Politics-Prejudice (Ambrose Bierce)

img_6397

From Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. 

Originally published in 1906; the image is from The Peter Pauper Press’s 1958 illustrated edition, with art by Joseph Low

Advertisements

Italo Calvino: “There are two wrong ways of thinking of a possible political use for literature”

In a word, what I think is that there are two wrong ways of thinking of a possible political use for literature. The first is to claim that literature should voice a truth already possessed by politics; that is, to believe that the sum of political values is the primary thing, to which literature must simply adapt itself. This opinion implies a notion of literature as ornamental and superfluous, but it also implies a notion of politics as fixed and self-confident: an idea that would be catastrophic. I think that such a pedagogical function for politics could only be imagined at the level of bad literature and bad politics.

The other mistaken way is to see literature as an assortment of eternal human sentiments, as the truth of the human language that politics tends to overlook, and that therefore has to be called to mind from time to time. This concept apparently leaves more room for literature, but in practice it assigns it the task of confirming what is already known, or maybe of provoking in a naïve and rudimentary way, by means of the youthful pleasures of freshness and spontaneity. Behind this way of thinking is the notion of a set of established values that literature is responsible for preserving, the classical and immobile idea of literature as the depository of a given truth. If it agrees to take on this role, literature confines itself to a function of consolation, preservation, and regression – a function that I believe does more harm than good.

From Italo Calvino’s essay “Right and Wrong Uses of Political Uses of Literature.” Translation by Patrick Creagh. Collected in The Uses of Literature.

I want nothing to do with politicians. Their hearts wither away and die out of their bodies (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

March 15th.–I pray that in one year more I may find some way of escaping from this unblest Custom House; for it is a very grievous thraldom. I do detest all offices,–all, at least, that are held on a political tenure. And I want nothing to do with politicians. Their hearts wither away and die out of their bodies. Their consciences are turned to india-rubber, or to some substance as black as that, and which will stretch as much. One thing, if no more, I have gained by my custom house experience,–to know a politician. It is a knowledge which no previous thought or power of sympathy could have taught me, because the animal, or the machine rather, is not in nature.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for March 15th, 1840. He left the Custom House the same year.

If civilization has an opposite, it is war (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the Kingdom’s borders,” lectures in history and ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting, emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige. Had Karhide lost so much prestige in the Sinoth Valley business that the subject could not be brought up? No; for he often talked about the Sinoth Valley. I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness… Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both. It seemed to me as I listened to Tibe’s dull fierce speeches that what he sought to do by fear and by persuasion was to force his people to change a choice they had made before their history began, the choice between those opposites.

From Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The bold emphases are mine—mea culpa, I couldn’t help it.

The dispossessed (From Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”)

If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing…feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

From Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

A universal sense of guilt or an attitude of universal accusation (Italo Calvino)

…if it is impossible today for anyone to feel innocent, if in whatever we do or say we can discover a hidden motive – that of a white man,or a male, or the possessor of a certain income, or a member of a given economic system, or a suffer from a certain neurosis – this should not induce in us either a universal sense of guilt or an attitude of universal accusation.

When we become aware of our disease or of our hidden motives, we have already begun to get the better of them. What matters is the way in which we accept our motives and live through the ensuing crisis. This is the only chance we have of becoming different from the way we are – that is, the only way of starting to invent a new way of being.

From Italo Calvino’s essay “Right and Wrong Uses of Political Uses of Literature.” The essay was delivered as a lecture–in English–in 1976. (Translation credit for the volume the essay is collected in, The Uses of Literature, goes to Patrick Creagh).

Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics (Italo Calvino)

Literature is necessary to politics above all when it gives a voice to whatever is without a voice, when it gives a name to what as yet has no name, especially to what the language of politics excludes or attempts to exclude. I mean aspects, situations, and languages both of the outer and of the inner world, the tendencies repressed and individuals and in society. Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics; it is like an eye that can see beyond the color spectrum perceived by politics. Simply because of the solitary individualism of his work, the writer may happen to explore areas that no one has explored before, within himself or outside, and to make discoveries that sooner or later turn out to be vital areas of collective awareness.

 

This is still a very indirect, deliberate, and fortuitous use for literature. The writer follows his own road, and chance or social and psychological factors lead him to discover something that may become important for political and social action as well. It is the responsibility of the sociopolitical observer not to leave anything to chance, and to apply his own method to the business of literature in such a way as not to allow anything to escape him.

