Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Remainder by Tom MacCarthy

“So. Marc Daubeney tells me you've come into rather a large sum of money.”

He looked at me, waiting for me to say something in response. I didn't know what to say, so I just kind of pursed my lips. After a while Younger continued:

“Over the last century the stock market has outperformed cash in every decade apart from the thirties. Far outperformed. As a rule of thumb, you can expect your capital to double over five years. In the current market conditions, you can reduce that figure to three, perhaps even two.”

“How does it work?, I asked him. “I invest in companies and they let me share in the profits?”

“No,” he said. “Well, yes, that's a small aspect of it. They give you a dividend. But what really propels your investment upwards is speculation.”

“Speculation?” I repeated. “What's that?”

“Shares are constantly being bought and sold,” he said “The prices aren't fixed: they change depending on what people are prepared to pay for them. When people buy shares, they don't value them by what they actually represent in terms of goods and services: they value them by what they might be worth, in an imaginary future.”

“But what if that future comes and they're not worth what people thought they would be?” I asked.

“It never does,” said Mathew Younger. “By the time one future's there, there's another one being imagined. The collective imagination of all the investors keeps projecting futures, keeping the shares buoyant. Of course, sometimes a particular set of shares stop catching people's imaginations, so they fall.. It's our job to get you out of a particular one before it falls – and, conversely, to get you into another one when its just about to shoot up.”

“What if everyone stops imagining futures for all of them at the same time?' I asked him.

”Ah!” Younger's eyebrows dipped into a frown, and his voice became quieter, withdrawing from the room back to his small mouth and chest. “That throws the switch on the whole system, and the market crashes. That's what happened in '29. In theory it could happen again. He looked sombre for a moment; then his hearty look came back – and, with it, his boom voice as he resumed: “But if no one thinks it will, it won't.”

“And do you think it will?”


“Cool,” I said “Let's buy some shares.”

Mathew Younger pulled a large catalogue from his dossier and flipped it open. It was full of charts and tables, like some kind of tidal almanac.

“With the kind of capital you've got earmarked for investment,” he said, “I think we can envisage cultivating quite a large portfolio.”

“ What's a portfolio? I asked him.

“Oh, that's what we call the spread of your investments,” he explained. “It's a bit like playing a roulette table – with the important distinction that you win here, whereas in roulette you mostly lose. But with a roulette table, there are sectors, clusters of numbers you can bet on, then rows, then colors, odds/evens and so on. The wise roulette player covers the whole board strategically rather than staking all his chips on just one number. Similarly, when playing the stock market you should cover several fields. There's banking, manufacturing, telecommunications, oil, pharmaceuticals, technology...”

“Technology,” I said. “I like technology... and what was that one you mentioned before that- signals, messages, connections.”


“Yes! Exactly!”

“That's a very promising sector. Mobile telephone penetration is increasing at an almost exponential rate year after year. And then as more types of link-up between phones and internet and hi-fi systems and who knows what else become possible, more imaginary futures open up. You see the principle?”

“Yes”. I said. “Lets go for those two: telecommunications and technology.”

“ Well, we could certainly weight your portfolio in that direction...but my point in putting forward the roulette analogy was that it's best to cover several sectors of the ...”

“ Yes, I understand,” I told him. “But I want to know where I am. To occupy a particular sector, rather than to be everywhere and nowhere, all confused. I want to have a...a...” I searched for the right word for a long time, and eventually found it” “position.”

“A position?” he repeated.

“Yes, I said. “A position. Telecommunications and technology.”

“Now Younger looked flustered.”

“ While I view both these sectors as most promising ones, I feel that this degree of localization, and especially given the great sums we're proposing to invest, does represent and excessive level of exposure to contingencies,. I'd much prefer...”

“If you won't do it,” I said, “I'll go to another stockbroker.”

Younger tensed up. He seemed to shrink even more; his voice shrank into silence while he took in what I'd said. Then he stuck up that hearty look once more, took a deep breath and boomed out:

“We can do it. Absolutely. It's your money. I merely advise. I'd advise a degree of diversification – but if you don't want that, then that's perfectly...”

“Telecommunications and technology,” I said. As soon as he'd explained how it worked, I'd known exactly what I wanted, instantly. It was my money not his.

Within half an hour we'd chosen a company that made small chips for computers, two of the major mobile phone network providers and one handset manufacturer, one terrestrial telephone and cable television company, and aerospace researcher and manufacturer, an outfit that did encryption for the internet, another that made software whose function I really didn't understand, a producer of flat audio speakers and some other software people and another micro thing. There was a games company, an interactive TV pioneer, a business who make those handheld gadgets that let you know exactly where you are at any given time by bouncing signals into space and back again – more, lots more.

By the time I'd left we'd sunk more than eighty percent of my money into shares. A million we kept in cash and placed in a building society account Younger helped me fill in the forms for right there. We kept one hundred and fifty thousand in the holding tank account that my lawyer had opened for me that morning.

“I might need cash suddenly,” I said to Mathew Younger as he saw me out of Younger and Younger's premises.

“Of course,” he answered. “Absolutely. And don't forget that we can sell shares at any time too. Call me whenever you need me. Goodbye.”

It was still rush hour. I didn't feel like going back into the tube. Instead, I walked down to the river, slowly, through the back streets of Belgravia. When I got there I walked east, crossed Lambreth Bridge, stepped down onto the Albert Embankment, found a bench and sat there for a while looking back across the Thames...

Now it was dusk. The city had that closing-ranks look, when it gathers itself up into itself but shuts you out. It was glowing but it wasn't heating me. As I sat there it occurred to me that I could go and stand on almost any street, any row, any sector, and buy it – buy shops, the cafes, cinemas, whatever. I could possess them, but I'd still be exterior to them, outside, closed out. This feeling of exclusion colored the whole city as I watched it darken and glow, closing ranks. The landscape I was looking at seemed lost, dead, a dead landscape.

I didn't want to go back to Brixton...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nietzsche and the Life Reform Movement by Julian Young

Nietzsche underwent a 'transformation and crisis' of which he first became 'fully conscious during the summer of 1876, shortly before the first Bayreuth Festival. The consequence of this transformation was a commitment to 'the battle of reason' against 'all metaphysical mystification of truth and simplicity'. Later on, he described this as a turn to 'positivism' . Human, All-Too-Human is the product and record of this turn.

