Recently in The Great Themes Category
Call me defensive, but I'm an honest woman, and I resent the fact that the two great artistic loves of my life are both associated with lying. I used to be an actor, which many people think synonymous with lying for a living. (Or, at least, lying on the casting couch; but resenting that the two great artistic loves of my life are both associated with whoring is another blog post.)
"I'm a very good actor," is allegedly what Sir Jock Delves Broughton said to the prosecutor, after a jury acquitted Broughton of the murder of Joss Hay, Earl of Erroll - a murder that Broughton almost certainly committed. When I read statements like that, I'm in anguish: why smear actors? Acting is a noble profession, a rigorous craft, with an esteemed history (Shakespeare, Ellen Terry, Laurence Olivier). We're not clowns, for Christ's sake.
Fiction is - obviously - also problemmatic. Writing down stuff that you make up is - to some people's way of thinking - a lot like lying (or the practice of law; "liar, oh sorry lawyer" used to be the favorite joke of one of my brothers). So imagine my despair to see Mario Vargas Llosa embracing - yes! embracing - the accusation of lying in his novel, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta.
An investigation into the life of an imaginary (but based on real-life) Communist revolutionary by an imaginary (but based on real-life) Peruvian novelist, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is salted with confrontations between the novelist and his skeptical audience. "It won't be the real story, but, just as you say, a novel," the nameless novelist assures one interviewee, "A faint, remote, and, if you like, false version." (p. 66.) "'Because I'm a realist, in my novels I always try to lie knowing why I do it,'" the novelist elaborates. (p. 67.)
To another interviewee, he protests, "I only want to garner as much information, as many opinions about [Alejandro Mayta] as I can, so that later I can add a large dose of fancy to all that data, so I can create something that will be an unrecognizable version of what actually happened." (p. 81.)
"[A]ll stories mix truth and lies," he concludes. (p. 118.)
Nonsense! The sloppiness - of thinking, or word usage - of confusing fiction writing with lying makes me bristle with indignation. Detective work involves following a factual path to the truth; fiction writing - and acting, as well - entails discovery of an imaginary path to the truth. Writing fiction is the creation of a description or account that makes the reader recognize: yes, this is just what life is like.
Lying, by contrast, is not about truth, but deceit. While fiction aims for the enlightenment that comes from being able to accept reality, lying achieves its purpose by tricking people into remaining ignorant.
Of course, I'm so in love with Vargas Llosa's work, that I'll forgive him anything - even a difference of opinion. His repeated insistence on his own lies in Alejandro Mayta is meant to illustrate a larger social phenomenon: "Since it is impossible to know what's really happening, we Peruvians lie, invent, dream, and take refuge in illusion. Because of these strange circumstances, Peruvian life, a life in which so few actually do read, has become literary." (p. 246.)
Nonetheless, I think Vargas Llosa is selling himself short; taking refuge from reality in an illusion is quite different than what Vargas Llosa is doing: confronting the reader with the desolation and despair that they might otherwise deny. And I suspect that Vargas Llosa understands the difference. As his novelist protagonist responds to one tough customer, who demands: "'Does it make any sense to be writing a novel with Peru in this condition and Peruvians all living on borrowed time?' Does it make any sense? I tell him it certainly does, since I'm doing it." (p. 140.)
Words to make an honest novelist proud.
"He is writing, after all, at 'the end of history,' when fundamental debates over how to organize societies and economies seem less important that questions of identity and styles of living."
So writes Adam Kirsch, reviewing
Philipp Blom's book, The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914
, in The New York Review of Books
. I wonder how many of The NYRB
's readers' jaws dropped, as mine did, when I read that sentence.
I suspect the sentence can only seem innocuous to a Westerner who doesn't have much of a global perspective. In China, for example, the fundamental question of how to organize its society and economy is far from settled. Should people have recourse to institutions outside their families to protect and support them, or is the family the main wellspring of resources? Should an economy run on cash, or can people be trusted with credit? Should the legal system regulate the economy, or will such responsibility make the legal system too powerful? These questions - and others of similarly fundamental import - have raged around me during the past four-and-a-half years that I've lived in Beijing.
Similarly, the notion that questions of how to organize societies and economies seems less important than questions of identity and styles of living is one that can seem credible only to a person blithely oblivious to - to take two examples - the drought currently ravaging Nairobi, Kenya, and the non-existent monsoons in Pune, India. Climate change - and the droughts and other extreme weather conditions through which it manifests - is the direct result of the way large parts of the (Western) world have organized their societies and, particularly, their economies.
In brief (but for more information, see, for example, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity
), because we don't take into account the value of the myriad, "free" services we enjoy from nature (for example, flood protection afforded by forests), we'll be paying the costs in the form of displacement from lands that become disaster-torn and uninhabitable. Nothing short of a complete revamping of our economies to take into account (not "externalize" in the economic lingo) services we receive from nature will diminish the devastating environmental losses we are currently suffering. Compared to questions of identity and styles of living, this issue of how to organize the economy - and the ramifications of ignoring the problem - seems damned important.
Perhaps this Western myopia will be the reason for the end of history when it truly arrives.
As difficult as writing fiction is, I'm thankful that I'm not a non-fiction writer. James Fox's White Mischief, which I recently finished, confirmed my sense that sustaining the reader's (or this reader's) interest over a the course of a long work of non-fiction is a task so thankless as to be not worth attempting. A plea: writers of non-fiction, can't you wrap it up in 20,000 words?
White Mischief is a journalistic-historical account of the murder of Josslyn Hay (a/k/a Earl of Erroll), an event which effectively ended the Happy Valley era for Kenya's white colonialists. The story ought to be interesting. All the characters, even those tangentially involved, were glamorous, scandalous, drug-and-sex addled adventurers, many of them fabulously wealthy, who did things about which people like to gossip: attempted suicide, attempted murder, abandoned their children, kept wild animals as pets, mistreated their servants, slept around.
In James Fox's hands, however, the story becomes . . . long. Because Fox devoted years to investigating the story, he wants to write about his investigation. The resulting meta-narrative detour introduces the reader to the boring, authorially self-involved, and irrelevant aspects of Fox's tale. Fox, unlike his Happy Valley subjects - sadly - seems not to have attempted suicide or murder, abondoned his child, kept a beast as a pet, mistreated his help staff, or indulged in promiscuous sex.
Fox does, however, admire the deceased writer and gourmand Cyril Connolly, who spent the later years of his life obsessed with the Joss Hay murder. While I can appreciate Fox's tribute to Connolly, his mentor and writing partner - and the source of Fox's own obsession with the case - only someone who knew Connolly personally could appreciate the lavish detail with which Fox recounts what Connolly ate and drank at their meetings. I, on the other hand, don't care.
Purely out of luck, as I was wondering, "How could Fox have told this story without the boring bits?" I began reading Mario Vargas Llosa's The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and I had my answer. Vargas Llosa's book, like Fox's, is about unearthing the truth about a violent event that happened more than twenty years previously. Moreover, Vargas Llosa's book, like Fox's, is as much about the investigation of the event as it is about the event itself. Unlike Fox's book, however, Vargas Llosa's is fascinating.
Vargas Llosa uses a technique of seamlessly intersplicing his account of the investigation and the event itself. In Alejandro Mayta, a nameless novelist in 1983 interviews people with relevant information about Mayta, a Communist revolutionary in 1958 Peru. Vargas Llosa interweaves the testimony of each of these interviewees, along with a first person account of the interviews, with a third person narrative of the events that occurred 25 year previously. The first person account of the interviews is supposed to be "real," while the third person narrative is supposed to be "fiction." The technique works brilliantly, not merely to generate a page-turning story, but also to probe questions of consequence, like, "How can we ever know the truth about historic events?" and "Why is fiction sometimes a better vehicle for truth than non-fiction?"
To compare Vargas Llosa and Fox is unfair. Vargas Llosa consistently and prolifically produces books of astonishing skill; Fox is a hack. With Alejandro Mayta, Vargas Llosa wrote a po-mo novel; Fox's book is more of an extended feature article for a newspaper's Sunday magazine.
Still, however unfair, the comparison sharply reveals - to my mind - the superiority of fiction as a medium. Freedom from the bondage of facts releases the author from the tiresome task of shaping a page-turner out of life's petty story lines; instead, the author's challenge is to imagine a story line that's also a page turner. The former is a problem of organizing information; the latter is a problem of art. For the both (this) author and (this) reader, the choice of which book is more worthwhile is clear.
Hitler is the poster boy for the limits of activities and practices that are supposed to be good for you. For example, Hitler advocated vegetarianism and seems to have practiced something close to it. He probably even ate granola. Nonetheless, he wasn't interested in giving peace a chance. As for the purported health benefits of a vegetarian diet, for Hitler, vegetarianism didn't impart glowing skin and glossy hair; nor did it counteract the effects of a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head.
Now Hitler is exposed as an avid reader. In Timothy Ryback's Hitler's Private Library: The Books that Shaped His Life
by John Gross in The New York Review of Books
), Hitler is revealed as a bookworm and condemned as an "autodidact, with an autodidact's limitations."
After quoting the book's epigraph, a passage from Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism
: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring," Gross reflects:
The trouble was not that [Hitler] didn't drink deeply enough, but that he drank from the wrong springs. . . . It wasn't his defective learning that was dangerous, but his ideas.
I see the problem a bit differently. Ideas, from my perspective, are neutral. They take on positive or negative valences depending on how people make use of them. Shielding Hitler from the idea of anti-Semitism, for example, wouldn't have protected the Catholics, Gypsies, homosexuals or handicapped who also died in concentration camps, or humanized the Slavs and Russians who were characterized as animals by the Nazis.
The problem wasn't the idea of anti-Semitism, but the way Hitler responded to it. And his response may have had something to do with the way he read. I have been extremely enamored of an explanation put forth by Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid
by Caleb Crain in The New Yorker
; shamefully I haven't read it yet) about the way reading changes human thinking.
"The secret at the heart of reading," Wolf writes, is "the time it
frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came
before." According to Wolf, reading doesn't use much of the brain, allowing the rest of the gray matter to engage with the text, both rationally (e.g.
, interrogating the accuracy of a given statement) and irrationally (e.g.
, calling up emotions provoked by the text). "The efficient reading brain," Wolf explains, "quite literally has more time to think."
Our brains don't respond the same way to video, for example. Crain writes:
Moving and talking images are much richer in information about a
performer's appearance, manner, and tone of voice, and they give us the
impression that we know more about her health and mood, too. The viewer
may not catch all the details of a candidate's health-care plan, but he
has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his
response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion. . . . The viewer feels at home with his show, or else he changes the channel.
The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion. It can
be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is
almost unbearable to watch such a television show.
With the caveat that one can never know what's in the mind of another, I'll hazard that Hitler can't have been engaging very strenuously with his reading material. He seems to have been reading not to "have thoughts deeper than those that came
before," but to "feel at home with his show." Ryback "constantly reminds us [in Hitler's Private Library
] of [Hitler's] intellectual shallowness," says Gross, and Gross himself labels Hitler a "lumpenintellectual." Hitler apparently read, not for the pleasure of learning, but to bolster his insecurity. "Cruelty, resentment, and the lust for power weren't the only things driving him. He needed to believe in himself as a thinker as well," writes Gross.
A man who read to appear learned, and who abstained from meat in order to appear humane. (According to Léon Degrelle
, an SS general, Hitler "could not bear to eat meat, because it meant the death of a living creature.") Perhaps Hitler is not the poster child for the limits of vegetarianism and bookishness, but instead the poster child for the hazards of cultivating a facade at the expense of the interior.
Recently, I've stumbled across books about "good" Germans during WWII. Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us
is about the legacy of a German resistance fighter's silence regarding her war time activities. Anne Nelson's Red Orchestra
(which I haven't read, but which was reviewed recently in The NY Times Book Review
) is about a network of people not dissimilar to the protagonist in Those Who Save Us
I am intrigued and heartened by this interest in the Germans who dissented from Nazism. The portrayal of WWII as a black-and-white battle of good against evil is one that is both tiresome and troublesome. It's tiresome because it's not true: among other reasons, Stalin's Russia also fought against Germany, and no one could class Stalin among the forces of good. It's troublesome because this myth of a "morally clean" war of good against evil has animated the war plans of administrations like W's.
Moreover, the examination of the people who resist (even futilely, perhaps especially those who resist futilely) is revealing of the most interesting aspects of human capacity. Such people are, by definition, acting within a scope of choice that is severely narrow and punishingly inhumane: as Denis Lehane wrote in a recent review
of Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech
, "What is the ordinary man to do when his very existence makes him an apparatchik of institutionalized sadism?"
These people who, existing in regimes that transform daily life into complicity with crimes against humanity, manage to muster the integrity and courage to fight back have so much to teach us. They have achieved an inspired disconnect from their societies that allows them to act in ways that are, from the perspective of survival, profoundly irrational and yet, from the vantage point of living, are deeply wise.
The beautiful woman pictured here, Libertas Schulze-Boysen, was beheaded by the Nazis for gathering photographs that documented their atrocities. Red Orchestra recounts
that she died pleading, "Let me keep my young life!" The poignancy of her words derives from how manifestly she has miscalculated her audience. I'm no romantic, but I can't help but see a role model in her misguided example.
(Photo courtesy of The New York Times
My most abiding response to Sophie's World
is surprise at how narrow the history of philosophy is (in Jostein Gaarder's telling). The most basic assertion of philosophy is that the "big" questions -- who are you? where does the world come from? -- are universal to humans. As Gaarder writes in Sophie's Word
, "[T]here is something else . . . which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here." (p. 14.) And yet the history that Gaarder writes of the answers to those two questions focuses on the responses of a small group of white men hailing from a sliver of the world's geography.
I say this not to raise an issue of political correctness, but to question the fundaments of philosophy. If these questions are universal to humans, why does our history record answers from only so few? The most obvious possibilities are either that (1) the questions are not universal, (2) that there's a recording problem with the answers, or (3) philosophy has failed to recognize answers to these questions that are offered in another format or under the rubric of another discipline (e.g., myths, political theory, theology).
Is it possible that people don't ask who they are and where the world comes from? One way of rephrasing this question is to ask if we can we find a society without a creation myth? Such a society apparently exists: the Pirahã in the Amazon have no identifiable creation myth (as documented in this New Yorker
article and this Guardian
piece). The Pirahã also seem not to have a sense of time, which is a likely explanation for why no one in their society asked what existence was like before the Pirahã.
But most societies have a sense of time, along with creation myths. Are there nonetheless people in those societies that don't ask who they are and where the world comes from? Without having conducted any empirical research on the question, I'd venture to say "yes." Asking these questions requires a degree of self-awareness; and self-awareness isn't as common to the human condition as, say, phlegm.
Gaarder might disagree with me. In Sophie's World
, Gaarder argues that the capacity for wonder is innate in children, and society drums it out of them: "Although philosophical questions concern us all . . . . [f]or various reasons most people get so caught up in everyday affairs that their astonishment at the world gets pushed into the background." (p. 19.)
My own perspective is that the process often works in the reverse: absent awareness raising at the outset, people won't necessarily ask "who am I?" and "where does the world come from?" In my own view, the capacity for wonder, like compassion, is innate only in varying degrees in different individuals, and it must be cultivated. Sophie's World
is itself an account of such calculated cultivation.
Moving on to the second question, is it possible that there are some recording problems with the answers? I feel confident in saying that oral cultures got the shaft when the history of philosophy was compiled. Without a written record, oral cultures faced problems preserving their thougths and communicating them across geography, time and language. Whether anything can be done to restore the knowlegdge banks of oral cultures is doubtful -- these repositories largely exist only in the memories of the long-dead -- but the issue of this "lost" contribution to human thinking shades into the third question as well:
Is it possible that the history of philosophy hasn't recognized answers to its questions that were offered in different formats, or under the rubric of different disciplines? In Sophie's World
, Gaarder includes coverage of Darwin, Marx and Freud, people who are not primarily associated with the discipline of philosophy, so perhaps Gaarder would reject my third question. But I believe the challenge remains. Aside from Gaarder's exclusion of obvious candidates, like Confucius and Buddha (there are passing references to him, but nothing in depth), Gaarder doesn't confront the fact that modes of thinking in societies vary depending on whether the society is an oral or literate one.
"Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it
does. . . . More than any other single invention, writing has
transformed human consciousness," writes Walter Ong
, a Jesuit priest and English professor, in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy
. People in literate cultures think differently; they organize information and construct the world in patterns that diverge from those that predominate in oral cultures. Thus, they may ask different questions; and even if the questions are the same, the answers will certainly be different. A thousand years ago, the Kyrgz tribe answered the question "who are we?" with the epic poem, Manas
. Is it philosophy? Probably not. Does it belong in the history of human thought about philosophical questions? Probably yes.
From this brief examination of these three questions, the shape of an answer to my original question -- why does the history of philosophy include answers from such a narrow range of humanity? -- begins to emerge. Specifically, before an individual will offer answers to philosophical questions that qualify for inclusion in the history of philosophy, he or she must live in a culture that:
- has a sense of time;
- creates conditions for the cultivation of wonder (or, alternatively, creates conditions that don't squash a sense of wonder innately present in an individual);
- is literate.
Undoubtedly there are more factors, but this is (an already too long) blog post, not a treatise, so let's leave it at those three. The important point, however, is that philosophy's claims for universality seem rather frail. If we can't even say that every human society experiences time, or has a creation myth, how can we agree with Kant's theory (as phrased by Gaarder) that "moral law has the same absolute validity as the physical laws. . . . It applies to all people in all societies at all times." (p. 330.) It's an intriguing idea -- and one that might even be to some extent right
, if an innate sense of fairness can be equated with morality -- but Kant based his assertion on only the slenderest sampling of human culture and society, which either makes his claims for the power of reason either absurdly arrogant or pitiably silly.
And here, perhaps, is the practical answer to the question of why the history of philosophy includes answers from such a limited range of people: philosophy's insistence on the supremacy of human reason and the universality of its application to humanity, regardless of evidence (or its absence), appeals to a particular kind of ego that often goes by another name: asshole.