king’s.

Suppose they be in number infinite,
Yet being void of martial discipline,
All running headlong after greedy spoils
And more regarding gain than victory,
Like to the cruel brothers of the earth
Sprung of the teeth of dragons venomous,
Their careless swords shall lance their fellows’ throats
And make us triumph in their overthrow.

Was there such brethren, sweet Meander, say,
That sprung of teeth of dragons venomous?

So poets say, my lord.

And ’tis a pretty toy to be a poet..
Well, well, Meander, thou art deeply read, and having thee I have a jewel sure.
Go on, my lord, and give your charge, I say,
Thy wit will make us conquerors today.

From Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane (2004)
Fighting was in [the Tatars’] blood. Famed for their skill as archers, they charged across the steppe on horseback, raining down arrows upon their enemies. [In the words of a contemporary account,] “They were archers who by the shooting of an arrow would bring down a hawk from the hollow of the ether, and on dark nights with a thrust of their spearheads would cast out a fish from the bottom of the sea; who thought the day of the battle the wedding night and considered the pricks of lances the kisses of fair maidens.”

From George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate (2005)
It wasn’t the job of the uniformed services simply to salute their civilian leaders and march off to war. Franks, who was known to rule by fear, and his staff also had an obligation to the men and women under their command. Yet they never seemed to ask themselves what would happen if Rumsfeld was wrong—what might happen to their troops once they were in Iraq, without the necessary forces and protection, if things did not go according to plan. Plan A was that the Iraqi government would be quickly decapitated, security would be turned over to remnants of the Iraqi police and army, international troops would soon arrive, and most American forces would leave within a few months. There was no plan B.

From John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2002)
The patience and willingness to suffer over a long period in order to achieve ardently desired revolutionary goals have led one observer of the phenomenon to observe, “Insurgents start with nothing but a cause and grow to strength, while the counter-insurgents start with everything but a cause and gradually decline in strength and grow to weakness.”

From James T. Patterson’s Grand Expectations (1996)
In Korea . . . the war went badly for the United States and its UN allies in the first few weeks. MacArthur had been optimistic; like many Americans he had a low opinion of Asian soldiers, and he thought the United States could clean things up quickly. But he had done a poor job of preparing his occupation forces in Japan. The troops who were rushed from Japan to Korea . . . were poorly equipped and out of shape. Colonel John “Mike” Michaelis, a regimental commander, complained that many of the soldiers did not even know how to care for their weapons. “They’d spent a lot of time listening to lectures on the differences between communism and Americanism and not enough time crawling on their bellies on maneuvers with live ammunition singing over them.” . . . If conditions had been better, the troops might have had a little time, once in [Korea], to train more intensely. But they were rushed to the front lines. There they were torn up by the well-planned North Korean advance.

From George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate (2005)
Rumsfeld looked upon anarchy and saw the early stages of democracy. In his view and that of others in the administration, but above all the president, freedom was the absence of constraint. Freedom existed in divinely endowed human nature, not in man-made institutions and laws. Remove a thirty-five-year-old tyranny and democracy will grow in its place, because people everywhere want to be free. There was no contingency for psychological demolition. What had been left out of the planning were the Iraqis themselves.

. . . .

Cheney didn’t believe that the postwar planning would matter in the end, anyway. Like the president, Cheney maintained an almost mystical confidence in American military power and an utter incuriosity about the details of its human consequences.

Then, noble soldiers, to entrap these thieves,
That live confounded in disordered troops,
If wealth or riches may prevail with them,
We have our camels laden all with gold
Which you that be but common soldiers
Shall fling in every corner of the field,
And while the base-born Tartars take it up,
You, fighting more for honour than for gold,
Shall massacre those greedy-minded slaves;
And when their scattered army is subdued
And you march on their slaughtered carcasses,
Share equally the gold that bought their lives
And live like gentlemen in Persia.
Strike up the drum, and march courageously!
Fortune herself doth sit upon our crests.

He tells you true, my masters, so he does.
Drums, why sound ye not when Meander speaks?

[Strike drums]

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Murakami postscript

One advantage to writing about books on a blog, rather than for a print publication, is that I can return to topics if I feel I need to clarify a thought. (Of course, a related disadvantage is that there’s a constant self-imposed pressure to go ahead and publish a post, just to keep current, even if I’m bothered by a niggling feeling that I haven’t said exactly what I meant.) So today I’m going back to Murakami.

I wrote a few days ago that the protagonists of Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle return to a state of aloneness at the end of the book, but one that is “pregnant with possibility, with previously unseen connections and a sense that there is an actual self, existing separate from the clutter of the world around it.”