Schopenhauer's (and Wagner's) version of Kant's metaphysical idealism entails the existence of a meta-physical, supra-natural world 'beyond' or 'behind' the 'dream'-world of nature; beyond, as Schopenhauer puts it, 'the phenomenal appearance of things.” Nietzsche's turn to positivism is, above all, a turn away from metaphysical idealism. It is the abolition of the metaphysical world. Nothing exists 'behind nature', nothing exists but nature. In theory, nothing is beyond the reach of natural science , nothing is knowable save that which is knowable by science [however much uncertainty deprives any particular scientific hypothesis, as Nietzsche put it, 'a claim to citizenship'.]

Positivism, roughly speaking the 'Socratism' attacked in The Birth of Tragedy, is what, in his early period, Nietzsche was reacting against. With Wagner, he was, self-consciously 'untimely', a swimmer against the tide of current, educated opinion: against, for instance, the complaisant materialism of David Strauss. But in Human, All-Too-Human he has given up the fight, given up, at least, this kind of 'untimeliness'.

Nietzsche's strategy in Human, All-Too-Human is not to refute metaphysics but to show that the metaphysical world is a 'superfluous' hypothesis. Consider, by way of illustration, Freud. Why do people believe in God? One explanation might be, for the same reason they believe in the sun – there is a God and people experience his presence. But Freud's explanation is: because people have need for a father figure, they invent him. Freud's explanation is thus 'alas all – too – human' for religion because it shows, if true, that we do not need the 'God hypothesis to explain religious belief. In a similar way Darwin's 'dangerous side' is 'all–too– natural for religion: by explaining the appearance of 'intelligent design' in the world in terms of the purely natural mechanism of natural selection it demonstrates another way in which the God hypothesis is redundant.

Thus the title of the work- a reference to human credulity. Almost more interesting, however, is the subtitle: A Book for Free Spirits. At one stage Nietzsche had thought of The Free Spirit as the book's main title.

Books, Nietzsche believed – at least his books – are, in the wrong hands, 'dangerous.' And so, as noted, he always wrote for a select audience, for the 'very few'. In defense of the 'obscurity' of which he accuses himself, he says that he has no desire to corrupt 'old maids of both sexes who have nothing to keep them going but their 'innocence'. And so he writes in a manner only his 'friends' will understand. As we see, he often begged various 'old maids' – whom he loved dearly – not to read his books. So one function of the subtitle was to constitute, as it were, a health warning: for free spirits alone – for, at least, potential free spirits alone. The subtitle is, as it were, a 'restricted audience only' sticker.

What effect is the book supposed to have on the potential free spirit? Most people write books for money. Or, if they are academics, to gain tenure, or promotion. Or, in the best instance, to interest and instruct. But not Nietzsche. He wrote, as the perceptive Lou Salome put it, 'not to teach but to convert'. All his books, as he put it in a letter to Rohde, are 'bait and seductive voices' designed to recruit suitable individuals to his cause. To Reinhart von Seydlitz, who he hoped to seduce away from Wagner, he presented himself quite openly as a 'pirate...always, like any other corsair, seeking to steal human beings, not to sell them into slavery but, around me, into freedom.'

In his early period the cause had been Wagner's programme of cultural regeneration ( whose anti-semitic elements eventually turned him off- a long line of Jews promoted and protected Nietzsche through-out his adult life – he was anti anti-semitic). Now it is regeneration through positivism. The cause is different but the desire to convert remain unaltered. Who, however, are these potential 'free spirits he hopes will join his new cause? What is a free spirit?

Nietzsche writes, 'A free spirit thinks differently from what, on the basis of their origin, environment, class and profession, or on the basis of the dominant view of the age, would have been expected. So a free spirit is someone who thinks – and so acts – differently from the 'fettered spirit', from what Nietzsche calls the 'herd-type'. The free spirit thus swims against the current of his times, is, in other words, 'untimely. 'Free spirit is the successor concept to 'untimely spirit'.

'Free-spiritedness” was in the air during the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Thoughtful people were fed up with the stuffy and often hypocritical conventions of Victorian, Wilhelmian society. In 1898 the term 'Lebensreform Bewegung', 'Life-Reform Movement', was coined to describe the counter-culture that had been developing for some time in German-speaking countries.

Life reformers were against – sought freedom from – some subset of : the big city which isolates individuals into anonymous, lonely 'atoms'; modern industrial technology which reduces human beings to mere tools ('human resources', as we now say), and speeds up life to an inhuman pace; the 'totalizing' bureaucratic state which absorbs all aspects of life into itself; established religion (life reformers were 'free-thinkers'); alcohol; middle class 'materialism (consumerism); and Victorian morality in all its forms, especially its repression of emotion, sex,and women. Life reformers were for: the communal solidarity of traditional village life, the 'unalienated' character of traditional work practices; living in nature and in harmony with its rhythms, natural healing and meditation; nudism; loose, flowing clothing; sunbathing, vegetarianism; a new religious spirituality tending in pantheistic and/or pagan directions; dance; peace; 'free love; and female emancipation. And youth, life reformers started to celebrate youth as the time of life in which one is least affected by, most in a position to liberate oneself from, the fetters of an unhealthy, life-repressing culture...

Though Nietzsche was no 'hippie' – as I have observed- his upright bearing, famous moustache, conservative dress, plus his enthusiasm for self-discipline, cold baths, and brisk walks, led to his being mistaken for a Prussian cavalry officer – he had, nonetheless, many affinities with the life-reformers. So, for example, he polemicized against alcohol and tobacco ( while doing a variety of drugs like hashish, cocaine and various 'downers'), experimented with vegetarianism, and was an enthusiast for 'alternative' medicines and 'curative' diets. He hated the 'harried', atomized life of the big industrial city - Human, All-Too-Human complains that in modern life we see everything 'as if from a railway carriage window – hated the totalizing, bureaucratic, Bismarckian state.

