Collected Thoughts

August 2014
August 12, 2014

The Johnson Society is meeting at my house tonight, and since we have been exhausting ourselves with politics, I decided to call for a short diversion, and focus instead on a form of literary art. This is how I advertised the meeting:

The Novel: What Can It Do For Us?

I've been reading Milan Kundera's Testaments Betrayed, which has considerable discussion of the novel and its development. I'll start the conversation with some of Kundera's ideas, see what people think of them, and then we can move on to our own sentiments.

I encourage members to think of the novels that have meant most to them, and then to ask themselves why.

I think we can have a pretty good discussion that way.

I have been thinking of this as a respite from politics. But novels treat of politics too. So if political ideas and issues come in, then they come in.

Below is the sheet I prepared for starting the conversation tonight. Perhaps those of you not with us can find a few items of interest in it.

Comments on the Novel by Milan Kundera
(and a couple others)

Octavio Paz is quoted, favorably, for saying that humor is the great invention of the modern spirit, and then Kundera proceeds to say that humor is the life of the modern novel:

Humor: the divine flash that reveals the world in its moral complexity and man in his
profound incompetence to judge others; humor the intoxicating relativity of human
things; the strange pleasure that comes of certainty that there is not certainty.

Kundera believes that Kafka is the most notable of modern novelists -- and here’s why:

Because apprehending the real world is part of the definition of the novel: but how
to both apprehend it and at the same time engage in an enchanting  game of fantsy?
How be rigorous in analyzing the world and at the same time be irresponsibly free
at playful reveries? How bring these two incompatible purposes together? Kafka
managed to solve this enormous puzzle.

Kundera is convinced that if you’re going to comprehend the worth of any novel you have to see it as an element of the entire history of the form -- a history that is now four hundred years old -- and grasp that the meaning of an art’s history is to oppose the meaning of history itself.

Because of its personal nature the meaning of an art is a revenge by man
against the impersonality of the history of humanity.

In an e-mail to Bob and Kevin last night I said:

My quarrel with war is that, almost always, it's stupid. It makes things worse
rather than better, and in the process destroys huge numbers of lives. And the
thing that, perhaps, disgusts me more than anything else is that once these lives
have been extinguished, geo-political strategists tend to treat them pretty much
as though they had never existed, and, therefore, their disappearance doesn't
matter for more than a couple hours. After all, you know, we need to look forward
and not backward. When we think about war, we need to assess what has been
lost and and what effects of misery have been added to the lives of the living. I
think the dead and how they died are important, perhaps the most significant
events for all of us everywhere. And if we held them more closely in our memory,
we would be less likely to do stupid things in the future.

I wasn’t thinking about Kundera (at least not consciously) when I wrote that, but I think I was trying to get at what he calls “the impersonality of the history of humanity.”

The history of the novel reminds us, says Kundera, that:

History is not necessarily a path climbing upward (toward the richer, the more
cultivated), that the demands of art may be counter to the demands of the moment
(of this or that modernity), and that the new (the unique, the inimitable, the previously
unsaid) might lie in some direction other than the one everybody sees as progress.

In a long chapter on Stravinsky’s theory of music, Kundera discusses how it may relate to other forms of art, including the novel, and then suggests why Stravinsky’s idea may have set off such violent criticism:

Has Stravinsky violated some existential need hidden within us all? The need to
consider damp eyes better than dry eyes, the hand on the heart better than the hand
on the pocket, belief better than skepticism, passion better than serenity, faith better
than knowledge?

Henry James echoes Kundera’s insistence that the novel must deal with reality, as it is, but also add a perspective to it:

Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak;
folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles in great places,
people of sense in small, and mankind generally, unhappy. But the world as it stands
is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up again to it for ever
and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it. We can welcome
experience as it comes, and give what it demands, in exchange for something which
it is idle to call much or little so long as it contributes to swell the volume of conscious-
ness. In this there is mingled pain and delight, but over the mysterious mixture there
hovers an invisible rule, that bids us to learn to will and seek to understand.

It may be there’s some affinity of this with Jane Austen’s famous refutation of the disparagers of novels:

Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure
than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition
has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance or fashion, our foes are almost as
many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the
History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen
lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from
Stern, are eulogized by a thousand pens -- there seems almost a general wish of
decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting
the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am
not novel reader -- I seldom look into novels -- Do not imagine that I often read novels --
It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading,
Miss -----?” “Oh it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her
book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla,
or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind
are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest
delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed
to the world in the best-chosen language.