 

But there is also, I think, another sort of influence that literature can exert, perhaps not more direct but certainly more intentional on the part of the writer. This is the ability to impose patterns of language, of vision, imagination, mental effort, of the correlation of facts, and in short the creation (and by creation I mean selection and organization) of a model of values that is at the same time aesthetic and ethical, essential to any plan of action, especially in political life.

 

So it comes about that, having excluded political education from the functions of literature, I find myself stating that I do believe in a type of education by means of literature; a type of education they can yield results only if it is difficult and indirect, if it implies the arduous attainment of literary stringency.

 

Any results attained by literature, as long as it is stringent and rigorous, may be considered firm ground for all practical activities for anyone who aspires to the construction of a mental order solid and complex enough to contain the disorder of the world within itself; for anyone aiming to establish a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever.

From Italo Calvino’s essay “Right and Wrong Uses of Political Uses of Literature.” Translation by Patrick Creagh. Collected in The Uses of Literature.

There are two wrong ways of thinking of a possible political use for literature (Italo Calvino)

In a word, what I think is that there are two wrong ways of thinking of a possible political use for literature. The first is to claim that literature should voice a truth already possessed by politics; that is, to believe that the sum of political values is the primary thing, to which literature must simply adapt itself. This opinion implies a notion of literature as ornamental and superfluous, but it also implies a notion of politics as fixed and self-confident: an idea that would be catastrophic. I think that such a pedagogical function for politics could only be imagined at the level of bad literature and bad politics.

The other mistaken way is to see literature as an assortment of eternal human sentiments, as the truth of the human language that politics tends to overlook, and that therefore has to be called to mind from time to time. This concept apparently leaves more room for literature, but in practice it assigns it the task of confirming what is already known, or maybe of provoking in a naïve and rudimentary way, by means of the youthful pleasures of freshness and spontaneity. Behind this way of thinking is the notion of a set of established values that literature is responsible for preserving, the classical and immobile idea of literature as the depository of a given truth. If it agrees to take on this role, literature confines itself to a function of consolation, preservation, and regression – a function that I believe does more harm than good.

From Italo Calvino’s essay “Right and Wrong Uses of Political Uses of Literature.” Translation by Patrick Creagh. Collected in The Uses of Literature.

George Washington’s Rules of Civility

(Non-manuscript, more legible version).

Anti Lebanon (Book Acquired, 3.07.2013)

20130308-110219.jpg

Dipped into this one this morning—first chapter—and so far so good: Carl Shuker’s Anti Lebanon is simultaneously weird and very readable, a mix that reminds me very much of William Gibson. Great cover too. Full review to come, but for now, here’s publisher Counterpoint Press’s blurb:

It is the Arab Spring and the fate of the Christians of the Middle East is uncertain. The many Christians of Lebanon are walking a knife-edge, their very survival in their ancestral refuge in doubt, as the Lebanese government becomes Hezbollah-dominated, while Syria convulses with warring religious factions. Anti Lebanon is a cross-genre political thriller and horror story embedded within these recent events, featuring a multiethnic Christian family living out the lingering after-effects of Lebanon’s civil war as it struggles to deal with its phantoms, its ghosts, and its vampires.

Leon Elias is a young and impoverished Lebanese man whose older sister had joined a Christian militia and has been killed. He becomes caught up in the recent “little war” in Beirut, when the Shi’a resistance/militia Hezbollah takes over most of the city. In this milieu—the emptied streets of Christian east Beirut, the old shell-scarred sandstone villas, the echoing gunfire—he becomes involved, only partly by choice, in the theft of a seriously valuable piece of artisanal jewelry, and is bitten—like a vampire—by its Armenian maker.

Events take a ghostly and mysterious turn as the factions jostling for power in Beirut begin to align against him and his family, and he is forced to flee the sullied beauty of that wonderful and pitiful country, in this story of love and loss, of the civil war and the Arabization of the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” and of contemporary vampires—beings addicted to violence, lies, and baser primal drives.

Carl Shuker is a remarkable writer. A storyteller in the tradition of Celine and J. G. Ballard, no one alive writes better sentences. Anti Lebanon will delight his fans and entrance anyone new to his fine work.

