Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Volume III

In Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Volume III, we follow the last four years of Johnson’s life, 1776-1780, and the man we have come to know remains the same. He reports periods of indolence, no doubt depression, that make his work on The Lives of the Poets fitful going, but he is still a paragon of industry. At least when Boswell is with him, he dines with interesting men—mostly—night after night. London is his beloved feast. If he thinks he may be bored at the table, he brings along a book that he keeps in his lap and can read without anyone but Boswell knowing. If he arrives at a new house and comes across a new book and it interests him, he attacks it with his eyes, isolating himself from the gathering crowd, asking the text questions, judging it, bringing it into focus. He still has the queer way of tilting his head when he thinks through his response to good ideas and bad over the dinner table. He is querulous when provoked by bad manners and insolent questions. Sometimes people gather around him after dinner four deep, and he is a kind of television show in which the host is asked questions by the audience.

The consistency of Johnson’s character befits a man at the end of his seventh decade, but at the same time, it is challenged by his key principle: honesty. He won’t say what he does not believe. Sometimes what he believes is disruptive or inconvenient to himself and others, so he has to be agile in expressing himself. This is the age of reason, and he is reason. If he were other than reason, he would betray himself. So he condemns some writers and poets while insisting on the virtues of others. Goldsmith was a poet he held in low regard. The great actor Garrick wins him over with his generosity, more than his stagecraft. Men like Johnson—Adam Smith, Edmund Burke—populate this age. There are only glancing references to these giants. But Sir Joshua Reynolds pops up again and again, and he, Boswell notes, is similar to Johnson. Always the same. Catch him when you will, Reynolds does not change.

This firmness of personality, held in place by reason, judgment, principles, values, is quite different from what we see and encounter today. Public life is a sad spectacle of ducking and dodging; it is shallow, not grounded in erudition; and it is personality-based in an arbitrary way, meaning that the inner life of a public figure, be it intellectual, politician, artist, actor, seems always in the foreground. A friend commented to me yesterday—a friend who is Indian—that we seem so wrapped up in our multiple narcissisms that no one really cares about larger issues.

Johnson would not have it so. We sense, and can read elsewhere,that he was a massively disturbed individual. He feared death and he feared being judged and he wrestled with a sense that he should be punished. Possibly, one later critic has suggested, he found some relief and perverse satisfaction in being bound and struck or whipped. That’s the kind of stuff that grabs us today. Johnson did everything he could to keep his doldrums and self-condemnation out of the conversation. He did not believe in ad hominem arguments. To the contrary, he despised them. To him an opinion praised or dismissed because its author was such and such a person who acted hypocritically was still an opinion, to be dealt with on its own terms, not on the basis a single man’s life.

Johnson was, in sociologist Richard Sennett’s terms, a public man. The business of being himself involved participating in the overall civic enterprise of London, England, and the world (but mostly London.) To be such a man, one must have read, thought, and developed a worthy persona, if you will, that does not descend into the trivia of one’s private affairs. The issue is not oneself. Oneself is inadequate, too small a canvas, to represent the fundamental challenges everyone faces. Bloviating won’t do it. Considered judgments are in order, and no one was quicker in offering considered judgments than Johnson. He was a learned wit and a sage and a person of seemingly infinite curiosity.
All this comes through in this third volume of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, but at the same time, there are other aspects of Johnson’s life and writings I plan to look into. Next up is probably Mrs. Thrale. She and her husband offered Johnson lodgings for years. When her husband died, one might have thought she would respond to Johnson’s suit, but if he offered such a suit, and to me that’s not clear, she chose another man, a much lesser man, a more ordinary man.

