30 October 2008

... Red Ghoti, Blue Ghoti*

Here are some teaser quotes from a tremendous column, "The Power of Passive Campaigning," by Stanley Fish. Go read it here. He draws on John Milton's Paradise Regained to describe how the Obama campaign has so far prevailed over the McCain campaign:
The McCain campaign huffs and puffs and jumps from charge to charge: Obama consorts with terrorists; he’s a socialist; he’s a communist; he is un-American; he’s not one of us; he’s a celebrity; he’s going to take your money and give it to people who never did a day’s work; he’s going to sell out Israel; he’ll cozy up to foreign dictators; he’s measuring the drapes.

In response, Obama explains his tax policy for the umpteenth time, points out that capitalists like Warren Buffet support him, details his relationship with Bill Ayers, lists those he consults with, observes that Senator McCain, by his own boast, voted with President George W. Bush 90 percent of the time, and calls for change.

What he (or his campaign) doesn’t do is bring up the Keating Five, or make veiled references to McCain’s treatment of his first wife, or make fun of Sarah Palin (she doesn’t need any help), or disparage his opponent’s experience, or hint at the disabilities of age. He just stands there looking languid (George Will called him the Fred Astaire of politics), always smiling and never raising his voice. ...

What’s going on here? I find an answer in a most unlikely place, John Milton’s “Paradise Regained,” a four-book poem in which a very busy and agitated Satan dances around a preternaturally still Jesus until, driven half-crazy by the response he’s not getting, the arch-rebel (i.e., maverick) loses it, crying in exasperation, “What dost thou in this world?”...

Jesus is “a solid rock” continually assaulted by “surging waves”; and even though the repeated assaults result only in the waves being “all to shivers dashed,” they keep on coming until they exhaust themselves “in froth or bubbles.” The power Jesus generates is the power of not moving from the still center of his being and refusing to step into an arena of action defined by his opponent. So it is with Obama, who barely exerts himself and absorbs attack after attack, each of which, rather than wounding him, leaves him stronger. It’s rope-a-dope on a grand scale.
*If you're wondering what that 'Ghoti' thing is, go here.

29 October 2008

Death With Cello

Let's say you read Jose Saramago's Blindness and it left you breathless, its relentless bleakness letting up only in the final page with maybe a ray of hope for humanity. Then you went to see the movie, found it a more than competent realization, devastating in fact. And along the way you had read his The Double and enjoyed it, though wasn't completely grabbed by the premise.

Now you find Saramago has a new novel translated into English: Death With Interruptions. Naturally you're wondering whether you should allocate your most valuable capital resource—TIME—to read it. There's a good chance you're going to love it. Then you read this: James Wood's review in a recent New Yorker. He calls it a "thought experiment":
“Death with Interruptions” is a small-ish, toothy addition to a great novelist’s work. It efficiently mobilizes its hypothetical test case, and quickly generates a set of sharp theological and metaphysical questions about the desirability of utopia, the possibility of Heaven, and the true foundation of religion. ...

He is in some ways the least fantastical of novelists, because he so relentlessly persists with his fictional hypotheses, following them through to large, humane conclusions. His new novel gradually becomes less and less conceptual, and increasingly affecting, without ever becoming in any conventional sense realistic, or even plausible. ...

In his new novel, Saramago again asks us to reflect on the storyteller’s godlike powers. When Death’s letter is published in the newspapers, a grammarian is consulted, and notes its “chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas. . . .” Death writes like José Saramago. As Death watches the cellist drink, Saramago writes that she looked at the water “and made an effort to imagine what it must be like to feel thirsty, but failed.” The reader wonders: if Death cannot imagine thirst, can she possibly imagine death? And can the novelist? One answer that Saramago offers—it is the wide, universal, antique truth toward which his complex fiction has been travelling—is that if we neither recoil from death nor religiously long to vanquish it, but, rather, accept the old actuality that in the midst of life we are in death, then death surrounds us like life, and to imagine death is really to imagine life.
I felt this was one of the best written reviews I've ever read from Wood and proves again why, love him or loathe him, when he is on he is a must read. It tells me precisely what I need to know: solid contribution to the work of a great novelist, humane, imaginative, profound. As well, it provides important quotes from the book. I want to read this novel.

Then, I read this: D.T. Max's review of the same book in the back pages of the New York Times Sunday Book Review section.
The Nobel Prize in Literature is a confusing gift. The glamour, the affirmation, the open invitation to publish — these are not always healthy for a writer. One hoped José Saramago, the Portuguese author who became a laureate in 1998 at the age of 75, would emerge unaffected. He is a writer of great discipline who became well known only in his 50s. But the skinny novel “Death With Interruptions,” following on the heels of the equally uncertain “Seeing,” suggests he is not immune. ...His work today feels by comparison begrudging and also a bit unfocused.
Ouch! I'm instantly put off it. Then he asks:
So does the cellist represent the power of art? Or is he the working class and death the International Monetary Fund? Or maybe he’s just a guy who got lucky with the wrong girl? Saramago’s not saying. Indeed the feel of this book is really the sound of no sound, of the unsaid and the unsayable and the too tired to say. Maybe this is just Saramago growing old. Writing novels is hard work. Or maybe even this committed novelist has thrown up his hands at modern life.
Wood's review provides an interpretation and context for the novel within the writer's oeuvre, literature in general (Dostoevsky), and, surprisingly, in philosophy. Max's review summarizes the plot in a literal manner—especially the second part—and laments that the novel does not easily yield up its meaning. So what's a boy to do?

Frankly, Wood's review is the more persuasive. I will read the book, but I will probably read what Wood calls "perhaps his greatest book, “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” (1991)" first. As for Max's review, I find myself with a similar dilemma in a story I'm preparing for submission. The story, like Chekhov's "The Darling" and Barthleme's "The School" is a serial story. The structure of the piece repeats with only slight variations, setting up certain expectations in the reader which are then surprisingly sprung. Dickens's A Christmas Carol is another example. I keep going back and forth with the ending: whether to close it off in a systematic sort of way consistent with the preceding sections and let the meaning be obvious or to allow the ending to open up into an enigma which recasts everything that precedes it. The first round of drafts opted for the former; the current run have taken the latter route. Max appears to have some impatience with writing where the meaning is not nicely tucked up for him, wrapped in a bow, and presented for his immediate delectation. Wood seems more at home with, for lack of a better term to hand, the 'negative capability' of the work. As do I. Thanks, Mr. Wood.

26 October 2008

Truth Will Out

On Thursday October 23, 2008, former Chair of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, testified before Congress. In that testimony, under questioning from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-MI) he stated:
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: The question I have for you is, you had an ideology, you had a belief that free, competitive -- and this is your statement -- "I do have an ideology. My judgment is that free, competitive markets are by far the unrivaled way to organize economies. We've tried regulation. None meaningfully worked." That was your quote.

You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others. And now our whole economy is paying its price.

Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?

ALAN GREENSPAN: Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to -- to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not.

And what I'm saying to you is, yes, I found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is, but I've been very distressed by that fact.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: You found a flaw in the reality...

ALAN GREENSPAN: Flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working?

ALAN GREENSPAN: That is -- precisely. No, that's precisely the reason I was shocked, because I had been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.
The news media has seized on this and expressed shock that Methuselah—I mean, Greenspan—could be so candid in admitting fault. For years Mr. Greenspan's word alone was sufficient to sway Congress not to impose regulations on complex financial transactions, to worry about non-existant inflation, not to worry about deficits, etc. He was treated with the greatest deference, even when he spoke a vague, gobbledy-gook economics jargon that few Congress members or members of the press could understand. Much media time and labor was spent trying to parse his words.

To me, this admission of fault is not the most shocking aspect of this piece of testimony. What is astonishing is his absolute faith in ideology. He isn't saying that having an ideology is wrong; he is saying that his own ideological framework needs to be tweaked.

An ideology in the soft sciences (the social sciences like sociology, poli-sci, economics, psychology) is more like a literary theory or a theology than a theory in the hard sciences. It is a belief in the absolute ability of an abstraction to explain actual facts and the subsequent attempt to explain, or reconcile, all observable facts in terms of its principles and axioms. Where the facts don't fit, they can be changed (recast, spun, revisioned, ignored) to suit the ideology. Facts in the soft sciences are squishy, themselves open to interpretation. Faith in an ideology is thus easily justified. Reified. Moreover, there is a recursive (or cybernetic) quality to soft facts: they are subject to feedback. And if, as in Greenspan's case, the ideologue is in such a position of power to shape events, results can be altered, data controlled, information limited (positive results trumpeted, negative results buried, distorted, or actually concealed) to make it seem the ideology is correct. The purpose for this, of course, is to increase the power of the ideologue; for once the ideologue admits failure of the ideology, then there is no further need for the ideologue. That is why these guys never admit mistakes, or even question their own assumptions, when they are in office. Never underestimate the power of self-delusion among the ideologues—whether it be religionists or atheists, post-modern identity politics literary critics, free-market economists, Marxist historicists, neo-con political scientists—especially when they have the power to influence the results.

Greenspan's 'come-to-Jesus' moment before Congress is remarkable, then, for a number of reasons. He admits to being in the thrall of an ideology(!), pronounces it flawed and in need of tweaking(!), but does not concede that life can—and perhaps should—go on in the absence of such. In fact, he claims an ideology is necessary to life. If truth is subject to the dicta of ideology (especially a self-reifying, self-delusional ideology), then expect disaster, or at least crisis, when reality intrudes. In an analogous context, Freud refers to the return of the repressed in the psyche of the individual. An earlier writer likewise noted:

Nay, indeed, if you had your eyes, you might fail of
the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his
own child. Well, old man, I will tell you news of
your son: give me your blessing: truth will come
to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man's son
may, but at the length truth will out.
Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 1600:
Maybe it is my training in philosophy, but, to me, truth is an absolute value, not part of a value system or subject to some ideology. Understanding reality, getting it right to the best of my limited ability, is crucial to life, not trying to form fit facts into some mental construct or "conceptual framework" (which may or may not be misguided). Truth is never, as some claim, obvious. One of the most powerful men of our age, one of its wisest according to conventional wisdom, has just admitted to living his life under the influence of an ideology and allowing it to color his judgments—judgments that have had enormous real-world consequences for us all. And, from my point of view, he is unrepentant in his abject dependence on his delusions.

24 October 2008

21 October 2008


Because aggregating is easier than coming up with original ideas, but can be equally telling:

Has Malcolm Gladwell been spying on me, changing only the names to feign his innocence? I'm not saying I'm a late-blooming genius or anything, but any article that begins like this has me me from the beginning:
Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he came home at night from work, but usually he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job.

From geniuses to "The Idiots Who Rule America, we have Chris Hedges:"
Our oligarchic class is incompetent at governing, managing the economy, coping with natural disasters, educating our young, handling foreign affairs, providing basic services like health care and safeguarding individual rights. That it is still in power, and will remain in power after this election, is a testament to our inability to separate illusion from reality. We still believe in “the experts.” They still believe in themselves. They are clustered like flies swarming around John McCain and Barack Obama. It is only when these elites are exposed as incompetent parasites and dethroned that we will have any hope of restoring social, economic and political order.

“Their inability to see the human as anything more than interest driven made it impossible for them to imagine an actively organized pool of disinterest called the public good,” said the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul...Our elites—the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools—do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good. They are stunted, timid and uncreative bureaucrats who are trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions which will satisfy the corporate structure. They are about numbers, profits and personal advancement. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are able to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets. The democratic system, they think, is a secondary product of the free market. And they slavishly serve the market.

So, here's a surprise. The New York Times reports today that hate groups have been mostly quiet in the current American election. The reason: "Right now,” said Mr. White, the head of the American National Socialist Workers Party, “we’re facing the potential of a half-black candidate financed by Jewish money going up against a white candidate financed by Jewish money, who are both advocating the same policy. So you’ve got two terrible choices.” ... “What we really haven’t seen is white supremacists really rallying over an Obama presidency,” said Mark Potok, the director of intelligence at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. “Hate groups are in a more or less stunned position right now; they haven’t been able to figure out how to proceed just yet.” ... “There’s a real problem,” Mr. White said in the interview last month, “in what’s called the ‘white movement.’ One, there’s a lot of people who are just mentally ill, and we deal with those a lot. No. 2, there are people who have serious sexual problems.” [No real surprise there. Are these guys included in the set "humans" Chris Hedges was talking about above?]

From Joseph A. Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies:
Historically, the eleven major themes of societal collapse are given as:
  1. depletion or cessation of vital resources,
  2. establishment of a new resource base,
  3. insurmountable catastrophe,
  4. insufficient response to circumstances,
  5. other complex societies,
  6. invaders,
  7. class conflict/societal contradiction/elite mismanagement or misbehaviour,
  8. social dysfunction,
  9. chance concatenation of events,
  10. mystical factors,
  11. economic factors.
"Complex forms of human organization have emerged comparatively recently, and are an anomaly of history...maintenance of legitimacy or investment in coercion require constant mobilization of resources...an unrelenting cost that any complex society must bear." [Shall we tick them off?]

The legacy of George Bush may take years, if not decades, to determine.

But at present he seems to have pulled off an astonishing double whammy.

However well-intentioned it was, the catastrophic and unpopular intervention in Iraq has served in some parts of the world to discredit the very idea of western democracy.

The recent collapse of the banking system, and the humiliating resort to semi-socialist solutions, has done a great deal to discredit - in some people's eyes - the idea of free-market capitalism.

Democracy and capitalism are the two great pillars of the American idea.

To have rocked one of those pillars may be regarded as a misfortune.

To have damaged the reputation of both, at home and abroad, is a pretty stunning achievement for an American president. [from The Telegraph, "Barack Obama: Why I believe he should be the next President"
by Boris Johnson

This seems about right:
So, how do you know if you're a socialist? Generally, it involves espousing government control over a country's basic industries, like transportation, communication and energy, while also allowing some government regulation of private industries...."Obama is about as far from being a socialist as Joe The Plumber is from being a rocket scientist," said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "I think it's hard for McCain to call Obama a socialist when George Bush is nationalizing banks."

Finally, a ray of hope [pun intended]:
Researchers at Ohio State University have accidentally discovered a new solar cell material capable of absorbing all of the sun's visible light energy. The material is comprised of a hybrid of plastics, molybdenum and titanium. The team discovered it not only fluoresces (as most solar cells do), but also phosphoresces. Electrons in a phosphorescent state remain at a place where they can be "siphoned off" as electricity over 7 million times longer than those generated in a fluorescent state. This combination of materials also utilizes the entire visible spectrum of light energy, translating into a theoretical potential of almost 100% efficiency. Commercial products are still years away, but this foundational work may well pave the way for a truly renewable form of clean, global energy.

15 October 2008

Cui Bono?

[No, not that Bono.] Today, we aggregate:
  • The Washington Post brings the war crimes evidence closer to the source:  "The Bush administration issued a pair of secret memos to the CIA in 2003 and 2004 that explicitly endorsed the agency's use of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding against al-Qaeda suspects -- documents prompted by worries among intelligence officials about a possible backlash if details of the program became public."

  • Cui bono:  Joseph E. Stiglitz, whose article on the true costs of the American wars we've previously mentioned, has a new article in the most recent Vanity Fair entitled "Reversal of Fortune":  "Ideology proclaimed that markets were always good and government always bad. While George W. Bush has done as much as he can to ensure that government lives up to that reputation—it is the one area where he has overperformed—the fact is that key problems facing our society cannot be addressed without an effective government, whether it’s maintaining national security or protecting the environment. Our economy rests on public investments in technology, such as the Internet. While Bush’s ideology led him to underestimate the importance of government, it also led him to underestimate the limitations of markets. We learned from the Depression that markets are not self-adjusting—at least, not in a time frame that matters to living people. Today everyone—even the president—accepts the need for macro-economic policy, for government to try to maintain the economy at near-full employment. But in a sleight of hand, free-market economists promoted the idea that, once the economy was restored to full employment, markets would always allocate resources efficiently. The best regulation, in their view, was no regulation at all, and if that didn’t sell, then “self-regulation” was almost as good."

  • Another call for perhaps a new Bretton Woods-type regime: "Financial liberalisation [that is, freeing the markets as much as possible from government regulation] has effects well beyond the economy. It has long been understood that it is a powerful weapon against democracy. Free capital movement creates what some have called a "virtual parliament" of investors and lenders, who closely monitor government programmes and "vote" against them if they are considered irrational: for the benefit of people, rather than concentrated private power.

    Investors and lenders can "vote" by capital flight, attacks on currencies and other devices offered by financial liberalisation. That is one reason why the Bretton Woods system established by the United States and Britain after the second World War instituted capital controls and regulated currencies.

    ...in the neoliberal phase after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s, the US treasury now regards free capital mobility as a "fundamental right", unlike such alleged "rights" as those guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: health, education, decent employment, security and other rights that the Reagan and Bush administrations have dismissed as "letters to Santa Claus", "preposterous", mere "myths"."  [Never forget that after the devastation he'd wrought in U.S. foreign policy, Paul Wolfowitz was appointed by Pres.* Bush to head of the World Bank.  Gives one pause in the context of the current crisis, does it not?]

  • Now for something completely different (or is it?):  James Wood in his current New Yorker article, "Verbage:  The Republican War on Words," hits on a topic we raised in an earlier post: "In recent elections, the Republican hate word has been “liberal,” or “Massachusetts,” or “Gore.” In this election, it has increasingly been “words.” Barack Obama has been denounced again and again as a privileged wordsmith, a man of mere words who has “authored” two books (to use Sarah Palin’s verb), and done little else. The leathery extremist Phyllis Schlafly had this to say, at the Republican Convention, about Palin: “I like her because she’s a woman who’s worked with her hands, which Barack Obama never did, he was just an élitist who worked with words.” The fresher-faced extremist Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator, called Obama “just a person of words,” adding, “Words are everything to him.” The once bipartisan campaign adviser Dick Morris and his wife and co-writer, Eileen McGann, argue that the McCain camp, in true Rovian fashion, is “using the Democrat’s articulateness against him” (along with his education, his popularity, his intelligence, his wife—pretty much everything but his height, though it may come to that)."

    [When a candidate runs a campaign based on the principle that government is part of the problem, not part of the solution (that would be GW Bush), then when that administration proves incompetent (Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, Wall Street, the economy, etc., etc.) we shouldn't be surprised. So, when a candidate runs a campaign attacking the media "filter" and the articulation of policy positions, we should expect an administration that governs more by fiat than consensus (as Bush has, as well. But, as Wood points out, we've hit new highs (or lows, as it were) here.). If they lie about what they're doing in the campaign, then they'll lie about what they're doing once they're in power.]

  • James Wood and I, along with our provocative host Dan Green and whole host of others, got into a wrangle about Dostoevsky over at The Reading Experience. Dan started it off with this little nugget: "Dostoevsky is, in my opinion, such a terrible writer. He's a religious dogmatist and a reactionary conservative who uses fiction as, in Wilson's words, "demonstrations of the areas which have to be explored if one is to make sense of any of the great questions of philosophical theology." Unsurprisingly, most of Dostevsky's novels tell us that, once we've "explored" these areas, we would be well advised to become. . .religious dogmatists and reactionary conservatives." And a storm of comment ensued. Check it out. BTW: Here's the article that got Dan going in the first place.

That's enough for now. There's so much more.

14 October 2008

The Shiver of Destiny

Umberto Eco's third and final lecture in his Ellman series, "Confessions of a Young Novelist," was entitled: "On the Advantages of Fiction for Life and Death."

The trivial answer to the question implied by the title of his lecture is the exploration of human psychology and the inculcation of moral value. But that is not the direction Eco wants to go. More interestingly, he must answer two separate questions:
  • 1) How can a series of propositions that are avowedly untrue instruct us in the ways of life and death?
  • 2) How can discourse on possible worlds influence our understanding of life and death?

Of fictional characters, Eco says, we can conceivably know more than we do of those human beings we encounter on a day-to-day basis (at school or the office or, tellingly, in our own homes). He claims he knows Leopold Bloom better than he knows his own father. Now that his father is dead, he can never uncover his inner secrets and the motivations behind his actions. Nor can he, other than trivially and by resort to hearsay, discover any more about his father's history. On the other hand, he can always discover more about Bloom each time he re-reads Ulysses.

For Eco qua philosopher, fiction clarifies the notion of truth. From the truth-conditional point of view, fiction should always present what is not. Fictional worlds are always incomplete and unhomogenous, never a complete state of affairs. A fictional world is a doxastic world—one in which the reader voluntarily suspends her disbelief. Fictional worlds are, further, parasitical on the real world. When it comes down to world-matching, we must be flexible. We know, for example, that no real British detective named Sherlock Holmes ever really resided at Baker Street, or that Nero Wolf never occupied a brownstone on West 35th Street in Manhattan. Similarly, in Act III of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, we know there is no Bohemian coast. But we accept these features as true de dicto, not de facto. In this sense, we read a fictional text like a musician reads a musical score.

Eco takes pains to distance his own reading from that of the deconstructionists. It is not the case that there are no facts, only interpretations. For Eco, fictional statements offer, if anything, a stronger form of truth than, say, cultural truths. Cultural truths, including scientific statements, are open to revision as new facts emerge. Fictional truths are at least as ontologically strong as cultural truths. Thus, as Eco would have it, that Hitler died in a Berlin bunker can, conceivably, be revised by the discovery of new facts—for example, a grave filled with his bones in Paraguay. That Nero Wolf lives at West 35th cannot. Truth must be as indisputable and immutable as the fact that Superman is Clark Kent. The theory of rigid designation must hold in fictional worlds. According to Eco, fictional characters also have ontological consistency (merely the valence differentiates them from real persons). Hitler was real; Clark Kent was not: this is consistent.

A narrative agreement is in effect between the author and readers to accept the fictional world as if it were our own. That Emma Bovary committed suicide is true in every possible world (except some rather poor speculative 'fan fiction', apparently). This is as true as that a right angle has 90 degrees—in the Euclidean world. Emma's world is the languaged world. The fate of Little Red Riding Hood, on the other hand, is in a bit of flux. She is not identified with a specific text—in an earlier version she is devoured by the wolf but in the Grimm retelling she is rescued by the woodsman. Sherlock Holmes and the like, because they are identified with a specific set of texts, take on greater significance than other fictional characters. Eco calls them 'cultural habits' or the creation of cultural imagination.

Now, Eco asks, can fictional characters lose their identities? It is possible in certain instances such as group text creation based on great narratives or illicit sequels or so-called fan fiction. But this, he says, is something like playing a Chopin Polonnaise on a ukulele; the timbre of the piano is crucial to the true appreciation of the work.

What we witness in reading fiction is what Eco calls the "shiver of destiny!" He brings up Hugo's depiction of the Battle of Waterloo. It reads like a helicopter shot in a movie. If Napoleon had only known of the sharp decline of the terrain, etc., etc., he might have detoured, delayed, etc. Today, we can create a very realistic Waterloo war game, yet in Hugo (as, coincidentally, in historical fact) Napoleon always loses. Similarly, in Hamlet, the good prince dies. There are many possible outcomes to his situation: he marries Ophelia, banishes the King, forgives his mother, etc. But, in the Shakespearean text, for all time, Hamlet's fate is what it is. Unchangeable.

What's more, neither Hamlet nor Napoleon can know their fates. They have no access to the world of the author (where possible worlds swirl in the imagination and disappear in the shredder of forgotten or discarded drafts). Oedipus cannot know the world of Sophocles, else he wouldn't have married his mother. And here's where fiction is most instructional: Fiction suggests our view of the real world is as limited as a fictional character's is of his own world.

Thus, the function of the unchangeable stories of fiction and the unchangeable nature of fictional characters is to teach us about fate and death, i.e., to show us the limits of our common human condition. This is the principle advantage of fiction for life and death.

10 October 2008

Who Controls the Text?

Umberto Eco's second lecture in the Ellmann series was entitled "Author, Text, and Interpreters." It was more tailored to the academic crowd present to hear him lecture than yesterday's, though it drew in part on the groundwork he laid then.

According to Eco, one of the questions he most has to answer as an author when dealing with his books' translators has to do with perceived ambiguities in the text. He has three sorts of response: (1) "keep it in, I meant it to be that way;" (2) "keep it in, I didn't mean it but it's useful;" or (3) "iron it out, I didn't mean it." His position, for the main, is that creative writers should never interpret their own texts. The reader shouldn't appeal to the author's intention, but to the evidence of the text.

Eco borrows the term "unlimited semiosis" from the American logician C.S. Peirce to express his approach to what he calls the "open text." Peirce says: ""The meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation ... the interpretant is nothing but another representation ... and as representation, it has its interpretant again. Lo, another infinite series." The text is susceptible to an infinite number of uses (apparently recursive uses). What, then, are the criteria that limit interpretation? Eco draws on the Augustinian notion that you can check the validity of an interpretation by reference to the text. Any interpretation that is incompatible with the text must be rejected.

Eco also distinguished the semiotic approach to the text from deconstruction. Briefly, semiotics holds that the text is a series of multiple, perhaps infinitely many, signs (as indicated above). Deconstruction, to the contrary, holds that the text is mere signifier. And, as we all know, the sign is comprised of the signifier/signified relation.

Eco cops to being an allusive writer. Indeed, in his first lecture he stated outright that he was explicit in his use of intertextuality, and more specifically, "double codes". He loves to drop clues for the "paranoid reader" to track down. However, there are limits to intertext. Thus, on a personal note, he found his early books The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum opened up a number of chains of associations in their readers. Some of those associations he felt were intended and embodied in the text and, thus, valid. Others, were unintended and unsupported by the text and, accordingly, invalid. There were others, however, which were unintended yet were supported in the text and, reluctantly, valid.

The delight of the lecture (for me) was Eco's anecdotal examples of dealing with his readers. Specifically, he recounted a couple instances of his unconscious inserting references into his text that were unavailable to his conscious creative mind. In particular, after Name came out, he found an old text by Riccoboni (sp?) on a dusty top shelf in his study. It had page corners darkened by Eco's eager fingerprints. In this book, the author had tried to reconstruct from the available evidence the second part of Aristotle's Poetics, i.e., the disappeared "Comedy". Eco had pored over this book as a young man, but had completely forgotten about it when writing Name. In another instance, he unconsciously used the name of a Brazilian singer of the pop song "Guantanamero" as a character in Pendulum. When he discovered this, he remembered having a crush on her at the time.

What was remarkable about this lecture was Eco's ability to maintain a critical detachment from his own creative works, to treat them as textual objects in order help locate the point were meaning must be fixed in the text without violating the text. Yet, he refrained from providing an interpretation of his own works. And he refrained from asserting that the text and its interpretation constituted a perfect system—there must necessarily be a leakage of significance.

In answer to the question we posed above, the text controls both its author and its interpreters. In our own terms, the text not only is battleground in the struggle between the writer and the critic, it is the ultimate proving ground. Intention as well as interpretation find their empirical constraints within its bounds.

09 October 2008

How Eco Writes

Umberto Eco's first lecture in the Ellmann series was entitled: "How I Write."

Stately, plump Umberto Eco strode onto the stage in a slightly frumpy navy suit, chewing (like a former smoker) on a fountain pen top. Behind thick glasses and a small mustache, he read his lecture from a typescript, often holding a single sheet of paper up in the air as he stared at it through the bottom lens of his bifocals. Often, he would look up from his prepared remarks and detour for a delightful, wry, personal aside. For example, he had to shave his trademark beard for some research he had been doing in Fiji, he said. It turns out he had trouble keeping suction on his scuba mask. (Of course, if he'd asked me I would have recommended petroleum jelly to fix such annoying leaks.).

Eco warned the audience that his essays and lectures (as did his dissertation) often suffer from a "narrative fallacy." That is to say, they do not proceed from a thesis statement which is supported by a series of proofs and is then contrasted with opposing points of view. Rather, they accumulate meaning, exploring, building, rising to a climax, and concluding. He takes as his model Plato's Parmenides, which, he claimed, was comprised of nine successive hypotheses each of which contradicts the preceeding one and, at the end, you never find out "who did it."

Eco's novels always start with an image, he says. He wanted, he said, to pursue the image of the slow poisoning of a monk reading some sort of illuminated text or to kill off Cardinal Richelieu. His readers will recognize instantly the texts these particular images spawned. The goal of the writer, then, is summarized in the rhetorical term "ekphrasis" where the clarity of the image is replicated in the mind of the writer by the sharpness and accuracy of the descriptive language.

Eco's approach to writing fiction struck me as Nabokovian. To achieve this ekphrasis, he draws maps, lays out architectural plans, sketches faces, constructs models, paints flowers, etc. He calculates time down to the last second and space down to the last millimeter. For research, he visits sites while dictating his thoughts into a tape recorder. He also keeps notebooks of his impressions. For The Name of the Rose, for instance, he visited a number of Romanesque and Gothic monasteries. He timed his walks through these abbeys and then timed the length of his dialogues that took place as his characters walked these same routes. Verisimilitude.

The key point in this approach is that, in the novel, events (or reality) dictate the words in the narrative. It is quite the opposite in poetry, where the words determine the meaning and the reality. The novelist is like the demiurge; he creates and moves about in the world with utmost confidence. Once the writer has clearly detailed the world, the language of the point of view flows from it.

Eco stressed the importance of various sorts of constraints that operate on the writer in his quest to delineate the text's universe and its language. He also pointed to two "post-modern" techniques he relied on in his writing: intertextual irony (and its subspecies "double coding") and metanarrative in which the author directly addresses the reader.

Eco told the audience it only took him two years to write his first novel, The Name of the Rose. It took him between six and eight years for each of his subsequent novels. The reason? He is a medievalist by profession and before Name he had done practically all the research he needed. With the others, much more research was required.

The audience this evening was filled with a lot of scholarly-looking types. The Schwartz center auditorium was filed to the rafters. I wondered, as a writer of fiction myself, how this lecture went over with them.

08 October 2008

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco is a multi-disciplinary Italian scholar and a novelist. He is often mentioned in the context of the Nobel Prize for literature. I had the great honor to meet him last night at Emory University. He was here to deliver the ninth in the biennial series of The Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature. His topic: Confessions of a Young Novelist. The lectures, which spanned three separate sessions, will be published in book form next year by Harvard Press. Last night he gave a reading of an autobiographical snippet from his second novel, Foucault's Pendulum.

The title of his lecture series is wryly ironic. Eco's first and most famous novel, The Name of the Rose (subsequently made into a competent film starring Sean Connery), was published in 1980 when Eco was 49 years old. In his own accounting, he is only a 28 year old novelist. (I guess that makes me a novelist in utero. Indeed, when does life begin?)

He entitled his three lectures as follows: (1) "How I Write;" (2) "Author, Text, and Interpreters;" and (3) "On the Advantages of Fiction for Life and Death." The first lecture (near and dear to my heart) was a subjective account of himself and his processes as novelist. The second was a more objective look at his work from the standpoint of the critical interpreter. The third magically expanded out to an account of the ultimate subject of literature (which, I must say, coincided nicely with our own series of posts on what we called the Ur-Story). The form of the series of lectures was unconventionally narrative, less a thesis statement with proofs than an exploration working toward a grand solution.

Over the next series of posts, I shall try to set out some of Eco's major way-posts on the way toward his conclusion. Stay tuned.

06 October 2008

America On Sale: How Low Can It Go?

You ever get the feeling you're living in Filene's Basment?

Everything on Sale!

Shares of stock!


Real Estate!

Everything marked down!

Everything must go!

Become a capitalist. Buy America!

Bargain basement prices!  Get 'em while they're hot!

Let's just hope we're not off on a deflationary spiral.

01 October 2008

Echo and Narcissus

ECHO AND NARCISSUS = Sarah Palin and John McCain?

Echo was a beautiful nymph, fond of the woods and hills, where she devoted herself to woodland sports. She was a favourite of Diana, and attended her in the chase. But Echo had one failing; she was fond of talking, and whether in chat or argument, would have the last word. One day Juno was seeking her husband, who, she had reason to fear, was amusing himself among the nymphs. Echo by her talk contrived to detain the goddess till the nymphs made their escape. When Juno discovered it, she passed sentence upon Echo in these words: "You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with which you have cheated me, except for that one purpose you are so fond of- reply. You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first."

This nymph saw Narcissus, a beautiful youth, as he pursued the chase upon the mountains. She loved him and followed his footsteps. O how she longed to address him in the softest accents, and win him to converse! but it was not in her power. She waited with impatience for him to speak first, and had her answer ready. One day the youth, being separated from his companions, shouted aloud, "Who's here?" Echo replied, "Here." Narcissus looked around, but seeing no one, called out, "Come." Echo answered, "Come." As no one came, Narcissus called again, "Why do you shun me?" Echo asked the same question. "Let us join one another," said the youth. The maid answered with all her heart in the same words, and hastened to the spot, ready to throw her arms about his neck. He started back, exclaiming, "Hands off! I would rather die than you should have me!" "Have me," said she; but it was all in vain. He left her, and she went to hide her blushes in the recesses of the woods. From that time forth she lived in caves and among mountain cliffs. Her form faded with grief, till at last all her flesh shrank away. Her bones were changed into rocks and there was nothing left of her but her voice. With that she is still ready to reply to any one who calls her, and keeps up her old habit of having the last word.

Narcissus's cruelty in this case was not the only instance. He shunned all the rest of the nymphs, as he had done poor Echo. One day a maiden who had in vain endeavoured to attract him uttered a prayer that he might some time or other feel what it was to love and meet no return of affection. The avenging goddess heard and granted the prayer.

There was a clear fountain, with water like silver, to which the shepherds never drove their flocks, nor the mountain goats resorted, nor any of the beasts of the forests; neither was it defaced with fallen leaves or branches; but the grass grew fresh around it, and the rocks sheltered it from the sun. Hither came one day the youth, fatigued with hunting, heated and thirsty. He stooped down to drink, and saw his own image in the water; he thought it was some beautiful water-spirit living in the fountain. He stood gazing with admiration at those bright eyes, those locks curled like the locks of Bacchus or Apollo, the rounded cheeks, the ivory neck, the parted lips, and the glow of health and exercise over all. He fell in love with himself. He brought his lips near to take a kiss; he plunged his arms in to embrace the beloved object. It fled at the touch, but returned again after a moment and renewed the fascination. He could not tear himself away; he lost all thought of food or rest. while he hovered over the brink of the fountain gazing upon his own image. He talked with the supposed spirit: "Why, beautiful being, do you shun me? Surely my face is not one to repel you. The nymphs love me, and you yourself look not indifferent upon me. When I stretch forth my arms you do the same; and you smile upon me and answer my beckonings with the like." His tears fell into the water and disturbed the image. As he saw it depart, he exclaimed, "Stay, I entreat you! Let me at least gaze upon you, if I may not touch you." With this, and much more of the same kind, he cherished the flame that consumed him, so that by degrees be lost his colour, his vigour, and the beauty which formerly had so charmed the nymph Echo. She kept near him, however, and when he exclaimed, "Alas! alas! she answered him with the same words. He pined away and died; and when his shade passed the Stygian river, it leaned over the boat to catch a look of itself in the waters. The nymphs mourned for him, especially the water-nymphs; and when they smote their breasts Echo smote hers also. They prepared a funeral pile and would have burned the body, but it was nowhere to be found; but in its place a flower, purple within, and surrounded with white leaves, which bears the name and preserves the memory of Narcissus.
Let me see if I got this right: The chatty woodland nymph turns into a rock and the vainglorious narcissist becomes a flower. Hmmm. It's only a myth.


From the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV)

"Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Personality Disorders

Like most personality disorders, there are many factors that may contribute to the development of symptoms. Because the symptoms are long lasting, the idea that symptoms begin to emerge in childhood or at least adolescence is well accepted. The negative consequences of such symptoms, however, may not show themselves until adulthood.

The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder revolve around a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and sense of entitlement. Often individuals feel overly important and will exaggerate achievements and will accept, and often demand, praise and admiration despite worthy achievements. They may be overwhelmed with fantasies involving unlimited success, power, love, or beauty and feel that they can only be understood by others who are, like them, superior in some aspect of life.

There is a sense of entitlement, of being more deserving than others based solely on their superiority. These symptoms, however, are a result of an underlying sense of inferiority and are often seen as overcompensation. Because of this, they are often envious and even angry of others who have more, receive more respect or attention, or otherwise steal away the spotlight.

Treatment for this disorder is very rarely sought. There is a limited amount of insight into the symptoms, and the negative consequences are often blamed on society. In this sense, treatment options are limited. Some research has found long term insight oriented therapy to be effective, but getting the individual to commit to this treatment is a major obstacle.

Prognosis is limited and based mainly on the individual's ability to recognize their underlying inferiority and decreased sense of self worth. With insight and long term therapy, the symptoms can be reduced in both number and intensity."