Nietzsche was always, at heart, a 'small-town boy'; 'we wish to live in a small town' he declared flatly. Even when he lived in cities, he sought the village-like parts of them. He believed that one should live close to, and in harmony with nature, that one should possess a 'country sensibility':

“If a man has not drawn firm, restful lines along the horizon of his life, like the lines drawn by mountain and forest, his innermost will itself grows restless, distracted and covetous, as is the nature of the city-dweller: he has no happiness himself and consequently bestows none on others.”

Nietzsche believed, too, at least in theory, in 'free love'. He was against marriage (except as a last, financial resort) and he wanted to live in a 'wild ('de facto) marriage with Lou Salome. Like his admirer, Isadora Duncan, he believed in dance – literal dance, but also the spiritual 'dance' that, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, triumphs over 'the spirit of gravity'. And he believed in youth; my works are always for 'the youth', he writes. He was, moreover, until a dramatic change of mind in 1882, in favor of female emancipation and had fought hard to gain admittance for women to Basel University. Finally, and above all, Nietzsche believed in joy, in 'life' in the sense of living it to a joyful fullness: the entire point of his philosophy, he writes, is to recover that ability to 'rejoice' possessed by the ancients but destroyed by Christianity, to lay the foundations for a new 'temple of joy'.

As he saw it, I believe, the formulation of the concept of the free spirit in Human, All-Too-Human is an attempt to articulate the spirit of the life-reform movement.

The movement, of course, did not consist in a set of articles to which one either signed up or did not. It was, rather, a loose assembly of beliefs and ideals such that a given individual could subscribe to some but by no means all. Different individuals, that is, would give different 'spins' to the movement. Human, All-Too-Human's particular spin is positivism, as its dedication to the Enlightenment hero, Voltaire, that 'great liberator of the spirit', makes clear. Life reform is going to be carried out, not through anything soft-headed such as Wagnerian music, prayer, astrology, spiritualism or the power of crystals, but through the remorseless wielding of 'hard-headed' scientific enlightenment to clear away every ancient superstition unable to justify itself before the court of reason. As Nietzsche wrote in his notebooks, he dreams of

“...a fellowship of men who want to be unconditioned, who give no quarter and want to be known as destroyers. They subject everything to their critique and sacrifice themselves for the truth. The bad and the false are exposed to the light of day.”

Earlier in his writings Nietzsche deplored the “fairground motley' of modern culture, but in Human-All-Too Human he begins to see that the multicultural nature of modernity gives us an opportunity to consciously chose a new culture on the basis of comparison, of mixing and matching. This new culture will, for example, avoid the 'comedy' of unreason whereby (as in Goethe's fable of the Sorcerers Apprentice) human beings invent machines to make their lives easier but end up as industrial (or electronic) slaves of their own technology, mere 'material for heating up the great machine, which then becomes an end in itself'. He opposes the 'big', all controlling state, whether it be Bismarck's Prussia or the 'totalizing' state he thinks will arrive were socialism to have its way. Influenced by Burckhardt's account of the Italian Renaissance, Nietzsche sees a degree of social anarchy as necessary to the emergence of exceptional individuals. He looks forward to the end of conscript armies and, shortly after, decides that national armies should be abolished. In contrast to the frenetic pace of modernity and to its obsession with activity and production ( 'outputs', as we say in the modern university), the new culture will place the highest value on 'idleness', will make a great space for the vita contemplativa. Punishments will not be retributive. There will be a whole range of more rational choices concerning reproduction, nutrition and education. We will learn “to manage the earth as a whole more economically” (“one should preserve the forests. It is true: through the clearing and cutting down the forest the earth is becoming warmer”).

Surprisingly in view of his new enthusiasm for science, Nietzsche writes that after the joy of first discovery, science does not, in fact, add pleasure to life, indeed, 'deprives us of more and more pleasure through casting suspicion on metaphysics, religion and art, sources of joy to which mankind owes almost all its humanity'. For this reason 'a higher culture must give man a double-brain, as it were a brain of two chambers, one for the reception of science, the other that of non-science. This, he says, is a requirement of 'health'. If it is not done, 'illusion, error, fantasy, because they gave us pleasure, will return and drive out the scientific interest in truth.' A higher culture must construct 'so large a hall' that both science and non-science can be accommodated within it, even if at opposite ends. Both religion and arts will, after all, have a role to play in the 'rational' society.

And so Nietzsche goes on to discuss the problems of globalization, free will, and the need for some non-metaphysical mode for altering repressed anxieties consequent to the immutability of death. How might the 'utopian' vision of a new culture in Human, All Too Human be reconciled with the view expressed in his notebooks that life itself is essentially a process of appropriation, injuring, overpowering the alien and weaker, oppressing, being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating and, at the very least, exploiting', a view of the world that is extraordinary gloomy and unpleasant – false, cruel and contradictory- with no exit to a saving 'beyond'?

A lot of Friedich Nietzsche's writings were, the author repeatedly states, 'murky and squid-like'. He was not a logician, nor had much training in the formal concepts of traditional philosophy. From a very early age his eyesight was bad and his health generally poor so it is not clear how many or much of the works of his contemporaries he ever read. It is probably best to consider Nietzsche's philosophy in the developmental context of his life as a whole, as Julian Young has done in this book.

As an artist and a writer Nietzsche placed an unusually high value on ecstasy: a state of mind in which one transcends one's everyday identity while at the same time finding the world 'perfect' and so being able to will its 'eternal return', that is, to love one's fate. This valuing of the ecstatic goes right back to the beginning, to the very first section of The Birth of Tragedy with its celebration of the state in which 'all the rigid hostile barriers between man and man dissolve so that, 'singing and dancing', one feels oneself to 'belong to a higher community'. What is important about this description of the Dionysian state is that it is one that we can all recognize and empathize with. For it is, as I pointed out, the 'rock-concert' or 'football-crowd' feeling. Since we all encounter the Dionysian state in ourselves, we are in no position to detect anything 'mad' in the Dionysianism that appears in Nietzsche's philosophy.

What, however, we cannot recognize in our own experience is the belief that we can, at will, control any aspect of the world we chose. But that is the salient characteristic of the bipolar mania of Nietzsche's final days in Turin. There is therefore, it seems to me, a clear line of demarcation between the Dionysianism of the philosophy and the mad Dionysianism of his final days. Though Nietzsche's philosophy was likely produced by a manic-depressive ( as, probably, were the works of Plato, Newton, Mozart, Holderin, Coleridge, Schumann, Byron, Van Gogh, Geog Cantor, Winston Churchill, Silvia Plath, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen and many other great human beings), there is nothing 'pathological' about it- apart from the views on women.