I think a more clear way to put that is that, at the start of these two novels, the narrators are solitary selves who aren’t quite sure who they are. They exist almost entirely in the space left over by the impingement of contemporary culture and material objects, pressed into a vaguely defined shape by their jazz CDs, Bogart and Bacall movies, fine whiskeys, television sets, stir-fries, and Russian novels. Solitude for them is a way to avoid having to actively define the self or make emotional or ethical choices.

In both novels, the men undergo ordeals—a period at the bottom of a well in one, an escape from an underground flood in another—that, while acutely physical and realistically described, are essentially mythological, trials of the flesh and the spirit. The ordeals serve to separate the men from much, if not all, of what they thought defined them, and they emerge free to think about who they actually are and the ways they belong in (and to) the world. That's the great movement of the two books, what gives birth to a new understanding of the solitary self.

I’m still not certain that this reading is exactly what Murakami intends. I don’t think his actual, legitimate strangeness should ever be discounted, and multiple readings of his novels will always be possible. But this is the one I’ll carry with me the next time I open one of his books; we’ll see how it stands up.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Once upon a time there were two robots

One day Trurl the constructor put together a machine that could create anything starting with n. When it was ready, he tried it out, ordering it to make needles, then nankeens and negligees, which it did, then nail the lot to narghiles filled with nepenthe and numerous other narcotics. The machine carried out his instructions to the letter. Still not completely sure of its ability, he had it produce, one after the other, nimbuses, noodles, nuclei, neutrons, naphtha, noses, nymphs, naiads, and natrium. This last it could not do, and Trurl, considerably irritated, demanded an explanation.

So begins Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad (1967), and so it continues, through tale after tale of the constructor robot, Trurl, his friend Klaupacius, and their frequently vexing creations. As my previous exposure to Lem was limited to his best-known novel, Solaris (1961), I was surprised by the tone of The Cyberiad. Light, playful, drunk with the possibilities of words (Kings Atrocitus and Ferocitus, a religion called Pneumatological Dracolatry, gallivamps, libidinators, and cossetoria—I can’t begin to imagine the headaches translator Michael Kandel faced.), and featuring stories within stories and enough beatings to satisfy even Cervantes, it’s far closer in tone to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965) or Borges’s stories than to the deep seriousness of Solaris. Lem’s robots take commissions from untrustworthy kings, attempt to outdo each other in making robots (storytelling robots, machines to grant every wish, eight-story thinking machines), and drink mulled electrolyte from Leyden jars. It’s great fun throughout.

But the farther I got into The Cyberiad, the more I realized how much it is like Solaris. In that book, Lem relates the entire history of academic and scientific dispute about the planet Solaris and its apparently sentient ocean, theories posited and refuted, careers made and lost as each exploratory mission adds to the sum of knowledge about the planet. The novel has shades of Borges’s masterpiece, “Tlon Uqbar, Orbus Tertius,” as if Lem has found in some dusty library a whole room of scholarship about this unknown planet Solaris. There’s a palpable sense of excess, a sense that Lem has explained only what he absolutely must in order for us to understand his story.

The same holds true for The Cyberiad. At first, it appears that Lem may have violated the first rule of fantasy writing—namely, that though a fantasy writer is creating a new universe not bound by our laws, that universe must, regardless, have laws, or there is no hope of tension, drama, or plot. Trurl and Klaupacius, after all, seem able to create just about anything. But I soon realized that, while possibility in this universe seems nearly endless, and the robots don’t seem to be bound by the laws of physics, they’re strait-jacketed by slightly skewed laws of logic.

So, for example, a machine that can make anything starting with the letter “n” can only work in one language, or it would be a Machine That Could Do Anything in the Whole Alphabet. If one makes for an untrustworthy king a Perfect Advisor, but buries within it orders never to harm its creator, then one has failed to make a perfect advisor and is liable to prosecution. And, if a region is plagued by dragons, a sensible solution would be to fire an improbability ray to decrease the already small probability that dragons might exist. We are in a distinct universe, and Lem is telling us about whatever bits of it Trurl and Klaupacius wander through.

It’s as if Lem has swallowed Saint Anselm, Descartes, and Frege and presented them to us in parables starring robots who take their cues from the Three Stooges. If that sounds like fun, The Cyberiad is for you. Why I didn’t start reading Lem a dozen years ago when I was discovering Borges and Calvino I don’t know, but I’m glad to have finally gotten to him. As he puts it at the book’s close,
Even if the story isn’t true, it does have a grain of sense and instruction to it, and it’s entertaining as well, so it’s worth the telling.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Haruki Murakami, part two

Part one is here.