What is striking about Mrs. Thrale in this book is that she is often reported to be incapable of keeping her facts straight, telling a story as something actually happened, or even worrying that she was, contrary to Johnson and Reynolds, inconstant. In a way she is a complement to men like Johnson, and we can sense that Johnson found her a kind of amusing relief. He was not an unfunny man—all wits are funny—but he was deadly serious, and Mrs. Thrale was not a serious person, yet she was dear to Johnson.
Other figures appear in this volume who are, to be anachronistic, Dickensian. His household was half-possessed by others. He may have dined out so often in part because the food at home was so bad. But he generously tolerated and cohabited with odd figures who were always in some kind of pain or debt. A Christian would do this, Johnson would say, and he was a Christian, a sinner, a person who gave and forgave as a matter of course.
Boswell writes beautifully. He reports Johnsonian exchanges with such clarity that they must have been conducted exactly as he shares them with us. It would appear that he not only was well-born but also a reasonably successful attorney. Something else to look into.
I noticed another reviewer saying that one read Boswell on Johnson for the same reason that one read Jane Austen—the straightforward elegance of expression and judgment.
The facts, I think, are as follows: An Age of Reason is not enough to create a Johnson or an Austen or a Smith. The society in which they lived and symbolized is a creation over time.  The balance in a Johnsonian sentence, its weight and counterweight, its assertiveness and reserve, reflects centuries of reflection.

Romanticism in the early 19th century and Freud toward the end of the 19th century pushed the western world toward a sense of existence—psychic existence—where private experience trumped public history. In fact, history dwindles along with public discourse because there is no way to track and catalogue the vagaries and incidents of hundreds of millions and billions of “I’s.”

It is devilishly hard work to be other than who you are in a personal sense. Not everyone is up to it. And when there is a societal shift away from privileging that which we have in common to that which makes us unique, it’s all the more difficult to insist on the greatness of things versus the smallness.

Johnson, of course, was a genius and an exemplar of good judgment and sweeping eloquence. We see that here. But we also see glimpses of social context almost diametrically opposed to the context of the 21st century.

Posted in The relationship between fiction and fact | Leave a comment

The Order of Things–An Archeology of the Human Sciences by Michel Foucault

As I read this unique study, I kept asking myself how I could reduce it to a meaningful comment. For some reason I came up with a thought that does not bear directly on Foucault’s work but may have some relation to it.

The thought was: Literature is that which otherwise would not be said.

I turned this thought over in my mind and was not sure that I knew how I could contradict it and might possibly believe it. In fact, I am still wondering if I will use it as my motto instead of the one that appears at the top of this blog: Why pick up a pen if not to change the world?

The point may be that there is in the world a division between two modes of speech: that which is utilitarian and that which is not. The utilitarian must be said. Pass me the salt. I need aspirin. Are you going my way? The gross national product is 14.5 trillion dollars. These are useful statements and need saying. Statements that do not need saying are everything we think about the world and cannot even express except indirectly, through stories, or poems, or plays. Now, as we know, literature originally was closely aligned with religion, as were all the arts, but Foucault pinpoints a 16th-18th century period in which the divinity of literature was cast aside, and the post-Renaissance rumble that came to be “life today” began expressing itself.

He is not preoccupied with literature or its fate–I am– but he pursues an analytic method that sidelines it in a curious and interesting way. He choses the word “archeology” advisedly. What he is looking for is a kind of sedimentary evidence of change that propelled us into the modern age, and he seeks to find it in odd pairings like grammar on the one hand and exchange on the other. His focus on grammar, and “speaking,” is profoundly important to this study. The core insight here is that humankind experienced a shift through the Renaissance away from “likeness” to “representation.”

“Likeness” is a two thousand year old way of understanding the world. This is like that. This is similar to that. Therefore this and that are related. One can never fully abandon that mode of thought but thought itself is more ore less unlike anything. When we speak or write, we are using grammatical conventions to represent thought. Thought is faster that its written or oral expression; it is instantaneous and sometimes has to wait a long time for someone to give it grammatical form, which is merely a representation of thought, not thought itself. So words come to signify something and do so arbitrarily and in those 16th-18th centuries referred to above, we began to realize that there was no such thing as a universal grammar that expressed itself uniformly through all post-Babel languages. As economies burgeoned, we also faced a challenge we still have not mastered: what is the value of something? Is there a universal value? Gold, for instance? Silver? Not really. Think of going into your driveway and getting into a solid gold car. It would go nowhere, weighing too much. But if we perform two operations that Foucault attributes to the segment of human archeology on which he is focused, we can solve the problem of gold: first, we assign it mathematical values, and then we establish an order that encompasses these values. Again, this is imperfectly achieved even today, otherwise we would not have billionaires profiting from what are called exchange rate fluctuations. But we have moved from likeness–fool’s gold to real gold–to representation grounded in the relative stability of mathematics and order.