A Philosophical Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche by Julian Young; Cambridge University Press, 2010

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Seymour 'the Swede” Levov's most stupendous satisfaction in life was being a dependable person. He prepared and practiced the perfect life with obedience, uncompromising dedication to the essential, to things that matter most; the systematic building, the patient scrutiny of every problem, large and small; no drifting, no laxity, no laziness, meeting every obligation, addressing energetically every situation's demands; restrained in his aversions, neutral in his judgments, tolerant and charitable.

Perhaps the Swede carried his self-restraint a little too far? A certain dumbing down and dulling out occurs when one always follows 'the party line', when one is absolutely captivated by other peoples' needs, when everybody else's point of view takes precedent over one's own. Yes, goodness and sobriety bring forth inner tranquility but, after all, “what is so inexhaustibly interesting about mere decency?”

Boredom, however, was not Seymour Levov's problem [any more than it is for the other countless millions of narcissists who inhabit the American Pastoral]. It was the bewilderment which accompanies the opening of the door of the unexpected, the unseen, the counter-pastoral circumstance, the shadowing menace, the emergence of the indigenous American berserk; the confrontation with the transitory and mysterious- the messy, the dark, the hideous.

How to penetrate to the interior of people was a skill and capacity Seymour Levov did not possess. He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everybody who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everybody who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress and probably had never even begun to see into himself. What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed?

Day and night Seymour “the Swede” Levov began to drown in inadequate explanations; overcome by a gruesome inner life of tyrannical obsessions, stifled inclinations, superstitions, horrible imaginings, fantasy conversations, unanswerable questions, loathsome self-limitation, unflagging self-castigation and remorse.

At dinner – outdoors, on the back terrace, with darkness coming on so gradually that the evening seemed to the Swede stalled, stopped, suspended, provoking in him a distressing sense of nothing more to follow, of nothing ever to happen again, of having entered a coffin carved out of time from which he would never be extricated... A lifetime's agility as a businessman, as an athlete, as a U.S. Marine, had in no way conditioned him for being a captive confined to a futureless box where he was not to think about what had become of his daughter, was not to think about how the Salzmans had assisted her, was not to think about...about what had become of his wife. He was supposed to get through dinner not thinking about the only things he could think about. He was supposed to do this forever. However much he might crave to get out, he was to remain stopped dead in the moment in that box. Otherwise the world would explode....

Vintage Books, 1997

Monday, August 23, 2010

William Golding by John Carey

Nowadays mention of Lord of the Flies sparks instant recognition in a way that William Golding's own name does not. This seems unjust, both to Golding and to readers, because it means that they remain unaware of the protean variety and inventiveness of his work. My subtitle is chosen with this in mind; I like to think that it will catch the the eye of people who remember reading Lord of the Flies at school, or who maybe just saw the film, and whose curiosity will be sufficiently aroused for them to discover how much more Golding was than 'the man who wrote Lord of the Flies'.

What would he have thought about his private journal being made public, as it is in this book? I do not think he would have been surprised nor displeased. In the journal itself he anticipates its possible publication. Once or twice he considers burning it, but dismisses the idea because it is a 'treasure', 'closely written like coins in a chest', and because, at the deepest level, he knows that he has written it for an audience.

When I first met Golding I could not believe that this was the man who had written the novels. He seemed like a nautical caricature, and the opinions that issued from behind the beard were things that he had said many times before – a kind of gramophone record put on for an interviewer. When I came to know him better - never very well - I sensed that this was all a shield with which he kept the world at bay. When I read the journal I discovered that I was right.

The emotion that Golding felt most vividly and often behind his disguise was, I think, fear, on a scale varying from mild anxiety to terror He had been a sensitive, frightened child, and grew into a sensitive, frightened man. Of course, his war record shows that he was also extremely courageous, and his courage was all the greater because, as he admits, he was terrified much of the time. But the journal reveals that there was quite enough in ordinary peacetime life to bring on panic attacks.

Some of his phobias were fairly common. He went rigid with fear if he had to have an injection. He was scared of heights. He was afraid of crustaceans, insects and other creeping things. The unseen world was still more frightening. He was scared of being alone at night, 'even if I am in bright electric light'. The mere thought that he was alone, and that 'something' might appear, would send him scurrying to bed, where he could lie down beside his wife Anne, hear her breathing and feel safe. Entering empty rooms at night was an ordeal. He would throw the door open loudly to give a 'warning' to whatever spectral beings might be lurking inside, in case he might 'see what I should not'. He felt 'sheepish' about admitting this, but fear of the supernatural had been with him since 'before I can remember'. Whatever his rational mind told him, his 'natural and irrational mind' was convinced that the dead were always present.

Among the real Golding's terrors, terror of writing was perhaps the greatest, not uncommon among writers. Writing is a stressful occupation. It is not like living over a shop, or even living in the shop. It is being the shop. It means making your livelihood out of nothing. To control the fear Golding tried various remedies. He drank. He wrote several drafts, so that he could tell himself he was not writing the frightening final one. He believed, or half-believed, that he did not actually do the writing – it was some other being inside him that did it. This removed the fearful responsibility, though it brought with it the new dread that the other being might decide not to write any more, leaving him barren.

He feared critics almost as much as he feared writing. The origin of this fear was partly social. He did not think of himself as belonging to the class that set critical standards in art and literature, and his natural self-distrust had been intensified by long years of having his work rejected. So the kind of adverse review that a less insecure writer would have simply shrugged off left him feeling hurt, ashamed and exposed to ridicule. His family learned to keep reviews away from him. But even that was no answer, for it encouraged the bitter suspicion that the critics were defaming him behind his back. His prolonged writer''s block in the 1970s was directly traceable to the reviews Free Fall received.