August 13, 2014

To spin out a thousand-word essay requires more time and energy than many people suppose. If I had nothing else to do, I could probably manage to produce one most days in the week. But lately, I have had other things to do -- family duties and so forth.

So what about, occasionally, just a mini-thought, or two? Here are a couple I jotted in my notebook just this morning.

Both sensitivity and subtlety are needed for intelligent foreign policy. But neither is notably present in the hearts of politicians. I have thought often that the processes we devise for putting people into positions are precisely those which unfit them for performing the functions those positions demand. This may be the chief tragedy of humanity and its ultimate destroyer.

The current definition of political success: Scramble into office by telling more egregious lies about your opponent than he tells about you. Then crank up a gargantuan propaganda machine to proclaim that everything you do in office is astoundingly heroic. This is a procedure the mainstream media will praise more fervidly than anything else. It will even get you on the Sunday morning talk shows.


August 14, 2014

Recently I had a conversation with friends about melodrama. The question we were asking ourselves was whether the genre itself is to blame for people failing to see it for what it is. It is mainly storytelling which treats of good versus evil, created for the purpose of entertainment. But in concentrating on black/white themes does it lead ordinary viewers to believe that’s how history works, to assume that conflict in actual life is always a matter of right versus wrong? Obviously, if people come to think that way they become easier targets for propaganda. The only issue for them is which side to get on. And in trying to push them to one side or the other, nuance, complexity, and subtlety is ignored.

This morning in a thread after Ray McGovern’s recent column (“The Berlin Wall and Missed Opportunities,” Consortium News, August 13, 2014) I came on a comment which takes a definite stand on the issue.

Right on. The real problem is in inner culture of the US, developed by Hollywood
and politicians. I don’t think anywhere in the world people think in such stupid
black and white terms as here, such as we are the good guys, bad guys are everyone
else if they are not playing with us as we please. Consequently, today’s good guys
can be tomorrow’s bad ones and vise versa. There are no shades of grey anymore.
To one top movie which shows some shades of grey (for example Arbitrage with Gere)
there are 100s of top tiles with dumb good guy/bad guy stories. Well filmed however.
What do you expect of the average people who are bugged down with their credit
cards, mortgages, work, life commitments, etc to think like in this environment?
On top of that there are those politically active aholes screaming on each corner
exactly what does it mean to be a patriot.

I’m not sure what this reader is suggesting. Is he in favor of censorship? Is he simply calling for more realistic depiction of social turmoil? Or is it something else?  But in pointing out the burdens average people face in seeking the truth he is addressing the most perplexing element of democracy. What can the average citizen be reasonably expected to know?

It happens that this morning before I read the McGovern piece, I jotted this thought into my notebook:

The biggest decision facing people all round the world is whether to accept as truth
the propaganda issued by national governments or to seek the truth from other
sources. Most people continue to go along with what their governments tell them.
And I’m afraid that includes most journalists.

You might suppose that an average person would be sufficiently aware of what a national government is, and how the people in a national government think, to be aware that governments are not good sources of truth. Their motives are directed at different goals than informing their citizenry about what is actually happening. Government rhetoric leans in the direction of melodrama far more than it does towards accuracy. It is concentrated on proclaiming that “our” government is good and, therefore, that a government with which “we” disagree is not good and, perhaps, outright evil.

For one example, consider how the U.S. government has tried to turn the situation on the Ukraine/Russian border into a melodrama, with Vladimir Putin as the chief villain. You see nothing in recent American propaganda to remind us that the U.S. solemnly promised Russia that there would be no attempt to push NATO right up to the Russian border, and then almost immediately violated that promise. Nor do you see anything about how neo-Nazi fascists were instrumental in the overthrow of the previous Ukrainian government and the setting up of the government that the U.S. now loudly praises. If you view the situation only from what you are told by the American government, you would have to conclude that Russia has no logical reason to be concerned about what has happened recently in the Ukraine, and, consequently, that Putin’s motives there are simply directed towards greedy grabs of territory and have nothing to do with defense.

To what extent can we expect the average American, schooled in television melodrama and lacking historical knowledge, to think carefully and sensibly about how his country should behave towards Russia with respect to this issue.

I think we have to admit we can’t expect him to do it at all. And if we can’t, what does that mean about democratic decision-making?

I don’t suppose anyone would argue that if television programming got more sophisticated our foreign policy would become more intelligent. But who knows? Maybe that would be the case.