When I was in eighth grade I learned something called the “new math.” I was taught that you could perform any mathematical operation on an other than decimal system. This proved abysmally pointless except that tonight I recall that our standard math is arbitrary, as is the grammar of one language versus another.

This is a long, erudite, possibly correct book. Foucault has had his ups and downs as a socio-intellectual historian and philosopher. Without question, he has done his homework and there are ample instances of him supporting his thesis with myriad persuasive examples. His focus is not on literature. His focus is on explaining the zeitgeist that unified disparate disciplines in creating our analytic, empirically-based and yet highly relative and somewhat arbitrary modern world. He makes the point at the end, per Nietzsche, that we may wake up some day and be other than we are, throwing out all of our presuppositions, and establishing new methods for representing our thoughts, or our forms of knowledge.

I tend to think he is right up to a point in this. When I publish this comment, it will be available worldwide. Very few people will read it, but still, those who do will be joining me in a global community that could conceivably chuck the nation state idea and turn its back on the idea of monetizing the air we breathe (carbon marketing) . . . or accept the idea of monetizing air. I don’t know. What I do know is that there is a connection between those of us who read and think and my general reaction: Literature is that which otherwise would not be said. We did not need Foucault in a utilitarian sense, but we do need writers whose knowledge and curiosity are so great that the things about which we are both unaware and incapable of expressing do get said. That’s literature, and ultimately it may change the world.

Posted in The relationship between fiction and fact | Leave a comment

The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong

This study of fundamentalism in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism came out in 2001, and so, even though it covers thousands of years, there is something dated about it.  In the last decade we have become more familiar with the violent reactionary nature of fundamentalism, especially the Islamic variant.

As Armstrong puts it, the fundamentalists are committed to reviving a world of mythos, where the original truth was first spoken. Secular humanists are committed to logos, the man-made exploration of cause and effect, rational explanations and processes, and the future, where we will discover and invent more of the unfolding truth.

She excels in explaining how these worldviews infuriate each other and does a good job explaining what has brought turmoil to the Middle East, Israel, and the polarized politics of the United States.  Colonialism, anti-Semitism and science have backed many religious peoples into a corner. Secular humanists have pursued agendas that include abortion, evolution, feminism, environmentalism, and international cooperation.  None of these things are blessed by the monotheistic God. Where do they figure in the Old and New Testaments or the Koran?

Iran and Egypt were poor countries exploited by great powers–Great Britain, the U.S., and the USSR. They were pushed out of their  comfort zone from an Islamic point of view. Some got rich, most stayed poor. Most felt degraded.

Israel suffered internal and external challenges. The external challenges are obvious. The internal challenges are the divisions between ultra-orthodox believers who don’t even think a Jewish state is necessary. Yes, there are anti-Zionist Jews who regard Zionism as a political reality divorced from God’s greater plan.

The United States’s predominant secular humanists mocked the “backwards” Bible-believing creationists to the point where they gathered together, began voting as a bloc, and have polarized American politics by diminishing the Republican party as anti-scientific and yet hardening it as a tough adversary for the Democratic party.

The point is that there is no ground for compromise between modernists and fundamentalists. Difficult as it is for the United States to accept, Americans are not welcome or very effective in the Middle East. We think we have a better way; others disagree. Muslims do not wish to be “free.” They wish to submit to Allah.

This has led to perversions of faith in all three domains–America, Israel, and the Middle East. It has been said, and bears saying again, that Islam does not call for violent jihad. By the same token, our Founding Fathers were explicit in separating church and state, infuriating many church-going believers.  And we support an Israel that treats Palestinians with brutal indifference.  Netanyahu calls for settlements on the West Bank that are  the result of “natural growth.”  Do only Jews experience natural growth?  Palestinians don’t?

To her credit, Armstrong did not foresee any reconciliation between the fundamentalists and the secular humanists. We are experiencing an upheaval likely to last many decades in the Middle East and Africa. Many U.S. Republicans and fundamentalists think our military is a solution. That’s wrong. We made things worse by invading Iraq; we shouldn’t make the same mistake twice.  But even as I write this, President Obama, who wanted out of Iraq, is sending more troops there, few of whom speak Arabic and perhaps none of whom understand the region’s underlying complexity as well as Karen Armstrong.

Posted in The relationship between fiction and fact | Leave a comment

How to Read Derrida by Penelope Deutscher

This excellent little book operates by means of presenting 10 chapters each of which begins with a quote from Derrida and then commenting on its meaning and relationship to the larger body of his work. The chapters are entitled things like “Mourning and Hospitality,” “The Context of Communication,” and “Giving and Forgiving.”

Here is an approach to Derrida that is not as twisted and turgid as Derrida himself but focuses, as Derrida did, on lasting issues in the philosophical journey that are not hopelessly minute, self-referential, and irrelevant to the task of being human.

Derrida is best portrayed here in certain very focused phrases and comments. He’s well-known for his overall approach–deconstructionism–but that approach long ago got lost in the fog of nothing meaning anything and the irrelevance of the text (whatever text, be it Shakespeare or the Yellow Pages.)

At the end of this book, Deutscher highlights the simple formula: respect difference. In a way this sums Derrida up well. He is the philosopher of uncertainty (so was Socrates). His premise that nothing means anything in itself but depends on all its contradictions for meaning suggests that what we think, how we interpret, should be with done with great caution.

Here’s how the principle of uncertainty applies: I have long believed, before and beside Derrida, that justice is a a relative term and the law is an arbitrary, malleable phenomenon. Courts render decisions in accord with laws; they don’t render justice. What does justice mean? Fairness? The sanctity of property? The ability of 12 jurors to know exactly what happened during the commission of a “crime”? All of the above? Reference to a preexisting ideal handed down by “nature” or the Bible or English common law? If I push at the term justice long enough, I can make it impossible to define in itself or in contradistinction to something else.

Writing this, I might quickly be dismissed as an anti-authoritarian malcontent, as was Derrida on occasion. But I’m only suggesting that there are differences in everyone’s approach to justice and that these differences should be dealt with respectfully and cautiously.

Deutscher successfully points out that Derrida was basically positing the need for continuous debate and negotiation as we humans manage our affairs imperfectly. In epistemological terms, Derrida questioned how anyone could know anything for certain.

An example comes with the chapter on forgiveness. I say, “I forgive you.” Does that mean I have erased the act that irritated or offended me? Does that mean that on being forgiven you really accept the fact that you have transgressed against me? Are we negotiating a truce, each of us sidestepping whatever it was because we want our relationship to go on, regardless of what you believe and I believe? Is forgiveness even meaningful when the context is something trivial as opposed to something that really is unforgivable?

You murdered my daughter. I tell the cameras that I forgive you. This does happen. As a philosopher,Derrida would like to interrogate this happening. The fact is, I suspect, that Derrida accepts no facts. He sees factual assertions as provisional . . . there is more to be said.

The current trial of mass murderer James Holmes is fascinating for many reasons, one of which is the insanity defense. The question a court privileges is whether the perpetrator knew right from right, or could know right from wrong, at the time of the act. A court appointed psychiatrist says Holmes knew right from wrong and therefore was sane. We can expect that judgment to be bolstered in the jurors’ minds by Holmes’ notebooks, which are frequently quite rational. There was rational planning involved. There was a rational estimation of which movie theater to strike for maximum effect. Is rationality the same as sanity? It could and will be argued that rationality can be overridden by compulsions and obsessions.

Derrida does not want to tell us what to think about all this; he wants to tell us to think about it; he wants us to consider the imperfection of our systems in order to improve them, be they systems of justice, education, property protection/ownership, whatever.

His view, as Deutscher presents it, is that we all must recognize our bad conscience and personal contradictions. For example, there are few states in the world that did not have their origins in colonization that displaced earlier inhabitants. In Australia and Canada, this realization has caused significant changes in public policy. In the United States, we’re done with that. The indigenous peoples get some help and pseudo-sovereign recognition, but they get no more land, and as far as reparations go, nope.

Deutscher presents a Derrida who would urge us to keep working on such an issue, recognizing that any success we achieved (or negotiated) would be bounded by failure. Part of that failure would come from incomplete cross-cultural communication. As often as non-indigenous people in the U.S. hear it, how many really feel they understand the meaning of a sacred mountain to people whose ancestors lived here long before the arrival of Europeans?

So this is a rich little book, very well done, very much worth reading.

Posted in Political Idealism, The relationship between fiction and fact, western civilization | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Sea of Poppies is a heavily-researched naturalistic novel about colonial India, the brutality of British rule, the opium trade, and the cultural mix of indigenous peoples, castes, and expatriates who lived in the region of India that centers on Calcutta.

The focal point is the ship Ibis, which is diverted from the opium trade to take emigrants and prisoners to Mauritius.

The research that went into Sea of Poppies somewhat unfortunately generated lots and lots of argot characteristic of the mid-19th century. This means that virtually no one, certainly not me, always knows what is being said except through contextual interpretation.

As someone who has learned four foreign languages, I’m pretty good at holding onto narrative flow even when I don’t know a few words, but I would have to say that this aspect of Sea of Poppies is disagreeable.

There are numerous interesting characters who are fleeing disaster in Bengal (chiefly because of poppy market failures) and some who are of high status brought low by the avarice and nastiness of others. This is a cruel world that gets crueler as the Ibis is fitted out and takes off for Mauritius. Shipboard discipline, misery, and arbitrary rule are degrading to everyone from the captain on down.

One key element of the story is an unintentional reprise of Melville’s Billy Budd (at least I think it is unintentional.) Another element is the transformation of a man who is occupied by the spirit of a woman, and thereby acquires quasi-magical instincts and powers.

The story ends with a kind of thud. Mauritius, a penal sort of place, is not reached. The fate of numerous characters is left up in the air . . . or at sea, if you will.

This is the first book I’ve read by Ghosh. He’s got some problems in storytelling. That’s the simplest way of putting it. Compared to Conrad working in a similar milieu, Ghosh is in the 45% success range.

Posted in The relationship between fiction and fact | Leave a comment

The Man Who Was Late by Louis Begley

The Man Who Was Late is an early novel by the lawyer-novelist Louis Begley. It’s a story recounted through the memories, observations and conclusions of a lawyer named Jack, a New York sophisticate much like Begley, about his friend, a banker and fellow Harvard grad, named Ben.

Ben is the man who was late, the man who escaped the slaughter of the Jews in Central Europe in WWII with his parents, and arrived on U.S. shores always a touch out of sync with the society he entered the meritocratic way, not the to-the-manor-born way like Jack, and Jack’s cousin, Veronique, with whom Ben conducts an affair.

The virtues of this novel are its fluid prose and knowledge of the societies in America and abroad (largely France) where Ben is successful but doesn’t fit in. His marriage was ill-fated, he wanted his stepdaughters to love him, but they didn’t, and despite his banking acumen and privileges, he’s somewhat dark and guilt-ridden, a heavy drinker, a man with a taste for illicit sex, and generally self-castigating in the notes he leaves behind. Suicide is the climax of this novel, of course.

It could be said that another virtue of the novel is that it hews tightly to the middle-class ethos of the novel form itself. That’s where it gets its strength and ethos and where Ben runs afoul. He feels judged because he wriggled his way into a world of privilege where he did not belong. Like everyone else in the book, he knows all the right wines, restaurants, resorts, and ultimately, tailors, but he has this need for bad women until he hits upon Veronique, a provocative, unhappy, but more or less good woman. And so he doesn’t feel fit for decent society, and he boots his chance with Veronique away.