Although Golding's fears and phobias could impede his writing, or sometimes stop it altogether, they were indispensable to it, because they were integral to his imagination, and he lived in his imagination to an unusual degree. What most people regard as the real world was secondary to him. This showed itself in a number of ways, some of them trivial. When traveling, for example, he tended not to bother with road maps or guidebooks, preferring to trust his intuition, with the result that he frequently got lost. He did not do research for his novels. Even when they were set in historical periods not wholly familiar to him, he relied on his imagination rather than consult authorities. He was really not interested in intellectual debate or engaging with other minds, because he was too intent on his own imaginative life. He discounted logic, and contended that, though it was an internally self-consistent system, it amounted to no more, as a means of reaching truth, than 'a loftier game of chess'.

Golding expressed his own position most clearly in 'Belief and Creativity', the concluding essay in A Moving Target. The 'glum intellect of man' , he argued , has constructed iron cages for the human spirit – the main culprits being Marx, Darwin and Freud, 'the three most crashing bores of the Western world. ' It seems unlikely that he ever read these writers first hand. He never mentions having read Marx, and he told Jack Biles he never read any Freud. The only book by Darwin he certainly read was his treatise on the pollination of orchids – a subject in which he had a practical interest. In condemning them he had in mind, rather, the general vague notion of their ideas that had become part of the modern Western mindset. Truth, he asserted, is to be found not in such reductive theories, but in art. The novelist – or the painter, or poet – reaches down into 'the magical area of his own intuitions' and comes up with something new, and this, he believed, proves that 'beyond the transient horrors and beauties of our hell [and 'the long nightmare which is the bedrock of being human'] there is a Good which is ultimate and absolute. Further, there 'must be' infinite universes and infinite hells, because it would deny the nature of our own creativity, let alone the infinitude of God's creativity' if there were not.

Golding insisted that he was just a story-teller, not a thinker. In a letter to a French academic he stated: 'I claim the right not of the philosopher or psychologist but of the story-teller – that is, to be impenetrable, inconsistent and anything else he likes provided he holds the attention of his audience. That I appear to do and it is enough for me.'

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ignorance by Milan Kundera

A human lifetime is 80 years long on average. A person imagines and organizes his life with that in mind. What I have just said everyone knows, but only rarely do we realize that the number of years granted us is not merely a quantitative fact, an external feature (like nose length or eyes color), but is part of the very definition of the human. A person who might live, with all his faculties, twice as long, say 160 years, would not belong to our species. Nothing about his life would be like ours – not love, or ambitions, or feelings, or nostalgia; nothing. If after after 20 years abroad an emigre were to come back to his native land with another one hundred years of life ahead of him, it would probably not be a return at all, just one of many byways on the long journey of his life.

For the very notion of homeland, with all its emotional power, is bound up with the relative brevity of our life, which allows us too little time to become attached to some other country, to other countries, to other languages.

Sexual relations can take up the whole of adult life. But if that life were a lot longer, might not staleness stifle the capacity for arousal well before one's physical powers declined? For there is an enormous difference between the first and the tenth, the hundredth, the thousandth, or the ten thousandth coitus. Where lies the boundary line beyond which repetition becomes stereotyped, if not comical or even impossible? And once that boundary is crossed, what would become of the erotic relationship between a man and a woman? Would it vanish? Or, on the contrary, would lovers consider the sexual phase of their lives to be the barbaric prehistory of real love?

Answering these questions is as easy as imagining the psychology of the inhabitants of an unknown planet... We who must die soon, we just don't know.

Memory cannot be understood, either, without a mathematical approach. The fundamental given is the ratio between the amount of time in the lived life and the amount of time from that life which is stored in memory. No one has ever tried to calculate this ratio, and in fact there exists no technique for doing so; yet without much risk of error I could assume that the memory retains no more than a millionth, a hundred-millionth, in short an utterly infinitesimal bit of the lived life. That fact too is part of the essence of man. If someone could retain his memory everything he had experienced, if he could at any time call up any fragment of his past, he would be nothing like human beings: neither his loves nor his friendships nor his anger nor his capacity to forgive or avenge would resemble ours.

We will never cease our critique of those persons who distort the past, rewrite it, falsify it, who exaggerate the importance of one event and fail to mention some other; such a critique is proper (it cannot fail to be), but it doesn't count for much unless a more basic critique precedes it: a critique of human memory as such. For after all, what can memory actually do, the poor thing? It is only capable of retaining a paltry little scrap of the past, and no one knows why just this scrap and not some other, since in each of us the choice occurs mysteriously, outside our will or interests. We don't understand a thing about human life if we persist in avoiding the most obvious fact: that a reality no longer is what it was when it was; it cannot be reconstructed....

I imagine the feelings of two people meeting again after many years. In the past they spent some time together, and therefore they think they are linked by the same experience, the same recollections. The same recollections? That's where the misunderstanding starts: they don't have the same recollections; each of them retains two or three small scenes from the past, but each has his own; their recollections are not similar; they don't intersect; and even in terms of quantity they are not comparable: one person remembers the other more than he is remembered; first because memory capacity varies among individuals (an explanation that each of them would at least find acceptable), but also (and this is more painful to admit) because they don't hold the same importance for each other. When Irena saw Josef at the airport, she remembered every detail of their long-ago adventure; Josef remembered nothing. From the very first moment their encounter was based on an unjust and revolting inequality.

Ignorance by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher; HarperCollins, 2000/2002.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Every Man In This Village Is A Liar by Megan K. Stack

Megan Stack was a national correspondent based in Houston who was vacationing in Paris on September 11. Although without any previous experience in reporting war she was never-the-less rushed to the scene in Pakistan and spent the next seven years covering 'the news' in various locations throughout the region. She acknowledges the debt she owes to Majeed Babar (http://www.facebook.com/majeed.b.khan) who “lightened my first days at war in Afghanistan and permanently impressed upon me the need to look for society's most vulnerable victims, even or especially in the midst of conflict.”

By 2005, American enthusiasm for Arab democracy was sinking back into silence. Every time Arabs voted – in Beirut, in Gaza City, in Karbala – Islamists grew more powerful. Hezbollah and Hamas were gaining sway. In Egypt, the most populous Arab country and the psychological core of the region, rippled with tension between Islam and democracy. There was only one source of serious political opposition to the Egyptian autocracy, a single party potentially strong enough to unseat the government – and that was the Muslim Brotherhood, a nonviolent Islamist movement with deep roots across Egypt.

Officially, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed, but the reality was nuanced. The government would pass through bouts of tolerance, then abruptly round up activists and raid party offices in crackdowns. Nobody stood to gain more from democratic reform than the Brotherhood, because no other force in Egypt had its legitimate popularity, the grassroots credentials, the air of moral authority. And yet the United States refused to speak with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is illegal, U.S. Policy went, and therefore we will not recognize it. Now there would be parliamentary elections, and I would watch the race from the battleground of Damanhour.

I'd hired Hossam, a bohemian city kid who moved among the intellectuals and expatriates of Cairo, as a reporter and translator. He was a stalwart socialist with a shamefaced penchant for lattes from Starbucks, music by Moby, and Scandinavian death metal bands. Sucking a ceaseless string of Marlboros, he waved his arms and rambled about how the left would eventually join ranks with the popular Muslim Brotherhood and form an overpowering opposition block.

The first night we rode the grinding road north from Cairo to Damanhour, I met the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Gamal Heshmat. On that sharp night, the Muslim Brotherhood had called a political rally, and Heshmat would speak to his hometown. The silt of autumn dark thickened on the square. From the front row, we had a good view of a towering Koran and a podium under pictures of crossed swords. Hossam and I stood and gawked. There were hundreds of people. No, thousands. You couldn't see the vanishing point where the faithful tapered into the night; their bodies faded down every side street and alleyway.

Hossam's eyes swelled huge enough to reflect the moon. His swagger had melted away. “I can't believe it,” he muttered. “It makes the left look like shit.”

“ How many people do you think this is? It must be every man in town.”

“Yeah,” Hossam said. “Shit”.

The secular, pro-democracy demonstrations we'd covered back in Cairo were nothing by comparison. A ragtag army of aging labor leaders, embattled human rights workers, scruffy bloggers, and rheumy professors would rally on a tiny scrap of stained pavement pavement. Now we were far from Cairo's hallucinatory concrete forests; stars gleamed in the black sky and there unfolded a subversive force on a scale we'd never seen in the capital. These men were factory workers, farmers, and fathers, not political activists. They turned up because the Muslim Brotherhood had invited them, and stood quietly, filling the streets and listening to their leaders. There were women, too, veiled, robed, and arranged in careful rows. Men and boys linked hands to form a human screen of segregation between the sexes.

A sheik from the ancient Al Azhar university warmed up the crowd, his voice rising a dropping in evangelical waves. He preached politics, preached Islam, preached divine intervention. He was calling down God, calling out the votes. He was magnetic.

“Corruption is a disease that has destroyed our country. Those who accept life without religion have accepted annihilation.”

“We will not compromise, we will not bow down. We've come to hate low voices. Every minute that passes is too much time.”

He steered his talk from heaven to earth and back again...They might mock us for it, but we'll pray to Gd to send his wrath. We will shout, 'God is on our side,' and he will compensate us for what his happening.”

When the candidate took the stage, a murmur passed through the crowd.

“Who are they, and who are we?” he demanded of the crowd. “They are the princes, the sultans, they have the money. They make shows with music. They play politics but all they're really good at is putting more brass on their shoulders.”

“The youth of this nation are just sitting in coffee shops, jumping into boats, trying to get to Italy,” he said. “Are we a country without natural resources? Are we a country without a professional class? Are we a country of politically immature people? Are we going to take that talk from the government? How dare they say that?”

A single voice rose like a wisp of smoke from the crowds.

Inshallah...” God willing.

The night exploded into voices. The men sprayed fake snow into the darkness, poked fingers into the sky, and hollered, “Victory is for Islam.” They spread out and marched aimlessly, as if it didn't matter where they went- as if they owned the whole town, as if the vast stretches of the country beyond had already fallen into their laps, a rich gift from God. The banners passed. “Islam, we are for you.” “May you make a staircase of our skulls and go high to glory.” “If your banner gets thirsty, our youth will give their blood.”

Such a thing seemed possible in this strange witching hour, that their skulls could pile one on top of the other, that they could clamor to the sky. I tried to imagine what they imagined; tried to feel the fire of faith when you had nothing else to hold.

Some people argue that the popularity of political Islam is exaggerated. Others say that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are only powerful because repressive rulers have shut down every single public platform except the mosque. But that night sowed a simpler truth: These people were profoundly religious. Poor and abused, they passed faith from one generation to the next because it was he only precious thing they could bequeath. They didn't trust the greedy, potbellied suits in the capital- those people meant corruption and sin. They rallied to the Islamists who came from their towns and mosques because they felt at home with them and recognized in their piety a reflection of their own moral values. The people weren't stupid; they knew these Brothers represented problems, too. But this was their life, the devil they new. I thought about the powerful Christian movements back home. Could Americans see nothing of ourselves here?

On voting day I wanted to cover an election, and instead I had to fight in the street. I thought about the teahouse diplomats who came to see but didn't bother to look; about how my own government pumped Egypt full of billions of dollars and then some, asking nothing in return but the maintenance of a frosty peace with Israel. I remembered the American human rights official who told me that Egypt, of all the Arab states, came the closest to having a modern-day gulag, and the U.S. officials who mostly stayed silent in the face of torture and arrest and misery. The pictures swam through my mind: soldiers beating people bloody to keep them from voting; four-course lunches with necktie-clad Americans at the embassy in Cairo; the knowledge that my own government lurked in the background, propping up this machine of greasy, perverted men, not seeing this because it was convenient not to see.

The election was rigged. Gamal Heshmat lost in his hometown of Damanhour.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Freedom Club

Philadelphia's OBIE award-winning New Paradise Laboratories and New York's Riot Group ( led by playwright and Burlington-born Adriano Shaplin) will present 6 workshop performances of their new production, Freedom Club at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts, Burlington, VT. August 12 through the 20th.


A fierce, undead tension animates the American frontier: the struggle between the freedom of the individual and the question of who or what belongs to the club. Freedom Club is a savage comedy about the delirium and danger in American extremism, a hallucination on national themes. It time-travels from a feverish dream-play starring Shakespearean assassin John Wilkes Booth and Abraham Lincoln to Virginia, 2015, where a determined group of self-styled radicals are rapidly coming unglued.