 

George Washington’s Rules of Civility

(Non-manuscript, more legible version).

“…over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes” (Moby-Dick)

Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

From Chapter 26 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

 

“Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos”

Election Day — Norman Rockwell

I Riff on Dostoevsky’s Novel Crime and Punishment

Self-portrait in Hell, Edvard Munch

1. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—

Did I read it before? In high school? Not in college, not in grad school, I’m certain of that.

That I could have read Notes from Underground in full three times, but not Crime and Punishment—how?

I vaguely recall wandering into Crime and Punishment as a young man. All those Russian names though. My attention was on other matters.

And so reading Crime and Punishment this month I repeatedly felt a strange anger or shame at all my younger selves for lacking the attention or the will or the discipline to stick it out . . . and these words, attentiondisciplinewill, they don’t seem like the right words, because the book compels, commands, rewards . . .

2. You are familiar with the plot of course:

Our hero, our anti-hero, young Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker, an old woman; in the rush of the crime, he fails to close the door, and the pawnbroker’s innocent sister sees him. So he murders her too. The rest of the novel deals with the psychological fall out of this crime. Sure, there’s a sister and a mother, a failed marriage plot, a detective, a friend, and a love interest, a prototypical hooker with a heart of gold, etc.—but that’s it. That’s the plot.

3. What impels Raskolnikov to murder the pawnbroker?

Perhaps I shouldn’t answer here. Perhaps it’s better to suggest you just read the book if you haven’t yet—because is not this the driving question?

(Oh you’ve read the book? I’ll continue then).

4. Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker not because he is an indigent student in need of funds. He murders her to test his theory—or rather, he murders her to test his place within the scheme of his theory.

The Murderer, Edvard Munch

5. Raksolnikov’s idea:

I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it. . . . I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. . . . The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood . . .

Raskolnikov believes that “extraordinary men” have the right, the duty, even, to transgress law—even to the extremes of murder (even mass murder) in order to bring about a new word, a new idiom, a new philosophy, a new paradigm, a new zeitgeist, even a New Jerusalem.

Raskolnikov wants to know if he is one of these “extraordinary men.”

6. But Raskolnikov, like Macbeth or a figure out of Poe, is plagued by doubt, misgiving—and more than a touch of insanity and egomania.

His instability and his psychological and moral dilemma is summed up neatly in only the second chapter of the book:

“And what if I am wrong,” he cried suddenly after a moment’s thought. “What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.”

7. The word or an iteration of the word psychology appears 25 times in the Constance Garnett translation I read.

Crime and Punishment was published in 1866, when Sigmund Freud was ten years old.

(I am not naively/stupidly suggesting that Freud invented psychology, by the way. I’m just riffing).

8. What Crime and Punishment does so well:

Harnesses the intellect of its protagonist Raskolnikov, shows us his fevered mind in revolution, shifts us through his moods and dilemmas and despairs and strange joys.

9. And it’s not just the interior of Rakolnikov’s skull we get such access to—Dostoevsky gives our lead a marvelous, taunting foil in the detective Porfiry, a loyal and empathetic counterpoint in friend Razumikhin, a despicable enemy in the poseur Luzhin, and a dark-future forecast in Svidrigaïlov.

Each of these characters represent viewpoints and attitudes about psychology and morality without ever falling into being mere allegorical sketches or mouthpieces for Dostoevsky’s ideas.

10. Dostoevsky—unlike certain contemporary novelists I’ll neglect to name—doesn’t tell us that his character is brilliant (or troubled, or confounded, or fucked up). And he goes beyond showing us—he actually lets us experience the character’s psychology.

11. A marvelous, frightening episode that illustrates point 10:

Raskolnikov’s horse dream.

Despair, Edvard Munch

12. This isn’t to say that Dostoevsky’s handling of characterization is flawless.

His women appear less fully-realized than his men, as if he perhaps cannot inhabit their minds so fully or exercise their brains, their souls, their voices.

Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya, for example, is a bold, more perfect, more more moral, more stable version of her brother, a woman who seems able to withstand conflict, disappointment, and misfortune with ease—too much ease. Raskolnikov’s mother, in contrast, is something of an idealized blank—not just a mother, but the mother figure: nonjudgmental, loving—her character summed up in her hugging her son and forgiving him for what she cannot forgive

It’s the depiction of Raskolnikov’s love interest Sonia that I find most troubling though. Dostoevsky renders her an unsubtle merging of the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene. Her alcoholic father forces her into prostitution to save the family, but she never appears bitter or angry or even upset. Dostoevsky rarely affords her a speaking role, and in her biggest scene she reads the entire parable of Lazarus. Sure, she makes the words her own, but she’s being ventriloquized. The strings show. She’s pure symbolism, really, and stands in stark contrast to the dark, flawed humanity of Raskolnikov.

13. Re: Point 12 above: If Dostoevsky shows a certain weakness in his depiction of women, he perhaps compensates in other areas. For example, Luzhin’s roomate Andrey Semyonovitch, a utopian socialist, serves as a mouthpiece for emerging feminist ideas. And if Dostoevsky mocks would-be reformers in his novel, it’s not always with vitriol, but sometimes with understanding, and even perhaps love. After all, this is Raskolnikov’s pretension—to be a reformer of others, to step over the line of law, to be a great man.

14. But Raskolnikov is a failed reformer, or at least is unable to live with his trespass, his sin. Crime and Punishment’s epilogue emphasizes the Jesusian theme of the possibility of resurrection, even as it subdues or complicates that possibility.

We get the final image of Raskolnikov “mechanically” taking up Sonia’s copy of the New Testament; he doesn’t open it to read, but instead reflects on the possibility of a new life with Sonia, a life that “would cost him great striving, great suffering.” Dostoevsky does not let his protagonist off the hook, even as he offers the reader a final comforting vision of “the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life.”

15. There’s a strong temptation to see the epilogue as tacked on, as a sentimental gesture to the reader’s sense of stable morality, as a bit of window dressing that covers the ugliness of the narrative.

And perhaps this is true.

I’d argue though that Dostoevsky gives us a cold, ugly ending in the figure of Svidrigaïlov, who more or less commands the final moments of the narrative, moments that lead inexorably to his suicide—the self-erasing gesture that Raskolnikov cannot commit to. I think that Svidrigaïlov’s suicide might stand as a placeholder for Raskolnikov’s—an exchange of sorts.

And Svidrigaïlov’s death is not without a small measure of redemption—the redemption of other-directedness, of giving, of selflessness. It is far more complicated and troubling than the Jesusian resurrection that Dostoevsky implies as a possibility for Raskolnikov, but it also strikes me as far more real.

Definition of Politics (Ambrose Bierce)

Raskolnikov on Extraordinary and Ordinary People

 

“That wasn’t quite my contention,” he began simply and modestly. “Yet I admit that you have stated it almost correctly; perhaps, if you like, perfectly so.” (It almost gave him pleasure to admit this.) “The only difference is that I don’t contend that extraordinary people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an ‘extraordinary’ man has the right… that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep… certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfilment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity). You say that my article isn’t definite; I am ready to make it as clear as I can. Perhaps I am right in thinking you want me to; very well. I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound… to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity. But it does not follow from that that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market. Then, I remember, I maintain in my article that all… well, legislators and leaders of men, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people, and they did not stop short at bloodshed either, if that bloodshed—often of innocent persons fighting bravely in defence of ancient law—were of use to their cause. It’s remarkable, in fact, that the majority, indeed, of these benefactors and leaders of humanity were guilty of terrible carnage. In short, I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it. You see that there is nothing particularly new in all that. The same thing has been printed and read a thousand times before. As for my division of people into ordinary and extraordinary, I acknowledge that it’s somewhat arbitrary, but I don’t insist upon exact numbers. I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. There are, of course, innumerable sub-divisions, but the distinguishing features of both categories are fairly well marked. The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood—that depends on the idea and its dimensions, note that. It’s only in that sense I speak of their right to crime in my article (you remember it began with the legal question). There’s no need for such anxiety, however; the masses will scarcely ever admit this right, they punish them or hang them (more or less), and in doing so fulfil quite justly their conservative vocation. But the same masses set these criminals on a pedestal in the next generation and worship them (more or less). The first category is always the man of the present, the second the man of the future. The first preserve the world and people it, the second move the world and lead it to its goal. Each class has an equal right to exist. In fact, all have equal rights with me—and vive la guerre éternelle—till the New Jerusalem, of course!”

From Chapter V of Part III of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment.