The record of scientists and engineers in philosophy is fairly dismal. Lacking the perspective on argument as a method of incorporating multiple angles of analysis at the same time, they zoom in on single angles and, as is the tradition in their field, draw broad conclusions from details of the data. The result is inevitably populist philosophy that appeals to people because of its oversimplification, but falls apart on further notice. With this in mind, Jonathan Haidt’s attempt to cross over into liberal arts land is not only ambitious, but a partial success marred by failure in both philosophy and mechanics.
With The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt tears into a question of particular relevance: where do philosophy and studies from sociology, psychology and neuroscience overlap? He does so from his ultimately liberal perspective but manages to keep an open mind toward many good ideas while trying to shift the conversation in a liberal direction, but his thesis ends up favoring a conservative idea. He presents a formula for happiness that appeared in the research of others but Haidt explains more clearly and connects to related concepts:
H = S + C + V
In this case, experienced happiness (H) is equal to a biological set point (S) plus the conditions of life (C) plus the amount of volunteer activities (V) in which the individual subject engages (91). Biological set point refers to the innate degree of positivity hardwired into the individual; conditions of life encompass socioeconomic status and limits on the individual imposed by physical and mental condition; and volunteer activities refer to any engagement in the community which is not strictly mandated by immediate self-interest. What is interesting about this formula is that it debunks the liberal model of happiness. First, people are wired toward a certain outlook. Second, they are not incredibly disturbed by even a bad condition in life because they quickly adapt to it. Finally, acting for the benefit of society as a group — instead of imposed methods of making people equal — seems to bring the greatest happiness. As with all that Haidt does, he makes these revelations slowly and hides the good bits in the details so as to avoid directly challenging the status quo, then later cleans up with some positive noises about the usual assumptions.
The first half of the book provides the most interesting information and shortly past the formula the writing changes into a breezier, more conjectural and less factual style. This contrasts the early chapters which hit a sequence of ideas in rapid order and produce the sense of covering vast ground, then loosely tie those thoughts to philosophical musings, where the later chapters focus first on a general philosophical idea — usually drawn from the odious Buddha — and then expand it to cover enough areas to rope in some tangentially-related research. Some exceptions exist, but lower density and more conversational logic in the second half makes it worth skipping for the most part. One such blip comes in this discussion of moral reasoning:
This turn from character ethics to quandary ethics has turned moral education away from virtues and toward moral reasoning. If morality is about dilemmas, then moral education is training in problem solving. Children must be taught how to think about moral problems, especially to overcome their natural egoism and take into their calculations the needs of others. As the United States became more ethnically diverse in the 1970s and 1980s, and also more averse to authoritarian methods of education, the idea of teaching specific moral facts and values went out of fashion. Instead, the rationalist legacy of quandary ethics gave us teachers and many parents who would enthusiastically endorse this line, from a recent child-rearing handbook: “My approach does not teach children what and what not to do and why, but rather, it teaches them how to think so they can decide for themselves what and what not to do, and why.” (164)
In this example, Haidt reveals the difference between ancient views of morality and those in the present: in societies which were not pluralistic, there could be a single standard of moral behavior, which put the focus back on the individual in the form of the question of whether they acted according to that standard. Because culture tends to form a pyramid from a few basic ideas outward, this standard concerned goals more than specific rules, leaving the specific adaptation to the individual. As society becomes less unified, and eventually adopts multiple moral standards, the question moves from moral goals to personal behavior for the purposes of appearance and takes on a defensive role, with individuals offering reasoning as a form of excuse-slash-rationalization after the fact. Haidt does not explore those issues, which are beyond the scope of this book in addition to being hopelessly un-PC, but he provides the keys to that level of thinking.
Earlier in the book, during the more exciting section that mated modern research to philosophical observations rather than broad philosophical conclusions, Haidt explores hard genetic determinism and the concept of inborn character, ending up a step away from discovering nobility as a character trait and the basis of the caste system:
When we combine the adaptation principle with the discovery that people’s average level of happiness is highly heritable, we come to a startling possibility: In the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you. Good fortune or bad, you will always return to your happiness setting — your brain’s default level of happiness — which was determined largely by your genes…If this idea is correct, then we are all stuck on what has been called the “hedonic treadmill.” On an exercise treadmill you can increase the speed all you want, but you stay in the same place. In life, you can work as hard as you want, and accumulate all the riches, fruit trees, and concubines you want, but you can’t get ahead. Because you can’t change your “natural and usual state of tranquility,” the riches you accumulate will just raise your expectations and leave you no better off than you were before. (86)
Among other things, this model refutes the liberal idea of political equality and rising wealth creating happiness. It also subverts many of the notions of consumer society. While most of this book offers essentially background information, interesting cross-overs like these are frequent in the first four chapters and scattered throughout the book. Despite the generally over-written second half and its resulting sparseness of information, this book provides a great reference point for conservatives by debunking many human myths of happiness, and pointing instead toward the type of community-involved society that a civilization unified by heritage, culture and values could create. With a hard edit, this one could go down to approximately a hundred pages and be more effective.
by Don DeLillo
Penguin, 326 pages, $11
Reviews of postmodern novels present a problem because the postmodern novel, which quotes freely from mainstream fiction genres and wraps them around a metaphorical core, builds itself outward from setting more than character to the point where revealing too much about the setting is to reveal the plot. The characters are generally like occupants on a fast-moving train, watching the changing setting outside the window and rarely able to take any action except periodically have extreme responses when the absurdity peaks.
White Noise entered American consciousness in 1985 and accurately reflected how Western civilization saw itself at the time: going through the motions, unsatisfied and empty, in fear of death constantly because of the purposelessness of it all, and trying to distract from that fact. The thesis of this novel might be summarized as “the self-conscious society dedicates itself to death,” and that phrase could also serve as a handy epitaph for the West. Throughout the book, characters navigate a web of rules — both official and social, but mostly damaging where values have become rules — which have converted life from a process of having a goal, to an endurance test of reacting to a civilization dedicated to social engineering removed from life itself. Characters know what they ought to be doing not on a moral level, but on a social level, as they try to have lives that others would admire. They also know how to succeed by manipulating The System and that also defines what they must do, but they have no heart in it. Hilariously, the most human scenes in this book occur when people are shopping, which from what I remember of 1985 America is pretty much spot-on accurate.
The book centers around a professor, Jack Gladney, who is the leading expert in Hitler Studies, a genre of academia he conjured up that has since become popular. As he struggles with the emptiness and sublimated fear of suburban existence, a chemical spill near his town forces its evacuation. This provides him with a backdrop for analysis of death and its relationship to the self-conscious society — that which critiques, analyzes and compares itself as itself instead of relative to some external goal, like natural law or reality at large — through the highly artificed characters of his wife and children. As in most postmodern novels, characters are “larger than life” or transparently symbolic in their attributes and roles, and his family provide most of this contrast within the book. Frequently these characters discuss death and meaning in life with the gravity of philosophers, using the consciousness of itself in the postmodern novel to allow characters to be both transparent and viable. Gladney illustrates the point of the novel in an accidental thesis statement:
When the showing ended, someone asked about the plot to kill Hitler. The discussion moved to plots in general. I found myself saying to the assembled heads, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”
Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it mean? (26)
Plots factor heavily into the narrative of the book because both shadowy government forces and individual characters constantly hide information from each other for manipulative purposes, or plots. They justify these events with “good” moral-sounding ideas but ultimately are scheming to control, and through control to have power over death by driving out any thoughts except that their lives and careers are excellent. As a result, no character speaks honestly except when in philosopher-mode, and then most of the comments are speculative as with the above. As the family evacuates from one location to another, trying to avoid the mysterious cloud of industrial waste that hovers above the city, they are left in a void of clarity created by the plots of government and corporations as well as their fellow citizens. In addition, they start to see how in their own lives they have plotted around meaning and actual connection to existence, and instead have become symbolic in what they do even if they find it meaningless. If the disaster reveals anything, it is that most of what people do is indeed unnecessary and can be suspended, but that they have no idea how to fill their own time. This outlook proved prescient over the next three decades. In addition, DeLillo observes — through his characters — some flavors of reality that readers of this blog might enjoy:
“How familiar this all seems, how close to ordinary. Crowds come, get worked up, touch and press — people eager to be transported. Isn’t this ordinary? We know all this. there must have been something different about those crowds. what was it? Let me whisper the terrible word, from the Old English, from the Old German, from the Old Norse. Death. Many of those crowds were assembled in the name of death. they were there to attend tributes to the dead…Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.” (73)
The crowd to which they belong has assembled itself on the basis of altruism, or the use of gift-giving from commerce to unify itself as a control mechanism (84). Gladney however cannot acclimate to this life because it is fundamentally a tool in search of a purpose, and unlike the crowds described, does not acknowledge death but attempts to hide it. He sees much of his own life revealed as pointless during the evacuation and subsequent events, and this puts him on a new quest which involves suppressing his fear of death. That in turn brings the book to a revelatory finish in which he uncovers the nature of plots, which is — in classic postmodern form, derived entirely from Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense — that symbols have replaced reality and in turn, have replaced our ability to have honest intent with constant manipulation, neurosis and control:
The drug not only caused the user to confuse words with the things they referred to; it made him act in a somewhat stylized way…The precise nature of events. Things in their actual state. Eventually he worked himself out of the deep fold, rising nicely, sharply outlined against the busy air. White noise everywhere. (310)
Here is why I get off the Don DeLillo train and call the above out as nonsense: our problem is not symbol replacing reality, but appearance replacing reality because in our egotistic altruism of equality, we have made reality-study taboo and replaced it with what the Crowd thinks. Nietzsche described the mechanism of this happening, which is that the egalitarian surge of the enlightenment changed the definition of symbols and values, forcing their re-evaluation according to their purpose and not our moral consideration of them. Popular opinion translated that into blame of the symbols themselves, since we cannot blame ourselves and admit the failure of the People’s Revolution, so we blame our tools like every lazy and inept laborer since the inception of time. Seeing this sentiment at the core of an otherwise sensible book makes someone who still lives for the purpose of excellence want to throw the book out of the window for being so tragically flawed despite so much other quality writing, thought and analysis.