In one sense this is an enjoyable book to read. Begley tells the tale astutely, drawing on face-to-face encounters between Jack and Ben, Ben’s helpfully left-behind notes, and even some letters and confessions to Jack by Veronique.

In another sense, these are people who are full of themselves, who do things just right, belong to the right clubs, handle multinational negotiations with consummate skill, and yet are empty. Ben, in particular, is all over the place without really exploring the source of his confounding “otherness.” The fact that he is Jew has something to do with, a big something to do with it, but in the main, his Jewishness and Central European background are just statements, not developed themes. No one is actively persecuting Ben anymore. He’s cleared all the hurdles. So what is the wish to be degraded, to be soiled, or defiled all about? It a way it seems to be about nothing, about too much freedom, too much money, too many opportunities to resolve a day’s tensions in bed on a strictly I-come/you-come basis.

Begley himself, having escaped the Nazi’s during WW II as a boy, may have felt that the mere shadow of these events was sufficient to give Ben a lasting piquancy. I should think it probably would be enough if it were not the mere shadow but the inky shadow, a shadow brought to the surface through moral self-questioning and perhaps explicit disdain for people like Jack, the erudite lawyer, well-read, well-married, pretty faithful to the interests of his tortured cousin Veronique.

So this is a kind of novel that refers to Rilke but has closer connections to Trollope or Thackeray or Henry James and Edith Wharton. It offers incidents that are more vile than anyone would find explicitly addressed by those novelists, but it holds itself together the way their novels did, and Ben finally conducts his revolution not against the status quo but himself. And one doesn’t care enough for Ben to take this too hard. His pain doesn’t break boundaries, only his own unresolved life.

Posted in The relationship between fiction and fact | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Players by Don DeLillo

Players is a novel that could have been written last year but was written in 1977. It’s set in New York, Maine, and ultimately the outskirts of Toronto. In New York Pam works in the World Trade Center and has premonitions that buildings like this are too tall, fragile, inviting of destruction. Lyle works on Wall Street, where he is present during an office murder and ineffective bombing attempt. So…terrorists. And they invite him into their world, and he is bored and curious enough to accept, though he hedges his bets by loosely informing the CIA what’s going on.

Meanwhile Pam goes to Maine with two homosexual friends and has a sexual encounter with one of them, who apparently tips over into self-destructiveness, committing suicide.

And Lyle reencounters the feminine lure that drew him into the idea of getting the bombing right, but for reasons obscure to me, he is left dangling in a motel with her, where she has taunted him with a plastic dildo. Hmmmm.

Having written this, I’m uncertain whether you will want to read Players, but that would be a mistake. Curiously DeLillo wrote somewhat better forty years ago than he does now. The novel has a luscious abstraction to it, a sensuousness, a fine phrasing and coolness that is not so cool as to be frigid and lifeless. DeLillo captures the vagueness of New York’s atmosphere, its suggestiveness, the cascades of florescence, the shadows at the back of the bar, the mysteries of touch, sweat, stride, bodies that are beautiful to look at and bodies that are not beautiful but are powerful, wide-hipped and thick-thighed.

As remains the case, DeLillo is persistently and tenaciously skeptical of plot. In some senses, this is a weakness, but I tend to think plot is overrated in fiction. What fiction offers best is an opening onto new vistas, not a set of fixed conclusions. People are that way because they are so complex and ultimately intangible, and characters are that way, too. They think and at the same time don’t know what else they are thinking and end up saying something else altogether. They joke and are serious. They strain to master irony because mystery is too hard. DeLillo is effortlessly good at this sort of thing. I spent some time pondering his style and found that its pace came from its punchy short sentences punctuated by verbless sentences. Like this. And that.

Ultimately DeLillo’s constant subject has been the conspiracy of modernity that masquerades as harmless entropy but actually is full of intent. Someone knows what’s going on. Not the reader, not the characters, not DeLillo. But someone. Out there. Has a clue.

Posted in western civilization | Tagged , , | Leave a comment