The Murakami I’ve been reading lately (and that thus justifies his presence in this blog) is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991, English translation 1993), which I read while on a work trip to New York back in May. It’s a mark of Murakami’s singular strangeness (or my limitations as a critic) that I’ve only now, two months later, figured out how to write about him.

I noted above that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is generally regarded as Murakami’s best; Stacey (and my co-worker Jim) prefer Hard-Boiled Wonderland. I may have to join them. In it, Murakami achieves something truly rare, telling two seemingly separate stories, wildly different in tone, in alternating chapters. The first relates the adventures of a typical Murakami narrator, whose job as a human encryption key leads him into a dangerous netherworld of hit men, flesh-eating monsters, and a mysterious scientist who warns of the impending end of the world, while the second story is a spare, parable-like tale set in a sparsely populated walled village known as the Town.

The pairing works largely because Murakami adapts his prose carefully for each world. Here’s the book’s opening paragraph, set in Murakami’s version of the ordinary human world:
The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. it could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know?
And here’s the opening of the section set in the Town:
With the approach of autumn, a layer of long golden fur grows over their bodies. Golden in the purest sense of the word, with not the least intrusion of another hue. Theirs is a gold that comes into this world as gold and exists in this world as gold. Poised between all heaven and earth, they stand steeped in gold.

Throughout the book, Murakami employs the affectless, conversational tone of that first paragraph to domesticate the bizarre plot twists and unusual characters the narrator encounters; their strangeness becomes almost normal in light of the narrator’s unflappable ordinariness. As the title suggests, the plot resembles a cracked version of a noir mystery; like Philip Marlowe (especially Robert Altman’s version), the narrator gets threatened and beaten up by men looking for valuable items he doesn’t have. But he keeps going regardless, looking for answers to questions he doesn’t even understand, as if movement and effort themselves are a sufficient answer to uncertainty.

Meanwhile, Murakami does the opposite in the interlarded chapters set in the town, freighting every description with a sense of immanence. Every object is numinous and every scene deeply strange and loaded with meaning that is just beyond our—and the narrator’s—grasp. Objects (unicorn skulls, paper clips) appear in both stories, and characters, too, maybe, somewhat refracted and reconfigured, but recognizable. Compelling and distinct, the two stories travel in parallel to an ending that, to me at least, was completely surprising, playing on assumptions I didn’t even realize I’d made. It’s an ending that led me to sit quietly in my hotel room for a while, thinking about the book and listening to the white noise, alone.

And that’s probably a good place to end this, with the idea of aloneness. At the heart of both novels is a sense that loneliness—or perhaps it’s better stated as solitariness, or isolation—may be our essential condition. But Murakami doesn’t necessarily see aloneness as a inherently problematic: though his characters eventually are forced to recognize their solitariness, they ultimately, in these two novels at least, are left with (or choose) a new form of aloneness. But, far from being pathological, this new solitude is pregnant with possibility, with previously unseen connections and a sense that there is an actual self, existing separate from the clutter of the world around it.

This post, for what it’s worth, also serves as a goodbye of sorts to my co-worker, Jim, who is moving to a new job and a new town. When he saw that I was reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Jim said, “Oh, you’re going to love that. But you’ll like Hard-Boiled Wonderland more.” He was right; in the seven years we've worked together, he’s rarely been wrong about a book he’s recommended to me. Add a wry sense of humor, a deep understanding of people, and the skills and repertoire of a raconteur, and what more could you want in a co-worker? I'll miss him.

Haruki Murakami, part one

A former girlfriend and I once had a fairly intense argument about the opening short film in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. (1990). (As I don’t have Dreams handy (and YouTube has let me down), I’m going on nearly ten-year-old memory in the following description. I apologize if I get anything wrong.) In the film, a young boy (Kurosowa?) slips away from his caretakers and deep into the forest, where, to his surprise, he sees an uncanny procession of people in odd costumes, glowing like angels or ghosts. He watches, spellbound, until one of the figures notices him. She races over and angrily informs him that, having accidentally witnessed the foxes’ wedding, which no human is to see, he can’t be allowed to live. Terrified, he breaks away and runs home, where he is safe. We’re left to assume that he wonders about the foxes’ wedding for the rest of his life.

The argument that ensued began when my girlfriend asked me what I thought Kurosawa meant by the film. Who were the foxes supposed to be? What did their wedding signify? I fairly heatedly replied that Kurosawa meant that a boy sneaked away from his home and accidentally saw the foxes’ wedding, thus bringing down on himself a curse. The foxes were the foxes, the boy a boy. To ask for deeper meaning from this simple, powerful film was a way of inadvertently destroying it.

Unexpectedly, the question had really gotten to me, seeming to point to fundamental differences in the way she and I viewed art, which itself was part of the glue of our relationship. I’m willing to accept some pieces of art as wholes, needing no further connection to my world, no simply explained meaning. Francis Bacon’s exploding-head paintings, for example, are like that for me. And certain of Kafka’s parables, despite the reams of commentary they’ve spawned, are, I think, best appreciated as hermetic jewels of sculpted prose, containing within themselves all you need to know to understand them. Leave their strangeness unexplained; accept that some things, especially in art, proceed from too deep in the self to have answers.

This introduction is my roundabout way of getting to an author who it took me years—and the adamant recommendation of my wife—to attempt to read, Haruki Murakami. For nearly a decade of keeping an eye on him (which is how I tend to think of that legion of writers whom I’m perpetually wondering about but not reading), I thought he probably wasn’t for me. His novels, after all, were frequently described as hyperkinetic, hip, and post-modern; not, as readers of this blog would guess, my cup of tea.

But Stacey knew I was wrong. So about a year ago, I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995, English translation 1997), which is generally regarded as Murakami’s best. I was utterly captivated. Murakami sinks his fairly ordinary, thirty-ish Japanese narrator into an increasingly bizarre plot, along the way obliquely relating the narrator’s isolation to such disparate elements as the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the way that modern cities continually layer the new over the old. There are themes and scenes that don’t fully cohere and plot turns that don’t, strictly speaking, make sense, but the book as a whole, with its multiplicity of tales within tales, overcomes those problems and succeeds.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle ultimately feels deeply organic, its frequent inexplicability proceeding from some essential, irreducible strangeness that obviates clear connection to theme, allegory, or an outside world. It doesn’t have the feel of the contingent that I find myself harping on so often; no one would mistake Murakami’s world for any part of the one we live in. But it definitely is a world, operating according to its own logic (or logics?), even if Murakami almost never makes explicit the connections, almost never explains. Like the narrator, I found myself shrugging my shoulders and plowing ahead; that’s what you do in life, after all.

This post being long enough to test people's tolerance for reading online (and Lord knows, I don't have enough readers that I can afford to alienate them!), I'll continue it tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Thirteen Steps Down

If I’d read Ruth Rendell’s Thirteen Steps Down (2004) (which, by the way, has a great cover design and is dedicated, "With affection and admiration," to P. D. James) without knowing anything about its author, I’d never have guessed that she has more than fifty novels under her belt. At a point when a lot of writers would be coasting on their success, she’s produced yet another well-crafted novel that is clearly the product of someone still completely engaged with and interested in her craft, and in the human relationships that underlie it.

Thirteen Steps Down is a crime novel about the self-delusion and its consequences. The half-dozen or so characters at the center of the story spend most of their time utterly misapprehending the actions and intentions of all the others—they remind me of less-educated versions of Iris Murdoch’s characters. Rendell makes each character’s solipsism plausible—in the case of the murderer at the book’s center, creepily so. Nearly everyone in the novel is in love with some false image they’ve created of another character, an image born from a toxic combination of their own needs and mistaken self-understanding.

Most of the book takes place in a Victorian house where the murderer rents a room from an unpleasant spinster, and Rendell so painstakingly portrays the squalor and eerie agedness of the place (another Murdoch touch) that it becomes a character in itself. The landlady has for a half-century spent all her time reading, unaware of the ruin her house has become (Note to self: clean the kitchen Saturday), as she herself becomes more eccentric and grotesque. She keeps the flashlight in the refrigerator, important keys in the dryer, and bags of stale bread on the floor. The curtains are never opened. The house abounds in dark corners and inexplicable noises. The carpet was once white, but now it’s a uniform gray, covered with the fur of the woman’s semi-feral cat, who seems always to be eating some recently killed animal of uncertain species. When the ghost of a long-dead serial killer—with whom the murderous tenant is obsessed—appears it’s not really that surprising, though frightening, regardless.

Thirteen Steps Down isn’t a mystery, per se; there’s never a question about who the murderer is. But there are other questions, and Rendell keeps them nicely uncertain until she’s done with her intricate plotting. Maybe rather than a mystery, Thirteen Steps Down should be viewed as a sort of warning, almost a tract—but the best kind, one whose creator, while delineating the dangers to be avoided, demonstrates by her very actions the good that can result from following her advice. Avoid illusion, be clear-eyed about yourself and those around you, pay attention and be thoughtful, and perhaps you, rather than falling into murder, can remain engaged, productive, and successful. Like Ruth Rendell.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Home is the blogger

One sure way to make your in-laws continue to think you’re a bit weird in your reading choices? Bring a 669-page novel about the civil war in Sudan when you go on vacation with them. Bringing two books on Spinoza helps, too, I suppose, even if you don’t get to them until the day you’re leaving.

This whole post is a bit belated, but feel like I owe you a book tally for the trip. We packed a very sensible eight books (six mine, two Stacey’s), plus half a dozen to give as belated (or early) birthday presents to family members. And we read eight books (four apiece) . . . but they weren’t the same eight we’d brought.

That sounds like a riddle, but it’s really just the inevitable result of a trip to Powell’s City of Books in Portland. On the bike ride back to our friends’ house, my shoulder bag groaned under the weight of thirteen new books (eight mine, five Stacey’s). Between the broad selection of cheap used books and the satisfying stock of out-of-print titles, it’s probably good that we live a couple thousand miles away.

It was a pleasant trip. We read in airports, on planes, while grilling, in the great house we rented in Sunriver, in Portland parks, and in our friends’ living room. Oh, and we did some other stuff, too, like canoe and ride horses and see old friends and spot a large Vietnamese pot-bellied pig grazing contentedly—and inexplicably—in a Portland park.

And I learned a lesson that will be of use in planning for future trips: when bringing running shoes on a trip, make sure to pack your most worn-out pair. That allows you to, without qualms, leave them behind . . . which makes space for approximately eight books. If I'd realized that while we were still at Powell's, we could have bought one more!

Friday, July 14, 2006

American Noir, or, Bob, I'm finally going to return your book

For months now, Bob’s been prodding me in the comments to read his two favorite of the novels collected in the Library of America’s Crime Novels: American Noir 1930s and 40s. I finally did so, and I’m glad he kept after me. They were worth it.

The first, Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock (1946) (which, I discovered when I was looking up the book, is just now out from the New York Review of Books), begins with an oddly pixilated and cynical look at a magazine industry cocktail party, and fifty pages go by before there’s any sort of crime. But then Fearing throws a switch, and the steel-trap plot—wherein a magazine editor is framed by his boss for a murder—springs into relentless motion.

The Big Clock reads like an odd but successful mix of Dawn Powell’s satire, Nathanael West’s cold cynicism, and Joseph Mitchell’s appreciations of oddity, the last especially in Fearing’s depiction of a bar where the magazine editor is a regular. Gil, the proprietor, bets patrons that he has any object they can name somewhere along his back bar and that, furthermore, each item has some connection to his life. Even when drinkers ask him to produce Poe’s raven or a steamroller, he somehow wins. He always wins.

And so does Kenneth Fearing, managing to mix all those tones while ratcheting up the tension and forcing events to a surprising conclusion. Now I have to see the 1948 movie, which starred Charles Laughton, Ray Milland, and Maureen O’Sullivan, and read Fearing’s 1941 novel, Clark Gifford’s Body, which is on the New York Review’s Fall list.

The second of the novels Bob recommended, William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley (1946), brings me back to a regular theme of this blog, the concept of contingency in character and plot. Being able to tell a story wherein events seem to happen, not because of the exigencies of plot or theme, but simply because things happen in the world, is one of the greatest of achievements. I feel it in a novel as the absence of what Nick Hornby, in a slightly different context, called “the sense that the author’s thumb is on the scale.” And it must be fiendishly difficult, for a novel must retain some form, or there’s a real danger that it will devolve into the merely episodic or picaresque.

, for all his raving about historical forces in War and Peace , is the master of this: his characters make decisions because of who they are and what’s going on around them, and events unfold as if without regard to an overall story. Penelope Fitzgerald is good at it; so is Haruki Murakami. John Mortimer’s stories, for all their charms, are the antithesis of this mode of writing; his characters only exist in order to relate to Rumpole. Ken Bruen and Jason Starr pulled off something like this in Bust, which I recently wrote about, letting several characters pursue their own selfish agendas, all within the constraints of a tightly organized plot.

Nightmare Alley is much looser than Bust, but as protagonist Stan Carlisle goes from carnival magician to spiritualist con man, each step in the plot is truly surprising, yet believable and organic. Characters come and go, different at each appearance, as if time is actually passing and we’re really following the course of a life. The book teems with insider knowledge, from carnival tricks to mentalist routines to the dangers of riding the rails, and Gresham’s got a way with a phrase. When the carnival enters the South and performs for racially integrated crowds, Gresham relates that the black patrons
stood always on the fringe of the crowd, an invisible cordon holding them in place. When one of the whites turned away sharply and jostled them the words “Scuse me,” fell from them like pennies balanced on their shoulders.

To top it off, for all that I’ve praised Nightmare Alley’s freely unfolding narrative, the book’s last line reveals that Gresham has been leading us somewhere all along. It's a perfect, brutal scorpion sting, and the most surprising, best, meanest ending I’ve read since Scott Phillips’s The Ice Harvest.

So thanks, Bob. I'll repay you in baseball chili come October.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Some of the perils of thinking

From Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books (1800-06)we
With all my indolence I have ever grown in knowledge of myself without possessing the power to effect an improvement; indeed, the fact that I could perceive how indolent I was has often seemed to me sufficient recompense for it, and the pleasure I received from the exact observation of a fault was often greater than the vexation aroused in me by the fault itself. So very much more did I account the professor in me than I did the man. Strange are the ways Heaven directs its saints.

From Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (1843), collected in The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard (1952)
The act of choosing is essentially a proper and stringent expression of the ethical. Whenever in a stricter sense there is a question of an either/or, one can always be sure that the ethical is involved. The only absolute either/or is the choice between good and evil, but that is also absolutely ethical.

From Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave (1951)
I am now forced to admit that anxiety is my true condition, occasionally intruded upon by work, pleasure, melancholy, or despair.

From Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)
Leonartus Fuchsius, Felix Plater, Herc. de Saxonia, speak of a peculiar fury which comes by overmuch study. Fernelius puts study, contemplation, and continual meditation as an especial cause of madness: and in his 86th consul. cites the same words. Jo. Arculanus amongst other causes reckons up studium vehemens [passionate study]: so doth Levinus Lemnius. “Many men” (saith he) “come to this malady by continual study, and night-waking, and of all other men, scholars are most subject to it”; and such, Rhasis adds, “that have commonly the finest wits.” Marsilius Ficinus puts melancholy amongst one of those five principal plagues of students, ’tis a common moll unto them all, and almost in some measure an inseparable companion.

From Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave (1951)
As we grow older, in fact, we discover that the lives of most human beings are worthless except in so far as they contribute to the enrichment and emancipation of the spirit. However attractive in our youth the animal graces may seem, if by out maturity they have not led us to emend one character in the corrupt text of existence, then our time has been wasted. No one over thirty-five is worth meeting who has not something to teach us, something more than we could learn by ourselves, from a book.

From Cicero’s De Senectute
For my part, in truth, I should rather be old less long than to be old before my time.

From James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951)
Warden sighed. “I believe the only sin is a conscious waste of energy. I believe all conscious dishonesty, such as religion, politics and the real estate business, are a conscious waste of energy. I believe that at a remarkable cost in energy people agree to pretend to believe each other’s lies so they can prove to themselves their own lies are the truth, like my brother. Since I cannot forget what the truth is, I gravitated, naturally, along with the rest of the social misfits who are honest into the Army as an EM. Now what do you say we have another drink? Since we’ve settled the problems of God, Society, and the Individual I really think we should have another drink.”

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Returning to Spinoza

Like most people, I was introduced to Spinoza in an undergraduate course in early modern philosophy, in which he was grouped with Descartes and Leibniz (the Rationalists) and opposed to Locke, Berkeley, and Hume (the Empiricists). I was captivated by Spinoza and The Ethics from my first reading; only Hume, with his relentless knocking away of seemingly solid ideas about perception, even came close to Spinoza (and, I thought, had more in common with him than was acknowledged). But while I enjoyed Hume, I didn’t feel the same kinship with him that I did with Spinoza. Rebecca Goldstein, in her recent book, Betraying Spinoza, gets at the sensation of urgent inquiry that pervades The Ethics when she imagines a young Spinoza:
He is always surprised to hear what it is that others find convincing. He understands, of course, what it feels like to have a powerful need for answers pounding inside. But the answers that people come up with to stop the pounding: he would rather live with the pounding. Better the pounding than the gnawing.
Everything that is should have a reason that it is; any explanation that fails to provide one is no explanation at all.

A dozen years passed, and, while I thought of Spinoza occasionally, I didn’t read him. But in recent months, two new books, the aforementioned Betraying Spinoza (2006) and Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (2005) piqued my interest. So I read them, and through them I returned to Spinoza, finding that the spare geometry of The Ethics is as formidable and fascinating as it was when I first encountered it.