As the cliché goes, a greatest strength becomes a greatest weakness, and DeLillo goes astray because he is an excellent writer with a lot to say but lacks the consciousness above that to edit this stuff down. Too many long conversations make their points through extended repetition, and too much is figurative without need to be. These characters could act out many of their ideas and demonstrate more connection to them with everyday events, and do it quickly, in the style of the father of the postmodern novel, William S. Burroughs. In Naked Lunch, figurative transfer occurred through setting and narrative voice entirely, with characters taking on roles but retaining strong personality. In White Noise, like most postmodern novels of its era, personality is washed out and replaced by an almost robotic duty to act out role. That in turn forces much of the dialogue to have the pace of a New Republic article, painfully exploring the depths of some topic without ever really gaining a position of strategic view. Burroughs cuts to the chase; DeLillo talks around it; this book could lose the usual hundred pages with no loss of communicative power.
Books exist both as objects in themselves, where the writing convinces us to enjoy the story, and within context, where they form part of the wave of thought on an idea and serve to articulate it much like the conversations they so rigidly memorialize. White Noise showed the Western world that in its postwar state, switching from culture to consumerism and ideology, it had completely lost control of its own destiny. Its people are bored, lonely, purposeless and miserable about mortality because life has literally no meaning except commerce, pleasuring others socially, and obedience. Humanity, the clever animal, plotted itself out of tension but in doing so, released itself from purpose, and so everything that we do becomes a background hum to an ego unleashed to find a purpose for itself. Our victory is our defeat, our strength is our weakness, and in the meantime, people wander like the characters in this book, giant brains in search of something to use them on. White Noise remains shocking and vital to this day because conditions have not changed, and inspired whole generations to secede from the nonsense chain of obedience to the Crowd that is modern society. Despite its flaws, it still carries the fire of discontent and emptiness and channels it outside the individual toward a loss of direction on a cultural level, and creates from that a viable critique of the lost West.
The Awakening of Miss Prim
by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
Atria, 2013, 258 pages, $13
Books tell stories; stories describe adventures; adventures relate how the journey changes the traveler because the traveler has changed within. One species of this, the maturation novel, involves a character coming to confront life itself by overcoming fears that it will not contain the ongoing joys of childhood. This character is often seduced away to a false perpetual childhood by social and bohemian factors.
In The Awakening of Miss Prim, a deliberately transparent titled novel, the protagonist has been seduced by modernity itself and its illusions, but instead of becoming lost in dissipation she has become, like the current crop of millennials, isolated behind a wall of high moral standards that amount to a withdrawal from life itself and from the false pleasures offered by distraction. This creates an empty person who insists she is full, and she encounters the challenge of maturation in the form of a small village where people have gone to escape modernity not as a tangible thing but as a mentality. In this village, she finds people do not confront her beliefs, only reveal their hollowness, and has to make a decision to either accept that her new knowledge invalidates her older assumptions and that she must change herself, or retreat into comforting but familiar dysfunctional behaviors.
For this reason, despite the somewhat “female” setting of this book it belongs in the category of books such as Steppenwolf and The Sorrows of Young Werther where the maturation process is used as a metaphor for knowing oneself and through that, becoming realistic or reality-based in one’s own thinking. Because finding truth in modernity more resembles a flight from the accepted, modern people come to this stage later, having lived in confusion for many years, and while Miss Prim, the protagonist, is younger she is not young in the sense of the classic novelistic trope described above. Her named, chosen in the postmodern style, accurately reflects her character: uptight, mostly focused on what she will not do instead of what she aspires to do; defensive, in other words, she hides behind a moral uprightness that excludes life itself as well as bad behaviors. In this village of intelligent life drop-outs, she encounters tradition: people living in a state of balance between nature, God and man. They have encountered a meaning to life itself, and using that principle, extend it outward to all that they do.
Fenollera writes her best material when showing us the readers what it is like to have an all-pervasive tradition and knowledge that completely contradicts what modern science, publicity and popular viewpoints indicate is true, and yet makes more sense when one looks at life as a question of harmonizing disparate elements instead of sorting between the good and the evil.
Women in San Ireneo de Arnois tended to have husbands. It wasn’t compulsory, but it was advisable. And women like Miss Prim seemed naturally suited to marriage. An attractive face, good figure, refined manners, cultured mind — all these gifts indicated the end for which Miss Prim had been created, the ultimate purpose of her existence, was none other than matrimony.
“You’re very kind, but I have no intention of ever getting married,” she said firmly. “I’m not in favor of marriage; for me, it makes no sense.”
The florist smiled very sweetly, surprising the librarian. She had not expected a smile in reply. An angry look, an exclamation of astonishment, a shocked, cutting remark; these would have been appropriate…This was the natural response, the decent reaction in such situations. And Miss Prim, who had been brought up in a household rigidly shaped by discipline, liked people to react as they should.
“I quite agree!” exclaimed the florist at last after a lengthy sigh. “Marriage nowadays has become a simple legal agreement, with all the red tape, those chilly municipal offices and registries, all those prenuptial agreements and laws that debase everything. If I were you and I had to get married in this day and age, I would not sign that. Most definitely not.” (39)
This short passage shows us the divide that Nietzsche illustrated in “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense”: when a civilization begins dying, the first thing that happens is that the bad actors change the meaning of words and events to fit within the new paradigm. These are fake; reality awaits somewhere outside of this constructed world, the consensual hallucination called social reality. What breaks through the barrier is confronting reality itself, something nowadays people do not do — much as a famous musician once lamented “nowadays black metal” as a trend, fad and fetish — because they are focused on the tokens and not the underlying meaning.
Written in a naturalistic style, the book shows us this new world through the eyes of Miss Prim and the various feminist, egalitarian and modernist tropes she employs as defenses, as she goes to work for a man as his librarian and tutor to his children, who are raised on the Trivium and other aspects of a classical education, but most importantly are encouraged to experience life through a transcendental spirit that connects them with purpose, reverence and creativity. She finds herself amazed at the children, and in awe and sometimes grudging admiration of her tormentor and guide referred to only as the Man in the Wing Chair, and finds herself fighting her own assumptions as she resists the natural beauty of this balanced, fearless place flowing into her soul. As time goes on, it becomes apparent to the reader but not the protagonist how isolated modern people are from all that matters, and how badly we want to see Miss Prim succeed in surmounting the real barriers instead of the distractions, something we scarcely hope for ourselves.
Fenollera is fond of using situation as metaphor. Characters frequently discuss themselves through literature, science or even social tropes, which then inverts to provide the metaphor of the book, which is of an individual escaping the escape from reality and coming to embrace the beauty of life hidden beneath the fear. Witness this exchange:
“The question is not whether they’re good or bad writers, or whether they’re sentimental. The question is whether there was a time when men — great men — read novels written by women.”
“True,” said the Man in the Wing Chair, pushing his seat even farther from the fireplace. “But in my opinion this is for two good reasons. One, a woman publishing a novel still had an allure of audacity; and two, women provided a reasonable but different view of the world. Nowadays women’s writing has lost its capacity to make us change our gaze, look at things in a different way. When I read a novel by a woman I get the impression that the author is doing nothing more than looking at herself.”
Miss Prim stared fixedly at her employer. She was shocked by how easily he maintained all sorts of outrageous opinions. Most people would feel ashamed of thinking, let alone saying, such things. He said them calmly, almost cheerfully. (171)
The Awakening of Miss Prim shows someone reluctantly confronting the need to leave behind the comfortable lies and go deeper both into herself and into her examination of reality. Ultimately it reveals that all of us armchair voyagers are stand-ins for Miss Prim, afraid to leave our convenient mental construct and look at reality as it is and thus fleeing from reality itself into the arms of lies, and as such it provides an enjoyable fast read that cuts to the core of a philosophy of life itself.
Conservative writer Lucian Tudor has published a book of essays entitled From the German Conservative Revolution to the New Right: A Collection of Essays on Identitarian Philosophy. It is accessible at the site of its publisher, Fuerza Nacional-Identitaria.
Although a review is forthcoming from this site, the background a reader must know is that Tudor writes convincingly on threads in common between different conservative philosophies, and essentially argues that an identitarian basis serves as the foundation of all modern conservatism. This makes sense of conservatism, which seeks to avoid the modern State and in its place have culture and the corresponding morality regulate society from within instead of by external pressure. That degree of social organization is impossible without identity, or the shared biological, cultural and philosophical origins that define a civilization.
More on this exciting new volume later, but for now it is exciting to see it on paper.
Since our last review of Colin Flaherty’s work with the previous edition of this book, following up on the original issue of this provocative work, White Girl Bleed A Lot: The Return of Racial Violence to America and How the Media Ignore It has grown and polished itself to the point where it is more professional than the media narrative it critiques.
While on the surface this is a book about race, underneath its nominal topic its nature as a critique of media emerges. An experienced journalist, Flaherty reserves his ire for and targets his book against the media for being in denial of the obvious. He walks a treacherous path: those who notice failures in the media narrative are usually branded racist, sexist and homophobic and run out of their jobs, homes and friendships. But Flaherty cannot be accused of any of these. He makes it clear that he is speaking of a subset of the African-American population who may have legitimate grievances, and that these grievances are as ignored by the leftist media as are the riots, violence and knockout games of an angry underclass.
American journalists have written about race since before the founding of the nation, as slavery was a controversial topic even at that time. Experience with media over the past decade has shown to me the appalling degree to which news sources, fiction writers and academics are willing to outright lie about their subject. Watching the New York Times promote a false rape accusation as true when they knew it was dubious, and then refuse to issue a correction and seeing a concerted and dishonest media campaign to hype Ferguson, MO into riots finally woke me up, but I had been seeing it for years. The eternal truth is that humans are monkeys and we respond to emotion, much like a tribe of Bonobos comes alive when two members fight. Our monkey-brains are wired for conflict in which there is a good guy and a bad guy and we participate so the good guy wins, which defeats symbolic evil and exiles it, leaving by our absurd simplistic system of morality only that which is good. Like the ancient Jewish ritual of the scapegoat, the burning of witch doctors in Africa, or the witch-hunts of colonial America, the monkey in us comes out and evolution is defeated. We follow the appearance of good versus evil like zombies, smashing down the “bad” so we may have the pretense of considering ourselves nothing but “good.” In reality, which few Americans encounter because they are not in leadership positions where paying attention to more than what people like to think is true is important, most things are not good or bad but a little of both, and the real question is how to balance them to find a positive outcome. That notion becomes important toward the conclusion of reading this book.