My own sense is that we need first to develop sharper suspicion about government proclamations. You might think that wouldn’t be necessary since a majority of Americans say quite glibly that all politicians are crooks and liars. But this is where the irony of history comes in. Most people are quite ready to proclaim abstract truths which carry virtually no weight with respect to their specific decisions. They will believe with near religious devotion what their government, composed of crooks and liars, tells them about any country, and not only that, but often be ready to go out and slaughter the citizens of another country because of what their own government has said.

Skepticism about the announcements of governments is the lifeblood of democracy. If we can’t maintain it, we might as well give up the idea of a virtuous state devoted to the well-being of its citizens.


August 17, 2014

For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to sort out what it means that most lives are encased in myth. The common experience is to be born in a myth -- or in several of them -- and to stay there throughout, though there are cases of people burrowing in from outside in search of a warmth they have decided glows there.

By myths I mean stories which purport to distinguish good from bad and explain that one’s own group is attempting to defend the former by defeating the latter. They are usually fairly simple tales although the interpretations which can be spun out of them often become quite tangled. Their very nature sets them as the principal opponent of history, an imperfect form of tale-telling which nonetheless tries as best it can to employ evidence. In myth, evidence is set aside in favor of an internally generated wisdom. Even so, myths generally claim to be based more firmly in evidence than history is. 

It is often argued that myth is the necessary fixative of group life. In order to hold the members of groups together, to get them to pursue common goals, a serious propaganda effort is required. And myths are the most potent products of these propaganda operations. Myths bring forth in the psyche a not-to-be-denied sense of reality. Their basic purpose is to enable only a limited set of perspectives and to make all others impossible.

It may well be the case that myths are required for group life as we have known it up till now. But that necessity holds us back from imagining other ways of sharing the earth. Myths are essentially tribal outputs, and the purpose of tribes throughout most of human history has been to protect against other tribes. But what if we are approaching a time when the tribal method of security is becoming a genuinely lethal threat, not only for some of us but for all of us? Are we destined to allow tribal loyalties and the myths which maintain them to drive us all over a cliff? Is there nothing else we can do?

I can remember hearing when I was young that the invention of atomic weapons demanded that we step away from traditional modes of group competition and find more cooperative ways of dealing with one another. So far, that idea doesn’t seem to have taken hold. About the only instances of it we see are science fiction movies in which humanity is assaulted by vicious forces from outer space, and people have to put aside their terrestrial squabbles in order to protect their very existence. This might be seen as lifting tribalism to a cosmic level.

I have told my friends that there are a half-dozen myths which I encounter more frequently than any others and which I regard as heading our list of dangers. They respond, of course, that some of these are indeed troublesome propaganda ploys but that others are ordained truth. I shouldn’t have expected anything else. At any rate, here are my six:

  • The Myth of Jesus

  • The Myth of the American Revolution

  • The Myth of American Exceptionalism

  • The Myth of the Market

  • The Myth of World War II

  • The Myth of Modern Israel

All of these topics can be explored by historical investigation. All of them have been. But the difficulty history faces when exploring any topic is that it is far more complex than myth and, therefore, far more laborious. It’s very hard to get large numbers of people to pay attention to history. It is fairly easy to get them to luxuriate in myth. And the most serious disadvantage history has to contend with is that it doesn’t cater to the emotions, whereas myth helps people believe what they want to believe and thus to be bathed in happy feelings. It’s nice to hear that we’re good and they’re bad; it’s like eating cookies. But a diet limited to cookies leads you know where.

I suppose it goes without saying that the history of these six topics produces stories strikingly different from the myths. But just because it goes without saying doesn’t mean it’s not worth repeating.

In Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera has a fascinating passage explaining why he decided to become a novelist:

The only thing I deeply, avidly, wanted was a lucid, unillusioned eye. I finally
found it in the art of the novel. This is why for me being a novelist was more than
just working in one “literary genre” rather than another; it was an outlook, a wisdom,
a position: a position that would rule out identification with any politics, any religion,
any ideology, any moral doctrine, any group: a considered, stubborn, furious
nonidentification conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance,
rebellion.

I think Kundera is right about what it takes to be a serious novelist. But I don’t think aspiring to write novels is the only reason why one would wish to have a “lucid eye.” A more general reason is to avoid existing in a propaganda trap. As Kundera implies, the desire to be able to see cleanly comes before the practice which helps it along. I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a mystery how one arrives at a desire for unobstructed vision. Basing one’s identity on group membership has prevailed for a very long time. There are obvious benefits to it. And yet, it may be that group-based identity is pushing us down a road which looms darker and darker as we stumble into the future. So perhaps we can hope that the love of light will afford us the defiance and resistance we need to turn around before it’s too late.


