Beta-minus

May 26, 2012

I figure that in Huxley’s Brave New World,I would rank as a Beta-minus, on the scale from Epsilon-minus up to Alpha-plus.  Not on the basis of my intelligence, mind you, but on examination of my status in society and the nature of Huxley’s dystopia.  Hmm…maybe I should exit for 1984.

It has been eighty years since Huxley’s satire was published, and it remains fresh and entertaining, and sharp, precisely because it was written as a satire, and not an attempt at ‘science-fiction’, which hardly existed as a genre in that day.  Of course, he was remarkably prescient on some points, genetic engineering, before genetics was even developed in its modern form, for example, but that’s a small thing next to his wicked skewering of industrial-consumerist-ideology and religion.  The people of his future world worship Henry Ford, swear by him, “By Ford!”, and display ‘T’ pendants (for the Model T, that is) everywhere, conveniently similar to the ancient Christian cross.

Huxley gets in a sly observation about the literary history of cults and religions, the way that popular culture and orthodoxy twist and mold the facts of history, when he remarks on Ford and Freud.  Freud too, is revered in the new world, but his name is unknown.  His ideas are assumed to have been those of Henry Ford – how could two such moral and mental giants have existed?  Scholars, exegetes, and philosophers have simply determined that Ford, when he spoke of matters psychological, chose to speak under the name of Freud.  The prophets have their ways.

The book is marvelously funny, and the device of having Mr. Savage, a visitor from the ‘uncivilized regions’, speak constantly in Shakespearean verse, a result of his compulsive reading of the only book he has ever seen, is wonderful. Sometimes, I feel exactly the same way when I read The Bard, i.e., that the glorious quality of his words is somehow an ironic comment on, and critique of the world I live in.  It also provides a frame on which Huxley can hang his implied and explicit speculations about culture, civilization, and politics – always the weakest point in any of his books.

Despite his brilliance and originality, Huxley always seems to me to be tip-toeing through the muck of modern culture: shocked and appalled by it, and so concerned that it not dirty his clothes.  How paltry all this is, he is thinking all the time.  Oh dear, nobody has time for real culture, but these…ordinary people…are so interesting at times, their pastimes and songs, and whatnot…  For me, his work’s appeal is limited by the fact that it is that of a man who never quite shakes off the upper-class twit aspect of his social background.

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Information Superhighway

July 19, 2010

At last, here by popular demand! The original text of the amazingly prescient essay on Flaubert and the Internet from 1994!!


Enron and the dung heap…

January 20, 2010

After finishing Zola’s novel, Money (L’Argent), one name comes to mind – Enron.  It’s the same story!  Saccard, the infatuated market manipulator is Ken Lay, or maybe his more intelligent cronys who did the real work.  The hysterical run up of the market to fantastic stock prices, the fraud, the cooked books, the government winking and looking the other way, the grand infrastructure projects, and the inevitable crash that brings the house of cards to a pile of paper, and reduces thousands of people, many of them ordinary workers, to penniless, shell-shocked victims.

The book contains a few scenes in which Sigisimond, a fanatical Marxist, dying of consumption, and racing to commit to paper his world-saving vision for the New Society, converses with Saccard, the rapcious capitalist, and other characters.  He is clearly delusional and religious in his socialist faith – Zola was a liberal, but no revolutionary utopian – a sort of cockeyed, would-be Christ besotted with the Enlightenment.  Saccard just can’t get a purchase on his ideas – they seem to be speaking in different tongues.  The book ends, however, with this Sigisimond dying after relating his celestial vision to a more sympathetic figure, Madame Caroline.

Caroline’s brother was Saccard’s chief engineer, and truly believed in the mission of his Universal Bank.  Brother and sister deplored the financial chicanery, but eventually went along.  They sold early, before the crash, but gave away their profits out of guilt.  The brother is convicted along with Saccard in the post-crash scandal, although he was actually not culpable. 

Caroline is a voice of conscience throughout the novel, but she loves Saccard!  Their affair is broken off when he moves onto more glamorous and richer women, but he retains feelings for her.  Why does she love this shark, this brigand, this fraud, this man who will ruin so many?  Because…he is passionate, he does truly believe in his schemes, he is a life force. 

At the end, Caroline meditates on money, that filthy stuff that corrupts and destroys, and which drives Saccard and others to do prodigious things.  Saccard understands her misgivings, but he has an answer:  money is like the dung heap, and from that manure springs…LIFE.  It’s like sex, you see, it may be dirty, but without it, there is no love, and no life.  What an interesting combination of ideas!

Et Mme Caroline était gaie malgré tout avec son visage toujours jeune, sous sa couronne de cheveux blancs, comme si elle se fût rajeunie à chaque avril, dans la vieillesse de la terre. Et, au souvenir de honte que lui causait sa liaison avec Saccard, elle songeait à l’effroyable ordure dont on a également sali l’amour. Pourquoi donc faire porter à l’argent la peine des saletés et des crimes dont il est la cause? L’amour est-il moins souillé, lui qui crée la vie?  [conclusion of L’Argent]

My very inexpert translation:

Madame Caroline was gay despite herself, her face was looking young beneath her crown of white hair, and she was rejevenated as each April brings life to the old earth.  And, recalling the shame she felt about her affair with Scaccard, she thought of the awful dung heap that is like the soiled elements of love.  Why should one put all the blame and dark crimes on money?  Love, is it any less sullied? Love, that creates life?


Work Ethic

July 28, 2009

hamster_wheel

A fable from Zamyatin’s We:

Record Thirty-four:

Keywords:  The Released, A Sunny Night, Radio Valkyrie

The Three Released – a story that every schoolchild knows.  It’s a story about three ciphers who, for the sake of experiment, were released from work for a month:  to do what they wanted to do and go where they wanted to go.*  These unlucky types loitered around the place they usually worked and peeped inside with hungry eyes.  They stood in plazas for hours at a time; they performed the very movements that were appointed to that hour of the day as needed by their organism: they sawed and planed the air, they rattled invisible hammers, thumping on invisible blocks.  And, finally, on the tenth day, they couldn’t bear it anymore:  linking arms, they walked into the water and to the sound the March, they plunged deeper and deeper, until the water ended their torment…

* This was long ago, back in the third century after the Table.


Free and open elections

July 26, 2009

Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin – He was the author of the great anti-utopian novel, We.  Orwell admired it, and he thought Huxley had been influenced by (copied?) it.  He died in exile, after his letter to Stalin gained him permission to emigrate rather than remain in the USSR without the permission to write.  Considering the contents of his 1923 essay, On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters,  it’s a wonder he wasn’t just taken out and shot.

Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought.

Where the flaming, seething sphere (in science, religion, social life, art) cools, the fiery magma becomes coated with dogma- a rigid, ossified, motionless crust. Dogmatisation in science, religion, social life, or art is the entropy of thought. What has become dogma no longer burns: it only gives off warmth- it is tepid, it is cool.

The novel, We, is a memoir written by a prominent engineer in the glorious future One State in which human life is totally regulated.  Mathematics has trumped all poetry.  Individuals rejoice in their state as ciphers.  Sex is proscribed to limited “private hours” regulated by the Book of Hours, and access to sex partners is free, and regulated with a system of recorded pink chits.  The book is a little heavy with literary experimentation as it seeks to evoke the mentality of the future man who revels in his routine and lack of spontaneity, but it is prescient of so many things, in culture, in politics, and especially in the entire future of science fiction, that it amazes.  It also has a very sharp and dark humor.

They say that the Ancients conducted elections in some kind of  secrecy, hiding like thieves … Why would all this mystery be necessary?  Even today it is not understood conclusively; the likeliest explanation is that elections were connected to some sort of mystical, superstitious, maybe  even criminal rites.  For us, there is nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of:  we celebrate election day in the daytime, openly and honestly.  I see everyone vote for the Benefactor; everyone sees me vote for the Benefactor – and it couldn’t be any different, since “I” and “everyone” are the unified “WE” …And if you even suggest the impossible, that is, that there could be some dissonance in the usual homophony, then the invisible Guardians are here, among our ranks:  at any momen, they can stop ciphers who are falling into error and save them from their next false step – and save the One State from them.

Need I add that the “hero” is undone by love, by sex, by a femme fatale ?  At their trysts outside the glass wall of the city, in the museum of the Ancient House, she wears a yellow silk dress.  Her teeth are like daggers.  She scorns the One State, respects nothing.  She is irrestible to him, the engineer of the great spaceship Integral, the vessel that will bring the happiness of tyranny to other planets.  She drives him crazy…makes him…human?


Let’s recognize reality…

June 3, 2009

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Kevin Lynch’s book, The Image of the City, is an investigation of how inhabitants of urban areas form an image in their minds of the city, and the implications of this for ‘urban design.’  The book is a classic, endlessly cited.  I have been thinking a lot lately about cities and urban sprawl, and I am wondering if our image of the city isn’t a big part of the problem when we start diagnosing and ranting about urban ills of today.

Many of us come to the city with a notion of what a city should be that is woefully out of date, and has nothing to do with the cities in which we live.  A true believer in the Lynch point of view, at least as I understood it as a student long ago, would say that people today have no clear idea of the cities in which they live because the urban form has spread, “metastisized,” sprawled, bled all over, etc. etc. the surronding area and that cities have no form, are formless, today.  Of course, everything has a form.  Maybe not the one you like…  The conclusion is that something is terribly wrong in everywhere-ville today.

To see the Ur-source of western city images, you could hardly do better than this book,which I heartily recommend:

cities_taschen

click link

Cities of the World – the complete color plates from 1572 – 1617 by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg.  This was, perhaps, the golden age of city form, or at least of idealized versions of it committed to paper.  Looking through this book is a dizzying experience for anyone who is interested in urban history and European architectural tourism!  The plates are positively awe inspiring in their beauty.  They convey a powerful, nostalgic, and completely inappropriate way of looking at cities of today.  But who cares!

Here are some good cities!

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cambrayfull braun_hogenberg_III_2_b

17582-01

They all are so clearly demarcated from the surrounding country.  They give such a clear sense of their structure and ordering principles.  Their enclosure by walls or moats makes them look like biological cells, prompting all sorts of fertile notions about urban growth, organic growth, sustainability, city-nature, etc.  Of course, this was a picture book.  Did the cities ever look quite like this?  To a great extent, yes, but any unsightly details such as squatters or gypsies, industrial outbuildings crowded up against the edge, and the like, were removed.

new-jerusalem-tapestryThis IS the image of the city we carry with us, at least those of us who have been properly educated, as I was.  The image has many sources, not the least of which are religious, as shown here in this scene from 14th century tapestry in which John views the Celestial Jerusalem.  Of course, there’s also Homer, in which the walls of Troy are for viewing the fighting going on in the plain below.

In his wonderful book, Sprawl:  A Compact History, (clever, that compact bit) Robert Bruegmann challenges a lot of these notions.  Sprawl, suburbs and suburbanization, development, edge-cities, exurbanity, and all that are the antithesis of the city.  Or so we think.  He argues, convincingly, and on the contrary, that there has always been sprawl, but that it was always the preserve of the economic and power elite.  Today, sprawl, or low-density urban living, has been democratized.  In his book, he doesn’t really evaluate sprawl as good or bad, except to say that it clearly has many good consequences and many that are not good.  This neutral approach infuriates some people who seem to feel that not declaring war on sprawl at the outset puts him in league with the devil, or at least with the Republicans.  Bruegmann feels that sprawl, and the cities with which it forms urban systems is too complex to yield to simple analyses:  first we must understand the history and nature of what we are ranting about.  Over and over again he marshals facts and logic to challenge, and sometimes demolish the pretensions of the anti-sprawl contingent, and a few of my preconceptions fell by the wayside in the process.

As I read through his book, it seemed to me that sprawl and global warming have much in common as causes – indeed many would join them in some way – in that they have a religious significance for many people.  To investigate scientifically is to violate sacred taboos.

Perhaps my favorite moment in reading was when he remarked on the monumental lack of curiosity regarding the reality of modern city life present in the writing of Lewis Mumford, a veritable god to me in my younger days.  Well, I still like Mummy’s prose – readers of this blog will be familiar with my weakness for apocalyptic cultural and political  critiques – but the fact is, he’s right.  I wonder, did Mumford ever speak to someone who liked living in the suburbs?


Sentimental Revolution – 1848

March 19, 2009

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The Sentimental Education (L’Education sentimentale) by Gustave Flaubert is a bleak and depressing book.  It is also a confusing and difficult book in some ways.  I have just read it for the third or fourth time.  Supposedly, Ford Maddox Ford said that one cannot consider oneself educated until one has read it fourteen times…I’ve a ways to go.

The plot is simple:  A young man, Frederic Moreau, comes to Paris from the country, ostensibly to study law.  On a river boat, he meets a married woman, Madame Arnoux, and falls in love with, develops a monumental crush on, becomes infatuated with her.  How you describe his feelings has a lot to do with how you make sense of the book.  The rest of the story unwinds over the years as he periodically falls in and out of love with her, always from a distance, for she is a respectable woman, and is not interested in an adulterous affair.  Frederic satisfies his amorous longings elsewhere.  Meanwhile, the upheaval of the Revolution of 1848 comes and goes.  Frederic runs through all his uncle’s money that he inherited and ends up moving back to the country. C’est tout!

frederic

The subtitle of the novel is “The story of a young man.”  Frederic is a sort of anti-hero, i.e., as the main character of the novel, he is not very inspiring.  He is good looking, has a sense of humour, is generous, intelligent, and reasonably well educated.  He is also weak, without direction, a bit spoiled, given to useless romantic day dreaming, incapable of forming an honest relationship with a woman, and rather superficial.  In the course of the book, he accomplishes absolutely nothing with his life.  It is clear that were it not for his inheritance, which gives him material comfort and social status, he would be nothing at all.

Stange to have such an unappealing character as a protaganist, but that is Flaubert’s way.  When asked how he knew about women like his “heroine” Emma Bovary, he replied, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”  He identifies with his characters, he sympathizes with them, but he does not spare them or flatter them.

Madame Bovary

At times, reading this book, I felt that Frederic was a sort of male Emma.  That is, if Emma Bovary had had the freedom that being male and having money brought in that society, instead of being a provincial petty bourgeois woman trapped in a dull marriage and dying of boredom, only able to dream about the things that Frederic does, she would have been like him.  In many ways, they share a profound superficiality.  Frederic ends by becoming a provincial non-entity.  Emma stuffs her mouth with arsenic and dies a horrible death.  Women have it pretty bad in a lot of nineteenth century novels.  [The image here shows Isabelle Huppert playing Emma in a recent film version of Madame Bovary.]

woman_1840sThroughout the novel, women are treated pretty much as whores or bank accounts.  If they have money, men try to marry them.  If they are good looking, they try to get them in bed.  Some make their living that way, at various levels of classiness, like Rosanette, Frederic’s mistress, who has a large stable of lovers at one time or another, and whom Frederic “shares” with Arnoux, the husband of his true love.  This irritates Frederic, but of course, he does nothing about it.  Frederic’s lack of honesty with himself and lady friends about his feelings is absolutely typical of all the men in the book, and perhaps of most men of that time.  Women are interchangeable. His love for Madame Arnoux often seems childish, almost like an incestuous mother-fixation, he idealizes her so much.  At other times, his erotic longings take on a darker cast:

Another thirst had come to him the thirst for women, for licentious pleasure, for all that Parisian life permitted him to enjoy…Already the dream had taken hold of him. It seemed to him that he was yoked beside Arnoux to the pole of a hackney-coach, and that the Marechale sat astride him, and disembowelled him with her gold spurs.

The confusing aspect of the novel is the way it presents the everyday reality through which Frederic moves.  The progression of time is not clear – we rarely know what year it is or when things happened.  We are dropped into dinner parties and meetings at which we are given snatches of conversation, references to ideas and controversies in the air, often without quite knowing who is saying what.  The characters say things in conversation that don’t get answered – remarks are left hanging in the air.  Many exchanges have ambiguous meanings for us, and for the characters?

paris_1848

Of course, the tumultuous events of the revolution come in for a good deal of scrutiny by Flaubert.  In one of the more cinematic sequences, Frederic makes his way through some contested streets, men die next to him, he steps on a hand, two people are arguing on the sidewalk, it all seems like a show.  Later, in bed with his mistress, he hears the sounds of carts and marching in the streets below.  He is sobbing – “I’ve wanted you for so long!”  Of course, it’s a lie.  He has just dashed all his hopes of ever becoming intimate with Madame Arnoux.  His dissembling is something of a metaphor for the political chaos and disillusion to come.

Flaubert operates on the stupidity of revolutionary politics and reaction with a sharp scalpel:

At a gathering of well-to-do citizens:

Most of the men present had served at least four governments; and they would have sold France or the human race in order to preserve their own incomes, to save themselves from any discomfort or embarrassment, or even through sheer baseness, through worship of force. They all insisted that political crimes were inexcusable. It would be less harmful to pardon those which were provoked by want.

The omnipresent cliche, doing service for thought:

And they did not fail to put forward the eternal illustration of the father of a family stealing the eternal loaf of bread from the eternal baker.

The utopian naivete of the workers:

“Still, you ought to take care of yourself.”

“Pooh! I am substantial! What does this matter?  The Republic is proclaimed! We’ll be happy henceforth!  Some journalists, who were talking near me just now, said they were going to liberate Poland and Italy! No more kings! You understand? The entire land free ! the entire land free ! “

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1848millais

This idealistic young man, befriended by Frederic, is shot down in the end, while protesting on the steps of a monument.  Frederic’s jaw drops when he sees that the soldier who killed him is Senecal, the one-time fiery and puritanical socialist revolutionary.  He’s gone over to the forces of reaction – power is his ultimate good.

In several set-pieces, Flaubert depicts the chaotic looting that took place in Paris when the insurgents gained control:

A vulgar curiosity made them rummage all the dressing-rooms, all the recesses. Liberated convicts thrust their arms into the beds of princesses, and rolled themselves on the top of them, to console themselves for not being able to embrace their owners. Others, with sinister faces, wandered about silently, looking for something to steal, but too great a multitude was there. . . The heat became more and more suffocating; and the two friends, afraid of being stifled, seized the opportunity of escaping. . .In the antechamber, standing on a heap of garments, appeared a girl of the town [common whore]  as a statue of  Liberty, motionless, her grey eyes wide open a fearful sight.

The forces of order fare no better in the text – they treat the beaten insurgents with terrible brutality:

There were nine hundred men in the place, huddled together in the midst of filth, with no attempt at order, their faces blackened with powder and clotted blood, shivering with ague and breaking out into cries of rage ; those who were brought there to die were not separated from the rest. . . The lamp, suspended from the arched roof, looked like a stain of blood, and little green and yellow flames fluttered about, caused by the emanations from the vault. Through fear of epidemics, a commission was appointed. When he had advanced a few steps, the President recoiled, frightened by the stench from the excrements and from the corpses.

As soon as the prisoners drew near a vent-hole, the National Guards who were on sentry, in order to prevent them from shaking the bars of the grating, prodded them indiscriminately with their bayonets.

As a rule they showed no pity … for the fascination of self-interest equaled the madness of want, aristocracy had the same fits of fury as low debauchery, and the cotton cap did not show itself less hideous than the red cap.

And everywhere, there is the shadow of received wisdom – people “thundering against”this and that, using phrases that would be echoed later in his Dictionary of Received Ideas, a compendium of cliches and common stupidity:

Then Property attained in the public regard the level of Religion, and was confounded with God. The attacks made on it appeared to them a sacrilege; almost a species of cannibalism.

“It’s a law written on the face of Nature! Children cling to their toys. All peoples, all animals have the same instinct. The lion even, if he were able to speak, would declare himself a proprietor! I myself, messieurs, began with a capital of fifteen thousand francs. Would you be surprised to hear that for thirty years I used to get up at four o’clock every morning? I’ve had as much pain as five hundred devils in making my fortune ! And people want to tell me I’m not the master, that my money is not my money ; in short, that property is theft ! “

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And it ends in a fizzle.  Frederic and Deslauriers, both failures, having watched their dreams and their illusions crash, but still friends, recall an incident from their school years when they visited the town brothel.  Frederic was so timid and embarrassed that he got spooked and ran, and since he had the money, Deslauriers had to follow.  “Those were the best times!”  Is this a final, ironic rapier thrust into the belly of their self-delusion and triviality?  Is it a nostalgic surrender to the age of innocence?  Or is it an ambiguous recognition and acceptance of both, and more?

Here is a link to the full text of the novel, albeit, in a rather stuffy translation from the 1920’s.