Flaherty counteracts the power of the media to lie by introducing facts contrary to the narrative. He starts with a single one, then builds a pattern around it, and then shows how that ritual repeats in every city across America. Soon it becomes clear: this is not just a media oversight, but a media coverup. Probably not a planned one, but a consistent one nonetheless. American media have benefitted from the fear of racial strife for over two centuries, and they know how to milk it for every Nielsen point that it is worth. Every movie must have a black president, going back to the 1980s; every news story about the inner city must feature uplifting angels who are impoverished only by the cruelty of history; certain facts like crime statistics, IQ data and hormone differences must be suppressed and claimed to be taboo using the following key terms: “pseudo-science,” “rambling,” “discredited.” The media narrative is so ubiquitous that we do not even notice it anymore. Flaherty makes us notice and uses the phenomenon of crypto-race riots to make his point. From the first decade after the Civil War through the 1990s, America never went more than a dozen years between violent race riots that left large portions of her cities burned and many dead. This came to a peak in the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles over the beating of a PCP-abusing Rodney King by several LAPD officers.
There, the narrative broke down. The media did its groundwork, portraying King as an angel of light whose feet never touched the earth. But then the 100 mph chase came to light, the past domestic violence charges, and a long rap sheet, in addition to the knowledge that the video shown by the media had been slowed down and edited to make it appear as a deliberate beating instead of the frantic subjugation of a violent criminal that it was. All of this could have been counter-acted except that the resulting riots did not take the form the media promised. They promised us 1960s style we-shall-overcome linked arms and protest, but instead what came out was 1990s style gangbangers smashing into stores to steal everything they could and then burning down the whole block. The most prominent images were no longer those of Rodney King, but of Korean store owners firing back against criminal mobs, and the beating of Reginald Denny into mental retardation for no sin other than being white in a truck on the day the whole thing blew up. Should have checked your news report, Reg.
It is without doubt that the media hyped the Rodney King situation into a riot. They gave permission to the rioters on repeated news broadcasts in which they stated that surely riots would come about, and repeated the lies about the “injustices” done to Rodney King, without asking his past wives about any injustices he might have done to them or the people through whose lawn he crashed at 80 mph on one of his drunken evasion attempts. I remember a news broadcast where a female journalist went out into one of the non-gentrified but also not dangerous neighborhoods where a fire had been spotted. In her view, this was the beginnings of the riot. The comedy compounded itself as she tried to find someone who spoke English to tell her what was going on. Finally, she snagged someone fleeing the scene, who explained in broken English that it was simply an attic fire. The news team packed up and drove to another location to see if that fire was the start of the riots. They did everything they could to encourage the riots, from mentioning the long history of African-American victimhood to showing pictures of the rows of expensive stores before flashing the camera back to shots of tenements. The message was: “A race riot now would be justified, and we are on your side. There will be no consequences.” We all know how that one one went down.
Flaherty’s assault on the narrative takes a far less obsessive form than the media itself. He simply reports facts and points out contradictions. He does not target any specific ethnic group, nor issue an opinion on whether these race riots are a legitimate response to grievances. He simply shows us, time and again, how racial violence breaks out and the media covers it up. He shows the facts, and populates the books with many links to YouTube videos — some of which are mysteriously deleted on a regular basis — showing the incidents in question. The races of perpetrator and victim are clear. White Girl Bleed A Lot: The Return of Racial Violence to America and How the Media Ignore It avoids seeking reasons why and a good guy and bad guy in these riots. It demands we simply look at the facts, stop acting out a narrative that may have never been true, and break through the media wall to discover what is true and ignored. Written in a tightly focused and conversational style, it makes for a fast read that will have repercussions in how the reader views the official history of this nation in years to come.
Sometime in the 1990s, literature became captured by its own parasitic industry that pumps out MFAs and the resulting “serious” books at an alarming rate, yet seems to produce no books that resonate with an audience. A sort of publishing underground has emerged in response where oddball writers confront issues that terrify us, as opposed to the self-congratulatory empathy teaching circle of “official” literature.
Michel Faber emerges as a strong voice within that new frontier with The Book of Strange New Things, a confrontation with the emptiness of modernity and its rapidly accelerating decay. Set in the near-future or an alternate present, it chronicles the passage of a man into deep space to encounter another civilization. In doing so the book evokes two other works of highly metaphorical fiction, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. As in Conrad, this book involves a journey into the world of the Other in order to understand ourselves, and as in Calvino it separates the human psyche into different possibilities represented by different cities.
Written in sparse functional modern prose with a number of elegant passages, The Book of Strange New Things merits not being spoiled by additional revelations of its plot. It moves quickly and becomes engrossing and, while the latter half may run a bit long, it provides the type of disorienting immersion that serves the plot well as earth becomes a distant memory. It directly confronts the collapse of human civilization on earth and the emptiness of life, using some Biblical passages as a guide and contrast but not in an advocacy role. The resulting is a startling unearthing of the question of purpose in human affairs and how our lack of it has made us marooned in an alien wasteland of our own loveless, faithless and self-doubting souls.
In theory, this book could be categorized as science fiction, and while it borrows much from that genre like postmodernist Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, and more recent meta-modernists like Michel Houllebecq, the fundamental aspect of this book is the descent into the human psyche itself more like a novel from Conrad, Celine or Robertson Davies than any science fiction. It is subtle, almost like the touch of a ghost on the skin, but the meaning saturates the novel in an atmospheric sense and provides both total escapism and inexorable collision with the many necessary things we moderns ignore. Cache a little extra time for this and enjoy departing into deep space that curiously resembles a venture into the space within.
Jane Austen specialized in writing books that on the surface were the type of social chatter one might find in a tabloid for Oxford-educated upper middle class people, but underneath the skin, argued a philosophy of human excellence which unites morality and natural selection in a harsh judgment of humanity akin to Nietzsche’s analysis of man as a bridge to the superman.
In Persuasion, Austen revisits a timeworn tale: boy and girl fall in love but have no immediate future together, so being sensible people, they avoid a Romeo and Juliet and avoid marriage. Boy then ventures out into the world and makes his fortune. When he returns, girl wonders if boy still cares. Both are now caught in a high society version of the prisoner’s dilemma: the first person to offer himself or herself puts that person at great risk of being denied and crushed, but if both somehow meet in the middle they can begin the happily ever after.
Unlike earlier books from this author, Persuasion features fewer scenes of people interacting through dialogue, and instead describes these through an omniscient narrator closer to what Laurence Sterne used in A Sentimental Journey or Celine’s nearly omniscient narrator-protagonist in Journey to the End of the Night. This is a story told, not “shown” as every idiot creative writing instructor demands, which enables it to move quickly, make more pointed comments on the nature of the people involved, and save conversational points for — in what is almost a return to her earlier drafts of epistolary novels — lengthier communications where characters address points of interest in long soliloquoys. If you ever wondered what Ayn Rand would look like in the hands of an actual master, it is Austen’s dense but informative prose that shows a clearly female voice in its use of multiple dependent clauses in long sentences which elaborate on inter-related concepts. The writing has more in common with Kant than stereotypically “female” voices in modern literature, but preserves a female perspective by approaching from context and slowly getting to the point, in contrast to male characters who are very objective-driven.
Austen elaborates on her perspective of gender differences throughout the novel, culminating in an analysis of the reasons for the differences between the sexes:
I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were only known by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forebearance, so long as — if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean, while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone. (233)
This follows up on an earlier soliloquoy where Anne expresses the idea that men are based in conquest of objective, where women seek to frame themselves in a context and make that balance. Through this continuing analysis, she opines on the differences between men and women and which roles befit both as a result; this complex analysis sprawls in dialogue throughout the novel. A more interesting line of inquiry arises from Austen’s analysis of good versus great in terms of people, picking up on another thread in the novel which is the crisis within the “First Families” (titled aristocracy) over their own quality control, a line of thought which in Austen’s view is tied closely to the question of who marries and what children result, and whether people should be accepted merely for social position or for something more. She does not attack the aristocracy, but calls for filtering within it to keep picking the best, in a method of eugenics which emphasizes the positive aspects of promoting the best more than a desire to smite the worst:
Lady Russell confessed that she had expected something better; but yet ‘it was an acquaintance worth having,’ and when Anne ventured to speak her opinion of them to Mr. Elliot, he agreed to their being nothing in themselves, but still maintained that as a family connexion, as good company, as those who would collect good company around them, they had their value. Anne smiled and said,
‘My idea, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.’ (147)
Much of the language has been altered since the writing of this book by our egalitarian times. In Austen’s parlance, clever means intelligence instead of merely shrewd; well-informed means an ability to analyze and retain information; great deal of conversation refers to a constant intellectual activity and ability to creatively analyze situations and people. Society has since dumbed down these terms to mean entertaining, memorization and chatter, but in the context of this book their meaning is unmistakable and is elucidated in earlier dialogues.
Persuasion will confuse any reader who thought The Lovely Bones or Flight Behavior were profound books, and baffle Randian readers who like one-dimensional characters and scenes where only one idea is transacted at a time. But in this elegant and engrossing novel ideas more akin to what Plato or Nietzsche might discuss emerge from the everyday of society both high and low, and for this reason Persuasion lives on among those who wonder if, after all, there is a solution to the human problem.
The Wump World (1970)
by Bill Peet
Houghton Mifflin, 44 pages. $9
On the surface, this serves as a parable for children about the environmental damage that humans can do. Underneath however as in most of Bill Peet’s work another agenda is at play, which is a confrontation between humanity and the doubt, emptiness and fear that makes the empty pursuit of status and material prestige seem a tempting option.
The Wump World features a planet inhabited by Wumps, who are friendly capybara-like animals who are not particularly exceptional. Like Hobbits, or most people, Wumps specialize in nothing in particular except existence itself. They munch the sweet green grass and frolic in the sun and probably think very little about the big questions of life. Like small children or other innocents, they are still somewhat in love with life itself and concern themselves with nothing greater.
A spaceship lands and discharges a new species, called — in the kind of dead-hand obvious imagery one can use in children’s books — the Pollutians. They have come from a “worn-out world” and are glad to have found a new one for their use. In short order, they tear down the trees and rip up the grass and replace them with concrete, on which they build giant cities complete with “hundred-story skyscrapers.” They are noisy, frenetic, and dump trash in the rivers and fill the skies with smoke.
The Wumps retreat to underground caves where they cower and await deliverance. In the meantime, the cities expand to cover the entire world. The Pollutians work hard at this transformation, but also bicker among themselves and generally seem aimless outside of their hard work in transforming the new world. In the meantime, their own pollution makes the world uninhabitable for them, so they declare it worn-out as well and seek another one. Spaceships explore and find a new place. Then the Pollutians leave.
The story is unexceptional and obvious, even manipulative at its core. To most of us, it seems a preachy parable of environmentalism and nothing more, about what we might expect from the late 1960s and the hippie era. But there is more to this than meets the initial eye. The story of the Pollutians is not so much the external effects of their actions, but the internal hollowness which propels them. These are people without purpose for whom consumption and destruction have become a life quest, even if a suicidal one.
Within the bright colors didacticism of this story lurks the story of emptiness in the soul. The Pollutians have no depth to them and no concern for anything but their own comforts and wealth. This void propels them forward into outer space as it sucks them into inner space, turning them into a type of yeast which consumes all resources and then either moves on or dies. They are their own self-destruction but, unable to suicide, they perpetrate that destruction on others.
For those of us who grew up in Generation X, both stories were familiar. We saw firsthand as our childhood play areas were consumed by an endless procession of condominiums, apartments, factories and skyscrapers. We were told by well-meaning but fatalistic adults that this was simply progress, or humanity advancing, and that all these new people needed places to sleep, work and live. But it also rang hollow, because we saw the haunted looks on the faces of adults going to work and the misery and rage they took out on us after another fun day at the office. Soon it became clear that the plan was no plan except more, more and more of everything to conceal our lack of direction and even more, our absence of a Wump-like innocence and enjoyment of life. It was as if the curse of Eden’s apple finally bit us back.
This book remains vivid in the imaginations of those who read it because it perfectly diagnoses our modern morass, which begins in the soul and not the fingertips. We have no purpose. Lacking any motivation for something larger than ourselves — something for which God is a surrogate, since to know God we must first love the process of life itself or we are simply projecting self-interest into the realm of the spirit — we have fallen into our inner voids and like Stockholm Syndrome victims, have embraced that dark emptiness and now wield it as a sword, consuming all that falls under our control and replacing it with literal garbage as if in the image of our discarded hopes. The innocents, children born into this age, have carried this burden for too long. Either we end it or it ends us, but not first before purging all goodness and innocence wherever we go.
Under the guise of a novel about manners, Candida Crewe assaults one aspect of the fundamental problem causing the “death of the West.” In this case, she focuses on the misery created by the replacement of courtship with sexual liberation and its method of “dating,” in which men and women escape mutual obligation and make themselves miserable through an inability to commit, dooming themselves to loneliness and existential misery.
Accommodating Molly takes place through the eyes of a young woman working as an assistant in a bookstore, her boyfriend Dominic De’Ath, her employer Nick Winter and her parents. During her interactions with the publishing industry, Molly contacts the different circles in which these people move and sees the past and resulting present situation of each. Without giving too much away, Accommodating Molly follows very much in the tradition of Hardy, Celine and Houellebecq in showing us a kind of nocturnal landscape of despair united by a single commonality: the loneliness of people expressed through their inability to maintain stable relationships.
Somehow Ms. Crewe managed to sneak this one by the critics, who refer to it as “a comedy of manners” and other euphemisms, but at its core lies an attack on one of the great assumptions of modern time, which is that liberation of the individual to make arbitrary choices has positive results. Instead, Crewe shows us that as manifested in sexual liberation, this modern behavior results in isolation and self-hatred.
But I’m not going to admit that I, too, want to be a wife. You don’t admit things like that. Not ever. The rule is that you don’t let on. Not ever. Women in the latter part of the twentieth century have feminist ideals. They don’t think about marriage, unless it slaps them in the face. They certainly don’t tell people that marriage is the thing they aspire to more than anything else….Play the game. The game is that you’re fine as you are. Take it or leave it, frankly. (210)
As in the fiction of the 1930s, Crewe bypasses politics and issues to show that the fundamental root of modernity is loneliness through self-sufficiency. People rely on accomplishments, wealth and power, but have no connection to each other because they are armies of one. Each person is a self-interested agent who cannot admit any weakness, including a desire for more than themselves. The Enlightenment freed us to place the human form above all else, not realizing (apparently) that the human individual becomes a prison of itself.
Molly proves a likeable character because she is ordinary but well-intentioned, thoughtful and intelligent. She does not stumble through life so much as try what others are doing, and when it goes wrong, accommodate what others thing is the right thing to do even though it results in her own misery. Men in particular are portrayed as faithless creatures who refuse to commit for fear of limiting their freedom, and thus move on from one woman to the next, only learning too late that they too desire companionship and loyalty.