August 26, 2014

Since my early adulthood I’ve had numerous conversations with friends and acquaintances in which we differed over how to think about people who were currently seen as enemies. It seems to me that most persons with whom I’ve talked are eager to endow the enemies with demonic power. And they don’t appear able to recognize that when you make a demon of someone you give him a transcendental advantage which causes him to be nearly impossible to defeat, and completely impossible to negotiate with. Why should we wish to confer that sort of advantage on people we fear? The answer, of course, is fear itself.

Perhaps there’s something in the human psyche that causes it to hold on to fear as one of our most precious possessions. But if there is, I think we should start trying to flush it out. I don’t think fear does us any good. There are situations, of course, when it’s almost impossible not to feel it. But even on those occasions it remains possible to view it as a handicap and struggle to overcome it. The truth is that fear undermines our ability to think clearly. And it’s especially in cases of danger that we most need our wits about us.

A curious illogic that continues to infect humanity is that we often fear the product of things we don’t believe exist. Demons, of course, are the servants of Satan. And Satan is the source of evil. But many people who would deny any belief in Satan whatsoever continue to be afraid of demonic people who are the servants of satanic evil. By differing with these assumptions I’m not arguing that there are no dangerous people in the world. Obviously there are. But however dangerous, they are still people and consequently remain susceptible to the same influences which affect people we are not, at the moment, calling enemies. The sensible course is to try to bring those influences to bear on dangerous behavior in the hope of detoxifying it to some extent. But that’s where the demonic analysis gets in the way again. People can change; demons don’t. It would be absurd to try to make any kind of deal with demons. Consequently, as long as we think of our opponents as demons, we make no genuine attempt to find ways to share the world with them. We paralyze ourselves out of a fear of demons -- which, by the way, don’t exist.

Frank Bruni has a telling column in today’s New York Times titled “Lost in America,” in which he sketches the decline of hope and productive energy in the United States. One can disagree with details of Bruni’s portrait, but it’s hard to deny that our country now is in a worrisome condition. So, what’s the reason for the downturn?

It is a near consensus among people who think seriously about political evolution that a major portion of current troubles flow from a series of disastrous foreign policy decisions. And in every case those decisions were enabled by a high level of fear which had been foisted upon the general public. The worst of these, of course, was the gigantic military invasion of Vietnam and the incredible, insanely expensive, destruction inflicted on that small country. And what was the reason for this? The reason given was the fear of “Communism,” a fear which had been ramped up by our national government over the previous twenty years. The average citizen couldn’t give a coherent definition of “Communism” or explain why we needed to fear it. But nonetheless a majority of the country became willing to support wild military adventures to fight against this demonic force. The result was a crushing defeat and a loss of international respect from which we have not recovered.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, “Communism” lost some of its status as a superhuman ogre and so a new satanic force had to be found. It arrived on the scene bearing an even more murky definition than Communism had displayed.  Now all our forces had to be shifted from the struggle against Communism -- which up until 1989 had been described as an eternal threat which would never change -- to the war on terrorism. Thus came the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which one might say have not been as horrendous as the invasion of Vietnam, but have certainly been bad enough to weaken us further.

All of this has emerged from irrational fear. Never were we simply trying to protect ourselves against human groups whose desires and motives ran up against ours. Rather we were fighting a cosmic battle against transcendental evil. I suppose there’s a grandeur in that which tickles people’s romantic egotism. But to my mind the excitement of living in a comic book universe is scarcely worth the misery it has pressed down on millions of people.

The latest manifestation of demonism, which we are obliged to fear beyond measure, is a radical political group which has arisen in northwestern Iraq and Syria. We don’t seem yet to be able to agree on a name for it, though the most common journalistic moniker remains ISIS. I have read accounts which describe it as the worst thing ever. Imagine that. If you’re going to be afraid of something then the worst thing ever is a pretty good candidate. The president has been denounced viciously for not doing something about it, but what exactly should be done the denouncers don’t seem to know. That the principal denouncers are the precise persons who created the conditions for ISIS to be born is mentioned in the press occasionally but that doesn’t carry as much sensational weight as ISIS itself.

ISIS and its behavior do raise concerns. Careful consideration should be given to it. But if it’s a fearful response then we’re likely again to fly into a frenzy. It’s time we learned that fearful frenzy doesn’t solve anything.

When Franklin Roosevelt told us the only thing we had to fear is fear itself, he probably didn’t grasp how widely applicable his aphorism was, or how long the nation would need to attend to it.



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