Stewart and Goldstein have different agendas, which makes their books complement each other nicely. Betraying Spinoza is in Next Book’s Jewish Encounters series, and therefore it’s focused on Spinoza as a Jewish thinker. That’s a challenging assignment, as Spinoza was excommunicated at a young age for heresy, to which his reply reportedly was,
All the better; they do not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord if I did not dread scandal; but, since they want it that way, I enter gladly on the path that is opened to me.
On top of that, The Ethics are specifically non-religious, as Spinoza’s proofs lead to a god who is, in every way that we can understand, all of nature.

But looking at Spinoza through a Jewish lens allows Goldstein to tell the story of the Jews of Amsterdam (who were almost all forced exiles from Spain via Portugal) and to convincingly link elements of Spinoza’s thought—especially his political thought, which emphasized personal and intellectual freedom—to the experience of exile and religious persecution. By the time she’s through, she’s delivered a mini-history of early modern Jewish thought; pair Betraying Spinoza with Sherwin Nuland’s book in the same series on Maimonides and you’d have a quick primer on nearly six hundred years of Jewish philosophical and religious thought.

Matthew Stewart, on the other hand, in The Courtier and the Heretic, is interested in the relationship between the thought of Spinoza and that of Leibniz, with whom he is grouped in most histories of philosophy on the side of the Rationalists. Stewarts wants to demonstrate that such a grouping is overly simple, if not flat-out wrong, and that Leibniz’s philosophy was developed in direct opposition to Spinoza. Leibniz, he argues, horrified by the loss of God that he feared would be the ultimate consequence of The Ethics, created his stunningly baroque metaphysics in an effort to accommodate a recognizable god within the realms of thought opened up by Spinoza.

The argument is frequently very convincing, though Stewart’s attempt to pin down the roots of Leibniz’s opposition to one little-documented meeting between the two at times feels like a stretch, as if he was trying too hard to give W. W. Norton’s marketing department a Wittgenstein’s Poker–style hook to use in selling the book. But that aside, The Courtier and the Heretic is a well constructed, thoughtful book. Stewart’s explanation of The Ethics alone is worth the price: in less than thirty pages, he clearly and carefully limns its often-daunting contours. If I were to teach a course on Spinoza, that chapter is the first place I’d direct confused students. And, while he’s clearly on Spinoza’s side in the battle with Leibniz, Stewart’s explanation of Leibniz’s ever-changing, confusing-beyond-belief theory of monads is similarly clear and helpful.

As I wrote above, I find a lot of similarities between Hume and Spinoza (as, it turns out, does Stewart). Both insisted on pursuing their thoughts (in Hume’s case fueled by perception, in Spinoza’s by reason) to their logical conclusions, regardless of what comforting untruths they had to discard along the way. But whereas Hume leaves a barren landscape, devoid of any real, continuing knowledge for us to hold on to, Spinoza argues that, by accepting that we are not the center of any universe, but a part of one much more interconnected than we can ever hope to understand, we can reach an understanding—and a peace—previously unavailable. As he explains at the close of The Ethics,
If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found. And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard. For if salvation were at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Spinoza the heretic

From Benedict de Spinoza’s Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (circa 1566)
After experience had taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile, and I saw that all the things which were the cause or object of my fear had nothing of good or bad in themselves, except insofar as [my] mind was moved by them, I resolved at last to try to find out whether there was anything which would be the true good, capable of communicating itself, and which alone would affect the mind, all others being rejected—whether there was something which, once found and acquired, would continuously give me the greatest joy, to eternity.

From Soren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread (1844), collected in The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard (1952)
For in order to pray there must be a God, there must be a self plus possibility, or a self and possibility in the pregnant sense; for God is that all things are possible, and that all things are possible is God; and only the man whose being has been so shaken that he became spirit by understanding that all things are possible, only he has had dealings with God. The fact that God’s will is the possible makes it possible for me to pray; if God’s will is only the necessary, man is essentially as speechless as the brutes.

From the Excommunication of Benedict de Spinoza, Congregation Talmud Torah, July 27, 1656
The Senhores of the ma’amad, having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Espinoza, have endeavored by various means and promise, to turn him from his evil ways. But having received more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of this mater; and after all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honorable hakhamim they have decided, with their consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel.

By the decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein, cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations that are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smote against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curse s of the covenant that are written in this book of the Law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

We warn that none may contact him orally or in writing, nor do him any favor, nor stay under the same roof with him, nor read any paper he made or wrote.

1 Kings: 21
And Eli'jah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Ba'al, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.

From Benedict de Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670)
Since we have the rare good fortune to live in a commonwealth where the freedom of judgment is fully granted to the individual citizen and he may worship God as he pleases, and where nothing is esteemed dearer and more precious than freedom, I think I am undertaking no ungrateful or unprofitable task in demonstrating that not only can this freedom be granted without endangering piety and the peace of the commonwealth, but also the peace of the commonwealth and piety depend on this freedom.

From Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books (1800-06)
If the world should endure for an incalculable number of years, the universal religion will be a purified Spinozism. Left to itself, reason can lead to nothing else and it is impossible that it ever will lead to anything else.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Philip Caputo (and a little Graham Greene)

The most obvious shadow lurking over Philip Caputo’s Acts of Faith (2005), a sweeping novel set in Sudan during its civil war, is that of Graham Greene. Like The Quiet American, Acts of Faith highlights the damage done by the blind faith of some distinctly unquiet Americans.

But in a sense, Tolstoy and Dickens are as much Caputo’s guides as Greene, for Caputo is not content with merely updating The Quiet American. His ambition is much greater, on a par in scope with the nineteenth-century greats: while he makes no pretense to be telling Sudan’s story from the inside, he wants to show every facet of the war and the ways that altruism, capitalism, democracy, greed, religion, arms, and international indifference conspire to make a bad situation worse. His cast of characters consists mostly of outside do-gooders, from a pair of self-involved, self-deluding Americans to a mixed-race Kenyan, but it also features a Sudanese Arab leader of a band of murahaleen warriors, a lieutenant colonel in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, a variety of Sudanese from various walks of life.

While Greene rootedThe Quiet American deeply in the cynical, weary worldview of Fowler, Caputo instead is true to his nineteenth-century forebears, allowing his omniscient narrator to roam freely among five main characters. And, flying in the face of the writing school dictate to show, not tell, Caputo allows that narrator to make broad ethical, emotional, and ideological pronouncements about the characters. Such straightforward commentary doesn’t always work—on occasion Caputo stretches a point, or tells us something that didn’t need spelling out—but when it does, he is able to deepen our understanding of his characters in just a few words, as in the following passage about a Christian relief worker from Iowa:
The soldiers might as well have thrown spears, and Quinette reflected bitterly on the futility of her effort. She reflected also on the futility of what Michael had done, downing the oil company plane. Had she held on to these thoughts and carried them through, she might have reached some interesting conclusions about actions that arise from deep convictions; but they exited her mind within seconds.
Caputo’s prose is similarly clear and careful throughout, unobtrusive yet effective whether describing an aerial bombardment or the business practices of a relief airline.

My only real criticism of the book is that the plot’s a little too tightly organized. There’s little of the messy contingency of real life—but that, too, fits with my idea of this as an old-fashioned novel, and my criticism says as much, I think, about my suspicion of neatness as it does about the novel itself. The five main characters attempt to make a living, bring relief to the suffering in southern Sudan, and build a life in a strange country. Several of them, much like the sickening number of Americans who’ve written or spoken about the Iraq war as a necessary demonstration of American resolve, seem to view Sudan and the war as existing primarily through the lens of their own need to prove themselves, their mettle or good intentions. And they cling to those good intentions—and to an image of their own incorruptibiilty—even as the destructive evidence of the shortcomings of both mounts.

Despite the neatly arranged plot, Caputo doesn’t deny the complexity of the situation in Sudan or, by extension, of any war or disaster. He has no patience for the cant or self-congratulation that obscure problems while rewarding often misguided action, and he shares with Graham Greene a deep ambivalence about the power of human action and a certainty of the dangers of unforeseen consequences. At the same time, like Greene, he doesn’t see inaction in the face of suffering as acceptable. Something must be done, but Caputo isn't going to pretend that he knows what that is.

He saves his strongest language of condemnation—in a novel that for all its uncertainty is suffused with the language of ethics—for those whose devoted allegiance to an idea blinds them to the substance of their own actions:
He had broken faith with the best that was in him and with the humanity he professed to serve. A malevolent voice had whispered a summons; he’d answered. Anyone who does not acknowledge the darkness in his nature will succumb to it. He will not take precautions against its prompting, nor recognize it when it calls.
It’s language of near-Biblical moral seriousness, and by the end of this powerful novel, I was convinced that Caputo had the right—as well as the knowledge, understanding, and perception—to wield it.