One compelling inclusion is the narrative of Molly’s parents’ marriage and its own betrayals, frictions and eventual failures prompted by the self-absorption of her mother. Through this device, Crewe shows how the best of intentions lead to the worst possible results. Like other characters in the book, her mother keeps up a constant flood of actions for self-interest, personal drama and theatrics to maintain her independence. Ultimately she reveals an emptiness so profound that it absorbs and destroys everything around her, much like the unnamed character in the book, which is our basic philosophy of life in the modern era in which the individual is king for a day hoping for his fifteen minutes and then retreat to solitary self-sufficiency.
‘Modern feminist ideals mean well, I’m sure,’ Helen said, sceptical, ‘but they conflict, you see, with that fundamental feminine instinct. We all bleat about independence, but we all want to be loved by men deep down. Our bodies, our minds, crave freedom, apparently. But they also ultimately crave security, husbands, children. Modern life is a sore test.’ (104)
Accommodating Molly cannot provide a happy reading experience. Its humor is of the sort that provokes a smile and grudging acknowledgment more than laugh out loud absurdity, but as these characters collide and dissipate, the only conclusion is that we are watching a tragic play in which absurdist laughter is the solitary possible response. Like the best of our literature, it peels back the fog of everyday events and denial that we use to conceal our actual motivations, and shows us the bigger picture in an amusing and provocative way, forcing our minds to admit that many of the crutches we rely upon are instead gravestones for our happiness.
The most popular assumption among human beings proves to be a defense of inaction. The threat is not real; the dangers are overstated; nothing must be done. Just sit back here and enjoy the fruits of our — well, that of others, actually — labor. During the Cold War this mentality allowed the public to conveniently forget about traitors like Kim Philby in the UK and Aldrich Ames in the United States.
As the veil of secrecy has been lifted from those tumultuous years and it has become clear how much social, economic, political and environmental damage the Soviets did in addition to their unparalleled legacy of mass murder, the American public has for the most part conveniently switched off its brains and ignored the importance of that revelation. But long before we could comfortably doze off in our chairs and pretend that the torture, executions and enslavement did not exist, the Cold War was still a going concern in which it was not clear that the force of “better” would prevail over “outright evil.” I say the Soviets were evil because, in the name of the individual they created a regime that not only committed numerous crimes, but broke the spirits of those within it and unfortunate enough to fall under its control. In comparison, Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, Franco and every tyrant short of Genghis Khan seems gentle if not inconsequential. Twenty-five years after the fall of the USSR we are still uncovering bodies. But not everyone saw the evil as evil. Many chose to see it as good, or at least convenient and Ames will go down in history as one such malignant useful idiot.
Ames worked at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and from a fit of pique and not being recognized as more important than he was, for over a decade years he smuggled secrets to the Soviets that led to the execution of a number of high-ranking American “assets” or double-agents within the Soviet government. He was well-paid for this venture, receiving $2.5m in 1980s American dollars, which were worth quite a lot back then. Two analysts, Sandra “Sandy” Grimes and Jean Vertefeuille, found themselves tasked with finding a mole but had no idea that Ames was the culprit. All they knew at the start was that the Soviets were systematically rounding up double agents, or employees of the Soviet government who were secretly working for the CIA, and executing them after torture. At first, the analysts were uncertain that a human leak, or mole, existed, but after testing other parts of their network it became clear the Soviet KGB was receiving inside information.
Spy stories like this are difficult to tell because in addition to the “fun” cloak and dagger stuff, spycraft is fundamentally a war of brains. Poring over documents, obtaining information, and comparing it to reveal the big picture are as important as creeping around in the field with only a Walther PPK and gumption to save the day. Analysts remain the largely unsung workers of this task because voters glaze over when the role of analysts is explained. Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed was written with the cooperation of its authors and the CIA, so it necessarily skips over some facts, but on the whole captures the vision of these two analysts as they systematically eliminated possibilities and zeroed in — often with gut instinct as a guide — on the identity of the leaker, and then began the arduous task of finding proof. This was complicated by the fact that both knew Ames.
To Sandy the Rick Ames of the 1970s and early 1980s was simply a nice guy — easygoing, a good conversationalist, and comfortable to be around. Like an absent-minded professor, he was unpretentious in dress and manner. His hair was unkempt, his sock colors often did not match, his shirts were rarely pressed, and he was often late for the carpool whether he was the driver or the rider. However, none of that really mattered to his contemporaries at the office. Rick was just Rick — a gentle sort whose fellow officers enjoyed while laughing at his goofy physical appearance. This is not to say he was always happy-go-lucky. Occasionally he became irritated, particularly if his operational judgment was questioned by those at his level. They might be equals, but he was a greater equal. (178)
Grimes and Vertefeuille, as much as they can given the need for secrecy to this day about Cold War spying, reveal the painstaking exploration of the connection between the leaked data and how it eventually revealed Soviet double agent Aldrich Ames. The story grips the reader mostly because of the intense sense of consequence at every turn. People are dying; vital secrets are being lost from the US or taken from the Soviet Union, enabling the West to fight a war against Communism that at that point it was not at all clear it would win. The authors do not demonize Ames but they do not have to: his deeds speak for themselves and the trail of bodies and shattered lives of those who resisted Communism in Russia shows us the work of conscientious (and sometimes, merely opportunistic) people who saw the power of that horror and fought back against it. A compelling narrative and a revelation of the depth and intensity of this point in history, Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed provides an inspiring and instructive reading experience.