"A Tea Party from beyond the Grave"

Thursday August 12 8pm
Friday August 13 8pm
Saturday August 14 8pm
Wednesday August 18 8pm
Thursday August 19 8pm
Friday August 20 8pm
HOW MUCH: $10 suggested donation. Box Office opens at 7pm.
For reservations call 802-540-0773

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Nietzsche's Secondary Education by Julian Young

1858 – 1864

The picture of the boarding school Pforta ( founded in 1543) as a 'sadistic machine designed to produce Prussian robots' needs qualification: one needs to attend to the spirit of renaissance humanism pervading its worldview, which arose from the centrality of the classics to the curriculum. Pforta humanism embraced a reverence for Rome, but above all Greece, as the highest point of Western civilization. From this it derived a quiet, yet real, commitment to an ideal of freedom and republicanism based on the model of the Athenian city-state and the Roman Republic.

Politically, the dominant culture at Pforta was 'liberal' in the nineteenth-century sense, which embraced liberation from authoritarian rule, extension of civil rights and the franchise (sometime even to women), and moves towards democratic government. And, in the specifically German context, it embraced the cause of German unification. Though in the event, thanks to the authoritarian Bismarck and a benighted Emperor, the German Reich ( which came into being in 1871) proved a great disappointment to them, liberals had supported its creation, hoping that it would bring an end to the multitude of petty states run, on feudal lines, by dukes and princes.

Moreover, the 'deconstructive' spirit of classical philology, as soon as it extended itself beyond ancient texts, had an intrinsic tendency to undermine established convictions and authorities. (Later, Nietzsche refers to “Voltairean deconstruction' as a salient effect of historical studies.) At least as important as Darwinism in the undermining of Christian faith in the nineteenth century was the philological deconstruction of the Bible by scholars such as David Strauss. ( When Jacques Derrida told the radical students of 1968 that it was more important to deconstruct texts than to barricade the streets of Paris, he was simply recalling what philology had been doing for the past hundred years.)

Thus Pforta, like the best English boarding schools both then and now, was riddled with 'creative' contradictions. On the one hand, it venerated Prussian authority, but on the other, it quietly subverted all authority. On the one hand, it was oppressively Protestant – frequent doses of prayer and chapel were compulsory – but on the other, it venerated everything about antiquity, including the Greek – that is, pagan – gods. And though on the one hand oppressively loyal to the Prussian thrown, on the other it was quietly republican.

Nietzsche never doubted that Pforta made him. And he was always loyal to the school and grateful, not only for the magnificent education in the humanities, but also for the character 'formation' it had given him. Twenty-four years after leaving, he wrote:

“The most desirable thing of all...is under all circumstances to have severe discipline at the right time. i.e. at the age when it makes us proud that people should expect great things from us. For this is what distinguishes hard schooling from every other schooling, namely that a good deal is demanded; that goodness, nay even excellence itself, is require as if it were normal; that praise is scanty; that leniency is non-existent; that blame is sharp, practical, and has no regard to talents or antecedents. We are all in every way in need of such a school; and this holds good of physical as well as spiritual things – it would be fatal to draw a distinction here! The same discipline makes a soldier and the scholar efficient; and looked at more closely, there is no true scholar who has not the instincts of a true soldier in his veins.”

Nietzsche was, and would remain all his life, at heart a Prussian. His home predisposed him thus, but his unwavering commitment to Prussian discipline – to 'self -overcoming', in his own later terminology – was very largely Pforta's creation. But being itself a contradiction, Pforta produced, in Nietzsche, a contradiction. As the British public schools have produced the leaders of mainstream society but, at the same time, its disloyal opposition – communist spies such as Burgess, Maclean Philby and Blunt – so Pforta produced, in Nietzsche, a Prussian anti-Prussian, Prussia's own 'mole', someone who, in his maturity, would set out to undermine everything for which it stood.

The heart of the Pforta curriculum was Greek and Latin and, to a lesser degree, the German classics. Natural science and mathematics always came a poor third, disciplines to be specialized by the less able boys. Predictably, mathematics was badly taught, so that Fritz, after doing initially doing well, came to find it very extremely boring. He became so bad at it, when it came to his school-leaving exam, the maths teacher wished to fail him, prompting another examiner to ask quietly, “But gentlemen, are we really going to fail the best pupil in living memory?” In the 1870s, developing a keen interest in the natural sciences, Nietzsche became acutely aware of his lack of grounding following the perfunctory way the sciences were taught at Pforta, without a sense of delight or reverence.

In addition to Latin and Greek, Fritz also studied French and Hebrew, the later on account of his dutiful intention to follow his mother's desire that he study theology at university. In fact, however, he never completely mastered any foreign language, ancient or modern. Though one was supposed to be able to think in Latin, Fritz never quite managed it, his Latin compositions always looking like translations from German. In later life, though he spent much time in Italy, he understood comparatively little of the language. To read French he always needed a dictionary, while his English was non-existent: Byron and Shakespeare, whom he loved, he read in German translation. These facts are of some importance since, though he came to style himself a 'good European' and to deplore German chauvinism, he always thought in German and therefore, in a strong sense, as a German.

Until his final year Fritz had no really close friends at the school. Usually at or near the top of his class, he seemed to his fellows something of a Streber [striver] – a goody – goody who strives too obviously to be top. Reserved, earnest beyond his years, and not given to the physical rough- and -tumble of boarding-school life, he seemed to his fellows somewhat weird which, given an episode in which he held a lighted match to his hand to prove that his self-discipline was up to Roman standards, he indeed was.

For this reason, his normal boarding school yearning for the holidays was a yearning not only for the comforts of home but also for the company of his only two friends, Wilhelm and Gustav. In the summer holidays in 1860 the three friends decided to found a society for literature and the arts, to be called Germania. This was the first glimmer of a very German phenomena, the desire to found 'a circle', such as the Wagner Circle or, later, the Stefan George Circle, devoted to cultural regeneration, a desire which would persist throughout Nietzsche's life.

A Philosophical Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche by Julian Young; Cambridge University Press, 2010

Monday, August 2, 2010

Working in the Shadows by Gabriel Thompson

By 4:00 P.M. the store is closed and the workers have gathered inside, drinking Coronas and trying to figure out what to do on this Friday afternoon. After an eleven -hour day without a break I'm exhausted and ready to head home, but I'm waiting in the doorway to the office. Helen is sitting in the cramped space with another woman, evidently the bookkeeper. At Helen's desk is a checkbook, in her hand a pen.

“I'm having a problem because we didn't decide how much to pay you.” She sighs, grimaces, and sighs again, as if this is a burden I ungraciously placed on her shoulders. I've been standing in the doorway for at least two minutes, watching her agonize over my payment.

“ A lot of the time you look lost, like you don't know what to do.” She continues to finger the checkbook. Finally she writes out $150 for my 21.5 hours. That's less than $7 an hour; minimum wage in New York is $7.15. “Maybe if it was summertime...”

I start to realize I'm being fired. “I'm all set to come in tomorrow, just tell me what time,” I say, trying to change the direction of the dialogue. “I'm still learning, but I'm getting it.”

“But I can tell you are not made for this work.” Helen looks over at the bookkeeper as if for assurance. “You're like a happy chicken out there. Always smiling.”

What the fuck is a happy chicken? I leave the question unasked. “That's just how I am. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, I'm going to try and enjoy it.” She shakes her head slowly.

“If it was summertime maybe we could use you.”

Now I'm shifting from shock to anger. “How am I supposed to know everything? It might seem like common sense to you and Tony but I've only been here two days. When I stated I didn't even know what a magnolia tree looked like.”

She shakes here head gain. “It's not just the magnolia trees. If you don't know something you should ask Tony.”

Hysterical. What world is this woman living in? I quickly learned that asking Tony a question – any question -was useless. He ignored my questions; only once did he actually answer. Yesterday afternoon he told me to sweep trash into a bag. I did, and then made the mistake of asking where he wanted the trash placed. “What should you do with the trash? He asked. “You should all up UPS and have them pick it up. Come on, mister [Tony called everyone 'mister'] – common sense!”

“You must know that Tony doesn't answer questions,” I tell Helen. I consider reciting a list of the responses Tony has given me- beginning with the UPS anecdote – but can already sense the futility of arguing with her.

“You just don't fit in here.” I stand up, wanting to curse her out. Instead I walk away, tell the other workers I've been fired – they are all equally incredulous- and bike home. I call Tony the next day and plead to be rehired, but he doesn't budge.

OVER THE WEEKEND I process the two-day experience. After surviving in lettuce fields and a poultry plant, I certainly didn't expect to be fired from a flower shop of all places. It was difficult to explain the firing to friends. Why, they wondered, would this store - in violation of so many labor laws – even hire me? And once they decided to hire me, and saw that I was a diligent employee, why let me go so soon? It would have been one thing had I loafed or talked back. But I worked hard in the shop. I held my tongue when yelled at; I learned to remain silent and to keep my eyes down when Tony or Helen went off. I didn't even complain about not having a lunch break, or asked for gloves to protect my hands. When I was given a task I did it, as quickly as possible. On my second day another new worker showed up, from Ecuador. I helped him out as much as I could, but he was having a much more difficult time than I in keeping up. This man, I later learned, kept the job.

The issue, I came to believe, wasn't about “work ethics” or “following instructions” or any other concrete criticism a boss might make. It was about power and submission. Tony and Helen, the rulers of their little fiefdom, had a very particular notion of how a worker ought to comport themselves. They should hang their heads, look miserable, and extract very little enjoyment out of the experience. In my case, they were mostly successful: I hated being at the shop. But I still did my best keep up a friendly banter with coworkers and maintain an incongruous smile on my face through out much of the day. It was a means to mentally distance myself from the place, to assert some small measure of levity into an environment that felt like a sweatshop. While I was on the clock they owned me – as they did everyone else – but my “happy chicken” antics evidently made their sense of ownership less secure. What if the other workers started smiling? That could be dangerous.

IN 2007 the Brennan Center for Justice [New York University Law School], a progressive think tank, published a report on the unregulated economy in New York City. Although the underground economy is vast, they wrote, it is “a world of work that lies outside the experience and imagination of many Americans”:

It is a world where jobs pay less than minimum wage, and sometimes nothing at all; where employers do not pay overtime for 60-hour weeks, and deny meal breaks that are required by law; where vital health and safety regulations are routinely ignored, even after injuries occur; and where workers are subject to blatant discrimination, and retaliated against for speaking up or trying to organize.

I found low wages and grueling conditions in the lettuce fields of Yuma Arizona, and the chicken processing plant in Russellville, Alabama, and judging the work by degree of difficulty alone, the flower shop job in New York City was an “easier” job. I wasn't stooped over in the sun or lifting and dumping tons of chicken breasts. But there was something qualitatively different about my short-lived stint in the flower district. They didn't pay overtime or grant lunch breaks – and paid me less than the minimum wage- but these are not the abuses I will remember. What leaves a lasting impression is the incessant string of accusatory comments, the assumption that we, as workers, merited zero respect. In sum, I will remember being in an environment where workers were treated like chattel – a more difficult phenomena to quantify with statistics than wages, but a key component of the work experience for many undocumented [ and documented ] immigrants. Just as certain occupations are physically unsafe, certain workplaces are psychologically unhealthy ( often, of course, they are both). On some level, then, I ought to be grateful to Tony and Helen for granting me access to a world hidden to most Americans – of only for a brief period. But gratitude isn't the first word that springs to mind......

FOR A YEAR of hard labor, I have a surprising number of positive memories. I remember my lettuce crew singing songs and sharing food and stretching their limbs as the sun rose. I think of my co-workers on the poultry line shouting jokes over the din and covering for one another when taking forbidden bathroom breaks. In the kitchen, I recall the pride we took in preparing and making deliveries quickly, and the nonstop, lighthearted insult that were tossed around with such frequency that I considered them background music.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery was how willing many of my coworkers helped me when my energy flagged, or offered words of encouragement when they saw that my morale was low. I found that a strong ethos of cooperation among workers was more the rule than the exception, even when engaged in the most arduous or mind-numbing activities. I never heard anyone utter those magical words, worker solidarity – but I saw it displayed countless times – and more often than not, I was the beneficiary. It's time now for all of us, the beneficiaries of so much invisible labor, to demonstrate our own solidarity by taking steps to make the lives of low-wage workers – undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens alike – more stable and safe.